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Category: Adventure

Sambah River Cruise And Magical Fireflies

We booked ourselves for the half-day Sambah River Cruise tour which starts from the Kampung Bunga, Tenghilan jetty, about 40 minutes drive from Kota Kinabalu. We had to drive through…

We booked ourselves for the half-day Sambah River Cruise tour which starts from the Kampung Bunga, Tenghilan jetty, about 40 minutes drive from Kota Kinabalu. We had to drive through a local village to get to the jetty giving us a glimpse of what to expect during the tour. We arrived at a huge parking space and a small jetty with some seating space while we waited for the tour to start. In the next few hours, the boat will take us into secluded a water village, explore the life, sights, and sounds of rural living and witness colonies of magical fireflies twinkle in the darkness.

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The tour started at 430pm where we were all given life jackets before hopping into the boat. Our children, 5 and 2 years old (together with our friends and their three children) thoroughly enjoyed the boat ride with the refreshing breeze and occasional splashes into the boat. They roared with laughter every time they got a little wet!

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We arrived at Kampung Sambah, a water village inhabited by the Bajau community. We had a quick pit stop at the jetty for a quick bite of local traditional snacks – goreng pisang (banana fritters) and kuih pinjaram (sweet chewy cake that’s in a distinct green colour).

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This small village of about 200 villagers has only one primary school with an amazing student to teacher ratio of 18:12. We made a beeline to Sekolah Kebangsaan Kampung Sambah after the light refreshments. This small school has a tiny canteen, an English corner, an outdoor play area, a waste segregation shack, a manual water pump that draws water straight from the ground and beautifully decorated school grounds and classrooms. I was amazed at the upkeep of the school and was encouraged by the education opportunity children in this village were given.

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Just outside the school compound, children and youth gathered as they played in the evening cool. There were a group of boys playing football, and another group kicking the sepak takraw ball, and then there were a bunch of younger girls playing chase and cycling around. The atmosphere was one of freedom and simple joy!

We learned that Kampung Sambah is known for udang salai – smoked prawns. This is a local delicacy that is produced mainly in this village where river prawns are smoked for hours until they turn a nice tan brown colour. The taste is distinct and I’m sure will go very well with some sambal (chilli prawn paste) and white rice.

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We headed back to the jetty walking on raised wooded pathways connected to wooden houses. Children peered out from their homes offering friendly waves and bright smiles. Our tour guide pointed out to his house and beamed with pride as he continued to show us around his village.

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We hopped back into our boat just before sundown to a midway jetty where we stopped to have our dinner and tried our hand at fishing. We were each given a plastic ring with a nylon string twirled around it. At the end of the string is a weight and hook where a tiny piece of shrimp is attached. The children enjoyed uncoiling the string into the water and waiting for the gentle tug from the fish nibbling at the shrimp. My son, Seth successfully caught a tiny fish, snapped a photo of his first catch and gently released the fish back into the water.

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If fishing does not entice you, you can simply bask in a hammock and watch the sun come down while enjoying the gentle breeze. We had an early dinner around 6pm, where we helped ourselves to a simple spread of Malaysian favourites – stir-fry vegetables, spicy prawns, fried fish, fried chicken, fresh herb salad, and fruits.

As night fell, each family was given a paper lantern and some markers. We penned some words on the delicate lantern, lit it, waited for it to expand and released it into the sky. It was such a thrill watching the lantern drift into the darkness.

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The magic continued into the night as we hopped back onto the boat to look for fireflies. Our guide used an LED bulb to attract the fireflies and as we neared the colony, the fireflies lit up like a Christmas tree. Fireflies produce light through a chemical reaction (a process called bioluminescence) at the lower part of the abdomen. The beetle although small is not hard to spot especially when it is pitch dark. I’ve seen fireflies in Kuala Selangor (Peninsular Malaysia) but have heard that the numbers have dropped significantly. It’s no surprise as fireflies are a good indicator of a healthy habitat – which means that if we lose natural habitats like this connected mangrove forest, our friendly fireflies will also dwindle. Let’s hope they stick around for long!

