Tag Archives: Life journey

(Here are Part 2 “Impatient to Run Free” and Part 3 “I know one when I see one” of this trilogy.)

“You’ve got a dream job. You’re always on holiday, aren’t you?” is what we at On the Road hear all the time. I love what I do, but one long holiday it is not. So what is it like when we’re on the road? 

Take one day earlier this summer, June 23, as an example. Pei Fen and I were in Slovenia researching our new European itinerary. We left Ljubljana, the country’s capital, at 8am. Our first stop was at the Postonja Caves, although we just had enough time to make a GPS waypoint – the trip down into the cave was squeezed in later in our trip. Our next stop was an hour’s drive away in Lipica, the stud farm for the famous Lipizzaner horses. From there we drove an hour out of our way for lunch in a restaurant recommended by Slovenian friends.

Spot the Ferrari...

Spot the Ferrari…

After an excellent lunch (more on which later), we had a long drive south and into Croatia for a 3pm appointment with Istria’s regional Director of Tourism. By then the temperature had reached 37°C, although we kept the air-conditioning turned off in our car, relishing the dry heat after weeks of wet weather. After the meeting (held in a darkened room with no air-con and cups of room-temperature water, transforming our relish for the heat into a strong desire for a/c), we revved up Little Red – the colour of our VW Up! was a shade of red that made it look as though it was trying to impersonate a Ferrari – and headed farther south to visit one of our selected hotels for an update on the progress of their renovations and a detailed discussion of the arrangements for our first group of guests.

Even the ice cream was salty...

Even the ice cream was salty…

By this time it was 7pm, but we weren’t finished yet! Pei Fen and I went to find the team hotel we had researched and booked. But after bouncing along a pot-holed dirt road, turning left, right, back, and forward again, we just weren’t able to find it. So, to Plan B! “I know of another place, it’s a bit more expensive, but never mind, let’s call them. I hope they’ve got rooms…” We shamelessly name-dropped the Director of Tourism, finagling their last two rooms, drove there***

Miss Daisy's sister in Istria?

Miss Daisy’s sister in Istria?

, checked in, and headed out again, at 8pm, on another 45min drive to a restaurant I had tried before and wanted Pei Fen to experience: “Believe me, it’s awesome…and totally worth the drive!” In the event, though, the dinner took two-and-a-half-hours, because the chef wanted to showcase her best, and each dish was too salty – even the ice cream. By the time we returned to our hotel it was after midnight, and we had to be up by 5:45am for another, even longer day.

What a day! Does it still sound like a dream job? More like a nightmare perhaps. And yet this day was great because, amidst all the busyness, two experiences made it as special as any I can recall in a long, long time. One was seeing the majestic Lipizzaner horses; the other was the trip to find our lunch restaurant. Stay tuned for the stories of each of these magical experiences.





Miss Daisy in China

Miss Daisy in China…

*** Believe it or not, on the way to our hotel we came across a gleaming yellow Caterham Super 7, exactly like Little Yellow (小黄) which I drove 21,000km across China in 2007.

The Istrian countryside...a small corner of paradise...as Italy used to be...

The Istrian countryside…a small corner of paradise…as Italy used to be…

Interested in our new itinerary?  Please see here the Journey Dossier for Austrian-Hungarian Lands I: Vienna, the Adriatic, the Alps and Prague (12, 10 or 8 Days)

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When we first came up with the idea behind “Adventures in Yunnan”, we weren’t sure how it would be received. We had a hunch that a family driving holiday in Yunnan could be great fun, but would anyone be adventurous enough to join us with their kids?

We put together a 10-day family-friendly journey that ran from Kunming to Lijiang in short chunks with plenty of interesting stops along as many quiet back roads as possible, and began to spread the word. Four daring families signed up for the first trip and off we went. The question now was how long would it take before the cry of “Are we nearly there yet?” was heard?

