Sunday, 27 July 2008

Sydney in Winter


With black clouds looming and ice creeping across the Southern Highlands, Ric and I have said goodbye to Mittagong and escaped to the warmer climbs of Sydney, which is a crisp 7-9°C. Not at all cold by English standards but bloody freezing for us at the moment!

We're staying with more of the Crawford clan, my uncle and aunt and their five - yes five - offspring at their gorgeous house in the leafy suburbs north of the city. They are kindly putting us up while we search for a flat.

I haven't seen any of them for about fourteen years and I'm finding it hard to resist the temptation to tell them all how big they've grown!

As lovely as it is here and as wonderful as it is to see my family again, we don't want to outstay our welcome and are longing to unpack our grubby bags once and for all, so the pressure is now on for Ric and I to sort ourselves out. We've been thumbing through the rentals listings in the weekend papers and emailing agents and tomorrow we'll head in to town to register with a few estate agents.

I ain't cheap here that's for sure; probably about the same as London. We're fairly confident we'll find a nice flat somewhere though, despite the waiting lists we have been warned about. We don't need a palace to make us happy! A swimming pool and gym would be nice though...

Depending on Ric's level of patience, I will also be on a mission to find pair of long woolly boots (yes, perhaps even Uggs), some warm trousers and a couple of jumpers since I have arrived woefully ill-prepared for the Aussie winter which wont last long but long enough to warrant at least one shopping trip! My cousins are finding it hilarious that we, the Londoners, are walking around the house wearing scarves, gloves and rugs over our shoulders!

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Lavish Lounge

Always keen to flag up fabulous female blogs, I'd like to draw your attention to Lavish Lounge, written by my most geeky-but-sexy girlfriend Stacey who runs a creative services consultancy in Central London. I can honestly say that my short working relationship with her and Lavish was the best thing to come out of my stint at SPZ Music last year and we only ever met each other twice!

Not does she have the ability inspire even the least geekily orientated people (like me) but she has radiated such warmth and positivity and been such a massive support to me as I set off around Asia and now embark on a new life Downunder.

What a great read her blog is! I wish I had my finger in as many creative pies as she seems to right now!

I don't care if this sounds rather gushy - Stacey, you're a star!

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Eating, Sleeping and Wrapping Up Warm

Hello. I'm still here, blogging.

Ric and I have been sleeping in late, padding about in slippers and woolly hats and stuffing our faces for three days now here in Mittagong. We will have to replenish the shelves before we leave here on Sunday!

We've not been complete Sloths though and have done some activity, even braving the cold weather. Yesterday we went for an 8km hike to see some local waterfalls and returned home with red cheeks, runny noses and sore thighs! There was no one else in the woods, only the animals. Kookaburra's squawked at us from high up in the trees and other birds (or maybe snakes and lizards?) rustled in the undergrowth around our feet.

We saw some stunning scenery including huge brown rock formations, brilliant yellow blossoms, towering silver trunked gum trees and of course the waterfall. It all feels very familiar to me even after all this time.

We are actually quite pleased it isn't too hot at the moment as these activities would be horrid in the summer heat.

We bought an Australian animal spotter book today which should help us identify species from now on. The flora and fauna is so different here and everything seems so colorful even at this time of year. We've seen a few dead wombats on the road side but no koalas yet!

After lunch we went in to nearby Bowral to watch the new Batman film The Dark Knight. It was entertaining, slick and glossy but very sinister and drawn out, not to mention sad to watch Heath Ledger in his last movie.

Tomorrow Dad and Kate are dropping us off at the top of Mount Gibraltar (we'd be floundering without Kate's chauffeur service this week - makes me feel like a teenager again!). We will then find our own way back with the aid of our trusty compass! It's not a huge mountain but if it is a clear day we should see for miles.

And yes, we are procrastinating about finding a place to live. It's impossible to decide where we want to be - near the beach, near the city, near the best restaurants, near Ric's sister Charlotte, in the suburbs? - and it looks as though flats generally come unfurnished here which means we'll have to dash around one of the cheapo home-ware stores too at some stage. We hear there is an Ikea in the city. Yawn.

At the moment, Paddington gets our vote. It sounds like it has a good mixture of things to suit people our age, with our interests and budget and it is central. I'm told most of the radio jobs are in Melbourne but I'm coming round to the idea that writing is my true calling, if there is such a thing for a fickle creature like me. All I know for sure is that I don't want to rush in to anything and having traveled all this way for a fresh start I am reluctant to compromise.


Wednesday, 23 July 2008

I come from a land downunder, sort of


Hello from Australia. I thought I'd carry on with the blog for a while longer...

We have arrived in wintry New South Wales, bypassing Sydney on our arrival and going straight to tiny, rural Mittagong which is two hours south and where my father lives.

Men at Work were playing on the radio at the airport - would you believe it?

Our long overdue reunion was emotionally charged to say the least. The sheer anticipation and then relief of being here at last, a country I hadn't lived in or even visited for over 16 years and as seeing my dad for the first time in years was almost overwhelming. We haven't stopped talking since we got here.

The temperature is about 25 degrees less than Ric and I have become accustomed to over the past three months and there has been a biting wind but the sun shines brilliantly here, even in the coldest months and the blue skies, red earth, gum trees forests and miles of gently undulating landscape make for spectacular views.

There isn't a huge amount to do here except go for walks, potter about the town and eat cake in the numerous local cafes. It feels strange to suddenly stop still like this after so many weeks of diving, mountain climbing, flying, sightseeing, eating out, haggling and moving around using all modes of transport, but we are tired.

