Monday, 26 June 2017

Sacred Ovoo's of Mongolia

Story & photos by Joanne Coughlan - Blue Dot Travel

According to Wiktionary an Ovoo is a shamanistic cairn found in Mongolia, usually made from rocks or wood and found on or around mountains.  These large piles are found on mountain passes, many built simply as markers for distances but most are repositories of offerings for local spirits - Shamans were the holy men of the ancient Mongols, credited with special powers that allowed them to talk to the gods on behalf of their tribe.

Upon arriving at an Ovoo, a Mongolian must stop and walk around them clockwise three times, make an offering and make a wish.  This offering can be money, lollies, strands from a horses tail, blue skarf (khadag) or another rock would also suffice. Mongolia is known as the Land of Blue Heaven and so the khadag is blue, the most sacred colour in Mongolian culture, representing the eternal blue sky. 

When you come across an Ovoo you should show gratitude and respect and honour the spirits of the surrounding land.  Most of the Mongolian people are Buddhist but the old ways are still among them as evidenced in their festivals and customs.

When you visit Mongolia, make sure you circle an Ovoo and leave a khadag to fly in the wind - it's a delightful custom and you will leave a little of yourself in the magnificent country that is Mongolia. 

Blue Dot Travel has its first of two Mongolia tours departing on 1 July 2018 which includes travel on the Trans Mongolian Railway from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital. Click here for details. The second tour is scheduled just one week later on 7 July 2018 and includes a trip to Lake Hovsgol, home of the nomadic reindeer herders, and close to the norther border with Russian . Click here for details.  Both trips will include a regional Naadam festival. 

Mongolia Map
Ovoo at the Flaming Cliffs in Southern Gobi
Flaming Cliffs in Southern Gobi

Brod Brennan form Blue Dot Travel in the Yol Valley with an Ovoo in background

Monday, 19 June 2017

Cape Town - Africa’s Most Beautiful City

Cape Town from Table Mountain aerial cableway

Photos & blog by Brett Goulston

It’s hard to argue about the beauty of this city, at the very bottom of the African continent. With Table Mountain as a backdrop to the harbour, it’s difficult to take a bad photo. Not only does it have natural beauty, it’s packed with things to see and do for all ages. It is not difficult to fill four or five days – or more, sight seeing in Cape Town South Africa. 

Cape Town has become a safe destination for the traveller, providing you stay in the right area. The V&A Harbour precinct (Victoria & Alexander) has a large police and private security presence. The reputation was not great going back 10 years or more but you certainly feel safe these days. 

Most of the tourist action is at V&A which was completely refurbished about 5 years ago. There are many wonderful shops selling local products, markets, great restaurants (complete with views), cafes and buskers galore. People watching is a great pastime in this area, especially given the fact that it is not expensive to sit, eat and drink when compared to home! 

On your trip make sure you take the cable car to the national park at the top of Table Mountain. The views are to die for and there’s some highly enjoyable short walks. A half-day ferry trip to Robben Island where the great Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison is also worth the money and the effort. There are multiple ferry services each day. Plus, Cape Town also has some interesting museums. One worthy of special mention is called  District Six. It documents how the locals (mainly poorer, black citizens) were  forcibly removed from their homes to make way for a new business district in the 1970’s during the apartheid period. 

Leave the city for day trips to the “winelands” where both food and wine will want you coming back for more. Paarl, Franshhoek and Stelenbosch are all worth visiting and can be done together in one day. A full day Cape Town tour is also a great way to see the local region. You’ll see a lot of wildlife (seals, penguins and more) plus pretty colonial towns like Simon's Town which is great for a lunch stop - fish & chips by the water.  

Finally, for the real adventure seekers, shark cage diving at Hermanus – about two hours drive – will get the adrenaline rushing. If you survive, it makes for a great dinner party story!  So you can see there are plenty of things to do in Cape Town. 

Click here for more information about Blue Dot Travel's small group wildlife safari tour which also takes in Cape Town. 

Map of Cape Town and surrounding areas
Cape Town with Table Mountain in background

Table Mountain aerial cableway

The ridge of Table Mountain erupts out of the coastal fringe

Rock hyrax commonly called a dassie

Nelson Mandela's statue on Robben Island with Brett & Holly Goulston

Baboon living in the Table Mountain national park

Cape of Good Hope - the most south-western point of the African continent

Local seal off Simon's Town

Central Hotel Simon's town

African penguin at Simon's Town

Monday, 12 June 2017

There are fish markets and then, there are fish markets! Busan, South Korea

 The Jagalchi Fsh Markets of Busan, South Kores

Photos & story by Brett Goulston

There are fish markets and then, there are fish markets!   The Jagalchi Fish Markets in Busan fall into the latter category. Markets are not every traveler’s “thing” but I have to confess to being a market tragic - especially when they are there for the locals, not the tourists. And even more so when they don’t have heaps of stuff manufactured in that country that manufactures everything!

