Sunday, 5 February 2017

Lombok, Indonesia - Spring 2017

Sweet and sore ribs...
Thursday, 26 January

Indonesia to me marks the country that got me hooked on travelling.  It was my first real backpacking trip where parents were left worried sick at home whilst me and some friends learnt how incredible and surprisingly unscary the world was.  You couldn't ask for a more perfect introduction to travelling than Indonesia.  A lot has changed since I wrote my first blog on this country and it's almost a little embarrassing looking back at my ignorance to cruel wildlife tourism, fashion and general spelling and grammar!  I remember my first ever snorkeling experience blowing my mind in Padang Bai and not being able to stop myself eating everything and anything new that I saw with zero care or knowledge for hygiene, health and safety.  How life has changed since being young, inexperienced and poor.

Saturday felt like the longest journey I have ever done!  I just assumed Beijing to Lombok wouldn't be so bad but when you factor in a 6 hour change over and a budget airline it's not the best.  It's a damn good job that the destination was Lombok - a small tropical island across the water from Bali that has yet to be ruined by the unstoppable tourist train.  Giant building sites and extravagant adverts for new hotels assures you that the train is coming but I definitely feel like I have made it just before its arrival.  We met with Di, a contact a made on facebook for surfing lessons, at the airport and he looked after us throughout our time in Kuta.  We arrived late but with enough time to drink a Bintang at our hotel (Puri Rinjani Bungalows) bar and eat a Nasi Goreng (National Dish number 1) whilst looking out over Kuta beach.  After a long 2 weeks back at work after our 3 week Christmas break I have been looking forward to this... :o)

A beach bum holiday isn't usually my kind of thing but it was decided that after our last trip to Mongolia a bit of sun and relaxation wouldn't be so bad.  To break up the potential build up of boredom I have managed to add a few exciting days to our itinerary of which the first was surfing lessons.  I did leave one free day to find our feet first though and so we chilled by our pool and wandered into the slightly busier area around the corner.  Kuta is clearly built for tourism but on such a small scale that Lombok life still shines through.  We are here during the off-peak season which I am sure contributes to this feeling but it all still feels very chilled and natural with locals outnumbering tourists on the beach and in the restaurants.

I have tried to surf once in my life on a school trip to Newquay and my claim to have stood up is pitifully shameful.  This time I was going to do it properly with lessons and everything.  It cost 800k IDR (around £50 in the current awful brexchange rate) for the day including all rentals and pick ups for the two of us.  Di picked us up and drove us to his home town Gerupuk where we met Barry, our surfing coach.  All surfers around the world; British, Australian or Indonesian all look like surfers.  Barry was no exception with his long bleach died hair, sun kissed face and absence of any body fat.  He made us practise the "pop up" on Di's front porch and explained how this was the start of a life long love for surfing.  We took a boat out to a "point break" which was far out at sea rather than on the beach and though this did mean the waves lasted much longer to attempt to stand up it also meant that we had to paddle the entire length to get back to where we started.  Luckily for me standing up wasn't something in my skill set just yet.  After day one of surfing I stood up maybe once for a short amount of time spurred on and motivated by Barry's comments of "Your girlfriend is very good...".

Day two of surfing lessons got cancelled due to some major sunburn on the back of the legs and half cheeks of Becky.  We noticed a possible error in our ways when all other white girls had long sleeves and swim trousers on whilst surfing.  I'd bet a lot of money that once upon a time they had all made the same mistake of thinking suncream will do.  I can tell you now, no matter how many times you reapply, suncream will not do.  The sun is a little more forgiving on my skin and I still had some peelage.  The following day, when the thought of sitting on a surfboard didn't feel like sitting on Tobasco covered razorblades we went back out for day two.  My tired arms, aching back and bruised ribs secretly appreciated the days rest.  This time Di ensured that Becky was suited head to toe and even I donned a t-shirt.  Barry took us out to the same spot where Becky advanced to the next class learning how to turn whilst I was held back a year still learning the basics.  There's nothing more disheartening than constantly failing to "pop up" when it takes soooooo much time and effort to paddle back to the starting position whilst being pounded by waves that take you further and further away each time they swallow you.  Each failure came with a new piece of advice from Barry and by the end I was consistently standing up and surfing the whole way whilst everyone cheered around me (I think everyone was cheering or I just built it up and heard it in my head!?).  It felt great and by the time Barry signalled "One more wave!" my sore ribs smiled and my body was well and truly done for the day.

