Sunday, January 26, 2014

The 2013 Retrospective, part two

For all the traveling I did in 2013, I think I only added one new place to my passport, and that was Vietnam. I expect 2014 will be much better on that front as there are trips planned to France and Spain, with New Zealand, the Maldives, and Myanmar all distinct possibilities as well, all of which would represent new stamps in the passport. As for the second half of 2013, however... strap in for another long entry and loads of photos! Be sure to click on these to enlarge them. And away we go...

Fresh Cameron Highlands strawberries
One of the highlights last year was a terrific weekend up at Cameron Highlands. This is a hill station district in Malaysia, about 120 miles by road from KL, but owing to the winding road to the Highlands once you get off the main highway, it's easily a three-hour drive. This was the first time I had been to Cameron Highlands since early 2010, I think, and it's still just as refreshing and enjoyable. Because of the altitude of the three townships comprising the Highlands – Ringlet, Tanah Rata, and Brinchang – temperatures here seldom rise much above the mid-70s (Fahrenheit), about 23-25°C, and nights routinely bring blissfully mild temperatures of 14-16°C (around 60°F). It's Peninsular Malaysia's highest point accessible by car, and a true tropical highland climate. Fruits and veggies well-adapted to temperate climates flourish in Cameron Highlands, where the altitude ranges from about 3,600 ft to 5,200 ft above sea level. Strawberries, cantaloupe, sweet corn, and perhaps the area's most famous crop, tea, all do quite well here.

Tea plantation in the rolling hills of Cameron Highlands
We stayed at a very nice place called The Lakehouse, a boutique hotel with plenty of Colonial charm and history. Nestled against a bucolic green hillside near the town of Ringlet, this Tudor-style country inn was a special place to call home for a weekend. They even washed my car every day we were there... definitely a treatment you'd not get at a larger property. We ate fantastic food, had what I believe was the very best sweet corn on the cob I've ever had in Malaysia, made fresh strawberry jam, had a very proper English high tea in the Lakehouse's library (next to a mammoth woodburning fireplace), saw the tea plantations, browsed around in the nearby towns, and just thoroughly enjoyed a respite from the urban jungle of KL. It's curious that with all the travel that I did last year, one of the most memorable trips was the one just up the road.

A delicious salmon dish complemented by nothing but
locally grown veggies
From the patio of The Lakehouse

Evening's last light from the "front yard" of
The Lakehouse

Who doesn't love a freestanding,
claw-footed, deep bathtub?

Misty hills in the distance added to
the wonderful ambiance

Scones, sandwiches, cakes, and fresh fruit...
a marvelous English high tea

Tea plants covering the hills like carpet (photo courtesy of Will Ellis)
Last year saw a handful of excursions up to Langkawi, definitely one of my favorite Malaysian getaways. It's just a short one-hour flight to this laid-back island up near the Thai border, and is probably among my most-frequented domestic holiday destinations.

One visit was just a media trip to Berjaya Langkawi Resort, but those are usually pretty enjoyable, even though they are unquestionably work-related. Since everything is sponsored, we are beholden to a fairly full itinerary, with the idea behind the trips being an introduction of the resort and/or destination to members of the media. So there's generally a full slate of meals, activities, press conference-type assemblies, etc. This one also featured a spa visit and a leisurely mangrove tour, so hey, nobody was complaining!

