Catching Up- a post from Stef even though it says John (it always does that)

We are in Auckland- flew in from Sydney yesterday. We have 4 days here before we head out to explore the North Island. We decided to spend this time catching up on things and planning as we will be unable to do so in French Polynesia. So we have an awesome flat with a full kitchen and plan to cook in and just relax for awhile.

John making one of our favs- beef & walnut risotto and the white wine we randomly bought to cook with (the best deal at the store) turned out to be an outstanding drinking wine:)

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So apologies in advance for some blog entries which are massively out of order. We will move them around in a bit but for now- they are posting as I write them!

July 9 we head to French Polynesia for 5 weeks!! We won’t have internet as some of the islands will be very remote. We still have a mobile phone for emergencies and will be able to check email occassionally but otherwise, we are pretty unplugged from July 9-August 17.

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Hello to my friends in Swindon- I miss you guys and can’t wait to catch up in person in November. I hope you aren’t working too hard:) Plan a BOP day soon and someone get a ham, cheese and egg one for me! They are the best, I swear!

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On the hunt for wedding wine in Barossa Valley

It’s a good excuse to taste a lot and not buy anything..

We visited Penfolds and Wolf Blass wineries this morning.. they are some of the biggest brand names here, and it’s interesting to see where the stuff you buy in UK supermarkets and wine merchants comes from. The wine is good – mainly their top labels are on for tasting – but the price buying at the cellar door are 50% to twice the cost of buying from a UK or USA wine merchant.

We alternated wineries with food places – an olive shop, a cheese place and a bakery – until we had enough supplies for lunch, so we went back to the hostel and ate it (with a bottle of wine of course). And now it’s time for a nap!

Penfolds:

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Wolf Blass:

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It’s an important academic exercise – notes must be taken:

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Diving the SS President Coolidge in Vanuatu

After two days, Stef was feeling nearly well enough to dive, and either way time was getting short and I needed to get on the wreck! We had chosen Allan Power’s dive operation to go with – the most experienced on the island. Stef decided not to go on the first dive of the day and see how she felt in the afternoon.

The site is only 10 minutes drive from town, and at the briefing when we got there, it became obvious that even the first check-out dive was going to push us beyond our previous experience. I had expected this, and had looked for someone in Cairns to do the deep diver speciality course at least (and thinking about the wreck diver speciality) – and even asked for these at Allan Power – but they didn’t have an instructor available. So, I jumped in at the deep end with a dive around the outside of the wreck to 39m (the deepest I’d been before was 32m). It also soon became obvious that the dive profiles required will very quickly break through the no-deco limits on the conservative Suunto computers.. despite the claim in the briefing that “this’ll be a no-deco dive”. I guess/hope the dive guides had more liberal computers. Also the going near or a little beyond the limits is compensated for by additional safety stops – at 6m and 3m (or in the case of my second dive the next day 10, 6 and 4m) – and 4 hour surface intervals between dives. So, my dive computer went into deco mode for a couple of minutes before we started to ascend, but as soon as we got to our safety stops it kicked back out into no-deco – not anything to panic about – but definitely focusses the mind that this isn’t the kind of dive you could bail from with a CESA – and your buddy is your one good chance of survival if something goes wrong with your air supply – so better stay really close!

The wreck is very close to the shore indeed – there isn’t really a surface swim required for it – more of just a walk out then a swimming descent down a rope onto the side of the bow. The visibility on the first dive wasn’t great – and it was difficult to get a good idea of the size and layout of the ship – sitting on its side with bow in about 20m of water and stern all the way down at 70m. Previous divers had retrieved some rifles and shells from the wreck and placed them on the top which provided some nice photo opportunities in relatively shallow water. We swam along the wreck a while and the guide pointed out below where the mine had hit – but to be honest in the poor visibility and low light I couldn’t see anything. We swam around and descended down the top deck and swam back towards the bow – a big gun mounted on the deck of the bow was interesting. This was an OK dive and good for safe experience pushing to 40m without being in an overhead-limited environment. I think I felt a little bit narced (a bit slow and dreamy) but not exceptionally so, with basic logic functions still intact!

