Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Remembering Korea

It’s nearly been a year since I left Korea, that’s a sad realization, and lots has happened since then, I mean I don’t want to get too ahead of myself, I didn’t leave Korea until August 2012 and we’re now in May 2013, but it feels like a long time ago, and in some other sense it feels like it was only yesterday that I boarded my flight out of the country. I’ve only now started to fully realise exactly what my time in Korea meant to me, it’s in these moments where nothing much is going on, that we really start to reflect on our past experiences.

A quick update then I suppose, since returning from travelling I’ve been doing odd jobs, I’m currently working a night shift saving money ready to go to University in September. I’ll be going back to qualify as a teacher, something my time in Korea helped me decide to do. I’m looking forward to September as I’m getting pretty tired of not doing anything meaningful. Working in my school in Korea gave me a real sense of purpose which I’ve been missing for nearly a year now, although I wasn’t contributing much to the world on a global scale, I felt like I was making a difference in someone’s life on a daily basis, I felt like the work I was doing had meaning, that it was worthwhile, that it benefited somebody. I’ve been missing that feeling, and it’s certainly a contributing factor to why I’m missing my life in Korea.

I clicked onto my schools website today and flicked through the photographs of events the school has held this past year, and I read about some of the achievements my former students have made since my departure. I felt very proud looking through them. I also noted how much the school has changed since I left, my old co-teacher, teacher Yoon, has left, as has the infamous Mr. Chae and my favourite Kindergarten teacher. All have moved on, it is unbeknownst to me exactly where they are now, but wherever they may be I hope they are well and doing something amazing. Students have come and gone and the school looks different to how I remembered it. The corridors I used to roam have changed, the experience I had in Korea nobody will ever have again, because nothing is the same amongst foreign language teachers living there. Everything changes so quickly, I think that if I had stayed another year it wouldn’t be as I remember it now, I’d have a new co-teacher, I’d have a new schedule, I’d have different students and different people would be living in my building. The experience I had, and the memories I have are frozen in time, nothing more than memories now, there is no way I can return to that era of my life, not even if I wanted to.

But that shouldn’t make me sad, or nostalgic, it should make me smile, and it does. I’m incredibly proud of myself for what I have achieved yet sometimes it feels like it wasn’t me who achieved it. Like it was somebody else and I was just an outsider looking in, did I really live up there on that hill in that apartment in that yellow house with those purple windowsills. Did I really walk down that slope everyday to school, catch the bus every morning and gaze out of the window watching the mountains and the rivers flow by? Was that me, there on a street in Seoul waiting to cross, on my way back from a Sam Gyeop Sal restaurant, meeting a friend on a corner and buying 1000won pancakes from a street vender? Was that me playing ‘Gawi Bawi Bo’ with my student? Was that me in that last summer camp, fretting about my lesson plans, thinking that my time in Korea would never come to an end? That can’t have been me. But it was.

It feels very odd to have lived that life; it partly has to do with the fact that I have nobody to talk to about it. Nobody I know back home moved away for a year and a half and taught in a Korean school. I can talk to Natalie about certain aspects of life in Korea, and life on the road, which is incredibly helpful, and I think she misses it sometimes as well, but everybody else is too caught up in their day to day lives, and that’s not a complaint of mine, it’s just the way it is. It’s just something I have to live with. I loved Korea! I travelled around it and had all kinds of adventures. I enjoyed teaching those damn cute kids, and somedays when things aren’t so fun at home I wish that Natalie and I were still there.

That initial buzz that I got from being able to drive wherever I wanted instead of catching the bus, or being able to buy chips in the supermarket rather than having to make my own out of potatoes in my apartment quickly subsided, the things I thought were downsides or cons about living in Korea actually turned out to be some of the things that I missed the most. Not being able to understand what people are saying, having everything be a mystery, so much to explore, and so much to learn, and having all that stuff around you all the time that is constantly challenging you. Things are just so easy at home, and easy has never been fun for me, it’s something I’ve never been comfortable with, and though I missed the ease of living in the UK whilst I was in Korea, now I miss the opposite and it’s really strange how time can distort things like that. I didn’t realise until I got home how amazing my lifestyle in Korea was, it wasn’t at all demanding, I didn’t have to worry about anything, I got paid way more than was needed to live very comfortably, I had friends just a knock on a door away, my job was so rewarding, and I always got to go home on time and have all of this free time to do whatever I wanted to do. I was so relaxed and at peace in Korea, and I don’t want to sound angsty, or annoyed at being back in England because that’s not what I’m trying to get at, but I don’t feel at peace here like I did there.

I remember being on a bus snuggled up next to Natalie on the way home from Everland, a resort park in Seoul, it was raining outside, and it was dark, the streetlights shed light upon the perfectly clean pavement of the Seoul streets. I remember thinking how happy I was as I watched the world go by out of the window. How happy that I’d got up and done something with my life, how happy to be in this place and to feel so comfortable and feel so complete. But all things must pass, and I’m not on a Korean bus anymore, time changes things so quickly, and you really never know what is going to happen next. So, I try and make the most of every situation and take each day as it comes. I'm looking forward to starting my course in September and I hope it will give me back my sense of purpose. I'll always remember the incredible experiences I had in Korea, even if I don't get to talk about it that much, I think about it everyday.

This is going to sound super clichéd, but I don’t really care, because whilst I may not live in Korea anymore, in some sense I feel like Korea, will always live in me.  

안녕히 가세요

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Dortmund: There and Back Again

“People say that what we are seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think this is what we’re really seeking. I think what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive.” – Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth

We landed at Dusseldorf airport after a surprisingly long flight from Moscow. Annoyingly we were last in line to clear immigration and I was getting panicky as I didn't want to leave our friend waiting. The reason that Dortmund, Germany (of all places) was the final stop on our vagabonding odyssey, was because our good friend Alex was currently studying at the technical University there. We hadn't seen Alex since he had visited the UK a couple of years previous, so, we figured, as we were heading home, why not drop him a visit. As we walked through the gates there he was waiting for us, it was a delight to see him and we exchanged the usual pleasantries whilst we sorted out our euros. It was strange being back in Europe, it’s like we were gradually weaning ourselves back into British culture. Once we had sorted ourselves out we headed to the train station to catch the train back to Dortmund. The trains in Germany are pretty flashy, plenty of space, very clean, and we found a seat, it was a big change from the jam-packed, dirty, old Russian metro trains that we were used to by this point.

That evening we dropped our bags at Alex’s flat and shared pizza whilst talking about old times and new. It was great to finally see a familiar face, although we had stayed with Sergey and his family in Russia, I didn't know them extremely well, whereas, Alex was a great friend of mine who I’d been through this amazing experience with (working and travelling in America), we had a lot to talk about. After pizza and a few trusty German beers we settled in for the night as Alex had University the next day.

The next day we met Alex at his University campus for some lunch in their cafeteria (one of the cheapest places to eat in town) and he showed us around the place. Like the trains, it was clean, spacious, and modern and I imagine studying there is a fantastic experience. The sun was shining for the first time in a long while and it was certainly not as cold as Russia so we escaped into Dortmund town and walked around the few sights that there are to see there and also checked out some of the shops and the Christmas markets that we slowly being set up. Dortmund is home to the biggest Christmas tree in the world and they were just putting the finishing touches to that as well. After dinner that evening we went to a local park that lies just behind Alex’s flat.

