Runs around the world #13

Nong Khiaw, Laos

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Today’s run was in Laos, which is possibly the most laid back country I have been to. This maybe explains why I’ve been here about a week and a half now and this is my first run here. It’s a place that when you arrive, you instantly chill out. I’m not sure exactly why; I can’t quite choose one thing, or put my finger on it. It’s just one of those feelings.

I arrived in Laos by a two day slowboat trip down the Mekong River. Clearly no chance for running on those two days. I had no choice but to sit back, put my feet up and enjoy the ride. Arriving in Luang Prabang, we spent nearly a week there but I just couldn’t bring myself to be bothered to run. We walked and cycled lots, so it’s not like I wasn’t active. And I even saw other people jogging. But, I just didn’t fancy it most of the time. Only two times did I think about it; the first day I decided to go for food instead, and the other day it was heavy rain ALL day. Now I don’t mind running in the rain but this was monsoon-type downpours so there was no chance I was getting out in that. Luang Prabang was one of those places where you couldn’t walk fast; no one hurried, everything was at a leisurely pace. Everyone just loped around slowly with big fat smiles on their faces and nothing more pressing to do than wander around temples, climb Phousi Hill to see the town from up above or just saunter from restaurant to restaurant sampling all the different food. Pretty much every person that goes there that we either spoke to or read about ended up extending their stay but at least a day or so, if not longer.

Eventually, we managed to tear ourselves away from LP (as it’s affectionately known) and hopped on a very bouncy local minibus to get to a place called Nong Khiaw, about 2 1/2 hours north of Luang Prabang. It’s a small, dusty town that’s a bit off the beaten track, and is (according to my Rough Guide) smack bang in the middle of some of the most dramatic scenery in the whole of Indochina. They weren’t wrong. Every corner, everywhere you look, each side of the bridge and far into the distance there’s another stunning view. Another mountain, a river, a quaint village or a cliff face. Let’s face it, Laos is truly stunning. Every morning when I get up and look out the window I’m reminded and blown away by just how beautiful it is. So, I was determined to run here. Plus, the roads were fairly flat and the temperature is a bit cooler than the other places I’ve come to, which would be a first for months, and something I’d very much welcome.

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My first plan to run was scuppered by managing to either get a bug or food poisoning. Whichever one it was meant I felt a bit crappy for a couple of days, and although I managed to get out and about for a few walks, I had very little energy as I’d eaten no food and so [probably sensibly] decided a run wouldn’t be the best idea. So, feeling a bit better, this morning was the morning. Before I had chance to wake up properly, I jumped (not literally but I like the idea) out of bed and into my running gear (sadly not with any help from an automatic Wallace-and-Gromit style machine – although that would be good).

First thought? Oooh, it’s cool. Temperature wise. This is a big change. For all the time I’ve been travelling I’ve been running in really hot and often extremely humid temperatures. Here, it’s a bit cooler in the mornings and at night, and so this would be a different run. I maybe don’t have to say how pleased I was at this, as you might have already guessed that although I don’t like being cold, I don’t like being too hot with high humidity more. So this was like a breath of fresh air literally. Because the first thing I noticed was that my lungs hurt. You know, that kind of first-run-in-England-when-the-weather-starts-to-turn kind of cold. Hurts your lungs until to get used to it, or after you’ve run in the cold a few times. I didn’t think it was that cold (it was probably in the low 20’s) but it just shows how my body has got used to the different temperatures.

Second thought? Shit, I have no energy. I’m not really surprised, seeing as though the only things I’ve eaten in two days is an white bread egg baguette and half a can of Pepsi, which pretty much came back up a short while later.

Third thought? Get a grip, get on with it and just do a couple of miles.

