Causing a queue on the Cosmiques Arête 

“I’m going to struggle with that crux pitch” I said, as I watched an Italian guide following his client up the rock face and wobbling on his crampon points as he went. When his foot slipped it crossed my mind that if he was finding it difficult to keep his crampons on the tiny slots cut out of the face, I was going to do more than struggle.

Having Goals

I started the year with a goal to do harder Alpine routes, so when the KMC organised a trip to Chamonix it was a perfect opportunity to get high and tackle more complicated terrain. My ultimate goal requires me to have all the skills I need to no longer rely on anyone else.

I love being out the snow, be it the harshest winter in Scotland or Alpine days in the sunshine. I know though that these will always lead me to a moment where I’m muttering under my breathe, or worse swearing out loud.

But for all the complaining I know that I’m capable and just need to get on with it.

Tackling alpine ridges

The Cosmiques Arête is a 350 metre ridge of climbing and scrambling. The guidebook recommends around 4 hours, but you need to factor in the 1 hour of descending the snow arête from the Aguille de Midi station and crossing the glacier, and any potential queue you might encounter on this popular route.

I’ve previously only done Alpine routes which require basic winter skills, ability to walk in crampons and front point up snow slopes. But after a winter ice climbing in Norway I was ready for routes that were more challenging.

I was excited when I led us out of the Midi station and we descended the steep snow slope. Looking down on Chamonix from 3800m is always exciting. The route to the bottom of the ridge is relatively straightforward,  following the arête to its end near the Cosmiques hut.

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Chamonix 2017

Much of the Cosmiques Arête is nothing more than a winter scramble. We had been unlucky to be tackling the route on Saturday and hadn’t been able to get on the first cable car, so our first challenge was to overtake as many of the groups as we could. Particularly the slower guided groups.

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Trying not to self sabotage

My worst trait when I’m out is self doubt. Can I really climb that route? Is my prussic really wrapped right for this abseil and will it hold me? What’s after that difficult bit and can I do it?

I find that questioning myself like this leads to a negative cycle of feeling like I can’t achieve something and lack of confidence in the skills I have. I’m not rubbish – I’ve been climbing for 2 years now and while I struggle with confidence and fear of leading, I’m perfectly capable of seconding VS routes when I put my mind to it. Even the odd HVS.

So when I arrived at the first abseil and muttered out loud that I needed my partner to check my abseil set up before he headed off, I immediately sabotaged myself. In giving a voice to my fears I made them real and also made him worry about my ability; which just made it worse. I hate people assuming I can’t do something; I hate being taken care of.

The first abseil was straight forward and despite swinging into a chimney I had no problems. But voicing my fears meant my partner insisted on abseiling the next pitch together, which didn’t impress me.

Dangling the Crux

From the bottom of the abseils we traversed round to reach the crux – an 8m slab with a thin diagonal crack, graded ay 4c. Should be easy enough, especially since there’s pre drilled pockets for crampons, and especially as someone had left a cam in the crack to pull on. But climbing a rock face in crampons at altitude was not going to go well for me. Was it lack of skills or confidence? Did I just sabotage myself as I’d said out loud that I thought I was going to struggle?

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just look at the guy on the face! Thats not how I did it!!

As I was dangling, struggling to get my crampon points to stay in the pockets and get my weak arms to pull me up the crack I discovered a general dislike of Alpine guides.

Yes I caused a queue. But then there was one there before we arrived.

Yes I complained and took ages. But there wasn’t any need for the French guides to be rude and abusive. (I’m generalising by saying French as the Italian guide directly behind me was encouraging and helpful).

It was also clear once I’d dragged my sorry self up the face that the guides were dragging their clients along with little regard for them and relying on other climbers to help the clients make certain moves over rocks. Their only concern was to get the route done as fast as possible, with some of the clients not even understanding to pull out gear from a route. I collected 2 cams and a sling as swag before the end of the route.

I know I’m generalising there, as we met some other guides I met during the course of the week who were amazing with their clients – but the ones I met on the Arête were not.

 

The final gully

 

The final section of the arête isn’t complicated at all, a scramble up a steep gully onto the top and up the ladder to the top of the cable car. However, the queue at the crux and it being midday meant that there was a hoard of climbers now headed up the route and guides dragging clients behind them. It made me think of the images of climbers queuing on Everest and how I never want to be in that sort of place. Its not what I want out of climbing routes.

