Life in China – Part One

生活在中国-分一

地参观 – 上海

事搞 – 玉佛禅寺,静安寺,外滩(多多),豫园,辰山植物园,泰晤士小镇

书看了 – Killing Room 被 Peter May, Tick Tock 被 James Patterson, The Litigators 被 John Graham, Sharp Objects 被 Gilliam Flynn, Save Yourself 被 Kelly Braffet 和 Stoner 被 John Williams.

电影看了 – 星际异攻队2,神奇女侠,木乃伊。

时候 – 送 2017 4月7日 到 6月7日。
开始是旅程,五千八百六十七英里穿过地球。几乎半价我飞经由重庆所以我作的那是的。航班从盖侍威克很长和红眼,也讨厌的汹涌。在早上四点的(还英国时间)程度那得猛撞咖啡以后咖啡少数几个之一我的同西方人在飞机上。他住在重庆十五年但是不会说普通话。断断续续的睡眠我得到之前我也说到一个中国人坐在旁边我。他去过到爱尔兰和曼城(特定的老特拉福的球场)是当然一个曼联支持。我是切尔西支持的我提到他说“也切尔西,我西欢切尔西。” 我们不再说话了…  我确信他就试图是友好,但是你不可以说关于足球像那!

我们六点半在重庆降落(现在中国时间),是十一点半英国时间,我的下个航班在九点半。所以我有时间收集行李,获得现金,找一种饮料,穿保安过发现我的门。都进行了好除了我发现了就少分钟的发现上网。足够时间发消息往我的女朋友但是不发我的父母亲!不久后我坐飞机上开往上海,唯一的问题是它不行进一个英寸!我不知道因为我听音乐, 但是在上海天气不好所以我们不可以出发。我们的航班计划降落以后我们下车飞机以后,它取消了!我用移动数据二十秒发一条消息摇摇的我有三英镑。她在上海浦东机场等我…

但是大概七号中午我在浦东。到招待所需要几个小时我做好了!大概五十个小时门到门,但是七那些是时差,十四那些是延误。不巧,那个延误废墟我们的打算一点… 她得离开以前我们就五个小时(我想解释以后原因)。我们吃喝咖啡说。

离开以前, 她说是的起我的女朋友来(我知道 – 她很疯!)。我从来不知道怎么这个应该做完。我倾向变应该至少多少浪漫的成一个非常尴尬情况。但是事末期了一个点头应允一个吻所以都很好了!

So this is what it looks like.  Originally I wanted to translate the whole thing, but one page takes over an hour for me, and there are seventy-five like this….  It probably doesn’t make sense, but at least I tried.
Life in China – Part One

Places visited – Err…  Shanghai

Things done – Jade Buddha Temple, Jing’An Temple, the Bund (lots), Yu Garden, Chenshan Botanical Garden, Thames Town.

Books read – Killing Room by Peter May, Tick Tock by James Patterson, The Litigators by John Grisham, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, Save Yourself by Kelly Braffat and Stoner by John Williams.

Films watched – Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Wonder Woman and Mummy.

Period covered – 7 April to 7 June 2017

To start was the journey, five thousand eight hundred and sixty-seven miles across the globe.  It’s nearly half price for me to travel via Chongqing so that’s what I do.  The flight from Gatwick is long and red-eye, it’s also inconveniently turbulent.  To the extent that at 4am (still UK time) I’m awake and slamming coffee after coffee with one of few fellow Westerners on the plane.  He’s lived in Chongqing for fifteen years but doesn’t speak Mandarin.  Before the fitful sleep I did get I also spoke to the Chinese guy sat next to me.  He’s been to Ireland and Manchester (specifically Old Trafford) and was of course a Manchester United supporter.  I mention that I’m a Chelsea fan and he says “Also Chelsea, I like Chelsea.”. We didn’t speak again…. I’m sure he was just trying to be friendly, but you can’t talk about football like that!

We land in Chongqing at about 18:30 (now China time), this is 11:30 UK time, my next flight is at 21:30.  That gives me enough time to collect luggage, get cash, find a drink, go through security and find my gate.  All of that went well, but finding wifi was a problem, I had it for just a few minutes.  Enough time to get a message to Yáoyao but not to my parents!  Soon enough I’m on the plane bound for Shanghai, the only problem is it doesn’t move an inch!  I didn’t know at the time because I was listening to music , but the weather is bad in Shanghai so we can’t depart.  Just after our plane was scheduled to land we get off, it’s cancelled!  I have three pounds of credit which I use for twenty seconds of Chinese data to send a message to Yáoyao.  She’s waiting for me at Shanghai Pudong Airport…

But, at about noon on the seventh I land at Pudong.  Another few hours to the hostel and I’ve made it!  Approximately fifty hours door-to-door but seven of those are time difference and fourteen of them was the delay.  Unfortunately, that delay scuppers our plans a little…. We only have five hours together before she has to leave (for reasons I’ll explain later).  We eat and get coffee, we talk.  Before leaving, she says yes to becoming my girlfriend (I know – she’s crazy!).  I never know how this is supposed to be done and I tend to turn what’s supposed to be at least partly romantic into a tremendously awkward social situation.  But it ended with a nod of assent and a kiss so it’s all good.

A night spent in this hotel

As you should have already noticed, I haven’t yet left Shanghai.  There aren’t many cultural or historical things to do in Shanghai so they are exhausted quite quickly.  I’ve been to two of the largest temples in Shanghai.  One of these has a statue of Buddha supposedly made of fifteen tonnes of silver.  The other (unsurprisingly given its name) has one made from jade that was brought to China from Myanmar.  The number one thing to do in Shanghai is probably to go to the Bund.  It’s a pedestrian walkway along the Huangpu River that gives great views of the Pudong skyline.  I go there often, partly for the view and partly to practice my Chinese.  Another hotspot in Yu Garden which is a nice, traditional Chinese garden.  It’s good but now partially ruined by the skyscrapers in the background!  Thames Town is more than likely exactly what you think it is.  It’s like a piece of England has been flown over and dropped in Shanghai.  It even has its own church!  It’s the sort of place that newly married couples come to for their wedding photos.  Indeed, there is a couple waering wedding garb every ten metres or so!

I try to keep up with things going on at home.  The internet makes this easy!  One Saturday when I’m staying in the hostel hosted a feast of sport including Chelsea playing the FA Cup Final shortly after Exeter Chiefs played their final.  My intention is to find a sports bar to watch them at.  In the hostel I’m offered some Shanghai wine by Ojoe.  Rude not to…  It’s quite nice for something that labels itself as wine.  However, this does not agree with the subsequent consumption of beers…  According to popular rumour, I returned at 04:30 and fell asleep on the sofa in the lobby.  I then awoke at 6am to vomit.  After that, I found my way to bed until I woke up after check-out time.  I vomit twice more before heading to Yáoyao’s place.  She just laughed at me…

Hostel life is different in these circumstances.  I’m not travelling, I live here!  So, despite staying in the same place as when I was in Shanghai previously, my attitude is different.  I fall into my home habits of being very selective who I talk to so I don’t talk to many people.  They’re all doing things I’ve done several times (the Bund).  I’ve only talked to two or three people to the extent of learning their names.  The first of which is Marcus, we play pool.  “I don’t normally lose.” he declares after winning the first game.  He lost 10-4.  He’s a good guy, we chat a bit.  On a subsequent evening, we go out with a German girl we mutually met, Anya.  One of Marcus’s friends is to meet us at the underground station and join us.  Marcus is quick to point out that she’s just a friend.  Now I know why…. It’s safe to say she’s the strangest person I’ve ever met!  She doesn’t travel because “Everywhere is the same…”, as soon as she says this, I know we won’t get along.  I close my doors and raise my walls.  Anya and I don’t like spicy food so we don’t order any.  Strange girl (I can’t remember her name) then proceeds to cover everything in spicy sauce.  I say “Why don’t you go to Sichuan?”, she looks at me inquisitively.  I think ‘she doesn’t know’.  I elaborate “There’s lots of spicy food in Sichuan, here they prefer things sweet.”.  A glimmer of understanding now registers in her features.  “But of course everywhere is the same!”.  Anya laughs, Marcus stifles a giggle, weird girl doesn’t laugh.  On the way back to the hostel we pass a tattoo parlour.  We stop to look at the designs.  “I hate these big ones with colour.” she exclaims.  Yes, because you’d prefer to have a smorgasbord of random crap on your torso that makes you look like a Harry Styles copycat.  Did I mention she also has a forked tongue?  Each to their own…

Another person I’ve met is the aforementioned Ojoe.  He’s a student at Cambridge University.  He’s interesting to talk to because he is obviously uber intelligent.  He just thinks about things and people in a different way.  Although I think being bilingual and having large experiences of more than one culture also helps with this.  I also must thank him for teaching me the rules to Chinese chess, perhaps I’ll be better when I’m sober!  I still cannot bring myself to thank him for supplying (or plying) me with Shanghai wine!

One of the main reasons for going to China, although indirect, was to learn Mandarin.  At what point did I think this was a good idea?!  The first Chinese I hear is on the flight 女士们先生们 (nǚshìmen xiānshēngmen), ladies and gentlemen, a good start, I understand that.  But after that I only understand 电话 (diànhuà), telephone call.  Chinese would have been handy as there was all sorts of dialogue regarding the second plane not moving!  We are put up in a hotel for our trouble.  Of course, the staff only speak Chinese.  Thankfully, a nice Chinese girl studying in London helped me and the only other white guy on the flight.  In the morning, we are awoken at 7:30 by someone saying a lot of things in Chinese.  I open the door, it soon becomes apparent to her that our Chinese is not good (that’s being polite about it!).  She repeats 走 (zǒu), to go, and 八点钟 (bā diǎnzhōng), 8 o’clock.  Luckily, I understand these things and we’re good.  It’s so very satisfying when your understand something, anything!

You would think with over forty thousand Chinese characters they might have unique meanings but this is not the case!  Take, for example, 花 (huā), most commonly this means flower.  But, it also means blossom, bloom or anything resembling a flower or fireworks.  Ok, that kind of makes sense.  Then it can mean patter or cotton.  Hmm, a little more obscure…  Then it can also mean smallpox, wait…  What?!  Not only that, but it looks as though it can also be pronounced as wěi (still 花).  And not only that but it also means spend as a verb!  Easy, huh?!

On my course, to start with, there is just myself, the teacher and one other student.  We’ll be studying together for about two months so I say “Hi.”.  Approximately ten seconds later the other student manages to muster a “Hello.” In reply.  He’s very odd, probably the most serious, introverted person I’ve ever met.  I can’t really talk to him, the only things he talks about are trade shows and English exams.  Fortunately, the teacher is excellent and makes the classes more bearable than they could otherwise have been.  She’s a great teacher but the lesson structures get a little monotonous and repetitive.  As a result I’m going to switch to a different school for my next course.

