Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Stone Forest

There's a good article in this month's National Geographic Magazine about the Tsingy of Bemaraha in Western Madagascar.

Tsingy of Bemaraha, Madagascar
'A city of limestone towers' 

It reminds me of our trip there in May 2008; I still have a scar on my arm as a souvenir ! To read the article see Living on a Razor's Edge - Madagascar's labryinth of stone. Here are some more National Geographic photos of Madagascar; like the one above they were all taken by photographer Stephen Alvarez:

'Vertical pupils identify a seseke, or leaf-tailed gecko, as a
nocturnal creature. Its camouflage works so well that the lizard
doesn’t hide during the day. It simply flattens itself against
tree trunks while waiting for darkness and insects to eat.'

'Spiny, drought-tolerant Pachypodium plants
also thrive in the tsingy’s top reaches.'

'Unexplored passages shelter some of the island’s—and the
world’s— strangest species, from the ghostly Decken’s
sifaka, a lemur, to a host of reptiles, insects, and plants.'

'Troops of Decken’s sifakas, found only in west Madagascar, cruise
the tops of the tsingy searching for food and evading predators.
Like other lemurs, they probably live in small family groups.'

'Fearless acrobat, a Decken’s sifaka leaps a chasm a 100 feet deep'

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  • Ile Sainte Marie - in 2004 we spent a week on this island off the north-east coast of Madagascar.

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Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Bali bliss

Bali figures as one of many peoples' dream holiday destinations, and we were no exception.

However as scuba-divers we chose to stay away from the more touristy areas (mainly in the South) and were near a a small town called Tulamben on the east coast, renowned for its diving. 

view from our accommodation

While Bali has many good dive sites, Tulamben in particular is renowned for the WWII wreck of the USAT Liberty which lies just off the coast. The wreck lies not very deep (>30 m) and is more than 100 metres long.

map of Bali showing some of its dive sites (from

ribbon eel and cornetfish

raccoon butterflyfish (chaetodon lunula)

Although most of our dives were off Tulamben we also went on a three-dive trip to Nusa Penida, off Bali's south-east coast, where we lucky enough to see an ocean sunfish, aka mola-mola, as well as some manta rays.

sunfish (photo from Wikipedia)
off Nusa Penida

We also took two days off from diving - one to explore the centre of the island in a car, and another day to explore east coast north and south of Tulamben on a scooter.

We had also planned to climb Mount Agung (3142m) but unfortunately the day we had picked (our last full day on Bali) there was a local religious festival which prevented us from climbing it.

view of Gunung Agung at sunset from our accommodation

Mount/Gunung Agung

On our trip to the island's centre we visited the Tirta Gangga (literally Water of the Ganges) water garden which is a beautiful complex of fountains and pools.

outside the water garden

Tirta Gangga water garden

Tirta Gangga water garden

Tirta Gangga water garden

We also went to Besakih ("Mother") temple, which is one of the largest and holiest temples in Balinese Hinduism. It's at almost 1000m altitude on the flanks of Mount Agung.

From where we had lunch afterwards we had a great view over Mount Batur (1717m) which is still an active volcano.

Mount Batur aka Kintamani

Bali is a very religious island, and we saw several festivals or people carrying offerings to their local temple.

en route for the temple

Sesajen (Balinese daily offerings)

Our trip up and down the east coast was interesting too

bridge guardian
We headed north:

luxury hotel north of Tulamben...

... where we stopped for lunch

and south, towards Amed:

near Amed

coast near Amed
where salt is produced.

cut-out trunks are used as troughs for salt evaporation

Our next trip, a few months later, was to Saipan, one of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Suggested reading for Bali:

Try Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. The Indonesia part takes place in Bali.

Finally, here's a short film by Bali resident Brian Dent about the "Big Cats" of East Bali. It won second place in the Ultra Short category of the Underwater Festival 2011.


Friday, 9 October 2009

Kim duk soo's Samulnori 'PAN'

'PAN' is a show combining Korean traditional performing arts: samulnori, mask dance, pansori, minyo and pungmul. I saw it recently in Seoul and it was great !

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Vladivostok To Moscow : Travelling Across A Quarter Of The Globe by Train

Pour lire cet article en français cliquez ici 

Walking down the street, I came face to face with a bus heading for downtown Seoul. As I live in Seoul you might think that's normal – except that I was in Vladivostok, city at the start of the legendary Trans-Siberian train route ! 