So I did. And it wasn’t too bad. It was hard work, yes, my legs were weary, my lungs hurt, but I got into a rhythm, enjoyed some tunes, gazed at the mist covered mountains, chuckled to myself at the odd looks I was getting from the Lao schoolkids going to school, avoided the chickens that constantly run across the roads here, waved at the little kids peeking out the doors of the houses lining the main road and smashed a [slightly pathetic] two miles out. Only two miles, but it’s better than nothing. It was a faster two miles than I’d done in months, which hopefully proves I’m slower in the heat/humidity and not just horrifically unfit. And I can’t forget I’m still a bit ill. I know I’m not 100% yet. So I felt better for going, and am looking forward to my next run. It won’t be here in Nong Khiaw, because we’re moving on tomorrow. We’re only in Laos for a few more days, so I’m probably not going to be able to run again in this beautiful country I feel humbled to be visiting, however once is once enough to have it forever in my memory.

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Goodbye Thailand.

Chiang Mai was the last place we stayed in Thailand. It’s not the last place we visited, that was Chiang Khong, but as we were only there 1/2 hour before we crossed the river and the border to Laos it’s not really worth mentioning.

We were in Chiang Mai for about 5 days. It’s Thailand’s second biggest city and a popular place on the tourist trail, with umpteen million things to do, although most of these are extremely expensive for what they are, and compared to the price of other things in Thailand/Asia. First things first, the day we got there we had a wander around. This is customary for me and Nick now. Find somewhere to stay, dump the bags then go for a walk to figure out where we are and where the nearest facilities* are. We did this in style in Chiang Mai. We found a little guesthouse which was basic but clean and functional and in a great location for the cheapest price yet (around £2 per person per night). Just round the corner in a quiet soi was a bar with prime seats outside and 7/11 priced beer where we sat in the late afternoon sun people watching, putting the world to rights and chilling out with a beer or four. Or five. After a few we thought we’d best go get some food, and decided to be Westerners for the night and headed to Mike’s Burger Bar, a roadside burger joint with pricey burgers, good music, weird posters and smiley staff. Now, it might have been the beers, or the fact I’ve not had a burger in months but it was the BEST BURGER AND CHIPS IN THE WORLD. Fact. What we should have done then is stop drinking. But we didn’t, we went back and had more beers. Not before I had (apparently, I can’t quite remember the night from this bit onwards) stopped at a street stall, picked up a fedora hat and pretended to be Michael Jackson. And also told Nick that I didn’t need ANY help from ANY man to cross the road. And talked rubbish to some people from Ireland. Oooops. It was a tremaze night though, much fun and worth the fuzzy feeling the next day.

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Inside the city walls, Chiang Mai is very traveller orientated, with lots of little quiet soi’s full of guesthouses, restaurants, bars and massage places. Very much traveller-town, however it doesn’t feel anything like Khao San Road. It’s very villagey, with no loud music or partying, just a very laid back relaxed atmosphere. We both liked it straight away, and enjoyed a few days of wandering around, finding street places to eat and having a few drinks in the late afternoon sun at our newly found local bar. We spent one day walking the perimeter of the city walls (it’s about 4 miles in total, 1 mile each side), another day having a picnic in the park and another hiring bikes to have a bit of an explore out of town (we ended up in the University area, getting down with all the trendy youths. Chiang Mai is also a surprisingly dirty city – I ended up caked in grime and grit after a day riding round through the traffic. Nice.).

One night we had a traditional Thai massage, which wasn’t anything like any massage I’d had before. Nothing like my sports massages, or oil-based relaxing massages. Nope, this one involved being pulled, stretched, punched, kicked, squeezed as well as knelt and walked on by a Thai lady, with my clothes on. It was relaxing, in a strange way, and afterwards I felt very chilled out. We didn’t do much afterwards, apart from loll around.

On the Sunday night there was a HUGE market where one of the main roads in the old city turned into a walking street where every handicraft under the sun was for sale, as well as all the Wat courtyards being turned into food courts. That night was Snack Night, a night to try lots of different little snacks rather than a full meal. Like omlettes cooked in a banana leaf, or a spicy sausage on a stick, or a little pile of noodles in a leaf, or BBQ chicken wings. Or a bag of insects. That one was Nicks. Although I did try a worm. After freaking out a bit that I thought one was still alive in the bag, and then picking up a worm, squishing it in my fingers and squeaking and dropping it. You know when, before I left to come away, I smugly said “When I go to Asia and see insects on sticks I’ll definitely try one, oh yes I will.”. Yeah. Now I’ve seen them, it’s not going to happen. Can’t do it. The worm was bad enough. Although, it was surprisingly tasty. But. I couldn’t get over the fact it was a worm.

