Monthly Archives: March 2011

Yangshuo and Surrounds

Have you ever looked at the random painting of impossibly steep mountains at your local Chinese takeaway restaurant? I have on many an occasion and was surprised to find out those mountains weren’t a flight of fancy at all but instead very real and found in around the town of Yangshuo located deep in southern China near the Vietnamese border.  The mountains are eroded limestone karsts formed fairly recently on a geological time scale, and while I’ve seen the occasional mountains like this before it’s impossible to believe how many of them there are here-

The view from the famous boat cruise on the Li River between the city of Guillin and Yangshuo.  Guillin is a rather generic big brother city and Yangshuo is rather touristy, but honestly I’ve never seriously minded very touristy places because a. lots of people tends to mean it’s something worth seeing, and b. I always find it the height of irony to complain about tourists when you are one yourself, no?

Anyway, if you ever find yourself in this corner of the world I can highly recommend the boat ride as it was quite pretty, but I will warn you the English commentary certainly falls into that “so awful it’s beyond entertaining” category.  To fully understand why, look at this photo above which had this commentary verbatim in a bored, monotone voice over the boat’s loudspeaker-

“Look-to-the-left.  Look-to-the-left.  Here-you-can-see-a-cliff.  The-cliff-has-a-yellow-mark.  The-cliff-has-a-yellow-mark.  It-looks-like-a-fish.  We-call-it-“Fish-Cliff.”  It-is-highlight.”

This commentary essentially explains everything you need to know about Chinese tourism.  Well that and most of the people participating in it are local Chinese with matching red and blue baseball caps following someone around with a flag, but I digress.

Anyway, because we are not cool enough to have our own matching headgear like everyone else in Yangshuo Patrick and I were left to entertain ourselves, which according to us meant renting mountain bikes for 20 yen for the day (read: just over US$3) and exploring the countryside.  Here’s me with a field of yellow flowers- they’re called rapeseed, which is an unfortunate name for such a pretty flower but there we are-

(This was actually taken right next to a great  place we stopped for lunch down a muddy path which we never would’ve gone to except there was a geocache hidden here and I am a dork.  Yay!)

The Li River isn’t the only river around here actually, and just a few miles outside town we found the Yulong River complete with some local boys fishing-The thing to do on the Yulong River is go for a ride on a little bamboo raft (well traditionally bamboo, lots of the rafts these days are made out of large PVC pipes instead), but we did not.  I don’t know whether you can notice in the pictures but it was actually quite cold in southern China- seriously, the temperature never got above the low 10s (50s in Farenheit) for a few days- so bamboo rafting didn’t sound tempting.  This was to be fair the very end of the rainy season and unseasonably cold even for that so Yangshuo is usually much more pleasant- good, because most of the hostels and restaurants do not have central heating!

But hey there are always advantages to the off season, namely we didn’t have half as many tourists to share it with as what come through here in high season.  Which is good because Yangshuo was already touristy enough, I have no idea where everyone stays in summer!

One Day in Macau

No, we did not fly to Venice within a week of touching down in Hong Kong- my understanding is you can no longer feed the pigeons there anyway so I suppose this photo doesn’t make much sense anyway.  Plus the astute will notice that the tower on this St. Mark’s Square has an escalator going up to it, so where are we anyway?! Continue reading

Hong Kong Wanderings

Bad news: we’ve been in China for about two weeks now but last week my camera became missing and by now presumed stolen… with all my pictures from the week spent in Hong Kong still on it. This had just about as great an effect on my mood that you’d expect particularly as I liked Hong Kong as it was so photogenic- I always thought Chicago was the best city in the world for skyscrapers but no, it turns out Hong Kong wins by a mile. Particularly at night when all the buildings light up, you’ve never seen as beautiful a modern wonder as the Hong Kong skyline… Continue reading

Photo Essay: Nairobi Elephant Orphanage

Anyone who visits Nairobi will tell you that it’s not a very interesting city, but the one exception to this for me was the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage on the outskirts of the city. In short this is where orphaned elephants from all around Kenya come when their mother dies of disease/ is poached/ the little one falls down a well, and after three years at the orphanage the little guys are released back into the wild to various elephant herds. The orphanage is open each day from 11am-noon and costs something on the order of US$5, so well worth it as this was perhaps the cutest thing I’d ever seen!