The second dive was much better – and Stef joined me this time. The visibility was a bit better (although still poor for this site – maybe only 10-15m). We descended straight along the top deck and swam in through the cargo hold doors. There were trucks/jeeps and tracked vehicles to see – plus huge shells/bombs as well. We found our way through to the main part of the ship and examined some medical supplies (still sealed with dry powder in a jar) and saw a row of toilets looking strange mounted sideways on the wall. It was always difficult to understand the orientation and layout with the ship on its side. We also saw some bio-luminescent lanternfish which was amazing, but we couldn’t get a picture in such low light (it’s supposed to be a very cool night dive because of this). We didn’t go as deep but the level of penetration was further than we’d gone before – and in particular pushed Stef close to her limit of claustrophobia. But we made it through and saw some really cool things. Again my dive computer went into deco mode for a minute or two (and Stef’s was about a minute behind mine too).

On the third dive the following morning Stef decided not to join me because she wasn’t feeling 100% and because the plan was to visit “The Lady” which involves going even further into the wreck than we went yesterday. I wasn’t too keen on pushing much further beyond the limits set by both the dive computer and my experience – but this was an opportunity too good to miss. Luckily I had an experienced dive guide all to myself – the safest way to do it, to avoid overcrowding and so you don’t have to keep an eye on anyone else. “The Lady” is a porcelain statue/relief of a lady and a unicorn which was mounted on the wall of the first class smoking room of the original cruise liner – you can see it in the original photographs of the ship in its best days in the 1930′s and early 40′s, before it was converted into a troop transport. At one point it fell off the wall and was remounted (by Allan Power I understand) in the First Class Dining room. To get there we entered the ship from near the bow and descended along one of the floors (which would have been relatively open wide spaces in the original upright ship, but felt like a long tall corridor). It took us about ten minutes to navigate through these spaces and find the Lady down at 40m. There was also a chandelier from the dining room. By the time we had finished taking photo’s, my computer already showed only 1 minute of no deco time left so we began to make our way back – swimming the whole length back to the cargo holds near the bow which I’d seen yesterday. We then went into the chain locker (a pretty tight entrance, exit and space inside) where we saw some of the lantern fish again. By this time my dive computer had been in deco mode for a while and the ascent back to 24m was not satifying it, so I signalled to the guide that we needed to ascend. We exited through a small hatch near the bow, and it was a relief and a great site to see the huge ship in the light behind us and to have appeared from such a small hatch in it! We then took a further 15+ minutes to ascend and decompressing at 10, 6 and 4m. My computer didn’t kick back into no-deco mode until I had been sitting at 4m for a couple of minutes. Out of the water with 75 bar in the tank, and knowing that there were extra tanks at 5m if we needed them, meant I wasn’t really too nervous about this. But it’s definitely pushing things far further than we usually would, and not something I intend to make a habit out of. But what an experience! (Stef here- I’m glad John enjoyed this dive but I was really the nervous fiance at the surface!!)

In the afternoon I decided not to dive as I thought I’d already taken on enough nitrogen and we were flying the next afternoon, so Stef went for a dive without me on Million Dollar Point. Hey- Stef here:) This was the second dive for the others so it was a shallow (relatively), easy one. The wreckage runs from shore to 40m deep and it was neat to see stacks and stacks “stuff” and try to determine what it was- jeeps, bulldozers, cars, trailors and building materials are everywhere. The highlight was a wreck of an Australian ship that sank whilst trying to remove the original WW2 wreckage for sale back in Australia. It made one journey and was on the second mission full of stuff (particularly copper) when it cut its hull on metal and sank- directly on the wreckage it was taking- ironic eh? It was also neat to see how the coral and aquatic life have made this scrap their home. We saw loads of fish including huge wrasse & crocodile fish as well as hard coral.

On the first dive: me with a WW2 rifle, rusted and encrusted after nearly 70 years in the Pacific Ocean:

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Second Dive – vis slightly better – able to make out the huge bow with the cannon mounted on the front:

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Stef with some of the ammo from the big gun up front.. it looked pretty heavy – I thought the dive guide was going to let go and Stef would sink to the bottom with it ;-) :

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Entering the hold – yes it’s pretty dark in there. I think the tracked vehicle is some sort of bulldozer, not a tank. There were also a few jeeps:

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“The Lady” at 40m:

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The Lady and I:

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Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

In the end we decided to spend only 5 days in Vanuatu, as our time and budget is becoming increasingly tighter. The main reason for us to come here was to dive the SS President Coolidge – a fascinating WW2 wreck nearby the main town of Luganville.