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Fun recreational tours like this is an incredible learning getaway. Children can learn about the ecosystem and how human, wildlife and nature are dependant on each other. Here are the details of the tour:

Price: RM80 per adult / RM40 per child (inclusive of dinner)
Note: You will need to drive yourself to the Jetty. If you require transport from KK, there will be additional charges.
Duration: 430 – 830pm (approximately 4 hours)
Website: http://sambah.weebly.com/
FB: https://www.facebook.com/sambahrivercruise
Things to bring: Insect repellant, sunscreen, and water

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Glamping in Snowdonia National Park

Camping was initially on the cards when we planned our stopover at Snowdonia National Park, but quickly realised that most camp sites only rented out tents and sleeping bags – but…

Camping was initially on the cards when we planned our stopover at Snowdonia National Park, but quickly realised that most camp sites only rented out tents and sleeping bags – but we needed other camping essentials for a comfortable experience. With a four year-old and a one year-old with us, we decided not to rough it out in the chilly weather. Snowdonia is known to be cold with super strong winds. We needed to stay warm while having the thrill of being close to nature.

Without searching far, we found the perfect spot at Pant Hwfa Farm in one of their glamping bell tents. In case you haven’t already heard, “glamping” is the fabulous reincarnation of the classic camping experience without the need to pitch your own tent or set up your own rickety camp bed. It’s an ideal choice for those looking for a bit of a rugged experience without compromising on comfort.

We arrived at the farm passing through narrow countryside roads and up a hill slope overlooking acres of farm land. We found some sheep happily grazing and unperturbed at our arrival. Our bell tent opened into a spacious and well-designed space for our family. It had a queen size mattress and two single mattresses all fitted and complete with fluffy duvets, a drawer cupboard filled with proper cutlery, Dutch ovens, a portable stove, a kettle, picnic mats – practically, all the essentials you will need for a cosy stay.There was even an icebox to keep our groceries fresh, a big dispenser of drinking water, hot water bottles, throw blankets and leather cushions for seating. Just outside the tent is a fire drum for cooking and a table and bench with fairy lights for a meal out in the open.

On the evening of our arrival, the winds were so strong that we couldn’t start a fire outside, so we had to cook a quick meal of pasta and meatballs in the tent. Unlike dome or A-frame tents, the bell tent is massive and we did not need to bend over to walk or cook. The space was just right for our small family. We huddled together and slurped up the warm meal in minutes!

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That night, we filled up our hot water bottles and tucked into bed for an early night. The children snored off very quickly making a soft symphony in the quiet of the night. At 5am, I woke up and decided to take a peek at the night sky and was duly rewarded with star studded skies. The soft gentle wind in the stillness of the night was incredibly special, so special that I didn’t go back to sleep. Not long after Terence woke up and started a fire and we sat by the fire and waited for the morning sun to peak.

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By 6am, the birds broke out in singing, the crisp morning dew set in and the sheep started grazing again.

Then the children clambered out from their warm hiding and sat by the fire while roasting marshmallows as we cooked up some eggs and sausages for breakfast. Seth wandered off looking for branches and twigs to pick up while we cleaned up after brekkie, camping style – bucket and water system.
Then we settled back in the tent for some card games and slowly crept back into bed for a late morning snooze. What piggies! It’s rare to find holidays with no agenda but enjoy each other’s company and rest.

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We did some exploring around the national park that afternoon and in the evening we were back at our tent. We cooked a hearty stew in the Dutch oven and for supper, we sipped hot chocolate with our legs tucked into the duvet as we told stories to the little ones. It was cold and windy outside but we were warm and toasty – bliss!

Camping is awesome, but consider glamping if: 

  • It’s your first time sleeping out in the great outdoors 
  • If you’re traveling with young children  and you want a bit of comfort and convenience for your little ones. Camping is a wonderful way to spend time with the family. You can teach them about nature, how to start fire and make smores and how to cook a simple meal over the fire. 
  • The weather is not great and you need a snug shelter for the night but still be able to start a fire and do all things associated with camping. 
  • You’re traveling for a long period of time and don’t have all your camping equipment with you. Sometimes renting equipment can be expensive or you may not find everything you need. 
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River Wild Along Kinabatangan

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river…

As the sun peaks over the horizon and the mighty Kinabatangan river catches the first rays of sunlight, my three-year old son, Seth keeps his gaze steady scanning the river banks in a hunt to find the herd of Pygmy elephants that were last spotted a day ago grazing at the river banks. Our guide and spotter Jamil knew how much Seth wanted to see elephants and readily agreed to the elephant spotting hunt when we set off from Sukau Rainforest Lodge just before dawn that morning.

