Tiptoe Through The Tulips/ Trampled Underfoot

Tulips Keukenhof

Unfortunately I’ve dropped the ball in terms of keeping up to date – this trip to Holland to celebrate mum’s birthday took place in the middle of April. I’ve let exams (and further trips) keep me weighed down so there’s a fair bit of catching up to do! Also, as I’ve previously mentioned, it is far more difficult to keep up to date when I’m in (good) company! I’ve been fortunate enough to head out on three little adventures since my last post which all merit attention but, first things first, Holland in tulip season.

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We arranged to stay in yet another Airbnb apartment. This one, however, was a little different! The five of us (the family together with the exception of my little brother) headed out to the outskirts of Amsterdam where a beautiful barge was waiting for us. The stay definitely expanded my ‘Airbnb’ horizons as I’d not considered that such ‘alternative’ options would be so readily available. After acclimatising to the gentle rocking it was a fantastically exciting place to stay, with swans popping up at the windows in the evenings and friendly ducks resting on our decking in the morning.

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Amsterdam itself seemed to me like a hybrid of Copenhagen and Berlin. Beautiful canals and those iconic narrow buildings yet slightly more dampened, in terms of the colour pallet, when compared directly to Copenhagen. Those looking for the famous ‘cafés’ would not be disappointed – the smell of Cannabis seems just around every corner. The red light district similarly lives up to its ‘no holds barred’ reputation! Wouldn’t recommend for families with small children but for anyone who is remotely curious – I’ve never seen anything like it! For slightly less risqué adventures – try exploring the quaint delft shops dotted about the city. There are also many notable museums and art galleries – My highlight was the tragic but fascinating Van Gogh museum.

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Now, the main reason we had opted for Holland at this time of year was, of course, the tulips. We arranged a trip to the world famous Keukenhof gardens and were completely taken aback by the ridiculous queues to get onto the public transport. By ‘ridiculous’ I mean a lady working there told us the queue we were looking at couldn’t possibly be for Keukenhof as the buses went from round the corner of the next building. 100 additions to the queue later we established that it was, indeed, our queue. It was over an hour shuffling, penguin fashion, before we caught sight of these gold-dust buses.

And that was just the beginning.

The gardens themselves were quite possibly the busiest tourist attraction I have been to in my life. The only experience that comes close is being cow-herded through the Vatican. I tried my best to capture pictures of the stunning gardens with as few people in as possible but this was only achievable if you were within 20cm of the actual flowers. Luckily it did quieten down a little later in the evening as it drew towards closing time.

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The tulip fields surrounding the gardens, in my opinion, were equally stunning. Yet unfortunately the crowds had begun to spill out into them as well!

The tulip fields surrounding the gardens, in my opinion, were equally stunning. Yet unfortunately the crowds had begun to spill out into them as well!

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The magical moment when the crowds had dissipated before closing time.

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Overall, yes the gardens were unquestionably beautiful, but do not go imagining the gardens to be the idyllic peaceful masterpieces you see in the brochures. I’d definitely recommend timing your visit to as close towards closing time as possible!

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Bring It On Home / Christmas In The Sun

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when the weather’s good there’s no place like Cornwall. http://www.westbriton.co.uk/Cornwall-officially-England-s-picturesque-county/story-25893227-detail/story.html. – Watch this space for a fantastic new website guiding you through this spectacular county: http://www.wearecornwall.com/. In the mean time here’s a youtube showcase: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsvjIkECQVI&feature=youtu.be

London too, although one of the most crowded places I’ve ever experienced, has many treasures to uncover. Undoubtedly another must-see destination if you haven’t yet joined the ranks of London tourists!

For Christmas 2014 we travelled to a different kind of ‘home’. As my dad was brought up in Zimbabwe, his three sisters remain scattered around southern Africa, with two of them based in Cape Town, South Africa. A lot of people are hesitant about spending Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere. As you can image, I cannot think of a better way to spend the holiday! To swap the winter for the summer is my idea of paradise. What’s more, to be able to spend such a special time with our relatives is priceless.

