Adventure withdrawal.

It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind since I got back from Chile. I got straight stuck into celebrating my return by promptly getting pissed for most of the weekends since I’ve been back. Whilst fun, it’s not sustainable and I knew the post-adventure blues would hit a little bit once the initial excitement/hangovers had worn off. They always do, I know exactly how it works for me:

  • Stage 1: Excitement at getting home and catching up with people
  • Stage 2: Over stimulation being around people after spending weeks in limited company
  • Stage 3: Become a hermit for a while and enjoy pottering around in my own company
  • Stage 4: Run lots
  • Stage 5: Rejoin civilisation and start socialising again
  • Stage 6: Plan next adventure

I’ve now made it through all the stages! Earlier today I booked flights to New Zealand to go over Easter. This wasn’t part of a plan and was a bit of a spontaneous decision and is mainly so I can go buy my friend Mike the beer I’ve owed him for about 3 years now. I met him in Hong Kong briefly and he lent me – a complete stranger – his truck when I was in New Zealand so I could do a road trip. He was in Oz so I never got to see him again to thank him properly. So when he moved back to NZ and the option of being able to have just over two weeks off work when only taking a few days holiday (thank you Easter bank holidays!) came up, it was a no brainer.

OK, so I’m pretty skint after Chile but this is what that savings pot that I shouldn’t touch is for. Sometimes you have to grab an opportunity when it comes up.

And so that, dear readers, is how I am flying off to New Zealand in just over a month for some (in Mike’s words) “insane hiking”. And a visit to Queenstown, NZ’s alcohol/party capital to celebrate my birthday. Expect lots of pictures of mountains, adventure stories and possibly drunken photos. But hopefully this time, wearing my own pants and no bar stool incidents.

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Day #163 11.06.16

Day 1 of my mountain navigation skills course at Plas Y Brenin, the National Mountain Sports Centre. Map reading and stuff. Today we did lots of map reading, distance measuring, pacing etc. And walking up mountains. Falling in love with Snowdonia <3.

Also drank beer and met new people. Always a nice by-product of these kinds of things.

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Day #16 16.01.16

My last day in Cape Town and South Africa. My flight wasn’t until 6pm so I had most of the day before I had to be at the airport dropping Figaro off at about 3. I had two choices; a) either sit around and count the hours of waiting to go home (and also have to check out of my apartment at 11) or, b) go and do something with the day and make it count. So I chose b). Of course.

I decided to go tag along to a Saturday session with BMF South Africa (you’ll probably know I do BMF – British Military Fitness – in Cheltenham so I decided to see how they did it in CT) so I checked out at 7.15am, chucked my bag in the boot and trundled off in Figaro to Kirstenbosch botanical gardens to find the meeting point. 4 conversations with different people at two different locations later, I just about managed to find where I needed to be (apparently there are two ‘Top gates’ at Kirstenbosch depending on who you speak to) and bounded up to the only group of people gathered round who looked like they might be about to hike up a mountain. Because their Saturday session wasn’t a round of burpees, press ups and the like. No, their session today was a hike up Table Mountain. Which was fine by me. Although I was secretly fearing they might make us do killer burpees at the top or something. I didn’t know – they could have been massive hardcore athletes for all I knew. Luckily for me this was more of a sociable Saturday jaunt so although it was a tough hike (pretty much straight up to the top of the mountain scrambling and climbing up rocks, ladders and waterfalls in 30+ heat) we were rewarded with a swim in a lake at the top (yep, who knew there was a lake at the top of Table Mountain? Not me.) rather than burpees.

So I got to hike a mountain, go for a swim in a lake, catch some rays and meet a new bunch of people. Now that’s what I call making the most of my last day.

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I <3 Hong Kong.

Yes I liked it. Actually I loved it. A lot. There’s lots of reasons why (apart from the humidity. Let’s skip over that bit).

#1. It’s so pretty. During the day but especially at night. All the buildings, the parks, the mountains and that harbour view. Especially from the top of the Peak. Awesome.

