Hutong clans: exploring backstreet Beijing

Hutong clans: exploring backstreet Beijing

We’ve just finished our breakfast.

We’re sitting greasy fingered and sated, on low red plastic stools crammed into the corner of a tiny back alley shop. Dim light shrinks the room further, not reaching the edges, and the walls are busy with Chinese characters. Layered thick with decades of posters and signs. Everybody else in the room is Chinese, and they’re all looking at us expectantly, faces alight with bemused mirth.

As is common for us in China, we have no idea what we’ve just eaten. There were pancakes involved, and vegetables of some sort. Possibly other things. But it was delicious, and we smile at the room. Everybody beams back, and they all have a good old laugh. I’m sure they’re laughing with us, not at us. Possibly.

This is backstreet Beijing, and two foreigners eating pancakes are the funniest thing that’s happened all week. The camera phones come out. Everybody has to see this.

China is not for the camera shy

Five minutes later we’re leaving, with a bag of mystery pancakes to go, and contracted pupils from the repeated camera flashes. And we’re still grinning — all this mirth is infectious.

Being constantly photographed in China is something that I was at first bewildered by, quickly found endearing, and then slowly but insistently began to find irritating.

Really it’s all of those things: odd, charming, annoying.

That breakfast time I was firmly charmed by it, but by the afternoon cracks had appeared. Literally and metaphorically. But it would be hours until that happened. In the meantime, bellies full, we were off to delve deeper into Beijing’s hutongs.

Continue reading at our new home…

Collisions in Melbourne: Art that stuck in my head

Collisions in Melbourne: Art that stuck in my head

Happy 2017 guys! I’m going to start off the year with a short tale of a piece of art I saw last year.  One that’s stuck with me, lodged in my mind.

It contained what to me is a rare combination of qualities: an invitation to empathetic connection that struck very deep, and a joyful visual beauty. The kind of beauty that makes your heart feel lighter in your chest.

This piece of art crops up in my mind sometimes still, a small thing sending big ripples though my thoughts. And one that holds extra wonder because I came across it unexpectedly.

So I’m sharing this now, while you might have the chance to see it too!

Continue reading at our new home…

November Update: a new home!

November Update: a new home!

So, it’s been a while. A few reasons for this, but the most exciting one is, drumroll please…

Salt With Your Coffee has a new home! You can now find us at saltwithyourcoffee.com!

As with any new home, the decor isn’t quite how I want it yet, and I haven’t quite figured out where everything lives. But the main thing is there’s plenty of room, and plenty of flexibility to make the changes I’ve got planned over time. I hope you don’t mind sitting on boxes at the house warming party. I’m attempting to hold myself to the mantra that done is better than perfect.

Before I get on to what else we’ve been up to recently, a tiny bit of admin on following the blog now it’s been rehoused.

  1. If you follow the blog by email you should have got an email telling you about this post.  If that didn’t happen we’d be very grateful if you could let us know!
  2. If you follow using Facebook then nothing’s changed, you’ll still be able to see new posts on our page.
  3. If you follow with your WordPress account then you’ll still see new posts in your reader, but if you want to get email notifications then you’ll need to sign up for emails manually on the new site.  Sorry about that!

Phew! Moving on…

It’s been a busy few weeks for us. Lots of changes. Really the biggest one is arriving in a country where we plan to stay for a while: New Zealand. I’m not sure how long that ‘while’ will be, but let’s just say that I’ve bought myself a coffee mug and a swimming pool membership, and I’m getting a library card.

Continue Reading… at our new home.

The Maosoleum: paying Mao a visit in Beijing

The Maosoleum: paying Mao a visit in Beijing

Want to see a waxy faced dead communist?  This is your place.

We had to check out Mao after visiting Lenin in Moscow, and it was a markedly different experience.  While the Lenin mausoleum is fairly small and understated, and most of the visitors when we were there were tourists, Mao’s final resting place is a Big Deal.

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Lenin’s mausoleum: kinda small.

Actually, Mao is the only embalmed and displayed Asian leader not to have been preserved by the Russians. Fun fact.

