A familiar livery on the apron at TXL
A familiar livery on the apron at TXL
The red carpet awaits
The red carpet awaits
Sand dollars
Sand dollars
The facilities
The facilities

My unfortunately timed bout with food poisoning (it started on day 1) continued into the third day but I was feeling much better overall. Making bathroom runs to the outhouse some 100 yards out into the steppe at 3AM when it is below freezing is quite the experience. Especially on breezy nights like the one we had last night.  That said, there is an upside. Combine a door/roofless outhouse with a stiff breeze and you have got yourself a smell-free bathroom trip with one heck of a view!

Main street Dalanzadgad
Main street Dalanzadgad

Around 1:30 today we stopped in the town of ДАЛАНЗАДГАД (Dalanzadgad) for shopping, lunch and, most importantly, showers! This time the shopping facilities were much more western we even got to partake in a form of transportation that I didn’t think we would see for many days: an escalator! Dalanzadgad is the capital of the Gobi aimag (province) and has a whopping 14,000 residents!

Dust. This has been one of the biggest hardships thus far on the tour. Shortly after we loaded up in the minivan on day one I noticed that most of the interior seams as well as the rear windows were sealed with either duct tape or packing tape. As it turns out, the tape had been put there to curb the amount of dust constantly trying to invade the back of the vehicle. I’d hate to see how bad it is without the tape because it is pretty horrendous as is. Here is an example of what our bags looks like at the end of a day’s driving.

This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.
This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.

The dust was actually making it pretty hard to breathe and most of spent some time hacking and coughing each day so far. Thanks to the Chinese population it is actually quite easy to find face masks in the towns so we picked some of those up during the lunch stop. I’m sure we look like right idiots but it was certainly an upgrade from my underwear bandit look from earlier in the day (undershirt wrapped around the face!).

One solution to the dust problem
One solution to the dust problem

Anyhow, the shower stalls at the public bathhouse were squeaky clean and the hot water was plentiful. Washing off what felt like a pound of dust/dung, shaving, and quickly doing some laundry in the running water was unbelievably indulgent. This is what happens when you haven’t seen running water in 3 days!

A short 90 minute drive from the town took us to the entrance gate to Yolyn Am, a park that has a valley with ice year-round. Well, it is supposed to be year-round but it recent years most of it has melted away by mid-summer. There were still small patches of ice to be found but it wasn’t the meter-thick slab that we were expecting. It was about a 6km roundtrip hike into the valley and we were a bit disappointed that we arrived so late in the day. The sun was setting (and the temperature plummeting) when we were on the walk in. Wildlife spotted inside the canyon included some vultures, thousands of small rodent looking creatures, a lone bat and a few smaller birds.

Minivan odometer: 752km (251km today)

Mongolia Tour Days 1-3
Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck.  Three times around with it on your right.
Walking around a ovoo (cairn) for good luck. Three times around with it on your right.
All sorts of interesting offerings on the ovoo: skulls, cash and vodka bottles to name a few.
All sorts of interesting offerings on the ovoo: skulls, cash and vodka bottles to name a few.
We found camels!
We found camels!
The first camels of our RTW trip
The first camels of our RTW trip
High five!
High five!
Ultzi fishing some water out of the magic rock
Ultzi fishing some water out of the magic rock
This is supposed to make your eyesight better
This is supposed to make your eyesight better
Home sweet home
Home sweet home
This ger came with a guard dog
This ger came with a guard dog
Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?
Hospital, orphanage, or shopping mall?
Lunch on day 2: our first ger cafe
Lunch on day 2: our first ger cafe
Mongolian truck stop
Mongolian truck stop
This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.
This photo shows how dusty it was inside the van after a day on the steppe. That is my blue backpack in the center.
Camels like to shake their lips
Camels like to shake their lips
and wag their tails (nonstop)
and wag their tails (nonstop)
and roll in the dust
and roll in the dust
The facilities
The facilities
Watching for the herd to come home.
Watching for the herd to come home.
I'm not quite sure why this young camel was so shaggy.
I’m not quite sure why this young camel was so shaggy.
A very playful kid at the ger camp
A very playful kid at the ger camp
Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle
Herding home the goats and sheep by motorcycle
Our driver in his never-ending battle against the dust
Our driver in his never-ending battle against the dust
Quality Mongolian bed
Quality Mongolian bed
One solution to the dust problem
One solution to the dust problem
Main street Dalanzadgad
Main street Dalanzadgad
Why look, it is a stein of lipton tea!
Why look, it is a stein of lipton tea!
Public baths in Dalanzadgad
Public baths in Dalanzadgad
A welcome change of scene - mountains!
A welcome change of scene – mountains!
Just a little ice
Just a little ice

Aug 152011
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!

