Category Archives: Yvonne

Two wheels good

We plan do a public presentation in Peterborough in mid to late September.  If you are not already signed up to automatically receive new blog entries and you would like to know the date and time of the presentation, then click on the dark green FOLLOW rectangle at the bottom left corner of the green panel on the left side.  You will be sent the info via blog entry in September.

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Thirty-eight days and 1700+km of cycle touring in Germany, Switzerland, Holland,  and Denmark left us a little bit fitter and a lot more fired up about the possibilities of creative urban planning. We were impressed and inspired by the ubiquitous and well-planned bicycle infrastructure. I’ve been to Copenhagen many times and know that it has a unique and thriving bicycle culture, but this time, seeing it from the saddle of a bicycle was really eye-opening. Sometimes it was a little overwhelming to be on a downtown cycle path with so many other cyclists – I felt like a new driver who needs to be super vigilant about the surrounding traffic. Since there are often 2 lanes in each direction on the bike paths and many users, one has to be aware of oncoming cyclists, when and where to pass, making sure to follow traffic signals, and maintaining the flow of traffic (don’t just stop to look at a map or road sign because someone may rear-end you!) That said, our overall impression of cycling in all of these countries was that we felt SAFE. Why? Because the infrastructure was in place, often in the form of bicycle paths that are physically separated from the driving lanes and clearly paved in a different colour. When we needed to share the road, drivers were very considerate, leaving us ample room when passing. Probably because they are cyclists themselves and know how it feels to be the more vulnerable road user.

Here are Kaia and Cam in southern Germany, feeling safe as they cycle on a path separated by a grass buffer from the highway.
Here are Kaia and Cam in southern Germany, feeling safe as they cycle on a path separated by a grass buffer from the highway.
Rural cycle routes in Holland are well signed with maps at many intersections.
Rural cycle routes in Holland are well signed with maps at many intersections.

 

All over Holland, bike lanes are paved with red tar to make them obvious. In this particular place, the lane was separated from traffic by bike and car parking spaces.
All over Holland, bike lanes are paved with red tar to make them obvious. In this particular place, the lane was separated from traffic by bike and car parking spaces.

 

The red lanes extend through intersections, making it clear to motorists where bicycles will be.
The red lanes extend through intersections, making it clear to motorists where bicycles will be.

 

We even saw a bike lane paving crew and saw how the red colour is mixed right into the pavement – no chance of surface paint wearing off!
We even saw a bike lane paving crew and noticed how the red colour is mixed right into the pavement – no chance of surface paint wearing off!

 

Separate traffic lights for bicycles will often count down, showing how much longer until a green light.
Separate traffic lights for bicycles will often count down, showing how much longer until a green light.

 

Most trains have cars designated for bicycles. Here we are travelling comfortably from X to Y.
Most trains have cars designated for bicycles. Here we are travelling comfortably from Opheusden to Utrecht.

 

The transportation plan in Freiburg includes a car-share program, whereby members can book a suitable vehicle for the days or hours they need it.  They calculate that it is a cheaper option for people who drive fewer than 10 000 km per year.
The transportation plan in Freiburg includes a car-share program, whereby members can book a suitable vehicle for the days or hours they need it. They calculate that it is a cheaper option for people who drive fewer than 10 000 km per year.

 

Freiburg has some car-reduced neighbourhoods like this one, Vauban.  Most streets are parking-free which means that cars can only stop for loading and unloading.  Neighbourhood garages are in 3 locations and provide enough space for all the residents cars.
Freiburg has some car-reduced neighbourhoods like this one, Vauban. Most streets are parking-free which means that cars can only stop for loading and unloading. Neighbourhood garages are in 3 locations and provide enough space for all the residents cars. Those who do not own a car must pay for a “virtual parking space” which is now a green space but could be turned into more parking if the need arises.

With so much emphasis on bicycles, there is of course a need for good and convenient bike parking facilities.

 

Outdoor covered bicycle parking
Outdoor covered bicycle parking

 

This one, at a school in Vauban, even has a green roof!
This one, at a school in Vauban, even has a green roof!
Our guide in Freiburg is showing us the indoor, secure bike parking at the central train station.
Our guide in Freiburg showed us the indoor, secure bike parking at the central station.

 

At train stations, work places and educational institutions, there are lots of bikes.
Everywhere we went — train stations, work places and educational institutions — there were lots of bikes!

 

Even McDonald’s has a substantial bike rack (and it’s being used!)  No, we did not eat there. We were trying to poach some wifi.
Even McDonald’s has a substantial bike rack (and it’s being used!) No, we did not eat there. We were trying to poach some wifi.

 

In Amsterdam, there is such a need for bike parking spaces that they turned these two barges into floating parking lots!
In Amsterdam, there is such a need for bike parking spaces that they turned these two barges into floating parking lots!

Many families in both Denmark and Holland own “cargo bikes” (50,000 in Copenhagen alone!) and about a quarter report that it is a direct replacement for a car. We saw many children being transported in the cargo area as well as dogs, groceries, and boyfriends!

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The cargo bikes in this photo are uncharacteristically empty! But you can see how different modes of transportation share the road.

 

Cargo bikes require special consideration in terms of parking (they are often seen parked outside grocery stores).
Cargo bikes require special consideration in terms of parking (they are often seen parked outside grocery stores). Cam asked why they do not use bike trailers (like ours) instead of the heavier cargo bike, and it was explained that they liked to be able to talk with their passenger as they ride, be it kid, pet or husband.

 

OK, this Dutch cargo bike was just too cute!
OK, this Dutch cargo bike was just too cute!