Pictures so you can see for yourself- all set to the tune of Henry Mancini’s Baby Elephant Walk. Continue reading

Lake Nakuru, Kenya

Lake Nakuru is a tiny little national park in Kenya that took a half day to game drive.  Never saw any big cats here (though there’s the highest concentration of leopards here apparently) and part of the lack of animal spotting was due to a giant brushfire that had swept through a large part of the park a few months prior and unfortunately killed much of the wildlife.  But here is a short overview in light of it being a short game drive-

Flamingos in the lake- lots of birdlife in this park! There were a lot more flamingos, and even pink pelicans and storks and assorted other creatures, but this is my most “artsy” shot and hence the one you guys get to see. *wink*

The biggest safari moment for me however were the rhinoceroses- we saw eight of them in the park,  and many were very nearby just like in this shot!  The first thing you learn about safaris is you never see rhinos- they’re very rare due to poaching and are shy so they often keep away from the roads and all you see is a rock-like thing in the distance someone assures you is a rhino.  Seeing eight rhinos is already more than I’ve seen in all my years of safari-ing, so trust me when I say this is a big deal.

Neat little park, only a few hours drive from Nairobi.  Certainly worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Travels around Uganda

If you ever want picturesque African scenery of the hill-and-jungle variety, head to Uganda.  It starts off flat near Lake Victoria but quickly rumples in a lush, beautiful way that tends to keep everyone with their noses pressed to the glass.

The first site of note from Lake Victoria- the source of the Nile!  Well one of several, but this is the one Dr. Livingstone tried in vain to find, and is the site of world-renowned Class V whitewater rafting… three months and 4,000 miles from here will get you to Alexandria, Egypt.

We did the whitewater rafting here of course in perhaps one of my best days of it ever.  The particular reason for this was the last rapid, the so-called “Nile Special” after a beer they have here in Uganda, is renowned the world over because of the wave that can develop there.  And we did ride it for 5-10 seconds- it was one of those all the things came together perfectly moments- which I’m told gives me street cred amongst the rafting crowd!

But then it might not last much longer- after years of negotiation Uganda is finally building their own hydroelectric dam over the river Nile, and much of the good rafting will be gone forever.  Lots of people are upset about this because their livelihood depends on the rafting, but when the  majority of the country has no electricity and they get power cuts regularly even in the capital the answer isn’t so easy…

Moving on, the equator!  Where Patrick would like to reiterate that he stands with the South… and I guess that makes me a Northerner?

It’s worth noting that behind this monument some enterprising soul has set up three basins which claim to show the water swirling in opposite directions on either side of the equator and straight down when exactly on the line.  It’s bunk, of course.  While the Coriolis force does exist the cut of the drain matters far more on such a small scale than the hemisphere it’s in, and that applies for your sink at home too.

As I said, the scenery is pretty and it gets prettier the further west you go- behind Patrick is Lake Buyonyi, which is in the southwest corner of the country and so close to Rwanda that you can often see the volcanoes of that country in the background.  Lake Buyonyi is the deepest lake in the country and really a great place to chill for a few days while waiting for your turn to go gorilla trekking, but unfortunately our second day of relaxation was marred by on-and-off rain.  It’s the start of the rainy season, you see, but hey it didn’t rain during our actual gorilla trek so I won’t complain!

I will say the Lake is lovely and will certainly become more touristy in the coming years, but Uganda’s brutal history isn’t far behind in many respects- for example down the road from our campsite was a lovely guesthouse refurbished by a German, and while we were all admiring it and snapping photos we learned that it was actually the former torture house from which the local population was brutalized.  That combined with the fact that president-but-really-dictator (known as “hat guy” because he has a cool one like all African dictators) greets you into the country with a poster that says “28 rebellions have been put down since 1986- let peace work for you!” probably gives you a good idea about the political situation in Uganda.