You will never have a better meal than the one you eat straight after surfing.  It's like the fish and chip shop that was outside my local swimming baths when growing up.  They served the best food I had ever eaten and I only ever went there after swimming.  Water sports makes you ravenous!  We went to the same beach front cafe after both days of surfing and feasted contently.  I ordered a Gado-Gado which is best described as a steamed vegetable salad with a peanut sauce dressing, though that description does not sell it very well.  To be fair, without the peanut sauce it would be the most dire dish ever but Indonesian Sate sauce could turn a bowl of overcooked mashed up brussel sprouts into a delicious sweet nutty delight.  It came with Tempe which was something new - soya beans somehow fermented into a cake and then sliced.  It felt like the kind of dish that could turn a Vegans life around but wouldn't do much for most people.  Gerupuk, the village we surfed from, is also home to Lombok's lobster farm in which our cafe over looked in the sea.  With no lobster on the menu Di assured that they would happily buy some and prepare it "Spicy Lombok style" for the following day.  For 500k (approx £30 or 250rmb which sounds so much better!) we shared a kilogram of grilled lobster with vegetable sides and the most incredible spicy sambal, the Indonesian's take on chilli sauce, to drizzle on top.  Post surfing lobster possibly beats post swimming fish and chips... but only just.

For the ultimate send off Di insisted that we ate grilled fish with him at his house before he drove us to Senggigi.  We paid him 100k to buy the fish from the market and his wife prepared them in two ways: grilled Ikan Bakar over coconut husks and curried Masak Kuning.  Ikan Bakar means burnt fish and it is this sweet, smokey flavour in the crispy yet sticky skin of the fish that makes it so tasty.  The Masak Kuning was flavoured heavily with garlic, galingal and lemon grass giving two very different but equally tasty preparations of the same fish.  I think I ended up eating 3 whole fish! Our time in Kuta was made brilliant by Di who suggested the best things for us to do in or spare time (Ashtari Cafe), beaches to hang out at (Tanjung Aan) and places to eat (our lobster meal!).  He was completely honest with his prices and suggested cheaper options too.  The shuttle bus to Senggigi would have cost us 100K each but we chose the convenience to go door to door with Di at 400k.  If you find yourself in Kuta, Lombok - Contact Di!

Cooking up a storm

Sunday, 29 January

We are staying at The Chandi Boutique and Spa Resort which is just outside of Senggigi.  This was the posh part of our holiday where we planned to do very little.  Sit on hammocks, laze in the pool, have a few massages and drink cocktails.  As we are here during rainy season its the perfect place to be whilst it's pouring! Seeing through a tropical lightning storm whilst drinking lychee mojitos is pretty sweet.  A short walk down the beach took us to a well known seafood restaurant called "Warung Menega" where a seafood platter came with 4 different types of sambal; I have decided that Indonesia does condiments extremely well.  Even their table sauce "Kecap Manis" is awesome with a thick sticky treacle like consistency and taste.  There are well over a dozen types of sambal but I have seen 4 that seem to be the most common.  With our fish platter we had sambal matah (fresh, raw and colourful with sliced lemongrass, chillies and shallots) and sambal terasi (also raw with mashed up chilies, tomatoes, shallots and terasi - a dried shrimp paste).  The following day we did a cooking course and made sambal bajak (fried sambal with shallots, chillies and tamarind making it sweet, sour and spicy) and sambal kecap (chopped chillies and shallots mixed with lime juice and the Indonesian favourite sweet soy sauce Kecap Manis).

The cooking course(Pondok Anggrek Putih Cooking Class) was outstanding as we were guided by a brilliant chef called Linda and assisted by Chris and Monica - the owners of Pondok Anggrek Putih.  We each had our own dish that we were in charge of and I had the job of preparing the fish and the sambals; the two things I really, really wanted to learn.  Becky was in charge of chicken sate (her favourite dish and National Dish number 2!) and others prepared Soto Ayam (National Dish number 3!), a local curry and Corn Fritters.  It all tasted amazing; I knew that I was a good cook but I didn't realise I was this good!  Chris replaced Di as our new amazing local to know and helped us with all sorts.  If we had more time we would have definitely stayed here for a few nights and taken one of their tours.