After a couple of well-spent days in Kota Kinabalu we pushed west to the biggest attraction on Borneo: Mount Kinabalu.  The mountain, one of SE Asia’s highest, tops out at 13,435ft (4,095m) and this is made even more impressive by the fact that there aren’t any other peaks of comparable size in the area.  A short two-hour van ride was all that was needed to reach the park from KK.

Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.
Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.

Climbing the mountain is why many tourists visit Borneo but Amy and I were quickly turned-off to that idea because of the cost and because neither of us really fancied a two or three day slog up the mountain.  After paying for permits, guides and accommodations we were looking at around US$300 per person for the climb.  Instead, we stuck to the trails around the base of the mountain which still gave us a nice taste of the local wildlife.

Kinabalu Mountain Lodge - our digs for two nights
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge – our digs for two nights

For sleeping arrangements, we stayed at the Kinabalu Mountain which is about 2km from the park entrance.  Inside the park there are a whole range of accommodations that were just above our price range.   Rather recently a hospitality company secured an exclusive contract covering all the in-park housing and dining options and this seems to have driven prices up drastically.  Even the cheaper restaurant in the park was charging RM50 (about $17) for a barely passable lunch buffet!  No thanks.

Despite the hordes of climbers buzzing around park HQ all day, it was surprisingly easy to get away from everyone by hiking some of the lesser-known trails in the immediate vicinity.  We had read that there was a very informative guided tour led on some of these trails.  Honestly though, we were quite disappointed.  The walk was very brief (40 minutes) and the tour group was quite large.  Hiking on our own was a much better.

In addition to hiking around the park, I found some great bird watching right at our lodge.  The  lodge has a nice big front porch that overlooks the valley and all sorts of birds pass through at various times of day.  I didn’t do so well with identifying them but I did manage to capture photos of a few.

One hungry ashy drongo baby
One hungry ashy drongo baby

The evenings at the lodge were also quite entertaining.  As soon as the sun goes down all sorts of insects wake up and start their day.  I saw dozens of different types of moths as well as a few different giant beetles.  I have never seen such huge insects before!

The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”
The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”


Mount Kinabalu
Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.
Well maintained boardwalks all around park headquarters.
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge - our digs for two nights
Kinabalu Mountain Lodge – our digs for two nights
View from the Kinabalu Mountain Lodge
View from the Kinabalu Mountain Lodge
They have some big bugs in these parts!
They have some big bugs in these parts!
A big walking stick hanging out at the visitor center.  Close to a foot long.
A big walking stick hanging out at the visitor center. Close to a foot long.
The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”
The green bug on the right is what you or I would consider to be “normal size”
Vines the circumference of a volleyball
Vines the circumference of a volleyball
One has to be careful of these while hiking.  Some locals make bat traps out of these things!
One has to be careful of these while hiking. Some locals make bat traps out of these things!
Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus  leucophaeus)
Ashy Drongo (Dicrurus leucophaeus)
One hungry ashy drongo baby
One hungry ashy drongo baby
Broadbeak?
Broadbeak?
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!
Mount Kinabalu, cloudless at last!
Fog rolls in from time to time.
Fog rolls in from time to time.


Aug 072011

I am happy to report that our 8-day stay on the Cooks lived up to expectations.  We spent our entire visit on Rarotonga, the biggest island in the Cooks.  It’s a volcanic island with a jungle-covered center and beautiful beaches and reefs around its circumference, similar to Kauai but less commercialized.  It’s about 20 miles around the island and at the recommendation of a friend we booked a bungalow with Rarotonga Backpackers on the west coast.

Avarua harbour
Avarua harbour

Avarua is the nation’s capital as well as it’s biggest town.  Most of the restaurants, banks, and shops are in Avarua as is their humble parliament building.  Avarua’s lively Sunday market (Punanga Nui) is definitely a must-see since it is a good place to sample some local cuisine without breaking the bank.  Rarotonga wasn’t as bad as Easter Island but the restaurant menu prices were still quite high.  I ordered up a BBQ plate for NZ$10 and received an absolutely massive plate of meat and carbs.  It was about 50% larger than the biggest plates I’ve been served at L&L BBQ in Hawaii and by that I mean it was about 4 times the amount of food I want at one sitting!  It was a long and difficult battle that I eventually lost.

Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)

We actually had two different types of accomodations at Rarotonga Backpackers.  For the first four nights we stayed at their “Hillside” complex which was about a quarter mile inland from the coast.  Our bungalow was a outfitted with a bathroom, a kitchen and a balcony – that’s “self-contained” in Cooks lingo.  We couldn’t quite see the ocean over the palms but the view was nice enough.  Nightly rate was $72 New Zealand Dollars which works out to about $61 US dollars per night.  For the last four nights we moved down to their recently-opened Garden Bugalows which are closer to the beach but without a view.  The garden bungalows were a couple bucks more but I would say that the proximity to the beach made it a win.

Hillside Bungalow
Hillside Bungalow

Initially, getting around the island was a bit frustrating.  Our guesthouse picked us up at the airport just as promised but the rest of the time we relied on Rarotonga’s bus service.  There is a once-hourly bus that goes clockwise and another that goes ANTI-clockwise around the island.  The full circuit takes just shy of an hour, plus or minus.  Unfortunately, the posted schedules mean next to nothing as everything and everyone operates on “island time.”  On a few occasions we just gave up on the bus altogether and spent the subsequent hour or so walking to our intended destination.  During these lengthy strolls I pondered how I would model the bus arrivals as a stochastic process.  But I digress…

A bit of a revelation came to us on day 4 or 5 when the helpful staff at Rarotonga Backpackers suggested that we try hitching “like the locals do.”  Sure enough, that worked like a charm!  As an added bonus I got to talk to some locals.  One time I had some kids show me how they liked to catch colorful reef fish in plastic cups.  Another time I rode with a lady on her way to church whose only trip out of the Cooks took her to Boston for a seminar at Harvard.  Small world!

A closer view of Taakoka...we walked to it.
A closer view of Taakoka…we walked to it.

The main thing we occupied our time with during the visit was snorkeling.  You can snorkel just about anywhere around the island and there are very few off-limits areas where there are dangerous currents.  One day we took the bus over to Muri Lagoon on the eastern coast.  The lagoon is dotted with small islands and there is good snorkeling just past one called Taakoka.  The island is a few hundred yards off the coast of Rarotonga but knee-deep water made it an easy walk.  We just had to watch out for all the sea cucumbers and the foot-wide cobalt blue starfish that crowd the lagoon!

My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”

Another day I decided to tackle the cross-island trek.  Amy wanted to do some more snorkeling her fancy new prescription mask so I went solo.  After hitching my way up to Avarua I walked about 2km on a dirt road leading to the island’s interior and a sign marking the start of the trail.  It informed me that it should take about 3 hours to make the 5km crossing to the south coast.  The climb was quite steep and it became very obvious why all the guidebooks strongly advice against attempting it after rain.  The surface of the trail is almost clay-like and I am sure it turns into a muddy slip-n-slide with even the slightest precipitation.

Looking south from the ridge
Looking south from the ridge

I made it to the top in about 45 minutes and stood on the ridge of the island right next to this rock pinnacle they call the Needle.  You used to be able to climb the needle itself but a sizeable piece fell off it a few years back and now there are some very to-the-point signs advising against climbing.  I heeded the warnings and just enjoyed the view from the overlook – it was good enough.  The descent on the south side was much steeper but fortunately they have quite a few ropes in place that you can use to help yourself down.  Eventually the trail flatted out and followed a nice little stream past a waterfall to the coast.  Total elapsed time was just over two-hours.

From the miscellaneous island activities category I can say now say that I have been “jet blasted.”  I went down to RAR (isn’t that a great airport code?) one afternoon to catch an Air NZ 777-200 arrival.  There is a nice place to watch right at the end of the runway so that made for a fun diversion one afternoon.  I regret not sticking around for the departure.  Seeing a few hundred thousand pounds of aluminum and jet-A go from stationary to airborn in less than 7,500ft is surely a loud and exciting spectacle.

Another entry in the miscellaneous category came on our last day on the island.  I was staring out the window of our bungalow and happened to see a nice large coconut drop from one of the palms.  I went out and retrieved a relatively large green specimen and started to formulate a strategy.  Tools on hand included a kitchen knife, my hands and my feet.  Step one was to google how to husk a coconut.

