Thursday, 28 June 2012

Days 452 to 454: Singapore

Some of Costa Sands Resort from the verandah of our block.
We found a place to stay in Singapore that's only 99 Singapore dollars a night!  Unfortunately, it's way out of town on the eastern edge of the island so we didn't know what to expect. After a half hour taxi ride we arrived at a waterworld style theme park, with a shopping mall/food court and hostel accommodation attached.  The taxi driver told us they call this the trade union conference centre, because the trade unions have special prices to come here. Basically, we are not in the tourist zone...  not the foreign tourist zone anyway. The place we're staying in (Costa Sands Resort at Downtown East) is mainly used by Singaporeans celebrating birthdays, graduations or whatever...  it's kind of a party hostel in that way, but the noise doesn't go on too late.  Based on this, I didn't have great expectations for the swimming pool, but boy, was I wrong.  It is fifty metres long, sparkling clear, warm and not too crowded.
The swimming pool at sunset
Wow!  Antonia swam a full kilometre in this pool (with rests) so she gets bragging rights! Mike is not feeling well, and probably has that cold she had earlier, so he didn't get to enjoy the pool at first, but neither did he bear the full brunt of the downside of Downtown East, namely the food.  There are lots of choices here and they are all bad.  No matter which country you live in, imagine an out-of-town theme park, then imagine what kind of food they sell there, and you will get the idea.  This is where you can stuff your kids faces on the cheap at their birthday party, or if you have any sense, you bring your own and barbecue it in our resort.

Little India
On our second day, we rode the train system into the centre of Singapore, armed only with a map of medical services for international visitors. Unfortunately, the only one we wanted was a pharmacy to buy paracetamol for Mike, but this we could not find. We set off for Little India anyway, through street markets selling cooking implements, acupuncture and wild and wonderful ingredients, taking in a couple of temples on the way. Little India is full of brightly painted shophouses, making it look a bit like an English seaside town. They sell food, clothes, jewellery and sometimes ayurvedic medicine, but none of them is a pharmacy.  When we arrived I immediately identified the place I wanted to have lunch - a Jain vegetarian place called Big Bites - at least Mike admitted it was the best masala dosa he ever had.  I am sure masala dosa cures all ills!  The only downside of this restaurant is that by the time we had finished our meal, I wasn't hungry enough to buy Indian sweets from the counter downstairs even though they looked like the best I have ever seen.  And that is the trouble with Singapore - it seems the main things to do here are shop and eat.  The first is out-of-bounds for long-term travellers, and there's only so much of the second you can squeeze into a couple of days!  You would really have to live here...

Hall of the 100 Buddhas

In Chinatown, we found something else to do: look at the shrine containing one of the Buddha's teeth.  It's a really beautiful, amazing place, where they've got the tooth well wrapped up in an elaborate setting.  If you go through the hall of the hundred (or is it thousand?) Buddhas, up to the fourth (or is it third?) floor into the room of eight (or is it twelve?) guardians, you can approach a glass window containing a large ornamented gold reliquary.  Somewhere in there, several metres from where you are standing, there is, allegedly, a human tooth.  You can see a close up on an LCD screen in the room. Actually, I really like this place.  If I had to choose a religion, it would be Buddhism. When we went back downstairs, people were chanting the hundred names of Buddha in an intoxicating kind of way, so we walked around the gallery above them, looking at the exhibition of famous monks and the statuettes like this one which made my day.

Surprise! The bike says it's from Nottingham. 
It looks just like the bikes at Clumber Park.
 On our last day, we played we really lived here and it was our day off work: we rented bicycles and went for a longish ride along the various 'park connectors': bike paths that run a long the drainage canal systems, under the overhead MRT track and sometimes along roads.  We bought foreign food at a fast food chain selling French-style baguette sandwiches.  I have to hand it to the Singaporeans, their baguettes are not quite all there, but they are better than anything you could get in the UK or the US.  Expensive though...  We picnicked by Bedok reservoir, then cycled back and tried to find fruit in the ghastly theme park shopping mall.  In the end we had to make do with a can of longans.  Then we went swimming all afternoon.

Canal path
Under the train track
Canal along the edge of Bedok Reservoir park
The cabby who took us to Woodlands station to catch the train to Malaysia next day told us that Singapore is busy reclaiming land from the sea, so that the island is growing.  He said they had bought rocks and landfill from Malaysia then from Indonesia but both countries were now refusing to sell, lest Singapore encroach on their borders.  Perhaps he was stringing us a line.  It is true that the train line from central Singapore to Malaysia is gone now, and that may or may not be because the Singapore government bought up the land to build apartment blocks on!!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Day 449: Lankawi

Today Antonia and I went into Lankawi, Malaysia alone while Penny stayed on the ship.  Instead of paying for the shuttle into town, we decided to take a cab.  We had to walk quite a ways out of the port (say about 15min) before we could find a taxi that didn't insist on taking us on a day tour.