A few more massages, a few more cocktails and an attempt to go fishing like a local saw out the rest of our time in Senggigi.  Renting all the fishing equipment from a fisherman for 50k for a couple of hours was money well spent!  I didn't catch a thing but thoroughly enjoyed it.  We ate at Linda's (the chef from the cooking course!) restaurant called Papa Besar Cafe which we agreed was our best meal so far.  The calamari was perfect and the spicy Prawn Balado was absolutely delicious.  We happened to bump into Chris there too who offered to drive us to the port the following day to get to the Gilis.  He warned us that it's not the easiest at the port with "The Mafia" (the horse and carts vs the taxis!) that try and fight over you and rip you off.  He sorted it all out and we had zero issues.  Gili Air here we come!

This island life
Friday, 3 February

There are 3 main Gili's and according to Chris they are all rubbish.  He recommended Gili Layar and other smaller, lesser known Gili's.  Had we known we definitely would have taken him up on his advice but we had Scuba plans and Gili Air would just have to do.  His main gripes were with Gili Trawangan but we already knew that Gili.T was not for us.  We read that Gili.T was the loud, party island, Gili Meno was the quiet honeymoon island and Gili Air was somewhere in the middle.  I can now concur that Gili Air has the perfect balance.  With no motorised vehicles but plenty of bars and restaurants it's the right amount of peaceful.  Our plan for the first full day was to hire bikes and cycle around the entire island... it took 20 minutes.  A new plan for the day saw us renting snorkels and fins and cycling to the spots on the island that looked perfect for snorkeling.  Rumours of turtles arriving every evening like clockwork got us excited but choppy waters and almost no visibility foiled that plan too.  The idea of cycling around a tropical island and stopping off every now and then at crystal blue waters to snorkel was nice... Sitting and reading in a beachfront bar was equally lovely. 

We had friends join us on the island and our afternoons together tended to evolve around the sea and the evenings around the food.  The rest of the time was reading, sleeping and generally staying out of the rain.  900k got us a private boat with all the kit for a full day of snorkeling.  Having seen absolutely nothing the previous day on our own snorkel expedition I was a little apprehensive but it was easily the best 900k we had spent.  Turtles were absolutely everywhere and the visibility was crystal!  We had 4 different locations which took us around all 3 Gilis including a lunch stop on Gili Meno - this also reaffirmed our choice to stay on Gili Air.  The following day we went Scuba diving with Manta Dive to get up close and personal with the turtles whilst also catching site of mantis shrimp and massive, beautiful shoals of snapper.  No sharks or mantas but I was not even a little bit disappointed.  The turtles, the size of me, on their own made up for it.  The hunt for lazy beach bars and awesome food was always successful in the evenings where we chowed down on giant prawns and grilled fish every night and turned down mushroom shakes and Marijuana.  Yes the waterfront restaurants are built for tourists but great local food was easy to find.  Even the local street vendors had a place to sell their Bakso (spicy meatball noodle soup), Urap (spicy salad with grated coconut served on a giant cracker) and Sate.  The percentage of meat in the Bakso meatballs is questionable but if you are on a budget you will have no problem filling your belly.  

Why don't you get Indonesian restaurants?!  I don't think I have ever come across one outside of Indonesia.  General rule of thumb; if a country has more restaurants of its own cuisine than any other cuisines then there must be a reason for it.  Case in point; England certainly has less "English" restaurants than any other kind.  Indonesia, however, you will be hard pushed to find anything but Indonesian restaurants.  It is just as diverse as Thai food and you get Thai restaurants everywhere!  Our last night was spent in Mataram with the idea that we just wanted to make our trip to the airport nice and easy the next morning.  In my head the holiday had finished when we left the Gilis but Indonesia had one last surprise for us - the actual best meal of the holiday.  We ate at Roemah Langko which on arrival was a clear favourite of the locals.  Located in the courtyard of a great big Dutch colonial building it offers the most incredible Indonesian food for the lowest prices we've paid all holiday.  I finally got to eat the spicy grilled chicken taliwang and we ordered a lot of our favourites discovered over our two weeks.  The combination of spices on the taliwang were completely unrecognisable to me (though tasted a bit like Goan sausage!) but I could eat it again and again.  A sweet rose water and condensed milk Indonesian "Soda Gembira" washed it all down and saw the actual end of the holiday.  I only now realise how lucky I was that Indonesia happened to be my first venture into travelling.  The warm people, hot food and scorching sun is enough to convince anyone into a love for travel.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Mongolia - Autumn 2016

