The Truman Show – the Canberra episode.

Canberra. Australia’s capital city. It’s not generally a tourist destination, and in fact most people ask “why are you going THERE?” when you say that you’re off to Canberra. Followed by “there’s nothing there!”. Well, that’s not strictly true. Of course there’s stuff there. Just not big ‘look at meeeee’ touristy sights. There’s a couple of things that made me want to visit. First, the fact that everyone said I shouldn’t. I wanted to see for myself. I’m not all about the big sights, and love just experiencing places for what and how they are, not just for what sights they have (like the time I went to Mae Sot in Thailand). Second, to meet up (and stay with) some people (Paul (Daniels) and Debbie (McGee)) I had met in Tasmania.

Canberra IS interesting. But it’s a funny place. Nothing at all like other places I have been. It’s a planned city, made when it couldn’t be decided whether Sydney or Melbourne should be the capital of Australia. So, it’s all very organised and planned and everything seems to have it’s place. It kind of reminded me of the Truman Show. Everything is neat and tidy, all organised. The grass is all cut, there’s no litter, buildings are nice and shiny. All the different business are in different areas; all nicely categorised and grouped together. The cars all move (mostly) with ease on the roads, and people stream out of all the government buildings like suited clones all walking in a nice tidy line. Even the joggers and cyclists felt a bit like they were on a conveyor belt loop around the man-made lake in the centre.

Where I was stayed was actually outside the city. Paul and Debbie live about 30 minutes outside the city right in the middle of the bush, so this was a different experience to the city too. I got my own digs above the garage (thanks guys!), enjoy some fab home cooking (roo sausages anyone?) and got to see kangaroos bouncing around in the wild! It was great to stay with them and see what rural Canberra life was like. So, it wasn’t just a tourist sightseeing trip to the capital. But, as you know, that’s not quite me anyway. I like to get off the beaten track a bit.

I surprised myself here though; I had a couple of days of culture. I’m not a huge museum fan, but I managed to spend a whole day in the War Memorial museum. It was fascinating. And I’m not even being sarcastic. It actually really was. And then I spent a day in some art galleries. Again, really quite interesting. OK, so two days of culture was about enough. I also walked round the lake and went on a bike ride to get a bit of outdoors stuff in. Think I felt the need to balance it all out.

But, to sum it up, I had a great time in Canberra. It was great to see Paul and Debbie again, to spend time with some wonderfully friendly people. Great to get a bit of culture and do something different, and see a place that a lot of visitors to Australia won’t, mainly based on what other people say.

So, I’d say, if you like to see difference places just to experience what they’re like, then Canberra is worth a visit. If you like to visit museums and art galleries, then Canberra is worth a visit. But, don’t just take my word for it. Or listen to others. Why not visit for yourself and make up your own mind?

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Back to the fold.

I’m back in Melbourne now after my Tasmania adventure (and a little blog hiatus). And what an adventure. I had an incredible time; Tasmania is one of the most wonderful places I have been to so far. I fell in love with it and I’m pretty sure I’ll be back there one day.

I’ll be working on a blog post over the next few days, and I’m pretty sure it might just be an interesting one. Stay peeled! In the meantime, here’s a few photos to give you a bit of a taster…

Home.

I’ve been thinking about home a bit recently. Not in any particular way, but just thinking about it. Thinking about where actually is home. Especially at the moment. You’d probably say Lincolnshire but it’s not really any more. I haven’t got my house or job there any more, and who’s to say I’ll settle back there anyway when I do return to the UK? What’s to keep me there? My old life doesn’t exist any more, and if I tried to recreate it, that’s all I’d be doing, trying to recreate something that’s gone. I’ve moved on. My life can never be the same, and I don’t want it to be. Things change, that’s just a fact of life.

