Tuesday, 13 November 2007


(October 24-25)

Macau is a peninsular about an hour west of Hong Kong by fast ferry. It is the world's new Las Vegas with flashy casinos being built on all available turf. Indeed, Macau's gambling revenues are now greater than those of the Las Vegas Strip. However, our guide book which was published three or so years ago failed to mention casinos at all despite gambling providing 50% of the area's GDP! (Note to selves: we still shouldn't trust those pesky guide books!)

Macau has a similar history to Hong Kong in that it was governed by a foreign power for many years, except the Portuguese were invited to move in after helping the Chinese rid the area of pirates; the British just took HK. After a buoyant few years for the Portuguese in Macau, Britain's subsequent move into the region made sure Hong Kong became the dominant trading port. Macau stayed under European rule until 1999 when it was handed back to China although, like Hong Kong, it remains a Special Economic Area, and is likely to stay that way considering the loot it's drawing in.

Here's a little taster of the type of jaw dropping architecture that's gracing the shores of the Pearl River Delta:
MGM's new mecca

The Grande Lisboa next door to the Casino Lisboa

Ocean's 14 - in front of the Sands Casino

It's not all casinos and gambling - there's also some monuments ...
We can't remember what the monument's for ...

And then there are some more casinos - even themed ones:
Casinos are erupting everywhere ...

The places we have visited over the last 5 months have been very kind and put on events for our arrival and Macau was no different. The second indoor Asian Games started whilst we were there - and here was the team from Tajikistan to greet us:
Perhaps these chaps are not the gymnasts ...
Joanna preferred the Macau Games Duck:
Yes, that is the Coliseum behind her - or at least a theatre in the style of...

But what you really want to know is - did we get into the swing of the gambling and lose our fortune at the Blackjack tables? Well, no. In fact, we made a bit of a discovery in Macau: Joanna is tighter with money than Ben. He would have been happy to splash out 6 squid a pop to have a go on the roulette, but Joanna was a big ole killjoy. She puts it down to watching too many Las Vegas films where the only winner is the meanie casino owner like Al Pacino or Andy Garcia who sit in their control rooms counting the pots of money that the punters are throwing away. In other words, if you want to go gambling, don't take Joanna, it's no fun!

But Ben still managed to get into the Las Vegas vibe ...

Jaunty angle on a jaunty man ...

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Hong Kong I

(22-23 October)
To tell the truth we didn't do that much in our first couple of days in Hong Kong, other than organise 2 days in Macau & 6 more days in Hong Kong... We did have a nice walk about, and some yummy Chinese food (especially at the "Best Shanghai" restaurant). And did a bit of blogging, skyping parents etc. Nothing exciting to write about. But we were on a relax mission by this point. And a prepare to go home mission. Ooo, yes, Ben bought sandals, as we were back into our shorts. Lovely. And we were enjoying the no smoking inside, or indeed in the public parks. And all the Public Service messages telling us to Love & Care for Your Family, Vote, Stand Still on the Escalator, etc. And they've solved the escalator problem of the hand-rail going at a different speed to the steps. Handy when they've got an escalator that goes 800m up Hong Kong Island.

And we went on the Star Ferry back from Hong Kong Island - costs 11p (each!).
View (They signed the hand-over treaty on top of the flat building in the middle):
First use of artificial wind to make flags fly on a still day apparently

Sky-scrapers, sea, excitement!

Wednesday, 7 November 2007


(21 October)

We weren't in Thailand for long, just an overnight stop-over. But long enough to wander out for a nice dinner (Nabe - style), and for completion of the drink challenge:
Mae Khong Thai Whisky - slightly sweeter, but very nice

Joanna found a nice vanilla shake for her part-time drink challenge:

We watched the movie "Goal" rather than be sensible and go to sleep, but sometimes it's exciting to see TV in English.


Joanna, the camel, has 3 humps...
This post will be brought to you by the Apple and Camel Marketing Board.
We were in Almaty for the nights of 15 - 20 October.

We found new friends in Almaty. Tara, a friend of a friend, offered to put us up, which was very kind of her. It was very nice to be in domestic circumstances again, and with a young baby about the place, Joanna could ask lots of pertinent questions about our own impending circumstances. We've not had much chance to talk / think / read about what is soon going to hit us, so it was good to get a glimpse of how such things can work... And they had a very nice bed for us too! We stayed with them for a couple of nights before Tara's folks came to visit her.

