December 2016 - January 2017
  • Day13

    Guangzhou stopover

    January 6, 2017 in China ⋅ ☀️ 25 °C

    We land in Guangzhou after a long thirteen hour flight from Amsterdam. It’s 6:30am and we don’t depart until 9:30pm tonight. Fortunately, as Australian passport holders we are among the nationals of some fifty countries who can enter Guangzhou visa-free for up to 72 hours if he hold a boarding pass or ticket for an onward flight. Our baggage has been checked through so all we need to do is walk to the customs counter, handover our passports and boarding passes, and obtain the necessary entry stamp into China.

    I thought I would feel discombobulated at the sharp transition from Western Europe to China. Perhaps it’s a sign of the way I’ve adapted over the past few years of travel because I feel immediately at home. We easily navigate the metro into the city and find our way around without any hassles. It does help that Guangzhou is a tourist-friendly hub where signs are often written in both Chinese and English. But still, I would have anticipated some sense of momentary discomfort being in China. That said, we have now spent a lot of time in Asia and many things that we see, hear, smell and taste are consistent across Asia.

    We take the Metro to Yuexiu Park and turn right out of the station to walk to Liuhuahu Park with its massive lakes. It’s Saturday morning. The perfect time to watch local Guangzhou residents socialising and practicing their hobbies. Tai chi seems to be a favourite. It brings back memories of my previous visit to China in 2009 when I would sit and watch the locals practice tai chi in Shanghai.

    It’s not just tai chi that’s getting a run here though. Badminton and table tennis are also incredibly popular. Just as we have basketball courts, football fields and cricket pitches in Australia, Guangzhou has table tennis tables and badminton courts in the park. The matches look serious. Shuttlecocks and ping pong balls zoom through the air at barely perceptible speeds. No wonder the Chinese perform well in these sports at the Olympic Games given that this is just amateur hour on a Saturday morning.

    There’s plenty of ballroom dancers in the park too. They cha cha, rumba and waltz to music blaring from boom boxes of all shapes and styles. I feel happy just watching them. It’s like going to a dance concert for free in the park. And the dancers all look happy.

    The most captivating group, though, is the choir. It looks almost impromptu but obviously the group comes together here regularly. The choir mistress guides the singers through a long playlist written on large sheets of paper that she turns over as each song ends. Each time we pass the choir (for we do go back a few times), it grows in size and volume. One man near the back (off camera) is always the loudest. He has the biggest smile despite not having the most tuneful voice (to my ears).

    The park isn’t just for organised recreation. It’s also a place of relaxation and beauty. People walk, play with their children and sleep in the park’s different “rooms”. There’s open areas, bonsai gardens, tall tree lined paths and pagodas. You just need to chose what you feel like experiencing or walk through the whole lot.

    Half the park is closed during our visit in preparation of the Lunar New Year celebrations later in the month but still there’s enough here to keep us occupied for about four hours.

    We retrace our steps to the Metro and travel into the heart of Guangzhou, changing lines to travel to Beijing Road Station. Beijing Road is the main shopping and pedestrian street in Guangzhou. It’s busy but calm. And it’s where life takes place. Tourist buses mingle with motorcyclists carrying heavy loads. Shoppers mingle with tourists. Traditional eateries meet Starbucks.

    We start with lunch at a small restaurant packed with Chinese people. It is just one of a small row of restaurants in a lane way of Beijing Road. We chose it because there’s not a seat nor white tourist in the house. That’s always a good sign. There’s a large menu but a small selection of items are described in English on a wall in the back of the shop. A table leaves as we order. The food is delicious. And at $3-4 a serve it’s also easy on the wallet. We eat and watch the goings on around us.

    Beijing Road turns out to be a good choice. We walk around just watching people, taking in the lanterns and posing for pictures with the statues. The Astro Boy is in front of a whole shop dedicated to the cartoon series. Children laugh and play in the mall. Parents talk together. Elderly men and women sit watching. There’s a few touts trying to sell tourists fake Rolex but for the most part we are left alone to wander.

