Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Abu Dhabi and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi
I mentioned in the last post that one thing we did in Abu Dhabi was to visit the mosque, and what a mosque it is.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is still very new, having been started in the 1990s and finished in 2007, but it is already a very popular place to visit, both for religious and tourism purposes.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

The late Sheikh, after which it is named, wanted the mosque to be a place of religious learning and education. As part of that, it contains a large library, which is intended "to engage and promote intercultural discourse and interaction in order to benefit from global knowledge and generate new and scholarly publications through rigorous and scientific research methods."

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

The building is huge, with the potential to accommodate 10,000 worshippers inside and a further 30,000 outside. The outside is finished in Macedonian white marble. There are four minarets and eighty-two domes.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Understandably for a place of religion, they are quite strict about what clothes are suitable. Ladies need to be in a long skirt or trousers, with long sleeves, all of which must be loose fitting, and will have to wear a headscarf.

Men are a bit less strict, but cannot wear shorts or sleeveless tops. Nic was OK, but I was just off, so to go inside, I had to don a black abaya.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

This was fine, except that to borrow it, I was expected to leave some form of identification as a security. Of course, that happened to be the day that I didn't have anything on me. They suggested that I could get my driver to leave his, but of course I didn't have a driver either.

In the end, they let me leave my hotel room card (it didn't have the name of the hotel or the room number on it), so that was OK. But if you go, do bear in mind that you may need to have something suitable with you to leave.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Once inside, the outer areas are still very white, with a huge courtyard and some nice subtle decoration. They have intentionally used features from many different forms of Islamic culture, and have used materials from around the world, so whilst clearly Islamic, there is a nice diversity to the mosque.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

The star attraction for many, is the main prayer hall, although for me personally, I wasn't overly struck by it; I thought it all looked a bit mismatched and gaudy. The world's largest carpet took two years to design, hand knot, and weave the pieces together. The chandeliers are huge, with the main one weighing 12 tons, and the two smaller ones 8 tons each.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Whilst I wasn't that impressed about the inside, I did like the outside, and the visit was definitely worthwhile.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi
Us at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Abu Dhabi and the Qasr al Hosn Festival

Camels at the Qasr al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi
When we were in Svalbard, back in 2014,we met a British couple who are living out in Doha, Qatar, and they invited us to come and visit them, so rather than going straight back to the UK, we stopped off in the Middle East. we'll get to Doha in due course, but first we went to a couple of places in the United Arab Emirates.

The UAE is a relatively new country, having only been established in 1971, but there is evidence that area has had people living there for up to 130,000 years.

The British, Dutch and Portuguese started to become involved in the area in the 16th century, and by the 19th century, the British entered into agreements with the Sheiks of the Trucial States, whereby they would protect them, in exchange for exclusivity of territory rights in the area, to thwart their European rivals.

Qasr al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi
The main industry in this area was pearl diving, and there is a great history of that here, but that was to change in the 1950s, when they started oil exploration. By the 1960s, the wells were selling their oil, and the Persian Gulf Area, and specifically the Sheiks that ruled it, was becoming very wealthy.

The UK however, had decided that it could no longer afford to defend the area, and announced that it would withdraw its protection. The Sheiks offered to pay for the cost of protection, but this offer was turned down, presumably because to accept it would be tantamount to the British military acting as a militia, which is not permitted.

Qasr al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi
In a need to defend themselves, the Emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the two largest, decided to join together, and invited the five other Emirates, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah and Umm al-Quwain, to join them. The United Arab Emirates came into being on 2 December 1971. The respective rulers form the Federal Supreme Council to govern the country, and one of them is selected as the President. The city of Abu Dhabi, not Dubai as many assume, is the capital.

Cookery at the Qasr al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi
With a population of a little over 9 million people, two thirds of whom live in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, the UAE is only small. And of that number, only around a sixth are actually Emirati citizens, with the vast majority being from other countries. For a country where its own people are so massively outnumbered, it is surprisingly harmonious. (That is not to say it is all good. Emiratis are certainly treated preferentially, including in serious legal matters, and the poorer foreign workers, in construction and the like, are often treated very poorly.)