But anyway back to the lake, here are four crown cranes spotted whilst cruising around Lake Bunyonyi. Crown cranes are the national symbol of Uganda, both because they’re pretty and because they mate in pairs  for life so they have good symbolism.

Finally, because I’m perpetually behind I’m going to double my summary of Uganda into this post and call it a day.  In short I genuinely think this is my favorite country in East Africa- the entire thing is manageably small with great variety in its scenery, I did a successful gorilla trek, and got to briefly teach some wonderful children maths when not hanging out by Lake Buyonyi.  Only thing I’d change about it was spending more time there- Jinja at the source of the Nile was a neat spot, and there are some islands in Lake Victoria that are supposed to be neat- and the fact that you’re not allowed anything but bare feet on the Nile rafting (even taking sandals in a bag on the boat, which I’d never been told before) because climbing up the red African dirt at noontime was hot enough on my non-calloused feet to bring tears to my eyes.  All in all though such qualms didn’t take away from a country filled with natural beauty that I’ll always recall with fondness!

Visiting a Ugandan Orphanage

Here’s a tip: if you ever find yourself at an orphanage in Africa make sure you go with a fresh camera battery!  This is because most of the time will be spent with your camera on not really by choice but because a crowd of kids will surround you begging to be photographed so they can then crowd the viewscreen and comment on how they and their friends look.  Repeat repeat repeat, but of course this works out for some fun pictures as everyone knows there are no ugly children in Africa! Continue reading

Tracking the Mountain Gorillas

About 4 million years ago, a monkey-like creature lived in the heart of Africa that would be known as the common ancestor of gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans. Having such a close common ancestor so recently in terms of evolution is like sharing a grandparent- humans and gorillas share over 98% of the same DNA, making us genetic cousins really. Estranged perhaps, but no one closer in terms of relatives. Continue reading

Masai Mara Safari


Posted from Jinja, Uganda- the source of the Nile!!!

The Masai Mara is essentially the Kenyan Serengeti- all that divides the two is an arbitrary line and a multi-hour journey via Nairobi unless you are some sort of non-human animal. Amazing stuff out there though, and here is a small fraction of what we saw-

Not one but two gigantic lion prides, and a lioness who was busy stalking her prey until the safari trucks cut in front of her (illegal but unfortunately common around here). I’ve never posted a picture of a male lion before though and this guy was so wonderfully lazy I can’t resist!

A hyena and a bunch of baboons and Maribu storks (closely related to their cousin in Europe who winter down here) checking out the food near a hotel’s compost heap. Not exactly natural, sure, but I love seeing multiple species together so here we are!

A cheetah panting in the midday sun as you surely would if YOU had to wear a winter coat in the middle of summer.  Such a beautiful creature, we were so lucky to get so close and share some time together (though he spent most of the time panting like a dog…).

The Masai Mara has th most giant hippo pools I have seen in my life.  You rarely see them out of the water in other parks because like us they can sunburn, but here it appears to be no issue.

This guy excited me because after this point new species are always exciting- a hyrax! This is doubly exciting actually because this rat-looking thing is actually the closest related relative to an elephant- I know, what?!- so they’re rather neat to see in order to contemplate the strangeness of evolution.  After all, whatever strange beast thought to give us the elephant gave us the hyrax, and what kind of world would we be in without that?

A bona-fide zebra crossing.  I really crack myself up sometimes.Last but not least, a whole mess of Masai giraffes.  We saw about 12 in this herd, two fighting each other and the rest just cruising through the underbrush with their heads sticking up like periscopes.  I’d never seen anything like it and that’s the great thing about safaris, you never run out of amazing things to see!

