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 border 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…..

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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.IMG_7171After 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 explorer. IMG_7200IMG_7227IMG_7232IMG_7237IMG_7277Visited 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. IMG_7311IMG_7328IMG_7364IMG_7375After 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. IMG_7175IMG_7183IMG_7387IMG_7391IMG_7394IMG_7398Then 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. IMG_7443IMG_7446IMG_7445Phnom 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 who died in one of the killing fields, so many families in Cambodia have their own story to tell. IMG_7456IMG_7459IMG_7460IMG_7468IMG_7469Visiting 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. IMG_7479IMG_7480IMG_7487IMG_7492I 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’. IMG_7494IMG_7500Then 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!IMG_7525IMG_7535IMG_7558IMG_7559IMG_7570IMG_7573

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 plane 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. IMG_5170Until 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.IMG_5188IMG_5207IMG_5209IMG_5217IMG_5275Tienanmen 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. IMG_5305IMG_5309IMG_5310IMG_5316The 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.IMG_5345IMG_5346IMG_5347IMG_5369IMG_5392IMG_5412IMG_5414IMG_5420Visiting 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.IMG_5440IMG_5425IMG_5442IMG_5448IMG_5455IMG_5472Boarded 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. There is also a district full of French architecture. 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.IMG_5492IMG_5643IMG_5662IMG_5680IMG_5681IMG_5521IMG_5525IMG_5531IMG_5547IMG_5593IMG_5517
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.IMG_5726IMG_5732IMG_5743IMG_5756IMG_5757IMG_5760Visited 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.IMG_5784IMG_5785IMG_5796IMG_5846IMG_5856IMG_5863The Terracotta Warriors were amazing – they were only discovered in 1974 by a couple of local farmers working the land. The army was buried with Emperor 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.IMG_5872IMG_5875IMG_5880IMG_5887IMG_5917IMG_5944IMG_5981IMG_5983IMG_5984IMG_6002It 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 monastery 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 tranquillity 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!IMG_6023IMG_6029IMG_6035IMG_6039IMG_6042IMG_6043A hike next day into Mt Emei was welcome after a long train journey. There 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.IMG_6049IMG_6050IMG_6060IMG_6068IMG_6072IMG_6078IMG_6098IMG_6115IMG_6142IMG_6156IMG_6162IMG_6170IMG_6181IMG_6182IMG_6194A 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.IMG_6200IMG_6202A 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!IMG_6220IMG_6223IMG_6230IMG_6242IMG_6244IMG_6259
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.IMG_6268IMG_6270IMG_6284IMG_6287IMG_6302IMG_6303I’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.IMG_6326IMG_6335IMG_6337IMG_6339IMG_6344IMG_6358IMG_6360IMG_6390IMG_6445IMG_6478IMG_6507It 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.IMG_6522IMG_6528IMG_6537IMG_6541IMG_6543IMG_6550IMG_6558IMG_6565IMG_6568Going 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. IMG_6730IMG_6752IMG_6757IMG_6780IMG_6796IMG_6805
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.IMG_6828IMG_6830IMG_6832IMG_6839IMG_6853IMG_6856IMG_6861IMG_6870IMG_6889IMG_6890I 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.IMG_4745I 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. ​​IMG_4806IMG_4807

​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!IMG_4793IMG_4797IMG_4799IMG_4789There 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. IMG_4766Then 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. IMG_4831A 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. IMG_4842IMG_4849I 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. IMG_4896IMG_4898IMG_4836I 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.IMG_4856IMG_4858IMG_4852IMG_4854IMG_4873I also did another day trip to Hakone which was only half an hour away from Tokyo. This was very scenic – lots of lovely luscious 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.IMG_5082IMG_5089IMG_5102IMG_5125IMG_5128

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.IMG_4946IMG_4952IMG_4954IMG_4997IMG_4914Barrels of sake (above)IMG_5006I enjoyed getting my feet nibbled by fish – ticklish at first, but then it was ok!IMG_5037IMG_5133Had some lovely tempura and ramen too!IMG_5058Vending 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!

