Yunnan

I’ve been to quite a few places in China now, though recently all of my travels have been in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces (nearest to Shanghai). As I’m not working at the moment, I have quite a bit of time to myself, hence the trips to Cambodia and Hong Kong last month. As of earlier this week I temporarily don’t have a passport as it’s with the Entry-Exit Bureau for processing. They gave me a paper receipt that is taking the place of my passport for the moment, but I can’t leave the country with it as there’s no mechanism for re-entering the country. I don’t carry my passport with me on a daily basis (it’s the law) but I do take it with me whenever I leave Shanghai, as you need it to take a train, fly (even domestically), stay at a hotel etc. Oh yeah and you need it when you go to the doctors or the bank or the post office (sometimes they will accept a picture – mine does, but I’ve heard of branches that are more annoying about it) and I’m sure lots of other situations that I’ve forgotten. Anyway, no passport = no international travel. But receipt + free time = domestic travel. And this time I decided to go to Yunnan.

Yunnan is in the southwest of China, bordering Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go for ages – for the culture, diversity (it’s actually very ethnically divese, as about 35% people are from ethnic minorities (Chinese ethnic minorities)), countryside, food, etc – but it’s a long way from Shanghai. This time I actually wanted to fly from Pudong Airport, which felt weird and unnatural as I may have mentioned that I hate that place. I had an engagement in Pudong District that morning so it made sense to go straight to the airport. It actually wasn’t horrendous, I didn’t need to take a bus across the tarmac and we left pretty much on time. The only problem was that at the gate I had my bag open and the ridiculously cute baby behind me reached into my bag and pulled out a pair of my pants! Clean ones at least. I managed to get them back off him before his parents looked up from their phones.

We landed in Kunming at sunset and I stood admiring the colour of the sky for a while. Then I took the metro into town and walked to my hotel. At the hotel I pulled the receipt out of the plastic wallet I was keeping it safe in, and encountered two problems: firstly, the hotel staff had absolutely no idea what to do with it and said they couldn’t check me in, and secondly, my train ticket for the morning was not in the wallet anymore. Eventually the hotel allowed me to check in, but I had to go to the train station to buy a new ticket (I would have bought it online and collected it in the morning, but was worried that my “passport” wouldn’t be recognised and I’d miss the train). Ticket in hand, I got a mobike and cycled back to the hotel, missing my turning and cycling across a lot of the city before I wondered why it seemed *so* much further on the way back.

IMG_20181205_225334_472

I slept really badly, no doubt partly due to the spicy potatoes I had for dinner (that and a hot chocolate, don’t say I don’t lead a balanced life) and cycled to the station. Kunming was bustling and the air felt clean and fresh. I definitely had a good impression of the city despite my own best attempts to sabotage the trip. Once on the train I fell asleep, waking up once to shush the woman next to me, and waking up finally as the man next to me was kicking the seat. Finally we arrived in Dali, and I got a bus to Dali old town. This took another hour, not helped by getting stuck behind a truck doing a 100-point turn, but I entertained myself by getting involved in a passive aggressive but silent argument with the woman behind me about opening the window.

IMG_20181206_131414_391

Once in Dali I set out on a wander. I had a guide to Dali’s cafes/bars/restaurants from a friend of a friend and I tried to work out where I was and where a cafe might be. As luck would have it I came to a stop right outside one of the recommendations. A fluffy cat sat contentedly on the bar and later a border collie wearing a collar of shame bounded in. One coffee later, I set out again and went to a small museum of Dai culture (Dai is the ethnic group from Dali), where a group of old people were very enthusiastically playing chinese instruments.

I then headed to my hotel and checked in (no hassle about my passport receipt here). The hotel was very nice and had a great bar area. The room also very excitingly had no glass between the bathroom and bedroom.IMG_20181206_160408

I set off up the road to the Three Pagodas. These are three pagodas and some temples on the edge of town, destroyed a few times (most recently in the Cultural Revolution) but restored nicely. Tourist destinations in China can sometimes be awful: overcrowded, loud, badly restored… but this was great! It helped that the site was very big, and that it was late-ish in the day, but speakers playing buddhist music throughout the site helped to keep a nice peaceful atmosphere too.

IMG_20181206_190414_032IMG_20181206_191106_189

IMG_20181206_213421

Afterwards I walked back to town and went for a drink before trying to find the restaurant I wanted to go to for dinner. The restaurant had no menu so I asked them to cook me something with vegetables, and it was delicious!

I went back to the bar after dinner and the barmaid told me that the band were just taking a break, so I took a seat at the bar and read a little. The band played loads of indie covers and I smiled at the cute bassist. The barmaid bought me a drink and I ended up staying until 2am. The bassist bought me a plate of chips, so my earlier flirting was not in vain.

