The flight from Santiago to Rio de Janeiro on the 26th February gave us spectacular views of the Andes mountains.

We stayed in the strangely named Windsor Florida hotel in the suburb of Flamengo not far from the beach.
There were unremarkable shops in that area but also a couple of good Italian restaurants and a good bakery/cafe nearby.
We met up with the Intrepid group (55 of us) for our Carneval experience. After a meeting giving us the dangerous aspects of Rio we were split into four groups and our guide Leonardo was a good one. A very pleasant and knowledgeable person about Rio and who answered questions willingly. Nothing was too much trouble.

We had an extensive buffet dinner at a local restaurant followed by a samba party at “Scenario” a very crowded and lively samba club where we danced with the enormous crowd who were mostly locals and we tried ‘capirinhas’- white rum with muddled lime with a copious amount of sugar. Very tasty but after a couple the sugar content put us off. The club was on 3 levels with many different areas but most of the crowd gathered and danced in front of the band on the ground floor or on the second level. The decor was very varied with a wall of clocks, a wall of musical instruments and many antiques and lots of bric a brac.
The weather in the evening was warm and during the day it had been hot and humid.

We visited the Corcovado or Christ the Redeemer statue high above Rio which looks deceivingly small from a distance but is quite large when you stand in front of it. I was surprised by the amount of lush vegetation in the city with climbing plants and large trees everywhere. From there we went to the Sugarloaf mountain and I braved the two cable cars, not game to look down.

We were introduced to the metro system by Leonardo who lived in Copacabana and found it easy to use. Six of us boarded the train however Gay was left behind when the person in front was slow to board the train. We alighted at the next stop and after a while Gay caught another train and found us. Leonardo dropped us off at a coffee shop and we made our way to the famous beach which was a bit underwhelming. We had dinner in a side street and found our way easily back to the hotel by metro.

Food – we tried to eat mainly vegetarian fare and we found good salads. The bread was mainly white. The Brazilians usually eat black beans in a sort of stew and with rice at least once a day and we found it quite tasty. Coffee on the other hand was disappointing everywhere. Just not what we are used to in Australia which is machine coffee, quite thick and creamy with milk but in Brazil we were told that most have their coffee black and even with milk it was a thin consistency and pretty bitter. The main downside to being in Rio at Carneval time was the lack of public toilets. Luckily we didn’t have a problem but the overall odour in many areas was not pleasant with so many thousands of people about.

We were taken to a huge ‘bloco’ party on Flamengo beach in the morning where most people dressed in their fantasy outfits, some inventive but most wearing very little. We couldn’t get near the band or dancers and wandered or rather pushed our way through the massive crowd to the beach. There was little dancing except near the band- it seemed to be a chance for friends to get together and drink and smoke. We were surprised at the number of both sexes smoking and we are just not used to that anymore in Australia.

Even with the large crowds, everyone was friendly and polite. There was a happy atmosphere with so many locals on holiday for 5days over Carneval. Gay and I caught the metro to Ipanema where we walked along the beach and saw the start of a large ‘Bloco’ there. For the period of Carneval and for about a month after, the hundreds of ‘blocos’ some small, some large, continue in different parts of the city. While we ate our lunch a group of youths performed their ‘Capoiera’ in the street with booming music which drowned out the solo guitarist in the restaurant. We had been lucky with the weather but walking back to a metro station we both got drenched so retired to the bar in the hotel where we met a friendly young Finnish couple and had the only relatively early night.

When someone spoke Portuguese to me I could get the gist of the conversation and with a mix of Italian and Spanish we got around famously. We had been warned a thousand times before we travelled to Rio about security (and we are both very security conscious anyway) and how dangerous Rio could be. However, with the thousands of tourists around and the locals who attended the various events we felt very safe.

Our first ‘Sambadrome’ experience was on the 23rd February when we left for the venue about 8pm. The metro was crammed with people and we were glad to get off the train or rather get pushed on and off the train. It was about a 15-20minute walk from the Central metro station to the Sambadrome and we were again warned not to use our mobiles or cameras for fear of them being stolen but we didn’t see anything untoward.

We had tickets in Sector 11 which was directly opposite where the judges sat and judged the performances of each Samba school in nine different categories, some being harmony of their voices, costumes, group coordination etc, etc. We were advised to take a cushion to sit on as the stands were concrete but everyone stood for the parades. There was a break of about half an hour between samba schools. They consisted of thousands of performers and they were allocated 70minutes to complete the corridor of the Sambadrome. The songs which were performed with gusto from performers and locals alike were rather monotonous but the amazing spectacle of the parade made it all worthwhile. There were lead dancers followed by thousands of dancers in various costumes who danced behind them. The floats followed which depicted various aspects of life in Brazil, some with a religious theme (the catholics are the main influence in Brazil followed by the Evangelists) and many with a political or social message.

The parade started at 10pm and went through until 6am but we decided to leave in a taxi at 3.15am as there was another “bloco” to attend at 730am the following morning.
The next day we followed our guides to a large park where a “Sargeant Pepper’s Bloco” was taking place. Beatles music Brazilian style which was fun.

Many of our group had bought costumes from the many street stalls and shops which were in abundance in the city. The tour leaders had supplied us with glitter and stick on diamantes. Gay and I purchased modest headgear and wore a few diamantes which sufficed for the duration.

Against recommendations we walked to the historic area of Lapa and the tiled steps of the “Escardaria Selaron” a famous set of steps which connects the bohemian neighbourhoods of Santa Teresa and Lapa which was built by Jorge Selaron a Chilean, a world traveller and ceramic artist.

