Travel

Rocky Roads

Spending a weekend away in Walhalla proved more heavenly than I thought possible. Walhalla is a small town in Victoria, Australia. It started as a gold mining town with around 4,000 residents. No longer a gold mining town, it has a population of less than 20. Tourism is the big draw card now. One of the best things about the town is that there is no internet connection and no mobile phone reception. This meant we could unplug and enjoy a stress free weekend.

We stayed at the Brewery Creek Cottage, a quaint little place that had three of my favourite things – a spiral staircase, a four poster bed and a log fire. There was even a witch on the window! We spent the evenings enjoying a drink next to the roaring fire, playing board games and reading. The outside world was forgotten for a short time.

I chose the Brewery Creek Cottage because the path beside the cottage leads to the cemetery. That was something this goth could not resist! The winding and uphill path was challenging but beautiful. The trees seemed to cradle the path from high above. The cemetery, perched on a hill, had views to die for! Graves were dotted up and down the hilly cemetery. I gingerly picked my way along the path reading the ancient gravestones. I could have spent hours exploring but the sun was setting and I really didn’t want to navigate rocky paths in the dark.

Another reason we visited Walhalla was to take a ride on the Walhalla Goldfields Railway. As we sped towards Thomson, one side of the train passed rocky walls that were so close you could reach out and touch them – not that I recommend doing that 🙂 The track on the other side of the train ran precariously high above a forest stream. The drop from the window looked great. I kept jumping from side to side of the train so I could get the best views!

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After the train we went for a tour in the Long Tunnel Extended Gold Mine. I’m always nervous going into caves as I’m claustrophobic but I also love caves as they make me think of the Underworld and the home of Hades and Persephone. Luckily it wasn’t one of those cramped tunnels were you have to duck and crawl your way through. This tunnel was very roomy so I relaxed and enjoyed the experience and the history lesson.

Inspired by the looming mountains and the paths that have been carved through their rocky terrains, I thought I would make rocky road. Rocky road is a sweet made with chocolate and marshmallow. You can add other things to the mix such as nuts or Turkish delight. I have added glace ginger as a nod to the gold found in Walhalla. If you really want a golden experience, serve the rocky road with edible gold!

Rocky Road

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Ingredients
250g dark chocolate
50g white marshmallows, cut in half
25g glace ginger
50g cashews, roughly chopped
1/2 cup shredded coconut

Method
Line the base and sides of a square cake tin with baking paper (approx 20cm x 20cm).
Gently melt the chocolate in a small saucepan over medium heat. Allow to cool slightly.
In a large bowl combine marshmallows, ginger, cashews and coconut.
Pour in melted chocolate and mix through.
Pour into prepared tin.
Allow to stand for a few hours to set.
When set, cut into pieces and serve.

A Cup Of Coffee Comfort

I spent International Coffee Day (October 1st) thinking about how important a warm cup of coffee can be at certain times. My partner and I had planned a short trip to South Australia hoping to visit Adelaide and Monarto zoos. It was our second trip to the zoos this year. We went early in the year to see the giant pandas and for this trip we had a few more encounters planned. We were expecting our giant and red panda encounters to be cancelled as it is mating season, what we weren’t expecting was to drive into the worst storms in South Australia in 50 years.

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Pandacino at Adelaide Zoo. That’s right, a cappuccino decorated to look like a giant panda!

We drove through torrential rain, losing complete visibility of the road for one terrifying moment because the rain was so heavy. All we could think of was getting to our hotel safely and having a hot coffee and a warm shower. But as we continued driving we could see, or maybe not see, that there were no lights. The entire state was experiencing a blackout! We arrived at our hotel in almost darkness and had to sign in via candlelight. It was romantic and gothic. Hungry and in desperate need of a comforting coffee we were told that there was no hot food and no hot drinks. I didn’t care about the food but I did care about the coffee! As I sat down to eat my ham and cheese sandwich I did the only thing I could – order a coffee liqueur 🙂 The power came on just as we got to our room so at least we could have warm showers. Even better, there was hot coffee for breakfast!

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My first coffee in Adelaide!