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The mist lifted from the face of the river and the riverine forest came to live. Egrets took flight in the air and the colourful stork-billed kingfisher awoke for a catch. The forest echoed a symphony of tunes from the low hum of the cicadas to the chatter of playful macaques. Then, we spotted the majestic hornbill flying overtop before perching on a faraway tree. Truly, this was the best wildlife playground for any three-year old – especially, for Seth who is crazy over animals!

The mighty Kinabatangan river stretches 560kms, starting from the Crocker Range in southwest Sabah and ending at the Sulu Sea southeast of Sandakan. It is the longest river in Sabah and is incredibly rich in biodiversity. It is perhaps the most sought after destination in Sabah to spot wildlife – more notably the Borneo Big 5; the orang utan, Pygmy elephant, proboscis monkey, crocodile, and hornbill.

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The best way to enjoy the river and her wild inhabitants is by boat. Every morning and evening we set out on safari trips in groups no bigger than 10 people. Small vessels with very quiet electric motors were used to explore the river as we snake into narrow waterways and into mangrove forests. We had cameras and binoculars ready at all times.

Our guide and boatman with laser-sharp eyes pointed to a dark speck on the big tree and through the binoculars, we saw a wild orang utan having his morning snack. Another time, our guide steadied the boat and pointed to the glistening eyes of a small crocodile. I caught a glimpse of it before it swiftly disappeared into the water.

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Traveling with a three-year old toddler and a three-month old baby was an adventure on its own. One time while on an evening safari, we felt a light drizzle starting. Within minutes, the drizzle turned into light showers and I found myself hiding under a raincoat with Seth at my side and Enya, my three-month old on my lap hiding from the rain. We waited patiently for the rain to pass and soon after we were rewarded with a scene of swinging proboscis monkeys and long-tail macaques who came out to play after the shower.

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Back at the lodge, we explored the jungle by foot on the 1,500 feet boardwalk in search of insects and small mammals. We waited for the resident orang utans to make an appearance and to our delight, we sighted two different orang utans during our stay. Our meals were served on an al fresco deck overlooking the river. It was also where new friendships were made as we exchanged notes with other guests on the day’s findings.

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In the dark of the night, after dinner, adventurous guests were given the option to go on another safari treat. It was too good to pass and Seth was eager as ever for another wildlife spotting hunt. The gentle motor boat sputtered on the shadowy river and our boatman scanned the jungle with his spotlight. We saw a kingfisher, a green paddy frog and a family of proboscis monkeys retired for the night. Yet, the most spectacular sight was when the boat came to a halt and the jungle stood still. The star-studded skies twinkled above as we trace our fingers across the milky way. I looked down and little Enya was fast asleep, lulled by the peaceful harmony of nature and the gentle rocking of the boat.

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After three days and two nights in this beautiful riverine jungle, we found it hard to say goodbye. Seth turned me as we were just about to leave and said, “Mom, I don’t want to go home. Can I stay?” There was good reason to stay as we did not see the elephants. In my effort to convince him, I told him – we will be back next time and hopefully, we will be able to see the mighty beast.

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Getting to Sukau Rainforest Lodge:

Treat yourself to a fine holiday at Sukau Rainforest Lodge, a member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. Fly into Sandakan airport and you will be transferred to the jetty where you will take a two-hour boat ride to the Kinabatangan River. This boat ride is a prelude to the adventure that awaits you. Wildlife spotting starts the minute you reach the river mouth. You will pass through small village settlements, oil palm plantations, mangrove and palm forests. The sight of proboscis monkeys is almost a guarantee.

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Cover Story For Malaysia Airlines Inflight Magazine!

It’s such a privilege to share this exciting news with you. After returning from my month-long TransSiberian rail adventure in August, I find myself re-living the holiday through writing –…

Cover Story 1_GoingPlaces_Nov15It’s such a privilege to share this exciting news with you. After returning from my month-long TransSiberian rail adventure in August, I find myself re-living the holiday through writing – mostly on blog posts here and some contributions on other travel sites. And this November, my feature article was chosen as cover story for Malaysia Airlines (MAS), Going Places in-flight magazine.

I’ve been flying MAS since I was very young and in more recent years I’ve realised that in-flight magazines are what I look forward to when boarding flights. Going Places has been a signature for MAS and I’m stoked to have contributed to its pages.

