I'm not a big fan of December, when the cold weather starts to settle in and the days are at their shortest. When possible I like to get away to somewhere warmer even if it is only for a couple of weeks. This year I decided to go to Karnataka and Goa in India.
Bangalore was our first stop. I had read that it was a modern Indian city that while short on tourist attractions had lots of bars, restaurants and shopping malls. While this was true I wasn't expecting it to be just another big Indian city with totally inadequate infrastructure and crazy traffic that prevents you from getting anywhere quickly.
After 3 days in Bangalore we hired a car with driver to go to Hampi, about 350 kms away which took us about 7 hours. Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage site and contains countless ancient temples in various states of repair spread out over an exotic rocky landscape. We basically had 2 full days to explore the whole area but we could easily have spent quite a bit more time there. Everything we visited was well worth seeing but perhaps the highlight was the views at sunset from Matanga Hill.
After Hampi we hired another car with driver to go to Goa, which was also 350km away and should have been a similar journey to the one from Bangalore to Hampi, except that the driver got lost within Goa and the driving back and forth added another couple of hours to the overall journey. We stayed in Goa Velha, instead of in the main town of Panaji or by one of the more popular beaches. The area was quiet and relaxing but we still took taxis to go out and eat in Panaji for some authentic Goan food and to take us to quieter beaches, as well as to some of the main tourist attractions such as the Portuguese forts.
After that it was a flight back to Bangalore for a two-night stay before catching the flight back home. Two weeks was short but definitely worth doing. The winter seems more bearable now.
This was my fourth visit to New Zealand and, as I usually go travelling in the summer in Europe, it was my third winter. This time my plan was to see more of the South Island as I had never made it further south than Christchurch. Hiking was also on my todo list but I knew that would depend on the weather.
As usual my point of arrival was Auckland with Emirates but I had also managed to fit in a stopover in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka and Singapore. I think I know Auckland reasonably well but there are still a lot of places I haven't discovered. I decided to take the ferry across to Rangitoto and hike around the island. I was thinking about hiking to adjacent Motutapu but the staff at Auckland's iSite informed me that that would take more than a day, especially with the less frquent ferries in the winter. There are lots of criss-crossing trails around and across the island and the route I took was in the end about a 5-hour hike, following the black lava formations, up to the crater and returning by another route. All in all a nice day trip from Auckland CBD.
Next stop, by InterCity from Auckland, was New Plymouth and Mount Taranaki. Number two on the todo list was to do some hiking around the volcano but I had been warned of the approaching bad weather at the iSite in Auckland and I still wasn't sure if there would be some kind of transport to the park headquarters. In the end the weather did limit what I could do and, although I did manage to arrange some transport up the mountain to the park headquarters and do a few hours hiking up above the snow line, dodgy weather meant I had to turn back.
Next a flight to Blenheim to catch up with a friend, Nicky, before she flew to Thailand for work. I manage to visit Nicky about once every 2 years and look forward to having first hand news on her life. There are also the Marlborough wines to look forward to and my customary walks in the Wither Hills. This time we also managed to drive up through the Mount Richmond National Park in a non-4x4 car.
After Nicky had left for Thailand I set off to walk the Abel Tasman track. This track can be walked at any time of the year, but the advantage of walking it in the winter is that there are not too many people around. I walked it in reverse over 3 days staying overnight in Department of Conservation huts. The walk is not particularly demanding, apart from a low-tide estuary crossing (which I had to do just before sunset) and a few steep ups and downs in the middle, but it is definitely one of the must-do Great Walks of New Zealand.
Next stage, Intercity coach to Dunedin, via Christchurch. Dunedin, the Gaelic word for Edinburgh, is a pleasant, lively student city and architecturally seems quite Scottish. I was heading to the Otago Pensinsula, close to Dunedin, to do a few day walks and see what the countryside was like in this part of New Zealand, which, as elsewhere in New Zealand was part volcanic, the main reference point being the Harbour Cone. The walks I could do were dictated by the limited and infrequent public transport network (everyone drives in New Zealand) but, nevertheless, I still managed to do quite a bit.
After Dunedin I headed for Te Anau, one of the rainiest parts of New Zealand. There is so much walking to be done in the region but, again, it wasn't the best time of the year to do it. In the end the weather behaved itself and I managed to do a few hikes around Lake Te Anau and along the Kepler Track, although the upper parts of the Kepler Track were off limits due to avalanches.
Then for the final part of the trip it was back to Blenheim to say goodbye to Nicky, who had returned from Thailand, and then flight to Auckland before catching my flight back home. New Zealand is a spectacular country and there are so many things to see for such a small country. If my current travel patterns are anything to go by I will probably be back in a couple of years or so to discover a bit more.
The Arctic has always been one of my dream destinations and this time I had finally made it, thanks to Norwegian Airlines. It turned out it was not as difficult a destination as I had imagined and the main town Longyearbyen has plenty of hotels and organised trips. Expensive, yes, but not as expensive as the Norwegian mainland due to its tax-free status.
The end of March, the transition period between 24-hour darkness and 24-hour light, seemed like a good time to go, although the week before my arrival there were temperatures forecast of -30 degrees so I was beginning to think that the weather might prevent me from doing things. In the end the temperature range was a more bearable -5 to -15.
I decided to take a few weeks to see a few places in China as a finale to my stay in Hong Kong. I had already been to Beijing, parts of Yunnan and parts of Sichuan about 15 years ago so I was expecting things to be a little different, especially reading about the change of pace in China in recent years.
After crossing the border from Hong Kong into Shenzhen, I stayed the night there before taking the bullet train to Beijing West, a journey of about 10 hours travelling at an almost constant speed of 300km/h. At that speed I was expecting to see relatively little of the countryside but I was surprised to see quite a bit. It was quite a smooth ride too, quite different from the high speed trains back home in Portugal.
In Bejing I based myself in a hotel in one of the hutongs in the north of the city and from there I revisited parts of the city I had been to 15 years ago as well as newer areas such as the Olympic Village and the art district of 798. The highlight was a trip to the Great Wall at Jinshanling where I spent the day hiking as far as I could along the wall, only stopping when the wall got too delapidated to safely walk along and the heat got too much.
From Beijing I took the high speed train to Xian, the home of the Terracotta Warriors. Not that that was my purpose of visting there. I wasn't much inclined to wait in line with thousands of other people to see them. I went there mainly to get a taste of the city, the end of the Silk Route and see some of the sights and taste the local food.
After Xian I again took the bullet train to Luoyang where I visited the Longmen Grottoes, a UNESCO world heritage site which contains thousands of 5th century Buddhist rock carvings. Apart from the grottoes, Luoyang doesn't have so much to offer visitors but the Buddhist rock carvings are pretty spectacular.
For the final part of my journey I took the bullet train back to Beijing and on to Shenzhen, where I crossed the border back into Hong Kong before taking my flight back home.