We arrived bright and early at Tiananmen square, and after passing through three separate body scanner and pat down security checks, we were finally allowed to join the queue for the mausoleum.

I’m amazed we didn’t need our passports.

They’re big on security in China. You need to have yourself and your luggage scanned every time you enter a train or metro station. So it’s like going through airport security every time you want to hop on the tube. We quickly learnt not to bring a bag. Continue reading “The Maosoleum: paying Mao a visit in Beijing”

Margaret River Roadtrip: wine, wildflowers and woodsmoke (also beer)

Margaret River Roadtrip: wine, wildflowers and woodsmoke (also beer)

A few weeks back we took a road trip around the Margaret River wine region in Western Australia.  AKA glutton’s paradise.  Seriously.

If your idea of fun is bouncing from winery to brewery to cheesery, by way of beautiful beaches, cute lighthouses, and pretty forests packed with wildflowers and wildlife, this is your place.

It’s definitely our place.

If you’re wondering what happened to China (industrial waste, mostly) I thought I’d spare you an unending torrent of China posts by going off the chronological rails a little.  I haven’t given up on China, but I’ll be punctuating tales from the world’s loudest nation with some other bits and pieces.

We had such a brilliant time stuffing our faces and soaking up nature in Margaret River, so sharing this trip seemed perfect for the first China palate cleanser.  Enjoy!

Day 1 — A crafty vineyard and beer by the bay

Our first stop on the glutton’s trail was Vineyard 28, just off the Forrest Highway, about half way between Mandurah and Bunbury.  We were drawn in by the promise of quilts (I’m into quilting), but really we were there to taste some wine.  Which scared the pants off me. Continue reading “Margaret River Roadtrip: wine, wildflowers and woodsmoke (also beer)”

Imperial Beijing: the Forbidden City, and other World Heritage sights featuring extensive application of red paint (plus selfie sticks, soldiers, and bare bummed toddlers)

Imperial Beijing: the Forbidden City, and other World Heritage sights featuring extensive application of red paint (plus selfie sticks, soldiers, and bare bummed toddlers)

Our first morning in China I woke in our cosy bedroom to the sound of a man hawking the contents of his throat onto the street three floors below, the wet smack of his bounty on the pavement audible over the screech and rumble of nearby traffic.

Today was Arthur’s 30th birthday, and Beijing was kicking it off in style.

We spent five days in Beijing in total, and saw only a fraction of the sites.  It’s a big city, with a long and complicated history, and there’s a huge array of ways to spend your time here.  Beijing has six Unesco World Heritage sites (one less than the whole of Egypt, the Lonely Planet trills) and loads of modern corners to explore too.  With no hope (or desire) of seeing it all, we decided to start off on our first day with The Big One.

The Forbidden City

It really is very big.  And to be honest, that’s basically what you’re there to see.

It’s called the forbidden city because from 1420 to 1912, during its life as a working palace, you needed the emperor’s permission to enter.  You couldn’t just wander in.

After picking up a tasty but messy second breakfast of giant vegetable dumplings at a hole in the wall stall, we set off from our hostel to walk to Tiananmen square.  At one end of the square a looming portrait of Mao marks the entrance to the forbidden city. Continue reading “Imperial Beijing: the Forbidden City, and other World Heritage sights featuring extensive application of red paint (plus selfie sticks, soldiers, and bare bummed toddlers)”

On routine: reading, rambling, and mental health on the road

On routine: reading, rambling, and mental health on the road

I haven’t posted anything in a while, and now that I’m typing away, I don’t want to write about China (as I’d planned).  I don’t even really want to write about travel at all.

I sat down this morning and thought about finishing off my post about Beijing.  It’s sat there mostly finished.  Really I should just finish it.  But I don’t have any enthusiasm for it, and if I’m not writing with any enthusiasm, how can I expect you to read with any.

What I want to write about instead is home, and about trying to stay sane.

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For the first time in a while, last week we went hiking by ourselves.

The last couple of weeks has been a welcome change of pace for us.  We’ve been mostly hanging out with family, doing a bit of hiking, and these last few days swimming, camping, and going to the beach.  Spring is turning into summer in Western Australia, and I’m looking forward to spending as much time as possible outdoors in the next few months.