Now, you have to pay to get into this park, it’s like, two euros or something, I can’t really remember, but it was pretty late and everything was closed up and Alex told us that he had managed to get in without paying before, but alas, the fence seemed unclimbable, maybe they had upped security or something, but we did manage to only pay for one and all clamber into the turnstile. They had these giant swings in the park that we hung out on for ages, we swung, and we talked and we laughed, and we swung some more. It was good to be reunited. We spent a long time that evening walking around the park and taking in the sights and the many children’s playground rides that we had to have a go at!

Alex took the next day off of University and we headed to Cologne (or Koln as it should be called). Koln is about an hour away from Dortmund and we got up nice and early to catch the train, only to realise that during peak times the train prices are extortionate, so, we waited until 9:00am to catch one of the cheaper trains into Koln. I suppose the main draw of Cologne is the giant cathedral, I don’t think I've ever seen a bigger cathedral in my whole life. I've seen bigger temples though, oh, how I miss Asia. The Koln Cathedral soared into the sky and inside it was nothing short of magnificent. We weren't used to going in cathedrals yet and they were a welcome change from temples. We spent a while in here trying to take photos in places we weren't supposed to. Then we moved on and walked through central Koln, it wasn't incredibly busy and we got a flavour of the place, people busking on street corners, the scent of freshly cooked bread wafting from bakeries along every sidewalk. We eventually headed down to the riverside and spent a good while in the chocolate factory nestled on the waterfront. There were three or four floors of chocolate history goodness and we had a good laugh playing the children’s games on the fourth floor. We walked back to the train station after this, through the narrow old alleyways and cobbled streets, that evening we went for a drink in town, there was a German football game on the television. The Germans love their football about as much as the English do, and the Dortmund team is one of the most successful in the country, the people here flaunt their Dortmund t-shirts and scarves with pride.

We spent the next day just hanging around town and had a nice dinner with Alex in the evening and on our last day we did some gift shopping and wrapped up lots of presents ready for coming home, we packed up our things and got excited for the journey back. On our last evening we went out on a cocktail tour of Dortmund with a bunch of Alex’s friends, we must have hit about seven of the ten bars on the cocktail tour and gotten a different drink in each place. It was cool to meet all of Alex’s friends there in Germany and have a ‘proper’ night out with a bunch of students, something we hadn't done in a long time. Cambodia felt like another world away from me.

Alex was kind enough to accompany us to the airport on our way home the next morning. Unfortunately our flight home was the worst flight of all time, we were sat just in front of some incredibly loud and incredibly drunk Germans, who just wouldn't give it a rest and to top that the flight staff weren't much of a help either, they were rude, obnoxious and set in their ways, it was a British airline and I was so looking forward to coming home after being away for such a long time but those flight attendants embodied everything I was trying to get away from in the first place, everything I had learnt I should be. But, we landed on time and after waiting about half an hour for our luggage we walked through the gates and this time it wasn't Alex waiting for us, it wasn't a new foreign destination that we were about to get ready to explore, it wasn't uncertainty and unfamiliarity, it wasn't grandeur and adventure, it was family, and that felt pretty good. I was bundled into a cornucopia of hugs and welcome homes and before I knew it I was in my parents new car, on the motorway, heading home.

I've been home for quite some time now and the reason it’s taken me so long to write this blog is because I've really been toying with how to write this next part. How to conclude; how to write a denouement for this part of my life that I’m happy with. Today, I figured I’d just get on and write it. I must tell you, that of all the adventures and challenges that you face whilst travelling, the hardest, the most heart wrenching, the most challenging, is coming home. Coming home was sad because it marked the end of all that freedom, all that fun, all that peace that I had found on the road, and it was happy because I got to see all of my friends and my family, and go to those places like the New Forest where I’d been longing to go for so long. It turns out that coming home isn't happy, and it isn't sad, it’s just really weird, really strange and really unsettling.

Everything here looks the same as it did when I left, but it feels completely different. There’s that old saying that springs to mind, that you can’t really know your home until you've been away for a long time and come back. You see it through completely new eyes. The trouble is, and continues to be, that I feel like a stranger here. You’d think that feeling would have subsided by now, I've been back in the game here for a while but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m missing something from my life. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate all the home comforts, movie nights, playing games with my friends, earning money, looking to my future, but what I can’t shake is this homesickness, not for home, but for the road.

My friends, and my family, as much as I love them, cannot help in this, the trouble is (without sounding patronising) as exciting and amazing and life enhancing as my travel experiences were (and not just travel but working in Korea as well), my friends can’t relate, my family can’t relate, because they probably don’t share the same values I took out on the road with me in the first place. You can share life changing conversations with people on the road, and in an hour you will have had a meaningful, philosophical exchange of ideas but my friends and family back home still talk about the same things, the same standard conversation patterns that I had escaped for so long, therefore it must be very difficult for them to really take an interest in our adventures, because they don’t want those adventures themselves. It’s one of the most difficult things about being home, trying to tell friends about how I ate a spicy dog soup, or got a gun pointed at me in a Russian slum, or got money stolen in a rice paddy in Laos, or had a conversation with a Cambodian street kid that changed my whole perspective on charity, when you tell these stories there is little response outside of ‘yeah, wow that must have been great’ with no enthusiasm, and then they start talking about television or how they’re fixing their car up or about hook ups they were having, about whose been sleeping with whom, I used to think I was missing out on so much whilst I was travelling, but I wasn't  I’m a changed person, and I've decided that it’s best to keep those amazing travel stories between Natalie and I, they’re ours and nobody can touch them, as Walt Whitman wrote ‘It is best to leave the best untold’.

What I've been trying to do is take what I learnt whilst travelling and apply it to my life here, and in some aspects of my life I've been doing that and in other aspects I haven’t. It’s been very hard. So, what am I doing now? I've been back just over two months, I had a wonderful Christmas with my loved ones and I am settling back into life at home. I have a job, I’m earning money and saving it ready to move out, I’m applying for my PCET PGCE teaching qualification which I’ll be starting in September, and I’m moving forward, onto the next adventure. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about the past year and a half. I’m going to keep living my life creatively, without limits, always trying to create a new adventure or a new experience and hopefully before I know it, I’ll be back out on that road again, creating more memories that will stay with me forever. 

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Trans Siberian: Russia (Part 2)

We got off of the train and walked through the station, waving goodbye to our cabin attendants we joined Sergey and Ira as we headed out into the city of Moscow. Natalie's sister, Amy, went on a travel exchange program to Moscow with her school and thus met Sergey, Galina and Ira. They've stayed in contact ever since and really they're just lovely people and we felt very lucky to have the opportunity to stay with them.