I’m into my 6th month of travelling, so getting on for half way, so I’m not really surprised I’m thinking about home. I’m missing some home comforts, people and a normal way of life. I’m getting a bit weary of travelling so much. So many new countries, new languages, new currencies, new traditions to figure out. Like I mentioned in my The little things post, it’s those things that start to make a difference. When I leave for Australia on 11th December I’ll have been in Asia for nearly 6 months, and I think that’s about right for me. In Australia I will stay with some friends for a while and then look after their house for them while they are away over Christmas and New Year, and I can’t TELL you how excited about this I am. It feels a bit like I’ll be going home for a bit of a rest and a recharge before starting the next part of the adventure, without actually going back to the UK. A chance to be in one place for longer than a few days. A chance to eat proper food* and get some good running** in. A chance to get some new clothes. A chance to get my hair cut. To catch up with some familiar faces. A chance, if you like, to live a normal life for a bit without actually going home, which feels like something I need to do.

It will be strange to be in a country where everyone speaks the same language as me. I’ve got so used to not really knowing what anyone is talking about, and not being able to understand any conversations overheard on buses or trains.

I’ve got a few exciting plans for Australia, all of which are being shaped by the travelling I’ve done so far, which I am probably FAR too excited about. I’m expecting this next part of my journey to be a completely different experience to what I’ve already done. Like a trip of two halves, which for me just adds to the need-to-sit-on-my-hands-excitement.

I also reckon that this next part of my trip will help me figure out what I want my future home and life to look like, and maybe where it might be, or at least will help give me some pointers on what kind of things I want to be in my life. I know I don’t want to be a permanent traveller, although I do wonder how I will feel when I am in one place for longer than a few weeks now.

Through my travels so far, the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had, I’ve got some ideas and a much better idea of who I am and what I enjoy to do, and a hugely renewed excitement for my life when I finish this lot of travel. My life, wherever I end up calling home, or whatever I end up doing will be another new start, another new adventure, and I’m already getting pretty stoked about that. I just have to remember to not try to get ahead of myself. Enjoy the here and now first. Plenty of time for that next year. So much more to come before that.

*fishfinger sandwiches

**longer than 4 miles and more than once a week

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By the border.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the buses.

This is a story of a 14 hour bus adventure over two days through central Thailand.

While in Kanchanaburi we thought it would be a bit of fun to take local transport overland to Mae Sot, rather than head back to Bangkok and get the touristy main road ‘Big Bus’. Mae Sot is on the border with Burma (Myanmar) and a bit off the beaten track so taking local buses meant that we’d be having to change quite a few times. We didn’t quite know how we’d get on or how long it would take but, that’s all part of the fun, innit?

We left Kanchanaburi at about 9am in the morning and arrived in Mae Sot at around 8:30am the following morning. Admittedly this was a teeny bit longer than we were expecting.

The first bus was a local bus to Suphanburi. The local buses are well cool. Full of character, rattles, colour, people, fans and animals (no chickens yet though – just a cat). For a couple of hours we rode along the Thai countryside with the wind in our hair, the sun on our skin and smiles on our faces. People get on and off, the conductor up and down with his little ticket/money box helping people out and chatting. Sometimes the bus stops for a while in certain places so people can get on and off to get snacks, drinks or go to the toilet. The helpful conductor was helping people buy snacks through the windows so they wouldn’t have to get out. They also seem to have to stop somewhere along the way to ‘clock in’. On this journey it was a machine attached to a wall of a small shack in the middle of the countryside. I have no idea why they do this though.

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Note the high tech air conditioning on these buses; open windows and doors and fans on the ceiling.

At Suphanburi bus terminal we got off our bus and pretty much straight onto another of the same type, this time heading for a place called Nakon Sawan. This journey was about 4 hours, so we’re getting into late afternoon now. We know we’ve got another two buses after this one so at this point we’re thinking it’s probably going to be a late one. But, it doesn’t matter when you have plenty of time and no alarm to get up for. This journey was probably my favourite. The scenery was just delightful, passing through central Thailand there were mountains in the background, small villages and towns, people on bicycles, animals, children playing, street stalls selling everything you can imagine. Everything was so green; all the plants and trees so colourful and tropical, and bright flowers and colours dotted amongst them all like iced gems.

