A restbite in Chiang Mai

A 6 hour bus journey with an early start brought me to Chiang Mai. Then it was an afternoon trip to an elephant sanctuary which took a bit of time to get to but it was worth it. While I’ve had a fair share of experience with African elephants, this was different. These were rescue elephants, some of which had had previous injuries from being mistreated. It was amazing being able to feed them and walk wround a bit of wilderness with them. And then play with them in the water! Although a few of us were slightly uneased by the amount of elephant poo that seemed to be appearing. They were very happy elephants getting a lot of attention and love from people. I still like the fact that they can just creep up on you without you noticing. Then a night exploring a bit of the night market – it was completely massive. I sense I’ll be returning here. Chiang Mai has a lovely old city wall surrounding it.  Visited the Lost book shop – picked up book about Burma to read. Then visited Wat Chedi Luang temple where there are many old structures – women aren’t allowed in one of the buildings due to menstruation as it ruins the sanctity of the city pillar and causes instability. Construction started here in the 14th century, but the buildings have been affected by earthquakes. Also wandered to Warorot market which was huge. I was able to see a bit of the Sunday night market which was near to where I was staying. While walking around, the national anthem was played over a tannoy at 6pm and everyone stood still and silent until it was finished. So I did too. This plays every day at 8am and 6pm and everyone is meant to respect it. 

I lost my pedicure virginity – I’d never had one before but my feet needed sorting. They feel quite nice and refreshed! Then went to have a full body one hour massage at a salon which trains ex female convicts and gives them employment as it can be a tough world upon release. It was a good massage and I felt very relaxed. A quick dive into the hotel pool was also very welcoming. While out in the evening booking a tour for the next day and locating a laundry service, the heavens opened and a torrential downpour lasted several hours. I dived for cover in a place where I could grab a bit to eat which was fairly close to where I was staying. I avoided rice finally! 

I visited Wat Phra That Doi Suthep which is slightly outside the city and up a mountain (called Doi Suthep). It’s a sacred site as part of the Buddha’s skeleton was meant to be transported here on a white elephant, who then died. The original stupa was said to be built in 1383. Also went to a nearby village which had a lovely waterfall. Yet another massage in the afternoon (I am getting fairly greedy, I know – but if they are £5, then I’m not complaining). This was a Thai one concentrating on back, neck and shoulders. I was pulled around in odd angles and my bag was walked on. It was very odd. But I felt better after it. Then an easy night with some nice food and Netflix. I did have another couple of massages before I left Chiang Mai – I thought I’d take the most of the opportunity. A foot massage was interesting. I am quite sensitive on certain parts of my feet so I think I was off putting the masseuse a bit! 

I took myself off around the city the next morning to see some of the other temples that are dotted around. Wat Suan Dok was first in the west of the city and it houses many stupas which contain the ashes of several of Chiang Mai’s important royal families, as well as the main stupa which holds a relic of the Buddha. Phra Singh Temple was fairly huge with nice grounds surrounding it full of smaller temples and meaningful messages attached to trees. Construction on this site dates back to the mid 14th century. The main building houses an impressive Buddha, and I walked into the main temple when a service was happening – this included lots of younger monks sitting at one side of the room waiting to eat and prayers were being read. I received a blessing from a Buddhist monk and have another bracelet to join the one from Koyasan on my wrist. ​​​

After a nice lunch, I treated myself to an afternoon of book reading and catching up on a few things using the internet – what a treat! Although I did feel that I was wasting my time and not making the most of it but deep down, I knew I needed some downtime.  I then went to Doi Intanon national park and went to the highest point in Thailand at 2500m up. Unfortunately, the weather was rubbish – it was foggy and raining a bit. The waterfalls were amazing, however. Trying to see the two pagodas was interesting with the fog. The views from where they are look incredible, but the weather was disappointing. Oh well! It’s my own fault for coming in the rainy season! A last night to myself wandering around the night market and met some people who dragged me to a cabaret club. This was no ordinary cabaret club as the performances were done by ladyboys. It was very colourful and glamourous.I have enjoyed the opportunity to have 5 nights by myself in one place. I was totally exhausted and it was a luxury to unpack my bag instead of playing lucky dip! I felt relaxed by the end thanks to the many massages and some sleep. 

Next stop: Burma!

Laos: a country of beauty in a week

A four hour flight took me from Hanoi to Vientiane. You are explicitly informed on entering the country that possession or consumption of drugs carried the death penalty. Having only approximately half a day to explore the country’s capital, it was a quick trip to a few places. This included a massive Buddha park where you could climb inside a structure to the top of it and get a good view of the park – these included several steep steps and narrow crevices which were quite tricky to get up and down. This was built in 1958. Then a trip to Pha That Luang which is the national symbol of Laos. Built in the 16th century, it is a grand stupa covered in 500kg of gold and probably contains the ashes of a very rich family. Then went to Patuxay Victory gate which is a gate with great panoramic views from the top. It reminded me of the Arc de Triomphe and took 10 years to construct using funds from the US government as they had initially planned to build a runway there. The last stop was a temple called Hor Pha Keo which used to house the Emerald Buddha that I saw in Bangkok for 200 years until 1779. Then a journey to Vang Vieng which was amazing – the scenery is stunning. It’s very luscious and green with lots of mountains. But it was another drive through torrential rain. Apparently 75% of Laos is mountainous. After arriving in the town, it was time to wander down to the river where there was a good view and a good bar for a sundowner. The town was nice to walk around – there were lots of small businesses. The next day was a day of fun – I went tubing inside a cave where the current was quite strong, then a 5km kayak down the river – I hadn’t kayaked since I was a child but it was good fun and the weather was nice for it. A blue lagoon finished the day and I jumped from the highest branch which was terrifying! I’ve never been great with heights so it was a real challenge, especially with no ‘Health and Safety’ protocol. It was fun though, even with getting water up my nose! A nice evening out and a bit of a boogie was good to finish the day off. Heading out the next day for 8 hours along winding roads was a bit tricky, but at least it was great to look out of the window at the gorgeous views. Arrived at Luang Prabang and explored this lovely town. There was an extensive night market with a little street full of street vendors. Wandering around the town with the French architecture and French bakeries was quaint. I managed to find some great French baguette which cheered me up a heck of a lot! It only occurred to me here how extensive the French colonialism was and how much of Indochina was dominated. I visited the Grand Palace and a couple of temples as well as getting up a few steps to Mount Phousi which had a fantastic view at the top. Up bright and early to witness the local women giving Alms to the monks. This was mainly rice, and was expected to last them for the day ahead. This was quite a humbling experience as this shows you a glimpse into their lives. This sect of Buddhism allows young boys to become a monk if they wish, and this doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment. They could partake in the way of life for a year only. I did see a monk smoking a cigarette though. The next leg of the journey was two full days along (approximately 20 hours) the Mekong river to get to the Thailand border at Bokeo. It was a lovely slow boat and a stopover for the night was at a local village half way at Pak Nguen. The people were very welcoming and the kids were friendly and playful. Sleeping with a mosquito net, basic bedding and no electricity gives you some perspective – something that I’m all too familiar with. Bed time at last light was done to ensure an early start for farming. The villagers all live until they are around 100 and it was easy to see why – the way of life was hard work, but happy, healthy and relaxed. The scenery along the Mekong was amazing. Little villages and large fields line the mountains along the way with parked boats popping out of the water. The different shades of green and variation in forestry make it look like a carpet or a quilt. Speed boats fly past occasionally disrupting the peace. Fishermen catching food from we also a regular sight. Crossed the boarder by foot back into Thailand at Chiang Khong and witnessed an almighty storm that evening whilst staying in the town. The black sky frequently lit up, and the wind was so strong that lots of lights wobbled and torrential rain pelted against the buildings for what seemed like ages. Laos has been a country of peaceful beauty. Only having a week to see some of the country has made me appreciate the scenery more. Would definitely like to return – this ‘return to places’ list is growing…..