We waited outside the station for a taxi to arrive to take us to register. In Russia you have to register whenever you enter a new town or city, it's an immigration protocol and it's taken incredibly seriously, so we thought we'd get it out of the way as quickly as we could. As we entered the traffic in the taxi Sergey and Ira commented that "this is why we don't have a car," the traffic was mental, we were at standstills at traffic lights for over ten minutes sometimes and cars are weaving in and out of each other all over the shop. We eventually made it to register and handed over our documents, it was an incredibly easy process thanks to the efficiency of the agency that we made our travel arrangements with. After we had completed all the banal formalities of Russian bureaucracy we caught the subway to our hosts apartment. They live in a suburb of Moscow about fifteen minutes from the city center by subway. Like most other suburbs that we came into contact with it's like stepping into a soviet wonderland, just identical high rise after identical high rise overlooking small childrens playgrounds and mini markets. We walked through the estate and entered the huge soviet building that they lived in and we were pleasantly surprised as we walked into the apartment to find that it was just so damn nice inside. Galina greeted us with an amazing traditional Russian meal, the first of many more to come and we were given the obligatory house tour. We settled down for the night, contented that we were finally in one place and no longer on a train in Siberia.

Our first day in Moscow we went to the Moscow Kremlin. We must have spent seven or more hours inside seeing all of the museums, exhibitions and cathedrals. The orthodox architecture of the cathedrals in Moscow took me back to Romania who have similar churches and cathedrals dotting their landscape. They have beautiful curved gold steeples and white wash exterior walls and inside they have intricate decorative paintings and finely carved wooden sculptures. Even to somebody as completely opposed to the church as I am, the buildings were something to marvel at. The security at the Kremlin was nothing short of ridiculous, much like every building in Russia there seems to be a fear that someone is going to smuggle something metal in and do something untoward with it. Again, Russian bureaucracy, right? It's a little silly. We walked around the famed Kremlin armory and saw the Moscow Diamond Fund all rather extravagant but very interesting and set within beautiful buildings clearly built way before the Soviet era. After we had explored the interior of the Kremlin we went for some lunch at a Russian kitchen and headed to Red Square. When you first walk into Red Square you are struck by the magnitude of the place and the cartoon like beauty of the dominant St. Basil's Cathedral. St. Basils with its colorful steeples and interesting shapes stands at the Northern tip of the square (it could be the Southern for all I know) in front of it is a circular ring where dissidents and wrong doers used to be executed in the 18th and 19th century. Next to this stands the Kremlin, proud and tall, with its glistening red stars a top many structures that surround the bright red walls, no wonder it's called the Red Square, sitting in front of the Kremlin is Lenin's mausoleum and if we had actually been collecting communist leaders then I'm sure we would have visited him, but alas we already missed out on Ho Chi Minh and Mao, so we left it at a photo of the mausoleum. At the Southern end is the giant red and white historical museum and to the left of that stands a huge shopping mall reminiscent of Harrods in Kensington. A busy day indeed and we hustled home to more delicious food and conversation with our hosts.

Our second day in Moscow. it snowed, it was like the snow was following us from Mongolia and it had finally caught up. We visited a huge panorama of the Napoleonic War, which was quite a sight to behold, it was a perfectly circular painting that was all around you and it even bled out into sculptures and decorations on the ground beneath the painting of the panorama itself. It detailed a huge battle just outside of Moscow in which Napoleon was defeated by the Russian army. Oh, don't get me started on state proper gander now will you? We'll leave it at that. After this we visited the gigantic World War 2 or as the Russians call it the patriotic war museum. Why they call it the patriotic war is way over my head, I was under the impression that several countries (the allies) banded together to defeat the fascist imperialists but apparently I was mistaken and it's all about how awesome Russia is. Never the less the museum was fantastic and again included some great paintings and memorials and it was rather educational had you previously not known about Russia's involvement in the war effort. It's definitely worth a visit if you're ever in Moscow. After visiting the World War 2 museum the snow had died down and we went for some food at My-My, an awesome restaurant which serves a ridiculous amount of food in a kind of buffet, carvary style. After eating we walked down the famous Arbat street and looked at all the kooky over priced Russian dolls and other artsy items on display as we made our way way to the biggest cathedral in Moscow the Church of Christ the Savior. We stepped inside and obeyed the you must take your hat off and pass through airport security to get into the cathedral and we walked through the cathedral for a while. It was rather awe inspiring and magnificent in breadth and architectural style. It was actually destroyed during Soviet times but was rebuilt again after the USSR disbanded. We were getting pretty tired by this point but still had time to scoff our faces back at the apartment and play some Nintendo Wii, something I hadn't done in over a year.

The third day wasn't any less busy and we started off at a huge art gallery housing some of Russias most famous paintings. I've never spent too long inside galleries before but we spent a good three hours walking around this one, and it was enormous. We marveled at some paintings and frowned at others and then we went to My-My for some more lunch. After this we went to see the monument to Peter the Great which is the biggest monument I've ever seen, he is standing on top of a giant boat right in the middle of the city, quite something. After this we went with Ira to her weekly dance class and met her dance teacher who is the most Russian person I've ever met. She was pretty amazing and we watched everybody dancing and felt like we were experiencing some of the real Russia rather than just the tourist side of the place. The next day was a Saturday and we went to the Natural History Museum in the morning which is by far the best Natural History Museum I've ever been to, the amount of taxidermies was insane, they had everything set over a giant three floors. Then we walked back through the Ho Chi Minh square (as ya do) and went to catch a bus tour that the family had arranged for us which took us to some sights that were harder to get too via the metro. Once this tour had concluded we headed to the Moscow State Circus for a surprise treat that the family had planned for us.

I was reluctant to attend the circus as I had heard many stories about the tragic abuse that goes on there. It's certainly prevalent watching the show that these animals are abused and some animals they use in these shows should not be participating for the sake of entertainment, for instance endangered species like polar bears were playing the drums and cheetahs were reluctantly jumping over each other whilst a kangaroo was forced to wrestle with a man. This was hard to watch and was cringe worthy at times, how could people not find this utterly heart breaking? However, the acrobatics and other non-animal orientated elements of the circus was nothing short of amazing and as we didn't actually give the circus any money as it was a very kind treat, we thoroughly enjoyed experiencing it.

On our last day in Russia we went to Ismilovlad, this is a small Moscow suburb in the North of town which has its very own kitschy Kremlin to explore, all log cabins and cute gift shops, it was very Chrsitmasy and winter like and I felt like I was stepping into a Dickens novel had I not been in Russia and was far more likely stepping into a Tolstoy novel. Never the less we had a good time exploring the cute yet beautiful Kremlin and then did some shopping in a market close by. After this we swung by the Russian cosmonaut museum to get our space fix and even saw the first digs to ever go into space and some other really awesome space stuff at the museum.