The rest of the trip was quite an adventure. The blackouts continued and all of our Adelaide zoo encounters were cancelled. Happily, we did get to hand feed rhinos at Monarto zoo. We even found a restaurant that had its own generator so we could have hot food, and most importantly, hot coffee 🙂

Next time I travel I think I’ll take some of this granola so I always have some coffee with me. Naturally it goes great with a hot coffee – when you can get one!

Coffee Granola

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Ingredients
1 + 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup shredded coconut
1/4 cup walnuts
1/4 cup cashews
2 teaspoons instant coffee
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 egg white

Method
Preheat oven to 150C / 300F.
Line a baking tray with baking paper.
Mix together the oats, coconut, walnuts, cashews, coffee, salt, honey and oil in a large bowl until combined.
Whisk the egg white until frothy. Stir into the granola and mix until combined.
Spread mixture out onto prepared tray and bake for 50 – 55 minutes.
At the halfway point, remove the granola from the oven. Place a piece of baking paper over the granola and top with another baking tray. Carefully flip over so that the granola is now on the new tray, being careful not to break up the mixture too much.
Return to the oven and bake until granola is brown and dry to the touch.
Allow to cool completely before breaking up the granola into desired size clusters.
Store unused granola in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

You can try different combinations of nuts. I think macadamias, pistachios or brazil nuts would be great.

A Place Not Far From Home

So last year was my 50th Birthday. To celebrate we did a very special trip. Friends have asked me to write something about it and I’ve been waiting for the anniversary to do so. While I was writing, I saw an opportunity to enter it into a competition. It didn’t win but I liked the way it came out. I hope you do too.

A Place Not Far From Home

“I’ll be spending my 50th birthday in Canberra”, I told my regular travelling companion Trevor.

The look of horror on his face was priceless. “Have you been to Canberra?” he asked, stunned.

I have been to Canberra many times. Unlike a lot of Australians, I like our nation’s capital city. But I knew why Trevor was stunned. Trevor, my partner Paul and I were supposed to be travelling halfway across the world to England to celebrate my birthday, not Canberra, which is only a short flight away.

Ten years earlier, when I was planning my 40th birthday, the three of us started a tradition. We would each choose a holiday destination to travel to for our big birthdays. I chose a trip I called “A Dracula Tour of Romania”. My 50th was supposed to be part 2 – “A Dracula Tour of England”. Whitby was the prize destination. Sadly an ailing elder dog meant I couldn’t travel too far from home. Trevor went to Whitby and Paul and I took a short trip to Canberra.

On the eve of my 50th birthday, I woke to the sound of lions roaring in the night. They were so close. I could picture them walking near my window. I snuggled into the thick duvet, comforted by the warmth of the room and the sound of lions.

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Throughout the night I had been woken by their stirring call. Sometimes the roars were close, sometimes they were distant, every time was hauntingly beautiful. They made me smile. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my 50th birthday than in the company of wildlife.

When I knew I wasn’t going to Whitby for my birthday, I trusted that I would somehow find the right place to go. Sure enough, a few days later I was viewing an online newspaper when I saw an ad that made me look twice. The ad featured a photo of a woman taking a bubble bath while a European brown bear watched from outside her window. The words “wild”, “down under” and “Canberra” grabbed my attention. I knew immediately that this was where I would be spending my birthday weekend.

The ad was for Jamala Wildlife Lodge – the National Zoo and Aquarium’s new onsite accommodation. We had visited the zoo before, most notably to celebrate the very first International Red Panda Day, but never realised we could stay there. The secluded bungalows scattered around the zoo in the animal enclosures sounded perfect. Floor to ceiling windows gave you views of the animals as they went about their daily (and nightly) meanderings. An “al fresco” style section with heated pads and food treats was used to encourage the animals to come and snuggle down. I just had to choose which animals I wanted to “share” my room with. I chose the white lions for my first night and the European brown bears for my second.

Night one was more about sound than sight. While we caught glimpses of the lions and one came up to the window briefly, we mostly heard them roaring into the night, and were woken again by them in the morning.

 

After a sumptuous breakfast on day two we moved from the lion room to the bear room. There, snuggled warmly by our window, was a European brown bear. I wanted to squeal in delight but restrained myself, scared I might frighten the bear away. Instead, I calmly approached the window and quietly watched. We made ourselves cups of tea, munched on biscuits and relaxed on the couch, all under the watchful eye of a beautiful bear. Finally the bear left to do what bears do.