Flying over Penang en route to Langkawi, the new 24-km (15 mi) Second
Penang Bridge, set to officially open in February 2014, is clearly visible
in the foreground, with the original bridge in the background

A picture-perfect view from the lobby deck at Berjaya

The over-water chalets of Berjaya Langkawi Resort dot the shoreline

Langkawi's UNESCO Geoforest Park is a true treasure... the lazy boat rides
along the mangrove forests are always enjoyable and educational

Bringing in the boats under unsettled skies

Looking northward, though, a more docile view
I chose to go back home to Colorado in 2013 during my favorite time of year, which is autumn. September and October in the Rocky Mountains are just magical months. I went in late September and stayed for about two weeks, which of course just flew by. Some of my friends here in Malaysia often express surprise that I flew back home at that time rather than at Christmas. I simply show them some of the photos from the trip, and everything is made clear to them. Not only did we have postcard-perfect weather virtually the entire time I was there, I got two new lenses for my Nikon (one of which is a manual-focus 8mm fisheye lens) and had a blast breaking them in and trying them out. I always enjoy my trips home... visiting family and friends, seeing my parrot Shiloh, and soaking in all the beautiful Colorado scenery.

My mother and I had a number of attempts to visit the mountains thwarted because of devastating floods that had ripped through the northern foothills of the Front Range of Colorado just before my arrival. Plenty of roads, including some fairly major thoroughfares, were washed away, and most of the affected towns were still very much in full recovery mode, so not only could we not visit those areas, we couldn't even go through them. So on one particularly fruitless day, we had no fewer than three different routes end up as non-options for us. In the end, we grabbed some food in Longmont, a delightful small city north of Denver, and enjoyed the brilliant skies and sunny weather. A much more productive trip a day later took us southwest of Denver, where we marveled at the riot of color courtesy of the changing aspens. While Colorado doesn't have the extreme autumnal variety of reds and oranges that New England's stunning deciduous forests display, there's something special about the electric yellow of the aspens set against the deep green of the ponderosa and lodgepole pine forests, all under a brilliant deep blue Colorado sky. After snapping loads of photos of all this spectacular scenery, however, we came through Idaho Springs and were met by a monstrous, barely-moving traffic jam on Interstate 70 heading back to Denver. Accident, construction, we didn't know, but it didn't look promising, so we go on the highway going the opposite way and went over Guanella Pass and came the "back way" into Denver. It was a detour few would make, because it's a solid two-hour slog over a very high mountain pass and then down a winding highway into the foothills southwest of Denver. But it seemed to be a good choice, as the jam on I-70 was pretty epic, and in the end, we made it to one of my favorite Mexican cantinas in Denver, Jose O'Shea's, just in time to catch the last few minutes of happy hour, a frosty margarita (or two) and plates of hot tacos our well-earned reward for the grueling drive back to civilization.

Mom in the Jeep, courtesy of the new fisheye lens

Boulder's ever-impressive Flatirons jutting up from the plains

Here's my baby! Shiloh, my parrot, now around 16 years
old, but she doesn't look a day over 10!

Heading up Guanella Pass with a dense palette of greens
and yellows at every turn

Colorado's wide open spaces, shot with the 8mm lens

A log home against a tree-covered hillside... quintessential Colorado

A Colorado bluebird posing on a rustic fence suddenly makes
me extra-happy to now have a 300mm lens

Talk about posing! This "camp robber" bird was just biding his time
at our picnic site before swooping down for any bits of food he could nab

Vast forests carpeted in pine and aspen

Whether a painter, a cyclist, a hiker, a photographer, or whatever – people
out in nature soaking up the wonder of Colorado is a common sight,
and is part and parcel of the state's immense appeal

Sun-splashed aspens at their peak color burn with
an orange-tinted yellow under a cloudless sky

For me, the defining photo of the trip, capturing everything that I love
about autumn in the Colorado Rockies

At the summit of Guanella Pass, with 14,060-ft Mt. Bierstadt looming
in the background