It’s hard to learn a language as an introvert.  Probably the best way to practice is by speaking and listening to people.  But sometimes, the truth is I’d rather die than do that!  It’s also problematic because everyone else’s English is better than my Chinese.  I’m often told, ‘You’re so lucky having English as a mother tongue.’.  This is true and I’m grateful for it but it does make it slightly harder to learn foreign languages because everyone switches to English straight away.  Although I guess this is the case for all caucasians in Asia!

It’s difficult to describe your own level of foreign language ability.  I’m at the level where I think I should be able to converse, but I can’t!  Natives speak too fast for me to be able to understand, and my vocabulary probably isn’t good enough either.  Yáoyao and I speak Chinese sometimes but it’s just so much easier to change to English.  My Chinese is often limited to 我要这个 (wǒ yào zhè ge), I want this one.  Occasionally, I switch things up and say 我要那个 (wǒ yào nà ge), I want that one, but I start to think I’m on Little Britain!  My language skills can probably not quite get beyond what can be conveyed by gesticulation.  In class I get better but that’s not real life and in real life I struggle to remember how to say things.

The view from my first school.  On the right is the top of Jing’An Temple.

Shanghainese cuisine is one of the most varied in China, but they do like sweet things here.  Of course, it’s also easy to find restaurants preparing dishes from other parts of China and several Western restaurants too.  Indeed it’s not possible to walk fifty metres in Shanghai without seeing at least one Starbucks or McDonald’s, probably two!  I like Chinese food, ok not duck’s heads or pig’s intestines, but normal things like sweet and sour pork or fried vegetables.  The main problem I find is that when eating alone this becomes a more expensive option, especially dishes with meat, so I avoid it.  A fried noodle or fried rice staple is the only option that compares in terms of cost.  So, as a result, I have my standard restaurants that I frequent often and leave the Chinese food to when I’m not alone.  One of my favourite things I’ve tried so far is a fried pumpkin dish.

In spending time with Yáoyao I now have a new hobby, watching films.  The good news is it’s much cheaper to do here!  Firstly, it’s possible to stream many films on Chinese websites, like Netflix without paying!  Although these are very often terrible!  In the cinema a film and a drink is thirty yuan (just over three pounds).  Cinemas are sometimes really quiet at the times we go (weekday afternoons).  One time, it was just us and one other couple!  The worst film we’ve seen is Wonder Woman.  I didn’t really want to watch it but it was the only film starting at the time we wanted.  This is becuase it’s not the sort of film I usually like.  The plot confuses me, it’s superheroine crossed with a World War One historical drama!  I don’t think it works.  We’ve also seen the new Mummy film, which was ok although hard to follow towards the end if one is stupid, like me.  In my opinion, the best film we’ve seen is Guardians of the Galaxy 2.  I didn’t really expect much from it as again, it’s not the sort of film that I usually like, but it’s funny in places.  My favourite part of the film was looking across to my right where Yáoyao was staring intently at the screen.  Her face and smile would light up a the bits she enjoyed.  I can just listen to the film, right…?!

I’ve got into the habit of talking about books I’ve read in blogs.  The only problem is I’ve read six in my first two months here!  So you’ll be pleased to hear that I won’t talk in detail about all of them, in fact I’ll do that with just one.  I started Killing Room on my journey to Shanghai, I bought it at a market in my hometown.  It caught my eye because on the cover is a picture of the Shanghai skyline.  I know that place!  That’s where it is set so I better buy it!  I like Peter May, the first book of his I read was The Blackhouse which I think is excellent.  Killing Room left me feeling a little disappointed , it’s too much genuine-thriller-plot and not enough characterisation.  Speaking of no characterisation I then read Tick Tock by James Patterson.  Only because it was in paperback form in the hostel.  It was about bombs, that’s all I can remember, and one can guess that from the title.  That’s all that needs to be said about that book.

It gets better after those, next is The Litigators by John Grisham.  Before reading this I wouldn’t have thought a book set in the legal field could be this good.  But the plots and characters kept me really interested in what was going to happen next.  After that I read Sharp Objects (by the author of Gone Girl).  I think it’s good, but not as good as Gone Girl.  The plot centres around a beautiful, self-harming young woman that’s the victim of Munchausen Syndrome.  It’s a good read with a superb twist at the end.  The kind of twist that made me intake my breath resulting in other people looking at me as though I was weird!  After being pleased with Sharp Objects I Googled similar books and authors and came across Save Yourself.  The truth is I couldn’t remember anything about this book.  I had to go back into my Kindle to remind myself!  So, it’s not that good, obviously.  It’s the kind of book you keep reading because you think it’ll get better, but then you finish it and it doesn’t.  The final tenth is better, but it was predictable.  That said, one of the characters has an affair with her boyfriend’s brother, that plot is intriguing but no more that that really.

But I’ve saved the best for last.  A classic (I’m trying to read more classics and less crap like Tick Tock!), Stoner by John Williams.   Supposedly akin to the author’s own life, it’s a semi-autobiographical novel about a university lecturer who also writes books.  But it was not always thus, he grew up on a rural farm with just his parents for company.  An agriculture scholarship comes up at a local university and his father stuns him by suggesting he should enrol.  But, after completing the English section of his course he falls in love with literature.  The main area of interest throughout the book are his relationships with those close to him, his parents, his friends, his teacher, his wife, his daughter, his boss and his mistress, more or less in that order!  I can’t decide if his wife is psychotic, horrid or just strange.  The part where his parents die is very moving.  After that his in-laws die with echoes of the death of his own parents which is remarkable given their different backgrounds.  His marriage fails within months, yet they remain together until his death about forty years later.

His father dies young after years of hard toil in the field.  He rushes back and begs his mother to go home with him.  She refuses, it soon becomes apparent that she’s waiting to die too and a short while later she does.  Subsequently, the Great Depression strikes and his father-in-law commits suicide as a result of it.  Reluctantly, Stoner tells his wife that her mother can stay with them.  His wife replies in her patronising tone “Oh John, don’t you understand she’d rather die?”.  He says “I suppose I do…”.  Parents always know best don’t they, perhaps they could sense the toxicity.  It saddens me that Stoner was only really happy for such a short part of his life.  He gets through the rest of it, including the tribulations with his wife and a similarly manipulative boss, with a kind of heroic stoicism.  It’s only when one lifts one’s head from the pages that one remembers this was a completely different age.

As a result of dumping myself over five thousand miles away from more that ninety-five per cent of people I know I’ve made a concious effort to make friends.  Firstly, I attend some ‘Language Mix’ events in an effort to both make friends and practise Chinese.  Neither goal is really achieved.  Unfortunately, English as the global lingua franca is the most commonly spoken and I don’t meet anyone there I consider to be friendworthy!  As an introvert I have to force myself to attend these events and I eventually stop.  But, thankfully, I’ve found a really good group that I play football with once per week.  It’s run by a lovely Ghanaian lady.  Although, whilst I wouldn’t say I’m friends with anyone that plays, that’s ok, becuase that’s similar for the football group that I played with at home.

I’m not sure I can feel at home whilst living in a hostel.  I get into my habits.  I know where to stand for the Underground so that I’m right next to the escaltor that’s closest to my exit when I get off.  I get coffee most mornings and the service lady likes me and gives me free cake.  I now spend a large part of my day waiting for lifts.  I live on the sixth floor, my first school is on the fifteenth floor, my new school is on the twelfth floor.  One of my favourite restaurants is on the sixth floor but I usually take the escalators for some variety in life!

I spend a lot of time trying to get my head around Chinese culture and, more importantly, not putting my foot in it at any point!  Twenty years ago I can’t imagine foreigners being offered “Sex, sex, sex, sexy lady, nice girl, massage.”, with massage pronouned as ‘mæsajē’ instead of ‘mæsa:ʒ’.  Nowadays, it happens three or four times during the length of Nanjing Road.  The fashions here are that young (and some old) people wear clothes with English words on them.  Sometimes these are mundane, sometimes they aren’t.  My favourite so far has been one that said ‘This shirt says fuck, it also says cunt.  It also says machine washable.’!  This one creased me, I was laughing for ages!  I wonder if the people wearing said clothes know what the words mean.  Another funny moment happened in the hostel.  A Spanish guy arrives and sits down, clearly having just arrived.  He then gets his phone out of his pocket.  After a few moments he looks quite purplexed.  “Is the wifi working for you?” he asks us.  “Yes,” we chorus.  This only adds to his confusion.  “Do you have VPN?” Someone enquires.  “What’s VPN?” He responds.  Ah, this may be the problem.  We explain that some websites are banned in China, like Google, Facebook and Youtube.  Oh my goodness, his face…  I thought he was going to cry!

To start with the weather was lovely.  Although I’m still miles away from a full calendar year here I think spring is probably the best season in terms of weather.  It’s now June and it’s gotten warmer and wetter.  Just this week (at the time of writing!) We’ve had two days where it rained but the temperature stayed above thirty degrees.  Sometimes now it rains the whole day.  The adage of ‘Rain before seven, stops before eleven.’ doesn’t apply here!  Apparently, the second half of July is the hottest time here so that’s not far away now…

I have also experienced my first Chinese holiday.  The practicalities of this means everywhere is just busier than before (and it was busy before!).  I was here for the Dragon Boat Fesitval, which is the Western name for it.  In Chinese it’s called 端午节(duān wǔ jié), or double five holiday, because it occurs on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month.  So, of course, it’s never on the same date in our calendar.  There’s a story here that’s coincides with the holiday about a poet who was alive during the Warring States period of Chinese history, just before it was first unified by the first Qin Emperor (circa 300BC).  This poet’s name was 屈原 (Qū Yuán) and he was a court advisor to the then emperor of Chu.  The Chu Emperor exiled Qu Yuan for proposing an alliance with Qi in order to fight Qin.  But Qu Yuan was correct to seek this course because Qin captured and imprisoned the Chu Emperor.  The successor emperor of the Chu state then surrendered the state to the Qin state.  Qu Yuan had such love for the Chu state that on hearing this news he drowned himself in the Miluo River in Henan Province.  The tradition now is to throw rice into rivers to feed Qu Yuan’s spirit.  Some further mental leaps are required before understanding how dragons and boats are connected to this story but rest assured they are!
It’s strange to be so far from home yet still get ‘itchy feet’.  At times I have a sudden craving to get away, not to anywhere in particular, just not Shanghai.  We talk about leaving China for the National Holiday in October although I’m not sure my visa will allow it.  If I can’t go it would be annoying because Sri Lanka was mentioned as an option of somewhre to go and that’s definitely a bucket-list destination!  Also, and I’m partly afraid to admit this, but, for some reason, since turning twenty-nine, I have the sudden urge to go on a cruise!  What is this?!  I’m not old enough to think like this, am I?!  Or maybe I just want to go back to Ha Long Bay…

Shanghai is different to other mainland cities in China.  It isn’t often that I’m stared at like I’m an alien.  But, still, it’s fairly obvious I am one.  This becomes most appparent when I’m eating alone in restaurants.  Occasionally, there will be a child (aged five to nine) eating there and they will use the opportunity to practise their English.  At one time a very young boy, about four or five, was being urged to ask where I was from.  But, bless him, he was really struggling with the words, much to the indignation of his mother!  We got there eventually.  But, the winner so far was a girl or about six or seven who sang the entire ABC song to me inclusive of ‘Now I know my ABC, come and sing along with me.’  I say 你的英语非常好 (nǐ de Yīngyǔ fēicháng hǎo), your English is very good, her face was a picture!