 

We got to test drive the latest model of cargo bike by "Bullitt"
Cam and Kaia test driving the latest model of cargo bike by “Bullitt”

Cam made sure we visited the planning departments in Groningen and Copenhagen to learn about their cycling strategies. Let’s just say they are light years ahead of anyone else in our part of the world.

Groningen is a city of about 225 000 in the north of Holland. It has a little more than twice the population of our city, Peterborough, but is similar in that both are university towns with vibrant art scenes. Groningen has a younger population than Peterborough and a long, strong history of cycling. A full 60% of journeys there are done by bicycle! (In our hometown, it’s only about 4%). This makes Goningen the unnoficial cycling capital of the world in terms of highest modal share of trips on cycle.  The literature we picked up at the planning department revealed that the reasons for promoting cycling have little to do with the environment and mostly to do with health, quality of life, and the economy. Their stated goals are to:

  • Create good conditions for the growth of the city
  • Keep the city accessible (not clogged with traffic)
  • Improve the health of inhabitants
  • Ensure a viable and economically vital city
  • Ensure a safe city

Of course, reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions through the use of bicycles and public transportation contribute to improved health of the citizens (and the planet). Nowhere does anyone suggest eliminating cars from the mix, just increasing the modal share of cycling, walking, public transportation, and carpooling. In that way, people who need to drive can continue to do so without requiring major new road constructions (because many people will choose the cheaper, healthier, more sustainable, and, in Groningen, more convenient options).

This student intern in the Copenhagen planning department was happy to share with us the maps and literature about the ambitious bicycle strategy that they believe will make them the world’s best bicycle city (and carbon neutral!) by 2025. The priorities are: sense of security, speed, comfort, and city life.
This student intern in the Copenhagen planning department was happy to share with us the maps and literature about the ambitious bicycle strategy that they believe will make them the world’s best bicycle city (and carbon neutral!) by 2025. The priorities are: sense of security, speed, comfort, and city life.

The following photos were taken in central Copenhagen at 4:30pm on a weekday.  How many cars can you count?

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In the Copenhagen cycling strategy, they share the results of a socio-economic analysis of different forms of transportation.  I don’t know exactly how they calculated this, but they say that riding a bicycle downtown during rush hour results in a net profit for society of 0.49 Euro, whereas taking a car results in a net loss of 0.89 Euro.   I assume it is based on the reduced wear and tear on the roads by bikes, reduced congestion,  as well as the significant health benefits of active transportation.  Conversely, obesity and its associated societal costs are notably higher among those who drive a car.  Based on that, what city or municipality can afford NOT to promote cycling?

Every new development in these cities we visited (Amsterdam, Utrecht, Groningen and Copenhagen) takes into consideration the needs of citizens to get around quickly, safely, and comfortably. Transit and cycling infrastructure are key.  There were some really amazing details in their planning that blew us away:

  • Groningen has traffic signals that can detect rain. If it is raining, they give priority to cyclists by giving more/longer green lights to bicycles.
  • They are also planning to build heated bicycle paths, using the heat from wastewater sewers. This will help keep bike lanes free from snow and ice.
  • Freiburg, Germany, has “bicycle streets” where bikes have priority. Cars still drive and park on these streets, but the speed limit is 30 km/h.
  • Recognizing that cycling is a very social activity and that many people prefer to cycle side by side, the goal in Copenhagen is to make all bike paths wide enough to accommodate 3 bicycle lanes in each direction!
  • One of their maintenance goals is to have bike lanes smooth enough that one can ride along with a cup of coffee on the handlebars, and not spill!
  • Copenhagen is planning to embed LED lights in the asphalt to indicate which forms of transportation have access to the lanes. The lights can change to accommodate the differing flow of traffic. For example, there can be more lanes of traffic and wider bike lanes going into town in the morning, but fewer in the afternoon, when the space is needed for traffic going in the other direction.

The level of cooperation and creative problem solving is phenomenal.   All I can say is, “Wow!”

We are feeling motivated now to help BE THE CHANGE in Peterborough.  Last weekend, there was an event called “Peterborough Pulse” and on Saturday morning from 9 until 1, they closed a 3km portion of our downtown streets to car traffic.  Imagine that!  For four hours, people strolled and biked along the car-less streets, and many community organisations set up booths with information or activities.  Kaia volunteered to set one up to share photos and information from our trip and ask participants what they would like to see in Peterborough with respect to active transportation.  Our whole family got involved!  Kaia (and I) baked about 200 bicycle-shaped cookies which were given out in exchange for the ideas.  We had icing and candies so kids could decorate them.  Cam chose some of our best photos of cycling infrastructure, printed them, and made a binder.  Jake was there on the day to help set up, elicit responses, and help kids decorate cookies.  It was a great event and, we hope, a first step towards a more pedestrian and cycle friendly downtown.

Here is our booth.  It was called "Sweet Ideas -- a cookie for your thoughts"
Here is our booth. It was called “Sweet Ideas — a cookie for your thoughts”
People wrote their ideas on coloured paper which we put together like a quilt.
People wrote their ideas on coloured paper which we put together like a quilt.
The kids enjoyed decorating and eating the bicycle cookies.
The kids enjoyed decorating and eating the bicycle cookies.
Here is a prize-winner!  Decorated by Francesca, who was also helping out at the booth.
Here is a prize-winner! Decorated by Francesca, who was also helping out at the booth.
The quilt is now finished and will be presented to our city council.  Many respondents expressed the desire for more bike paths separated from traffic.  Many also suggested working towards a carless downtown core.
The quilt is now finished and will be presented to our city council. Many respondents expressed the desire for more bike paths separated from traffic. Many also suggested working towards a carless downtown core.