Unfortunately when we first got here, Stef had bit of a cold and couldn’t dive, so the first two days we spent exploring some other places. We met Carsten (from Switzerland, in search of volcanoes) at breakfast on the first morning, so we shared a taxi to go to Million Dollar point for some snorkelling. It’s so called for the millions of dollars worth of material disposed there by the Americans at the end of WW2. Santo (and nearby Efate) were important military bases in the battle for the Pacific – with up to 500,000 soldiers vs the native population of 60,000 in the whole of Vanuatu. The bases played an important role in the battle for Guadalcanal, athough the activity was fairly short-lived, as the main theater of war quickly moved much further north. So there were vast amounts of stored equipment and munitions here when the war came to an end, which needed to be disposed of under “Operation Roll-up”. They tried to sell their remaining equipment to the British and the French, who wouldn’t pay any money for it, so eventually they just dumped it all into the sea – jeeps, six-wheel drive trucks, bulldozers, semi-trailers, fork lifts, tractors, bound sheets of corrugated iron, unopened boxes of clothing, and cases of Coca-Cola. Thursten Clarke described it: – “built a ramp running into the sea and every day Americans drove trucks, jeeps, ambulances, bulldozers, and tractors into the channel, locking the wheels and jumping free at the last second. Engine blocks cracked and hissed. Some Seabees wept. Ni-Vanuatu witnessing the destruction of wealth their island would never see again, at least in their lifetimes, thought the Americans had gone mad”. Ironically, the bulk of the surplus, an estimated 90 percent, consisted of civilian items – it’s a shame the Americans didn’t give this away to the Vanuatuans rather than dump it.

But it does create a fascinating dive and snorkelling site, and we found some interesting bits and pieces on the shore as well.

Stef and one of the many Jeeps dumped at Million Dollar Point:

Stef at Million Dollar Point

Diving to one of the tracked vehicles – I think a bulldozer of some sort:

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The next day we were still not up for scuba diving yet, so we shared the cost of a tour with Carsten along the eastern side of the island. This area has some very nice beaches (Stef thinks that Champagne Beach and the beach at Port Olry are the best in the world). We stopped to look at a coconut drying plant, at the beaches and at the Blue Hole. Snorkelling at the beaches was pretty good – great hard corals off Champagne Beach and at Port Olry we saw two turtles (one of them was huge) and a black eagle ray. The blue hole was a very beautiful spot as well, at a calm spot in the forest, with deep clear water great for swimming. All of these places were very quiet with few visitors, and we were lucky to have great weather.

Champagne Beach:

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Stef getting some sun:

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Port Olry – restaurant where we ate lunch by the beach:

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Swimming at the Blue Hole:

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On our way to Beijing

We walked around the city walls in Xi’An today (actually only a quarter of them – it is a 13km rectangle – largest intact city walls in the world!).

Now we are done with Xi’An (not a great town outside of the historical sites) we are on our way to Beijing. We managed to get deluxe soft sleeper tickets – a private 2-berth compartment with private toilet! It was only $30 more expensive than flying – $130 each! And we save a night in a hotel and the transport to/from the airport) so really it works out cheaper. It’s interesting that this class of travel, when it was launched, was done so almost in secret with no information or booking available to the public. Party members and military officers would get to use them. Now anyone who can pay the relatively high cost can travel like this! (and for us it’s about the same price as a standard class seat peak time return from swindon to london).

Oh, and we’ve got dinner, beer and some “great wall” wine.. It’s a tough life being a backpacker ;-)

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Terracotta warriors in Xi’An

Yesterday we visited the terracotta warriors. We thought it was really cool – the history is amazing and the scale of the monument achieved so long ago is awesome. We saw that there’s still excavation work ongoing and they are taking their time – who knows what else they’ll find there and in the nearby sites which still hide legendary burial chambers!

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Shaolin Temple

Yesterday we visited Shaolin Temple, the place where Kung Fu originated. The temple dates back to AD 477, and although it all seems very touristy and modern now, it still has a very special and good feel about the place. The natural setting in the valley, surrounded by mountains, is very special. We saw various ancient temple buildings, and ancient trees with indentation marks from where the monks would practice “finger punching” over many hundreds of years. We also climbed one of the mountains to visit “Dharma Cave” – where apparently Bodhidharma – a famous Indian Monk, traveled here in AD527 and lived for 9 years in the cave- most of that time spent staring at the wall meditating – and thus founded Zen Buddhism.

