A trip to Inner Mongolia in pictures

I won’t lie to you all, I really can’t be bothered to write this post. I’ve been meaning to for months but just never found the time or energy. I went in a group of 11 to Inner Mongolia for golden week in October, and rather than try and document every detail of what happened like I usually do with my travel posts, for this one I’m going to do it slightly differently. I’m going to bang a bunch of pictures in then have a few bullet points underneath providing context and anecdotes. Hopefully it turns out okay! The original title for this post was The Yurt Life Tried To Kill Me, so enjoy!

Day 1: Hohhot Life.

  • When we got to Hohhot after an early flight we were shoved into a tiny car to transfer to the hostel. It smelt bad and meant I couldn’t sleep more.
  • There was no room at the hostel so we got moved to a nearby hotel for free!
  • We attempted to find food and stumbled into a nearby restaurant, ordered using google translate and entertained the locals by playing cards and taking pictures with them.
  • Then we explored the Muslim quarter of town where everyone presumed we were Muslims and wished us good fortune. The sun was shining, the air was clear and laughs were had.
  • Our attempt to find food in the evening resulted in a 2 and a half hour walk, a short taxi ride and a walk down 7 flights of stairs.
  • Then I slept. I was tired.

Day 2: Temple and Yurt Life.

  • We had to get up early to check out and get the bus out of the city to our yurt, but ended up having to wait for the people who had arrived on the overnight train from Beijing that morning.
  • Our first stop was at a random temple which we had a nice little tour around and were able to stretch our legs finally! It turned out as well that a lot of the other people on the tour had come through the British Council Language Assistant scheme too.
  • Then we drove into the country and found our yurt home. There’s nothing quite like a coach going off road in the grasslands – very very bumpy journey.
  • Most people then went horse-riding but I’m not a fan of horses and didn’t want to pay any more so I stayed behind and went for an exploratory walk with other people who had stayed behind.
  • Sorry for the bra straps in the picture – I didn’t expect to be warm enough to take my jumper off! Anyway, after people had come back from horse-riding we took it in turns with a bow and arrow and I managed to hit the target!
  • Then it was time to shovel dried poo for the camp fire that night which we sat around and drank, chatted, and watched Izzie nearly set herself on fire trying to light a cigarette.

Day 3: Desert Life.

  • Much driving occurred this day, like 6 hours or something stupid. It was long.
  • When we finally got to the actual desert it looked like a carpark. We got decked out in amazing sandshoes and climbed onto a big yellow truck for a short journey. Once the driver turned a certain corner – BAM! We were in the desert.
  • We climbed dunes, some people sledded back down them, and we rode camels. My favourite part of this desert was that you could still see the skyscrapers and power plants of the nearby city!
  • Then we checked into a hotel and failed to find a bar so ended up having an early night.

Day 4: Museum and Genghis Khan Life. 

  • I got sick. I woke up ill and didn’t recover for the rest of my trip so these last couple of days won’t have many pictures or anecdotes since my days mainly consisted of trying not to throw up and sleeping.
  • We went to a museum in the middle of nowhere which was so beautiful. When we were getting a tour around it some random Chinese man nearly headbutted me he came so close when he was looking in my eyes. Turns out he was confused that not all white people have the same colour eyes.
  • Behind the museum was a temple (type thing? I’m not quite sure, as I said I was ill). After walking around it for a bit I decided the only thing I felt up to was sitting down, so sat down on the wall around it until it was time to go. It was peaceful and had lots of fresh air which is what I needed.
  • In the afternoon we arrived back in Hohhot, and to our disappointment were put in the hostel instead of the hostel. After freshening up we headed out to see the Ghengis Khan statue which was cool, I’d perked up by this point, especially after the prospect of coffee!
  • At the statue were a group of Chinese men who were flying kites and we sat and watched them for ages, until the sun set and it was time to head back.

Day Five: Wall and Pagoda Life.

  • Turns out walking in fresh air is really good when you don’t feel well.
  • I wasn’t looking forward to this day since I’d already been to the Great Wall, but the section we were taken to wasn’t built up and really pretty.
  • We had minor issues getting down from the wall once we’d got up, but down is always harder!
  • Then we were taken to a pagoda, which I won’t lie, was pretty naff, but did have an excellent sign:img_3812
  • Good guys letting ‘deformities’ enter for free!
  • We got back to Hohhot in the evening and I can’t remember if anything else happened that day!

Day 6: Goodbye Life.

On the last day we were going to go to a museum but not everyone had their passports with them so we couldn’t. I started feeling ill again and ended up having to check my backpack for the journey home because I couldn’t carry it. When we got back I was supposed to be teaching the day after but then had a week off for military training. This was incredibly lucky for me because I ended up cancelling 2 classes after nearly fainting and didn’t have to cancel more because they’d already been cancelled!!

To sum up it was a great little tour in Inner Mongolia, full of laughter, fun, and memories I’ll have forever. Even if the yurt life did try to kill me.

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Hawai’i Part Five: Everything Else!!