We wanted to go to this aquarium called Underwater World which was 5k (3mi) up the road, the taxi should have cost nearly nothing (in fact, it was nothing in the end!).  We managed to flag down a taxi and he quoted us about $2 each to town.  After we were in the cab, it became apparent that he was talking about the town called Lankawi which was miles away and we only wanted to go up the road!  He very kindly brought us to Underwater World and bought the tickets for me (taking a commission) and didn't charge me for his ride.  The entry price was the same for me but he got a commission.
 Here we visited penguins.  It would have been nice if it were that cold!  It was like in the 30s (90s) and about 100% humidity!
 They have some cool looking penguins here.

 Sharks too.
They also had an aviary.

After the aquarium, we walked around town and ate at an awful restaurant, I'm glad we didn't get sick, it was fine in the end.

Then we decided to find the Rice Museum that they talked about on the ship.  It was quite a walk up the road, maybe a mile.  This was a road through town with shops all selling the same tourist junk.  Eventually, we found the famed rice museum and it was...empty.

Totally deserted.  No entry fee.  We walked around it for a while.  We were the only visitors.  There was the occasional person sweeping up the pavement.  There was an air-conditioned building with exhibits of tools they use in rice farming and such which was interesting but no photos allowed.  

The town here is again loud, dusty, and filled with tourist shops.  I think if I were to visit this island again, I'd get out of town and do something more adventurous here.  Because of time constraints, we really would have had to take a tour, either in a taxi or an organized ship tour.  Apparently the gondola ride was spectacular but the weather was really rainy and visibility was limited. 

From the Rice Museum, Antonia and I took a taxi back to the ship.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Day 448: Penang

This was our walking tour of the sights of impressively multicultural Georgetown on Penang Island:

A clocktower, because the European contingent needed to know what time the ships were getting in?
A cannon at Fort Cornwallis, Britain's trading base on Penang from the 18th century

The Protestant cemetery, where most of the British people from the island were buried.
The Blue Mansion, built by a very rich Chinese merchant according to the principles of Feng Shui, and recently renovated as a boutique hotel.
A shophouse - this is still what a lot of the streets are lined with.
A local kid... Oh, no wait... that one's mine. This is where we had lunch, actually.
What you can't see from the shop house photo is that you walk along either in the street or along these arcades under the houses, depending which is most blocked.
One of many Chinese temples
The minaret at the mosque
Another street scene with houses and a small temple
A 'street' on the Chinese jetty.  These houses are built over water, with a whole Chinese clan originally owning one jetty.  Now they must be among the most peaceful places to live in Georgetown and are protected under its new World Heritage status.
After the architecture, the people.  This is a book I found in the coffee shop at the bus station.  It is a series of profiles of people who live in Penang.  Reading it made a great end to the day

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Day 447: Kuala Lumpar

Antonia was sick today with a sort of flu/cold.  Penny stayed on the ship.  I went into KL alone this day to get the train tickets we reserved to go from Singapore to Bangkok.

The ship docked about an hour and a half ride from the city.  They offered for $50 a two-way shuttle service from the pier which I took advantage of.  This dropped me off right at the Petronas Towers.

These are some of the tallest buildings in the world.  A few years ago, a guy from France free-climbed one of these buildings -- no rope, just hand over hand climbing!  He went right to the top and stood on the tip of the needle (there's a round ball on top of the needle).  I can totally see how he climbed the building part.  As you can see, the outside is basically like a ladder.

I took the train from here to the central train station (about a 10 min ride) where fairly easily found the international ticket counter and picked up my tickets.  It turned out to be MUCH cheaper to pick the tickets up here than in Singapore and it wasn't that much trouble in the end.

After the tickets, I decided to try and walk through the park.  I asked several people but nobody could tell me how to navigate the mass of highways on foot to get from the station to the park.  In the end, I hopped the train back one stop which seemed a bit closer to the park.  Even so, I had quite a time figuring out how to get from the station to the park.  I went through the post office, under a pedestrian underpass, around a mosque, and up a residential street.

This is a photo of an overgrown house on the residential street.  On the other side of the street was an apartment block.  This was technically all in the park.

Once in the park proper, I managed to find the Butterfly Museum.  This is an outdoor park that is covered with a netting which holds thousands of beautiful butterflies.  

After, I walked to the sculpture garden.

 And then back through town.  As I walked around, I seriously got the feeling that not many people actually walk around town.  I was really the only one walking.  Most everyone else was driving.  It's quite a noisy and dusty environment.

Once back in town proper, I decided to walk the mile or so back to Petronas Towers.  I started following the overhead train tracks and then I saw what looked like a classical building which turned out to be the phone company.  They had a telecom museum (Telekom Museum) which I nipped inside.  It's quite small and well hidden, I think I may have been the only visitor they had that day!  

