Archive for December, 2013

SOTM World Tour – Uluru

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

 When I was a kid, I knew of Ayers Rock. A sleeping, red, ominous giant. A pimple in the middle of the Australian outback.

You’d think there wasn’t such a thing as a good pimple, of course, especially not a bright red one that stands out for miles around and brings people from everywhere to come stare at it.

However, this isn’t a blemish for teenage boys to worry about. This red lump is celebrated across Australia, famous globally, and the oxidation of its minerals is what gives it such a fiery hue.

Nowadays what the world knew as Ayers Rock is officially called by its traditional name, Uluru – although both names are used, depending on who you speak to.

Adventurous Kate and I were staying at the Outback Pioneer on Ayers Rock Resort, courtesy of Northern Territory Tourism and Flight Centre who were supporting this leg of the SOTM World Tour.

The stars of the show around here are Uluru itself and Kata Tjuta – formerly known as the Olgas. You can see both in the top image, with Kata Tjuta in the background – more of those later.

Let’s talk about Uluru. Despite it being a big stone, it fascinates. If nature is poetry, Uluru is the chorus that you belt out loudly, even if you can’t sing, because those words really mean something to you.

Uluru is a shapeshifter. It looks quite different at various times of the day. You think “Well, I’m not going to be hypnotised by a rock.” But you are. You can’t take your eyes off it, and its palpable shifts of colour make the thing seem like it’s more alive than you are.

The above shot was taken a little after sunrise – and that hour, plus sunset, is really when the rock is at its best.

This one was was taken shortly before the sun had given into the snooze button.

 And this one was taken after the sun started to get a grip and was rising steadily.

 And this was shot as the sun set one evening. See how different it can look?

dsc_0061-2The more you stare at Uluru, the more you notice its texture and shapes. This lion’s head was pointed out to me.

Here I am with a much-needed cup of coffee on one of the occasions that I got up before the sun did, just for that lump of rock.

I’m not a morning person, and have to get up around 4.45am regularly when I’m working shifts at the BBC, so I usually begrudge having to arise at ungodly hours when it’s not for employment purposes.

But I’m really glad I did. Seeing the sun rise over Uluru is a surprisingly unforgettable experience. It is, after all, just a rock. But when it’s right in front of you, it seems a whole lot more than that.

The Aborigines implore you not to climb Uluru, saying it is a sacred place and should not be clambered over.

Looking at how steep it is, and taking into consideration that 40 people have died and around 100 others are suspected to have died shortly after descending through heart failure, makes you wonder why on earth anyone would want to attempt an ascent. And the descent looks like the really hard part of it.

I was told a great story about the chain that goes up the first part of Uluru’s ascent path. Apparently a farm owner got the contract to put the single chain in, stretched between regular poles, for people to grip onto.

He was told to make it thigh-height. He was apparently quite a short man, so in obeying instructions he made the chain much too low for those of average height, or above, to hold onto as they haul themselves up the red, unforgiving rock.

Our trip to Uluru, and later Kata Tjuta, was part of the two-day Uluru Explorer tour with AAT Kings.

After worshipping from afar, we finally got up close and personal with Uluru, walking around part of its base and even being able to press flesh on that red rock.

And when you’re so close, you can see all the detail that has enchanted the indigenous people for so many millennia. Stories have been created to complement the fissures and mineral stains on the stone, for example.

dsc_0146-2While there, we spotted some markings in the sand in a cave, drawn by local Aborigines. No-one could work out what it meant. Looks like a dingo to me.

But if Uluru is the flashy redhead that everyone fawns over, Kata Tjuta is the cleverer, more voluptuous one.

They were formed around the same time but it’s Uluru that grabbed the spotlight, sells the postcards, brings all the tourists in. Kata Tjuta is the girl next door, the one with plenty to offer but who needs more work to unlock her secrets. She doesn’t put out quite as easily as the popular red head next door.

It too had a name change. It used to be known as the Olgas, a suitably exotic-sounding name for its red, rounded peaks.

