A 2017 Travel Review

It’s the time of the year again at The Furious Panda where we go through and summarise the travels of the past year. I know it is only November, and there are still two months to go, but let’s just get on with the post, since I’m feeling inspired.

Before that, a look at 2017’s travel resolutions. There weren’t many and they weren’t well planned out if I’m being honest. Possible destinations floated at the start of the year were Bhutan, Japan, Morocco, Tunisia, the Natuna Islands of Indonesia, and Ilocos Norte in the Philippines. Of these, I managed to make it to Natuna. However, my target was to go to 2 new countries, so the final tally of 6 new countries (7 if you count one unrecognized country) is an achievement. Throw in the fact that I have Sara travelling with me on some of this year’s trips, and the arrival of little Hana this September, 2017 went really well. Add to that all the work travel, making 2017 was a very good year.

Without further ado here is a summary of the places I visited in 2017.

January 2017

I made a trip over the New Year long weekend to Batam. Not very interesting, but it’s on this list because Sara at 7 months tagged along for her first fast ferry trip and first visit to Indonesia!

February 2017 – Jakarta

I was in Jakarta for work, making it two years in a row that I have visited the capital. This time round, I did not do much walking around, and the best photo I have is one of these GoJek motorcycles. With the crazy traffic jams in Jakarta, getting around on hired motorcycles is a viable choice. Think Uber, but instead of cars, you book motorbikes through the GoJek app. Grab is the other big player here, and they too have GrabBikes on the roads.

1 GoJek. I should have tried it while there!

March 2017 – Hong Kong

Another work trip, this time passing through Hong Kong. I walked down the Tsim Sha Tsui district, and basically thought of the last time I was back here way back in 2011 as I passed by Chungking Mansions, my really cramped residence back then. The city doesn’t sleep, this scene below was taken at 1am!

2 Hong Kong, the city that never sleeps.

May 2017 – Natuna Islands, Indonesia

My first solo travel of the year, and this was to Natuna Islands. Part of the Riau Islands province in Indonesia, and grouped together with Batam, Bintan and Karimun. Though if you google these places on the map, you will find that they are nowhere near Natuna. I made it a destination, seeing that it is at the northern edge of Indonesian waters, and is often mentioned in the news when Indonesia asserts sovereignty over Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

It was worth the hassle of getting to Batam and flying from there to Natuna. The highlights were undoubtedly the natural stone formations of Alif Stone Park, and visiting a traditional kampung on stilts in Pulau Tiga. I even met royal descendants of Riau kings, and chatted officials at the holding area for Vietnamese fishermen caught illegally fishing in Indonesian waters.

3 Alif Stone Park, steps have been cut into the stones and wooden planks join them together.

4 The peaceful village of Desa Pulau Tiga. Natuna, Indonesia.

May 2017 – London, Paris, Luxembourg

A major trip of 2017, with family. Bringing an 11-month-old baby in a stroller and having to carry that up and down multiple flights of steps is no easy task (Paris and London metro are not baby stroller friendly). But we persevered, and I completed my maiden visit to the UK and France before I turned 40. Sara the Explorer on the other hand, travelled there before she turned 1.

London

We visited most of the major tourist landmarks. Actually, it became a game of delicate positioning of Sara and her stroller for photo ops. Sara in front of the Tower Bridge? Check. Sara in front of Westminster Abbey? Check.

5 Sara in front of Buckingham Palace? Check.

6 This was taken in the British Museum. Having seen a couple of the Lewis chess pieces when the British Museum loaned some of their artefacts at our local Singapore museum – it’s great to see the rest of them on display here.

7 Sara the Explorer on the quintessential London bus ride.

Paris

The Eurostar train makes getting from London to Paris very easy. In Paris, we visited the Notre Dame Cathedral (Sara at site, check!), the Sacre Coeur Basilica and wandered quite a bit around the 10th arrondissement at the pretty Canal St Martin area. Not enough, but as an introduction to Paris, it will have to do. Oh yes, we also had the best ice-cream in Paris at Berthillon.

8 Sacre Coeur on a pretty summer day.

9 Sara the Explorer in front of Notre Dame. Check. Sara the Explorer covered by pigeons in front of Notre Dame? Even better.

We even managed to squeeze in a day trip to Luxembourg, where my highlight was a tram tour around the Bock Casemates. Sara’s highlight however was undoubtedly the carousel at Luxembourg’s summer fair.

10 One more round, mama!

June 2017 – Hangzhou

There is this Chinese saying that goes “上有天堂,下有蘇杭”. Translated, it means “There is heaven above and there is Suzhou and Hangzhou below”, alluding to the beauty of these two cities. I have been to Suzhou back in 2012, so it has always bothered me that I have yet to go to Hangzhou. When the opportunity arose to visit Hangzhou for a work trip, I was elated. Visiting the UNESCO listed West Lake did not disappoint, despite the inevitable crowd.

11 In contemplation when looking out to the waters of West Lake. Actually it’s more probable that she’s looking at her phone, but where’s the romanticism in that.

In the same trip, I was also in Ningbo, and spent a time in the spruced up old town pedestrian area.

12 Ningbo old town has some creative murals. Note the yellow Ofo bikes parked in the front, looks like a scene out of Singapore!

July – Guangzhou

Work travel brings me back to China. In Guangzhou, last visited in 2012. I went to tranquil Shamian Island, where the British and French Concession were once located. It was a welcome respite from the bustle of Guangzhou.