I spent a few days in Busan which is Korea’s second major city. There’s over 3 million people but this makes it about one third the size of the capital. 

The question is what to see in Busan South Korea?  There’s a lot to see and do including temples, beaches, cultural villages, shopping and great food. However the main attraction – in my view – is the fish markets. They are housed in two buildings – a huge modern complex and an older one right next door. I’m not sure how big they are but it feels like the size of an undercover a football field. As you would expect, there’s a strong smell of the ocean and of fish so be prepared for this. There’s yelling and screaming from every direction. Many of the stall owners are woman and I was hissed at by one elderly lady when I went to take a photo of her display. (While I thought it was quite funny at the time, she certainly didn’t). 

If it moves and lives in the sea, chances are, it’s for sale at these markets. In fact, it doesn’t even have to move! You’ll find, fish, squid and octopus, sea urchins, mollusks, slugs, seaweed, and the biggest crabs in the history of crabs – no kidding.  

A word of warning or two... You’re likely to get wet feet so wear old shoes. And if you are going to take photos, ask first or do it without getting caught. Or, like me you might get hissed at! 

Blue Dot Travel stop over in Korea on the way to The Stans of Central Asia.  Many of our clients spend a few additional days exploring South Korea.  You can do a day trip from Seoul to Busan on the high speed train.  It is 3 hours each way so consider staying over night.

Map of South Korea

Fish markets in Busan

A cornucopia of sea creatures in Busan!

The busy port of Busan

Someone has to open the shells!
Busan is South Korea's second largest city

You can buy just about anything at the Busan markets

Monday, 5 June 2017

Kolkata and its street markets

Famous Kolkata River Ghats
Story & photos by Brod Brennan

Kolkata has a dark history from the days of it’s formation by the British East India company in the late 1600s to the early Bengal insurrections such as the Black Hole of Calcutta and the India freedom movement of Gandhi.  The very essence of India’s nationhood stems from Kolkata’s intellectual class and their sense of independence. It was this fierce independence that led the British to move the capital from Kolkata to Delhi in 1911.

Modern day Kolkata is a vibrant and confident city. The Hooghly River, a tributary of the massive Ganges River, is the sacred heart  of the city with early morning offerings to Shiva along the banks of the Ghats that were built by well off Kolkata businessmen as gifts to the people of Kolkata. Whilst the cremation of the dead is now forbidden along the banks of the Hooghly, the river is still revered as the Ganga, the giver of life and the most holy river in all of India.

Adjacent to the Hooghly ghats is the Kolkata flower markets.  A wild explosion of yellow and orange marigold wreaths, red roses and kum kums create a spectacular chorus of colour matched only by the wild cachophany of merchants bidding against one another. The massive bunches of flowers are delivered chaotically on the backs of men and women to be traded three times a day to ensure freshness and to keep up with the cities insatiable demand from the hundreds of Hindi, buddhist and Jain temples. These should all be added to your Kolkata trip. 

Further up from the flower markets are the Kolkata potters markets. They were in a lull period during our visit which was after the festival season when the potters are in full swing making life size clay replicas of the Ganesh, Shiva, Krishna and Vishnu for street parades, festival ceremonies and offerings down at the river side.

The artisans have specialised roles from forming the underling base of the figure in weaved bamboo, through to the rough casting in cow dung to the final fine clay layers where detail is added to the deities before they are brightly painted, ready for the celebrations. Kolkata’s markets are the pulse of a throbbing city that is a visual and spiritual celebration of modern day India’s cultural diversity.  Our walking tours are the perfect way to experience Kolkata at it’s best and should be added to your itinerary for your trip to Kolkata.  

Join Blue Dot Travel in November when our small group tour to Nagaland and North East India includes this wonderful city of Kolkata.  Click here for details.

After cleansing in the river .....

... there's time for special prayer

Kolkata flower market seller

Colourful threaded blooms at the Kolkata flower market

Strings of yellow and gold marigolds at the Kolkata flower market

Fragrant rose petals abound

Always time for a chai in a disposable clay cup

Potters' quarter near Kolkata flower market churn out wonderful statues

Quiet time to read the paper

Kolkata Jain temple 

Beautiful ladies outside Kolkata Jain temple