Growing up I LOVED (and still love) watching The Mummy, The Scorpion King and Aladdin with my parents. I admired the Arabian landscape and all the family-friendly adventure that came with those films. They seemed overly superficial to me, untouchable and afar from the booming metropolis, modern architecture and greenery I’m accustomed to here. There’s something so luxurious about seeing ancient limestone buildings blending in the same color schemes. It resembles a monochrome plateau, a perfect mirage of blue skies complemented by yellow sands and nothing else in between.
I found myself wanting to see a piece of this history in January. The original plan was to travel in a largely guided tour to Israel and Jordan but quickly turned into a custom private tour. Those larger tour groups didn’t stop in the cities I wanted to see ie. Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Dubai.
People thought I was mad for traveling without a commercial tour group. But I write this in the hopes of providing some reassurance to those (solo or not) willing to travel to Egypt in a private tour with a stopover in Dubai/Abu Dhabi for a week.
The trip began with flying from Indonesia to Dubai on a 6 hour flight with Emirates. Flying from Indonesia meant that one, we could stopover, relax for a couple of days before embarking on the 8-hour flight and two, spend time with our relatives. Indonesia is also a great stopover on the way from Melbourne to Dubai for those who aren’t overly committed to a long haul flight. We arrived in Dubai at 12am.
Our hotel was within the vicinity of one of the largest malls in the world, just a short walk to the Dubai Mall we were confronted with 1200+ international retailers under the one roof. The Dubai mall is split into two malls: one being the main mall and the other being the designer mall. A bridge connects the two…seriously an indoor sanctuary just for designer brands? Help me.
Dubai is simple to navigate so there wasn’t the need for a tour on this leg. If you must, there’s the famous Hop On Hop Off tour bus around the city. Sometimes I get asked if it’s a safe city, I felt 99.9% safe. Locals are friendly and taxis are cheap – sometimes cheaper than an Uber. We also met a very friendly driver from Nepal, Tara. He kindly gave his number to us if we ever needed a driver! Weather is at its best this time of the year, we couldn’t fault it. The first 2 days saw us shopping in the Dubai Mall, soaking in sights of the Burj Khalifa, seeing local art, trying Emirati food, Skydiving and dessert dune bashing.
We jetted off to Cairo on the third day. At this point we still coordinated the flights ourselves. We drove from Dubai to Abu Dhabi which took an hour and 20 minute drive, $80 for all of us in one taxi. Earlier I mentioned the friendly driver from Nepal, Tara was the man to drive us that early! We called him up the night before and BAM there he was, gracing us with his presence in the hotel lobby. We boarded an Etihad flight that only cost us $250 AUD per person for a 3-hour return flight from Abu Dhabi. It was a nice modern fleet too.
A month prior to the trip I was referred to Ashraf, a tour guide my uncle used when he went to Egypt last year. Ashraf now runs an Egyptian tour company called Silvertoursegypt.com and has been busy with the business. He’s no longer a tour guide himself but manages the tours and organizes contractor tour guides in Northern and Southern Egypt. Together we designed a 4-day custom Egypt itinerary over WhatsApp. All up it cost us $495 USD for the tailor-made tour inclusive of:
• Tour guides (one per city)
• A driver with spacious mini vans (different driver per city)
• Entry tickets to iconic sites around Cairo, Abu Simbel, Aswan and Luxor.
• Domestic flights from Cairo to Aswan, Luxor to Cairo (tour guides will meet at the airport)
• Airport/hotel pick-ups and the best part, it covers the long 7-hour drive from Abu Simbel to Luxor. Food and drinks aren’t included but we were welcome to stop anytime at restaurants/fast-food places throughout the day. Tipping the driver at the end of the day is also necessary but we didn’t need to tip the tour guide.