Usually travelling is rather stressful, sorting out a hostel, planning what to do, making sure your things don’t get stolen etc… But having a base which was a friends home in Hawaii made everything 10x easier. It meant I could leave my things around and not worry, I had an actual comfortable bed, and most importantly, I could while away hours with Theresa watching Friends, Scrubs, Pretty Woman, Moana, Oceans 11, crap Hilary Duff movies, fantastic Haylie Duff movies, and the greatest movie of all time: Christian Mingle! On our more productive days and nights we took a little painting class and painted jellyfish, went to quiz night and game night, and explored Waikiki beach. It was so so nice to just be able to not do anything, to breathe clean air, to see the sea from the sofa, even to feel carpet again! I’m incredibly grateful to Theresa and her family for putting up with me for 2 and a half weeks, driving me around and showing me Oahu.

As well as watching and reviewing every Duff movie on Netflix, we sometimes managed to get out of the house and lay on the various beaches on offer as well as see various natural landmarks such as Chinaman’s Hat. On the drive up to North Shore (which is beautiful) I spotted a seal sunbathing, and when it was too windy to snorkel we sat for hours watching the waves and just relaxing. I was on holiday after all! We returned a few days later when the weather was better so I finally got to snorkel a couple of times. On my last day of snorkelling I followed a fish for a long time and decided it was called Michelle. Whilst I was meeting Michelle a whale was cruising the coast and I managed to see it when I got out of the water which was incredible. On the North Shore we ate from food trucks and managed to actually not get sunburnt! (I won’t lie though, I got sunburnt at the pool in the first week). As well as snorkelling the North Shore had a touristy town called Haliewa where we spent heaps of time walking around, ate some shaved ice, and bought yet more souvenirs. The days spent on the North Shore were so much fun and some of my favourites.

My last day in Hawaii was Superbowl Sunday! We planned to watch it at Theresa’s house and just have a chill day. It started off that way too – the national anthem was sung, the Bush’s came out and flipped a coin, the players ran onto the pitch….and the cable went out. I’m not even joking the second the game was supposed to start the cable went! Theresa’s Dad rang the company who did nothing and we sat around and waited. And waited. Turns out the high winds were causing issues and the power was intermittent too. It was sorted out after the half time show, so although I missed Lady Gaga I managed to catch the overtime and the final touchdown. Hands down it was the best American football game I’ve ever seen! After the game ended the cable went back out again and the wifi with it, so we played a card game and ate food before watching a DVD and going to bed. In the morning when my alarm went off to catch my flight there was still no power so I had to get ready by a camping light and hope that when I’d packed the day before I’d picked up all the small things which had scattered around. I left the pitch black house and headed to the airport which thankfully had power!

My journey back was long, I knew this before going in and yet it was longer than I thought because my first flight was 12 hours not the 8 it had been going! I managed to stay awake despite the cabin crew shutting the blinds and turning off the lights. The food was pretty good too, steak and mashed potatoes. When I eventually landed in Korea for my 19 and a half hour layover I left the airport and got picked up in a 13 seater black mini-bus with blacked out windows to go to the hotel I’d booked. To my delight I’d been upgraded to a suite so had a little entrance way and so much room! After sleeping, waking up at 4 with jet lag and heading to the airport again it was time to go back to China and back to Shijiazhuang.

Hawai’i Part Four: Natural Nature

This post will be less chronological than the previous since my days became more varied and rather than being pretty much a list of what I did each day like the last couple, I thought it would be more interesting to write thematically. So this post is about the various hikes/walks I did on Oahu.

Lulumahu Falls

We attempted this hike at least twice before actually completing it. Before we’d either do something else instead or there was no parking. After getting dropped off though it was time to start my hiking adventures. According to Theresa this hike was the hardest she was going to take me on, but it was even harder than expected due to the heavy wind and rain we’d had the first few days of my trip. The weather had felled trees which made it difficult to get across and in a couple of places people had put ropes up to help. In one particularly difficult spot the old trail had vanished and in its place was a muddy, slippy drop. It wasn’t particularly long, around 5 or 6 steps, just slippy and with little grip. There was a rope to help but the first step down was daunting. As we reached this point there was already a group there and a girl clinging to the tree refusing to move. Theresa offered to go first but since she couldn’t get around me I had to go. Rather than using a tree root as a foot hold like the people in front had done, I stupidly decided that I could stretch far enough. The drop was exactly the length of my legs it turns out and by stretching that far I caused myself to be unable to use stairs properly for 2 days. I did it though, and spent the rest of the hike loudly telling Theresa how proud of myself I was, and singing the Circle of Life from the Lion King. Eventually, after a scramble up some rocks, we made it to the falls and it was so worth it. They were so pretty and it was really peaceful, especially after the group before us (clinging tree girl had joined them) left. Before too long it was time to go back, and I was apprehensive because down is always harder than up,  but it wasn’t too bad, and we took a couple of alternative routes which were easier.

Manoa Falls

After a few days rest from the previous waterfall hike, we tackled one which was easier and more crowded. This hike was much easier, but still had a couple of steps where I got a bit stuck and had to be helped by Theresa. Children were doing this hike, which confirms that indeed, I am worse at hiking than small children. Once we reached the waterfall we stopped for a while and people watched the bro’s swimming in the pool, the dog running around everywhere, and an incredibly bossy child demanding where her mother should feed her. The boulders underneath were roped off for safety, but most people were clambering over them. At one point my heart stopped as an idiot started jumping from rock to rock and nearly fell. The walk back down was simple enough once Theresa provided a helpful hand and then it was back in the car for a sing-a-long for the journey home.

