Bob the Bike.

Let me introduce you to Bob, my new road bike. He’s going to get me from London to Paris in a couple of months. I luuurve him. ❤

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I do a fair bit of running and exercise generally but if I’m going to ride that distance in that time I need to do some training and get the miles in my legs before May, I can’t just rely on sheer determination and stupidity this time (as much as I’d like to, and just spend my weekends sitting eating ice cream). I did a lot of riding last summer after I got back on my MTB but I’ve not done any for a while and I’ve never had a road bike so I need to get ON it. So, yesterday was the first opportunity I’ve had to get out on Bob since picking him up a couple of weeks ago. It was a beaut of a sunny day and I had a free afternoon so I had no excuse (and I wasn’t about to throw myself down my building stairs to create one).

I’ll start with reporting on the end result: BLOODY marvellous, it felt soooo good to be back out there on a bike and it was pretty frickin awesome to see Mr Sunshine for a day. I also finished with bruises, grazes and my legs felt like they were made from strawberry jelly. Oh and of course, the mildly bruised derrière (Bob is a mean lean cycling machine; not a lot of padding).

Two main reasons for this: 1) I forget I live in a hilly place now and 2) Bob has clippy pedals. I’ll expand….

Didn’t really have a route in mind – I just biked out of Cheltenham along Shurdington Road and thought I’d head out that way for a couple of hours. Didn’t realise until I looked at a map after I’d got back that I headed straight out to into the Cotswolds and ALL THE HILLS. 1716 feet (523m) of elevation to be precise. I’d planned for a nice gentle flat couple of hours out to get me back into it. Not 3 fuck off hills. However, as we know hills also equal amazing views and a sense of achievement so I felt pretty rad when I got to the top of each one. Probably a bit like how Rocky felt when he made it to the top of the steps. Yeah, just like that. Apart from I didn’t run up and jump around, I wobbled around on Bob while trying slow down and upclip my feet (more on the clippy pedals later) at the same time, silently cheering each time I managed to not end up in a mangled heap on the floor (which, incidentally, I managed a higher ratio of – again, another silent cheer).

Riding up the hills through woods in the sunshine with beautiful, green, hilly countryside views reminded me so much of riding around in Tasmania last year. I had such an amazing adventure doing that (read about it here if you want), it really made me smile so much to be reminded of it. The pain of the hills but the rewards at the top, the sense of freedom and time; like there is no where else to be, and nothing to do or think about apart from what you’re doing right there and then. I still don’t quite understand the gears on Bob, so the hills were pretty hard work, but I think that was also just my legs not being used to them, rather than that I couldn’t find a lower (higher?) gear. I’ve got no idea whether there are any hills on the London to Paris route, but I guess that riding up hills during a bit of training will all help. Can’t hurt anyhow. Well, actually, it will – THIGH BURN – but you know what I mean.   Of course, what goes up must come down. I cycled UP three hills on my made up route, but only DOWN one. This felt quite unfair, until I realised the way down was a 1:6 (translation: fucking steep – put it this way, I wouldn’t want to bike UP it). So, MUCH fun, MUCH speed and a few hairy moments. Got to try Bob’s brakes out. Conclusion: could be better (hence the few hair raising moments).

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And that leads me onto the clippy pedals. I bought Bob from a nice chap in Bromsgrove who had decided he preferred MTB to road bikes and so couldn’t get on with Bob. Poor Bob, discarded after just a few miles, unwanted. Lucky I came along and managed rescue Bob and his clippy pedals and nice chap’s shoes; shoes that are too big for me (I haven’t got man feet). I haven’t managed to get any of my own yet so decided they would do for the first couple of rides out. So, imagine this; first time on a bike for a while, first time on a bike with clippy pedals in shoes that are too big, and first time on a bike with weird gears that are also the brakes. What could POSSIBLY go wrong?

Ha.

I spent a fair while trying to figure out how the clippy pedals worked. Leant Bob up against the wall, wiggling my feet around. Managed to clip in but could I clip out? Big fat NO. Even leaving the shoe clipped in and me sat on the ground wiggling it around with my hands I couldn’t do it. Neighbour Jill found it quite amusing, but was no help. Of course, I resorted to doing what I should have done in the first place: consulted the internet. “OK Google, unclipping cleats”. (Aside: bloody love OK Google. Talk to me.) Thank you, cheery American man on YouTube who shows how to unclip from pedals in one easy step. Tried it while leant against the wall. Just about got it, OK, I nearly fell into the flower bed, but panic meant my foot came unclipped like magic before I toppled over. Hurrah! I just figured I’d get used to it. One day.

So, I actually did alright. To start with. I’m near the edge of town so not many junctions until I got out on the open road, and the traffic light gods were smiling on me that day. In fact, although a bit wobbly, I managed to unclip each time I stopped the few times I stopped to take some pictures, admire the view or silently cheer the fact I got to the top of a hill without dying. OK, some of them were using the new panic-unclipping technique, but I didn’t end up on the floor. Until a junction about 2 miles away from home on the way back. Ironically, I’d already unclipped one side (I was a pro by now) but I ended up toppling the other way as I over balanced. As any fall as an adult, it hurt (unless drunk, those falls never hurt). And it’s also surprising. Ever notice that, falling over as an adult? One minute you’re upright, one minute you’re on the floor wondering what the hell happened in a mild state of shock. I landed on my elbow and it’s all grazed. Bob landed on top of me, giving me a massive bruise and lump on the side of my knee. Very giving. Obviously, I jumped back up, congratulating myself for getting a fall over and done with (it was bound to happen, I daresay there will be more to come too) as well as entertaining the stream of motorists driving by (I would have laughed). I like to think I fell and splattered on the ground in style.

