Admittedly, I had a difficult time putting together a two-week itinerary for Ethiopia. Apart from so much sights to choose from (Visit the Southern tribes? Meet baboons? Desert safari?), there was the concern on getting from one place to another. Plane fares were double the cost if you did not fly in via the national carrier, and intercity bus travel took 8-hours minimum and no option for late night departures.
Fortunately, I had one thing that I wanted to see – sulfur formations in the Danakil Depression. Located in some 120 meters below sea level, they sparkle in yellow, green and orange in 50 degrees heat.
The only way to get there is via an organised tour. The Danakil Depression is close to the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and let’s just say both sides don’t fully agree where that demarcation line really sits.It is amazing how much this land is disputed given that it’s one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Back to the tour – you can choose the two day version which also includes a visit to the salt lake. Bring flip flops – the high salt content in the water may ruin your shoes, and cake them when they dry up. Unfortunately, I had forgotten mine, so I got to as far as I can handle the sharp salt crystals on my bare feet.
The two-day version will involve camping in the desert. The good news – it cools down from 53 Celsius in the daytime (and it’s not even high season!). The bad news – it cools down to about 35 Celsius at night. Whenever the wind would blow, it felt like a fresh waft of air from your car exhaust. This was my bed for the night – like they say, it’s not a 5-star hotel, but it’s a thousand-star bed.
We were also fortunate to see the salt caravan of the Afar people. The chop up the ground into salt blocks, load them into camels, then haul them back to markets to trade. We went to the desert on a religious holiday, so we were not expecting to seem the caravan. Fortunately they trades need to happen!
That’s a brief summary of what you get to see on the two day trek. I had seen what I wanted to see and I thought it was spectacular. However, I am glad I took the whole 4 days for the trip, because at the end of four days, I had to update my “Most Amazing Thing I Have Seen” list. I will speak more of that on the next post. Before I forget – I made the trip with Ethio Travel and Tours. I fully recommend them – it was excellent service from the booking of the trip (I didn’t want to do international money transfer, so I paid the day before the trip started. They picked me up from the airport, brought me to their office, and returned me to catch my evening flight) to their very gracious drivers. You can’t DIY the Danakil trip, so I would point you to the company with the most experience in such a difficult to navigate region.
It’s been a year since I wrote something in this blog but I now found the perfect excuse – I only have two vacations a year, so anything more than two blogs posts, I will consider as a victory. Ha. And in reference to that, I was extremely amazed at Iceland (you can tell), that i had to go for another interesting choice this year.
It was time to explore another continent – I’ve always been enthralled by Africa, but not for the safaris and the wildlife but more on the people and what it’s like to see first hand how different this is from places familiar. Having visited Iceland made me like nature and trekking more than city trips.
My first choice was Ethiopia – a country filled with highlands, deserts, roock-hewn churches, and one of the few permanent lava lakes in the world. I must admit, in my binge-watching of The Amazing Race, I saw a lush mountain landscape, however, the timing coincides with the dry season, so I figured it was going to be dusty and brown. In the meantime, while I write rest of my itinerary here, I will leave you with a photo.
Admittedly, my trip to Australia was to watch a tennis event – the so called “Happy Slam” or the “Grand Slam of the Asia Pacific”. Here’s a quick itinerary to get the most out of your visit to Melbourne Park.
The Australian Open is the most conveniently located Grand Slam of the all; it’s a quick 20 minute walk along the banks of the Yarra river to the centre of the city, leading to the popular attractions such as Federation Square and Flinders Street Station. If you’re rushing to get to the stadiums, there are free dedicated trams that will take you directly to the venue during the course of the sporting event. Warning – Australia takes it sport seriously, crazily dressed (or undressed!) fans wearing flags, or spelling out their favourite players’ names will be all over the sport grounds, and in Melbourne.
Ticket prices have gone substantially over the past couple of years – the 5-day grounds pass used to cost AUD 99, but for 2013 it’s now AUD 130 at the gates; with the appreciation of the AUD, the cost of the ticket is compounded further. My tip for tickets: be there on the first week – that’s when you’ll have the practiced courts filled with players before their actual matches. The 5-day grounds pass will let you choose any of the 5 days (does not have to be consecutive) within the two weeks. Do not use your grounds pass when you have a ticket to the show courts (Rod Laver Arena or Hisense Arena), as they show court tickets already have a grounds pass for the day it is valid. No tickets to the games? You can watch for free and still get the stadium experience (well, sort of) at Federation Square. They have a giant screen set up there, and particularly great to watch events in the night time while downing some beers.
Speaking of drink, save a bit of money, and bring a water bottle to the event – there are plenty of drinking stations with free water; also the Ozzie Open is kind enough to let people bring in their own food to the grounds (although not sure if this has changed for 2013).
