Beijing photos: I’m imperial and I know it

Untitled by Darcy Knoll (darcyknoll) on 500px.com
Powerful. Immense. Proud.

Such are the adjectives of the Chinese capital. It’s funny thinking back so many months later about how sore my feet were from walking along so many grand boulevards of Beijing. Funnier still after taking a stroll this afternoon past Ottawa’s Parliament Hill.

Of course, I don’t mean this as a knock against my city, it’s just that each capital seems to do a pretty good job of demonstrating to the world what the country is and what it wants to be.

Click here to see my photos from Beijing.

Oh, and here’s the links to my blog posts from the Chinese capital:

The city formerly known as Peking (pt. 1)

Recapping the Chinese Capital (pt. 2)

Tasty and Frightening – Food Photos!

Untitled by Darcy Knoll (darcyknoll) on 500px.com

It slowly continues on.

As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been gradually working to organize photos from our trip. While going through my Beijing pics I decided to put my photos of the glorious street fare together in one set, which then led to the decision to put all of the food photos in my portfolio together.

So here it is. See if you can guess what’s what.

http://darcyknoll.500px.com/food_photography

Shanghai Photos!

Shanghai, China

Together, Sara and I have amassed probably 10,000 photos from our trip. It’s almost overwhelming trying to figure out what to do with these. Such will be the challenge for 2012.

And so over the coming months I hope to post several photo collections from my portfolio.

The first from our time in Shanghai.

http://darcyknoll.500px.com/shanghai_china/

The balance of the shark and the cassowary

The Great Barrier Reef is amazing in its size, but I was a little disappointed as well.

For all its immensity, it really does display a startling realization at the shape of the ocean. Perhaps it was just where we dove, but Sara and I both felt it appeared to be dead or dying in many parts. There wasn’t the bright reds, yellows and blues that we saw in Bali or Thailand, rather white and grey with dust and debris floating along. While the aquatic life was amazing, the overall impression was disconcerting.

I’ve always been sympathetic to the environmental movement, but it wasn’t until my travels in Australia that I really appreciated the important balance of ecosystems. It really is sad what’s going on with the oceans. At the bottom, you have the slow death of the reef due to several factors (pollution, overfishing, climate change) that can make one feel awkward about his own lifestyle. The death of the reef kills a food source for countless fish whose lives revolve around this immense living organism.

At the top, due to the merciless desire for shark fin soup, we’re seeing the decimation of the largest  predator in the sea, which causes smaller predators (groupers etc.) to flourish and eat more plant-grazing fish such as the parrotfish, which eat algae and prevent it from smothering/killing the coral.

Don’t care about coral? Apparently, killing off sharks means more smaller predators that eat popular foods such as scallops and shellfish. It’s all connected.

After our two days on the reef, we took a seven-kilometre gondola ride over tropical rainforest to the small touristy town of Kuranda. Halfway along this trip, we stopped and took a guided tour with a park ranger on a boardwalk through the forest. Wearing a crisp, clean uniform and sharp, wide-brimmed hat, one could tell this man was passionate about his job, more specifically about trees. Given their sheer size and complexity in the rainforest, its easy to understand such a passion – especially with their relationship with the cassowary.

Never met or heard of a cassowary before? Neither had I. These flightless birds are the second heaviest and third largest in the world. They are recognized for a distinctive bill on the top of their head and bright colours along their neck. A rather stupid bird, they can be quite aggressive and locals are warned to steer clear. Our ranger guide told us an anecdote where a guy recently gave his bright red sportscar a shiny polish. A cassowary wandered along, noticed its reflection and went into attack mode, putting its immense claw through the metal of the car door.

These endangered birds usually stick to the depths of the forest where they play a pretty important role. They eat and digest the thick poisonous defences of the fruit of various trees, thereby scattering the seeds and helping replenish the forest. As highlighted in Wikipedia, “Germination rates for seeds of the rare Australian rainforest tree Ryparosa were found to be much higher after passing through a cassowary’s gut (92% versus 4%).”

Kill off the cassowary and who knows what may happen to the rainforest. It’s all connected.

Downunder Downunder

The Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia.