After leaving Kunming, our first stop was at Yunnan’s Dinosaur Valley, the site of a “dinosaur graveyard” where palaeontologists have unearthed hundreds of complete dinosaur skeletons since excavation began in the 1930s. Armies of reconstructed dinosaurs seem to march across the main hall, while scientists work away below, discovering yet more ancient bones. Exciting enough in its own right, when coupled with the small theme park that surrounds the museum, we had a hard time persuading anyone to leave – even with the promise of lunch ahead.

Xizhou Scenery - photo by Sean Meng & Leon Meng

Xizhou Scenery – photo by Sean Meng & Leon Meng

That first day’s drive ended in Xizhou, home of the Linden Centre, one of our favourite hotels in the region, and – it turns out – a great place for families with children. The second morning saw us walking through the rice fields and into the village to see the daily market, where our guests practised their Mandarin as we stocked up on Xizhou baba, a delicious local snack of fried dough smeared with rose jam. The region around Xizhou and Dali has plenty of other activities on offer, and that first trip saw us riding a cable-car up into the Cangshan Mountains to visit a Taoist temple, cycling down quiet village lanes and eating cream cakes in a German-run bakery – making it well worth the two nights we spent there.

Biking in Xizhou Village – photo by Ron Yue

From Xizhou we drove on to Shaxi, a small village packed with well-preserved examples of traditional Bai architecture. Our group walked out into the cornfields, picnicked and happily poked about the village streets – really a world away from the choked city streets of Beijing or Shanghai that often spring to mind when thinking about travel in China.

Golden Snub Monkey - photo by Sean Meng & Leon Meng

Golden Snub Monkey – photo by Sean Meng & Leon Meng

On leaving sleepy Shaxi, we drove up the Yangtze Valley to the tiny hamlet of Tacheng. The upper reaches of the Yangtze Valley (where the river is known in Chinese as the Jinshajiang, or “River of Golden Sand”) are wonderfully scenic, with thickly forested slopes dropping away to the sandy riverbanks. Tacheng lies at the edge of the Baimashan Nature Reserve in an area famed for its biodiversity. We made time here to drive up into the reserve to spy on its most adorable residents – troops of Yunnanese snub-nosed monkeys munching on the moss that festoons the reserve’s ancient trees.

Photo by Ron Yue

Beyond Tacheng it was a steep climb to the Tibetan region around Shangri-La, where we petted yaks and visited a Tibetan family in their home. There, our guests had the opportunity to try tsampa, a dish of ground roast barley mixed to a paste with tea and butter. Younger members of the group announced it was “just like Play-doh” and spent a happy half hour moulding it into animal shapes, before heading off for a more spiritual stop at the huge Ganden Sumtseling Monastery.

Our last few nights were spent in the bustling city of Lijiang. One of Yunnan’s most popular destinations, this town lies in a beautiful valley dotted with pretty villages and headed at its northern end with the 5,600 metre-tall (18,360 feet) Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Between horseback riding and watching a fantastic open-air show in the mountain’s shadow, trying to find our way through the labyrinthine old town and playing in the hotel pool, before we knew it the trip was over and we were on our way to the airport to fly home.

photo by Jane Yong

Did anyone – parents or children – ever ask if we were nearly there yet? No, not to my memory! As a host, this itinerary really was one of my favourites. Our younger guests revelled in being taken out of their everyday environment and exposed to so many new and interesting things. Every day my colleagues and I were asked a slew of new questions, every day we staff saw something afresh through the children’s eyes, or had our attention drawn to something we hadn’t noticed previously.

Photo by Ron Yue

“Adventures in Yunnan” has gone on to become one of our most popular itineraries, with multiple departures each year timed to coincide with the school holidays. Recently we’ve added a photography-themed version of the journey, where our photographer Ron coaches guests through a fun series of travel photography field workshops.