It has, in some ways, more to offer. It opens itself up invitingly, like a familiar lover, as you walk over the Mars-like surface of Walpa Gorge.

Walking into this part of Kata Tjuta made me wonder what on earth it was like for the indigenous tribes who came here before the modern world ever presented itself to them so crudely.

Also the first explorers who found this place – looking up at the red walls, we were seeing much of what they saw back then. It was a thrilling time for me, to be treading the same paths as they did.

Speaking of which, some of Kata Tjuta’s peaks have green trails on them. This is because people used to climb these rocks too, and brought seeds on their boots. While the people have long been banished from clinging to the slopes, Mother Nature hasn’t relinquished her opportunity to spread a little more greenery around.

Aside from all this expeditionary stuff, there was some good old-fashioned pampering going on.

Kate and I had a great ride out into the desert just before sunset, thanks to Uluru Camel Tours.

I was riding Meryl, a cute and impeccably behaved camel. The seats are fashioned to each individual camel so they make for a very comfortable ride, even for someone with cheeks as skinny as mine.

Kate was on Rex, and it was a lot of fun getting out to our desert destination that way.

Once I’d bid a fond farewell to Meryl and scratched her behind the ears a bit (take my tip, fellas – the ladies love that) Kate and I had a wonderful evening at the Sounds of Silence dinner.

This saw us and a large number of others all sitting at round tables, enjoying tasty food and lots of Aussie banter. Then a hush descended on the assembled and suddenly a chap in a hooded cloak, an astronomer, started talking about the various constellations and individual stars which dazzled above us.

The cloak was naturally just for effect, but I must admit is was pretty cool. If cloaks came back into fashion, I’d be all over that.

I have never seen the night sky look like it has done in the Northern Territory. You can forget all sense of time with all the glittering.

Our planetary guide pointed out various star sign constellations including Sagittarius, which was quite moving for me as it’s mine and I’ve never seen it before. I don’t really believe in astrology, but the individual characteristics of my star sign often describe my behaviour and attitude, so I do find that aspect interesting.

Another moving moment was when the astronomer, using a hugely powerful green laser pointer, wobbled it around a sparkling dot. We were looking at a star’s light which dated from the time that the first settlers were building New Amsterdam – which later became New York, my favourite city in the world.

The photography around both Uluru and Kata Tjuta is severely restricted. We had to submit our photographs for approval before we could use them on any social media.

Any that showed parts of the rocks at certain times of day, when details such as some caves are in focus, were rejected. Therefore it was a little tricky to get some SOTMs there, but I did manage a couple, including this one. Click on the image to see what it’s all about.

And the excellent Danny, who was on our table at the Sounds of Silence dinner, kindly also thought of something memorable he’d once read on a wall.

There was one more early start for Kate and I, but again it was totally worth it.

We each sat on the back of a Harley Davidson provided by Uluru Cycles. We then rode to Uluru, saw another sunrise and toured around the rock in the chill of early morning. A brilliant experience.

Despite this pic, I didn’t control the beast myself. But I watched a lot of CHiPs when I was a kid, so like to think I styled it out pretty well.

After that bike ride, it was time to hit the road again – this time even further south, to check out Sydney and Melbourne. More on that next time.

SOTM World Tour – Australia’s Northern Territory

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

DSC_0081Australia. It’s big, it’s far away and it’s inspired one of the best songs of all time.

For our trip to see this beautiful land for ourselves, Kate and I were kindly hosted by Northern Territory Tourism, and as part of that Flight Centre invited us on Adventure Tours Australia‘s 3D 4WD Kakadu Unleashed tour in the Northern Territory itself.

After a quick stopover in Darwin, with just enough time to go on a bus tour around the place and listen to the commentary of how much of the beautiful coastline was either frequented by crocodiles or deadly jellyfish, we were off on our trip along with about a dozen other intrepid adventurers.