Ric says this place reminds him of Hale Barns where he grew up (a good thing I think!) and I think I'm still in shock. Not only am I spending time with my father who has changed so much and conversing in the most honest, detailed and adult way, but I am now faced with the prospect of finding a place to live, a job, friends and a bike. How I miss my wheels.

Yesterday we went for a stroll around town and then Lake Alexandra which is just down the road from here. Today we went on the Illawarra Fly Treetop Walk a few miles away and saw some fantastic views across the gum tree forests and Lake Illawarra. Then Ric enjoyed his first meat pie, followed by Violet Crumble (like a crunchie bar but better, naturally) and even a Lamington cake! Tomorrow he'll be getting his first Aussie steak. It's so cold that I've been getting my daily jogging fix on my Dad's electric treadmill in the garage to avoid frost bite.

Already we have trawled the few local shops to purchase the best Merino, Cashmere, Angora and even possum woolens to protect us from the elements and I have been proudly introduced to all the local shopkeepers who seem to be on first name terms with my Dad.

My Dad also took us down to the local booze warehouse earlier and we stocked up on an array of local beers for Ric to try, though sadly he can't drink them himself.

So, another three days here before we head to Sydney where we will stay with my uncle and his family of seven and try to sort ourselves out.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Australia Here We Come!

We went to the city Zoo today. The main draw are the pandas who have by far the biggest and most interesting enclosures - which doesn't say much. Some waddled about which pleased the crowds, while others tried in vain to hide and get some sleep. I felt sorry for them. Fancy having all these people staring, shrieking and bashing on their windows all day long! And yet, I myself was there so shouldn't be a hypocrite. I resisted buying one of the numerous Panda souvenirs on sale though. The Chinese certainly love the creatures! There were Panda hats, pens, toys, key-rings, balloons, slippers, back scratchers - you name it!

The rest of the zoo was pretty grim. It felt a bit like I imagine a 1970s built prison does. None of the animals had nearly enough space or variety of scenery and most of the monkeys and birds were housed separately in dingy, smelly, concrete boxes. We wandered around for most of the day but found it depressing.

However, it was a good way to pass our last day in China. Now it's our last night in Asia! I can hardly believe it. At times it felt like we wouldn't last another week on the road or with each other but now the last three months seem to have flown by and the prospect of finding a job, securing a flat, making friends and settling in Australia fills me with a mixture of excitement and fear.

It's been a long time since I saw my father and much has happened in both our lives since we were last together. I have been fantasising about our reunion for months now and sometimes in my dreams. Even Ric is quite apprehensive about it or at least curious to meet the man who produced such a nutty girl.

Tomorrow will be a long day consisting of two airports, two flights and a lot of hanging around in between. No doubt we'll find some WiFi to kill some of that time.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

A video or two!

Here are a couple of very short videos I made on my camera when we were climbing the wall the other day. It's pretty awful camera work and the wind makes quite a crackle but you get a good sense of the place!

video video

Friday, 18 July 2008

Partying Beijing style and searching for the Games




After a relatively sober three months, last night Ric and I went out to experience some drinking and clubbing, Beijing style, with our new Liverpudlian friend who lives in Shanghai.

I was limping after I managed to get speared by a meat skewer that was lying on the ground that morning. Don't ask me how it happened but it went in at an almost perfect vertical angle! Felt odd pulling an inch of stick out of my foot. Was it a freak accident or a 'tourist trap'?

First we went to a very fancy, luxuriously decorated cocktail bar located within a swanky shopping plaza (not uncommon in Asia) which had surrealist paintings hung on the ceilings, glass cabinets full of random items including jars, model hands, fake jewellery etc. a soul singer and the mot exquisite loos I think I have ever used. People were queuing just to have a look at them. Even the Queen doesn't have facilities like these. Fact. The service was dire with inexperienced and stressed staff who didn't have a clue about working in a bar, but that in itself was entertaining.

I wish I'd had a decent frock to wear. My cheap Thailand halterneck beach dresses didn't really seem appropriate. Still, once I'd slapped on a bit of eye liner and thrown a shawl over my shoulders I was ushered in despite my shorts.

What rather surprised us was that roughly 80 per cent of the people in there were gay expats from all over the world, and my goodness was there a lot of love (an lust) in the room! Perhaps I'm just really out of the drinking scene but I felt quite overwhelmed by the loud, bright, smokey atmosphere and the swooning, overtly demonstrative body language on display around me. There were a lot of cravats, square framed specs, tight jeans and pointy shoes and not many girls!

Afterwards, we headed off to a dark little club called White Rabbit on Lucky Street, a very cheesy strip of themed bars and restaurants. Again, we were completely outnumbered by schmoozing gay blokes of all shapes, sizes and races. Ric quickly changed his mind about dancing after someone made a pass at him. I would have have had a boogie had my foot not been so swollen up after the skewering incident earlier. Made a good horror story though.

Instead we talked loudly over mediocre techno music, watched the crowds trickling in, and drank a lot of neat spirits (a very Chinese thing) until the early hours. It was good to let our hair down after so long.

We have tried to get up close to the Olympic Stadium which is rumoured to be surrounded by rocket launchers half covered by camouflage netting. For what purpose you may well ask?!

We got to within 50 metres of the giant angular structure which was close enough for us. We're quite glad to be away from here by the time the Games start on a few weeks although there are far fewer people here than we expected there to be by now.