If the secondary reason for coming here was learning Mandarin, it doesn’t require a genius to figure out the primary one.  I’ve already mentioned her a bit but how is it going?  People think I’m crazy coming all this way for a girl I’d only spent four days with!  Sometimes I lie and say we spent a week together because it sounds better and I save face.  I guess it is a little crazy…  With the small talk at the hostel and elsewhere people ask me why I’m learning Mandarin and I always reply “Because my girlfriend is Chinese.”  That’s of course not the reason.  The main reason is beacuse I want to eavesdrop on Chinese conversations in Western countries without them knowing that I can understand them!  The conversation then inevitably develops into how we met, so I tell my story.  Blokes always react with indifference but girls always say something along the lines of ‘Aw, that’s a lovely story!’.
But, it isn’t all plain sailing.  There is one large problem that we should have foreseen, but didn’t.  Yáoyao works and lives in Shanghai’s Songjiang district and my school(s) is (are) in Downtown.  Now, this wouldn’t be a problem in most cities, but Shanghai isn’t most cities, it’s home to well over twenty million people!  As such Songjiang is eighteen miles from Downtown.  Door to door requires three Underground lines, a bus and some walking which can take up to two hours!  This is most unpleasant in the rush hour where it’s standing room only.  Although this has led me to learn a new skill.  I can now switch songs using the buttons on my headphones, this is necessary because I can’t access the phone in my pocket!  The distance problem is exacerbated because I study Monday to Friday and Yáoyao works Saturday to Wednesday!  This isn’t changeable!  So, it’s only at certain times of the week that we can be together.  But, perhaps that’s a good thing, I can imagine I’m quite annoying in large doses!

I haven’t really answered how well it’s going.  The truth is, I really don’t know how to.  There are many things I was to say but feel I shouldn’t and many things I feel I should say but can’t.  But things are going great, as I write this we are two and a half months together.  There aren’t words in either language to describe how much I like this girl.  We are still very much in the ‘honeymoon’ phase but we’re just starting to find out each other’s faults.  She gets angry when she’s tired, I get angry when I’m hungry!  Everything is just much better when we’re together.  We meet with the manager of my new school to arrange my course.  She says to me “I think you two love each other very much!”.  We haven’t said that to each other yet but ok!  It’s weird how you can just connect with someone like this.  At the hostel I went for dinner with a Dutch girl who was also learning Mandarin.  It consisted mainly of awkward silences.  When I’m with Yáoyao we have silences also, but they aren’t awkward at all, why is this?!  I’s like we’re perfectly content not saying anything until one of us has something to say.  I’ve always wanted to be with a girl that’s happy with dinnner at McDonald’s.  Not only that, but she let me have the last Chicken McNugget.  If that’s not true love, I don’t know what is!

Strawbs – planned 3 June 2017, written 3-20 June 2017, translated 28 July – 5 September 2017, typed 5-29 September 2017, published 17 October 2017

Me wearing Yao’s glasses!

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India

Days spent – 18 days (13 December 2016 to 24 December 2016 and 29 December 2016 to 6 January 2017)

Places visited – Delhi, Jaipur, Mumbai

Books read – Shantaram

Things done – Red Keep, Jama Mosque, Nagarwhal Fort

Highlight(s) – Shantaram

Lowlight(s) – Ill!

Cost – £536.40 (£29.80 per day)

India was quite similar to China in that you hear a lot of stories before arriving.  It’s the kind of place that everyone likes to talk about because they either love it or hate it.  I hear how dirty it is (heard that about China too), I hear how unfriendly the people are (heard that about China too).  But things happen before I go that lead me to believe that perhaps I should approach India with trepidation and caution.  Firstly, the visa process is a bit of a nightmare and I end up having to get two.  Secondly, there’s a cash crisis in the country.  The government have banned 500 and 1,000 rupee notes in an effort to crack down on fraud.  Very altruistic except the new notes won’t fit in the ATMs!  Oh India…

So to conclude, I’m a little nervous about going.  This is country number seventeen on this trip and it’s the first time I’ve felt like this.  To start with, my fears are allayed.  Delhi airport is every bit as modern as other Asian airports that fight their way to modernity, it puts the airport in Kathmandu in the dark ages where it belongs.  There is even a direct railway link to the main railway station in the centre of Delhi and very close to where I’m staying, easy (except getting cash to pay for it!).  It’s quite fast, it’s clean.  As it turned out, it’s the only place in India with rules.

I get off the train and am hit by an onslaught of craziness.  The smells of what-on-earth-is-that, the drivers of what-are-those-things all clamouring for the trade of the foreigner that’s clearly just arrived, the why-are-these-people-without-shoes begging for my money.  I’m suddenly thankful that my pockets have zips.  I must also give thanks to Cat – for once I arrived at my hostel she was the voice of reason.  She said things such as “The cash situation isn’t as bad as it was.”, oh good and “The trains are always cancelled or late at the moment because of the weather”, oh India…

But that said, two of the three things I did in India I did in Delhi on day two with Cat so thanks for that, my second best day in India!  After Delhi I decide to head to Jaipur as it’s quite close and on the way to Mumbai.  Because the trains are a problem I think a bus is the best idea but I’m advised against it by the people in the hostel.  It’s nine hours and I’m going for it, I head to Dhuala Kuan which is supposedly where the bus leaves from.   I head outside and look for it but I can’t understand the writing nor do I have any language skills…  I head back in to ask security and they say it’s outside.  Ok.  I go back out thinking how the hell am I going to find this bus?  I go to where I was before which at least looks like a bus station.  Upon arrival this time there’s a guy leaning out of a bus door shouting “Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur, Jaipur…!”  Hmm, maybe this bus goes to Jaipur.  I go over and ask in a questioning tone “Jaipur?”, he nods.  What a stupid question, he’s only just said it fifteen times.  He must think I’m stupid, perhaps he’s right.

Anyway, I get on.  It doesn’t stop but that’s just the way things are here.  I think there must be a rule, maybe unwritten, that means people can only get on buses that are moving.  After getting on I have second thoughts, this bus is older than I am!  It soon becomes apparent that the indicator system is people shoving their arms out the window.  I have visions of the acceleration system being Flintstone’s style.  I shouldn’t complain, indeed I won’t because it got me Jaipur.  It even stopped on the way so I could relieve myself which I’d heard is not always the case.  Near the end of the journey, on the outskirts of Jaipur I see the slums for the first time, oh India…

I’m not quite sure what to make of the slums.  On the one hand they appear to be the depths of human misery and suffering, but on the other hand it’s just like every other form of human settlement.  There’s a shop selling goods and children are playing in the alleyways.  Instead of playing with iPhone 7s, they’re playing with a plastic bag tied to a piece of string.  I’ve seen poverty before but not like this.  Before, the phone in my pocket has been worth about what people these people made in a year.  Now, the same value can be attributed to the shirt on my back.  Oh India…

Jaipur is a little different from Delhi.  The few creature comforts that were on offer in Delhi have disappeared. The only form of solitude here is the hostel, it becomes a sanctuary, it’s an oasis of calm in a desert of exhausting effort.  Walking down the street is an effort itself, not only does one have to contend with the stifling heat but the people selling you things, the traffic that tries to kill you at every turn and the people that want to rob you if you let your guard down.  It’s here that I wander to the centre of town, there’s a park there with an impromptu game of cricket.  The game halts to let me play…

I have to bat first, that’s bad news of itself because I’m more confident regarding my bowling.  Everyone has crowded round because there’s a white guy batting so I have about thirty fielders to contend with, I feel my only option is to go over the top.  The first ball comes down and it’s quite full outside off stump, I have a chance.  I take a massive swing, and miss it.  To my indignation, I get a ferocious round of applause for that, I thought it was a dreadful shot!  I nick another in the third-man region (maybe I do take after my Dad!) but before long I’m caught by one of the fifteen-or-so fielders stood at cover.  Ah well, language is a problem so I’m beckoned for a bowl rather than asked, ok here we go.  I manage to keep them relatively straight, indeed one even hits leg stump.  I say stump, it’s the nearest vaguely straight tree branch stuck into the ground.  It was nice of the batsman to just leave it, I sense some favouritism to the white guy.  At least England managed to get one up on India somehow last winter, I had not much else to cheer about.

Onwards from Jaipur is to Mumbai as this is where I fly home for Christmas from.  I land at the airport and head for the taxis to take me to where I’m staying.  There appears to be an efficient system where I get a ticket at a counter.  Ok, now I have to find the number plate of the taxi to take me there.  I find it, the driver asks me where I’m going, I thought I’d already done this bit.  I show him on a map, but he refuses to take me.  “Hindi, Hindi” he keeps saying, yes because I look like a guy that speaks excellent Hindi, let alone Marathi which is the actual language spoken by the Maharashtrians. I have to argue with someone that speaks vague English, the driver agrees to take me to the nearest landmark which is a big shopping centre.  Upon arrival, he wants more money, yeah right mate!  Oh India…

The lowlight: I was in India for eighteen days and I was ill for thirteen of them.  It was just Delhi Belly I presume but I never recovered until I left the country.  Travellers talk about places being dirty and I’m glad I’ve been to India because now everywhere else in the world will seem clean.  It’s horrendous, people say you either love India or hate it, well I hate it.  But people said the same about China and I loved it.  I was also ill on entry to China, I thought about not going back but I’m glad I did.  So stupidly, I applied the same logic to India, it’ll be better the second time around.  Err, no it won’t.  Oh India…

But it’s not all bad, although it’s not great either!  When your highlight is the book you were reading you know you haven’t had a good time!  In terms of food the best thing is probably lassi, but in Delhi I had one of the best coffees I had on the entire trip.  It was apple crumble coffee which sounds weird, but was divine.  Anyway, the book, is wonderful.  It’s another one, along with Wild Swans, that I’d recommend to anyone.  It tells the [true-ish] story of an Australian convict’s escape from prison and flee to India. He experiences life living in the slums and meeting his friend’s family in rural India.  It’s a wonderful read that covers all aspects of humanity, he eventually ends up working for Mumbai’s equivalent of the Mafia.  But I’m going to quote one of the main characters from the book, “[In India] sometimes in order to win, you have to surrender.”  My response is why would I do that when I can go somewhere and win without surrendering?