Salty tea with sheep fat
Monday, 3 October

I always thought that I would only see Mongolia at the tail end of a Mongol Rally or the Trans Siberian Express.  Instead it was because I typed "from beijing to anywhere" in to Skyscanner and it was the cheapest flight that came up.  When else would you go to Mongolia!?  With no itinrary or plan we landed in Ulaanbaatar at night and had a pick up arranged by UB Guesthouse.  I had contacted the owner, Bobby, beforehand and she said that she would plan our trip with us once we had arrived.  Low and behold the next morning we put together a real adventure taking us through the countryside of Mongolia staying in "Gers" with actual Mongolian families.  Me, my girlfriend, 3 Spaniards, an English speaking guide and a driver took to the roads the following morning giving us one full day to explore the capital city where half the population of Mongolia live.  
A crisp, cool morning welcomed us to the streets of Ulaanbaatar where we first headed to eat breakfast in a local cafe.  The National Dish of Mongolia is Buuz and was what everyone was eating in this cafe and so within 12 hours of being in the country I have managed to tick it off.  Steamed dumplings filled with juicy, fatty, mutton mince and onions had a strong smell of sheep and a taste that stuck with you for the morning like a bag of cheese and onion crisps.  The tea is pale with lots of milk, few tea leaves and salt (!?) and I copied fellow diners who were dunking their buuz in it.  I definitely didn't dislike it, it was just a little weird having savoury tea that tasted like lamb.  We did our own little walking tour visiting the Gandan Monestry, Chinggis Square and climbed up to Zaisan Memorial where you could see the entire city in one view.  An evening of traditional Mongolian performances at Tumen Ekh was very impressive with a throat singer making noises that I didn't even know the human body could make!  Followed by live music and a drink at the top of the Blue Sky Tower we felt like we had used our day well!

Yesterday we met with our travelling buddies and started our Mongolian adventure put together by the amazing Bobby at UB Guesthouse.  We stacked our bags in a battered but sturdy minibus and made our way into the wilderness where no buildings were to be seen and animals replaced cars.  By lunch time we arrived at a family Ger (a Mongolian yurt) that owned a number of horses for us to ride.  We spent a good hour riding little mongolian horses with the family before sitting in the ger eating homemade cheese and drinking airag.  The cheese was by far the sourest cheese I have eaten.  The airag was surprisingly tasty.  Surprisingly because airag is fermentend horse milk, a mildly alcoholic drink that tasted a bit like creamy apple cider.  Not like liquid blue cheese which I was expecting.

Bobby had contacts and suggestions for everything and also knew about my life ambition so added things into our trip accordingly.  She even organised with a family to prepare Khorhog for me - A dish usually made for celebrations where they cook a whole sheep with vegetables in a big metal barrel with hot stones.  We paid the family a little extra for it but it was completely worth it.  Not because it tasted great, you just get a lot of sheep for your buck!  Our guide told us that Mongolians would never waste a sheep by killing it when it is a lamb and so mutton was generally the meat of choice.  Mutton is tough, grisly and has a much more pungent smell.  A whole sheep cooked in its own juices for a long time just intensifies it all.  Furthermore, nothing stays hot for long in a Ger this time of year and before long it was all covered in a thick white paste of fat.  It was really tasty whilst it was hot but didn't take long to go from soft and succulent to cold and pasty.  How wonderful for this family to cook it for us though! 

We spent the night chatting with our guide and admiring the milkyway and stars in the absence of light pollution.  Our Ger was warmed by a wood stove which seconds as a cooker.  We went to sleep toasty but with nobody adding wood to the stove by 3am you could see your breath!  Luckily the family came in at about 7am and restarted the fire for us meaning getting out of our sleeping bag wasn't so dire.  We had breakfast in the family ger and were served salty tea with a bowl of left over mutton fat to stir in.  Mongolians love their tea and put a lot of time in its preperation but to me it tastes more like soup than tea and when I have the mind set that it is soup it is actually quite nice.   

Mongolian hospitality is world famous and rightly so.  As soon as you arrive into a new family ger tea is put on the fire and a bowl filled with a mish mash of rock hard cheeses, dried curds and fried dough is passed around.  Our guide told us that the number one rule is if it's offered you must accept, even if it is a tiny bit.  The dried cheese curds were a little strange with a kind of sweet and sour crumble; the hard cheese only became soft after about an hour of sucking and the dough balls were served with homemade thick creamy butter which was absolutely delicious! I had no problem with this rule of never saying no up until the bowls of pure vodka started to be passed around... I took a big sip and handed it back to a face that smiled at me in a "You haven't finished it" kind of way and waited until I had.  And then the bowl of airag came round and the smile forced me to down that too! 

