Tamil Nadu, February 2016 (3 weeks)

Tamil Nadu, February 2016 (3 weeks) (with start and finish in Kochi, Kerala)

Route: Kochi Airport – Kochi – Madurai – Rameswaram – Trichy – Thanjavur – Chidambaram – Pondicherry – Tiruvannamalai – Mahabalipuram – Chennai – Coonoor – Kochi


We travelled mostly by train, sometimes by bus. Most train tickets were booked in advance on https://www.cleartrip.com/. Since then it became possible to book Indian train tickets directly on the official railway site https://www.irctc.co.in/. See http://www.seat61.com/India.htm for information on Indian train travel, including setting up a booking account from abroad. As usually, http://erail.in/ was perfect for looking up train connections, fares and tickets availability.

Travelling by bus did not require booking tickets in advance.


We used Rough Guide’s “South India” and Lonely Planet chapters on Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The RG was much better on sights and cultural context while the LP a bit better on practical information.


Kochi Airport

We flew to Kochi airport by Air Berlin (partly operated by Etihad) for a bargain price of less than 400 euros from Krakow, Poland. The airport is located in Nedumbassery, 1,5 hrs by bus from Ernakulam and Fort Kochi. There are facilities for the arrival with e-Tourist Visa and the immigration control went smoothly.

We stayed the first night in nearby Nedumbassery: Sapphire Inn, booked via booking.com, 1450 Rs./dbl ensuite, 15 min walk from airport. The place is non-descript and would cost less than 1000 Rs in other places but it is clean enough and good for late arrival or early departure. There is a restaurant on the premises.

Airport to Fort Kochi – 1,5 hrs by a regular comfortable AC bus, 80 Rs.

Fort Kochi

We stayed in two places in Fort Kochi:

– Lazar Homestay, in a lane off Njaliparambu Junction, 5 min behind Santa Cruz Basilica ,1000 Rs for a very comfortable ensuite double (booking recommended, they were full when we tried to stay there on our way back);

– Beach House, a homestay on, KJ Herschel Rd, opp. Armed Forces Tribunal. Contrary to the name there is a military area between the place and the beach. Next door there is a more visible “Tag und Nacht” sign. Walkable distance from St Francis Church, enter the road turning south at the Old Bristow Hotel and walk some 400 meters. A basic small room was 500 Rs for multiple days, 600 Rs for one day + 100 Rs for late checkout at 5 p.m. A nice balcony with seating area. The owner’s wife cooked us a great dinner – much better and cheaper than in Fort Kochi restaurants, incl. fresh seafood.

Fort Kochi turned out to be a tricky place to change money. There are several moneychanger shops in the touristy central district but some of them offered bad rates. Shop around and compare.

As it was our second visit to Kochi (the first ones was back in 2010), we were rather selective in visiting sights. We took a ferry across the strait to Vypeen with its old Portuguese-style church and went to Ernakulam to look for the less-visited Kadavumbagam synagogue (recognizable by the big sign of “Cochin Blossoms” shop operating on the premises). On the way back we shopped for spices in Mattancherry district.

– rickshaw from Fort Kochi to Ernakulam Junction railway station was 250 Rs

– the airport bus departs from the corner of River Rd and KB Jacob Rd, near the bus stand and opp. Vypeen jetty. There is a sign with bus schedule there. Last afternoon buses: 4 pm, 5.30 pm, 6.15 pm, 7 pm. Takes ca. 2 hrs to the airport, comfortable and AC, 80 Rs.

From Kochi we went to Madurai by overnight train. Tickets booked in advance on Cleartrip.


Accomodation: Hotel Keerthy, walking distance from the train station and to the temple, 1400 Rs for a decent AC double, breakfast included. Clean. Wifi at the reception only, nearby Chentoor had wifi on the roof terrace.

The main sight of Madurai was obviously the famous and truly impressive Meenakshi temple. Entry is free for visitors, no cameras are allowed, only mobile phones. There is a 50 Rs photo fee

From Madurai we did an interesting half-day trip to the nearby town of Tiruparankundram (8 kms, 170 Rs by rickshaw, 9 Rs by local bus). Apart from the main temple in the town centre we climbed a hill with the Sufi mausoleum Sikander Dargah on top of the rock and the Shiva temple somewhat lower on the rock (signposted by a sign in Tamil with a fish).

Madurai to Rameswaram – 4 hrs by passenger train, 35 Rs, tickets bought at the station before departure. Seats are taken on the first come first served basis, so it is a good idea to arrive to the station at least half an hour before departure or even earlier to grab a window seat. The train has toilets, chai, water and snacks are sold at some stations.


Accomodation: Sri Saravana Lodge on Middle Rd, near west temple entrance. 900 Rs non-AC, clean, good restaurant on the premises.

Rameswaram to Trichy – by passenger train, 7 hrs, 55 Rs.

Trichy (Tiruchirappali)

Accomodation: Hotel Ashby, 750 Rs for a standard room (non-AC), 950 Rs for a much better “de-luxe” room. Dilapidated but has some old time charm. Bar (beer 216 Rs), wifi. Walking distance from the train station and central bus stand.

Useful city bus no. 1 linked Trichy central bus stand with the Rock Fort (get off at the big neo-Gothic Lourdes church) and the Srirangam temple complex.

Trichy to Thanjavur – by passenger train, 15 Rs, 1 hr 15 min.


Accomodation: Hotel Yagappa (http://www.hotelyagappa.in/), close to the railway station, 990 Rs for an AC double room, small room but very clean and nice. Bar with beer for 200 Rs.
Thanjavur Palace all-in ticket was 200 Rs + 100 Rs camera fee.

Thanjavur-Chidambaram – by train, sleeper class, 2 hrs, 140 Rs, no problem getting tickets at the station just 1 day in advance.


Accomodation: Hotel Saradharam (http://www.hotelsaradharam.co.in/), opp. bus stand, 1100 Rs non-AC double, incl. breakfast, comfortable room with a balcony. A busy restaurant on the premises and bar upstairs.

Chidambaram – Pondicherry, by bus, 2 hrs, 42 Rs.

Accomodation: after seeing several places in the budget category being quite overpriced, we settled for a bit more upmarket Hotel Park Sun (www.hotelsunparkpondy.com), corner Rangapillai str and Ambour Salai (the border between European and Indian parts of the town), opp. BSNL. Priced 2000 Rs for a very large and comfortable room, 1500 Rs for a smaller one, both very clean. A nice French-themed pastry shop with cafe and croissants on the ground floor.
Rickshaw from the bus stand cost us 100 Rs down from initial ridicilous 300 Rs, but still too much.

Pondicherry – Tiruvannamalai, bus every 30 min or so, 3 hrs, 47 Rs.


Accomodation: Hotel Arunachala (http://www.hotelarunachala.in/), 990 Rs non-AC room, nice and clean, right at the temple entrance, good south Indian veg restaurant on the premises.
An alternative on the main road – Nala Residency, 1200 Rs non-AC room, from 1800 AC room, bar, multi-cuisine non-veg restaurant.

We started hiking up the holy mountain of Arunachala but failed to reach the top. From Skandasraman there are signs “way to top” and a signposted path but it’s hard scramble on the rocks (shoes definitely required, not to be done in sandals). There is a great view of the city and temple after first 50 m or so from Skandasraman.
There is a very nice walk on the slope of Arunachala between Skandasramam cave and the Sri Ramanasram ashram. Further from the ashram the inner Pradakshana (a path circumambulating Mount Arunachala) was sadly closed and no more signposted/accessible. Only the outer Pradakshana along the main road remained accessible at the time of our visit. A good English language guidebook to the Pradakshana was available for 60 Rs at a bookshop right next to Arunachala hotel.

Tiruvannamalai to Mahabalipuram

Tiruvannamalai to Chennai Mofussil bus stand, by bus, ca. 100 Rs, 4 h 15. The bus bypasses Chengalpattu, so reaching Mahabalipuram by getting of earlier would be complicated.
Chennai Mofussil to Mahabalipuram 2 hr 40 Rs. Plenty of departures, any bus marked “ECR” going to Pondy. Drops off at a junction some 1 km from the center of Mahabalipuram.


Accomodation: Bob Marley’s Café, 800 Rs for a simple room with a balcony directly facing the beach.
Beer 250 Rs, seafood mostly 300 Rs up for dish, with catch of the day costing often ca. 1000 Rs for 2 persons (negotiable), annoying hidden extra – 100 Rs for plain rice.
A better place to eat nearby was Luna Magica, straight on the beach, less expensive than other restaurants we tried – beer 200 Rs, seafood portions more generous.

Sea Shore Temple + 5 Rathas – entry 250 Rs (official Archeological Survey of India site).

A remarkable sight near Mahabalipuram is the Madras Crocodile Bank & Herpetology Centre (http://www.madrascrocodilebank.org/) with most species of those cuddly creatures displayed and explained in an informative way. Attached is a place run by local snake catchers’ cooperative displaying venomous snakes used for farming venom for antiserum.
Entry fee 40 Rs. Take any brown bus (green buses don’t stop at the entrance) along the ECR towards Chennai, 12 or 15 Rs.

Mahabalipuram – Chennai
There was much confusion at the Mahabalipuram bus stand. We were informed on buses to Chennai the previous afternoon only to be told that there were “no buses” when we arrived with our luggage on the other day. Presumably it was a deal with rickshaw drivers as one of them was standing just over the guy in the bus enquiry office and offered us a ride to the junction with ECR for 50 Rs.
Finally we gave up, went to the next corner and took a rickshaw to the ECR junction for 20 Rs. A passing bus arrived within 5 min. The bus was going to Koyambedu (40 Rs) but we left at Guindy (some 2 hrs from Mahabalipuram) and took a local train to central Chennai from there.

We got off the train at Park station and first tried to find accomodation near the Chennai Central station. Bad idea, as almost all hotels there were unwilling to take foreigners and the only one willing (Sri Balaji) offered a very dirty non-AC room for 600 Rs. We went to the Egmore area where hotels opposite the bus station were more willing to deal with foreigners. Finally we stayed in Raj Residence in Kennet Lane, opp. Egmore station. It turned out to be a very bad idea. Pretended to be “de luxe”, charging ca. 1300 Rs for standard and 1550 Rs for “executive” room. “Standard” was very dirty, “executive” seemed a bit better and larger, so I talked them down to 1300 Rs for the “executive”.  The bed sheets were dirty and the whole room turned out to be infested by bedbugs. Stay away!

In Chennai we visited Mylapore by suburban train (direction  Velachery, get off at Thirumailar), alternatively bus 21G goes there from Broadway bus stand. The San Thome Cathedral, Kapaliswara Temple and Luz Church are longish walking distance from each other, otherwise bus 12B plies between them.

Chennai – Coonoor
Reached by the night train (Nilgiri Exp) from Chennai to Mettupalayam and the famous Nilgiri toy train from Mettupalayam. We even went as far as Ooty and then back to Coonoor to cover the whole toy train route. Booked tickets much in advanva via Cleartrip.

The first class on the toy train was not much better than the second. If possible, seat on the left side for best views. There was toilet on the toy train but it took several long breaks at small stations to water the locomotive and toilets were available at the stations.

Accomodation: we decided to take something more upmarket and stayed at the Vivek (http://www.hotelvivek.com/), near Bedford Circle. Standard rooms 1300 Rs (hot water only in the morning, no breakfast), de luxe from 2060 Rs (hot water 24 hrs, breakfast included). Very clean and nice.A few of the cheaper de luxe rooms have great views of the town. Good restaurant (mains 200 Rs, including non-veg) and bar attached (beer 200 Rs). 80 Rs by rickshaw from the train station, short walk to the Bedford Circle.

From Coonoor we did a great walk across tea estates, along a motorable road but with not much traffic. From Coonoor to Dolphin Nose via Lamb Rock, ca. 12 km + 2 km detour to Lamb’s Rock. Plenty of beautiful views and great tea plantations all over the way. The best place to enter the plantations and walk among tea fields is at Glendale sale point, some 1 km before Dolphin’s Nose.
The bus back to town does not reach Dolphin Nose but stops at Adderley tea pluckers village some 200 meters earlier. Bus timings back from Dolphin Nose were 3.45 and 5.30 p.m.

We also identified a hike to consider next time: the Droog Fort Trek (Bakasura Malai) – some 13 kms from Coonoor, to the very prominent peak on the opposite side of the access valley, as seen from Lamb’s Rock. Mostly through Nonsuch tea estate.