So how did we organize the payment? A 20% deposit was required and easily payable over Western Union. This down payment was needed to guarantee our domestic flights which Ashraf booked in advance. He promptly emailed our flight tickets. The rest of the payment was made in cash on arrival. As soon as the driver, the representative and tour guide picked us up, we paid them in USD. For most Egyptian tours they’ll organize a representative to pick you up inside the airport right after you disembark the plane. The representative will help you get through immigration without any hassle and from there you pick up your luggage, go to the toilet and the representative will show you the way to the mini van where the guide and driver awaits.
Upon arrival in Cairo we went straight to the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx of Giza. First impressions, a jungle of tourists. Second impressions, it’s breathtaking. The feeling reminded me of entering the Great Wall of China. A plethora of tour buses at the entrance but once you enter, tourists disperse and you get a clear view of that giant piece of history right before your eyes. Another reason why the experience reminded me of the Great Wall is of course, the hagglers. No matter the country, there’s a haggler challenging your visit. From tipping $5 to Spiderman for a damn photo in the Hollywood Walk of Fame to a haggler claiming he takes the best photo angles in Egypt and forcefully ties a headscarf around your head without consent. We are again, victims! Eventually we tipped them. They all prey on you so just ignore them and pretend they aren’t there. The tour guide will remind you repeatedly as hagglers can slow down the tour schedule.
The sun sets over the Sphinx and that brought an end to our first day in Cairo. The guide and driver took us to a nearby KFC (as requested) for a quick dinner before touring a local Papyrus shop and finally dropping us to our hotel. We stayed at Marriott Mena House which is literally next to the Pyramids. Very beautiful and I wish I spent more time in the courtyard gazing at the silhouette of the pyramids.
From Cairo we flew to Aswan airport on Egypt Air (1 hour), drove to Abu Simbel (3 hours), then back to Aswan and did another 4-hour drive up to Luxor as the final leg of the trip. The memory of driving from Aswan to Luxor is so distinct to me. We encountered a few unprecedented events in the van. For 7 straight hours, we are LITERALLY in a van with manual transmission. I couldn’t stop thinking if this van was gonna break down or not. Driving past extremely rural areas, parallel to the Nile River you’ll find yourself on insanely underdeveloped roads and plenty of areas that are deserted…SO deserted to the point it’s infinite lands of sand and wonky powerlines. We had zero signal for most of the ride. Even at one stopover was at a suspicious-looking restaurant with no customers in the middle of nowhere. So it kinda felt like we were stranded with a group of strangers but not gonna lie, having a female guide made it feel a little safer for us.
We spent the remaining days in Luxor and stayed at the majestic Hilton Luxor which kindly served us complimentary breakfast overlooking the Nile. We also had authentic Egyptian cuisine for lunch in Luxor with the guide and it was tasty! As wonderful as the sites were in Luxor, my favorite part was seeing the Stone factory as suggested by our lovely tour guide. I got all of my cherished Egyptian souvenirs from this one place because it was easy to bargain, made of premium limestone and had endless options.
The tour ended when they dropped us at Luxor Airport to catch a flight back to Cairo and from there we waited for our flight back to Abu Dhabi.
The experiences here are vastly different to what I’ve experienced on other trips. It pushed us beyond our comfort zone and made me realize how truly remarkable it is to travel with family who appreciate the adventure, the art and history of these places as much as I do. Not a single moment is taken for granted.
China is grand. It’s hectic and majestic. It’s overwhelming.
Exactly this time a year ago, My first trip to China was a family holiday, setting sights on tourist attractions, food and of course, shopping. But at this present time, I was privileged to return to China for a 2-week holiday and business trip.
My business partner, Serena, and I are currently in the product development stage of Lūmmi, a line of infant and adult organic sleepwear we’re creating based on a cotton bunny. It is a long but steady process that’s taken many months, days and hours to prepare. Amid all the discussions and rapid decision-making towards the end of 2017, this trip to China brought finality to our product. We just needed to pack our bags and go.
