Category Archives: solo travel

A place called ‘home’…

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There comes a point when living out of a suitcase takes its toll…  Admittedly, my ‘living out of a suitcase’ may be stretching the truth a little.  I have always had a place to unpack and  call ‘home’.

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In India ‘home’ was the ‘far-too-large-for-one’ ground floor of a huge house nestled amongst the coconut trees.  Did I really need two grand bedrooms with en-suite, two reception rooms and a kitchen large enough to accommodate a handful of staff…  But for all the abundance of space, it lacked suitable, cosy furniture or useful kitchen equipment to make life more comfortable.  The walls remained bare, shelves unadorned.  I made do.  And even then, when at the end of my first year the time came to move location, the floor was scattered with heaps of to-be-abandoned belongings.  India taught me to live frugally, not spend money on unnecessary things because they will not all fit in my suitcase at the end.

During my first year in China, ‘home’ was an apartment on the 10th floor of a modern block of flats: spacious, bright and airy.  More wardrobe space than I could fill!  A kitchen with cupboards, but no equipment… not even something to cook on or in.  I invested in a few bare essentials,  and inherited some along the way.   For a whole year, I managed with one plate, one bowl and four cups – four cups definitely not a luxury as each coffee or tea brew deserves a clean receptacle and life is too short to spend it at the sink doing the washing up….  Not much crockery you think, but still I bought more than most: why dish up food on a plate when you have a bowl or pot …  Dinner parties were strictly ‘bring your own plate and utensils if you do not want to eat with your hands out of the cooking vessel’.. and who needs a glass when you can use a cup or mug??  Does beer not taste better straight from the bottle or can??  I tried to jolly up the place with a few hats and candle holders from Ikea, but the flat never felt like home, just a place for temporary residence… I never intended to stay more than one year.

My second year in China spurred on a change of heart…  maybe there was some merit in making a house into a home, even if I would only be here for a short while.   It didn’t need to cost the earth either and some small purchases could go a long way.  Having moved into a shell of a flat, still being refurbished by a new homeowner/landlord, gave me a little scope: I just might be able to encourage her to add the right comforts and luxuries…  With a little patience, and lots of prodding via my agent, I extracted hot water for the kitchen – definitely not something you should take for granted in a modern Chinese kitchen.  Windows have now been fitted with mosquito screens so I can let in the breeze.  A small electrical heater appeared to fight a losing battle with the damp and cold permeating the flat…  Luckily I have a few months to work on more lasting and effective measures to keep the room temperature up before the start of the cold and damp Chinese winter…

Rather than waiting for the big teacher exodus at the end of June when all things useful and Western can be bought at rock bottom prices from expats parting with China for good, I paired down the essentials of homely living to an oven…  I cannot  profess to ever having been the greatest fan of cauliflower cheese, but there’s something comforting about the version of bubbly cheesy sauce oozing around tender-to-the-bite cauliflower topped with oven-crisped breadcrumbs..  Or proper crunchy pizza; not the floppy, soggy variety reheated in a microwave…  And an oven has the great versatility of toasting bread, baking bread, cakes, and scones; roasting potatoes and decent portions of chicken; grilled asparagus and salmon à la Jamie Oliver…  Living in an affluent city in the shadow of Shanghai means that although not all Western tastes and flavours are catered for, there is access to a reasonable supply of ingredients to ward off the worst of food-homesickness…

When putting nails and tacks in walls is strictly forbidden, lifting the spirits of white and grey surroundings required a bit more inventiveness.  A white, old and smelly cupboard could be transformed into a display cabinet with the help of a borrowed screwdriver to remove doors, and a lick of paint courtesy of B&Q (yes, B&Q!!) around the corner…  I was even able to select my own shade of baby blue, choosing from a colour palette to match Dulux’s own in the UK.  Family snapshots and favourite photographs from my travels printed out at school now smile back at me in cheap and cheerful photo frames from the local Ikea store.  Shawls bought in Thailand last summer add a splash of colour; blankets and cushion covers conceal the dreary brown of the sofa-cum-sofabed… And although I have no intention of stockpiling Chinese mementoes in the coming months, maybe I will just buy a few interesting knick-knacks and spruce up the room with fond memories of the exciting places I visit and friendly people I meet.