We had a drink with some of the group that night near the pool at the hotel, made our farewells and Gay and I made our way that night to the Sambadrome again, this time doing it in much less time. The metro was less crowded and although the stands were full the queue to enter was not as long by the time we arrived at 2100.
We enjoyed the music and singing more that the previous night and the floats and dancers and costumes were just as spectacular as the night before. We caught a taxi back to the hotel around midnight as we were up again early the next morning for our 7.30am trip to Ilha Grande an island off the Coast about 2 1/2 hours south. Two girls Aman and Del from London and a couple Nick and Edwina from Birkhamstead joined us. We passed a lot of plains with grazing cattle and the vegetation was very tropical with palms and banana trees on the way to the port

The six of us decided to make the trip despite the thunderstorms that had been predicted but we had the most wonderful weather all day. The bus and boat transfer reminded me of the boat transfers from Lombok and Bali – disorganised with little information and delays. It cost R210 return from the hotel to the port of Conceicao de Jacarei and then by a large boat to the island.
Once on the pretty island with its lush vegetation we decided on a boat trip to the ‘blue lagoon’
All the tour boats had left so for R800 we chartered a boat to take the six of us there. The lagoon was teeming with people swimming, snorkelling and bbq-ing on their boats. After a brief swim we moved on to another less crowded bay. We followed that with a good lunch at another bay before heading back to the pier and waited for the boat to take us back to the mainland. Up to that point it had been a wonderful day trip and what we all needed.

The return trip by bus to Rio was not good. ‘Top transfer’ left a passenger back on the wharf so after 20minutes travelling towards Rio they turned around and picked up the passenger.
We hit horrendous traffic on the return journey which gradually petered out, but it took us about 5hours to get back. We were all exhausted by that time. There were many police cars everywhere in Rio and also on the country roads.

On the 26th February we left Rio’s domestic airport Santos Dumont for a few days in Salvador de Bahia. It was such a contrast going to the airport as the streets were empty with people recovering from Carneval. The flight took about an hour and a half.

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Gay and I flew on Latam on the 16th February from Sydney via Auckland to Santiago which was a 14 hour journey. We had a long wait of over an hour for immigration checks and then were picked up by our driver to take us at breakneck speed to the Novapark hotel in the Paris Londre Barrio in the city.

We were both surprised to see a lot of old multi storey apartments and that section of the city looked quite poor. Being Sunday most of the shops were closed and there was a lot of graffiti everywhere on metal shutters and buildings. Our guide explained had only been there since the 18th October when rolling protests started. Over 357 protesters have either lost their sight or their lives with police firing rubber bullets since that date. They have suspended that practice thank goodness.
Chileans are wanting a new constitution and the country is in a bad way with very poor public education and health system.
Only the wealthy have access to good education, universities and good healthcare.

The main street just a block away from our hotel is called Liberador Bernardo O’Higgins after one of Santiago’s founding fathers.
As with many struggling cities,homeless people and small street stalls with people selling clothes, food and small trinkets are found along the streets in the poorer parts of town. Across the main street in the pedestrian area were more upmarket shops like Saville Row, Calvin Klein and the others such as Sunglasses Hut and H and M.

The architecture is varied with French and English influences and some of the more stylish apartment buildings have Arabic features with outside enclosed balconies called Mashrabiya.

Our first full day was spent finding a good coffee shop and then we embarked on a free three hour walking tour with Vanessa our guide. We started from the visual arts museum, one of the many free museums in the city and it’s cafe served excellent coffee. There are many coffee shops in the city and a particular one the locals call “coffee with legs”. Girls in short dresses serve the coffee but we found it to be quite unpalatable.

Vanessa our guide was a font of information about the political situation and all aspects of Chilean life. There are over 7 million people living in Santiago but the city looks much bigger and is very spread out in a large basin between the mountain ranges. The small Maputo river flows through it. Chile had virtually no rain last winter,no snow therefore no ski season and everywhere looks very dry. There are however many parks which are well kept and watered.
The main park in plaza des Armas is beautiful with big old buildings and churches surrounding it and is a meeting spot for the locals as well as tourists.
A man in a passing car shouted abuse at the guide who was giving us information at the statue of Salvador Allende who was the first democratically elected president of Chile. He was murdered in a military coup in 1973 and Pinochet took over. Opinion is divided and loyalty was either to Allende or to Pinochet. Everyone is wondering about the outcome of the elections for a new constitution and whether it will bring any reform to the country.

After the tour we crossed the canal which had a small amount of brown flowing water and walked up to catch an old and clunky funicular which took us up to a viewpoint on the Cerro San Cristobal where we had a spectacular view of the Andes and the various parts of the city between the mountains. On descent we walked around and found an group of shops, restaurants and cafes on that side of the canal and there we found houses in many various styles and even an alpine looking one.
The shops that had been shut on the Sunday made the area we had seen look much more inviting with their open metal shutters and tables and chairs had been set up outside their establishments. Sunset was at 8.20pm and many people were enjoying themselves outdoors. The weather was perfect with a warm day and evening.
We ate a traditional bean and pumpkin dish and a humitas which was compressed parcel of mashed corn, onion and basil wrapped in corn husks and boiled. We ate “Galindo” in the Barrio Bellavista. We tried a Pisco sour but we both found it a bit sweet as it is made with Pisco 32% alcohol with about a cup of sugar and lemon juice. We retired to the hotel and a very pleasant barman served us another Pisco with tonic which was much nicer.

Our second free tour was a market tour with the following day with the fish market on one side of the canal and several others on the other side with the oldest wholesale market in Chile which remarkably turns over more than 7million US dollars a day.
The markets were a bustling hive of activity, open from 5am to 7pm and the stall holders were a pleasant bunch.