Vietnam in two weeks

Left Cambodia early to make the border near Chau Doc. The security is fairly tight – each side double checking that you’ve left and entered either country. To get into Vietnam, you have to bribe the officials with a dollar to get an entry stamp otherwise they’ll chuck your passport at you without allowing you to go into the country. Even though I thought I needed a visa (and got one), I didn’t actually need one as a UK citizen for the amount of time I was in the country for – foreign money is what is wanted instead. A long bus journey to Can Tho lay ahead, and already I was noticing the differences to Cambodia – apart from the rain. There are a lot more rice fields – Vietnam is one of the major exports. The colour of the fields is similar to the ones in Cambodia where the green looks like it has come out of the Microsoft Paint colour palette – it’s such a light green. The roads are a bit nicer – less bumpy. Everyone seems to ride a motorbike or scooter here – it’s almost one per person of the total population (93 million). They are everywhere – especially busy during rush hour. There are a lot of banana and coconut trees surrounding the roads as you drive through the country. Also, everyone seems to be wearing the typical straw hat – I’m making it my mission to bring one home with me. Throughout my travels, I have collected something from every place that I’ve been to as a good reminder of all the different countries, although the hat will be a pain to carry around. I stayed in a home stay in Can Tho for the night. This involved staying in a family run little place off the beaten track. It was a great experience to see how the locals live. The food was lovely! Lots of very freshly cooked things including tofu in a tomato sauce, and some great spring rolls, as well as a typical Vietnamese pancake with an egg and spring onion batter. Basic bed and mozzie nets were in order, along with the odd friendly gecko, cockerel and coackroach. I slept quite well and avoided being completely eaten alive. In the early morning, it was off to a floating market on the edges of the Mekong river to see the local selling their goods to others. It happens every morning and people go and buy breakfast (usually some sort of noodle soup) or groceries. There were a lot of pineapples which were very juicy to eat. Local coffee is also meant to be a speciality – made with condensed milk and ice. I didn’t try this though – wasn’t going to test fate with having some ice frozen from dodgy water. The Mekong river runs from the South China Sea through the south of Vietnam, up through Cambodia and into Laos, so it is fairly long. Next, it was a 4 hour bus journey heading north towards Ho Chi Minh. Passed by a whole cow on a spit on the way while driving to the Chu Chi Tunnels. These were an amazing set of tunnels built underneath the ground during the Vietnam War. The country had been split after the French left the country after a long occupation – about 100 years up until the end of WWII. The north of Vietnam was led by the Ho Chi Minh and his communist government, with the backing of the Chinese government and the South was controlled by the Vietnemese resistence with help of the Americans. I met an old man who fought alongside the Americans during the war as part of South Vietnam as a communicator and he had lost a few fingers on one hand due to shrapnel whilst using a communication device. The tunnels were all dug by hand by the independent southern army, and were twice as narrow as they are now – the 100 metres that I went through was still pretty narrow. They were used to escape the booby traps laid down by the northern army. He explained how all the booby traps worked and there were a couple of originals in tact. I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War, or how long, costly and painful it was to the nation. This became clear when I visited the War Museum in the city. I had a go at shooting an actual AK47 at targets (I don’t think I’d be a very good solider as I missed all the targets) and it really hurt my collar bone when the shot was fired.The rain hammered down in the afternoon again, much to my dismay. This also helped a bus ride take an hour longer than it should have done. Arrived into Ho Chi Minh having endured rush hour in the rain with the millions of scooters after almost a busy 12 hour day. Even the Uber drivers are on the motorbikes – I was glad I didn’t pick up an Uber here!Apparently there was a religion called the Coconut religion – this was founded in 1945 and monks live off milk and flesh. This doesn’t exist anymore, as most of the followers did not live a healthy lifestyle this way. Catholic is 10% of population – this was evident in the French architecture of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh. Buddism is 2/3 population.