It required quite a lot of time, effort, our friend Rod who speaks Chinese and some luck to find the place. I wonder how on earth spectators are going to manage when the signage is so poor and so few people speak English. Taxi drivers tend to overlook foreigners too of they think they wont be able to communicate!

It's fun to be here but to be honest, all I can really think about now is Australia and seeing my dad again. I can't believe I'll be there just a two days!

What on earth are we going to do with ourselves when we get there?

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Summer Palace and Great Wall


The sun has shined brightly on us here in Beijing for the past two days and yesterday we cycled over 20km to the Summer Palace which is surrounded by gorgeous settings. The huge lake was full of pedalos and sightseeing boats and the palace itself was also pretty, if swarming with tourists, mainly Chinese.

I'm in two minds about these palaces. They are certainly impressive in size and with their large open spaces, as well as their detailed ornate paint work which is mainly dark red, apparently representing the red of the Chinese flag. However, they are all rather similar, not especially interesting architecturally or in their craftsmanship and seem to require constant touching up, not something you'd find necessary in the smart stone work of our own English castles and Palaces. The miscellaneous artifacts the curators put behind the windows in various rooms for visitors to look in to aren't all that special either. Most are even quite dusty! Bloody hell - I do moan!

You'd have to be in a bubble, or staying at the Grand Hyatt perhaps (where they serve the best Peking Duck in town apparently) not to realise that Beijing will be hosting the Olympics in a few weeks. In the two days we've been here we've spotted literally dozens of indicators including advertisements at bus stops, on shopping bags (which only two weeks ago China started charging customers for - hrrah!), count-down clocks in public squares, video campaigns on road sides, decorations in shop windows, Tee shirts, flags, Coca Cola bottles, 'Beijing 2008' branded tissues, milk and other household essentials, official souvenir shops, huge floral displays on the main roads and groups of people errecting all sorts of other decorations. People everywhere are renovating shops, fixing and painting lamposts, gates and even bike racks!

I wonder to what extent the buzz we can feel here is due to the anticipation of the games. The people seem so genuinely excited about it! Are they just happy for the extra income they are receiving from the tourists and government? Or is this place always this busy and fun to be in?

If the people here are poor you wouldn't know it from their behaviour or expressions. Looking around one sees a lot of smiling faces, laughter, people singing to themselves, friends hugging and holding hands, intense games of Mahjong being played on short stools and boards laid down in the street, adoring fathers playing with their babies, women feeding their children mouths wide open like baby birds, with bowls of noodles and steamed buns before they can go off and play again with their friends in the street, old women being gently escorted across the road by younger family members.

I don't like the business of spitting however, which the men here do with such gusto and sound effects it is stomach turning.

In fact one chap we met today commented on the Chinese Olympics as expats know it: Spitting, Fighting and Shouting. They are good at those, it is true!

The same guy, a Liverpudlian who teaches in a university in Shanghai also extolled the various virtues of having a Chinese girlfriend. He reckons they are generally much more innocent, eager to please and subservient. Ric thinks I should take note.

He has amused us no end with tales of students. Many have too give themselves English names and he teaches lots of Skies, Angels and others chosen straight out of Manga comics. He has one called Irine who decided to add a copyright symbol to her name when another girl picked the same one!

Another calls himself Hamburger and an Evangelina became Durex because she got the idea that it meant 'sexy girl'. They are now trying to pursuade her to stick with her first choice without embarrassing her!

Today we joined another tour and drove for three hours to the 'Secret Wall', a part of the Great Wall which isn't crawling with tourists.

It was fantastic! The hike was fairly hard work but not completely exhausting and we had perfect weather for it; sunny but with a light breeze. Our guide was a sweet old man who seemed far to frail to be hiking up mountains every day but then I have seen how nimble Asians are now. Cheeky sod didn't speak any English but managed to convey that he wanted a tip from us all at the end.

The view from the top of our hike was spectacular; blue skies, heather-like flora, lush green hills and valleys could all be seen for miles around with the crumbling Wall rolled out like a fat writhing worm across it.

Tomorrow I will be dragged along to see pickled Mao.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Temple of Heaven and other tourists



I think I caused quite a bit of concern by writing about mine and Ric's minor feuds. Rest assured, all is well really and we reckon since we've got this far, it'll be plain sailing from here, touch wood!
I can't wait for Ric to meet my dad and other family! We're getting very excited now.

We decided to change hostel today since the one we were in last night only had one room left for us and this opened directly out on to the noisy main communal area thus preventing us from sleeping properly or being able to draw the curtains! There was also no partition between the bed and the bathroom. Again, Ric and I are close but do need some privacy. We couldn't stay there for the rest of the week!

We moved to the very popular Leo Hostel just around the corner. They all seem to look and feel the same now. Sitting in the cafe, you could be anywhere - Bangkok, Singapore, Europe - all with aphorisms, names and love notes scrawled across the walls, 'chill out' music, fridges of cheap beer, Western-Asian restaurants, heaving third or fourth hand book shelves and packed Internet rooms.

I had been told by a fellow cyclist that it would be foolish to ride a bike in Beijing these days, now that the Chinese have the means to buy cars and drive them so badly, but today Ric and I hired a couple of large rickety framed hybrids and set off around town. I shrieked with joy as I whizzed down the widest bicycle lanes I have EVER come across (wider than four car lanes), marvelled at all the traffic lights for bikes and rejoiced when I saw the array of parking facilities. The traffic wasn't so bad either and the buses even gave me right of way! Oh that London was like this. I also love seeing people of all shapes, sizes, ages and dress on their two-wheelers. None of this Lycra-clad machismo I am so accustomed to back home. It has rained non-stop today which is a great relief. It gets so hot here when the sun comes out.