Log splitting at the Qasr al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi
With only a few days to spend here, we decided to focus on the two main cities, and started with a few days in Abu Dhabi. We liked Abu Dhabi, and found that we preferred it to Dubai overall. Even though the city as it is only really being built in the 1960-70s, it feels very real and honest. the architecture overall may not be as impressive, but it feels less driven by big business and tourism.

We weren't so keen on the heat. Despite this being one of the coldest parts of the year, the temperature was still in the high thirties (centigrade). So we didn't do all that much. One day we went out to the mosque, which I'll talk about tomorrow, and one day we tried going to the Manarat al Saadiyat, which we had read was an interesting place to discover about local art and culture, but in fact was quite disappointing. So instead, we sat in the courtyard of the Fanr Restaurant, which was rather nice.

Telli at the Qasr al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi
One place that we did manage to enjoy a bit of local culture and heritage, was the Festival at the Qasr al Hosn. We didn't manage to look inside the building itself, which houses exhibits of Emirati history and cultures, but it is supposed to be worth a look if you have the chance.

This is the oldest stone building in Abu Dhabi, with the round watchtower having been built in 1761 to protect the only freshwater well. The rest of the fort was built around thirty years later, and it became the main residence of Shakhbut bin Dinyab Al Nahyan and later Sheiks, up until 1966.

The festival was excellent. We were presented with a bit of new culture even before we got in, when Nic and I had to queue separately - it looked for a while like I was going to win, but then there was a hold up in my queue and he surged ahead to get there first!
Niqabs at the Qasr al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi
There were lots of interesting going on, from camels and traditional boats, dancing and singing, to cookery and weaving. We watched as they demonstrated the traditional method for cutting up logs, had someone explain to us how they made rope, and had a go at the weaving loom.

We watched them making the traditional niqab face masks, which they traditionally used to protect their faces from the strong desert sun and sandstorms, and I was fascinated to watch them making the telli, strands of woven threads that are used to decorate clothes and other items.

The entrance ticket included some vouchers for some of the activities, and I used mine to hold the lovely white falcon. Nic on the other hand, had one of the stall holders insist on demonstrating for him how he should put on the keffiyeh, the traditional headdress.

Markets at the Qasr al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi

Most of the people at the festival were locals rather than tourists, and many of those doing the displays and activities didn't really speak any English, but they were friendly and welcoming, and seemed quite happy to show us things, even if they couldn't necessarily explain them to us. We enjoyed it.

Dancing at the Qasr al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi

Basket Making at the Qasr al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi

Dancing at the Qasr al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi

Nic at the Qasr al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi

Tabitha with Falcon at the Qasr al Hosn Festival, Abu Dhabi

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Hong Kong - British territory, expat living and a museum

Displays in the Hong Kong Museum of History
With my sister having been over in Hong Kong for over twenty years, and her partner for even longer, our stay here also gave us a brief introduction to the life of an expat. I have always thought of expat life to be a strange way of living, as it seems like you fully belong to neither one country nor the other, so it was interesting to see.

With Hong Kong having been a British Territory for ninety-nine years, and with the people desiring to remain apart from mainland China, this is certainly a relatively easy place for a British person to live. Of course this may change; Mainland China is increasingly exerting its authority in Hong Kong, leading to rising unrest amongst the Chinese locals, and a growing concern about whether it will remain a comfortable place for foreigners to live.
Horse Racing in Hong Kong

For now however, all is well. English is widely spoken where needed, and there are plenty of bars and restaurants that cater to westerners. We joined my sister at her regular pub quizzes in Central, and there is little difference from spending a night at your local in the UK, albeit that the 'locals' here come from far and wide.

A big feature of life in Hong Kong for some expats, is the Clubs. They are members of a number of the Clubs, which host regular events, as well as being somewhere to eat, drink and meet other expats. We particularly enjoyed the champagne brunch at the Football Club - no surprise there, there was unlimited bubbly!

It was also good to get along to the horse racing in the comfort of the Club box. Nic even came out ahead on the betting, which was nice.

Lantau Island, Hong Kong
We also took a drive over to their house on Lantau Island, and had a tasty lunch in a local restaurant on the waterfront.