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Kung Fu at Shaolin is now a big industry, both the domestic training industry (there are a number of schools, some of which have 20,000+ students) – parents send their children here hoping that they will become a movie star like Jet Li or Jackie Chan – and for the tourists. There are various shows – we just saw the “free” one at the temple itself – it was quite fun and good skills were shown by the boys – but you could tell there wasn’t much spiritual left about the Kung Fu they were practising.

Here’s a short video clip to give you the idea (High Def – probably best to download this rather than play in browser): Kung Fu Show at Shaolin

30 Yuan noodle dinner for two

After our 22hr train journey on basic rations, we needed to find some food. We walked around the town in Luoyang and found this fast-food style noodle restaurant, where our food set us back 12 yuan each ($2) and the local beer was only 3 yuan ($0.50) each for a big bottle – and it’s really a good beer (relatively for china) – as good as Tsingtao which usually goes for 10-20 yuan a bottle in bars/restaurants. Winner!

Stef has been studying the chinese way of stuffing noodles down super-fast and is try to blend in:

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Panda research base in Chengdu

We think the panda base is the best thing in Chengdu – and maybe the best value “tourist attraction” we’ve visited so far (most are very expensive, relatively for China). The pandas are such crazy and interesting animals! And cute of course. We saw a number of adult and young adult giant pandas and some smaller red pandas. They all had large comfortable looking enclosures and they seemed healthy and happy – good to see!

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Fun and games with chinese trains

Having failed to get a tibet permit approved, we must move on from Chengdu. There are no tickets available on Friday night to Xi An, so we decide to go to Zhengzhou first to visit the Shaolin Monastery, and from there we’d be on the high speed train system – a bullet train to Xi An in about 4 hrs a couple of days later. There are many more train options from Chengdu to Zhengzhou, so we were able to get soft sleepers on our 4th choice of train. It’s a 25hr trip so we definitely need the most comfortable option!

Looking at the schedule, I see that our train goes through Xian on the way to Zhengzhou.. So why no tickets on it to Xian?! Just one of the many oddities of the chinese train system.. (Stef says – annoyances!)

Tomorrow morning we go to see the panda’s then late afternoon we board our longest train trip ever!

Mount Emei – Golden Summit at 10,000ft

This morning we made an early start to try to reach the summit of Mount Emei before the worst of the group tours and weather. Unfortunately the place is an absolute tourist trap (99% chinese tourists) and when we got off the bus we were trapped by the hordes of tour groups. As we had cheated by taking the bus most of the way, we chose to hike the last 500m of climb up to the summit and back – and at least then it was quieter as most of the other people take the cable car.

Overall, a bit disappointing, we didn’t even see the aggressive attack monkeys we had been warned about.

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On board the new Chongqing-Chengdu High Speed D Train

We discovered that sleeper train tickets can be hard to come by in China even outside of peak travel periods on certain routes, as when we tried to book our ticket from Guilin to Chengdu even 4 days in advance, there were no tickets for at least 4 or 5 days after that.

The problem is particularly difficult for tourists for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a logistical pain to get the tickets, as there are few agents who can book them (we finally found one in Yangshuo) – otherwise you have to travel to the station of departure in order to buy the ticket from the ticket office, which can be a pain when you’re traveling in the province around the main city where you want to depart from. There is an online booking system available to chinese people, but not yet to tourists (who need that capability even more). Secondly, there is a big touting problem – they buy up the tickets for some of the main routes (the train to Lhasa is also a difficult one), then sell them on the black market for a significant markup. The government has tried to solve this problem by linking all tickets to your passport/ID number which you must provide to buy the ticket – but we haven’t yet seen this checked/enforced at the ticket gates or onboard the trains. I find this particularly frustrating as it’s a false economy which is not helpful to anyone except the tout’s bank balance. I’d love to take the train to Lhasa – the highest train route in the world – but we would have to fly now because of this (and I refuse to buy the tickets off the black market and support this dishonest way of making a living). Of course thirdly there is also simply sheer volume of passengers, but so far in mid-May, we don’t see evidence that’s the main factor (although start of May and other holidays such as chinese new year then for sure it is).

