Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Cocos and Christmas Islands

After a long hiatus and major change in lifestyle, we're travelling again. This time we're staying in Australia but we've found somewhere interesting enough to write home about. 

Our trip started with a visit to Luisa's family in Perth, where Jeremy enjoyed a couple of days being entertained by his grandparents and aunt Julia. A highlight was the local Lake Claremont, otherwise known as Butler's Swamp, recently converted from a golf course into public park, with lots of interesting bird life.
Black swan and cygnets in Butler's Swamp
Perth to Christmas Island to Cocos Islands and return
Are we there yet?
From Perth we flew to Cocos Keeling Islands via Christmas Island. Our plane's arrival seemed to interrupt a soccer match occurring in the edge of the runway. We checked in to a well-designed cottage half way down the runway, unfortunately with prime views of the golf course / runway (and far lagoon) rather than the beach. With an average of less than one plane a day, the runway provides entertainment rather than irritation. Part of the entertainment is watching a ute clear the runway of chooks when a plane is inbound.
Lockheed P-3 Orion interrupting play
The islands are an atoll located in the Indian Ocean, midway between Australia and Sri Lanka. They were discovered by William Keeling in 1609, and later colonised by the Scottish Clunies-Ross family in 1826. Malay workers were brought in to harvest coconuts and for other nefarious purposes. Interestingly, coconuts are not native to the region but need salt to grow. That's why they're always found on tropical islands. The islands were administered by Great Britain from Sri Lanka, Singapore, and then from Australia since 1955. The Clunies-Ross family lived in a homestead on Home Island, but had a falling out with the United Nations over their feudalistic tendencies. The islands were forcibly acquired for $6.25m in 1984 and the Clunies-Ross' moved to Perth.

We started our first evening with happy hour at Australia's westernmost pub. We met locals, tourists, fly in-fly out workers, and the Virgin flight crew we'd flown in with. With only three flights a week, the flight crew have a forced three night layover between flights, with $108 a day spending money. Presumably, it's cheaper to pay the crew a few grand to lie on a beach than it is to redirect a plane to pick them up.

We asked for a weather forecast for the next few days. "24-29 degrees, with the chance of a shower. That's what it is every day."

Home Island now has a population of 500 mostly ethnic Malays. Some of the extended Clunies-Ross family, and other Anglo Australians, form the 100-strong population of West Island. The Malays rediscovered their Muslim religion in the 1970s when travel to and from Malaysia became easier. They no longer harvest coconuts and fishing seems to be their only primary industry. The CentreLink office on the island implies that people aren't as well employed as they were during the Clunies-Ross era. However, they still manage enough income to buy quad bikes in large numbers. We walked the perimeter of Home Island in an hour but there seems to be a quad bike for every person. We saw four parked outside one house. What's the speed limit? "If you can kill a land crab, you're driving too fast."
On the bus to the jetty
Personalised quad bike
Jeremy's first coconut

Sunset on Turtle Beach
Island life has its routines. Bread is baked on Tuesday and Friday, which are also plane arrival days. On Wednesday, the ferry across the lagoon to Home Island comes back to West Island in the evening, allowing you to have dinner on Home Island. Thursday and Saturday are DI days, meaning that the ferry goes to Direction Island, an uninhabited piece of paradise at the north end of the lagoon. Like the rest of Cocos, it appears to be an undeveloped, tropical Asian island. However, occasionally, you'll find a bit of Australian infrastructure, such as a water tank with a "do not drink" sign, a composting toilet with loo paper, or rat baits. DI has two attractions, white sandy beaches and the Rip. The Rip is a channel that's great for snorkelling. The highlights are big colourful wrasse and white-tipped reef sharks.
Swimming off Direction Island
More swimming
Lazing on the beach
We hired bikes for a day and Jeremy experienced his first ride in a child seat. We rode south past the end of the runway to the tip of West Island and on to the yacht club (shed with a few catamarans and windsurfers). After lazing on the beach and chasing reef sharks through the shallows, we walked on low tide over to another picturesque island.
Southward at speed
No Parking
Am I cute or what?
We experienced the reality of Australia's refugee policy during our ten days on Cocos and Christmas Islands. During our stay, 27 boats arrived. A boatload of Sri Lankans had arrived the day before and a Hercules flew in to take them to Nauru. While most refugees arrive on Christmas Island, Sri Lankans head directly across the Indian Ocean to Cocos. We recognised the detention centre on the road north of town by the demountable buildings, a few tents, and groups of Sri Lankans standing around. Security was minimal and we were told that the refugees can swim at the beach if they're keen.
Refugee boats. We also have a photo of refugees sitting in lines on the jetty but decided not to publish it.
After a week, it was time to leave Cocos for Christmas Island, a big volcanic rock 900km to the north east. This is a very different place. Most people come here to visit the detention centre on the west of the island. Others come to mine phosphate. A diverse community lives in the township in the north east, mainly ethnic Chinese, Europeans, and Malays.
Federal police winding down after a day on a customs patrol boat
Despite the significant police and customs presence, crime is low on the islands. Surfboards are left in an unlocked shack at the surf beach on Cocos. To return our hire car on Christmas, we were told to park it in the airport carpark and leave the keys in the ignition. People are also very generous. Two separate people bought presents for Jeremy. Thank you especially to José, the chef on Cocos.