The first day of the tour was spent in Litchfield National Park where you couldn’t help but notice these incredible termite mounds. The engineering behind them is incredible and some of the taller ones are decades old. Yet another reminder that Mother Nature really knows what she’s doing.

DSC_0058It was very hot at the time of our visit, so many of the group jumped into the large rock pools to cool off. I’m a very poor swimmer and as a result never go into deep water so I had to sweat that part out by the side.

Later on we hit a campsite for my first experience of kipping outdoors. I do mean literally, as we were only given swags to sleep in, which are large cocoon-type creations in which you lay under the stars. This does give you a superb view of the incredible night sky, with an unforgettable view of the stars, but it does leave you at the mercy of mosquitos. Factor in the incredible humidity and I barely slept a wink that night.

Luckily, I had perked up enough the next day for what turned out to be my favourite part of the trip – the Mary River Wetlands.

The guide gave me a chuckle at the start, as he casually asked us not to dangle any limbs into the croc-infested waters “as you can imagine the paperwork that can cause me”.

The wetlands has some of the best wildlife Australia has to offer, with crocodiles, eagles and jaçanas (also known as Jesus birds because they walk on water) all in plentiful view, among many other examples of that environment’s creatures.

DSC_0135There was so much to photograph, I could have stayed there all day.

DSC_0108The environment was just stunning to look at.

DSC_0171And we were all very excited whenever someone spotted a croc.

DSC_0195The next day we headed on into Kakadu itself, where we saw some examples of incredibly old rock art.

These drawings all had meaning, told stories, and above all carried messages for future generations, passing on information from one set of people to another. Just like we do today on Twitter and Facebook.

For example, this is a representation of the Rainbow Serpent, a well-known story in Aboriginal culture. In some stories it’s said that it eats children who don’t stop crying. As a result, even today, Aboriginal children will apparently not be left to cry for long without being comforted by their parents, lest they attract the wrath of the many-coloured serpent.

DSC_0267I like to think how all the things we use so frequently now – social media, mobile phones, even an idea like Someone Once Told Me, all have their roots in paintings such as this.

It was actually difficult to look at the drawings for too long, however, as the flies were the most aggressive and persistent I’ve ever come across, anywhere in the world. They would not leave you along for a second, were in your eyes, mouth, ears, nose, and when I took to draping a towel over my head, Catholic nun style, I could still hear them buzzing around, but thankfully unable to get into my face as much.

Another highlight of the trip was a boat trip into the Jim Jim Falls gorge. The looming red rocks above and the utter silence of the place, which is still used by Aboriginal men to teach their sons their native ways, was a real soul tonic.

DSC_0337Back in civilisation, I should also mention Darwin’s Mindl beach, which is also a very clean beach, despite its popularity. It has a famous market attached with lots of tasty food to choose from, and is also rather stunning at sunset.

DSC_0035I also came across this chap there, doing a rather nifty act with flaming sticks.

DSC_1008Finally, I did manage to bag this SOTM when out and about in the wilderness. Click on the image to read more about why this chap is doing his bit to preserve a bit of Australian culture.

After all this, we headed south to the middle of the country, to be bewitched by the magic that is Uluru, the giant red stone that was known as Ayers Rock when I was a boy. More on my time there, next time.

SOTM World Tour – South Korea

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

 I liked Seoul, but don’t be put off when I tell you I considered it to be Tokyo lite.

I really don’t mean that as an insult, but when you wander the streets there are a striking number of similarities to the untrained eye, as mine is.

People from this region will be able to point to many differences of course, but to Westerners faced with narrow streets, tall buildings, cutting edge technology, copious amounts of Hello Kitty phone covers and beautiful, if indecipherable signs everywhere – well, it all blends into one.

There is a particular distinction – while Japan’s wifi is superb, widely available and very fast, South Korea’s is even better, and is rated as among the world’s best. After a few weeks there, I can personally confirm this fact. Japan’s wifi was lightning, but South Korea’s was faster than the speed of light.