At least for the next 8 or 9 months, my apartment will feel a little bit like a home to me…

China’s north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

Ever wondered why the children in my classroom wear coats inside when I am teaching??  I did when I first saw photographs and videos taken in Chinese classrooms… This was before I learnt about the Chinese north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

A mention of the north-south divide immediately brings to mind the line that separates the more wealthy from the less wealthy, or the economically developed countries from the less developed areas of the world, the haves from the have-nots.  In China, however, the north-south divide of haves and have-nots takes on a completely different meaning, especially in winter.   It is the great dividing line of being warm or cold in the months when temperatures dip to uncomfortable levels…  And Shanghai and Hangzhou are just on the wrong side of it…

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About sixty years ago, in the time of the Great Leader, a plan was hatched to provide Chinese citizens with free central heating in homes and offices and centralised systems were installed in residential areas, with the assistance from the Soviet Union.  Laudable you may say, and so it would have been if the offer had embraced the whole of the country.   But at those years, China was facing extreme energy shortages and the then Premier, Zhou Enlai, suggested the Qin-Huai line, a well-known geographical demarcation between north and south, as a cut-off point.  Buildings to the north would be provided with free or heavily subsidized central heating for four months each winter; buildings to the south would have no heating facilities whatsoever…  Rather unfortunate for those living below the line, even by just a mile….

I had been told by other Westerners that the cold in Shanghai and Hangzhou is different. Not that anyone could explain why.    Although freezing temperatures are not unheard of, the mercury seldom dips below zero and hovers somewhere between the low single digits and just above ten…  Like a British winter, basically.  But whereas in Britain we move from one nicely warmed room to another toasty area, here the only way to stay warm is to keep moving, moving from one icy place to another even icier place… There is no escape from the clammy penetrating cold sweeping in from the sea.  It flood your entire body and soul right down to the core..

So how to endure a winter here?  People are resourceful and adapt.  Instead of just wrapping up warmly to venture outside into the cold, people wrap up even warmer when entering their arctic homes.  Shoes and trainers are replaced with fur-lined boots and Chinese people wallow all day long in thickly padded pyjamas that make normal movement impossible…  And with an extra coat on top.  And yes, in school windows are thrown wide open to allow the more temperate outside air to circulate and ‘warm up’ the classrooms.  My days at school are spent in a state of permafrost…

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Living in winter pyjamas

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And then wearing long underwear underneath the pyjamas

In the meantime, I bought an extra woolly hat and special leggings and tights with fur on the inside.  Deliciously warm!!!

Luckily, China’s recent economic advancement has allowed for some improvement and newer apartments below the line of haves and have-nots now come with an air-conditioning-cum-heater units.  They are electrical, not very efficient and expensive to run, but at least they take away some of the chill.  For instance, my apartment has one located just next to the huge window, fighting off the biting cold permeating the double glazing.  But whilst the area around my window and bed easily reaches a sultry 25 degrees, the heat does not travel well and never extends to the bathroom at the other end.  Getting out of bed can be a trial and a frosty toilet seat is not exactly inviting; showers have to be kept short (not a lot of hot water in the small tank) and can only be started once the cubicle is misted up with hot steam.  I have been tempted to supplement my heating with a small electrical oil radiator; it’s all the rage… and probably more effective than the huge unit on the wall.  But with China trying to curb its greenhouse gases, maybe adding to them by generating the luxury of heat may well be frowned upon…

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Last winter, us foreign teachers were chastised for putting on the blow heater in our small office.  Why did we not put on our coats, like the rest of the teachers and students???  It was an alien notion to us then and at the point no one had explained the big divide which meant that heating was a luxury only to be enjoyed on very special occasions, such as a whole week of deep frost…

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I certainly no longer make fun of e-bikes fashioned with little blankets at the front to shield hands and body from the icy winds…You would do anything to keep warm…

Maybe  the solution is moving several thousands of miles to the south of the big dividing line…  Hmmm, and I have just signed up for another year in China, in Hangzhou…  I better invest in some more and warmer winter gear.