We went to the National Museum but found it closed for refurbishment for three years! Only when we read the sign at the front did we look up and notice that the only thing left standing was its front wall.

So then we cycled to The Temple of Heaven Park. This impressed and interested me much more than the Forbidden City which we admittedly saw when we were knackered and not really able to appreciate fully. The rain and faint mist made for an even more evocative atmosphere even though there were a lot of other tourists there. The surrounding 267 hectares of park is very green and pretty and reminded me of stately rural gardens back home with its tall trees, long neat paths and lawn.
While climbing the steps to the Echo Wall, a Chinese girl next to me moaned loudly in English to her Chinese boyfriend that there were 'so many foreigners here'. Bloody nerve! What does she expect to find at one of China's biggest tourist attractions?!

I am aware that I have been moaning a lot about other people of late but I like to think my observations are amusing to others and not just me and Ric. Today we encountered yet more classic examples of terrible tourist behaviour. The first was at the hostel this morning when a young Mancunian student (not that I have anything against Northerners) went up to the receptionist and asked in an accent as thick, loud, slow and grating as you like whether she could use 'juust the computuur - buut not the intuurnet' and whether that would cost less than the usual 1Yuan per ten minutes (about 7 pence!). It is a wonder the poor girl behind the counter refrained from either smiling or smacking her. I mean - talk about stingy stereo-types! It was embarrassing.

Then just now in the restaurant we went to for dinner, an American family came in. Before they even sat down they spent a good ten minutes studying the 'English, we need ENGLISH menu' with several members of staff, discussing where to sit, what they could drink that was 'safe', how hygienic they thought the place was and establishing that 'we need quality meat - is it quality meat?' as well as whether they could make sure it was all 'steamed not fried?'

Again I find myself asking 'Why do people like this even bother going on holiday??!!'

Mind you, sometimes we all have our moments and as Ric hit his head for the umpteenth time on a low door frame today, he only just managed to rein in his diatribe against the Chinese, so that only I was party to his cries of 'f**k these short arsed f**king chinks'. Tut tut Richard.

I've decided that I probably shouldn't start writing a book until I have a clearer idea of its plot. Radio beckons again. We are also concerned that we'll need jobs in order to secure a property in Sydney. I can hardly believe that we'll be there in less than a week now!

Tomorrow we will hire the bikes again and go to the Summer Palace. Ric also wants to visit Mao's preserved body over in Tienanmen Square. Hmmm- I think I can live without ticking that one off my Things To Do list.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Last stop, Beijing


We have arrived in Beijing, our final destination before Sydney!

I think it only becomes apparent just how vast China is when you travel in a train for a whole night and find you've still only covered a fifth of its height by morning.

Ric was able to sleep well last night but the best I could achieve was a light dose. We were on the top of some very high bunks and although tiny and too near the roof for us to sit upright, they proved surprisingly cosy. Much to my dismay, the lights went off before 10pm so I had to stop reading the novel I'm engrossed in: yet another emotionally fraught, slightly depressing read. Also a bit of a 'chick-flick' one might say, The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards. It's an engaging and profoundly moving yarn but often overly sentimental and emotionally charged for my liking, resulting in me not so much sympathising with the characters and their respective senses of guilt and loss but being frustrated by them. I still haven't read War And Peace!

A small child wailed non-stop for a couple of hours before he finally exhausted himself with his cries, leaving the long carriage quiet except for a few muffled snores. The train rattled out a steady beat as it cut its determined path along the tracks through the dark landscape, occasionally groaning and squealing when it turned in to a bend.

Ric and I reached our arms out to each other in the wee hours as we drifted in and out of sleep, full up on the yoghurt, cheese and crackers we'd stocked up on earlier. In my dreamy fug, this small gap between the bunks seemed to me to be something of a metaphor for the gulf of secrets, lies, fears, opposing desires and very occasionally silence that has sometimes felt so apparent between us on our travels and yet one that we have always bridged and that seems perfectly natural. In some ways we have never been so close or such a strong unit.

We arrived at 6.30am and by nine o'clock were traipsing round Tienanmen Square and the
Forbidden City in the scorching heat, marvelling at their huge size and the numbers of tourists who'd beat us to it. There were literally hundreds of us. It wasn't much fun what with the heat and crowds and I don't think we saw nearly as much as we could have done!

I get a bit fed up with the amount of pushing and shoving the Chinese seem to feel is necessary to get by and the queues at the palace were no exception. Ric, however, loves getting stuck in!

We've become used to being surrounded by at least five or six waiting staff when we sit down to order in a restaurant. They are generally extremely helpful, patient and good natured towards us and even a little curious. A few are bloody rude and have no idea what constitutes good service. We've just enjoyed a great meal at a lively (and noisy!) place close to our hostel where Ric had his first Peking Duck. I wish I was tempted but its little cooked head made me feel so sad.

We'll get up early tomorrow, stock up on water, slap on the sun block, hire some bikes and go and look at the Temple of Heaven.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Falling Out

A rather unfortunate situation developed this evening when we went for dinner in the packed Muslim Quarter.

Ric and I fell out, something we seem to be doing more and more recently, and we ended up unintentionally losing each other in the crowds and bright lights of the market. While Ric headed straight back to the hotel, I got totally lost, as is my way, and ended up on the opposite side of town. I finally found my way back an hour or so later; tears streaming, ice-cream dripping from my hand.