 

We reluctantly left our room and wandered around the zoo. We laughed when we made it back to the bear enclosure. One of the bears was enjoying a feast of fruit, vegetables and bread by a waterfall. We watched it for a while, before returning to our room. As before, the same brown bear was snuggled in the same place. We watched, mesmerised, as another bear arrived, grabbed some food, gave us a long, hard look and then left. We opened up a bottle of wine and shared the late afternoon with this most accommodating bear. Again, we were reluctant to leave our room, but dinner was calling and we were hungry.

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There are few lights in the zoo overnight and for our own protection, we weren’t allowed to walk around after dark. At a prearranged time, a bus came to collect us from our cabin, taking us through the pitch black of the zoo to the main hotel for dinner and drinks. The bus stopped a couple of times to pick up others from their rooms and we compared notes on our experiences as we rode.

A lavish South African inspired spread greeted us at the communal dinner table. I couldn’t wait to try the bobotie and malva pudding, both of which I’d heard of but never had a chance to try. The food was extraordinary and the wine selection suited it perfectly. We sipped wine and spoke to the other guests, each of us exchanging stories about the animals outside our rooms. The staff told us the main bear visiting our room was a female named Blondie. While we enjoyed the food, wine and the company, we were eager to get back to our room and hopefully a bear. In the meantime, we were entertained by first a pair of white lions and then hyenas as they were let into their dens for the evening. We could see them clearly from the dining room. We suspected that they could see us also, but they ignored us and after exploring their dens, curled up and went to sleep.

There was one birthday wish I deeply wanted granted. To have a bubble bath with a  bear! I really wanted to reenact the ad that got me to Jamala. We arrived home and Blondie had returned to her usual place. I was so excited. It was now or never for my bubble bath. I carefully filled the bath, making small, unhurried movements. I gingerly hopped in, hoping I wouldn’t startle her. I sat in the bath like the woman in the ad, watched by the beautiful brown bear. Then to my surprise and delight, another bear arrived. I lay in the bath, soaking in the soft, warm bubbles, watched by the gentle eyes of two extraordinary creatures. I had surpassed the ad. Not one but two brown bears were sharing my birthday dream with me. It was the most extraordinary birthday of my life.

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While I bathed with bears, Trevor had a drink for me in Whitby. Was I sad that I didn’t get to Whitby? Yes. Did I enjoy myself in Canberra? Immensely.

I didn’t have to travel the world to find a new and exotic place. I found one right here, in a place not far from home.

Come For The Snakes, Stay For The Pastry

At a romantic beachside restaurant in Fiji, my partner said the words I never thought I would hear, but so wanted to: 

“Vicky, don’t panic, but there is a snake behind you.” 

Shivering with excitement, I turned around. Three feet behind me was a stunning venomous sea snake. We slowly stood up and, with a brave few guests, followed and photographed the sea snake as it wound its way to the beach. We watched, mesmerised, as it slithered in and out of the rocky crevices. When it found the water we gasped as it picked up speed and swam away, making shimmering shapes in the water.

 

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We were in Fiji to celebrate the destination wedding of my lovely nephew to his equally lovely partner. Having a banded sea krait turn up for dinner was a real bonus for me. What I loved most about this snake was how slow and calm it was on land. It gave me a great opportunity to admire its luminescent bands and its sinuous body. In the water it transformed into a sea serpent, swiftly but gracefully swimming in “s” patterns as it disappeared into the ocean. It was quite a privilege to be so close to such a wild, exotic animal.

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In honour of this unexpected but much appreciated encounter I have created a recipe that combines my culinary Macedonian heritage with that of Morocco. M’hanncha, meaning snake, is a traditional Moroccan dessert made of almond paste filled rolls of filo pastry coiled to look like a snake. It is similar to Maznik, a traditional coiled Macedonian pastry. Maznik is usually filled with feta cheese but can contain many different fillings. A favourite of mine when I was young was a sweet apple and sultana filled one. I don’t have the recipe that my relatives used so I created my own version from memory. I don’t know what Maznik means so I’m calling my pastry M’hanncha as I know that means snake. As a wise playwright once said “a pastry by any other name would taste as sweet” – or something like that 🙂