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The TransSiberian rail journey in itself is a lifetime experience. It crosses three countries; China, Mongolia and Russia and passes through five different time zones. Culturally, it is a robust experience, awakening every facet of your physical senses; sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. The real game changer for a holiday like this, is the people you choose to go with. I went with my husband and two-year-old toddler and they were fantastic travel buddies. We learned so much more about each other and about the world – the small train cabin forces you to be within close proximity. So choose your travel buddies wisely! 🙂

If you’re looking for a rich experiential holiday, take a read and decide for yourself if you’re up for a rail adventure of a lifetime.

The online version: http://bit.ly/GPTransSiberian

The November issue here:  http://bit.ly/GPnov15

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Terelj National Park: Explore Mongolia’s Backcountry

Why didn’t we visit Mongolia sooner and why didn’t we stay longer? Almost without fail, everyone we met while in Mongolia had plans to stay here at least two weeks…

Why didn’t we visit Mongolia sooner and why didn’t we stay longer? Almost without fail, everyone we met while in Mongolia had plans to stay here at least two weeks or more – some even up to a month! Initially, I was in disbelief – seriously, a month is a long time for one country, but it later evolved into an apologetic revelation with a regretful, “I wish I had planned a longer stay. I will come back for the Gobi desert, climb the Altai mountain range, bask at Lake Kovsgol, traverse Orkhon Valley”.

Safe to say, our experience at Terelj National Park remain one of the highlights throughout our TransSiberian adventure. Getting out of the city we passed undulating hills, plains flecked with gers and small country homes, and wild horses galloping in the distance with unrestrained freedom.

Trelj NP76We entered the national park after an hour plus on the road. I was looking forward to the seclusion and wilderness that it promised, but entering the park, I realised that this was a favourite holiday destination for locals – there were cars parked everywhere, holiday retreats on the left and right, gers made of brick and tour buses. After Naadam, locals made a beeline here for some rest. So, it’s not exactly off the beaten track. Thankfully, Terelj NP is massive, covering 1.2million acres of land – there is enough room for everyone to have their own open-plains experience.

The park is known for the gigantic Turtle Rock formation, named for its resemblance to a turtle. There are several monasteries within the park and we visited Ariyapala monastery. The climb up to the temple was unforgiving but the view at the top was well worth it. Inside the temple Buddhist monks sat crossed legged chanting almost in silent whispers, colourful flags danced to the gentle breeze and the wind chimes played a beautiful tune.

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Meeting Our Host Family

It was time to meet our host family, our four-wheel drive pulled into a small community of about five gers. Some horses grazing nearby against a mountainous backdrop. We entered into the family ger and felt immediately at home. The domed shape home was well lighted with natural light coming from the opening above, a sofa set, a tv, a few small cupboards and a small portable sink were lined neatly along its side. The centrepiece of the home as its kitchen, a wood-fire iron stove with a long chimney sticking up and out of the ger.

Trelj NP_iphone41Our host, Chan’gkhan (I think that’s how its spelt) was a pretty young woman with plump healthy cheeks and sparkling eyes is the mother to a one-year old boy and a superb multi-tasker. She cooks all meals, milks the horses every to hours, takes care of her son and ailing father and attends to all her guests. Her husband works as a horse herder and brings guests on horse riding trips in the summer. When winter hits and the tourist dry spell arrives, her husband travels to Ulaanbaatar and works in construction.

Trelj NP9During our stay, we were flanked with simple home cooked Mongolian meals. I had the privilege of helping and seeing how the meals were prepared. Fried meat dumplings called huushuur was my favourite. Light pastry with mutton, potato and onion filling deep fried to crunchy perfection. Huushuur is usually served with hot milk tea or a clear vegetable broth. We had man tou, a white flour fluffy steamed bread served with mutton soup.

Mongolia FoodMongolia food2Chan’gkhan offered us some mare’s milk, a sour fermented drink that tasted nothing like milk. I took a sip and politely declined seconds. We also had a steady selection of Mongolian tidbits – aaruul, dehydrated yak curds, hard cake-like biscuits and dried milk chips. It’s an acquired taste, I must say.

Mongolia Mares MilkAfter lunch, we walked to our ger about 100 meters from the family home. There were four single beds inside the ger each covered with pretty linen. Sunlight streamed in from above illuminating the beautiful hand-painted orange beams that held the ger in place. There was a small table in the centre and that was it. I appreciated the simple spaciousness it offered. But there was no electrical plug points, no toilet, sink or shower. It dawn on me that we were in for quite a camping experience.