A walk around the city was great – a good leg stretch after sitting around on buses for so long. Found a great (and non dodgy) street food market for lunch called BenThanh where I had a nice kofka wrap and got a free beer! Also did a cycle tour where I visited the war museum, had a look at the cathedral (although it was being renovated so you couldn’t go in) and the post office. The French architecture mixed with typical Vietnamese buildings was a real clash of worlds. A 10 hour overnight train to Nha Trang was next – the train was a lot nicer than the ones in China. There was a western toilet too! It had decided to rain torrentially too just at the point of travelling to the station which was a bit nasty so that put a slight downer on things. It is the rainy season, after all! It can go from being quite nice and sunny to torrential rain a bit quickly. Got into Nha Trang station early in the morning and went to have some breakfast at a nice cafe – had a coffee for the first time in ages. Then took a boat to Hon Mun island to see a fishing village. This is a nice area of coastline on the east of Vietnam. Luckily the sun was shining nicely – too much in fact as I got a little burnt while snorkelling. There were lots of fish and coral, as well as a lot of sea urchins. Some of the sea was very clear. I’m feeling fairly fatigued by this point but not sleeping as much as I should be doing. I was definitely looking forward to some sort of a lie in but wasn’t sure that I would ge one for at least a couple of weeks. Another walk around the town was nice and it was odd seeing a Christian church (Nha Trang Cathedral) in the middle of the town. It was built in the early 20th century by the French in a gothic style. The beach looked good but it was so hot at 9am, I didn’t fancy my chances of sitting by the sea in the heat of the day. Picked up some more sun block and Aloe Vera gel for sunburn/bite relief. I actually got myself a one hour (for only 150 Vietnamese dong) blind sunburn massage at Mokba which was done with fresh Aloe Vera. It was such an experience – a bit unnerving in parts but my back definitely felt better after it, even if I did smell of stale milk for a while. Some random parts of my body were rubbed where I wasn’t sunburnt, even though I had only specified that I needed my back and shoulders doing. It definitely helped to ease the sunburn….for a bit anyway. Enough to lift and carry my big bag onto the night train that evening anyway. Another 10 hours of a sleeper train was met with an hour or so delay either side. The next stop was Hoi An and the weather was sunny upon arrival, if not a little too much on the warm side. We Brits are never happy! I now realise that we actually do talk a lot about the weather – I guess because it’s so varied in the UK and we’re not used to dealing with extreme conditions. Hoi An is a very pretty place with no cars in the historical centre which was nice. Had a decent breakfast nearby and then explored the town a bit. I went to the old house of Tan Ky which is 200 years old and has housed seven generations of the same family – the latest generation still occupy the second floor. It has Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese influences. There were markers on one of the walls to signify the flood levels over the last 50 years. There is also a little wooden bridge built in the Japanese style which was quite pretty. I really liked this town. I felt I was almost in a part of Spain. A short ride on a boat up the river a bit when the sun was setting was nice – all the lanterns that hang around the streets all light up. Candles in paper boxes get placed on the river by people for wishes. I learnt about how rice noodles were made from a small school which endeavours to improve the lives of young Vietnamese from difficult backgrounds who want to forge a career in the hospitality industry. There are many different types of noodle and it was good to see how each are made. Another wander around the town with the odd temple visit and a bit of time for shopping. I gave in, and bought a hat. I also felt a bit spoilt as I also had a room to myself for a couple of nights – what a luxury! The variations in water levels due to flooding. The next day was a 4 hr bus ride to Hue – the old capital. I’m making my way up the east coast to Hanoi. A ride on a scooter as part of a trip was fun – I got to see a lot of places including some old American and French bunkers as well as an old burial tomb for one of the kings, although his remains are thought to be somewhere else, as the French did not see them when they raided the tomb. Also saw an old collesuem where tigers and elephants used to fight – the tigers would be maimed to ensure the elephant’s victory, as the elephant is a symbol of royalty and power. Popped to a local village to see how insense sticks were made. The view of the river was amazing and going off road in the rice fields gave an amazing sense of freedom. The torrential typhoon appeared the following day. But that wasn’t going to stop an explorer from exploring! Off to the citadel with a friend in the rain which didn’t cease. The raincoat failed me after a while and I couldn’t feel my feet, but it was good to get out and about. It was so nice to get into dry clothes and have a hearty stew lunch. The typhoon could have provided an issue with getting a train to Halong later that day, but climbed aboard without any issues. Apart from breaking a bottle of red wine on the platform specifically purchased for the night train 😔. The rainy season is incredibly random. Sometimes it can rain for a few moments and be ok again, but then it can rain all day and be very sunny the day after.After a 12 hour night train to Hanoi, where I actually slept quite well after watching something on Netflix, it was another 4 hr transfer to Halong Bay. I was fairly exhausted overall by this point. I could feel it. I think I recognised I was in definite need of some actual downtime where I wasn’t constantly on the move. Explored the seas of Halong Bay on a nice boat with some good food and amazing scenery. It is recognised by UNESCO for the geological landscape, as well as the pearls that are farmed here. Went into Dong Thien Cung cave with lovely stalagtites and stalagmites. Then out in the evening for some local food – of course, there was too much of it and lots of people wanting to take their photo with you. Back to Hanoi again on a bus via a pearl farm where pearls are made from oysters that already contain good quality pearls. I still find myself looking out of the window a lot on the long journeys at the wonderful landscape which varies so much when moving from the south to the north. Had a couple of days in Hanoi and there was a lot to see. It is a bustling city where there are lots and lots of scooters and motorbikes that almost always try to run you over. Staying in the Old Quarter made it seem busier and more vibrant as the streets are narrow. I walked around Hogan Kiev Lake and visited the small temple on it. It’s a very tranquil place. On the way there, I had one of my sandels taken off my foot by a street vendor and mended with superglue and resoled a bit without me even asking. Of course, he expected payment, but looked a little annoyed when I didn’t have the amount he was expecting and of course, I was trying to ask him not to do anything, but he wouldn’t listen. Well, at least my shoes are better to walk in! 

The next day was a long walking day for me, which I was glad about. I felt that I had spent quite a lot of time sitting down on a coach or a train. I walked to Ho Huu Tiep lake which is north west of the city. There is a wreckage of a B52 plane which was shot down in 1972 just before the end of the war. I then walked to the Temple of Literature which was built in 1070 and is where the first university (Imperial Academy) was built. There are 82 stelae (or stone tablets) in one courtyard (there used to be more) which mark the achievement of scholars and to encourage students to work. These are each attached to a stone turtle, which signifies longevity – a popular concept in Asia. The ‘Hanoi Hilton’ was next – you might think that this was a hotel, but it is the nickname for the Hoa Lo Prison. Built by the French in the late 19th century, this was designed to house Vietnamese resistors (mainly political prisoners). It was expanded to hold more prisoners in 1913, and they were subjected to cruel torture, as well as life in extremely subhuman conditions – hardly any food, lots of disease etc. I was told once that the Vietnamese hate the French, and it was only here that I understood why. The prison was later used to house American POWs during the Vietnam War after the French had left the country. They were the ones that gave it its infamous sarcastic nickname. John McCain, the Presidential candidate, was a US Navy pilot who was kept here. Then off walking again to the national history museum which housed a good collection of items and some interesting artefacts about the Vietnam War which I hadn’t seen. 