M’hanncha

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Ingredients

for the filling
4 large granny smith apples, peeled cored and chopped
2 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons water
1 + 1/2 tablespoons caster sugar
1/4 cup sultanas

for the pastry
50g unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled.
8 sheets of filo pastry, prepared according to the instructions on the packet
1/4 cup ground almonds

Method
Bring the apples, orange juice and water to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat to medium. Cover and cook for 15 minutes or until the apples have softened. Lightly mash the apples. Stir in the sugar and sultanas. Allow to cool.
Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
Lightly grease a 25cm round baking tray.
Work with one sheet of pastry at a time, keeping the remaining sheets covered with a damp tea towel.
Place one sheet of filo pastry on a board with the longest side facing you.
Lightly butter the pastry sheet.
Sprinkle with 1/8th of the almond meal.
Spread 1/8th of the apple mix along the bottom side of the pastry.
Loosely roll up the pastry into a long cigar shape.
Carefully roll into a coil shape and place in the centre of the prepared baking tray.
For each of the remaining sheets roll as above and continue the coil from where the previous sheet finished.
Brush with melted butter.
Bake for 25 – 35 minutes or until browned.

You need approximately 2 cups of apple sauce.
This is a rustic pastry so don’t worry if it cracks in sections.

An Ode To Hades

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As I walked my dogs early Sunday morning, they raced to a cluster of white speckled weeds. I pulled them away thinking the white speckles were weed killer. But as I took a closer look I saw something I hadn’t seen in a while – frost. I stared at the icy weeds and thought about the last time I had been out this early in the morning and the last time I had felt this cold. It’s been a while! This July has been one of the coldest in Melbourne for quite a few years. What better way to celebrate the cold then with an icy morning walk followed by a trip to the country to visit the even colder town of Daylesford.

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After enjoying a warming coffee and a visit to the Daylesford market we set off to the Convent Gallery for scones and art. The former convent is now an art gallery with a cafe, bar and souvenir shop. I loved seeing the artworks juxtaposed against the backdrop of catholic iconography – especially the nudes. It was a beautiful blend of history, religion and modern art. The scones were great too. I washed them down with a Pimms and lemonade garnished with fruit grown in the convent gardens.

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We ended our trip to Daylesford with a visit to Lavandula, a Swiss Italian Farm. There were so many things to enjoy here but one thing grabbed my attention.
Two pomegranates, way past their use by date, posed decoratively in front of an old lantern on a rustic table. Every time I see pomegranates I think of Hades and Persephone, and the sweet fruit that “trapped” the even sweeter Goddess in the Underworld. I thought the paired, rotted fruit were a beautiful and poignant symbol of the God and Goddess, reliving the cycle of the seasons; from birth to death, from spring to winter. Persephone “escapes” every spring but for now she is underground and we are in the midst of a cold, harsh winter. It made me smile. It reminded me that spring is just around the corner.

IMG_2187Spring heralds the return of Persephone, the return of warmth, light and life, and the return of many creatures dwelling in the Underworld. I’m not looking forward to the return of some of those creatures! But for now, like Persephone, I will embrace the bitter cold while it lasts and enjoy the fruit of the Underworld in all its forms. Could the Lord of the Underworld tempt you with these deadly white treats?

Persephone’s Death By White Chocolate and Pomegranate Clusters

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Ingredients
200g white chocolate, broken into small pieces
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

Method
Line a mini cupcake tray with mini cupcake cases.
Fill a saucepan about one-third full with water and bring to a gentle simmer. Set a heatproof-bowl over the saucepan, making sure the water does not touch the bottom of the bowl. Add the white chocolate and slowly melt, being careful not to burn the chocolate. Remove from the heat. Gently stir in the pomegranate seeds until just combined.
Dollop into prepared cases and refrigerate until firm.
Bring the chocolates to room temperature before serving.

Living China

As we sat in the hotel lobby, waiting for our driver to take us to the airport, I had time to reflect upon my days in Chengdu. Many people go to Chengdu just to see the pandas and then leave! But we wanted to see the other sights this beautiful city has to offer. I’m glad we chose to focus on one small part of China, rather than do a crazy dash around a very big country!

