Posts tagged ‘Beijing’

An ode to Asia – our top ten experiences

In ways it feels like only yesterday that Gary and I said tearful goodbyes to our Mums and Dads and set off with our names sewn on to our shiny new backpacks, hardly able to breath for all the excitement/nerves/sadness/happiness and general overwhelming flow of emotions vying for our attention. Yet somehow, we have found ourselves a few days short of halfway and, even more alarmingly, out of Asia. Somehow we have become semi-seasoned travellers. Gone is the lettering on our bags – the victims of a hundred careless baggage handlers – and the brand new look. Now everything we own smells like Asia; all our clothes have bobbles around the waist from chaffing backpacks; we don’t bounce out of bed at 7am every morning; we barter for everything even when it’s inappropriate; and we start sentences with the ever-infuriating “Well when I was in Laos/Cambodia/China/East Timor…” We could be gone for years or it could have just been days.

Leaving Asia, after having such a fantastic time, was more bitter than sweet. Granted Oz could offer us all the comforts of home – chocolate, television, air conditioning, home cooking, cleanliness and the ability to communicate – but would it surprise us with impromptu religious processions in the street? Would we have the fun of blind ordering creamed yams because we couldn’t read the menu? Would there be the same backpacker solidarity that we found in rural China or Vietnam? Would we be able to buy and sell motorbikes without a drivers license? Would we be able to afford even the  most basic of things? Hardly.

As a tribute to our favourite continent we decided to compile a bit of a nostalgic top ten list. After much squabbling and a few punches we came up with a list that surprised even us. Whenever asked we always say that we loved Japan and Thailand most yet China seems to have housed most of our best memories. The main difficulty lay in choosing just ten – how could we leave out watching the Hong Kong skyline come into focus from the Star Ferry or the Full Moon Party in Ko Pha Ngan or having our teeth rattled out of our heads in Timor Leste? It was hard but here it is – our ode to Asia. It’s been emotional.

10.Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos
Choose getting wet. Choose taking off all your clothes in front of strangers. Choose sunburn. Choose throwing yourself into a fast-flowing river. Choose drinking from a bucket. Choose falling out of a tractor tyre. Choose dropping your camera in the water. Choose dancing on tables. Choose 100 new friends, Choose killing your liver. Choose falling asleep at 5pm. Choose writing on your face in permanent marker. Choose risking your life for the best matinee party ever. Choose tubing in Vang Vieng.

9.The onsen experience, Japan
For most people being naked with a big group of people is about getting dirty. In Japan it’s about getting clean and let’s face it, there are very few times in life where you will have the opportunity to perch between two naked Asian women in an outdoor thermal mudbath high in the mist-shrouded mountains. The Japanese onsen experience, be it in the dedicated town of Beppu or a public facility in Tokyo, will change the way you feel about bath-time forever.

8.Food, just about everywhere
Slurrping down bowls of ramen at noodle bars; discovering mango and sticky rice at a roadside stall; bagging 20 Indonesian fried bananas for 40 cent; eating an entire fish on a stick; figuring out where M&S steal their recipes from over a bowl of fish amok; and the endless search for the best Thai curry. Who said eating in Asia just meant pad thai and fried rice? Yes there was enthusiastic vomitting and 100 odd boxes of immodium but it was worth it to be able to say – “Can you make that Thai spicy, not farang (foreigner) spicy?” And thanks to fantastic cooking classes in China and Thailand we may never have to eat western food again…

7.Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan
The phrase ‘fresh sushi’ never rang as true as it does in Tsukiji Fish Market where fishermen and chefs meet to haggle over a 70 tonne tuna fish or a handful of live prawns. While the rest of Tokyo is still sleeping, skilled tradesmen gut fish with one hand while texting with the other and demonstrate just how easy it is to turn an eel inside out.

6.Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat was one of those extremely rare, heart-stopping moments. We’ve seen our fair share of religious sites from simple wooden structures in Kyoto to the ancient stupa of Borobudor and even the gold-plated royal temple in Bangkok but nothing has come even close to seeing the light change Angkor Wat from a vague black shadow to a spectacular glowing pink, orange and yellow marvel. Never has getting up at 4am been so worthwhile.

