Langkawi and the Batu Caves

My next few days on Langkawi continued the pattern of lounging around and relaxing. I read some more books and headed to Underwater World an aquarium which started off not very good and got better. At RM22 (£4.50) for students the price was OK too. I also headed to a Reggae bar on the beach and a club where surprisingly as I am massively out of practice I was complemented on my dancing! The music was solid too. Not dance but more poppy music which I prefer. I don’t go clubbing that often – I can count the number of times on my trip on one hand but if you are with friends it is great fun (though as I want to have a real attachment to a woman it’s not my ideal place to pull women.).

After Langkawi I returned to KL which was fine though the bus trip was a bit dodgily organized so I had to buy the bus ticket twice. Only RM50 (£10) lost but still it’s not good.

After arriving into KL late I went to my absolute favourite restaurant (McDonalds) for dinner before going to bed. The next day after breakfast I headed by bus (which took seemingly forever) out to the Batu Caves. These are an awesome set of caves on the outside of Kuala Lumpur. The caves are a Hindu temple and have a giant gold statue of a Hindu god outside. The caves themselves are also impressive and absolutely massive and stretch up to the top of the hill breaking through into the jungle as well as giving a great view of KL. Unfortunately they are also very dirty and smelly and need more proactive clearance of rubbish. I also headed into the dark caves for an “educational” tour which was interesting and cost RM35 (£7). This contained lots of bats and other animals which live off the bat excrement including cockroaches that was interesting to see. We also got to learn about the beautiful rock formations in the caves and a temperature controlled “wind tunnel”.

After this I headed back to KL and went back to the Petronas towers to do a brief bit of book shopping and bought this weeks Economist (which has a very interesting article on the spread of English – EDIT: link) before heading to have dinner and watch Slumdog Millionaire. First though I had the most expensive meal I’ve eaten in Malaysia which was delicious Korean food. It cost RM17 so I would spend more than RM15 to get a free cinema ticket to see Slumdog millionaire. I did OK as the cinema would have cost RM8 otherwise. On the film itself I don’t know if it’s a true story but it’s an excellent and believable tale on modern India and love that is well worth seeing if you have the chance. The premise is a guy from the Indian slums beats lawyers and rich people to win 10 million rupees (about US$200,000) and the police don’t believe him as he’s uneducated. Of course coming from the slums exposes him to the “real world” more than the lawyers so not everything is against him.

Taj Mahal and Agra

On Wednesday I took a tour from my hostel to the Taj Mahal. We left early at 7:30am and made our way on the 5 hour bus journey to Agra. This was fairly uneventful if slow. I chatted to an Indian from Mumbai (Bombay) who spoke excellent English on the journey.

After arriving in Agra we first went to the very impressive Agra fort which was built around the same time as the Taj Mahal itself. Though the fort was actually built by four different kings and the Taj was built by a single king in the middle of this period. After this we headed to get some lunch and for a shopping opportunity where I got a marble Taj mahal model for 1100 rupees (US$23) – whether it is real or not I’m not 100% sure but as the tour was booked by the Indian YHA it should have been kosher (though actually there were some issues later). After this we headed to the Taj itself where we got to spend an hour looking at it’s stunning beauty. It actually really is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen and is up there with the Grand Canyon, Maccu Pichu and Iguazu Falls. The building is literally completely built out of marble and even after seeing all the photographs it still took my breath away. Even the gates surrounding it are impressive. We got views of it from far away and up close and even got reflections. We also went inside the maulsoleum itself to see the stone coffins inside. They are probably the only thing not built of marble.

The other interesting thing about the Taj Mahal was that even though it is a wonder of the world there were far less European and American tourists than at the other sites I mentioned. Probably even including the Iguazu falls which is far less well known than the other three. It wasn’t exactly unbusy though – lots of Indians had made the journey there. It was good that that didn’t spoil it however.

After this we headed back to the bus quickly but it was in vain and we managed to be first back (though it’s the Taj so I’m not convinced that is a good thing!) and we headed to the birthplace of Hindu god Krishna which was very interesting to see I also had some delicious warm milk and sweets before returning to the bus once more.