 

(drawings by Anna Z. and found on her blog post:  http://chinaslostpanda.com/how-to-stay-warm-in-china-without-central-heating/)

A matter of privacy, cleanliness and toilets…

Privacy is such a Western notion, or privilege maybe…

In the Western world, we take privacy for granted: a respectful space between the counter in the bank and the line of waiting customers; a discreet gap and hushed voices when talking to the receptionist in  the doctors’ surgery.  And of course closed bathroom doors..  it goes without saying.  Bodily functions belong in the realm of secrecy: we may not be able to suppress every tinkling and other unfortunate sound accompanying bathroom exploits, but at least there are no eye witnesses…  At least not in the ladies’…

In China, bathroom doors are clearly a recent addition.  Luckily,  living in the affluent Eastern city of Hangzhou, civilisation as I know it, is not too far behind.   Shopping malls and metro stations have cottoned on to the need for privacy and cubicles are neatly partitioned with doors.   Toilets are still mostly of the ‘squat’ variety and no handbag is complete without a generous stash of tissues, but a smattering of facilities now provide huge reels of toilet paper near the washbasins…  Sometimes there is even a soap dispenser!

However, the availability of doors does not mean that they are used and often women just  leave doors ajar or open and get on with their business in full view as if it is everyone else’s business.   Apparently, it is to do with cleanliness: opening and closing doors requires touching handles that may have been touched by hundreds of other people before you; sitting on a toilet seat involves a close encounter with a seat that has been sat upon by possibly hundreds of other people..  you get the drift.  Whereas the Western idea of cleanliness focuses on not spreading the germs we carry with us by cleansing us and all surfaces of those germs we incidentally pick up and leave behind,  the Chinese idea of cleanliness focuses on not touching anything that may be covered with germs in the first place, which is basically everything…

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During my travels to far flung Chinese destinations where Western practices and habits have not yet fully penetrated, toilet facilities have been much more primitive.  Of course, doors are completely missing and instead of individual squat or floor toilet pans, a mere gully divided by waist high walls provides opportunities for relieving oneself..  Sometimes even the little walls are missing,.   And flushing toilets??  Building the gully with a slant takes care of that problem…

I have been lucky in my school as the toilet block used by the teachers is pretty reasonable:  three individual toilets of the squat variety, complete with doors.  Not that I ever had a great need of using them, only turning up at school to deliver my lessons and then disappearing back to my flat.  But after my surgery, walking backwards and forwards between flat and school was going to be more problematic and longer days at school would necessitate making use of the bathroom facilities…  Not being able to bend my knee was going to add an interesting dimension to using a squat toilet…

Early inquiries about the existence of a Western toilet at the school, had been greeted with doubtful looks: no Western toilet that anyone was aware of.  But during my week’s absence, a disabled toilet had been discovered, tucked away on the ground floor near the Middle school.  Hooray… surely a disabled toilet would be a Western-style toilet; they certainly  were in the shopping malls.   And indeed, when I wobbled there on my crutches and found it, it was…

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but no way was I going to use it…

It would have been bad enough for a Chinese student to have to use it in full view, but can you imagine the stares I would have had as a foreign teacher…     One thing I could be sure of: cleanliness Chinese-style would be fully guaranteed.  This was one toilet seat that had not been touched by hundreds of others beforehand, and as it was not even linked to the plumbing system, had probably never been touched at all…

With a little bit of willpower, some ingenuity and the help of my crutches, I managed the squat toilets and just reduced the number of coffees I had..

Christmas. Made In China.

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Christmas sneaked up on me, like the eerie whisper of a soundless ghost.  Whilst I was following doctor’s orders and for a whole week only moved between bed and bathroom, and the following week manoeuvred between flat and school on crutches and using taxis, Wal-Mart shot into action.  The special offers which usually blocked the entrance to the store were shelved to make room for all things Christmas: Christmas trees and Christmas decorations, Santa hats and Christmas headbands, and cute, adorable Christmas cuddly toys.  In a country where the religious meaning of Christmas is taboo, Christmas – although still small scale – is as commercial as it comes… But then again, are not ‘all things Christmas’ made in China anyway…?