Trelj NP_iphone6Trelj NP66Trelj NP64Trelj NP_iphone35The toilet was about 150 meters away where the horses grazed. There was a wooden box-like shelter that I thought nothing off, until I realised that that was our only toilet! I neared the wooden box and was already overcome by the strong stench – there was only two wooden planks over a deep pit and the only thing that seemed to be having fun were the flies! I made a mental note to avoid the toilet unless for emergencies.

Trelj NP_iphone33Besides the toilet conundrum, we had a wonderful stay. We went on horse riding trips and laughed when our horses had to stop for a wee and a poop. It wasn’t my first time riding a horse, but it was our first as a family and we enjoyed every moment of it – watching how Seth was completely drawn to every movement of the horse, patting the horse and saying, “You can do it!” and today, he sits on pillows and gallops away. Wonderful memories were made.

Trelj NP32We watched and marvelled at the strength of Chan’gkhan as she carried out her daily task. Every two hours, she would put on knee guards and with a bucket in hand she gets down and milks the mare. She makes grunting and hissing noises to coax the mare to let down while her father steadies the animal.

Trelj NP52Our days in Mongolia’s backcountry could not be a better introduction to the vastness and distinct culture and landscapes this country has to offer. We connected with a local family through our similarities of shared family value, our appreciation for nature and curiosity to learn about each other’s culture. Beautiful Mongolia could do with more marketing on an international stage, but somehow, I selfishly hope that Mongolia will stay a little less known because its rugged edge is what makes her special.     Trelj NP26

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Trans-Mongolian Rail Adventure: Beijing To Ulaanbaatar

After spending a week in Beijing, we were ready to escape the city’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility. Train tickets in hand, luggage in tow and the toddler in the…

After spending a week in Beijing, we were ready to escape the city’s hubbub for some countryside tranquility. Train tickets in hand, luggage in tow and the toddler in the sack, we headed to the train station. It was chaotic – mad crowds at every turn, trolley bags knocking on my ankles, people elbowing at my side in a hurried puff, the air was still and incredibly humid. We had to find the station’s entrance, but all signs were in Chinese. Then we spotted a queue with some Western travelers in the line. We promptly asked if they were heading to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia capital and they said, “Yes”.

The line steadily snaked in going through security and then into a large waiting hall. It dawned on me that this is IT! We are really getting on a train starting our Trans-Mongolian railroad adventure! One sure sign was seeing other western travelers with their huge backpacks and hiking boots on – the look of rugged travelers ready to embark on a great adventure.

TransMongolian7The gates opened and there before us, the familiar green train with the famous red star on its side. I’ve seen this train in pictures after many months of researching prior to the trip. We were on the right track. I looked around and saw people taking selfies. There was a tangible mutual excitement that lingered in the air – an anticipation that was almost forceful enough to push the train along with a chugga-chugga.

TransMongolian8Our train attendant was a stalky, middle-aged friendly chap. He checked our tickets and waved us in. This was the first overnight train of many to come as we were headed west straight to Moscow in the next few weeks. New to the whole train scene, we got into our cabin of four, with two bunk beds on each side, a small table next to the window and enough for two adults to stand side by side.

TransMongolian9We stored our luggages under the bottom bunk bed and stowed away our small backpack. Surprisingly, although the cabin may seem small at first sight, after keeping our bags, there was enough room to sit comfortably, even with legs outstretched. Every space and fixture in the cabin has been thoughtfully positioned – we had hooks for small towels, hangers for clothes, a little rack for phones or small items and in each carriage had two power sockets and a samovar for hot water anytime of the day. It’s especially convenient for making instant noodles and coffee.

TransMongolian10TransMongolian11TransMongolian3Since we bought second-class tickets, our carriage did not have air-conditioning. And the worst part was that the windows in our cabin was faulty so it couldn’t be opened. The small fan helped with circulation, but since it was summer – it got a bit hot and stuffy in the afternoon. We would escape to the first-class carriages (two beds per cabin with a cushy seating space) to enjoy some cool air. But as soon as we received stern stares from the train attendant, we exited promptly. We did this several times until the afternoon heat simmered down.

One of the best things of train travel is meeting new friends. Stuck in a small space, we’re forced to forge new friendships. We shared our cabin with Samantha, a young British girl who was also headed for Mongolia and she was going to spend a month in the country before moving onto South Korea. We exchanged travel stories and shared umpteen snacks.