Koko Crater Botanical Gardens

Towards the end of my trip I started looking into what could be done on the island in more detail to make sure I did everything I wanted to do. As part of this, we ventured to Koko Crater Botanical Gardens, via a beautiful bay drive. I wasn’t exceptionally smart on this trip, and decided that flip-flops would be fine to wear. This resulted in my foot being impaled with a spike which had fallen from the plants around, thankfully it didn’t stop me exploring the gardens and trying to spot all the plants on the map. It was a simple enough walk, apart from the impaling and a minor diversion when we couldn’t find the way out, but it was nice to be out in the air on a warm day, and it was fun trying to spot the plants written about in the guide. On the way back we stopped at a lookout over the bay which was incredibly windy but worth it because I spotted some seals!

Friendship Gardens

This was the final hike of my trip, and once again required being dropped off and picked up as there was a lack of parking. At the top was a picture perfect view of Kaneohe Bay and the military base which was so beautiful. Unusually, it wasn’t the down which was hard but the up, and I almost fell dramatically but managed to save myself. Aside from this minor slip it was an easy hike, full of narrow turns as we basically walked up the side of a large hill surrounded by plants of various origins. The gardens were originally designed for use by the residents of the neighbourhood only, and as a result of the neighbourhood being planned to contain a diverse range of people, the plant life reflected this mix of people. One minute there were native plants, then bamboo and other Asian plants. This was common in most of the nature places I visited and I like the idea of people settling on the island and bringing familiar plants with them.

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Whilst exploring the nature of Oahu I stretched my thigh too far, waded in water, scrambled up and down boulders, slipped on mud, slipped on dirt, and got impaled. I had a cracking time! Also, getting to the Lulumahu Falls is up there with the greatest achievements of my life 😛

Hawai’i Part Three: Historical Hawai’i

Warning you all now – this post will probably bore you if you’re not that into history but I’m not sorry, I had a great few days!

Once I’d had a weekend to recover from jet lag and settle into island life it was time to start checking things off my to-do list. Since I was intruding on Theresa’s life for such a long time she had to work some of the days, mainly in the first week. I took this time to do things easily reachable by public transport (helpfully called ‘The Bus’) and managed to gain a pretty good understanding of the history of Hawaii in 3 very full days.

Monday was the day of the Bishop Museum. As most things, it was located on the other side of the island but it wasn’t too hard to get to, especially because Theresa’s mum came too and she understood the bus system! This museum was so good and definitely worth the entrance fee. We started off with the natural history of the islands which was definitely aimed more towards kids but it was still interesting looking at the impact the settlers had on the flora and fauna. After this we sat through a presentation in the planetarium and learnt about the constellations in the sky, specifically over Oahu on that particular night. Fun fact: Hawaii is the only place in the northern hemisphere where you can see the Southern Cross constellation. Then it was time for a tour around the main building. I’m not usually one for tours but this one was really good and gave you an introduction without demanding too much of your time. It meant that I could then explore the rest of the main building which centered on the development of the native Hawaiian population and Polynesia as a whole. I genuinely could have happily spent all day in the building but it was getting late and we had to leave to catch the express bus home. Definitely a fun day, but very very tiring!

Tuesday was my first (and only) completely solo day. I’d planned various options for my day since the weather forecast was unpredictable and kept changing. It ended up raining heavily so when I got off the bus in Honolulu I immediately ran for cover in a doorway with a couple of other people. Whenever there was a break in the rain I’d venture a little closer to my destination and eventually arrived at Iolani Palace – the only Royal Palace on American soil. With obvious European influences, the building itself was beautiful but I had to buy my ticket in the barracks next door. They made me do an audio tour for crowd control but honestly by this point I was just happy to be inside – the booties to protect to carpet stopped my flip-flops from getting my legs dirty. Did I mention I was in shorts in this torrential rain? Luckily it was warm, and like I said, the palace tour is an inside one. I had relatively low expectations of the palace, but it was actually really interesting. I spent longer than planned walking around and listening to the guide. The guide tried to set the scene for what life was like which was a different take than I was expecting and really fun. Some facts I learnt: the palace had electric lights before Buckingham Palace did, and they were controlled by a guy offsite. When they locked up the Queen after she was deposed one of her ladies followed her and they embroidered a quilt together. Also it turns out the government officials who used the building sold all the furniture so people are still looking for it! I love history! After juice and food it was time to head back – the weather hadn’t improved and I wanted to just relax a bit.

Wednesday was a day of two halves. Theresa was only working in the morning so in the afternoon we did a hike (to be documented in the next post) but in the morning her mum took me to Pearl Harbour. Pearl Harbour is a fascinating place, they’ve really made a point of the memorial aspect of the place and people take it very seriously. I didn’t realise how close to the surface the Arizona is and seeing the names on the wall reminded me of the cenotaphs at home but on a bigger scale. Before you are taken to the ship you have to watch a 20 minute video about the event which goes into detail about the events leading up to the attack and a little bit about it afterwards. They did a good job of putting the attack in the context of both American and Japanese perspectives, both in the video and in the gallery attached. What was cool as well is that outside the gift shops they had book stands manned by the authors who were talking to interested people and telling them about their books. War history usually bores me honestly, but this was handled well and managed to get me interested in the event.