I think about this a lot. Wednesday morning at 5:55 a.m., for example, as I was scraping a layer of ice off my windshield. Or yesterday, hearing the snow crunch beneath my feet, feeling my legs freeze and wishing my scarf was just a little bit longer to cover the exposed skin.

I’m not sure why, but I don’t think of the beaches of Thailand – although they cross the mind in an exasperated chilly sigh – I think of looking up, 27 metres deep, watching bubbles escape my mouth and gently float to greet the rising sun.

The scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef wasn’t necessarily the best of our trip, but it still was an adventure. Indeed, visiting this landmark had long been on my bucket list and I am glad to check it off.

We flew overnight from Bali to Cairns via Darwin and slept off the majority of the first day. After spending so long in Asia, Australia was a shock. Not only were prices dramatically higher ($3.50 for a coffee?! $30 for a bed in a hostel?!), but it almost felt like we were home again.

It seemed surreal that first day as I walked along a wide, smooth sidewalk next to a large, clean, well-paved road. Part of me missed dodging the giant holes and watching out for flying motos. After all, this return to “normal” meant I would soon be going home.

We hiked these sidewalks on day two to find our dive trip agency, then took a cruise along the coast in search of salties (or saltwater crocodiles). These beasts live along the waterways of Northern Queensland and are extremely deadly. Signs can be found along Cairns’ coast warning swimmers to stay away.

It’s not that salties have a particular taste for human, it’s just that these creatures have a taste for pretty much anything. Days after we left Queensland, a spearfisher would fall victim.

Nevertheless, they are pretty amazing animals. The saltwater crocodile is a patient killer. It only needs to eat a few times a year, so the rest of the time it can spend planning an assault. Consider this: A saltie notices an animal comes to a certain place to drink water. Every day it will quietly wait and watch the animal come back to drink. The animal becomes confident in its routine and this is when the croc strikes with a pressure greater than that of great white shark. Amazing. Below is a photo of a friendly little fellow sunning itself in the wild about a half hour from the city of Cairns.

A saltwater crocodile lies in the sun just south of Cairns, Australia.

Of course, crocs aren’t the only crazy animals in this area. Walking along Cairns, one sees trees packed with giant, screeching bats the size of seagulls and thousands of chattering, cheeky rainbow lorikeets. And then there’s the crazy, yet awesome cassowary. But more on this later.

On days three and four we would be off exploring the Great Barrier Reef. Overall, the reef was amazing for its sheer size. You could see waves breaking over it well into the horizon. Below, are seemingly endless walls of coral taking a jagged path far beyond what many a tank of compressed air can allow.

We would take a total of seven dives. Of these a few stand out:

On our third dive something seemed off. I must have forget to wash my mask. It seemed as soon as I hit the bottom, it filled with fog. I took it off, gave it a wipe, but it still didn’t really work and I could only see through a small corner. Sara, meanwhile, was having trouble with hers filling with water. Eventually we fixed things up underwater and went upon our way. We followed the coral to an open sand clearing. There, laying flat in the white sand was a huge cowtail stingray. I know they say things are bigger underwater, but we both agree he was about two metres wide and nearly three metres from head to tail.

Instantly, I thought of poor Aussie hero Steve Irwin who was randomly killed by such a fish. I hoped the ray would swim away so I could see it soar through the water, but instead, it just sat there and stared us down, turning to face us as we cautiously swam away. Stingray 1, divers 0.

As we puttered away with our tail between our legs, we came across a reef shark hanging out in the sand. We then followed the coral wall a little further and came back across a strong current. Just before we headed to surface, a large, bright green maori wrasse just appeared alongside, gave us a dirty look and disappeared.

After that dive we had a big, hearty dinner of chicken. The leftover bones were then thrown in the water where they were gobbled up by a dozen or so reef sharks who were now very much awake and circling the bottom of the ship.

We watched the sharks for a bit and then we were called to the deck. Twas time to prepare for a night dive.

I must admit, night dives kind of terrify me. It’s dark, you don’t really know where you are and there are random creatures swimming about. Watching the sharks hovering around below, I was a tad nervous.

