Sydney highlights
Published: Jun 21, 2013 05:03 AM Updated: Jun 21, 2013 09:05 AM
Host preparing Billy Tea. Photo: Xu Liuliu/GT

Host preparing Billy Tea. Photo: Xu Liuliu/GT

Old buildings of Gledswood Homestead Photo: Xu Liuliu/GT

Old buildings of Gledswood Homestead Photo: Xu Liuliu/GT

Fireworks at Sydney Harbour Photo: Xu Liuliu/GT

Fireworks at Sydney Harbour Photo: Xu Liuliu/GT

Climbers group poses for a photo along the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Photo: Courtesy of Australia Business Events

Climbers group poses for a photo along the Sydney Harbor Bridge. Photo: Courtesy of Australia Business Events 



This week's destination

This week's destination

After perhaps the most nerve-wracking experience of my life - a climb up Sydney Harbor Bridge - I was fully expecting to revel in stunning overviews spanning the Pacific Ocean and Blue Mountains when we reached the top of the city's iconic "coat-hanger" landmark.  

Among Australia's growing number of Chinese tourists, a record some 650,000 of our compatriots who visited the country before us last year, our group persisted in the remaining steps of the journey before hoisting ourselves atop the largest steel-arch bridge in the world.

Peering out and over, I was immediately lost in the deep blue of beauty below, somehow aloof to the terrifying 130 meters of distance that was between us and the ground. Towering skyscrapers still managed to impress me, even as their heights were offset by our high location.

But funnily enough, the sight of cars and busybodies on the ground, appearing as small, tiny and almost insignificant moving dots, reminded me of an old Chinese saying: You will feel the world below belittled when standing on top of a large mountain.

We arrived at our higher destination via the Mandarin Climb, which is the newest and easiest of four climbing options taking visitors up to the bridge, a city attraction that has already welcomed nearly 3 million visitors. In a roughly two-hour climb, Mandarin-speaking guides take visitors on a comfortably paced tour with more stops than any of the other options: Bridge Climb, Discovery Climb and Express Climb.

Uphill obstacle

Launched at the start of this year, the Mandarin Climb, unlike the other climbs which are available at nighttime, is only offered during the day at 1,282 yuan per person and it's best to book ahead. The health checklist and signing of a waiver prior to our start did not help to calm my jumpy nerves, but still, I went along anyway, numbly changing out of my street clothes and into the specially designed climbing gear handed to us - actions I desperately thought about reversing as my guide inched toward me and clicked the safety latch around my waist tight. Grasping at the safety rope, the 10 of us stood at the entrance, both fearful and excited at what waited for us at the other end.

Following our guide, our group slowly made our way out along a narrow path directly under the bridge that was originally used for maintenance. With sweaty palms, I zipped to the end all while avoiding a downwards gaze at the frightening waves crashing below us.

Our trip ascends via the lower arch of the bridge, with views through the spectacular structure and out across the harbor above the city. Our guide tells us how the government struggled to make the repayment for the money lent from overseas to build the bridge 81 years ago, during the Great Depression (1929-1933). But no matter how hard the economy was then, the construction forged on. As a result, for many Australians, the bridge is a source of great pride.

During the climb, which not only had my hands shaking, but also my thighs jiggling, I promised myself that I would resume some sort of regular fitness routine upon returning to China (my office job did nothing to physically prepare me for the journey).

Yet for all the back-breaking labor and spectacular views, we were forced to remember most of the experience without technological help after we were instructed to leave behind our cameras and smartphones behind for safety reasons. Our guide was kind enough to take a few shots for us, but of course, it would have been cheaper for us to take our own - minus the free group photo.

The only thing that would have made this trip more special was a game of mahjong here. We later learned from our trip organizer Australia Business Events that it was at this very spot along the bridge where the city had organized an inaugural mahjong competition on May 15. Though we missed the event that made national headlines, we have our fingers crossed that Sydney will host another tourney to give us a reason to return.  

We continued across to the Darling Harbor side, where upon our descent, was a perfect view of where Australian celebrity Nicole Kidman once lived before paparazzi drove her out in search of a more private location, our guide told us, just as the sun was starting to set and the crimson horizon faded into a vast, breathtaking ocean of glitter.

