Lights, leeches and lolloping in Laos.

Laos. Pronounced Lao. Unless you’re French, then it’s got an S on the end. I’m not sure which one is right. In my head it’s Lao, so we’ll go with that.

This is a country that’s sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam to the West and East, And China and Cambodia to the North and South. A small, unassuming country, as much as I’d heard. One that was bombed relentlessly throughout the Vietnam-America war, unfortunately getting stuck in the middle of something that was nothing to do with them.

Before visiting, I heard nothing but good things about Lao. People I’ve spoken to that have visited have loved it. Loved it’s chilled out vibe and it’s welcoming and friendly people. I’ve heard many times it’s a place that people wished they had spent more time in. A place where time seems to stand still, and an aura so laid back you feel positively horizontal. A country so breathtakingly beautiful you’d wonder where you were and whether it was real.

So it kind of had a lot to live up to, although I’d purposely kept an open mind. I’d not known really what to expect, and deliberately not done much reading too far in advance. I really try not to have too many expectations of places, I don’t want to build something up, or have unrealistic expectations, or want to end up being disappointed. Things are all different to everyone. The same experience for two people even at the same time can be, and usually is, completely different. So, and I think I’ve said this before, you can’t predict travel, and you wouldn’t want to.

I wasn’t disappointed. All those people were right. Laos IS amazing. It’s scenery is some of the most beautifully stunning I’ve ever seen, it feels unique, the pace of life is so laid back I’ve never felt so relaxed, and each place we visited was filled with lovely, smiley happy people. We were here for just over 2 weeks, in 6 different places, and each place just kept getting better and better. Was it long enough? Yes and no. Yes, in that no place felt rushed and I’ve felt I’ve seen and experienced what I wanted to, without feeling like I’ve missed anything. No, in that I’m sure I could spend longer here, visiting more amazing places and continuing to be wowed after every turn in the road or bend in the river. Next time maybe.

I guess we started as we meant to go on. Crossing the river (and the border) from Northern Thailand we landed in a small border town called Houayxai to spend a night before getting on a slowboat for two days to meander down the Mekong River to Laos’ second city, Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site. We’d decided in Thailand to skip booking on a convenient package deal that got us to and across the border, as well as on the slow boat, in favour for making it across ourselves. This wasn’t really as difficult as it might sound, and means that for that first night we stayed in Laos rather than in a small border town called Chiang Khong in Thailand. As towns go, Houayxai is pretty uninspiring; there’s not a lot there apart from some guesthouses, restaurants and a few small shops because it’s mainly used as a stopover. Nevertheless, we decided it’s all about what you make of it. After finding a place to stay, we dumped our bags and went in search of local facilities*. A sparky young couple had a shop near to the ferry landing where they kept holding a sign up exclaiming they “have everything you want”, so feeling the need to challenge this, I asked them if they had an elephant. They didn’t. Which was disappointing. However, somewhat more reasonably, we did tell them that they actually probably didn’t have what we really wanted, which was somewhere to sit and have a cheap cold beer. Within seconds, we had two little chairs out on the pavement in front of the shop (blue for Nick, pink for me), a beer crate on it’s side as a table and two cold BeerLao plonked in our hands. OK, we had to hand it to them, they were pretty good. Within the hour, we’d been given bar snacks (some kind of fruit/vegetable thing called Magdelen – no idea on spelling) and had attracted a little group of Westerners to join us. Our little pavement bar had increased ten fold, and we managed to triple their sandwich orders for the next day’s slowboat. We made some new friends, enjoyed some cheap beers and got to know King Kong, Tom and their little daughter Manny, our new shopkeeper buddies. For what could have been an unremarkable stopover in a border town it turned out to be an unforgettable evening, and the most unexpected yet perfect introduction to Laos.

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Ever been on a slowboat? I hadn’t. So I’m not sure what I expected, but perhaps what we got wasn’t quite it. A small, narrow boat filled with seats, some of which were wooden, some which looked like they had just-been-lifted-from-a-1970’s-bus. There were numbers, but they were on scraps of paper. Originally our seats were the wooden ones, but after sitting down for a few seconds we realised that two days of that would not be A Good Thing. So, in the true sense of “you snooze, you lose” we swapped around like some others and bagged a 1970’s bus seat. I’m not proud of myself, but, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. First rule of travelling: get there early.