Ger life
Friday, 7 October

Living in a ger isn't easy; I haven't showered for 6 days! The simplest tasks are made difficult when it is cold outside and there is no running water.  Taking a dump is the biggest chore and requires thighs of steel and a deep trust in the two planks of wood that hold you above the pit of utter misery.  The long drop makes a lot of sense here but man you need a strong stomach.  I have learnt that going first thing in the morning meant that though it was painfully cold the mountain of mouldy fecal matter was frozen and just about bearable to squat over.   

Hard times aside, this trip is probably the most engrossed into a culture I have ever been on a holiday; we are truly in the thick of mongolian culture.  Bobby managed to get us invited to a family ceremony to celebrate the first haircut of a young boy of 5 that symbolises them leaving babyhood and entering childhood.  The family invite all the friends and relatives from local ger communities for a feast and we were lucky enough to be included!  We spent the day travelling there and ate a lunch of horse meat Khuushuur by the lake on the way and visited a few families our driver seemed to know to drink tea and eat more rock cheese.  Khuushuur are fried dumplings usually with mutton but our guide picked these up locally and handed them to us with a jar of vegetable sauce.  Vegetable sauce is about the healthiest thing I have eaten here.  Pretty much every dinner has been meat and dairy with rice.  It's kind of useful concidering the long drops are such an unpleasant experience.  The longer I can go without using one the better! 

We arrived the evening before the event and got to witness all the preperations.  4 sheep and a goat were slaughtered for this ceremony and they prepared each one differently.  The goat was deboned and rolled up to make ham and the sheep were hung in barrels and steamed whole.  The family were clearly busy but they still managed to feed us and force us to drink more airag and vodka.  We also got to play with the rediculously cute children who blew raspberries at us and insisted we chased them. 
We woke up to snow with the little boy whos "party" it was smiling cheekily at us through the open door as if to say wake up and come chase me!  By 10am the party was in full swing with the family ger filled with friends from all over and the table piled high with food.  A strange combination of foods were being passed around from plates of sheep tripe egg mayonaise to plates of gummy worms.  The meats prepared the night before were served cold and pastey and the family guests lapped it up like it was the first time they had eaten mutton.  I have never eaten so much mutton in my life!  A big bowl filled to the brim with airag and another filled with Arkhi took centre stage.  Arkhi is a clear homemade vodka created from milk - not as strong as vodka but similar tasting.  Before long we were being handed small bowls of alcohol by the master of the family who insisted each man had to consume 3 bowls of Airag, 3 bowls of Arkhi and 3 shots of Vodka.  The young boy came round and tradition had it that every guest had to cut a section of hair, drink a sip of yaks milk, kiss him on the head and give a gift.  Every other bowl handed to me I had to finish so, much to everyones surprise, I downed the yaks milk in one and everyone giggled.  It felt very special to be part of this event and it was sad to leave early but by 11:30am the ger was spinning and we had a long journey ahead of us.
3 hours on bumpy roads in a stuffy mini bus is exactly what you need with 6 bowls of alcohol made from milk sloshing about with sheep fat and egg mayonaise inside you.  The views of endless snow were beautiful but it was difficult to truly appreciate them.  I slept most of the way and woke up to hike the volcano.  It's probably worth it when you are not on the hump between drunk and hung over.  It was an exhausting climb in the cold but a nice break from the roads before arriving at White Lake.  The silence of the Mongolian countryside is never more noticable than when you are walking along the White Lake.  Like walking around wearing earplugs even the horses seemed to gallop with fluffy slippers on.

Ger life has been an experience but by now we were starting to flag and seek some comfort.  There's only so many mornings that you can wake up shivering and days you can spend in 6 layers of clothing.  Luckily our next stop was at a natural hot springs with real life toilets and hot showers!  Man it felt good to sit in a hot a tub in the great snowy caped outdoors.  The restaurant on site was cosy and served up the most delicious mutton ribs.  Still as tough as cowboy boots but part of me has accepted that and really enjoyed them.  Just means you have to chew it for a little longer which is fine when it tastes good! 

The hot springs marked the end of our trip.  We journeyed back via Karakorum city, the old capital of the Mongol Empire.  A very historical site where we visted a few temples but we were more excited about the fact that our ger had wifi.  We spent the evening in silence staring at our phones and looking forward to normal life again.  Mongolia isn't a place you go for a relaxing holiday.  It's somewhere you go for a completely unique experience; be thoroughly engrossed in a different culture and realise a life that is not completely strangled by modern day society.  An experience that you only really need once...