Recall that back in September, one of our first stops was Portland, Oregon, a city that has become the most bicycle-friendly one in North America.  Cam wrote a blog about our 2-wheeled experiences there called Pedaling in Portland.  We certainly have many lessons to learn from them — not least of all, PATIENCE.

In her book about the process, former Portland Bicycle Program Coordinator, Mia Birk wrote,  “Behavioural change takes time. It has taken close to a generation to teach people to place their bottles, cans, paper and plastic in recycling bins. It will take a generation or more to integrate bicycling and walking into daily life, but only if we get rolling.” (Joyride, p.144)

So… here’s to getting rolling!

Kaia will be rolling on her newly painted and decorated bike.  She was inspired by some we saw in Holland and decided to paint, add a front basket, and decorate hers with plastic flowers.
Kaia will be rolling on her newly painted and decorated bike. She was inspired by some we saw in Holland and decided to paint, add a front basket, and decorate hers with plastic flowers.

Yvonne

 

 

 

 

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Rolling down the Rhine, take two

Unfortunately, I am the latest victim of the glitchy WordPress app — an entire blog entry got “hung” while uploading, and was subsequently lost.  I can’t believe we haven’t figured out a convenient way to back up these entries.  Anyway, I have decided not to rewrite the whole thing for three reasons:
1.  The main purpose of the blog, for me, is to take time to reflect on experiences we have had and consolidate the things I’ve learned.  I already did that.
2.  I refuse to spend more of my vacation time writing about it.
3.  We are down to one working keyboard, so I won’t continue to monopolise it.

We are presently in Iceland, touring around in a small campervan with my mom.  The weather has been cool and quite changeable in terms of sun and rain. The icebergs that calved off of Jökulsárlón Glacier look surreal and blue in the glacial outflow.

So… back to the Rhine River in Germany!  Great place to cycle.  We spent 3 days going from Mannheim to Koblenz, then trained up to Köln (which is actually Cologne for all of us English speakers!)

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I have chosen a dozen photos to illustrate some highlights from the journey.

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Oppenheim is a quaint city celebrating its 1250th anniversary this year!  It boasts a complex labyrinth of underground cellars that used to be for storing trade goods — especially the wine for which the region is famous.

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The Rhine was historically and still is a busy transportation corridor!  It’s headwaters are in the Swiss Alps and it flows all the way to Rotterdam.  There is a constant stream of boats going in both directions (both freight and passenger), and there are train tracks and roads on both banks.  The cycle path is lovely and well-used.

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Here is Cam in front of one of the many vineyards we saw — and notice the wind turbines in the background.

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We had no problem finding waterfront lunch spots.

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One industry on the bank of the Rhine is BASF.  I don’t know exactly what they produce, but they have a huge campus in Mainz where every worker is issued a bicycle!

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Now I know that “Bingen on the Rhine” is a real (and romantic) place.  Kaia, Jake, and I remember laughing about its name when we read Anne of Green Gables.  Anne described how Gilbert Blythe gave a wonderful recitation of the poem “Bingen on the Rhine” at a community event.  We thought it sounded hilarious!  The arches in the photo are part of a large castle/tower complex.

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My favourite castle along the Rhine was Burg Rheinstein.  It is compact and was nicely restored in the 1800’s by Prince Friedrich of Prussia who used it as a summer residence.  The photo above is of the basket that was used in the Middle Ages to punish travelers who tried to avoid paying the toll. I’m hoping Prince Friedrich used it for a nice potted plant.

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Here we are cycling towards Marksburg Castle (on the hill in background).  Our record for longest cycling day was 85km.  Go team!

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Magnificent Marksburg Castle is said to be the best preserved along the Rhine.  We took a tour to see many of its authentic features.

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Jake liked the display of armour throughout the ages.  Some of it was pretty scary looking.

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We often found ourselves camping among the motorhomes and trailers.  This was our last night, in Koblenz.

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The sweet end to our journey down the Rhine was meeting up with Falko, (whom Cam had met in Nepal) and going to the Lindt chocolate factory in Köln.  The kids are holding their custom chocolate bars that they got to design.  Falko also took us to the impressive Gothic Cathedral (which took over 600 years to complete!) and out for lunch at a classic pub that served great German sausages and beer.  The beer came in small 0.2L glasses (as opposed to the 1L steins that are so common in Bavaria).  But until you cover your glass with a coaster, the waiter keeps bringing more.  No matter how you cut it, the Germans love their beer!

I have met my self-imposed quota of 12 photos… well, let’s make it a baker’s dozen.

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Yvonne

Past meets present in Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Two days ago, we cycled across the border from Germany to Holland. It was day 26 of our cycle tour and we covered 101km that day — a first for me, Kaia, and Jake. We are now “centurions”. If German bike paths are excellent, Holland’s are outstanding! Wide, smooth, and well marked, they even have detour signs when there is a break in the path. Yesterday our total trip distance passed 1000km as we came into Utrecht where we spent the night with dear friend Jelda and family. Jelda was another VSO volunteer in Namibia back in 2009.
We are struggling to keep up with the blogs due to: lack of time,
limited access to electricity to charge the devices, and no tables at the campsites where we stay. Lots more to come!

Our cycling route from Frankfurt down the Main and Tauber Rivers took us past many picturesque old towns with stone walls and towers.  Whenever we mentioned to anyone that we were headed for Rothenburg, their eyes lit up and they said something to the effect of, “You mean Rothenburg ob der Tauber?  That is a beautiful place — you’re really going to like it!”  Then they frowned and said, “But you will have to cycle up a steep hill to get there.”  I developed quite high expectations for the place and am happy to report that I was not disappointed.  In fact, my expectations were surpassed by this gorgeous, well-preserved medieval city!

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Looking out over Rothenburg from the town hall tower.
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The most photographed view.