Decided to call it a day after nearly 19 miles (I’d done a nice round trip) as I’d been out for just under a couple of hours which is what I planned for a nice gentle intro ride. Now, I know I had hills in that ride, but that’s not that fast. OK, I wasn’t really pushing myself but still. It’s making me realise just how far and how fast I will have to bike in May. If I didn’t go any faster that I did yesterday, I’d have to bike continuously for about 20 hours to cover the distance. So, the 4 hours on the ferry takes that to 24 hours. I’d just do it. But no time to stop, no time to eat, no time to go for a piss. Not realistic.

Eeeep.

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Keep smiling. It’ll be alreet.

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Runs around the world #15

Melbourne, Australia

First things first. HELLO cooler non-humid weather! Oh, how I’ve missed you. You are wonderful. Let me give you a kiss, you are that wonderful. You’re a little bit cold, but I’m not complaining. At ALL.

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Pretty much as soon as I landed in Melbourne I was raring to go out for a run. I didn’t go the first day though. I was a bit tired from all the flights and lack of sleep, plus I needed to go and buy some new clothes seeing as though the laundry place in Sihanoukville had lost half of mine. Including a pair of my running socks. Not that I’m still a little pissed off at that, oh no.

But the next day was a different matter. I woke up all excited, desperate to get my trainers on and get out there. So I did. For over 6 and a half miles. The longest I’d run in a long time. Since Hong Kong I think, which was the beginning of September. A long time ago. Whoop!

I didn’t plan to run that far. I didn’t actually plan to run any distance, I just wanted to go out and run. So I went to the end of the road and down by the creek, and just ran and explored. That’s the best way for me to run sometimes, not knowing where I’m going. Just running to see what’s round the corner, or just turning round and trying somewhere else if you find a dead end. You see all sorts by doing this. So, I got a good bit of exploring of Ivanhoe done on that first run. 

My legs didn’t like the last couple of miles, that’s for sure. I kept it nice and slow though, and I could actually breathe for once without feeling like I was breathing through a wet towel. I was pretty surprised how green it was around here and down by the creek. Loads of trees, grass and green stuff. My first taster of realising what a green city Melbourne is. There’s trees and parks and grass everywhere. Even in the city centre, most streets are lined with trees. 

I loved this run. It was great to be back somewhere it didn’t seem odd to be running. It was great to be somewhere I could run ‘easily’. It was great to be able to run somewhere where there’s clearly loads of different places to run (that aren’t on roads). I’ve got a feeling I’m going to like Melbourne for running.

I told you I’d be back on it when I got to Australia. Yes!

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By the border.

Mae Sot is a border town; it’s not really a tourist/traveller destination. It’s not visited that much, it’s a bit out of the way and doesn’t really have many attractions as such. So, that was kind of the attraction for us. Let’s check out what others don’t.

It had a very different feel to the other places in Thailand that I’ve been to. Being a border town, and there being a Burmese refugee camp nearby, there was a large mix of different cultures and people, and it felt a bit like a town with no purpose and no character. A bit soulless I guess, and the people didn’t seem to be as friendly or welcoming as other places we’d been.

I was in a bit of a travel funk in Mae Sot I think. A bit tired from all the travelling, the guesthouse we stayed in was really hot and the fan didn’t really do much apart from just circulate hot air, and I wonder whether I was just a bit fed up for no particular reason, so I’m not sure whether this affected how I viewed the place. I’m pleased we went to visit, I’m pleased we saw it and I did have a good time and enjoyed all the stuff we did. But, I wasn’t too fussed to leave and I wouldn’t go back.

It had a huge and bustling market, where you could buy pretty much any fish, meat or vegetable you wanted. I even saw Angry Birds on sticks. No idea what they were made out of, and I probably don’t want to know. We’ve visited loads of markets now, and they’re all the same but different. All the smells, the sights and the stuff they’re selling. The market community, the food and the hustle and bustle. No matter how many we’ve been round, it never gets boring or the same. We love it.

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We hired bikes to get out into the countryside, to do a bit of exploring. This was an awesome day. The sun was out, the countryside was pretty, a lot of the people we saw we friendly and smiley and there were a few hills for a bit of cardio exercise, which is something I’m still not doing as much as I’d like. Oh, and these bikes had a much softer seat than the ones in Kanchanaburi. I felt about 10 years old again, free wheeling down the hills with my legs stuck out and then remembering that the brakes were a bit shit. Luckily there wasn’t any traffic, bar the odd farmer or old man on a motorbike, who, incidentally, appeared to find the simple fact we were cycling down the road highly amusing.

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The couple of days was topped off by some smokin’ Japanese food out of the back of a pick up van and the fact that there was a beer shop next door to the guesthouse that sold cheap beer. Although, the fact that I was in a travel funk meant I didn’t join Nick in any beers. Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention that we ate the cheapest meal we have had there. And cheap price did not mean bad food. Cheap price=very good food. 25 baht for a plateful. That’s 50p. 50p for a plateful of curry/vegetable/meat and rice. Ba-rg-ain.