From Coonoor we took a taxi to Coimbatore Junction (1400 Rs, 2 hrs+, arranged on previous evening at the taxi stand on Bedford Circle) in order to catch our train to Ernakulam (previously booked on Cleartrip) for our flight back from Kochi airport.

South China, July-August 2016 – Guizhou, Guangxi, Fujian


duration: 41 days, incl. 29 days in mainland China

Route: Hong Kong – Guangzhou – Guiyang – Zhenyuan – Kaili – [Congjiang] – Basha – Zhaoxing – [Sanjiang] – Chengyang – Longji Titian – Gulilin – Yangshuo – Xingping – Guangzhou – Xiamen – Kinmen (Taiwan) – Xiamen – Guangzhou – Macau – Hong Kong

Information on HK, Macau and Kinmen is posted in the relevant section.

General information

Visa: unfortunately this time the Chinese embassy in Warsaw did not issue a longer visa even though we requested 45 days and we had to adapt our trip to the maximum stay of 2 x 30 days.

Changing money: we changed some money in advance in Hong Kong’s Chungking and Mirador Mansions. Rates were so good that it was actually a little better to change money from USD to HKD to CNY than a simple USD to CNY change in China.

Once in mainland China, money is changed in banks. Only some branches are allowed to change money and they are usually marked by an English language sign. Many (but not all) bank branches are open on Saturdays and Sundays. Rates are very similar in all banks and they very little from the rates of the Bank of China (see: http://www.boc.cn/sourcedb/whpj/enindex.html). As seen in this table, it is much better to exchange cash in USD than EUR. Exchanging 100 USD costs ca. 5 yuan (ca. 0,75%), while exchanging 100 EUR costs 26 yuan (ca. 3,5%).

Booking train tickets: during our previous trips to China one of the biggest problems was hearing the notorious “mei you” at the train station and having to wait or arrange alternatives. Much has changed in this regard – Chinese train tickets can be now booked on-line from abroad and booking fees are reasonable.

The official Chinese railway booking site is in Chinese only and does not take foreign credit cards, so agencies are needed for booking from abroad. It seems that the most reasonable ones are Travel China Guide (https://www.travelchinaguide.com/china-trains/) and Ctrip (http://english.ctrip.com/trains/). Travel China Guide has a better search engine, showing the availability of tickets for trains, while Ctrip charges lower fees (20 or 30 Y per ticket). The fee paid to Ctrip is converted to “c-money” that can be in theory spent on hotels but in practice when we booked a hotel and paid by “c-money” the hotel refused to honor our payment (presumably they did not receive anything from Ctrip).

Tip: when booking through Ctrip search the trains while not logged in and log in only after you have found your connection. In such way the booking fee will be 20 instead of 30 Y.

After the booking Ctrip issues a confirmation number that needs to be exchanged for the actual ticket at a train station. Any train station in China can do it but stations different from the station of origin charge 5 Y per ticket. Passport and the confirmation number are needed. Allow plenty of time for picking up tickets, as there are always big queues in Chinese railway stations.

One more thing to consider when travelling by train in China – Chinese train stations are huge and crowded. They are organized like airports, with a ticket check (queue) and a security check (another queue) to enter the station and gates to the platform opening 15 minutes before departure.

Useful websites:

https://www.travelchinaguide.com/cityguides/ – for up-to-date practical information on several destinations (getting to and from the railway station, entry fees etc.)

https://travelcathay.com/category/guizhou/; https://travelcathay.com/category/guangxi/ – excellent resource on ethnic villages in Guizhou and Guangxi and on travelling in those regions

 Trip notes:

Hong Kong – Guangzhou: by MTR to Lo Wu (ca 40 HK$), across the border on foot, by train from Shenzhen to Guangzhou Dong (East) 79,5 Y, ca 1 hr
Door to door from our HK guesthouse to Guangzhou hotel it took some 4 hrs.


We stayed in 3 places in Guangzhou during this trip

  1. Yecheng Hotel, near Ximenkou metro, 138 Y for a double (AC), comfortable but a bit worn down. Booked on booking.com. Nice central area with plenty of shops and restaurants nearby. Recommended.
  2. Guangzhou South Station No. 1 hotel (128 Y for a dark room, clean and with AC). We booked this one on booking.com, as we wanted to stay close to Guangzhou Nan (South) train station. It turned out to be a bad idea. The location marker was misplaced on the booking.com map. In fact the hotel is located in a small village-like neighbourhood ca. 1 km south-west from the station, across a small river, with some shops and restaurants nearby. Almost impossible to find by yourself, even the locals did not know the place. The location means it is not very practical to visit central Guangzhou from this place – it is ca. 20 minutes walk to the station (and metro), another 30-40 minutes metro ride to central Guangzhou. Our room was dark, as the only window faced a neighbours wall just 15 centimeters from it. To be recommended only if you plan an late arrival and an early start from Guangzhou South station and want to skip visiting the city completely. The owner gives free ride to and from the station.
  3. Jiamei Hotel, opp. the main mosque, near Gongyuanqian and Ximenkou metro, 178 y onbooking.xom. Very good location, nice clean and comfortable room. Recommended.

Guangzhou Nan (South) to Guiyang Bei (North) – CRH high speed train, 5 hrs, 267,5 Y, booked via Ctrip

Guiyang (alt. over 1000 meters, visibly cooler than most other places)

Accomodation: Guiyang Nande Youkong Youth Hostel, 128 Y for double room, ensuite, no AC. Location within walking distance to some sights and a night market specializing in seafood and crayfish. Washing machine and a rack for drying laundry. The whole hostel was an adapted ground floor apartment in a 1970s block of flats tucked into a small lane (difficult to find). Downside: the place has very poor ventilation, pervasive smell of mould, it was humid and hot in summer. There was no AC and not even a fan in our room. We slept with an open window and it was still far from comfortable. Not recommended.

Guiyang – Zhenyuan – by train, 41 Y, ca. 3 hrs, booked a day in advance at the station

Zhenyuan (alt. 450 m, hot and sticky like HK or Guangzhou)

Accomodation on the main street turned out to be quite pricey – most rooms facing the river were 250 Y or more. Finally we settled for 150 Y for a slightly shabby but large room with balcony over the river, a bit further from the old bridge (AC).

Bus no. 1 links the main street to both train and bus stations.

Entry fees: Qinglong 60 Y (30 Y discount for ITIC card), mountain above the town 30 Y (15 Y with ITIC card)
Zhenyuan – Kaili – tickets were sold also for a fully booked train with standing room only, as it was only 1 hr (15 Y).

Kaili (alt. 650 meters, a bit less hot than Zhenyuan)

Bus no. 2 from the train station into city.

Accomodation: New Mills Inn, (凱里新磨坊連鎖酒店), 26 Yingpan Dong Lu (營盤東路26號) 138 Y for an AC room. In a side lane from Yingpan East Rd but visible from the main road. Good location, walking distance to shops, restaurants and the main bus station on Wenhua Lu. Recommended.

We took a day trip to Miao villages around Langde (郎德) and Leishan. There are buses to Leishan from main bus station on Wenhua Lu every 1hr from 7.20, 8.20 etc. Last bus back from Leishan is at 6.20 p.m. Fare 22 Y. There are also buses directly to Langde 1 hr, 12 Y.
We walked from Langde to the villages of Baode and Nanmeng. The hike would have been great but unfortunately there is a paved road all the way now, so it turned out to be a bit boring even though there was almost no traffic. From Nanmeng we caught a bus to Leishan (10 Y) and from Leishan back to Kaili (22 Y).
Kaili – Congjiang (从江) – bus at 8.20 am from bus station on Wenhua Lu, 138 Y, 4 hrs

Basha (岜沙) (a Miao village near Congjiang, alt. 550 m, hot in summer)

From Congjiang we took a taxi to Basha for 40 Y. Entrance fee of 80 Y is charged at the village gate.
Accomodation in a big guesthouse on the right side of the main road, ca. 100 m after the ticket booth, between it and the main square. 100 Y for double with bathroom (no AC, fan only), great views from the window. Erratic water supply.

Basha was still mostly traditional and only a little touched by mass tourism, unlike many other villages in the area.
For the ride back to Congjiang we took a minibus hanging around the main square (40 Y for the whole car).

Zhaoxing (肇兴) (another Dong village near Zhaoxing, alt. ca. 400 m, hot in summer)

From Congjiang we first took the frequent bus to the Congjiang high speed railway station (gaotie zhan), located some 5 kms from Zhaoxing. Took 1 hr, cost 10 Y. Then a minibus from the railway station to Zhaoxing, 10 Y per person, 5 kms. There is a 100 Y entry fee for Zhaoxing.
Accomodation: we paid 150 Y for a nice AC room in a guesthouse, just behind Zhaoxing Hotel in a lane up to the right from the main street.

Zhaoxing was much bigger and more touristy than Basha, with a big choice of accommodation, shops and restaurants along the main street. Anyway, we found the village still nice and authentic. Somehow it managed to avoid the ‘theme park’ model of development.
We did a nice hike via Xiage to the village of Tangan (alt. 840 m), mostly signposted. 3 hrs one way during a heat wave, through nice traditional villages, forest and rice terraces. There are a few restaurants and places to stay in Tangan.

After Zhaoxing we wanted to get to Sanjiang, for Chengyang, another Dong village already in Guangxi. We hoped we would be able to hop on the high speed train for one stop from Congjiang to Sanjiang South (would take ca. 20 minutes). We took a bus from Zhaoxing to the high speed train station from the parking at the village entrance (8 Y). Unfortunately there were no tickets to Sanjiang for the next day or two and the cashier would not sell us tickets with standing room only, even just for one stop. We had to take a bus back to Congjiang bus station (10 Y). From Congjian to Sanjiang ( 三江) we took another bus (32 Y, 107 km, buses every ca. 40 min, last bus at 17.00 pm). It took 3 hrs of a bumpy ride, with walking across a landslide site and transfer to another bus at the other side. Arrived at Hedong (east) bus station in Sanjiang. There are regular city buses and minibuses to Chengyang from Sanjiang. We took a taxi for 60 Y, as heavy rain was approaching.
Chengyang (程阳) (a cluster of Dong villages near Sanjiang)

Entry fee of 80 Y is charged for the entrance to the most famous wind and rain bridge in Ma’an village, at a ticket booth the entry to the bridge from the Sanjiang road. Easy to avoid just by going to the next bridge along the road, some 100 m upstream. The main bridge can be then entered from the village side with nobody asking for the ticket.

Accomodation: Long Feng guesthouse in Ma’an, one of the first places after crossing the bridge. 100 Y for a nice dbl with AC and views from the window.

Chengyang is a very good area to spend a couple of days doing easy walks between traditional villages, across rice and tea fields, with several nice wind and rain bridges and drum towers. The next village, Yan, is barely 10 minutes walk from Ma’an and there are several other ones beyond it, mostly linked by footpaths avoiding roads with traffic. A useful basic map can be found in a leaflet distributed in guesthouses. There is some development for tourism (including useful signposts and public toilets) but the villages have mostly preserved their authentic character.
From Chengyang we took a minibus to Sanjiang (5 Y) to Hexi (west) station, walked across the bridge to Hedong (east) station and took a bus to Longsheng (龙胜) from there (1,5 hrs, 20 Y, every 30 min or so).

Longji Titian (Longji Rice Terrace)

There are two main villages with accommodation in the Longji Rice Terrace – Ping’an (平安) (alt. 800-850 m) and Dazhai (大寨) (alt. 810 m), with the smaller village of Tiantouzhai (田头寨) (alt. 1000 m) some 40 minutes walk uphill from Dazhai. We wanted to stay in both places and considered walking from Dazhai to Ping’an but finally decided against it to avoid walking with all luggage. Finally we stayed 2 nights in Tiantouzhai and then went by bus to Ping’an where we stayed another night. Both Tiantouzhai/Dazhai and Ping’an have splendid hiking opportunities across rice terraces. The Tiantouzhai/Dazhai area has longer hikes, with a walk around the main viewpoints and villages in the area taking a full day. A circular hike from Ping’an around main viewpoints can be done in leisurely 3 hours or so.

Both Ping’an and Dazhai are linked by frequent buses with both Longsheng and Guilin. We took a bus from Longsheng to Dazhai (30 Y, 2 hrs). Entry fee to the whole Longji Titian area was 95 Y and was charged in a ticket booth at Heping (和平), right after the intersection from the main Longsheng-Guiling road. The entry ticket covers both Ping’an and Dazhai and is checked at the entrances to both villages. There was no problem with presenting the same ticket in Ping’an after 2 days since having it stamped in Dazhai.