Also, Koreans do a lot of barbecues, which mean you get small strips of tasty meat and a little round hot plate, often built into your table. It’s fun to finish off your own grub that way. Brings out the inner caveman and whatnot.

For the past year, Seoul has been particularly famous for Psy’s Gangnam Style song. The shot above is from that district, which is filled with designer gear and Rolls Royce showrooms, that kind of thing.

Here’s a typical shop window in Gangnam.

This lady is one I spotted that afternoon who might just have been the sort of person Psy was singing about.

 Incidentally, Psy’s face is everywhere in Seoul – you name it, he’s endorsed it. And why not? People like him make the world a better place.

But the best part of the city is to be found in the university quarter, as often is the case in cities around the world. Seoul’s is called Hongdae where you’ll find everything you want – cheap eats, great cafes, mobile phone shops, computer stores, and lots of novelty socks and clothes.

You’ll also find a Hello Kitty cafe in that district, and with some delight I visited it.

I’m a big fan of The Kitteh and still cannot find a T-shirt of her in a man’s size (there’s probably a good reason for that). I did manage to get this photo of me in there, and for a while I was (proudly) the only man on the premises.

But while I love all animals, I’m most of all a dog man, and was thrilled to visit a dog cafe. I know what you’re thinking – it is South Korea after all, where dog is a delicacy. But this isn’t that sort of place.

The pooches are all running around quite happily, and you can buy a packet of treats to feed them.

I did wonder about how often the dogs are exercised, what will all the treating going on by the thrilled customers, but most of them looked quite in shape and not overweight. Their coats were glossy and their eyes clear, and nails were clipped too so they did look in good health.

This little chap, a bit old and not very energetic, stuck with us all the whole time. I liked him. I called him Eric, in Eric Cantona’s honour.

Also spotted this fella on the way out and had to take his photo. I hope that bag was full of treats for him.

But after wandering around the über-modern Hongdae which crackles with electricity and microchips, I thoroughly recommend a detoxing visit to the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace.

Once the refuge of the Korean royal family, the palace is nice but I have a low tolerance for palaces and temples. Frankly, the world is full of them, those within one country often look the same and when people come to the UK, for example, they don’t spend their time going round all the churches that nation has to offer. If they did that in Malta they’d be particularly busy – there’s 365 of them there.

So I’ve a three-temple maximum, and then I’d rather wander around a market and try to capture people on the streets.

But while the only other people in the palace’s Secret Garden were the group we were part of – you have to be guided around – the whole garden area, which covers 78 acres, is simply gorgeous.

Amusingly, as our guide took us around, she kept pointing out places that various kings throughout the Joseon dynasty (1392-1897) used to play drinking games. So much so that I began to wonder if Korea’s ancient kings were partly British.

For example, the king would sit in the structure to the left while his ministers and strictly invited guests would come up with wordplay games and poems. If they failed to do so in a clever or chucklesome manner, they’d be banished for a while to the island in the middle of the water.

Other parts of the gardens were similarly dedicated to spots where the king and his cronies could drink away to their heart’s content.

The garden’s copious foliage affords great cover from the sun, and there are delights all around the paths you take. No wonder it was once only for the eyes of the privileged.

Brilliantly, this is a miniature paddy field, for the king to tend himself.

Depending on how it did, he would then know how good or bad the rice crop would be that year for his subjects. What a great idea! Let’s hope he acted accordingly when the crop was bad.

After having seen a bit of Seoul and sucked up as much of its wifi as possible, Adventurous Kate and I hopped on a train to Yeosu.

We were the guests of the excellent Heather, who proved her hostess/mostess tag by putting us up in her place for a few days, gallantly taking the couch herself so as to let us snooze in her bed.

Excitingly, Heather also arranged for me to visit Yeosu Girls’ Middle School, where I got a number of the charming young ladies there to take part in SOTM.

classWhile we were just guests that day, and observed Heather teach her pupils, I think Kate got quite into the idea of teaching a class herself, drawing an inspirational message expertly on the board.

dsc_0104This is a shot of me taking a SOTM in the classroom, with quite an excited audience.