Arriving at Nakon Sawan we had a bit more choice of bus now. It was 5pm and after quite a bit of conversation with many different people telling us lots of different things, some food and a sit down away from the touts, we discovered we could either go with a company on one of the ‘Big Buses’ (air conditioned coach) or the government bus (similar kind of thing – it seemed there wasn’t a local bus to do the same journey, perhaps because it’s a bit of a longer route). After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing and a skilled bit of haggling from me, we got the ticket price down for one of the Big Buses to get into Tak at about 10pm. This journey was a bit uneventful, it was dark so there wasn’t much to see, apart from the odd town we passed through all lit up, or the odd remote places all lit up with fairy lights. We stopped after about an hour at a kind of Thailand-style service station where we got a fab hot meal (included free with the bus ticket). These service stations are a bit bizarre – they have a strange feel about them but are pretty much the same concept as back at home – somewhere to go to the toilet, buy some snacks or hot food. However, they’re not at supidly inflated prices here, you can’t buy tat and the food was some of the best I’ve had. No microwave-reheated plastic food at these places. And to get a free meal in with the already stupidly cheap bus ticket is a Billy Bargain.

We arrived at Tak at just gone 10pm. One more journey left – Tak to Mae Sot. We were a bit dismayed to find out that the next bus to Mae Sot was at 3am that night (well, the next morning). Hmm. Not quite ideal. We didn’t really relish the thought of getting to Mae Sot at about 5 in the morning and trying to find somewhere to stay.  We knew there were government minibuses that ran between 6am and 7pm from Tak, so we decided to find a bench and settle down for the night. After all, 6am wasn’t that far away. You might wonder why we didn’t try to find somewhere to stay in Tak? Well, we didn’t know the place, there was nothing in my guidebook and no taxis or tuk tuks about at the time of night. It was just easier to be hobos for the night. It’s the first time I’ve spent a night like that, so that’s another thing to tick off the travelling list. Using my rucksack top pocket as a pillow (I am sure its designed that way) I managed to get a few hours kip on the hardest wooden bench, much to my surprise, in between the barking stray dogs, the toilet attendant’s untuned guitar playing (yep, he worked all night, no free pee’s for me) and the arrival of buses throughout the night.

Nick didn’t get so much sleep, but had just managed to drift off at about 5:30am when a woman came and woke him up because she wanted to sit on the end of his bench. There was a perfectly good seat nearby, but no, she wanted to sit on that bench. She was the attendant for the minibuses for Mae Sot so after giving her a few glares we bought a couple of tickets and waited on a cramped minibus until it was full. You see, over here, buses don’t always go on time, they go when they are full. So, after about a 45 minute wait, the minibus was crammed full of people and luggage and we set off for a most uncomfortable 90 minute journey to Mae Sot. I struggled to keep my eyes open but was awake to see yet more stunning scenery, and also be aware of a girl next to me hide beneath my legs and under my rucksack and plead with me not to say anything when we stopped at a control point. I’m not quite sure what these points are but it seems to be the police checking ID cards, so I’m guessing it is perhaps for illegal immigrants given that we were so close to the Thailand-Burmese border. Clearly this girl didn’t have any ID, I’m not sure what was going on but the chap didn’t spot her and we moved on again.

We arrived at about 8:30am in Mae Sot tired, stiff and uncomfortable, but having had an awesome little adventure on the buses. It’s what travel is all about. After all, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

City surprise.

Bangkok surprised me. I spent two weeks there in total, which is nearly two weeks more than planned. Lots of people said it’s awful, noisy, busy and advised to just get out as quick as possible. But I found I loved it. It’s not really anything like you’d imagine. Ok, maybe there are seedy parts, dirty bits. Yes, it’s noisy but it’s a city. It’s certainly better than some cities I’ve been to (Delhi?). Maybe it was the area I stayed in; a Thai residential area. But I found it energising, friendly, cosmopolitan, bustling and vibrant. It’s easy to get around and is filled with lovely happy smiley people.

My second stay was when Nick came to join me to be my travel buddy for a couple of months in SE Asia. Nick’s first time in Thailand, we spent a few days walking miles and miles (literally; I think we covered around 40 miles in 3 days) around the city, eating lots of street food, trying to interact with the locals and take pictures. I met up with Rebecca again before Nick arrived for more food and drinks and a wander round a very wet and soggy Asiatique, a waterfront full of shops, restaurants and bars.