5.Tiger Leaping Gorge, China
There are very few places in China where you can find peace and quiet but over three days in Tiger Leaping Gorge our only human interaction was around a camp fire on our last night when we finally met the eight other hikers doing the trail. During the day we edged across cliffside waterfalls, dragged ourselves  by the fingernails up the last of the infamous 28 bends (more like 128 bends), clung onto fraying rope ladders for dear life and sat and stared in awe at the mighty Yangtze as it roared past Middle Tiger Leaping Rock.

4.Diving in Thailand
“Two thirds of the world’s surface is covered by water. How can you call yourself a traveller if you’re happy to settle for less than a third?” reads a sign in Ko Phi Phi. Diving in Thailand opened our eyes to an entirely different, entirely superior world full of vibrant colours, swaying reef and curious fish. Away from the blaring music, honking horns and obnoxious tauts we perfected our backflips and were adopted by schools of Sergent Major Fish.

3.Biking in Vietnam
Yes there were near death experiences, crashes, break-downs on mountain peaks, monsoons, burst tires, broken engines, dodgy chains, hit and runs, guilty pay-offs, police bribes and painful sunburns but as the saying goes – it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Biking around Vietnam we managed to get off the very sticky tourist trail and see a whole other side to a very beautiful country. Of course it didn’t hurt that we got to know some great Aussies on the way too.

2.Halong Bay, Vietnam
Once listed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Halong Bay in Northern Vietnam is a spectacular blanket of silky water broken by hundreds of dark shadows – giants hunched over as if in sleep. Add to that a traditional oriental junk, some fantastic food, a handful of great new friends and a liberal serving of alcohol and you have a New Year’s Eve to remember (or not remember). And as we all know, the only cure for a hangover is to run out of bed and leap straight from the deck of a boat into freezing cold water. Heaven.

1.The Great Wall of China
We had been on the Great Wall of China for around an hour and a half before we saw it. It’s hard to miss something that big (some say you can see it from the moon) but in the blanket of fog that had fallen over Beijing that cold winter’s morning we were more concerned about getting off the damn thing alive than we were about visibility. Subzero temperatures had left the wall coated in black ice, making an already precariously delapidated wall even more impassable. As we shuffled along, using our hands and bums to keep us from falling off the edge and into the abyss, the strangest thing happened. We turned a corner and all of a sudden the fog cleared and the sun came out. Stretched out before us was an endless stretch of sandy brickwork zig-zagging its way up and down the hilly landscape. We stopped dead, totally speechless. Bloody hell, we were on THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!

All our pictures from Asia are available in the gallery


April 27, 2010 at 1:41 pm 1 comment

I choo-choo-choose this? The number K117 train, Beijing to Chengdu

27th November, 2009
I have decided that I would never wish fame on anyone – maybe absolute fame, the kind that comes with fortune, private jets and bodyguards – but never just a moderate level of fame for its own sake.

I have been on the train from Beijing to Chengdu for seven hours, with only 24 more to go. Word has spread across the carriages that there is a western girl onboard, a blonde western girl, so everyone has been by to have a gawk. Outside my doorless shared cabin is a cluster of middle-aged Chinese men. Trying to be subtle, they rotate, taking it in turns to stare in at me. Occasionally one breaks rank to go to the sink a few feet away where he violently hocks up the contents of his pollution-damaged throat, spitting his gains down the drain. A few minutes ago a group of new people walked past and one ‘secretly’ took my picture. Pity the flash gave him away.

These are my fans.

While I have gotten used to this kind of attention since arriving in China (it seems that wherever I go I attract a crowd of gawking, photo-taking, video-making onlookers) the blank stares facing me right now are making it difficult to get anything done. Having developed a head cold on the Great Wall of China for example, I want to blow my nose. I also would like to hop down from my bunk and put on my shoes but I am painfully aware that neither my nose-blowing face nor my bent-over-ass-in-the-air-shoe-putting-on pose is particularly flattering should another pap happen past. So I stay put, smiling manically and perfecting my Queen’s wave. They don’t flinch but at least Gary gets the joke. Maybe I should start charging by the minute.