After my sixth or seventh straight day of being ill I’ve decided to go home.  Flights are now booked and it’s cheaper for me to go via Paris.  The main problem is that I’m still ill, I take some pills to try to stop… that…  It’s a bad idea…  The pills are trying to stop it but I want to go.  As a result, it’s like my intestines are playing snake with themselves, it’s turmoil in there and horrid, especially at over 30,000 feet.  We land at Charles de Gaulle; I’m tired, ill and pretty irritable.  It then gets worse, much worse!  

I get off the plane looking to connect to my other flight to London.  I ask they security guys where everyone goes through the visa checks and am told to go straight ahead to connections, that makes sense.  I can’t get my boarding pass printed off the machine so I go ahead anyway.  At this point I go through security, I don’t know why. I ask the security how I’m supposed to connect to terminal three and I’m told I need to catch a bus.  On arriving there I’m told there is no bus to terminal three and I’m sent back to immigration. Once there, I can’t get through because I don’t have a visa at which point I say “I don’t need a visa because I’m British.”  The guy looks taken aback that I know what I’m talking about.  I wonder why he’s so unhelpful and then I remember he’s French, it seems to go with the territory.  Oh France…  

I see red and storm off, by now I’ve missed my flight.  I unhook the things that makes everyone queue in a snaking fashion and throw them over my shoulder and storm towards connections again.  The police catch up with me and take my passport number.  Fine, fucking have it.  At this point I’ve had my little toddler tantrum meltdown and calmed a little, but only a little.  I then spend about ten minutes talking to the police and security.  The security speak English, the police don’t.  They say I need to calm down before I can achieve anything, they’re right.  I say if you weren’t so useless I’d have no reason to be frustrated in the first place, I’m right.  I get security to translate a message to the police that I have no problem with them and accept they’re just doing their job.  I then tell them that they’re completely useless.  To this day, I don’t understand what they do.  I say “security”, is that necessary when everyone goes straight to immigration?  I wish I’d done that, I would have caught my flight!  Their purpose certainly isn’t to be helpful anyway. 

I go through the rigmarole of going through security and heading for the buses again.  This time the guy at the desk there escorts me through the airport to the train that links the terminals.  Why couldn’t that have happened the first time?!  By the time I get to terminal three, I’ve missed the flight so I have to book another (€100) for tomorrow.  That means I have to stay in the airport hotel (€100).  I crash on the hotel bed, tomorrow is another day…

On the plus side, I got those amounts refunded as France accepted responsibility for being idiots.  Of course it took several emails without reply before they actually paid me the money. Oh France…  Oh India…   It was honestly like they were competing for which country can piss me off the most.

But I don’t want to leave my last blog on that note.  Instead I want to say thanks to everyone that made the trip special, I had a blast.  Now, as I write this blog, I’m in the same city as one of them!

Strawbs – written 17 to 23 April 2017, published 23 April 2017

Jama Mosque

The Red Keep

UK II

Days spent – 5 days (24 December 2016 to 29 December 2016)

Places visited – Home

Books read – Shantaram (unfinished)

Things done – Not a lot!

Highlight(s) – Surprise!

Lowlight(s) – Leaving again

Cost – £101.97 (£20.39 per day)

Firstly, a note on cost, it isn’t really that cheap but I get free food and accommodation at home!

When I left in June I knew I would always at least consider going home for Christmas.  Come late October I’m in China and thinking that if I’m going to do it I need to start looking at flights, they won’t be cheap over Christmas.  I found one for four hundred pounds from Mumbai and booked it that evening, it seemed reasonable value.  That’s that sorted, I’m not going to tell anyone, now I just have to keep it a secret for another two months!

The problem with doing this is that it then plays on your mind.  I got back from Everest Base Camp on December 3rd and after that I was ready to go home really. I just can’t wait to surprise everyone.  In Kathmandu, Delhi and Jaipur I don’t do much, I’m just waiting to go home.

Christmas Eve rocks up and I’m spending this one travelling vast distances across the planet.  I’m awake at four in the morning which is early, but even earlier considering at the time it’s still Christmas Eve Eve at home!  The flight is fine if a little long.

I get off the plane and go straight to the Underground.  Can I call it that now?  I don’t have to use words like Metro and Subway.  Occasionally I say Tube, just to really flummox everyone!  On the Underground the announcements are in English, with an English accent and everything!  It sounds weird…  I head to Waterloo but miss the train I had pre-booked as my flight was slightly late.  I go to the counter to see if I can change it.  “Did you get a note from the pilot?” the guy asks.  Ah, I’ve missed the British sense of humour.  He stamps my ticket and on I go.  Onwards to Honiton…

As I’m on a later train it gets dumpsy on the way, but not before I’ve seen the rolling green hills of home.  The trains apparently have wifi now.  They’re not on time but that doesn’t matter, we have wifi!  Cars are driving on the right side of the road, I mean the wrong side of the road, I mean the right… the wrong…  The left, they’re driving on the left.

I walk out of the station with the intention of taking a taxi home but there aren’t any waiting.  That means I have to walk home to maintain the surprise, it’s over two miles and quite uphill, about fifty minutes, damn.  I get to the drive and decide to film my arrival and I narrate it.  Is my accent really that English?!  Unfortunately, it’s dark which is a little annoying.  I don’t really know whether to just walk in or knock on the door.  I’ve thought about it a lot on the way back and I still don’t know.  Upon my arrival I’m greeted by a doorbell that I didn’t know existed, that wasn’t there when I left.  I walk in, my parents are quite surprised to see me…

Dad will be annoyed at me putting that photo online but it’s ok because he doesn’t read these anymore anyway!  As I push the door open I nearly hit Dad with it.  Only my parents could be trying to put down a carpet at 6pm on Christmas Eve!  After popping in to see the bro I go to bed, I’ve been up for over twenty-four hours now.

Morning, Merry Christmas!  I’m up early enough to go with Dad to feed the pheasants and the ducks which was nice.  Many thanks go to Shane and Holly for letting me have Christmas Dinner at very short notice!  Many thanks also go everyone else who tried to fatten me up over this period!  I spend the rest of my time at home seeing people including Tom, we have a few beers and play pool, I won six to five, phew close one!  Before I know it, I’m flying back to India…

Strawbs – written 19 March 2017, published 24 March 2017

Home

Nepal

Days spent – 25 days (18 November 2016 to 13 December 2016)

Places visited – Kathmandu 

Books read – A Day to Die For, Distress Signals

Things done – Everest Base Camp trek, Swayambhunath Temple, India visa application

Highlight(s) – Trek

Lowlight(s) – Kathmandu

Cost – £563.07 (£22.52 per day)

Firstly, a note on cost, it really is that cheap but they do rob tourists for the flights to and from Lukla (not included). A different format for this blog for this is no ordinary country visit!

Pre-trek – 18 November 2016 to 21 November 2016

I arrive at Tribhuvan Airport, Kathmandu.  I thought all capital international airports were the same, I was wrong.  This airport, confusingly, seems to have somehow been built before planes were invented.  No screens, no clocks, no duty free.  Praise god, there’s coffee though.  The visa-on-arrival process is surprisingly painless except for the bit where I have to part with forty dollars.  A group of us share a taxi to Thamel, the tourist hub of Kathmandu, and a couple more dollars disappear.  I intend to trek so I start to plan for it.  This consists of deciding where to go and how to get there, obtaining the permit and getting the gear I need.  The first bits are easy, the second is wondering which knock-off North Face merchant will rip me off the least…

Kathmandu is crazy, minibuses that are designed to carry sixteen, carry forty. The lucky ones have their heads out the window breathing the dust and the pollution, the unlucky ones are inside breathing the sweat and body odours.  I try to start my Indian visa application process so that it won’t take so long when I get back.  The day before flying to the trek I wait for over two hours only to be told they won’t accept my form because my middle names aren’t on it. Livid.  After getting a few final things I realise I forgot to get Diamox (anti-altitude sickness medication), back out I go…  In the main ‘square’ of Thamel, I get hit by a motorbike.  It sounds dramatic but it isn’t and I’m fine.  It had to happen at some point!  I feel like it’s almost at right of passage for a traveller in Asia.

A crowded bus in Kathmandu

Trek day one – 22 November 2016

Morning, it’s 04:30, ouch.  We’re on the first flight to Lukla.  I say ‘we’, we are myself, Carolyn and Mark.  Carolyn is British by birth and has lived in Canada for seven years, Mark is Australian.  We all have been, or will be, travelling long term.  We met at the hostel, trek together and never really left each others’ sides.  Lukla is one of the most dangerous airports in the world.  Lukla is at 2,800m, twice the height of Ben Nevis (the UK’s highest mountain) and twice the height of Kathmandu.  A quick Google will bring up the disasters that have occured there.  Anyway, let’s not dwell on that and off we go…  We take off in this plane which is more akin to a washing machine with wings.  Somehow we get off the ground and have stunning vistas of the Himalayas to our left.  All passengers can see into the cockpit and through the windscreen. About half an hour into the flight a runway appears carved into the mountainside.  We’re going to land there?  Okay then.  The tiny piece of tarmac slopes to slow the landing planes and speed up the departing ones.  This is good because it finishes with a wall that has backup in the form of a Himalayan peak.  After a much needed breakfast in Lukla we’re off.  A six hour trek with Monju being the target.  It’s not that easy a day as we cover quite a distance. We arrive at a guesthouse which seems quiet as does the trail, the benefits of shoulder season. The water is beautiful, the sky is blue and we’re happy if a little cold.  At dinner we check our maps and I make an observation…  “Hey guys, how much do you think we climbed today?” Carolyn and Mark were unsure in their responses.  “We descended five metres!” We all had a good laugh at that whilst secretly maintaining our own thoughts about what was ahead of us.

