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The end is on the way

To answer the question I am often asked: “no, the blog hasn’t been fogotten, it’s just been neglected.” I have made myself a promise to finish our tales, so stay tuned (or not)….updates will appear below this date.

Beijing

We land in Beijing very early in the morning. Our pre-booked driver is nowhere to be seen. After a few phone calls and a 30 minute wait, he finally arrives somewhat apologetic.

The sun is starting to rise as we begin our journey into the centre of Beijing.

It looks like a clear day and there is no evidence of the polluted haze this city has a reputation for. The traffic is light, but given the early hour, it isn’t surprising.

By 7:00am we are at the Peking Youth Hostel. Our room won’t be ready for a few hours, so we store our luggage and go for a wander through the quiet streets.

The hostel is located in the middle of one of Beijing’s most colorful Hutong districts, in a charming quaint lane, only a few blocks north of the Forbidden City.

Hutongs are a collection of narrow streets and alleys, commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, most prominently found in Beijing. At this time of the morning it’s a peaceful oasis in a hectic city. Little do we know how different the scene would look in a few hours.

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Tired and jet lagged, we nap on couches in the guest lounge until our room is ready.

Our first taste of china is from a street stall selling freshly made dumplings. They’re so good, we go back for seconds!

Beijing was once considered the ‘kingdom of bicycles’, with over 9 million people commuting on two wheels. With the rise of the middle class, the two wheels are quickly being replaced by a more prestigious fuel-injected four.

Opting for two wheels, we join the organised chaos on the streets. Wide bike lanes accommodate everything from scooters, wheel barrows and tuk-tuks.

It’s a game of concentration; weaving in and out of other riders, avoiding parked cars and other hazards. However, it all seems to work and with a good map it’s surprisingly easy to navigate our way around.

We rented our Bikes from the very friendly and helpful team at Bike Beijing. They also gave us some great tips on local places to eat. And we were not disappointing with their Peking Duck recommendation – Siji Minfu.

A popular restaurant with locals, expats and tourists, there are no bookings; you just turn-up and get in the queue. We plonk ourselves on little stools out the front to wait our turn. The meal was worth the hour wait; the crispy Peking Duck expertly carved at our table is mouth-watering delicious!

The Hostel staff provided us with lots of recommendations and advice as well (bit of a theme going on) and helped us organise a two night stay near Mutianyu – one of the more scenic Great Wall locations.

It’s a 2 hour bus ride from Beijing, followed by a 1 hour taxi ride. We have a long-winded negotiation with a woman who approaches us in her not-so-official taxi, eventually agreeing on US$20 to drive us to our destination.

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He Yi Little Yard is a quaint Bed & Breakfast nestled between mountains in the village of Sanduhe, 8 km from Mutianyu.

The rooms are decorated with natural materials and cultural artifacts. The courtyard is a peaceful oasis; filled with bamboo, date trees, vegetable plants, and a stream swimming with goldfish.

Meals are included and are made with ingredients grown or purchased from local farmers. The food was wholesome and delicious.

Borrowing bikes (a tad too small), we embark on the 16km loop which takes us through local villages, rice paddies and across streams.

We stop mid-way in Mutianyu, where there is a cable car that takes you up to the wall.

This ancient wonder is an impressive feat in engineering, snaking haphazardly over rugged mountains and desert, constructed over centuries. Oficially, it covers over 21,000 kilometers.

Indirectly, construction of the wall began around 500 BC; with independent kingdoms building their own defences.

During the Qin dynasty hundreds of thousands of men, mainly political prisoners, provided the labour for an estimated 10 years to link walls with unifying kingdoms.

In the Ming dynasty, engineers took on a century-long project to revamp the wall. Ultimately it failed when Mongol armies arrived in 1279.

In later centuries, the invention of the aeroplane would also render the wall somewhat pointless. Without the tourist industry, the wall would probably have been left to crumble away.

