Tag Archives: Monks

Pandas, Noodles and Squat Toilets

When I first decided to visit China, I was slightly overwhelmed with the size of the country and worried about getting around without knowing any Mandarin. I was tossing up between travelling solo and taking my time or travelling with an organized group, which would be more fast-paced but smoother. In the end I’m glad I went with the group option… it was a lot easier to get around with a local Mandarin speaker… little things like ordering in restaurants, buying train tickets, finding a toilet and getting a taxi all become much more difficult when you don’t know the language!

In total, I spent a month travelling around China and Hong Kong. It was an extremely interesting, insightful and cultural experience. I have some fantastic memories that I brought back with me and also some not so great ones, but it was definitely a worthwhile trip. I was able to see some breathtaking sights, such as the Great Wall of China and Emperor Qin Shihuang’s Terracotta Army. I also met some truly wonderful people, both locals and fellow travellers, but also had some really challenging moments.

Some of my fondest memories are sitting by the Shanghai Bund at night watching the bright lights of the skyline; riding on a bamboo raft along the Li river  surrounded by stunning limestone karsts; learning Tai Chi in the early morning in a local park; watching cute, cuddly yet incredibly lazy giant pandas chewing bamboo; and watching the sunset out on the deck of the ship while cruising down the Yangtze river.

Shanghai Bund skyline at night

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Bamboo rafting on the Li river in Yangshuo

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Early morning Tai Chi class

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Pandas at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu

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Sunset on the Yangtze river

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Other vivid memories (not as fond though) include sitting on a five hour public bus ride with a sack of live animals next to me (it turned out they were chickens but I let my imagination run wild); having our group stalked by a local lady in the Chengdu market and trying to lose her; and disturbing images of cats and dogs hung up for sale in the local Yangshuo wet market.

The trip started in Beijing in the north of China. It took me a few days to get used to being there… the new language and distinct lack of English anywhere; the noticeably higher levels of pollution; the humidity; the squat toilets, a lot of them extremely filthy; people spitting on the streets as they walked past me; and let’s not forget chopsticks! When I arrived I couldn’t even pick up a dumpling with a chopstick but I’ve finally mastered the art of eating with them… I didn’t really have much of a choice!

It was an amazing experience for me to climb parts of the Great Wall of China… twice… because once is just not enough! The climb to actually get to the wall was challenging… it felt like I was on a never-ending staircase leading to nowhere, but I eventually made it up to the wall. Local people along the way kept greeting me and asking to take pictures and selfies with me… I felt like a bit of a celebrity! Climbing the wall was challenging but also very humbling when I thought about the people who built the wall and what they went through as they had no proper pathways or stairs to climb with the materials and worked throughout the year in all conditions. The views from up on the wall were breathtaking… I’d always seen pictures of this architectural wonder but couldn’t believe I was actually standing on it!

Hiking the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China

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Another highlight of the trip for me was seeing the Terracotta Warriors in person. This was something I had read about before and seen photos of on the Internet but they don’t come close to what it looks like in person. I was surprised by the sheer size of the army and all the detail that had been put into each individual warrior… it was an incredible sight and I’m sure my pictures won’t do it justice!

Terracotta Army in Xi’an

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Warriors still undergoing restoration

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Over the course of the trip, I took three overnight trains in China. Memories of the overnight trains are bittersweet for me… I loved them and hated them all at the same time, but I’m glad I experienced them! I had some fun times with fellow travellers and friends… playing cards, chatting away, watching movies together, eating countless pots of noodle soup and building friendships over cups of tea, cans of beer and sometimes shots of Chinese ‘firewater’! But it wasn’t all fun, games and laughter… sharing a 6-bunk ‘cabin’ was challenging with some beds that you couldn’t even sit up straight in. I say cabin in the loosest sense of the word as there weren’t really any cabins… the whole carriage was open plan and without any curtains arounds beds for privacy. I still remember my first train ride where I hardly slept because there was a super loud snorer on the bunk next to me (I’m talking deafening snores!) and another guy who wanted to play loud games on his phone! After finally falling asleep in the boiling hot carriages, I awoke at 5.30am to find a random stranger eating breakfast at the end of my bed… he was slurping away at his noodle soup while I was asleep! I have to admit I found that a little creepy! Aside from sleeping arrangements, the hardest part was the squat toilets… not just because you had to squat but because toilets on the trains are probably some of the dirtiest I’ve ever seen (I won’t go into graphic details!).