All in all it was a very educational 2 and a half days and I definitely know more about the history of Hawaii than I did before going!

 

Hawai’i Part Two: Beezus, Bro’s and Bob’s

After many hours of travel, I finally arrived in Honolulu airport and was reunited with the Bruce to my Vasper. I was given a beautiful fresh flower lei and was driven across the island to Kaneohe where I would be staying for my trip. Once there I marvelled at the feeling of carpet on my toes, changed into much cooler clothes, and was introduced to Quincy, Theresa’s adorable dog.

The first day is kind of a blur since I was jetlagged from not sleeping on the plane and confused that it was still Thursday! It mainly consisted of eating,  praising Beezus, and catching up. The next day I got stuck into island life, starting with mimoas on the balcony overlooking the bay. Once we’d decided to actually move and get dressed we went to the nearby botanical gardens and I got to see more of the islands beauty. That night we went to a local bar (Bob’s) with some of Theresa’s friends for what turned into a hilarious night out. A memorable moment was when some random guy came over and attempted to talk to us, upon learning that I was from the UK he chanted LEEDS LEEDS LEEDS at me for about a minute. When I then informed him that I was from Leeds he refused to believe me, and then refused to leave. He eventually left us alone, and joined some girl on the dance floor who was flailing around spectacularly, so everyone was happy! After trying cinnamon whisky, taking bathroom selfies, and dancing it was time to leave but it was a great night.

On my list of things to do was to see a hula performed, and it turns out a mall has shows for free everyday, so on Saturday we headed across the island to shop and see the performance. Aside from one spectacularly creepy male dancer, it was really good and demonstrated the history and evolution of the dance via songs which was so cool. Since we were at the mall I took the opportunity to buy some souvenirs, including some amazing socks which make it look like you’re wearing flip-flops which I later wore with my flip-flops to Theresa’s disapproving look. We had a minor problem getting home as we ran into a Chinese New Year parade and had to wait for it to pass before we could go. As much as I tried to avoid the Chinatown and Chinese food, China seems to follow me around!

Sunday was meant to be hike day, but high winds and lots of rain the day before meant that the carpark was full as everyone flocked to the hike on a decent day. As a result we went for Mexican food, margaritas, and even more shopping in Kailua. I couldn’t complain, it was a great afternoon and the best hike I’ve ever done! In the evening we went to a Bubbly Sunday dinner party at one of Theresa’s friends house and met Noodles and Pono, who are easily 2 of the cutest dogs I’ve ever seen in my life. It was so much fun to eat good food, drink champagne, and chat to people who all spoke English well! Very unlike China!

My first weekend in Hawaii consisted of relaxing and settling in, eating food, and meeting people. It was so much fun, even if the Thursday was ridiculously long.

Christmas time, Pollution and Flu

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Unless you’ve got a killer cold and the pollution is off the scale, in which case it’s Christmas in Shijiazhuang!

This festive season, I was, as previously stated, full of cold. Mainly affecting my throat, it meant that I sounded sterner in class which was nice, but the slight fever meant that I could not control my temperature and therefore didn’t wear enough clothes in class (according to the kids. I assure you all, I was well covered!). While it made me short-tempered, I was able to enjoy my Christmas classes with the students and the Christmas party with the foreign students. (Cultural Exchanges).

The annual Christmas gift from the government this year was a kettle. Sounds underwhelming, but it has the ability to keep water hot! This has been very useful lately. After the handshake, we had to go for lunch with some of the officials, which was bizarre, but had good food! Plus the restaurant had fish everywhere which I kept staring at 😀

Last year on Christmas Day, we had a lovely buffet meal at the Hilton, but this year with the day being a weekend, we had to settle for Christmas Eve Eve! After faffing last year with expensive wine we brought our own in, and proceeded to have an excellent night chatting, eating and being merry. Unfortunately, the combination of wine and flu meant that I woke up on Saturday with a migraine which immobilised me all day, and I missed out on the Christmas Eve get together.

By Christmas Day I’d recovered enough to have brunch and secret Santa with the squad downstairs before trekking across the city, cooked goose in tow, for more celebrations and food at Sarah’s apartment. I’m still not sure how we all crammed into her living room and cooked more than enough food for all of us in her tiny kitchen and oven.Eventually everything had been cooked and we sat down to a meal which included goose fat roast potatoes, YORKSHIRE PUDDINGS, gravy and mash. It was spectacular!! Afterwards a couple of people slightly died and we all just chatted and played games.

All in all it was a good Christmas, even if it was ridiculously polluted and I was sick!

Cultural Exchanges

In December the foreign teachers and I were lucky enough to be invited to 2 separate parties celebrating the festive season. At the first, the foreign students had prepared several small performances and the foreign teachers had prepared nothing, so hastily assembled and wowed everyone with a rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’. The Christmas party was much less formal that what I expected, and once the performances were over we were able to just chat and mess about (mainly with the wig we’d bought for the New Years party).

As part of the New Years celebrations at the school, we sacrificed one of our lunchtimes to attend a party with the foreign students, the senior special classes, everyone in the foreign affairs office and small children and their parents. I’m still not entirely sure who the small children and parents were but they seemed to enjoy themselves. Now, like the party I attended in class 4 last year (新年快乐!) this was less of a social affair and more of a talent show. After much complaining, we were informed that we had to put on some form of performance for everyone, and after a quick accidental brainstorming session on the staircase one evening, we decided to stage a traditional English pantomime, complete with a panto dame, audience participation and free sweets.

