After a couple of days in Canggu, we were ready to see more of Bali. Despite concerns about road safety, we decided to hire a motorised scooter for £4/day – this has to be the bargain of the year.
After a two minute lesson on the controls, Hilary set off with Roger holding on behind, doing the navigation. As we sped along, it was like one of those DVLA Hazard Tests. Everywhere wayward chickens, stalking dogs, kamikaze pedestrians, sudden potholes and hundreds of other scooter drivers who were happy to drive on both sides of the road. At a crossroads your bloggers nicknamed “the junction of death”, we narrowly avoided both a woman scooter rider with dozens of egg trays on the back and a man with carpets, rolls of long grass and everything but the kitchen sink on board his scooter. Despite the risks it was great fun and our senses were bombarded with colour and sounds!
It was a round trip of 90km to the UNESCO World Heritage Jatiluwih rice terraces and back. Originally built in the 9th century, these terraces have provided the staple diet for generations of Balinese. The communal irrigation still works brilliantly, though sadly we spotted some barren terraces, no doubt youngsters deciding it’s vastly more profitable (and easier) to be driving tourists around, than doing back-breaking work in the sweltering sun.
The journey there had been hot and noisy, but at last we found an oasis of calm and green beauty. A rarity in this crowded island of 4.2m people.
So spoilt by Japanese and Chinese high-speed bullet trains, it came as a shock to discover this 350 mile journey to the ancient capital was going to take eight hours, an average speed of some 40 mph.
However, our day on the train, which cost just £20 each for business class, couldn’t have been nicer. Two very smart hostesses wheeled a food and tea trolley, which they presented in the best possible way. The grandfathers next to us spent a tireless eight hours continually entertaining their baby grandchildren, so there was no wailing. And, we enjoyed happy piped music and continual laughter throughout our trip.
Despite the plastic-looking windows, we did get a good feel for the Javan countryside and rural towns. There was lots of poverty but not too much squalor. And waiting behind the gates at every level-crossing were dozens of scooter and motorbike drivers.
We arrived in Central Java and Yogyakarta just before sunset. Time to get a taxi to our guest house in Borobudur. The driver had to stop three times to ask villagers the way.
If you plan to do this Jakarta’s Central Railway Station (Gambir) reminded us of a small Victorian UK station. Queuing for tickets was a complex three stage process involving form filling, counter service and then self-printing the actual tickets. So give yourself plenty of time. Fortunately, two nice locals helped us out.
The soft sleeper tickets had all sold out, but we were assured by a friendly American at our hostel, that the hard sleeper option didn’t relate to the comfort of the bed, merely the number of beds in your cubicle.
So on the 12 hour overnight journey to Guangzhou, we found ourselves sharing with four others: the most interesting was a charicature of a Chinese peasant with a couple of large bags carried on a pole across his shoulder. He spent some time unloading and putting all the contents under our beds (we had the bottom bunks), then without a word, he leapt up to the top bunk and effectively disappeared.
At 10pm sharp, the lights went out. Plenty of train staff ensured we all behaved and not a word or a snore was heard for the rest of the night. The absence of alcohol was effective in ensuring a friendly and hospitable atmosphere.
There was another factor that might just have kept everyone in check. We were in carriage 10, whilst carriages 1-9 were full of at least 1000 very young police cadets making their way home after keeping security at the BRICS conference. This was the safest and most secure train in China.
The museum display stated it is impossible to appreciate China’s history without understanding its Grand Canal.
We were in the north of Hangzhou to learn about the longest and oldest canal in the world. A colossal engineering achievement, built by forced labour, in which half of the 5.5 million workforce died.
By 1293, the 1794km route from Hangzhou to Beijing linked the economic and political centres of China, significantly boosting trade, supporting the growing population, and strengthening the control of the dynasties.
So, as the backbone of China for some 600 years, why had we never heard of it? Probably, because much of its route has now disappeared. Also this endeavour is overshadowed by the Great Wall of China.
In the Grand Canal Museum, there’s a striking mural showing the canal’s heyday. A few steps outside is today’s corresponding scene, the Gongchen Bridge still crosses the wide canal but the only boat passing under its graceful arches is the passenger ferry back to the city centre.
We took the ferry, thinking back to earlier times.
We wanted to share this picture with you. It was taken at Hongquaio Station in Shanghai as we started our travels through south east China.