The view from the washing machine with wings


Photos cannot do justice to the colour of the water

Trek day two – 23 November 2016

We’re in a triple room and I’m in the middle bed.  Carolyn and Mark are awake before me, they sit up every few minutes or so and look at each other.  This goes on for a couple of hours, I’m a really good sleeper!  The legs feel ok first thing which is encouraging.  We aim for an early lunch because it’s the only place on the way to our target, Namche Bazaar. Before we know it, we’re climbing the infamous hill to Namche Bazaar.  Due to missing lunch, snacks are the order of the day.  We’re effectively zig-zagging up the valley which means we cross the river repeatedly.  Some of the bridges are quite high and test my nerve once more. Part way up this hill is our first view of Everest and here she is…

The roof of the world


Namche – main town of the Khumbu region

Trek day three – 24 November 2016

It’s our first acclimatisation day, we’re now at 3,400m.  For acclimatising we climb to 3,800m to Everest View Hotel which has a nice view of, yeah, you guessed it…!  Unfortunately, Carolyn is unwell.  She comes on the hike but, err, feels a little nauseous half way up. Oddly enough she wants a photo to remember this occasion!  She does really well to make it there and back.  At the guesthouse I decide this is probably the last good opportunity to wash my clothes so I set about the task.  The only problem being, I accidentally wash my clean pants!  They’ll now take about eighteen hours to dry…

Photobombed by this cheeky thing


The view from close to Everest View Hotel (with me ruining it), peaks left to right: Taboche (6,542m); Luri (the snowless one straight above my head); Everest (8,848m or 29,029ft); Lhotse (8,516m – fourth highest in the world); Ama Dablam (6,812m)

Hike day four – 25 November 2016

Hash brown with cheese for breakfast, mmmm.  Meals for the day are varying combinations of potatoes, rice and noodles.  After having just a day pack yesterday, my full pack seems such a burden once more.  I say goodbye to such luxuries as free wifi and free showers (you pay for both up here), meat (above a certain altitude it has to be carried up altitude and is therefore less advisable to eat), beer and coffee (both are diuretics which dehydrate you which isn’t clever at this altitude).  Must these mountains take everything I love and hold dear?! It’s a bit of an up and down day which finishes with a big climb to Tengboche. Carolyn is still feeling unwell but manages to make it with us. Quite incredible, because if it were me I know I’d still be lied up in Namche!  Then again, these illnesses hit us harder, right fellas…?!

Back down the valley the other way isn’t bad either…

Hike day five – 26 November 2016

Our target is Dingboche, which is 4,400m where we need to acclimatise once more.  On our way today we pass three times the height of Ben Nevis.  The days are getting repetative, they go as follows: wake, eat breakfast, hike, eat lunch, hike, find somewhere to stay, eat dinner, sleep, repeat.  The landscape is changing, we’re now above the tree-line. The wind has picked up so the jacket has had to come out whereas previously just a shirt was fine.  The main issue with the wind is that it makes the dust a problem. Thankfully, we all seem to be coping ok with the altitude and none of us are exhibiting the unhealthy coughing habits of our fellow climbers on the way down.

Dingboche 

Hike day six – 27 November 2016

It’s cold here, so cold that I get my sleeping bag out for the first time.  As a result I don’t sleep well because I can’t move my feet and apparently I like to sleep in the foetal position which I obviously cannot get into.  Perhaps that’s to try to get warmth also.  We climb to 4,800m for our acclimatisation trek.  We are now beating our own altitude records each and every day and will hopefully continue to do so.  The owner of the guesthouse here is very funny.  Each evening she goes around with a massive container of hand sanitiser. As she squirts a bit into each persons’ hands she says “Washy, washy!”

No trees so this is the fuel, it comes out the back end of a yak


The method for heating water during the day

Hike day seven – 28 November 2016

So the morning of this day was very eventful.  At 05:23 we had a five-point-four Richter Scale earthquake and the epicentre was close to us.  It must have been quite serious because I woke up! Mark jumps out of bed exclaiming “What the hell was that?!”, I reply “Earthquake…” nonchalently and go back to sleep.  I’m a really good sleeper. I listen for a rockfall, nope, ok we’re good. According to the locals they keep getting these aftershocks after the big 2015 quake.  The staff run out to tell us everything is fine but most people stupidly misinterpret the running as panic!  Unfortunately, a sherpa was making a summit attempt on Annapurna I (8,091m – tenth highest in the world) at the time of the quake and he lost his life. The weather is slightly different today. Instead of the wall-to-wall sunshine and blue skies we’ve been enjoying thus far the morning starts out very misty.  The mist moves with the breezes and mountains can literally disappear in seconds, it’s very strange to see.  We finish for the day in Lobuche, which is at 4,800m, and sleep there.

The mist chases us…

Hike day eight – 29 November 2016

To start the day we head for Gorak Shep, which is at 5,100m.  We find a place to stay, it isn’t great but nowhere will be up here.  The toilets are blocked because it’s too cold for running water.  We dump our stuff and sort our day packs as we are going to climb Kala Patthar for sunset which we’re informed is the best time. The peak is at 5,550m (about 18,400ft), this is the highest we will go and is over four times the height of Ben Nevis.  I partly wish I was Dutch though, it’s seventeen times their highest point (Vaalserberg)!  It’s also a 1,150m climb in the two days since we last acclimatised and we’re starting to struggle.  Who’s taken the oxygen?  The oxygen levels are the same up here but the pressure is lower which means you can’t breathe in as much.  At the start of the trek we were losing about a third of the oxygen that’s at sea-level, at these heights we’re losing about half.  But don’t feel too bad for us, at the peak the climbers lose two-thirds of their oxygen as they can only take in an effective percentage of below seven, at sea-level it’s twenty-one percent.  This is why the real climbers spend a month acclimatising at Base Camp…  On this climb I think about how far we are below the peak of Everest (over 3,000m and about 10,000ft), we’re nowhere near it and struggling!  It’s so worth it though, such amazing views with Nuptse competing with Everest for the tallest mountain crown (Nuptse looks higher because it’s closer – in fact it’s only 7,864m – the twentieth highest peak in the world).  As the sun sets, it throws the last of its light over the top of Everest, proving its title.

Everest (with light) and Nuptse on the right without it


Myself and Carolyn on the Kala Patthar summit.  Ross – I’m sorry but my arm is around your girlfriend’s waist.  We’re scared of falling off as the drops either side aren’t funny.  The truth is I can’t fall off because Carolyn is sat on my foot!   In the background is Pumori (7,161m).


The panorama isn’t bad either…  Peaks left to right (ignoring the very far left which is just close): Khumbutse (6,640m); Changtse (7,543m); Everest West Shoulder; Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse


Hike day nine – 30 November 2016

After breakfast, our first task is our mission objective, we’re going to Base Camp.  It’s just over 200m higher than Gorak Shep and not as high as Kala Patthar, easy right?  Wrong!  The problem being that we have to climb higher and then descend to the camp.  I thought after yesterday we’d be coping better with the altitude and its associated difficulties, we aren’t. Everything is a real struggle up here, this is also the first time the path hasn’t been clear and we don’t go as directly as we could have done.  Apparently, everything over 5,000m is just hard.  We get there though, we’ve done it, we’ve made it.  No guide, no porter.  The truth is, it’s a little anticlimactic, more a photo opportunity with the stone than anything else.  But that doesn’t matter, it’s more the immense feeling of self-achievement that makes it worth every minute and second of arduous climbing, torturous effective oxygen levels and fraying tempers.  The other main highlight is how close we are to Khumbu Glacier, this is the glacier the actual Everest climbers must ascend through (repeatedly) in their efforts to summit. We arrive at about 10am.  The sun is just starting to work and we can hear the glacier creaking, cracking and melting. We are even fortunate enough to see a small avalanche.  We are just a few miles from the Chinese border, will someone please just take me to China?  I wonder if they’d notice if I snuck in?  After the photo formalities are done, we start our long descent.  We go from Base Camp to Pheriche which is like going from the Moon to Yorkshire (credit: Carolyn!), it really is quite odd! It’s a long way as well, Pheriche is visible from quite far away but it seems to take an age to reach it and it’s a relief when we do.

Proof of the achievement!


It’s chilly up here…


… Ok, I’ll do a proper one!

Hike day ten – 1 December 2016 

Today we head all the way back to Namche Bazaar.  After lunch the weather turns misty and cold.  My hair gets wet and then the water freezes, it makes for a funny selfie.  I’m looking forward to arriving because I can have beer, coffee and meat again.  In fact, we stay at the same place we stayed on the way up.  I can remember seeing the yak steak that someone else has ordered, it looked good.  Carolyn and I order it, we can hear them tenderising it meanwhile I’m salivating…  It was worth the wait.  I’m still not allowing myself pizza because that’s what we’re having for our celebratory meal in Kathmandu.  On arrival in Namche we have a problem, the wifi and phones are down, this means we can’t contact the airline to rearrange our flight.  Luckily, it starts to work again a couple hours later.  That’s good because we’re exhausted and didn’t really want that hassle.  We celebrate our return to Namche with a beer in the world’s highest Irish Bar!

Apologies for the selfie overload

Hike day eleven – 2 December 2016

The long, long, long jaunt back to Lukla. It seems further on the way back.  There are no worries or trepidation about what’s to come except perhaps some nervousness regarding the flight.  In the morning, I skid on some dust and I’m down.  I guess that had to happen at some point.  It’s annoying because although I’m unhurt I’m more dusty than I was before and I was quite dusty anyway!  We’ve all had enough now really and start to get a little tetchy.  This wasn’t helped by ordering lunch, which took over an hour to come, ordering momos was stupid.  On arrival in Lukla we celebrate with cocktails.  We just have to make it to the airport tomorrow (in theory), that can’t go wrong can it?!

A short word on these guys: they’re incredible.  The loads they carry are immense and I’m complaining about my backpack.  Get a grip Strawbridge…

Hike day twelve – 3 December 2016

Just the flight to go, our flight is scheduled for 08:30 but we’re advised to get to the airport for 07:15…  Ok.  This isn’t your usual airport, there are no departure boards, no flight numbers. Just a guy in a high-vis jacket pretending to know what he’s doing.  Ok, we go next, we take off at 10:30.  That sounds bad but it’s better than waiting for days like some people have to.  We were so lucky with the weather at all times more or less.  But that’s it, over, done.

Lukla Airport

Post trek – 4 December 2016 to 13 December 2016

Unfortunately, we fly from Lukla on a Saturday morning.  That means I have to wait until Monday before I can even apply for my India visa again.  It’ll be the following Monday before I can collect it. I don’t like Kathmandu that much so that means time to kill.  I read my book, A Day to Die For, a book about Everest which I’m glad I read after the trek! Everyone else is reading Jon Krakauer’s version of events which is well documented in Into Thin Air, but I’m not one to follow the crowd.  If you want to really know what happened (regarding the 1996 disaster on Everest) I’d suggest reading A Day to Die For.  I walked past the cemetary on my trek, the names are now familiar to me before the reading of the book.  Graham Ratcliffe’s conclusion to the book is brutal.  Personally I thought it was a little over the top, although I can see from his point of view why he used those words.  I hope Rob Hall’s family hasn’t read it though…  On handing over my passport for my India visa I have a problem.  They’ve only granted me a single entry visa.  I need at least double entry because I’m going home for Christmas.  Damn, this application really isn’t going well.  I end up having to get another separate visa which costs sixty dollars extra on top of what I’ve already paid (which was also excessive because I’m British).  Why did I book the flight home from Mumbai? This is not a good start India…

Cheeky monkeys at Swayambhunath Temple

Strawbs – written 24-27 December 2016, published 19 January 2017

These damn photobombers…

Vietnam

Days spent – 12 days (6 November 2016 to 18 November 2016)

Places visited – Hanoi

Books read – Chickenhawk

Things done – Vietnam History Museum, Sapa Tour, Ha Long Bay Tour

Highlight(s) – Ha Long Bay 

Lowlight(s) – Hassle

Cost – £386.86 (£32.24 per day)

Good morning Vietnam.  After thirty days in China, my plan for my twelve days here is to see a few things and chill. Therefore, lots of coffee has been consumed sat in a nice chair is some of Hanoi’s coffee shops.  It’s not a bad way to live life really.