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Almost overnight Christmas trees had sprouted in prominent places and festive lighting along the streets filled Hangzhou with Christmas warmth.  The downtown bakeries offered Christmas inspired cakes, gingerbread houses and other Christmas goodies; Starbucks added a ‘Christmas Turkey Sandwich’ to the menu.  And Hangzhou opened its First International Christmas Market…  It was distinctly beginning to look a lot  like Christmas, in Europe…

This year I decided to enjoy Christmas, to rediscover some of the fun, the merriment that Christmas used to bring.  A tour de force, I knew…  As if positive thinking and wishing would be enough to disperse the dark, ominous clouds permanently lingering on the periphery of my existence.  I even fleetingly considered investing in a Christmas tree, to jolly up my pretty bare flat, but as I would most definitely NOT be spending Christmas Day at home, it seemed an extravagance too far… On the other hand, buying a selection of Christmas headbands to wear in my lessons in the week running up to Christmas sounded an excellent idea.  I would devote my energy on spreading Christmas cheer at school. Within the confines of China’s sentiment about religious festivals, of course, so no mention of the real message of Christmas, peace on earth and for all mankind.

 

We watched Christmas videos explaining  British Christmas customs: advent calendars with opening doors revealing stars and presents and other Christmas materialistic goodies; writing Christmas cards and letters to Santa; baking and eating mince pies; hanging Christmas stockings on the mantle piece ready for Santa and a traditional Christmas lunch including Christmas crackers which were probably made in China… We crafted reindeer hats in the English Club, and turned the Gingerbread Man tale (still Christmassy because it is the only time of the year anyone bothers to bake gingerbread biscuits) into a deliciously alternative play full of Grandmas and Mr Tigers and Mr Crocodiles and classrooms brimming with excited and smiley Gingerbread men!! Instead of subjecting the kids to a tame version of ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’, I taught them a super energetic Christmas song that had the whole class rocking and dancing (including me, which goes without saying.  Fun was an excellent anaesthetic for my knee…) to the jingles of my glittery Christmas hair band and frowns from the Head of English (who happens to be my assistant in some lessons..).  Let’s liven up the joint, it’s Christmas after all.  A time to be jolly, a time to have fun!!!!

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This just left me to cope with the dreaded ‘day’.  Did I want to party with the 25-year-old somethings, hanging out in bars and getting merry?  Or spend a fortune on overpriced food in the venues in town that were opening their doors to the Christmas cheer?  Maybe someone would throw an impromptu last minute Champagne breakfast, followed by turkey and the works??  Some people only get their act together within a whisker of running out of time, I hoped…

In the end salvation came in the form of an Italian chef in Shanghai who offered to cook me dinner on Christmas Eve and lunch on Christmas Day…  So I booked myself into a snazzy hotel in central Shanghai and on arrival found myself being upgraded to an executive suite!!!  An unexpected Christmas gift I was not going to deny myself.  After months of sleeping on a hard Chinese bed, I had simply forgotten the sheer pleasure of sinking into the opulence of a soft mattress and pillows, and the crisp white linen of top-rated Western hotels.  Christmas was definitely turning out to be a visit to the lap of luxury…

But even the best laid plans do not always come to fruition and my very efforts to avoid spending Christmas Day on my own were badly thwarted.  Christmas Eve dinner was spectacular in its simplicity: pasta cooked as only the Italians can, followed by delectable Italian biscotti (or cantuccini) dunked and soaked in our glasses of wine and a finale of Limoncello… Having been seduced by the pleasures of his Italian cooking, I was not surprised that my Italian chef’s culinary skills were in demand on Christmas Day after all.  With just one day’s notice, the chef had been asked to conjure up a Christmas lunch and dinner for 100 guests by a rather influential figure in Shanghai…  And if you want to do well in China, some requests are declined at your own peril..

So instead of enjoying a private Christmas lunch for two, I enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of my hotel room and indulged in the bliss of writing..  And after checking out, I simply moved location and joined the Starbucks army of Christmas singletons.  In a coffee shop full of people, with each and every one of them lost to their own mobile world, I would be guaranteed to have virtual silence and  no interruptions…  Perfect for letting the creative juices flow…

It was a peaceful Christmas after all.

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Happy Anniversary, says WordPress…

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Netheravon, August 2013

The message took me by surprise.  My second anniversary on WordPress.  Two years of writing blog posts, almost weekly…  I know I have slacked a little lately.  Too busy having experiences, not enough time to keep a record of it all.