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Like I said, I’m pleased we went, I’m pleased we experienced it, and I did have a good time. But, there was just something about the place that didn’t gel with me. But I can’t expect that everywhere will. I guess it’s just the first place that hasn’t really, and it surprised me.  

Runs around the world #12

Kanchanaburi, Thailand

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Home to the Bridge over the River Kwai, Kanchanaburi is in the central plains of Thailand, about 80 miles west of Bangkok. It’s unfortunately made famous due to the Thailand-Burma railway and the thousands of prisoners of war that died in awful, harsh conditions building it (and the subsequent film The Bridge over the River Kwai). Go a little further afield, however, and you are greeted by some stunning scenery, countryside and rivers. The weather has been a bit changeable over the last couple of weeks so after a day spent on a train and a bus and not much exercise, and a break in the rain, I decided to chuck the runners on and head out for a much needed blast.

After a short run dodging the traffic down ‘Bar Street’ (one of the main streets that is full of bars, guest houses, shops, people and traffic) I ran across the River Kwai (although not over that bridge) and out of town, away from the people, the noise and the tuk-tuks, cars and scooters.

A peaceful silence filled the air, and the humid air filled my lungs. It was hot, again, and very humid but I think I’m getting used to running in it. I wouldn’t say I enjoy it but I don’t think about it half as much, and just enjoy running while I’m out there.

I ran along the road and out into the countryside where palm trees lined the edge of the road and ponds were filled to the brim with water lillies. With mountains in the distance and the tropical sights, sounds and plants, there’s no escaping I’m a long way from England. But yet strangely, I feel so at home here. I didn’t feel out of place, or like a tourist attraction, or that I had two heads. Because one of the best things about Thailand is the people (the other is the food). They are lovely. Really, really lovely. Friendly, and welcoming and full of smiles. They looked at me bemusingly, but not overly curious. It felt like I was doing something that perhaps happened every day and wasn’t out of the ordinary, which was a wonderful feeling, and not one I’ve had in many other places I’ve ran in. I was greeted with waves, smiles and shouts of “Hello!” from all the Thai people in their homes when I ran past, which I returned with “Sa-wat-dee Ka” (hello in Thai). I was also joined by a couple of loud, shouty barking dogs who decided to chase run alongside me. I shouted a grateful “Kob Khun Ka” (thank you) when their owners stopped them, the Thai lady clearly delighted that I was speaking in Thai. They do love it here when you try to speak a bit of their language, I’ve had so much fun, especially in food places, learning new words and having a bit of banter. In fact, I got more odd looks from other Westerners when I ran the last part down Bar Street.

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I ran 4 miles in total. Not a great deal, but enough for this run. My legs were feeling it, as the day before I’d cycled about 25 miles and a couple of days before that I’d pulled one of my quads climbing up a cliff face on Railay beach. So, 4 miles wasn’t too shabby, kept my legs moving and gave me that lovely running high.

One of my favourite runs so far I reckon. Not quite enough to make the top spot (that’s still Hong Kong) but it’s up there. One that made me smile both during my run and for a good while afterwards. Good times.

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China. In a nutshell (a big nutshell).

China restricts websites and so, Facebook, Twitter and most blogging sites are all blocked. You can’t get onto them unless you use a VPN connection, and I only set one up on my phone. So, I haven’t blogged about any of China yet, so here’s another apology for the tardiness of my writing. But now, sat in the unrestricted, fast-wifi haven that is Hong Kong, I can blog to my hearts content. So, sit back, put your feet up and have a cuppa (and maybe a biscuit – I’d go for a chocolate digestive) while I tell you, in one huge blog post, all about my experiences in China over the last few weeks.

When I was in India I decided to book onto a tour to travel through China. Originally I was going to travel independently, but having heard things like ‘it’s harder to get around China’, ‘not many people speak the language’, ‘there are less travellers to meet’ and other things that don’t make for a fun or easy month I decided that a tour would be fun, a lot less stressful and a good way to make some pals to travel with. Ok, so yes, they’re expensive but I decided it would be worth it. So I booked on a 20 day Intrepid Travel tour from Beijing to Hong Kong which would travel through the country and take in a lot of the main sights and places I wanted to see. Ready? Let’s get started…

Beijing is the capital city of China, and probably pollution capital of the world. After my cocked up flight debacle I landed in Beijing a day later than originally planned, but I still had 4 days there before the tour started, so I had a decent amount of time to explore the city. Firstly, the smog. It wasn’t too bad most of the time I was there. I’d say one day was particularly bad, and you could definitely tell in the air, but most of the other days were clear blue sky and sunshine. I just got on with it. Oh, and lets not forget the heat. Over 35 degrees most of the time, and humid. Oh hurrah, my favourite. Not. I won’t mention it again, but suffice to say if I was coming back to China I wouldn’t come in August. It’s way too hot, sticky and uncomfortable for me. But how clean and civilised China felt compared to India. It was very strange. In India, I was used to it, but it wasn’t until I got here that I noticed the difference and how pleasant it was here. No cows walking randomly down the street. No piles of litter or crap. No open urinals. The streets have proper paths, that people walked down in a straight line. And there’s no one shouting. No one trying to sell things. Well, actually, that’s a slight lie. There are, but only to other Chinese people. Un-bothered by touts and hawkers, I silently rejoiced to myself, hurrah!

