Tag: Cities

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur

In 120 years Kuala Lumpur has grown from a Wild West tin mining town into an affluent Asian capital. The skyline testament mainly to the economic boom of the 1990s.

Without question this is the most diverse city we have been in, probably ever. Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Malayans all mixed up. A busy, chaotic city saved by an incredible metro system.

Here is the Jamek Mosque built in 1907 at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers. This is the point where Kuala Lumpur’s founders set foot and where supplies for the nearby tin mines were shipped
When completed in 1998, the Petronas Towers was the tallest building in the world. The floor plan is based on an eight sided star echoing the patterns of Islamic art
We love SG (Singapore)

We love SG (Singapore)

We would definitely put Singapore into our top three city experiences of the gap year, alongside Vancouver and Sydney. After an incredible programme of land reclamation and development, the compulsory stop-on-the-route-to-Australia is now a city destination in its own right, with some of the world’s most distinctive attractions.

The Gardens by the Bay with its Supertrees (see our next blog) and the Marina Bay Sands Hotel (the building on the left in the photo above) have simply rebranded the city, giving it a new visual language for the Instagram age, and as tourists it’s initially hard to see beyond them.

But we were also interested to explore an earlier Singapore, the city of Raffles, the Japanese invasion and the birth in 1965 of an independent country. So we spent time walking up the Singapore River, through Fort Canning Park and loved the National Museum.

Singapore is without question a clean and green city, a clear reflection of an efficient, orderly and wealthy society. It has come on a ton since Hilary was here in 1987, when the river stank, there were still rows of squalid Chinese shanty houses and lots of spitting in the streets.

The Merlion statue is the symbol of Singapore – a lion’s head combined with a fish tail
Raffles Hotel is undergoing a major refurbishment, so we drank the obligatory Singapore Slings in the Billiard Room as opposed to the iconic Long Bar
A couple of spots on our walk along the banks of the Singapore River; the Fullerton Road Bridge and the Raffles Statue
Why did we go to Surabaya?

Why did we go to Surabaya?

You know it’s not looking promising when the top rated place to visit on TripAdvisor is a shopping mall.

How can a modern temple to global consumerism, built no doubt with foreign investment and kick-backs, be the most popular destination – where are the inspiring museums, historic buildings or peaceful parks?

We are in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city with three million people (that’s three times the population of Birmingham in England), yet there is nothing remotely aesthetic here. In fact we saw the most attractive place as we left – the airport terminal.

So, before our flight to Bali, what to do with our day? We took super cheap Uber’s (making them illegal here doesn’t appear to be on the cards), to a couple of eclectic sites; a cigarette factory and a Russian submarine. So our theme for the day was ‘things which kill people’.

But instead, we probably should have used our day in East Java to visit Mount Bromo, but that would have been our ninth volcano of the gap year.

This is one of the factories where the Sampoerna company still hand roll tobacco and clove cigarettes. They are called Kretek, the name derived from the sound of burning cloves. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of clove cigarettes, and exports up to $500 million of the product a year
Surabaya is very proud of its old Russian sub. And it’s great to walk all the way through it, touching the old dials, although Hilary found it very claustrophobic and had to rush out. With a crew of 62, KRI Pasopati 410 was used in 1961-62 during Operation Trikora, a military effort led by then-president Sukarno to annex New Guinea from the Netherlands
We fly into Indonesia

We fly into Indonesia

Indonesia has the world’s largest number of Muslims and is also the fourth most populated country.

We decided to come here because it’s almost a forgotten state. Mention Indonesia and you can see friends desperately thinking where exactly it is, what islands does it comprise of, and isn’t there always an army coup or fighting going on there?

There’s also a World Heritage Site to visit.

But first we had the capital Jakarta to see. The 20m people who live here apparently tweet more than any other city on the planet. It’s major landmark is the 132 m (433 ft) imposing National Monument built to commemorate the struggle for Indonesian independence.

We felt we had arrived back in South America, with obvious pockets of poverty and bad pavements, and dangerous roads. But the people are so friendly and courteous, with a soft line in Islam; no niqabs have been seen, just optional hijabs, with many working women and men content to cuddle babies.

In Merdeka Square we were caught up in the marching bands fanfare for a film and music evening. Wonderful colours and national costumes
A gathering of women inside the Istiqlal Mosque, one of the largest in South East Asia with a capacity of 200,000
Into Hong Kong

Into Hong Kong

We took the train from Guangzhou direct to Kowloon, then the ferry to Hong Kong Island.

20 years after Britain handed back the colony, it still feels a bit like a border crossing: you get stamped out of China at Guangzhou, Facebook can be accessed again, and the massive skyscrapers of Shenzhen give way to the rural remoteness of the new territories.

Currently, the journey takes 1 hour 53 minutes, in a year or two, when the high-speed link opens, it will come down to just 43 minutes. See this as a metaphor for the creeping “mainlandisation” of Hong Kong.