DSC_0219And here are some of the great photos I got that day from the schoolgirls, who were very sweet. Click on the images to find out what they mean – the first one is a sumptuous little proverb, involving pears and typhoons.

This is Serena’s SOTM – many of the girls adopt Western names.

29112013After happy times in Yeosu, we pushed off to nearby Busan. Among its many features is a fascinating fish market. If it come out the sea and wriggles, then you’ll find it for sale there.

I’m making a break for it lads! I’m heading for the border! Freedo…. ah, rats.

The fish’s scales shimmered when they caught the sunlight.

 I also noticed that the majority of sellers in Busan’s fish market were women.

dsc_0297There are also lots of dive-bombing seagulls next to the fish market, which make for an entertaining few minutes’ distraction.

dsc_0356Finally, one afternoon, Kate and I strolled down to Busan beach for a very pleasant afternoon on the sand. If you’re in town, it’s a great place to visit and very clean.

The beach is apparently popular, but was quiet when we were there.

You know that thing where girls jump and try to get captured mid-flight? You see it everywhere.

dsc_0218Also in Busan I noticed that, like many other parts of the world I’ve been in, there are Turks selling Turkish food. I love kebabs, so this is a good thing, obviously. This chap was doing a few nifty tricks with ice cream.

So after all that little lot, it was off to be properly DownUnda – a trip to Australia for three weeks. I like kangaroos and don’t mind snakes, but what about spiders? Could I avoid their hairy clutches? Find out next time.

SOTM World Tour – Japan

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

DSC_0279Our arrival in the land of the rising sun was delayed a little after the China Eastern Airways plane we were on broke down in Kunming.

This left us stranded for 24 hours in China, but the airline put us up overnight and a day later than planned, we were in Tokyo, baby.

Japan quickly became one of my favourite countries, and Tokyo one of my favourite cities. There, I’ve said it. The landscape is everything you expect it to be – Bladerunner without the pollution or missing simulants.

DSC_0039The environment is spotless – while you frequently struggle to find a bin, you’ll find it harder to spot discarded rubbish in the street. Just doesn’t happen. I recall being in Seoul and seeing a young guy there toss his cigarette packet wrapper into the road, and thinking how that would never happen in Japan.

Also, people there bow. A lot. I mean, really often. If you buy something from a convenience store, the chap might well bow to you. There were department stores we popped into and there would be a fellow by the door, greeting us in Japanese and bowing. Seemed to be the main part of his job.

The society is as painstakingly polite as you expect it to be. And it’s also not massively tall – hence I banged my noggin every day I was there. On doors, buses, trains, roofs. Once I drew blood and saw stars, I cracked it that hard on a door-closing mechanism. No wonder I don’t have any hair.

One of the highlights of the city is the fascinating Shibuya crossing, a series of giant zebra-coloured paths in the beating heart of Tokyo, mimicked by the recently revamped crossing at Oxford Circus in London.

DSC_0248If you want to people watch as they scurry from one side of the thundering traffic to the other, then this is the place to be.

DSC_0057Just around the corner we had incredibly tasty noodles in soup, and the chap serving us agreed to pose for me. I really like this image, not least because I was keen to capture his wellies and feel like I got something of his personality in the shot as well.

DSC_0319Kate and I were both quickly taken with the amount of vending machines dotted about the place – while we disappointingly didn’t see any knickers on sale, which I’m told is true but never managed to verify for myself, there were drinks available everywhere.

In the record heat that Japan was experiencing during our stay, those easily available beverages came as both a relief and necessity.

DSC_0004After a few days we popped over to Kyoto on a train which cost more than many of the flights we’ve taken so far on this trip. Eye-watering.

Having said that, it afforded more leg room than any transportation I’ve ever been on and departed/arrived at the exact minutes it was supposed to, despite those times being some hours apart.