The Forbidden City is the largest palace complex in the world. This former palace was shrouded in mystery for over 5 centuries until the Republic overthrew the last emperor in 1912.

If you plan a visit, it can take a good part of the day to wander through the ancient buildings, courtyards and gardens. The self-guided audio is worthwhile, it provides plenty insights and allows you to set your own pace.

Our tips; there is a daily limit on the number of people allowed to enter, so arrive early and get ahead of the queues. Don’t forget your passport, as ticket purchases are subject to the ‘real-name’ policy.

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Forbidden City

Tiananmen Square is apparently the largest downtown square in the world. Framed by the Gate of Heavenly Peace with its Mao portrait, the square is heavily controlled by a strong police presence. Our visit was a brief stop whilst cycling past.

In the northwest quarter of Beijing is the area known as Shichahai. Locally refered to as the Hòuhǎi Lakes, it’s a popular recreational spot during the day, transforming into a lively nightspot with rooftop bars and restaurant. The surrounding neighbourhood also consists of an extensive Hutong network.

Continuing on with historical sites, we visited The Lama Temple. Built in 1694, it is the largest and best-preserved Tibetan style monastery in Beijing.

Bargaining is an art form in China, one that Don relishes in! We visited a few markets where we purchased designer brands ridiculously cheap; $20 for a North Face jacket, $30 for Merrill shoes (should have bargained harder). Don also picked up a pair of traditional slip-ons from a street peddler for $11 (surprisingly these didn’t last all that long, as they fell apart soon after)!

Were these items the real deal? We’re not naive enough to believe they are genuine, but at those prices, who cares!

As the capital of the most populous country on earth, Beijing surprised us both. Its emerging contemporary culture seems obsessed with western style luxuries and modernity, yet amongst the soaring skyscrapers and modern shopping malls, this city still possesses an ancient charm and beauty.

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 Overland to Zurich

So this is our situation: We need to cover 1,200km to reach Zürich, and six days to do it in. There are also four people we’d like to catch-up with en route.

The first night we stop in the small town of Nieburg, Germany. There is nothing outstanding to write home about, it was simply a suitable way-point to end our first day of travel southwards.

Dinner reminds us that we are back in Germany; the land of beer, schnitzel and sauerkraut. I make the mistake of ordering a salad, only to end up with an extra serve of cabbage!

Next stop is Dortmund. This town probably wouldn’t feature much in tourist guides, however the attraction for us was to catch-up with Inga, who we met on our Mexican adventures.

Inga has grown up in the area and also spent some time in Australia with her studies. She works in wind-turbine energy, which is huge in this part of Europe. She kindly offered us a bed, generously taking the couch and vacating her own comfy bed for us. It was a quick visit, as Inga was off early the next day, to holiday in Kenya.

We head out to dinner and see a snippet of Dortmund. As brief as it was, it was lovely to see Inga and get a locals perspective into what living in Germany is like. Inga, we hope you come and visit soon, so we can repay the hospitality.

Following the Rhine, our next stop is the town of Boppard. I wouldn’t rate the river as scenic as the Danube had been, though it could make a nice cycle trip one day.

Driving on a German autobahn is not for the faint-hearted. Impatient drivers weaving in and out of lanes at high-speed (there are no limits enforced), is a recipe for catastrophic accidents.

If you dare sit on the recommended 130km/hr, you are constantly watching your rear vision mirror for cars and trucks descending upon you at much greater speeds; blaring horns and flashing headlights at you to move right.

The right lane is full of heavily laden trucks and older cars struggling along. Without warning, one of these will also pull out in front of you, to overtake the slower vehicle in its lane. This is no place (or time) for being indecisive, it’s ‘pedal to the metal’, work the gears hard and keep-up!

After not seeing Sue Haviland for 15 years, this is the second rendezvous in a year! Sue and John, along with their dog Bailey, have moved to Oberursal, teaching at the Frankfurt International School.