Its proximity to Korea and Japan mean that most of Vladivostok's vehicles are imported from these countries (in the latter case it leads to right-hand drive cars driving on the right-hand side of the road.

Vladivostok port (home of Russia's Pacific fleet)
After three days exploring the city which was forbidden to foreigners until 1991, my husband and I went to the station to discover the train in which we were going to spend the next 70 hours non-stop as far as Irkutsk, our first stop.

Vladivostok station

We had two months holiday to look forward to, and the first two weeks would be spent travelling the Trans-Siberian across Russia, back to Europe. By the way, there's no regular train called 'The Trans-Siberian' (which is the common term for the train route), rather a series of working trains that run east- or west-bound all or part of the way between Moscow and Vladivostok. 
We soon settled into life on the train. Trans-Siberian trains are comfortable rather than luxurious. 

compartment interior

carriage corridor

Time passed reading, watching the view, eating, watching the view, listening to music, watching the view, and learning to decipher the Cyrillic alphabet in order to read station names. 

typical view from the train

Ulan Ude station

(As non-Russian speakers we'd used the services of a specialised agency to book the train tickets and hotels, but once in Russia we were totally independent). We also spent a lot of time adjusting our watches as the train travels through seven time zones - but all the timetables run on Moscow time. This often led to some complicated mental arithmetic !

We travelled through mile upon mile of steppe and taiga, past villages whose average January temperature is -33°C. Contrary to popular belief, however, summer in Siberia is scorching. In these conditions it was difficult to believe that the tipsy-looking telegraph poles we saw were caused by year-round permafrost.

Our ablutions (shared 'bathroom'; no shower, no hot water, no sink plug !) were both gymnastic and perfunctory. Feet braced against the train's rocking, you had to avoid your personal belongings falling down the toilet hole, all the while holding the hand basin's tap down with one hand to extract a trickle of cold water. And beware of needing the toilet at the wrong time – they were closed for thirty minutes before and after all stops … I enjoyed descending from the train whenever our provodnitsa (carriage attendant)


allowed us to, getting some exercise by walking up and down the platform during short stops. I think I gave my husband a few grey hairs as I was invariably the last person back on the train before it moved off again with no warning !

Thanks to the samovar in every carriage 

carriage samovar 

and its unlimited supply of hot water, our diet was very varied in the train … it varied between instant noodles, instant pasta, instant mashed potato … . Although there is a restaurant wagon on every train our initial trips there didn't make us want to return. At our stop-off points (Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Yekaterinburg) food was delicious : omul (a fish only found in Lake Baikal), pelmeni and vareniki (types of filled dumplings), blinis, borscht all washed down with kvas (a summertime beer-like brew made from fermented bread, yeast, malt sugar and water), and the occasional vodka. On train platforms we bought home-grown cucumbers, boiled eggs and juicy tomatoes from wrinkled babuchkas.

train platform seller
(but not a wrinkled babuchka !)

Irkutsk, a former Siberian exile point, is now a gateway to the beautiful Lake Baikal, 64 km away, where we enjoyed scuba-diving in water at 4°C! 

Lake Baikal

In Irkutsk we also came across the first Western tourists we'd heard since we'd left Seoul six days previously. 

Back in the train for 'only' thirty hours, 

our next port of call was Novosibirsk, Russia's geographical centre and the sprawling capital of Western Siberia. 


Later, a trip of only 21 hours brought us to Yekaterinburg for a day, infamous as the place where the Romanovs were murdered, where we straddled the Europe-Asia boundary marker.


Twenty-six hours later, after travelling through the Urals we arrived in our final Russian destination of Moscow, where we spent several days visiting in the company of a Russian friend – including the wonderful Bolshoi Theatre. 


St Basil's, Moscow

Moscow subway

All too soon it was time to move on to the next leg of our journey – unfortunately by plane !

The next trip we made in Asia was to Bali.

This article was originally published in SIWA's "Discovery" magazine (October-November 2009 issue).

Vital ? Statistics 
· Russia is the world's largest country – twice as big as the USA.
· The Trans-Siberian runs 9289 km from Vladivostok to Moscow, making it both the world's longest train route and the longest domestic train route.
· Non-stop, the train journey lasts 146 hours. 
· More than 30% of all the world's trees grow on the Siberian plains.
· Lake Baikal is the world's deepest, biggest lake, with 20% of the world's fresh water.
· The train's average speed is just 69 kmph (43 mph).

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