Almaty is the most cosmopolitan city in central Asia. They're not used to backpackers though. Without our backpacks we could blend in without anyone giving us the slightest look; with them, everybody gawked open-mouthed.

There's a few cool things to see around Almaty. Here's a church made without any metal:
Let's take a closer look...
The nails are made of wood. We looked closely however, and despite what the guidebooks say, there's plenty of metal attached to the outside now.

And here's 15 soldiers bursting out of the 15 states of the former USSR, to protect it:

We've slipped a few sideways pictures of Joanna in

They're both in one of Almaty's many lovely parks. In fact, Almaty, with its lovely leafy boulevards is a city that looks like it was built in a forest:

There's nice mountains to the south too, even if it is all a bit smoggy:
The mountains are clearer in real life

We went up a great cable car to get that look of the city, and as the weather was nice, Joanna felt it appropriate to have a nap:
Don't try this at home

Autumn makes it all very pretty:

There are a few apple sculptures, marking the fact that the name of the city means "Father of the Apples":
This one might be a little too crisp to bite into

Bonus points for spotting some of the many camels too:
Not many points, it's pretty easy to spot.

That camel is at the foot of the big obelisk in "Republic Square" that shows their new national symbol, the Golden Man:
Goldy on top of some 4-legged eagle thing

The Golden Man is an archaeological find in a funeral site of a body that was covered in gold, and latest research suggests instead of being a mighty warrior, the person might have been a young girl. The Kazakhs brush over that however. There are versions of it all over the place as they seem quite proud of it. We saw it at the National Museum, as well as in a couple of places in Astana.

We also went up into the lovely mountains, first to the ice-skating rink at Medeo:
melty ice

All the USSR's speed-skaters trained here. There's a 10,000 seat stadium around it:
water so pure you can drink it - apparently

And that's super pure water in the swimming pool from 3 separate streams in front of it. Ben's not keen on ice-skating, ever since he skated over his own hand at university. So we headed up 800 steps:
Just a few more steps...

And then took a minibus and cable-car:

Up to the lovely Chimbulak ski-field:
It was this big!

Joanna was happy to climb a mountain again, even if we did cheat this time (with not actually doing any climbing).

On other days after that we went to places that didn't photograph so well. There were more parks, and an absolutely amazing food market ("The Green Market"), with hundreds of vendors offering gorgeous fresh fruit & vege, spices, knick-knack stalls, fresh meat including horse and, yes, Ben's drink challenge drink Shubat, or fermented camel's milk.

We did get some. Ben did drink some:
Will it taste good?

He wasn't impressed:

It wasn't just the lack of alcohol (it's about as alcoholic as ginger beer), it just didn't taste good.

We mentioned in previous posts we were going up a canyon: it didn't happen. The weather in Kazakhstan was fabulous, until the last day. So as we waited at the bus stop, and waited, and waited... it was quite cold. Turned out the tour company had given us the wrong time. We got our money back, but all a bit disappointing. The tour company were very disappointed too. You get the feeling that as Kazakhstan gets so few western tourists, that they really want to get it right with each one...

Monday, 5 November 2007


Well, we weren't content with ending our travelling in Auckland; so as a little surprise, we went down to Wellington for Saturday night.

It was Ben's brother's engagement party, and although he'd put on the invite that there were relatives coming from Kazakhstan for it, we had told him we weren't going to make it. So David and his fiancee Katrina were very happy to see us. And we were pretty happy to see them too...

Joanna grabs some pies

4 ears are better than 2

I've been busting to see you again

We'll get on with filling in the gap from Kazakhstan to New Zealand now. And then maybe think about getting a job, joining the real world etc.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Home! / New Home!

We support Liverpool here too!

We made it! We survived the flight through Singapore and are now safely ensconced in the parental Clark household, with Kimba:

We'll largely recover for a the next few days, along with finishing off this blog, adding way more photos to the photo site, cleaning clothes, and maybe even buying some new ones that don't smell. But NZ immigration let Joanna in, so she's fine to stay and gestate the bump, and Ben can start thinking about getting a new job, us a new house etc...

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Train & Tea

(October 14)
The old capital of Kazakhstan, Almaty, is a day away from Astana by train, so another overnighter beckoned! This time we had the top bunks in our cabin and were lucky to be sharing with two lovely Kazakh ladies; one who spoke brilliant English (and German) and another who understood English. It's their custom to offer foreigners and guests hospitality and were very embarrassed because they didn't have any treats to share. We, on the other hand, had come prepared with Tetley tea and lots of biscuits! The only thing we didn't have was a teapot - no problem! Kazakh trains provide china teapots and tea cups free of charge for passengers' comfort. Even Ben managed a cup of tea to celebrate this marvelous service!
Could a train ride get any better?
Very civilised.