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It was strange having someone to travel with, especially someone I know from back home, after a few months of travelling by myself. It’s different, but in a good way. Someone to share stuff with. Like the experiences and sights that are being seen, but also the responsibility and organisation. Like remembering to take a room key, or figuring out which bus to get or doing a beer run. It’s making a nice change for a small part of my adventure. To share my adventure. We did a lot that week in Bangkok, here’s just a few examples:

  •  Had a few beers. Of course, it had to be done. And of course then I had to introduce Nick to the wonders of the 7/11 post-beer munchie food. Incidentally, there are 6500 7/11’s in Thailand. They are everywhere. Literally.
  • Stayed at the wonderful U-baan hostel in the Thonburi district ran by the lovely Joy (helped by her sister Jan). It’s a great place to stay at; we felt right at home and met some, erm, interesting people. Especially three Australian lads who were on a two-month rampage through SE Asia. The things they had already got up to in the few short weeks they had been travelling can’t really be written down here. And that’s just the things they told us about. The Dark Arts, as they called them, were not allowed to be shared publicly. I dread to think. But they were very sweet and very bloody entertaining. They left after a couple of days to head to a posh hotel nearer the centre of the action…god knows what they got up to.
  • Visiting Khao San Road. The backpackers mecca, we had an idea of what it would be like but we wanted to see it for sure. And it was exactly what we thought. Full of tourists, backpackers, english and irish bars, hawkers, cheap tat and fast food places. Pretty dire, and we were quick to make an exit. Not my kind of place, not my kind of travelling.

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  • Got interviewed by some Thai school children. I was in a shopping mall and I noticed a bunch of boys, probably about 11 or 12, giggling and nudging each other while looking in my direction. Eventually they came up and asked if they could ask me a few questions. I guess they were doing some kind of school project; they asked my what my favourite Thai food was, why and had a picture taken with me. It was all a bit odd but after a few months of being in Asia having your picture taken with people is kind of normal.
  • Discovered condensed milk on toast. Well yes, I know this sounds horrific, but, if you have a sweet tooth you may just be in heaven with this new taste sensation. Thick toast, butter then drizzled condensed milk. Oh. Em. Gee. I love Bangkok food courts. Where else would have a toast stall?
  • And staying on the condensed milk theme, Nick and I found a street pancake stall. A man with a little trolly making pancakes. This is quite popular in Thailand; a pancake with banana or egg (or both), drizzled with condensed milk and sugar. My advice? Try it without banana or egg. Just a pancake, on it’s own, with condensed milk and sugar. I may have died and gone to sweet food heaven.
  • And staying on the food theme, we ate and ate and ate the most amazing food. We didn’t go into a restaurant once; we stuck to street food. There were so many options, and the food was just so bloody good. Amazing flavours, so hot and fiery cooked and served right in front of you by happy smiley people. Street food all the way.
  • Talked to a lot of local people. We talked to loads of people. Well, talked/sign languaged as much as we could. Thai people are so friendly and so happy and so smiley. It was wonderful. I watched Nick make a paper aeroplane for a small Thai lad, we joked with people cooking our food and chatted with the people at the market.
  • Browsed the local markets. These are great places to go. All the foods, the smells, the sounds, the people. Makes all your senses come alive. Living, not existing.

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  • Took a sky train tour. One day we bought an all-day sky train ticket and just rode the train. When we got to a stop that looked interesting we just got out and walked around. I’d say with this and the walking we’d already done in the non-sky train areas we pretty much covered the whole of Bangkok. All the different places have a different feel; which we could really tell walking through them all.
  • Got grossed out at the Museum of Forensic Medicine. This was pretty gruesome but fascinating. Lots of exhibits and pictures of things showing what happens to the body after car accidents, murders, birth defects etc. A bit macabre but in an educational way. Apart from that all the writing is in Thai so we just had to guess sometimes.
  • Climbed a temple. We had to go to at least one temple so I chose Wat Arun. It’s a beautiful temple, you can climb to the top up really steep steps to get a great view over the river and Bangkok city. It looks like it’s made out of grey stone but it’s not until you get close up that you realise it’s covered in Bangkok grime and actually the stones are white and coloured.