We walked back to our good cafe and then on to “La Chascona” the house of celebrated Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, a very quirky and interesting house set on many levels on the side of San Cristobal hill. I didn’t like the thought of another funicular ride so we waited for the small bus which took us up to the cable car and we took that to the the business district and the much more affluent side of the city with large houses, some with pools. We joined the ‘hop on hop off bus’ which cost 33,000 pesos or about AUD60. The infrastructure there was far superior with many upmarket restaurants, a large mall and hundreds of shops. The service stopped at 7pm every evening and the driver took us back to our starting point. We ate at a vegetarian restaurant “El Huerte” which had been recommended to us and which was exceptionally good. It was dark by the time we had finished so caught a taxi back to the hotel. There was a large police presence and they were either on foot, on horse or rode trail bikes in the city

We started the day with a good coffee followed by a visit to the Casa Colonado and the museum of Santiago situated in the Plaza Des Armas. We had booked a tour earlier in the day for a tour of the State Theatre of Santiago and Camila gave six of us a very lively informative tour in Spanish of which I could make out a lot. The theatre was beautiful with European chandeliers and plush red seating which looked rather tired. We visited the President’s box and the several rooms behind it where he can entertain guests and relax.

We retuned to the hill of Santa Lucia to the Indigenous Art market and then back to Casa Colonado to climb several spiral staircases to the tower (which had been closed over lunchtime) where we had a good view of the park and surrounding buildings of Plaza des Armas. We were in a climbing mood so made our way back to the Cerro (hill) Santa Lucia and climbed to the top to have a good view of the city and surrounding mountains.
A Mr MacKenna and his wife were buried on the top of the hill in a mausoleum. He was an Irishman who was fought against the Spanish in Chile and was promoted to commandant general.

After a good vegetarian salad we went back to the hotel and had a last drink with Eduardo at the bar of the Novapark hotel. He told us when we were in Rio to be careful and not look like tourists. A bit difficult. We had a reasonably early night to prepare for out 4am departure to the airport for our flight to Rio. We were looking forward to a good night’s sleep because jetlag for the first couple of nights and someone bashing on our door at 3am didn’t give us much rest.