Generously sized margaritas, chips & salsa, and spicy tacos
at Jose O'Shea's... ample recompense indeed for our long
and winding detour back home from the mountains
Wanting to cap off a wonderful year of travel with a near-total absence of panache and luxury, my friend Ryan and I booked a "backpacker-style" trip to Kathmandu, Nepal, leaving a couple of days after Christmas and staying through the New Year. After a spectacularly long slog to get through possibly the most woefully inefficient immigration queues in the world, we made our way to our guesthouse, a place called Dipankara Holiday Home. Now, this is not a fancy place, but a couple of issues notwithstanding, it was a really nice place to base ourselves for a few days. However, the first night did not forecast that in any way at all. We were in an upstairs room (US$12.50 per night) and had no heat, no hot water (lukewarm only with roof-mounted solar water heaters), and much of the time, no electricity. This is a common theme in Nepal, where only 40% of the country even has access to electricity at all, and even in Kathmandu, rolling power cuts are the order of business, particularly in the chilly winter months. The power cuts sort of follow a schedule, but it's not really one you can rely on. After the first night, we "upgraded" to a downstairs room which the proprietor cheerfully gave us for $20 per night, and this room had a gas-fired water heater (hot showers make a huge difference!) and a halogen space heater, which is only slightly better than nothing, in all honesty. If you're looking for an incredibly inefficient heater, this may be your best choice. Little more than an 800-watt halogen light bulb, this thing lit up the room like a small nova and merely radiated heat as long as the power was flowing to it. Had it been outfitted with a small fan to blow the heated air out into the room, it would have made it significantly better. However, it was certainly better than having nothing at all, and the room was really quite nice. Very clean, fresh quality linens, and once again: hot water. One fine morning around 3am, the power came back on and the heater sprang to life and I woke up shortly thereafter, thinking it was the morning sun blazing through the windows. Alas, however, it was just the super-bright halogen heater doing its thing.

Terraced fields atop the rugged mountains of Nepal

I guess you'd call this "Suburban Kathmandu"

The ubiquitous momo – stuffed with various meats and
spices, and prepared in a variety of ways (steamed,
pan-seared, deep-fried), we couldn't get enough

The succulent contents of a buffalo-stuffed momo

Fresh noodles with plenty of veggies

The charming Dipankara Holiday Home,
our home away from home for five days

Our bright and sunny downstairs room,
clean and comfortable

While we were there, there was scarcely a cloud in the sky. In fact, it hadn't rained in a few weeks prior to our visit, so everything seemed to be coated in a very fine layer of dust. It wasn't that problematic in the city, as you tend to expect such things, but on a half-day excursion to Nagarkot, the site of some of my best photos from last year's trip to Nepal, the dryness and dustiness rendered all the foliage, typically a lush palette of greens, a dull shade of mediocrity. Disappointing, but despite this – and apparently going at the wrong time of day (morning is best, as we were told after the fact) – I still managed to snap a couple of good photos of the supremely impressive peaks of the Himalayas... no captions required!

Among the more memorable times on the trip were seeking out rooftop cafés and eateries. Always involving a fun climb up a few flights of precipitous steps, these rooftop venues were a consistent source of pleasure, offering tasty local food, surprisingly good coffee and tea (pots of hot milk coffee became a mainstay for us in the chilly December evenings), and a sense of escape from the bedlam of the city three to four stories below... truly, a good rooftop café in Kathmandu becomes an oasis in the city.

A common scene in Kathmandu, taken from atop
one of the several rooftop cafés we visited

The dustiness of a dry city can be seen in this ultra-wide angle view

Ryan, squinting in the bright midday sun, at a great
rooftop café we found near Patan Durbar Square

The snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas peering over the rooftops
of Kathmandu

A yummy hot caramel latté, the
perfect drink on a chilly afternoon

Another particularly memorable place for us was Boudhanath. Only a 10-minute walk from our guesthouse, this area is just special. A large circular promenade surrounding a behemoth Buddhist stupa, I liked Boudhanath on my last visit to Nepal and loved it on this one. Owing to its proximity, we spent time here every day, oftentimes enjoying the sunset over the Himalayas from our favorite rooftop eatery, a place we frequented throughout our time there.