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There was one odd thing that happened while we were walking down the street. Ever been offered a turtle/tortoise for sale by a random man that walks past you in the street? I have. No idea why he was carrying it, whether it was alive or dead, or why he thought I might want it. It’s about as random as the time me and The Marine had gone to Ilkley for the weekend and this eccentric old lady practically spat the words “Stop!..<pause>..Being so..<pause>..intelligent. And..<pause>..Fit!” at us. Weird.

I think I might have decided on my next tattoo. Well, it’s actually going to be an extension of the one I already have on my right wrist. But, I’m keeping the idea until the end of my travels, as I’m sure I’ll get more ideas over the next few months too. It did take a bit of restraint not to go and get one done in Chiang Mai. I need to be 100% sure. And I think what I end up having will actually be a few things, some of which I don’t know yet. So I’ve got to be patient.

Chiang Mai was lovely, but as the days went on it was apparent there was less and less to do, unless you had loads of money to spend. A lot of the activities on offer didn’t really appeal to me, and I think we both felt we were probably there about a day too long. Having said that, it was a nice place to spend a few days chilling out, we ate some good food and did a fair bit of walking and biking. We got a bit of culture by visiting a few temples, and we got out of Traveller Town by walking into the outside areas on the last day. This included Seedy Street where there were many bars, full of young pretty Thai girls, to go to, including one called ‘Foxy Ladys a-go-go’. I’m sure you can work out what type of bar that was. And the tuk tuk drivers ask the men if they want to be taken to have a Good Time.

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The alarm was set for 5 am to catch a 6 hour Green Bus to Chiang Kong (the Thailand/Laos border). Heading out of the guesthouse at 5:35am the heavens decided to open. It hadn’t rained for about 4 days, it had been bright hot sunshine. Hmm. It wasn’t looking good, especially as we’d been told the tuk tuks didn’t start until 6am, so our default option was to be to head down the road towards the bus station, looking out for tuk tuks as we went. However, Travellers Serendipitous Luck occurred. Don’t know what this is? It’s when you’re in the right place and the right time. Speak to any traveller and you’ll find it’s probably happened at least once. This time, I had just stepped out of the guesthouse onto the street and what should be coming up the soi but a tuk tuk, it’s lights shining in the rainy darkness like rays from heaven! If there had been sound effects, it would have been a heavenly ‘aaaaaahhhhh’ sung by angels. Price bartered down (of course: standard practice), we got in and escaped getting a good soaking. This is Important when a) you have a 6 hour bus journey on a cold air conditioned bus b) when you don’t have many clothes and you have to dry them and c) you don’t want wet clothes in your backpack. They make everything else wet and smell like wet dog.

Looking forlornly out of the window at our last glimpses of Thailand, we waved a reluctant good bye and crossed the river in Chiang Khong to Houxay to start our adventure in Laos.

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Goodbye Thailand, you were home for a month and a half and I could have stayed longer. I loved your food, it was truly some of the best, cheapest and tastiest around. I tried new things, and enjoyed all of it. Your people are some of the most friendliest, happiest, smiliest and most helpful people I have met. I never heard a raised voice or an argument. No road rage or beeping horns. Everyone I smiled at smiled back. Everyone I said hello to smiled and said hello back. People would go out of their way to help, even when they weren’t asked. I never once felt pressured to buy something, or to have a tuk tuk ride. I never felt like people were only talking to me to get my money. Your landscape and scenery was beautiful and interesting, and all so different. You’ve got a history I enjoyed finding out about. I thought you were a place that I wasn’t fussed about visiting.

You changed my mind. I’ll see you again someday.

*bars with cheap beers

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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An Introduction to Buddhism and meditation.

I’ve just spent 10 days in silence. Actual silence. No talking, no communicating with anyone. You might find this funny. Or wonder how I did it. You see, I like to talk. I like to chat. I like to ask questions. 10 days is a long time. A really long time. Nearly two weeks. Believe me, I thought all these things and I was a little bit scared about whether I was up to it. But hang on, let’s step back a bit. Because you’re probably wondering why and what for.