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We arrived in Hangzhou after a bumpy flight on the 7th april to hot humid weather. The streets and cities in China are pristine compared to those in most of India.
In the seven years since I was there the city has expanded considerably but the beautiful West Lake is a world away and a quiet haven with large parks and trees surrounding the enormous lake. We stayed in a small local ‘MK Inn’ where the bed was very comfortable and the room had all mod cons.
We spent four peaceful days there walking around the lake and taking a trip back to the university to visit a lovely waitress Ting Bing Hong who looked after me seven years before making sure I had a good seat and who always brought me a boiling hot glass of water when I was in the cafeteria.
The inn seemed to be run by a couple of very efficient girls and one of them took us down the road to show us where to catch the bus. We used ‘Wee chat’ to communicate as they had no English. They were nonetheless very helpful.
We purchased a Sim card with much sign language. Again the staff were keen to help us and even showed us down the street to a vegetarian restaurant.
The department store nearby was beautifully appointed and the fruit and vegetables in the basement supermarket were top quality and expensive.
The public transport system was cheap and very efficient and the infrastructure there was excellent.
Nearly all the bikes and scooters in the cities are electric so you have to watch stepping out from the pavement as they are so quiet. Most of the motorbikes and scooters had duvet like covers over the handle bars and down to the base to protect riders from the weather. They looked a bit incongruous.
I would suggest anyone visiting China to take t-bags or leaf tea because it is very expensive to buy a cup around $12-15. Coffee was cheaper but mostly only Starbucks which I don’t like. We did find a lovely little coffee shop in the main tourist area of Hangzhou with real Italian style coffee with a good barista who gave us a good recommendation to a local restaurant near Hefang St. Some of the diners were amazed we were there and a woman who spoke English came up to us and congratulated us for eating at a local place. The food and unlimited tea there was very good.
After a couple of days the weather turned cold which was good to preserve the beautiful Cherry and plum blossoms all around West Lake.
We only saw a handful of foreign tourists but there were many local tourists which was very evident at the music fountain in the evenings at West Lake where thousands would gather to watch the wonderful waving fountains to lovely music.
The weather changed with torrential rain and a change from 29degrees to 13degrees.
Taxis were cheap where a half hour trip only cost $10.
I had purchased tickets on the fast train from Hanghzhou’s east station to Shanghai online and the tickets were waiting for us
at the inn. ‘Real China’ provide a great service. The station is enormous and extremely well organized so that you can only access the platforms from the main concourse about 15minutes before the train is due to depart and passengers are well organized into two groups depending on which carriages you are taking. The system is extremely efficient and easy to find your way.
We arrived at the central station in Shanghai which is a bit daunting as there are so many exits. Edwina (Maurice’s cousin who we were staying with) sent her driver ‘Mr Chen’ who eventually found us. He had very limited English to we communicated with
wee chat which would translate our English into characters and vice versa from him. It worked very well.
Maurice had unfortunately started coughing in Hangzhou but we managed to have a good day’s sightseeing in the old ‘French concession area’ in Puxi and along the Bund in Shanghai with it’s beautiful old buildings before he came down with pneumonia.
That night we caught a taxi from the metro and had great difficulty finding the house as it was dark, I had the main address which was not the gate near the house and the taxi driver was getting very agitated. I jumped out of the car several times to ask the secu
Edwina and her family lived in an Expat gated community in Jinqiao and you could be forgiven for thinking it was in the USA. A US architect had specially been commissioned to make it look like that to make the expats feel at home! There was also an Italian area, a Spanish area and many other nationality areas. Each gate was guarded 24hours a day and gates closed at night.
There were many international schools dotted about the area.
While Maurice was receiving IV antibiotics at the well equipped expat clinic around the corner for three days, I took the metro which is also very efficient and cheap into the city of Pudong opposite the Bund to visit the historical museum in the amazing Pearl Tower and the ‘Aurora’ Porcelain and Jade museum. Edwina and I and a friend of hers also went to the quaint small water town of Yinchang where we again were the only foreign tourists. Edwina knew of a good cafe there owned by a film director who appreciated good coffee.
One of Edwina’s ‘Brits Abroad’ people had organized a walking tour near the Bund so Edwina and I joined that for an interesting three hour walk seeing some of the old dance halls and hotels and from where some of the more infamous drug lords of China lived.
We flew after two weeks in China from Shanghai to Tokyo and took the Tokyo Express from the Airport to Yokohama and the area of Totsuka which took about 1 1/2hours. Craig and Yuko met us for a meal before heading back to their apartment.
Yuko and I went back to Tokyo (about 1/2 hour) and booked all of our Shinkansen (bullet trains) for the week of moving around Japan to see the cherry blossoms and wisteria blooms. We had a delicious ramen meal with her parents at ‘Nagoya’ a very traditional Japanese restaurant. We walked around a lovely park in Yokohama with them and had afternoon tea at their house.
We had a surprise late dinner on the 70th storey of the Landmark hotel with a beautiful night view of Yokohama and Tokyo bay.
The following day we visited Kamakura, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, a very popular shrine with a lovely peoni garden. We ate in another traditional restaurant specializing in soba noodles.
Maurice who had not yet recovered really from the pneumonia decided that a whirlwind tour of Japan was not on the cards for him so after cancelling the flight and train tickets I ventured off on my own up to Kitakami half way up the main island of Hokkaido. The town itself is quite small and quaint but it’s crowning glory was the very long band of Cherry trees on the opposite side of the river to where I stayed. The trees were in full blossom and a real sight to behold. I caught the 5minute ferry across first thing in the morning so as to wander along the avenue of trees before the masses got there. The following morning I did the same and also climbed the hill behind the trees to see a wonderful folklore village of Michinoku. Climbing up another hill in the village gave me a wonderful view of the cherry trees from that side of the river.
I took the Shinkansen from there in the afternoon up to Hirosaki via Morioka in the far north and stayed at a lovely little local hotel located very close to the train station and in a pedestrian street lined with small cherry blossom trees. I took the bus from the train station to Hirosaki park which was just covered with cherry blossom trees again in full bloom. I spent the day wandering around the park and went up into the castle on precariously steep narrow steps to the top. Although it was cold there were many mostly local tourists picknicking in the park. I stayed until nightfall to see the trees lit up on both sides of the canals in the park which was a spectacular sight. Many thousands of local tourists did the same. I was surprised to see very few foreign tourists. There were many foodstalls selling everything from okonomiyaki to steamed potatoes with butter and a range of roasted chicken, meats and seafood. Known for bonsai, there was a small display in a covered building and I decided to play dress ups again with much help from the photographers. The Japanese tourists found it interesting that a foreigner would dress up in Kimono.
The next day I returned to the park and walked around the town of Hirosaki some of which appeared quite poor. Iwaki mountain which had a cap of snow loomed behind the town even though it was warm and humid that day. I walked back to the hotel and the following morning caught the airport bus to Aomori (known for its apples) airport for the JAL flight via Tokyo Haneda airport down to Fukuoka in the southern island of Kyushu.
After a metro ride from the airport to Hakata station I took the train to Kokura and stayed in the excellent Kokura hotel above the station which was very convenient and I had a lovely view of the vibrant city with it’s many alleyways full of shops and restaurants. Not much English was spoken but a very helpful young man shut his shop to take me to a good very small noodle restaurant down an alleyway. On the way we passed a man famous for taking his many cats for a walk in an adapted pram. A very unusual sight! The soup was delicious so I managed to find the place the following day much to the pleasure of the proprietor who told me in reasonable English that they had been operating for over 30years.
An early morning took me on the 7am train to Yahata station where I caught the free bus to the Kawachi Wisteria gardens about 20minutes away in the hills.
Yuko managed to get me a ticket for the gardens months before but then one must pay more again at the gate dependent on how full the wisteria blooms are. I paid another yen500 about Aud10 on that day.
I was one of the first into the wonderful gardens which comprised of two levels of archways covered with various wisteria as well as a bank of different coloured wisteria along by the entrance and a huge area of wisteria which had been trained up and along a vast framework. There are about 17 different colours of wisteria and they range from single to double varieties. It is planted on the side of a hill and there was a magnificent view of the canopy of wisteria from the top of the hill.
From Kokura a couple of hours on the Shinkansen took me to Hiroshima and then on a local train to Miyajimashina a small town opposite Miyajima island with it’s Heritage listed Itsukushima Shrine. After a night at the Miyajima Coral hotel overlooking the island I took the early morning ferry across before the crowds arrived. Deer roam freely on the island and it is a very quaint touristy place with the lovely shrine and Shinto temple and many cafes,grilled oysters, souvenir shops and restaurants. A helpful man at the tourist office in Miyajimashima recommended for me to walk up to the Buddhist temple of Daisho-in. I was not disappointed. It was a beautiful set of temples in a very tranquil area on the side of a hill. Many small statues of children with knitted or crocheted hats adorn the gardens. Parents who have lost their children take good care of Jizo images, as though they were their lost children.
I was lucky to catch the high speed ferry (45minutes and yen 2000) from Miyajima island to Hiroshima. The possibility of catching the ferry depends on the tides – too low and they can’t travel and too high and the ferry won’t fit under the bridges.
The ferry docks very close to the remains of the Hiroshima Prefecftural Industrial building, a sad remnant of the atomic bomb. I went to the museum but only lasted 5 minutes. There were throngs of foreign tourists, many American lined up to see the horrific photos of the aftermath of the bomb. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough so decided on the hop off hop on bus. I got off and asked a man walking a dog (decided he would be local) where I could get a good Okonomiyaki for lunch. He pointed me in the direction of a couple of them and I chose a small one which was extremely busy and the food was delicious even though there was a long wait. Back to the vast station to pick up my bags from a locker and then take the Shinkansen Mizumo (an especially fast train) to Nagoya where I met up with Maurice and Yuko’s parents who accompanied him from Yokohama. They took us to a wonderful restaurant overlooking the impressive Nagoya castle set amongst a vast area of forest.
Although Yuko’s parents speak virtually no English we managed to communicate very well.
Craig and Yuko arrived the next morning with a hire vehicle and we set off for Tenagawa park, another Wisteria viewing point near a lake. The wisteria were another stunning display along a canal with particular double blooms. We enjoyed special macha tea and mochi (sticky rice balls filled with bean paste and decorated with a wisteria flower). We drove to Nagoya castle where Yuko and I walked around and saw many people lined up to have a photo with the written symbol of the new Japanese era of Reiwa. We happened to be there with the abdication of the last emperor and the installation (their word) of the new emperor. We ate in a park restaurant where many of the women were dressed in Kimono for the special day before all catching the Shinkansen back to
Yokohama where we farewelled Kazuo and Yoko. Craig had left his car at the station so we set off for the Ashikaga Flower park on the other side of Tokyo (about 1 1/2 hours away). As we neared the park about 8.30pm we saw a terrific traffic jam with thousands of cars entering and leaving the park. Craig dropped Yuko and me so we could walk in and see the park lit up before it closed at 9.30pm. We walked to the train nearby and went to a neighbouring town where we had a late dinner at a typical bar/restaurant (the only think open) with many merry Japanese having a good time.
We found the hotel and Maurice and Craig and the next morning we took the train (1stop) back to the flower park to see the absolutely stunning displays of every kind of flower in bloom. There were many thousands of local tourists enjoying the park which was well supplied with eating spots, chairs and tables. After a couple of hours we continued into the mountains to a wonderful old Onsen hotel where we enjoyed the thermal waters and had a fantastic long dinner with many courses including abalone, West Australian Steak and a great assortment of other food. We experienced the only rain that we had had in almost a
month and it was very foggy so we made our way back to Totsuka and packed, ready for our flight the next day to Singapore via Bangkok. I went to see the new ‘Jewel’ at Singapore airport which is an enormous five storey structure in between the Terminals with an amazing vertical waterfall amongst beautiful vegetation and five storeys of shops, cafes and restaurants.
A few noteworthy points in Japan: An extremely organized country with very polite people. Not many of the older generation speak English but are very helpful. There are many public toilets but very thin toilet paper and many benches on which to rest all over the country however very few rubbish bins. They have a policy of taking your own rubbish home to be recycled which was a bit inconvenient as I carried rubbish around for a long time before I eventually found a bin. Good to know in advance. There is far too much plastic used with many food items double or triple wrapped. Every packet opens easily unlike many at home.
The JR rail pass is expensive but very easy to use and many local trains and a few ferries are included in the price and the Trains in a station are easy to find with very good signage and explanations in English once you are on the train.
The signs are a mixture of English and American – with Elevators but lavatories and toilets not bathrooms. Most toilet seats are heated and some padded which made the ones at home look primitive. The only perplexing thing if you don’t read characters is where to stand on the platform for an approaching train as they only stop for about a minute so if you cannot find your carriage you need to walk through many carriages when the train has left the station. This luckily only happened to me once. There is no checking of your ticket once on the train and the conductors who seem to walk continuously up and down the train bow on entering and departing each carriage.
The train stations in China were enormous and also extremely well organized.
I would recommend a trip to China and Japan in early April if you want to experience the amazing displays of cherry blossoms, wisteria, rhododendrons and other flowers.