We have two nights with them, taking the opportunity to wash, re-pack and get ourselves ready to change continents.

Our last night in Europe is at the Zurich Airport Radisson, practical and reasonably priced. We’re back in Switzerland, so ‘reasonably priced’ is a relative term.

Birgit is another traveling companion, this time from our South American adventures, who lives in Zürich. She makes the effort to trek out to our hotel in torrential rain and have dinner with us. The rain is so heavy, we don’t even venture outside the hotel to eat.

We really appreciate the effort to come and see us Birgit and it was great to have one last hurrah on our final night on your continent!

Our little Renault has served us well and we head to the airport with a whiff of petrol in the tank.

There is no obligation in a lease agreement to return your car with a full-tank, given the price for petrol in Switzerland is extortionate (or US$2 per/L) – Don can push the car if needed!

We drive up to departures, meet the agent and hand over the keys in a hurry to give him possession before it dies, we warn him that he won’t get far.

Next stop Beijing. Unfortunately there was no business upgrade on offer this time!

Fjords

Mark and Irena arrive at the apartment we’ve rented in Frogner, a rather stylish part of Oslo. We are excited to have company for the next 10 days and explore a bit more of Norway.

After a celebratory Champagne we head out to dinner at a local French restaurant.

The following day starts with more celebrations at breakfast – it’s Irena’s Birthday.

We then spend it sight-seeing  around Oslo on foot. Not far from our apartment is Frognerparken, which showcases the work by Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland.

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Frognerparken

There are 212 granite and bronze works of Vigeland in this unique and impressive open-air display.

On the other side of town, the centerpiece of the waterfront redevelopment is Oslo’s new Opera House, a striking building designed to resemble a glacier.

Floating offshore of the Opera House is a steel and glass sculpture by Monica Bonvicini – She Lies. The sculpture spins and twists with the tides, providing an ever-changing perspective.

We head into the Grünerløkken district, once a working class area its streets are now lined with trendy boutiques, restaurants, bars and quirky coffee shops. Frequented by the gentrified hipsters with top-knots!

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Leaving Oslo behind we cram the four of us into the Megane coupe. It’s a tight squeeze with luggage and supplies included. The strategy is the more we drink and eat, the more room we will have!

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Our first stop is Gol, a non-descript town which I only mention because of the very hospitable owner of Desertland, the only cafe in town, which we stop at.

The property has been in the family for generations and they have preserved a 300 year old cottage which he proudly show us.

Our journey continues north, our plan is to stay in Aurlund which is about 300km from Oslo. By Australian standards that would be an easy 3 hour drive; in Norway it’s about 5 hours.

The country is amongst the lowest ranked in road fatalities. Speed limits are strictly enforced, most highways are a maximum of 80km/hr and everyone seems to politely follow the rules.

Besides spectacular scenery, Norway is famous for its Stave Churches. There are only about 30 surviving Stave Churches in Europe, 28 of them are in Norway.

One of the best preserved is the Borgund Stave Church, constructed between 1180 – 1250 and is en route.  Mark can hardly contain his excitement over the prospect of visiting a Stave Church – who would have thought!!

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Our first majestic view of the Aurlundsfjord is at the Stegastein viewpoint; one of a growing number of architecturally designed platforms, which are just as interesting as the view.

A solid 31 meter walkway protrudes into the air, 640 meters above Aurland, with a panoramic view along the fjord.

Our destination for the night is just below us in Aurland, we luck-out and find a cute cabin on the waterfront looking straight down the Fjord.  The views compensated for the disappointing dinner at the only restaurant choice in town.

The following day is action packed with a ride on the the Flåm Railway (Flåmsbana), one of the world’s steepest rail lines. The 20-kilometer ride climbs through the mountains providing a view down deep ravines and past cascading waterfalls.

However, the best way to really appreciate the fjords is on the water. We suit-up and take a 2 hour journey with Fjordsafari from Aurlandsfjord into Nærøyfjord.