Rothenburg has been inhabited for about 1100 years.  Its prominent families became wealthy for 3 reasons:  the fertile soil, the lucrative textile trade (in sheep’s wool), and the fact that they were well located on both east-west and north-south trade routes.  Over 800 years ago, it was incorporated as a city — and not just any kind of city — a “free imperial city”.  That meant that it didn’t have to pay taxes to as many layers of people in the power structure and was able to accumulate even more wealth! 
A massive stone wall was built around the city at great expense and labour, since large stones were not easy to come by.  Each gate was closed at sundown and guarded throughout the night.  Because of its safe location (up on a ridge) and good protective wall, Rothenburg was not successfully attacked for over 500 years.  Not a bad record! 

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Part of the (rebuilt and restored) wall.
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It is possible to go all the way around the periphery of the wall in a covered walkway (almost 3km).

Of course, life was not easy in a medieval city.  Apparently, the stench from human and animal waste was so bad during the summer months that anyone who could afford to would leave for their “summer residences”.  And then there was the plague… Rothenburg was hit hard.  Among the first to die were the priests, who were exposed to the sick as they gave them their last rites.  And without priests, the local people knew they were going straight to hell; a truly horrifying prospect!
We arrived in Rothenburg (after climbing that tough hill) shortly before noon.  One of the first things we witnessed was the chiming of the bells in the main square.  It is coupled with a cute demonstration of some shutters opening and two figures appearing, one of whom is drinking from a large goblet.

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The clock strikes twelve! Each hour, that guy on the right appears to guzzle 3 litres of wine, which is an event that, according to legend, saved the town back in 1631.
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Part of the central square; a bustling place full of cafes.

We went on a walking tour at 2pm (after making a detour to the local laundromat and a bakery), and learned many interesting details about the town.

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The town hall was rebuilt after a fire. The angled windows on the spiral staircase are a dead giveaway of the Renaissance style, we learned.
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Here I am comparing my arm length to Rothenburg's official measure. The others are the foot and the rod. Since each town had its own standards of measure, the distance from Rothenburg to Nuremburg was "different" than the distance from Nuremburg to Rothenburg!
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Our guide, Daniel, is showing an ingenious piece of German engineering that allowed the medieval nuns to give food donations to the poor without ever having to come into contact with the lower tiers of society. This barrel in the convent wall could be filled with goods and then turned and emptied from the outside.
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The largest church in the city had to be enlarged at one point, but there was hardly any space. They had to expand it by building an arch over one of the main streets!
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A typical street.

Rothenburg’s safety record was finally broken in the 1600s (near the end of the 30 years war) when a traveling army chose to spend the winter there.  Forty thousand troups were too much for the town of 6000.  They defended their town gallantly, but when one of their own townspeople accidentally set off an explosion in the garrison, it blew a hole in the city wall.  The 40 000 soldiers plundered the town over a period of several months and left it destitute.  Then, for 250 years, nothing much changed.  Nobody could afford to upgrade or renovate their homes so everything stayed pretty much as it was — as a medieval city.  When artists from the British Isles discovered it and started painting pictures of Rothenburg, people became interested in it for its beauty and historical value.  Our tour guide pointed out that those 19th century paintings could be considered as the first “tourist brochures”!  A tourism industry began and put Rothenburg back on the map.  Now it is once again a wealthy city, receiving over 2 million visitors each year!

We were so bewitched by this charming city that we decided to spend the night in a B&B.  We got the cutest little attic room and a fantastic German breakfast the next morning (fresh bread and lots of great cheeses and meats!)

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Sitting at the breakfast table.

I went on the “Night Watchman’s Tour” and was spellbound by his stories.  My favourite one was about how Rothenburg avoided being completely destroyed by bombs during WW2.  About 40% of its buildings were in fact destroyed in an allied bomb attack, but only because it was the alternate target in a mission to destroy a fuel supply.  These parts were later rebuilt thanks to a major international fundraising effort.  Near the end of the war, when a German commander brought his retreating platoon to Rothenburg and announced that they would defend it “to the last man”, it became a military target and was slated to be bombed again.  But… someone in a position of power in the US forces had grown up with a painting of Rothenburg in his childhood home.  He remembered his mother’s passionate descriptions of her 1914 visit to this beautiful medieval town.  This man contacted the American commander and gave the order, “Before you bomb Rothenburg, give them the option to surrender.”  Hitler’s generals were under strict orders not to negotiate, but as luck would have it, the #1 leader was out of town, leaving a second in command.  And when the option to surrender came, he took the very risky decision to accept it.  Obviously, this could have been considered an act of high treason and resulted in severe consequences for him.  But perhaps he could see the writing on the wall (it was March 1945), and decided not to sacrifice his men and all the civilians who were living there.  In response to the request that he surrender, he said,  “We’ll be out by morning.  You may have it.”  Rothenburg was not bombed, the Americans occupied it for a few weeks, and then the war ended.  So, in this way, the combined acts of an American and a German, both of whom had the courage to make independent decisions, saved many lives and a beautiful piece of medieval history.  (And the German was not accused of treason.)

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This interesting double-arched bridge was partially destroyed by the Germans themselves to stop advancing American tanks from crossing (before the surrender). Obviously it was rebuilt in the same style.

Rothenburg is now famous for its Christmas market and festival.  There are also some adorable Christmas shops and a museum showing the changing trends in Christmas decorations over time.  Many of our traditions, such as a decorated tree, candles and several Christmas carols originate in Germany.

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Rothenburg's specialty: pastry snowballs!
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Of course we had to try some!

The most spectacular building in the city is St. Jacob’s church. 

