Asia – the place for food (Part 2)

Having already developed a liking for Chinese and Indian food in the UK, moving to Japan opened up new food possibilities.

In Japan I found slightly different variety of Chinese food, and enjoyed eating garlicky gyoza dipped in chilli oil, vinegar and soy sauce. Gyoza are a bit like a Chinese verion of ravioli, with a little parcel of meat or prawn wrapped in a type of thin pasta. I also found in Japan the popular Chinese dish known as Ghengis Khan, which is stir fried slices of lamb with vegetables.

Another discovery in Japan was Korean food, and I once had a great meal at a Korean restaurant in Kyoto, where we had fried garlic, delicate slices of raw liver – yes, I really didn’t realise how raw liver could taste so good – and then grilled meat and kimchee.

From Japan I visited Thailand, and here I was willingly seduced by yet another variety of food. The Thai food combines the fieryness and spice found in Indian food, with some of the crispiness and soupiness of Chinese food. I fell in love with Thai green curry, which I now often make at home. An additional feature of Thai food which makes it so tasty from my point of view is the plentiful addition of coconut milk and pulp which I so much like.

One feature that runs throughout all of Asian food is rice, and I am sure that this is one of the reasons why I like it so much. Although British, I am more a fan of rice than of bread and potatoes.

Asia – the place for food (Part 1)

As a resident of the UK, my love of Asian food probably started with the excellent Chinese restaurant in my small home town, run by a couple from Hong Kong. The crispness and freshness of the ingredients grabbed me at once, as well as the delicious flavours of char sui, (red cooked pork), duck, and other exciting dishes. Having discovered Chinese food I was then eager to try other establishments, and with other foodies went to restaurants in Leeds and Birmingham.

Then it was Indian food, and many a time, when out with friends, we couldn’t decide whether to go to an Indian or a Chinese restaurant. I once heard that to eat Indian food is to take a glimpse of heaven, and I have certainly found this to be true, with the irresistable flavours, the spiciness, the rich sauces, and the lovely scented pillao rice. My friends in the UK who come from Indian families recommended Indian cookery books for me and other Indian food enthusiasts to try, and we cooked up some very passable and tasty dishes of our own.

Then I moved to Japan, and discovered how delicious sushi can be – particularly liking the sushi rolls. Here I also discovered many different kinds of noodles, from the lovely ramen with pork that you can have in the small ramen shops after a night out, to the fine, white somen that are so cooling in the summer. I also discovered miso soup, which I still have to this day.

Victoria Peak – for wonderful views of Hong Kong

When you think of Hong Kong, you probably think of skyscrapers and shops, bustling streets and double decker buses. Hong Kong has all this, but I found that one of the most scenic and enjoyable parts of my trip to Hong Kong, was my journey up, and walk around, the Victoria Peak.

Victoria Peak is a mountain in Hong Kong, located in the western half of Hong Kong Island, and is 552 metres high. Although the summit of Victoria Peak is occupied by a radio telecommuncations facility which is closed to the public, the rest of the peak is mostly publicly accessibly park land, including a circular Hikers’ Trail around the peak, which affords magnificent views over the city of Hong Kong, its harbor, and the surrounding islands. The Trail is well laid out and signposted, and a stroll around it is a wonderfully peaceful way in which to spend a day, well away from the hustle and bustle of lively downtown Hong Kong.

You can get to the top of the Peak by means of the Peak Tram, which is a funicular railway, and in a mere 12 minutes whisks you from Hong Kong’s busy financial district to the top of the Peak. Alternatively, you can catch a bus, as I did, having chosen the one day that the Tram was closed for maintenance. Both tram and bus bring you into the shopping and leisure centers above the park, composed of the Peak Tower, and the Peak Galleria. At either of these you can grab a nice meal, with fine views, before setting off on your hike.

Harbin – a feast of European architecture in China

China’s northernmost major city, Harbin is a delight for those who love to see a great range of architecture. The city was actually founded as late as 1897 as a camp for the Russian engineers who were building the Trans-Siberian Railway. The demand for workers brought in people from across Russia, Poland and from within Manchuria itself. Russian influence on the city continued due to the fact that after the 1917 Russian Revolution monarchist refugees escaped to Harbin, and the Russian influence is still clearly visible in many ways from the architecture to the food. During World War II the city was captured by the Japanese, and subsequently taken by the Chinese in 1946. Harbin has thus grown from a remote Russian outpost to the tenth largest city in China.