The next morning I woke up at my normal time of 7.30 but managed to get back to sleep, waking up a bit later to eat a banana and go back to sleep once more. I finally bounded out of bed at 11.40 and enjoyed the mother of all showers. Once packed up I walked into town and went to a vegetarian buffet at a temple, 5 RMB for all you can eat. I washed it down with a doughnut from a bakery as I’m all about the balance. I then looked for a cafe, and ended up at Craftsman Coffee, caught up on life admin and tried to persuade my friend that it would indeed snow in Shanghai at the weekend. Then I went totally wild shopping, haha.

IMG_20181207_224642_746

Late afternoon, I took the bus back to Dali station and bought myself a fruit platter for the train journey. Said fruit platter exploded in the bag and I had watermelon everywhere. At least the pomelo wasn’t hurt! In Kunming I cycled to where I was staying, a different hotel to before, and didn’t get lost! I thought about going out but settled for hanging out in the bar for a bit.

The next morning I woke up feeling refreshed and hustled out of the door to get a coffee. I found a shortcut down to the lake and watched an old lady feeding the seagulls. Why are there seagulls inland? And why are people encouraging them??

IMG_20181208_180937_924

I had some work to do in the morning, but once that was done I set out on a bike to Daguan Park in the southwest of the city. The park was very nice, with lakes, pavilions, a fairground, old people making music and a million seagulls. It was extremely windy and the clouds scuttled across the sky as if they were being chased.

IMG_20181208_181530_967

I went to the Bird and Flower Market but didn’t see any birds or flowers, nor did I see any pets for sale. I did at one point see a shop selling rabbits and chinchillas but didn’t buy any, even though I’d love a fluffy little friend.From the market I walked to Wenlin Street and had a coffee and crepe at the French Cafe, before queuing for dinner at Heavenly Manna – totally worth it as I ordered a plate of deep-fried cheese!

IMG_20181208_200305_HHT

The next morning I repeated my coffee-seagulls-work routine.

IMG_20181209_160717_254

I somehow managed to fit everything in my bag (I’d just brought a small rucksack for the trip, but had been buying things as if I had a whole suitcase) and thought about how nice it would be to be able to change my clothes when I got back to Shanghai (the downside of travelling light – and I had to try and think of something positive about going back to Shanghai as it was in fact snowing!). I walked down to the lake and meandered up to Yuantong Temple, Yunnan’s oldest buddhist temple.

IMG_20181209_160645_758

Finally I went back to the lake and to the cafe with the highest ranking on Dianping (kind of like yelp/google reviews) in the area. I ordered a coffee and it turned up as a ball of ice that you had to add milk to. I wasn’t sure what to do at first and didn’t want to fuck it up and be judged by the baristas, but as my friend pointed out, they served a ball of ice as coffee so they have absolutely no grounds in being judgemental.

IMG_20181208_231725_011

I still had a bit of time and had probably had too much coffee, so on the way to the metro I stopped at another cafe where I had a pretty awful sandwich. I used the loo before I left and managed to block it, and did a runner before anyone could get angry with me. As I walked to the metro I laughed to myself thinking about how I’d had such a nice holiday and that was how I repaid the city of Kunming! But the city had the last laugh as that sandwich came back to haunt me at the airport, making a rather hasty escape from my insides. Sorry (to anyone reading this as well as to the province of Yunnan).

TLDR: Yunnan is great, had a brilliant time, travelling without a passport is possible but stressful, drank a lot of great Yunnan coffee, did some hardcore shopping, nearly shit myself at the airport.

Cambodia travels

After more than 18 months living in China, I decided it was about time I visited a bit more of Asia. I’ve visited quite a few places in China, and in East Asia I’ve been to HK, Macao, Taiwan and Japan (my friend pointed out that some people may see this as not having been anywhere other than China…). But I’d never been to Southeast Asia, and after working like a dog throughout summer I finally had some time to myself.

I opened up tabs on my computer: maps of Asia, ctrip flights, wikitravel visa requirements. I faffed about for a while but in the end decided on Cambodia. It then took me ages to actually book the flights, because the thought of booking the wrong date stresses me out so much. I ended up booking my hotels in a rush and booked the wrong date! I felt really stupid.