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We took the old military road up to Stepansminda which was a wonderful three hour’s drive through beautiful mountain scenery. It was a cold 8degrees when we got there but slightly warmer on top of the mountain which we had to reach by 4WD on a rough track as the asphalt road was being fixed. We used google to communicate with the driver who again only spoke Russian and Georgian.
He only charged us about $60 for the whole day trip and stopped along the way for me to take photos.
We made our way back to Mtkheta for the night before returning to Tbilisi on the 7th October for our last night in Georgia. I took the metro and ventured into the city that afternoon to witness the festival of Tbilisoba in which troops of children from various regions came to perform in Rika park and girls made flower hair garlands for 5lari – about $2.50. There was wine and cheese tasting and many local products and from the regions for sale all over the old town.I got a picture of the glass presidential palace overlooking Tbilisi. Not satisfied with a traditional palace he built a very expensive and vast glass structure. We stayed in the beautiful old district of Marjanishvili and had a typical Georgian meal that night before Nikoloz who insisted on taking us to the airport arrived the next morning. We were sorry to leave this beautiful and interesting country with so many kind people.

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We left for Gori on the 4th October and a trip which normally took 1 1/2hours we managed in less than an hour with
a driver who did his best to try and kill us. I have never been nervous driving in India but he was flying along
in his old car at 140kms and although a good driver at that speed anything could happen. He didn’t really listen
to Maurice’s requests to slow down. We stayed at a guesthouse – Gogi Davashvilis wine cellar – They made only organic wine in special qvevri – clay containers placed under the ground and the wine is without any preservatives or sulphites.
We were joined at the guesthouse by two lovely Polish girls who were on a short holiday from Warsaw and we all had a good time together.
Tengo Gogi’s son showed us the process of making the wine in their wine cellar, just off the dining room.
It was fascinating to see the old methods that were still used and as a 30 year old man he has now dedicated
himself to producing organic wine. His father apart from running the guesthouse keeps bees and 18hives were brought down from the mountains for the winter while we were there.
We took a Maxim taxi the 6kms into Gori town to see the Stalin museum, his train carriage and replica of his house,
all situated in a lovely park. I found a good cafe and we then went to the ethnographic museum.
We had a very lively evening of wine tasting, dinner and more wine and a lot of laughs. At least Maurice could also enjoy some of the pure wine.

The other attraction apart from the Stalin museum was the cave city of Uplitsikhe which the four of us visited with
Tengo however we had a very gusty strong wind while climbing up to the caves which was a bit challenging. It was a
totally different set up to Vardzia but also very interesting with an Orthodox church built at the top of the caves which date from the 7th century.
We were dropped back in town at Cafe 22 and the girls continued to Mtskheta an hour away with Tengo who had recommended a wonderful restaurant to us called ‘Shindagori’ which sounded more Japanese to me but which meant home of Gori and which served delicious Georgian food.
I had wanted to see some Georgian dancing and luckily Tengo who was a Georgian dancer taught at the school which Stalin had attended. In the new sports hall he taught traditional Georgian dancing and it was a privilege to
see these girls and boys who were very enthusiastic about their dancing and some had only just started a few weeks before.
Tango and a girl who had been dancing for 8years gave us a display of a wedding dance. It was nice to see the
traditions of many years being upheld. The lovely boys and girls each shook our hands when they left and a couple
of them introduced themselves in their basic English. We were very touched by it.