Summary of Tanzania

Written from Kisumu, Kenya on the shores of Lake Victoria, where the Internet is too slow for a picture so you get a summary instead to inform y’all I’m alive.   I never finished all my Tanzanian adventures but I’ve been in Kenya a week and going into Uganda tomorrow, so time to discuss them too soon!

Tanzania was my first country in East Africa and I was here roughly two weeks with the time about evenly split between Zanzibar and Arusha (and safari in the surrounds). I enjoyed it and am glad I came here!

Highlights:

Stone Town: between wandering around the maze of alleyways and feel for the place that could be described as nothing other than truly exotic in its blend of history and culture. I met people who told me they were glad they hired a guide here which made my scoff, as I assure you half the fun is getting lost and the tourist area is perfectly safe for wandering anyway.

Also I was advised to head to the northern beaches to avoid the ever-prevelent honeymooners on the island, namely Nungwi, and will further extend the recommendation as it was a great beach with great diving. I would also highly recommend a stay and/or meal at Langi Langi as it is a great spot with the best kitchen on the beach!

Third, it turns out you can fly from Zanzibar to Arusha for ~$130 with an airline called Fly540 (provided you buy the ticket from an agent, the Internet is perplexingly actually more expensive!) and takes an hour- in comparison you can travel 14 hours via ferry and bus for half that price. Let’s just say I was rather happy with my decision!

Ngorongoro Crater was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been, as nothing compares to standing in the middle of the world’s largest caldera and admiring a lion pride on the roadside! So much wildlife here you don’t know where to look really.

Also perhaps it’s because anyone who ends up in East Africa has a story to tell, but I’ve never met a more lovely group of both travelers and locals than in Tanzania. From Ethiopian aid workers on holiday to Aussies traveling to Cape Town from Istanbul via Libya and Sudan to the young man selling Cokes at a cafe who just wants to share his story, I never had a day without an interesting and unusual conversation!

Lowlights:

It costs US$100 to enter Tanzania as a US citizen, and other nationalities are generally only charged $50. Such double pricing happens for many countries in the world if you have a US passport (part visa reciprocity, part idea we’re made of money) and while I’ve been able to avoid severe gauging so far in my travels it doesn’t make you gulp any less.

You certainly can arrange a safari in Arusha as there are literally people begging you to sign up for them, but if you’re on a tight-ish schedule and/or traveling solo it would likely be best to do some advance research. The thing is there are countless safari companies in town- it’s currently the “great way to make money” sorta thing- and all are happy to set you up on a standard 3 night package for about the same price but knowing the quality for your money can be difficult! The Internet doesn’t seem to help these matters at all and most people seem to just know which company to sign up with via word of mouth. So if you’re in such a position and wondering here’s the company I went with and can recommend- safari-experts.com

There is a real bitch of a woman traveling north from Tanzania to Germany on her motorcycle right now, and I recommend avoidance should you run into her.

Finally, while I liked Nungwi a lot I don’t know if I will be heading back there in, say, ten years time because there is currently a battle going on for the soul of the village and I fear too much how it will turn out. The beach is now patrolled by “beach boys” from other African countries who essentially prostitute themselves to Western women for the week (apparently Italian women are into this for reasons I cannot phathom), and while it’s tolerable the first time when a guy sits down next to you to say he’s loved you ever since he first saw you on the beach three days ago (response: “nice try, but I arrived yesterday”) it gets understandably annoying, and the fact that all the local kids know to shout “jambo! Dollar?” not because they’re begging but because someone gave them one once is heartbreaking. The ugly tourists of the world are well on their way to destroying a part of it.

Random Details Noted:

It is 1500 Tanzanian shillings to the dollar, and the highest note they issue is 10,000TSH. You go around this country feeling like a baller.

There are a lot of kids everywhere around here, but it’s particularly noteworthy in the narrow alleyways of Stone Town. Ok yes we all know just how much birth control is being used on this continent, but it’s one thing to notice and another to see a mess of kids playing on practically every streetcorner.

Surprisingly a common breakfast meal around here are “pancakes” which are actually crepes.  This action is heartily encouraged.