But somehow, I'm not sure that an expat life is for me - even a relatively comfortable one like theirs. It isn't that there is anything wrong with it - in fact it is quite a nice life, and we enjoyed our stay. It is just that I think I would personally feel disappointed with myself for being in a country, but not really being immersed in it.

Perhaps this is because I have always felt that, looking back, even though I was a child at the time, I missed a great opportunity to properly experience living in Germany. We were in an armed forces environment, with British schools, homes, events, shop and cinema, so there was no real need to speak more that a smidgeon of German, or to get involved in the community there. And I regret that I didn't.

That perhaps influences how I feel, but I don't think that I would be truly happy living on the edge of a different country. I have always said that if I ever lived abroad, I would want to speak the language, live in and fully engage with the local community, rather than in a British enclave. That isn't to say I wouldn't welcome some interaction with fellow Brits or other English speakers - that would be great, but as something to do sometimes, not a way of life.

Of course, in somewhere like Hong Kong, there is the difficulty of both the complexity of the language and of being accepted into the community even if you want to be. In common with many places, perhaps especially in Asia, the local community are necessarily too keen for you to become that involved. We certainly have heard a number of people say that they have had difficulty mixing in to the Japanese community on a long term basis.

I suspect, therefore, that were I to live abroad, it would have to be somewhere that was happy to have an immigrant like me in their community, and where I had at least a reasonable chance of getting to grips with the language.

Displays in the Hong Kong Museum of History
But anyway, on the subject of Hong Kong having been a British Territory, we visited the Museum of History. As we are often finding to be the case, it makes for uncomfortable reading for us British. I can't say I was taught much at school about our Empire days,and what I did learn was largely positive, about trade and exploration. They forgot to teach us about all of the terrible things that we did when we invaded countries and tried to hold down the indigenous populations.

Here in Hong Kong, however we might try to dress it up with excuses about the behaviour of the Chinese, we basically invaded the place because they didn't want us to keep selling opium to their people.

The Chinese leaders could see the damage being done to their people and society, and tried to ban the British from selling their drugs to them. So we started the First Opium War. We bombarded their homes and eventually, because we were the stronger military, forced them to give up part of their country to us - and of course we kept peddling our drugs.

Later, we and the French ganged up on the Chinese together, and took more of their territory in the Second Opium War. It is from these wars that we established our territory here. It is things like this that make me so sad when I hear British people talking about our 'glory days' of the Empire, as, even if we did do some good things too, far to much of that glory was built on the foundations of other peoples' misery.

A piece of Ming pottery in the Hong Kong Museum of History
On a lighter  note, it was interesting to read that, if you look in the right places, it might be possible to pick yourself a piece of Ming pottery. Ok, so it is likely only to be a shard or two, but still. Apparently the area around Penny's Bay on Lantau Island was used by ships trading ceramics as a dumping ground for broken pieces. Some 10,000 bits of pottery have been found, some of which is Ming. I've included a photo of the Ming mark on the bottom of a bowl, so if you do happen to find a piece, you'll know what it is.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Hong Kong - a little bit of sightseeing

Bird Market, Hong Kong
Laos was the last country on the main part of our trip, but before we left Asia for our gradual return home, we stopped off in Hong Kong, where we stayed with my sister and her partner.

This wasn't our first visit here, as we came out way back in the 1990s, when she first moved out here.

On that trip we did quite a lot of sightseeing, which we weren't planning to do again this time, so for anyone reading who is looking for comments on places to see, I'll drop in a few lines about places that we visited before - though of course a lot may have changed in that time, and I can't post any photos from that trip.

Bird Market, Hong Kong
Back then we took the tram up to the top of Victoria Peak for the views, peered over the Chinese border from the New Territories, and went out to a few islands. At that time, Lantau didn't have the airport, you still enjoyed the slightly precarious landing at Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon, ranked as the sixth most dangerous in the world. But what it did (and still does) have, is the huge Buddha, which we did walk up to. We also visited tiny Peng Chau, and Cheung Chau, with no cars and little milk float style emergency vehicles. In Cheung Chau, we visited an old cemetery, where I got bitten to bits; I lost count at around twenty bites on one leg.