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It’s amazing how we felt at home in Bangkok. It’s not because it’s a big city, because it’s not particularly westernised, although there are some areas where it obviously has parallels and home comforts. We tried to decide why, but couldn’t. I think there are too many reasons. Nick absolutely loved it, and will be coming back at the end of his trip. How long for, he’s not sure yet. But I suspect it has stolen a little bit of his heart.

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Island life.

So I went to a little island (it seriously is tiny, check it out on google maps) called Koh Mak for just over a week. It’s kind of a filler time, something to do in between landing in Thailand and waiting for Nick to fly into Bangkok. I didn’t want to go South or East (Ko Samui, Krabi etc.) as that’s where we’ll be heading together at some point so I looked for somewhere [fairly] close to Bangkok that I could head to for a bit. After the last 3 whirlwind months I figured I’d choose somewhere that I could relax and chill out for a bit. Somewhere I could just have a bit of alone time, where I could catch up on my blogging, reading and so on.

So, after a 6 hour bus journey and an extortionate short taxi ride (robbing bastards) I found myself stood on a pier looking out over the bright blue ocean in the sun and thought, yep, life is pretty sweet right now. A hop, skip and a jump later and I was on the back of a speedboat whizzing through the nice calm sea from the mainland to Koh Mak. This speedboat journey was particularly pleasant and quite glamorous; wind in my hair, sun on my face and lovely scenery to gaze at. The speedboat ride back just over a week later was not so pleasant. The sea was rough so the boat was jumping about all over the place. I spent the entire 50 minutes clinging on for dear life, getting drenched from the waves coming over the side of the boat and wondering when the boat would either a) capsize or b) break in two from the force of jumping and then landing with full force. I remember thinking I didn’t really want to add ‘boat accident’ to my list of accidents I’ve had so far (taxi and bus), and how my iPhone would be ruined if I ended up in the sea. Luckily, we stayed the right way up and I live to write about another day.

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So the first night I got to the island I stayed in a fairly posh, pretty amazing room with a panoramic view of one of the bays, a massive king size bed and a floor-to-ceiling window next to the toilet (to take in that amazing view). And, for the first time since I’ve been travelling, that night I wished I had someone there to share it with. I still don’t know why. Maybe it was the view, maybe it’s because the island was quiet, maybe it’s because it was quite a romantic setting, maybe it was the huge bed. I don’t know. I just know it all seemed a bit of a waste just for me. It was the kind of place that seemed like it should be a bit special. Not just for a run-of-the-mill, filler week for just me. So, I watched an amazing sunset, lightening storm and the sunrise the next morning out of that window but the decided to find somewhere else. I just couldn’t spend a week there, I wasn’t feeling it. Plus, the wifi didn’t work properly. On an island where you’re alone and there’s not that much to do, this is a Big Thing.

So, I moved to the beach, to a little resort called Monkey Island. No king size, air conditioned room this time; I chose a little beach hut with a fan and a shared bathroom. No more wishing someone was here with me for this one, the resort was cute, had a bar (although it shut at 8pm) and was right on the beach. And had decent wifi. Sold.

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And there I stayed for just over a week. It’s low season for Koh Mak (as it’s the tail end of rainy season in Thailand just now) and so it was very quiet. There’s hardly anyone about (there were only a handful of us staying at Monkey Island) and a lot of things are shut. So, on a small island where there isn’t a lot to do in high season, there really wasn’t much to do at all in low season. Which, is kind of why I went there. I fancied a bit of downtime, although, if you know me you’ll know I like to be busy pretty much all the time and get a bit twitchy if I sit around too long, so why I decided to go there I’m not actually quite sure. Maybe subconsciously I thought it would be a good rest. Or a challenge. And, yep, I ended up getting twitchy. But, it also did me the world of good. So, all in all a win. But, I was ready to leave by the end of it, ready to get back to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok.