    The Big Buddha Temple is a stark contrast to the city around it. It’s old (900CE from memory) and peaceful. We have arrived for a prayer festival but still can walk around to experience the grandeur. It’s different from the Buddhist temples in Thailand and Cambodia. It’s less gaudy in decoration being mostly wood and stone, rather than bright gold and mosaics. That said, there’s still incense sticks (you may not light them in the temple though – they have to be burned in a specific area off to one side). We love temples so this is a good find.

    By the time we get to Gongyuanqian Station we are quite tired. We only manage a short foray into the People’s Park with it’s pretty flowers, tai chi, badminton, music and dancers. We decide to catch the Metro straight back to the airport.
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  • Day12

    Rotterdam

    January 5, 2017 in the Netherlands ⋅ ☀️ 3 °C

    We arrived in Rotterdam last night and were immediately welcomed by my Mum’s cousin (P) and her family, including my great aunt and great uncle. This is the Indonesian side of my family and I am at once struck by the strength of the Indonesian culture of hospitality and good cooking. We visit Tante (Aunty) E for dinner and she has cooked up a serious storm. A storm that is enjoyed with lots of stories and laughter. It’s my second time meeting Ome (Uncle) C and Tante E but I can’t recall the first time – that was about 25 years ago at a party. It’s amazing to be surrounded by family including Mum’s cousins and their families who have also come for dinner.

    By the time we wake on our final day in The Netherlands we are refreshed and ready to explore Rotterdam local style. P and her husband (M) have kindly taken time off work to show us around their city. We came to Rotterdam for a day last year but didn’t make it past the Maritime Museum and Market Hall so we are excited to see something more of this famous Dutch place.

    The first thing that strikes me is just how important shipping is to this port city. P works at the port so she is a wealth of information. But even without that it’s obvious that the people of Rotterdam are closely tied to the sea. There’s all sorts of boats here from canal barges to luxury yachts. There’s even the obligatory sinking boats filled with water rotting away. And all of this right in the heart of the city, not tucked away out of sight in some industrial or seaside area.

    Rotterdam is also obviously a city with a sense of humour. The Buttplug Gnome is actually meant to be a tribute to Santa Clause holding a festive bell. It may have caused outrage with the far right of Dutch politics but it is still standing with no indication it is going to be pulled down anytime soon. M proudly shows it to us with a Cheshire cat grin on his face waiting to capture our reactions. Only in The Netherlands …

    We continue to explore the city on foot. P and M know all the prettiest places to walk. There’s some green space along a canal with older style mansions and churches on the opposite bank. I could walk here all day and can imagine it being lovely for picnics in the summer months. Make sure you picnic on the far side of the canal though because a tram track runs on the city side. I will miss the historic architecture of Europe when I return home.

    M points out the Pauluskerk (Paul’s Church). This famous building is a place where people who are homeless or addicted to drugs can come for help. It is located almost in the heart of Rotterdam and has an architectural design that is impossible to ignore. I like the juxtaposition of this loud building with the way Western societies like to hide the reality of homelessness and drug addiction. It cannot be ignored when a place so linked with these circumstances is so clearly identifiable.

    We walk past the casino. It looks like a modest building. I am struck by the lack of fanfare here at the entrance. And also by the museum pieces in the window. I rarely gamble putting maybe $30 a year through pokie (slot) machines a year and never buying myself a lottery or scratch-it ticket. My work colleagues jokingly tell me that this is because I am Dutch and don’t like to part with my money. P and M also joke that they do not really like to gamble either. The museum pieces are interesting though. Particularly for me as an Australian where pokie (slot) machines are a dangerous hobby that ruins many lives.

