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”

One year travelling round the world: thoughts on our first trip anniversary

One year travelling round the world: thoughts on our first trip anniversary

Today marks the end of our first year on the road. In 365 days we’ve visited seventeen countries and two sort-of-countries (Hong Kong and Macau), sort-of-visited another country (North Korea), crossed over two more (France and Belgium), and sailed in sight of another three (The Phillipines, Palau and Papua New Guinea). We’ve crossed borders 31 times (33 if you count the Korean MDL), once every 11 or 12 days on average. Gosh.

Seven of these crossings we made by boat, one by air, and the rest overland (or bridge).

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Leaving Russia for Japan by ferry: much more exciting than flying!

We’ve been on three continents, and ventured across both tropics and the equator. We’ve travelled thousands and thousands of kilometres — 4000 of them on the world’s longest passenger railway, 3000 by bicycle, and 8000 on board a cargo ship.

We’ve seen the great wall of China alone at sunrise, climbed sacred mountains, had a Russian sauna next to the biggest lake in the world (then jumped in), hiked ancient pilgrimages, floated in hot springs, sipped cocktails on top of skyscrapers, abseiled down a 60 metre waterfall, motorbiked down dirt roads to deserted beaches, learned how to rock climb by ourselves, roamed the temples of Angkor, snorkeled with sharks (plus a sea turtle, a ray, and a conger eel), and been surprised to find scores of whales breaching and splashing their tales, metres away from our boat.

In a sense these moments are what travel is all about, the peak experiences that make you feel truly fortunate to be alive, and to have the opportunity to travel. But they’re not what travel is made up of. They’re one day in 10, sometimes much less. Day to day, travel for us is about soaking up a place, trying the food, drinking the coffee, hanging out in the beer gardens, sitting in a temple watching the world go by. Continue reading “One year travelling round the world: thoughts on our first trip anniversary”

September Update: off on an Aussie road trip!

September Update: off on an Aussie road trip!

September has been a strange month for us. We left Asia after more than ten months of wandering, and in some ways it was not with a bang but with a whimper. We were loath to take the first flight of our now nearly year long trip, and doing so lent a weird disconnected feel to our last few days on Asian soil. I’ve become so used to the gradual, comprehensible slide from one place to another than overland travel creates. To hop from Hanoi to Hong Kong in less than two hours left me with a sense of not really being here and now, and of my presence being temporary. Just an interlude in my real life. Continue reading “September Update: off on an Aussie road trip!”

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!”