Why source in China? Well, why not source in China? Skilled and affordable labor work in their favour. More importantly, it’s the cherry on top when Serena has direct contacts there. Sourcing from China gave me a glimpse into the Chinese market. It is an opportunity for any foreigner like myself to further observe Chinese hospitality authentically with a native Chinese like Serena.
We left Melbourne on a sunny December morning. We made a stopover in Shanghai for one night before flying over to Beijing. From Beijing we drove to Tianjin, Serena’s hometown. The first few days were practically nice and easy days, walking to 3 cafes in downtown Shanghai, exploring her city, and taking a bullet train to Wuqing and Beijing for further shopping and art galleries.
Hungry Jack’s before boarding
Passing through immigration at Shanghai
Shanghai stopover Tianjin – the sister city of Melbourne. Looks quite similar.
Beijing 798 artzone
Bullet train to Beijing
Chinese pancake street food at 12AM in Tianjin
Dinner on Christmas Day with Serena’s family and they introduced me to this beverage. 53% Chinese alcohol. No further caption needed for this…
One of my favorite peanuts ever in the Tsingtao beer museum
Then the business starts.
Waking up in Qingdao on an early frosty but sunny morning, we met up with “Aunty Lummi”, our main contact for prototyping and batch producing our final product. We were first taken into a sampling room lead by the aunty which was situated inside a small commercial building block. It was a tight space with 4 lovely ladies who were responsible for sewing prototypes of our products. Surrounding the ladies were nothing but sewing machines and tables filled with piles of sample garments they had created for other clients. There was no space left and even if there was space, it would be immediately filled with more piles of fabric.
Making our way through the tight space, we walk into another small room tucked away in the corner of the sampling room. This was were we sat with Aunty Lummi to talk about amending our garment measurements. We wrapped up just around lunchtime and made our way to McDonalds. Not a bad choice huh? To our surprise this was Aunty Lummi ‘s first time having McDonald’s in her city. We treated ourselves with so much chicken, the Chinese McDonalds menu had an array of chicken options including a spicy chicken burger and a box of chicken. I must say, it’s tasty. We had warm milk tea to accompany our order too. We ate more chicken than you normally would in a KFC session.
After a few hours of lunch, Aunty drove us to our manufacturing facility to tour the full production line in action. Again it was in a commercial building but this time there was no elevators. About 376548 flights of stairs later we finally arrive at the entrance door of the facility. We were lead by Aunty Lummi and the manager of the factory who greeted us with tea. I noticed a little Hello Kitty canister on the side which was cute! PS the garments in the factory photos aren’t our garments being made, it’s a batch made for another client.
Piles of fabric before it gets cut into separate pattern pieces.
It was a relief to see there was enough natural light coming into the space these workers are working at. It was different to what I expected, in a much better way that is. I imagined it to be packed, noisy and rowdy. But this felt calm and wasn’t all that loud. An open yet confined layout, I found it pleasant to watch what seemed to be a close knit group of people rather than a warehouse of 1000 staffers where quality can’t easily be monitored. After walking around we got seated back into the manager’s office where he invited us out for lunch the next day. We accepted the offer and headed back home after quite an exhausting day.
Spending the rest of the night in the hotel, Serena ordered dinner, by dinner I mean fruits that were ordered through an app. Yeah we got fruits delivered to our hotel! That pretty much wrapped up day one in Qingdao.
Day 2 and it was the last day in Qingdao. In contrast to day one, there was a lot of smog in the air this time. As Serena said, “see, this is pollution”. To me it just looked like a Melbourne foggy day right in the heart of a cold winter. This was the first time this trip I had ever seen much smog. I still can’t complain about the weather, the forecast thus far has been clear with blue skies and zero rainfall at this time of the year! We headed towards an office building to check out a clothe hanger supplier. The two ladies who welcomed us with hot tea had a few different types of hangers that we could probably use in the future. The baby hangers are by far the cutest. Best of all they are 100% recyclable and very well made.