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The joy of being fatigued at the end of completing any alpine route from the Midi is that if you look sufficiently knackered you can queue jump the hoards of tourists to get back down the cable car by looking a bit tired and smiling at the staff. I can easily adopt my best pathetic-tired face if it gets me to ice cream quicker!

Try Caving

I hate caving. I know hate is a strong word but having had a go I can honestly say, I hate caving. Wading around with wet feet inside cold wellies wearing a rubber boil-in-the-bag suit with a fibre pile onesie underneath so any physical exertion leads to being really sweaty. Having a mild panic attack in the dark, when the choice presented to you is to either wriggle through a tiny slot barely big enough to fit in or to slide down rock and somehow avoid landing in the pool of freezing water at the bottom. I feel a bit sick just thinking about it now. There’s always the choice to turn around but I’m not a quitter and like to push my boundaries of fear.

But I didn’t know any of this when I agreed to give it a go. I thought ‘It’s a bit like rock climbing, but underground’. Walking through passages marvelling at rock and fossils and wandering into huge caverns.
The reality is more like grovelling in the dark, wedging myself through rock and losing my dignity and nerve as I lower myself over the void to disappear into the abyss, dangling in free space.
The weekend was organised by Ben and Aly, both really experienced cavers and both in Mountain Rescue teams with experience in cave rescues, so if I was going to give it a go I was at least going out with experienced people. 

Learning rope access skills

We’d spent Saturday morning learning rope techniques to ascend and descend the ropes, get past knots in the rope (re-belays) and also passed clips where the rope has been anchored to the side to make the descent better (deviations). In Bradford Pothole Club’s hut, a couple of feet off the ground, it was easy and fun. I enjoy learning rope skills, and this didn’t feel like it was that different than the rope rescue skills we do in my Rescue team. This was going to be a piece of cake.
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Jess, Me and Aly rocking the onesies

On a hot sunny afternoon we then headed out to descend into Sell Gill, a cave system with all the rope work problems you could ever encounter. I didn’t have any problems getting down into the bottom of the cave. And yes, I had this look on my face all day.
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Just passed a deviation in the rope and continuing to head down

Later on, hauling myself back up the rope to get out I managed to jam my ascender (croll) at the top next to a knot. I was less than impressed with the ten minutes of wiggling it required to get it off. As you can imagine I was sweating in my rubber suit as I dangled, frustrated, trying to free myself. Ben at this point was being very reassuring with advice about how to free myself and was about to come and get me himself when I sorted it out. 
It wasn’t a horrible experience but Sell Gill isn’t the most attractive cave, as Ben pointed out its more of a training ground for learning the skills, so I was still wondering what the point of caving really is. Aly tried to explain that reaching the bottom of the cave is what cavers go underground for, but I’ll be honest I still didn’t understand.
I was even more confused to discover some of the club’s cavers had spent the day digging underground, to excavate new caves. I understand the desire to be the first to do something, even if it’s be in a cave, but really?! In the dark, cold and wet, digging dirt out of the ground.

Venturing into Alum Pot

I admit to being filled with a sense of dread after hearing two cavers spent Saturday night trapped underground nearby and had not been rescued till 5am. So I was a bit happier that Sunday’s trip out was to Alum Pot, a day lit shaft that descends 80m into the ground. At least I wasn’t going to spend all day in the dark I thought.

We initially headed upstream, wading through the river to reach Dr Bannister’s Handbasin, a huge underground pool. We had an awkward climb up a short waterfall to exit the last bit of the cave, awkward enough but much more so in wellies. 

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Once back out in the real world, we walked back down to the entrance to head downstream and into Alum Pot itself. The route down wasn’t too complicated and involved mostly walking through passage ways or around the edge of pools.

It was along this bit of the route that I was presented with the option of squeezing through a narrow crack to wriggle through, or sliding further down rock to avoid a pool. I can confess that watching Jess crawl through the gap and even thinking about having to follow her, made feel sick and teary. I opted for the slide down and managed to avoid the plunge pool.

From here we continued to ‘Dollytubs’, a roped descent down 15m to where we could see Alum Pot and daylight. Descending Dollytubs required a traverse along a ledge and to reclip the rope past a deviation as we descended. 