Putting my A-level in drama to good use, I became a minor character (although I received good feedback from the students!). The basic story was that after skipping school, naughty students opened up a rift in space-time and fell into a strange world where an evil cat witch was turning everyone into cats. Poor Sean was tasked with narrating in Chinese, and everyone else got to prance about on stage. Although we were worried they wouldn’t understand what was happening, the students laughed at the jokes as well as at the panto dame and the physical comedy and it was a right laugh.

After our spectacular performance, it was the turn of the foreign affairs office who had also been forced to do something on stage and then the special students and the foreign students. I was genuinely impressed by what the students were doing, including playing traditional instruments, painting, rapping and dancing. One class performed an extract from Merchant of Venice (which included a spectacular mustachioed student) and as well as remembering their lines, they actually added emotion into the dialogue too. I had to leave early to teach (even though I begged Sarah to move my class) and was gutted to miss the students performance of King Lear.

However, as luck would have it, I taught both special classes that afternoon. I’d quickly realised that my lesson plan on animal synonyms would kill the adrenaline and happiness from the party so decided to play games with them instead. It also meant that I got to see an encore of King Lear after asking nicely.

I was really apprehensive about the performance and the party in general but it ended up being a great lunch and I enjoyed myself.

Blending the future and the past: a trip to South Korea.

Hello everyone! Before I can post anything from this new school year, I have to finish off the stories from last year. I did this by taking a trip to South Korea with Izzie.

Before I even flew to China I had booked my return flight home, panicked that I’d booked it for before my contract ended and then rebooked it for the start of July. When the school told us that teaching for us would end 10 days before the end of the contract, I felt a mixture of happiness that I would have enough time to say goodbye to everyone, and annoyance that I’d forked out money to change my flight when that was unnecessary. As a result I was determined to use the end of my time in the East productively, and tagged along on Izzie’s pre-booked trip to Korea.

After having some emotional goodbyes with the students and the teachers who weren’t returning for a second year, I was happy to escape the bugs and pollution of Shijiazhuang for another trip to Beijing before setting off for the airport the following day. Izzie and I were on separate flights, and naturally mine was delayed a couple of hours so by the time Izzie got there, I was still on the tarmac in China. Eventually we were reunited in Seoul and decided that we were long overdue the famous Korean bbq, supplemented of course by some beer. Since we had absolutely no idea what the exchange rate was between Korea and China and were scared to look at the state of the pound (this was the day the news came in on the referendum), we decided to just go with what was recommended and had a great time using metal chopsticks and having deliciously barbequed meat. In terms of the beer, we went to a place and decided to do the traditional ‘point blindly and hope for the best’ method of ordering. I’m still not sure what I pointed at but it ended up that we both got 4 half pints of various beers to taste and from then on we could just point at the one we wanted another of. An unexpected difficulty arose when one of the beers had been poured terribly and the barrel clearly needed changing so Izzie had to mime and hand gesture the staff to pour another, better one!

We’d decided in advance that our main aims for the trip were to avoid early starts if possible,  to drink plenty of coffee and beer, and to shop until we dropped. With this in mind we had a relaxing morning showering and using the nearby cafe’s wifi to plan our day. After setting out and buying Izzie a new outfit (the plane had left without her luggage), we went to all the different beauty shops and I proceeded to spent a lot of money on all the different products on offer. While I had budgeted to splurge and spend the money I’d saved, it was still painful to part with it. Lunch that day was at one of the Hello Kitty cafe’s – an explosion of pink, cats and cuteness all in one room. Izzie had found her home and I was happy to be eating!

Seoul is rightfully known for its shopping districts and malls, some of which are underground. We didn’t intend to check out the underground malls – we just got trapped in a seemingly never-ending circle of paintings, dvds, K-Pop memorabilia and the same bike with huge wheels which let us know that we had, once again, walked in a circle. How did we get lost? We thought we recognised where we were and were looking for the underground station so headed underground. Clearly that was a huge mistake as we literally spent close to an hour following signs which led us nowhere, popping back up to the surface to get our bearings and descending once more into oblivion. When we found the underground station after giving up hope on the mall having correct signs, it turns out it was about a 5 minute walk up the road… Still, it was certainly an adventure!

After finding the underground station we headed to a different shopping area of Seoul. This one we christened ‘Sock Central’ since it had so many stalls with cute socks on. Since they were quite cheap between the two of us we bought a heap! It was this part of town where we bought clothes and checked out the Korean fashion. Generally shopping in Korean vintagey type shops was great – while nothing really fitted me or was my style, I had a great time people watching and Izzie was over the moon! As well as the numerous sock stands, it was getting towards tea time so the street food stands were out. Naturally we decided that we hadn’t experienced Korea unless we had street food, so it was time to try Korean meat on a stick! Although I asked for it without spice, as is usual for Asia it still had a kick but was delicious. The main issue was how messy it was! As everyone who knows me knows, I’m an incredibly messy eater as it is, so eating something covered in sauce was never going to end well – my Converse now have a small splodge to remind me of this trip.