One of Tengo’s friends too us on the hour’s trip to Mtskheta from Gori. It was also only about an hour from Tbilisi. We had arranged to meet Nikoloz, one of our previous drivers who was to take us up to Stefansminda to see Mt Kasbeg. We checked into our hotel and the old grandfather who greeted us spoke only Russian and Georgian. Nikoloz rang us and said that he was in Mtskheta and that his car was broken. I took this to mean that it had broken down but it was indeed broken. In the old part of town where we stayed there were many streets blocked off
with bollards and only the residents had the required card to lower them. Unfortunately one lot of these were down when Nikoloz drove in to pick us up and all of a sudden his car was lifted and the bollard had gone through the sump, the oil pump and the pan on the automatic transmission and broke the engine mountings. We were going nowhere with him and he was also going nowhere. We wanted to find him and a very kind local who had been fishing and who spoke excellent English came with us in the taxi to find Nikoloz. We were lucky to find this man later that night and gave him a bottle of wine. Such kindness.
There were no signs to advise of these bollards and a local told him that many cars who were unaware of them had also done a lot of damage to their cars. The dear man was only concerned that we were let down and insisted on finding another driver for us before his friend came and sorted his car out.
Any other time we would have just delayed the trip but it was a beautiful day and we were goingn on to Tbilisi the next day so we left with a substitute driver and kept in touch with Nikoloz while he had his car repaired which he managed over the next day.

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Joni the manager from the guesthouse in Kutaisi picked us up three days later to take us on the four hour
journey to Borjomi a picturesque town divided by a river with a large park of one side complete with orthodox
church and steep mountains on either side. Our guesthouse ‘Four Seasons’ was up a steep flight of stairs again
but the staff were very good carrying our heavy bags. I made friends with a ginger pussycat who was very friendly
and came when he was called. I could have taken him/her home.

The driver who picked us up in the morning to take us the the cave town of Vardzia and the enormous Rabati Fortress
had one of the many Japanese import cars which had their steering wheels on the right hand side so being a crazy
Georgian driver (like most of them) he kept me suitably scared when pulling out to see if he could pass a truck.

Rabati was somewhat of a living Fortress with administration offices, restaurants, a wellness centre complete with
hamam and hotel and cafes. It was spectacular in its diversity with fountains, a mosque, church, recreation rooms
and towers. It had a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. From Rabati we went on another hour to the
cave city of Vardzia which is mostly uninhabited now. There was one roped off area with planted flowers and
grapevines where someone lived. We had a hard climb to get there and we managed another few hundred steps up and down to the bottom again. We had again been lucky with the weather. It was misty in the mornings in the mountains and the leaves had begun to change colour for the autumn. Many people were harvesting walnuts and hazelnuts common to many regions.

We were surprised to learn that in the 12th century there were 16million inhabitants of Georgia but over time and with the wars the land had been divided and now there are only 3.5million people living in Georgia.

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The drive up into the mountains to the north of Kutaisi was very scenic. We were stopped by the police who were looking for inferior grapes which some people would try and smuggle into the town of Ambrolauri and make wine which was then sold as the extremely small amount and expensive wine of that region. The grape grown there was a very rare one and normally cost $100 or more a bottle. Our driver was a bit miffed as he told them that they could see he had three tourists in the car but they made him open the hatch anyway.

Oni was a pictureque town surrounded by forested mountains. Many of the old houses in Oni were deserted and falling apart and most young people had left for the cities but there were a few new houses and a few being restored.

The ‘Gallery guesthouse’ we had chosen was very atmospheric with traditional Georgian furniture and artifacts. There we met Tamara a Georgian and her husband Luca who came from Campobasso the city next to where we used to stay in Roccamandolfi. He couldn’t believe we knew where it was. We had great discussions over the time there and it was very interesting to listen to Tamara’s stories of how she grew up in Soviet times and the difficulties they faced which was something so foreign to us growing up in Australia.

Oni was a small town with the river Rioni flowing past it and surrounded by beautiful mountains and small villages.
We climbed up behind the village one day and through a small village where we saw a woman chopping a load of wood.
She motioned us to wait and came out with an armful of large red apples for us. We were intringued to see a UNHCR refugee tent beside her gate and used as a carport for a Mercedes car!
We were lucky to have chosen this guesthouse which was kept in a typical traditional Georgian style. They also had a large area where they grew tomatoes, gourds and other vegetables and kept rabbits and chickens. Their lovely German Shepherd Bombora was trained to bring in his bowl for food, bring in the wood and open and shut the main door. He was a lovely dog. There were a few dogs who seemed to roam the streets but they all looked well fed.
The family were extremely friendly and were keen for all of us to experience Georgian life so we made bread and sweets the traditional way and in Temori’s grandparents house also on the property we had a dinner at night with music and dancing and toasts. It was more like staying with family. Every meal had such a variety of foods and breads with fresh butter and cheese and unlimited amounts of Chacha (their Schnapps)and red or white wine and good drinking water. We limited ourselves to two meals a day which I don’t think they could understand.

The small museum was interesting especially as there was an enormous painting of Stalian overlooking the
sea in Armenia. A lot of the artifacts referred to wine making which everyone seems to make in the village
and ripe black grapes hung around most of the houses, deserted or not ready to be picked.
The guesthouse also had bikes for us to use so we made the most of it and cycled around the whole town
and into the next village. A group of fourteen German kyakers arrived for a couple of days to tackle
parts of the Rioni river.