In Tiantouzhai (alt. 1000 m) we stayed in a nice place (100 Y double with bathroom, great view, no AC but not needed) in lower part of the village, next building to a youth hostel. Water supply in the village was erratic.

Getting from Dazhai to Pingan involved a change of buses but was very easy. First we took a Longsheng-bound bus from Dazhai (found right on arrival at the Dazhai parking lot), telling the ticket inspector that we wanted to go to Ping’an. She dropped us at the Erlong bridge, where Ping’an road branches off (fare 10 Y). From Erlong bridge we took the first passing minibus to Ping’an (almost no waiting, 10 Y per person).

There were many buses to Guilin from Dazhai parking lot (no need to book in advance), priced at 50 Y. There were also ads of direct buses to Yangshuo for 70 Y.
In Pingan after checking several places which turned out to be quite pricey (300-900 Y for a room) we stayed in Caiyun Hotel in the upper part of the village, for  130 Y, negotiated down from 150 Y. The place was a bit shabby but friendly, room with ensuite bathroom and nice view.

Food was expensive all over Longji Titian, in average double the price of average simple restaurants elsewhere.

When continuing from Ping’an to Guilin we found no direct Gulin bus at the Ping’an parking lot. No problem at all – took a Longsheng-bound bus from Pingan to Heping (10 Y) and the bus ticket inspector arranged for us a transfer to a passing Guilin bus on the road a bit after Heping. Heping to Guilin cost 27 Y, took ca. 2 hrs.


The bus dropped us at Qintan Bus Station out of centre. Autorickshaw from there to the main train station was 15 Y (according to the map, city buses 2 and 12 also ply this route).
There are plenty of inexpensive hotels around the railway station and the main bus station in Guilin. We stayed in Guilin Hotel, directly opposite the train station (128 Y for a large comfortable room with AC).

Great place for street food – a covered market near Zhengyang Jie, just north of the central square on Zhongshan Zhong (Middle) Rd. Just head into the biggest crowd to find it.

From Guilin we took a bus to Yangshou (30 Y, ca. 2 hrs). It seems that the main bus station has a deal with ladies hanging out at front of the train station – they refused to sell us a ticket while the ladies simply put us on the next bus.


Arrived at the main bus station on the western outskirts. A city bus goes to the centre from there.
Accomodation: Hotel Indonesia (Oversea Chinese Hotel) on the waterfront. A nice room (AC, ensuite) with balcony and great view of the river was a non-negotiable 180 Y. Recommended. We asked at several other places nearby and they were either much worse or much more pricey.

From Yangshuo we did the Yulong river walk, taking the bus back from Baisha. The way was easy to figure out with the help of maps.me app.


We moved from Yangshuo to Xingping after 2 days to stay in a less crowded place in the middle of the karst scenery. Travelled by local bus from Yangshuo south bus station, 1 hr, 7 Y.
Accomodation: Xingping This Old Place hostel, booked by booking.com, 150 Y for a nice AC double.

Xingping turned out to be a nice place in a spectacular setting, with a couple of atmospheric old streets and a relaxed feel once the tourist groups left in the afternoon. We liked it much more than Yangshuo. One drawback was mediocre food – in our 3 days in the village we did not manage to find a place which we liked. Everywhere the food was rather bland and geared to one-time visitors.

Xingping is a great base for longer or shorter hikes. We did the Laozhai hill hike, just 40 min from Xingping waterfront. Shoes are advised, as the upper part is pretty rocky and there are a few places with sheer drops. Views are spectacular.

Another short walk was from Dahebei village (across the river from Xinpging, by ferry, 2 Y) to a semi-deserted cave temple at the riverside some 1 hr downstream (maps.me app was useful to find the way).

We also wanted to do the long hike from Xingping to Yangdi along the Li river. Unfortunately we were told this hike was now closed, so we went as far as it was possible. The first part from the 20 Yuan View to the ferry crossing in Lengshui can be now done along a new path all the time along the riverside instead of following the road. Easy and pleasant. The ferry crossing in Lengshui cost 10 yuan. The hike was well accessible and pleasant up to Laocuntou, where there are a few basic restaurants and cold beer. Short time after Laocuntou things got complicated. The path along the river quickly became overgrown and on some places broken by small landslides. It is also completely deserted, we met no other hikers on this stretch. We followed it nevertheless up to the place where it joins a road coming from the village of Yaotou, on a plateau overlooking the valley. We were warned against going further to Quanjiazhou and towards Yangdi by staff at our hostel in Xingping. Apparently there is no ferry at Quanjiazhou and local bamboo boat owners are very unscrupulous, to the point of being dangerous, in demanding extortionate amounts for crossing the river. According to them, this part of the hike should be considered closed for tourists.We turned back to Yaotou then – it had great views but going there up on an asphalt road was quite a slog in the mid-day heat. Going from Yaotou back to Laocuntou was another tricky part, as there is no road, only some paths across fields, orchards and forests, and no signposts at all. We had to turn back 2 or 3 times before we finally found a path descending all the way to the bottom of the valley and reaching the Laocuntou road on the other side.

This website can be used to figure out the topography of the hike but bear in mind that it describes the hike when going all the way to Yangdi was still possible and easy, which is not the fact anymore: http://hiking-area-yangshuo.blogspot.fr/2015/07/yangdi-xingping-trek.html

Xingping is located very close to Yangshuo high speed train station (gao tie zhan) – just 15 minutes by minibus, 5 Y. The minibuses are coordinated with train departures.
From Xingping/Yangshuo station we took a high speed train back to Guangzhou Nan (South) station (2,5 hrs, 117 Y, booked much in advance via Ctrip).

After a night in Guangzhou we continued to Xiamen – by taking the train from Guangzhou Nan to Shenzhen Bei (75 Y, 40 min, booked a day in advance at the station) and then another high speed train from Shenzhen Bei to Xiamen (4 hrs, 154,5 Y, booked in advance via Ctrip). There are more trains to Xiamen Bei (North) station, linked to downtown Xiamen by BRT 1, a fast bus line on elevated road (a 50 minutes ride).


We stayed in Baijiacun Youth Hostel at Nanhua Lu 20, opp. Zhongshan Park (131 Y for the first night, 100 Y for subsequent nights). Bus 96 from Xiamen train station. Good location (walking distance to Zhongshan Lu) but notoriously unreliable. The ladies staffing the reception spoke absolutely no English and were quite difficult to communicate with even using broken Chinese and a translator app. Our first night was booked via Ctrip and pre-paid using Ctrip “c-money”. They refused to acknowledge it and just demanded a payment in cash without contacting Ctrip. Ctrip ignored our complaint e-mail as well. We were promised a price of 100 Y per night for our second stay a couple of days later, so we stayed there again. To our surprise on check-out they demanded 190 or so yuan per night. We refused to pay this amount, showing them a sheet of paper they themselves had written with the agreed price. Finally they had to accept the initially agreed price of 100 yuan but the whole issue left a bad impression. Not recommended.

Xiamen turned out to be a real haven for inexpensive seafood. The best area were side lanes from Zhongshan Lu, with our favourite spot just behind Nanzhan mall, in a lane accessible from Dazhong street. It was also a great place just to walk around and explore, with a lot of nice architecture in the centre, some lively walkable districts between Nanputuo temple and the centre (it was a good idea to walk this distance) and a great linear park converted from a disused railway line a short walk up from Zhongshan park towards the botanical garden.

The biggest disappointment of our Xiamen visit was trying to get to Gulangyu island. The ordinary ferry from central Xiamen (cost 8 Y) is now for local residents only and tickets can be bought only by showing a local ID. Tourists (foreigners and Chinese alike) are sent to the Dongdu international ferry terminal out of the city center (you need to take a bus or taxi to get there) where there are tourist ferries with tickets for 35 and 50 Y. Those ferries sell out – when we finally reached the terminal the nearest free slot was for departure in 1,5 hr. As it was already quite late, in result we dropped our plans to visit the island. Non-locals are allowed to take the ordinary ferry from the center only after 6.30 p.m. but still paying the ‘special’ tourist fare of 35 Y. There is little information in English, so not sure about that. Anyway, as it gets dark at 7 p.m., it’s too late for more than a short walk on the island.

For getting to Kinmen – ferries now depart from the Wutong ferry terminal, near the airport. It is reached by bus no. 6 from Xiamen train station. The bus stop for no. 6 is on Hubin Dong Lu opp. train station, not on the main bus stops on Xiahe Lu. The ferry ticket to Kinmen was 155 Y, the ride took less than 1 hr and departures are very frequent – no need to book in advance.

After a few days in Kinmen (see the Taiwan section) we returned to Xiamen and went to Macau via Guangzhou. First we took the Xiamen Bei to Shenzhen Bei train (booked a few days in advance, 155 Y) and Shenzhen Bei to Guangzhou Nan (75 Y). On the following day we wanted to take a fast train from Guangzhou Nan to Zhuhai Gongbei (for Macau border) but it turned out that trains from Guangzhou Nan were sold out 5 hrs in advance. We took an unofficial shared taxi from the opposite side of the street on the south-eastern side of the station. Going rate was 100 Y per person + a flexible commission for the touts hunting for customers at the station south-eastern entrances. The ride took less than 2 hrs, highway all the way. Probably taking a bus from central Guangzhou bus station would have been a better idea.
See the HK and Macau section for information on the remaining part of the trip.

Indonesia (Java and Bali), July-August 2015

Indonesia (Java and Bali), July-August 2015
route: [by Air Asia from Kuala Lumpur] Yogyakarta – Dieng Plateau – Solo – Gunung Lawu – Solo – Malang – Bromo-Tengger-Semeru NP – Malang – Jember – Banyuwangi – Kawah Ijen – Lovina – Munduk – Sidemen – Ubud – Ngurah Rai Airport [by Air Asia to Kuala Lumpur]

Very useful resource for travel around Indonesia: http://www.travelfish.org/country/indonesia Somewhat out of date but anyway much better than the current edition of the LP guide, especially for finding budget accomodation.

Whenever possible, we travelled by train on Java and our experiences were very positive, much better than when travelling by bus. The train stations are well-organized and much less crowded than bus stations, staff at ticket windows usually spoke some English and were very willing to advise the best option. There are large screens showing ticket availability at each big station. Usually it is enough to book a ticket 1 or 2 days in advance, sometimes there are available tickets right before departure. Tickets can also be bought online on http://en.tiket.com/ (quite user-friendly, in English, accepts international credit cards) but in such case they need to be printed from a special kiosks at any station (booking code needed), no later than 1 hour before departure.

Map: we used the Maps.me application on a GPS-enabled smartphone and it was very useful, showing even small paths in the hills and indicating exact position.


Yogyakarta airport does not offer visa-free entry and exit (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_policy_of_Indonesia for a list of eligible airports and seaports), so we had to buy visas on arrival for $35.
The airport is linked with central Yogya (Malioboro) by Transyogya bus 1a, 3600 Rp (the same bus goes to Prambanan). Transyogya bus routes go in loops, the same bus stop (“halte”) on Malioboro serves both directions.
Accomodation: Losmen Lotus, in Sosrowijayan, in a small lane between Gang 2 and 3, enter the lane opp. Tiffa Losmen. Price 180k Rp, ac, ensuite bathroom, small balcony, basic breakfast included. Nice place.

There are good reliable moneychangers with very good rates in Yogya – Baruman and Mulia in Inna Garuda hotel in Malioboro. Their rates are comparable to best rates obtainable on Bali (see http://www.balibestrate.com/).
Borobudur and Prambanan can be visited on a combined ticket for 375k Rp (listed price is $30, so it is better to pay in Rp). The ticket is valid for visits on two consecutive days (it would be too overwhelming on the same day). This ticket is valid for daytime visits, sunrise is much more expensive (see http://borobudurpark.co.id/ticket-price).
In Prambanan we also visited the Plaosan temples a few kilometers from the main complex. We paid 50k Rp for the becak ride from the entrance to the main complex to Plaosan temples incl. waiting time and back to the bus stop.
For Borobudur we took Transyogya bus 2b from near Tugu station to Jombor bus station (alternatively a taxi would be 40k Rp). It was much easier to come back from Jombor station with bus 2a going directly to Malioboro.
From Jombor to Borobudur the cost was 25/30k Rp by a local bus (overcharged by the conductor, as a comparable distance to Magelang was only 12k Rp). After visiting the main temple we also took a long walk to two other minor temples Candi Pawon and Candi Mendut (the second one has also an an active modern Buddhist monastery nearby). We stayed in Borobudur until ca. 5.30 pm. At that time the Borobudur bus station looked already quite deserted, so we took probably the last bus back to Yogya.