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St. Jacob's Church -- notice the "new" addition on the left (the roof colour is different).
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The Gothic spires are really impressive.
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This is actually at the back of the church, where they have displayed their most famous artifact: the altarpiece of the Holy Blood. In the past, it was an important destination for pilgrims.
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This unique scene of the Last Supper (with Judas as the central figure) was carved in wood 5 centuries ago by the German master, Tilman Riemenschneider.

An interesting feature of this carving (apart from the amazing detail in the hair and hands) is that the figure of Judas is removable.  During Holy Week, it used to be removed.  The artist’s purpose was to remind people that each one of us could be Judas.

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Here is a photo of a photo of what it looks like with and without Judas.

We loved exploring the various parts of this well-preserved historical city.

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Some of the defensive towers are in unusual locations since the original city wall had to be moved to accommodate a growing population.
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Old fortifications.
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This shows part of the double-gate defenses. The path from the first to the second gate was not straight so that shots could not be fired directly.
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Enjoying fresh-pressed apple cider in the town square.
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A modern shop in Rothenburg featured bicycles in their chic window display!

Eventually, it was time to leave this fairytale town.  But at least the path was downhill! 

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This was our route.
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We are in the south-west part of Germany, heading into Bavaria.

We rode through beautiful countryside, enjoying the lovely bike paths and seeing lots of evidence of renewable energy production:  solar panels, biogas plants and wind turbines.

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It's not all downhill, though!

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Cam happened to have a shirt that matches his bike -- he looks very colour coordinated!
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The rapeseed fields are bright yellow.
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Very well marked bike paths.
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Biogas facility.
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Rothenburg isn't the only quaint town!
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We "renegade" camped a couple of times. This spot was nest to a small road used by mountain bikers and hunters. Jake is peeking his head out of the hunting hide.
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Here he is working on his blog!
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There is a whole network of guesthouses that cater to cyclists, so it would be very possible to travel without a tent. I'm not too sure what this sign says, but it appears to be cycle-friendly!

One thing that surprised and disappointed us in Germany was the amount of smoking in public places. It’s almost as bad as Indonesia! On café patios, we really had to make an effort to be upwind from the smokers. To avoid them, one has to sit indoors, but that seems like a shame on beautiful warm spring days!

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These cigarette vending machines are a common sight. I was shocked until I noticed that to make a purchase, one must at least swipe an identity card with proof of age.
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Can you believe a cigarette billboard with the slogan "Born that way" ?!? I have never been so tempted to vandalize a sign -- I wanted to cross out 'born' and replace it with 'die'. Anti-smoking legislation is one area where Canada is ahead of Germany.

After 3 full days of cycling, we arrived in Augsburg. Since there was rain in the forecast, we decided to take the train the rest of the way to Munich. A friendly local who saw us with our bicycles at the train station informed us that there was a train strike! But in Germany, that basically means that there will ONLY be 1 train per hour. Imagine! As opposed to the usual train every 20 minutes. He advised us to check out the city and take the train in a couple of hours once all the football fans had left for the big game in Munich.

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Augsburg has a nice walking district with tram service.
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They also have an impressive cathedral. It looks sunny in this photo, but the rain did come!
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We climbed to the top of a tower to get a view of the city.
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The city suffered a lot of damage from bombing in August 1944. It took them years to rebuild.

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And finally, we got on the train with our loaded bikes.

Yvonne

The future is green at Annapurna Eco Village

We went through a time warp and got a glimpse of the future in the hills above Pokhara.  We saw sustainable food production, local building materials, and renewable energy use.  It was the year 2072!  Actually, we celebrated Nepali New Year (which fell on the night of April 13) at this serene haven of eco ideas and education.  The Nepali calendar is based on “Bikram Sambat” and is 56.7 years ahead of the common Gregorian calendar.  The Nepali calendar (which is based on lunar cycles) was started by the emperor Vikramaditya (somewhere in India) after an important military victory.  The new year always falls on the day after the new moon in the month of Chaitra.  So, happy new year 2072.  Apparently I will be turning 102!

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The "BS" stands for Bikram Sambat.

The Annapurna Eco Village is a family-run enterprise that combines simple comfortable accommodation, great local food, and opportunities to explore meditation, massage, and relaxation in general!  It can also provide a window into Nepali village life and is a good starting point for hiking in the Annapurna region.  Cam couldn’t cope with too much relaxation (LOL), so he stayed for one night and then set off on his Mardi Himal hike, which he described in the previous blog entry. Actually, he had planned for the one night stay and the ambitious hike before we left Pokhara. Kaia, Jake, and I stayed a second night to soak in the mountains from a distance and from the comfort of a hammock!

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This was our room and view. The weather was a bit cloudy, but the peaks popped out a few times.

On our first day there, the four of us took part in a 90-minute yoga/meditation/relaxation class.  Our instructor, Yubi, was excellent and really explained the reasons for all the various components of the class.  We even did lion roars (because lions represent strength, self-esteem, calmness) and laughter therapy (which Kaia excelled at)!

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Kaia and Jake with Yubi in the meditation studio.

We liked it so much that we went back for more the next day. Our favorite part was when Yubi lead us through the relaxation process step by step. We can still hear his voice saying, “Bring your awareness to the right buttock. Totally, completely relaxed.”

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Here we are in our room, blogging! Whenever we have a free moment we try to get caught up.
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There's Fishtail Mountain, and the unique Nepali flag.
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Beautiful view from the Eco Village.

So, what’s so “eco” about the Eco Village?  Well, the owners are committed to environmentally friendly practices; they research extensively and have traveled to India and France to learn about various green technologies and farming practices.  One of them gave Cam a tour of the facilities (while the rest of us were chanting “Bodum… Saranum… Ganchaaami” in the meditation room).