So, what followed were two days of [relative] comfort, stunning (I’ll use that word a lot about Lao, so I’ll apologise now; sorry) scenery, a jovial, party atmosphere and new friends, interspersed with a night’s stay in a very small town called Pakbeng, which, if it were in England it would probably be described as a very small hamlet. Two days on a boat, gliding down the Mekong River, watching Lao life go by was just serene. Nowhere else to be and nothing else to do but to just sit and watch, to wonder and daydream. You might be thinking all those empty hours, a bit boring, not filled with anything. But they are, every second is really. It just depends on your perception. They’re filled to the brim with smells, sounds, conversations, food, and things to look at. Waterfalls, goats, cows, trees, houses, boats, mountains, people, fishing nets, rocks, speedboats, water buffalos, whirlpools. You name it, we saw it. Including a man who looked just like the dad in Modern Family. I might have stared at him quite a bit. Then it reminded me of being in Zambia, so I spent a bit of time remembering my time there. Peanut butter, modern family, stars, cocktails, pictionary and awesome, awesome people. Seems so long ago now. A wonderful, wonderful month.  Oh, and another thing I learnt on this trip. Do not eat Ice Cream flavour Oreo’s. They sound nice, but they really, really bloody well aren’t. Trust me on this one.

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Pakbeng was a bit non descript. It really is just a stopover place, filled with guesthouses and restaurants, but on the banks of the Mekong with lovely views. The most exciting thing that happened here was a huge spider (and I mean huge, the size of a hand) that was in the room opposite us. We were sat out on the balcony at night putting the world to rights when the two girls from the room shot out into the corridor. They pointed to inside the room, and there it was, Spidey stuck on one of the walls. The guys in another room came to join in and have a look, and then ran to get a biologist who was in another room. So, about 8 of us were standing there watching Biologist Man arm himself with a carrier bag to take down the offending creature. He succeeded, but not before Spidey made a mad, very fast, dash for freedom (and some squealing from the girls). Luckily, he was no match for Biologist Man’s almost superhuman reactions and soon Spidey was let loose, free to live another day.

The next morning in Pakbeng was an early start because we’d been told the elephants in a conservation park across the river are brought down to the Mekong at about 6:30am, so, alarms set, up we got and were rewarded with a small herd of elephants playing in the river for about 20 minutes. Priceless. So many people on the boat missed this, as they were gone by the time a lot of people started to arrive. It also meant we got good comfy seats again. Bonus. Although, this was kind of negated when, with about 4 hours left to go on the second day, I gave my seat up to a Lao lady who I’m sure was about 109 years who got on half way. I just couldn’t let her sit on the floor.

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Arriving in Luang Prabang at tea time, the usual ritual was carried out. Find guest house, negotiate cheap price, dump stuff, go out and find cheap beers, sit, toast new location and relax. Found somewhere ran by a lovely old chap, which was the cheapest place yet (around £1.66 each a night), and had an excellent Indian with cheap beers two doors down which was handy seeing as though about 15 minutes after we got there the heavens opened to some of the heaviest monsoon rain I’ve seen for a while.

Luang Prabang is one of the prettiest places I’ve been to. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site because of it’s well-preserved fusion of traditional Lao and European colonial architecture. It’s very laid back. Not sure why, couldn’t give you an exact reason. But, it’s the kind of place for wandering around at a slow pace, sitting in a cafe or restaurant for long breakfasts, brunches, lunches and dinners and generally not doing a lot else. Most people stay here longer than they intended. It’s quite a small place too, and was a bit strange bumping into lots of people we ‘knew’ and recognised from the slowboat.

We were really lucky that the annual full moon festival of lights (Lai Heua Fai) was happening the day after we arrived. This is where all the neighbourhoods build large floats, covered in lights, to be paraded down the main street to be then set sail down the Mekong. The whole town was covered in lanterns and lights, with music and drum beats sounding out. The atmosphere was just magical, the sky lit up with thousands of sky lanterns and the Mekong full of floating flower decorations with flickering candles. We walked with float number one all the way down the street and to the temple at the end, then found a spot down by the river to watch them all sail past. It was an amazing, unforgettable night, and I’m hugely chuffed that we were lucky enough to be a part of it.