Harboring the scene   

No one can visit this city without making a stop at the harbor itself, where we were lucky enough to catch a spectacular fireworks display one night. But one of the best ways to enjoy the harbor is from the water, where numerous boast cruises have been running for years. The newest addition along the dock features an upscale yacht choice, and although the one-hour experience is attached to a very steep 7,000-yuan per hour ride price-tag, it is well worth the indulgence, if you're a hopeless romantic when it comes to being whisked about the harbor in an Italian-style sports yacht. Needless to say, there are countless of picture-perfect opportunities of Sydney's world-renowned Opera House. With my camera ready, I managed an especially memorable image of its blood orange-segment "sails" shining under the blazing sun.

With the serenity of the water far off in the distance, the adrenaline in our system finally managed to calm, and we were eventually rocked into a nice relaxing mood. Naturally then, after we  returned to shore, it was time to get our hearts racing again. As we stepped out of the boat, we heard a crew of fierce Harley Davidson bikers approaching - and instantly the hairs along the back of my neck perked up.

Though at a cost of 700 yuan per hour, the Harley Davidson is in my opinion the best way to view the city. Never before have I taken any form of transport so out of the ordinary. Suited up in black leather Harley jackets, we rode on the backs of the bikes - where let's be honest, many of us, who find hand-motor skills to be a little overwhelming in this context, were content leaving our lives in the hands of the experienced bikers.

At first, nervous from all the attention of passersby staring at us, I eventually blocked them out to appreciate the various other iconic city views - with the luscious Hyde Park and historical parliamentary housing my favorites - as we covered more ground on the backs of the bikes than I would have ever managed on foot.

Dream come true   

I've always dreamed of being like Bear Grylls in Man vs Wild, jumping down from helicopters to start a real-life adventure in the wild - never would I have guessed I'd see this reality come true one day in Australia.

On our last day, I finally realized this dream as we boarded our chopper in downtown Sydney, taking in one last memorable view of the harbor area, before reaching our destination, Gledswood Homestead. Today, the old homestead, built by convicts, many of whom hailed from Britain in the 18th century, is another main tourist draw. Thousands of visitors come each year, eager to learn about the building's history, which began when the country was established in 1788.

There, we sat down to a typical Australian breakfast of Billy Tea and damper, a kind of local bread.

Though the early meal was nothing like the Chinese baozi I'm used to eating, but it was nonetheless delicious. And with the Billy Tea prepared by our host, we soon learnt that locals are rather particular about how their leafy brew is prepared.

Once a pot of water was boiled and a sizable handful of tea leaves were thrown in, our host grabbed hold of the handle and started swinging the pot around him swiftly - circling above his head and running past his knee - all while keeping every single drop of the curious brew, dancing inside the pot.

Only true locals are able to master the technique, our host laughed, insisting that the strange ritual helps to settle tea leaves to the bottom so that afterwards, just the tasty tea can be poured, ready to drink. The first sip was heavenly, and as any Aussie will tell you, the best way to start a day is with a strong mug of Billy Tea and a slab of damper.

Finally, don't skip town without a sheep-shearing demonstration. City dwellers like us found the rural practice uniquely fascinating. With a pink hue of embarrassment accenting his cheeks, one of our tourists returned a rugged-looking sheep to its owner, with splotchy balls of fur sticking out here and there, in every possible direction.

But not to worry, it was all in a day's fun.

Rules of Thumb

Visas: Simply follow the instructions supplied through the Australian visa center. Don't forget to bring all the necessary materials. Chinese nationals don't need to be interviewed to obtain a 90-day tourist visa (780 yuan), which takes about ten working days.

How to go: Many airlines offer direct flights to Sydney from major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

Where to stay: The city offers various options catering to a range of budgets. For 360-degree harbor view rooms, check out the upscale Marriot or Shangri-La.

What to eat: Seafood, of course. Sydney Fish Market, Australia's "home of seafood," entices with fresh catches and local produce. The market opens daily from 7 am to 4 pm, except on Christmas Day. Cockle Bay Wharf also boasts a tourist-friendly mix of restaurants, bars and cafés.