Smashed Marble columns, glass and pottery. Exploring the ruins of Xanadu

Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan the legendary warlord who subjugated China from his Mongolian stronghold, built the Xanadu palace complex as a summer retreat from the heat of the Forbidden city in Beijing. The palace is arranged in a pattern of three concentric walled circles. Standing on the outer crumbling wall little remains of the buildings that once stood inside, only the odd column base, and linear foundations are visible amongst the plains of grass. When the Khan lived here many of the buildings were temporary, large tents were erected on arrival and taken down on departure.

Stuffed Squirrels and wandering Sheep: Inside Xanadu

Waiting for Mr Wong I looked through the Jinlianchuan hotel gift shop. It had the a delightful array of essential products seen to be required by tourists. No toothpaste or mineral water, but huge quantities of local brands of alcohol, sharing shelf space with stuffed squirrels in tasteful poses.

In the middle of the Gobi Desert, by Mistake.

The benefits of traveling in an emergency vehicle were becoming quickly apparent. Apart from the comfy leather seats and air conditioning, having sirens and flashing lights gave us the the ability to evade the many tolls on the road heading north. The method Mr Wong used was to slow down as he approached the toll booths, and then turn on the sirens and flashing lights as he sped up past the astonished booth employee. Every time he did this the grin on his face got larger and larger, he was enjoying this even more than us!

One of our emergency vehicles is missing. The road to Xanadu

The hotel travel desk was not being particularly helpful. Run by the ubiquitous government agency CITS (China Tourist Bureau), when I explained I wanted to go to Xanadu I was met with big smiles and an enthusiastic "Yes". I got quite excited. Unfortunately they thought I wanted a car and driver to take me to the Great Wall, a common request from most tourists staying there.

RIP Nelson Mandela. The day I made Nelson Mandela laugh

It's not every day you bump into Nelson Mandela. I had arrived from London via Athens and Nairobi on an epic Olympic Airways flight. I was exhausted, hungover and wondering how to safely get to my hotel in Hillbrow. All of a sudden there was a commotion and a group of six men with AK47 guns surrounding a small figure were moving swiftly out of the airport. It was the recently released Nelson Mandela, who was returning from his first overseas trip to Windhoek in Namibia. Everyone else in the airport seemed to be ignoring them, and there was no rush of journalists or photographers ready to greet them.

Getting to Xanadu, Via a Peking Duck restaurant. Beijing, China

"In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
a stately pleasure dome decree,
where alph, the sacred river, ran

What have Machu Picchu, Nelson Mandela and Robert Smith all got in common?

Peru will be the subject of one of the forthcoming series of posts in Farflungplaces. Here is an early taste of one of the posts, thanks to our sponsors, Marca Peru.

Organising a Piss Up in a Brewery. Port Vila, Vanuatu.

There has not been enough focus on beer in Farflungplaces, an important part of the travel experience. I will attempt to put this right with this post.

WWII Madness. Million Dollar Point. Santo, Vanuatu

Like most of Vanuatu, Espirutu Santo in the northern chain of islands, was occupied by the Americans during WWII to launch their attacks on the Japanese in the Pacific. On their departure from the island they left behind infrastructure like roads and runways, and even buildings, with army built Quonset huts still standing around Santo. The biggest legacy is Million Dollar Point, both historically fascinating, but environmentally destructive, and a monument to greed and stupidity.

An island of Blue holes, Beaches and Beef. Santo, Vanuatu.

Espiritu Santo (just Santo to the locals) is what the Spanish thought Australia looked like. The explorer De Querios 'discovered' Santo in 1606 and believed he had found the great southern continent. Admittedly the mangroves and the hot humid temperatures do resemble far north Queensland, but that is all.

Top ten insider tips for Port Vila, Vanuatu

1. On a Wednesday night head down to the Nambawan cafe for their outdoor cinema (you can also go Saturday and Sunday (family film night)). Sitting in comfy chairs, or lying on a blanket, with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and eating one of their tasty pizzas is a great way to spend the evening. As the sun goes down the film begins, with a beautiful backdrop of the harbour. This is a real bonus, if the film is a real shocker you can watch the yachts coming and going, and look up at the stars. If only I could do that at a normal cinema...