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What made the trip so easy and unforgettable was Haba, a tourist guide we booked through Trip Adviser. Haba’s love and pride for the beautiful city of Chengdu was a pleasure to experience as he took us around town. He paced everything to our comfort, stopping when we wanted a rest and making sure all our needs were met. But Haba’s passion is giant pandas and his knowledge was invaluable to us on our trips to the Chengdu and Bifengxia Panda Bases. Haba’s love for the pandas was evident as he talked about them and photographed them with us. He seemed to know the names of all the pandas and he knew where all the overseas pandas were born. Without Haba we would not have known that one of the handsome pandas we were photographing was actually superstar panda Tai Shan! While we chatted to him about pandas he told us one of his favourite animals was the koala. He had been given a stuffed koala as a gift and it had ignited his curiosity and love for our native cutie. We had to laugh as Paul and I have always thought of koalas as Aussie Pandas. While koalas are not bears, they share similar characteristics – they are unbearably cute and climb trees 🙂

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On the days Haba wasn’t able to guide us he arranged for others to take us where we needed to go. This allowed us the opportunity to meet some local people and gave us an appreciation of the people of Chengdu. From the young Kuan, who took us on a bus and to a local restaurant he liked, the driver who took us to Leshan and whom we communicated with through gestures, to the other drivers who drove us around Chengdu and Ya’an, all of our guides and drivers were charming and friendly. They were also proud of their home and happy to show us around.

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I highly recommend getting in touch with Haba if you are going to visit Chengdu or the Pandas!

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We left Chengdu early in the afternoon and made our way back home and back to our dogs. I expected to be blown away by the pandas but I wasn’t expecting China to change me in fundamental ways – but it did. We really admired the public places and parks in Chengdu and the way the Chinese people used them. Everywhere we IMG_6173looked there were locals using the public spaces for tai chi, dance, singing, creating art, sport and just simply relaxing. Our local area has public facilities such as basketball courts and table tennis tables but we had never used them. One of the first things we did on our return was buy table tennis bats, balls and a basketball. We then went out there and started using our public places. Ironically, our sporting time is often accompanied by Chinese music as groups of our Chinese neighbours are out there doing tai chi and dance. It feels like being back in Chengdu!

Another change I’ve made is to my diet. I noticed that my body really responded well to rice based meals and, with the guidance of my part Malaysian naturopath, we have devised a predominantly Asian based diet. For years I’ve struggled with finding a breakfast I like but for the past year my main breakfast has been congee – a rice based savoury soup! It’s one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had 🙂 It also reminded me that I lived on a mainly rice based diet when I was young. Being allergic to the chilli family, I couldn’t eat the paprika packed Eastern European stews my mother would often cook. But I could eat the plain boiled rice – with a good dollop of butter!

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For me, the most important thing I brought back from China, apart from really great panda souvenirs, was a reinvigoration of my spirituality. Amidst all the noise and traffic in Chengdu there was also a deep sense of peace and tranquility. The parks, pagodas and bamboo reminded me of a time before modernisation and frenetic activity. It made me remember quieter times and I wanted to reintroduce those times back into my life. I’m now enjoying regular relaxing baths and pause often throughout the day to sip on green tea in my own bamboo garden. And yes, I do have a bamboo garden – you never know when pandas may visit! What has surprised me most is the slow re-embracing of my religious roots. I’ve been on a religious “sabbatical” for quite a while. But deep within my soul I hear the call to return to my old time religion. That’s a topic for another time – but not that far away – for one of the most important holidays for me is coming up – Halloween 🙂

As I finish writing about my Chinese adventure I realise just how much I deeply miss Chengdu. I miss the people, the place, the lifestyle and I especially miss those precious little pandas!

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Day 5 – Bifengxia Pandas

IMG_7282Bifengxia Panda Base is in Ya’an, approximately two and a half hours drive from Chengdu. Originally built as a research facility, it only became a tourist spot after the devastating earthquake in May 2008 destroyed the Wolong Panda Reserve. The pandas from Wolong were moved to Bifengxia and where the pandas go, so do the people!!