We hope the vastness comes across, but you need to know the station was even bigger, all the ticket offices with long queues are out of shot, so of course are all the platforms. This scale says so much about China’s new railway system. Over the past 10 years, China has constructed a staggering 22,000 kilometres (14,000 miles) of high-speed railway track, that’s two-thirds of the world’s total. A commitment to building long term public infrastructure that western politicians, with their short-term job security, can only dream about.
Travelling at a top speed of 250 km/h, our high-speed train to Suzhou covered the 80km in around 25 minutes. Tickets cost us £5 each.
Planning the gap year, the idea of taking a ferry from Japan to South Korea always appealed. But come the day, we discovered hydrofoils were our only option. So what was planned as our “slow boat to Korea” across the Sea of Japan, sitting on deck, basking in the sun, morphed into a comfy chair in a sealed craft.
The crossing from Fukuoka, on the southern island of Kyushu in Japan, to Busan in South Korea took exactly three hours. There were only a few other boats, but we went close to the Japanese island of Tsushima.
The first things we saw on approaching our gap year’s 16th country were massive residential flats. Unlike Japan, with its declining population, South Korea’s has nearly doubled in the past 50 years. Welcome to the new world.
Travelling on these sleek bullet trains has been a real highlight of our time in Japan. Comfortable, smooth and relaxing, they are time machines, shrinking the country. We’ll go home thinking Japan is a lot smaller than it really is.
Here, there’s a pride in the railways, probably like nowhere else on earth. The timetable is guaranteed, people still queue on the platform, it’s plain-sailing to reserve seats, the conductors bow when they enter a carriage, everyone is quiet and respectful, and litter is taken home not dumped on the seats. Also, getting around is easy; all announcements and signage are in Japanese and English.
First introduced in 1964, and travelling along dedicated lines, the service has been regularly updated and the latest trains (N700 series) travel up to 320kph (200mph). There are five types of service, two of them excluded from our rail pass. Although from Tokyo to Kyoto we got onto a banned super-fast Nozomi service by mistake, and the conductor very politely asked us to leave the train at the next station, Nogoya. Not to worry, another Skinkansen, one we could travel on, came along five minutes later.
And being in Japan we can appreciate the difference these high-speed trains make to an urban population essentially living in a linear line from Fukuoka to Tokyo.
The train from Okayama pulled into Hiroshima at 9.56am, 160 km later.
Modern Australia is built on the back of huge road trains running the length and breadth of Australia. When you see one of these monsters bearing down on you in your rear view mirror, you quickly pull over.
This Truckers Museum, ten kilometres south of Alice Springs, is dedicated to the history and heroes of trucking across the centre of Australia.
Politicians invested in railways around the coasts, but during WW2 the Stuart Highway was made roadworthy for the army to reach and defend Darwin. Straight after that, in the absence of a railway from north to south, pioneering truckers started making the 30-40 hour drive, transporting anything and everything.
The first generation of truckers had to be mechanics, livestock managers, bridge fixers and flood survivors just to get through. Men like Kurt Johannsen are hailed for the successful conversion of the US Army trucks (left behind after WW2) into the first road train cattle transporters. Kurt also developed a self-tracking system for long multi-carriage road trains, enabling them to better go round corners.
This museum also gave us an insight into the future development of road trucks and their need to comply with increasingly tough specifications for pollution, gas efficiency and also home comforts to attract a new generation of drivers who want all mod cons in their cabs when driving and sleeping.
We decided to liven up the journey back to Alice Springs by visiting all four iconic and, dare we say it historic, Roadhouses. The equivalent of 19th century English Coaching Inns, they provide much needed accommodation, meals, water and rest on long journeys across the Outback.
Curtin Springs has 1 million acres, Mt Ebeneezer is Aboriginally owned, on the corner with the Stuart Highway is Erldunda, and Stuarts Well is where we stayed the night.
We’ve traded up from the tiny HippieCamper we had in Queensland. And, guess what, our Britz hi-top is so spacious and completely new. So a shiny kitchen, spotless floors and that new auto smell. How lucky are we!
Our only worry, the expected cold night temperatures. So we asked the lovely woman from Britz to give us an extra duvet, which she did.
Our first task, to stock up on supplies for eight days. So off we went to the Alice Springs Woolworths (Australia’s more upmarket supermarket chain) and filled up with tins, fruit and basics.
Four hours later, we pulled into free roadside parking on the Lassiter Highway, one of just four campervans, under a canopy of Southern Hemisphere stars.
Ahead of us the natural wonders of Kings Canyon, Uluru (Ayer Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). But right now, it was the Milky May that was the first star (or millions of stars) of our road trip.
And then, when we woke up with the dawn we experienced the most amazing Outback sunrise. We were speechless.