Kyoto is a splendid city, and while the amount of temple-hopping we did in Japan made me introduce a three-temple maximum in any city, the ones we saw will linger long in my memory.

I’ll also never forget the 100 degree heat in which we sweltered. Apparently it even reached 103 in Japan when we were in Tokyo, a record for the country’s recorded temperature history. Bet those vending machines were doing a roaring trade.

The Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji, is a delight. On a brutally hot day, it appeared before us even brighter than the sun.

DSC_0187You can pay your respects by leaving incense at one of the temples at the Golden Pavilion’s complex.

DSC_0217But my favourite temple was the leafy Daitokuji complex of temples.

One of them in particular was silent, its thick foliage fought bravely against the invading waves of heat, and it was everything I wanted a temple to be – small, intimate, thoughtful.

DSC_0347It was such a relief to be in a cool garden that day, with the temperatures again close to triple figures.

DSC_0468This large water bowl was brought over from Korea.

DSC_0360And if you look round temples in Japan, you’ll frequently find spruce cemeteries which are very reverential to those who have passed away.

DSC_0375These chaps look old but are still clearly used in rituals by relatives of the dead.

DSC_0380While in Kyoto I was put in touch with the charming Fumi, a very sweet lady who made very excited noises when I told her I worked for the BBC, doing no harm to my ego at all.

It was, as she explained in her SOTM story, her dream to live in Kyoto, even if her friends queried her decision.

While we were in Kyoto, Kate and I made friends with a charming couple, the lovely Miu and dashing Micheál. They helped out with a couple of Japanese SOTMs that I picked up in a bar they took us to, and they also posed for their own. Micheál chose a very thoughtful story, and this is Miu’s photo.

05092013As always with any SOTM photo on this blog, click on it to see the original post and see the story behind those words (and the translation).

Kyoto is a charming city, quite like a dream.

DSC_0392Now for one of the highlights of our trip, a rather fishy experience.

Miu and Mike took us to a seafood restaurant which had all manner of creatures slithering around in tubs and buckets. I felt like I was Sebastian Crustacean at one point.

Then, it turns out we had ringside seats for a mahoosive tuna that was due to be carved up by a chap who apparently is a bit of a celebrity chef.

Here he is – and check out the guy’s face bottom left. Maybe he thought tuna slices are born in a can.

DSC_0511The chef really made a show of cutting up that fishy beast, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

tuna2The monster from the deep was hoisted onto the table by these two chaps. Apparently it was worth about 1 million yen (£6,300, $10,000).

tuna1Expose a giant tuna to a chef’s cleaver…

tuna4…and this is what happens.

tuna3But this wasn’t the only thing I ate that night. Oh no. We all got given what’s known out there as Japanese turban shells, also called the horned turban, a species of sea snail. I ate mine, despite it not looking exactly like all the others served to our table, raising both my suspicions and alarm.

Mine was longer, greener, and looked even more alien than the other examples of how this unusual creature usually appears. In eating it, I felt quite like I was doing something to an extra terrestrial’s nether regions which I’d certainly regret in the morning. But down the hatch it went.

I can only describe its taste as “of the sea”. This photo further explains what I thought of the whole experience.

foodDuring all the evening’s palaver, especially when the chef was wielding his expert cleaver, there was a table of young women who were as impeccably dressed as you’d expect – Japanese women begin the most fashion conscious, and attractive, in the whole world. Seriously.

These ladies loved having their picture taken and posed every time I took a shot. The chef also played up to them and gave them slivers of fresh tuna, which he also did us (as the only token foreigners in the joint).

Finally I got in on the action myself. They all squealed when I sat down and posed with them, and I definitely think I was in there (Kate nodded sympathetically when I told her this).

girlsAfter that we popped off to Kobe, as Kate was insistent that we try the Kobe beef. There didn’t seem to be much else going on in this town, at least in the short time we were there, but we queued for a place which served beef that has since hit top spot on the list of “Best Things I’ve Ever Put In My Mouth”.

beefAside from drooling over this delicious dish, I discovered something interesting about Kobe beef. I’d been told by a number of people that one of the main reasons it is so good is that the cows are fed alcohol, are massaged and are played soothing music.