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These solar hot water heaters use a thermo-syphon to move water through black tubes on a black background into the storage tank. This simple technology is used around the world.
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Here, Purna is showing how drinking water is filtered through a series of sand and charcoal filters.
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This is a demo of how the filter works.
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This cow provides the milk used in the kitchen. The cow urine is collected in a trough and used to make a natural pesticide.

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Each room has a little solar panel for lighting.

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Here's a new one: a simple way to deposit "humanure"; where it can be utilised in the garden. They plan to build a movable structure around the chair and invite guests to use it if they wish!

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This burner in the kitchen uses biogas as fuel, collected from a digester that is connected to one of the toilets. They can get up to to 2 hours of cooking per day from this fuel source and likely all their cooking if all toilets were hooked up.

For more info about their mission and amenities, visit the eco village website: http://www.ecovillagenepal.com .
We met many interesting people at the eco village, including Claire and her 8-year-old daughter Salome, who are from France.  I explained to Claire the gist of our trip and said (as I have said many times over the past 8 months), “We pulled the kids out of school for the year.”  And for the first time, the response was , “Oh yeah, so did I.”

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We went for a walk with Claire, Salome, and their guide, Passan, who works for Three Sisters trekking company.
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When we got caught in the rain, we took cover at a nearby house. The woman brought out woven mats for us to sit on.

In the evening we had the chance to “help” milk the cow.

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I just love how the local women dress to do such chores. We watched as she cleaned her hands and feet before milking. Cows are sacred.

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This woman is grinding corn into flour with a stone. It was one of the ingredients in the eco-pancakes that were served for breakfast.

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They grow and process their own organic coffee beans.

Nepali New Year was celebrated in a fairly subdued way:  we had a nice meal and then Vishnu and Basantha (sons of the Adhikari family — owners) played the flute and drum while the family and some of the guests danced.

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This terrible photo taken on Kaia's phone shows us dancing to a song that got etched into our brains. (Resham filili, O resham filili...)

You can listen to this popular Nepali folk song here.

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We were given tikkas the next morning.

We had such high hopes for a prosperous new year.  Who could have guessed that less than two weeks later, Nepal would suffer its worst earthquake in 80 years?  I hope that 2072 sees a lot of healing and maybe the beginning of some type of building code that takes into consideration the likelihood of earthquakes and can protect people in the future from such catastrophes.  Nepal is one of the countries we’ve visited this year that I feel I must return to some day. The natural beauty; the people; the culture; the food… all is stunning.

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Farewell to the Himalayan mountains. Until we meet again.

Yvonne

ABC … (definitely not) as easy as 1-2-3

Our trek in Nepal seems rather frivolous in light of the recent earthquake and the suffering that is going on there. However, we have wonderful memories from our time there, and our thoughts are with the people we met.

We often had the Jackson 5 song stuck in our heads during the days of hiking towards “A.B.C.” — the popular name for Annapurna Base Camp. 

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View from the breakfast table, after our Poon Hill hike. That's Annapurna South (7219m -- not even one of the giants).

After the stunning sunrise vista at Poon Hill that Kaia described in the previous entry, we hiked through more rhododendron forests, past Prakash’s favourite viewpoint on the trek, and towards a mountain pass at Tadapani.  However, this involved a huge downhill followed by a huge uphill… affectionately known as “Nepal flat”.

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Little bit down...
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... little bit up.
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And some massive rhododendron trees in bloom. Makes me think of my bush back home that might squeak out 5 or 6 flowers a year (if I remember to fertilize it properly).
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Villages along the route are prepared for the parade of trekkers who come through each day. When you're carrying everything on your back, doesn't seem like the best place to stock up on souvenirs! But the knitted hats and socks could come in handy.
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Looking at the map while waiting for lunch.

At our lunch spot that day, we saw a hiker with his foot elevated and swollen.  One bad turn of the ankle and the trek becomes more complicated (and shorter, and probably quite a bit more expensive!)  He was a physiotherapist from Belgium and knew that his best option was to be airlifted out.  However, he had to get to a place where a helicopter could safely land which was several kilometers of “Nepal flat” away.  He limped along with a trekking pole in each hand and eventually made it to Tadapani.  We also stopped in Tadapani (early — around 1pm) because of our pre-dawn start that day (hiking by 5am).  Prakash had predicted that Tadapani would be busy and there might not be many rooms available at the tea houses.  Sure enough, we got the last 2 rooms at a fairly mediocre place.  The dining room/common space was so small that we had to take turns with the other guests to sit at the table!  But we managed to have hot showers which are a great boost to the morale.  We also spoke to a young Norwegian man who was on his way down from ABC and he was definite in his advice: “You MUST go there.”
The weather was pretty socked in at Tadapani and we didn’t get a view until around sunset when some of the peaks popped out.  Next morning, we saw the helicopter come to pick up the injured Belgian and his girlfriend. 

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Thank you, health insurance!

We hiked (mostly down) to a place called Chiule where a group of Australians was camping.  They were on an ambitious trek that should have taken them to some high passes but the weather had foiled most of their plans.

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At least they had a beautiful view to wake up to!

We had another day of steep down/steep up, but the trail was quite open in many places so we enjoyed great views across the valley.

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Healthy grains growing in the narrow terraces.
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Most cultivation is done by hand, with occasional help from a team of buffalo pulling a plow.
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Corn seems to grow well in this climate as well.
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It is dried and then stored in little shelters like this. Later, it will be ground into flour.

We passed a school that was getting a new roof.  Slate tiles.  Carried up by donkeys.