We've started niggling and taking things out on each other as well as picking up on each others' bad traits and weaknesses. I always assume everything is my fault too which doesn't always help matters as we are usually both culpable and both become grumpy, stressed and miserable. I regret that I become so defensive when Ric confronts my OCD or occasional bad eating habits. He's always so spot on. Truths I don't always want to hear.

Why is this happening to us? Is it a simple case of spending too much time alone with each other in these unfamiliar surroundings and sometimes daunting circumstances? I trust so. We both hate it when we aren't getting on and it frightens us. Maybe it's the Chinese grumpiness rubbing off on us or the fact that we haven't been sleeping too well as our bed is like a diving board and we have an Air Conditioning system that feels like a jug of cold water pouring on our heads all night.

Aside from the above, China has been a great experience so far, interesting, surprisingly easy to get by in and welcoming to tourists. I don't find it very pretty and it's certainly not clean but then I suppose that's only to be expected in these newly developed cities. I'm impressed by their big buildings, their unlikely fusion of tradition and ancient knowledge with the new, by their uptake of technology and certain facets of Westernisation, by their food, by the fact that they have managed to almost perfectly preserve or restore their ancient relics.

We've got a long train ride to Beijing ahead of us this evening and we're just praying to get bottom bunks although I think we'll have to jostle for these with all the children returning home for the weekend from boarding school!

Here are a few extracts from Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Journey To The End Of The Night which I like and wanted to share:

When you're young and you don't know, you mistake everything for love trouble...It's a mania with the young to put all humanity into one backside, just one, the dream of dreams, mad love.

There's nothing terrible inside us or on earth or possibly in heaven itself except what hasn't been said yet. We wont be easy in our minds until everything has been said once and for all, then we'll fall silent and we'll no longer be afraid of keeping still. That will be the day.

A time comes when you're all alone, he you've come to the end of everything that can happen to you. It's the end of the world. Even grief, your own grief, doesn't answer you any more, and you have to retrace your steps, to go back among people, it makes no difference who.

We grow old quickly and whats more irremediably. You can tell by the way you start loving your misery in spite of yourself. Nature is stronger than we are, no two ways about it. She tries us in one particular mould, and we're never able to throw it off. I had started out as the restless type. little by little, without realising it, you being to take your role and fate seriously and before you know it it's too late to change. You're a hundred percent restless, and it's set that way for good.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Scaling City Walls



It has been a little overcast here today which was something of a relief as we cycled round the enormous City Walls earlier on a couple of hybrid town bikes. It is still very hot though and when Ric did his usual trick of speeding off without me, I admit I got a bit stroppy. I miss my own, properly fitting bike!

We did the full circuit in an hour. There weren't any especially good views but it was a novelty place to go cycling! By the South Gate afterwards we found an arts and crafts market so wandered round there for a while, resisting all temptation.

Dog off the menu

Check it out! According to the FT, it looks like Ric might have to abandon his quest to find dog meat. Pity.

A few grumbles:

I've just been scrolling through this list of influential female bloggers. Ive clearly got some work to do on mine if I am to get more people to read it. I don't think I'm nearly geeky enough though and what will I write about when this trip is over? I can't waffle on about my OCD for ever.

I am being bitten a lot here in China and for the first time my skin is reacting. I reckon there must be different type of mosquito here. Interesting. No lizards here either, live ones anyway.

A final grumble - I just can't understand why people go on holiday if they can't afford it. I am surrounded by Moaning Minnies here who are talking about their budgets, how expensive their $1 meals are, how they are skipping lunches to save up, how they will miss out on the tours to save dosh and other costs, etc. etc. Go home and get a job for Gods sake and come back when you can afford to enjoy yourself!

OK. I've had enough of the Enya now. Need to slap on some more Tiger Balm .

Xi'an and The Terracotta Army

We planned to go to Nanjing and train seemed the best way to get there from Hangzhou. Taking it for granted that the hostel could book tickets for us (as our book suggested) and assuming there would be frequent direct services there,we got up late to find ourselves rushing like our lives depended on it to get to the station by midday or else be in for an eight hour wait for the next one. Well, after sitting in heavy traffic for a good half hour we well and truly missed it.

That's not to say that we necessarily would have caught it if we had got there two hours hour before. Not only were the queues in the ticket office phenomenally long (yes, they were sort of queuing) and the huge walls of signage completely unintelligible to us, but no one seemed able or willing to help or to understand what the hell I was trying in vain to communicate. I must have asked at least twenty people for assistance but they all just looked blankly at me or averted their eyes!

Exasperated, hot, defeated and increasingly eager to get away from this chaotic, confusing and grubby place, we decided the best thing to do was to jump in a taxi to the airport and see what flights we could get instead. We felt like failures for bottling it but preferred to risk a long wait at an airport for a suitable flight than hang around there all day.

After much deliberation and some debate with the ticketing staff at the airport, we finally got ourselves a pair of Economy (though not cheap!) tickets to Xi'an, deciding that we had to forgo Nanjing if we were to fly anywhere. It is a shame to cut destinations out of our trip but at least we are happy and settled here now in this historic city and not still travelling across the country on a 24 hour train through the night.

This place is attractive and I like its square lay-out and open spaces which are good gathering points for locals and tourists alike and make it almost impossible for even me to get lost when I wander off on my own.