Thus concluded our Moscow tour and we had an amazing time. There was a small incident which happened on our way home on the last night which did turn the trip a little sour. We were coming out of the Russian gingerbread store close by to where Sergey and company live on the estate and we were going to go to the pharmacy to get something for the flight the next day. As we were walking merrily along the road suddenly a very drunken, sturdy and rough looking Russian bumped straight into me, nearly knocking me to the floor. I didn't think much of it, and just wrote him off as drunk and rude and we continued to walk, but then I felt him grab my jacket from behind and he pulled me towards him. Sergey, Ira and Natalie all turned around and as we tried to keep walking he persistently kept following us becoming more aggressive with each step that we took away from him. We eventually ended up huddled into a corner of the street, Natalie was stood in front of me and the man had hold of my jacket with a very tight grip, Ira was stood to one side as Sergey argued with the man in Russian, as clearly I couldn't defend my "what the hell did I do?" in English as it probably would have made things worse. The man wasn't letting up and was determined that he was going to pull me to one side and beat me up or rob me, I don't know. He became increasingly aggressive towards Sergey and luckily at this point a man walking past must have either pulled the man back or got his attention and he lost his grip and we quickly darted away. We thought we had escaped as the man started to argue with the bystander, but before we knew it the man ran up behind us, ran past me and straight into Sergey's back, pulling the hood of his jacket, luckily the hood was buttoned to Sergey's coat and it came off in the mans hand and then fell to the floor, Natalie stealthily picked up and we all turned around again, only to find that the by stander had pulled right up to the side of the scene and was pointing a gun at the man who was trying to attack us. We all kind of froze as we had never seen a gun being pulled in public before. Sergey signaled to us that this was probably a good time to leave and unfortunately I can't conclude the story as that was the last we saw of the man or the bystander, but by gum it was a scary experience and I've never had anyone just openly attack for no reason, we blame the fact that he was drunk, but if it wasn't for the brave bystander with a gun, who knows what would have happened. We darted back to the house and collapsed onto the sofa, before we knew it we were eating our last Russian meal and smiling and laughing again, glad we had survived the ordeal. We took some photos with the family and settled in for the evening, in the knowledge that we had experienced some true highs and low of Russian life.

The next day we boarded our flight to Germany and now that is where we reside, we're home next week and we have many stories to tell that I just haven't been able to write about in these often rushed blogs. Weve had an amazing time but we're finally looking forward to coming home and seeing everybody, next time I post I'll no doubt be back in the UK but I will for sure write a post about Germany and then one final conclusive post from the comfort of my home.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Trans Siberian: Mongolia (Part 1)

We screeched into Ulaanbaatar at around one thirty in the afternoon. The sky was blue and the air was bitterly cold. We certainly weren't in Kansas anymore. Our hostel was lovely enough to pick us up from the station and we proceeded through the dull gray pallor of the streets to our hostel. It was a small building, and like most other buildings in town it was a leftover from Soviet times, looking out from behind the hostel you could see an estate with husky old men and women huddled around bonfires drinking vodka. This was like nowhere else I had ever been before. Gana, the owner of the hostel, would tell us stories about how Ulaanbaatar used to be such a great place to live but that now it was rough and dirty, and that he was disappointed in its people for turning it into the ex-soviet slum that it had become. But, really it wasn't that bad, I actually grew rather fond of it. Down the street from the hostel was the old monastery, a beautiful building with an emerald green Buddhist style roof on the top of a giant hill. Further into town there were many shopping malls, a huge square that houses the government buildings and monuments to Chinggis Khan (that's how they spell it), and the main museums in town. We spent our first day in Ulaanbaatar exploring these museums and trying to get a feel for the place, but even the museums felt a little run down and like they had gone past their sell by date. Snow started coming down and you could see your breath in front of you, so we headed to the state department store (a giant store smack in the middle of town) and stocked up on some warm clothes.

After a day or so of exploring Ulaanbaatar we knew all too well that it was time to get out into what Mongolia is famous for; it's endless countryside. We booked a ride with our hostel out to Terelj National Park. Gana gave us a ride out to our ger (a ger is a round felt hut) and it really was in the middle of nowhere. Gana told a good story and filled us in on many of the trappings of Mongolian culture. He told us how 95% of the roads in the country weren't really roads at all but just dirt tracks made by nomads, so it's hard to map Mongolia as the roads are forever changing. Most Mongolians live in the cities, I think a whopping 30 or 40 percent of them actually live in Ulaanbaatar, outside of that you have nomads, people who live a simple life, tax free and off on their own in the wild. Something we were hoping to get a flavor for.

The national park was beautiful, soaring mountains that stretched as far as the eye could see, endless fields with nothing in them but the occasional cow, or horse. Huge rocks cascaded over hills and aging monasteries rotted on the tops of the mountains. It was quite a sight to behold and we were staying right in the middle of the bottom of the valley. We went inside the family ger and were served some breakfast (a sign of things to come) the breakfast was cheese and bread and some mare's milk tea. I quite enjoyed it's simplicity but Natalie did not. After breakfast and meeting the family (mother, father and son Nick) we were shown to our ger. In total the family had three gers at their little country retreat, one for the family, one for the son and one for guests. Our ger was pretty big but not as big as the family ger, it was perfectly round and decorated in true Mongolian style with handmade cloth and blankets. In the center of the ger stood an iron fireplace that would become our only source of heat over many long nights in the bitter cold. We were also shown the toilet about fifteen metres from our ger was the outhouse. A hole in the ground that when you looked down you could see (and smell) the rancid decaying shit below. I can't say it was incredibly pleasant but it was all we had to work with as Gana drove away and left us there, in the middle of nowhere.

Next up was horse riding. Neither Natalie nor I had ever ridden a horse before but we swung our legs over our tiny little horses confidently. Natalie's horse had decided to be a little mischievous, so, Nick (our guide) tied Natalie's horse to his horse and they galloped off in front telling me to follow. There I was, sat on a horse, with no idea what to do. Nick signaled to me how to 'take off' if you will, so I gently kicked the side of the horse and said something loudly like "Haaa", and off the horse went. I pulled one rope for left and one rope for right and I kicked the side of the horse to go faster and could feed it several commands by making several different noises. Galloping through the Mongolian countryside on the back of a horse was an experience I'll never forget. I felt like Aragorn off on an adventure, and indeed the scenery was rather reminiscent of Middle Earth, just without any orcs.

We stopped off at a monastery, tied the horses up, and hiked up the many steps to the top. The view from up there was breathtaking and monks had painted beautiful works of art on the sides of the rocks on the mountains. A crazy old man with a machete, up there showed us the intricate workings of the artist who had painted the temple. There were pictures of people getting decapitated, a bit of the old bestiality and some other rather untoward images splattered onto this place of worship, very strange, very strange indeed. We hiked back down and over a very rickety bridge to our horses and this time Natalie was free to ride her horse by herself as well. We picked up speed and we were off. My back started to hurt and it was bloody cold, but I was still enjoying the adrenaline rush that came from riding my horse through the mountains. Who ever paid for horse riding lessons is a fool, this is where it's at.

We rode to Turtle Rock, this rock was huge and it genuinely did look like a turtle, we took some photo's and had a walk around the park from here whilst Nick got a snack in the local shop, may I add, the only shop for miles around and it sold, well, beer, vodka, and cookies. That's was about it. Oh, and lamb. We galloped back to the gers for lunch and you guessed it lunch was lamb, and dinner was lamb, and lunch the next day was lamb, and lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, bloody sick of all the bloody lamb. Mongolians eat a lot of lamb, very hearty food, I guess to keep them warm during the blisteringly cold winters. Ulaanbaatar itself is renowned as the coldest capital in the world, it has all those Siberian winds blowing over and nothing to protect itself. In the winter Gana told us that it can get down to -40. Can you imagine!?