Wandering around Beijing one of the first things I noticed is that there wasn’t a lot of English. On signs, people speaking it, in the shops. Scratch that, there wasn’t ANY English. Coming from India, I’d got used to a bit of English alongside the foreign stuff, so you can at least have a guess or figure out what it was. Not here. This is the first place I’ve been where there’s nothing to even give you a clue. It felt very alien and different. And exciting, in an I-have-no-idea-what-anything-is kind of way. I’d soon figure more things out, but for those first few days everything was a bit like a lucky dip. A bit like the chance card in Monopoly, but instead of a paying a speeding fine it was paying for weird food that turned out to be pretty grim or winning the ‘I have to ask for something in sign language’ competition rather than a crossword competition.

Beijing’s buildings and architecture are a hotchpotch of old and new, historical and modern. Grey with a bit of colour. To me, it didn’t feel like there was much soul or character, especially in the more modern areas. Everything is a little bit, well, industrial. Think 1960’s grey office block and that’s kind of what it’s like. Although, the hutongs were a bit more quaint. Hutongs are the little alleyways in ‘old Beijing’, like little mazes of tiny streets with houses, hostels, restaurants, shops and bars all squeezed in, swarming with people going about their business and curious tourists. I definitely preferred these, and spent quite a few hours wandering around them taking pictures and buying bananas at what I’m pretty sure were inflated prices because I’m a westerner.

If you’re planning to visit, you’ll be pleased to know there is no chance of being caught short in Beijing. There are public toilets everywhere. We’re still not quite sure whether this was because people don’t have toilets in their houses (especially in the hutongs) or whether China is just super generous in providing good facilities. Either way, quite handy, even though I never needed to use any. I heard some of them are communal squat toilets which, hey, I’m all for sharing things but that’s just a step too far.

How about getting around? No problem. The metro is just superb. Clean, fast and efficient, the maps have the names as well as the symbols for the stations so it’s mega easy to zip around. Pretty similar to the London Underground except only two lines ever interchange here so it’s actually easier. Throw in a standard 2 Yuan (about 20p) fare for any one journey and Bob’s your uncle, you’re ready to ride. Oh, but you have to chuck your bag through an x-ray scanner first. Yep, security is tight. Scanners are everywhere – all tube and train stations, as well as having to do it when entering Tienanmen Square. Although the security people/Police were far more interested in the Chinese population than they were in us. I’m still not exactly sure what they are looking for, but it seems tourists probably aren’t involved or don’t have it.

Like India, it seems westerners are a bit of a novelty, and yet again people wanted their photo taken with me. This happened in most, if not all, places to all of us, but the funniest time was when a waitress at one of the restaurants we were eating at shyly asked our tour leader in Chinese if she could have her picture taken with me after the meal. Not sure why she chose me and not anyone else in the group, so I found it all a bit strange. I felt like a weird awkward celebrity as her friend snapped about 50 pictures from different angles. Anyway, I digress. Back to Beijing.

Beijing also introduced me to Chinglish, the wonderful translations from Chinese to English, where it doesn’t always work properly. So many signs, menus and writing all with the oddest phrases and sentences, mostly hilarious to us and thus requiring photographic evidence, much to the amusement of Chinese people who no doubt were wondering why the hell we were taking pictures of signs in the toilet.

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There’s also the culture differences. The little things that we’re not used to but are standard here. Like, the pushing and shoving and no queuing. Or the hacking up phlegm and spitting (although I’m pretty sure some people were hacking up their lungs, the noises they were making). And people walk sloooow. I’m not sure whether that’s a cultural thing though, or just that I walk fast. Or that a lot of people in Bejing were tourists, and so maybe they’re in that -I’m-on-holiday-so-I’ll-walk-slow-because-I’ve-got-nowhere-to-be mode. Oh, and shitloads of Chinese people smoke. I didn’t expect so many. And people can smoke inside. Grim.

I managed to fit in a few sights in the few days I had before meeting the rest of the group, so spent my time leisurely wandering around the Temple of Heaven Park, the Summer Palace,  Lama Temple and the hutongs. I loved the Temple of Heaven Park, the main reason being that it was the place in Beijing where I ran. Running for me = happy days. But, I also spent most of a day wandering round, enjoying the greenery in the middle of the city and the shade from the sun (it also rained this day which helped cool it down. A little bit.). I sat and people watched, including the impromptu dance show from a group of older folk in the Long Corridor. How happy they seemed, and didn’t really notice the many people who had gathered to watch and take pictures. I saw groups of people practising Tai-Chi, or kicking little feathery things about, or playing cards or chess. I spent a whole lazy day walking around the Summer Palace in blazing sunshine. The Palace is basically one of the old emperors garden, and it’s massive. It’s all centered around a lake, and is one of the prettiest places I’ve been. The walk round the lake was stunning and, as long as I stayed away from the main areas (which were swarming with visitors, like wasps around a coke can – including a alarming number of tour groups being led by people with flags and loudspeakers), then it was nice and peaceful, and kind of easy to forget for that you’re in a massive polluted city for a bit.

