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Friday, August 24, 2007

Yak, yak, yak

Dear friends,

We last updated you on the eve of our departure from China. Our 30-hour train journey sped us from Beijing through towering mountain valleys towards the Mongolian border...

...for a uncomfortably long wait (with locked toilets) while they changed all the train's wheels to a fractionally larger size.

We awoke the next morning to a very different landscape. The vast, empty steppe stretched out for miles in every direction, punctuated only by the occasional nomad camp.

And it was in these ger (felt tent) camps that we spent many nights huddled around the central stove. As much as half of the country's population still live in these gers.

The terrain proved to be far more varied than we expected, with mountains and rocky outcrops dotted amongst the pastel-coloured grasslands. It's not hard to believe that Mongolia is the least densely populated independent country in the world.

While at one ger camp we were treated to a performance of local horse-head fiddle music, unsettling contortion and the national "long songs".

A long drive took us to the Erdene Zuu monastery at Kharkorum, its outer wall decorated with 108 giant stupa (a sacred number in Buddhism).

Within the walls were monks aplently, quite a few temples, and children practising their archery...

...and countless nomads in traditional dress at the end of their pilgrimage.

And atop a nearby hill an ovoo (sacred pile of stones) has become a shrine to horses; nomads place the skulls of their fastest steeds here after death to bring them closer to the sky.

The nomadic lifestyle is one of keeping livestock. Herds of sheep, goats, cows, horses and yaks like this one roam the plains happily chewing the cud all day long.

All roads outside the capital city Ulaanbaatar were a little sketchy, and our tour almost came to a halt a couple of times.

But luckily we always made it home in time for a warm mug of airag (fermented mare's milk), as modelled by our driver.

We stayed a night by the beautiful Lake Ogii for a little twilight horse riding, and to feed the local clouds of midges...

...and maybe also for a photo op for Tigs with our guide Otgoo and our driver Kolai.

On our final tour day we bumped into a very modern nomad...

...and had an encounter with the wild Prejevalsky horses in a mountain nature reserve where they are being reintroduced. Smaller, sturdier and quite genetically different from our horses, there are only 300 of these native horses in Mongolia.

Back on the Trans-Siberian Railway we crossed the border into Russia and passed the enormous Lake Baikal, so vast and deep that it holds one-fifth of the all fresh water in the entire world.

Continuing our lap of the nations liquids, we all found time to tuck into some local beers...

...all of which made our learning of the Cyrillic alphabet a little more difficult. This train station is Novosibirsk, apparently.

For the last three days of the 6400km journey to our final destination Moscow, we passed through the seemingly endless birch and fir trees of the Taiga forests. The Taiga is the world's largest terrestrial biome, containing one third of all trees on the planet.

As we emerge from the forest, our TiggerTour draws to a close. With a little over 55,000km under our belts it's probably time to plant a few trees ourselves. Time for a little reflection...

For now, that's all from us but we'll be back for many more (although somewhat shorter) TiggerTours in the future.

Thank you all for reading, and remember - if you've had half as much fun reading this as we have doing it, then we've had twice as much fun as you.

Much love,
Team Tiger

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Hello China

Hi there,

Now that we're out of China, where it felt like about 90% of websites were censored or blocked (including TiggerTours!), we can let you know what the place was really like...

We landed in Shanghai, a good city to get ourselves used to the shocking heat and figure out how to spend our 23 days in the country. An evening stroll along The Bund gave views of the bright skyline, and where roughly twenty million people asked if they could take a photo of Janine.

After our first encounter with the railway network, we spent an afternoon walking around the Longmen Caves (near Luoyang, 15 hours from Shanghai). Hundreds of thousands of Bhuddist sculptures were carved into the cliffs here...

...some of which were surprisingly large...

Then just another 10 hours or so on a train and we were in Xi'an, home of the Terracotta Army.

More than 7,000 larger-than-life-size warriors were buried here in 210 BC, astonishingly every single one with a different face.

As the site was only discovered 30 years ago, all three archeological pits are still being excavated. The slow process of piecing the soldiers back together continues...

However, one lucky tiger was able to get a moment alone with a restored soldier.

Another "hard sleeper" overnight train delivered us to the ancient walled town of Pingyao, with cobbled roads aplenty and red lanterns swinging from every rooftop.

With nothing to do during our stay but explore, we discovered many temples and a brighly coloured Nine Dragon Screen (only one dragon shown here).

Onto the smoggy Beijing, we embraced the flag-waving at Tiananmen...

...and stumbled across a fan dancing practice session outside of a metro station.

We spent an evening in a teahouse where we enjoyed a cultural variety show, including some superb shadow play...

...and some visually stunning (although not so good for the eardrums) Beijing opera.

An afternoon visit to the Yonghegong (Lama Temple), the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world (outside of Tibet obviously), where huge stone lions stand guard...

...and prayer flags flap gently in the breeze.

And what visit to China would be complete without a walk on the Great Wall?

The wall is over 4,000 miles long (of which we managed around 3 miles) and in places is incredibly steep. In the heat the walk can be very tiring...

...although one team member got away with being carried the whole way.

We hope you've enjoyed the update! We'll be back soon with news from our next stop - Mongolia.

Team Tiger

Malaysia Delayed

Dear Tigger fans,

We apologise for the break in service. Due to unforseen circumstances TiggerTours has been deemed subversive, and cannot be updated from our current location.

But (thanks to the power of the internet) Rich has simply emailed the photos and words to his lovely sister Jen, who has kindly performed the update for us!

We last left you before our short stay in Brunei, close to the stunning Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque.

Then a short hop back to Peninsular Malaysia, to patiently await our guests for two weeks in Malaysia.

Introducing the extended Team Tiger, sporting numerous Visit Malaysia items - [left to right] Neen, Janette (Neen's mum), Tigger Williams, Rich, Poppy (Neen's sister), and of course Tigger Lee.

We took in a little sightseeing in Kuala Lumpur, including the Petronas Towers...

...and a beautiful butterfly garden...

...naturally mingled with an appropriate amount of shopping, in South-East Asia's largest mall.

Then, abandoning all comfort, we launched ourselves head-first into the jungle of Taman Negara.

A long riverboat ride through thick rainforest with monkeys and otters (and possibly a croc?) watching us from the sides.

Bravely we shuffled across the Canopy Walkway, a rickety system of planks and ropes suspended 120 feet above the jungle floor...

...whilst back in our huts, an army of giant ants carried away all of our precious snacks.

From there we travelled over rail, road and sea to the clear waters and white beaches of Pulau Perhentian Besar (translation - island which is big and a good place to stop).

And during our snorkelling excursions, we found Nemo.

Back on the mainland we took in a cultural performance in Kota Bharu, with coconut drummers pounding out mesmerising rhythms...

...and Rich making a total fool of himself in a traditional dance display.

With our guests heading back to rainy Wales, we spent our last week in Malaysia in the city of Melaka, where the pristine preservation of the colonial buildings contrasts with the crumbling shophouses of Chinatown.

And Tigger made good friends with Carl, our bicycle-rickshaw driver and guide.

That about wraps it up for our time in Malaysia, but (pending internet restrictions) we will update from China as often as we can.

Loads of love,
Team Tiger.