I suppose this is just another culture difference though, and one I should get used to if I am to travel Asia for the next five months. I have often stared at someone different – like an Amish person or a Buddhist monk. In fact only the other day I had the weirdest moment with a Tibetan cowboy when I was staring open-mouthed at him and he was staring open-mouthed at me and we both realized at the same time what was going on. And in fairness to them, I am pretty funny looking with my round eyes, long face, pointy nose and yellow hair. I guess I am their Tibetan cowboy.

At least I’m not the only one though, Gary was big in Japan (in more ways than one). When he went to the hairdressers they all gathered around to stroke his brown hair. And when we were in Nara a little girl came over and presented him with a paper crane that she had made. I let her away with it at the time but if I ever see her again…

Back on the train it seems that my novelty factor is starting to wear off as my captive audience disperses and heads for bed. Thankfully I now only have the regular Chinese train related problems to contend with. Like the huge bugs crawling across my bed, or the thick cloud of cigarette smoke that has enveloped the whole train or worst of all, the upset tummy that the “boiled” water onboard has given me. Being sick in a foreign country is bad but being sick on a rickety train with only a squat toilet – the floor of which is already pooled with urine, blood and the odd bit of faeces – is a whole lot less comfortable.

Sometimes this travel business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

December 5, 2009 at 2:05 am 3 comments

Jumping through hoops to please us. Beijing, China

26th November, 2009
This is more of a picture post so I’ll just give you the background:

We went to see an acrobatics show in Beijing on a tour organized by our hostel. The performers were pretty young but, being that they train them from when they are five years old here, they were still a hell of a lot better than anything you see in Duffy’s Circus. A lot of really impressive stuff – mostly from girls who couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old but were strong enough to lift a horse and light enough to balance on the hand of a teenage boy.

Lots of “ooh”-ing and “ahh”-ing. Fun times were had by all.

December 5, 2009 at 1:59 am 1 comment

What’s so Great about this Wall? Jinshaling to Simatai, China

November 25th, 2009

Cold, wet, exhausted and a little intimidated, Gary and I were ready to give up on the Great Wall of China before we even clapped eyes on it. In our infinite wisdom we had chosen to do the hardest section of the wall on one of the coldest days in months. This, combined with a pair of impractical shoes, resulted in Gary spending the first 45 minutes of our Great Wall adventure (a steep uphill climb through a forest currently coated in compacted ice) locked in an intimate embrace with the mountain.

Face to face, pelvis to pelvis, the two struggled for the upper hand, Gary shuffling his way forward a few inches before his opponent’s icy grip closed around his ankle, dragging him back on top of one of the ten local villagers who had followed us from the entrance. ‘Who are they? What do they want? Why are they following us?’ These are all questions that weren’t running through Gary’s mind as his sole focus was leveraging himself off an old lady’s shoulders and up another slippery foot.

Trying not to giggle as he fell on another octogenarian, I dangled our entrance ticket in front of Gary’s eyes for encouragement, promising him to most spectacular view once we got to the top. If we could only get through this patch of fog.

No such luck. As was a reoccurring theme during our trip to Beijing, once we got to the top we still couldn’t see 10ft in front of our noses. And our band of merry villagers were still following us with no indication of what they wanted. We had, of course, been warned. “It’s really slippy up there!” Our guide had said. “It’s really dangerous. You should just go straight to Simatai and you can walk all you want there. Please?” But we were hardcore and, after getting up at 5.30am and riding on a freezing cold bus with our legs tucked behind our ears for four hours we were going to climb the damned wall even if it killed us.

And there were times when it nearly did. When I was sliding down a hill on my bum, for example, because it was too steep and icy to stand up and I started to pick up speed and veer towards the edge of the wall and the foggy abyss. Or the time I nearly lost my footing on the first set of steps – steps that were so steep that you had to use both your hands and your feet to scale them.