One of the fathers from that first trip later told me, “Because your team took care of everything, we were encouraged to do something more daring than we would have attempted on our own, but now we’ve been inspired…” Since then they’ve been travelling all over Asia as a family – be warned, adventures as a family can become addictive!

Jo_white (1)



Our family-oriented journeys include:
Adventures in Yunnan
Family Adventures: Travel Photography in Yunnan” (with Ron Yue)

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Recently, I watched a documentary about Gwen Moffat, a redoubtable British climber who kept climbing into her 70s. The filmmaker asked Ms Moffat, now aged 91, if she missed the mountains. She answered, simply, “No, I don’t – they’re part of me you see, I had my time and now the hills are part of me.”

This idea – that some experiences become a part of us – is something that resonates with me, particularly this year. After years of fairly adventurous travel for work and pleasure, 2015 and (so far) 2016 have seen me on “home leave” after having a baby.

Nomads, Tibet

Going the same way, Tibet

During that time, I’ve found my thoughts returning repeatedly to past travels, to places I’ve visited and people I’ve met. After writing last year about how anticipation heightens an experience’s pleasure, I’ve realised afresh that remembering a journey enables one to experience the joy of it all over again.

Of course, a memory can be sculpted into a superior version of the lived experience. I can omit the leech bites from an impromptu jungle trek in Malaysia, I can forget the physical pain of the bumpy journey to and from Indawgyi Lake in northern Myanmar, and I can delete my sweaty panic from a bike ride along New Zealand’s beautiful Queen Charlotte Sound to catch a ferry.

Mr Wu, Tibet

Mr Wu on a memorable journey, Tibet

But instead, the memories that I recall most fondly aren’t the ones that I’ve manicured to remove the ragged edges from – they’re memories that involved some measure of personal challenge, difficulty or plain ridiculousness. That’s because they make better stories (whether I’m telling those stories to myself or to others), but also because those experiences shape my idea of what I’m capable of – even if it is a level of previously unthinkable idiocy…

As Ms Moffat says of the peaks she’s climbed, the memories of roads taken and journeys made have become part of me, and enable me to “travel” even when I’m sitting at home on a rainy afternoon. That’s what I call a souvenir…


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The small Yunnanese town of Yuanyang is famed for the steep tiers of rice terraces that snake across hillsides around the town. In winter, dawn light sparkling off the watery fields attracts legions of photographers eager to capture the sight on film – a group of On the Road photographers is about to leave for the region next week.

Yuanyang Rice Terraces

Yuanyang Rice Terraces

While many visitors come for the landscape, Yuanyang’s human side – the Hani farmers have worked the terraces for generations – is well worth exploring too. A few years ago, we were searching for a way to incorporate more contact with local communities into our itineraries. One of our guides, Zoe, had befriended the bellhop at Yuanyang’s Yunti Hotel, and he offered to introduce us to his uncle, who was the headman of a village amongst the rice fields.

Hani Minority in Yuanyang

Hani Minority in Yuanyang

One day in May, we set out from Yuanyang with a group of Swiss guests to meet the uncle and visit his village. The wisps of mist that enshrouded the rice fields slowly burnt off over the course of the walk to the village as our guests peppered the uncle with questions about village life.

The uncle took us to a house in the centre of the village. We had to duck to get through the door, and groped our way up a steep, dark staircase with a rope for a railing. The upstairs room was dark and smoky from cigarettes and an open fireplace, with a single window that allowed a cone of light to illuminate the room. Eight low stools were arranged around a small table for us. Our guests’ faces betrayed a mixture of delight – oh so exotic and friendly! – and fright – where had I taken them to?

In the mayor's home

In the mayor’s home

We took our seats and while the Q&A session continued – what is the main trade of the village? Do you have a school? How many inhabitants are there? What’s the average income? What do you think about the future? How many people live in your house? — lunch began to be served. The plates gradually accumulated – at first two dishes, then four, then eight, then twelve, they just kept coming.