Harbin lies on the southern bank of the Songhua River, and has been alternately called Oriental Moscow, Oriental St Petersburg and Oriental Paris due to its unique European-influenced architecture. It is indeed one of China’s most beautiful cities.

One of the city’s most impressive streets is Zhong Yang Street, which has a fabulous array of varied European architectural styles, including Baroque and Byzantine façades, traditional Jewish architecture, small Russian cake shops and bakeries, fashionable French clothes stores, and Japanese restaurants. Nearby is the Russian Orthodox St. Sophia Cathedral, which has now been made into a museum.

Harbin has an Old Quarter near the Songhua River which is mostly made up of buildings that were constructed by the Russians at the turn of the 19th century. Most of these are built in Baroque or Byzantine style with intricate spires and cupolas, and painted in eye-catching shades of yellow, white, green, and red.

Harbin is also famous for its Russian influenced cuisine, and, unlike the rest of China, has plenty of bakeries producing a variety of differnt types of bread. Harbin is also known for its tasty European-style sausages.

Harbin has been holding an annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival since 1985, and this starts on January 5th and lasts one month. It is one of the world’s four largest ice and snow festivals.

Sights of the lovely island of Bali

The Indonesian island of Bali has long been a popular tourist destination. The culture of the island has flourished under Chinese and Indian influences, with Buddhism and Hinduism being introduced around about 800BC, and Islam being introduced later on. Bali came under Dutch control in 1909, from when there was a steady stream of European professionals, artists, tourists and intellectuals, and some Dutch influence remains today. By the 1930’s Bali was well-known as an exotic and sophisticated resort.

As well as golden beaches, great food and nightlife, Bali offers exciting attractions such as Goa Gajah Bedulu’s Elephant Cave, which is one of the southern region’s most famous tourist sights. In addition to the caves running through the mountain, the complex above the Petanu River includes temples, statues, pavilions and three pools for bathing. On the outside of the entrance to the cave is the dramatic, carved head of a devil. Once you get inside the cave, it is really dark, so you are well advised to take a flashlight. Inside there is a niche with a statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god who is the son of Shiva.

The Taman Burung Bali Bird Park, in Batubulan, has more than a thousand birds of both Indonesian and worldwide origin. The park is set in magnificent gardens, with lush tropical plants and beautiful water features. The park is also has an excellent restaurant where you can sit out and eat, enjoying the natural environment and the birds.

Another must-see of Bali is the Gitgit Waterfall, which is the most impressive waterfall on the island, and can be found not far from the town of Singaraja, which is on the north coast of Bali. If you enjoy walking, it is a pleasant walk through the jungle from Singaraja to the waterfall, but don’t forget to wear decent footwear if you want to do this.

The Heian Shrine – one of Kyoto’s greatest sights

The Heian Shrine (“Heian Jingu”), is a famous Shinto shrine located in the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, and is not far from the city center. The torii, which is a traditional Japanese gate found at the entrance to to Shinto shrines, is one of the largest in Japan.

Japan is predominantly Buddhist, but Shinto is a native Japanese religion, and the two religions seem to happily co-exist side by side, with the Japanese generally making their weddings Shinto, and their funerals Buddhist.

One of the major sights of Kyoto, the striking thing about the Heian shrine is its eye-catching colors of vermilion painted woodwork, and contrasting green-tiled roofs.

The shrine was built in 1895, and hosts the Jidai Matsuri, “Festival of Ages”, which is one of the three main festivals of Kyoto, and which takes place on October 22nd every year. Portable shrines are carried through the streets starting from the old Imperial Palace and ending at the Heian Shrine, and it is an amazing sight to see so many people in traditional, colorful Japanese dress. Around 2,000 people take part in the procession, and so it stretches for some kilometers in length!

The shrine also has beautiful gardens with ornamental ponds, irises, water lilies, cherry trees and other eye-catching detail. The best times to visit the gardens are in the spring when there is a profusion of cherry blossom, and fall, when the leaves have turned to gold and red.

Kyoto has plenty of top hotels, as well as more modest places to stay such as backpackers’ hostels, and a Hostelling International Hostel.

Bondi Beach – the quintessential Australian paradise

The beach itself is about one kilometre long and is popular throughout the year. The sea at Bondi Beach is particularly noted for its good surfing quality, with its northern end being rated as a gentle 4 (with 10 as the most hazardous), but the southern side rated as a 7 due to the famous rip current there which has become known variably as the “Backpackers Express”, the “Bondi Tram” or “Bronte Express” – the reason for this latter name being that you would end up at Bronte, two beaches south, if you get caught in it. There are in fact, possibly up to five rip currents operating along the beach, the Backpackers’ Express being the one closest to the designated swimming area. An underwater shark net is provided, which makes use of the water considerably safer.