TransMongolian5Not long after we departed, our train attendant (each carriage has one attendant) knocked on our doors and gave us clean bed sheets and duvet covers. Then he gave us two red and green tickets for lunch and dinner – we couldn’t contain our excitement! No where in the ticket did it say lunch and dinner was provided. We did not catch this information on any of the guides we have read – so it was a pleasant surprise.

What we found out after the whole TransSiberian experience was that Chinese trains offered the best food. Who can fault a Chinese cook with a belly sticking out and a towel around his neck? There was a fully equipped kitchen in the dining carriage and the wok was fired up at full steam. We had rice and celery chicken for lunch and rice and meatballs for dinner. Sadly we were too enthused with the food to take any pictures. It didn’t stay long on our plates.

TransMongolian12Eight hours down, 20 hours to go! We’ve explored different carriages, visited the loo several times, read a few stories to Seth, finished a few chapters in our books and popped way too many raisins and nuts. Surprisingly, we were not bored (yet). The novelty of sitting on the train still gripped us. I kept taking out my phone to capture the ever-changing scenery. The train meandered past valleys with towering mountains on both sides, farmers were seen herding cattle and sheep in wide open plains, we saw modest Chinese homes with unmistakable a-framed tiled roofs clustered in small communities and we tunnelled through mountains – and each time we did, the cabin was pitch black. Seth’s favourite was going through tunnels. He would exclaim, “Mommy, where are you?” with hands outstretched, “Daddy, are you there?” groping in the dark. He would snicker as soon as we exited the tunnel.

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Changing Bogies At The Chinese-Mongolian Border

Whether you’re a regular train passenger or not, one of the more unusual experiences happens at the Chinese-Mongolian border – Erlian. Here, the train’s bogies (wheels) have to be changed due to the different track gauges used by Mongolia and China railway networks.

We arrived at 940pm at Erlian, immigration officers entered our carriage to carry out customs and immigration checks. They take our passports and ask us to verbally state our names while looking at us with a steady glare. We were given a choice to remain on the train or alight at the station. Once you get off the train, chances are you will not return until after the bogies have been changed – the whole process took about two hours. Terence went down to get some snacks and ended up waiting. At the station there are proper toilets, an ATM machine and some shops for drinks and snacks. Most people alighted, but I stayed since Seth was fast asleep and I had secretly wanted to see how the bogies were changed.

Our train wheeled into a shaded platform where each carriage was raised, one at a time during the bogie change. Toilets on the carriage were locked and electricity was shut down. The bogies are then removed and new ones are replaced. Every time an existing bogie was removed from a carriage the entire train would shake violently. There was a lot of banging and knocking involved too! At some point I thought Seth would wake up crying because of the loud clanking but he slept through, even snoring at some point.

After an hour and more of ground shaking activity, the carriages are lowered back onto the track and we headed back to the station to pick up the other passengers. It was another 30 minutes wait before we got our passports back and then we finally bid goodbye to China.

An hour into the ride and just as we were about to settle in for some slumber, we arrived at Zamyn Uud the Mongolian border. Our jarring cabin lights flicked on, a smart looking lady officer with strong perfume and brightly coloured nails motioned for our passports. We handed it over and she stamped our customs declaration forms. The wait continued – another two hours on a stationary train waiting for our passports to be cleared. Alas at 315am, about six hours since Erlian’s border crossing, the officers returned to the train and handed back our passports. Our train chugged away into no man’s land and we sank straight into bed.

Good Morning Mongolia!

The air was cool and arid, our cabin door was still shut but outside I could hear children from the other cabin exchanging notes on Mongolia, “Dad, can we ride a horse? Do they have camels too?” “What do people in Mongolia eat?” “They look like Chinese, but they are not.” I chuckled under my sheets and thought, what an amazing country Mongolia is – even children are genuinely curious about her.

TransMongolian14The scenery had changed dramatically. I saw horses galloping afar, random gers dotted in the field, and we even passed some grazing camels. The morning has broken and the skies were the brightest blue with stark white clouds and the occasional majestic eagle circling the sky.

TransMongolian6TransMongolian2We made our way to the dining carriage to grab some breakfast and I was completely spell bound when I opened the carriage door. The dining carriage must have been changed at one of the border crossings and I was now staring at a Mongolian-furnished dining hall. Wooden furnishings of Mongolian instruments, bow and arrow and other hunting paraphernalia. Faces of ancient gods were part of the fixtures too. I could tell that every person who walked in for the first time was equally surprised. They had that “Wow” look on their faces, almost gawking in disbelief. We had some hot goulash and buns for breakfast and immediately missed the great Chinese food the day before.