Even getting my descender (stop) onto the rope felt like a mental effort as I leaned over the drop. Ben did point out to me to just get my bum on the wall to balance, clearly logical thinking isn’t a skill of mine when I’m concentrating on not panicking! Despite always being clipped to a rope and therefore safe, I didn’t have faith in the gear, which is ridiculous I know. Clipped to a rope I wasn’t going to fall. So every time I had to faff with the stop I felt a bit uneasy. 

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Yes, I did shut my eyes to descend!

I was happy to get into Alum Pot and see daylight, and the descent down Greasy Slab was actually pleasant in the daylight. Alum Pot feels like another world when you look up to daylight, surrounded by leafy vegetation, moss and slime.

It was like being in Jurassic Park, another world that I wouldn’t ever see again and that hikers who pass by the surface never get to see. I knew I was lucky to have the opportunity to be there.

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Owen sat on ‘The Bridge’

The 45m descent down from below ‘The Bridge’ the large rock seen in the photo above, wasn’t really any more difficult that anything I’d done so far, only one deviation clip to get passed by unclipping and re-clipping.

Dangling in free space with daylight showing how far away the floor of the cave was, and the roaring sound of the waterfall pouring down made the whole thing feel a lot more scary. Plus having to sort out a deviation which was more than an arms length away and manage to re-clip it back on the rope without letting go of it was stressful.

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By the time I eventually got to the bottom of the rope I only had to walk along and do one more 20m descent down to reach the Sump, an underground pool and the end of the cave system. But on seeing the last rope descend down into the dark again and trying to sort out my rope whilst getting soaked under a waterfall I’d reached the edge of my mental strength.

Am I disappointed I didn’t see the Sump? As I sarcastically put to Ben as he tried to encourage me to continue, “its just a puddle”. Ok, I’m sure to cavers out there the Sump is something special and worth a visit, but I just didn’t care enough at that point to carry on. I was mentally wiped out. 

I’m still not disappointed either. I don’t have a great head for heights which is a problem with climbing at the best of time, but in dark and wet caves I’d found my limit. I felt bad for letting Ben down. For me it was a big enough achievement to have got to where it did. 

Hauling myself back up the 45m rope was challenging enough for me.

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Whilst I’m unlikely to ever go caving again, I would recommend a trip into Alum Pot if you can find someone to take you. Its not somewhere to go without experience – you need to be able to rig the ropes and understand ascending and descending safely. Being able to do that with Ben and Aly was great.

I was totally amazed and grateful for Aly’s calm and cool manner in dealing with me, being stubborn and sobbing at the bottom of Alum Pot. She’s an amazing caver and clearly really good at coping with novices like me. She was also out in front the whole weekend rigging the ropes and taking responsibility for safety. Whilst I’m not sure caving would ever have been for me even if I’d started younger, I believe girls need more role models like Aly. I found her totally inspiring.

I’d also like to say a massive thanks to Ben for letting me tag along, for being a good teacher and being calm when teaching me skills, and giving me the opportunity to see the amazing world of Alum Pot. And for taking photos – without which I’d have manage to banish all memory of the day!

Lake district dog walking and DofE

The joy of being a Duke of Edinburgh Assessor is being able to spend time in the hills and meet groups of young people who are learning new skills and challenging themselves with being self reliant in the outdoors.

This weekend I got to assess a friend’s group, which meant I also spent the weekend with his gorgeous dog Beamish. The scout group were more hardcore than some gold groups I’ve met recently as they were wild camping for three days straight as part of their Gold expedition in the Lake District – hiking from Keswick to Borrowdale, over to Grasmere and then up the Thirlmere Valley.

A great chance to hike and dog walk!

Day 1 -Burns Farm to Dock Tarn, via Walla crag and Watendlath tarn. Yes they really did take a frisbee with them!

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Day 2 – Dock tarn in Borrowdale to Angle Tarn

Horrendous wet weather to kill the fun but the group kept the pace up and Beamish didn’t sulk too much either, having to sit in the cloud and wait around for them.

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Day 3 – Angle tarn to Grisedale Tarn

We walked up from Grasmere up past Easdale Tarn to meet the group at High Raise, leaving Beamish at home for a rest and so we could pick up the pace.