The final day in Vietnam was an early start and off to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum where his body is preserved. He died in 1969 during the Vietnam War. It was an odd experience to see a body embalmed in that way – it doesn’t seem real that he died almost 50 years ago. Also saw his house and office and there were a huge amount of Vietnamese visitors coming to pay their respects to a man who gave them independence. Ho Chi Minh mausoleum The Presidential PalaceHo Chi Minh’s house I’ve really enjoyed learning about Vietnam – a country that I didn’t know too much about as I had never studied the Vietnam War at school. There is such an extensive backstory to the war that goes back to the fact that the country had been ruled by others for years. The people continuously fought for their freedom and this was a hard and long struggle. Eventually, the French left Vietnam in 1954, but the Vietnam War started and went on for 20 years. It makes you realise how much of history is intertwined. I might have to invest in a few books when I get home, although I’m sure there will be bias one way or another. 

I’ve enjoyed the variety of food, although I am really getting sick of rice. I’m missing potatoes and nice bread quite a lot. Maybe the next step of travelling will involve me going carb free….? I would definitely like to return to this lovely country and see a bit more of it – a day or two in some of the places isn’t enough. I’ve really enjoyed learning about the history too. 

Next stop: Laos! 

Cambodia: Siem Reap, Phnom Penn, Sihanoukville

Another early start and a bus journey to the Bangkok/Cambodia border at Krong Poi Pet was next. Walking through the border was a bit unnerving – you could easily get stopped and questioned if you looked a little suspicious. I did find it a bit odd that it is still referred to as “The Kingdom of Cambodia” even though the King has no power, and is often detained his Palace in Phnom Penn. After another long coach journey, I arrived at Siem Reap late afternoon after having been on the road since 06:30. Exhausted and hot, it was time to get out and about. Taking a tuk tuk around was easy enough (even with a beer to go). I walked up to the night market in the evening and had another fish pedicure. ​Then it was off to Angkor temple complex! A 4:30am start was necessary to get to see the sunrise. Although, I did oversleep a little and woke up when I was meant to be leaving. But the early start wasn’t regretted! It was a great sight. It was also a lot cooler in the morning and there weren’t too many people in the temple, as some would only come for the sunrise and then go again. Angkor Wat is the biggest temple and is originally a Hindu temple, but now used for Buddhist worship. It was built in the Khmer Empire and was only discovered about 150 years ago by a French nature explorist. Visited Ta Prohm which was where Tomb Raider was filmed (although I have never seen it), and Bayon where there are a lot of Buddha faces are in the structure. Ta Prohm was a great symbol of how nature can overpower man made structures as well as working together with them – trees were growing out of the tops of the roof of certain buildings and the roots had grown down the stone bricks. This was due to the weather being rainy and sunny – moss had grown on the stones and this was a perfect breeding ground for when seeds fell from trees up above. The three temples visited are only a small part of the massive Angkor city. After returning to the town and having a Khmer massage, it was time to head into the rice fields for a bit of fun on a quad bike. The paddies went on for ever – the colour of them was as if they’d been painted. It was a completely different green. Travelling on the dusty roads with busy traffic was a bit mad – lots of tuk tucks zooming in and out of small spaces and mopeds with at least 3 people on them, possibly with groceries too. The main source of money comes from agriculture, as well as tourism – you are surrounded by fields and cattle. Then it was out to Pub Street and the YOLO bar. I have to confess that I felt my age a little bit, although I did dabble in a bit of fluorescent face paint to try and blend in. I think it worked? I do keep getting looks of surprise when people know my age – they think I’m a lot younger. After a few strong caipirinhas ($3 each!) and a “squat off” (don’t ask), I felt it was time to go home. Woke up the next morning with a slight headache and it was an 8 hr bus ride to Phnom Penn. Stopped off at a local market in Skuon and spotted a lot of edible creepy crawlies. I did eat a spider which had been cooked in garlic – it was quite crispy. Phnom Penn, the capital of Cambodia, is quite a bit city. I was staying fairly centrally, near to the Royal Palace. Here for two days to explore. The Choeung Ek killing fields are symbolic of the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge. It’s hard to comprehend the grand scale of the atrocities until you enter the memorial and see the amount of skulls upon skulls. I was taken around by a guy who was born during the period of the Civil War, and he never knew his father as he had been taken away. It was very moving to hear a personal story. The suffering of the people is still evident. Pol Pot is responsible for the deaths of up to three million people, most of whom died in one of the killing fields, so many families in Cambodia have their own story to tell. Visiting the S-21 prison was a real shock. It affected me more than I thought it would. Seeing the actual rooms where important prisoners were tortured, and most died, was horrible – there were still blood stains on the floor and ceiling. These were kept mostly in the same condition as they were found when the city was liberated in 1977, but the prison was only discovered in 1979. There were a lot of photos of both prisoners and their captors, who were mostly young boys who were forced to do horrific things to people in order to save their own skin. 14,000 people were have thought to have been held here, but only 7 survived. The Khmer Rouge kept the photos as records. I was fortunate to meet one of the last survivors – Chum Mey – who is in his late 80s. The positivity of this man is overwhelming. He didn’t stop smiling and was grateful for people coming to visit. He described how he was tortured and that he now has no hearing in one ear because of it. I visited the Royal Palace which was very extensive and highly decorated, and the King was there, as there were certain parts of the Palace that were not able to be visited, as he is basically under house arrest. The country is fairly corrupt – you can’t talk about politics in public, the same political party has been in power since the Khmer Rouge, and it is meant to be a ‘democracy’. Then onto Sihanoukville where the torrential rain did not stop for two days. This town on the coast is meant to have lovely beaches, but the weather did not do it justice. Did a bit of a trek through the Ream National Park, where I walked through a little fishing village to Thma Thom beach – this would have been idyllic if the rain had stopped. Nevertheless, the scenery was still appreciated. Then off to see the Kbal Chhay Waterfalls and have some lunch. The water was so powerful!

Next stop: Vietnam!