TransMongolian1328 hours after we first boarded the train, we arrived in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. The day was incredibly hot, but a new country awaited us. We alighted with our bags and toddler in the sack and was greeted by a cheerful welcome from our hostel host. I love this country already!

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If You’re Gonna Travel To See A Wall – Make it This One!

As a Chinese, I’ve grown up with stories of the Great Wall. Although from a Chinese descent, China has always seemed like a foreign land to me. As a young…

As a Chinese, I’ve grown up with stories of the Great Wall. Although from a Chinese descent, China has always seemed like a foreign land to me. As a young girl, the little I knew about her was that my grandfather came from China many moons ago, that the Great Wall is one magnificent wonder I should not miss and that panda’s are still around, albeit close to extinction.

My grandmother used to tell me stories of her trip to ‘the’ magnificent wall. Over the years, I’ve laid eyes on many postcard-worthy photos and even watched documentaries with detailed facts from history. Instinctively, as I grew more passionate about seeing the world, the Great Wall was way on top of my bucket list.

THIS IS WHAT I CAME TO CHINA FOR!

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This timeless ruin completed in the Ming Dynasty to protect the Chinese empire from invasion against the Mongols is today one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Both a historical treasure and a man-made wonder, it is no surprise that thousands of tourists visit this site in busloads loads every day – yes, even in the thick of winter. One of the ways to beat the crowd is to get here early and to find sections of the wall that are least likely a choice mass tourists. The Badaling section is the most visited one out of the nine sections opened to tourists. We decided on Mutianyu to avoid the masses.

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Located 70 kilometres northeast of Beijing in Huairou County, the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is thought to be one of the best-preserved and longest sections of the wall. Since it is farther from the city, the crowds are less – but still we got there early, at 8am before the tour buses arrived at 10am.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu is 22 kilometres long and has 22 watchtowers – the highest of which reaches an altitude of 540 meters above sea level. Before we set foot on the wall, we had a choice to take the chairlift or walk the dauntingly steep stairs to get to the wall. We chose the latter without knowing that it would be that steep and got our morning workout sorted.

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The first sight of the wall was unforgettable – the famous grey stoned-washed walls with unmistakable parapets stood before us bearing proof that this was once a defence fortress, hence the challenge of getting up there. The wall’s pathways are wide in some areas and narrow and uneven at other parts. Tall narrow stone steps led to watchtowers and eventually to Tower 1, the highest of the 22 towers.

transsiberian_180transsiberian_191When we finally got to Tower 1, the crowd was more evident. Casting our eyes along the wall, we saw pockets of people mostly posing for a picture, taking jump shots, waving selfie sticks in the air and making slow ascend to different watch towers. A tangible sense of awe is in the air – it’s hard not to appreciate a man-made structure like this.

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According to history, during the initial stages of the wall built during the Qin Dynasty (way before the Ming Dynasty), bricklayers used glutinous rice flour as binding material for the wall. A more gruesome truth however, is that the Great Wall is synonymous to the ‘longest cemetery on Earth’. Human remains have been found buried under the wall according to leading archeologists. Many talk about the grand magnificence of the wall, but if the wall could speak, I am dead sure that it would tell of the millions of lives lost in the construction of it. Bitter cold winters, hazardous terrain and arduous labour contributed to tragedy. And today, many tourists – me included, stand in wonder of this piece of living history.

I echo the words of my two-year-old, Seth, “The Great Wall – very impressive!”.

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transsiberian_183IMG_0736I gazed out the window at Tower 1 and took in all that this place had to offer. There in my moment of silence, a strange calm came over. If only I could overnight here, I would – I’m sure my imagination and stories of the past would make great company.

Getting to Mutianyu

There are many sites that tell you how to get to Mutianyu Great Wall, but I found this one on China Highlights very practical and easy to follow. And if you can’t get enough of the wall or want to be the first early bird up on the wall, then staying at Mutianyu is the perfect option. The village at the foot of the Great Wall is an interesting one with many eateries, local guesthouses and tiny sundry shops. We stayed at the Brickyard Retreat and enjoyed unobstructed views of the Wall with complete privacy in our personal outdoor lounge.

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