Kazakhstan has picturesque steppes that they all think are flat and boring. We found them flat and beautiful:
Red sky at night

Unfortunately the beautiful lake on our trip passed by in the dead of night.
And the nice english-speaking lady informed us of all the things we should have seen in Astana. Like the aquarium that is the world's furthest from water, and actually going in the golden dome thing in front of the presidential palace.

(Only 2 more sleeps until we fly to New Zealand and our adventure is over - and the next one begins.)

Sunday, 28 October 2007


(october 11-13)

Firstly and most importantly Joanna pictures. The sideways shot in Astana (in the park in front of parliament):
a bit more to show...

And she takes an alcoholic bent on her own drink tour. You're not allowed beer without a straw if you're a lady in Kazakhstan:
Ben will complete his drink challenge in our Almaty blog post soon...

Now, MikeB likes taking pictures of cranes. MikeB would be very happy in Astana:

No building is complete without a crane on top finishing it off:
they're probably meant to be different heights...

Most of the city is being built in one go so it looks a lot like a vast building site at the moment. Some of the main infrastructure of the new capital has been completed to the south of the river, away from the old town/village, so we went for a walk...

This isn't a flying saucer, it's the circus:

This is an apartment block, the "Triumph Astana":

Here's the city's landmark globe, in front of the presidential palace (or "White House"):

A nice new mosque, although the Kazakhs could hardly be called religious (vodka-drinking, pig-eating muslims...):

In fact the call to prayer was what alerted us to take a photo, and it was only us heading towards the mosque...

And here's a monument to independence or something...:

Beyond that the main touristy thing we did was go to the most bodacious President's Museum. We ended up looking at the gifts various countries had given the President for quite a while before we found the most excellent yurt room. Yurts are the tents the nomadic Kazakhs used to live in. They had all the appropriate horse and camel apparatus too.

One thing we expected to be a right pain was registration of our visa (must be done within 5 days of entering the country. But they seem to have made things easier, as we found the appropriate government building, went straight to an english speaking woman, chatted to her for about a minute whilst she put all the appropriate stamps in the right places, and we were done. No big $$ charges or anything. So they're obviously getting ready for tourists, not that they're actually expecting any. Everyone was very surprised that we were tourists, and most interested as to what we thought of their country... Fortunately we could say we liked it.

Astana means 'Capital'. Apparently the previous name of the village/town meant 'White Tomb', and the president had too many jibes about moving the capital there... so he changed the name.

And one last point on where the money for all those new buildings is coming from. Here's the oil pipeline running through town...:

Friday, 26 October 2007


We're back in Hong Kong btw. And we're updating the map, if you want to know where Vladimir is.

(October 8 - 11)

Back in Moscow, we had some time to kill before our appointed time to collect (hopefully) our Kazakh visas. We made it to the State History Museum in Red Square which covers the country from pre-historic times until WWI - mostly in Russian. So if osmosis works we're now experts ... but we have our doubts. We also had a wander round some more sites including the Monument to Victims of Totalitarianism. The building in the background was the KGB HQ and Lubyanka Prison for victims of Stalin's many purges:
Just for Moscow's tens of thousands of victims
It's now the FSB's HQ - the KGB's successor.

Then it was back to the Kazakh embassy and yes! everything was ready for us and in order. Joanna was very relieved, thanking the "gate-keeper" official profusely on the way out after becoming such good friends with him during our many visits!

So we boarded the train destined for Kazakhstan and Astana ... three days in our little kupe carriage with two strangers (one who snored quite a bit) and not really many photo opportunities except this one:
Are we there yet??
Please note: Joanna is not keen on it but it's our only one on board the train so has to be included!

Now, many would think a three day train ride would necessitate a buffet car ... but not on this puppy! There's a timetable which lets passengers know how long the train is stopping at each station and you have to pop off and grab whatever is on offer on the platform. Lonely Planet talks of delicious homecooked goodies sold by babushkas ... but reality involved pot noodles, chocolate bars and beer. Because the train was running late the stops were shorter than expected which worried Joanna as the train started to depart from Samara and there was no Ben to be seen! After a mad dash to the guard's cabin shouting, "moya moozh!", "my husband!", Joanna was extremely relieved to see Ben turn up from the next carriage having jumped on the train when it began moving. We should tell you at this point that he had been out getting a second lot of snacks for Jojos who seems to need a lot of feeding these days ...