It was in this grumpy, disappointed frame of mind that we stopped for a rest at the end of the Jinshaling section of the wall, holding up our entrance ticket to compare the view we had been promised (a beautiful, luscious image of the wall and its towers stretching on forever) to the one we had gotten (a few crumbling stones in the foreground and a whole lot of empty white space). Were we on the Great Wall of China or was this just another Chinese con? We could have been in the middle of the city for all we knew.

Then, as Gary once again put away his camera, sighing over his broken dreams, China suddenly started to give a little back. The fog peeled away to reveal the early afternoon sun bouncing off the yellow and brown reconstructed stones of the Simatai Great Wall of China.

Whatever about the original section (a great adventure and undoubtedly good to see), this was the pristine, powerful wall we had come to see – one we could trace as it snaked its way over mountains and across emerald green rivers, always picking the hardest path. Despite the freezing cold, the next seven slip-free kilometers were brilliant fun as we bounded, cheering and shouting and doing our finest Rocky impressions over the peaks.

I’m still not sure why  but the Great Wall of China is every inch of what it’s cracked up to be if you get the space, weather and visibility to enjoy it. Definitely the high point of our trip so far.

P.S. After literally carrying half of our team – including one incredibly unfit, considerably overweight American – 5km along the wall, our Chinese back-up team only wanted to sell us some chopsticks and postcards for 50 cent. You have to love an innovator.

December 2, 2009 at 4:37 pm 1 comment

It’s all about Cixi. Imperial residences, Beijing, China

24th November

Once upon a time in a land far far away there was a little girl called Cixi who always dreamed of being an empress. She dreamed that she would wear fine clothes, order 100 dishes to be made for dinner every day and have 10,000 caged birds released on her birthday every year. Then one day, when she was 15 years old, Cixi was called to the Imperial Palace to interview for a position as one of Emperor Xianfeng’s 10,000 concubines (mistresses).

Like many of the Emperors before him, Xinagfeng felt it was his personal responsibility to place his seed in every woman in the Chinese empire so every night he selected a tablet from a silver plate bearing the name of one of his concubines. The girl was then carried to his room wearing only a yellow cloth wrapped around her. She had to be carried because the bindings on her feet were too tight to allow luxuries such as walking. The servant carrying the girl was always a eunuch.

Despite the fact that the Emperor had his own palace with over 8,000 rooms, he was infected with the same illness as many other men and so many of his predecessors – jealousy. As such, the only men allowed into his palace had to be infertile, to protect the integrity of his many seeds. Thus the palace and its surrounding buildings was given the name of The Forbidden City. This however offered an opportunity to boys of bad blood and low class that they would never have otherwise – to gain entrance to the inner echelons of the Imperial circle. For this, they were willing to sacrifice their testicles and any social standing they had outside of the palace. In the hope that they would be buried whole, albeit apart from their family, they always carried their redundant testicles in a pouch on their belts.
Anyway, once installed inside the Imperial Palace walls, the ambitious Cixi soon became the Emperor’s favourite concubine, bearing him a son who would go on to become head of the empire. As her son was still an infant when Xinagfeng died, Cixi seized her opportunity to rule in his place as Empress Dowager (Queen Mum) for the following 25 years. When her son died of syphilis Cixi had him replaced with her nephew who she swiftly imprisoned, continuing her rule and her extravagant spending spree as China’s coffers got drier and drier.

One of Cixi’s most extravagant gifts to herself was her Summer Palace – a series of lodgings, temples and pleasure grounds set around a massive lake just outside Beijing. Of course Cixi understood that money didn’t grow on trees so, to cover the cost of building a giant marble ship and a series of building with names such as ‘The Hall of dispelling Clouds’, she cut the money that had been intended to build China’s navy.

Protected by all her layers of silk and her army of servants, the regent of China had nothing to do with the little people. It was in a typically misjudged fashion, therefore, that Cixi eventually shot herself in the foot. In response to foreign invasions of the Chinese borders and growing unrest among the population, Cixi collaborated with the racist Boxer Movement, ordering them to kill all foreigners in China, which they happily set about doing. When the western world inevitably retaliated, Cixi and her puppet nephew were forced to go into hiding. When they did eventually resurface there was little to be salvaged of their dynasty. Before she lost her position as Empress Dowager, Cixi did manage to pass one last order – to have her nephew assassinated.