So you’re probably [not] wondering what I did with myself for just over a week? I’ll tell you.

  • Got sunburn. The weather was pretty iffy while I was there but there were a few days of sunshine so I decided to try and even my tan out. I’m a shit sunbather; I’m not very good at it, I get bored and if I’m on the beach I get sand everywhere. So I tried it and failed. I then had to spend the next day in my hut with no clothes on, slathering myself in aloe vera gel trying not to move because it hurt. Erotic.
  • Caught up on my blogging. Well, apart from this post which I’m writing after being back in Bangkok for a couple of days.
  • Thinking. Lots of thinking. I probably spent a bit too much time thinking about Australia and jobs. Both of those things are far away yet and I don’t want to wish my time away. But, I can’t help being excited about Oz; I have so many cool things planned. And jobs, well, it didn’t help that I saw my ideal job advertised, so I guess that’s what started me thinking. I applied, but it was a bit of a half hearted attempt and it’s not come of anything. But at least I won’t have any ‘what if’s’.
  • Walking and exploring. I wandered around the island most days (when I wasn’t sunburnt or it wasn’t raining) trying to get a bit of exercise in. I had all good intentions of doing some running but it never happened. I never got up early enough, there were no street lights and I didn’t fancy running in the dark or it was raining.
  • Watching storms. There were a few of them. I liked watching the lightning and the rain from the veranda of my hut. Apart from when the rain was so heavy it was raining into my veranda, then I had to retreat inside and watch it from the doorway.

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  • Imagining I was in Lost. I was on The Island. A lot of places were empty, quiet, overgrown and deserted. I can only assume that it’s because it’s low season, but it reminded me of the Dharma initiative village in Lost. I didn’t see any polar bears or black smoke. Or Jack. Unfortunately.

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  • Providing consultancy services to a friend who was applying for a job by helping them with their application one day. It was really quite bizarre, doing ‘work’ from a little beach hut on a tiny island (or at one point, sat on the beach).
  • Eating pancakes that weren’t pancakes. Not like you and I would think of them (like crepes). This was like a thick round shaped cake. A whole plateful of cake. I had this a few times. Of course.
  • Reading lots of books about murder. I’ve just discovered the DI Matt Barnes series by Michael Kerr and I found them to be can’t-put-you-down books so I got through two of them. But, they’re also pretty graphic, and I’m not sure reading about murder, torture and psychopaths when you’re in a remote, deserted place is the best idea…
  • Realising that no matter how many times I go, I’ll always need the toilet just before I go to sleep. Especially when it’s about 20 feet away from my room.
  • Making a bowl out of a water bottle using nothing but a key. I had bought cornflakes but had nothing to eat them out of. 2 minutes later, voila! It wouldn’t win any prizes for aesthetics, but it was functional. Win.

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So, a pretty relaxing week, but I was ready to leave. Ready to get back to a bit of city life and civilisation. It did me the world of good though, to just stop for a while and have some time alone. To figure some stuff out, recharge my batteries and look forward to the next adventure when Nick will join me for the rest of my time in South East Asia.

Bangkok nights.

I’m going to start this post with a caveat that despite spending 5 nights in Bangkok so far I’ve not really done much, so I’m not sure I’ve got much to write about. My friend Nick is joining me in Thailand in about a week and I’ll be heading back to Bangkok to meet him. So I put off some of the tourist things until he arrives. That and I was also feeling a bit ‘templed’ out after India and China. Oh, and I was also fed up with the heat.

So, I had quite a relaxed few days. I had to sort out plans for getting to Koh Mak where I’d spend a week or so before coming back. Sorting out=researching, figuring out how to get there then going and booking bus tickets etc.