A great day for sitting around drinking coffee and admiring the view. I love watching dofe groups from afar so that they get sense of personal freedom but we know they’re safe and well.

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Day 4 – along the Thirlmere valley back to Burn’s Farm.

A gorgeous sunny day for sitting by Thirlmere and enjoying the view. The groups did really well finishing on time and all still smiling.

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How to find a quiet bank holiday – The Berwyns

Sometimes charging up a pointy mountain of rock and scaring myself silly is all I want to do. Other times I need peace and quiet and chance to recharge – this bank holiday was the latter. Knowing Snowdonia was going to be busy and having an urge to visit somewhere I’d never been, I headed to the Berwyn Mountains in mid-Wales.

More like rolling hills of peat bogs and open grass land the Berwyns at 832m remind me of Skiddaw or the Howgill Fells. Open, vast and crucially – quiet. I saw three people all day. Bliss.

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As you can imagine I was grateful it had been dry or this much peat would have been a boggy walk! I took the direct route straight up the front of Cadair Berwyn, which involved a diversion to get to the top of Moel Sych before heading for the trig point of Berwyn.

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The route from Berwyn to Cadair Bronwen is clearly boggy at times as much of it has been boarded. I usually hate to see man’s mark on a landscape, but at times it is a gift. I’ve spent enough time bog trotting to know that boards can be a godsend in wet conditions. This part of the route is also a permissive path across a SSSI so if nothing else the boards are protecting the rare habitats in this area from erosion.

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From Cadair Bronwen I headed across to Tomle to head across the fell tops and back to my car. Just before Tomle top at the fence line there is a very impressive boundary stone between Powys and Gwynedd.

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The moors across the tops here are less well trodden despite them still counting as summits in their own rights – and reaching the end at Mynydd Tarw, a mere 681m high there is an impressively large cairn (considering few people clearly walk across this top).

Man’s impact on the landscape is clear here as the large woodland, a useful feature marked on my ageing map, is currently being felled for timber.IMG_4347 IMG_4356

Sca Fell via Cam Crag and Foxes Tarn

It was a last minute decision to go the the Lake District over Easter, one I thought I was going to regret as I sat parked in traffic on the M6 watching it rain.

I’d arranged to meet Tony from the Yorkshire Mountaineering Club at their huts in Coniston to find out more about the club and make the most of the weekend and 4 long hours later I arrived.

The Club’s huts are located near the Coppermines Youth Hostel, up a dirt track about two miles out of the centre of Coniston. As someone who camps regularly and is only an occasional user of Youth Hostels I thought the huts are a bargain for guests to stay in (less than camping!) and are in a fantastic location.

Waking up at 6am to the sound of the dehumidifier in the drying room, it was clear that Tony is an early riser and was keen I was too. We’d decided the night before to head round to Eskdale to go up Sca Fell and so set off bright and early.

The path up the River Esk is a gentle start to the day, which was good as while Tony is a keen mountaineer, in his 70’s now he’s certainly not running up fells anymore.

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We headed up the path next to Cowcove Beck to reach Great Moss – a boggy plateau in spring but with perfect views across the back of Crinkle Crag, Bowfell and the Scafell range.

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We’d opted for Sca fell rather than Scafell Pike as that was going to be notoriously busy on Easter weekend, and given we’d passed two couples each navigating with their phones and no maps, there was no way we were going to spend the whole day assisting the lost. Especially when one of the couples complained they couldn’t understand why Scafell Pike wasn’t better waymarked. I’m not elitist in anyway, the mountains are for everyone – but within reason. I don’t expect to have to teach map reading skills to hikers miles from the nearest road. Tony didn’t mind – the endless stopping gave him chance to keep eating.

We eventually scrambled up the rock face next to Cam Crag Spout waterfall.

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Being out with a seasoned mountaineer I had to admit that I was a bit wary that Tony would want a more challenging route and chance to get climbing up rocks, but it seemed the route up to Foxes Tarn was enough scrambling for both of us. To reach Foxes Tarn, a tiny tarn in the cwm at Sca fell, we picked a route across the rocks and grass to wind around the crag to the south of Broad Stand. It was a fun scramble, though not entirely on rock.

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I was more than a bit disappointed to see Foxes Tarn, its certainly not worth the scramble, being nothing more than a puddle with a rock in the middle. Its location though is certainly impressive and this route up Sca Fell is better than the trudge from Wasdale.