Apart from the detention centre, Christmas Island is known for its red crab migration, around November each year, when the island is inundated by wandering crabs. We were a little early for that but did see red crabs, blue crabs, and robber crabs, also known as coconut crabs. These impressive creatures grow larger than a football and come in colours ranging from blue to red. Unlike sea crabs, none of these land crabs are edible because they feed on rotting vegetation and taste like it too. The island also has a selection of unique birds, including boobies, an emerald pigeon, frigate birds, and bosun. We walked to a beach known for nesting turtles but didn't see any.
Robber crab
Blue crab climbing tree
Red footed booby
Where's my lunch?
Juvenile booby
Not all grasshoppers are green, young grasshopper
Our accommodation was the old morgue, a solid, one room building on the edge of the cliff. It has been tastefully converted into a studio apartment and is arguably the best place to stay on the island.
Captain's Last Resort, formerly the island morgue
The highlight of Christmas Island for us was the Grotto, a sea cave with limestone stalactites and crystal blue water. Jeremy's highlight was playing in the sand at Ethel Beach.
The Grotto
We spent a few days in Perth on the way home, enduring temperatures between 4 and 34 degrees celsius.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Tamga, Bishkek and Urumqi

We had to go to Bishkek a few days earlier than planned to get another Chinese visa - we had forgotten we were flying out via Urumqi and our Chinese visa was only single entry.  Our route followed the southern shore of Lake Issyk-Kul.  

We overnighted in Tamga at a guesthouse recommended to us by our host in Karakol.  Tamara and Askar ran a beautiful guesthouse in the small town of Tamga. Tamara learnt English by working in the local Canadian-owned gold mine. She explained that Tamga has many Russians and that they get on well with the Kyrgyz but don't totally assimilate. The boys in the town live hand to mouth and spend any spare money on alcohol and games at the town's internet cafe.

Tamara organised horses and a couple of local kids took us for a ride into the mountains. It was apricot picking season, and the village leader had mandated that there would be three days allocated to pick apricots that were then trucked to the city for sale.  There were far too many apricots to be picked in just three days, so as we rode along we helped ourselves to the apricots hanging from the higher branches!  The horses took us to Tamga Tash, a rock with Buddhist inscriptions dating between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD which was just sitting unprotected in a river valley.

En route to Tamga Tash

Tamga Tash

Berries from Tamara and Askar's orchard

A huge meal for just two people - plov (pilaf) of yak

Washing socks, Kyrgyz style
From Tamga we caught buses to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Religion has a tenuous hold in Kyrgyzstan. Men attend mosques on Fridays and the shops near a mosque don't sell alcohol, and even the Chinese don't seem to eat pork.  But the Soviet culture has had a big influence and Bishkek feels like a European former Soviet city. There are many Russians who don't integrate that well with the Kyrgyz. Russian is becoming the dominant language in Bishkekand the Kyrgyz language may even die out.

At Bishkek we stayed in the main backpacker hostel, Sakura Guesthouse, which seemed to be the place to wait for your visas to various central asian countries (as we were doing).  The guestbook was full of tips and tricks to how to secure your visa with minimal hassle, but even then some had to wait weeks for letters of invitation to come through, etc.  We were able to swing a Chinese visa in one day with only moderate hassle and lots of fudging, coercion and smiling.  After that success we happily chilled out by the pool and spent the evenings searching for interesting restaurants with other travellers.  One Bishkek highlight was a restaurant with an English menu (rare). The translation offered dishes such as "Hen on Tsarist", "Salad Under Fur Coat", "Intoxicating Hen", "Polka Dots", and "Pity".  So we made a bet on what "polka dots" were, and they turned out to be green peas.


Market activity

We left Bishkek through Manas Airport, an international airport that doubles as a US airforce base that supplies the US effort in Afghanistan. It's unusual to see a row of grey Hercules behind your 767.

We flew back into Urumqi in China and headed for the Uighur part of town, seeking to buy hand-carved copper teapots that we'd seen in Kashgar. While stopping to eat some home made yoghurt, we noticed an animal nearby. Is that a big dog? No, I think it's a sheep. Why is that man approaching it with a big knife? Oh, that's why.