This time it wasn’t so great and we headed to a dodgy set of 5500 temples nearby. I went with the English speaking group and we were asked to donate large sums of money to the temple we were taken to. I basically told them to fuck off though not using those words so we didn’t lose any cash. What was more shocking was that the main group of Indians got this treatment which although this isn’t that dodgy as my experience in India went it’s something I’ve never experienced on a coach tour before in any country. Even the tour was fairy cheap at US$9.50 that is comparable to what Sinh Cafe charge in Viet Nam for one day tours and they offer far better service as they have more comfortable fully AC buses and give you loads of information enroute about Viet Nam as well. It was also booked through the Indian YHA so should have been 100% ledgitimate.

After this diversion we got back to Delhi very late and I only got a couple of hours sleep before my flight to Chennai in the morning.

Kinkakuju temple and the journey to Hiroshima

I got up at 7am on Saturday to head on the train to Hiroshima. It’s clear at this point that the New Year which is the Japanese equivalent to Christmas has begun and there is a lazy atmosphere in the air. First I headed to Kyoto station to leave my baggage before catching the slowest express bus I’ve ever caught which took 35 minutes to get to the shrine. The shrine was very beautiful and well set with a pretty lake in front of it however after a quick look around as there really wasn’t much to see I rushed back to Kyoto station (I got strange looks for walking at commuter speed through the rest of the shrine – hey I had a train to catch!) so I could get the Shinkansen to Hiroshima. I seemed to have bad luck with public transport today as I missed quite a few trains by a minute or less. I did even experience my first late train in Japan as well which was a whole 5 minutes late. The one behind was even worse at 15 minutes late! Outrageous. The Shinkansen from Osaka to Hiroshima was also even full in the unreserved section so I didn’t get two full seats to myself like I usually do and had to make do with only a single seat.

To avoid hypocracy I’m going to criticise the Indian trains in the same way that I critised the Japanese ones but so I don’t bore you like I did with bus-movies in New Zealand I’m going to do it in advance now. The Indian trains all suck for being at least 5 minutes late, it’s a disgrace.

Now I have something else to say about Japanese trains that the British actually do better. I’m deadly serious too.

Now you’re over the shock that Britain isn’t actually that bad with it’s trains I’ll tell you what it is. It’s the automated route management software that the ticket office access which doesn’t seem to easily allow you to compare train changing points on the Shinkansen as well as even a paper timetable. This means they didn’t recommend the fastest train yesterday and on Monday my journey back to Yokahoma will be 30 minutes longer than necessary. Oxford also does better with their automated display boards telling you which train to catch so you get to see what is the “next fast train” to your destination. This would be very useful at Kyoto for Shin-Osaka and Osaka for example.

Up the West Coast

So I’m now making my way fairly quickly back to Auckland. At this stage I’m wishing I had decided to fly from Christchurch to Auckland but I’m taking the train instead from Wellington to Auckland which I booked at the start of my time in New Zealand so i’m only flying from Christchurch to Wellington.

First I wanted to see the West Coast so I caught the bus up from Queenstown to Franz Josef glacier. This was uneventful except for the gorgeous scenery until 11am when we stopped for an early lunch and I had a “mutton” pie and water and the pie was literally the worst I’d ever eaten and reminded me of school dinners.

After that we went through some rainforest as we headed north which contained lots of beech trees, the whole area was what I thought northern Argentina would be like but obviously colder. At 12 noon we went to see a waterfall called the Thunder Falls and we got a new driver called George who was great fun. He discussed the insane rainfall on the west coast of New Zealand (the next land mass at this latitude is South America which is a *long* way off.) by talking about the rainfall and how his wife measured the rainfall in a recent afternoon and their had been 45cm of rain between noon and 6pm. Overall they have 6 to 9 metres of rain a year.

After the second lunch stop at 2pm at a salmon farm I had some lunch and saw the salmon swimming below us. To me it looked like seeing a battery hen farm which isn’t really what you want to think about. After this we got to Franz Josef at 4pm.

I’m heading out onto the glacier and seeing what there is to do in town and I’ll let you know more once I get to Toyko on Sunday where they have seen the light of having free WiFi available.

Mount Cook

So I got up ungodly early (6.30) and skipped breakfast for my bus ride to Mount Cook and once I got on the bus (I was the last one on) we headed off to Mount Cook. Additionally for once the bus had some interesting commentry so I can’t complain about the lack of entertainment on the bus. We stopped off on a few places along the way for photos on the way and got to Mount Cook at lunch time. This was also the first journey I got a good deal with my FlexiPass paying only £34 rather than £78 which is a 50% discount which you certainly can’t complain about! After arriving in Mount Cook I had lunch in the cafe before going to the Mt Cook Alpine Centre to see their great exhibition and film on Ed Hillary as well as a planetarium and the only view of the mountain I was destined to get on a 3D projector (I actually found that the mountain was supposedly clear at 7.30am the next morning while I was still asleep). After that I went on a quick walk before having a delicious dinner at a nearby restaurant (they don’t have cheap food here) before playing some gin rummy and going to bed.