Kyoto: Temples, Geishas and rain

Well I could hardly expect to come to Japan in the rainy season and not get some rain. The day of travelling from Nara to Kyoto was a washout! My hostel was quite close to a subway and bus stops which was appreciated during the rain. I caught a bus and went off to see Kinkaku-ji, also known as the ‘Golden Pavilion’. Even in the rain, the Zen Buddhist temple was a spectacle from the other side of the lake. You aren’t able to enter it though. Again, this was a temple that has been rebuilt a few times since its construction in the 14th century. IMG_4274I’m getting used to the buses – luckily, the stops are read out in English and you can see a bit of a map on a digital screen so you don’t really have the opportunity to get lost. Like the bus in Koyasan, you get on at the back and exit at the front, paying your fare in a little machine at the front on the way out. If you don’t have the exact change, then there’s also a little change box. In Kyoto, it was just one fare per journey within a zone. You can also get an all day bus ticket for 500 Yen which I did on the second day as there were a lot of things that I wanted to see which were quite spread out. Another good place I visited (and confess that I came back to for lunch on more than one occasion) was the Nishiki market full of independent stalls, mostly selling food. IMG_4500IMG_4296IMG_4599Yes – this is pickled cucumber on a stick….The variety was amazing and there was lots of things I had not seen before. The amount of different types of pickles and seaweed you could taste was phenomenal. It sits along one long street under cover which is parallel to the street my hostel was on (which was basically Kyoto’s version of Oxford Street – it had all the nice shops on. Even a L’Occitane!). I spent a lot of time here trying a couple of things – a lunch based on free samples is always a good idea. I had the most amazing gyoza in a little place not too far from my hostel called Tiger Gyoza Hall. I liked to watch the chefs work. They were all drinking pints of Asahi on the job as well.IMG_4351The second day was mostly spent getting from place to place by bus. It had meant to rain all day as well (but didn’t in the end) so I thought it would be a good idea. I had checked to see the temples that I wanted to go to the night before, and with the help of Google Maps, I knew which buses to take. They were quite regular as well which helped. I started the day off by getting to the Heian Jingu temple which is north east of the city. It was quite big and there was a nice garden with ponds of water lilies, and is a popular spot for cherry blossom during the spring. It’s not as old as some of the other temples, but still quite grand. IMG_4360IMG_4362IMG_4366IMG_4371IMG_4377IMG_4390Then went to the Yasaka Shrine which is in Marauyama Park. This was fairly big and tranquil and had a lot of lanterns. It was founded over 1350 years ago. The park is also a famous spot for cherry blossom.The next stop was Sanjusangendo temple which houses 1000 statues of Kannon (the goddess of mercy) all standing in a row, as well as one big statue of the same goddess in the middle. The length of the wooden hall make it the longest wooden structure in Japan. The statues are flanked with some bigger statues in front which are meant to be defenders and protectors. The temple was initially constructed in 1164. IMG_4397IMG_4401Another temple visited was Kodaji temple, as well as Entokuinteien temple. Kodaji is a Zen temple and was built in the 1606 by Kita-no-Mandokoro in memory of her late husband. They are both enshrined there in the memorial hall. Here you have to walk around the cylinders and rotate them with one hand as you go round. It is meant to be good luck. Throughout Japan, I have seen a lot of non Japanese people wearing kimonos – I then often saw them available for rent in certain places, so I assume you can hire them for a day.IMG_4428IMG_4429IMG_4431IMG_4435IMG_4439IMG_4450I ended up walking down Matsubara Dori and Matsubara Kyogoku which are pedestrianised shopping streets full of unique shops. It was fairly crowded and it was easy to see why. IMG_4487There were little different coloured soaps which were squishy and each colour meant that a different ingredient would be in each soap depending on whether you wanted moisturisation or something else. IMG_4483Squidgy soap (above)IMG_4493Yummy confectionary! Each triangle filled with something different – strawberry etcIMG_4481Rice cakes in soy sauce (above)IMG_4448Green tea ice cream! I was not such a huge fan…I still don’t like green tea. And I’ve been fed it a lot….I found the street where the Geishas are meant to be found. This was just off the main street. The buildings were quite pretty. IMG_4507IMG_4519IMG_4719I treated myself to some nice sushi after a long day from a place called Chojiro which had had good reviews on Trip Advisor.IMG_4524IMG_4525IMG_4529The next day, I was up and out early to see the bamboo forest in Arashiyama and the Japanese garden with an amazing view. There was also a temple called Tenryu-Ji which I visited and it is a grand Zen temple. It was originally built in 1339, but has been rebuilt over the centuries, like so many other temples. IMG_4544IMG_4549IMG_4555IMG_4556IMG_4560IMG_4565IMG_4580IMG_4591IMG_4597IMG_4608Then finished Kyoto off with seeing Fushimi Inari-taisha which was amazing. The 10,000 red torii gates were all donated by worshippers and their names and the dates they were donated are inscribed on the gates. You can climb up the many steps to get to the summit of Mount Inari. It took a couple of hours to do the big loop and had a couple of great views. The mountain reaches an elevation of 233 metres. It is a Shinto shrine. There are a lot of stone foxes with a red cloak surrounding certain shrines at certain points as you are climbing up. IMG_4672IMG_4685IMG_4692IMG_4698IMG_4700IMG_4703IMG_4709I really enjoyed my time in Kyoto – a big place full of things to see and lots to eat! A buzzing city working with its traditional roots. There’s a real sense of respect for religion and others. Onwards to Tokyo!

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. IMG_4064IMG_4067IMG_4069IMG_4070IMG_4074IMG_4078I 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. IMG_4094The 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. IMG_4098IMG_4169IMG_4235There 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. IMG_4119IMG_4123IMG_4124IMG_4138IMG_4133To 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!IMG_4139This 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.IMG_4149IMG_4161IMG_4162IMG_4174IMG_4179IMG_4196IMG_4218IMG_4220After 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! IMG_4241IMG_4243

Koyasan: a place of tranquility 

An early alarm and a quiet sneak out of my dorm in the morning, and I was prepared for the day ahead! Unfortunately, because it was a Sunday, there was nothing really open en route to Osaka station to grab a bit of brekkie. But Starbucks was open at the station (of course!), so I put up with an overly expensive coffee and some rather tasteless breakfast food. I caught a train to Shinimamiya and quickly changed to get to Gokurakubashi. I had to rush to grab a ticket at this point, as this was not covered by my JR pass, but it took a while to know what the right fare was. You have to look at a train line map and it shows the fare payable depending on the distance away from the station you are in. After arriving, I caught the cable car up to Koyasan station, followed by a bus into the town. Koyasan is a little town up in Mount Koya where Shingon Buddhism originated in the 9th century.