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There were some people on the summit of Sca Fell but nowhere near as many as could be seen on the summit of Scafell Pike. We headed across the top to descend down to Slight Side crag and back down across the bogs towards Eskdale- finishing with a well earned meal in the pub.

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The long way to Slaithwaite for lunch

Ok, so I didn’t get out on a big hike this weekend  – and all I really wanted when I woke up Sunday was a fantastic coffee and to play out in the snow which is still on the hills around the South Pennines.

So, with no great trek involved I headed the longest way I could manage down the valley to Slaithwaite for a coffee and lunch. Lazy I know, but just look at the views whilst I headed on the Colne Valley Way from Marsden up to Cupwith Reservoir and down Merrydale Clough into Slaithwaite centre. All in all about a 6 miles circle, heading back along the Huddersfield Canal.

The Colne Valley Way is a fantastic 13 miles walk around the top of the valley – but as much of it is on either the moors or farmland it is boggy, unless you tackle it at this time of the year when the ground is frozen. Its a great walk though with some fantastic pubs en-route and this is certainly my favourite section.

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Holmfirth and Hepworth circular

I missed the opportunity to play out in the snow last week as by the time the weekend came around it had all but vanished from the hills of West Yorkshire. Nevertheless I needed air and to stretch my legs so headed out around the Holme Valley in the winter sunshine.

Starting from Holmfirth, we headed up the hillside to Cartworth Moor Road which we followed until reaching the track at Elysium farm, where we swung a sharp left to follow the track towards Hollin Hill Reservoir. Mud galore today! The mountain bikers across Cartworth Moor Road were certainly covered in mud from head to toe.

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From the reservoir we headed on the road, up to the small village of Hade Edge before circling around the north side of the reservoir and then heading along the lane to Hepworth (and the Butcher’s Arms pub for lunch!)

From Hepworth we turned down behind the church to follow an amazing path between drystone walls down to cross between the mill ponds, before returning through Scholes, Totties and back to Holmfirth. Only about 8 miles, but a nice afternoon walk.

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Further afield in Hong Kong

It didn’t take long for me to find Hong Kong’s claustrophobic feeling of the skyscrapers to get too much, and my lack of interest in shopping required me to finding something further afield. The weather wasn’t ideal for hiking, which is a shame as there are some interesting routes on the islands.

So I decided more temples was in order. I headed to Ngong Ping to see the Big Buddha, and though I was initially disappointed to find the cable car wasn’t working I was eventually thankful. It meant it was a bit quieter and my first impression hadn’t been tarnished by departing the cable car into yet another shopping area.

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Catching a local bus instead provided me with the opportunity to see the wildness that still exists on Lantau island. I’m sure had the cable car been working and the mist not enveloping the island I would have got this view from the sky looking down, but it felt more authentic to see it from a local bus.

I have to be honest here, I was disappointed upon reaching Ngong Ping and its touristy shopping area which had some how managed to turn Buddhism into a theme park attraction. Having visited smaller Chinese temples and just left Cambodia with its spiritual temples, I was not that impressed to see Buddhism becoming so touristy. This wasn’t just a popular temple that had become a tourist attraction, but created as a tourist attraction.

That said the Buddha was beautiful, and though the temple was quiet and void of worshippers it was beautiful too. Despite the weather I also walked the Wisdom path with its 38 wooden columns representing the heart sutra.

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I needed somewhere quieter to escape so headed back to the metro station and caught the metro to Nan Lian Nunnery and garden. Despite its proximity to yet another shopping mall and busy roads, the garden was truly serene.

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From here I headed on the metro to nearby Sik Sik Wong Tai Sin Temple, which is entirely Taoist. It was a stark contrast to the quiet of the nunnery and I was greeted by throngs of worshippers, clouds of incense and bus loads of Chinese tourists. If you believe in I-Ching or just fancy something a bit different, Taoists have a strong belief in fortune telling and there are a lot of fortune tellers surrounding the temple.

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The final temple I visited was the Ten Thousand Buddha temple at Sha Tin. Amazing, but a bit garish with its golden Buddha in different poses lining the path to the top of the hill and the temple.