We visited a little fishing village, where you could select your live - and mostly rather ugly looking - fish from the containers outside, and where the kids and adults alike were licking dried lizards on sticks. By contrast, we also visited Ocean Park, the marine theme park, which then was somewhat smaller than it is now, having expanded after being threatened by the arrival of Hong Kong Disneyland.
Bird Market, Hong Kong

We wandered around some of the temples and historical sights, and went along to Victoria Park to watch the people doing their Tai Chi, and to the Botanical Gardens with its little zoo. This is one of the places where the Philippino 'helpers' congregate on Sundays, their one day off, escaping for a short while from their chores and the tiny - and I do mean tiny - little room that they have to live in.

Market, Hong Kong
Then of course, no visit to Hong Kong is complete without going to at least a few of the numerous specialist markets: there is the ladies market, for clothes and knick-knacks; Stanley market, which is a good one for souvenirs; the bird market, which is a slightly disturbing collection of birds in tiny cages; Temple Street night market, with its electronics and gadgets; the Jade Market, with no prizes for guessing what they sell; and the Cat Street antiques market.

We did return to a couple of the markets this time around. The Jade Market was still pretty much the same, although it seemed to have less variety this time around.

Cat Street Market, Hong Kong
The main place that we pottered around this time was the Hollywood Road area, that runs between Sheung Wan and Central. This was the second street to be built by the British, back in 1844, before that rather more famous Hollywood in Los Angeles had even started to be lived in, let alone make films.

The waterfront was a bit closer in those days, and so this was where people set up shop to sell antiquities that sailors and traders had brought back from overseas, and it has been an antiques area ever since.

Hong Kong alleys

Alongside the fancy shops and expensive pieces, there was, when we were here last, a nice little market in Cat Street, which was rather cheaper, tattier, and altogether more interesting to poke around. It has smartened up somewhat now, which means the antiques market has rather more tourist tat than it used to have, but it is still worth a visit, I think.

If you venture a little further inland, there are some nice little places to look around, and to grab a drink or something to eat, but you will have to put in the effort. The island rises pretty steeply here, so there are a lot of steps to be ascended. There are escalators up in some places, but for some reason, they don't bring you down again.

Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong

While in the area, we popped in to the Man Mo Temple, which was built in 1847, and is believed to be the oldest in Hong Kong. It is home to two Idols, Man Cheung, the God of Literature, and Mo, the God of War.

Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong

Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong

Tai Po, Hong Kong
One thing we thought we would do this time, was take a trip out to the New Territories to see the Lam Tsuen Wishing Trees. During the Lunar New Year, locals gather at these trees to make a wish. Traditionally, they tie their wish to an orange and throw it on to the tree. If their wish - or Bao Die - stays on the tree, it will be granted, but if it falls, then it was too greedy and will not come true.

These days, they don't let you throw your orange onto the three banyan trees, you have to put them on specially built racks instead. However, if you really want to throw your Bao Die, they have also added a fourth tree, a special plastic one, where you still can.

Unfortunately, by the time we arrived at the nearest station, the queues for the buses were ridiculously long. The idea of queuing so long to get there was bad enough, but we didn't even want to think about what the wait would be to come back again.

So instead, we just took a wander around Tai Po, with its Waterfront Garden and Lookout Tower. The tower was built to commemorate the return of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997, and is 32.4 metres tall. It is an interesting looking thing, with a reasonable view from the top, although we preferred watching the kites being flown in the park.

Tai Po, Hong Kong
Tai Po, Hong Kong

Tai Po, Hong Kong

Kites, Tai Po, Hong Kong

New Year Market, Hong Kong
With it being the Lunar New Year period, we went along to a market, which we hoped would have some interesting and unusual decorations, but instead it just had some very generic kitsch, including loads of 'character' decorations, because of course you couldn't possibly celebrate the upcoming year of the Monkey properly, without an Elsa from Frozen and a giant shrimp! It was interesting to see all of the orange trees and arrangements though.

New Year Market, Hong Kong

Flowers are an important part of the Lunar New Year celebrations here, so the flower market was predictably busy, with people buying armfuls of flowers, and even more of those orange trees.

Aside from that, we found a few decidedly un-Chinese places to eat in Kennedy Town
and Central, and pootled about very lazily.

New Year Market, Hong Kong

New Year Market, Hong Kong

Flower Market, Hong Kong