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And so, it was in this city that I was introduced to the rest of the tour group. A small group, the Intrepid 7 were Robin, Donna and Helen, a family from Harrogate, Mark and Evelyn, a couple from Sheffield, Nathan from Perth (Australia) and me, Tara, the wandering hobo. We went out and started our group bonding (bonding, not bondage, it wasn’t that kind of trip) over dinner. And what else to eat, but classic Peking duck, because, after all, we were in Peking. Well, Bejing. That used to be Peking. Kind of. You get the idea. Proper Peking duck. And oooo it was good. The whole meal was good (apart from the weird bone soup that came last), although this might have also had something to do with the fact I hadn’t really eaten any ‘proper’ food in China yet because I couldn’t tell what anything was on menus in restaurants, thus avoiding them and having a diet over the last 3 days that consisted mainly of fruit, pasta from the hotel bar, some weird deep fried Japanese fish things, crisps and biscuits. Mmm nutritious. Everyone seemed friendly and fun and Robert, our tour leader, seemed like he had everything under control.

After a couple more days in Beijing, we hit the road to go and see the Great Wall of China. I was pretty excited at this point; seeing the Great Wall is something I’ve always fancied doing, and now here I was, about to see it. The wall in it’s entirety is huge – it stretches all the way across China, although obviously now it doesn’t exist in some places as it’s so old. But some of it has been restored, some of it hasn’t and there are quite a few places to go see it. We went to two places – one where the wall starts, in the Eastern China sea which had been completely restored, and an unrestored part further inland in a rural part of China. This part was one of my favourite bits of the trip; seeing that wall (or the remains of) snaking across the mountains of China in the distance, the watchtowers seemingly perched precariously on top is something that will stay with me forever. That and the bloody hard hike to get to the top due to the thousands (I’m pretty sure I’m not exaggerating with that estimation) of steps, the 35 degree + heat and the unbearable humidity. As I kept reminding myself, some people pay good money for intense workouts like that. It’s all good, it’s all good. I may have repeated that many times. It’s the only way to keep sane. I’m not a humidity and extreme heat person, I’m realising that now.

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The places we stayed in these couple of days were a bit strange. The first place had a really nice hotel but the town (Shanhaiguan) was a bit bland. And massive. It wasn’t quite what we had been expecting; we all thought it was going to be a little village. After dinner that night I took a walk with the Stride family (Robin, Donna and Helen) to explore a walled bit of the city that during the day was really busy with stalls, people and the like. At night, it was a bit like a strange Chinese ghost town. There were a few stall selling ice creams or nut brittle type stuff (that was chopped into pieces with a meat cleaver. I kid you not.) and a pole dancing club. Yes, it was all rather bizarre. The other night was spent in a rural village in a homestay. So, we took over someone’s home for the night. It was an odd set up and not the cleanest place I’ve stayed by a long shot. The whole village was slightly odd – there was only one shop which also appeared to double as someone’s bedroom, and a home for lots of spiders. It did however sell bottles of beer for 30p. Win. The rest of the income for the town appeared to be goat BBQ’s. Yep, most places had lines of half-drum BBQ’s and people apparently came from miles around to eat barbequed goat. They even did one at our homestay (not for us though) while we were there. When we left to go on our great wall trek we saw 3 cute little goats on the back of a trailer. When we came back we saw one goat skin left out to dry and the rest of it on the BBQ (minus it’s organs), and a wander down through the village saw a chap who was presumably the local butcher gutting and skinning a goat on a small table near the river. Naturally we stayed to watch. Until the stomach and intestines got flushed out and he started chucking half it’s head into the river. Then we left. There wasn’t much activity in the town apart from goat butchery, a chap riding around trying to sell something out of a bike trailer (it was all covered) and herds of [poor unsuspecting] goats being shepherded around. It was like something out of a low-budget horror movie, only the victims were goats, not people.

Relived to be back in Beijing the next day, the next excitement was the first of four sleeper trains (this one was a 14 hour one). I’ve never been on a sleeper train before, well, not overnight. I was on one in India but only for a few hours (and only because that was the only ticket with air con). Robert had told us to prepare snacks for the train. So, in typical not-quite-sure-what-to-expect style we all overcatered. I ended up with a whole bag full of snacks (including peanut butter, my new obsession thanks to Max in Zambia) which frankly, I didn’t need but proceeded to eat anyway. Well, I’m on holiday right? And they were a million times better snacks than the weird pot noodle things that the Chinese people eat. For breakfast, dinner and tea. Very strange. Anyway, my verdict on sleeper trains? They’re pretty darn cool. Clean and fast with air conditioning. You get a bed, pillow and quilt on one of 3 bunks: top middle or bottom. Your bunk is on the ticket so there’s no choice, and I’m not sure what bunk is best. A bit like Strike it Lucky, is it top, middle or bottom? Top is good, you’re out of the way, but you’re also right underneath the air con (it gets cold) and it’s a pain to climb up there. And you might fall out. Middle is OK, but you still have to climb up, you can’t sit up properly as there’s not enough height and you’re a bit open. And you might fall out. Bottom is probably best as it has the most room and there’s no clambering about or possibility of falling out, however it’s also the common seat until lights out for the other bunks. So if you want an early night or to lay down, you can’t. Well, not if you follow general British politeness rules. Or, you can just throw people off it and stretch out. The curtains are shut and lights go out promptly at 10pm (there’s no warning either), and that’s it until the morning. The beds are surprisingly comfortable and I got a decent night’s sleep on most of them (apart from the last one, it was noisy and just generally shit. And maybe the novelty had worn off by then).