There are a lot of beggars with their children though, especially in the busier parts of town. They shove their money cups right in to you. My Chinese friend has told me not to believe most of them, that they are con-artists. It's hard not to feel sympathetic when you see the children's dirty little faces and huge dark eyes though. Who's kidding who? I ask myself.

Yesterday we joined an organised tour to see what all the tourists here come for, the magnificent Terracotta Army which is located just a few miles out of the city.
It was an unforgettable day. First we visited the site of an ancient bamboo village which gave us a feel for the surrounding area and then we were given a tour of the factory (and of course the adjoining shops) where all the official Army souvenirs are made. Ric and I, fatigued by the now so familiar tourist traps, could happy have skipped that part out of the day. Then we went on to the three huge pits in which the warriors, their horses and their chariots have been uncovered.

It's amazing to think they lay buried for nearly 2000 years and are still being excavated today. I wonder what Emperor Qin Shi Huang who instructed their creation would say to this, not to mention to the hundreds of tourists flocking to see them today, here and even in London indeed.

It is hard to comprehend how and why this colossal subterranean life-size army was exclusively built to stand guard over his soul. What staggering egocentricity and extravagance!

It is an impressive sight that's for sure and one I won't forget in a hurry.

Today we are off to do a lap of the ancient (but mostly restored) City Walls, built in 1370 during the Ming dynasty. They are 12 metres high and 18 metres deep!

We've booked our train to Beijing and have decided to brave the sleeper. It will be our last train ride before we go to Australia so we're up for the experience.

There's a teenage girl staying here with her family (who brings their kids to youth hostels?) who appears to have swallowed a harmonica as she is wearing one of those externally fitted mouth braces. Poor thing. It's looks frightful. She must get such grief at school. I thought those things had long been replaced by more advanced gear.

As I type, Pamela Anderson and Jack Nicholson are speaking Mandarin at us from the telly (I wish they didn't dub English language films here!) and I'm eating a delicious Halo-Halo; a crushed ice, jelly, pulses and fruit dessert. We have found them all over Asia in various forms.

An old Enya album is playing on the stereo at the bar, one I haven't heard for ages and a favorite of my brilliant cousin who tragically died a few years ago in a car accident when she was only 19. I feel so lucky to have had the chance to do this trip. I should never moan.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

On a bicycle built for...a very small person actually





I had my first encounter with bed bugs last night. The damn things savaged me. I tried to get some sleep by lying on the floor but the air con blasted out such cold air that I ended up slumped in a chair waiting for dawn to brake. Ric insists I was imagining them.

In spite of my tiredness we hired some dinky bikes (deciding that the ones the hotel offered were just too dinky) and cycled all the way round the lake stopping to look at various pagodas, statues, temples and pretty lakeside views along the way. There are a lot of tourists here as well as inconsiderate pedestrians who seem completely oblivious to the dangers of stepping in to the road without checking for oncoming traffic including us on our bikes!

It is really too hot for energetic pursuits and we arrived back exhausted, bad-tempered, dripping with sweat, caked with our own body salt and road dust and ready for a lie down, though I don't dare lie on the bed now.

So instead I went for a quiet walk by myself, following the lush ornate gardens and meandering forks of the lake which spread out around our hotel. As I lay down on the rough but still inviting grass, heavy dragonflies hovered over me, curious birds came to observe what I was up to and the setting sun cast a light so yellow that it all the trees seemed to have been gilded with gold.

We have just been for dinner in one of the many restaurants on Gaoyin Jie, a street more patronised by the locals than tourists. We hate the fancy places which pander to Western taste-buds and their presumed fatter wallets. Ric even had a beggar's chicken and a plate of snails today. I just watched as he plucked the snotty looking things out of their shells with a toothpick. We are wondering whether everything tastes so good because of the high levels of MSG being used?!

After dinner we stumbled upon a night market where vendors were selling all sorts of tat including charms, stamps and novelty toys as well as more attractive items of clothing, fans, jewelery and tea. We are wondering what real Jade really is now as it seems to look a bit different everywhere we go!


Tomorrow we are off to Nanjing, a couple of hours west of here.

Hello Hangzhou

We've escaped Shanghai and after a relatively short train ride which was far more comfortable than I had anticipated, we have arrived in pretty Hangzhou. There's no smog here and what a magnificent lake! Apparently it has been an inspiration to poets and artists for
centuries.

The hotel we're staying in is staffed by helpful, friendly staff, is spacious, has immaculate rooms and is situated right by the water. What's more, it rents out bicycles which pleases me no end. That's clearly the best way to tour this place as there's a path all the way round the lake and I've seen numerous rental places already, although most of them appear to hire out dinky fold-away bikes. Ric says he wont ride them. I say he will.

We also have a very leafy view from our window (I think it's bamboo); a welcome change from the bleak concrete blocks and grimy alleyways we've backed on to in previous weeks.

The cicadas are making a ruckus outside. I didn't realise they lived this far north in Asia. I've heard them everywhere but am yet to see one!

Upon our arrival here, Ric passed out on our extremely soft and bouncy bed but I got him up soon after so we could venture 'downtown' for some food. I gather the specialities here include all things sweet, fresh and cooked with bamboo. Sums this place up nicely I think.

We must have walked for an hour before realised our hotel is on the opposite side of the lake to where we thought! There are two of the same name it seems! After I nearly has a hissy fit since hadn't eaten all day (trust me - you wouldn't want Chinese train station food either - tinned congee or shrink-wrapped pickled goose feet anyone?!) we finally managed to communicate the urgent need for food to a patient taxi driver who drove us to a small and excellent restaurant he knew of and we weren't disappointed.