So we were forced to look at flying, which is something I had been hoping to avoid for our travel around China for cost reasons, flexibility and the inconvenience of dealing with airports. The flights directly to Chengdu were relatively expensive ($180 vs our expected $80 for a soft sleeper on the train), but we came up with the solution of flying to Chongqing for only $80 and taking advantage of a brand new high speed rail connection to Chengdu which only started operating 4 months ago. In first class/soft seat it costs only $19 to complete the 333km journey in around 2 to 2.5hrs – a bargain compared with similar distance train journeys in the UK! (think London-Manchester is around the same distance – a first class ticket bought on the day is around 200GBP). So even adding in our $9 taxi ride from the airport and $30 hotel room for the night (the cheap flight yesterday was a late one) we are still $120 better off than flying direct to Chengdu, and we’ll arrive around the same time as our 25hr sleeper train would have got us there – but now having had a shower and a really good night’s sleep. It’s just annoying that we had to go to that length of solution planning and inconvenience just because of the touts taking advantage of the system (I suspect).

So going forwards, we’ll now have to be extra careful to book our sleeper train tickets as far in advance as possible. Unfortunately this removes some of the flexibility to change of travel plans at short notice which I thought train travel would provide.

Our stay in Chongqing was purely functional, but it was interesting that from the moment we left Guilin everything has been brand new. The rate of development and construction here is astounding – brand new airport terminal building, taxi along a brand new 3 lane expressway to the city, brand new hotels and apartments around the brand new North Station building, followed by a brand new train on brand new tracks to another rand new station in Chengdu. We missed out on the brand new monorail connection to the city in Chongqing because we arrived so late, and we’ll miss out on the brand new subway from Chengdu east station because it’ll only open later this year. It must be difficult to keep up with the pace of development here – road plans and transport connections change every few months.

The scale of construction of high-speed rail in China is mind-boggling. By the end of 2012, there will be more km of 200kph+ rail here than in the rest of the world combined – by mid 2011 they already had over 10,000km of routes in service – 13,000km by the start of 2012 – 25,000km by 2015. Bullet-train technology has already been commercially deployed and even goes a little faster than the Japanese Shinkansen – on the Beijing-Tianjin line, it reaches 330kph (205mph). Long distance bullet train lines are coming into service too – the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train now completes the 1318km journey in under 5 hours. Before it would have always been a long overnight sleeper train journey or a more expensive and less flexible flight. And then there’s the possibility of going even faster – the Shanghai airport rail link is based on maglev technology which allows it to reach a top speed of 431kph (268mph) – enabling it to cover the 30km journey into the city in just 7 minutes and 20 seconds. Makes the Heathrow Express sound like the slow train to Sapa! Plus, all the new stations are pleasant places to be and have English signage and ticket machines (although useless to tourists right now as a chinese ID card needs to be swiped to complete a purchase). In total these investments will cost $300bn by 2020, but it will totally revolutionise how interconnected the country is.

I think that in the next 5-10 years travelling as a tourist around China by train will change from being “a bit of a challenge” to being a real pleasure – assuming that some the key issues can be solved – such as ticket booking procedures, touting, financial viability concerns and a few construction/safety problems that have been identified. It’s still far safer than getting on a bus or crossing the road (a different story!) so even now it’s my prefered method of transport.

On board the Chongqing-Chengdu D Train

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Longsheng “Dragon’s Backbone” rice terraces at Ping ‘An

We finally found a peaceful place in China! OK, there are still street sellers here and one bar playing loud music in the evening, but it’s close enough!

Ping An is a beautiful village amongst historic rice terraces. You have to run the gauntlet of package day tours and a big ticket office to get here, but once you do and stay the night (the tour groups are all gone by early afternoon), it’s quiet and calm, the views are amazing, and it begins to feel like the rural China I expected.

We’re only spending two nights as we need to move on to Chengdu, and unfortunately it rained most of the morning so we missed our chance to do a long hike to the next two villages (not sure Stef was too upset about that – she was commenting about “flashbacks of Nepal” on the hike up with our backpacks yesterday). But we had a really nice walk to some viewpoints up the hills behind the villafe this afternoon – and we tried the bamboo chicken rice which is stuffed inside the bamboo and barbecued.

Our hotel has the most amazing views (more pictures to follow) – we got the best room in the place – on the corner with windows on two sides overlooking the rice terraces. It cost twice what we paid in Yangshuo but it’s nice for a break before we go back to hostel accommodation.

Ping An village surronded by rice terraces:

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K952 Train to Guilin

Just boarded our sleeper train and it’s looking kind of nice – much better than Vietnam!

Picked up some Tsingtao beer and noodles/rice for dinner.. Luxury!