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Xi’an, old capital city of China, was the next destination, home to a fully intact old city wall and the famous Terracotta Warriors. Another big city, although this one felt a bit cleaner and more tidy, but just as hot. We had a rather rushed walk through the famous Muslim quarter then we saddled up and rode around the city walls on some squeaky bikes in blazing sunshine. The walls were pretty deserted, which was unusual, since I’ve been here I could have sworn the whole of China were in the same 10 square feet of me. About 6 red and sweaty miles later we dropped off the bikes, quick shower and out for food.

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This might be a good time to mention the food. The majority was pretty darn good. Sometimes it was amazing. Sometimes, not so good. Mostly we ate banquet style, trying loads of dishes between us. Including lots of vegetables. This was Good. Mealtimes generally went like this: vegetables for me and Helen, Mark wanted fish, no one else really liked fish. Robert didn’t count most fish as actual fish. Donna needed rice, Robert thought this meant an disproportionate amount of rice. Evelyn was easy going and would eat what everyone else ordered. Robin was on a quest for lamb and Nathan just ordered anything that looked nice or was sizzling. One of the best meals for me though was when we were in Xi’an, from a fast food joint of all places. It was like a Chinese hog roast bap which was just the best bloody thing I have tasted. Each bite was like heaven. Followed by some kind of cold broccoli noodle thing which I know sounds revolting but was soooo good. And the fast food place is only in Xi’an so I’ll never taste that again unless I go back there. Which is unlikely. This is a Shame.

I’m glad I saw the Terracotta Warriors but it was a long hot day with an odd tour which saw us stood in a long queue in the heat to avoid a walk in the heat, which would have taken less time than we were stood in the queue, a rather excitable tour guide and a minibus on the way back with no air con. I did get a half price ticket because of my NUS card though, bonus! And the highlight for me was the planking warrior in Pit 1. Cheeky monkey!

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Another night, another sleeper train awaited to take us to the metropolis of Shanghai. When I was planning to travel Shanghai independently, I was going to miss out Shanghai. Didn’t feel the need to visit it, didn’t think there was anything there that I was bothered about seeing. But, oh! How I LOVED it there. That skyline. It took my breath away, it was so beautiful; both during the day and at night. I could have spent hours just staring at it. In fact I did. About an hour I think, I lost track of time. I was thinking about all sorts of things. I remember thinking about my nan who died a few years ago, wondering what she would have made of my trip, wondering what she would have made of China. She would have found it most bizarre I think. And most likely would have hated it. I thought about my photo a day in 2012, and all that happened that year. A most crazy year, and it feels a lifetime ago now. How I have changed since then. I thought about things I’ve not thought about for a while, and how quick that year went. I thought about how much I missed living just round the corner from Karl, and writing my first blog post on New Years Eve, and what my first photo a day should have been and what it actually was. I thought about a friendship that ended towards the end of the year, wondering what they’re up to and hoping they’re happy.

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It must have been a city for remembering, because when I was on the metro one day a elderly Chinese lady sat next to me, smelling all lovely and powdery and perfumey. She reminded me of my other nan, and the moment I said goodbye back in England before my travels.

I crammed a lot in while in Shanghai:

  • A trip to the Yuyuan Gardens (accompanied by a girl called Crystal from Minnesota – sounds like a stripper but she really wasn’t, she was lovely)
  • River cruise (to see that skyline at dusk and night)
  • A trip to the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower (including walking on a glass floor hundreds of metres up)
  • A beer in a trendy bar that actually felt like a furniture showroom (it was so very weird)
  • Chatted to people filming a China special BBC Fast:track programme
  • Minor car accident in a taxi on the way to the train station (a woman decided to drive into us)
  • A walk round People’s Park, which reminded me of Central Park in NYC, only not so big but just as green, and just as surrounded by skyscrapers
  • Lots of eating melon on a stick – a popular Chinese street snack and so tasty (and healthy!)
  • Walking down a backstreet that I thought might be more authentic than walking down the massive Oxford Street-style shopping street. It kind of was – if you wanted to buy plumbing supplies. Shop after shop after shop.

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A mammoth 22 hour train journey awaited us to take us from lovely Shanghai to Yangshuo. Leaving the cities behind to get out into the countryside. And I think I’m right in saying we were all ready for it. I think we were about citied out by that point. And 22 hours? Not so bad actually, not bad at all. As long as I had my snacks and a book I was pretty sorted.

Getting out into the countryside is what we all needed; like a breath of [still very hot and humid] fresh air. Limestone karsts dotting the horizon, it’s what we’d all been waiting for. Rural, real, China. Yangshuo is a popular place, so it wasn’t a deserted, rural idyll, populated only by elderly men in traditional douli hats on bicycles. More a small and bustling town with a relaxed chilled out vibe and a mix of traditional (e.g. a claypot rice restaurant) and modern (McDonalds and KFC). A popular pastime, we hired bikes for the day and got out into the countryside. Someone said it was like cycling in avatar country, and they were right; the scenery was just out of this world. It was hard to ride and look around at the same time, especially on a slightly squeaky unbalanced bike. I only fell off the road onto the verge once. Not bad going. Oh, that and remembering to ride on the right hand side. I forgot that a few times. We stopped at a place called Moon Hill just before lunch. It’s a mountain with a hole in it. You can climb right up to the hole, so of course, I did. I decided to do this before realising it was only reached by steps. Steep steps. And millions of them (again, I’m pretty sure I’m not exaggerating). It was the middle of the day, with hot sun and humid forest. I’m not sure I’ve ever sweated so much. Getting to the top and standing under a few drops of water from the rocks had never felt sweeter. Oh, and of course it was worth it for the views. I felt like I’d earnt my lunch that day, which ended up being at a local farmer’s family house where we were introduced to some new local vegetables and beer. Hmm, that reads wrong. I wasn’t introduced to beer, I’m pretty familiar with that already. Just the vegetables. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t drunk in charge of a bicycle by the time we left but it was a pretty big beer. The wobbles were just the bike, honest. We took a different route back, one that took us away from the main roads and through tiny little villages and into dead ends (someone’s garden), past rivers, a water buffalo and people just going about their business. Through the rural China that we had pictured, and past people wearing those traditional Chinese hats and carrying all kinds of things in all kinds of different ways. That day cycling was one of my favourites.