Dieng Plateau

We went to Dieng Plateau by a combination of local buses. The departures were very frequent on the way, we never waited for more than ca. 15 minutes for the next bus. On the downside, the buses were sometimes crowded, always very slow (picking up and dropping passengers every 1km or so) and unreliable – when they decide that they don’t have enough passengers to continue, they would just drop you off, charging only a part of the fare, and you’d need to take another bus going in the same direction.

Yogya: taxi from the Tugu station to Jombor terminal: 40k Rp
Yogya (Jombor) – Magelang: local bus, 1 hr, 12k Rp
Magelang – Wonosobo: local bus, 2,5 hr, 25k Rp, very scenic route
Wonosobo – Dieng: local bus, 15k Rp, 1 hr

In Dieng we stayed in Bu Djono hotel right near the main intersection, 150k Rp for a large but basic double room with bathroom (reliable hot water). The manager gives reliable advice on trekking in the area.
From Dieng we hiked to Gunung Prahu (2565 m). A very nice and easy hike, 2hrs up from Dieng, starting from a side road going sharply up at the end of the village at the exit to Wonosobo. Shortly after the trail passes a school and a cemetery above the village (well recognizable by tall trees). The trail is very well marked by “puncak” signposts. Once on the top it is worthwhile walking along the wide ridge for another 30 minutes or so. Great views of the neighbouring 3000+ volcanoes! Total incl. descent 5 hrs. Before the hike we needed to register and buy entry tickets for 10k Rp in a booth a few steps from Bu Djono (apparently some insurance was included). The tickets were not checked anywhere on the trail. See also: http://www.gunungbagging.com/dieng/
We also did some walks around Dieng, including Kawah Sikidang and Arjuna temples (combined ticket for 25k Rp) and Telaga Warna (no ticket, as we went there in the late afternoon and there was nobody to charge entry fees).

From Dieng we went to Solo, which was possible in 1 day but exhausting. Buses via Wonosobo and Magelang (slow, unreliable, with an additonal change on the way) to Yogya, then a Transyogya bus to the Tugu station and a train to Solo. We wanted to catch a local Prameks or Madiun Jaya train (schedules: http://www.prameks.com/) but finally went with a long distance train for 40k Rp as Prameks was only in 3 hrs and Madiun Jaya was sold out.

We stayed in Cakra Homestay, an incredibly atmospheric place, a large compound full of artefacts, with a nice inside garden, looking like straight out of a nostalgic film set in a tropical outpost in 1920s. They also have a nice pool which was a life-saver after an exhausting hike to Gunung Lawu. Price 200k Rp for a basic AC room (ensuite bathroom, seating area with a nice view at front) with symbolic breakfast. On the downside, the staff was not reliable – we asked them to book a taxi in order to reach a morning train and finally they told us that there were no taxis available. Luckily we planned enough spare time to reach the station by becak.

Gunung Lawu (3260 m)

We used Solo as a base for a 2-day hike to Gunung Lawu, staying overnight near the summit.
First we went from Solo (Tirtonadi Terminal) to Tawangmangu by local bus: 1,5 hr, 15k Rp. From Tawangmanggu we went to the trailhead in Cemoro Sewu by chartered minibus for 80k Rp. Started from the Cakra Homestay in Solo at 8.30 a.m. and started hiking at 11.30 a.m.
The steep hike from Cemoro Sewu (ca. 1900 m) to the warung Mbok Yem (ca. 3150 m) in Argo Dalem area near the top took 5 hrs. Very well defined path, paved with stones. There is another warung some 300 meters before Mbok Yem on almost the same altitude, when the trail reaches the summit area. Both offer very basic accommodation (just a place on the floor with sleeping mats, free of charge) and simple meals and drinks. The place was not heated and it was very cold at night – the temperature was just a few degrees above freezing. There are also a few bigger buildings in Argo Dalem but they were either locked or totally deserted, so they are presumably only used for major pilgrimages.

In the morning we went up to the top (3260 m) for the sunrise, then returned to the warung for coffee and started the descent via an alternative trail, first crossing the northern side of the summit area westwards and then turning south-west and down to Cemoro Kandang. This trail had much better views than the ascent trail from Cemoro Sewu. It was well-defined but very dusty (a face mask would be a good idea) and must be extremely slippery in wet weather. The descent to the road at Cemoro Kandang took 5 hrs. After a lunch at a roadside warung we hitched a ride from local guys on motorbikes back to Tawangmangu, then took a bus back to Solo.

See also: http://www.gunungbagging.com/lawu/

Solo to Malang – 7 hrs by Malioboro Ekspres train, ticket bought 3 days in advance via http://en.tiket.com/  (we needed then to print it out from a kiosk at the station). Price 210k Rp for eksekutif class.

We found Malang to be a very nice city to spend some time – walkable and peaceful, very pleasant climate, with some nice places to explore including a pet market and a large Chinese temple complex. We stayed in two places:

Hotel Emma, on the main street opposite the train station, some 200 m northwards. Price 175k Rp for a double room, ensuite bathroom, no AC. Quite average.

Hotel Helios, on Jln Pattimura, some 10 min walk from the train station. Very nice room for 250k Rp, AC, breakfast included. On the roof there is a hostel and a bar – nice for beers, average for food.

Bromo – Tengger – Semeru area

We wanted to skip the typical Bromo tour experience including access from Probolinggo (famous for bus station scams), short sleep at an overpriced hotel in Cemoro Lawang and a very crowded sunrise from Penanjakan. After some reading we decided to spend 3 days in the area and access it from Malang via Ngadas on the south western slope of the Tengger caldera. Our plan was successful, albeit with some adventures. The Maps.me application was excellent for navigating the area by ourselves.

Day 1: In order to save time in the morning we decided to catch a taxi from Malang to Ngadas and ask the driver to go by the meter (the cost is 3600 Rp per 1 km). That was an error, as no taxi would go beyond  Gubukklakah – the road is simply too steep for sedan cars. To make matters worse, the taxi driver lost his way and dropped us in Poncokusumo in result, a village on a road parallel to Gubugklakah (we duly paid 110k Rp according to the meter). In Poncokusumo we negotiated with local ojek drivers who agreed to take us to Ngadas for 150k Rp for two ojeks (75k for one). They first took a nice back road between Poncokusumo and Gubukklakah and then continued along a spectacular steep road to Ngadas. The road was so steep that we needed to walk along the motorbike for a few steepest parts.  All this odyssey took us almost 3 hrs – started from Malang at 8.30 am, started walking from Ngadas at 11.10 am.

Alternatively, there are angkots (minibuses) to Tumpang and then onwards to Gubukklakah, but most probably no public transport to Ngadas.
Some 3-4 kms below Ngadas there is a ticket booth on the main road. Entry ticket to the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park for foreigners was a steep 217.500 Rp on weekdays, 317.500 Rp during weekend. The ticket said it was valid for one day only but according to some reports on the internet its validity is 3 days. Just in case we managed to avoid ticket booths on subsequent days.

[A warning to visitors visiting the Bromo area from the main access point in Cemoro Lawang – there were many reports that local guides in Cemoro Lawang were issuing some bogus slips of paper or fake receipts instead of real tickets, pocketing the money. This happened especially to people taking jeep rides to Mt Penanjakan for the sunrise. A genuine ticket has a series and a sequential number and is printed, not written by hand. Just refuse to pay as long as you don’t get a real ticket. It also seemed that in Cemoro Lawang nobody seemed too interested in selling or checking tickets of daytime visitors, concentrating on the sunrise crowd. There are also many paths into the Tengger crater and towards Bromo which avoid the ticket booth located just at the main road in upper part of Cemoro Lawang.]

From Ngadas (alt. 2100 m) we hiked to Jemplang (2350 m) on the rim of the large Tengger caldera in 45 min, some 2.5 kms on an asphalt road with some traffic. In Jemplang the road branches off – right to Ranu Pani, starting point of the hike to Gunung Semeru, left and down into the Tengger caldera and across the “Savannah” and then the Pasir Laut (Sea of Sands) to Bromo and Cemoro Lawang. [WARNING: there were big signs that the road between Jemplang and Bromo would be closed for reconstruction from mid-August to December 2015]
From Jemplang it took us 4 hrs to reach Cemoro Lawang (2200 m), hiking via the bottom of the Tengger caldera, named first “Savannah”, then Pasir Laut (alt. ca. 2100 m), including a visit to the Poten (Hindu temple under Bromo) but leaving Bromo crater for the next day. The walk was extremely dusty, face masks were very useful. Most parts of it were sand tracks rather than a proper road, passable to motorbikes and jeeps.
In Cemoro Lawang there were plenty of homestays of varying price and quality. After seeing a few places (easy to walk around, the village is small) we found a nice clean place for 150k Rp (large room, hot water, bathroom inside). There is definitely no need to stay at the overpriced Cafe Lava, no matter what the LP guidebook says. There are also a few places to eat with reasonable prices and acceptable food – we had a good dinner at a warung in the large building on the main road short distance up from Cafe Lava.

Day 2: We decided to skip the crowded sunrise jeep ride, slept until 7 am, had breakfast in the village and started hiking towards the Penanjakan viewpoint at 8 am. From Cemoro Lawang first we took a gently ascending village road going broadly parallel to the crater rim which eventually turned into a steep path. It took 2 hrs to reach the viewpoint near the summit (some 2700 m). Our plan was to continue descending to the other (western) side of Penanjakan and descend into the Tengger caldera from there,  crossing Pasir Laut towards Bromo.  We hiked only as far as the junction with the Wonokitiri road (ca. 2400 m). Seeing strong wind whipping up clouds of dust in Pasir Laut, we decided to take an ojek from the junction to Poten (Hindu temple under Bromo), paid 75k Rp per motorbike. We visited Bromo (a climb of ca 150-200 m up along stairs, up to ca. 2300 m) and then took another ojek ride across the Pasir Laut to Savannah for 50k.

From Savannah we wanted to check out an old path up to the Tengger crater rim, joining the road from Jemplang to Ranu Pani at the top. The path is shown on maps.me but it is overgrown and barely recognizable in the lower part. It starts near a visible group of trees, becomes very visible in the steeper part where the path is carved into the slope. Anyway, it is overgrown with tall grass all the time, so it may be unsafe if there are poisonous snakes in the area. Starts at ca. 2150 m, goes up to ca. 2500 m on the crater rim.

From the crater rim there were some 3-4 kms down along the road to Ranu Pani. The upper part of the village has no accommodation. The lower part located at the lake (ca. 2100 m) has Pak Tasrip homestay (170k Rp for a basic dbl room, shared bathroom, hot water, nasi goreng for breakfast included) and all tourist infrastructure at the Semeru trailhead. There are some shops with trekking gear, “base camp”, places for renting tents and sleeping bags. A guide to Semeru can be hired for 500k Rp according to Tasrip.

Day 3: We hiked to Ranu Kumbolo, the first part of the trail to Gunung Semeru. Took us 3hrs 15 min there and 2 hr 30 back. It was a very nice hike across a primordial-looking forest, with some spectacular views of the puffing Mount Semeru. No steep ascents, from ca. 2100 m to a pass on 2500 m and down to Ranu Kumbolo lake at ca. 2400 m, with a distance of 10,5 km or 13 km (according to various signs).

After the hike we managed to get to Malang in the same day. From Ranu Pani we took ojek to Tumpang (150k Rp per motorcycle, 1hr 10 min ride). From Tumpang we took angkot to Arjosari bus station and another angkot from Arjosari to central Malang. Altogether we started the Ranu Kumbolo hike at 8 am and arrived to Helios hotel in Malang at 5.30 pm, with some hurry (skipped lunch) and a dose of luck, as we did not wait for transport.

Malang to Banyuwangi

From Malang we first went to Jember by train (Tawang Alun 210, 65k Rp for ekonomi class ticket, dep. 15.45, arr. 20.32). The same train goes on to Banyuwangi (arr. 23.30).
In Jember we stayed a night in hotel Ria near Matahari Department Store. The choice was between 198k Rp “executive room” which was acceptable, and somewhat cheaper but much worse run-down “deluxe” and “superior” rooms.

Jember – Banyuwangi: Mutiara Siang train, 65k Rp for bisnis class, dep. 13.00, arr. 15.30. A very scenic ride, taking a daytime train was a good choice.