We ate lunch and then played with the local wolf, it was a domesticated dog to be fair, but it looked like a wolf. Natalie befriended him and they were inseparable by the end of our stay. We went and did some more hiking around the park in the afternoon and started to worry about the night ahead. The coldest night of my life. When we fell asleep the fire was still ablaze, but when I woke up at around midnight, the fire had gone out and the door to our ger had swung open, there was no lock and it had a knack of doing that. So, all the bitter cold air from outside had come into the ger. I spent most of the night trying to relight a fire but with nothing but matches and huge logs of wood this proved rather testing, I did get it going again but it didn't last for long, so we shivered our way through the night, occasionally waking up to take a trip to the outhouse, also in the cold. But, hey, what can you do? It's all part of the experience, right?

The second day in the country and we did much the same as the first. We went hiking around the valley and found lots of old bones lying around. We got some magnificent views from a top some of the rocks and we chased neighboring gers puppies around for kicks. They were so cute. Mainly we just tried to not be cold and we tried to stomach all of the lamb we were fed, oh how we wished we could have a shower. Don't get me wrong though, I wouldn't trade in the experience and although the second night was rather similar in style to the first, it was fine, because we were in Mongolia and we were experiencing something very few people even know exists. Real freedom, real nomadic life, really getting away from it all in every sense of the word. Now I think I understand that idea of freedom a little bit more than I did before I rolled into Terelj.

The rest of our Mongolian experience was spent bumming around the national park and then further more bumming around Ulaanbaatar, it was so cold and eight days really wasn't enough to get out and see a lot more of the country. We would have liked to get down to the Gobi desert, or out to Khustain to see the wild horses, but I suppose it means that we'll just have to come back.

We left Ulaanbaatar on a snowy day from the central train station. We had picked our tickets up from another Soviet style estate a few days previously and we exchanged our money, packed our bags and got down to the station early as to not have another reenactment of catching our Chinese train. We boarded easily and found our cabin. The place that would be our home for the next five days. Five very long days, with no electricity, no idea what the time was, no shower and nothing to do but look out at the majesty of a snow covered Siberia.

Our attendants or provonvistas as they so like to be called, were everything we could have asked for and proved very helpful during the trip. They gave us extra blankets and provided us with all that we needed. Our cabin was pretty small, two beds, plush blue walls, a little storage space and a table with a kettle, or should I call it a flask. Yes, a flask. Home sweet home. As we screeched over the tracks at about 60km per hour we really had no idea what the time was and by the third day we just started living by the sun rise and sun set. The Russian border check was smooth but again it was at about midnight which totally disturbs any sleep you might have been hoping to get. We played a lot of cards, a lot of chess, we tried to steal electricity from the food cart, but they kept overcharging us so we told them where to shove their disgusting food and proceeded to live off of noodles and snacks that you could buy from each platform that the train stopped at. We had these delicious toffee filled wafers from Omsk, they were incredible. The scenery was very majestic and I'll not forget many of the sights we saw any time soon, but on the third day it did start to get a little tiresome. Chug, chug, chug. Noodles. Noodles. Noodles. I was dying for a shower. Sometimes I needed the toilet, but they were locked because we were at a station, or approaching a station, or departing a station, very frustrating, but again, this was the time for character enhancing experiences, and it was indeed that.

On the fifth day I was over the moon to finally be approaching Moscow. Sergey and Ira, our hosts, were waiting for us at the station with a big wave and we were finally of of that train. We waved goodbye to the attendants and set out into Russia. A story for part two of this blog. I'll write about Russia tomorrow, and then I would have finally caught up on these blogs, believe me I haven't been lazy, we hardly had a moments rest in Russia to write about any of this and I had no electricity on the Trans Siberian, but here we are and we're talking now, so isn't that lovely. I'm sorry if this felt a bit rushed but I wanted to get at least something written and posted this morning.

We're in Germany now, and it's not cold here, which is a relief. See you next time.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Still Alive: Moscow

We've just spent five days on a train through Sibera without a lick of electricity (not enough to write a blog on anyway), so I haven't quite caught up with writing about Mongolia yet, however, in the next few days I'll be sure to do so. The Trans Siberian train journey was quite an experience and I'll be sure to write all about that in my next post as well. For now, we're in Moscow and staying with a wonderful family whom Natalie's family knows, Amy (Natalie's sister) went on an exchange program here a couple of years ago and they've stayed in touch. They've been super accomadating and we're all full of delicious Russian food and ready for bed. A real bed! Also, we've showered! After not showering for five days straight I can't tell you how good it felt to feel the water cascading down my body. Well, before this starts to get too erotic I'd better go. Keep an eye out for a much longer and more interesting blog in the next coupl of days. Until then.


Thursday, 25 October 2012

Cambodia and China

Oh, dear reader, I’m excruciatingly sorry that it’s been an age since I last posted a blog. You must believe me that the only reason I haven’t put my fingers to my keys is that I’ve just been so very, very busy. However, I am now sat on a train heading from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, and I’ll be here for thirty hours, so this is the opportune time to tell you all about our recent adventures. Since last time we spoke we’ve been through both Cambodia and Beijing, and I’m terribly sorry but I’m going to ramble on about both of them, so you can expect this to be a lot longer than other posts.

I’m currently sat in a small two berth cabin with gold and red patterned seats that convert into beds, the Chinese train conductor is parading the corridors trying to get everything in order and Natalie is napping on the chair in front of me. I can hear the steady, consistent sound of the train rolling over the tracks and Beijing is fading away from outside of the window as the buildings get fewer and fewer and we finally head out into the countryside.

It’s a much more pleasant ride than our bus journey from Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Oh, I know I complain but the bus was just long and it felt like we had been travelling forever. Two days straight of long bus journeys really drains you. The bus wasn’t too crowded and we did befriend an Australian whose name was Daniel. He was coming to the end of three months on the road around South East Asia and was gradually making his way back to Bangkok. He had been to Cambodia before and gave us some trusty pointers on what we should expect. Immigration and customs procedures were relatively simple, albeit lengthy and irritating, our passports were escorted off the bus by the bus man (I’ll call him bus man if I want) and when they were returned to us they had shiny, new Cambodian visas pasted inside of them. We were heading to our last stop on our South East Asian circuit.

We arrived in Phnom Penh at about three o’ clock in the afternoon. The sun was beating down on the concrete as we stepped off and unloaded our luggage for the thousandth time. Daniel had a map with him and from what we could decipher we were quite far away from the backpacker strip of hostels, restaurants and bars which is where we were headed in order to find some cheap accommodation. So, we took up a tuk-tuk drivers offer to take us to the riverside. It was great to be back in a tuk-tuk, they don’t’ have them in Vietnam and we had been missing them. Once we were dropped off we walked with Daniel until we found somewhere decent to stay, Daniel stayed in a dorm just across the road from the guesthouse we stayed in. Both the hostel and the guesthouse were run by a pretty decent British guy who helped us out a lot during our stay. That evening we mellowed out and got our things together, put our lives in order and then had some dinner just down the street.

So, it was our first day in Cambodia. A whole multitude of possibilities awaited us, we could walk along the riverside and watch the locals fishing or playing games on the sidewalks, we could go to the National Museum and learn about ancient Angkor and the kingdoms of by gone ages, or we could do what we did do, and visit the Killing Fields and Genocide Museum. Cheerful, I know.