When I was in Manali a couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon the website for Tushita Meditation Centre, which advertises Introduction to Buddhism courses. It is just outside Mcleodganj, home to the exiled Tibetan government and Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet. I knew I was heading this way and it got me interested. I knew I had about two weeks left in India, and was looking at what to do with the time, the next course started in a few days and would fit right in with my dates. It would leave me enough extra time to explore Mcleodganj before heading back to Delhi.

I knew nothing about Buddhism or meditation. I’m slightly ashamed to admit although I had heard of the Dalai Lama I didn’t really know who he was or what he did. I certainly knew nothing about the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the reasons he was in India. I felt very uneducated – how did I get to 32 without knowing about these things? And why? So, I took the plunge and signed up. A few days later I found myself with around 54 other people starting a 10 day course that would be a mix of teachings about Buddhism and meditation sessions, ending with a 2 day meditation retreat. In silence. They stress that a lot. It would be a challenge, but wasn’t that why I came travelling? To learn, to experience new things and give myself a kick up the arse?

I’ve been thinking about what to write in this blog post for a couple of days now. And I’m still no clearer. There’s so much but so little. It was a very personal thing, lots of self reflecting and looking inside, and I’m not sure how much I want to share. But, I want to let you guys know what it was like.

Before all the in-depth stuff, here’s some basics:

  • The centre is in the middle of the woods on the side of a mountain. It’s very peaceful, quiet and out of the way. Mum, I kept an eye out for any pygmy activity. You’ll be pleased to know there wasn’t any. Just monkeys. Lots of them, including teeny tiny baby ones. They provided a lot of entertainment.
  • There was lots of food. This was good. If anyone from Zambia is reading this, you’ll be pleased to know there was peanut butter. But, it was not peanut butter as we know it. No, I think this was proper, home made peanut butter, so not so sweet. In fact, not sweet at all. I mixed it with honey to make it sweeter. Unfortunately this made it look like baby sick or dog doo but I didn’t care, because, damn, it tasted gooood. I think I’m having withdrawals now.
  • I couldn’t run for 10 days. No real exercise, apart from walking up and down some steps a lot. There was a lot of sitting in a meditation position. I have never had pins and needles so many times.
  • There was the most amazing thunderstorm on the second night. I was too tired to stay awake for it all, but caught a glimpse of loads of lightening flashing through a forest. Incredible.
  • I didn’t miss technology. No really, I didn’t. Well, not until the very end at least.
  • We all had jobs to do each day to help keep the centre clean and tidy. Mine was cleaning the windows of the gompa (meditation hall). This was good; I didn’t envy the people who had to clean the toilets that 55 people used all day.

So firstly, the Silence. The big Silence. It is mentioned A.Lot on the website, and in the information and in the induction. And rightly so, it is a huge part of the course. It’s designed so you can get the most out of everything, have silence to focus and reflect on what you’re learning and your reactions and thoughts about it. How did I find it? Actually, easier than I thought. When everyone around you is also silent, it is easier. It was easier to not think about how long you had to be silent for though, as it just seemed so long, so I put that out of my mind. I didn’t break the silence, although other people did. Not majorly, just hushed whispers every now and then. But I’m surprised how much this unsettled me; I didn’t like it. It was really disruptive and it’s amazing how a mere whisper can seem like shouting when you’ve been in silence for a while. The only time it got to me was Day 9 at about lunchtime. It was nearly the end of the course, I was ready to talk to people and my brain had just about had enough of thinking. It had reflected all it could reflect, there was nothing but meditation sessions and long breaks and nothing to distract it. I had a bit of a moment where I was just desperate for a distraction; to stop me being aware of my own thoughts and inner monologue. But, it lasted about an hour and then went. But boy, was I pleased to start talking again the next day. I think I talked like a non-stop train as soon as we could. No, I don’t think, I know I did. Sorry to the guys at breakfast, I’m not sure they got a word in.