Kawah Ijen
In Banyuwangi we stayed in Permata Indah Permai hotel (77k Rp for a basic but clean room, bathroom, no AC). The hotel is located on the main road between Banyuwangi and B. Baru train station, literally in the middle of nowhere. It was extremely noisy during the night as traffic noise resonates all around the building. Taxi from the station was 25k Rp. There is a simple restaurant and a shop on the hotel premises. We went for a short walk along the main road and soon found a simple roadside warung some 100 m in the direction of Banyuwangi, on the opposite side of the road, serving delicious crab (40k for a big serving).
We chose Permata Indah Permai just because the owner arranges shared car trips to Kawah Ijen for 150k per person. Add 100k Rp for entry ticket (150k on weekends and holiday) and that’s the total cost of Ijen visit.
The jeep left the hotel at 1 a.m., allowing us to see the famous “blue fires” in the crater while still in the dark. The way from Paltuding (where the car stops) to the crater rim and down to the crater is very obvious. Then we had plenty of time for seeing the crater after sunrise or seeing the sunrise from the crater rim. On the way back short visits to a coffee and rubber plantation and a waterfall were included. We were back at the hotel before 10 a.m., allowing us to take a shower and short nap before checking out at 12 noon and proceeding to Bali by ferry.
There are a couple of other places to stay nearby (within walking distance) which may be of a better standard. Visitors staying in other hotels can still use Permata Indah Permai for the Kawah Ijen trip – one person in our jeep stayed in a more upmarket hotel in a city center.

To Bali

We took a bemo from the hotel to the Ketapang ferry terminal for 15 k for 2 persons. Ferries to Bali are very frequent. Cost 7500 Rp, 1 hr.
On the Bali side the bus station in Gilimanuk is located right next to the exit from the ferry terminal. Unfortunately the Gilimanuk bus station was infested by annoying scammers. When we entered the bus to Singaraja (for Lovina), two of them went straight to us and demanded 55k, then 50k per person. We refused to pay, as the scam was obvious – they did not ask any local passengers to pay. They insisted that we leave the bus but we simply ignored them. I asked a local passenger for the correct price in broken Indonesian and he told me that it would be 30k. Finally we paid to the conductor once the bus was underway and he collected fares from all passengers. The conductor demanded 40k per person, probably also overcharging us.

In Lovina we stayed in the central Kalibukbuk area in Puri Bali hotel (http://www.puribalilovina.com/), a very nice place located in a large compound with a beautiful garden, with a small swimming pool. The rack rate of 350k Rp for AC room with balcony (breakfast included) was very easily discounted to 800k Rp for 3 nights. The place was maybe 5 minutes walk to the beach but the beach was not so great – the water was a bit murky and some places in shallow water were muddy.

The best place to eat by all accounts was Warung Ayu, on the street between Puri Bali hotel and the beach. Great local food, fresh grilled fish and cold beers for very reasonable price. The place is small, so it can get full. In such case it is worth waiting for a free table!

We had to change money in Lovina. All moneychangers there are small places operating in shops or hotels, not inspiring much confidence. After asking on Tripadvisor forum, we used Tip Top, a shop on the main street near the ATMs – the rate was decent and the transaction was honest.

Lovina to Munduk

We hired a car with a driver for a full day to combine getting to Munduk, our next destination, with some sightseeing. We booked it for 600k Rp in an office near the dolphin statue.

Entry fees:
Pura Beji in Sangsit: 10k Rp
Pura Ulu Bratan: 30k Rp
Pura Batukaru: 20k Rp
Jatiluweh village: 20k Rp per person, 5k for car
Parking at temples was usually 5k
In Jatiluweh we found a dish definitely worth trying for carnivores: babi guling, assorted pork meat.


Contrary to what can be found on the internet, there is plenty of inexpensive accommodation in Munduk. The central area of the village is quite compact, so it is easy to walk around and look. We stayed in Taman Ayu homestay, paid 200k Rp for a very nice room with balcony with a spectacular view (breakfast included). They also have a good warung with inexpensive dishes, on a terrace upstairs with views. The location is very good for hiking, as it is right on the starting point of the trail to the waterfalls, overlooking nice coffee and cloves plantation. The owner gave us a hand-drawn map of the trails. They were also shown in detail on maps.me, so the hike was perfectly possible without a guide.

After Munduk we went straight to Sidemen, hiring the same driver for the day for 600k Rp.


Sidemen is a more upmarket destination, as there is virtually no cheap accommodation in the village. From what we have seen there might be just one or two basic places in the centre of the village. All other places charge at least 350k Rp for a double room.

We stayed in Embang Homestay, paying 350k Rp for a very nice bamboo cottage with almost de-luxe facilities and breakfast.
We took a round walk to the temple on the top of the hill opposite Sidemen, than along the hill to the southern side and down back to Sidemen. A full loop took 7 hrs. Jero from Embang Homestay gave us a basic hand-drawn map. Together with maps.me it was enough for orientation.

From Sidemen we went to Ubud by a shuttle minibus for 95k Rp per person.

We stayed in Ubud Tude Family Homestay located in Gang Menda off Jalan Sugriwa. Price 200k Rp with breakfast, no AC (but not needed).

Ubud has some reliable places to change money with very good rates. We used Dirgahayu Valuta Prima (http://www.balibestrate.com/).

We can recommend two places with excellent food: Warung Dicarik in the ricefields, some 20 minutes walk from the Ubud palace (follow the signpost to the ricefields from the main road ca. 200 meters to the east from the Ubud palace) and Warung Laba Laba on Jalan Hanoman.

We made several walks nearby Ubud in nice landscapes of rice paddies and villages.

One walk that I have to warn against is the Penestanan and Sayan walk, described in the LP Bali & Lombok guidebook. Some seedy would-be-guides started harassing us as soon as we started descending to Sungai Ayung valley from near the Sayan Terrace hotel. They demanded 100k Rp per person. After some time we got rid of them, refusing to pay anything but then we realised that the path along Sungai Ayung has been obstructed in several places by locals putting up improvised gates and extorting money for letting us pass through them. They all started from 50k Rp per person but each time they finally settled for 10k after some unfriendly negotiation. They all had large sickles or machetes – maybe local farming tools but they definitely used them for the threatening effect. It all looked quite uneasy and I wonder whether they would soon resort to mugging tourists passing along the path. Furthermore, the path was very narrow and slippery in places, with several places where falling several meters into the river was quite possible.

Ubud was our last place in Indonesia. From Ubud we took a taxi to the Ngurah Rai International Airport for 300.000 Rp. Took 2 hrs in heavy traffic even though we skipped the worst part of it by giving the driver additional 10.000 Rp and asking him to take the toll road to avoid the most congested part near Kuta. Alternatively, there is also an airport shuttle from Ubud for 60.000 Rp per person. Plan at least 3 hrs, possibly even more, if it does not take the toll road.

São Miguel, Azores, February 2015

A week stay on the island.


Currently only TAP Portugal and SATA airlines serve Ponta Delgada airport. We managed to get tickets from Lisbon for the cheapest fare possible at ca. 90 euros for return flight. This situation will change very soon, as both Easyjet (from Lisbon) and Ryanair (from Lisbon, Porto and London Stansted) will start flying to Ponta Delgada from April 2015.

Getting from and to the airport

Taxi ride between the airport and anywhere within Ponta Delgada costs a fixed 10 euros. There is also an aerobus, cost 5 euros per person, return included.


We stayed in Ponta Delgada in Residencial Sete Cidades (http://residencialsetecidades.blogspot.com/), booked via booking.com. Their walk-in prices are rather on the expensive side but on booking.com we easily found a deal for ca. 32 euros per night for a double room with bathroom, breakfast included. The guesthouse is simple but has anything to make it a good base to exploring the island – clean and comfortable room, friendly service, quite good breakfast, good location (in the centre, yet easy to drive out of central Ponta Delgada), free parking with plenty of space, free wi-fi. Very recommended.

An alternative place in similar price range: http://www.residencialsaomiguel.com/. There are also several others on booking.com.



In difference to previously visited “Triângulo” islands (Faial, Pico and São Jorge, see below), São Miguel has a much better bus system that can be used to explore the island with some degree of patience. Scheme and schedules are available here: http://www.smigueltransportes.com/. However, it would require a very early start each day, long commutes (some bus rides take 2 hrs, while by car it is possible to get almost anywhere on the island in less than an hour from Ponta Delgada), and possibly long wait for the infrequent buses back. There is no bus to anywhere near Lagoa de Fogo, in my opinion the most spectacular place on the island. We opted for a rented car, like on other islands.

Car rental

We rented a car from Flor do Norte, a small local agency in Ponta Delgada (http://www.flordonorte-rentacar.com/). Recommended. Cheap price (we got our car for 20 euros per day, cheapest category, off-season), fair fuel policy (full to full), no hidden charges, no dirty tricks with alleged damage etc. that make renting a car in continental Portugal or Spain so annoying. Easy booking by e-mail, friendly service.

Their office is just behind the corner from Residencial Sete Cidades but they can also deliver the car to the airport at no additional charge.


Before opting for an Azores trip in February we were aware that it could be a hit or miss with the weather, as winter is the most rainy season on the islands. However, we were apparently lucky. From our seven days on the island it rained much only on one day but even then it was not raining all the time and the northern side near Ribeira Grande was better than the southern side. It was OK to skip hiking for one day and just to drive around and visit villages and towns. Another day with intermittent rain was just enough to visit Ponta Delgada. The remaining 5 days the weather ranged from good to fabulous, with perfect views, clear air, plenty of sunshine and mild temperature of ca. 16 degrees Celsius.


We used the same map and guidebook that during previous trip to Faial, Pico and São Jorge – see below. In addition, we found the free map from the tourist information office (available from guesthouse reception) useful – not for the map of the whole island but for plans of Ponta Delgada and other towns. We have also used the MAPS.ME smartphone application and it was very helpful – it’s basically a more basic clone of Google Maps but the big advantage is that it works off-line.

Places to see – a few recommendations

The most spectacular sight of São Miguel are the “lagoas”, big or smaller crater lakes scattered around the island. In our opinion the best one was Lagoa de Fogo. There are several “miradouros” (viewing points) on the road above it, so it can be seen also without hiking. The best experience is hiking down from the lowest miradouro to the lake and then along the shore almost to the other side. The landscape seems sometimes like tundra somewhere in polar areas, sometimes like scenery to “Jurassic Park” (minus dinosaurs).

The most famous lagoa is Lagoa de Sete Cidades. We did not do the hike around it along the crater rim – it is possible but requires walking some parts along roads. What we can recommend is the less-known viewpoint near Lagoa do Canario, from the side of road from Ponta Delgada. It offers a view of the crater rim with the lake below and the ocean above, just a small round bagel of land lost in endless water. The miradouro is a 1-2 kms walk from the main road. The approach road is also accessible by car but the gate is closed at 4 or 5 p.m. (exact hour on the warning sign).

We also did a nice hike between smaller lagoas in the Serra Devassa, near the road between Ponta Delgada and Sete Cidades. There is a marked trail there for a circular hike.

A somewhat less expected upside of our São Miguel trip were the “fajãs”, small flat areas on the seaside under the cliffs, with semi-deserted villages, accessible usually only by a walking path down the cliffs. They were less spectacular than the more famous fajãs of São Jorge but nevertheless made very nice half-day hikes. We can recommend especially two fajãs:

–  Rocha da Relva, accessible from Relva or from a miradouro further up the main road. Relva is quite close to Ponta Delgada, just behind the airport, and this trip should be very easy also by bus from Ponta Delgada.

– even better – Fajã do Araujo and Praia do Lombo Gordo, accessible from Pedreira near Nordeste on the easternmost part of the island. Spectacular views, rather secluded place in February – we had the whole beach to ourselves and it was warm enough for a quick dip in the ocean.

A recommended website for hiking in Azores (all islands): http://trails.visitazores.com/en. It shows official hiking trails, with maps and descriptions. Note: there are many more nice hikes beyond official trails, so a good map and a guidebook with some hiking ideas (see below) is very useful as well.

Israel, January 2015


A short trip limited to Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, with day trips to Akko and Bethlehem.

Getting to/from the airport

To Tel Aviv – by train (http://www.rail.co.il/EN/Pages/HomePage.aspx), running even at nighttime at least once every hour (except Shabbat). Price 16 shekels.

To Jerusalem – the cheapest option is by Egged bus (http://www.egged.co.il/HomePage.aspx) but it includes a change of buses at an interchange close to the airport, with possibly long waiting time. Alternatively, Nesher shuttle service (http://www.neshertours.co.il/taxis-from-ben-gurion) costs 64 shekels per person and should be booked a day in advance for trips from Jerusalem.