I have no idea how many words it amounts to or how many pages it would fill in a book; how much of it is interesting and how often visitors actually read the text or just scan through the photographs.  But it gives me some idea of how I spent those 24 months, where I went and whom I met; the places I grew to love or hate; the people who stole a small piece of my heart..

How many stamps did I collect in my passport? So far I have visited 11 countries. Not all for the first time, but I stayed for longer periods, immersing myself in different cultures, customs and traditions.  Definitely often challenging, but nevertheless the experiences of a life time and I feel I have not even scratched the surface..  Much more to explore on this ever expanding journey, no end yet in sight!

And trawling through the wealth of accumulated photographs I struggle to condense my exploits to just a few highlights.  There have been too many really…  Maybe my adventures had already started in August 2013 when I took the plunge with a skydive, ‘chaperoned’ by my son; or when we as a family hiked Mount Snowdon in Wales (March 2014)…

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Snowden (Wales), March 2014

But my travels really started, way back in May 2014, with a short trip to Florence, accompanied by one of my dearest friends… It is strange how when life turns upside down you get to know your real friends: the ones who support you when things are tough, those whose ears do not grow tired of hearing the same old lament; the ones who do not point out the flaws in your plan but are ready to help you pick up the pieces.  However until I left for India in October 2014, England was my home, the place I returned to after travelling.

So if I look back over the last two years to catalogue my ‘travel around the world’ adventures, I have to start with that journey to Florence.  No better way to put a smile on my face than a close encounter with David, although we only met in a coffee shop being too stingy to fork out for a visit to the real one.

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Florence (Italy), May 2014

In September 2014 my daughter dropped me off at Heathrow  airport,  the starting point of my African adventure and beyond.  ‘Don’t do anything silly or stupid.  Make sure you stay safe.  And keep in touch!!!’, the sage advice of my daughter.  I was the one setting out on the gap year!!! Talking about role reversal…

In Cape Town (South Africa) I scaled the Lion’s Head and tackled Table Mountain.  I watched the sun rise over Dune 45 in Namibia and spied some of the Big Five on the plains of Etosha.  My flight over the Okavanga Delta in Botswana was easily eclipsed by fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition of Grade 5 white water rafting on the mighty Zambezi River, with the roar of the magnificent Victoria Waterfalls in my ears.  I stood eye to eye with fierce black rhinos in Zimbabwe.

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Table Mountain (Cape Town, south Africa), September 2014

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The Lion’s Head (Cape Town, South Africa), September 2014

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Sossusvlei (Namibia), September 2014

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Sossusvlei, Dune 45 (Nambia), September 2014

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Ethosia (Namibia), September 2014

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Exploring the Okavanga Delta by Mokoro (Botswana), September 2014

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Bird’s Eye view of the Okavanga Delta (Botswana), September 2014

 

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Flying over the mighty Victoria Waterfalls (Zimbabwe), September 2014

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Awesome white water rafting on the Zambesi River (Zimbabwe), September 2014

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Facing the rhinos in Zimbabwe, September 2014

In October 2014, Southern India beckoned… I learnt to navigate the Indian traffic chaos, and became adept at opening a coconut without proper tools.  I spent months swaddled in churidars, only to expose my legs near the more tolerant beach towns of Kovalam and Varkala. I kayaked the backwaters of Alleppey and bathed elephants in Periyar.   I have fond memories of exploring the hidden treasures of  Munnar, Kumarakom and Ponmudy with Dr Anne…  I watched the sun rise in Kanyakumari, at the southernmost point of the Indian subcontinent and felt my stomach lurch at the sight of men hanging from flesh hooks to appease the gods and earn more desirable opportunities in the future.  No more idyllic end to my Indian adventure than spending four days luxuriating on the uninhabited islands of Lakshadweep, definitely one of the best kept secrets of Indian tourism.