#2. Awesome food. There are so many places to eat. Like most big cities, there is pretty much every kind of food you can imagine.

#3. It has beaches. Just over the hill from the main part of Hong Kong island or on the islands.

#4. The running scene. I saw a glimpse of the Hong Kong running scene and I liked what I saw. There are running groups, lots of people out and about running. It has trails, and pavements and running tracks to run round.

#5. There are islands. 263 of them to be precise. All of them different, all of them easy to get to and explore. Some have trails, some have buddhas, some have beaches, some have fishing villages but all have their own character.

#6. The people are lovely. Well, the ones I met are anyway. And, generally people seem to be very polite; they wait at pedestrian crossings if it’s read, even if there isn’t anything coming. No jaywalking here.

#7. There’s so much to do. Again, like any big city there’s always something going on, something to see, places to do, things to keep you occupied. And a lot of them are free! Top tip: Hong Kong History Museum is free on Wednesdays, and is really interesting. If you’re there, you should go.

#8. It’s a fairly clean city. My hostel was kept super clean, there were bins everywhere and public toilets I used were nice and decent. I even saw a dog walker pick up their dog’s crap, go and put it in the bin, then wipe the dogs bottom. Now that’s clean.

#9. Everything else. I’ve probably missed loads of things. The vibe. The atmosphere. The things you can’t describe but you know they are there. The things you can’t put your finger on but make you happy.

It’s the first place I’ve been so far that I could see myself living. Apart from the humidity. I’m not sure I could cope with that.

I was there for a week. That seemed like a long time, and was longer than I’d planned on staying there; it’s just the way the dates with the China trip had worked out. And there’s no getting away from it, Hong Kong is expensive. Especially for a backpacker on a round the world trip with a limited budget. But, I managed to find a really good hostel that was fairly cheap (just under £20 a night), in a great location and nice and clean with brilliant wifi. However, I didn’t end up staying here for the whole week. Nope, for two nights I lived it up in a 5 star hotel suite with harbour view. No, I hadn’t won the lottery or blown my budget. The Stride family who were on my China tour found out they had a spare bed in their suite and kindly invited me to stay. They treated me like one of the family and I had a wonderful couple of days with them before they went back to the UK and I stayed in Hong Kong. And a week wasn’t too long in HK. In fact, it probably wasn’t long enough. There was still so much more I could have done.

A quick recap on my Hong Kong adventures (by no means an exhaustive list, just some things I remembered to note down – there are more):

