Ni hao China

Chengyang Wind & Rain Bridge

Roads were made for journeys not destinations – Confucius

In September 2008 we went to China. My friend was going on a business trip and asked if I wanted to join. China was not a destination in my top 10, but curious as I am I just went along.

First stop Shanghai, a metropole with over 25 milion inhabitants. It is denser populated than our home country. A scary thought. Our hotel was in the old centre Puxi, at walking distance from the Bund with a view on the new modern financial centre Pudong. The contrast could not be bigger. Our first visit are the Yuyuan gardens (originated in the 1550’s) with its historic buildings, small shops and Koi swimming around in the pond. In the background the large steel and glass towers from the financial district show how much has changed in the years.
The Bund is a 1.5 km long promenade along the main river (part of the Jiangtsekiang delta), with large buildings from a more recent past. They show the influence of foreign countries during the Shanghai International Settlement end of the 19th century.

We leave Shanghai and fly to Yichang and visit Chexi, a Folk Custom Village, showing the life how it was years ago. We see some nice tranquil sites, people wearing traditional clothing, learn the skill of making paper and visit ‘the spot to make free photos’. A very nice stop in the countryside, but Yichang is mainly known for its controversial Three Gorges Dam. So, next stop is the dam. A very ugly scar in the landscape. Many people, even whole villages needed to move for this prestigeous project, and many people moved to this city to find work. In just a few years the number of inhabitants doubled a few times, making it a the second city of the canton. The centre is not particularly charming, except for the evening activities on the Yiling square. People are joining there every night to talk, dance, practice tai-chi. We enjoy ourselves, dance with teethless chinese men and of course we cannot leave without an evening of karaoke. Hilarious and a must do in China I would say.

The next day we take a night train to Sanjiang. Another adventure. Not able to communicate with our fellow travellers in chinese, we just show them in our Lonely Planet where we are going. Pretty sure we made friends forever. A taxi brings us to Chengyang, a very, very beautiful historic town with a superb ‘Wind and Rain’ bridge. The inhabitants are Dong, a minority living in this area. With their very primitive way of living, they are skilled wood workers, building the most impressive bridges, houses and drum towers. I am overwhelmed by the simplicity and happiness of the people we meet. This is a part of China I should have put in my top 10 of must-see-places!

Next day a driver takes us to another Dong town called Zhaoxing. We pass tea plantations, small temples, more wind & rain bridges and are impressed by the beautiful countryside. The road is a horrible dirtroad with obstacles we need to pass and we even have to wait for a bulldozer to free the road from debris from a landslide. Finally we arrive in a lovely village, full of wooden buildings, drum towers, bridges and red chili peppers and blue dyed cloth. It is a pretty village in a lush green countryside with many rice paddies. We make a nice hike and enjoy the views. Again, people are very friendly and happy, making it easy for us to forgive them their habits of eating rat and dog. Yes, we saw it with our own eyes and had many difficulties to convince people we were vegetarians (just for those few days). I usually try a lot, but this was too much for me.

We proceed our trip to Ping’an village, part of the Guilin Longji Terraced Fields. Another tourist spot, this time famous for its large scale of rice paddies on the mountain, stacked up to form a rather spectacular view. During a nice hike through the landscape these views get better and better after every turn we make. We stay with a family who makes their own rice wine and serves us the most fresh duck ever. One minute it is quacking on the doorstep, the next we see the beak and feet floating in our soup… The next day we had a farewell breakfast with rice wine. We needed it, especially with the kamikaze taxi driver who would be bringing us to Yangshuo.

Arriving in Yanfshuo country I see the amazing karst peaks along the Li river. They are a geological and natural wonder I would say. We take a bamboo raft tour along the river and enjoy the site in a very easy pace, followed by a bicycle ride to Moon hil. This is the centre of a vivid rock climbing scene, which brings along English language, hamburgers and lots and lots of shops. A very cosy, laid back town!

We fly back to Shanghai to spend a few more hours in the Yuyuan inner garden, a compact and exquisite area with rocks, pavilions, ornamental ponds and flower walls. Our last stop is Pudong. The hi-tec financial district on the other side of the river. A funny metro with sound and light show brings us to the other side of the rive. We stand next to, as well as on the panoramic platform of the prominent Orientel Pearl tv tower, enjoying stunning views. We finish our lovely trip with a view on the sunset and lightshow in the evening.

再见 – goodbye

The Bernina Express

A panoramic journey with a UNESCO World Heritage status.

September 2011. I wanted to make a special railway journey. Searching the web I decided some of the nicest one-day trips are in Switzerland. And one of the nicest is The Bernina Express from the Rhaetische Bahn. It starts in Chur, Switzerland, travels over the Alps to end in Lugano. I did not plan to go that far though. Poschiavo would be my turn around point. 