3 weeks of fun in China

Getting into China provided its own tale of fun. After leaving the hostel in Tokyo and taking the scenic monorail to Haneda airport, I was a bit miffed to discover the seven hour delay on the flight. Even more miffed about the complications arising from missing the Beijing connection from Guangzhou. After some talks with China Southern Airlines, they managed to get me on a different flight a little earlier than the one that went to Guangzhou but I’d have to sort out a connection to Beijing when I got there. It looked as though they were quite regular so I was hoping to get one later that night, if not the next day. I was told that I had to take my hold bag onto the plane with me so I could easily get it and go straight through to a domestic transfer desk to sort out my connection. This meant that I had to give up most of my toiletries when I went through security as most of them were over 100ml. It was a bit annoying as I had bought mostly new stuff for travelling and had only been away three weeks. But it wasn’t the end of the world. It could’ve been much worse. I eventually made it to Beijing at 3am the following morning after managing to get on a late flight which was also delayed by a couple of hours. Got to Beijing seven hours later than expected. What a faff! 

After a few hours sleep at a hostel, I had to transfer to a hotel. This meant working out another metro system which actually was fairly straightforward. You have to put your bags through a security check and there is an army presence who are always standing to attention without looking at anything. The single use tickets look like Oyster cards. Until now, I have always relied on Google to get me around but Google is something that is banned in China. Having to use another search engine or the Apple Maps app took a bit of time to adjust to. Facebook/Instagram/Twitter are all banned too. This was an odd feeling, as I know that many of us are often tied to social media in some way or another. In a way, I think it’s quite liberating not to be able to use social media. I couldn’t be bothered trying to deal with a VPN or a proxy server – I’m only in China for three weeks. Managed to acquire some more toiletries and get some money sorted. I didn’t realise how exhausted I would be. Beijing is quite hot and there is a bit of a haze in the air. It’s quite a busy city traffic wise and lots of people on scooters/bikes who think they own the road. I haven’t seen many helmets worn though. There is a cycle system here where you can pick up a bike from anywhere random by unlocking something on the back wheel . There aren’t any cycle stations like there are in London. 

After some nice food, it was time for some much needed sleep. An early start the next day was required to get to a well preserved section of the Great Wall of China in Mutianyu. This section is 14th century and in pretty good nick. The whole wall took many centuries to build. Sections of the wall are separated by towers which are numbered. There are a couple of ways to get up to the wall – you could walk up about half an hour or get a cable car to a high tower. There was also an option to get a ski lift up to a tower slightly lower down and walk up to (and beyond) where the cable car is. This also allowed people to take a toboggan down (which I obviously did!). The wall could be seen all around – you could see the towers at certain points on mountain tops quite far away – definitely an efficient way to keep the enemy out! Walking up and down the many steps was quite a challenge, especially with the increasing heat and the growing amount of people. Some of the steps reminded me of the Inca Trail steps – nice and steep haha. When I had walked back to the tower that I had arrived at to go down, it dawned on me how far I had walked. The distance of fourteen towers to the top and the same on the way back was about five miles. It was a good three hour walk up and down. The views were amazing and sliding down was fun! It was definitely something to do earlier in the day – the heat and the people would be too much later on. 


Tianamnen Square and the Forbidden City were next. The square is absolutely huge, and while I was a little ignorant of the complete history of it, the magnitude and atmosphere were evident. Mao’s presence is forever present, both by a portrait of him hanging on the gate into the Forbidden City, as well as his remains embalmed in a mausoleum opposite. I was talking to someone who mentioned that there are some things that are not spoken about in China. The ‘Tin Man’ episode in the square is one of the taboo subjects. I found it very odd to see the extent of how much is controlled – some young Chinese people don’t seem to fully understand. The sense of tradition is also strong – women are still expected to marry a husband young to provide a family, and the man is the breadwinner. For a woman to be without a husband at the age of 30 can provide pressure within the family unit to produce heirs, but the one child policy seems to be a bit more relaxed – or couples keep on having children until they have a son. Someone I spoke to was the second child (and a girl), and her parents had to pay to register her when she was born, but they had chosen to have a second child. While boys are still preferable, girls are also still required for evolution, so I think that there can be a fluctuation between the desire for a male child and the desire for a female depending on the gender ratio. I was questioned why I didn’t have a husband or a family, and why I would want to travel by myself at my age instead. I wasn’t sure how to respond at first, but came up with something. 
The Forbidden City was the old palace of the Chinese dynasties – mainly Ming and Qing who ruled over China for the best part of 600 years. The term ‘Forbidden’ comes from no one being allowed to enter the palace apart from the emperor, unless you had an invitation. This is why there are no green spaces within the grounds until you come to the Imperial Gardens at one end – so that intruders could be easily spotted. Courtyard after courtyard rolls along – passing through gate after gate after gate to give a distinction between certain areas (work and living). You could easily spend a whole day wandering around getting lost in this place. It had become more crowded and hot later on – lots of Chinese tourists wanting a glimpse inside the various buildings that had were such an important part of their history. There was a lot of pushing and barging to grab the photo opportunity. Some parts of the palace were older than the others and you could spot the difference with the fading of the colour.


Visiting a local district called Hutong made me understand the importance of the family values and community – there are houses which have been passed through several generations. There is a tradition where the status of the family is illustrated by the beams outside the house, as well as the number of steps going inside the house. They should complement each other, so they preferably match – a balance illustrating the recognition of Feng Shui. Stopping for a home cooked lunch inside someone’s house was lovely and humbling – the food was simple, but delicious and the lady of the house made all the food herself while her husband was out at work.  Visited a cricket trainer who developed the fighting talents of the crickets for gambling purposes – he would train the cricket and then sell it for a price depending on how good a fighter the cricket was. When looking for some food, I stumbled across a street market, and there were scorpions on sticks! You could see them wriggling around before they had been cooked – slightly odd. 


Boarded a fast train to Shanghai which took about five hours. It was nice to read my book for a bit and they reminded me of the Shinkansens in Japan. There was a completely different feel to this city. There was also a lot more cloud/fog/smog around. The day after I arrived in Shanghai, the weather in Beijing had turned from sun and heat to tropical thunder storms which made news headlines. The Great Wall access could get shut and there was news of a massive mudslide due to the weather – it was good that the Great Wall was seen in the sunshine!