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Having to be silent meant I was much more aware of the thoughts in my head. Now, I knew that my brain was often full of things, but, well, let’s just say there’s lots and lots in there. Although, I can definitely tell it’s slowed down now. It doesn’t feel so full or manic, not so much stuff to process or all whizzing round at the same time. No lists of things to do or things to remember. And I think this course has definitely helped with that. It’s slowed my mind down. Organised it a bit. I remember, back in Lincoln at various points over the last 18 months or so, there were many times where I just wanted, no needed, to stop. This overwhelming urge to stop my mind for a bit, just a minute, so I can think clearly, take everything out and sort it all out into some kind of order and put it back in. To look at everything, see the bigger picture and figure out how to do it all. But every time I tried to do it, I couldn’t. My thoughts were so jumbled, that even if I tried, I could never manage it. Other thoughts would take over and I’d just never manage to unscramble it, my concentration would never last and there was always something to distract me. The ultimate procrastinator. Which was frustrating. Never being able to achieve it. Until now. I’ve had that break. Now is that time, that peace and quiet. I feel like I’ve finally stopped and put some thoughts in order. Unjumbled my jumbled mind. And how lovely that feels. I’ve started to think about one thing, and one thing only, at a time. Focus on that one thing. And I know now, that I can put some things to rest. Let them go out of my head once and for all, because they’re organised and sorted now in the right place, with a sense of clarity. Tis’ wonderful.

Meditating was interesting. Actually, really hard work. For all those people who think meditating is relaxing and just closing your eyes, zoning out and going to sleep, think again. We did two types: Stablising and Analysing. Stabilising is where you focus on one thing (the breath) and try to remove any other thoughts out of your mind, and just be completely in the moment. Hmph. Easier said than done. They are always there, these thoughts. It’s really hard to stop them just popping in. And they are so random, mine were a huge mix of things from childhood memories, to people, to things I will be doing, to future plans, to things I remember from dreams and anything in between. Analysing meditation is where you analyse certain questions and topics, guided by the meditation leader. This is more interesting as your subconscious is there to help you figure things out and think of things in a different way. I liked this, it helped with putting a few things to bed for me, once and for all. There was one meditation session that we did where the group chanted a mantra. It was one of the most beautiful things I had heard, and very powerful. I’ll not forget that moment in a hurry.

After one session I felt so completely peaceful and content, it was just blissful. I can’t quite describe it well, but I felt just so, well, happy and calm. Almost a bit like being drugged, or in a trance. I can’t remember exactly what the content of the meditation was (I didn’t write that down), but it doesn’t really matter. What I noted down was that I felt so relaxed and content. Content with my life, with myself, in my choices and who I am. Happy and more understanding of me, and how I live my life and how I will find solutions. Like everything is starting to make sense, and is less chaotic and more ordered.

Starting out on my travels I knew I wanted to spend my time helping people. Not just while travelling, but afterwards, when I have to work. I know I want a job that’s worthwhile, that’s helping, that’s making a difference. This course has really helped reaffirm this. I knew it, but before it almost seemed like empty words. Not saying I wouldn’t, but just not with that 100% knowing with my heart. And that’s what I know now. I feel it. Helping other people is what makes me happy, simple as. It always has, this has just confirmed it.

Has this been a spiritual experience for me? Yes, but not in a religious way as such. It’s been an experience that I’ve felt in my heart and mind, and has left me feeling more content, richer, with a deeper understanding of me and my thoughts. I feel so lucky that I took this opportunity, and I reckon that it’s going to give me a great basis for the rest of my travels in the things that I do and the experiences that I seek and have. I feel I’ve got more of a purpose, I’m not just floating. I don’t just want to visit places and sights to take a picture, to say I’ve been there and move on. That seems terribly self-indulgent. I want to learn about places, speak to people, experience a place and life there. I’m aware of my actions and motivations, and the consequences. Oh, there’s still loads I don’t know, or haven’t figured out, but that’s the fun. That’s what I’ll be doing. I’ll just be a bit better equipped, and on the right path.

There’s a great quote from HH. The Dalai Lama – “Don’t try to use what you’ve learnt from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to become a better whatever-you-are”.