I then walked back to the towers (about 30min) and was an hour early for the bus.

In the towers, it's basically a huge shopping mall under neath them.  They have quite a food court.  While waiting for the bus, I had a plate of food (Nasi Lemak) which means coconut milk rice, but it came with chicken curry, peanuts, and some veggies, a whole meal, and it cost the whopping sum of US$3!  It was excellent.  Sorry I didn't take a photo of the plate before eating it!

The ride back to the boat was about 2hrs because of traffic.  We were the last bus back at the boat and they had to hold the boat for us.  As soon as we were on board, they hauled up the gangway and set off.  That's one very good thing about taking their shuttle into town in that they won't leave until all the tours are accounted for and back on ship, so there was no way I was going to miss the boat.

Mission accomplished, tickets in hand which we will use in a few days.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Day 438: Perth Chinese Consulate for the last time!

We have Chinese visas!  Hurrah!  Usually we try to combine our trips to the Chinese consulate with a bit of sight-seeing in Perth.  For today, Mike had decided it would ease his situation somewhat if he actually had some blank pages in his US passport.  So off we went to look for the US consulate.  It's a rather unobtrusive affair, but we knew we were in the right place when we saw a uniformed chap emerging with a body harness to hold up his six guns.  All these errands took us most of the morning.  Tomorrow, we just have to somehow get some malaria tablets, a notarised letter of consent for Mike to travel alone with Antonia (he is going to Indonesia when I go to Vietnam), and some toiletries.  For today, we just went back to Rockingham to eat pavlova in a local cafe.  Eating pavlova before leaving Down Under is an important ritual.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Day 437: The Pinnacles

We drove for three hours in the pouring rain to see this geological attraction in Namburg National Park to the north of Perth.  I think we were wondering as we did it whether we were crazy.  By some miracle, when we got there, the sun came out and lasted long enough for us to do the short walking tour or the pinnacles.  Mike and Antonia then went on the slightly longer driving tour, but I know better than to waste a bit of sunshine, so I went on the walk again. The fun part was bumping into them every few minutes and taking photos of their little safari.

Bonus: emu tracks! we only saw the real thing from the train.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Day 436: Rockingham

Pelicans on Lake Richmond

Rockingham, where we are staying, is a suburb by the sea. Being by the sea, and having a good sized lake you can walk around are its redeeming features. Here, signs to the town centre lead to a gigantic shopping mall.  One night we went looking for take-out Indian food and were directed to a far-flung corner of this mall.  This is where Rockingham's available night life clusters around an inadequately sized multi-storey car park, surrounded by broad avenues and immaculate central reservations.  There are no pavements, but then, you aren't expected to walk here.  The street next to us has a sign on it saying Tidiest Street of the Year, though it looks exactly like all the other streets.  The whole thing reminds me irresistibly of the Pete Seeger song Little Boxes.  You know: "There's a pink one and a green one and a blue one and a yellow one, and they're all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same".

Boat blown off its moorings

Both the tidiness and the ticky-tacky have just been put to the test.  On Sunday, Rockingham and the surrounding area suffered the storm of the century. Antonia and I were cuddled up on the sofa, watching a kid's movie and pretending to be scared.  Then we discovered that the wind was nearly blowing the front door out of its frame at the top and bottom and we really were scared.  It took all three of us to push the door back into place enough to get some extra bolts in.  In the aftermath of the storm, fences, ornamental fountains and bits of trees are lying all over the place.  I believe a few people lost their rooves and lots more lost their power supply.  More spectacularly, several boats were torn off their mooring in the bay and washed up on shore.  On Monday night we had a repeat performance.  I have been wondering what it would be like to be at sea in this. We embark on Thursday and fortunately the weather forecast is looking fine for us - assuming the Dawn Princess can limp into Fremantle in the first place!!

The Catalpa Memorial - it's a tribute to some Irish political prisoners who escaped Western Australia on a ship that came all the way from the USA to break them out!

It turns out that Rockingham has been quite exciting.  It's also been a good base for us to have an affordable house while we run our visa related errands.  Soon we will be leaving for Asia.  I am really looking forward to getting back to the Old World again!  I really do feel more comfortable with a couple of millennia of continuous history beneath my feet.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Day 435: Perth Hills

We drove the 40 minutes inland to go hiking in the Perth hills.  Nice walk, but the most exciting parts of the day were petting wild parrots and kangaroos.  The parrots were at a cafe that makes a point of feeding them and sells birdseed for the purpose.  The kangaroos, on the other hand were at a picnic site.  People are not really supposed to feed them because a) it is bad for the kangaroos and b) it makes them demanding towards human beings. The kangaroos here are very used to human's feeding them.  Sure enough, an adult grey kangaroo reared at Antonia and pushed her with its front paws.  It didn't hurt her, but it frightened her quite a bit.  Besides that, we had a nice walk counting the various kinds of eucalyptus pod we could find.