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China – Shenzhen

We got our chinese visas in Hong Kong quickly and without any problems – so this afternoon we took the MTR to Lo Wu and crossed the border on foot into Shenzhen.

Our stay in Hong Kong was very functional – a day spent working on our visa applications (itinerary and hotel bookings prepared, but seemingly not needed in the end) and another spent submitting the application, getting laundry done, diving gear into a storage locker in a selfstore facility, and other boring tasks. So no chance for sightseeing really. Hong Kong is a nice city which reminds us a bit of Singapore in terms of size, density of people and good infrastructure – but it’s a bit rougher around the edges, and unsurprisingly it’s much more chinese. We probably won’t stay a night on the way back because it’s expensive (we were paying about 80 USD a night for a tiny 3* hotel room, and the few hostel/guest house options are nearly as much) – and this made it worth it for us to pay a premium to get our visa’s processes in 24 hours (2060 HKD = 266 USD for both of us) and head straight over the border to Shenzhen.

Our stay in Shenzhen is again purely a functional one – as it’s difficult to buy the china train tickets from abroad, and we didn’t know what time we’d get here today – so it was necessary to plan a night here to buy tickets for tomorrow night’s train to Guilin. As our previous sleeper train experience in Vietnam wasn’t a good one and we’re hoping to use these trains alot here, we chose to buy the most expensive (444RMB = 70 USD) ticket for our first attempt with the chinese trains. This is for a berth in a 4-berth soft-sleeper compartment, which i’m hoping will exceed the standard on vietnam railways. It’s about 13.5hrs of travel leaving around 6pm tomorrow so I hope it’s comfortable! The city here in Shenzhen around the train station is unremarkable and rather boring, with little for us to do except for some final shopping for essentials before we get deeper into China.

Crossing the border was really noticeable from a language perspective – suddenly noone speaks english except one receptionist in the hotel – and there is very little or no signage in English. If it’s like this in a major hub, i think we’ll very quickly start having to manage with sign language and some basic words in mandarin. I’ve also got a great dictionary app calles Pleco, which has audio pronunciation and an excellent OCR function where you can hold the iphone camera up to some chinese text, then click on each character to see the meaning – already found useful to interpret what ticket counter line we were in at the train station. I used the same app to cut-and-paste the words for “guilin”, “soft sleeper”, “tomorrow” etc into a message to hold up to the ticket counter window – which was instantly understood and we walked away within 60 seconds with our tickets. I like it when the technology saves so much trouble – it makes up for all the trouble it usually causes!

Communications-wise, we achieved getting a sim card ( China Unicom 3G) much more easily than I thought, which came with a 500MB data allowance, so we should be able to continue to blog as we go and get on email. Facebook doesn’t work here, so don’t expect many/any updates there!

Stunning El Nido

We only stayed in El Nido for 3 nights but it was a highlight for us. The scenery is stunning, we found great value accommodation at the silverise pension (700php per night in a new modern room with a proper bathroom), and everyone was friendly. We spent the two days island-hopping on an organised tour, visiting destinations such as “secret beach” and “hidden lagoon” which were stunning and beautiful. The snorkeling on these trips was OK, but not amazing – although a great highlight was seeing a huge 50cm long cuttlefish (we have only seen the small 10-15cm variety before). There was, unfortunately, coral bleaching and lots of dead coral in some of the places – contrasting with Coron which had much healthier waters. But in El Nido the above-water scenery is even more impressive – and we definitely would have liked to have spent longer there to explore more of the islands and coastline.

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But we only had a couple of days before our 21 day visa stamp expired, so we had to get the bus to Puerto Princesa to fly back to Manila for our connection to Hong Kong. The “express” bus was a long 6 hour ride, about a third of it unsurfaced, so it wasn’t particularly comfortable – and the “express” part meant it was something like doing a dirt track rally race in a minivan – until something mechanical broke and we crawled the rest of the way at 20mph with regular clunking noises from underneath the vehicle. So we were happy just to get to the airport in time for our flight.

We spent one night in Manila just out of necessity then flew to Hong Kong to get our chinese visas sorted out.

Coron

I think Coron is my favourite place in the Philippines so far and we haven’t even seen the good bits yet. The people are friendly, there’s some great wreck diving (to be experienced tomorrow), there’s actually some OK street food available around the market, costs are pretty low (550php = $13.75 for double room, shared bathroom), but there’s still the basic facilities that make life easier such as pharmacy, ATM (still to be found) and a selection of bars and restaurants in walking distance. It doesn’t feel too touristy, and the tourists who are here are generally like-minded divers.