    It’s late afternoon now and we are almost back at the car park. Our final stop is the famous cube house complex. We saw it on our way along the canal this morning but are now walking through the complex. For three Euros you can enter one of the houses. Inside the houses are larger than they look from the outside. And, yes, the floors are flat, not sloping. The design is almost a perfect use of every centimeter of available space. While it’s certainly in the style of tiny house living, it’s not cramped. It’s quite incredible really how we are so used to a certain design of house that our minds take a little while to adjust to the concept of these cubes. But I certainly think they would make fantastic living spaces, particularly with the convenience of being in the city centre.
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  • Day11

    De Haar Castle

    January 4, 2017 in the Netherlands ⋅ ⛅ 5 °C

    A castle has existed on this site since 1391. As is the story with many castles, fire and war damaged the castle over the centuries. It passed from family to family and generation to generation until, finally, in the late 1800s the castle was handed down to Etienne Gustave Frederic Baron van Zuylen van Nyeveldt van de Haar. The castle was in great disrepair at that time but, fortunately for us, Etienne married Helene de Rothschild of the famous and rich Rothschild family. As a result he came into money and engaged Pierre Cuypers as his architect to rebuild the castle. Etienne and Helene have passed away. Their daughters inherited the castle but couldn’t afford the hideously expensive upkeep and inheritance tax so passed ownership of the castle to a foundation tasked with its upkeep. They still have the rights to stay at the castle in September each year.

    The castle and its grounds are so beautiful that no words are required and I’ll leave you with the photos.
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  • Day10

    Leeuwarden

    January 3, 2017 in the Netherlands ⋅ ☁️ 5 °C

    Leo from Couch Surfing has kindly invited us to stay with him for a couple of nights while we’re in The Netherlands. He lives in Leeuwarden so that’s how we come to spend a day exploring the capital of Friesland. Our connection with Leo started after Paul put up a public trip to The Netherlands on his Couch Surfing profile. Leo made contact with us and said that if we plan to be in Leeuwarden we can stay. That’s all the encouragement we needed to make plans to be in Leeuwarden. We arrive last night after our day in Westerbork and feel instantly welcome. And it’s also a chance for us to experience a snippet of life inside the windows of the older style Dutch homes we pass when walking through cities. The kind with the large windows and high ceilings.

    Leo has already left for work when we wake. He’s left us a spare key so we can come and go as we please. We decide to have something of a rest day that begins with a walk to the bakery and supermarket for fresh bread and ham. Leo has left some for us but we particularly want the experience of walking to the bakery to choose our own bread. There are so many types of fresh bread available here and we just don’t have the same choice at home (actually, the fresh bread at home is totally different to the light fluffy fresh breads in The Netherlands)

    Leeuwarden is beautiful. We stop often to take photos of life on the canals. There’s a range of boats and, as with every watery place I’ve traveled, fishermen. The city is old but also modern. The buildings and facades date back centuries but the shop fronts are contemporary. This is clearly a regular city, not a tourist town. It’s refreshing to be in a place like this where there are no tourists carrying Lonely Planets racing from one “must see” to the next. A place where the atmosphere is just normal not aimed at getting cash from our traveling wallets. Bikes are parked along the canals. Cars line the streets. And old buildings watch it all.

    Our find for the day is the PoesPas Cat Cafe (address: Noordvliet 11). We are both a bit thirsty and keen for a hot chocolate so start to look for a cafe. As fate would have it, the one cafe we pass is PoesPas. You are supposed to book but it’s a quiet day so we can enter. There are about six cats living here in this space. They are obviously much loved and rule the space. The cats walk on tables, play on climbing gyms and can also take a break by retreating to a quiet area away from the guests. It’s a cute place to stop for a while (unless you dislike cats  ).

    Given that it’s our second night at Leo’s house we decide to cook him dinner. We buy some groceries and cook up a Dutch dish: huttspot(carrot, onion and potato mash) with meatballs we bought from the butcher shop. Then we spend the night chatting with our host, sharing stories of our respective travels and homes. It’s the part of Couch Surfing that we enjoy the most. That and learning new recipes (we learned one from Leo last night).
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  • Day9

    Westerbork Transit Camp

    January 2, 2017 in the Netherlands ⋅ ⛅ 3 °C

    We drive to the Westerbork Transit Camp Memorial. The camp was originally a refugee camp for Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, the Nazis took the camp over and transformed the once safe-haven into part of their regime of reign of terror. Gypsies and Jews from all over The Netherlands were rounded up and sent to Westerbork for transportation to concentration and death camps further east. Approximately 120,000 people were transported through Westerbork by the Nazis. The most famous of these was Ann Frank who was among the 60,000 people transported from Westerbork to Auschwitz-Birkenau near Krakow in Poland.

    Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, the original camp no longer stands here. But there is a moving open air memorial and a museum. The memorial is a public space that can be accessed for free by walking along paths through the woods from a nearby carpark. However, you have to pay entry to the museum, which includes access to a shuttle bus to the memorial (cars cannot travel the road to the memorial itself). The 2km walk from the carpark through the woods is pretty and (being The Netherlands) flat.

    It’s a cold and bleak day. We leave the warmth of the museum and make our way to the memorial. The first thing that strikes me are the two railway carriages. Identical to those we saw in Auschwitz-Birkenau last year the sight of these carriages fills me with a sense of the horror that awaited those who transited through this camp. Not only does it make me think of what we saw in Auschwitz-Birkenau last year but now I also think about the long journey those who were sent there had to endure. Krakow is a long way from Westerbork. What makes this memorial even more moving is the roll call of the names of all the prisoners who were transported. You could probably stand here for a whole day and not hear them all.

    Stones have been laid here to honour each of the individuals who transited through this camp. Almost all were murdered by the Nazis. Some died on the long train journeys, others of malnutrition in concentration camps, some by being shot and many in the gas chambers. Photos between the stones show the faces of Jews and Gypsies. It highlights the inhumanity that was shown to ordinary children, women and men who’s only crime was to be born into the wrong religion and the wrong place and time. The same crime committed by the Syrians and other refugees in the world today who are fleeing torture and death in their home countries.

    Large coffins representing each of the camps to which Jews and Gypsies were sent line a pathway. Each names the respective camp and has inscribed the number of people who were sent there. The numbers are too large to comprehend. All are in the thousands. Some in the tens of thousands. It’s sobering and sad.
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  • Day8

    Coevorden Castle

    January 1, 2017 in the Netherlands ⋅ ❄️ 1 °C

    My godparents have reserved a table at the Coevorden Castle for dinner. I am castle-crazy so to have dinner in a castle is pretty amazing. The food tastes great and the company (my godparents and Paul) is even better. After dinner the staff let us explore the castle unguided. It’s mostly set up with various banquet and dining areas. But it’s still very much a castle.

    And then we step outside to discover it has started to snow. The only thing I’m crazy about more than castles is snow. We rug up and walk home in the snow. It’s perfect. The village is gorgeous. And it’s quite romantic … especially watching Paul speak with animation to my family. What a way to start 2017!
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  • Day8

    Ganzeduik

    January 1, 2017 in the Netherlands ⋅ ☀️ 1 °C

    Around 1pm we head off to theGanzenduik (literally translated to Goose Dive). We walk there through the village. There’s lots of people at the pond where we will be taking our icy cold plunge. The air temperature is 1.5’C and the water temperature is about 3.7’C. None of my family are joining me in the traditional New Year’s Day swim but I’m not about to miss out on the fun. I did the same thing last year but the air temperature was 6’C then.

    My costume isn’t anywhere near as good but by coincidence the hat and bow tie I won in the present game last night match my swimming shorts, making it look like I planned my costume.
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  • Day7

    New Years Eve in Coevorden

    December 31, 2016 in the Netherlands ⋅ 🌫 2 °C

    We arrive in Coevorden just in time to walk from my godparents’ house to my cousin’s house. My cousin’s wife is cranking out the fresh home made ollie bollen like a champion. They taste as delicious as I remember from last year.

    My cousin’s kids and their friends are lighting fire crackers in the street. They are young but the fire crackers are less insane than those we will fire off at midnight. The kids are loving it. It’s our second New Year with them in a row and the kids are now talking about “Paul and Andrew who come every year”. It’s adorable.