But in we jumped. And it was dark, darker than previous night dives we had done before. The visibility in front of my flashlight was less than five metres. Sara and I went down maybe 12 metres and we both agreed in scattered hand signals that we would soon be disoriented. In our flashlight beams, sharks would swim past and disappear in the murky, black deep.

So with zero viz, we gave up and returned to the surface. Sara got on the boat and I briefly stood on the ladder and watched the sharks under the water. I had my fins up on the boat and I stood there rather mesmerized as these fish circled round. They didn’t seem big enough to be threatening, but the section of my brain reserved for panic kicked in. “My  toes are almost the same size as the chicken. Get out of the water!” And displaying the courage of a startled fish, I quickly scuttled back into the boat.

The next day we returned to a vastly different dive site in that the sharks were asleep and we could actually tell where we were vis-a-vis the boat. It was around six in the morning and such a relaxing way to start the day. The visibility was great and we pleasantly toured the coral walls. It was quiet, peaceful, beautiful and blue.

A perfect escape from a cold winter day.

East Bali: Cabs, shipwrecks and an elephant named Boris

Early morning in Ubud, Bali.

With cars driving on the left hand side and motorbikes weaving through the narrow streets, I was hard at work summoning up my courage. We wanted to travel from Ubud to the east coast of Bali. The plan was for me to do the driving.

Finding a vehicle was no problem. Ubud offered a range of cars for hire at great rates. However, a couple issues seemed to nag. First, insurance coverage was a little shady and unclear. Second, although I can drive standard, I wasn’t so eager to do so on my opposite side.

I started reading about renting a car in Bali online and was quickly convinced to seek an alternative. Beyond horrendous roads and driving conditions, several travellers reported troubles with police officers looking for bribes and facing tremendous difficulties with authorities and other drivers if in an accident.

Up bright and early, I went for a stroll along Monkey Forest road (photo above) and made arrangements with the first cab driver I found. In Ubud, the streets are littered with cab drivers sitting on the curb or outside the shops, smoking cigarettes. Unfortunately, as there were few tourists at this time, smoking and sitting would occupy the majority of their time. One cabbie I chatted with told me he hadn’t had a customer in two days.

We headed off to the small seaside town of Pedangbai. Our drive was uneventful. The roads were clear and in good shape. There was just one hiccup. Halfway through our trip we were briefly stopped to make way for traffic. Up ahead, a car was blocking the opposite side of the road next to a police car. As we slowly drove past, the seemingly natural inclination to look at an accident took hold. However, there was no broken glass or damages. The only thing I saw was a European couple about the same age as Sara and I. And they looked scared.

Our driver briefly chatted with the police officer and they exchanged a laugh. We drove off and I asked him what that was about. He held up his hand and rubbed his thumb against his two fingers. “Money,” he said.

I’m glad I took a cab.

Pedangbai was a lovely little place with friendly seafood restaurants and rolling waves providing a soundtrack for the evening. A short stroll over a hill led to a large coral-filled lagoon perfect for snorkling.

We spent a couple days here reading, relaxing, eating fresh fish. Wonderful.

Sara walks along a black sand beach on Bali's far east coast.

Next, we hired another cab to the far east of Bali, an area known as the Amed coast. In 1942, a Japanese torpedo hit the American transport ship the USAT Liberty in the Lombak Strait. Unable to tow the vessel any further, the U.S. navy dragged it up on the east coast of Bali in order to salvage parts and supplies. More than 20 years later, a volcano erupted knocking the ship back into the water where it sits today more than 30 metres deep.

The USAT Liberty is regarded as one of the world’s safest shipwreck divesites. It’s fairly shallow, open and offers lots of coral and aquatic life. It really was quite remarkable. So much so, that we did three dives here – two during the day and one at night.

On our drive from Amed to Ubud.

The next day we travelled back to Ubud with the brother of our diving guide. Rather than the direct route, we asked to go through the volcanoes and hills past lush jungle and small villages with temples and statues. We stopped to enjoy the scenary (just missing the rain behind us) and also at a fruit plantation where we had a sample of some of the most expensive coffee in the world, the kopi luwak. Sold at around $75 for a 200g bag, these beans are harvested from the feces of the civet, a cat-like animal that allegedly only eats the very best coffee and then adds to the flavour through digestion. In the end, the coffee tasted like shit. Kidding.