Playing UNO on the train

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Another of the highlights of the trip for me was a two-night stay in a monastery in Emeishan. The monastery was beautiful and although the rooms we stayed in were simple they were a lot nicer than what I was expecting… in my mind I pictured us all sleeping in one large room with mattresses or blankets on the floor. We could only use communal showers between 5.30pm and 9.30pm and I had to go on spider kill and cockroach hunt a few times. Nonetheless it was an amazing experience. I especially loved waking up at 5.30am to the sound of the monks chanting… it was very peaceful and a great way to wake up.

Monastery in Emeishan where we stayed

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Candles lit in the monastery

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We spent one of the days in Emeishan hiking in the area surrounding Mount Emei. I used to think I was pretty good at reading maps but apparently I’m not to be trusted hiking on a mountain – I’ll get lost! At least I wasn’t alone! While hiking, I got separated from most of the group except one person. The two of us continued alone following our maps… we ended up seeing sights that weren’t on our planned route (albeit beautiful sights), climbed what felt like hundreds of steps, and got horribly lost! When we finally got out of the national park (without making it to our destination of the monkey zone), we walked almost 5km in the wrong direction and then found out that a monkey had bitten one of our friends! We tried to hitch a ride back to the monastery on a motorbike that wasn’t big enough for two, ended up walking back the way we came and then got told off by a bus driver in Mandarin because we didn’t listen to him the first time when he tried to give us a lift! All in all it was an eventful and tiring day… we got lots of exercise and ended up walking around 22km in total… but we made it back in one piece!  If I never see steps again it’ll be too soon!

Hiking around Emeishan National Park

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Lost outside the national park

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Aside from the major attractions and great outdoors, China has some wonderful local markets. I really enjoyed strolling around the bustling market in Shanghai, haggling and bargaining for things… it was more for the experience rather than the 20p it saved! The local food market in the Muslim quarter of Xi’an was also really great. It was colourful, vibrant and full of food stalls with interesting smells. I really enjoyed sampling the different foods there… one of my favourites was a yellow sticky rice cake with fresh dates.

Local market in the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an

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Sticky rice cake and meat burgers in the local food market

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The foodie in me really came out to play in China. I truly enjoyed the variety of food and drink on offer and the different flavours from different parts of the country. From the succulent Peking duck in Beijing, to mouth watering dumplings, to the fiery hot pot in Chengdu… the food was delicious! I’ll never feel the same about eating duck and hot pot back in London! I even got to try and make my own dumplings in a cooking class… they didn’t taste too bad for my first attempt!

Peking duck in Beijing

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Duck shaped dumplings at a dumpling banquet in Xi’an

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My very own homemade dumplings!

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The trip ended in Hong Kong with the highlights of the beautiful Victoria Harbour and stunning views from the top of Victoria Peak.

View from Victoria Peak

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Then it was time to say goodbye to new and dear friends; it’s funny to think we started as a group of people who all stood in silence as we rode the elevator together when we first met! It was time to head back to Beijing to meet new travellers, revisit the incredible Great Wall, sample more duck and get ready for the journey west… into Siberia.

The river runs through it

Leaving Thailand behind, I spent just over two weeks in beautiful Laos and Vietnam. It was an amazing two weeks of adventure, fun, new friends, new (and unusual) foods and trying lots of new things for the first time… kayaking in the Nam Som River, holding a python round my neck, swimming in a freezing cold waterfall, riding on a water buffalo at sunset, eating deep fried worm (yes, I said worm!) amongst many other things… some of these things I’d never imagined I would ever do!

Kuang Si waterfall south of Luang Prabang

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Riding a water buffalo in Hoi An

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After crossing the border from Thailand into Laos, we spent two days sailing along the mighty Mekong River. It was a beautiful ride with cold mornings, sunny afternoons and being surrounded by gorgeous hills and mountains all around. We passed various villages and fishing boats along the way and several cows and elephants too. We spent the night in a rustic lodge in the small village of Pak Beng located on the Mekong River… staying in wooden cabins with very little hot water and lots of geckos for friends, it made for an interesting night as the only sounds I could here were those of nature.

Views sailing along the Mekong River

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Buddha statues in the Pak Ou caves, a stop along the Mekong River boat trip

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Finally we arrived in the town of Luang Prabang… this is a beautiful town located along the Mekong River and one of my favourite stops on the trip. It’s a laidback and serene town even though there are a lot of tourists visiting. Some of the highlights for me (apart from historical or religious sights) were the bustling night markets (and the bargaining that comes with them), street food vendors selling mouth-watering dishes, strolling along dusty side streets, rising at dawn to watch the saffron-robed monks receiving alms, and the lively morning market with a variety of unusual eats! I saw a lot of interesting and strange foods in the morning market including deep fried mice/rats, frogs, snails, squirrels, budgies and cobra… I wasn’t brave enough to try any of them!