    We head back to my godparents’ home for dinner. My cousin, his wife and their kids come too. We sit in front of the open fire chatting. There’s a year to catch up on. The kids gently correct my Dutch when I use the incorrect words or grammar. I appreciate the help.

    The kids go to bed and we play a present game. It’s odd to have gifts on New Year but in Holland gifts aren’t usually exchanged at Christmas so it makes sense. The game is a laugh. We have dice and cards that dictate what we can do with the gifts we select. Everyone has bought three gifts valued at about three Euros each. We select and unwrap gifts according to the cards and dice. We also swap and steal gifts according to the same cards and dice. Three hours pass and we end up with a selection of gifts each. It’s all random fun and we’ve laughed our guts out.

    And then it’s time. The clock strikes 12 and it’s hugs all round. Outside the fire works have begun. Last year we stood in the street where there were lots of young people but this year we’re in my godparents’ backyard. The difference is that it’s less scary and more enjoyable. There’s little risk tonight of fire works hitting us if they go wrong. And we can duck inside when it gets too cold. It’s a blast (no pun intended). We stay out in the cold as long as we can keep our eyes open and then we climb the stairs to our bedrooms (yes plural). My godparents have bedrooms for their grandkids and tonight that’s where we will sleep – each in one small child’s bed (the children are not there off course).
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  • Day6

    Brugge

    December 30, 2016 in Belgium ⋅ 🌫 0 °C

    Clip clop clip clop. The sounds of horse drawn carts greets us as we walk out of our hotel onto the wet cobblestones of Bruges. 

    We start our exploration in the Market Square with it’s gorgeous architecture. The shape of the shop fronts is emphasised by the bright colours. Its particularly stunning given the grey skies and freezing cold air. The only thing missing is snow.

    Our walk takes us past some incredible gothic architecture. Like this building in Jan van Eyckplein (Jan van Eyck Square). I can see why cousins were so insistent we visit Bruges . There’s not a dull corner or square to be found here. It’s all immensely impressive.

    We walk down small steets near the outer edges of the old city. Buildings that look like old farm houses sit here marking times gone past. The windows typically have stained glass panes and brightly painted shutters. The Folk Arts Museum is located in this area. It’s well worth the visit with each room representing a different aspect of life in Medieval and 18th Century Bruges. I am particularly fascinatd to learn that the smoking of cigarettes was introduced to Europe after Columbus’s journeys to the Americas. The guy who first introduced smoking to Europe was jailed for seven years as a witch. Unfortunately for society after his release smoking took off and has been killing people ever since.

    We almost have to walk just to stay warm. Even though we’re well dressed, this is weather for sitting by a warm fire. The cold and mist does add atmosphere to the architecture though. Especially the Harry Potter-esque guild building. And the brightly painted “modern” residences, which reflect beautifully on the still canal water. We are still not used to the near-perpetual sunset effects of the light with the sun sitting so low in the sky. I think this is part of what I like about winter in Europe – the colours brought on by this low sun.

    All that’s left to do to end our walk is to indulge in a fresh Belgian waffle with melted Belgian chocolate. We warm up in our hotel room revelling in the taste of our first Belgian chocolates bought right here in Bruges before hitting the streets for a wintery evening walk in the chill air.

    We wake to clear skies and a crisp clear winter’s day. Where yesterday felt cold, today feels joyful despite the cold temperatures. We set outside and the city looks even more gorgeous than it did yesterday. Here we are in the middle of Bruges with a whole day stretched out ahead of us to enjoy.

    Our first stop is the cathedral precinct where tall spires stab the sky. The Church of Our Lady Bruges looks closed and there’s a sign about buying tickets at the hospital museum across the lane. I’d read that the hospital museum could be interesting so we buy over priced tickets. We will learn throughout the day that the museum curators of Bruges are old-fashioned and still believe dumping a heap of barely curated oddities in a space is acceptable in the twenty-first century. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by some of the more modern museums we’ve experienced in The Netherlands, Poland and South Korea. After this visit to the museum we decide not to bother with any other museums and just to enjoy cathedrals, castles and open spaces. Fortunately, there’s plenty of those to enjoy.