Since we only had 3 full days in Seoul we made the most of them, and on the first evening headed to Gangnam to explore and find yet more food. Gangnam reminded me so much of Oxford Street in London, especially since we got there around 6ish when everyone was finished with work so it was packed. When we eventually ordered food, it turns out that the place we’d chosen didn’t have individual meals but sharing plates. Inadvertently therefore, we’d ordered enough food for at least 4 people – and we weren’t that hungry! It did taste good though so it wasn’t a huge loss. After food we headed  back to the hostel since we had our only early start the next day – a 7am wake up for a trip to the DMZ.

Now just a brief word about our hostel. I wasn’t a huge fan of the room since they had no plugs available for the top bunks and the light above me had no working switch so was on all night. The very first thing we did was book a DMZ tour and when we booked we’d been warned that the pick up would leave without us if we weren’t outside at the right time so I was outside at least 15 minutes before the time. We’d booked through a really chill Korean guy who worked there, but it turns out he didn’t actually book us on, so the time came and went with no pick up. When the guy came outside for a cigarette he told us that we must have missed it. I was genuinely so mad all I could do is walk to the end of the drive and sit down and be angry until the reception opened an hour and a half later and I could try and sort it out. Izzie joined me one I’d calmed down slightly and my mood improved once a random taxi driver gave us some newspapers to read and sit on. When the reception finally opened I went in expecting to have to yell and get really angry, but the girl on duty, Jessica, sorted it out straight away and booked us on the afternoon (more expensive) tour, and made it so we didn’t have to pay more.

When we were eventually on our way, our tour group was led by an incredible guide called George who on the drive up gave us a history of the DMZ and why it was created as well as answering any questions about Korea that we had. The one major thing I noticed was how the second we were outside Seoul, everything suddenly got very serious – barbed wire and guards on the riverbank and the sort. When you’re in the centre of the city you forget entirely the history of Korea and just think you’re in a completely safe place. This is in such sharp contrast to outside of the city where there’s a stark reminder of the current situation in Korea.

Our first stop was a place which told us more about the history of the area and the various attempts at unification which have happened throughout the years. It was a beautiful day to be outside and walking around, and it was really interesting to learn something new. After lunch we headed as part of a bigger group to the actual DMZ. On the way up George pointed out more interesting sights, such as the landmine signs everywhere and the lack of trees on the North Korean side of the border. We headed first to the train station which was built at a time where relations between the 2 Korea’s was better, but it was never used since by the time it was complete relations had deteriorated once more. Here we got stamps from the area and took classic Chinese pictures.

The actual DMZ was super creepy. The area has become a sort of nature preserve since it’s too dangerous for humans to go onto. Past the 4 mile line are 2 propaganda towns, and we were lucky (?) enough to hear North Korean propaganda being blasted from loudspeakers. As well as propaganda towns, there was also an actual North Korean city. Although I looked through the binoculars, I couldn’t see any people. George provided context for a lot of the structures we saw and facts about the towns. Apparently the South Korean town is actually populated! The North Korean one isn’t though, but the North Korean’s have tried to convince them that it is.

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Our final stop was the infiltration tunnels. These are tunnels which were dug from the North Korean side after the Korean War had finished in preparation. We were actually allowed to walk down one which got worringly close to Seoul before being discovered. Since it was underground it was a steep walk down and back up again – we decided that that was our exercise for the week! We also got to see a really weird film about the history of the infiltration tunnels and the Korean War which was clearly made from the South Korean perspective and almost seemed like a trailer for Hollywood’s next summer blockbuster! After taking some more pictures it was time to head back to Seoul, where we spent another couple of hours shopping and sitting in a pub and people watching. It was here where we saw the best thing ever – a dog sat at a table like a human being! I genuinely could not stop laughing but you’ll have to take my word for it as I didn’t have the chance to take a photo.

The next day was our last full one and we had another wonderfully lazy morning before heading to an area of Seoul which had traditional architecture and people walking around in national dress. It was really nice to just have a bit of an explore and get lost on purpose as well as see what Korea used to be like. Our lazy morning worked in our favour as all the opening times were after 10 so we didn’t miss out on anything. For the last night we decided to treat ourselves and went for a fancyish meal before watching what was supposed to be a great water and light show off of a bridge. I say supposed to be because it was a huge anti-climax and looked naff! It was nice however to wander around the waterfront park at night and just chat. Then, once again, we got lost trying to find the underground so wandered the streets of Korea before returning to the hostel and packing – the next day I was going back to China and Izzie was venturing to Japan.

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If you’ve made it this far into the post congratulations!! To sum up South Korea in a few sentences is hard, but it really is a blend between the traditional past and the military/ technological present. I can’t wait to go back.

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Chengdu!

This will be a shorter-than-usual travelling post since it actually happened over 2 months ago at the start of April! Once I landed back in China and started teaching back in Shijiazhuang, I got itchy feet and started planning my next trip away. I knew it would probably be my last for a while, both because there were very few holidays left, and because I was once again skint, and trying to save money. I decided that Chengdu would be the place of my next adventure – the main draw being the pandas of course! So I caught a flight late on Friday and after arguing with a taxi driver, arrived at my hostel and started chatting with the people there.