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Jingling bells announced approaching donkey trains. Fresh droppings indicated that one was not far ahead.
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Here's an example of a slate roof (not at the school) with Fishtail Mountain in the background.
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Some kids were hanging around the school (no classes that day) and we gave them some Canada pencils and pens that we had. Then the guys working on the roof asked for some, too!
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Every day seemed to be laundry day in the mountains.
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Cam and Kaia tried lifting these bags carried by porters for a large group.

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We were constantly amazed at the loads carried by porters. And the flimsy shoes they were wearing.
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Precious cargo
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New bridges have been built to cross the rivers in the valley bottoms. Then it's up, up, up again!

That afternoon, we arrived in the bustling metropolis of Chhomrong.  It actually was quite a big village that boasted some souvenir shops and not one, but two “German bakeries”!  We got set up at the Elysium Guest House (great view and excellent kitchen, we found out at dinnertime).  The guesthouses make most of their money on meals and the pricing for the rooms is based on the assumption that you buy dinner from the same establishment.  We had been thinking of eating across the road at a place that got great reviews for its burritos and chocolate cake, but when we found out that the cost of our rooms would quadruple, we changed our minds.  And the food was delicious at Elysium!

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Arriving in Chhomrong. Lots of steps and lots of shops.
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View from Elysium Guesthouse, where we stayed, looking up the valley of the Modi Khola, the river we'd follow the next day.

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Cake, coffee, and a game of cards at the German bakery. Aaah! This is the life!

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Just love this photo. One feels very small when surrounded by huge mountains and steep, deep valleys.

Next day, we started with another major downhill (the knees and thighs were really starting to feel it, and I was using a trekking pole by this point).

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The steps were rough and there were a few obstacles.
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We marveled at the labour involved in the construction of the steps.
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Look at the size of the individual stones! They would easily weigh 500kg. How far were they transported?
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Another suspension bridge with prayer flags at the bottom of a valley.

Continuing up the valley of the Modi Khola, we had lunch at a little well-named place called Bamboo.  It rained throughout the entire lunch stop, but cleared up as we got back on the trail.  

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Fuelwood needs to be used sparingly. Locals use it for their own needs, but it is not supposed to be used for tourist purposes.
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Very basic tools for a big job.
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Portable manual "sawmill"

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Local building materials, all cut by hand!

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We kept crossing paths with the same people along the route. Here we are talking to Edwin, an Australian, who was on a long trekking holiday.

We spent the night at the village of Himalaya with 35 grade 9 students from United World College in Singapore.  They were all in a pre-IB program and this was part of their outdoor education.  We were impressed!  And also kind of happy that we weren’t the supervising teachers.  But, they had several professional expedition leaders as well as an army of porters, so the students only had to carry small day packs.  The group leaders performed a simple medical exam every evening on each student.  They had spent the day acclimatizing at Himalaya (~3200m) to make sure that all were in good shape to head up to ABC.  It also meant that the students were going a bit stir-crazy and had lots of energy for singing, laughing and guitar playing into the evening (I think Kaia mentioned the paper-thin walls at the guest houses).  We made sure we left early the next morning to get well ahead of them on the trail!

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The school group took up much of the space in the dining hall. We learned that there was another similar group from their school that was heading up to Everest Base Camp (~5300m)!

The following day was one of the most exciting and scenic of the trek.  We did a substantial amount of climbing (about 1km vertical) and the mountains were really coming into view.  Until the clouds rolled in and it started to snow, that is.

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Prakash told us that this rock overhang used to shelter a very rustic guest house with about 6 beds.
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Our early start was also necessary for getting past the avalanche zones before the heat of the day.

Hiking through a place called “Deurali” en route to “MBC” (Machhapuchhre Base Camp), I realized that those names fit in quite nicely to our new version of the Jackson 5 song:
ABC, not as easy as 1-2-3,
it’s further than Deurali,
and MBC; ABC is a sight to see!

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Between Deurali and MBC, Prakash pointed out the natural colouration in the rock wall that looks like a sitting Buddha.

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The villages rely on small micro-hydro installations for electricity, mainly used for lighting. We saw many penstocks like this one.
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Kaia is crossing the glacial Modi Khola on the way to MBC.
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Heading towards the snow. We were lucky to have a clear day.
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More porters with huge loads and flip-flops. They've already walked through snow and there is more ahead.
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Approaching the Machhapuchre Base Camp. Clouds are moving in, as they often did by mid-day.
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It was (just) warm enough for us to eat lunch outdoors at MBC.
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We saw the Singaporean students arriving. They were booked in at one of the guesthouses. We chose to push on the last 2 hours to Annapurna Base Camp.

We hiked the last section in snowfall — it was beautiful! The steady uphill trek kept us warm, and we knew we’d have a room (and hopefully a view) once we got to the base camp.

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Prakash and his handy umbrella -- useful in rain, sun, and snow! I will never again trek without one!

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Cam is our porter, carrying "Big Red".

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Almost there! With all my layers on by this point.
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We made it!

In our high altitude haze, we saw some movement in the snow…

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Could it be?

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A baby yeti!!
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Dinner tasted great. There were very few others at our guest house that night.