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I finished my trip to Hong Kong with an overpriced trip up Sky 100 tower to see the view over the harbour. Expensive, but worth it for a final night experience, seeing the lights of the harbour from above.

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Exploring Hong Kong

Hong Kong – the place that kept my baggage for while I had a few days in Siem Reap. Having to change flights here again on my way home, I’d planned a week in the city to break up the journey. But being almost 20 degrees colder than Cambodia, a huge city of towering skyscrapers and every metro station leading into a shopping mall (and I really do mean every single one); it was a culture shock in more than one sense.

Hong Kong is a fascinating city, though requires energy to withstand the pace, which I lacked on first arrival. I’d come from a laid back Buddhist Cambodia where the pace was slow, so it took me an afternoon to adjust to the pace. As well as the price of food and goods and the endless shopping. At least a 3-day Oystercard for the Metro was a reasonable price.

Staying in the popular Wan Chai district, within walking distance to the huge shopping centre of Times square, I did spend my first night wandering around admiring the lights, being shocked that it was Christmas (I’d managed to avoid this fact in Cambodia) and eating noodles in a little back street cafe. Despite the culture shock I found the ideal first night, seeing the lights around the Harbour from the Conference centre.IMG_2332 IMG_1969 IMG_1983

The following morning I explored Hong Kong island on foot, despite the drizzle, visiting the nearby Yuk Hui Temple, tucked away amidst towering skyscrapers of housing.

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From the Temple I wandered on to Hong Kong Park with its impressive aviary and The Peak.

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I have to admit, the day wasn’t ideal for visiting Victoria Peak, given it was misty. The Victoria Peak tramway was opened in 1888 and provides an interesting alternative to hiking up to Hong Kong islands highest point, at 552m. The view was still impressive, although I was underwhelmed to find a shopping mall at the top of the hill; but that wouldn’t be the last time since Hong Kong is built around shopping.

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The following day I spent wandering around the other side of the bay having caught Star Ferry across the harbour – which is ridiculously cheap for the experience and leads you to the clock tower and the promenade with its Avenue of Stars.

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I wandered on to the History Museum which is free on Wednesday and definitely worth a visit. From there I continued up Nathan Road, passing shops I couldn’t possibly afford to buy from, finishing at the Jade Market. I had a good wander round and was definitely tempted to buy, especially since haggling is so much fun, but I wasn’t sure it was really jade or just some cheaper stone, so I resisted.

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I then finished the afternoon at the local Tin Hau temple with its overwhelming incense and throng of local Buddhists. Tin Hau temples are listed buildings in Hong Kong as they are dedicated to Tin Hau, goddess of the sea who protects fishermen. It’s clear that Chinese Buddhism is closely linked with Taoism and its mix of deities.

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After a huge helping of fried noodles I braved Temple St night market and on the way back to Wan Chai took a ride on the mid-level escalators. Only in Hong Kong would escalators end up a tourist attraction, but at 800m it is the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a ride.

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Phnom Penh pagodas and palaces

After a day whizzing around Phnom Penh in a tuk tuk it was time for more pagodas, and Phnom Penh has a lot to see with one in almost every neighbourhood. In order to avoid temple overload I stuck to those most prominent. Wat Ounalom on the river front is allegedly the oldest in the city, predating the end of the capital’s site at Angkor in the 15th Century. It is also home to the country’s Buddhist leader. DSCF7760

Wat Phnom is on a small hill and marks the founding of the city of Phnom Penh. The legend that follows the founding of the city is that Lady Penh fished a floating tree out of the river and found four Buddha statues. In order to house them somewhere she built the hill (‘Phnom’ in Khmer) and built a Wat on top; thus giving the temple its name. The city that built up around it took the name of the hill and her name – Phnom Penh. The temple also houses the remains of the King who moved the capital here in the 15th century.

Despite the strong Cambodian history at this pagoda, the current building created in the 1920’s has a lot of Chinese Buddhist imagery; even lady Penh looks more Chinese than Khmer.

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No visit to the city is complete without visiting the Royal Palace and the Silver Pagoda. At its river front site the Royal Palace is a very pristine and manicured building and is still the home of Cambodian royalty. It is a beautiful place although like any other palace it jars against the poverty is surrounds – especially the silver pagoda with its solid silver tiled floor. (Although I have to admit to being a bit disappointed it was covered in rugs and barely visible).

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