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I hadn’t bought the right ticket to get me through the train and cable car, of course, so there was some sort of fare adjustment I had to pay which was easy enough to do. I bet it regularly happens to tourists. Anyway, there was a helpful bus attendant fellow, who made sure I got on the right bus to where I had to go. There were 3 different lines and you get on at the back of the bus, and exit and pay the fare at the front, depending on where you had got on. He gave me a very useful map of the town. I managed to find the temple that I was staying the night in – Kongo Sanmai-in – and leave my bag whilst I went exploring. It was built in 1223. I had to reshuffle a few dates around when I was in London, so I ended up getting quite a large room all to myself (a triple…!) which cost me a little more, but the experience was definitely worth the price. Off I went and saw the largest cemetery in Japan – Okunoin. It is where a lot of feudal dynasties have been buried since the age when the town was founded. Kobo Dashi is also interred here in a mausoleum at the end of the cemetery. He was the founder of this community and sect of Buddhism and was an influential monk. It took a long while to wander around as it is fairly big, but very peaceful and thought provoking. I get the impression it could be quite an eerie place during the evening, or when there is fog around. This is the traditional entrance to the cemetery – called Ichinohashi – and you see a lot of pilgrims pay their respects here before entering.IMG_3932IMG_3967IMG_3937IMG_3938IMG_3946IMG_3949IMG_3959Then it was a nice little walk through the town, which is essentially just one long street full of unique shops and the odd cafe. I had a quick pork miso soup and sesame tofu thing for lunch which was about right and continued.IMG_3968I then found myself in the Danjo Garen complex at the other end of the long street which consists of a series of temples dedicated to Shingon Buddhism. Kobo Dashi played a big part in the design of these.  Apparently, he founded the community here because he found his ceremonial tool in a pine tree that he threw from China. The pine tree has become known as the three-pointed Vajera pine tree because the pine needles only fall in clusters of three and not five. The temples were all rebuilt several times since they were first constructed due to several lightening strikes over a period of time which has caused them to burn down. This has happened a lot in Japan. The main temple is the Konpon Daito Pagoda. Inside is a statue of Dainchi Nyorai who is the main Buddha worshipped in this particular sect. Otherwise known as the Cosmic Buddha, the origin is Indian.IMG_3972IMG_3973IMG_3985IMG_3988IMG_3991IMG_3994There is also a large hall called the Kondo Hall which is where major ceremonies are held. I also went to Kongobuji Temple which is the headquarters of this sect. There are lots of prayer rooms heavily decorated, with sliding doors. After a pop into the Reihokan museum, I headed back to the temple to check in. I was told that my evening meal would be served in my room at 17:30 and that the temple would be closed by 8pm. IMG_3948I was invited to attend a morning prayer ceremony in the morning at 06:30, and then have breakfast after. I was shown to my room and it was amazing. No shoes, obviously, and very basic to fit in with those who lived in the monastery. There was also a public bath (onsen), and this would only be available in the evening. I would be sleeping on a futon bed which would be made up after I had finished eating. I enjoyed the peace and quiet after a few hectic days. The food was incredible! No meat or fish, but I think there was tofu….I thought it would be quite a lonely experience, but I enjoyed the time to register my experiences so far….and to sort my bag out! Living out of a bag can be like playing a lucky dip sometimes – you’re never quite sure what clothes you’ll pull out. I was able to relax. IMG_4007IMG_4008IMG_4021IMG_4036IMG_4041The prayers the next morning was something that will stay with me for a long time. Even though I did not understand any of what was happening, there was a sense of spirituality and dedication from the monks who devote themselves to this way of life. We were invited to make a wish on a piece of wood which would get burned, as well as contribute to the incense burning by adding wood chips, and think about those who we would wish good health. It was quite meaningful actually and I would recommend it to anyone. IMG_4023IMG_4024IMG_4026IMG_4028IMG_4030IMG_4031IMG_4033Above: my supper! All of this just for one person….! In the big red dish on the floor was a huge amount of rice that I could not finish. You also got served rice for breakfast too. It was way too much food and consisted of mainly vegetables and carbs – but I wasn’t sure what most of it was. There was some sort of miso soup which was nice. Lots of tea!IMG_4043IMG_4044IMG_4045IMG_4046Breakfast: mainly pickles, seaweed, soup and rice. Oh, and gallons of tea. For the prayers in the morning, you had the opportunity to write a wish on. a piece of wood which would get burnt during a ceremony and the wish would be granted. Traditionally, these are more commonly known as Ema in the Shinto sect and are usually left hanging at the shrine to be received by the gods. IMG_4091