I really wanted to fly from Hongqiao Airport but it wasn’t possible, so I decided to try to get into the holiday swing of things by taking the Maglev to Pudong Airport. Big mistake, the Maglev was terrifying and I spent the whole journey thinking the train would fall off the tracks, except it wouldn’t even be falling off because it’s not bloody touching the rails. I was relieved to get to Pudong Airport, which was an unfamiliar feeling as I absolutely hate that airport. I’ve made lists of airports I’d rather go to, and London Southend beats Pudong. This time the Starbucks was closed. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?! I thought the flight was only 2 hours, I’m not sure why, but anyway, after 4.5 hours I was quite sick of the amount of leg room I had on the budget airline I had optimistically booked.

My first task when I landed was to get a visa to enter the country. I got some $$$ (as in, literally $$$) out of the ATM in the immigration hall, then pushed my way past the hordes of tourists to get a visa application form, then pushed my way past yet more people to hand over my application and passport. I didn’t have a spare photo so I got charged an additional $3, but otherwise the visa cost $30 and took 5 minutes, during which time I trampled yet more tourists like the boor that I am. Living in China has taught me to use my size as weapon, coupled with a dead eyed stare when people complain about it (no one ever says anything, they just passive aggressively squeal – like that’s going to stop me).

Finally through immigration, I got a sim card for my phone and took a tuktuk into town. This got off to a great start as the driver pulled out across six lanes of traffic and started off towards town on the wrong side of the road. About 1km later we swung back across and continued on our way on the correct side, so presumably the experience was designed to make me value my life. At the hotel, he asked for a tip and I laughed at him (see above: living in China kills your soul).

I won’t go into the boring details of trying to sort out my incorrectly booked dates (screw you, ctrip) but the hotel was super nice. My room was huge and calm and pretty, though there was a gravel path to the bathroom with small boulders on it that I inevitably fell over every time I went to the bathroom. Design flaw or user error, I don’t know. I went for a curry at the restaurant next door and then flopped into bed.

The next morning I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before walking over to the Royal Palace. Walking in Phnom Penh is a nightmare, I think I saw two pavements all day. I walked in the road, dodging the motorbikes and cars and wondering what I was doing. It was hot, really hot. Eventually I got to the Royal Palace and it was closed, of course, because it was lunchtime. A couple were having their photos taken outside and a man chased me across a small park to hand me a worried-looking pigeon. I retreated to Sisowath Quay, an embankment along the river with some slightly shaded benches. An icecream later, I felt slightly more ready to take on the city (again) and after lunch, I went back to the Royal Palace. It was pretty cool, very royal, much gold, such shiny.

I set off again for the Genocide Museum, in a school-cum-torture prison-cum-museum. This was where the Khmer Rouge tortured people before sending them off to the Killing Fields, so it wasn’t at all uplifting, but it was extremely thought provoking. I had no idea that the Khmer Rouge had emptied Cambodia’s cities, or that 25% of the overall population died. It felt particularly pertinent given the UN trials of surviving Khmer Rouge officials (abandoned since my trip…).

The next day I was up bright and early on another tuktuk, heading for the airport. I was extremely worried that I didn’t have enough time, but once I’d checked in, I realised that the boarding gate was literally up a flight of stairs and past a shop, so I had enough time to browse the not-that-bad bookshop (until I saw the prices, LOLS!). I was probably the youngest person on the flight, everyone else being retired British people from Cumbria and retired Chinese people from Guangzhou. I sat next to a man who was fascinated that I was reading a book in Chinese and told me that he could read Chinese too. I smiled along with him but given that he was from China I wasn’t really that impressed at his advanced reading skills.

The flight to Siem Reap took a whole 30 minutes, and we landed at the domestic terminal, which is basically a room with a baggage carousel. There’s no bus to take you from the plane to the terminal (which is good as I hate those buses), you just walk across the tarmac. I felt like a hero in a film, or a 1950s movie star. I took a tuktuk into town, and told the driver I wanted to go to the Angkor History Museum. He insisted that we needed to buy a ticket from a ticketseller in town and we had a bit of a row about it. I still don’t know who was right but he’d told me about hordes of chinese tourists at the museum clogging up the ticket office (little did he know that that’s my bread-and-butter) and in the end said hordes did not exist. The museum was pretty cool, lots of statues and buddhas and hindu/buddhist mashup figurines.

Afterwards I went to check out my hotel, a 10 minute walk up the road. 20 minutes later I realised I was lost, but didn’t want all the tuktuk drivers to realise, so I carried on walking until there was something I could pretend to be heading for… then of course I had to walk back past the drivers, who could see straight through my sham. Finally, finally, I found my hotel, and the hotel staff all very sweetly commented on how sweaty I was. My room was spacious and clean, with another gravel installation in the bathroom (only the shower this time). I was meant to be having an online class but my student didn’t show up, so I called my friend and ranted at him about it for a while, before realising that actually, it was a great thing and I should enjoy my freeeeeeeedom. I went to check out the rooftop pool and swam about in the pool, laughing to myself. Later on I changed into slightly less sweaty clothes and went to a fairtrade khmer restaurant, even finding the odd bit of pavement to walk on on the way.