Back in Ubud, we had long talked about an elephant tour while in Asia. With our time sadly coming to an end, we found an elephant sanctuary near Ubud that apparently treated its animals well and the two of us headed off on a tour through the bush with our new friend Boris.

Less than two days later we would be in Australia.

Insulting the spirits in Bali

I don’t go out of my way to stomp on religious offerings. But sometimes it just happens.

Every day on the island of Bali small flower baskets are laid out on the street as a token of good faith to the friendly spirits that inhabit the land and a token of respect to those who could do this land harm. These small offerings are filled with brightly coloured tropical petals and swirl with smoke from burning incense.

They’re everywhere in Bali. On the ground in front of shops, at the feet of statues and inside little temples that seem to be on every block. They’re replenished each morning by women balancing a large basket on their heads filled with these small offerings. They carefully set the flowers down, close their eyes and say a small prayer.

And I stomp all over it.

Of course, I don’t intend to do this. Incurring the wrath of the Hindu gods is the last thing I want while travelling. Yet, walking along on the streets of Kuta or Ubud and chatting with Sara, I would suddenly look down and realize I stepped on one of these flower baskets. Upon realizing this, I would try to jump off, but end up just smearing the petals across the sidewalk instead.

Perhaps Bali is no place for me.

One of the big question marks of our trip was how we would actually get to Australia. Eventually, we needed to clear this up. The general plan was to travel south through Thailand to Malaysia, spend a few days in Kuala Lampur, then travel to Singapore and onwards to Cairns, Australia.

It seemed fairly easy except there’s a bit of a terrorist threat in Southern Thailand that had a nasty habit of targeting the occasional tourist. Yet, we felt fairly confident we would be fine.

It was the afternoon after the Full Moon Party, Sara was reading a book on a hammock and I was looking for travel deals online. Outside our porch it was pouring rain and we were pretty much stuck. I checked my email and noticed a small web banner ad from AirAsia advertising a flight from Phuket, Thailand to Bali for $75 per person.

Yes please.

A couple hours later, we booked two flights. The first from Thailand to Bali and the second from Bali to Cairns nine days later.

It’s a theme that’s repeated across southeast Asia. It’s on t-shirts, ads and written in chalk or spraypaint on bar walls: “Same same but different.” Indeed, every country we visited in this region was similar, but cultures and foods varied. Such was the case in Bali. Same same but different.

As mentioned, this Indonesian island is Hindu, unlike the Muslim country that surrounds it and Buddist leanings from neighbours to the north. This aspect sets Bali apart and gives it a charm that radiates from unique sculptures, carvings and statues.

People seem to flock here seeking a spiritual retreat. An embrace with a foreign spirit. Their own Julia Roberts moment from Eat, Pray, Love.

It is a very pretty place, even more so when you leave the bars full of drunk Aussies or the touristy centres selling touristy paraphernalia.

We began our trip in the beach town of Kuta. As Bali is so close to Australia, this is a major partytown for those from the land downunder. Sadly, this was also the location where more than 200 partygoers lost their lives in a terrorist attack nearly a decade ago. Bali’s tourist industry (an important economic engine for this region) is still recovering from this deadly attack.

After watching a beautiful sunset (above), we ate a dull meal (avoiding the “super happy mushroom pizza”) and retired in an incredibly mosquito filled room. Bugs had not really been a major problem on our trip, but for a night in Kuta we bathed in mozzie spray and left bug incense burning in our room as we went to sleep petrified of the malaria/dengue-laden bastards.

The next day a shuttle bus arrived 45 minutes late (“same same”) to take us to the town of Ubud. Popularized by Ms. Roberts, Sara described it best saying it was the ultimate destination for our mothers. If you’re looking to shop for art, neat little statues or other pretty things, Ubud is your place. There’s also some fancy spas and good restaurants geared towards the tourist crowd.

One of the most exciting places to visit in Ubud is the Sacred Monkey Forest. As the name implies, this temple sanctuary is filled with monkeys. When I say “filled,” I mean filled. These things are everywhere. It’s exciting because you’re constantly on edge thinking one of these creatures will jump on your back or stand on your head. At the same time, it’s pretty funny to watch this happen to someone else. Nevertheless, walking here I constantly think of one of these cute lil scampers lunging its jaws in my leg and humanity having to be saved by Dustin Hoffman.