Eventually, the mayor motioned for us to begin eating when Zoe suddenly started crying and burst into almost uncontrollable tears. We all looked at her, unsure what to do. I patted her on the shoulder and asked, “Zoe, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing, it’s nothing, really,” she managed to say between sobs, “it’s just that, look, look at all this food! These poor people are serving up all this for us, but maybe they would only eat like this once a year themselves, maybe never in their lives…” As Zoe spoke, a guest, Edith, got up and walked to Zoe, pulled her to her feet and gave her a warm hug.

A meal together

A meal together

No words were spoken while Zoe and Edith stood there hugging, but perhaps for a moment we all felt linguistic and cultural barriers giving way to a moment of shared emotion. At a time when nationalistic fires are being fanned around the world, it seems a timely reminder that behind the headlines there are millions of ordinary people, like the bellhop’s uncle, and like Zoe and Edith, who are making their way through life, trying to do the best for their families, and trying to lead good lives. Travel is one fantastic way to remind ourselves of this, and as Mark Twain put it in The Innocents Abroad, adapted somehow for this story:

“People need travel sorely. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. Travel, then, is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”  Let us celebrate these fatalities!





On the Road takes you to Yuanyang rice terraces on these journeys:


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This Easter, we will return to Slovenia for the second time in as many years. Yet until 2015, I’d hardly heard the country’s name, despite growing up in neighbouring Austria. Suddenly, Slovenian connections seem to be emerging all over the place.

In the Triglav National Park

In the Triglav National Park

When I was growing up in Austria in the 60s and 70s, Slovenia was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia and lay behind the Iron Curtain. In my imagination, anything connected to the USSR was rendered in monochrome – inaccessible, undesirable, and forbidden. Why would anyone want to go there?

I never had cause to reconsider this attitude until about a year ago, when my wife, Angie, and I began planning a trip to Croatia. Angie, who is originally from Malaysia, mentioned this casually to her sister Denise when visiting her last year in Melbourne.  “You’re going where?!” exclaimed her sister. “Croatia’s right next to Slovenia. My best friend is from there.”  Thirty minutes later Denise’s friend Renate had joined us to tell Angie all about Slovenia.

A few facts about Slovenia…

Slovenia is a small central European country  with a population of just two million. Part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until it became independent at the end of World War I, Slovenia shares Austria’s mountainous geography. Since joining the EU in 2004, Slovenia has become a moderately well-to-do and modern country, yet has retained a rustic and unspoiled charm. Slovenia produces wonderful wines (mostly whites but also reds) and has endeared itself to us for family restaurants that serve hearty food “like grandma used to make”.

Home made in Slovenia

Home made in Slovenia


Several of our On the Road in Europe itineraries visit Slovenia (for example, this itinerary here).  In 2017 we will be launching an Eastern Europe itinerary that will include the Czech Republic, eastern Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Northern Italy.

 “If you do go to Slovenia, I’ll introduce you to my cousin Sanja.   You can stay with her!” Just three months later Angie and I met Sanja and her husband Davorin. The couple live and work in Slovenia’s largest national park which takes its name from the country’s tallest mountain, Triglav. Sanja works in a drugstore; Davorin’s work is connected to the national park authority. They have three sons who could be the envy of any parent: courteous and lively, they come home from school to work on the family farm without their parents’ prompting. Much of what the family eats comes from their own land.  

After Angie’s meeting with Renate, our trip to Croatia expanded to take in Slovenia as well. While researching our itinerary we thought it

At Movia

At Movia

would be nice to stop at some vineyards along the way. A friend recommended Movia, one of Slovenia’s finest winemakers. The vineyard’s owner, Ales, is one of a kind, we heard. Wouldn’t it be something to meet him?