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We arrived at Bifengxia just as it opened and were treated to the sight of empty enclosures – we were so early the pandas weren’t even awake yet! We waited at one enclosure and saw a panda poking its head out of its den. It ventured out but when it saw there was no bamboo, it went back in. The attendants arrived armed with bamboo and the hungry but happy panda got down to the day’s business – eating! We saw a few more of these older pandas before arriving at the much anticipated Panda Kindergarten!

In the first Panda Kindergarten enclosure we were greeted by the vision of two adorable cubs playing and rolling around. There was even a yellow swing in their yard. They were eagerly waiting for the attendant to bring them milk in metal bowls. After slurping down their drinks, the attendants used a tea towel to wipe the face of one of the baby pandas. When they went to the next panda it decided to resist them and rolled around in the spilt milk instead. The attendants were laughing and trying to grab and clean up the cheeky cub. I thought “what a hard job they have – and how do I apply!”

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The next Panda Kindergarten enclosure contained five young cubs. Their enclosure also contained toys including a plastic slide and rocking horse that have been featured in many adorable photos! There was fresh bamboo and the pandas were munching away. We watched them play, frolic and then eat. Typical pandas, they weren’t in the mood to do much more than eat so we thought we would check out the rest of the park before returning to see if any antics would be on display.

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The next section we visited was the overseas born panda section. One of the pandas housed there was Tai Shan Butterstick! He was nicknamed Butterstick after a zookeeper at the National Zoo in Washington said that he was the size of a stick of butter when he was born. We were so happy to see him. We snapped photo after photo of this handsome bear. We visited all the other overseas born pandas before returning to the Panda Kindergarten.

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And we are so glad we did. The five young pandas had finished their bamboo and were ready to rumble! They fought with each other, chased each other, rolled around together and then, to the delighted gasps of everyone watching, they ran up trees and showed us just how arboreal pandas really are. We watched spellbound as one daredevil panda travelled along a tree limb and then kept walking along, even though the limb was getting thinner and thinner. Then, graceful as a tightrope walker, the nimble panda turned around on the limb and promptly sat down. We all screamed as we were terrified that the little bear was going to fall. But the panda settled into a koala-like pose and amazingly didn’t fall. The pandas settled into the trees where they would spend most of the afternoon. It was sadly time to leave and my heart broke a little as I realised this was the end of the panda part of my trip to China.

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Bifengxia Panda Base is in a mountainous area with spectacular peaks, deep gorges, waterfalls and beautiful forest. There are trails through the gorge for either short or long walks. Paul and our guide Haba chose to go for a short one hour trek through the gorge which Paul said was spectacular. I chose to stay behind in the car with the driver and meet Paul at the end of the track where there was a waterfall and a 91.8 metre tall elevator that takes travellers from the bottom of the gorge up to the carpark. It is apparently the tallest sightseeing elevator in the world. The view from the top down over the waterfalls was spectacular. After an extraordinary day, we returned to our hotel for our final night.

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Day 4 – Chengdu Pandas

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As we jumped into a taxi and rode towards the Chengdu Panda Base, we couldn’t contain our excitement! We had seen pandas only twice before. In 1988 giant pandas Fei Fei and Xiao Xiao toured Australia and we went to see them at Melbourne Zoo. In 2010 we did the VIP tour in Adelaide to meet the pandas Wang Wang and Funi. Now we were about to see pandas in their homeland, in their natural environment – and we were going to hug one as well 🙂

We arrived at the base and our guide quickly secured our spot for the panda cuddle. With time to spare we saw our first pandas in China – 5 baby pandas in a cot! We couldn’t believe how cute and fluffy they were. We could have spent the whole day watching these sweet little cubs sleep but there were more pandas to see and we wanted to see them!

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We walked along beautiful paths surrounded by bamboo to the next group of pandas – a mother and cubs. The playful pandas entertained and delighted their spellbound audience. They ran around, dropped from trees and structures and one young panda even suckled on the mother while she reclined on her back. It was breathtaking to see them in these beautiful enclosures surrounded by their natural habitat. We got to see quite a lot of the park but the time had come to meet the little panda!!