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Hout Bay Seal

Hout Bay Seal

Heading towards Chapman's Peak drive.

Heading towards Chapman’s Peak drive.

Dassie

Dassie

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Penguins at Boulders Beach

Penguins at Boulders Beach

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Gansbaii

Gansbaii

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Shark cage diving at Gansbaai

Shark cage diving at Gansbaai

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Stilbaai

Stilbaai

Cable up Table Mountain

Cable up Table Mountain

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Beautiful little sun bird

Beautiful little sun bird

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The Iconic Protea

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Have You Fed The Fish?

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“Flowers… are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last day in Tokyo 😦 I headed out in the early morning to the Tsukiji fish market, following a recommendation from my lonely planet guide book. It was incredibly easy to find, all I needed to do was follow the locals with their large empty baskets, bikes and lorries! It is absolutely gargantuan, undoubtedly the largest fish market I’ve ever seen (and by quite a considerable amount). There were the most bizarre sea creatures for sale in the dingy light including sea cucumbers, urchins and many things that I couldn’t recognise. Men were carving up enormous tuna steaks with what looked like swords and live fish and shell fish scuttled about in every direction. Many stalls had sashimi for sale at quite a price: could only be fresher if the fish was actually eaten whilst alive. Not really my cup of tea!

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Striking buckets full of huge tuna heads, can’t quite get the full scale here.

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After stopping at a bakery, to munch on a rather more appealing steamed chocolate bun made into a bear face, we headed out to Shinjuku in an attempt to find a novelty goods store (mainly thinking of Karl Pilkington’s ‘crisp picker’). We tried out ‘Tokyu Hands’ which, similar to ‘the Loft’ which I tried out in Shibuya, is like a department store which starts to hint at the crazy novelties that we were after. Llama mascara, anyone?

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Looking for bedside table decorations? Jellyfish in a jar should hit the spot. This one's upside down and looking incredibly sorry for itself.

Looking for bedside table decorations? Jellyfish in a jar should hit the spot. This one’s upside down and looking incredibly sorry for itself.

Mount Fuji fancy dress...

Mount Fuji fancy dress…

Final stop of the trip was the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. It didn’t disappoint. Stacked full of the later blooming kind of blossom, it was simply breathtaking. The highlight has to be the traditional Japanese style part of the garden, with a couple of tea houses:

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Trimming the shaped trees

Trimming the shaped trees

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Man staring in disbelief at a cat...quite amusing.

Man staring in disbelief at a cat…quite amusing.

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After a fantastic last day I’m now sat wasting time in Beijing airport…home soon!

 

Last supper (actually breakfast) in Tokyo Haneda airport - finally found some edamame beans.

Last supper (actually breakfast) in Tokyo Haneda airport – finally found some edamame beans.

White Walls

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“I’d rather live in a cave with a view of a palace than live in a palace with a view of a cave.”
 – Karl Pilkington

Osaka castle was the first stop this morning after revisiting a favourite Japanese bakery. It’s incredible just how many people have come over to see the country in this season, and you can see why – it’s extraordinary. Around the castle there where huge groups of tours from various Asian countries, including a football team from Myanmar who I spoke to about Yangon for a while. Wedding’s are going on everywhere and all the women are getting our their best clothes for the season.

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After yet another tube/JR train journey we arrived back in Kyoto and headed to the North West to explore the temples in the hillside forest side of the city before heading back across to Nijo castle in the west. We must have walked miles today my feet are absolutely killing me! Definitely worth it though. Apologies for being lazy but I’m going to let the pictures speak for themselves again.

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N.B. – Very exciting spotting the Geisha’s wandering around the Gion district of the city. Didn’t manage to get a shot though as wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate. Also enjoying the avian spotting opportunities – saw a peregrine falcon (Hayabusa, as they’re known in Japan) today!