Aside from hearing it on occasion myself, I recently heard this from two travel bloggers, one of which was informed by a Japanese man who was “a serious foodie”, lending it some credibility.

But frankly I doubted this theory – if that’s all there was to it, why weren’t farmers in East Anglia employing the same methods? So I looked it up.

After about four minutes of searching I found the official Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association, which oversees the export of Kobe beef around the world.

It has a Q&A dispelling all those techniques as pretty much a myth, very rarely executed and certainly insignificant to the quality of their cows’  meat. The real reason for the meat’s legendary quality is actually down to years of careful cross-breeding.

Chalk that one up under “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”.

We also went to Osaka, which is incredibly futuristic in its appearance and fascinating to stroll through.

DSC_0718Its streets are a maze that you’ll really want to get lost in.

DSC_0745When the sun sets, the neon signs come out to play.

DSC_0771This woman’s expression captures the essence of Osaka. I don’t know what caused her to raise her hand to her mouth, but it might be the light-bulging splendour of the city’s fluorescence. It really does look like a post-apocalyptic metropolis designed by Psy.

DSC_0782Speaking of which, I think I found his brother.

signAfterwards we headed back to Tokyo one more time, until our departure. It was during this time that we found my favourite part of Japan – a tiny splodge of narrow streets called Golden Gai, which is home to around 250 tiny bars. And I mean three-to-six seat tiny.

DSC_0874The doorways are like a lucky dip – you really don’t know what you’re going to find out behind each one.

There’s a bit of a steep cover charge for most of the places, and some are local joints for local people, but it’s definitely foreigner friendly. We ended up in an American-themed bar run by Captain Ken, who loved Americana.

With Kate suddenly the celebrity guest, we toasted America and Shinji Kagawa, the Japanese footballer who plays for Manchester United and is a big star in his home country.

I loved Golden Gai. It’s clean but shabby, chic, cramped, like a work of art that sells booze. So much is crammed into this small labyrinthine spot that you could return again and again and still find something, or someone, new each time.

DSC_0954After Japan we went to South Korea, where I had an encounter with some schoolgirls. I don’t mean that in an Operation Yewtree kind of way.

Find out more next time.

SOTM World Tour – Dubai

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

DSC_0100For those of you able to recall The Jetsons cartoon, you’ll already be familiar with what Dubai is like.

With tall, gleaming skyscrapers, an occasionally inhospitable outdoors (in the 45 degree heat of summer) and sleek transport tubes gliding silently about the place, it really does look like a futuristic life on Mars.

I took the SOTM World Tour there after my excellent friend Simon kindly agreed to put me up in his flat, along with his smashing wife Sarah. They were hugely helpful to Kate and I the whole time, and I even got lovely photos of them both.

Here’s Simon’s – his audio clip is brilliant, you should have a listen.

22082013And Sarah’s story was short but very meaningful and human – nothing less than I expected from her.

30082013Due to only being there a few days and having to be indoors most of the time due to the heat, I grabbed a mere handful of shots.

I liked this one of a dow driver, even though it was very low light and I took it without a flash while sitting on another, bobbing vessel. So it’s not pin sharp, but the best I could do.

DSC_0024Shortly before going down to the city’s creek, Simon told me there was a Sherlock Holmes pub in a nearby hotel. I’m a huge Sherlock fan so I had to see it for myself.

And indeed, there it was, an imitation Olde English Pub, inside a Dubai hotel whose stones did well not to crack in the merciless heat.

sherlockWhile in Dubbers, as it’s affectionately known by the local ex-pats, I was approached by Lavanya Narayan who’s an up-and-coming student journalist. She popped round and we had a pleasant chat about SOTM – here’s the piece she wrote afterwards.

It was also Kate’s birthday while we were in town, so I treated her to cocktails at a bar high up the shiny behemoth which is the Burj Khalifa.