He also said that Buddhism is like training in altruism. I think this sums it up perfectly for me; I don’t want to become a Buddhist. But, through this course, I’ve learnt so much in so many ways, all of which will help me become a better person. One who can give back to other people. A kinder person, a more generous person. A person who will spend more time thinking of others. Because, the Buddhists are right, that is what makes someone truly happy.

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The adventures of Shimla.

Settle down with a cup of tea, put your feet up and relax, this might be a long one. I spent a strange few days in a place called Shimla and there’s plenty to tell. Shimla was the British Summer Holiday capital back in the day of British rule, and is still a very popular holiday place for people all across India. Lincolnshire people, it’s kind of like an Indian version of Skegvegas, with pony rides, ice creams, stalls selling tourist tat etc. Oh, and rain and fog in monsoon season (i.e. now). Only this place has amazing views of the Himalayan ranges and no beach.

To get there I took two trains, totalling about 9 hours travelling time. This might sound horrific but it’s not so bad, India is such a big country to get around and I’m kind of used to lots of travelling time now. The second train was the Shimla Toy Train. It doesn’t cover a big distance but it takes ages because it winds through the mountains, over bridges and through loads of tunnels. 103 tunnels to be precise. It was much fun, if not a bit crowded, on tiny bench seats and I was squashed in with an Indian family. Not the comfiest, plus they had a screaming baby but, they shared their lunch with me, which was 1) a bonus and 2) delicious. And the baby stopped screaming after a while. They couldn’t speak much English, I don’t speak Hindi but we got by OK.

The journey was fine, peaceful and not too hot. But, about 20 minutes outside Shimla I saw a load of black smoke starting to billow out the engine and we ground to a halt. So, there we sat, in the middle of the forest for about an hour and a half, all the time it was getting darker and I had no way of letting the family I was staying with that I was going to be late. Because, for this bit of the trip, I had decided to do a bit of couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is an online travel community of people that open their homes to other travellers and let them stay. I’d registered back before Christmas as it seemed a cool thing to do, a way to meet real people and also to save a bit of cash. I’m not sure what made me have a look at Counchsurfing while I was in Delhi but I did, and I found a lady who lived with her husband and two daughters who were also involved with an NGO (non-governmen organisation) that helped with education and empowerment of women and villages. This sounded right up my street and interesting, especially after what I’d just done in Africa so I sent a request, it got accepted and off I went. I managed to find her place eventually in the dark with the help of a kindly guy at the train station who walked the 20 or so minutes with me (uphill, in the humid fog). I was expecting him to try to make me go to some other accommodation, or ask for money but he didn’t. I was surprised; in my experience so far it seems the majority of people in India only want to talk or be helpful because they want something. So that made a nice change.

Sandeepan (the lady I was due to stay with) had received unexpected house guests since accepting my request so when I got there she had arranged for me to stay with another couchsurfer, Aruna, who lived a few minutes away. So, after feeding me lovely food (very welcome after a day’s travelling) I went off to Aruna’s place, where I was instantly made me feel very welcome. Aruna is a retired teacher and lives with her husband smack bang in the middle of town. I ended up spending the next 4 nights at her house, where she made me the most delicious chai (and biscuits) and home cooked indian food. It’s not quite like we get in the Indian restaurants back home. I tried all sorts of things, all veg (in India, you are either Veg or Non-Veg), some with local vegetables only found in that region, some with more widely found across India. I spent one morning with her in the kitchen watching her cook, with her talking through everything she was doing. I learnt so much, and she made it all look so easy! When I get back to England I’m definitely going to try and have a go. One thing was evident; there is no wastage. Everything, and I mean everything, gets eaten or saved for another meal. Top tip for sweet lovers: mix sugar with any leftover rice for a quick easy sweet after your meal. It tastes very similar to rice pudding.

I learnt lots about Aruna, her family, her religion, India and Shimla. It was so interesting and so different to just staying in a hotel or guest house; for a few days I got to experience real Indian life, including proper food, squat toilets and a shower which was just a jug and a tub of warm water. Not sure there’s any price you can put on that.

I also helped out with some things for the NGO (Wahoe Commune). This is where it became a bit of an adventure. A mixture of my scepticism (well, as I mentioned, my experience in India had previously been that people just wanted things from you) and communication between two different cultures. At times, it felt a bit ‘hard-sell’ for the ngo. Like I should be contributing financially, which kind of goes against what couch surfing is all about, although it wasn’t specifically said so I think this may have been more my issue or interpretation.