Because of strict security it is important to be at the airport at least 3 hours before departure.

Changing money

There are many moneychangers offering very good rates for EUR and USD in central Tel Aviv (e.g. Ben Yehuda St) and along Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. Those in Jerusalem Old City are in general less trustworthy.

In smaller places cash can be always changed at the post office. Exchange rates are not so great – see here for current ones: http://www.israelpost.co.il/postcurrency.nsf/WebDisplay/$First?opendocument&l=EN


Accommodation in Israel starts from relatively expensive and gets to more expensive :). Anything under $100 for double room with bathroom is considered cheap. Prices are usually quoted in US dollars but then charged in Israeli shekels. It is recommended to ask the hotel for the exchange rate applied for currency conversion before taking the final decision, as sometimes the rate is inflated. In our case the places in Tel Aviv and Haifa where we stayed used a fair market exchange rate but the place in Jerusalem, which otherwise gets very good reviews, overcharged us by ca. 2,5% by applying an inflated exchange rate.

Tel Aviv – Hotel Lenis (http://www.hotellenis.com/, bookable also on booking.com), on Allenby St, near the corner with Ben Yehuda St, $79 for a clean and comfortable room with ensuite bathroom, even if a bit small. Very good location in an interesting part of the city, close to the beach and within a walking distance (quite long) even to Jaffa. Nice terrace on the roof. Recommended.

Haifa – Puah Street Studios on Puah St, $65 for a self-catering studio with a kitchenette and a bathroom. Bookable on booking.com. Close to Bahai Gardens, within walking distance (but uphill) from the German Colony and Wadi Nisnas.  It is linked by direct bus line to both train and bus stations. With a bit of effort walkable from Haifa HaShmona train station but uphill! The friendly owner gives very detailed and helpful information for anything you may need while in Haifa. Recommended.

Jerusalem. In my opinion it makes best sense to stay in West Jerusalem somewhere along Jaffa Road, for example near the Machane Yehuda market. The area is very well-connected by the Jerusalem Light Rail and still within easy walking distance to the Old City. The Old City itself gets all but deserted after dark, so going out after evening may be not very pleasant experience.

For staying in East Jerusalem, the area immediately north of Damascus Gate (Nablus Road, Salah-ed-Din St) seems the best location. Easy walking distance to the Old City and to West Jerusalem and well connected by transport. I would not recommend hotels on the Mt of Olives, even if on the map it seems very close to the Old City. The area has some safety issues, especially after dark, and the walk from the Old City is steep uphill through a deserted area.

We stayed in Eliyahu Mani studio by Allenby2 B&B (http://www.dahliaandnirbnb.com/, bookable by booking.com), $85 (+2,5% on inflated exchange rate) for a self-catering studio with a kitchenette and a bathroom. Great location very close to the Machane Yehuda market and still within walking distance (ca. 20 minutes) to the Old City. Breakfast included, served in the main building at Allenby 2 (some 10 minutes walk).

Some links to alternative budget accommodation in Jerusalem (not checked personally):

http://hotelnoga.com/ , West Jerusalem, close to Machane Yehuda, 260 shekels for double room when I asked in autumn 2014.

http://www.kaplan-hotel.com/, Jaffa Road, 60 euros for double room when I asked in autumn 2014.

– http://www.citadelyouthhostel.com/, a hostel in the Old City, short walk from the Jaffa Gate.


Israel has good public transport, reasonably priced compared to otherwise high price level, with information on schedules and prices easily available on the internet. Almost all public transport stops running on Shabbat (before sunset on Friday until after sunset on Saturday). An exception is city transport in Haifa, sheruts and Arab buses.

An aggregate transport website: http://www.bus.co.il/otobusimmvc/en

Railway (http://www.rail.co.il/EN/Pages/HomePage.aspx) is very useful for travel between Tel Aviv, Haifa, Akko (and further north to Nahariya) and Ben Gurion Airport. Free wi-fi is provided in trains and in stations. Almost useless to Jerusalem, as it uses an old track, the trip takes much longer than bus and the train station in Jerusalem is quite far from the centre. Exception: in rare case of snow, when roads between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are closed for traffic, railway may be the only transport connection between Jerusalem and the rest of the country. In such case additional trains are provided.

Buses – there are several companies, but Egged (http://www.egged.co.il/HomePage.aspx) has the biggest network and most connections. Free wi-fi is provided in buses and in stations.

Sheruts – shared minibuses, running on fixed routes but not according to fixed schedules. Sometimes the only option during the Shabbat.

Car rental – we did not use it but Eldan (http://www.eldan.co.il/en/index.aspx) gets good reviews and seems reasonable priced.

City transport costs 6.90 shekels per ride in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Tickets can be bought on the bus, exact change is not required. For Jerusalem light rail there are ticket machines at each stop.

Map of Tel Aviv bus routes: http://telaviv.busmappa.com/p/bus-map.html and schedule: http://dan.co.il/english/schedule/default.asp?adsCatId=-9.  Strangely, the only printable version of the map is available in Russian: http://www.dan.co.il/russian/Download/ru.pdf

Food and drinks

Israel is an expensive country, so expect Western European prices, more like in the UK and France than in Germany. The cheapest fast food is usually falafel, for 15-20 shekels. Some more elaborate fast food will set you back ca. 30 shekels. Anyway, even simple street food is usually delicious and something definitely different from the usual globalized fare. For carnivores: try meorav yerulashmi (Jerusalem mixed grill). A meal in a sit down restaurant with a drink will be at least 120-150 shekels for two persons.

Beer costs 10-15 shekels per 0,5 l in a shop. In a bar or restaurant it costs anything from 15 shekels (often for 0,3 l) up, quite often in the 30 shekels range for 0,5 l. The most common Goldstar is very pleasant and the Palestinian Taybeh beer (available in East Jerusalem and the West Bank) is also decent.

On the other hand, very decent wines can be bought for 25-35 shekels per bottle in a shop. Our favourite reds in this price range were Shell Segal and Derech Eretz.

Some visiting tips

Haifa – consider walking some parts of the Haifa trail (http://www.haifatrail.com/haifa-trail-main-eng.htm). Most of it is not yet signposted in the terrain but good maps are available free of charge in the main tourist information office in the German Colony district.

Akko – a nice day trip from Haifa. We had a choice between Friday and Saturday, opted for Friday and it was a good choice. The bazaar was mostly open and it was also possible to visit the main mosque (entry 10 shekels) after the prayers ended.

See here for hours and price of most sights in Akko: http://www.akko.org.il/en/Old-Acre-Visiting-Hours

In addition to the usual sights in the old city, we also visited the Or Torah Tunisian Synagogue and would definitely recommend seeing its mosaics. Apparently it is not open all the time but there was a group of visitors there, so we luckily managed to visit without any appointment. It is located a very short walk from the entrance to the old town, in a side street named Kaplan Street.

Transport – Friday morning by train, 16 shekels. On our way back on Friday evening trains did not run because of Shabbat, so we took a sherut that departed almost at once with only 4 passengers, cost 14 shekels. The sherut dropped us in Hadar district of Haifa.

Jerusalem – a decent city map can be obtained free of charge from the tourist office at the Jaffa Gate. They also have a very useful flyer listing opening hours of most religious sites in Jerusalem – definitely recommended, as the hours can vary wildly and are sometimes quite erratic.

Bethlehem – a day trip from Jerusalem into Palestinian Autonomy. We got to Bethlehem by taking bus 21 from the Damascus Gate bus station in Jerusalem. Price 8 shekels, the bus passed a highway checkpoint without any control and dropped us in Beit Jalla, some 20 minutes walk to the center of Bethlehem.

As we wanted to see the “separation wall”, we chose to go back by another checkpoint. Walked some 40 minutes to the end of the Manger Street. The street reaches a gap in the wall with Israeli soldiers visible on the other side but this is NOT the actual pedestrian checkpoint which is located up a side street to the left. We were directed to the correct entrance by friendly locals. There were a lot of heavily armed Palestinian policemen near the checkpoint, much less Israeli soldiers on the other side – in fact it looked almost deserted in the afternoon.

From the Israeli side of the checkpoint, bus 24 took us back to central Jerusalem for 5,50 shekels.

Both buses 21 and 24 are very frequent – we simply hopped on the waiting bus and it started right afterwards.

Azores / Açores / Azory, May 2014

Faial, Pico and São Jorge


Map: 1: 50.000 Freytag & Berndt, also sold in Portugal by „Turinta” ed., basically a road map but good enough for hiking, even if trail markings were not always taken into account

Guidebook: „Azoren” by Michael Bussmann, Micha­el Mül­ler Ver­lag, http://www.michael-mueller-verlag.de/de/reisefuehrer/portugal/azoren/index.html. A very good, informative guidebook, including hike descriptions for every island. The only drawback – you need to read German to use it 🙂

A very informative website on Azores (but for German speakers too) is http://www.azoren-online.com/. it is especially useful for finding cheaper private accommodation (under “Unterkunft” for each island). Warning: some information, including bus schedules, is out of date.



Horta: Casa Buganvilias (no sign on the house), http://msvieira.no.sapo.pt/, private rooms for rent in a new part of the town, 5 minutes walk to Porto Pim, a lot of free parking space, 40 minutes walk to the ferry terminal. 25 euros for a comfortable double room, fridge, shared bathroom (but we were only guests in the house). No wi-fi.

Lajes do Pico: Apartamento Lajes, found on booking.com. No sign on the house, in the same building as a driving school. A fully equipped apartment (kitchen, fridge, bathroom, access to washing machine), 35 euros per day. Located in a very center of Lajes, across the corner from whale watching agencies. Free parking ca. 50 meters away in near the port. No wi-fi but the city authorities provide wi-fi in some locations nearby. Note: in order to book I had to send a bank transfer with part of the price, which might be difficult for visitors from outside the EU.

São Roque: Sportfish.pt, found on booking.com. A large comfortable bedroom with bathroom in a vacation home (access to common part with fully furnished kitchen and a swimming pool), 30 euros. Wi-fi and free parking. Located in a side street near Oasis car rental office (handy for returning the car) close to the road towards Lajes. Some 20 minutes walk to the port but the owner kindly gave us a lift for the morning ferry.

Velas – Hospedaria Australia (http://www.acores.com/australia/), Rua Drº Teófilo Braga, in the very center, no parking. A traditional  basic guesthouse. 35 euros for a room with bathroom (no hot water in one room, low pressure in another), modest breakfast in an attached snack bar included. Free wi-fi.



Getting there: we took a flight from Lisbon. Only two companies fly to the Azores from Lisbon – TAP and SATA. At the time of booking our tickets TAP had very rare special offers priced below 100 euros for return flights, with very limited dates. Otherwise their prices started from 150 euros. SATA had prices starting from 120 euros, with much larger choice of dates. Cheaper flights were available to Horta (Faial), Ponta Delgada (São Miguel) and Terceira, flights to other islands were much more expensive. Finally we bought a ticket to Horta for 128 euros by SATA. Taxi from the Horta airport to the town was 12,50 euros.

Between the islands: Faial has the advantage of being one of the “Triangulo”, three islands linked by regular and relatively inexpensive ferry link by Transmacor (http://www.transmacor.pt/). Their website is not easy to navigate. Usable schedules are somewhat hidden under „Informacoes uteis” –> “Downloads”.

Ferries ply between Horta (Faial), São Roque (Pico) and Velas (São Jorge) twice daily. There is also a more frequent link between Horta and Madalena (Pico) 5-7 x daily. Prices: Horta – Velas 15 euros; São Roque – Velas 10,10 euros; Horta – Madalena 3,40 euros.

It may be difficult to believe but from the regular ferry between Velas and São Roque we saw as many as three whales and four packs of dolphins, some coming just below the board of the ferry.

On the islands: probably the main drawback of moving around Azores is the very limited practicality of local bus transport. On Faial buses are completely useless for any hikes or trips out of Horta. On Pico buses can be used in a limited way from Madalena (schedules: http://www.cristianolimitada.pt/horarios_cristiano_limitada.html) but they are useless from any other town and do not reach anywhere in the interior of the island. On São Jorge there are two possibly useful bus connections (Mo-Fri only) from Velas – to Rosais on the western tip of the island and to Calheta, passing by Norte Pequeno and Norte Grande, allowing for a hike to the central mountains. Schedules are available in the tourism office in Velas.