This place is obviously a very popular bolthole for wealthy Shanghai-ers. The town is packed with fancy restaurants, hotels and strips of what look like holiday residences.

We've lots of ground to cover tomorrow if we are to explore the place fully, even a few museums, galleries and temples along the way, most of which are free to visit.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

More than meets the eye in Shanghai


Ric and I have spent another busy couple of days here in Shanghai. I think this place is gradually growing on me. It's certainly got a lot happening, not too mention an abundance of shops and restaurants! I love observing the fashions in each place we visit and the girls here are just as trendy as those in Hong Kong and much more adventurous than I've ever been. They all look totally different too. I'm not sure why I expected a uniform dress code.

I enjoyed meeting up with another MA friend yesterday. Such a gorgeous girl. She's now a teacher and about to marry a older guy she has only known for a year, doesn't really love and hardly ever sees but who is rich and 'a good son to his parents'. To someone like me, this seems like quite a sad situation and a premature decision for someone at the tender age of 25, but for her it is enough that they get on. She wants children ASAP and he will provide for her and their children. We are so conditioned in to thinking we must marry for love in the West it's hard to understand this reasoning.

Today we visited the highly recommended Shanghai Museum which houses an impressive collection of ancient pottery, coins and seals as well as some pretty calligraphy and paintings. To think that all of those fragile pieces remain in perfect condition after so many hundreds of years! The mind boggles. They were also showing a collection of Olympian art works in honour of the Games this summer. I think I'd seen a lot of them before at the British Museum in London.

To get out of the heat we then went to the cinema, yet again. I've been going far more regularly on this trip than I ever did in London. We watched the new Will Smith Blockbuster 'Hancock' and I whole heartily recommend it if you like silly but slick action films about begrudging superheroes. After the film we walked back out on to the street to find a group of older folk ballroom dancing to a live brass band. They drew quite a crowd. See photo.

Speaking of super-humans, the zip in my cheapo Primark wallet broke yesterday so I've bought myself a fantastic 'Astro Boy' one which changes pictures depending on which way you look at it. It's smarter than it sounds and not for children! I haven't seen the cartoon since I was at least 6 years old and Ric never watched it as I don't think it reached the UK in the mid 1980s. But oh the memories.

Ric and I spend an awful lot of time wandering around malls and up and down roads looking for restaurants. We've spent literally hours on this trip looking for places with menus we can read, for those which look the cleanest, most reasonably priced, most varied and suitable for both our needs, well OK, mainly mine. It's proving hard to go wrong here in China, although after eating what I thought was a tofu burger today Ric confirmed it as pork. I admit it was quite tasty but I felt quite sick after.

I confuse staff daily by asking for food without meat or fish, to which they have variously responded with expressions of surprise, dismay, contempt or confusion and then after a few minutes and some further deliberation they bring me some boiled greens. I lie - sometimes I end up with a feast. Ric admits he's eating very healthily these days. For his sake alone I wish I wanted to eat meat.

We are finally leaving Shanghai tomorrow and catching a train to Hangzhou. I'm not looking forward to joining the scrum at the station with all our luggage, although we did get our tickets in advance which should make things easier. It's only an hour or so west of here and boasts a magnificent lake. We can go cycling and hiking there too I'm informed!

I'm missing all the tennis back home which is something of a first for me!

Friday, 4 July 2008

Sweating it out in Shanghai





Shanghai. Smoggy, sticky, chaotic, mutli-faceted, noisy, alive and sprawling. What else can say about this a place I almost feared coming too?

My friend says foreigners tend to either sink or swim here. Things are that extreme. I can believe him. I suppose it's not that different from London. According to him most who come here to seek their fortune sink but he's actually doing very well for himself, indeed he loves the place for all its paradoxes and energy. I don't think I could handle living here though and certainly not without learning the language.

The dichotomies are stark. Nowhere else have I see such a mixture of the new and the old, rich and poor, high-rises and quaint terrace houses. It's ugly and grimy in places whilst magnificent and even charming in others.

We woke up late today (a bad habit we're getting in to) to the sound of fighting in the street outside and not the Kung Fu variety we cared to imagine. Not knowing exactly where our hotel is located (all our maps are rubbish) , we have been using our compass to get around. We're quite close to the Bund area by the river so it's hard to go too far astray. What a lot of big buildings there are here, many of which appear to loom from literally out of nowhere as you approach them and yet the smog isn't that bad at the moment, so we're told! I can feel the pollution in my lungs though and don't like it!

Since taxis are hard to find and the metro doesn't appeal we have been walking for as long as is bearable in this chaotic, multi-faceted city which feels like an inferno. We've been on the rather brilliant if incredibly naff Bund Sightseeing Tunnel ride which took us from one side of the river to the other whilst blurting out sound effects worthy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and meaningless phrases such as 'media storm', 'molten magna mass' ' underwater wars'. Indeed, there was something very Dr. Who about it!

We've also enjoyed dinner in the French Concession area with friends. It reminded me a lot of Kensington with it's swanky bars, majestic houses and tree lined roads.

After a good hour or so of searching for the Yuyuan Garden in the Old Town today, we finally found it hidden within a maze of tea, clothes, gadgets and souvenir shops. Very pretty they are too. We also did a bit of birthday present shopping while we were at it. Ric's becoming ever such a good haggler! I keep seeing things I'd like for my fantasy home in Sydney.