On the downside, our overwater guesthouse (on stilts and shakes occasionally) was very hot and also noisy due to the dogs last night.. Then the thunder which was constant from around 5am until midday.. So we didn’t sleep at all well.. It rained from the early hours until around 2pm so we decided not to dive today – the time spent on the surface would have been uncomfortable.. So we slept in instead.

At least we made some good use of the afternoon studying our manuals for our enriched air nitrox course. We’ll complete this certification tomorrow – it’s a useful capability particularly for wreck diving, which allows us to dive with air mixtures with a larger percentage of oxygen than normal air – and hence a lower percentage of nitrogen. This reduces the rate at which nitrogen dissolves in our blood at depth and so allows us to stay at depth for longer without getting a dangerous amount of dissolved nitrogen that would lead to decompression sickness. This means that we can spend much longer on a wreck at 30 metres instead of just 20mins – which would be the absolute limit with normal air (and if we start diving to 40m as we might wish to do on the Coolidge in a few months – it will increase our bottom time above 8 minutes – very short with air!). Also we can do our second dives sooner, and for longer. There are some technicalities to understand, but our dive computers make everything so much easier than it would have been 10 years ago – nitrox has become so mainstream largely due to that.

So, we are pretty excited about tomorrow, to take a look at some of the remains of the Japanese fleet sunk by an American attack on 24th Sept 1944.

Donsol

Yesterday we flew to Manila from the small Caticlan airport just the other side of the narrow channel separating Boracay from the mainland. A week in Boracay was enough to recover and if we’d spent much longer we probably would have started getting bored. The check-in at Caticlan was quite amusing as their computer systems were down and they were very disorganised at checking people in manually (“airphil express” was the airline). When it got to our turn, it took 30 mins to check just the two of us in.

We kept our heads down in Manila, we stayed in a new budget hotel called “tune” and just went out to the shopping mall for dinner. Then today we flew to Legaspi, which is the nearest airport to Donsol. The public transport to Donsol was crammed (16 people in a minivan), but it only cost $2 per person for the 1 hour drive.

We’re here for the whale sharks and a spot of diving – and there isn’t much else to do here, despite the locals’ efforts to make fireflies and anything else they can think of major tourist attraction. It’s a small town with only one restaurant/hotel in the main town and a few resorts outside of town. But it’s nice to be in a place where people are friendly and say hi to you in a nice way and not just because they want your money!

We booked a “whaleshark interaction” for tomorrow – which means snorkelling with a whaleshark if we can find one. Can’t wait!

Then perhaps we will do a day’s diving – manta bowl sounds interesting, but you’re not allowed to go after the whalesharks with scuba gear on here.

We’re back on the backpackers budget after our week of splurge on Boracay, but 1000 pesos ($23) here buys us a nice little fan bungalow with a proper bathroom/hot shower – clean and relatively bug-free – not quite as great value as Thailand or Cambodia but pretty good.

The estuary at Donsol with the Mayon Volcano (near Legaspi) in the background

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Review: Powergorilla by Powertraveller

Overview

The PowerGorilla forms the core component of my power-on-the-go strategy (see the page on our Kit List for details of the full setup), so it’s critical that it meets the power requirements for many different devices and performs well. I chose it for its flexibility and storage performance and it has definitely met my expectations in those areas. I’ve used it for over a year now – most seriously tested on our 18 days of trekking and peak climbing in Nepal.

Powergorilla charging from backpack flexible solar panel, powering iPhone and camera battery charger, at Island Peak Base Camp

Design and Features

Powergorilla excels in terms of flexibility of power input and output voltages. Output voltages can be selected from the single button on the front of the unit from the following options: USB 5V, 8.4V, 9.5V, 12V, 16V, 19V or 24V. It’s very easy to use. Furthermore it’s possible to both power a device from the USB 5V output at the same time as powering a device from the multi-voltage output at a different voltage – so I can charge my phone at the same time as a laptop. Powertraveller sells a number of standard power adaptor tips (I bought one for my laptop) or it’s possible to make up your own if necessary (I soldered a tip for my Li-Ion battery charger onto an appropriate cable – just make sure you get the polarity correct).