In view of the above, for any serious exploration of the islands the choice is between renting a car, hitch-hiking or taking expensive trips by taxi. We rented a car on all three islands. We found our experience with rental agencies on all three islands to be fairly similar – they are not cheap compared to prices in mainland Portugal (30-35 euros per day for the cheapest small car, with no insurance) but they were straightforward, did not try any dirty tricks with fuel or alleged damage to the car. We used the following agencies:

Faial: Auto Turistica Faialense (http://www.autoturisticafaialense.com/), ca. 30 euros/day (prices on their website do not include VAT), booked by e-mail.

Pico: Oasis (http://www.rentacaroasis.com/), 30 euros/day, no additional charges for pick-up in Madalena harbour and return in São Roque. Altogether they were the best agency during our trip. They also have cars on Faial. Booked by e-mail.

São Jorge – Auto Turistica Velas (http://www.velasauto.com/, opposite big hotel Sao Jorge Garden), 35 euro/day (walk-in rate for one day), 33 euro/day for two days or more. Walk-in (their website shows higher prices for internet booking).

All above prices were without insurance. Typically the insurance was 7-9 euros per day for limiting the liability to ca. 900 euros or 20 euros per day for limitation to 50 euros.


Hikes and things to do

All three islands are simply amazing for nature and hiking and they are quite different, so not easy to compare. If asked to make a ranking, I would probably give Pico number one, with São Jorge a close second. We did following trips on foot and by car but there are many more interesting possibilities!


1. By car from Horta to Capelo, walk from Capelo along a marked trail across two older volcanoes (Cabeço Verde and Cabeço do Canto) to the amazing new volcano of Capelinhos (emerged from the sea in the 1950s). There is a very informative interpretation center near Capelinhos (entry 6 euros), much helpful to understand how the volcano emerged. Back to Capelo by dirt roads above the seaside cliffs, starting in Porto Comprido. Altogether it’s a day trip, taking into account time needed to visit Capelinhos volcano and for a picknick lunch. A map is available for download here: http://trilhos.visitazores.com/pt-pt/trilhos-dos-acores/faial/capelo-capelinhos

2. Around the Caldeira, the central volcano, climbing Cabeço Gordo (the island’s highest point, 1043 meters). There is a road to a parking just below the crater rim, from there the full circle took us 3,5 hrs, plenty of photo breaks included. The problem with this hike is that it is very often in the middle of the clouds. When the clouds allow for that, the view inside the Caldeira seems to show a strange lost world. Sometimes the clouds cover the crater rim but allow for a view inside, so it is worth trying even in cloudy weather. Map available: http://trilhos.visitazores.com/pt-pt/trilhos-dos-acores/faial/caldeira


1. Climbing Pico (2351 m), the highest mountain in Portugal. The starting point is Casa da Montanha (http://parquesnaturais.azores.gov.pt/en/pico-eng/what-visit/interpretation-centers/mountains-house) on ca. 1250 m, accessible by road (no public transport). All visitors are registered and get a GPS device with connection to the rescuers for the case of emergency. [UPDATE 2017: after our visit a fee of 10 EUR has been introduced for climbing the summit. I have no information whether it is actually charged in practice.] All visitors are registered and get a GPS device with connection to the rescuers for the case of emergency. The trail is very clearly signposted by numbered wooden poles. The actual peak is a smaller volcanic cone located inside the larger crater. In order to reach it one must descend a bit to the crater (almost no altitude loss in this place), cross it and climb some 100 meters across “frozen” lava flows and volcanic rocks. This last part is the only part with some slight difficulties – orientation for finding right passage in the rocks and balance in scrambling using all-fours is needed in two or three spots. Altogether the climb and descent took us some 8 hrs, including a lunch break and plenty of photo breaks.

2. Car trip through Lagoas on the ridge inside the island. Very recommended. Landscapes are amazing, sometimes right from an African savanna, then after a few meters like from a Scandinavian saga. There is an acceptable paved road all along the ridge, passable even in a small car.

3. Westernmost tip of the islands. Parking in Piedade, walk to the lighthouse in Manhenha (easy, along paved or dirt roads), then along the coast northwards. The part along the coast is a marked trail (map: http://trilhos.visitazores.com/pt-pt/trilhos-dos-acores/pico/porto-calhau-manhenha-ponta-da-ilha) but it is not at all easy, as it requires jumping across huge lava boulders, sometimes unstable, and for several parts there is no path at all, just signs painted on the boulders. We found it more difficult than the Pico climb and finally gave up and returned to a village path inland at the first possibility.

4. Whale watching! It was a highlight of our Azores trip. We took a 3 hrs trip with the very professional Espaco Talassa from Lajes do Pico (http://www.espacotalassa.com/ (departures in the morning and afternoon). Not cheap at 54 euros per person but definitely worth it. Pico is probably the best place in the world for seeing whales and May was about the best season in the year. The trick with Espaco Talassa is also that they use an ancient lookout above Lajes (previously used by whalers) and their whale-spotter calls the boat skippers to direct them towards the whales. During the trip we saw three species of whales, including sperm whales and the world’s largest – blue whale, as well as a pack of dolphins. The guys from Espaco Talassa are a treasure-trove of information on marine mammals, provide very informative explanation and keep an exact record of their sightings (available on the website).

Afterwards we also saw whales and dolphins from the São Roque – Velas ferry and dolphins from the coast near Velas.

São Jorge:

1. Rosais and down to Fajã de João Dias. We took a bus from Velas to Rosais (9.45 a.m., weekdays only, starts near the Compre Bem supermarket), walked along local paved roads to the starting point of the 400 m descent along an old trail to the fajã (or a small flat area under the cliffs). There is a small village in the fajã, still inhabited by some people, and provisions are brought in by horse. After slogging the 400 m back uphill we went back to Rosais by taking a round walk via a forest park and another viewpoint to the northern coast, missing the only bus back to Velas at 3 p.m. in result, so we needed to walk the remaining 6 kms to Velas.

2. Fajã dos Cubres to Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo. We have reached the first fajã by car, by a quite adventurous narrow access road carved in the steep slope. Fajã dos Cubres is linked to Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo by a very nice trail, sadly frequented by quad bikes, taking ca. 1-1,5 hrs in one direction. Both fajãs are inhabited, there are quite large villages there including snack bars and even some accommodation.

3. Pico da Esperança (1053 m, highest mountain on São Jorge). An easy and beautiful walk from the highest point of the trans-island road between Urzelina and Norte Grande. Altogether it took us 3 hrs there and back, mostly along a dirt road, only the top itself was accessible by a grassy path.

There is also a hardcore version of this hike accessible by public transport on weekdays – 07.25 a.m. bus from Velas to Calheta goes through Norte Grande and Norte Pequeno. From either of the Nortes there are some dirt roads allowing an easy ascent to Pico da Esperança (ca. 700 meters up) and then it is possible to walk along dirt roads and then side paved roads to Santo Amaro and Velas. All should be doable in a day but it would be a long hike. It seems to be worthwhile only when the central ridge is not shrouded by clouds.

Gujarat, South Rajasthan and Mumbai, 2013

Gujarat, South Rajasthan and Mumbai, February 2013 (20 days)


Mumbai – Junagadh – Sasan Gir – Diu – Palitana – Ahmedabad – Mount Abu – Udaipur (day trips to Kumbalgarh/Ranakpur and Chittorgarh) – Mumbai


Trains for long distance. We booked tickets on-line in advance via Cleartrip (http://www.cleartrip.com/). Booking in advance is crucial, as tickets get sold out on most routes several weeks in advance. We even booked some backup tickets to be flexible in case of a flight  delay or a change of plans, which we then cancelled, as cancellation charges are quite low. For last minute bookings, there is also a batch of Tatkal tickets which are released a few days before departure and sold at a higher price.

Since early 2012 setting an account from abroad is not as straightforward as before, as an Indian mobile phone number is required. There is a way around it by e-mailing the IRCTC customer service and requesting the mobile password via e-mail. The whole process is explained here: http://www.seat61.com/India.htm#book – from outside


I managed it quite easily and got my password e-mailed from the IRCTC within a day or so.

For checking trains, prices and availability I found http://erail.in/ to be most user-friendly and comprehensive, although Cleartrip website is also useful. For railway buffs, here’s the official website, quite confusing but ultimately has all important information: http://www.indianrailways.gov.in/

For first-timers, a useful introduction into Indian railways is found here:



Buses for shorter distance. We found state buses in Gujarat quite easy to use and not particularly crowded – we always managed to get seats. Tickets on state buses in Gujarat are bought on the bus. Schedules can be found here: http://www.gsrtc.in/site/ but the site apparently does not include all local buses. For longer trips, trains are much more comfortable, as buses are quite run down and roads often bumpy.

Site for local buses in Rajasthan: http://rsrtc.rajasthan.gov.in/ We only used them once on a short distance, so cannot give any opinion.

There are also private buses in most places, a bit more expensive but more comfortable than regular state buses. We used them once in Rajasthan.

Changing money was a bit hit and miss on this trip. We found no place to change money on a Sunday in Mumbai (Fort and Colaba area). In Junagadh (a bank) and Diu (a moneychanger) rates offered were only slightly better than costs of using an ATM. The only place we found much better rates than ATM conversion rates was in Udaipur, at a moneychanger in a touristy area between the Jagdish Temple and the lake.

Guidebooks: we used chapters from both latest Lonely Planet (2012) and 2010 Rough Guide and this time RG was much better. Lonely Planet has lost much with its latest changes – city maps are much less readable than before and we found the it much less practical than previous editions.

Malaria prophylaxis: Gujarat is marked as high-risk area on NHS travel advice maps, so we duly took malarone pills. However, the only place with many mosquitoes during our trip was Mumbai airport (literally infested) and we saw just a few mosquitoes in Diu but not a single one in Gujarat.

We used local Odomos cream as mosquito repellent, available at almost every shop.



We only stayed in Mumbai for one day at the beginning and at the end of our trip. It was just a scratch on the surface, as the city is fascinating, with plenty of interesting places to explore.

Mumbai Airport: one of the worst airports we ever visited. Bad organisation, huge queues to both immigration and security control. We arrived more than 3 hours in advance for our flight home and barely made it in time. The airport, including inside terminal buildings, has also a serious mosquito problem – little suckers were almost everywhere, including inside the plane on our flight back. It is a good idea to use a lot of mosquito repellent before going to the airport to have a small-sized container of repellent on the plane.

Transport from the airport: we took a pre-paid taxi from the official taxi booth, on the left side just before the exit from the arrivals terminal. Cost: 750 Rs to SBS Road in Fort, near Victoria (Chhatrapati Shivaji) Terminus.

Sleeping: we stayed at Travellers’ Inn in Fort (Adi Marzban Path, SBS Road, within walking distance to Victoria Terminus). Priced 1350 Rs for a small double room with ensuite bathroom, very clean. Free wi-fi. The place is small and they were quite busy, so booking ahead was a good idea (it is possible to book via agoda.com, with a bit higher price, ca. 1500 Rs). Website http://www.hoteltravellersinn.co/ (warning: you can come across their false website under the same address ending with “co.in”, with much higher prices and redirecting to another hotel for booking). On departure they happily arranged a taxi to the airport for us for 550 or 600 Rs.

Getting to and from railway stations: we left Mumbai from Mumbai Central station, a 100 Rs taxi ride from Travellers’ Inn. On our way back we arrived to Bandra Terminus, much farther from the centre. As we arrived at ca 2 p.m., out of rush hour, we decided to take Mumbai’s notorious suburban train to Churchgate near Fort. We needed to walk ca. 15 minutes from Bandra railway station to the nearest suburban train station. The train was not crowded at all. From Churchgate station it was a 40 Rs taxi ride to Travellers’ Inn.

Getting around in Mumbai: Fort area is very walkable and best covered on foot. We took a few bus rides in Colaba – not so easy to figure out, as bus numbers are in Marathi. Autorickshaws are not allowed in downtown Mumbai (south of Mahim creek), so cabbies rule. We took some taxi rides and the drivers were always equipped with electronic meters and willing to use it. We found drivers of older Ambassador cars more trustworthy than cabbies in newer cars.

We really enjoyed Fort area within walking distance of Travellers’ Inn. Wide walkable streets, usually without much traffic, some greenery, a lot of nice heritage architecture, some interesting spots, in particular related to the Parsi (Irani) minority. There are two Parsi fire temples (called “agiary”) in the area, sadly closed for non-Parsis. There are also a few Irani cafes left in Fort. Cafe Universal, one of them which went upmarket, is just on the street corner near Travellers’ Inn. We enjoyed its laid-back atmosphere, nice Art Deco design and wide windows open on the street. Quite pricey by Indian standards – beers for 220-250 Rs, meals from 200 Rs up. Later we learnt that it was a less famous sister property of Leopold’s in Colaba.