The next morning I spent some quality time washing my (aforementioned sweaty) clothes, before heading out to explore Siem Reap. It’s a small city, based almost entirely on tourism thanks to the proximity of Angkor Wat. I’d read about art gallery, but the whole street was closed for renovations, so I wandered along the river, sipping on iced Khmer coffee and trying to write my diary, before shopping and lunch. While having lunch, it started absolutely chucking down so I sat under a large shelter by the restaurant pool and read a book about Tony Blair (light holiday reading). Later I walked to the ticket office for Angkor Wat… Some facts:

  • The site is about 7km north of town and there is no ticket office on site
  • The ticket office is about 4km out of town, though of course not on the road to Angkor Wat
  • The ticket office is open from 5am-5.30pm
  • You must buy your ticket in person, as they take a photo to go on the ticket
  • You can only buy tickets for that day, unless you go after 5pm, when you can buy tickets for the next day
  • Sunrise is at 5.30am

This all seemed like an overly complicated ticket buying system, and presumably designed so that you have to hire a tuktuk for the day, from 5am. I decided against that and hired a bike instead.

I woke up at 4.30am, got dressed and went down to the reception desk to pick up my bike… only to find no one was there. Eventually a receptionist showed up, and I had to restrain myself from being too impatient about it all, particuarly when he couldn’t find the bike lock key. I really wanted to make sure I was at Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. It would be stupid to go to all this hassle and then miss it. Finally my bike was unlocked and I set off at full pelt up the road. At first there were streetlights, but then there weren’t, and I didn’t have lights, so I had to try to see ahead as far as possible whenever a tuktuk passed (luckily quite often). I was quite glad that I didn’t know about all the stray dogs and monkeys on this road at the time. I ditched the bike by a tree and walked over a pontoon bridge to the main Angkor Wat temple site.

By this point it was edging towards sunrise, and I jostled into position by a lake in front of the temple. And wow, just wow. What an amazing sunrise.

Afterwards I wandered about the temple, checking out the frescoes and looking at the carvings. I wasn’t aware before I got to Siem Reap that the famous Angkor Wat temple is only one of about 20 temples in the Angkor Archaelogical Site, but having a bike meant I could go and explore them at my own pace. The next temple had lots of faces – hundreds of them.

Shortly after this, I got chatting to another cyclist and we decided to look at the rest of the temples together. Some of them were very small and in need of restoration, others were much larger. A few involved very precarious stairs! It was really great to have company, and Christian was the best kind of company – smart, funny and a cyclist to boot!

By about midday it was getting very warm and I was also pretty tired from such an early start, so we cycled back to town (much easier in the daylight) and I went back to my hotel. After some lunch (well, breakfast really) I planned to read by the pool but I fell asleep. In the evening Christian and I went for dinner and beers near Pub Street, which is a street full of bars. I found Pub Street really weird, actually, so many tourists, and while it didn’t feel sketchy, it just highlighted the massive gulf between Cambodians and tourists.

The following morning I flew back to Phnom Penh. I decided against taking a tuktuk into town and followed the signs for the Airport Express. The signage was of a high speed train and I was intrigued, as (terrible experience with the Maglev notwithstanding) I do love a train. I got to a small waiting room and paid my $2 and sat down. Suddenly I heard a terrible noise, the blaring of horns and metallic scraping. I looked out the window, and a small diesel engine was honking its way past the waiting traffic and pulling into the station. I got onto the train – an engine and a single carriage – and after sitting for a while, we started off towards the city. The train track, a single track, ran through some dusty roads and delapidated, temporary-looking housing, at slightly faster than walking pace. It was quite an experience, and took longer than a tuktuk but was possibly more interesting.

I hadn’t really liked Phnom Penh earlier in the week but I was feeling much more relaxed and had spent a lot of time thinking and being by myself, so had a much better experience. I went to a temple on a hill, the Central Market, a river boat along the Mekong at sunset, and finally a huge firework display outside the Royal Palace to mark Cambodian independence day. After all that, I headed back to my hotel and hung out by the pool (where I met a Scouse girl who asked me whether it was true that Chinese men have small penises).

My trip ended with a final tuktuk ride to the airport, which I can’t remember at all, and an entirely uneventful flight, which I slept through, so I can’t write about either but I know happened because I ended up in Hong Kong…

Moscow morning

7am. Moscow. Midday at home and 4am at my other home, the home I’m going back to. Another hour until my connecting flight, a long hour stretching ahead staring at planes taxiing about in the darkness.