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It also rained here (although luckily it was the day after our cycling escapades). Mark and Evelyn didn’t have rain jackets so, as we would be trekking in a few days, they decided to leave us after dinner to go on a search to purchase some ponchos. After a while, they returned, only slightly triumphant. “Did you get some?” we asked, “kind of” they replied. It turned out Mark had bought a scooter poncho. You see, out here, it rains a fair bit. And there a lot of scooters. So, a lot of people have scooted ponchos. A plastic poncho that goes over them, and their scooter. Now, this looks fine when on a person and a scooter (well, actually it doesn’t, it looks a bit silly but it’s practical. They also have extended umbrellas on scooters to stop the rain and/or sun, but that’s a different picture). Put the scooter poncho (complete with see through front panel where it goes over the scooter lights) on just a person and well, we may have just fallen about laughing. A bit. A lot. “At least it will keep me dry.” said Mark, defending his purchase.

Yangshuo over, we hopped on a bus to take us to the Longji rice terrace area. On the way we drove past a building with what looked like piles and piles of wood veneer outside. I’m not sure exactly what it was all doing there, but it reminded me of my Dad and the heaps of wood veneer he used to have in his workshop (and might still have – got rid of it yet Dad? :P) and the nights we spent doing a bit of marquetry – me doing the sand-shading and him doing the inlaying. Ah happy days 🙂

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After a very bumpy and slightly hair raising bus journey we were deposited safely at the bottom of a hill and started the hour long walk to get to our village. Yep, no cars, no proper roads; we were going to be right out in the middle of nowhere. A hot, sticky, drizzly hike later (Mark was pleased he had his scooter poncho) we rocked up at the cutest, sweetest swiss chalet-like guesthouse. Which, halfway up the side of a mountain, had wifi. Decent wifi. It also had comfortable beds (well, for me and Helen, everyone else appeared to be lacking a mattress), air conditioning, really, really good food, CHEAP beer and stunning views from every window. It was worth the hike. Twice over.

After Fancakes [pan-cake, Chinglish) for breakfast, the Intrepid 7 were hiking again. This time to a village called Ping’an, about 4 hours away through the rice terraced mountains. Apart from the sporadic rain which soaked us all a few times (apart from Mark in his super scooter poncho) we all made it with no surprises. It was a fairly hard in places – lots of steep steps and slopes that had become slippery with the rain required a fair bit of concentration, and I had to keep remembering to stop and look around otherwise I was concious the only thing I’d remember from it would have been the view of my feet. Funnily enough I was reminded of my Dad again here too; the houses in the villages are all made of wood, and there was always someone building something, or storing wood. So, the wood piled up in the alleyways reminded me of all the wood he used to have in his yard, and the sound of a circular saw and the smell of sawdust and varnish will always take me back to being a kid, when I used to go and sit on the black stool in his workshop either just watching him work or chatting. I used to do that a lot as a kid. Happy memories again 🙂

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So, after marvelling at the views, taking lots of pictures and dropping our gear off at the next hotel what else was there to do in this tiny higgledy-piggledy village but to go for a beer. Or two. Or three. Yep, we sat in a bar with the rice terraces as a backdrop all afternoon and got a bit merry. I think it’s the first time I’ve got a bit tipsy in China. It was really good fun and nice to kick back and relax for a bit, and chat about the last few weeks. Because, the next day, we were off again, another day, another bus, this one heading for Guilin to catch the last overnight train to Hong Kong. Our last stop. At this point I wondered how the time had gone so quick. When and who had snatched the days?

This bus was also bouncy and hair raising, but took it to a new level. I think the driver here was playing a game; who can go the fastest over the bumps and holes in the ground, resulting in Minor Traffic Accident #2. You see, the summer rains had washed some of the road away, so there were a lot of potholes and uneven ground. Going full pelt over a particularly bad patch resulted in the whole of the back of the bus (where I was sat) flying out of their seat. It was so hard I flew out of my seat and hit my head on the roof; that’s how high I went. Which, because I had my eyes closed listening to headphones, came as a bit of a surprise. After hitting the roof I flew around a bit more and hit the seat in front as well as the window and curtain side bar thing before the driver stopped to check everyone was all right. Result: scabby head where I hit it, bruised shoulder and mega painful elbow. But, at least we were all OK. No broken bones or major injuries, just a bit of bruising. I think the bus driver won his game.

After a long wait at Guilin train station, 14 hours on the worst sleeper train yet (hot, noisy, delayed and just generally a bit crap) and a long, hot border crossing at Shenzhen we finally made it to Hong Kong. A new country, a new adventure. There’s so much to write about, I’ll leave it for the next blog post. This one’s long enough!