I didn’t want to be in the middle of backpacker central, so the place I stayed in was in a mainly Thai residential area south of the river; nice and quiet and away from the madness and crowds. There was a little night market selling mainly meat, fruit and vegetables (most of which I couldn’t recognise and had no idea what they were) that popped up near there so I spent a bit of time walking round it. It was a hive of activity, with people chattering and cooking, the smells and colours all so strong and fresh. It was a full ‘in your face’ experience, making all my senses feel alive and a great way to introduce me to some Thai culture. It also made me pretty hungry so after a bit more wandering I found a little place to eat in. Nothing fancy; just a few tables and a small kitchen at the back. A proper little Thai eating place, where it kind of feels like you’re sat in someone’s living room. There’s no menu, just a load of Thai writing on the wall. The woman couldn’t speak English; I couldn’t speak Thai. We looked at each other with bemused looks on our faces until a chap sat behind me came to the rescue. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing I ended up with some kind of chicken fried rice dish. The tastiest chicken fried rice dish I’d had ever. Add in some fierce chilli flakes from the table and it was incredible. Oh, and the best bit? It cost me less than a £1. “Welcome to Thai food, Paps.” I thought. One of the best things for me about travelling is the food. Trying new food, finding different places to eat. And I’m pretty sure Thailand is not going to disappoint. Especially as they also have fruit carts! I am so excited about this. Carts full of melon, pineapple and other [as yet unidentified and untried] fresh fruit. For pennies. I am SO going to eat healthy while I am here. It’s like the melon on a stick snack carts in China all over again. Such a shame England doesn’t have anything like this. All we have is carb-heavy, calorie laden shitty snacks like pastries, crisps and sweets. No wonder people struggle to eat a healthy diet when out and about, the options are so limited. Maybe that could be my new job when I get back? Fruit-Cart Operative. Wonder how many people would go for it?

That night I sat on the hostel roof with some guys also staying there drinking Chang beer from the local 7/11 (taking dibs on who would do the next beer run), making paper aeroplanes to throw off the roof, watching a thunderstorm in the distance and just chatting about travel, life and the universe. It was such a relaxed evening, a perfect way to spend a few hours, although I’d realised my tolerance to alcohol has definitely diminished and I felt more than a little drunk by the end of it (which was around 2am in the 7/11 getting beer munchie cheese and ham toasties and Hersheys chocolate). I wasn’t drunk enough to forget though that it was a Thursday night, which only means one thing: Film Club night back in the UK, and as 2am here is 8pm back there, my Film Club buddies got a drunken hangout call. I can’t really remember much about the details of the conversation but I remember laughing a lot. And them laughing a lot. And getting chocolate all over myself. Love them.

Walking round this area at night (not while drunk, obviously), down all the little streets and alleyways is like having a glimpse into real life for the people who live here because all the houses have main rooms that all fully open out into the street. It reminded me of those kid’s dolls houses where you could open the front and see into every room. Each building houses something different; people making shoes, people’s living rooms, arcade machines, fabric shops, sewing shops. You name it, there was probably someone doing it. It felt a bit voyeuristic, walking round and gazing into their lives. But a smile and a hello is returned with a wide grin and a warm greeting back, which made me feel better.

One day I went to Lumphini Park and wandered around for a bit, looking for the monitor lizards and checking it out as a possible place to run (it passed). It’s a nice place to pass the time and people watch for a bit. That evening I went out for dinner with a woman who lives in Bangkok, who I know through an internet forum I go on. Another meeting in real life of a random stranger that I only know through the internet, but this time no running, just eating and drinking. I had a great time, and she treated me to dinner and wine at a trendy bar which was super generous of her. I love that the world is such a smaller place nowadays, that I can meet new friends in all kinds of ways and that once again I’m reminded that the world is full of kind, lovely, generous people. It was nice to see a ‘friendly’ face while I’m travelling, and find out more about real life in the city, rather than just hitting the tourist spots. That’s what travelling is about for me.

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And what visit to a big city is not complete without going to Chinatown (via boat)? Now I’ve actually been to China, it’s a bit of a different experience for me. I like it. The one here had lots of small streets with markets, food stalls and everything in between. I’m pretty sure I’ll probably go back again with Nick so didn’t really do much else apart from walk through. Oh, and stop for something to eat at a street stall. Everywhere you go there are little carts that serve up mainly a kind of noodle soup with some kind of meat or meatballs for tiny prices. They quite often have a few tables to sit at nearby so I got my bowl of noodle soup and sat down, adding in chilli flakes to make it a bit interesting. Probably added in a few too many but that’s by the by. They had chopsticks. Oh how I had missed chopsticks over the last few days; forks and spoons seem to be the utensils of choice here. I’d spent a month in China mastering my own special way of using a pair, and really enjoyed it. Now, granted, my method is probably not the same as the ‘proper’ way of using them but it does the job. The chap at the food stall obviously didn’t think so as he came over with a fork as I was halfway through. Hmm. I didn’t think I was that bad. I waved him off with a smile, he returned it with a confused look and a grin.