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Periyar, Kerala (India), December 2014

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Kerala (India) , February 2015

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Kanyakumari, July 2015

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Ponmudi (Kerala, India), October 2015

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Travels with Dr. Anne, (Munnar) , October 2015

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The unspoiled islands of Lakshadweep (India), November 2015

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Exploring the underwater world around Lakshadweep (India), November 2015

My travels in India were briefly interrupted by a little sojourn to the UK and Amsterdam (March 2015).  No adult gap year would be complete without tasting the elsewhere forbidden pleasures of space cakes and smoking a joint.  And yes, sampling cheeses, lots of exotic, colourful cheeses…

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Amsterdam, March 2015

Entitled to a two week break in August and September 2015 I made it to Kathmandu, Nepal, where I  witnessed the devastation wreaked by the April earthquake. I made acquaintance with Sadhus in the sacred Pashupatinath  Temple where Hindus come to cremate relatives who have passed away.   In Pokhara and Poon Hill I had my first (so far…) encounter with the impressive Himalayas and in Chitwan I had the privilege of glimpsing the elusive tiger in the wild…

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Pokhara, Nepal.  September 2015

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Sunrise at Poon Hill, Nepal.  September 2015

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Sunset over the river in Chitwan, September 2015

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The elusive tiger, September 2015

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Making friends in Kathmandu, September 2015

In February 2016, I landed in Hangzhou, a stone’s throw away from Shanghai. The end of the winter, still bitter, when only the colour of clothes and bicycles brightened the grey, dull atmosphere.  In March I joined a group of Chinese students taking selfies in the yellow expanse of rapeseed flowers.  April found me blowing giant bubbles in a massive park.  The rains of May turned Huangshan’s Yellow Mountain into a sea of mist and mystique.  In June I looked down on Shanghai from its Pearl Tower.  In July I cruised the Li River, admiring the mysterious hills and mountains lining its banks.  In September I conquered the Great Wall and in October I explored the wonders of Yunan and Shangri-La…

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Rapeseed flowers in Wuyuan, March 2016

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Giant bubble fun in Hangzhou, April 2016

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Mountains in the mist, Huangzhan, May 2016

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First visit to Shanghai, June 2016

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Mysterious mountains in Yuangsho, July 2016

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The Great Wall of China, September 2016

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Sunrise over Mount Meli, Yunnan, October 2016

In August 2016, I escaped the oppressive heat of the Shanghai summer to briefly visit the UK and have a break in Thailand touching the very beaches made famous by James Bond and Leonardo Di Caprio..

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Bangkok, Thailand.  August 2016

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James Bond Island, Phuket, Thailand.  August 2016

Not a bad list of achievements for two years of travelling ‘Round The World’…  I wonder what will be in store for the next two years..  Where to next???

 

 

 

Eating Peking Duck in Peking

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I stayed on in Beijing, just for a few days, whilst the G20 summit kept many ordinary Hangzhou residents out of town.  For us, school did not start until 8th September and many businesses and factories were closed to contain the pollution levels and guarantee healthy air and flawless, deep blue skies for the visiting world leaders.  It seemed the perfect time to explore what Beijing had to offer and put ‘faces’ to the many prominent names linked to the capital city of China.

A visit to Mao’s Mausoleum was not on the forefront of my agenda, but as it came with the ‘Camping on the Great Wall’ package, we duly joined the long line of Chinese tourists filing past the mummified body displayed in its crystal coffin.  Located on Tiananmen Square, Mao’s resting place was flanked by two brown statues portraying the revolutionary struggle spearheaded by The Great Helmsman. As taking photographs inside was not allowed, it was impossible to check whether this was the real Mao lying there, or – as rumoured – a Madame Tussaud’s make-over version…

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Mingling with the bustle of tourists in Beijing’s remaining ancient hutongs -a network of narrow alleys crisscrossing and linking traditional courtyard residences- offered a flavour of China’s past.  Many of the hutong neighbourhoods succumbed to China’s post-war thirst for modernisation and were demolished to make way for boulevards and high-rise buildings.  But those that survive are now carefully protected and thrifty Chinese entrepreneurs and shopkeepers are taking full advantage of the abundance of visitors to the area.

Although the Forbidden City counts as one of Beijing’s highlights, I missed out on a glimpse of the inside as I was too late to get hold of a ticket.  So I took the metro to the Summer Palace instead, the grand royal retreat for the emperors to escape the oppressive Beijing summer heat.   The magnificent buildings overlooking the stunning Kunming lake surely warrant a full day’s attention,  but spending just a few hours in the opulence of China’s past was pretty impressive.