The landscape is dotted with isolated villages squeezed in between the dramatic mountains.

Our next stop is Hardangerfjord. We thought we’d stay in Voss which has a reputation for being the adventure capital of Norway, but we found it an over developed charmless town and decided to move on.

We ended up in the small town of Eidfjord and accommodation at the comfortable Eidfjord Cabins by the river Eio.

Over the next two days, we managed to dodge the rain and take a few walks, visiting some of the spectacular waterfalls and the not-so-spectacular Nature Centre.

It features tanks of carp, stuffed animals and a poorly produced, very outdated Panoramic film flying over the Hardangerfjord. My advice – don’t waste your money!

There is heavy rain on our last night in Eidfjord which resulted in flooding, rock slides and roads and rail lines being closed.  It was a long and slow drive back to Oslo.

The wet weather was looking likely to continue, not very conducive to being outdoors and lets face it, Norway is an outdoors kind of place, we might as well go back and see a bit more of Oslo.

Instead of going back to our charming apartment in Frogner, we decided to stay over in Grünerløkken, to explore a different part of town.

We found a place on AirBnB, which turned out to not be one of our better choices!  Our host was lovely, but the apartment was somewhat misrepresented in the photo’s; furniture had changed, the paint work was peeling, it was overly cluttered, grimy.

What topped it off was the noise. Our upstairs neighbours decided to have band practice from midnight to 6am.  Not the fault of our host, but I suspect something that occurs frequently and she could at least warn you about.

Anyway, Mark and Irena went off and visited the Viking museum and a few others. Don and I had a leisurely day around town, we’d seen our Viking museum in Denmark and one is enough for us.

For our grand finale dinner we frocked-up (as best you can when traveling) and dined at Markveien Mat & Vinhus, which featured modern norwegian cuisine. The meal was superb, we enjoyed delicious arctic trout, scallops, rabbit and lamb and shared an amazing melt in your mouth chocolate dessert.

Don and I are expected back in Rødby for a Jensen family reunion, so early morning we bid farewell to Mark & Irena who are continuing their travels across to Poland.

Norway is a dramatically spectacular country and we’ve had a wonderful time exploring it with these two – thanks for squeezing into the car, nursing bags on your lap, laughing at Don’s bad jokes and hanging out with us!

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Møre Og Romsdal – Norway

There was much deliberation about where to go next; straight to Norway, a week in Sweden, a week on a Greek island – seriously, we even looked for a cheap package deal!

Reminding ourselves once again, this is “quality not quantity” travel; we stocked up on groceries (pasta, cereal, coffee, etc) and headed to Norway.

Our destination is north to the region known as Møre Og Romsdal. From here we will make our way back down to Oslo where we are meeting Mark and Irena in 10 days time.

After an 8 hour drive from Copenhagen we overnight in Lillehammer at Vandrerhjem Stasjonen Hostel, built on top of the train station.

wpid-rps20151012_124531_633.jpgThe next day we spy our first Norwegian fjord; the Geiranger, also considered one of the most spectacular Fjords in Norway. Though, from our experience it’s pretty hard to claim one is more spectacular than the another.

Lunch is a picnic at the Ørnevegen lookout, with panoramic views over the Geiranger.

Eagle Road is the name given to the steep stretch of road which takes you up the mountain side from Geiranger towards Eidsdal, otherwise know as riksveg 63.

As we head further north the drive is one dramatic scene after another; rugged cliffs and tumbling waterfalls plunging into the depths of the fjord. Mountain meadows scattered with farms, painted rustic-red, add a striking contrast.

wpid-snapseed-01.jpegIt is a photographer’s dream – even our amateur skills capture some great shots and it’s amazing what you can do with photo editors these days.

Snapseed is my favourite for a quick edit, PhotoEditor for a larger range of options.