The film premiere of 'Lon Marum' in Sydney. Nov 28th, 2013.

For those in Sydney, or close to Sydney, a reminder that the Australian premiere of Lon Marum is at the Macleay Museum at Sydney University on the 28th November at 5PM.

A Cargo cult, Waiting for the Americans to return. Inyeung, Vanuatu.

Inyeung island, or Mystery island, is the southern most island in Vanuatu. It is little visited except by the occasional cruise ship, the intrepid traveller catching a boat across from Aneityum (Anatom), or waiting for the weekly flight from Tanna.

Prince Philip is a God. Life in a Kastam village. Tanna, Vanuatu

Tanna gets a bad press from inhabitants of the other islands of Vanuatu. Whenever a burglary or crime occurs in Port Vila on the main Efate island 'Man blong Tanna' will conveniently (and mostly unfairly) get the blame. They are a close knit community who have a warlike history against other islands, particularly Erromango to the north, and to unwanted visitors. Missionaries would be eaten before they had the chance to convert.

The easy way to climb a Volcano. Mount Yasur, Tanna, Vanuatu

Not all volcanic climbs involve multi-day long treks across difficult terrain to view into a crater. Most do, but not all. Mount Yasur in Tanna is probably the easiest Volcano to climb in the world. It is as simple as paying for a trip in a 4WD car across the ash plains and then a drive up a muddy track to a car park just below the rim of the crater.

Mi Wantem Parcels (I want my Luggage). Bislama in Vanuatu

The national language of Vanuatu is Bislama, a form of pidgin English mixed with the odd French word, thanks to the islands history being ruled by the Anglo-Franco condominium. A rather unique and bizarre joint colonial rule that lasted until independence in 1980. Wonderful stories exist of the rivalry between the French and British, such as paying for an independent Swiss national to oversee all flag raisings to ensure neither countries flag was higher!

Lopevi Volcano, Vanuatu

Catching the plane back to Port Vila from Craig Cove, was going to give  me a great chance to see Mt Benbow from the air. But despite being a blue sky day, the whole of the volcano and surrounding caldera was shrouded in clouds and volcanic smoke by the time the plane took off. But, to make up for this, I did see the Lopevi volcano, about 8 km’s from Ambrym.

The Magical Rom dance. Ambrym, Vanuatu.

The descent from the crater of the Mt Benbow did not quite work out as planned. After returning to pick up our tents, we put on our backpacks and re-crossed the lava fields and ravines of the caldera. Again we were alternately soaked by storms or burnt by the sun.

Black Magic, and why Missionaries stood no chance. Ambrym. Vanuatu

Ambrym is still relatively untouched by western thoughts and values, and traditional custom beliefs remain very strong, particularly in the North East and North West villages, maybe not coincidentally the furthest settlements from the two small airports here.

Thunder from the Earth. On top of Mt Benbow, Ambrym. Vanuatu

Sleeping on a ridge next to an active volcano was an experience I will never forget. Mt Benbow in Ambrym was noisy all night long. There would be a period of silence, and then it would make a rumbling noise like thunder, which shook the ground, before subsiding to silence again.

The barefoot volcano ascent. Mt Benbow, Ambrym.

We were now in uncharted territory for me. Climbing canyons and lava flows are one thing, clambering up mountain sides with nothing to grab onto (oh how I missed those tree roots) and on a slippery ash based surface is another. I had walked up mountain sides with scree before, but scree is made up of small rocks and gives your feet more grip than the tiny particles of ash. We were climbing on the crater of the Mt Benbow volcano in Ambrym. The scenery was bleak, volcanic acid rain had removed all vegetation, and it was 15C colder than the beginning of the trail.

Mud, sweat and broken bones. Climbing in the Caldera. Ambrym, Vanuatu

Walking on black volcanic ash is not as easy as it looks. Initially it was hard and compacted, and like walking on a footpath, but soon it became loose and feet could disappear to above the ankle. The ground was still flat, but after about an hour we started to climb, and the ash ended, being replaced by lava and mud.