Prayer flags adorning Boudhanath Stupa

A massive Buddhist prayer bell backed by wildly colorful buildings
at Boudhanath – one of my favorite pictures from the trip

Our most-frequented eatery, the outstanding
Himalayan Café: excellent food, pots of steaming hot
milk coffee, friendly service, and free Wi-Fi

Prayer flags whipping in the afternoon wind

Another favorite photo: So much going on here, including a monk on the
veranda, just left of center, and a surly cat, perhaps wondering how to
get one of those two dozen pigeons on the rooftop at lower right

Bidding goodbye to the sun, as well as to its warmth... always a mixed
bag of feelings with the beautiful sunsets during the trip.

The best day of the trip, without a doubt, was December 31. We wandered out from Dipankara Holiday Home in the late morning and didn't find our way back until just before midnight. We spent the day wandering around Kathmandu Durbar Square (there are three "Durbar Squares" which collectively comprise the UNESCO Heritage Site; I've now been to all three), and then making our way to Old Freak Street, a great area of shops and funky cafés and pubs that hearkens back to the hippie backpacker days that really put it on the map. We settled in at a place called Firefly, ordered some giant bottles of beer (at 650mL, each was well more than a full pint) and some tasty bites, and just enjoyed the atmosphere. After that, we made our way (on foot) to Thamel, a touristy enclave just northwest of Kathmandu's rather ill-defined center. After shopping for scarves and singing bowls, we happened upon a wonderful pub/restaurant called Heritage Kitchen & Bar and took up residence there for the last few hours of 2013, enjoying the great live music and delicious food, and, as the evening wore on, the increasingly vibrant and celebratory ambiance. At exactly 9:45pm, which coincided with the stroke of midnight back in KL (Nepal is oddly 2 hrs and 15 min behind Malaysia), we raised our glasses and welcomed in 2014 for the first time – we even had some noisemakers and confetti bombs for the occasion! We kept warm with a tray of some sort of fuel bricks, and thank goodness we had that, because the temperatures at night often dropped down to a very chilly 0-3°C. Presently, we grabbed a taxi and made our way back to the guesthouse, where we arrived at about 11:45pm, just in time to crack open the bottle of champagne I had brought from home and ring in 2014 according to the Nepalese clock.

One of the temples at Patan Durbar Square

Bold examples of 16th-century craftsmanship at
Kathmandu Durbar Square

Cerulean window shutters
provide a visual treat

Kathmandu is a pretty large city, so scenes like this
were not at all uncommon

And neither were scenes like this... vendors selling all
manner of foods and various goods lined the streets
throughout the city, trying to keep warm between sales

Kathmandu Durbar Square temple

An ornate 100-year-old building, stunning against the
cloudless blue sky, stands in stark contrast to the
considerably older buildings nearby

The sign says it all! A great place to hang out

A wide-angle view from the window by our table...
note the masks at left

Did not expect to see this in Nepal!

Transport in central Kathmandu: by foot, by trishaw, by motorbike

Prayer candles at a tiny street-corner "temple stall"
around sunset on New Year's Eve

Love this photo! Check out this absolute mass of humanity, all trying
to get their day's business attended to in the final hour of daylight

Nepal's unique flag, the only
non-quadrilateral national flag in the world

A vast collection of handmade singing bowls

We saw this inviting place from a rooftop café we were at across the
street, and knew this was the place to spend our New Year's Eve!

Looking into the courtyard from the restaurant area

A complimentary basket of fine
chocolates to go with our Everest
beer? Why certainly!

The tables filled up as the night progressed... note the live band at left

And this is what kept us warm!

The next day was our last, so we made one last visit to Boudhanath, ate some lunch, bought our last-minute souvenirs, and with that, headed for the airport, where we boarded a widebody A330 with, I kid you not, some 350 Nepalese workers (for whom many this was clearly their first time flying), and winged our way back to KL. We figured that, the flight attendants notwithstanding, there were maybe only 5-10 women on that entire plane. Quite the experience, and a brilliant end to a very interesting and largely enjoyable 2013!

Farewell Himalayas, farewell 2013