I ended up helping out though, not necessarily financially but with my time, which I was happy to do. It all came about a bit strange though. I’ve found that Indians tend to say statements rather than questions, so I was told that I was to accompany Sandeepan’s husband later that day to some accommodation outside of Shimla that they were thinking of offering to their volunteers as somewhere to relax for a few days before or after their volunteering stints. To take pictures and also to let them know what I thought of it, presumably as an English person (and potential volunteer). With nothing else to do, and a unplanned stay, I figured why not? So, the first day I found myself in a car with 4 Indian men heading away from Shimla to a remote village. Erm, yeah, as I’m sure you can imagine, at this point I wondered what the hell I had managed to get myself into. Yep, images of those headlines of gang rape in India from the newspapers flashed into my head. But, I thought, I’d met this guy’s wife and kids and been to their home so it all had to be OK, right? <weak laugh> So, I get to the accommodation, to then be led to an empty accommodation block. This is not getting any better. Imagination going a bit overdrive. But, I took some pictures, we chatted about the room a bit. Then, we got brought chai (tea). Hmm. Is it drugged? I was cursing my overactive sceptical brain. Then, Guvinder tells me he wants to offer me some spiritual healing. Right now. Doesn’t quite tell me what’s involved but says we can have a short session to find out what my chakra is like (energy). He had been telling me about his journey with spiritualism on the way over. I cynically ask if he will charge. He says not for this, as I am helping him out. But, if I want a whole course, then yes, it will. Hmm. But, in the sense of adventure, I decide to go with the flow (noting an escape route of course, just in case). After that first session, we went back to that accommodation twice, both to take more photos (with banners and things) and also for another two sessions of healing.

Now, I’m not going to describe right now what was involved, as I apparently should have 40 days to process it, and not talk about what goes on in the healing until after those days are up. And, no matter what I think about it, I’m going to give the process that respect. But, let’s just say, sat in a room with views over the Himalaya’s, sometimes in my underwear (!) it’s one of the most bizarre yet interesting things I’ve experienced, and has certainly made me think.

One of the trips to the accommodation was done by public bus, the others by car, all of which were an experience. Tight, twisty mountain roads, filled with lorries, people, cows and everything in between. I will never forget coming back with the sun setting over the Himalayan ranges; it was so stunningly beautiful. Or the trip back on the bus; in a monsoon downpour, the bus was hurtling (and yes, that’s an accurate description) round the corners in heavy rain, people flailing all over the place, Indian music blasting out and incense sticks burning. Oh, and if people want to overtake here in India, they just beep their horn and go for it, even on blind corners. If they find something coming, they just stop. And the roads are so narrow, sometimes the buses are nearly touching when passing. Like, you couldn’t even get a fag packet between them. Those trips to the mountains were truly an experience I won’t forget.

So, apart from helping out, thinking I might get gang raped or die on the roads, what else did I do in Shimla?

Well, I had a good explore down all the roads and side streets and just a general wander around. I climbed to Jakoo Temple (monkey temple) at the top of one of the mountains where there were gorgeous views, a huge statue and lots of monkeys, who, if you weren’t careful, would steal your stuff. I had a stick to ward them off, luckily I had no need to swing it round like a light saber. Pity. I could have been Princess Leia.

After 4 nights I decided it was time to move on. I was debating whether to volunteer at one of the Wahoe community projects for a while but I really felt like I needed some time alone, to myself. My adventures in Shimla had got me thinking about all sorts of things and I needed some space. I feel sad that I had been so sceptical of everything, but I’m not sure how to fix that. Or whether I should? I need to keep myself safe, and can’t just go accepting every invitation or presuming everyone has good intentions, we know the world isn’t like that.

So, with a ton of memories I said goodbye to my generous hosts and hopped on a bus headed for Manali, even further into the mountains.

Shimla Toy Train

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ArunaSONY DSC

View from Jakoo TempleSONY DSC

Statue at Jakoo

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Sunset over the mountains

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