After dinner, we actually ended up going to one of the other guesthouses to take advantage of a little more heat generated by more bodies. We played some cards, but went to bed early in anticipation of getting up for sunrise. It was a chilly night, but the extra blankets kept us just warm enough!
Yvonne

We’re fine … and so sorry about Nepal

In case you hadn’t seen our update two entries back, we are now in Germany.  We left the Kathmandu valley 6 days ago.  The earthquake is so tragic – reminds us of Haiti, insofar as its emergency response capability is very limited at the best of times, and now much of it is damaged or destroyed.  Most Nepalis live day to day, so the days ahead are difficult to imagine.  We are also really sorry about the temples that were destroyed.  We visited some of them last week and they are unique and majestic.
Stay strong, Nepal.   Nameste.
Cam, Yvonne, Kaia & Jake

Ocean Park is worth a visit

One of Hong Kong’s big attractions (rivaling HK Disney!) is a park that combines amazing aquariums, education about threats to the oceans and the conservation of endangered animals with extreme roller coasters … a combination we just couldn’t pass up!  Also, as a teacher, I have to say that the chance to visit an amusement park with my family on a weekday during the off-season was pretty enticing.  We certainly weren’t the only ones at Ocean Park that day, but crowds and lineups were reasonable.  We took the efficient MTR and an express bus to get to the site, and started our day with a visit to the Grand Aquarium.  I have said many times that our travels this year (and especially our new skills as certified scuba divers) have opened my eyes to the oceans — their beauty, diversity, and plights.  Well, the Grand Aquarium at Ocean Park can have a similar effect, minus the wetsuit and air tank! 

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The Grand Aquarium is well-named!
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Manta rays swam above us.
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Here's one we didn't manage to see in the wild: hammerheads!
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Jake used his new phone as a camera for the first time that day!
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Jake took this shot of a seahorse.
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Lionfish seem to scream out "don't touch" with their bizarre, frilly fins. They have venomous spines on their back.

In the Asian animals section, we loved the pandas — especially the cute red pandas that are more active and playful than their ‘giant’ cousins.

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Red pandas (which are, in fact, a type of bear) have beautiful thick fur and tail. They are protected due to their declining population.
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The two male giant pandas were in residence at Ocean Park while the female was back in mainland China to (hopefully) have a baby. This guy looks kind of dejected, but pandas are generally quite "lazy" since there isn't much nutrition in their main source of food: bamboo.
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There were many information panels about the threats to Giant Panda populations (specifically deforestation). One of the suggestions for how people could help was to limit their use of disposable bamboo chopsticks.
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The good news is that, although the Giant Panda population hovered at around 1000 individuals for a long time, the past decade is the first one in recorded history that has actually seen a significant increase.
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There was a whole display of unique goldfish that have been bred for certain bizarre characteristics like this popcorn-faced pair.

Of course, we also had to take in some of the rides and, on the recommendation of the grade 4 students in Shea’s class at Chinese International School (where we did our presentation), we made it a priority to ride the “Hair Raiser”.

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No turning back now ...

We didn’t buy the photo that was snapped during the ride, but here’s a pretty good facsimile (courtesy of Kaia).

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That's me on the left, and, yes, I had quite a terrified expression on my face. I don't recall the short shorts, though. Kaia stuck her tongue out the whole time to make sure it would be like that for the picture!

We got to enjoy some cooler temperatures in the arctic animals pavilion.

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The gentoo penguins shared space with rockhoppers and king penguins.

The on-site restaurants promoted sustainable seafood choices and they even had available little wallet-sized lists of good/questionable/bad seafood for different locales (compiled by World Wildlife Federation and available online).  Given their commitment to the understanding and conservation of ocean species, it was surprising to see that Ocean Park continues to prioritize and promote its controversial dolphin show.  It is quite popular and I have to admit that we watched it too.  It was clear that these captive dolphins have minds of their own as they continuously refused to do what the trainer was directing them to do!  It was the last show of the day and maybe they’d had enough of performing.  The Ocean Park animal trainers/vets have also been involved in trying to rehabilitate injured dolphins (most recently a protected Chinese white dolphin that was hit by an outboard motor and eventually had to be euthanized).

Our final stop was the “Shark Mystique” pavilion where we quickly realized we’d saved the best for last.  It houses an amazing array of sharks, but more importantly, conveyed a clear and important message about conservation.

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With all these teeth, I'm not even sure this guy can close his mouth!

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This approach to conservation was, of course, explained in both English and Chinese.

A couple of years ago, a movie called “Revolution” played briefly in Ontario cinemas.  Cam and I both took groups of students to see it.  A young Canadian film maker was researching global threats to marine environments as a follow-up to his previous documentary “Sharkwater”.  Central to his findings was the fact that earlier mass extinction episodes have always been preceded by the die-back of ocean coral.  Unfortunately, corals are highly vulnerable now due to rising ocean temperatures and acidification.  A recent CBC news article makes a comparison between ancient and current acidification events.
The film-maker (Rob Stewart) was especially interested in sharks and included disturbing scenes of shark-finning operations.  In the Shark Mystique pavilion, there were numerous panels about the unsustainable shark-finning industry that provides the main ingredient of the asian delicacy, shark-fin soup.  As someone who has never tasted it, it was easy (and somewhat useless) for me to take the pledge not to eat shark-fin soup in the future.  However, with all the Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese visitors to Ocean Park, I couldn’t help but think that the message was well placed.  The final room of the exhibit was full of TV screens with young Chinese celebrities explaining (in Mandarin with English subtitles) why they refuse to eat shark-fin soup and asking others to do the same. 
Getting to the park’s exit gate involved a cable-car ride across the mountain for which there was a 45-minute line up! 

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View of harbour and part of Hong Kong from the cable car.

When we got to the front of the line, we were irritated to see most cars leaving with only 2 passengers when they could accommodate 6!  We tried to explain to the overtired attendant that if he filled the cars, the line-up would only last 15 minutes.  He said that “people want their personal space”.  For a society that can pack themselves like sardines into the MTR trains and live in tiny apartments in 50-storey buildings in a concrete jungle, I was a bit surprised to hear that personal space was a priority!  But, I guess a day at an amusement park should allow you to escape your everyday routine. 
Thank you, Ocean Park, for doing such a great job of combining fun and education !

Yvonne