On our way back in Mumbai we visited Elephanta Island. Ferries depart from near Gateway of India. Tickets were in the 120-150 range for return trip, getting to the island takes ca. 1 hr. It is worth paying a few rupees more for the “deluxe” one which is much more comfortable and better for views.

Entry into Elephanta caves was 250 Rs (foreigner price). For anybody with even minimal interest in Asian art and culture history the caves are an absolute must-see, we found them by no way overrated, even if we usually prefer “living” monuments to archaeological sites. The guys at the ticket counter apparently run some kind of racket with the ticket checkers, collecting whole tickets (instead of only the control coupon) from visitors in order to resell them. We insisted on having our tickets back and they were extremely reluctant but finally handed them back to us.

Mumbai – Junagadh

The most useful train for reaching places in Saurashtra, Gujarat directly from Mumbai is the daily Saurashtra Mail (schedules and prices on http://erail.in/, we booked it much in advance via http://www.cleartrip.com/). The train is split in Rajkot, with one part going to Veraval via Junagadh, another one to Okha via Jamnagar and Dwarka. If there are no tickets to the farther destination, it is worth checking whether there are places to Rajkot and then separately from Rajkot to the destination.


A very friendly and picturesque place, with some fantasy-like architecture resulting from fascination of the local maharaja with neo-Gothic Victorian style mixed with Indian and other oriental elements.

We stayed at Relief hotel (http://www.reliefhotel.com/), a short rickshaw ride or maybe 20 minutes walk from both bus and train stations. 650 Rs for a decent double with bathroom, there were also smaller rooms for 500 Rs. The manager is incredibly helpful and will happily provide any useful information you would need for visiting Junagadh and surroundings. Hotel restaurant did not work at the time of our visit (but the manager guided us to a very good place nearby), wi-fi was planned in a short time.

A definite highlight of the visit to Junagadh was climbing Girnar Hill with its Jain and Hindu temples. There are stairs to the very top of ca. 1100 m, Gujarat’s highest point (Girnar Kaleti, the starting point, is below 200 m), so the hike is quite punishing for the legs. Starting early (7.30 a.m. at the latest) is definitely a good idea, as the sun gets scorching afterwards. Rickshaw ride from Relief to Girnar Kaleti was 100 Rs. The owner of Relief hotel warned us against having any food along the trail on the mountain and he was probably right, as there was no clean water available anywhere on the path. Bottled water, soft drinks and packaged snacks are available all along the way.

Junagadh – Sasan Gir

There are GSRTC buses every 1 hr or so, 30 Rs, ca. 1,5 hrs. We took one at 10 a.m. and it was not crowded. There is also one passenger train (unreserved class only) at 07.15 a.m. (exact schedule on http://erail.in/). As we learned later, the railway goes directly through Gir Forest and with some dose of luck it should be well possible to spot a lion from the train. Actually, the lion we saw on our safari in Sasan Gir was maybe 100 meters from the railway track.

Sasan Gir – hic sunt leones

An otherwise nondescript village which is a gateway to Gir Forest, the last place in the world with wild Asiatic lions. As a backgrounder, it is worth to see a BBC documentary “Last Lions of India” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEL2f90L_kY), which is also shown daily at the park office.

On arrival we were met by Nitin Ratanghayara, a local guy running a small guesthouse in his home. The owner of Relief hotel in Junagadh can contact him in advance, alternatively Nitin’s e-mail is ratanghayaranitin [at] yahoo.com. He seems to know all the strings, helped us with safari booking, and – most important – found other foreign travellers to share the safari cost. He seems to do it quite routinely, so if not in a group and intending to share the cost, it is definitely a good idea to look for Nitin. He does not charge anything for his help and his guesthouse is decently priced (400 Rs for an acceptable double room + 100 Rs per person per all-you-can-eat meal).

Safari details: it is booked at Sinh Sadan lodge in Sasan Gir. It can be booked a day in advance (at 5-6 p.m. for the next morning) or directly before starting. Despite a limited number of vehicles being allowed for each safari, foreigners should have no problems with booking, as paying much more, they enjoy unofficial priority. Safari timings are 06.30 a.m., 09.30 a.m. and another time in the afternoon (I don’t remember exact time). The first one at 06.30 is apparently best for seeing lions.

The costs were as following (for foreigners, Indian nationals pay considerably less):

2000 Rs for permit for a group up 4 persons, 2500 Rs if the group size is 5-6 persons, to be shared among the group

1000 Rs for the jeep (or ‘gypsy’), to be shared among the group

150 Rs for the guide, to be shared among the group

500 Rs photography fee for EACH camera above 7 megapixels.

Permits are valid for one safari only. I am not sure about the photography fees but it’s probably the same. Altogether it is not prohibitively expensive if you find other foreigners to share a gypsy. It is not possible to share a vehicle with Indian tourists as in such case Indians would be charged according to foreigner rates. Weird but so it is.

Most important – we saw a lion! A big male walked within maybe 20 meters of our jeep. It is far from certain – our companions took altogether 3 safaris and had 2 sightings, one of them a lioness from very far, a kilometer or so. We can consider ourselves very lucky, as we took only one safari.

It is also apparently easy to spot crocodiles while walking along the river on the northern outskirts of the village but this time we were not lucky. Having read about a crocodile breeding centre in Sasan Gir, we asked around and were directed by the locals to a glass pavilion inside a camping ground just right (east) of Sinh Sadan, with a few small reptiles inside. Afterwards I checked on Google Earth and there seems to be some sort of bigger structure deeper inside the camping ground, so probably we missed the proper breeding centre.

Download: [Sasan Gir train schedule]

Sasan Gir – Diu

The early morning safari ended just in time for us to grab our bags and catch the 09.57 a.m. train to Delvada (ca. 3,5 hrs, 20 Rs). There are also some buses to nearby Una later during the day, so getting from Sasan Gir to Diu is easy. From Delvada we took a rickshaw to Diu bus stand for 150 Rs.


A very pleasant place to chill out for a couple of days. Some interesting Portuguese-Indian cultural mix, slow pace, a few beaches (but not really a swimming place) and a welcome oasis in the middle of prohibition-parched Gujarat. Because of the last element we were initially a bit apprehensive before visiting on a weekend, but it the weekend crowds of Gujarati visitors turned out to be not so big and much more sober than expected.

We stayed in Herança Goesa, a family-run guesthouse listed in all the guidebooks. Every word of praise is justified – the rooms are spotless, ours came with a balcony with nice view, and the price was very reasonable (a negotiable 700 Rs per double). In addition to English, the hosts speak excellent Portuguese.

We tried some places for food. O’Coqueiro near our guesthouse was OK but we found Apana restaurant on Fort Rd at the waterfront the best place.

On one day we rented bicycles from a repair shop close to the mosque in Diu bazaar area (80 Rs per day) and rode to Vanakbara, a fishing village on the opposite end of Diu island, some 15 kms from Diu town. Probably most interesting: a bit south of Vanakbara village (accessible by taking a road to the left just before entering proper village) there was a boat yard with wooden fishing boats being built by traditional methods.

Diu to Palitana

We took a 9 a.m. bus from Diu to Talaja (bus destination is Bhavnagar), 5,5 hrs, ca. 80 Rs.

Download: [Diu bus schedule]

There are many more buses from Una if you miss the last one from Diu. In Talaja we had to wait ca. 1hr for a local bus to Palitana (1,5 hrs). Altogether getting from Diu to Palitana took 8 hrs of quite bumpy bus rides and after arrival and checking in we still had some time for a late afternoon walk from our hotel across the bridge into the center of Palitana.


We stayed in Hotel Shravak just opposite the bus station. It was basic and rather gloomy but OK for one night. 450 Rs for a large double with bathroom. Staying for one night is enough, as there are onwards buses to Ahmedabad every hour in the afternoon. We had to check out in the morning but the receptionist stored our luggage until we were back from Shatrunjaya.

The main if not the only reason of our stop in Palitana was visiting Shatrunjaya, the sacred Jain temple-hill above Palitana. The stairs uphill were a 50 Rs rickshaw ride from the bus stand and Hotel Shravak. Entry is free but there is a photography fee of 100 Rs, paid at a booth to the left from the starting point of the stairs. The climb uphill is much shorter and far less spectacular than to Girnar Hill near Junagadh but there are much more temples to visit on the top, so a visit to Shatrunjaya takes most part of the day. Again, it is very recommended to start at dawn, as the sun becomes unbearable later on. Contrary to what some guidebooks say, nobody objects to having bottled water on the hike uphill and in the temples. It’s definitely needed, as the sun was scorching. All along the path uphill there are no food and drink stalls, only small kiosks offering drinking water from big tanks (we did not risk it).

Palitana – Ahmedabad

State bus, departures every hour in the afternoon, 5,5 hrs, ca. 120 Rs.


Ahmedabad turned out to be a very interesting city and definitely worth staying a couple of days. As we stayed only one full day (two nights), we visited only the old town, exploring its fascinating mosques, Sufi shrines, bazaars and semi-enclosed neighbourhoods called “pols”. While arriving by bus we also saw some ultra-modern and rich-looking districts with glitzy malls and posh cafes but they were quite far from the old centre.

Accommodation: we stayed in Hotel Volga (http://www.hotelvolga.in/) in Lal Darwaja area in the centre. It attempts without much success to be a half-smart “business-class” place. Ca. 950 Rs for a double with bathroom, decent-looking but it turned out that there were cockroaches in the room. On leaving we were unpleasantly surprised by an additional charge for wi-fi which did not work properly. Not recommended, there are several other decent-looking places in the close neighbourhood.

Ahmedabad – Mount Abu

We took a train from Ahmedabad to Abu Road (ca. 4hrs, booked much in advance via Cleartrip schedules and prices on http://erail.in/) and continued by a local bus to Mt Abu (1 hr, ca. 20 Rs).

In Mt Abu we stayed at Shri Ganesh hotel, a short walk from the centre. The managers were friendly and helpful but the room was quite basic – small and musty, with some humidity on the walls. Priced at 650 Rs per double with bathroom. Hot water available on request.

Mt Abu was OK for a short stay but nothing very special. It would be great to hike in the hills around the town but all the guidebooks warn against the danger of assaults or muggings in less-frequented places and the hotel owner confirmed that it was an issue. No guided walks were available for the day we were there. It was definitely worth to visit Delwara Jain temple, a 100 Rs rickshaw ride uphill from the town centre, with even more exquisite carvings than those in Palitana.

Mt Abu – Udaipur

Private bus, booked at Gujarat Travels agency on previous afternoon, departure 8.30 a.m., 220 Rs, 5 hrs.


First impression: Udaipur was very touristy! Compared to almost tourist-free Gujarat, there were literally hordes of tourists around the lake and the area near Jagdish temple was full of souvenir shops and similar places. Anyway, the town is really charming and real life in full coulours of Rajasthan was always just a short walk away. Shopping for spices in the bazaar area near Hathi Pol is especially recommended, as is getting lost in narrow streets of the old town.

On arrival in Udaipur we took a rickshaw to Jagdish temple and walked across the footbridge to look for accommodation in the Hanuman Ghat area. It turned out to be a perfect idea, as the area was much more peaceful and relaxed (even if still touristy) than the main tourist spot between Jagdish temple and the lake. We stayed in Panorama Hotel (http://www.panoramaguesthouse.in/) and really loved the place – 900 Rs for a clean comfortable double room with bathroom, with paintings on the walls, balcony and – most important – full spectacular view of the Lake Pichola and the City Palace. There is a rooftop restaurant with even more spectacular views. We also had some meals at the nearby Dream Heaven which seems a similar place, as regards charm, views and standard.

One place to be avoided in this area is Hanuman Ghat Hotel. On a Saturday night its unscrupulous owner threw an incredibly loud disco party on the roof, flooding half of the town with thumping noise. In Panorama some 100 meters away we had to shout to hear each other.

Day-trips fro Udaipur

We made two trips from Udaipur by car with driver, hired via the reception of Panorama:

–          Kumbalgarh and Ranakpur, 1600 Rs. Entry to Kumbalgarh Fort was 100 Rs. Only part of the fort can be visited on a day visit but it gives a good idea of the whole and almost the whole fort can be seen from the citadel.

–          Chittaurgarh, 1800 Rs. Entry to the fort was 100 Rs. The fort is very large with sights spread across the whole area, so our driver drove us around stopping at the sights.

Udaipur – Mumbai

By train, Udaipur Bandra SF Express, schedules and prices on http://erail.in/.