I learned that green ones tend to be harder to open than their more mature brown counterparts but that they usually contain more coconut water.  The basic idea is to attack from the stem end and peel sections of the husk off one-by-one.  Having a nice sturdy prybar was highly recommended but I just had to make due with my hands.  I won’t lie, it was difficult and I probably looked a right idiot while I was working on it.  Start to finish it took over an hour but the results were worth it.  As an added bonus I didn’t detach any digits in the process!

From an eating standpoint we mostly self-catered.  Groceries were expensive and going back we would have brought a bunch of staples with us from the States.  Nevertheless, we still managed to keep to a pretty low budget with our grocery bill totalling NZ$87 (about US$73) for the week.  We primarily shopped at a nearby mini-mart and while selection was limited the prices were on-par with the bigger grocery stores in town.  Coconut cream was readily available so Amy put together some excellent coconut curries a couple of the evenings.  We also had our fair share of standard backpack cuisine: pasta, sauteed veggies, and toast.

Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes

All in all the Cook Islands left us impressed.  Given Air NZ’s nonstop flight from LAX and relatively reasonable airfares, I am surprised that more Americans don’t vacation in the Cooks.  It is much like Hawaii but has two big advantages, at least to me.  The first are the plentiful beaches – having a couple hundred yards of pristine white beach to ourselves was the norm (and it was high season when we visited!).  The second big win is the lack of commercialization.  The Cooks have strict rules against outside ownership so this has kept the big hotel chains at bay.  This gives the place a bit more character if you ask me.

We would love to visit the Cooks again someday to travel to some of the other islands.  Domestic airfares are a bit pricy but the other islands are supposed to have their own charms that are well worth exploring.  Lastly, I decided to put together a budget summary for those who are interested.  Perhaps some other travelers will find it useful someday.

Budget Summary (prices in US$):

  • Accomodations (8-nights): $497.35
  • Groceries: $72.25
  • Eating/drinking out: $64.58
  • Local transportation: $58.53
  • Total: $692.52 (or $43.28 per person per day)
    Cook Islands
    Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
    Our guest house (the Rarotonga Backpackers Hillside Bungalows)
    Hillside Bungalow
    Hillside Bungalow
    These mosquito coils came in very handy.  Manufactured by the “Blood Protection Company”
    These mosquito coils came in very handy. Manufactured by the “Blood Protection Company”
    A short walk from the guesthouse after breakfast
    A short walk from the guesthouse after breakfast
    The Sunday Market at Avarua
    The Sunday Market at Avarua
    A ridiculously over-sized BBQ plate at the Sunday Market.  Two steaks, two hotdogs, some chicken, noodles, coconut spinach and a pile of potato salad.
    A ridiculously over-sized BBQ plate at the Sunday Market. Two steaks, two hotdogs, some chicken, noodles, coconut spinach and a pile of potato salad.
    The aftermath...I barely finished half.
    The aftermath…I barely finished half.
    Avarua harbour
    Avarua harbour
    A sleepy afternoon at RAR
    A sleepy afternoon at RAR
    This seemed to be the closest thing to fast food on the island.
    This seemed to be the closest thing to fast food on the island.
    As the sign says, “The Parliament of the Cook Islands”
    As the sign says, “The Parliament of the Cook Islands”
    Muri Lagoon
    Muri Lagoon
    Taakoka Island
    Taakoka Island
    A closer view of Taakoka...we walked to it.
    A closer view of Taakoka…we walked to it.
    The snorkeling was pretty good just offshore from Taakoka
    The snorkeling was pretty good just offshore from Taakoka
    Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
    Hermit crabs of all shapes and sizes
    My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
    My goal for the day: cross-island trekking past “the needle”
    A small skink I spotted on the hike
    A small skink I spotted on the hike
    An Air NZ 767, bound for Sydney I believe.
    An Air NZ 767, bound for Sydney I believe.
    Looking south from the ridge
    Looking south from the ridge
    A plant that grows on a plant.
    A plant that grows on a plant.
    Tourists and locals looking to get jet blasted
    Tourists and locals looking to get jet blasted
    777 arrival from Auckland
    777 arrival from Auckland
    Our local grocery purveyor - the Tex Mart
    Our local grocery purveyor – the Tex Mart
    After an hour of hard work.
    After an hour of hard work.
    Fresh coconut water!
    Fresh coconut water!
    Later that day, a nice marinated fish salad (ika mata) from Trader Jack's.
    Later that day, a nice marinated fish salad (ika mata) from Trader Jack’s.
    Sunset on our last day
    Sunset on our last day


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