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We were taken into a room and shown an informative video about pandas. Then we were taken to the hugging room 🙂 We were given a protective coat, booties and gloves to wear and waited in a line before an exquisitely carved bench. Next to the bench was a tray with a jar of honey, slices of apple and bamboo. A keeper arrived carrying the young Miao Miao and settled her on the bench with some of her treats. She had a good look at her adoring fans, then proceeded to lick a honeyed apple slice. When she was finished she turned to the keepers and stared at the table. They ran to assist her, offering a sweetened bamboo stick. She graciously accepted it and happily munched on it while she prepared to be greeted by her spellbound audience.

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One by one we took our turn to sit by the little princess. When my turn came I was overwhelmed with emotion. I sat next to the little panda and cuddled her. She looked up at me and munched away at her bamboo. So many thoughts were going through my head – how lucky I am to be sitting next to her, how cute and adorable she is, how soft yet wiry her fur is, how pinchable her ears are, can I take her home with me? – were some of my jumbled thoughts. Mostly I thought about how endangered pandas are and how important it is to protect them and do all we can for them. I was also surprised at how much time we had with her. I was expecting to sit down and then jump up a few seconds later but they let us sit for a good while – of course I would have liked longer, like maybe a few years! It was Paul’s turn and they let him sit next to me for a few photos as a couple so I got extra Miao Miao time 🙂 I reluctantly left Miao Miao and the bench so Paul could cuddle the precious little cub. We said farewell to Miao Miao and went back to exploring the reserve.

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One of the next things we saw was a group of tiny baby pandas sun-baking on a plank of wood. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing – our brains nearly stopped working! As we watched these sleeping cuties one panda woke up and bravely wandered off the plank. When it wandered off too far it stopped and started squeaking. It was too much cuteness for me. I wanted to jump into the enclosure, take the squealing cub, and smuggle it home with me and Miao Miao. But before I could jump in an attendant came and rescued the cub, placing it back on the plank. A few minutes later he returned with a bucket and scooped up a couple of cubbies and left. We were told some VIPS were going to have their photos taken with them. Not long later the bucket returned and the celebrity pandas were scooped out and promptly went back to sun-baking. Later in the day we were lucky enough to see these baby pandas asleep in their cot in the nursery.

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We ended our day with red pandas. They were in a part of the reserve where they could wander around freely. The fence along the walkway had holes for the red pandas to wander through. I stood, stunned as I watched a red panda climb down a tree, go through a gap in the fence, walk past me, go through a gap on the other side, and then sit next to a bowl with food. It was surreal and heaps of fun! Chengdu Panda Reserve surpassed my expectations. It was incredible and I’m glad we chose to spend a whole day there. I couldn’t wait for tomorrow and our trip to Bifengxia Panda Reserve.

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Note: Neither Miao Miao nor any other cub were smuggled out of the panda base onto a plane to Melbourne. The bamboo in my backyard is for decoration only. 🙂

Day 3 – Getting To Know Chengdu

We started day 3 at the Qingyang Temple. As soon as I smelled the incense and saw the decorative iconography I began rummaging in my bag for aIMG_6072 jacket to cover my bare arms. Our guide said it wasn’t necessary but I just felt uncomfortable walking around bare armed and tattooed in this ancient place of worship. My early childhood experiences of Eastern European Orthodoxy were rearing their oppressive heads – again. So I covered up, stepped over the threshold and entered the beautiful Taoist Temple.

Qingyang Temple is small and intimate. Although much, much older than Eastern Orthodoxy, I’m surprised at how similar this place of worship feels. I smell incense, hear chanting and see images of fantastical deities and holy people. Food and drink are left as offerings and there is a quiet and peace all around. It doesn’t seem that different to the Orthodox Churches I remember from my youth. But the architecture is different. Pagodas, one of my favourite architectural forms, replace the Cathedral like structures I’m used to.

IMG_6064The larger Wenshu Monastery is our next stop. This has a very different feel to me than Qingyang Temple. Although there is still incense, chanting and similar iconography, it doesn’t remind me at all of my youthful Orthodoxy. This is more what I was I expecting. Stunning pagodas, beautiful trees and a lake. The scenery is breathtaking and peaceful.

In direct contrast is the next place we visit, ancient Jinli Street. Bustling with people it is full of sound, colour and action. There is so much to see and do.

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IMG_6206Paul was so excited when he found a shooting arcade featuring an ancient design, lever operated, repeating crossbow. He naturally had to give it a go!