It was raining; the perfect weather for such a sombre excursion. We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to both locations and we set off into the city. The city was deserted as we drove past the huge independence monument and many temples and palaces that sit side by side with grey decaying apartment blocks, littered alleyways and corrugated metal shacks. It was deserted because we had come to Cambodia on their biggest national holiday in which they celebrate the lives of their ancestors and seek spiritual reflection and time with their families, it’s very much the Cambodian version of thanksgiving, but no matter, it meant there was no traffic and we sped along the highway about seventeen kilometres out of town, to the killing fields.

Now, I’ll digress a little in a vein attempt to summarise why the killing fields exist and why it was important to visit them. I usually have wikipedia at my side to help me make sure I have all my facts straight when writing these blogs but today I don’t have that luxury so please forgive me if I get any of this slightly wrong, but I like to think I learnt enough to try and communicate it effectively. Here we go:

At the end of the Vietnam War the country (Cambodia) was divided, the Americans had been carpet bombing the country in order to kill any Vietnam refugees who might be trying to flee and spread communism to other parts of Asia, and Cambodia was left to fend for itself. The government was unstable and the military forces depleted. So, the Khmer Rouge stepped up, the Khmer Rouge stormed Phnom Penh in 1975, overthrew the government and destroyed what was left of the military forces. Within a day the city was left deserted. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge (a Cambodian communist political party) took charge of Cambodia and set out to put in place what I consider one of the sickest social experiments I have ever seen, or heard about.

He ethnically cleansed the country in order to try and create a perfectly equal socialist republic. To do this he set about killing anyone with a degree, anyone involved with the old government, any doctors, lawyers, basically anybody with the slightest grain of intellect. He then set up what were considered to be self sustaining farming communities across the country and kept people enclosed in these communities by putting landmines everywhere. There are more landmines per square mile in Cambodia than in any country in the world. Sure, you could try and escape if you were living under the regime but if you did chances are you’d get your legs blown off in the process.

Backtrack to the killing of intellectuals and people who opposed the Khmer Rouge. People who were smart or who were in opposition to Pol Pot and his regime were sent to prisons across the country. The biggest of the prisons was called S-21 and is now the genocide museum. I’ll get back to that shortly. Once the Khmer Rouge had tortured as much information out of their prisoners as they could they would be told that they are going to a new camp. They would be shipped onto large lorries after dark and driven (you guessed it) seventeen kilometres down the road. They would then be taken off the back of the lorry and locked up in very small cells. In groups of ten to twenty they would be taken from the cells to the ‘killing fields’ and would all be brutally murdered and buried under cover of darkness. Whilst being killed proper gander music would be playing out of loudspeakers so that nobody around could hear the screams. They killed men, women and children, even babies who were brutally smashed against the side of a tree next to the mass grave. They wouldn’t shoot the prisoners as that would be too loud, so they used a series of awful weapons to get the job done, from axes to knives to farming equipment. It was truly awful and almost unimaginable.

There is no answer to the question: why, or how can a human be that brutal towards another human, it was a dark time and what is left at the killing fields today is a reminder of the brutality that took place there, and a memorial to the seventeen thousand people who lost their lives there. That was just at the killing fields outside of Phnom Penh, there are many more across the entire country, mass grave sites where the Khmer Rouge executed thousands of innocent people.

We took an audio tour of the fields which gave a huge insight into what went on there. There is a memorial stupor in the centre where all of the remains of the mass graves that have been dug up now lay. You could put a flower down or light some incense and quietly pay your respects to the deceased. The tour takes you around several sites, where the cells used to be, where the truck used to offload prisoners, and then onto the mass grave sites themselves where still to this day, during the monsoon season, pieces of bone and clothing get washed up from beneath the ground. It was a sombre, saddening but educational visit, one that will be very difficult to forget.

After this we headed to the S-21 prison and visited the genocide museum, it was not very well maintained and basically just gave a further insight into what happened to the prisoners and how they were treated, which I’m sure you can imagine, was awful. There were still blood stains on the floors left over from the atrocities that took place there. We left feeling incredibly depressed and disheartened, we went back to the hostel and got some ice cream and attempted to find some perspective, but unfortunately the ramifications of what took place in the late seventies here is hard to ignore. Even at the killing fields themselves there were limbless men begging. There is poverty all over Cambodia and what is worse is that children get dragged into the problem. There are many street kids, sleeping, working and living on the sidewalks of Phnom Penh, all of them begging for money in dirty clothes, some of whom have lost their parents to landmines that still litter the countryside. As with Laos this is something that is going to take a long time to rectify.

On our second day in Phnom Penh the sun was shining once more so we did all of the more uplifting things that we could have done on our first day. We visited the Royal Museum and got an insight into the Angkor kingdom and what Cambodia used to be like back when it was still called Khmer, many years B.C. The museum was pretty big and interesting to walk around but the highlight for Natalie was that she got to feed the fish. After this we walked through town to see the independence monument and a few temples that caught our eye. Afterwards we walked back along the river and past the royal palace which was closed as the ex-king had died that day and they were having a memorial ceremony. He was no longer the king because he got extradited after the Khmer Rouge took control.

Well, alls well that ends well that’s what I say, and after a glorious dinner at a restaurant that helps take care of street children, we booked our bus to Siem Reap, which is in Northern Cambodia and is home to the infamous Angkor Wat. The bus ride was hellish as usual, loud Cambodian television blaring out during the entire journey, a boy who was feeling motion sickness the whole way, loud screaming children, bumpy roads and uncomfortable seats and before you know it you arrive.

We were picked up from the bus station by the most amazing tuk-tuk driver ever Mr. Ou Hok. He would be our transport go-to man the whole time that we spent in Siem Reap. He dropped us off at our hotel and we checked in, it was such a good place to stay, off in a quiet alley but close enough to town to be able to walk there. The owners gave us a tonne of advice on how to explore the huge Angkor complex straight away, and about an hour later we booked our tuk-tuk ready to watch the sunrise the next day.

Mr. Ou Hok picked us up at four thirty in the morning. I wasn’t actually that tired as I was so excited to finally see Angkor Wat. It truly is one of those places you ‘must see before you die’. Sunrise at Angkor Wat. How beautiful. Mr. Ou Hok dropped us to a spot right in front of the temple where you could see the sunrise, and we walked down and got a position right at the front. The sunrise was one of those “wow!” moments that you can’t quite comprehend you’ve experienced until a few months down the line when you’re back at work and feeling run down and then you remember, “wait, remember that sunrise at Angkor Wat”, and it makes everything okay again. The colour of the sky was effulgent, as things began to get brighter I felt like I was Indiana Jones getting ready to go and discover some lost treasure in the ancient ruins. After sunrise it was time to start exploring. You start with Angkor Wat, the biggest temple in the complex and you can walk there from where you watch the sunrise.

We bumped into two people from our trip here, the Australian lady who we shared a taxi to the train station in Hoi An (about two weeks ago) was snapping photographs at the entrance and we briefly chatted about her travels before leaving her to her own devices, and then just around the corner we bumped into Daniel and we explored Angkor Wat in his company. The building is unbelievably magnificent and awe inspiring and the architecture is intricate and mind boggling. Who built this? How long did it take? Where is the treasure? 