Grey kangaroos, running away, for once.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Day 432: Perth Chinese Consulate again and Gallery of Western Australia

Armed with a flight booking we didn't want into Beijing and a reservation at Beijing airport hotel we didn't want either, we strolled back into the Chinese consulate at 10 am and got our applications accepted.  The one tiny fly in the ointment is that they will only give me a double entry, not the multiple entry I would need to take the Trans-Monglian back across Russia.  I could apply for another visa later, but I'm currently thinking of going through Vladivostok instead.

Invisible Man by Jeff Wall
Now we had succeeded with that, we were free to enjoy Perth, except that it is pouring with rain.  So we went to the Gallery of Western Australia, where Antonia drew still lives and Mike went on a talk about the photography of Jeff Wall.  I liked his work okay, but the only one I thought was great was Inivisible Man.  This is based on a novel by Ralph Ellison, a story about an African-American in the forties, squatting the basement of a whites-only apartment building in which he's strung 1,369 light bulbs. Antonia and I didn't know this story at first, so we made one up involving an invisible man sitting in the empty green chair, and imagined that all the light bulbs were in the hope of seeing him. Mike was mainly fascinated by the technicalities of photographing a scene like this.  Apparently, this rather puts him at odds with the artist, who doesn't like to discuss the technicalities of his work other than to mention that it's very hard to do indeed.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Day 431: Perth Chinese Consulate and Kings Park

Having spent two days getting the paperwork together for our Chinese visas, I was pretty sure we were going to be turned away.  Sure enough, they asked us for a flight booking into China and a confirmed hotel reservation for the first day.  We don't want to fly into China we want to take the train.  To get a train ticket, we need a Chinese visa.  It's not that there's a law against entering China by train, it's just that it's been made complicated.

Walkway in Kings Park
Realising we were not going to get this sorted out the same day, we went for a walk in Kings Park.  It's like a lot of Australian parks - very well organised.  There are free barbecues.  There is a really nice cafe with a terrace letting onto the enclosed children's play area so that adults can eat coffee and cake while their children play.  There are wild areas, carefully landscaped areas and nice views.  All in all pretty nice.

Boab tree - it's what they call a Baobab in Australia
After a while we went home and booked a flight to Beijing which we hope will be refundable and a hotel at Beijing airport which we are pretty certain will be cancellable and printed it all out.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Days 429 & 430: Mooching in Rockingham

Monday is a bank holiday here, in honour of the founding of Western Australia by European settlers.  So it turns out we have two days to get our Chinese visa paperwork together instead of one.  Just as well, as it involves a lot of form filling, printing out and getting passport photos.  In the meantime, I made Sunday dinner, using only a butter knife and a couple of disposable oven dishes (and a chicken and a bunch of vegetables of course).  This is the first time we've lived in a house since, ermm, March, I think, so it's fun to be a bit domestic for once.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Day 426 - 428: Indian-Pacific Train, Kalgoolie, Western Australia

This was our second 2-day train trip, this time on the India-Pacific from Adelaide to Perth.

Antonia hard at work with the help of her lovely new dingo, Max.
The first photo is of the Nularbor Plain.  It's dry but not total sand as I was expecting.  It's got mostly low scrubby vegetation and the occasional tree.  We also saw the occasional camel wandering around, usually under a tree.

We stopped for a few hours at Kalgoolie.  This is a town just on the western edge of the Nularbor Plain.  It's principally a gold mining town but they mine some other materials as well.  Though there's virtually nothing around for miles (perhaps hundreds of miles!) the town is thriving.

We stopped at Kalgoolie at about 8pm.  I got off the train and went on one of their tours while they refueled the train.

I wouldn't really recommend the tour.  Principally they showed us the hotels around the town.  The driver also drove us by the two remaining brothels in town which function illegally but are tolerated.

The highlight of the tour took us to the "Super-Pit" which is an open pit gold mind.  The photo was taken at night at about 90 second exposure.  My photo was the only thing people could see of the deep black expanse in front of us.  Several people crowded around to look at this photo.  (Many of them had been wondering what the heck I was doing).

The lights you see are the machines working.  They work the mine 24x7 non-stop.  The women who drove the tour bus used to work in the mine driving one of the huge dump trucks. She told us that mining jobs not only pay well, they're not hard work like they used to be.  Most mining now is done by automation and large machines.  Women make up a significant number of the work force and they're the ones running the heavy machinery.  She told us they prefer to give these jobs to women because they are apparently better drivers.

So what about the dangerous underground work in tunnels and such?  Well, apparently this sort of work these days is all done by remote control.  They have remote drilling machines controlled from thousands of miles away.