Boys’ Tour

It would be an understatement to say Mrs J was not overly amused when I informed her that, while she was returning to Blighty for two weeks, the Boys and I were heading to Borneo. The flight confirmation had barely arrived in my inbox before they’d dutifully learned the basic rule of all boys’ tours; what happens on them, stays on them. This did little to placate Mrs J, of course.

Fast forward three or four weeks. Time to say our goodbyes to Sam at Kuala Lumpur airport and, perhaps more importantly, time to outline some further ground rules about boys’ tours. Namely disregard for conventional house rules about fizzy drinks and chocolate, brushing teeth religiously, limited TV and not playing rough and tumble at bedtime! And so, with their bottles of fizzy pop and duty free Hot Wheels, we flew to Borneo in search of its unique wildlife and the adventure of a lifetime.

 

There were many highlights and moments that I’ll cherish and no doubt share again with the boys in years to come. But there are two things in particular that I think defined my experience of our short time together without Sam.

The first was seeing the amazing wildlife with George. Or, more accurately, watching George see all the wildlife. After all, this was always going to be more George’s bailiwick than Tom’s. Anyway, we’re scarcely a week in to our tour and we’ve already seen Orangutang in Semenggoh Nature Reserve and visited the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre that, as the name suggests, looks after all manner of animals including hundreds (perhaps an over estimate) of crocodiles. We’d also seen sea otters, monitor lizards, Bornean bearded pigs and mud skippers. So far, so good.

Yet it was one animal sighting in particular that stands out more than any other for me. We were being led on a night walking safari in Bako National Park. It was sweltering hot, humid and pitch black, save for the lights on our head torches. There was the constant ringing in our ears of crickets and cicadas, frogs and the occasional owl. Suddenly, George jumped off the boardwalk into dense woodland having just spotted a large scorpion glowing under the beam of his UV torch. Aside from seeing a real live dinosaur, which even my 5 year old knows isn’t going to happen, I cannot imagine seeing him more excited! I, on the other hand, nearly had heart failure and so too our guide, who jumped into the bush after him! Tomas, meanwhile, missed most of the excitement of that evening, including sightings of a tarantula, Pit Vipers, more scorpions, poisonous tree frogs, giant ants and millipedes, because he fell asleep on my back. George on the other hand could not stop smiling for days and promised to tell Steve Backshall (his hero) all about it when he gets home.

It’s also worth mentioning at this juncture that by the end of our first week on tour it had become apparent that to some the appearance of a single man with two children was a curiosity not to be missed. And so it was that on numerous occasions I was asked to explain, firstly, the whereabouts of “their Mother” and, secondly, my relation to the Boys! I obliged, naturally, and explained that “their Mother” (who by happy coincidence happens to be my Wife) had returned home for a family wedding and that our family unit would be soon be reunited in Singapore. But it nevertheless struck me as a peculiar thing to ask a stranger. Especially given the lack of other preliminary pleasantries, such as “hi, where are you from?”, which was often the case.

Now for second most memorable moment of my time with the boys. Put simply it was our playtime, of which there was lots. The most popular game we invented was named ‘Animal Theatre’ and entailed the Boys hiding behind a curtain whilst I did a “Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls….” type introduction, before they’d emerge from their hiding place and proceed to the other side of the bedroom whilst mimicking their chosen animal. I’d have to guess which animal they were. You get the idea, I hope. Tomas was in his element, throwing his heart and soul into his performances – a sign of things to come perhaps? George similarly got stuck in, although there’s only so many times I can see a T-Rex impression in the confined space of a hostel bedroom. If Animal Theatre was the main act of an evening, some rough and tumble was the encore. With Tomas and me pitted against George in a Sumo style wrestling match. Happily, our neighbours in adjacent rooms didn’t complain (or so I’m aware) and our matches were only curtailed by one of us either shouting our safe word, “bananas!”, or urgently needing to use the toilet before an accident ensued.