It’s a fantastic experience and a top tip came from Simon – instead of booking tickets to the viewing platform, just book a table for drinks at the restaurant a couple of floors below.

It has a two-drink minimum for men but means that for roughly the same price as the viewing level, you can have a leisurely cocktail and see the sights at the highest restaurant in the world. Boom.

This was taken on an iPhone in darkness, hence the grain, but it captures the spirit of our experience that night perfectly, and is one of my favourite SOTM World Tour photos.

khalifahI’m now thinking of making a Burj Khalifa hat for Kate to wear at our wedding.

Another one of my favourite photos is this one of Simon, just after I’d asked him to hold my coconut. He’s a top lad, is the Big Man.

IMG_6042I also met up with some old friends in Dubai, including my second-ever girlfriend, Emily, who wisely fashioned an escape from me many years ago, and is now happily married to the smashing Tristan. He posed for SOTM and had a great story to tell.

12112013Emily kindly took Kate and me out, along with her kids, into the desert, to a hotel where we could cool off with a bit of splooshing in the pool. On the way back, we were just behind a couple of patches of heavy rain – very rare in August in Dubai, according to everyone. I snatched this shot as we sped past a roundabout.

Emily did say that on the few occasions when it does rain, the driving quality deteriorates as the locals don’t really know how to drive when the roads are wet.

IMG_6082I also took a photo whose story I loved and have adopted as a little mantra of my own. I live on my phone and am often far too engrossed with it, frequently too focused on recording experiences I’m having instead of experiencing them first, before sharing them afterwards.

Believe it or not, I’ve just found out that George Clooney has expressed exactly the same sentiments, and if it’s good enough for one of my icons, it’s good enough for me too.

So this one really struck a chord with me.

31082013When you roll with Adventurous Kate, you often reap the benefits of some very nice experiences. One of them was a fairly sumptuous afternoon tea at the Burj al Arab (the one that looks like a sail).

It was actually not prohibitively expensive, considering all the gold the place has plastered everywhere and that it’s a (self proclaimed) seven-star joint. On this occasion Kate was invited to attend by the hotel’s management, and she wrote about our experience on her blog.

The teas, which include an unforgettable camel milk creme brûlée, start at 295 dirhams (£50, $80, 60 euros).

Here we are with me giving a rose to Kate for her birthday (which was a few days before) and was supplied by the waiters. Thanks boys!

Kate doesn’t like this photo of her, but she looks divine as always, of course. And check out that view behind us!

arabWe also got shown round one of the suites, some of which cost £11,791 a night ($18,716, 13,982 euros). We got to see the second-best suite in the joint.

IMG_6118I repeat. This is the Burj al Arab’s second-best suite.

IMG_6119Check out that tub! Plenty of room for the wiggling hotties! If you’re, er, into that sort of thing, of course. Ahem.

IMG_6116And I could catch some MAJOR zzzzzs in this dream machine.

IMG_6117Taking this photo made me rather queasy – I don’t like really high heights, and when you get to the top of the Burj’s many floors, it looks like this (those desks are concierges for each of the floors). It’s an iPhone shot and my hands were probably quivering at the time, so it’s not pin sharp.

IMG_6126And at the bottom of it all is the absolutely spectacular foyer.

alArabFinally, I thought I’d give you a little insight into the lengths I sometimes go to, so as to get the best possible SOTM shot. I photographed the very charming Elizabeth with a sweet tale to tell about words she heard just before she left home for the über metropolis of Dubai:

17112013She was refreshingly tall, so to get the best possible angle, I did this:

IMG_6094I had to get out of the way of cars a couple of times, and some security guards had banned me from taking pictures in the area that you see in the background (for really no reason at all). But I liked the photo, even though I lay down in the road wearing my only white shirt of the trip…

Next time – Japan! A country I was really looking forward to visiting. What would the land of sushi, neon and crazy vending machines have in store, and what SOTM stories would I find? More on all that coming soon.