From the bustling Jinli Street we move onto the much quieter Tibetan Quarter. Chengdu is the gateway to Tibet so it’s not surprising it has a Tibetan Corner. The streets are dotted with shops selling traditional Tibetan wares and elaborate religious iconography. It is a very interesting part of Chengdu and well worth a visit.

IMG_6156Our final stop for the day is Baihuatan Park. Unlike the People’s Park, Baihuatan is less crowded, quiet and tranquil. Bird life and butterflies are abundant. There is a delightful bonsai garden and a stunning pagoda perched near a river. After our exhilarating day it is a pleasure to just sit and observe nature. It makes me think I need to include more quiet time in my life back home.

We return to our hotel and stop by the bar for a pot of tea. No sooner do we sit down when we hear excited voices say “I know those accents – Australians!” Thinking some fellow Aussies are about to befriend us we are surprised to find two Malaysian men introducing themselves. They ordered beer and chips as they thought that what’s Australians drink and eat! They’re not wrong 🙂 Their wives join us and we soon learn all about each other. What I wasn’t expecting was the political turn the conversation took. We groaned when asked about our newly elected Prime Minister. Realising we were not fans they comfortably asserted that he was “an idiot.” Sadly, we couldn’t argue, especially when we realised what they were mainly objecting to was his anti-climate change policies. They were architects and, like us, environmentalists so it was a subject close to all our hearts. We ordered more beer and this time spring rolls and an evening of informative conversation followed. As exciting as the evening turned out to be we were way more excited about where we were going the next day –
Chengdu Panda Base!!IMG_6093

China – Day 2

Leshan Buddha

IMG_5869One of the things I really wanted to see in Sichuan was the Leshan Giant Buddha, the largest stone Buddha in the world. Carved into a cliff face at a river junction you can climb the roughly 71 metre (233ft) statue or, for a more relaxed viewing, catch a ferry. I chose the ferry option! One of the advantages of the ferry is that you can see the magnificent statue in its entirety. Although I knew how big it was, nothing can prepare you for the spectacle of seeing this huge Buddha slowly come into view as the ferry leisurely flows along the river. You can see the people climbing the Buddha and they look like ants.

One of my favourite sights was seeing a Buddhist Monk standing at the feet of the Buddha, looking at the tIMG_6101ourists on the ferries and taking photos of them. I couldn’t help taking a photo of him! In fact a few of the Chinese tourists were taking photos of themselves posing as the statue with the statue behind them. I had to laugh. At one point I realised I was getting in the way of peoples’ photos so I moved. Paul discreetly came and told me that the couple had been lining me up and they were disappointed that I had moved. They wanted to be photographed next to the purpled-haired woman with the panda tattoos! I discreetly went back to my spot and sure enough the wife came next to me and had photos taken then her husband stood next to me and had his photos taken. I made sure I moved my arm into different positions so they could get shots of all the tattooed
pandas 🙂

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We realised we weren’t going to make it back to Chengdu without a toilet stop and that’s when the fact that our driver couldn’t speak a word of English and we couldn’t speak a word of Chinese became a real issue. As we tried to mime needing to go to the toilet using hand gestures, I was beginning to think that not getting to a toilet wasn’t going to be a problem as we were more than likely about to be arrested! Luckily one of the women selling tickets for the ferry understood our dilemma and we were soon being guided to the much needed facilities.

Relieved, in more ways than one, we sat back for the two hour trip back to Chengdu. I made sure to keep my eyes open for the pug we had seen sitting outside a store on our drive to Leshan. I was convinced it was a statue, Paul was convinced it was real. Sure enough the very live pug had moved and was now sleeping on its side. I was so happy to see it as we had only recently lost our beloved pug Wolfy. With bittersweet memories we arrived at our hotel.

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We had a few hours to spare and decided to walk around the neighbourhood. The noise and the traffic – featuring swerving buses, cars and bikes  – has to be seen and heard to be believed. Crossing the roads was a real challenge but we just followed what the locals were doing. We went into shops looking for panda souvenirs and weren’t disappointed. Again we found the people to be friendly and helpful and extremely curious. We felt safe in our environment and were happy that we ventured out on our own. In fact the only scary thing about Chengdu was just how much panda paraphernalia they had for sale!

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