 

And so, dear reader, much of the detail of what happened on tour has stayed on tour. And rightly so. However, I hope you get the gist of what we got up to. We met some wonderful people on our trip; notably a family from Queensland and an expat family in Singapore. Plus we had a lovely time chilling out in Melaka (which is a bit like Camden, only warmer). We even managed to squeeze in Jurassic Park and Singapore Zoo and wash down a few pints of Guinness in a pub. Lastly, I successfully managed to hand our children back to ‘their Mother’ still in one piece!

 

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China

Due to the visa restrictions we didn’t have a whole lot of time for our China explorations. Now that we are out the other side it is safe to say we packed a lot into a short time.

 

On the whole we found China a really easy place to travel, despite the obvious language difficulties. There are super efficient trains, a great choice of hostels and Chinese curiosity about the children was unobtrusive (apart from one time an entire family invaded our hostel room to gawp).

  

Our first tick on the places-to-see-in-China list was the Forbidden City in Beijing. The palace’s buildings are imposing and beautiful. One can not help but imagine the fear and respect they would have commanded back when they were not surrounded by skyscrapers. 

 

Our visit to the Great Wall at Mùtiányù was fun if surreal. Surreal in part because it is such an iconic and familiar structure but more surreal because of the toboggan ride back down to the car park and the resident bi-lingual Mynah bird.

 

On the high speed train out of Beijing we hurtled past vast swathes of agricultural land with mile upon mile of fruit trees and poly tunnels interspersed with the odd town and/or power station. 

 

We spent a few chilled days in Pingyao exploring the ancient city walls and temples in between lots of lego time for the boys whilst we worked on the plan. The beauty of Pingyao is somewhat jaded by an ever-present layer of dust from the coal mines nearby. We particular enjoyed Ri Sheng Chang Old bank – the birthplace of modern banking. And Pingyao’s Newspaper museum which is a collection of front pages from around the world and we had fun playing guess the news story. 

  

The Army of Terracotta Warriors was next on the itinerary so we took a train to Xi’an. The three sites are housed in huge buildings and truly awe-inspiring. The statues are quite eerie, they so realistic one could imagine them coming to life any second.

  

We decided last minute to cut short our time in Xi’an so we could to fit in a Yangzi River cruise where we were able to be still for a couple of days as we sailed past the stunning scenery (read about it in Nick’s blog soon).

 

After noticing a dinosaur museum in our guide book it was just a matter of working out how we would fit in a detour to Zigong. The seven hours we subsequently spent on buses were well worth it and an added bonus were the beautiful landscapes we passed on the way, rolling hills and rice terraces. The dinosaur museum itself was a big hit with all of us, dinosaur models, skeletons, fossils and a real life excavation site! 

  

We enjoyed Chengdu not least for its most famous residents (pandas) and by far the biggest bed we’ve had so far! Nick took the opportunity of a DVD player in our room to introduce the boys to Star Wars. 

  

We took a day trip to Leshan to see the Big Buddha (it really is very big). And we loved wandering around People’s Park. Where we discovered a festival atmosphere with groups of couples ballroom dancing round sound systems. 

  

A storm in Shanghai gave us a long delay at Chengdu airport which although frustrating saved us the cost of a night’s accommodation. The weather system hung around and we had a wet and windy stay in Shanghai, exploring the city clad in down and goretex. 

 

Highlights include: a great day exploring the vast Science & Technology museum, seeing the cityscape lit up at night from the 87th floor of the Jinmào Tower, wandering round the French concession with its gorgeous Art Deco apartment blocks and the spectacular Acrobatic show we saw on our last night in China. 

 

Food references littered my posts from India but my taste buds were not set alight in China. We tried lots of street food and local delicacies; Peking duck and xiaolongbao were our favourites but I definitely didn’t fall in love with Chinese cuisine. 

   

The boys enjoyed the food more than us. They couldn’t get enough noodles and dumplings. And at Dōnghuámén Night Market they even tried snake and scorpion. G should have been on commission from the stall drumming up quite a bit of business with his proclamation that the scorpion was delicious!

 

We enjoyed China but we weren’t blown away. We didn’t experience the great highs and lows of our travels in India and Nepal. Where getting a train was an adventure in itself. With everything so easy the journey was, dare I say it, a little dull. Maybe we just didn’t have the time to appreciate it.