The ash river in Ambrym, Vanuatu

My host booked the car for 5:00AM, again the local pigs removed any need for my alarm clock. When I say the car, I mean literally “The Car”. West Ambrym has one taxi (and I believe East Ambrym may have another one, which makes for only 2 cars on this island). This could make for a problem if it ever broke down, but that was not something I thought of at this time.

Living by solar power and bartering. Craig Cove, Ambrym Island, Vanuatu

Alarm clocks are unnecessary on Ambrym. If it was not the Cockerels sensing 4AM was a good time to test their lungs, then the pigs scrabbling and fighting beneath my hut ensured sleep was over.

Chickens, Dexter and the volcanic sand landing strip at Ambrym island, Vanuatu

The Air Vanuatu Twin Otter's act like buses to the islands surrounding Efate, the main island of Vanuatu. Expensive buses though, particularly for locals, as this 45 minute flight costs about US$100. The alternative is to go by boat, a 24 hour journey at a quarter of the cost, in a pretty uncomfortable ferry. Which have been known to sink. Air Vanuatu is my choice, a very safe airline (there has been the odd mishap, but mostly at night and in bad weather, so I will gloss over that).

Lamen Bay and Peanuts, Epi, Vanautu

There are so many islands to explore in Vanautu, eighty three in total. But, unless you have a yacht you are constrained by the Air Vanuatu schedule. Epi was the choice this time, not a live volcano, although the island itself is the remains of one, and underwater volcanoes, and the cone volcanoes of Lopevi and Ambrym are neighbours.

Wala, an island of large statues and small Namba's

Wala is a small island, a short ferry ride off the north eastern tip of Malakula, its much larger neighbour. The island is a curious mix of Malakula and Ambrym, with Tam Tam statues making an appearance, while the islanders wear small namba leaf penis sheaths. Namba in Bislama means Number, an oblique reference to the penis, and their traditional costume proudly shows off their small namba's, albeit surrounded by a healthy amount of flowers from a native tree.

Coconuts, fishing and lying in a hammock on Epi

Epi is a great destination to just relax and contemplate life, while munching on fresh peanuts.
The beaches are black volcanic sand, and the water would be enticing, although it was a bit too rough for swimming and searching for the legendary Dugong which lives in the waters of Lamen bay. The waves did not stop the locals wading and then swimming into the waters with nets to catch their meals for the day.

An unexpected island, Paama. Vanuatu. Black Sands and Sharks

Lopevi, the spectacular cone volcano, was only about 15 km from Lamen Bay in Epi. I wanted to land on this little visited island and explore the lava flows and abandoned village, and arranged with a fisherman in Lamen Bay to take us out there on Sunday.

Of Hats and mass burial sites, Aretoka Island

Hat Island, also known as Artok and Aretoka, is a sacred island 3km from Efate in Vanuatu. It became Vanuatu’s first UNESCO site when it was added to the world heritage list in 2008. It is the site of a 13th century Melanesian chief, Roi Mata, who unified many of the disparate Vanuatu islands under his leadership.

Coconut palms, buckets of kava and reggae beats - Fest Napuan

This weekend is when the Fest Napaun takes over Port Vila. This has to be one of the best music festivals in the world. Attracting local and international acts, the atmosphere of this festival is unforgettable. Entrance is always free, and the locals converge on Saralana park (next to the Cultural centre and museum). Stalls are erected selling food from different islands, the Tanna bread cakes are particularly recommended, while Kava is brought in buckets from the Chiefs Nakamal.

Sunsets in Port Vila, Vanuatu

Unless you island hop by yacht, Port Vila on Efate island is the entry point into Vanuatu. It has the international airport on it, a relic of world war two, providing a challenge to pilots as it is in a basin surrounded by four hills. There is often wild talk of a new airport being built to open up Vanuatu to more mass market tourism, I hope this remains only talk.