There are plenty of things to do on the grounds itself – the usual picnic, games for kids, and oddball tennis ball costumed-guy on stilts; but when Garnier used to be a sponsor, there was a 2-hour wait to get a facial on the tennis grounds!
Final note – when they shout “Aussie!” you say “Oi”, and they shout “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!” you reply with “Oi oi oi!”. It’s catchy; enjoy the games!
Sure, London is an expensive city. A quick hop on the Underground is £2.20, and a usual pint is about £4. However, there are plenty of things to do around the city to fill up your time, with minimum, nay, zero damage to your wallet. Pretty sure that the folks who missed out on the 2012 Olympic Games had a piece of what the city had to offer beyond sporting activities.
1. Revel in antiquities in the British Museum
Treasures from the Assyrian, Sumerian, Egyptian and Greek civilisations come together in this massive complex filled with history, relics, and plenty of marbles. Lord Elgin brought the facades from the Parthenon and they are now housed in a special viewing room; the mausoleum of Alexander was reconstructed from the pieces retrieved from its ruins, and the temple to Zeus is on full display with its nymphs captured in marble during mid-dance.
Other important pieces from the ancient world are also kept within the museum rooms – including the Rosetta Stone, a full Easter Island moai, and other bas reliefs retrieved from the ruins of Mesapotamia and Sumer. A donation of £7 is requested, and if you have the luxury to donate, then please do so to keep the displays in good condition. As an ultimate paradox, London’s star architect Lord Norman Foster extravagantly welcomes all visitors with a stunningly modern ceiling in the Grand Courtyard.
2. Be in awe of the masterpieces at the National Gallery
Similar to the British Museum, a suggested donation is requested (£5), but it’s still generally a free museum to visit.
Sitting in the heart of central London, the National Gallery is a standout collection of paintings from such gifted artists such as Van Gogh (Sunflowers), van Eyck (The Arnolfini Marriage), Canaletto (various works depicting canal life in Venice), French impressionists Manet, Monet, Renoir, and Cezanne, and my personal favourite, Georges Seurat (the US version of The Office recently spoofed his work of riverside picnickers).
It will take in a good day to ramble around the gallery when London rain comes in to spoil the weather, but a well spent day with the masters. It’s beautiful inside and out, familiar you say, of course, it was patterned after Athen’s Parthenon.
3. Take in the London atmosphere with its usual meeting point in Trafalgar Square
A skip and a hop away from Houses of Parliament, theatre central Leicester Square, and seats of power (Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street) is London’s melting point – Trafalgar Square. The marvellous open area is adorned with two fountains, several lions, and on the top of a column, navy hero Horatio Nelson.
Take in the air of one of the world’s most cosmopolitan city while travellers, tourist, red double-deck buses whiz past. Before you head of to take a walk to the historic areas towards Westminster Abbey, or head off shopping to Covent Garden or Picadilly Circus, or visit nearby museums like The National Gallery, take the time to stay at the courtyard, watch the world go by, while see it all come together in this wonderful public square.
Plenty of other things to do in London when you’re short on time and money, more galleries to visit, more parks to saunter, in and plenty of historical walks to take it all in, it’s not enough to pull them in a short trip. More things to do and write about in future entries!
For this blog’s first destination, I sneaked out this summer with a trip to China. This little venture would be manageable for a 3-day visit, packing in all the important sights, and a quick hop to the Terracotta Army. Will talk about the that on the next article. Instead, this post is all about Xian and the city center.
My other previous trips to China were limited to the major cities and their nearby places; this was the first time I was heading into the “main” mainland. So, after 12 hours on a hard seat on the train to Shaanxi province, I was in Xian. To be honest, it wasn’t that bad – the hard seat wasn’t a plank of wood, my two other seatmates weren’t bobbing their heads sideways while drooling. Looks like I set my expectations too low. If you’re taking the plane to Xian Xianyang airport (airport code XIY), get ready for a long drive into town.
As you exit Xian train station, you will be greeted by the city center’s main draw – its walls. The train tracks run along the northern wall and offer a glimpse of what activities you can do in town. Not to be missed is to bike along the walls. The whole loop will take about an hour and a half – but surely you can have it a more leisurely pace. If you time the visit to the walls properly, you can get to see the changing of the guards in elaborate costumes – just like watching the terracotta army in real life.
Xian is also the eastern terminus of the famous Silk Road and serves as the intersection of Chinese and Muslim culture. The Great Mosque isn’t all that great to be honest, but take time out to marvel at how the minarets were blended with the pagodas in this very distinct architecture. As with most fusion results – the proof is in the pudding, or food. Take a walk around the Muslim Quarter and have the finest skewers of lamb, goat and beef wonderfully peppered with cumin to go along with your flat bread. Yum!
Now I’m hungry – looks like I have to continue this post on Xian on the next article.