One of the things of interest I did was my Sapa tour.  To get there it’s an overnight train from Hanoi.  Damn, I thought I’d left those trains behind in China!  Ah well, I’m used to them now.  Although if you’re in the ‘upper bunk’ here the train rocks as it’s going down the tracks and that sensation takes some getting used to.  The train arrives at 05:30 and it is hammering down.  Oh great.  We dash for our awaiting bus whilst trying to avoid getting wet through.  Our first step is a hotel for a potential shower, but more importantly, a buffet breakfast.  A buffet ‘anything’ is always well received by me.  Some Western food and fried rice and noodles.  All is well.  Thankfully, the rain has abated slightly and we can leave voluntarily as opposed to being dragged along.

We meet our guide at the hotel, she’s tiny, shorter than five feet!  We’ll be trekking through the village she grew up in but she now lives with her husband and three-year-old son.  She’s twenty-one.  We set off from Sapa where they’re building a new eyesore of a hotel to cater for tourists like me…  Soon we are on this trail that’s slick from the rainfall. There’s an Irish guy in our group wearing very unsuitable footwear.  He basically skis down.  Luckily, we are assisted by Vietnamese ladies who must have mountain goat somewhere in their previous bloodline.  They guide us expertly over this terrain which is actually quite difficult.

We get to this village where our guide grew up.  There’s a school which she of course attended.  Suprisingly, it’s a boarding school, and the kids are aged up to about nine or ten.  Our guide explains that often the kids will be left to cook for themselves.  High school runs from eight until eleven, after that it’s off to work.  It’s a hard life out here.  Our eldest ‘helper’ is forty-five, she looks at least seventy.

We spend the night in a ‘homestay’, although every accommodation source seems to call themselves that.  At least ours doesn’t have wifi!  Our beds have mosquito nets.  Shit!  Should I being using these?  It’s winter, probably not. Hopefully not.  The weather closes in a little on day two.  Visibility due to cloud is generally no more than fifty metres, we were so lucky on day one.  We get the night train back to Hanoi.  An 04:35 start tomorrow, sigh…

The lowlight of Hanoi is the hassle.  I can’t explain why but it really, and I mean really, bothers me.  If I want a bike, I’ll ask for one.  If I want a doughnut, I’ll ask for one.  If I want my shoes cleaned, I’ll ask you to do it.  If I want to buy your rubbish, knock-off merchandise, I’ll show an interest in it.  I got to the stage where I stopped saying “No, thank you” and just blanked them, this saddens me. I better get used to it I suppose, I’m going to India…

There’s a crazy market here too.  On Sunday evenings the main shopping street gets filled with even more knock-off merchants under rigged up tarpaulins and bright lights.  The street gets very busy.  I’m due to Skype home but I’m late because my hostel is on this street and I have to fight my way through the crowds.

In Vietnam, I read Chickenhawk.  It’s a novel written by an American helicopter pilot.  Not much of it has stuck with me to be honest.  It’s interesting and quite sad at times but I feel a story from one of the grunts on the ground may have been a better read.  It’s interesting to hear him describe landing in the hot landing zones.  He uses the word ‘ting’ for when bullets hit his helicopter.  I lose count of how many tings there are in the book. Reading him describe when his friend crashed and died and after (and during) the war the affects of his PTSD wasn’t easy to read.

I was a little underwhelmed by Vietnamese food to be honest, maybe I didn’t go to the right places enough.  My first meal, which costs thirty thousand dong (just over a pound), is bun cha (accents are too complicated for me here – sorry!).  This is grilled meat with vermicelli and vegetables, alongside is the ever-pressent nuoc cham which is supposed to be poured over everything, but I didn’t know this yet, I’m having it ‘neat’!  It’s sweet, sour, spicy and fishy at the same time, very nice but pretty strong neat!  One evening at my hostel I get chatting to Jackie and Mike.  We have some of the free beers and then go hunting for food and end up at this great place that does duck that’s cooked in front of you.  It’s really great and you get served free rice wine which the proprietor obtains from the farm where he gets the ducks.  One litre is a dollar! This goes down a little too well…  It’s a great group (I think the Irish girl in the photo below was worse for wear before me), we are joined by two Japanese ladies, it was nice to get my Japanese out again but I’ve forgotten so much!  Come ten, I’ve had it, my hostel has the quilt rolled up at the bottom on the bed.  It hasn’t moved, my legs are on it, my head’s on the pillow.  I wake up fully dressed.  Ooops.

The second of two things of interest I did was the Ha Long Bay tour.  Ha Long translates as descending dragon, cool name.  This is a better group as it’s a little less ‘couply’.  We have a great guide called Dem who I’d highly recommend.  It starts with a four hour bus jorney from Hanoi during which we introduce ourselves.  We have all the I’m… and I’m from… and I’m in Vietnam for X weeks.  Ok my turn, I’m Ian, I’m English, I’m travelling the world and I’m five months in.  Which is received by oohs and ahhs.  It’s too easy to forget that what I’m doing is pretty cool.  The bus is weird because there’s barely enough room to walk the aisle! The fat Spanish woman on our tour struggled.  That’s right, a fat Spaniard, there’s a novelty!

We arrive and put on lifejackets for the two minute transfer to our ‘big boat’ which we’ll sleep on tonight.  After a decent and varied lunch we go to Hang Sung Sot (Amazing Cave), which nearly lives up to its name.  After that it’s kayaking in a lagoon where boats can’t go and there’s wild monkeys which I’ve never seen before.  We head back to the boat as the sun sets over one of the islands.  The sun throws its rays in a massive arc, it must have been impressive because Dem’s taking photos and he’s here twice a week!  As we’re on the boat deck enjoying a beer the (super)moon, not to be outdone by its celestial counterpart, tries to compete with its own rise over the star-strewn sky.  Bliss.

Dem informs us that we are to be up at six!  Six!  I thought I was on holiday!  This was supposed to be my relaxing time. I’m actually up a little earlier in a vain attempt to see the sunrise.  I peek out between the curtains but it’s already daylight, bugger.  I head to the top deck (that’s right I have more than one…), according to others it wasn’t much to see anyway.  The main highlight of the morning was watching other boats pass us.  People in their rooms don’t realise we can see them, they’re naked!  After that excitement we go to Ti Top Island, here we get great panorama shots of the bay but it’s very busy up there!  It’s an action day, after climbing to the top of that small island we head to the main island (Cat Ba Island), here we go cycling and jungle trekking.

I’m relieved as night two is spent in a hotel, you’ve already seen the view… Bliss…  For dinner we go to a local restaurant, beers here cost six thousand dong (twenty-two pence).  Bliss…  Day three is simply retacing our steps (or waves or tracks) back to Hanoi.  To keep us entertained Dem does a cooking class and shows us some tricks with cards and cups.  The tour concludes with the inevitable bus back to Hanoi.  As we approach one junction Dem says we can turn right which is four hours to China or we can turn left which is four hours to Hanoi.  He asks for a show of hands. Mine is the only vote for China.  Don’t try to tempt me Dem…

Strawbs – written 11 December 2016, published 12 December 2016

Amazing Cave

The view from the hotel you’ve already seen…

Us cycling on Cat Ba Island

One of the lakes in Hanoi

Ok so after the Sapa trek I needed my shoes cleaned…

China

Days spent – 33 days (9 September 2016 to 12 September 2016 and 7 October 2016 to 6 November 2016)

Places visited – Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Lijiang, Qiaotou, Chongqing, Wulingyuan, Shanghai, Guangzhou

Books read – Wild Swans

Things done – Great Wall, Yonghegong Lama Temple, Confucius Shrine, Forbidden City, Beijing Summer Palace, National Museum of China, Xi’an City Wall, Big Goose Pagoda fountain show, Terracotta Army, Shaanxi History Museum, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Baisha Village, Three Gorges Museum, Spring Temple Buddha, Shanghai Museum

Highlight(s) – Yao, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Spring Temple Buddha day

Lowlight(s) – Chinese customs, pollution

Cost – £1,043.45 (£31.62 per day)

Warning: This blog contains content that some readers may find distressing.

China, China, China.

Beautiful, wonderful, amazing China. I’ve got my mojo back!  It’s Sunday the thirteenth of November.  I left China on the sixth, just a week ago.  I miss the place.  I get sad and nostalgic thinking about writing this, again whilst planning and one final time when writing it.

Firstly, a note on pronunciation.  ‘X’ reads as ‘sh’, ‘q’ sounds like ‘ch’ and ‘zh’ is more like a ‘j’ sound with a hint of ‘z’ about it.  Now go back and read the places visited and things done again, because, be honest, you read them wrong, didn’t you?!  The problem is pronunciation is important here.  A lot of words have different meanings, depending on how one says them, and a lot have four.  A flat tone, a rising tone, a falling tone and and tone that falls then rises.  Some pronunciations are quite gutteral or nasaly, sounds we don’t really have in English.  It’s all quite complicated.  I try my best, over a month in China and I learn as much as possible because I never know when I might need it.  China is big so plenty of long train journeys are required meaning I have time to kill, let’s learn Mandarin.  On one train, me and Mimi (a Swiss girl I met) meet this really nice Chinese couple and we teach each other languages.  I’m fully confident having spent hours learning on the app.  Ok, let’s count.  One is yī, which sounds more like ‘eeee’.  ‘Eeee’ I say, no ‘eeee’. ‘Eeee’, no.  This back and forth continued for about fifteen minutes, after which we graduated to two…  Sigh, more work required…  As you can perhaps tell from what I’ve written I still don’t know the difference and I still don’t think I’m saying it correctly.  On another train, I talk to a student from a university in Xi’an.  He asks if I know any Chinese to which I reply ‘ni jiáo shénme míngzì’ and not only do I learn his name, I also get congratulated on my pronunciation, yay!

As you can probably tell from the opening lines of this blog, I love China. But, there are downsides it helps to be prepared for.  Many of these you hear about before arriving: the Chinese are horrible, everywhere is dirty, you’ll get ill.  Everyone seems very quick to insult and belittle China and its customs.  If you want western culture in all its ‘glory’ go to south Spain in summer with all the other drunken Brits and Germans who weigh over fifteen stone but inexplicably think they look good without a shirt.  I wonder if some of those that criticise China have ever actually been.  Alas, they’re sort of right.  On arrival you are likely to be struck not only by the complete craziness of everything (hello culture shock), but by the clearing of throats and spitting, everywhere.  It doesn’t matter if one is indoors or out, or even on a bus or a train.