Bondi Beach is the end point of the City to Surf Fun Run which is held each year in August, with over 63,000 entrants completing the 14 km run from the central business district of Sydney to the beach. Other annual activities at Bondi Beach include the Flickerfest in January, which is Australia’s premier international short film festival, World Environment Day in June, and Sculpture By The Sea in November. Every Sunday there is a market at the beach. On Christmas Day, a lot of people choose to come to beach to celebrate – particularly people of UK and Irish origin, for whom a Christmas Day at the beach is something of a novelty – so much so that I will give this fact some attention in my next post.

Playa del Ingles – with dunes like the Sahara

Playa del Ingles is one of the best resorts on Gran Canaria of the Canary Islands, and its name means literally The Beach of the English. The beach is quite simply one of the finest I have ever come across, and the far point of it is simply rolling sand dunes that resemble the Sahara Desert, and are wonderfully relaxing for walking across. Much of the beach at Playa del Ingles is simply family beach, but the end towards the sand dunes has long been a nudist beach, so don’t be surprised to find the odd naked person wandering around or sunbathing when you enjoy your walk across the dunes.

The wide sandy beaches of the area in fact stretch from the Maspalomas dunes to San Augustin in the north.

Apart from fabulous beach, Playa del Ingles has a wonderful pedestrian promenade to walk along, known as the Paseo Costa Canaria with plenty of places to stop off for a cup of coffee or a meal, but without being too crowded out commercially. The promenade is lined by lush gardens, which add to this scenic route.

The resort has plenty of restaurants, cafes, pubs and bars, with plenty to do as well as enjoying beach life.

Playa del Ingles is the place where I had one of the most best value for money holidays ever – it was a self-catering late deal and we got a delightful little cottage on a complex with two lovely swimming pools, with its own patio and yard for lazing around and sunbathing in.

Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

The famous Seven mile beach of Grand Cayman is actually more like five-and-a-half miles long, but, heck, what’s a mile-and-a-half between friends when you’ve got a beach as beautiful as this? Or for those of you who think in kilometres, then it’s 9 km long. This beach is popular for its coral sand, its clear blue waters and for its watersports, as well as for its backdrop of pinewoods, and has some gorgeous resorts along its length that are a paradise if you are looking for somewhere to relax.

The average winter temperature of the water here is a lovely warm 27 degrees Celsius, (80°F).

The beach recently received the award of The Caribbean’s Best Beach from Caribbean Travel and Life Magazine.

Unfortunagely, like the rest of Grand Cayman, the development around Seven Mile Beach was quite badly damaged when Hurricane Ivan struck in September 2004, but most hotels are now back running at full, or almost full, capacity.

The good news is that Seven Mile Beach is public property, and so you can walk the full length of the beach, past all the luxury hotels and grand villas. You can even have a barbecue on the beach if you wish, which makes for a great fun evening event. There are restaurants open to the public at most of the resorts, and several public beach bars, where you can sip on a cocktail and admire the view.

Some small reefs are located just off the shore which are very good for snorkelling, and the lovely clear waters allow you to see loads of sea life around the reefs.

If you need a bit of town life, then directly to the south of Seven Mile Beach is George Town, the capital city of the Cayman Islands, and to the north is the town of West Bay, where you can find a turtle farm and interesting limestone formations.

Anjuna Beach – one long beach party

Eight kilometres to the west of Mapusa in Goa, you will find the rather interesting and somewhat unique Anjuna Beach. Anjuna was a popular destinations for hippies in the sixties and seventies, but now the hippies have been replaced by backpackers, tourists from other parts of India, and Europeans on two week package vacations. Also there are a number of westerners who have settled in the area, often running bars, restaurants and cafes.

Anjuna is now renowned for its Wednesday flea market, where you can buy some lovely holiday clothes, a variety of trinkets, and Indian souvenirs. Anjuna Beach is also popular for its trance parties, which take place more or less every day. (For those who are not aficionados of the genre, trance is a style of electronic music).

By day, visitors to the beach enjoy swimming in its turquoise blue sea, and, in the evening, you can enjoy the fantastic sunsets, which provide the most dramatic backdrop just as the party starts to get going.

When you are not partying or buying souvenirs, you might visit some of the local sights. Chapora Fort nearby was built by the Portuguese in 1617, originally as a border watchpost. Albuquerque Mansion, also not far away, was built in 1920, and has interesting octagonal towers and a Mangalore tile roof.