  • Going for dim sum breakfast with pensioners. It was a strange experience: 7am, a full-to-the-rafters restaurant and we were the only westerners, and the youngest by miles.  The order book was like a bingo card (perhaps we had stumbled into a breakfast bingo hall by mistake?) and some of the things we ended up eating were not what I’d class as breakfast. I’m not sure I’d eat some of them at lunch or dinner either (slimy slug-type roll thing anyone?). An experience; but one not to be repeated.
  • Seeing the light show on the harbour. At 8pm, some of the skyscrapers have a synchronised light show to music. So, not only do you get to gaze at that fabulous harbour view, but there’s some pretty lights. It’s all free, and on every night, so worth a look.
  • Running down The Peak with a headtorch. One of my favourite runs to date, with the lovely Nic and Rachel. Read more about it here.
  • Strolling around Stanley. I had a lovely day with the Stride visiting Stanley beach on Hong Kong island. We had a very British day; we took sandwiches which we ate on the pier, paddled in the sea and had a beer on the promenade.
  • Running the wrong way up an escalator. I’d never done this, but always wanted to. Forced to Egged on by Robin, I gave it a go, and pretty much got to the top. It’s harder than you think. A travelling achievement.
  • Visiting Cheung Chau. Reached only by ferry, we had a nice little walk around this little higgledy-piggledy island that is quite up and down with lots of buildings seemingly perched on top of one another, all in the same place.
  • Staring out at that view from The Peak. This was my favourite place in HK. I loved it up there. From getting the little #1 green minibus bus up (I never got the tram in the end), to looking out at that view, to walking the Peak Circle walk (more of those views), to walking down to Pok Fu Lam Reservoir and back up (to then walk back down to Central – I did a lot of walking that day), to walking up to a deserted Victoria Peak Garden, to running down the Hong Kong trail, to going back up there at night with Mike the friendly NZ guy (and meeting the odd posing Korean girl) to look at that view just one last time, I loved every single minute I spent there.
  • Getting my Thai tourist visa. I’m going to stay in Thailand longer than the 30 days you get with a standard visa-on-arrival visa, so I had to go and get a visa from the Thai Consulate in Central. It was fairly easy to figure out the address; however, it was smack bang in the middle of skyscraper city. No big deal, apart from the fact that all the buildings seem to be connected by walkways, shops, bridges and you can’t cross any of the roads on the pavements. Yep, I got a bit lost, walking through the maze that is Corporate Hong Kong. Even though they’re pretty good at signposting there, it still took me a while to figure out which walkways I needed to take to get to the right building.
  • Exploring Lantau Island. Ok, so I didn’t run up to the 85 foot high Tian Tan Buddha like The Marine suggested I did (it’s very steep; he’s a machine) but I did walk the 240 steps after getting the bus to Ngong Ping, which, in that humidity, was a challenge in itself. Photos taken and view absorbed, I hopped on another bus to a little historic fishing town called Tai O which has been there more than three centuries. This was a little gem of a place. Really teeny tiny houses, houses on stilts, lots of fish hanging up to dry and a general smell of seafood. Despite it being a busy little place, it was actually very peaceful and I walked up to a view point where you have the chance of seeing Chinese white dolphins (which can be pink or white). And see them I did; beautiful sight! Really pleased I did, and it made the trek up there (up yet more steps) worth it. Sat at the top, in the shade of the pagoda with no sounds apart from the odd bird chirping, I had a bit of a giggle out loud to myself, as I had a bit of a realisation that I’m really travelling. I’m really doing it. And that the world, Hong Kong, and everywhere is actually pretty amazing, isn’t it? How lucky I am to be seeing all these places, to be experiencing all these things. Not quite sure what I thought I’d been doing for the last 3 months but I finally got it.
  • Hanging around Hong Kong park. This little oasis, in the heart of Central Hong Kong, isn’t a big, open park, rather it’s quite small, on different levels with lots of paths, trees, plants and a small lake. It’s somewhere to go to walk or sit. There’s an aviary, vantage point and a tai chi garden. In the tai chi garden there was a memorial to healthcare workers that had died helping others in the 2003 SARS outbreak. I vaguely remembered hearing something about this in the news back then, but didn’t realise it was as epidemic and devastating as it was. And of course, it’s one of those things that is happening in another country so it’s easy to disregard. I found I was actually quite moved by the memorial. The park seemed to be the place where office workers in corporate HK go at lunchtime. I was strolling around half listening to conversations about breakdowns, spreadsheets, contacts and networking. Bleurgh. Dull. At this point I decided it was time to leave.
  • Making my own sandwiches. I got to the point of being fed up of going out to eat all the time. I know, it sounds amazing to do that but in reality it gets a bit wearing. Sometimes it’s nice to get your own food. So, as the hostel had a fridge I bought bread, ham, cucumber, museli, milk and fruit and so could make my own breakfast and sandwiches. Oh, lovely multi grain ham and cucumber sandwiches. I swear, they were the best sandwiches I had ever made. For sure.
  • Visiting the Hong Kong museum. I have to admit, this wasn’t on my itinerary. Museums aren’t usually my kind of thing. But, on my last day, a Wednesday, it was raining, I didn’t want to go too far and Mike asked me if I’d like to go along with him. Oh, and it was also free on Wednesdays. So, I did. And I’m actually really pleased I did. I learnt all about Hong Kong’s history, from the very beginning to the present day, including the 3 year Japanese occupation which I had no idea about. Always something new to learn in life.
  • Swishing about with my Octopus card. Like the oyster card in London, this is a travel card for Hong Kong which you load up with cash and can then use at on the metro, buses and trams. But, here, you can also use the card in some shops and other places. Which is very handy if you go to a supermarket and buy food and find you don’t have enough money to pay for everything. Not that that happened to me, though, oh no…
  • Not feeling so much like a tourist. This was a working city. Yes of course there were tourists, of which I was one, but there weren’t hoards of people trying to sell you shit. There were swathes of British ex-pats living here. I could have been one of them. I did live a bit of a Hong Kong life for a little bit. And I liked it.