No internet because my Chinese SIM only works in China and my UK SIM hasn’t worked for 11 months (although I am hoping that it will work when I land) and you need to enter a phone number to access the wifi. Just me, the darkness outside and the overbright light inside. People keep talking to me in Russian, and I don’t even look that Russian anymore. I don’t think it’s a compliment.

I managed a few short sleeps on the ten hour flight between Shanghai and Moscow, mainly when I was watching films. Aeroflot’s film selection is pretty good but I went for films I’ve seen before – first Interstellar, which made me cry (and then sleep), and The Dark Knight – because I didn’t want to be challenged. I wish planes still showed Glee. I used to love spending 11 hours watching Glee.

During The Dark Knight, in the scene where Harvey Dent has his face half burnt off, a stewardess dropped a jug of coffee on my leg, so we had a surreal moment where I watched someone’s face on fire while my leg steamed itself, a woman dabbing at my leg with a wad of tissues, apologising in Russian. Welcome to Russia, have some third degree burns.

I hate aisle seats, and my hatred was magnified by the couple beside me each getting up four times in the flight. At one point they must have been trying to wake me up and I must have been fighting it because I realised I was saying “nooooo, no more, sit down, I hate you”, to which they paid absolutely no mind and continued their hourly climbs over my reluctant lap.

About halfway through the flight I woke up feeling like I might throw up everywhere – that’ll be chips and a hot chocolate for dinner I suppose – and went to the bathroom. I thought about a short story I’d been working on with one of my writing students, a story about a girl on a flight who suddenly felt awful, went to the bathroom and shed several kilograms, then looked in the mirror and realised she’d gone back in time and spent the rest of the flight in a silent scream. Please no please no. I couldn’t brave looking in the mirror just in case, the story and Interstellar and feeling sick were too much for me and I eventually dragged myself back to my seat, where I for some reason stripped out of most of my clothes and attempted to get as foetal as possible – which is not all that comfortable when you’re in the aisle seat of economy class, you’re half naked and you have a middle aged chinese couple keen to use your sweating body as steeplejump practice.

I packed two days early and spent some time worrying that I’d forgotten something, then realised it was probably remembering to order vegetarian food for the flight. In the end I had a Cornetto and a bread roll. I can’t wait to get to Heathrow and spend my emergency tenner at M&S.

Huangshan

Matt and I wanted to go and see the Terracotta Warriors – but the dates we chose ended up being the same weekend that all the university students go home, and trains from Shanghai to Xi’an were all booked up. I asked a colleague where he recommended we should go and he suggested Huangshan.

Huangshan (literally, “yellow mountain”) is actually a range of mountains, rather than a single mountain. It’s in Anhui province, about 700 km from Shanghai (so not that far, in China terms). We booked tickets for the overnight train from Shanghai railway station, leaving at 8pm and arriving at 7am the next day.

I’d printed out a map of Huangshan and planned for us to walk up the Eastern Steps (about 750m ascent over 7.5km) and then walk down the Western Steps (1000m and 12.5km) the following day. But I didn’t think about this when buying tickets for the bus at Tangkou, and we were dropped at the start of the Western Steps. Oops.The train terminated at Tunxi, now rebranded as Huangshan City. Our cabinmates had disembarked (noisily) at 2am and we fussed about getting ready before stepping out onto the long and old fashioned platform. Outside the station we got some snacks before boarding a minibus to Tangkou, the town at the entrance to the Huangshan scenic area. This took about an hour. Once at Tangkou, we took another bus, to the very foot of the mountains. I think you can walk all the way from Tangkou but it would be a long old way. As we were buying tickets, we got chatting to a Canadian guy who’d spent the last few days up the mountain. He said it was wet and stormy up there but it seemed impossible from where we were.We arrived at Shanghai station with hours to spare (I worry about missing trains) and bought snacks and hung out, before boarding our train. What seemed like a full on argument was taking place in our cabin, though on closer inspection, this was just normal volume Shanghai negotiations about swapping bunks around. We refused to swap as we wanted to be in the same cabin and eventually someone else relented and the main instigator of the shouting, Grandpa, climbed onto his bunk and immediately started snoring. I chatted with the six year-old granddaughter, who kept checking with me that Matt couldn’t speak Chinese, was amazed that I could read English and ate the sauce directly from her packet of instant noodles.

Most of the other tourists took the cable car up to the top but we set off walking.

And walking.