We farewelled our Perth friend who had decided to take a Matrutschka to Ambrolauri and Joni arrived the following day from Kutaisi to take us to Borjomi 4hours away.

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What a difference 12hours made. We left Batumi on the 26th September to pouring rain and very rough seas.
From the central station we could barely see the city which had been so clear the previous days. We were
glad to have our long train trip that day. We discovered by it took so long to Kutaisi when the train stopped
at every station.
The train was an old soviet style one – very wide aisles and seating was quite comfortable (the seats were
realatively new) and when the train drew in there was a rush to sit in the direction of travel.
The conductor was a jolly fellow who gave out instructions along the way in Georgian. Several women came on board at various stations with buckets of snacks and bread for sale but I hardly believed my eyes when two women paraded up and down the carriages with fresh fish complete with a hanging scale. A few people bought them but the fish smell lingered a bit.
The new station in Kutaisi didn’t have a lift and the stairs were very steep. Not great with our amount of luggage. After half an hour of battling with our Maxim app to get a taxi we arrived at Guesthouse Veneto which belonged to Caritas and had been renovated into smaller rooms and bathrooms. It had been a grand old house and we could see what it had been like previously. Sofia who worked there was like a ray of sunshine and spoke good English and Russian and was very helpful taking us to the beauty salon and arranging hair cuts, colour and pedicures. Prices in Georgia were very cheap for most things and we only paid less than $80 for everything. The guesthouses all have washing machines so we managed to catch up with the washing. One day was a bit cool but otherwise we were very blessed with sunny, warm weather overall.
We spent a couple of days around the small city and walked up to Bagrati Orthodox church on the hill overlooking
the city. I also found an Italian coffee machine in a cafe which was not always an easy thing in Azerbaijan or Georgia.
In Azerbaijan they mostly drink tea and in Georgia it was Nescafe but I chose Turkish coffee which was preferable
if I couldn’t get an Italian coffee and reminded me of Kopi Bali – just not swallowing the last mouthful.
Everywhere were persimmon trees laden with fruit as well as apple and pear trees.
We hired a taxi the next day to take us to Motsameta monastery which was nestled in the hills above Kutaisi.

Joni the guesthouse manager spoke Italian thankfully so we could communicate and we arranged for him to take
us in his comfortable BMW 4WD up to Oni in the low Caucasus the following day. We stopped first at Gelati Monastery which was a large complex in the process of being restored. Another Australian who appeared at the guesthouse (only the 3rd person we discovered in our many years of travel from Perth and Ken decided to join us for the 2hour trip into the mountains where we stayed for three days.
Joni told me that Georgians only wanted peace. Four wars over the last 25years had taken their toll on Georgia
and the catch up was very slow. Food and dinners in Georgia were very cheap with several dishes, bread, mineral
water and a couple of glasses of red wine costing about $20-25. The tomatoes in Georgia were exceptional – dense and so very tasty, so I consumed kilos of them. A traditional meal usually consisted of cut tomatoes,
crunchy cucumbers, bread and large slabs of homemade cheese.

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We were collected by our airbnb host Bejani and driven the couple of hours to Tbilisi for the night, staying in the Marjanishvili area of Tbilisi which was very European in design and atmosphere with nice cafes around a large piazza.
When we arrived at the airport in Tbilisi we purchased a sim card for Lari55 which gave us ample phone and internet for a month and was handy for booking taxis using a map to locate where we wanted to go and to contact our driver/guide.
All of the taxi drivers even the young ones didn’t speak a word of anything other than Georgian or Russian.
It was pouring with rain the next morning at 7am when we caught a ‘Maxim’ like ‘Uber’ transport to the train station for the 8am train to Batumi. It was a new German Stadler train which was very comfortable but which only had a dispenser with cold drinks and prepackaged sandwiches and crisps.
There was no tea or coffee or alcohol for sale. The train was full and we discovered many of the passengers were attending the world chess championships in Batumi.
The journey took 5hours and the train wound at first through rugged and then green mountains before arriving in Batumi on the Black sea.

The taxi and apartment hunters at the station were the most persistent we had ever encountered and Maurice threatened to hit a woman with his stock if she didn’t stop tugging at his shirt!
We managed to get away from them and catch our Maxim transport. If the taxi drivers had offered a reasonable sum to take us the few kilometres to the city we would have taken their offer but it was more than triple that of the Maxim driver. We have used them many times and they tell you the type of
car, the driver’s name and how much it will cost and the they tell you when they will arrive.

Batumi is very much a popular seaside town with ferris wheel, unusual new skyscrapers and some lovely European styled architecture.
It is the capital of the Arjuda and Georgia’s second largest city, located on the coast of the Black Sea in the country’s southwest. It is situated in a subtropical zone near the foot of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains. Much of Batumi’s economy revolves around tourism and gambling, but the city is also an important sea port and includes industries like shipbuilding, food processing and light manufacturing. Since 2010, Batumi has been transformed by the construction of modern high-rise buildings, as well as the restoration of classical 19th-century edifices lining its historic Old Town.

The city was a mix of well to do areas with tree lined streets and poorer areas with people selling all sorts of bric a brac on roadside stalls. There were many wine shops selling the famous Georgian wine and a small yellow tanker like container on a trailer had beer for sale on a couple of the side streets.

We stayed at the Piazza boutique hotel which boasted clocktower accommodation with only two rooms on each floor. We were on the 5th floor and had two balconies overlooking the town. There was a central piazza with four hotels surrounding it. One afternoon a group of three Jewish men in their black suits and hats arrived in the square with long green plant like objects and skullcaps that they proceeded to put on the male takers and just waved their hands around the women takers. It was all very strange and I don’t know if they received any money for the service.
The weather was perfect with temperatures of 27 degrees and balmy evenings for the time we were there.

There are many Turkish people here in Batumi and the Turkish border is only a few kilometres away.
Marijuana has been decriminalized but we could not smell any of it wandering around the streets during the day or at night only the usual cigarette smoke.