 

(Nothing But) Flowers

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“The earth laughs in flowers.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

This morning we headed back out through the Osaka subway system and the Japanese Rail bullet train to Kyoto where we wandered about the temples and parks of the South Eastern part of the city. Due to the Sakuri (blossom) the festival of Hanami (flower viewing) was in full swing in the city, with women getting out their traditional kimonos and fairs popping up in all the parks.

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We headed to a little traditional tea parlour called ‘En’ were we watched a 45 minute tea ceremony. I couldn’t help thinking about Karl Pilkington banging on about how someone can make such a big deal out of a cup of tea. This kept me chuckeling whilst the lady careful folded and refolded her napkin numerous times to ceremoniously wipe and present each utensil before carefully preparing the matcha green tea with, frothing it up with a bamboo whisk. The matcha green tea is ground up young tea leaves which have been carefully grown to reduce the amount of sunlight they get to keep the taste sweet. It has a surprisingly large amount of caffeine in it as it’s not just the leaf being infused in the water, you’re actually drinking the leave itself.

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Kneeled on the floor, we then drank and enjoyed little Japanese sweets, of which they are completely obsessed here, with sweet shops every 5 metres. Then, with the sun starting to set we headed out to Maruyama park.

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It’s been bitingly cold so I’m actually really looking forward to getting back to the company of 30 odd naked women at the Onsen.

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Knives Out

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Now settled into Osaka, we took a 30 minutes train journey into Kyoto for a four hour class on samurai sword practice with SEIGA, Samurai Kembu. They take it incredibly seriously as it’s a highly regarded part of their tradition, now only used as a performance art rather than the ancient warriors using the practice in battle. It was impossible not to be constantly thinking of Uma Thurman in her yellow tracksuit throughout the entire process.

There were just three of us in the class with one ‘Samurai Grand Master’: Auga Ryu. We were taught various routines about how to correctly draw, wield and formally present the spectacular weapon. We were even elaborately dressed in tradition Samurai attire to fully experience the restrictions which the clothing brings into the action. For example for me it made it much easier to understand why the women traditionally would take such tiny little steps as the very wide obi belt is wrapped restrictively tight like a corset around your waist and hips.

Kyoto itself is a beautifully traditional city with plenty of old Japanese architecture and copious temples and shrines. Black kites seems to be pretty common here, soaring around above the rivers. As it’s cherry blossom season there are also numerous festivals going on throughout the city with processions, parades and dance competitions around every corner.

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Traditional tea preparation

Traditional tea preparation

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Kyoto Imperial Palace

Kyoto Imperial Palace

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Above you can see one of the hilarious ‘pet hire’ opportunities. You can pay for half an hour to use the cafe where you can stay to stroke the cats. You can also hire dogs for walks or, if you’re on a budget, even a beetle. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/7818140.stm

Japanese sweet

Japanese sweet

Lunch in Kyoto. Miso soup, tofu rice dish and japanese pickle.

Lunch in Kyoto. Miso soup, tofu rice dish and japanese pickle.

I’m now about to head off to the ‘Onsen’ or traditional Japanese spa/hot spring again. Hilariously, it’s split genders and absolutely no clothes are allowed, which they’re very strict about. Very bizarre experience but the spa itself is fantastic after the cold of the crisp spring weather.

 

 

Organised Chaos

“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.” – Carl Jung Apologies in advance for the incredibly extensive post today – everything’s just so novel that limiting it to include just a couple of highlights … Continue reading

Going On

Frangipani flower, Laos

Dok Champa a.k.a. the frangipani – national flower of Laos & symbol of joy and sincerity.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
 – Walt Disney

Yesterday we bade farewell to Vietnam and set off on a short flight South West to Vientiane – Capital of Laos. The difference between the two countries is not immediately distinguishable, expect perhaps that the number of motorbikes on the streets has suddenly decreased dramatically! Another slight difference is that the prices are marginally higher here, probably due to the fact that the country’s land-locked. The French influence is still prominent; Vientiane even has it’s own ‘arc de triomphe’!