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By then I had made acquaintance with Fiorella, a Peruvian Canadian, who was on a blitz trip through China on her way to Malaysia and beyond…  We spent Monday morning queuing at one of Beijing’s train stations to collect Fiorella’s pre-booked tickets to Xian, the next Chinese highlight on her tour…  If we had thought that Monday morning was less busy than a weekend, we clearly got that wrong.  The lines were long, indecently long…and trying to figure out which one was intended for foreign visitors took Fiorella’s clever foresight:  she had a picture of the Chinese symbols on her phone.  Although we managed to circumvent the eternal wait for tickets, we had less luck with changing money.  Banks in the area surrounding Tiananmen Square merely service tourists in need of quick cash with ATMs abound and not a living soul behind a counter…

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But the best part of a visit to Beijing must be sampling Peking Duck in the very town of its invention.  Street vendors displayed huge containers full of ducks, carefully keeping the prized severed heads separate.  And many restaurants offered it on their menus.  I had already tasted ‘proper’ Peking Duck when we returned from our ‘Camping on the Great Wall’ adventure, but Fiorella had done her homework and selected one of the best and most famed venues to devour the delicacy: Da Dong Roast Duck Restaurant.  We were not exactly dressed for the occasion, not realising that fame went hand in hand with class and in our touristy shorts and strappy tops we looked rather under-dressed for the event.  But customers are customers and we were invited in nevertheless.

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We watched our Peking Duck being craftily carved and displayed, head cleaved in half to expose the contents in all its goriness.  We learned how to use chopsticks to one-handedly fill and wrap the delicate pancakes to encase the slivers of duck, spring onions and cucumber, liberally doused in plum sauce.

Was it better than the Peking Duck I have eaten in UK Chinese restaurants???  Maybe not… but the skin was indeed crisp to a crackle…

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Conquering the Great Wall of China

 

dscn3007-2The notice at the entrance said it all: ‘This section of the Great Wall is not open to the public’.  Not that this deterred our tour guides.

We were joined by a wizened, wiry and axe wielding  Chinese man who forged a path for us through the dense bushes and overgrowth.   When the climbing became too steep, he fashioned himself a walking stick from a sturdy branch and lead us to the section of the wall we would explore.  No such luxury as sticks for us, humble trekkers…  None of us had quite prepared for this kind of journey, only ever seeing pictures of the official Wall of China where throngs of tourists and locals jostle for a bit of space on the proper steps of the Wall…  But we had signed up for a ‘Camping on The Great Wall’ adventure, and an adventure it was certainly promising to be…

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We finally reached the Wall to start our ascent.  Whereas the more touristy parts of the wall have been carefully restored to former glory, the part we visited had not yet benefited from a make-over and was showing definite signs of long periods of decline and neglect.  We  clambered over rocks and boulders, over roughly hewn steps disintegrating with passing time.   Facing a sheer wall offering very narrow ledges to support our feet certainly gave some of us the jitters.  ‘Where on earth was the rope to hold onto??’ grumbled the Germans in the group… ‘What about health and safety??’ crossed our minds…  As there was no alternative on offer and no one wanted to chicken out, there was only one way to go: upwards and onwards.

This section of the Wall may not have been ‘open to the public’, but we met other hikers keen on avoiding the hordes of tourists.  And even the locals got their penny’s worth as they had set up a stall midway to the turrets and sold bottled water and iced beer.  Welcome refreshments during our arduous trek.

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On reaching our final destination, we were awarded with spectacular views of the surrounding hills and a sumptuous BBQ courtesy of our tour guides and the local ‘sherpas’ who delivered our tents and supplies to the top of the wall.  We drowned our walking aches and pains with local beers and warmed ourselves by the heat of the campfire whilst dancing the night away..  There was very little point in aiming for an early night as the flimsy mats underneath our sleeping bags were hardly covering the hard slabs and spiky rocks at the top of the wall and were certain to keep sleep at bay.

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And the promise of a dazzling sunrise over the mountains??  The early morning fog blanketed the surrounding hills, adding a dash of mystery, but blocking out the early sun rays.

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Luckily, our journey back to modern civilisation was a lot easier… it appeared that there was a much less challenging track leading to the wall, the one used by the locals and the porters who carried up our tents and food..  But I suppose, using that one on the way up would have detracted from the ‘adventure’ and the accomplishment we felt at reaching the top of wall…