I can see why they do it though, everyone is ill, permanently.  For China is polluted, very polluted.  On my second arrival in Beijing I exit the subway and I can literally taste it.  By the time I get to Xi’an I’m clearing the throat and spitting like the best of them, can I have a Chinese passport now?  I hear about China being dirty, but only once did I see excrement in the street, I think it was human.  Don’t judge, there’s more excrement of the canine variety on London’s streets.  Seeing children going to the toilet in the street is strange but you do get used to it.  In some public toilets there are no barriers between the squatees.  Seeing other men defecate is something I can’t get used to… Thankfully, only once did I have to use one for the sit down thing.  I’m not used to this, my muscles seize and I can’t get up again!  Ahh, now I have to touch something!  There’s a reason that the best friend of a traveller in Asia is hand sanitiser.  Also, putting a hand to ones mouth when coughing isn’t a thing here. On a bus from Lijiang to Qiaotou I got a shower I really didn’t want!  The lack of respect for personal space and the queue jumping also take some getting used to.

Another downside is that I let myself get conned of about thirty pounds in Beijing. I get approached by a middle-aged (I consider this to be older than myself these days) lady speaking perfect English in Tiananmen Square.  That should have been my first red flag because no one that old speaks English here as a rule. We end up getting coffee and snacks and I end up footing a triple price bill.  I’m not annoyed about the thirty quid (ok, maybe a little), but I’m annoyed I didn’t stand up for myself or make a fuss. I played along in my meek, dumb tourist role.  What’s the worst that could have happened?  A night in a Chinese prison? It would have been an experience if nothing else…

I’ve had my fix of thrillers in Russia, Japan and Korea.  In China I choose to read Wild Swans by Jung Chang (pronounced Yung of course!).  I looked at a few books to read and chose this one because it’s banned in China!  I now want to know what’s in it.  I log on to VPN and download it.  It’s banned along with Google and Facebook and several other apps and websites.  International rivals to Chinese firms are blocked.  The Great Firewall of China, as it’s dubbed. The Japanese all drive Toyotas and Nissans.  The Koreans all drive Kias and Hyundais.  In my opinion it can just be a culture thing.  Anyway, on to the book, like China, it’s brilliant.  Everyone should read it.  It’s a real insight into China, both old and new and one of the best accounts of what happened there in the last century.  A country ravaged by turmoil, war and oppression.  It’s brutally honest and that makes it a hard read at times, especially as it’s real history.  Some things really hit home. After the famine during the Great Leap Forward came the Cultural Revolution and the persecution and denunciation of both of Jung’s parents.  Her father is an incredible man. Just read it.  I finish it on the plane out, probably in Chinese airspace.  Only then do I realise Jung’s mother lives in Chengdu and I could possibly have met her.  Damn.

Anyway, enough of that, let’s talk about now.  Beautiful, wonderful, amazing China.  Food, well Chinese food obviously but in China they just call it food!  In fact one of the first meals I have isn’t Chinese.  I’m in a southeast Asian restaurant in Beijing (thanks Molly for showing me the place) and have mee goreng, so nice.  I now have to go to Malaysia and Indonesia for this…  Lots of fried rice and noodle dishes are consumed because they’re cheap.  In Chongqing the famous local speciality is hot pot, we get the least spicy option. Thank the lord, it’s so spicy.  One day I want to try the spiciest one just to see if I can avoid hospitalisation.  The photo below was taken after we’d finished crying…  Not one of my favourites but good practice for Indian spiciness. Central China is very keen on its spicy food making ‘no spice’ one of those essential Chinese phrases to learn.  Of course it’s not possible to go to China and not eat something crazy.  For me it’s chicken’s foot.  Popular in a soup and as a snack in Chongqing.  It takes a while for me to pluck up the courage but it’s quite good!  The following day, on the train out of Chongqing, I’m sat next to someone snacking on chicken’s feet. Yesterday this would have horrified me, today not so much…  In Shanghai I get complimented on my chopstick use. Chopstick level: expert.

The next step after Beijing is Xi’an which is close to the Terracotta Warriors so a visit is in order.  In Chinese, the army is known as 兵马俑 .  Ooh, I recognise the middle Kanji character, pronounced mă, it means horse, very exciting, but not helpful.  That’s the thing with language learning, you learn things you don’t need and not things you do, it’s a little annoying…  It was ordered by the first emperor to unify China, Qin Shi Huang. This literally translates to First Qin Emperor, remember that Qin is pronounced ‘chin’, hence China!  Ahh, it all makes sense…  Well, nearly.  This army guards him during the afterlife. However, in life he was a bit of an tyrant, which seems typical of those in power in China.  The army was top secret, it’s said that each warrior is different because once made the maker was killed to protect the secrecy.  He also had three thousand concubines.  But he got things done, he built roads, unified China, had his army constructed and initiated the Great Wall.  All before 200BC, quite impressive.  All Britain has of that time is Stonehenge and we don’t know what it’s for or why it’s there!  When one sees it, it’s hard to believe how old it is.  It’ll take another seventy years or so to restore them all, good luck to them.

After Beijing I start to feel tall, in Xi’an, even if I’m a step below someone on an escalator I’m still invariably higher than they are.  Also in Xi’an I see another example of the contrast in China.  Xi’an is a former capital and has the most intact city wall in the world.  One can still walk all the way around, or bike if speed is more of an objective. Surrounded by over two thousand years of Chinese history, there’s a Chinese band covering an Ed Sheeran song. Below are two pictures of the same place: Chongqing.  In Beijing, a shop is selling iPhone 7s in all its white lighted magnificence.  Next door is an old lady selling some sort of broth from what looks like a cauldron. Could she be a witch I ask myself?  I wouldn’t rule it out…

No trip to China is complete without a visit to the Great Wall.  Many thanks to Molly for taking me here and showing me around on what was only my second day in China.  I wouldn’t have gotten very far on my own armed with just níhăo and xièxiè!  The quandary regarding the wall is which part to go to. Where it’s still intact?  Where it’s dilapidated?  Hmm, intact it is, hopefully with some nice views.  It’s quite a climb to even get to the wall and this is when I wasn’t feeling very well so it’s a bit of a struggle!  Thanks again to Molly for putting up with me during this time. It’s over four thousand miles long, maybe one day I can walk it, that would be fun.

In Chengdu I look into going to see the Leshan Buddha but on looking into it I decide I’d rather go to see the Spring Temple Buddha.  This is partly because it’s the largest statue in the world.  I go from Chongqing and after I go to Zhangjiajie, it’s a bit of of a mission, I should have gone here from Xi’an.  My train arrives at Leshan at 02:10, that’s a stupid time!  I just have to wait for my bus.  I haven’t slept and I didn’t sleep, it’s cold.  After burning a little in Tiger Leaping Gorge I’m now freezing. At seven I can’t stand it and get the bus, there are already some schoolkids on the bus and they’re surprised to see me. Maybe not many westerners do this.  To that end, I have to do all photographic duties with the Chinese tourists!  It’s probably the only time I’ll have my photo taken over twenty times in one day.

At one point I go past a family with two young children, the youngest is a girl of about four.  They’re slow so I get ahead of them pretty quickly, shortly after I can hear the kids running after me, they stop just before me and I can hear them stalking me.  I’m walking towards the Bell Tower which has this massive bell! We arrive at a similar time and apparently I’m the main attraction, no one cares about the bell.  After toying with the idea for a long while the girl plucks up the courage to say níhăo.  I reply in kind.  Without saying another word she grabs my hand (which was in my pocket) and we’re posing for a photograph.  Mum appears as if from nowhere with the requisite camera.  But that’s not all, Mum wants a selfie too!

Back at Leshan I’m eating at this place and getting several strange looks. Whilst eating I look around and catch another girl trying to take a sneaky photo of me. Haha, busted!  She’s maybe about six and is slightly embarrassed initially then breaks into a massive grin.  After this we exchange glances and she’s grinning from ear to ear each time, cheeky mite! I decide I like her so I let her have a proper photo of me because the one she has must be rubbish.  Only then does she go all shy, maybe she’s surprised I’m speaking broken Mandarin.  In the train station a teenage boy stares at me for the whole time I was there (maybe fifteen or twenty minutes).  I need to look at something on my phone, he looks over my shoulder and then watches as I write four Kanji characters in my notepad.

In Beijing, I go to the Summer Palace. The main problem is you can’t see it anymore because Britain destroyed it. Sorry China.  But we did help build it… I also go to the National Museum of China. I get stopped by security, I have to drink some of my water to prove it’s not petrol or anything weird, ok.  The first exhibit I see is a statue of a mother depicted with her head thrown back in anguish, she’s holding her dead baby.  It’s called The Shattered Family and the caption reads “Never returns to son killed, never returns the husband buried alive, sorrow drowns the wife raped, heavens…” Heavens indeed.  This refers to the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, a real horrible thing.  I then figure out how overcrowded China is.  I’m advised to get to the train station two hours early, what is this an international flight?!  When I get there I can see why, it can take an hour to collect your ticket!

I need a haircut, I’m in Beijing, what could possibly go wrong?!  Níhăo, níhăo, níhăo.  Ok, now what?  Firstly, of course, I have to point at a map to show where I’m from.  We have plenty of language problems with lots of gesticulating and pointing at hair and beards.  In the end I show him my passport photo which gets some laughs, yes I want to look like this. Ok, on we go.  First I have my hair washed because apparently I’m skanky (probably true).  Then, it begins and it doesn’t end for a long, long time.  It’s light when I enter and dark when I leave. Clippers then scissors and every hair is double and triple checked.  After, my hair is washed again, I then go back to the chair for more perfectionism.  I start to wonder if I’ll have to skip a meal! After using some spray stuff (I now smell girly), it seems to be over, phew! Possibly the only time in my life without a hair out of place.

Everywhere in China, markets are rife. They are quintessential China to a certain extent and offer me so many unknowns and strange sensations.  It’s an assault on the senses, thronging crowds, unusual sights, contradicting smells, a cocophony of sound and a risky taste if one is brave enough to try something.  Something can smell divine before five metres later it’s overridden by something that smells horrendous. I’m never brave enough to try anything and it’s normally overpriced anyway. The picture below is one of the abnormal sights.