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I’ll probably go back to Chinatown as I’m pretty sure Nick will want to go there. Nick loves trying new food even more than I do, so I can’t wait for more street food adventures. Mmmm. All that fresh food, packed full of flavour and more heat than you can handle (if you want). Oh, I’m sure we’ll do a bit of sightseeing but it’s the food. It’s all about the food.

Runs around the world #11

Bangkok, Thailand

First things first. Bangkok isn’t any less hot and humid than Hong Kong. Ok, well, maybe a teeny tiny bit. But not much. Second, night time temperatures are not that much different to day time ones. Which means any run is going to be on the warm side. But, well, I’m used to it now. Aren’t I?

Either way, I haven’t got a choice. If I want to run, I have to run. After a quick internet search and conversations with a few people, I’d been pointed towards Lumphini Park as a good place to run in Bangkok. A park with large open spaces and paths around the outside totalling 2.5km, it was an obvious choice for either a morning or evening run. I chose evening. I’ve mainly been running in the morning so wanted to mix it up a bit, and decided to go at about 7pm. Technically I figured it might be at least one or two degrees cooler. So, I hopped on the sky train and hopped off at the park.

There’s some kind of protest going on there at the moment although I’m not sure exactly what it’s about as all the banners and speeches and things are all in Thai. Something about justice though. I weaved my way through all the people gathered at the main gates listening to some speeches and music on a big stage and started my run, alongside other joggers. Following the path round the outside of the park, the first thing I noticed was that it was flat. No hills here. This was welcome.

I didn’t have a set distance in mind, but wanted to do at least 4 miles. I knew I could still run 6 miles after Hong Kong, so knocking out a 10K was probably an unconscious goal. I kept to a nice and steady pace, which back in the UK I’d consider slow, and actually would have struggled to run at (around 10 mins/mile). It still frustrates me that I’m running so slow, but, I know that it’s because it’s hot and I’m not as fit as I was. Dammit. And I still overtook some people, so I guess I’m not that slow.

As runs go, it was good. I managed to do 6 miles in total. The park was pretty at night, especially the reflections of the skyscrapers on the lake. There were many other joggers, including other westerners. I felt like part of a bit of an exclusive club. My legs generally felt good (although they started to get a bit tired at about 5 miles) and I guess I’d sum it up as a nice, easy jog with no major dramas. A very sweaty, nice easy jog. When humidity is high, it’s a bit like running in a steam room. The sweat just pours off. In some ways I quite like this; it feels like you’re actually doing something. Someone I know once said to me about running and exercise “if you’re not sweating with snot coming out your nose and feeling like you’re about to die then there’s no point in doing it”. And he’s got a point. And if you care what people think, then you’re screwed from the get go. The whole point of exercise is to get your body working. To push it. To keep going. Not to worry about what you look like or what other people think of you.

But, being sweaty doesn’t help your money stay in your pocket. At some point near the end when I pulled a wet, sweaty iphone out my arm holder to check my distance, I also pulled out the only money (a 100 baht note) I had on me. Unfortunately I didn’t notice, but luckily for me, a park ranger did, and cycled back after me to give it back. I could have kissed him; that was the only money I had to buy some much-needed water and food after my run. That water and the boiled egg off the man on the street never tasted so good.

I enjoyed that run so much I went back the next night to do it all over again. Only the next time I only ran 4.5 miles, and the boiled egg was replaced with the most amazing rice-chilli pork-fried egg combo street food. That meal, my friends, was one of the best meals I have had. Whether it’s because it was after a run or whether it was just mega tasty, I don’t know. And I don’t care.

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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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