The nice thing about Ubud is that you can quickly leave it and stroll through quaint rice fields and paths. And so this is what my lovely wife and I did, hiking for 14 kilometres outside the town, returning just as a rainy season downpour hit, sending us scurrying into a bar and washing the flowers on the sidewalk into the gutter.

From the full moon to the sea bottom

Rest and relaxation on the beaches of Railay had to end because we had to travel east. Ko Phangan to be exact.

Such is the site of the infamous Full Moon Party, an event that draws thousands of backpackers to this beautiful island in the Gulf of Thailand to party as though there may never be another full moon. (To keep the tourists coming when the moon is a sliver, there’s also half moon and quarter moon parties as well).

We figured we would probably never get another chance (or be at the right age) to enjoy such a party again, so off we went taking a bus across Thailand, spending a night in a shady hotel in Surrathani followed by an uneventful two-hour ferry ride across.

Rather than stay right at the heart of the party region, we stayed in a nice bungalow on the beach on the other side of the island. Here, we enjoyed a couple days reading, snorkling and sitting in the sun.

Beyond backpackers looking to party, celebrating the full moon is actually pretty important in Thailand. Before heading off to the festivities, we watched some locals lighting floating lanterns on the water while others sent them flying high into the night sky. Such a pleasent start to the evening.

By 11 p.m. we were sitting in the back of a pick-up truck flying across the rolling hills of this pitch black island. It took nearly an hour to get across and my hands were pretty sore from holding on to a bar along the ceiling. We eventually switched vehicles (our truck apparently couldn’t handle the last hills for some reason) and arrived at our destination.

It was a town overrun with backpackers. They seemed to flow from all directions covered in bright neon paint and bright neon clothes. In their hands were brightly coloured plastic buckets with four or five straws hanging out the side.

A word on buckets. Across Southeast Asia, Thailand specifically, they sell these things called buckets. Cheap and potent cocktails, these concoctions are the drink of choice for backpackers ready to party.

Want to make your own? Go to your local liquor store and buy the cheapest whiskey or vodka mickey you can find and dump it in a bucket similar to that you would use to build sandcastles at the beach. Next, throw in a bunch of ice, then a can of Red Bull or Coke (or both). Stir it around, throw in a handful of straws, and that’s it. You’re ready to take on the night.

Other useful ingredients include a giant bottle of water and Tylenol for the inevitable headache you will suffer the next morning.

These are sold everywhere at the Full Moon Party and generally cost under $10 each. We were told that it was best to get it made in front of you at a 7/11 as some shady places tend to throw in unwanted chemicals and scary substances.

Armed with our buckets, we steeled ourselves to celebrate the full moon on a beach packed with neon, bodies, music and fire. It was a gongshow. No doubt.

We had a good time at the party and were still dancing on the beach at 7a.m. as we watched a beautiful sunrise. However, I do not think I will return to see this messy spectacle again. Yet, it is a definite stop on the backpacker route and I am happy we can check this off the list.

***

After a full day of rest, we left on a rocky ferry to the island of Koh Tao. Here, we would embark on a four-day open water scuba diving course followed by an additional two-day advanced diving course (since we liked the first course so much). Sara has some interesting background about our dive school here (a tale of murder, might I add).

We are now certified to dive up to 30 metres deep and we have learned underwater navigation and experienced the thrill of night diving (something that still sort of terrifies me).

Learning to scuba dive was a definite turning point in our trip as we fell hopelessly in love with a new (and expensive) sport.

As part of our classes, we took a lesson in underwater photography. Naturally, I was quite excited about this. Underwater photography is tricky as you have much less light the deeper you go (the photos below are 24 metres deep) and getting a good photo can be hard when you’re trying to float completely still. It’s something I want to practice more. Below are a few shots from one dive in Koh Tao (and a photo Sara took of me on a second dive).

I turned around and there was Sara with her regulator out smiling at me.

 

C'est moi. Sporting some nice hair.