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We hired bikes and did a fair bit of walking, but we also took a bit of time to have a good old rest too, staying here six days in the end before tearing ourselves away to take the bumpiest minibus journey In The World to a place called Nong Khiaw. You might have read about Nong Khiaw in my 13th Runs around the world post. Hugely, hugely scenic place. Scenery to blow you away. A very pleasant few days were spent here, with lots of walking, cave visits, sandwiches, interactions with local families, especially the cute little kids in the villages. We stayed in a noisy guest house and got a bit ill for a day but it didn’t really dampen any spirits, and we still managed to do at least something every day. The last day we got up really early to climb to the top of the viewpoint which is normally a 1.5 hour climb. We did it in 45 minutes, which I’m going to claim as a bloody good achievement, seeing as though I was still ill, it was early, hot and sweaty. Worth every step for the beautiful views from the top; of the morning clouds wrapped around the top of the mountains where it really did feel like I was on top of the world.

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Soon after clambering down the mountain, we left Nong Khiaw to go to a place called Muang Ngoi, a small town on the banks of the Nam Ou river, only accessible by boat. Jammed in a tiny narrowboat with over 20 other people and their backpacks, sacks of rice, boxes of crisps and other food stuffs, we set off over an hour after we were supposed to. This could be said we left on time. Over here you see, there’s no real rules. Sometimes you leave on time, sometimes you go early, sometimes you go late. It all depends on what you’re in, and whether there’s enough people. That’s just the way it is. A good way to learn more patience. Like the time we waited 5 hours on the side of the road since 5:15am for the bus to Vietnam. But that’s another story.

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Muang Ngoi I think is classed as a town. But it’s tiny. Teeny tiny. Like Pakbeng, you’d probably class it as a hamlet. One main road, filled with guest houses, restaurants and local houses. Lots of chickens. Lots of tractor contraptions moving things about. A few scooters but not many. Children running and playing. Usual ritual was followed. Cheapest place yet, I think about £1.20 each a night, a bungalow in a set of 5 ran by a guy called Saylon, the cheeriest, funniest and cheekiest chap in town. We had great banter with him for the few days we were there. While enjoying our new location beer, I got jumped on by a gecko. T’was a bit startling, but there’s a first time for everything. I just had to have another beer to get over the shock.

Muang Ngoi is surrounded by even better scenery that Nong Khiaw. Which I didn’t think was possible, but the whole area is so damn stunning I can’t say I’m that surprised. We spent a morning climbing up to another cave and viewpoint and then decided that was far too much exertion for one day, and so spent the afternoon in a lovely cafe lounging on their very comfy seats drinking beer, listening to jazz, watching the sun set over the mountains and eating lovely food. We talked about the real world. What is the real world? The real world to us that day, that Wednesday afternoon, was right there, right then. And what a perfect real world that is too.

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The next day we decided to get out and about and do a trek to one of the outlying villages. We took a route that involved lots of butterflies, fields, sunshine, more absolutely stunning scenery, crops, mosquitos and leeches. To carry on at one bit meant crossing a small river with no bridge. Shoes off, wade through. Then inspect feet and legs for leeches. Pull leeches off that have latched on. Or, in my case, don’t inspect feet, put socks and shoes back on and find leech later on once it’s had a bit of a fill of my blood.

The village we ended up in was amazing. A proper rural village, not a tourist place. Real Lao life. Wooden bamboo houses on stilts. No roads. Chickens and cockerels everywhere. People bathing and washing clothes in the river. I did feel very much like an intruder, though, in their obvious close community and I do wonder what the Lao people think of people like us coming to visit. It was very humbling, something I will remember forever, and an experience that I feel blessed to have had.

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Leaving Muang Ngoi was a mixed bag. It signalled the end of our time in Laos; our next place to stay was Muang Khua but this was only a stopover to get the bus to Vietnam the next day (after that 5 hour wait). But I was excited to move on, to know that a new country was just around the corner. But not before another blissful 4 hour narrowboat journey through more stunning scenery. This one had however had the added excitement of a stop off by our drivers to gut a dead deer and sling it in the back with our backpacks. Just a usual thing out here. And that’s a weird thing. Is that it didn’t seem weird. Because that kind of thing happens. We go past a chap in a boat who shouts something, our drivers shout something back, we stop, take innards out of a deer, chuck it back in the boat, off we go. Stuff like seeing chickens on the back of mopeds. Or boxes of frogs at markets. Or dead dogs hung up. Travel, it broadens the mind. Because all this stuff is real life. Just not quite the same as real life back in the UK.

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We spent just over two weeks in Laos, but it seemed more. It was a special two weeks, and Laos is the kind of country that I feel thankful to have been a visitor. Thankful that the Lao people allowed me to have a glimpse at their beautiful, laid back country.

*somewhere to get cheap beer

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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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