I had a long weekend in Chengdu but had made no concrete plans before getting there. I decided to spend Saturday just exploring the city – doing the classic getting lost on purpose which is so much fun. I ended up shopping, exploring the monastery near my hostel and spent most of the morning at the Jinsha archaeological site. Whilst it’s probably not to everyone’s tastes I had a fantastic time exploring the grounds in the sunshine, looking at the deer and of course seeing the artifacts on display. Home to some of the most delicate gold work I’ve ever seen, it was a great place to spend a few hours. They had a temporary Roman exhibition there too which was very strange! I couldn’t tell whether or not what was on display was real or a replica. It was also interestingly organised – thematically not chronologically. Because I had got there early, I managed to spend the majority of my visit with very few people around me.

The next day I decided to do a day trip to the mountains on the outskirts of Chengdu. As is typical with mountains in China, it was a lot of walking surrounded by a lot of people. I had to queue for ages to get my ticket inside but once I was through it was really nice to get back to nature, breathe clean air and imagine how China looked before it was modernised. There was a huge lake where I took a breather and had an ice cream before taking the shuttle up to the rest of the mountain. After exploring a temple at the top and enjoying the view down, I decided against walking to the absolute top as it was still quite a way away. Instead I ventured back down and headed back into the city and Jinli Street. Jinli Street is a great place to explore at night, full of little shops selling things and food shacks and bars. I sent a postcard home from there and got a henna tattoo on my hand before heading back to the hostel to get a good nights rest before seeing the pandas the next day!!

 

I woke up early to see the pandas – I was going on a national holiday and expected the crowds to be huge (I was right). Because I was up early, I got to see the pandas being fed – indeed I spent an hour at one of the enclosures watching the workers clean up and put down fresh bamboo before the panda ambled out and enjoyed a second breakfast. Each of the enclosures had information on the pandas inside. The one I’d spent longest watching had the same birthday as me! The adult pandas were kept alone but the younger ones were together. Once I’d forced my way to the front of the crowds it was genuinely amazing to watch the incredible creatures interact with each other and play fight like real children.

The research base I visited was absolutely huge! I spent just under 6 hours exploring the different enclosures and seeing the pandas of different ages. I ended up leaving mainly because I was hungry – the hostel provided me with free breakfast but it wasn’t much and I couldn’t find food inside. Plus my feet were absolutely killing me after so much walking! Since my flight wasn’t until late, I made my way back to the airport and chilled there with my book and homemade food given to me by the staff before catching the shuttle bus to the airport and heading back to the Shiz.

Chengdu captured my heart and I can’t wait to visit again!

The epic conclusion 

Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I’ll begin.

My last adventure in Thailand took place in the beautiful city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. Before I went, all I knew of the city was that it had markets, it had many temples, and it was somewhere I could interact with elephants. Chiang Mai had all those those things and more. I spent a week there by myself and thoroughly enjoyed myself; I could have easily spent much longer in that city. When booking my trip, I’d decided to treat myself and stay in a private room rather than a dorm, since I was going to be there for so long. This was a great decision! I stayed at Diva 2 guesthouse and could not recommend it more!! The rooms were surprisingly  large and clean, they had a rooftop area where I could meet other travellers, the staff genuinely went above and beyond to make sure I was having a good time and helped me with any questions I had, even before I arrived.They had a tour desk which I used to arrange my trip to see elephants and any other activities I wanted to do.

Rather than arrange what I did chronologically, since it was 2 and half months ago now, I’m going to do it thematically. So lets start with the temples. Chiang Mai has a ridiculous amount of temples and their around every corner. When I started exploring on my first evening, I stumbled across  a temple having some form of evening worship with the doors open. It was a really peaceful time and the intimacy of the enclosed place was simply stunning. Walking around the gardens afterwords I met a couple of girls and we had dinner together, having the traditional Northern dish of Khao Soi (a yellow curry). It was perhaps a little too spicy for me but was absolutely delicious. After saying goodbye to my new friends, I walked in the general direction of the hostel and found a great bookshop and a bar that was working out of a VW type van. Since Chiang Mai is surrounded by walls/one huge road, it’s pretty easy to fine your way around if you’re staying in the city. The basic rule is to not cross the walls/huge road!

I spent at least one day and one afternoon wandering around some of the temples in the city. As cultured as I tried to become, they did eventually end up all kind of looking the same! The bigger ones are really nice to walk around, but some were very touristy which was a shame. When visiting the temples in Thailand you have to make sure you’re dressed respectably. This isn’t that enforced in Chiang Mai, but going into temples in short shorts and crop tops is disrespectful. Another thing is when you’re visiting you have to take your shoes off, so make sure you wear sandals or flip flops not proper shoes! In one of them, a monk was tying string around people’s wrists and spraying them with what I presumed was holy water, so obviously I went up and got mine. I spent about an hour in that temple, just observing the worshippers and enjoying being able to take the time to sit down and be by myself and think. It might sound ridiculous but I really enjoyed it. Another one of the temples, just outside the walls was incredibly old, and contained the ashes of a renowned monk. This was a much quieter temple, so I found a shaded corner and read for a while, just soaking up the atmosphere. On the whole the temples were great places to wander around and think, especially for solo travellers.