Mice, rats and snake found for sale in the Luang Prabang morning market

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Monks collecting alms in the early morning

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Sampling street food was definitely a highlight for me… from scrumptious spring rolls to delicious dumplings and, my personal favourite, banana and Nutella crepes that I bought along the sidewalk.

Luang Prabang Street Food

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Home-cooked Laotian meal including laap and deep fried aubergine

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Aside from this, I was also lucky enough to spend a morning with elephants… the highlight for me was ‘bathing’ them in the Mekong River… in actual fact they were just splashing about with us in the river rather than actually bathing but it was an incredible experience with these gentle giants… a dream come true for me because of my love of elephants!

‘Bathing’ elephants near Luang Prabang

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Leaving Luang Prabang behind, we continued on to Vang Vieng for a day. Here I got to try kayaking for the first time… I was quite nervous at first but it was an amazing experience kayaking along the Nam Som River with the hot sun beating down on my skin. Along the way my group decided to stop at one of the infamous river-side bars… they are pretty cool with loud music blaring, people dancing, drinks flowing, BBQs burning on the side and awesome hammocks hanging around for people to catch some rest and shade from the strong sun.

That evening I sat along the riverside with a BeerLao beer in hand and watched the world go by… boats sailing, flocks of birds soaring through the sky, locals having a BBQ around a fire on the sand and the golden red sun setting behind the grand mountains… it’s one of those serene and breathtaking moments I’ll never forget.

Vang Vieng sunset

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After leaving Laos, we headed to Vietnam where the first stop was Hanoi. This is one of the most bustling, vibrant and chaotic cities I’ve ever seen, especially in the old quarter. There were people and motorbikes everywhere, horns beeping, power lines dangling, street vendors galore, amazing sights, sounds and smells everywhere and dozens of streetside ‘bars’ selling the cheapest beer in the world, Bia Hoi (for the equivalent of 24 cents)! There seemed to be no concept of traffic rules or personal space in Hanoi… you couldn’t walk anywhere without being bumped into or beeped at or nearly run over by a motorcyclist! The thing I found the most strange however is how such a vibrant city completely shuts down at midnight… it’s like it turns into a pumpkin… the streets become empty and lonely, all the sounds disappear and there is just quiet all around.

Streets of Hanoi

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BBQ dog for sale in Hanoi

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One of my highlights in Vietnam was an overnight stay on a junk boat in Ha Long Bay. I had an absolutely incredible time there… apart from getting scared half to death by monkeys when visiting a local beach… but don’t worry, we came away unscathed (just about!). I had another of those ‘I can’t believe I’m here’ moments when watching a spectacular sunset on the top deck of our boat with a glass of merlot in one hand and my faithful camera in the other… and coming back after dinner to star gaze in the beautifully clear night sky! These are some moments I’ll never ever forget!

Ha Long Bay

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Aside from Ha Long bay, I really enjoyed my time in the city of Hue. I was lucky to be able to take a slightly non-conventional city tour… I got to ride on the back of a motorbike for the day to see all the sights. It was an incredibly fun and insightful experience… riding through big highways, small back alleys, rice fields, cemeteries, past peoples homes, businesses and schools… it was a great way to see the city as I felt I got a much better insight into the real Hue and the way people live there.

Motorbike tour in Hue and meeting local people en route

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Leaving Hue, we stopped for a few nights in Hoi An with it’s charming streets, many stalls, restaurants, cafes and shops. Some of the highlights here were a noodle making class (it’s harder than it looks!), a cycle tour through vegetable gardens and rice fields (and getting a little lost) and the opportunity to ride a water buffalo.

The final stop for me was Ho Chi Minh City. Before getting ready to go home, I took a trip to the Cu Chi tunnels. The tunnels formed an underground network used by the Viet Cong army during the Vietnamese and American War. It was quite an emotional tour and very thought-provoking listening to our guide who was a real war veteran as he told stories of his days during the war and in the re-education camps.

Cu Chi tunnels

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Unfortunately all good things must come to and end… and so it was time for me to leave Southeast Asia and come back home.  However, not long until the next adventure… from thirty degrees heat straight into sub-zero freezing cold… Iceland here I come!