This — and some sad news from back home — has got me thinking about aIl of the things we’re missing being on the road.  Before you switch off, this isn’t (entirely) a moan fest.  I am profoundly grateful for all the experiences we’ve had in the last year.  I’m proud that we managed to carve out this time in our lives, and so very glad that we were in a position to make it happen.  It was hard work saving up enough for this trip to be an option, and it was hard to let go of our life in the UK, but we are very lucky that it was possible at all.

But naturally, spending time with familiar people in a familiar kind of life is making the loss of hearth and home more prominent in my mind.   Continue reading “On routine: reading, rambling, and mental health on the road”

Hello (ni hau) to China: a lesson in expectation management

Hello (ni hau) to China: a lesson in expectation management

Arriving by boat from Korea, our first real impression of China was to walk out of the port in Qingdao and find ourselves on a dual carriageway.  Above our heads was another road on a flyover.  The only traffic on the vast expanse of tarmac was a single tiny motorbike powered truck, which despite the abundance of road space did its level best to run us down.

The minimal traffic turned out to be an anomaly, as Beijing’s streets would show us later that day, but the unashamedly homicidal driving was not.  Owning a car is a relatively recent opportunity in China, but Chinese drivers already show an impressive mastery of their lethal potential.

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This is not typical Beijing traffic, there are usually many many cars trying their best to squash those who are in tiny tin can vehicles or riding bicycles with no helmet.

Across the road, we were in Qingdao proper, and here there were all sorts of wonderful things to see.  And all the more wonderful after a nice refreshing brush with certain death.

China wasn’t all hulking utilitarian modernity and trample-others-at-will hurry!

This China was something like the China of my imagination.  Bustling streets were full of people shopping, or sat eating on little plastic stools.  At every corner a truck piled high with produce was parked, fruit and vegetables spilling out onto dusty streets, and a brisk trade was done at the tailgate.  At one intersection a crowd clamoured for huge leafy cabbages, at another leeks and apples, at the next oranges.

The impression I got walking through old Qingdao was that this was the real China.  Ancient and bustling, winding streets, simply dressed people slurping noodles on low stools.

The next six weeks would dismantle this conceit entirely.  Not just in its particulars, but in the idea that there’s any such thing as the real China at all.  I still can’t make sense of what China is, and isn’t.  I’m not sure the Chinese know either. Continue reading “Hello (ni hau) to China: a lesson in expectation management”

For all the tea in China (how not to get a Chinese visa in Hanoi)

For all the tea in China (how not to get a Chinese visa in Hanoi)

We arrived at the Chinese embassy in Hanoi bright and early on Monday morning, freshly scrubbed and with our best tourist smiles firmly fixed on our tired faces.  With a six week love-hate affair with China only a recent memory, we were unexpectedly going back for more.  Our cargo ship was leaving from Hong Kong in three weeks, and to get to it without flying we’d need to cross China.  We were even hoping to see some sights along the way.  So we needed another visa.

Armed with online assurances that getting a Chinese visa in Hanoi was pretty straightforward, we were feeling optimistic.  Confident that we could jump though the hoops, if a little nervous that they might move them.

I don’t know what we were thinking.  China.  Straightforward.  Ha.

They didn’t so much move the hoops as set fire to them, replace them with different hoops, then hide them, refuse to let us anywhere near them for several days, convince us that we’d successfully jumped through them, then tell us that actually there weren’t any hoops right now, and even if there were we weren’t going to jump through them in time so we might as well just leave.

But lets not get ahead of ourselves. Continue reading “For all the tea in China (how not to get a Chinese visa in Hanoi)”

Tomorrow’s the day!

Tomorrow’s the day!

Exciting news! We are boarding our cargo ship first thing tomorrow morning, so we’re off to Australia! Aaaaaaah!

I’m writing sat out on the terrace at our hostel for tonight, the YHA Jockey Club Mount Davis, which has a spectacular view of the harbour, outlying islands, and the Hong Kong skyline. We’re having one of those moments that travel is all about. Everything seems well with the world, we have a spectacular view, each other, and impending adventure. And beer. Continue reading “Tomorrow’s the day!”