We spent most of the next day at the beautiful botanical gardens. They comprise 10hectares of hilly land overlooking the Black sea and over forty percent is dedicated to Asian plants and trees. The views from the park over the sea and the city were magnificent and although it was a fairly steep
climb it was worth the effort. We lashed out and went to the top of the Radisson hotel for dinner and were rewarded with lovely views of the city and the sunset.

On Tuesday we walked all along the promenade by the sea which took us a few hours. It is about 8kilometres long with plenty of benches on which to rest and many restaurants, bars and cafes on the seaside. We heard a lot of Georgian,Russian and Turkish spoken but heard no English or any other languarge at all. There were apparently 115 nations represented at the 43rd world chess championship but we only saw a group of four from the Philippines who passed by us with that emblazoned on their shirts. We wanted to visit the Roman ruins at Goinia Apsarus so took a Maxim taxi when we could walk no further. The area is being slowly excavated and the fortress is an impressive structure. It was started by the Romans but taken over later by the Byzantines and then the Ottoman empire. It was only four kilometers from the Turkish boarder.

We finished the day off with another good Georgian meal and some good fresh dry red wine in a quaint little restaurant and then visited one of the many casinos to see what they were like. The Golden Palace was not very opulent but the 40lari – about $20 netted me $95 lari. We were only there a short time anyway and the smoking allowed encouraged us to leave very quickly.
It was a lovely balmy evening and we walked back to our hotel to repack and get a good night’s sleep before heading for Kutaisi on the 0825 train the next morning. Strangely we could only buy tickets for the train
an hour before it departed so we made sure we were there in plenty of time. It poured overnight and was drizzling and cool when we left for the station. The sea was very rough and we could barely make out the city from the brand new train station. What a difference 12hours made. We were glad that we had such a day for travelling as we had seen the same scenery on the way into Batumi.

We realized why the train only cost Lari 2 (less than $1) for the 3hour 40min journey when it stopped about every five minutes on the way. It was however a very wide and quite comfortable old Soviet train with plenty of leg room. It chugged along with the smell of burning rubber every time the brakes were applied.
Sellers plied their goods up and down the aisles which included bread and snacks but we had never seen fresh fish being sold on a train before!

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Two negative aspects for us in Azerbaijan and Georgia was the number of smokers and the fumes from the old cars and trucks – a lot of them old Russian ones. After pristine Australia with it’s no smoking laws it was hard to walk around the streets without getting a lung full of smoke (every second person smoked) and many restaurants allowed smoking inside. The cigarettes are very cheap and plentiful. At least there was no smoking on the train which was a godsend as the only windows which could be opened were minute and these were locked before we reached the borders. The engines were turned off while they took their time so it was pretty stuffy and we were of course not allowed off the train even though the military were stationed outside.
The customs and immigration on both the Azerbaijan and Georgian sides on the train took forever.
The Azeri customs declaration asked whether we had over the allowed amount of everything but there was no guide with it to tell us what the allowed amounts were so we just answered no to everything.
We got back to Tbilisi by 11am on the 19th September.
We were only 1/2late coming back into Tbilisi and despite a bit of a derelict looking place from the outside our airbnb in the very centre of Tbilisi near Rustaveli Ave had high ceilings, was very tastefully appointed and everything we needed.
We found a lovely cafe just 20metres away and spent the day relaxing and then going for a couple of walks around that part of the city.
Our driver was there at 10am in the morning to take us across to the east to Telavi and Signaghi, a famous Georgian wine growing area.
We passed countless trucks laden with white and black grapes going to be processed. An abandoned former Russian military post looked like a war zone because when they departed they took every door and window with them leaving shells of building.
Our next stop was what they call a monastery but there were no monks just nuns so really a convent. Beautiful buildings and we were ushered into the quaint small orthodox church as a service was taking place. The handful of
nuns were singing and had the most beautiful voices so we were happy to stand there and hear them. A lot of renovations were taking place outside with many workmen. The nuns dress entirely in black and just have their faces uncovered. They were very sweet and welcomed us.
Our next stop was in Telavi which had the most amazing market selling wonderful fresh fruit and vegetables and everything else! The Georgians proudly told us that they grew everything except bananas and pineapples but we found some imported varieties in the supermarkets.
We bought Maurice some Goat’s cheese and some delicious bread before going to the newly opened King Erekle II museum which was built into the side of a hill and within the old palace walls. The renovated palace which was very simple in it’s design. Much of the objects were not behind glass which made it more accessible to see the items in more detail.
The large plane tree in Telavi was more than 900 years old and it was amazing to see it so vigorous with most of it’s trunk missing.
The Tsinandale palace museum was again a beautiful building without being ostentatious. It belong to a prince by the name of Alex Chavchavadze and was owned by the Romanoffs for 30years.
Our last stop before Signagh was Bodbe Monastery – another convent and large complex with a new church underway and being built on the side of a hill. The nun tending the garden was very friendly and like many people wanted to know from where we came. They had a large fruit and vegetable garden and two other nuns were harvesting apples.
We took all day to get to Signaghi which was only two hours from Tbilisi but it was a very enjoyable day taking in the lovely scenery and visiting so many places on the way.
Signaghi is a lovely small town with something similar to the great wall of China around part of the town. It reminded us of Italy in so many ways also. Interesting architecture and beautiful views down to the Alazani valley with the clouds and high Caucasus mountains in the background. Our Lia’s guesthouse was in a perfect position overlooking the town above and the valley and mountains in front of us. It only took us 5 minutes to walk into town and only 15minutes to walk down to the great wall with it’s round lookout towers. We could walk around the whole town in a couple of hours.
A few tourist buses arrived, one with Russian tourists and one with Chinese tourists but they were gone by late afternoon.
The temperature in the shade was quite cool but lovely and warm in the sun. Nights were quite cool. We left Signaghi the next morning after spending two relaxing days there and headed back to Tbilisi for the night before catching an early train (8am) to Batumi a holiday town on the Black sea.

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