December 2, 2009 at 3:38 pm 2 comments

There are 9,000,002 bicycles in Beijing

Monday 22nd November

Our first day in Beijing got off to a rough start when we saw a man being dragged by his ankles into a waiting police van by some acne-ridden soilders whose fingertips still hadn’t quite made it to the edge of their coat sleeves. Reserving judgement (and heavily influenced by Katie Melua), we decided to hire some bicycles to get to grips with the city. This, if I may say so myself (and it’s our blog, so I may) was the best idea ever.

First let me explain how the road system works in Beijing. To accomodate the massive amount of people living in the city, the roads range from 4 lanes (for the “tiny” sidealleys) to 12 lanes for the main thoroughfares. On the outside of the road there is a cycling lane – usually around 1 1/2 times the width of a normal lane – which is often closed off by a metal fence. Of course, this being China, it wouldn’t be any fun at all if there wasn’t a little chaos thrown into the mix. With an almost Irish disregard for the rules of the road, people wander in and out of the cycle lanes, bikes dart between 12 lanes of cars and impatient taxis and buses plough through any cyclists that are too slow to outrun them. Crossings are a whole other kettle of fish too. Rather than one filter light turning at a time, cars turning off are given a green at the same time as pedestrians and, with rarely any light to guide them, cyclists tend to just move into a tight formation and dart across the road, relying on the ‘safety in numbers’ principle and hoping that, while killing 1 in 1.3 billion might not raise any eyebrows, taking out 100 might.

So with blatant disregard for our safety, we packed up our baskets and hopped on our bikes. Gary, always the cautious one, took a while to get into the rhythm of things but once I demonstrated the best way to plough through slow pedestrians whilst ringing his bell manically and screaming, there was no stopping him. Barring a few close on calls with buses baring down on us head-on and stopping only 2ft away and a particularly daring u-turn across an 8-lane road, it was pretty smooth sailing.

Having a bike was a blessing as well as an exhilarating near-death experience though because it meant that when we came into contact with the telling odor of a public restroom (you can’t flush toilet paper here so faeces-coated tissue is just piled up in a seldom-emptied bin located a few inches from your squatting, pale green face) we were able to pick up the pace. It gave us a great sense of being removed from the city too, like we could see all the people squatting around cards tables and milling in and out of shops, but they couldn’t see us. Best of all, it gave us the means to visit loads of sites spread out across the city without ever having to sit on a bus with our ankles tucked behind our ears.

First stop was Tian’amen square. With the city’s smog-rating hovering around full scale we could hardly see 10 metres in front of our noses and, as a result, it was a lot more chilling than I thought a vast, empty slab of concrete ever could be. Knowing the history of the square and its massacre, it was pretty intimidating to see child soldier after child soldier emerging out of the clouds. We didn’t linger long though as we were drawing too much attention so, after being approached by two conmen hoping to take us to their “art exhibition” and four people hoping to have their photo taken with the only blonde in Beijing, we located our bikes and got going again – this time heading for the Temple of Heaven.

What can I say about the Temple of Heaven? It was big, round, had a lovely roof and I would imagine, a beautiful rose garden during the summer months. Like so many things in the city, it was a little lost to us in all its barren winter appearance. Maybe Beijing is beautiful and flower-scented during the warmer months but it’s just baltic and smelly right now so we didn’t hang about for too long. Gary took some beautiful photos though.

While we were cycling towards the three artificial lakes in the north of the city, we tripped across this absolute gem – The National Centre for Performing Arts.

It being late in the evening, the sun was setting and throwing the most beautiful orange glow across the glass hemisphere set in its own little lake. Reflected in the water, the Centre looked like a full sphere and, having a positive effect for once, the smog that shrouded the city behind the dome lent the whole scene a really eritheral quality – like a dream in which you can see the outline of your destination but can never reach it. Quite out of the blue (or in this case the smog) we were sold on China’s capital city.

Tomorrow – the Forbidden City!

November 29, 2009 at 9:40 pm 3 comments


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Over the next year we will be fighting in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South America.

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