We reunited with Aunty Lummi outside the building where she drove us to a nearby complex to have coffee. China’s answer to Starbucks is their very own “Costa Coffee”. You’ll see this on every corner and it’s about time I finally try it. I’m not a heavy coffee drinker like many Melburnians but I do like a good latte with two sugars. My verdict on Costa Coffee: it tastes great! Put me in starbucks, I am happy, put me in costa coffee and I am still happy. Double the happiness. I find these are the only places you’ll find a good coffee quickly. There are also many cute boutique-y cafes in China serving great coffee but they don’t do take-out coffee.
Progressing into the day we had a seafood lunch hosted by the factory managers. Qingdao cuisine is packed with seafood as it is a coastal city. One of their signature dishes happens to be one of my favorite seafood dishes, spicy XO pipis. The whole lunch is paired with some refreshing bottles of Tsingtao beer, Qingdao’s famous beer invented by German settlers. I say refreshing because I find it less strong and more diluted than other beers. I’m no beer lover so don’t trust my judgement! But this beer suits me.
Day 2 ended there. Aunty Lummi picked us up from the hotel and dropped us to the airport the following morning where we departed for Harbin for the new year.
What 5 hours in a car looks like
Left the apple and water bottle overnight in the car. Next minute it freezes up.
The Modern Museum of Art is currently exhibiting at the National Gallery of Victoria until October 7th. It includes a range of works straight from MoMA New York, which houses the most modernist collections of art in the world. My favorites Gaugin, Lichtenstein, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, Duchamp, KAWS, Warhol, Haring, Pollock, Mondrian, Koons, *breathes* and Dali are household names especially when it comes to MoMA. You’ll be able to spot their art here in Melbourne before it gets shipped back home to midtown, Manhattan.
During my trip to the US 4 years ago, I actually stoppped by MoMA by mistake. My family stayed in midtown right in the heart of Times Square, making it convenient for us to walk anywhere. I remembered as soon as we checked in our hotel, we unpacked, napped for 2 hours, ate hash browns at the McDonalds downstairs and headed towards 6th and 5th Avenues, spending the rest of the day exploring nearby hotspots. On the way, we noticed a busy Halal Guys street cart and ordered proper lunch. Given it’s a new york street cart, customer seats don’t exist so we ate our plates of meat on rice while walking towards 6th/5th avenues. It was tough!
3 minutes later a miracle happened, we saw MoMA and it had public seating at the entrance! We happily seated ourselves right there with all the museum goers, chewing away our delicious meat on rice.
That was my first MoMA experience.
At the time of that event, Henri Matisse was headlining a major show at the museum. Now that MoMA is here in Melb it made me a little nostalgic seeing the artworks. Some familiar ones, some not. What I remember the most in MoMA New York was how impressive the store was. It’s hard not to burn the wallet when you have a heap of exclusive books and design-y products right before your eyes and you know you can’t get them anywhere else. Which brings me to this next photo, a KAWS BFF figure that only stocks in MoMA New York and nowhere else. I subscribe to the MoMA site and everytime I get notified of any KAWS product available online, the store crashes. This is just how it rolls when you deal with international fanatics trying to order a freaking toy. No need for that now. It’s here, purchasable in Melbourne!
Kaws is the epitome of modern art. After his Shanghai exhibition and seeing this for sale in Melbourne, I sure hope we get a Kaws exhibition soon.
A right-brainer by day and occasional blogger by night, you've landed on a place where I document life in the creative field and endless travels with friends and family
Design had evolved naturally, as a passion and a lifestyle beginning at an early age when I made trips back to the motherland, Indonesia, I experienced the surroundings and the lifestyle that was vastly different from what I was used to. I found myself passing by villages where children made their own toys with whatever was left around them; scrap metal, bits of cloth, banana leaves, and even cigarette butts. Despite this, the children were happy and proud with anything they created.
This image struck me and forever inspires me to contribute my skills to places that need it the most. Design helps me make decisions, while art helps me take risks. Both areas reward me with opportunities to create something impactful and everlasting!