13 Statues like these depicting life on Shamian in the 19th centre can be found all over the island.

August 2017 – Ukraine, Moldova, Transnistria, Belarus

This was the other big trip this year, this time by myself. Easing of visa restrictions this year meant that it was possible to get visa on arrivals, and visa free entry to these countries, previously the bane of Singaporeans seeking to travel there.

My first stop was Dubai, UAE. I realised that all my previous visits to Dubai have been in the cool winter months. Well, Dubai weather in August is a b*tch. I ended up hiding inside malls the two days I was there.

14 This was taken outside Deira City Centre shopping mall, just after the sun set. I could still feel the heat in the air.

Ukraine.

Ukraine was a surprise, much friendlier and more pleasant than I had imagined it to be. I visited Kyiv, Lviv and Odessa, all three of which were vastly difference from each other. First was Kyiv the capital. Prices were cheap, and it could have been the summer, but people were just easy-going and ready to chill. The other fascinating thing about Kiev are the metro stations. I posted a 4 and a half minute video of me just ascending from the station to ground level on the escalator.

15 It was 9pm, and the summer sun was only setting. Everyone was still out there relaxing along the main drag, closed to traffic on weekend evenings. Performances, street dancing and wannabe karaoke artists put on their best acts.

16 Of note too are the wonderfully designed interiors of the metro stations in Kyiv. This is one of the interchange stations.

From Kyiv, I joined a 1-day tour of the Chernobyl nuclear accident exclusion zone. Now a safe and well touristed area, the levels of radiation there remain higher than normal at certain spots.

17 “Pripyat 1970”. Pripyat was the town most affected when the nuclear accident occurred in 1986.

18 Scenes like this one taken in Middle School no. 3, within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

19 Geiger Counters like this one were used to measure the radioactivity in the area.

20 Proving once and for all that Pokemon exist in Chernobyl.

Next up was the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Very different from the capital, Lviv has more of a Central European city vibe about it. It has a town square, a city hall with belltower and many dining restaurants about town. My highlight was however the sprawling necropolis for the wealthy deceased of Lviv, the Lychakiv Cemetery, located just outside of the city centre.

21 An overhead view from the bell tower in the middle of the Lviv city square.

22 If there was ever any doubt… the difference between varenekis, mantis, pelmenis and khinkalis, this restaurant in Lviv will educate you!

23 Mourning over the dead in Lychakiv cemetery.

Odessa is a fun seaside city, even more so in summer. Everybody was at the beach, or they strolling along the promenade. I made it to the Potemkin Stairs, a giant stairway named for the battleship Potemkin, whose crew rebelled in 1905 and influenced the events leading to the Russian Revolution.

24 An optical illusion meant that when viewed from the base of the Potemkin Stairs, you could only see the stairs, and from the top, you could only see the flat landing. This would have been intimidating for attackers landing at the foot of the steps.

25 Another famous optical illusion in Odessa (they love these, don’t they), this building seems to be 2-dimensional. The Witch’s House as it is called is actually triangular, like a cake slice.

Moldova

A bit of an enigma for me, until I researched before the trip. But Chisinau the capital has much to offer, including an easily walkable main drag, their own version of the Arc de Triomphe, and parks galore.

26 A statue of Modovan hero Stefan cek Mare (Stephen the Great) in Chisinau. #nofilter

27 I stayed in Hotel Cosmos, an old Soviet era hotel in Chisinau. Think dimly lit, dank musty corridors.

Transnistria

Officially known as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, this country is actually a sliver of land belonging to Moldova that declared independence in 1990. This was however not recognized and today the Republic is only recognized by 3 other non-entities. I had wanted to go since 2013 when I was in the region, so finally being able to visit is super.

28Alexander Suvorov on a horse, in the foreground as the flags on Tiraspol and Transnistria fly.

29 A giant statue of Vladimir Lenin still stands here in Tiraspol. The tour group is in hot soup as one of the members had just pulled out a drone, leaving his tour guide to talk to the two police officers.

Belarus

Next and final stop in this Eastern European adventure was Minsk, Belarus. Probably the most Soviet of the three countries, my passport at the airport was scrutinised using a magnifier, twice. Within the capital itself was the KGB was still called the KGB, and an exhibition proudly displays “Symbols of the Soviet Era”.

30 A heady mix of capitalism, Soviet worker’s party murals, and law enforcers policing the streets.

31 Tank monument in Minsk, Belarus

32 Weeping angel on the Island of Tears, a memorial area set in the middle of Minsk in remembrance of Belarussian soldiers who fought for the then USSR against Afghanistan.

August 2017 – Shanghai

At the end of August, I visited Shanghai for work. My last visit was back in 2012, and I went to the same areas. I re-visited the la mian noodle stall from 5 years ago. And I think the kid has grown up!

33 The beef noodles broth is delicious. Order more bowls!

September 2017

No travels this month. Baby Hana joins the family!

November 2017 – Guangzhou

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November 2017 – Beijing

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December 2017 – Penang

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And that’s that for 2017. I am leaving some space here to include another upcoming (leisure this time) trip to Guangzhou. That should be about it. I am thankful for the opportunity to go to so many places, and the varied experiences. Next year is exciting, with trips to Eritrea, Bahrain and the US territories of Guam and Saipan already planned. Watch this space!

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