The next morning I got up bright and early at 8.30am and went on a tour of the lake to see the nearby Tasmin glacier by boat. This was really interesting as the Tasmin glacier is very slow so is incredibly rocky and dirty on the surface. There were also a lot of large icebergs on the lake and I learnt a lot about both the icebergs and the glacier itself. We learnt about how the water at the surface attacks the ice because it is so “warm” (about 2 degrees) that it melts the ice – and this is a major cause of breaking the ice into smaller pieces. We even got to see blue ice above the surface which is usually only visible for a short time after the icebergs appearance above water as the sun turns it white in less than 30 minutes. In the afternoon I then headed back onto the tour bus to head to Queenstown for at least the next couple of days though I want to fit in an overnight cruise at Milford (thanks Tessa) and hopefully the gloworms at Te Ahunu too.

Unfortunately even though the weather was fine on the second day I missed seeing Mt Cook as I didn’t get up early enough but I do have some great pictures of the surrounding mountains which were still showing through the cloud a little after 7.30am.

Turangi and the Tongariro crossing

So I left Rotaruha early on Monday morning and headed further south on the bus. Finally on the bus we got to watch a movie unfortunately I got out before it actually started but I’m definitely requesting it on the rest of the bus trips.

After arriving in Turangi I went on a walk down the river. It took about 3 hours to go the 4 kilometres or so each way. On the journey I got really wet (probably wetter than that boxing day walk ;)) and so I really got to test out how waterproof my coat was. As my t-shirt was still mostly dry (I hadn’t had the coat fully done up all the time). When I got back from my walk I got a burger from burger king. It was pretty good and after eating that I set into watching some films at the hostel. Firstly I saw “Dan in real life” which was a romantic comedy about a columnist called Dan who lost his wife and then fell in love again with his brothers girlfriend. It also contains the most detailed description of love I have ever seen in a movie – good to see that taboo broken. It also breaks with the trend of romantic comedies in another way – it is actually funny and I laughed out loud on several occassions. It looks like that will be the Pat Levy award winner for this trip third. Then later I saw panic room which was great.

The next day I was planning to do the tongariro crossing. However it was apparently very windy and raining So after that I made the plan to go rafting but apparently the river was too high due to the rain the day before for it to be safe so I went off with a group from the hostel to attempt the first third of the crossing. Unfortunately although it was beautiful and sunny in Turangi it wasn’t on the mountain itself and was actually raining foggy and very windy. Still we nearly made it to the top in the fog which gave the landscape an eiree lord of the rings feel. After I got back I had some food and relaxed.

Then today I’m just waiting for the bus to Wellington. As it’s nice I might do another short walk.

Bay of Islands

I had a fairly lazy stay in the bay of islands actually and I didn’t do that much except wince at the food prices as every meal seemed to cost £9 which makes it more expensive than New York – of course now the exchange rate is approximately $1=£1 that is no longer the case but it was certainly true when I was there before the exchange rates went insane.

On the middle day I headed out into the bay on a sail catamaran which was great fun – the boat got really wet so it had to be dodged as we sailed pretty damn fast as the wind was strong. I also did some sea kayaking which was great fun around an island where we stopped for lunch and I also did some shoeless walking as the boat captain refused to bring my shoes over in his dingy and I didn’t want to get them wet in my kayak.

Then on the Thursday I caught the bus down towards Rotaruha – as usual the bus didn’t show a Hollywood movie – not even the Zohan and it also regularly stopped for rest stops rather than providing food and toilets on board. This is a total downgrade from South American buses.

Heading North

From Auckland I headed north of Auckland on the bus. Unlike the buses in south America they didn’t have Hollywood’s greatest on offer for entertainment and they also stopped the bus at a service station on route.

So instead of the low-brow film I get to talk about the book I read instead. I’m currently reading a book on Mathematical Finance (generally my absolute favourite topic) and randomness which is very interesting and it is called Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholad Taleb. It has a lot of relevence to the current financial crisis which is more interesting as the edition I am reading was published in 2004.