Vientiane's 'arc de triomphe'

We headed out to the ‘Buddha Park’ this morning: a sculpture park crammed full of 200 Buddhist and Hindu statues. Although the park was only started in 1958 the statues create the illusion of being centuries old, giving the park a mysterious and almost chilling atmosphere!

Buddha Park, Vientiane

Buddha Park, Vientiane

water lily

Buddha Park, Vientiane

Buddha Park, Vientiane

One particularly unusual sculpture, in the form of a giant pumpkin, allows you to go inside into a kind of labyrinth with three levels representing hell, earth and heaven. You enter through the mouth of a three metre tall demon head and climb up from hell to heaven, with smaller sculptures inside the maze on each level.

Buddha Park, Vientiane

The view from 'heaven'.

The view from ‘heaven’.

Vientiane also brings back memories of Yangon due to the ‘Stupas’ throughout the city which strongly resemble the Myanmar Pagodas. Pha That Luang Stupa is generally viewed as the most important national monument in Laos.

Temple at Pha That Luang Stupa.

Temple at Pha That Luang Stupa.

I've always had a soft spot for interesting translations!

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for poor translations…

 

In terms of food, I haven't notice too much of a difference from Vietnam yet, rice and noodles obviously being the staples throughout Indochina. One thing that is apparent here that was absent beforehand is sticky rice. Here are some bizarre sticky rice 'lollypops' dipped in egg yolk and cooked on a bbq!

In terms of food, I haven’t notice too much of a difference from Vietnam yet, rice and noodles obviously being the staples throughout Indochina. One thing that is apparent here that was absent beforehand is sticky rice. Here are some bizarre sticky rice ‘lollypops’ dipped in egg yolk and cooked on a bbq!

 

 

Pretty In Pink

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“If you feel lost, disappointed, hesitant, or weak, return to yourself, to who you are, here and now and when you get there, you will discover yourself, like a lotus flower in full bloom, even in a muddy pond, beautiful and strong.”
― Masaru Emoto, ‘The Secret Life of Water’

As Hoi An’s relatively small it’s very easy to get out into the sprawling rice paddies of the countryside. Today we hired out a couple of bikes in town and headed out for our first proper taste of South East Asian rural life.

The alternation between vast fields of rice, fish ponds and water gardens was entirely novel to me. I was immediately drawn to the murky ponds of the lotus ‘farms’ so stopped to investigate. ‘Nelumbo nucifera’ (lotus flower) is Vietnam’s national flower and has an extraordinarily long list of uses, being pretty much entirely edible in various different ways; The unusual Vietnamese lotus tea is made using scent from the stamens, for example. The man wading about in the field came over to introduce himself and seemed more than happy to pose for photographs and even made a gift of some of the flowers he was picking!

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In fact the country folk in general were extremely accommodating and friendly. We came across a vegetable and herb farm and were invited to ‘help out’ a little – I’m sure being more of a burden than any real form of assistance.

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An extremely uncomfortable traditional way of watering the lines of crop, in this case lemon grass. I didn’t really get the hang of it – the plank of wood kept slipping off my back!

The most exciting surprise though was still to come. After stopping to photograph the water buffalo wallowing in the mud or wandering about the fields, a friendly old man offered to give a short ride on his buffalo through the paddies. It was hilarious – strangely bald and slippery to the touch and it kept whipping me with its wet and muddy tail!

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Below you can see a man herding about his flock of ducklings with a large stick. This brought about conflicting emotions, as however adorable it is seeing an entire fleet of baby ducks they are all inevitably soon for the slaughter – an idea that doesn’t particularly sit well with a vegetarian. This is however, an existence far preferable to sitting in a corrugated iron shed though, surely.

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Overall, saying that the exploration proved to be fruitful would be an understatement. If you’re planning a trip to any of the main cities In Vietnam, you definitely need to take the time to get out into the countryside – Hoi An would be a great place to start!

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To Buddhists, the lotus symbolises purity of the body, speech, and mind detached from the muddy waters of desire.