We start early in the morning in the oldest city of Switzerland, Chur. The train is already waiting for us on its platform. Bright red, in the sun. We take off and start looking at the landscape. At first everything is in the shadows of the giant Alps. The province (Kanton) of Graubünden is very spectacular, and after the town of Thusis it really takes our breath away. It is a perfectly clear day and the views are stunning. We pass the old Albula track, which is a World Heritage Site since 2008. It is one of the most spectacular trips I have ever made. The track is 61 Kilometer long and passes 55 overpasses and 39 tunnels. One of the most impressive ones being the Landwasser overpass, with its 65 meter high and already over 100 years old (build around 1902).

For the second part of the journey the train takes the Bernina Railway, also part of the WHS and for sure not less impressive. It passes the Bernina Pass (Ospizio Bernina) at 2328 meter altitude, the highest point in this trip. There is no snow anymore, but we are well above the tree line. It is super to see the red ‘snake’ glide through this landscape, passing Lago Bianco just before the pass. Through the large panoramic windows views are not blocked at all. Once we have passed the pass, we slowly descent to Italy. 

The environment is fabulous. High mountains, snow on the tops, green alps. Rivers, lakes and waterfalls. Every corner we turn gives more spectacular views. The train slides into the V-shaped valley of Valposchiavo were we pass one of the technical highlights on this trip: the spiral shaped overpass at Brusio. This overpass makes a 360-degrees turn in order to be able to overcome the difference in altitude in the small valley. This way the maximum grade the train has to climb stays within its limit of 7%. Our journey ends in the small, but pleasant town of Poschiavo (with palm trees). Here we get a few hours to explore before we go back, same route, same track, but with different views. All in all during the whole ride we pass lots of spiral loops, many, many tunnels and hundreds of bridges. 

After a long day I look back with pleasure. I realise I like train rides a lot. I even realise I have made nice train rides in some of my journeys already: USA, Zimbabwe, China, France and now Switzerland.

Life is a  journey not the destination.

The land of smiles


กาเข้าฝูงกาหงส์เข้าฝูงหงส์- birds of a feather flock together

So true for me and my 3 friends. We met in 1989 when we went to the NHTV, a tourism education in The Netherlands. Who could have known that we would celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2009 in Thailand. Not strange, as there is one thing we all love very much: travelling.

To Thailand we were going. Why, I have no idea, but we all agreed instantly. We booked flights and off we went. From Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur and Phuket for 3 of us. Our last friend decided to fly over Bangkok to Phuket. She would arrive a day later. But we did not go to Phuket. Nonono, Railay was our destination for the first week. Railay? Yes, somewhere on the other side of the bay of Phuket. When the ferry anchors and a small wooden canoe picks us up to bring us to the beach we feel like we have arrived in paradise . Yes, there is no proper harbour, just a beach. Pristine white beach. And palm trees, and amazing rocks, and… simply lovely. Our hotel is on the other side of the peninsula. It is  bit cheaper than the resorts at the landing site. Soon we learn why…

The hotel is ok. Not special, but ok. Is is sort of clean, except when one of my friends goes to the bathroom at night and sees a huge cockroach. Hahaha… right. Our side of the peninsula (East) is a bit less of a paradise. A mangrovey beach with many tiny crabs, a muay thai boxing arena and cheaper restaurants with surprisingly many transvestites walking around. The first few days we enjoy the laid back atmosphere. We eat banana pancakes, go for a canoe trip to Phra Nang beach and the special fertility cave (filled with all kinds and sizes of wooden phalluses :-D) and see many, many beautiful sunsets. Railey beach faces West, so seeing the sun set in the sea, with the traditional canoes with the bright coloured ribbons floating around, is just beautiful.

We go for a day trip to Koh Phi Phi Don, passing the beautiful cove if the movie ‘The Beach’ and spend a day on this amazing island. We realise everything has been washed away in the 2004 tsunami, killing 1000 people on the 2 Phi Phi islands. We hike the evacuation route and visit the monument, both leaving a deep impression. The next day we go diving and I see my first shark. I initially thought seeing a shark would scare me, but nothing is more true. I swim to the shark to take a picture and obviously it got more scared of me than I of him. We see turtle, nudi’s, corals, clown fish…

On our last day in Railay we hike to the Ton Sai beach, through the ‘jungle’, passing the diamond cave. We enter hippie country, with all its colours, flavours, smells and laid back people. It has been a lovely week, with so many highlights. And it was not over yet. We make a stop of a few days in Bangkok. Lovely, lovely Bangkok. Kao San Road, a busy road with a happy holiday flavour until late at night, is close to the hotel. The next day we take a boat to visit Wat Phra Kaeo, an impressive buddhist temple with the huge emerald green jade Buddha, the colourful stupas and scary demon guards.

The last day we go on a cycle tour with Co van Kessel. Guided by a Thai and a Dutchy we cycle the backroads. Straight through China town, passing small alleys and the market. We head for the Chao Praya river. Crossing it and sail over the ‘klongs’ to the outskirts of Bangkok. There we step on our bikes again to cycle over small paths, meeting lovely people, seeing lovely things until… we get to a highway. We have to cycle there as well, crazy… at the end we pass a golden, sitting Buddha in Wat Kalayanamit. Possibly you have to be Dutch to be able to survive a cycle tour like this. For me… I loved every second of it.