Shanghai was certainly a metropolis. The financial city was full of skyscrapers and the buildings were all very British looking after the Brits had come and developed the original port town. It was such a contrast to see the skyscrapers and architecture – part of me felt like I was at home. Unfortunately, the weather was a little disappointing, so the tallest skyscrapers on the Bund were difficult to see. But a night time boat ride was great so that I could see the buildings lit up. The Shanghai museum was good – there was a lot of old items inside which were ornately decorated. A visit to the Yuyuan bazaar was fun – it was originally part of the old town, but had been rebuilt to look old. It was a contrast to see the ‘old’ buildings with the tall skyscrapers behind. Walking down Nanjing road was busy – lots of modern shops and malls. The Shanghai Circus was fun to watch – all the acts are people who failed to get into the Olympic team. They have set a few world records – one included 8 motorbikes circling around inside a steel dome.

Shanghai museumOld Chinese currency before notes
Shanghai to Xi’an – overnight train. It took about 16 hours in the end and was fairly comfortable, apart from the toilet! Wine and a pack of cards helped to pass some of the time. I spent the last day in Shanghai exploring the Xin Tian district which looked very French and found the Chinese version of Pizza Express. Had a nice mid afternoon noodle meal but I realised I had left my iPad in the hotel room after I checked out so I wasted a bit of time having to collect it. Also thought I had lost my wallet on train but was fine. It was stealthily hiding behind my bag – that could have been a real pain to try and sort if I had lost it. I seem to have developed a habit of misplacing things. Either that, or I am just too tired and busy to concentrate. Got to Xi’an feeling pretty grimy so a much needed shower was very welcome. A city walls cycle was next – the perimeter was 15km so took a while to get round in the heat but it was nice to be back on a bike again. An evening enjoying a banquet dumpling was also very nice. 


Visited the Great Wild Goose Pagoda and the temple which originally built in 652 and is now a little bit wonky due to an earthquake. The temples were very decorated and each ones housed different buddhas for different things e.g. One symbolised wealth etc. I was able to buy something made of proper Chinese jade here too – a nice bangle but it was a bit on the expensive side. You could buy something from a street vendor, but it obviously would be fake. Then went to the Muslim sector of the town which was beside the Bell Tower and Drum Tower – these were originally used to signal the presence of the enemy, as well as give the town a sense of the time of day – bell was rung at the start, and drum sounded at the end. The Muslim quarter was one long street full of vendors selling different foods. These ranged from battered squid and crab to bread and nuts. Tried a variety of hamburger which was called a pancake – I think it had mutton inside. Found a great little place to eat on a rooftop where food and drink came to about a fiver each! It’s a lot cheaper to eat here than in Japan. 


The Terracotta Warriors were amazing – they were only discovered in 1974 by a couple of local farmers working the land. The army was buried with Emporer Qin, who was an important ruler during the dynasty over 2000 years ago, along with things for the afterlife – the warriors were there to protect him, but had been broken into pieces by the enemy at the time who discovered the tombs after they had been betrayed by one of the workers. Usually, the workers were killed so that the secret could be kept, although I don’t think the actual tomb has been found yet. The excavation is still going on and more pieces are being put back together. Each warrior is individual and is a replica of the creator of that particular warrior, as one person usually made one. There were approximately 700,000 builders, so you can only imagine now many constructions happened. There is a large collection of the fully reconstructed ones on the site where they were found (about 2000 on display), and you also had the opportunity to look closely at a couple contained behind some glass. You could see the detail on the clothes and faces. 


It was then time for another overnight train from Xi’an to Emei mountain. This was a 19 hour one and it was a bit more comfortable than the last one. There was some great scenery. Finally arrived and then went to the accommodation, which was another monestary near Emeishan town. Everything was basic and the communal showers could only be used at certain times in the late afternoon. Three nights here in the tranquility after the hustle and bustle of cities. I did feel a bit intimidated walking through certain parts of the temple to go to the loo in my pjs – I felt that the buddhas were looking at me disapprovingly. Oh well! 


A hike next day into Mt Emei was welcome after a long train journey. Thee were a lot of carvings in the rock walls on the way up to certain temples, as well as streams and lovely bridges. After having had my photo taken with several Chinese people by their relatives, it was off to try and find some monkeys. A few monkeys were encountered and they were definitely ‘wild’! One or two looked into people’s bags and nabbed the odd face wipe. Luckily, I (and my possessions) remained intact, but they definitely looked fierce. A long soak in a hot spring was a good reward. I thought that inflatable toys in the pool were much more fun, but I fear that I lost all dignity when I attempted to leap frog onto a little van called ‘Wave Attack’ (I now think that this was probably meant for small children). I jumped and went right over the darn thing ending up head first in the water and getting water up my nose. I rose out of the water to fits of giggles, but I was not going to be defeated. I managed to conquer the crocodile and the massive pink flamingo successfully in the end. With a bit of help. And many attempts. 


Anyway, the next day was a trip to the Leshan giant Buddha. It was absolutely massive and completely hollow. It is 71 metres high and was built in the 8th century. It took a while to carve as it was started and stopped on many occasions. You could definitely see the difference in perspective from looking at the people standing at the base of the statue. A local neighbourhood nearby was interesting to visit – there are a lot of very happy and relaxed people, compared with the citizens of the city who are rushing around and barging you out of the way. They are all still working at an old age – maybe in their 80s and 90s as there is no pension system, and if you don’t have children to help support you, then you have to continue working. This life isn’t easy, but they make the most of it – perhaps by drinking copious amounts of tea and playing mahjong. A local market was quite an eye opener – at home we are used to seeing meat packaged in supermarkets or a local farmers market being clean, but the way meat is prepared here is slightly different. For the Chinese, if they cannot see the meat being prepared, then it is not fresh for them. For me, if I see some meat on a stove in the sun on the street, I wouldn’t go near it, as I wouldn’t know how long it had been sitting around, especially with flies etc. On the plus side, one of the vendors did think I was 17, and was a bit surprised when I told them my real age. Winning!


After the town, it was time to go to a local tea plantation. I even had a go at picking tea! Different varieties of tea are made from the different types of leaf from the same plant. The leaves are then dried and cooked to remove the moisture. The spring months are the best times to pick the leaves, and this is when the process becomes a bit more industrial in this plantation, rather than doing it all by hand. I was shown the traditional way of how the leaves were dried – it can take a long time! They would only sell the tea leaves after they were ready to be used as tea to wholesale companies. 