Roger enjoying a Uighur meal

Roger had his holiday beard shaved with a cut throat razor. It took about thirty minutes and only took cost a few dollars, and is an experience every man should have in his lifetime.

On Saturday we walked to one of the city's parks, which was full of families enjoying amusement rides and views of the city. Roger was approached twice for photos and considered setting up a "photo with foreigner" stall. We checked out the museum (not normally our style), which had some great stuff such as 3000 year old bronze swords and intact mummies. Neither of us had seen a real mummy before.

Urumqi skyline

We flew home via Guangzhou to Sydney, arriving just in time for ski season.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Karakol Valley, Lake Ala Kul and Altyn-Arashan

Karakol is a popular base for trekking, well equipped with trekking and guiding companies.  But overall it was less touristy than expected.  We planned a trek up the Karakol valley to Lake Ala Kul, over Ala Kul Pass (3860m) and down the Altyn Arashan Valley where there are hot springs.  We were assured this was a well travelled route and we wouldn't need a guide, and this was correct for the most part.  On day one we camped at the base of the path leading up to the lake and the pass.  Dinner was huge as we had over catered and didn't want to carry too much over the pass the next day.

 Some rain on the first night

The roaring river in Karakol Valley

On day two we climbed 1400m up a steep valley with an incredible volume of water flowing down from Lake Ala Kul.  We mistakenly ended up on the wrong side of the river, necessitating a tricky river crossing to rejoin the path. 

 The view of the opposite valley

 The route up: stay on the left!

Here we had climbed about 1000m

At the top there was a slope of gravel and a bit more climbing to the left of a waterfall, and we reached this view of Ala Kul!

  Lake Ala Kul

 Lake Ala Kul

Not realising that this was the last opportunity to collect water before the pass, we continued along the north of the lake (foreground of photo).  The southern shore was mostly scree slopes and we heard at least one avalanche.  At the lake we met a European couple, Omar and Jennifer, taking the same route.  We thought we'd found the way up to Ala Kul pass but after 20 minutes of climbing to a small platform Roger did some scouting and realised we were blocked by sheer walls of rock: our second wrong turn of the day. Unfortunately our new friends had followed us, so one by one we picked our way back down.  The actual pass soon became obvious and was much easier.  

The crest of Ala Kul pass, 3860m

 The way down

 The scree slope we came down

At the crest of the pass we could see the southern slope, a scree slope that fell several hundred metres with no apparent route down.  Roger watched some Russians slide down as if telemark skiing, and followed suit.  Luisa had a harder time, trying to cling to the few pieces of solid rock.  This technique only worked for part of the way, until she too had to learn the "telemarking" technique.  At the bottom was a patch of snow best traversed by sliding on one's pack, as Roger demonstrates below.  Most other trekkers we met agreed that the pass is much more difficult than portrayed in the Lonely Planet, and probably best done with ropes!

View from half way down the scree slope 

Surrounding mountains

 Roger finds a quicker way down

 The last of the snow and a rainbow

 Back on solid ground

We anxiously watched Omar and Jennifer, who were about 30 minutes behind us, tackle the scree slope.  It looked like they were finding it even more difficult than we did but we were too far away to offer any assistance.  Eventually they made it down and we sent a loud cheer across the valley.  They caught up and we walked together down the valley in the drizzle, a common occurence in the mountains.  This made for a lot of mud which, along with the multiple river crossings, had us soon give up on keeping our feet and pants dry.  Omar and Jennifer seemed prepared to walk forever but at 7.30pm we had to stop to camp without them - 11 hours of walking, a 1400m ascent and 1000m descent was enough for one day without missing dinner! 

 The location of the hot springs, Altyn-Arashan

The next day we were rewarded with a long soak in some natural hot springs, which was great but had after effects of dizziness and lethargy.  After this and a large meal at Valentino's "Yak Tours" hostel nearby and it was time for a nap.  When it started to rain again that afternoon we decided to extend our trip and camp another night next to the river, despite its deafening roar, and walk back to Karakol the next day.  Such is the joy of being on a four week break.

Pine forest and river in Altyn-Arashan valley

 Campsite next to the river, with bell shaped flowers in the foreground

River spilling over onto the road

The road down Altyn-Arashan valley was a bit tedious and would have been more pleasant by horse.  Nevertheless there were great views back to the glacier at the top of the valley and of the pine forests clinging to the steep slopes on either side.

Back in Karakol we checked back into our homestay and visited our favourite restaurant by the bazaar, where Roger had another brizol (omelette and a sheet of meat wrapped around salad and mayonnaise).
Menu deciphering success!