We visit the famous Wat Pho on our last day. It is huge and famous for a giant 46m long golden Buddha. Smiles are everywhere, nothing can confirm this more than at the end of the trip when we experience one more highlight: the karaoke taxi ride with Mr. Thawin. This guy is so happy and cheerful, you will forget every bit of worry when you take a ride and sing with him. He is the face of this country, this land of smiles!

ขอบคุณ – thank you.


Goodbye summer. Hello autumn.

by Emily Brontë

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

Fall, the most depressing season according to many. I always have mixed feelings, realising summer is over, the long cold winter is due to arrive. I do not like cold. I do not like rainy days. I do not like the monotonous colours. I definitely do not like the short days. Yes, there is a lot not to like. An if I would only see these things, I will get depressed for sure. However…

Fall is the season of the nicest colours in nature: red, orange, yellow. The leaves are colouring. The grass is still green. Mushrooms pop up everywhere, especially the red cap with white dots.Lovely! And best of all, sometimes the sun manages to break the skies, peeking through the clouds, sending us a last warm regard. The nice moments are there, you just have to see them, and when you see them, you have to enjoy them to the max. It can be over soon.

I love walking in the woods in thus season. Especially shambling in the fallen leaves. The crispy sound under my soles, the smell of wet leaves and mushrooms, mist on the fields and the first night frost. It is nice to sit on the couch with a snuggy snug rug, a glass of hot tea or very nice wine. Time to make new holiday plans, prepare for the holidays and sleep. The days shorten, I am cycling to work in the dark, but also when I go home it is already getting dark. Boring? Yes, in a way, but all the lights on the road, in the shopping streets and in peoples houses give me a happy cosy feeling. ‘Gezellig’ as we say in Dutch. A word which cannot be translated. It says everything about the essence of our culture and this time of year.

Back to the future

‘Ein Volkswagen, mit dem Sie überall zu Hause sind’ – official VW Helsinki T2 sales brochure 1972

A dream for a long, long time. I always wanted to tour in one of these little oldtimer camper vans. A few months ago I heard of a small company in the South of the Netherlands ‘Classic Camper Rental (Classic Camper Verhuur)’ where they rent them out. Hell, I did not need much time to decide to go for a weekend with such a beauty!

My first kilometers are quite exciting and hilarious. Our camper is called Allida and is ‘born’ in 1978. It is a Volkswagen T2 Helsinki, still mostly in its traditional setup. Ok, a few modern safety items have been build in, but still. The typical VW sound is there, the gigantic steer gives me muscle ache and the gear lever is just a bit too far away. I need a full strech to go to 3rd and 4th gear. We can only drive 70-80, or at least that is how far I dare to go. It all feels a bit less secure in a way. Oh, and I do not want to destroy any part of this beauty.

We decide to go South, to Belgium. The only rule this weekend, we really want to avoid the highways. Well, we soon get lost, but in a nice way. Slowly driving, following signs until we reach the Hautes Fagnes in East Belgium (High Fens). A beautiful natural area with heather, large grassy spaces and beautiful forrest. We enjoy cruising this area and soon reach the reservoir of Robertville where we srumble upon the nice campsite Anderegg to park Allida for the night.A special moment, as we brought some 70s clothing to make the experience real. How surprised our fellow campers are seeing us in disco outfit!

The next morning, after a challenging night on a very hard bed and with a loud ticking clock in the background, we decide to go for a great cup of coffe in Malmédy. On the way we enjoy the views of the reservoir and hike the short hike to Reinhart’s Castle. Malmédy is a very lovely historic town, with a beautiful cathedral, colourful baskets with flowers everywhere and great cakes to go with the superb coffee. After a pause we proceed. Yes, Allida needs rest every 2 hours. Just to prevent overheating the engine, which is just air cooled. We drive to Germany. Just because we can. We visit the small, very touristic town of Monschau. Even though we manage to take down the average age by many years, it is a beautiful historic place, definitely worthwile the visit. The typical German half-timbeed houses with slate roofs create a fairytale atmosphere. We have an excellent late lunch and walk around the town. At the end of the day we decide to stay on a campsite in Hammer. Strange place, but our spot is next to the little river, so very magical. Enjoying a nice wine and some tapas we finish the day.

The last day we pass the small town of Eupen, where we have a nice coffee again. We go back North, back to the Netherlands. I really love the beautiful landscape of our province Limburg and enjoy driving ‘my’ camper around. We have the necessary break in Gulpen. Allida can rest, we hike for an hour and have a great beer stew for lunch. The end of a great weekend in a fantastic little camper van. It is old, it feels old, but I love it. With pain in my heart and arms from steering I part. Maybe ’til next time? Tschüß.