 

Another day I did a day trip to the outskirts of the city and up a mountain to see another temple: Doi Suthep. Getting there was a right faff but once I managed to get there (via a red taxi and then changing to a minibus on the side of the road) it was amazing. The temple itself was similar to the ones in the city, but the amount of gold was incredible and the decorative colours were beautiful. Because it was such a hot day, it was a great place to enjoy an ice cream and the views from the top were incredible! They had information signs telling you about the legend of the white elephant – something which I had read about at all the other temples so it was nice to see the end of the elephants journey. Compared to the temples in the city this one seemed even more touristy which was a disappointment. They had people who were trying to charge to take a photo of you. Luckily by this point in my solo travels I had mastered the art of portrait selfies using a selfie stick, and another girl was travelling alone so we traded photos. At all the temples you could see monks going about their daily business, and at this one I was lucky enough to see the female equivalents.

Continuing my education I had a day visiting the museums of Chiang Mai. The main 3 were all within a short walk of my hostel, and since you could buy a combined ticket to enter all 3, I set out to learn about the city I was growing to love. By the end of the day I was musuemed out but I had learnt a lot! The museums were all really interesting and offered a look at the history of the old kingdom which used to be separate from Siam until relatively recently. It also helped to put into context the different things I had learnt from the temples, as well as the information from the museum I visited in Bangkok. Happily too, it was next to a cool mango dessert restaurant and within walking distance to an amazing coffee shop which was recommended by Noi and became my regular! All in all it was a good day, and it was nice to spend a bit of time out of the sun. My days in Chiang Mai were actually relatively short. Since I was walking for hours and hours a day, I was sleeping a lot and getting really tired! I think I was up to 4 coffees by the end of my trip. Thankfully the hostel bed was comfortable and the coffee good! I didn’t take any photos in the museum, so enjoy these photos of around Chiang Mai!

Chiang Mai is, rightfully so, famous for its many markets. This reputation was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit, and I had tried my best to save money for them so I could fully enjoy them. The night market is outside of the city walls and was about a 25 minute stroll from my hostel. It was an amazing place to explore and I spent literally 4 hours wandering around, eating street food and stocking up on the type of knick-knacks you can only find at markets. I ended up buying a drawstring back bag to replace my broken backpack from Camden, a passport cover and many other small items. While yes, a lot of the stalls do sell the same things, I really love exploring markets to see what’s on offer. I disappeared between 2 buildings and found a large food area with a live band, haystacks to sit on and lots of beer to buy. There was a drag show in another part of the market, but since you had to pay to get in I decided to save my money.I tried all sorts of street food, including quails eggs and I made sure I had the famous Thai dessert of mango and sticky sweet rice with coconut milk. While I’m glad I did it, I don’t think I’d have it again – it was a little sweet for me. After shopping until my feet were about to fall off I splurged on a tuk tuk home and completely crashed. Because I was in Chiang Mai for a week, I could also explore the Sunday market. Since this took place on the main street of town (happily the same street as the previously mentioned coffee shop), I decided to head there early and watch them set up whilst drinking a coffee. Although I don’t have many photos – I’d used all my battery on snapchat and facebook, this market was amazing. I was so glad I got there early though as after maybe 3 hours it got far too crowded. It was a better market than the night one I think though. They had more variety of things to sell and most of it appeared to be handmade. I got a load of pretty earrings for really cheap, and you could usually see people making what they were selling there and then. When it got too crowded for me, I escaped down a street and walked the long way home to avoid the crowds.

Hang in there, you’ve read more than 1500 words but I’m nearly done I promise! There’s only one more experience from Chiang Mai that I’d like to blog about.

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ELEPHANTS!

On my penultimate day in Chiang Mai, I finally did what I came to Thailand to do…SEE SOME ELEPHANTS! Hopefully noone is surprised that there’s no photo of me riding them – it’s cruel and people shouldn’t do it. I’d booked this tour through my hostel on the first day and was so excited! I was picked up early in the morning in a truck, and headed all around the city picking up more people – the Elephant Crew. After a long and incredibly bumpy ride to the sanctuary, we had a little walk down to the base. We really were in the middle of nowhere and it was amazing. We had to put on these cool patterned shirts so that the elephants would recognise us as friends and not be too scared. A short hike up a hill later and we encountered the first elephants of the day! Actually seeing them up close for the first time without a fence was something I know that I’ll never forget. We fed them and took pictures with them and generally showered them with love. The sanctuary I visited had 6 elephants, included 2 babies! They looked well taken care of and were happy to see us. We saw them all in pairs and the last were a mother and youngster who came bounding over to greet us in the cutest possible way ever! When they made us leave we were so sad but also absolutely starving since we’d spent a good couple of hours being introduced to them.

After refueling it was time to strip off and enjoy a refreshing dip with the elephants and then a mud bath. Being me, I was one of the first in the water and ended up nearly being crushed by the younger elephant when she decided she wanted the lie down – luckily one of the guides pulled me backwards. The river we were in wasn’t exactly clean, and washing the elephants became a mixture of splashing water on them, scrubbing them and dodging their feet when they decided to move! It was hilarious though. Next up was the mud bath which was predictably filthy – especially when the guides decided we were too clean and begun a mud fight! The elephants seemed to really enjoy the mud though, and I spent most of my time covering the trunk of one. After cleaning off as best we could in the river, it was time to head back to the city for a proper shower and a meal with the Elephant Crew.

Seeing the elephants, temples and markets of Chiang Mai was a highlight of Thailand, and I truly never will forget the people I met, elephants I fed and above all the warmth and friendliness of the Thai people.