I’ve been lucky enough to taste a lot of home cooked traditional food which include different types of meat and vegetables. Rice comes with pretty much everything. I’ve never been too much of a rice person, so haven’t had too much which is never a bad thing, although I am missing my bread intake. A typical Chinese breakfast is a rice porridge with some sort of bun, but I wasn’t tempted by this. I found somewhere that actually made eggs on toast, so ate here three mornings in a row. Bread isn’t a common food here – I was starting to miss lovely bread.

Next stop: Chengdu on the bullet train. Arrived early afternoon and it was time to sample a Chinese hotpot which is similar to fondue, but you dip different meat and veg into a simmering broth and allow it to cook. You could choose the level of spicy for the broth, but I think the heat can get quite strong! It was good to explore a small section of this massive city for a bit. A trip down Zhaixiangzi Alley was nice – there were lots of little independent shops and tea rooms, and it looked as though there were several places that put on shows. Then it was off to see the pandas! They were amazing and definitely played up to their audience. A few small ones ended up rolling around. I was actually quite glad that I had bought a selfie stick, as this was the first time I had properly used it to see over heads as there were a lot of people and it was quite difficult to get to a good spot. Chengdu is famous for its panda conservation.


It was time to set sail on board a boat down the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Yichang. I was prepared for basic accommodation, possibly dormitory style cabins and shared facilities – almost like the sleeper trains but was pleasantly surprised with what I found. Nice cabins and own bathroom, along with some decent food and a deck on top. The Yangtze is the third longest river in the world, after the Amazon and the Nile. It isn’t actually called the Yangtze in China – this name was given to it by a European who first came across it in the town of Yangtze, but the Chinese translation means ‘long river’. I got off to see the Fengdu Ghost city on Ming mountain. It was believed that your soul or spirit would come here to be judged when you die, depending on what sort of a person you have been in this life.  A series of tests would have been done to see if you were a good person or not – one of these was crossing over a bridge in odd steps, another balancing your foot on a small metal stone for a number of seconds. Of course, I passed all the tests, so no need to worry about going to hell or coming back as a slug in the next life! Some parts had been reconstructed after the earthquake in 2008, but the Temple of Hell at the top is still in its original state and had been built in 1666. The whole city is almost 2000 years old. 


Going up the Yangtze continued through the three gorges. The river is quite murky in parts and this is something to do with the sediment collection. Went up Shennv Stream – this was shallow in comparison to the Yangtze and the water was a lot clearer. Surrounded by high cliffs both the Yangtze and Shennv Stream have varied climbing mountains either side where different names given to certain rock edges which are meant to look like things e.g. a seated Buddha. The water mark is clearly visible where the face has disintegrated and no trees grow. Exploring the Three Gorges Dam was amazing. It is the biggest one in the world, but only supplies electricity to 3% of China’s population – which is still a lot of people, but not as many as you’d think. 


Off on another overnight train (only 16 hours this time, and I was armed with the Chinese version of a Pot Noodle which took me back to university days) to Yangshuo – this is a little backpackers town which had only been hit by torrential rain just prior to arriving, The scale of the floods were pretty bad – small businesses have lost a lot of stock and were badly damaged. While the government will send help to clear the streets, the businesses often do not have insurance. The chaos in the streets ensued; people were trying to dry out anything they could. Electricity was scarce. Such devastation was difficult to comprehend in parts, and vendors were desperate to sell anything they could to make some money to restore their business. The power and strength of nature is not easy to deal with. 


I did manage to attend a cookery class, and also cycled around the local area (although parts were shut off due to collapsed trees etc). The scenery is stunning. It was still very humid – I walked ten minutes and I was already dissolving into human prune situation. Factor 50 was not enough either. It was nice to cycle along some lovely roads with mountains either side, and lots of fields. The weather brightened up, so this made cycling rather warm. Navigating the roads (and being on the wrong side) was interesting, but the speed of the traffic was quite slow on the main roads – no helmets got given though due to the storage place being flooded. But it was definitely a memorable way to end the three week trip in China – a country full of different landscape and culture. Finished by entering into Hong Kong for a day – reminded me of home!


Things I have learnt in China

  • Don’t bother indicating when you drive, just honk the car horn and other drivers will either move or just pay attention. Weaving in and out of lanes, very heavy breaking and a lot of noise is how I would describe life on a Chinese road. 
  • Don’t try and get on inflatable toys in a pool, if you know what is good for you, and you want to retain some sort of dignity.
  • Making a horrific noise to clear your throat, and then spitting anywhere is acceptable.
  • Wine is hardly sold in glasses. Only bottles.
  • Drinking tea all the time and smoking leads to a healthy, long life.
  • Don’t let the locals do all the barging. Lose all Britishness and don’t bother queuing – act as though you are constantly trying to get to the bar.
  • Helmets are not common on the roads.
  • Although I am a tourist, I am also a tourist attraction – have had many photos taken with Chinese people, either with or without my permission. The ‘stealth selfie’ photo is fairly popular, where people are not trying to be so obvious, but it’s easy to notice. 
  • Looking like a 17 year old will not get me very far.
  • A Western toilet with a seat is a rare and beautiful thing – hoping that I will have much stronger thighs by the time I return home!
  • The Birdie song is something that’ll surprise the English when they hear it in a foreign place, and will shock them so much that they have to dance. 
  • I’m definitely getting a travellers tan!