In Chengdu I meet Mimi, who is my travel twin.  We both quit our jobs to travel.  We both took the Trans-Mongolian.  We both have older siblings and we both have nieces and nephews of the same age.  We’ve both also gone from Beijing to Xi’an to Chengdu and we’re both looking to go to Tiger Leaping Gorge.  The only problem is it’s so far from anywhere else in China.  Ok, bullet bitten, train booked, we’re going.  It’s worth it!  Such a great place and my first glimpse of the Himalayas.  This is the highest I’ve ever been (nearly three thousand metres) and the first time I’ve seen a peak over five thousand metres. It’s called Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, cool name.  On our second day of trekking we get the Sky Ladder from the river back to the hostel.  I’m not that good with heights so I’m not sure at what point I thought this was a good idea.  We climb from the river for a bit to get to get to the ladder.  The climb is about three hundred metres.  After less than one hundred metres we’re on the ladder.  Oh god, does this thing go to the top?!  Thankfully, it doesn’t because I’m taking ages to climb because I’m holding on for dear life.  The bus out isn’t much better.  I’m sat on the back left seat and we’re driving on the edge of the gorge. So close that when I look down, I can’t see the edge of the road, that’s scary. But, that aside, I love the place and it’s been the first place on this trip that I’ve been sad to leave.

I was also sad to leave Shanghai.  In Chongqing I meet Yao.  We both arrive too early at the hostel to check in so we exchange hellos.  Crikey – she’s pretty. She has long black hair and dark eyes. I’m a sucker for dark eyes, eyes where I can’t tell where the pupil ends and the iris begins.  I spend a long time looking at those eyes and I can feel that everything is reciprocated.  Those eyes are looking right into my soul too, I’ve never felt like that before.  Everyone in China has dark hair and dark eyes but hers are different, because they look at me like that.  The following day I get back to the hostel early to make sure I’m there when she gets back (is that weird? Creepy?  Maybe).  She sits behind me so I move to talk to her.  We exchange the usual, name and place of origin etc.  I’m just about to ask if she wants to come to Chongqing’s viewpoint with me (that’s romantic, right?) when a Polish guy scuppers the plan, he wants to get dinner.  We’ve already eaten but agree to go along and have a beer.  I’m there, Yao’s there, it’s a start…  The Polish guy is stereotypical extrovert and seems to think I care about his life (right now, not so much…), he makes all the conversation.  We get back to the hostel and Polish guy goes to bed, my prayers have been answered!  After that, everything is seamless.  You know when it just works, no games.  I like her and she likes me.

I’m not sure why because things like this don’t happen to me.  Is there something wrong with her eyesight?  She doesn’t seem to be visually impaired.  I try to refer her to a psychiatrist but she insists she isn’t crazy.  I think she is because she doesn’t think she’s pretty, silly girl, what a weirdo.  We have ‘the night’, you know like they talk about on Friends when Chandler falls for someone (which is weird because I’m basically a real life Chandler).  We talk rubbish, I wonder if one day we can have our Golden Retriever that we think should have an English and a Chinese name.  It’s to be called jiăozi (dumpling).  Maybe it’ll have one name but we can use the other when we don’t want the dog to know we’re talking about it.  Eighteen hours later she has to get the train home, she lives just outside Shanghai. My plan from Chongqing is to go to Lushan to Zhangjiajie to Guilin to Yangshuo to Guangzhou.  But I go to Shanghai.  Have I found my Aouda?  I wonder if she misses me as much as I miss her.  Maybe I should go back to China?  Beautiful, wonderful, amazing Yao…  Oops, I mean China.

Strawbs – written 13-24 November 2016

Tiger Leaping Gorge white water

The Trans-Mongolian train being jacked up to change the wheel gauge on first entry to China at the border

Is any China blog complete without a bit of Chinglish?

South Korea

Days spent – 11 days (26 September 2016 to 7 October 2016)

Places visited – Seoul, Sokcho, Busan, Jeju Island

Books read – The Girl on the Train

Things done – Museum of Seoul History, Guenjeonggung, Heuginjimun, Korea War Museum, Seoraksan National Park, Mount Hallasan, De-militarised Zone tour

Highlight(s) – Korean War Museum, DMZ tour

Lowlight(s) – my mood

Cost – £450.27 (£40.93 per day)

I made it from home to Beijing without flying.  It’s over five thousand miles (that’s over eight thousand kilometres for those of you that measure things sensibly).  Chinese visas are hard to get so a little planning is required. Transport in and out are a must.  The twelfth of September, day ninety-seven is my first flight (beijing to Tokyo via Incheon), one flight, or two if you count the connection as separate.  As I have to go to Japan (to meet Tom and see Babymetal – kind of the point of the trip), it only seems sensible to stop by Korea on the way back to mainland Asia.  I know South Korea isn’t an island, but for me, it may as well be given its neighbours to the north!  On my way out of Korea I fly Incheon to Beijing via Qingdao, this is on October the seventh.  After three months without flying I’ve now taken five flights in less than a month, seven if one counts connections as separate!

I never used to like flying but it’s growing on me.  There’s something very safe and fimiliar in all airports, English is rife.  Sometimes, flying is just the most sensible option.  I flew from Jeju Island to Seoul for under thirty pounds, it took just over an hour.  A nice, cheap, late-booked, domestic flight.  A shame they aren’t available everywhere!

On Jeju Island I climb Mount Hallasan, which is the highest point on the island. It’s six thousand four hundred feet (or one thousand nine hundred and fifty metres), but I think this is the highest I’ve ever knowingly been.  The guy at the hostel warns against me going because of the weather, there’s a typhoon coming…  Google says it’ll start to rain at three and I’m gone by eight.  It should take three to four hours to climb apparently.  The weather is fine, the sun even tries to peek through, but alas its tries were in vain.  I’m at the top in two hours and twenty minutes.  I’m sweaty from the climb but my life is it cold up here.  The mist is so thick I can’t see anything and the wind is blowing it at me at a rate of knots.  I can’t stay long (but there’s nothing to see anyway!), I have to head down out of the wind and to relative warmth.

In Seoul, I visit another of the better museums I’ve been to, the Korean War Museum.  This details the to and fro of the war from 1950 to 1953.  Initially, the north invaded the south, the south weren’t prepared (having been struggling to stand alone after Japanese rule) and Seoul fell quickly. But the south fought back strongly after obtaining help from UN forces, mainly from the USA but also from twenty or so other UN representatives including the UK.  Seoul was recaptured and the northern forces were pushed back nearly to the Chinese border.  But the war took another twist as the north was then able to obtain help from a newly Communist China who provided millions in manpower despite losses they’d suffered recently at the hands of the Japanese also.  There seems to be no end to leaders’ appetite for war last century, does there?  North Korea took Seoul once more…  In 1951 a stalemate was reached but it wasn’t until 1953 that a ceasefire occured because the north refused to hand back prisoners of war from the south.

The museum has a 4D recreation of the amphibious drive of UN forces from Incheon.  There are signs warning against pregnant women to go.  I laugh it off, but I can now see why.  It’s basically a rollercoaster!  It’s similar to the City of Ruins exhibit in the Warsaw Uprising Museum but better.  Sadly, Seoul was also a city of ruins.  The also have the original Korean flag that was raised in Seoul on its liberation.

After Seoul, I head for Sokcho and Seoraksan National Park.  My first hike since leaving, I already posted about this because the weather was supposed to be good but wasn’t.  But it wasn’t all bad, lower down was much clearer and allowed for some decent photographs. Also, I could satiate my waterfall obsession.  I like to observe peoples’ fitness on hikes.  On the way up I overtake most.  Sometimes I take two steps at a time and others look at me as though I’m an alien (not because I look different for a change!)!  On the way down I try to be encouraging to those that are nearly there.  There’s also always that one person…  They’ve had it, knackered, struggling, they haven’t got to the climb yet either!

On my first night in Seoul, we head out for a Korean barbecue, where you cook the meat yourselves on a BBQ in the middle of your table, quite nice.  Along with strange flavoured crisps like honey, they also have sweet flavoured beers like grape and mango.  Mango was my favourite.  Kimchi gets served as a side dish with virtually everything so you can’t avoid it.  It’s ok, not my favourite thing though.  There are nearly two hundred varieties but most of them are spicy and/ or garlicy so I console myself with the fact that my parents would hate it.  I also try bibimbap which is rice served with vegetables and sometimes an egg.  Very simple and surprisingly nice and flavoursome.  Juyeong – who I met on the descent of Mount Hallasan – kindly introduces me to Korean fried chicken, mmmmm, it’s great.  Thanks for that, and thanks for the company going down the mountain!  Chopsticks are here also of course, but they’re different!  Ahh, just as I was getting the hang of it!  They’re metallic and thus heavier and also harder to use in my opinion.  Chopestick level: amateur.

No trip to South Korea is complete without a trip to the de-militarised zone, commonly referred to as the DMZ.  This is a strange experience for tensions are still very high between the north and the south.  We must carry our passports and they are rigorously checked even though we aren’t to cross the border.  Passports are checked on the way out of the DMZ too, just to make sure no one is trying to defect to the north!  On trying to enter, we are turned away twice, a problem with the checks.  The first thing we see is Freedom Bridge, an odd name I think. But, this is before the guide has explained that this is the bridge the South Korean prisoners or war walked across upon their release.  Ok, the name makes sense.  Next we head to the third infiltration tunnel.  Towards the end of the last century, tunnels were discovered with the north had dug in order to launch a surprise attack on Seoul.  It’s eighty metres underground so it’s quite a climb back out!

^ The North!

The last stop is an observatory where you can, well, observe, North Korea.  It’s five hundred won (about forty pence) to use the optics.  Rude not to…  The observatory is located so that it looks upon a fairly large North Korean town. It’s so strange to see people going about their lives under such oppression.  We are told to look for the North Korean flag but it can’t really be missed.  It’s on a pole that’s higher than that of the south to show the superiority of the north… Apparently, it’s the fourth highest flagpole in the world.  There’s an alternative tour you can go on where you go to somewhere called the Joint Security Area (JSA), you can actually set foot in North Korea here.  I can’t do this because there is military training on whilst I’m there.  If you do this tour, you have to wear trousers and they can’t have holes in.  This is because the north will take photos to use for propaganda purposes saying things like “Look at these poor foreigners, they can’t afford proper clothes.”  I found this fascinating.

Whilst on Jeju Island, I suffer another typhoon.  Luckily, the worst is overnight, I hear it at three am.  Sadly, that means most tourist attractions are closed the following day as trees and phone lines etc. are down.  This is particularly frustrating because after about eleven it’s a gorgeous, sunny day!  As a result I go to the museum in Jeju City to see exhibits about the places I was going to see.  It isn’t quite the same…!

My mood here isn’t great, only eleven days spent in Korea.  It doesn’t matter how small the country is, one can only scratch the surface of a place in that time.  Also, I’m finding that when I’m about to leave a country, I start to look forward to the next one and stop enjoying where I am.  That’s a weird thing…  Never mind, I’ll get my mojo back…

Strawbs – written 7 November 2016, published 8 November 2016

Changing of the guard

Funky deities

Oh hell no

It’s free if you dress like this!

Just going to hop on the train…