    The Church of Our Lady of Bruges is partially open and entry ends up being free (tickets will be sold after the renovation is completed though). The church is a mix of peaceful and hectic, as are many major religious spaces we’ve visited. The faithful pray. Pilgrims kneel. Tourists click away with their cameras and smart phones. And the stained glass windows continue to watch on as they always have.

    We walk through Oud Sint-Jan. It’s crawling with tourists carrying Lonely Planet guide books. That is a sight we will see all day here as it is the winter high season. The apotek (pharmacy) museum was included in our hospital museum tickets. The apotek is interesting but again there are irrelevant displays mixed in here, making for a confused experience. We spend more time trying to take photos of the courtyard through the windows of the museum.

    The Cathedral of St Salvador is our next stop. Again, restoration work is underway but still the cathedral is stunning. We ooh and aah our way around. I light some prayer candles and we buy a candle made by a refugee. This is the common theme here in mainland Europe – the refugees. From what we have seen, the anger against them has eased and a more humanitarian approach is being taken by those Europeans we speak with. Everyday people tell stories of visiting refugees in their local areas to help them complete paperwork, learn language and engage with culture. Everywhere there are small stalls selling items to raise money to help the refugees. And some houses even have stickers on the windows advertising that they will accept refugees into their homes. It’s refreshing to see and hear after all the negative press the refugees get at home in Australia. Every time I travel to Europe or talk about it people say “but aren’t you afraid of the refugees” or “you can’t go there because of the refugees”. But here in Europe, in the thick of the crisis, solutions are being found, especially as the refugees’ stories are learned.

    Leaving the church we walk to the Beguinage. The walk takes us near the train station where massive tour groups follow flag-carrying guides briskly into the centre of Bruges. I feel immediately exhausted as we try to wind our way between the groups. They’ve paid lots of money to be guided through the city so they push to the front at every good view point to take a quick photo and continue. We stop longer, taking photos of buildings, playing with the light and enjoying the sunshine. My recommendation is to always travel independently – Europe is easy and safe for travel so there’s no need to tie yourself to a guided tour.

    The Beguinage is gorgeous. White buildings line a large wooded square. It’s easy to see why women chose to live here. Formerly a convent, the Beguinage is now a place secular women of prayer live spiritual lives. One house is open for the public and it’s worth a look. I feel calm here after the hectic tour group parade outside the Beguinage’s walls.

    We walk some more from the Beguinage to Gentpoort. I have to go inside because it’s a castle. I can’t help myself with castles. We look through the bolt holes. And walk onto the roof where we can take in views of old and new Bruges. In the medieval days the city gates were closed at night so this would have been a busy place at sunset. Pubs lined the outside of the gates in those days because people who didn’t make it back into the city on time would need somewhere to stay. I can just imagine how hectic this place would have been back then.
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  • Day4

    Valkenburg

    December 28, 2016 in the Netherlands ⋅ ⛅ 3 °C

    Valkenburg is absolutely gorgeous. It’s easy to see why it is so popular with domestic tourists. The town centre is well-preserved with old buildings and sections of the fortress walls.

    There’s even hills here. Small ones but hills all the same within the bounds of this flat country. It’s so pretty.

    We ride mountain bikes in the limestone mine. It's amazing. We’re way underground in a live working limestone mine. The rock here has been mined for centuries, first by hand and now by electric saw. Progress is still slow even today with each miner taking just three blocks of limestone out in a single day (it used to be one before electric saws).

    We ride about 4km (2.5 miles) in our 90 minute adventure. We stop along the way to learn about the natural and human history of the mines. Sometimes we have to duck low to pass through tunnels and other times we have to walk to squeeze through smaller spaces. It’s good fun.
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