After about 1.5 hours I started feeling a little bit wobbly, as we hadn’t eaten much, and I inhaled a Snickers bar. Matt’s legs were a little sore from the personal training session he’d done at the gym the day before. The views back down were becoming more and more incredible.

It started to rain, and we saw some terrifying monkeys.

Towards the top of the Western Steps it started raining heavily, floods of water that nearly washed my contact lenses out. We made it to a hotel near the top of the cable car, where a lot of people were sheltering. We found a corner of the restaurant where we ignored the stares from the waiting staff and unpacked/repacked our bags, and put them back on underneath our fetching yellow plastic ponchos.

It was still quite a way from here to our hotel, and we were dispirited to see we had another 6km to go. The rain was bad (it got a little lighter), the views were nonexistent thanks to the fog and the crowds of people were both annoying and a little worrying. A lot of people were dressed for much more clement weather, and most people didn’t seem to be aware/care that slipping over could mean falling down the mountain, and probably taking a few people with you. The worst bit was walking up a waterfall, nose to tail with people wearing sandals.

Matt said “this is the worst place we’ve ever been to, there’s no way that either of us could possibly say that we’re enjoying this, because it’s awful.”

When we finally made it to our hotel, we were absolutely soaked. The hotel was a dispiriting building, commissioned by none other than Deng Xiaoping. We checked in and went to see our rooms (separate dorm rooms, as a double room was 1000 RMB) only to find that there were no towels. Back we went to reception and they told me that they didn’t have any towels in the hotel, but I was annoying enough that eventually I got us a towel each.

The rest of the evening was spent pointedly sitting in the cafe area with one purchased snack and lots of snacks bought elsewhere, then going to the restaurant and drinking three pots of tea to make up for the overpriced (and not very good) food. By 9pm we were in bed. My roommates kept staring at me and Matt told a young boy to STFU in the night.

At 4.15am we woke up, got dressed and met up at the hotel reception. The whole point of coming to Huangshan was to see the sunrise, and I’d asked the receptionist where we should go (she’d told me there was only a 20% chance of seeing anything, due to the weather) and done a little online research. We went out into the dark morning. It wasn’t raining. We headed for Lion’s Peak, using my phone as a torch. Very soon we came to a lookout point.

We tried a few lookouts.

Then we settled in for the sunrise.

We were giddy with excitement. Below us was the sea of clouds, it was absolutely phenomenal.

Behind us a cloud came in, rolling over towards the sunrise.

Soon enough, the sunrise was gone.

This was the exact same time that loads of other people showed up, tourists who’d come all the way to Huangshan, and woken up early but not early enough. Suckers. We wandered about a bit more before deciding to pack up and head down the mountain before all the crowds came out.

Our hotel was very near the top of the Eastern Steps so we had a short walk to the steps before heading down, down, down. It started raining, of course, but it was nice to walk with hardly anyone around. It was amazing to look up at one point and see the cable car stretching up into the sky and realise that we’d come all the way down from there.

After about an hour, we started coming across porters carrying up food, laundry, construction materials. I wanted to take a photo but it felt wrong, these men carrying more than my bodyweight on their shoulders, all the way up a mountain. It put into perspective our whinging about the weather.

I’m quite nervous about going down steps, so we didn’t make hugely fast progress, but less than two hours later we were down at the bottom! Lots of tourists were arriving, some of whom didn’t look like they’d make it up in one piece.

We boarded a bus back to Tangkou and Matt promptly fell asleep. Back in Tangkou, things didn’t look right. We had a hotel booked but the town didn’t look anything like the pictures. I slowly realised that where we were staying was the other side of town, not near the bus station – which meant that the bakery I’d been using as encouragement for Matt was also on the other side of town. Matt looked like he might cry so I suggested we go to KFC for breakfast: coffee, chips and custard tarts.

Refreshed, we walked to the main town and went to the bakery. We were able to check into our hotel really early, and after showers (and towels!) we had a big nap. Later we wandered about the town. There was nothing much to see: a small creek with shops and restaurants on either side, a dusty carpark with a bank. We had dinner at a local restaurant (Matt had a Huangshan beer) and we went back to the bakery. It was all incredibly relaxing!

The next morning we continued relaxing, before getting the bus to Tunxi. It was very hot and we set off for Tunxi’s only sight (Old Street) in the baking heat, quickly feeling sticky and sweaty. Luckily there was an underground mall on the way, so we ducked in there and gawped at the endless fake New Balance stores.

Old Street itself was quite sweet, touristy but nice to wander along. We stopped at a cafe, which was perfect timing as almost immediately it started raining. Matt did some work and I listened to cheesy music and did some instagramming.