This flexibility enables me to use the unit to charge all of the following:
- 5V: iPhone x 2
- 12V: Universal Battery Charger for AA/AAA and Li-Ion camera batteries
- 19V: Asus Netbook

The unit can accept a charging voltage between 15 and 25V – further enhancing its flexibility – you don’t have to use the supplied AC adaptor – you can just use your laptop AC adaptor (or even better, a universal AC/DC/Auto/Air adaptor) – so you only carry one AC adaptor for all your charging needs (I ditched the AC adaptors for the Universal Battery Charger, Laptop and iPhones to reduce weight and bulk).

The design of the unit itself is a simple rectangular “brick” measuring 220 x 130 x 15mm and weighing quite a reasonable 631g. It comes with a neoprene protective cover and is easy to pack or slide down the back of a rucksack.

Performance

At the time of purchase in Nov 2010, this was the most powerful portable (sub 1kg) battery pack on the market, delivering 21000mah of storage at 5V (105 Watt-Hour Wh). Competitive products out there such as the Energizer XP18000 (90Wh) deliver less, and whilst there are some higher capacity options on the market now – such as the Hyperjuice (150Wh option for $350) – these are more expensive and more bulky (and less flexible, Hyperjuice is just designed for MacBooks). Powergorilla provides a good sweet-spot compromise between portability for long-term travel, and energy storage performance for use over a number of weeks.

In terms of charge performance, unscientifically I “reckon” that the powergorilla will charge both of our iPhones every day for 10 days when under heavy usage (say, 60% charge delivered to each iphone each day) – given the iPhones 1400mah battery size, this equates to around 16800 mah of charge delivered to the devices, an acceptable efficiency for a 21000mah battery pack. With careful usage, I reckon the powergorilla could keep two phones going for 3-6 weeks. Likewise, I reckon the pack can almost recharge my laptop twice from 20% to 100% (the laptop has a 56Wh battery) – which is again an acceptable efficiency and an excellent performance for 631g unit.

Charging efficiency is more difficult to gauge – you don’t care when charging from AC, it only matters when on solar. Charging from a 10W panel for 6-8 hours a day in the Himalayas via a universal DC adaptor appeared to store enough charge to deliver 60% charges to both iPhones each day.

The powergorilla handled the extreme cold in the Himalayas pretty well, all things considered, but it was important to have the solar panel to top up each day.

Durability and Reliability

The first Powergorilla that I received in Nov 2010 was Dead on Arrival. Powertraveller support replaced the item, which then worked flawlessly for over a year (only occasional usage one a month or so when travelling), until February 2012 – when after 3 months of heavy usage the pack died suddenly. All credit to powertraveller support – they sent a replacement to me in Singapore no questions asked (and covered the cost of shipping to Singapore), but it was a big hassle to not have it working just when I really needed it in a remote part of Indonesia. Reliability is essential for a travel product like this, because failure when in a remote part of the world could be extremely painful – and especially when it’s the central core of all your power storage and conversion as I use it. A rating of 1.0 has been upgraded to 3.0 due to the good support and hope that they have fixed the issues in subsequent product revisions.

Physically the unit seems pretty durable and the construction solid – the rubber grip and the neoprene case provide some protection – no probems here.

Price

The powergorilla is priced at RRP 150 GBP (235 USD) – but available at some retailers from around 120 GBP. This is expensive for a battery pack – but good value for a product which can charge all of your travel electronics and provide such a high capacity.

Conclusion

Excellent flexibility, performance, portability and good value – but reliability issues need to be fixed. Highly recommended (as long as my 3rd unit doesn’t die in the next 6 months of travel!)

Review Summary: PowerGorilla by Powertraveller
Design and Featureswww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
Exceptional flexibility, easy to use and sensible design
Performancewww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
Excellent power storage and charge performance for the weight/size
Durability & Reliabilitywww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
Reliability problems but replacements provided and supported well by Powertraveller
Pricewww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
Expensive but good value given the flexibility and excellent storage performance
Overallwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.comwww.dyerware.com
Excellent flexibility, performance, portability and good value - but reliability issues need to be fixed.

 

 
PowerGorilla in use at Island Peak Base Camp – Island Peak in the background (20,305 ft)

Website redesign

I decided to redesign the website because the old theme was so slow and there were many small annoyances that I never got around to fixing. Let me know if there’s anything that is still not working so I can fix it!

Soon we will add a product reviews section to review all the kit we’ve travelled with for the last 4 months.