When we plan our holidays, Angie researches the hotels and restaurants; I pick the roads in between. On February 10th last year, we pulled up in front of one of Angie’s selected restaurants, Danilu, on the outskirts of Ljubljana and a member of Jeunes Restaurateur d’Europe. We were served by a fizzy young lady who turned out to be the owner’s daughter. Besides helping out in the family restaurant, she runs a night club and, to our great surprise, counts Movia’s owner Ales among her close friends. A week later we met Ales, shaking his enormous farmer’s hands, and spent an entire afternoon tasting his beautiful wines in his firelit tasting room.

On the road in Slovenia

On the Road in Slovenia

Sinuous roads lead through the Triglavsky park – one, narrow and steep, leads across a tall pass from Kranjska Gora to Soca; another enters from Italy. Less winding, the latter meanders across a lower pass and traces the course of a beautiful river. I could drive on these roads for hours without getting bored: how could one when immersed in this lovely landscape and dreamily following the curvy tarmacked ribbon of road?

We were driving through Triglavsky National Park earlier this year when I suddenly noticed something I hadn’t seen for a while. It was one of those double-take moments: did I just see what I saw? I turned around and back-tracked and then stood in front of, well, was I still in Slovenia? Or had I been transported to Tibet? Right there, in front of me, there were little cairns of stones that I had last seen along the road to Mt. Everest: sacred piles of stones that are constructed to fend off evil and bring good fortune. How had they been transported to Slovenia?

Manidui in Slovenia?

Manidui in Slovenia?

I find myself pondering how it can be that I had to go from Austria to Tibet and then via Malaysia and Australia only to discover Austria’s neighbor Slovenia and its unfathomable connections to places impossibly remote from it.

Sometimes it’s the things planned well in advance that make a journey special, like Angie’s restaurant choices or a particular route I’ve chosen, but at other times it’s the magic of serendipity – a chance collision of people and places – that transforms a journey into a really exceptional experience.

Manidui in Tibet!

Manidui in Tibet!


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On September 1, 2003 my life began anew. I had recently left my job in a large consultancy – the culmination of two decades in the corporate world – and on that Monday morning I sat down to start writing my first book, On the Road – Driving Adventures, Pleasures and Discoveries.

The chain of events that led to that morning had been set in motion six months earlier. My wife, Angie, and I were celebrating my birthday. Over dinner she presented me with a beautiful book on the Italian car designer, Pininfarina. “I know you love driving, and I wanted to give you a book about it, but I couldn’t find anything. This is closest thing out there…”

The book was fascinating, but I found my mind returning again and again to Angie’s comment that she couldn’t find any books about driving.

I started searching high and low for books on the experience of driving, but while there were thousands that dealt with cars and engines, I could find nothing that adequately expressed the joys I had experienced on the open road.

Albert D’Souza’s original words

Albert D’Souza’s original words

Surely someone somewhere had written about the marvelous sense of freedom that I, for one, feel behind the wheel? Or about the pleasure of going (and stopping) where you like? About feeling the wind in your hair and the sun on your face while driving down a beautiful country lane? How was it that I couldn’t find a single book that described all that?

Eventually, Angie made a comment that she must have since regretted: “If you can’t find a book on driving, why don’t you write one yourself?”

And so it was that on that day in September, I went for it.  It was the most thrilling and frightening decision of my life, essentially setting convention aside and making the decision to be myself. The scope for embarrassment and potential for failure seemed boundless as I slowly transcribed my feelings onto that first blank page.

*  *  *

In hindsight, the opening spread I chose for my finished book was strangely prescient. The author of this much-loved quotation, Alfred D’Souza, might be horrified at my adaptation of his words, but for me this version still rings true.

That first page was the beginning of all my subsequent adventures (about which more later). Starting by simply facing down my own fears of embarrassment and failure, I’ve slowly built a richer, fuller life for myself, one more in tune with my own energy and passions. Just think what might happen if you dare to be yourself, and to “dance as though no one was watching”?  What might lie around the corner?





On the Road’s opening spread

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