I saw everything I wanted to see and experienced everything I wanted to. I met some great people and eventually, when it was time to move on, I found I was sad to leave. I completely underestimated Hong Kong. It’s beauty, it’s diversity, the vibe, the differences, the people. I was blown away and it’s left a imprint. A permanent one.

I only wish now I’d bought the I ❤ HK t-shirt. Because I do.

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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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Catch up.

I’ve been a bit slack at blogging lately, I’ve been a bit too busy. I’ve not written about Mcleodganj yet, my favourite place in India so far, or even Manali where I spent a week. So, with a day in Delhi to be spent in my nice air conditioned hotel room I’ll try and do a brief catch up.

Manali was beautiful, all green forest-covered mountains with turquoise rivers. It felt a bit like an alpine scene (although I’ve never been to the Alps, so no idea whether this is right or not) and there was a very hippy vibe going on. Not that I’m in any way hippy but it was very relaxed. I ended up staying there a week, and in a way it was a bit like a holiday. I didn’t do much apart from eat, sleep, read, went on a few walks, a couple of runs and just generally chilled out. I didn’t really speak to that many people because I was feeling a bit anti social and in need of a bit of down time after a hectic few weeks (Donna, I nearly wrote quiet time but that’s not what I would have meant ;)).

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Wow it seems so long ago now, and I’ve realised there’s not a lot to write about. There might have been at the time, but not so much now. I ate a lot of porridge and Mars Bars, and read a lot of books.

Mcleodganj was my favourite place in India. I stayed here for about 5 days after the Introduction to Buddhism course.  I’m not sure why it was my favourite place, it’s very similar to Manali in some ways, but it had a different vibe. I loved the Tibetan feel of the place (it’s home to the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan people, monks and nuns), and it’s not quite so hippy. It was a place of many fabulous places to eat and chill out – I used to go to Cafe Budan every morning for banana honey porridge and to use the wifi. They also made the BEST lemon curd tart ever. I could have stayed much longer. I wonder if it was because I saw lots of people I ‘knew’ there (from the course) afterwards, so it was a little bit like being at home. Maybe it was because I made a great couple of friends there (Vicki and Anne) and we spent a fab few days together hiking and eating lots. Maybe it was because I found somewhere to stay only cost me about £1.28 a night which, although it wasn’t the most luxurious of places, was a great little sociable place with a hot shower and clean toilet, or the fact I found a flat running route at last. Or, the large amount of places to eat momos (a Tibetan speciality dish of dumplings). Or, it was a place where I did a lot of things, learnt a lot and felt a bit productive. Whatever it was, I loved it there and have many fond memories, and I was surprised at how sad I felt to leave. If I had longer in India, I probably would have stayed longer, and perhaps done some volunteering, as there are lots of opportunities to help out with different things. The only nice thing about leaving and coming back to Delhi is that everything didn’t feel damp any more. You see, it’s monsoon season in India, and it rained a fair bit in Mcleod. Most days, at some point, the heavens opened. Never for prolonged periods of time but when it rained, boy did it rain, and there was always a lot of damp in the air, so nothing felt dry. So, getting into bed, putting on clothes; all damp. I just got used to it after a while. Didn’t really have any other choice. And put it this way, I’d still rather be there and damp than in Delhi and hot and sticky.

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SONY DSCOh, and I got my nose pierced here. Not sure why, just fancied it. I also bought an anklet and some baggy trousers. Maybe I am turning into a hippy after all, haha.

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