I decided I ought to check the train time, and rummaged in my bag for the tickets. Immediately I noticed the date on the ticket. They were for yesterday. The blood drained from my face and I showed Matt the tickets. I checked online for the train on the correct date and all the sleepers were sold out, we’d have to sit the whole way back… Then I thought to check the buses (it’s 12 hours by train but only 5 or 6 by bus) and there was one at 16:50. It was 15:53! We paid and legged it to the main road, jumped in a taxi, got to the bus station and a man said he’d flag the 16:20 bus down for us. I was a little sceptical but sure enough, it all came off as planned and we had a long bus journey back to Shanghai.

Transport in China is really cheap. If this had been in the UK, we’d have had to fork out serious money for another train or bus ticket. However 700km back to Shanghai cost us 135 RMB each, and we got dropped off at a slightly better location (to get back to ours) than the train would have done. I still can’t believe that at 15:50 we didn’t know we had a problem, and 45 minutes later we were on a bus back to Shanghai. I really didn’t expect it to work out!

All in all, lessons learnt: check tickets before and don’t go up mountains when it’s absolutely pissing down. But we did have a good time, saw an amazing sunrise and we felt really relaxed at the end of the trip.

Arrived in Shanghai

I can’t believe I’m actually here. I’m here! After so many years thinking about it, and so many months planning it. And I’m in a Holiday Inn Express, so it feels like I could be anywhere…

Yesterday, several time zones away, Matt took me to Heathrow Airport. Originally he wasn’t going to take me the whole way but he took pity on me and my incredibly heavy bags (in total, 50kg luggage…). It was really strange to wave him off and I can’t wait until he gets here next week.

I called China Eastern a few days ago to reserve a vegetarian meal but was told they couldn’t promise anything. But at check in they said I had a special meal, and didn’t kick up too much of a fuss about my visa (a non-standard port visa).

I went for dinner and then wandered over to my gate, where they were keen for everyone to board immediately. With half an hour to go I was in my seat and felt quite teary.

The flight itself was uneventful. Long. The in-flight entertainment didn’t work very well. I tried to sleep but couldn’t sleep properly. I had both of my special meals. For the final hour I stared out of the window as we flew over China. This is it! I wanted to take one of those clichéd “wings of a plane” photos but the cabin crew had already made me put my Kindle away, so I didn’t think they’d take kindly to me taking out my phone.

On landing, I went to get my visa. First I had to get some passport photos, as I hadn’t got any before leaving. This is why you don’t get passport photos taken after a 12 hour flight:

 There was a lot of activity behind the desk but eventually I was asked to pay 168 RMB (less than £20) and was handed back my passport. The last time I got a Chinese visa it cost £55, and Matt’s recent one cost £151!

As I walked over to border control, I was stopped by two guards who said my temperature was too high. They made me stick a thermometer in my mouth and write down my address and phone number. I don’t actually feel totally well but I think I was overheating due to all the clothes I was wearing.

Finally, passport stamped, I picked up my bags and went out into arrivals to look for my driver (yes, second time this year I’ve had a driver pick me up at the airport!). We missed each other initially, and when I found him he dragged me over to the other terminal to collect two other teachers, then on a long walk to the carpark, where we waited for another driver to atcually take us to the hotel.

The two other teachers are very nice (one South African, one Canadian) but after waiting around for the driver and then sitting in traffic for nearly an hour I could feel myself flagging.

We drove past the railway station and then did a casual U-turn in the road to get to our hotel. My room may be a little faceless but it’s huge, clean, quiet and comfy. I’m off to shower!

Pre-China Czech weekend

I know this is a blog about my travels in China, but as I just got back from the Czech Republic I thought I might write about that too.

Last year, my mum asked if I’d like to see the opera Rusalka. I know very little about opera but I thought it would be an experience to see a Czech opera, in Czech, in the Czech Republic. Mum has been to Prague before but I’d never been. I booked tickets for the opera and Mum booked return flights with three nights at a hotel for £120 each – bargain.

We flew from Gatwick with SmartWings, a budget Czech airline. The airport and the airline have a lot in common, both are fine but seem a little old. Certainly no frills. But who needs frills on a short flight? It was a clear evening so we had a good view of the towns around Gatwick as we ascended. We may have had views for the rest of the flight but I fell asleep.

We had a taxi transfer booked from the airport in Prague, and even though we could tell that he was getting lost trying to find the hotel, we didn’t mind driving about and catching glimpses of the illuminated castle. We shared a Twix from the vending machine for dinner.

The next morning I went out for a run, then had three types of cake for breakfast, before heading out to explore.