So, in true Paps style, China needs a round up. I’ll keep it brief. What did I think?

It was an adventure. It was amazing, I had a blast. China was wonderful, weird and strange, beautiful, fascinating and alien. It was traditional yet modern, and moving at a pace that you can feel it’s hard to keep up with.

You can’t escape the constant building, and cranes everywhere. There’s an industrial boom and everything feels so, well, just grey and dull in so many places. So many high rises, even out in what we’d class as the middle of nowhere. So many half-finished things with no soul, or character or charm. It feels like the ‘real’ China is just being bulldozed, to make room for one skyscraper after another. I do wonder what it will all be like in 20 or 50 years from now. I suspect most places will be unrecognisable. Progress is a good thing, but I’m not sure at what cost.

There’s also huge commercialism everywhere. If there is money to be made, someone’s there. Everything has a price. Every where people are selling things. Want to take a picture? That’s 10 Yuan. Want to walk down the street? That’s 10 Yuan. Ok, so maybe it’s not quite that bad. But not far off.

I found it a country where at times I felt so at home, but yet it was all so completely alien. They even have a different hand numbered gesture system to us, which is tons better than ours. For example, if we want to show any number over 5 on our fingers it uses both hands, whereas the Chinese use only one. Ask me when you see me and I’ll show you it. It’s ace.

I never felt unsafe or out of my depth and despite the heat, humidity, the pushing, the shoving, the spitting and the noise (people here appear to be so LOUD) I loved it. I will miss melons on sticks (such a great street snack), the dancing green men on crossings, trying pot luck at supermarkets on food and the delicate, pretty sound of Chinese music wherever I went.

This was more of a sight seeing, ‘observing’ holiday than one where I could interact and mingle with people, because we just didn’t speak the same language. But where we could, we did. Laughing and joking through hand signals, waving at the locals while whizzing past them on a bike. Making them laugh by pulling funny faces and poses when they were taking our pictures.

It was a magical few weeks with a brilliant small group of different characters that I can call friends. I have a ton of memories, some great pictures and a mind that’s learnt a lot.

China, it’s been an adventure. Thank you.

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On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at.

(Standard English: On Ilkley Moor without a hat)

Apparently, everyone knows of this popular Yorkshire folk song, because no end of people have said this to me over the last week or so when I mentioned I was off to Ilkley. I’ve never heard of it in my life, and so could only respond with a confused look on my face. I only know of Ilkley from going loads when I was younger because my brother used to play there in a tennis tournament every year. Oh, and I knew there was a place called Ilkley Moor, which had a few rocks on it.

So, I went to Ilkley this weekend for a little break away, I had some hotel vouchers to use up before I go and a willing victim playmate to come along so we headed off on Friday for a bit of fun in the countryside.

Ilkley is preeeeetty. It has blossom trees, and hills, and green stuff, and a river, and little shops, and coffee places, and bars and restaurants to stuff your face with Bloody.Good.Food. Had an awesome meal at Le Bistrot Pierre on Friday night and then another awesome meal at Vietnamese restaurant Bistro Saigon on Saturday night. Add in the hotel breakfasts, tea and cake and then a bloody good 3 course Sunday lunch back at the Tower when we got back to Lincoln and I’d say we’ve eaten pretty well this weekend.

Ilkley was fun. We did a fair amount of walking, lots of eating (see above), some relaxing and a bit of drinking. And I took a few pictures (see below). Decided to go for a walk up Ilkley Moor on Saturday and morning and got SOAKED. Yep, it rained. A Lot. I had a hood, I wasn’t too bad. The Marine didn’t. He got a bit (a lot) wet. We dried off a bit in the hotel and tried again after a while, but went down by the river this time rather than up onto the moor. The Marine skimmed stones which I was impressed to find out he was pretty good at. I took pictures. A man in a wetsuit swam in shallow water. Male ducks outnumbered females ones by a high ratio. A child threw a drinks bottle in the water and got told off. All in all an interesting walk. In the afternoon we went up on the moor again, and managed to find a little secluded spot in the sun away from the wind and had a little lay down, watching the clouds. That little section of time was just ace, like the world had stopped for a bit.

I hadn’t taken my running stuff because I was still getting over a cold and didn’t feel great. So naturally I saw lots of runners. Tormenting me. I’m sure they KNEW. But, as The Marine himself pointed out if I had have taken my stuff he would have beasted me up the hills up the moor. Sadist. So, probably for the best.

The funniest and most bemusing moment was probably when an old woman walked past us in the street and shouted “stop!”. Shortly followed by “…looking so..[pause]..intelligent. And..[pause]..fit.” Erm, right, okay. Thank you?!

Nicest moment was getting to the hotel and having a bit of post. I’ve never had post at a hotel before. I opened it and it was a card from the girl in the central reservations team who made my booking. I’d happened to just be chatting with her while sorting out the booking on the phone (as I tend to, I’m quite chatty) about the weekend, weather and my upcoming travels, and so the card wished me a lovely sunny weekend and hoping that I have an amazing trip around the world. I’m pretty sure this isn’t standard practice so it was such a nice surprise. I decided to pass the good feeling onto someone else on the way home, and so paid for the car behind at Dunham Toll Bridge. Not a lot, but a little gesture to be nice. A random act of kindness. Made me feel good. Maybe the people in the car behind passed something on too that day.

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