After five previous massive Chinese cities, we hoped Hong Kong would feel different, but unfortunately it didn’t. In fact, we found ourselves simply wanting to escape the ubiquitous noise and crowds, and everything we liked about Hong Kong was a reflection of its past: the Star Ferries, the Lugard Road walk around Victoria Peak, the quietness of Stanley Beach, and sitting on the top deck of a historic “ding-dong” tram.

When we leave Hong Kong, we’ll miss the Chinese people, but we are in need of some peace and quiet.

The view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak
Stanley Beach on the south side of Hong Kong island
One of our views from the Star Ferry crossing the harbour


The amazing Canton Tower and the 7th tallest building in the world make a statement. Today, just like the last 2200 years, Guangzhou is a city built on global trade.

This historical terminus of the maritime Silk Road is the 7th biggest city in the world with a population of 14m. And the River Pearl Delta’s greater conurbation of 57m people is the Factory of the World. Wikipedia tells us, nearly 5% of the world’s goods were produced in here in 2001.

We enjoyed walking around Shamian Island, the old British trading enclave. This was acquired by Britain after the Second Opium war in 1856 and it wasn’t until the Japanese surrendered in 1945 that China got it back. Most tourists seem to get excited about the Starbucks there
Elsewhere the city resembled much of what we have seen elsewhere. Whole blocks of third-world housing and street markets, next to completely redeveloped blocks with upscale shopping malls and tall apartment buildings
We’re not above doing childish things. Whilst most of the other boats in Yuexiu Park were skippered by tiny Chinese children, Hilary took the wheel of ours. No muscle power needed, we paid ¥10 extra to get an electric powered one and enjoyed trying to navigate around the children
Park Life in Xiamen

Park Life in Xiamen

We are having an extended stay in Xiamen, a prosperous and rapidly developing city on the coast opposite Taiwan. Time to do what the locals do.

During an 8am walk in the well-kept park, we were invited to join a group of middle-aged men for tea, their caged song birds in the background. This spontaneous hospitality was lovely, but it was impossible to have any meaningful conversation, beyond a few Google translate sentences.

Throughout the park, communal and artistic endeavours suggested an inner depth to the Chinese. The park was alive with singing, dancing, board games and exercises. But unlike the buses and pavements, full of school kids and millennials, most people here were much older, with time to start the day part of a community.

Much to admire.

Walking the streets of Shanghai

Walking the streets of Shanghai

Outside our hotel in East Nanjing Road, older people with skeletons and muscles to stretch, start their Tai Chi exercises early. Bodies that lived through the cultural revolution, are now witnesses to the economic revolution.

We had a map, a rough idea where we were heading and started walking. It’s the best way to feel part of a city.

This is not a country that panders to notions of equality, China now has some 1.6 millionaires and high fashion stores dominate Shanghai. Near The Bund, a fashion shoot takes place
Remember domestic science lessons at school? Well they’ve been reimagined at the ABC Cooking Studio. We cynically wonder if its success is down to social media and the urge to send photos of cakes you have actually baked
The Chinese are like kids in a sweet shop. The new middle classes flock to the shopping malls. And the shopping mall owners are buying western art. Here is, Wretched War, an affecting statue of a pregnant woman, by Damien Hirst
Seoul style

Seoul style

This is an exciting city in which to spend three nights.

The “financial controller” (also known as Hilary) had relaxed the spending limits a bit, so after a terrible place to stay in Hiroshima (noodle smells from below and a bathroom shared with the owner), we splashed out on a nice hotel. The price was still pretty cheap, but we found a gem, a boutique style hotel that offered a great atmosphere. Pictured above, it’s called Hotel Manu, for when you are next in South Korea. It’s so super-cool, we spent all three evenings in-house drinking beer, eating pizzas and giving each other massages.

Now we know we are supposed to be seeing Seoul and its culture and vibe, and we did do a bit of that (see below), but sometimes as a traveller you just want a place called home, food you can pronounce, white Egyptian cotton sheets and lots of chill-out time.

We hired some bikes and cycled along both banks of the River Han for miles. Wonderful views, with a cafe stop on one of the islands in the middle of the river.

A few minutes from our hotel was the Sungnyemun Gate. Originally built in 1398, it was one of the four main gates of the city.

Hilary at Seoul Tower. From here we saw an ocean of skyscrapers. Enough for 24 million people.

Seoul – relaxing on the walkway

Seoul – relaxing on the walkway

Right outside our hotel in Seoul is a new walkway, a bit like the High Line in New York, except this is a converted roadway. It welcomed us to the capital from the station, and what might have been a difficult walk across lanes of gridlocked traffic, became a lovely stroll through pots of plants and trees, mini-cafes, kids’ trampolines, tiny art galleries and a pool to dip your toes in.

Opened just four months ago, the 2km walkway is called Seoullo and it’s a great example of how city planners should be putting pedestrians front of mind.

And as we walked it, we couldn’t help reflecting on the abandonment of London’s Garden Bridge project. Such a shame that this visionary idea couldn’t be made to work.