After exploring the old town and seeing the astronomical clock, we went to the castle, where we visited the cathedral (too big to take a picture of, as you can see) and other chapels.
We made sure we kept our energy levels up with more cake in beautiful surroundings – this was at Café Imperial.

We made it across Charles Bridge once but the crowds were too much for me, and too much for this guy.

The next day, we went to the foot of Petrin Hill, where there’s a monument to the victims of communism. I read a little about communism in Czechoslovakia but as it retreats into the past it feels more and more surreal.

We went up the Petrin Tower, taking the funicular railway to the top of the hill and then the lift to the top of the tower (we felt we were doing enough walking as it was!).

After all that walking (around 20k steps per day!) we went for a foot massage before getting ready for the opera.

The opera was amazing! Beautiful theatre, clever set design, not entirely ludicrous plot – an absolute treat.

We left the next morning in the driving rain, having been cold but dry throughout our trip. 

Such a nice little holiday and so good to spend time with my mum – even if she does snore a little!

My very first day in Shanghai

Shanghai was the very first place in China that I visited. I took the train from Hong Kong, a 19 hour journey in Hard Sleeper class. I was the only obvious foreigner in my carriage, which provided some entertainment for some children in the next compartment who came to check me out a few times. I had a nice chat with the other people in my compartment, showing each other photos. I told one lady that her son was handsome; she pointed at a picture of my then-boyfriend and asked if he was my dad.

Before bed I read a book about magic and death, with a heroine that my friend had told me reminded him of me. I slept well, chugging through the Chinese countryside and passing through endless faceless towns, curled up in a ball as my suitcase took up quite a bit of my bunk.

img_4227
View from the top bunk on the Hong Kong – Shanghai train

I arrived in Shanghai and looked for an ATM. I had tried to get some Chinese currency before leaving Hong Kong but the ATM I’d been told dispensed RMB didn’t have any. All I had were a few coins. I scoured Shanghai station for an ATM, but there wasn’t one, or not one I could see. I decided to take the metro to my hostel, and bought a ticket for 3 RMB.

The metro deposited me in the heart of Shanghai, and I walked to the Bund. This is probably the most famous place in Shanghai, with historic imperialist buildings along the waterfront looking out across the river to the shiny new world of Pudong. There were a lot of people walking around – more than I’d expected. At first I thought I might have underestimated how busy a country with 1.3 billion people can be, but I later found out that it was a public holiday. I did not feel particularly appreciative of the history, or fond of the crowds, as I still couldn’t see an ATM and it had dawned on me that I’d come to China with the equivalent of 80p.

img_4243
Crowds out walking on the Bund

I came to a large intersection and, despite thinking of myself as a fairly savvy city-dweller, felt completely overwhelmed. There was so much traffic and so few discernible rules. I felt like one of the characters from Five Children And It – like I’d made a wish and it had come true and now I was ruing the day I’d thought of such a ridiculous idea.Thankfully I spotted an old lady with a look of determination in her eyes. Despite being a foot shorter than me, I used her as a human shield and stuck as closely as I could to her, all the way to the other side of the road.

My nautical themed hostel was just here, and I went in, feeling tired and thirsty and poor. The chap at the check in desk was as thin as a bean and told me there was an ATM just on the other side of the intersection, on the Bund. I asked if I could leave my suitcase with him while I went to it and for a second, I thought he would say no, and I thought of my very limited options if that was the case – mutter under my breath and then ditch my suitcase in the river seemed the best choice. But he relented and I was able to go to the ATM (sure enough, there was one right there) without my stupid heavy suitcase.

img_4239
Oh hai, Shanghai – view from the Bund

Cash finally in hand, I paid for my hostel, checked in and went off to explore. I wandered up to Nanjing Road, a major shopping street, and went into the First Food Hall but there was too much choice and too many things that I almost certainly wouldn’t eat, and I realised I wasn’t really hungry anyway.

I spent several hours just wandering: going to parks and getting terrorised by children on rollerskates; being asked my endless people whether I’d be visiting the Expo (I’d never even heard of the Expo, turns out it’s like the 1851 Great Exhibition, but not in the Victorian era and not in a giant glass palace in Hyde Park); visiting a wet market; losing my heart to a series of tiny kittens at a pet market. Blue skies, warm leisurely day – the whole afternoon was a salve to my soul.img_4253

That evening I went to a Japanese restaurant, where I ordered a beer and the only vegetarian option on the menu. The waitress came over to tell me that there was no meat in what I’d ordered. That’s great, I told her. She wasn’t convinced. Was I sure I didn’t want meat? No meat at all?! I assured her that it was fine and she told the chef and they both laughed at me a little.