Tokyo: Japan experience comes to an end

Tokyo is a city that is also different from the other places I have visited in Japan. It is absolutely huge and can take a while to get from one side of the city to the other – not too different from London, I suppose. Spending seven nights here, with a couple of day trips to escape the hustle and bustle has been great and it has been nice to base myself somewhere without constantly having to take my bag everywhere. The hostel was pretty decent and quite close to Tokyo station as well as a metro station and the Imperial Palace and gardens. I walked through them and they were quite pretty in parts. After working out the Metro, I found myself at Shibuya where the big and famous pedestrian crossing is. ​​​It was such a busy district full of colour and noise. The tall buildings with screens on were quite imposing initially. Lots of billboards climbed up the buildings. I walked up to Harajuku which wasn’t too far away and this was another shopping district known for its trendy fashions which engulf the youth. There is a street called Takeshita Street which was very very busy and full of random shops selling odd things – I even found some Percy Pigs in a sweet shop!There are some places to eat where you choose and pay outside in a little machine and then hand a voucher over inside at the counter when you sit down. Then got a train to Ebisu which was fairly close and had some lovely dim sum at a place called Le Parc but it was a little expensive. A day trip to Kamakura was next which is about an hour out of the central city. This was a lot quieter and had a lot of temples and shrines, as well as a big bronze Amida Buddha (Kotoku-in temple) which was constructed over ten years in the mid 13th century, You could climb inside him and have a look at the construction of the metal work. It was originally located inside a large temple hall, but this was destroyed during a natural disaster. It has been standing in open air since 1495. I found a great little sushi place to grab some lunch in where it was made directly in front of you. I was brave and tried sea urchin – tasted very much like the sea. I also tried some squid crackers which were tasty. I found a temple called Hasedera which was fairly close to the Buddha. It had the largest wooden statue of Kannon (over nine metres!) as well as a pretty garden with lots of different coloured hydrangeas.I also did another day trip to Hakone which was only half an hour away from Tokyo. This was very scenic – lots of lovely lucious mountains. Managed to get to Lake Ashi which took a few trains, a cable car and a bus replacement service (that’s right, they have them here too!) past a clearly active volcano and through some hills. I took a sightseeing boat over the lake with the intention of catching a glance of Mt Fuji but I didn’t see it. I got off the boat and had another look at the lake from the shore. The clouds were low in the sky, but the sun was out and shining nicely. Then, all of a sudden, I saw the top of the mountain! Then went through a nice cedar avenue.

Back in Tokyo and I visited Sensoji Temple (which is Tokyo’s oldest temple), Meiji Jingu Temple (where there is a lovely garden full of irises and ponds), the Tsukiji market and the national museum, as well as a few districts. The Tsukiji market is famous for its daily tuna auction at 3am. Somehow, I didn’t have the will power to witness this although I did go down one rainy morning and sample some of the goods on offer.Barrels of sake (above)I enjoyed getting my feet nibbled by fish – ticklish at first, but then it was ok!Had some lovely tempura and ramen too!Vending machines selling alcohol and cigarettes are on most streets (also in other places around Japan). I found this odd as the legal drinking age in Japan is 20. I see a lot of business man drinking beer on the way to work on the train. Highballs are also a popular drink here – mostly containing whisky – I’ve seen a lot of highball specific bars.There was a place to eat which was run by robots (I didn’t go in because the entrance fee was 8000 Yen – which is £60) and that was not including food….I’ve really enjoyed visiting this varied country. Getting around has been really easy. I still find it odd that smoking is allowed inside certain places, as well as train carriages. Everything is very clean – there are no litter bins on the streets or graffiti. There’s no one eating on the street or chewing gum. Jay walking is something that just isn’t done – everyone waits at the crossing for the green man. The people are all very friendly and polite. Although I came across some travellers from Belgium who had said they were waiting for their friend who was in a Japanese prison cell for letting off a fire extinguisher while drunk. Anyway, next stop – China! 

Nara: feisty deer and lots of lanterns

After Koyasan, I headed to Nara for a couple of nights. Landed myself in a nice hostel again (Oak Hostel Nara) as it had fairly good reviews on Booking.com – it was clean and the dorm again was similar to what I’d stayed in before – there were about 16 people in this one. It was good value for money. After making my way to the station with a few changes, I arrived at around 12, dumped the bag off and went straight out again. I grabbed some gyoza at Nara station en route to Horyuji where there was a massive temple complex. This housed the oldest wooden structure in the world – 1400 years old. It was amazing considering so many of Japan’s temples had been lost in natural disasters over the centuries. It was fairly grand and also contains some of the country’s most treasured Buddha statues. I travelled back late afternoon on the train and did some much needed laundry at the hostel. I found a little place near the hostel to grab some food. I had tuna misoyaki which was yum and some edamame beans. The next day was spent exploring Nara park which is what Nara is primarily famous for. There are a lot of tame deer who will nip you if you’re not careful and haven’t fed them some “deer crackers” which you can buy from vendors for 150 Yen. They are feisty! There are signs around warning you that they will bite and possibly charge you to get what they want. I did get chased by a couple, but you have to manage them before there is a chance of them eating you alive. No where near as nice as the chilled out deer in Richmond Park. I didn’t realise, but they are meant to be messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion. There are a lot of temples to see in the park, as well as a couple of pretty gardens. I walked to Todai-ji temple where the famous big Buddha is. It is one of the world’s largest bronze Buddha statues (called Vairocana or Daibutsu) and the temple is the largest wooden structure in the world (and this was one that is now smaller, after a previous one was burned down). There was a museum nearby, so saw a lot of 7th and 8th century Buddha statues which were very ornate and in good condition – you can imagine how colourful and bright they would have been. The detail of the expression on the faces is incredible. These statues are often referred to as protectors of the Buddha in the temple – I guess that’s why they look so fierce and imposing. To give some sort of perspective – the hole in this pillar is the same size as one of the Buddha’s nostrils. Apparently, those who can climb through it will be granted enlightenment in the next life. So, a lot of children should be ok then!This statue is meant to represent Binzuru-Sama. You rub the part of his body that you is giving you pain on yours and it is meant to get better.After seeing a couple of other temples which housed important national treasures, I found myself at Kasuga-Tanisha shrine. The first thing that struck me was the amount of stone lanterns on the way up to the shrine mixed with the free roaming deer. There were also a lot of golden and bronze lanterns inside the shrine hanging from the ceilings. These have been donated by worshippers. The structure of the shrine was quite big and square, and it was completely red. Red is an important colour in Japan – it is meant to prevent evil spirits from entering. There was also a darkened room full of hanging lit lanterns which was very sombre and atmospheric – a place to contemplate and pray. I then walked all the way to the Heijo Palace remains in the west of the city. There wasn’t too much to see but you could certainly get an idea of the size of the place. Lots and lots of walking completed so far. Average walk of 11 miles a day! Had some more amazing food at a little place I found. I could get used to this! Also went to a traditional tea house and tried some green tea. I still don’t think I’m a fan of tea, although I am trying!