Back in the tuk-tuk and onto the next stop, Angkor Thom which was the ancient city of the Angkor Empire, ruin after ruin and beautiful building after beautiful building, there was a photo opportunity at every turn and the whole place took us hours to explore. Plants and trees had begun to grow in and around the ruins and it started to take on a whole new life, it felt like I was in a Rudyard Kipling book (just I wasn’t in India), the jungle rising from behind ancient carvings and stone sculptures of by-gone kings and queens. Gods no longer worshipped. We were both starting to feel tired as the sun got hotter and hotter but we were so awed by the whole place that we couldn’t wait to get to the next spot. The next spot wasn’t as impressive although still wonderful, it was the old king’s residence and whilst it was beautifully maintained it was very similar to the city we had just explored, so we quickly headed to the queens palace.

The queen’s palace was made famous by the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film in the early noughties. It has trees literally growing through and around the whole complex. It’s like the jungle surrounding it wants it back and is consuming the palace. We spent a fair amount of time at this one and marvelled at the trees and the carvings on the walls, and I pretended I was Lara Croft for a while, a more masculine version, of course. A few more stops later and we settled down for lunch and we talked to Mr. Ou Hok for a while about his life and his family. He has four daughters all of them either finished university or attending university, he was a very proud man and he showed us pictures of his daughters and we talked about many things over some chicken, rice and delicious spring rolls.

In the afternoon we went a little farther afield and saw some temples that were not visited by so many tourists, we also stopped off at the landmine museum and learnt about the clean up effort that is going on in the country. By this time it was roughly three o’ clock and we had been templing for hours and hours so it was time to head back after our long day of exploring and pretending to be in an UnCharted video game.

The next day we explored Siem Reap town, visited the fruit bats that live in the park and we ate our first Asian bugs. We picked up some barbequed crickets from a vendor near the fruit bat park and I’m not going to lie to you, they were actually delicious. Once you get over the fact that you’re eating little bugs, and once you’ve picked all of the little legs out from between your teeth they become a protein filled delicious morning snack. Maybe it’s not for everyone.

That was the bulk of our Cambodian trip and besides some exploring of the markets and little alleyways around Siem Reap hopefully it gives an insight into our stay there. My back is hurting my friends and I’ve been crouched over this keyboard for some time, but fear not, I will continue, and let you know what happened next on this monumental journey.

Mr. Ou Hok gave us a ride to the airport the next morning and we boarded our flight to Beijing. It was actually two flights as we changed planes in Guangzhou. The flights were tiresome but pleasant enough, I suppose, and we arrived in Beijing on time and a little overwhelmed. It was much cooler in Beijing than what we were used too down in the Southern Hemisphere. That wasn’t the only difference, where did all the English signs go? There really isn’t much help for the English speaker in Beijing, especially compared to the tourist ready places we had been used to, but no problem, we hailed a taxi, somehow communicated to him where we wanted to go, and we were off.

It was about this time I started to feel like something wasn’t quite right in my belly, (oh don’t blame the crickets) but I decided to ignore it for now. Our hostel was located down a small ancient alleyway (hutong) and it was beautiful. It’s an old converted one hundred year old courtyard and it was so authentically Chinese that I felt like we had stepped back into ancient China. It was reminiscent of our trip to Kyoto earlier in the year. We were hungry when we arrived and even though it was very late we did go and get some food around a lake close to the hostel. Then to bed, ready for day one of China. Something I’d been looking forward too for a long time.

I was still feeling a little groggy in the morning but it was nothing that was going to put me off of travelling around for the day. We were going to do the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square on our first day but as it was raining we opted for the zoo instead. We didn’t just go to the zoo for the sake of it, we had a mission and that mission was Chinese Pandas. In fact, we didn’t really go around any of the zoo, we literally went there to see the pandas and they were worth it, they had a huge collection of pandas and they were so gorgeous and so cute that I thought I wasn’t going to die of a cute attack. You can’t come to China and not see pandas, right? That would just be, wrong. The rain had really picked up after we had got out of the panda kingdom so we took shelter in the aquarium. Beijing Aquarium is actually pretty high on the list of best things to do in the city but it was a little disappointing in my books, I mean it a big aquarium and it had many sea creatures and fish within it, but it just wasn’t quite as good as we had been led to believe it would be, but no matter, we were hiding from the rain so we took advantage of the shelter.

Next stop was Olympic village, the main reason to visit this area in the Northern district of Beijing was too be able to go: “na na na na na na” at my sister. She’s big on the whole Olympic gig and the Beijing stadium is a pretty cool building. We also saw the water cube and spent some time walking around and watching everyone flying kites and running up and down the boulevard between the birds nest and the water cube. Everything seemed pretty neat and tidy there and it was a glimpse into modern Beijing and where the city might be heading in the future. The Chinese government approved a plan known as the Beijing Master Plan 2020 that will completely revitalise Beijing and bring it quickly into the future and Olympic Park is the first sign that the plan is moving steadily forwards. The rest of the Beijing that we experienced felt very ancient, small narrow streets, old buildings, Chinese tiled rooftops and lanterns. The Olympic area felt like a slice of Shanghai had made it up to Beijing. You could imagine what the atmosphere must have been like during the games, the boulevard full of athletes and spectators, the hustle and bustle of it all, but it wasn’t very busy when we went, must have been the rain.

After getting drenched in yet another downpour we eventually found a taxi to take us back to our hostel. After getting cleaned up we decided to go to a traditional Peking Duck restaurant which had been recommended to us. It was actually reasonably priced considering it was by far the most posh restaurant either of us had ever set foot in. There was a traditional Chinese hand paper performance on a stage in the centre of the room, and we were sat off to one side. We ordered half a duck and some pancakes (a traditional way of eating duck) and before we knew it a whole duck was brought out on a silver tray and started to be carved up by a trained duck carver. Our server then showed us how to eat the duck the traditional Chinese way and I felt like I was having a rather authentic Chinese dining experience. Worth the trip. Although, by the end of the meal that groggy tummy from earlier had turned into something catastrophic, I couldn’t even finish all of my delicious duck, I spent most of the night in and out of the toilet but luckily that was the worst of it, whilst I’m still not back one hundred percent I’m feeling much better now, it did take a couple of days recovery.

That didn’t stop us doing what we set out to do on our second day. We collected our train tickets from our agency first, and then we explored the silk market and I haggled for about an hour for a very special gift for my father, he had better love it! Then we went to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square was massive and in fact so was the Forbidden City, we spent a long time walking around here. The architecture reminded me a lot of Korean palaces and buildings but it did have its differences, after a time the many grand halls did get repetitive but it was magnificent and it’s hard to describe the sheer magnitude of the place, it truly was gigantic. You can just imagine the tanks rolling through Tiananmen Square, and lines of soldiers marching through the Forbidden City.

The next day was the big one. The one you’ve all been waiting for. Roll up, roll up, the great wall of China. I could just write ‘it was great’ and it would sum it up quite nicely but I’ll go into a little more detail despite the fact that I’ve been writing flat out for over two hours. We got picked up super early and eventually got to the great wall at around ten o’ clock. We didn’t go to Badling (the tourist spot) as we had heard that it gets so crowded there that you can’t really enjoy it as much, so we decided to head to a more secluded area of the wall and indeed a more ancient area where we could hike the great wall for a solid four hours, scouring up and down over the mountains and watching the great wall fade away over the hills beneath the horizon. It stretched as far as the eye could see. We hiked the wall with two friends we had made at the hostel, Sophie from Bristol and Marika from the Netherlands. It was tiring, in places you had to scour hundreds of ancient steps to get to a tower at the top and then go straight back down the other side, it was totally worth it though, another experience that you could call a ‘wow’ moment. It’s a shame that tourism has taken over some parts of the wall to the extreme that it has but we were lucky to catch a glimpse of the majesty of the thing without having to barge through any crowds.