Ferry crossings are a way of life, there are more than 100 car ferry connections inside Norway, often making it quicker to traverse waterways than take the roads.

We ferry hop across from Eidsdal to Linge, drive a short distance to take another hop across from Liabygda to Stranda, where we are staying for a few nights.

wp-1448585757074.jpegOur AirBnB hosts are Elisabeth and Stig, they have recently moved back from way up in the North of Norway to take up residence on Elisabeth’s family farm.

It is a stunning location set up on the hillside with sweeping views down to the fjord.

We spend three nights here and found it a great spot to use as a base and explore the region; visiting Ålesund, the Atlantic Road and the Trollstigen og Stigfossen (the Troll Ladder).

Our generous hosts invited us to join the family for a sumptuous dinner of roast turkey, cooked in the fire pit outside.

Stig also warmed up the outdoor wood-fired hot tub, a true Scandinavian experience, in a beautiful setting overlooking the fjord and snow-capped mountains.

wp-1448585757141.jpegOur journey back towards Oslo begins with visiting the island of Rund; a small remote island in the community of Herøy, situated on the west coast of Sunnmøre.

Runde has a regular population of 100 human inhabitants and during the nesting season over 500,000 birds migrate to the island.

A ‘birders’ paradise with over 80, or so, different bird species gathering each year to nest along the rugged cliffs. However, it’s the Puffin which gets the most attention.

Unfortunately, we are too late in the season to see any Puffins, aside from squawking seagulls there isn’t much bird life at all.

In Goksoyr, probably the remotest village on the island with just a few summer homes, we find Arne sitting outside enjoying the sun.

He is a passionate Norwegian whose family have owned the home for several generations, his grandparents turning it into a guest house in the early 1960’s.

wp-1448585757169.jpegArne is very excited to have guests to chat with and he delights in sharing with us local tales and family history.

His hospitality is endless; serving us coffee and cake, later encouraging us to enjoy the view from the balcony with our bottle of wine; candles and flowers appear along with nuts and grapes to nibble.

Breakfast is laid out for us and Arne insists on loading us up with fresh fruit for our travels – he truly goes overboard in hospitality!

After a day of driving we find ourselves in the town of Eplet/Solvorn where we luck-out with finding accommodation at a cute hostel Eplet Bed & Apple farm.

wp-1448585757194.jpegIt was so comfortable we stayed two nights and took a break from driving.

It was lovely to spend a day out of the car, reading, catching up on the blog (as you can see, I am always behind) and relaxing in the sunshine.

We had expected Norway to be very expensive and we made a conservative effort to cook most of the time. Often we didn’t have much choice; restaurants and cafes seem to be very scarce.

Supermarket prices for most things benchmark with Australia – which on a world scale still puts them at the expensive end. Somethings were pricey, especially fresh fruit and vegetables, like AUS$6 for one lemon.

The CPI (coffee price index) was rarely used, as we carried our trusty plunger with us and used it daily.  On the odd occasion coffee was about AUS$7

Making our way from Solvorn along the northern side of the Sognefjord, the second largest fjord in the world, we take Route 55 to Lom.

There’s more dramatic scenery as we traverse through the highest mountain pass in Northern Europe (1,434 meters above sea level).  The alpine landscape takes us through the Jotunheimen National Park, home to Jostedalsbreen Glacier.

wp-1448585757200.jpegPassing a herd of sheep gathered on the side of the road, we notice one is lying on its back, legs in the air! It seems to be stuck between the gutter and road barrier.

This is a little peculiar, as sheep don’t lay on their backs and supposedly can die from doing so.

Don undertakes his good deed of the day and after some effort, rites the animal back on all fours. We leave her a little stunned, but hopefully OK.

Heading back closer to Oslo we thought we would just stay in Lillehammer again, but the hostel was full. A few towns along, we luck out and find a gorgeous farm called Stokke Nedre to spend the night.

Tomorrow we meet Irena and Mark in Oslo.

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