He made his money betting on random events occurring as even though he then took small losses in the steady markets he makes big in volitile markets. He also has an interesting view on Hedge Funds which are usually dispised that they are actually a good thing and show that the stock market isn’t rational. Basically he is saying that many investors (who I believe are primarily banks and pension funds so aren’t just investing the money of the rich) act stupidly and people are promoted because of knowledge of the current market that don’t take into account of bad events that aren’t occurring at that moment. Of course those things do happen and in the process banks lose hundreds of millions of dollars in a very short space of time. Maybe we need to put our money with banks who will invest it sensibly (and often conservatively, though he also says that risks are fine if you understand them.). To an extent I’d guess there is positive correlation with good customer service, though I’m sure it isn’t 100%.

Once I got off the bus my cousin picked me up and we went and did a few chores before having a nice dinner at home and heading out to a band launch and some other bars/clubs in Whangerai. The next day we headed out down the winding roads of the region to the excellent Kauri forest museum (the Kauri trees are massive New Zealand trees that last for thousands of years and are a bit like a redwood.) which talked about both logging and the Kauri gum trade which were at there peak at the start of the 20th century. The museum also had lots of information on logging and how the wood was exported, mostly to Australia, but also to Europe, Hong Kong and the Americas. The museum also showed some wood buried in coal for 20 million years that still had a wood-like appearance. If Kauri furniture could last even a fraction of that time it’d be seriously special. So after seeing that we had a late lunch before heading back to my cousins house. In the evening we watched Matrix Revolutions which was as shit and overblown as the last time I’d seen it. It also dragged on for hours meaning we didn’t get to bed until 1am.

Then on Sunday we headed out down more winding (and in cases non-tarmaced but decent roads) to take a look at both the biggest and second biggest Kauri trees which were massive. Something else I liked was that unlike the redwood they aren’t the only trees in the forest meaning you can get to see a good look at the scale of them. After that we headed to a forest lookout so you could see the unbroken canopy of forest of the region which although lots of logging has taken place the remaining forest isn’t broken into tiny pieces as it is in Argentina.

You may have also noticed that I haven’t talked about the culture in New Zealand compared to the other places I’ve visited. This is because the culture here is pretty similar to the UK. It is a bit more relaxed and trusting though.

The Rest of Arica and San Pedro

So on my last day in Arica I headed to a nearby archeological museum. To get there I cycled up the valley, which although the gradient uphill was subtle it was still hard work. Also I couldn’t get the highest gear to work which I usually use practically exclusively which slowed me down. The scenery on the way was also nice. The museum (aside from some noisy school children who I shared the museum with) was very interesting and had a full English translation.

Then that evening I caught the bus to San Pedro, the journey was more complex than I’d like as the police checked our ID and bags in the middle of the night.

After arriving in San Pedro I had a lasy day and saw their pre-columbian museum which was also excellent. Then the next day I went on a tour to the south of San Pedro and saw Flamingos on the salt plain which I have some great photos of, a pair of fairly saltly glacial lakes and part of the original inca road to Cusco (so if you had 3 months and a huge amount of water you could walk to Cusco) which was still a clear path through the desert.

The next day I went Sand boarding which is like Snow Boarding but slower and on sand (we went down a slope almost straight away which would definitely be a red run for skiing). I did fall over lots but am now unhurt but tired.

I’ve got some more time here in San Pedro to explore the nearby Geysers (but now we are on summer time you’ll leave at 3am!) and the nearby Moon Valley for sunset and possibly the nearby observatory if I go a day later to Iquipe and essentually miss it. Though money is a definite issue here, its almost as expensive as Oxford!

Arequipa again

After leaving Puno I spent a couple of relaxing days in Arequipa. I left there a day later than planned as the accommodation in Tacna was going to be really expensive so I stayed in Arequipa for an extra day. On Sunday afternoon I went to a food festival in Arequipa and tried stuffed peppers which is a speciality while I was there. Other than that I went out on Saturday night and lazed around the hostel.

On the bus to Tacna I saw the romantic comedy “Failure to Launch” which was predictable but still funny. I also saw the Cruz del Sur “tour Peru” (but just point the camera at the attractive female presenter) video that includes a detailed look at some inca baths the presenter in a bikini for the third time. Frankly I’m bored of it now. We did get to see Shooter which was a really good film.

After the bus arrived in Tacna I took a collectivo for the short trip across the border into Chile where I now am. Chile is much richer and nicer but also more expensive.