After that kerfuffle we got the knack of the stops and there were no more incidents, even at the Russian border, where Joanna was certain they were going to stop us and send us to a Siberian gulag. That was until we were woken by the woman in charge of our carriage to get ready for our Astana stop. Up until this point all stops had been on Moscow time, so we thought we had hours to get ready for the stop. Not so - we'd jumped 2 hours to Eastern Kazakh time, and the train arrival was imminent. Suddenly sheets had to be removed, bags packed and tea sculled ready for Astana!

Thursday, 25 October 2007


Just a quick update first: we're in Macau, the world's new gambling capital, and Joanna is failing to be converted. We flew happily thru Bangkok to Hong Kong, and from there we've popped over on a ferry ride to Macau. Still all safe, and only 7 days until we fly home! Can't believe how fast time's flown. Anyway, that means in a couple of weeks there'll be a whole lot more photos up etc...

But back all the way to Russia, and Vladimir. We had a weekend to fill whilst we waited for our Kazakh visas, and we were keen to get out of expensive busy Moscow. Our 3 hour bus ride (according to Lonely Planet - when will we learn not to believe them?) to Vladimir turned into 5 hours as heavy traffic & numerous car accidents slowed us considerably. You'd think they only designed roads for the elite few who had cars to drive on them, not having everybody wanting to use them. Also there was a bit of rain on the Friday after many days of gorgeous sunshine, so the road may not have been perfect for insane Russian driving. I'm sure that was the excuse for the half-dozen fresh accidents we passed, as well as the few slightly older ones we saw... We were glad we weren't driving the Clio at any rate.

Vladimir is another Russian city that can lay claim to being the first Russian capital. It was founded by Vladimir, but it was a different Vladimir nearly a century odd later who made it a city to be reckoned with. He managed to move the centre of the Russian Orthodox Church from Kiev up to his new stronghold, and it became the biggest Russian city for a century or so before the Mongols came through and destroyed most of Russia. There's still some impressive cathedrals though, including in our opinion the best church in all of Christendom.

On with the photos:
Joanna happy to be out of Moscow (near the fantastic church):
Happy Jojo!

Here's the brilliant church, or Assumption Cathedral, as it is also known. It has a real corpse in it, and you can see the hand! It was some patriarch from the 13th century, but no guide books or internet resources seem to mention the actual dead body on show, and we've now forgotten his name.
No photos of the amazing interior allowed sorry.
The long distance artistic shot:

The church is astounding inside with all the sarcophagii and altars, paintings etc on show. It served as the model for the Assumption Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin (now the centre of Russian Orthodoxy), but is way cooler. It seemed to have lots of Russian Orthodox pilgrims turning up, who didn't seem bothered by the towns other sites.

We were though. Next door is St Dimitri's. It is the epitome of Russian White Stone work from the 12th & 13th century:
not much inside this one apparently
It is amazing up close:

All around Russia - and indeed in Serbia & Romania, one name kept popping up. Alexander Nevsky was the great Russian Hero (as cannonised by Peter the Great). He has a lot of cathedrals named after him, and was buried in the aforementioned cool Assumption Cathedral (his casket is still there), before Moscow got strong and moved him there to assert their dominance. Ivan the Terrible brought all the religious / national treasures he could to Moscow. Ben's just read the wikipedia article on him - what a dude.
Anyway, here he is with Joanna's hero (*bleurck*):
Ben & the Dude

And here's another sculpture, this time of Vladimir who made the town great, behind the Assumption Cathedral:

Here's the Golden Gate, which was the entrance to the medieval city, and is now a roundabout which it is necessary for all local bridal parties to drive around several times whilst hooting their horns. We had our picture of 2 brides in St Petersburg, but if we'd had a wide-angle lens we might have got 7 on a mound behind St Dimitri's. Seeing other brides obviously isn't something that they're worried about here.
Honk! Honk!

We had fun at the local history museum too, despite it being all in Russian. But Joanna's very good at making up stories.

It was a weekend of achievement too, for Ben managed perhaps his simplest leg of the drinking challenge:

It may look like a tumbler of water, but that's vodka, russian style.

All managed rather gracefully.

Monday morning we were on the train back to Moscow, we hoped to pick up our Kazakh visas and head to Kazakhstan in the evening. We needed to in fact, as the train trip was 3 days and we had 3 days left on our Russian visas...