We went to the night market on our last night in the city and had some more bugs; we ate grasshoppers, secqatours and some baby pigeons. When in China, you’ve got too, right? I can’t say my belly is appreciating my culinary choices though. That’s nothing to what they actually had on offer, you could eat starfish, scopions, sheep penis, sheep testicles, snake, spider and seahorse. I’m sure there were other culinary delights on offer that we passed up, but we certainly got a flavour of Chinese cuisine, what with the Peking Duck.

Well, that was China and we’re onto the Trans Siberian leg of the journey, next stop Mongolia. I’ll try and post more efficiently in the future. I’ll be posting this when I get to Mongolia, so you’ll know that if you’re reading this, that’s’ probably where I am.

TTFN. Ta ta for now.

Monday, 15 October 2012

The Paris of the East

We spent a good forty minutes wandering around the winding streets of Dalat before we finally found our hotel. When we did we were pleasantly surprised that the hotel was just what we were looking for. It was clean, friendly and in a pretty good location despite it being so difficult to find. There was one small issue when the bathroom decided to attack me, I was merrily having a shower when the light blew up. I think it knocked out all the lights on our floor of the hotel. Other than that, no complaints.

Coming to Dalat was a last minute decision, we had heard so many negative reviews of our intended destination, Nha Trang, that we started looking at good alternatives. Dalat is a small city in the central highlands of Vietnam dubbed the Paris of the East. It was originally an escape from the hustle and bustle of Saigon for the French during their colonialism. They built beautiful villas and huge wide highways across the entire town. As we drove into town it was clear we were entering somewhere completely different. It was like a cross between a quaint Vietnamese city and a town in the French Alps. The city is smack in the middle of a huge pine forest, and pine covered hills stretch out in every direction, the air is cool as the altitude is so high (at night we even wore long sleeves), and there is a tranquil lake in the center of town. It has a reputation for being a little avant-garde and kitsch, but that’s right up my street anyway. We were sold on the place from the minute we saw the lake sparkling underneath the sunset. The majority of tourists that visit Dalat are actually Vietnamese so it was nice to divert from the Western tourist trail for a while and experience somewhere more quintessentially Vietnamese, even though it felt more like Europe.

A fine example of the kitsch and niche style of the place is the ‘crazy house’, this was the first stop on our first day of exploring the town. Designed by the daughter of an independence war hero the ‘crazy house’ is a fantasy house art project that bears similarity to Dr. Seuss books, it felt quite Disneylandish. There are several different rooms of the house that you can walk around, some of which aren’t even finished yet. We spent a good hour here taking photographs and gawping at the ridiculousness of the whole thing. One of the most striking things about the crazy house and indeed the whole of Dalat seemed to be the invasion of the killer spiders. If you looked up at the sky from beneath the trees of the crazy house you could see streams of webs with giant spiders in them, spiders with yellow stripes are usually best avoided and I won’t lie, they freaked me out. Natalie was fascinated of course, and I had to drag her away from the insects, fish and lizards on many occasions during our stay. Once we had finished exploring the Vietnamese version of Wonderland, and once I had managed to convince Natalie that the spiders are dangerous and we should probably leave them alone we headed out.  

We took a taxi across town (and he didn’t even try to scam us, win) and arrived at Thien Vien Truc Lan (it’s a bit of a mouthful) in fact, I would have liked a mouthful of some delicious food but we arrived just as siesta time hit so we had to wait an hour before everything reopened. From here you can take a cable car to a hilltop monastery deep in the mountains and you can also visit a natural lake. We waited for the cable car to start running again, Natalie played with a worm (I might have her institutionalised) and we let our tummies rumble.

When we eventually got on the cable car it was clear that it was worth the wait, it was a long cable car ride to the monastery but it was incredibly scenic, the beautiful greenery sitting alongside pristine winding roads and Vietnamese farmland was beautiful from high up above. When we got to the monastery we strolled around for a while and did the clichéd tourist things and then headed out into the amazing pine forest to find the lake. It really didn’t feel like we were in Vietnam, and if it wasn’t for all the Asians I might have believed that we weren’t. The forest was spectacular and it did feel quite European until we got to the lake and saw the dog restaurant on the corner. Yeah, yeah the Vietnamese eat dogs, so do the Koreans, can we move on please? As a matter of fact, the Vietnamese will eat anything (see previous blogs).

We got some beef pho on the lakeside (no dog), it was pretty delicious, but the view was the really stunning thing. Soaring hills covered in pine trees stretching upwards from beneath the gentle water, several small boats cruising along the lake and clouds creating soft mist on the peaks of the mountains, it’s what I used to think Asia would look like before I came here. We slowly made our way back stopping off at a silk shop on the way and chatting to the owner for a while. That night we had dinner on the lake in the city and I tried a deer stir fry whilst Natalie lapped up some sweet and sour squid. Glutinous pigs.

The next day we took it pretty easy and we walked around the lake and eventually ended up at the Dalat Flower Park. More Disneylandish kitsch I hear you cry, well, yes, but it was pretty and we spent a good couple of hours walking around the giant flower park with views across the whole city, we swung on some swings and we smelt some flowers, we didn’t go for a horse ride on a Cinderella carriage, but we could have had we felt the need. After the flower park we did go for a swan ride on the lake, not a real swan, it was one of those cyclo boats shaped like a swan in an effortless attempt to be romantic. I tried to annoy Natalie by getting her wet but I didn’t have much luck, as usual she was too interested in the frogs and dead fish floating on the surface of the lake. Rather unnerving dead fish might I add, the lake didn’t look at all polluted but the fish told a different story. It was gorgeous though and I got a little sunburnt from the whole affair. We were pretty beat by the end of the day, the lake was bigger than it looked and we must have walked and cycled for miles before we finally got back to the hotel.

The next morning we hopped on our eight hour bus ride to Saigon, oh joy. The ride actually went pretty quickly thanks to the Ricky Gervais podcasts and a pretty good view out of the window. We got dropped off right on the backpacker strip in Saigon which was perfect. One old lady in floral pyjamas pulled us over and told us she had a room for ten dollars, in for a penny in for a pound, we took a look. Nooooo, thank you. The rooms looked pretty shabby and the whole place had an untrustworthy vibe, so we walked around for a bit and eventually found a lovely hotel for fifteen dollars, with all the amenities one could ask for, hot water, air con and finally some decent wifi, Facebook was still blocked though. Vietnam has a firewall much like China that blocks access to certain websites that the government doesn’t like, Facebook is one of them. There are ways around it of course but it’s always slow and glitchy. We didn’t see much of Saigon as we were only there for the night, we headed out the next morning towards Cambodia, and we made it. Cambodia is a story for next time, but we are here and having a great time, happy to be in yet another new and exciting place. Let’s just hope I won’t have to pull Natalie away from too many insects…