We also found out that the Jade bracelet Ric bought me in Hong Kong is in fact just Agate. We were had!

In some ways the city probably hasn't changed much in several hundred years and never will despite how rich it becomes. People will always cycle with flagrant disregard for traffic signals, other vehicles or pedestrians. Women will always hang their laundry out of their windows to dry. Street food consisting of among many other things, dumplings, noodles and barbequed meat will for ever tantalise the passer by.

I imagine, but this is purely speculative - after all, who am I to know anything about the powers that be here? - that the Chinese Government will always try to pay its workers the lowest minimum wage so foreign companies will continue to invest and outsource their production to here. If this is the case the rich will become increasingly rich and the poor respectively poorer. They are a clever people that's for sure. Shrewd, bold, stubborn and canny. I rather admire them and their business accumen.

I reckon we'll spend another day here tomorrow and then move on to somewhere more rural.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Shanghai


We've just arrived in Shanghai after a somewhat turbulent flight from Shenzhen. As I anticipated, seeing China from the air has made me realise just how huge it is. Unfortunately we were above clouds so couldn't see much of the landscape.

As we descended through the thick clouds (and the haze) this gargantuan city which it situated at the mouth of the massive Yangtze River was revealed to us in all its sprawling glory and what a daunting vision to behold. I've never seen so many blocks of tower blocks, high roads and skyscrapers! It's already proving a challenge to get by since we don't speak or read any Chinese but I have another two friends here who have already helped us get from the airport to the hotel and find places to eat. They both work long hours though so we're yet to actually met up with them.

Anyway, Ric and I are have become increasingly adept at getting by on what scraps of English and signage we can find, not to mention wise to taxi scams. We also have a compass which has really helped us out at times, even on the underground would you believe?!

So, first impressions of China? There is so much energy here and so many people, all of them seeming to be rushing about in cars or on foot, pushing and shoving, eating and drinking, chatting, gambling - I wonder if they ever stop. The buildings are colossal. Such overt displays of new wealth. The atmosphere is hot and thick. Olympics advertisements are plastered everywhere and thus impossible to miss. I'm amused and bemused by the lack of queuing skills in China. I nearly wet myself waiting to go for a pee earlier while three women pushed in front of me!

The food is fantastic. It's diverse, of excellent quality, beautifully presented and brought to us by such friendly and helpful servers. They laughed just now when I whipped out my Lonely Planet China brick and hurriedly flicked through the pages to find the food glossary.

Yes I think we're going to have fun here on our last leg of Asia.

As for me and my health, I sometimes feel I've done so much thinking, questioning, talking and often fretting on this trip that I've purged my worries away. I regret my inability to let go of the OCD and my strict eating 'rules', both of which seem to have gone in to overdrive since leaving London in spite of my best intentions.

Thoughts and even dreams of growing older, death, those I love, the past and the possibilities of the future are never far away. Without wishing to sound pessimistic or morbid, I ave felt acutely aware of the brevity of my life, my physical form and the futility of my existence. Perhaps that's due to all the 19th Century French literature I've been reading. I have often felt overwhelmed with mixed emotions. Tears of both joy and sadness seem to come readily, often with little or no provocation.

Strangely enough however, I feel this has all been a cathartic experience. I am optimistic, certain I will be able to settle again and make interesting new acquaintances, happy to have seen all these countries (though some places more than others), glad to have left certain facets of my life in London behind and determined to succeed in whatever I chose to pursue next. Ric and I are also getting on very well, most of the time. He's enjoying eating his way through a variety of meats even if they don't look or taste like meat- he tried turtle today. It looked like blubber ad didn't taste of much.

We also understand each other even better than we thought we could (not always such a good thing) and we laugh a lot (always good).

It's midnight and I ramble on. Wimbledon is on in the background but I've not been following. Time to get some sleep before we face the masses in the morning. There are over 15 million people here!

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

China here we come

Hello from Shenzhen, China. It is roasting!

We left Hong Kong on the 11th anniversary of its handover to the mainland. Bit of a shame to miss the celebrations and protests but time is marching on.

Once a small fishing village, this town which is China's first Special Economic Zone, is essentially just a sprawling mass of concrete and road but it's good for getting to other parts of China and seems to have a fair amount going on aside from business and real-estate, ie. it's not completely soulless. I reminds me of Dubai with its blue skies, wide roads, massive hotel complexes, office blocks and plush shopping plazas, all of which have been built within the last twenty years.

Arriving here this afternoon, we suddenly realised how easy we had it in South East Asia where English is spoken and written pretty much everywhere. Ric especially fears the language barrier and hates asking for help, whereas I don't mind coming across as an ignorant mono-lingual Westerner. So far we've found the Chinese incredibly helpful. Mind you, we only arrived a few hours ago and my dear friend (who I hadn't seen since I did my MA at Goldsmiths) has been looking after us. She even left work for a while to collect us from the station and take us to the hotel she had booked! It's something of a relief to have a friend around while we find our feet in this big place.

We've just returned from a great vegetarian meal (after three years she remembered that I didn't eat meat!)

There are some scary if hysterically funny menus here. For lunch just now we could have selected any one of the following dishes:

Millions of Intestinal Bamboo Huang
The head Chopped Steamed
Papaya Questioned
The Soup Resembles More Extreme Geese Wong
Plate dropping the Yellow Ear Lily Explodes the Spiral Piece

It was a tough choice.

Another observation - the Chinese don't seem to know how to queue. Was nearly trampled by a stampede of kids and their parents at the station earlier. Manners??!!