My legs, in different countries – Songshan

3.  Songshan, China

my-legs-songshan-china

China is such a huge country, so naturally there’s more than one leg/legs picture I’d taken within its vastness.

Looking back on this particular photo marks an important moment to me – I’d originally traveled with a friend from home and our friendship had been fraying for a while, since before we left actually.

It is a shame and in some ways I do miss him, but I remember thinking at this moment I was ready to travel alone.

We had an argument about Songshan and how to get to it, we were stone cold silent in the cable cars up and didn’t speak a word to each other.  In the heat, which was still so intense, I perched on this spot to relax and hydrate.

He was behind me with Chinese tourist vendors, trying to sell him the ‘iconic’ karate swords (as Songshan is also home to the famous Shaolin Temple.)

The vendors had taken pictures of him holding the swords in a mortal kombat-type pose, a photo I wouldn’t see until he deleted me on facebook and that was left as his profile picture.

Looking around the mountains, their peacefulness was soothing and refreshing, particularly compared to the hustle and bustle in Shanghai.  I wouldn’t have another moment like this until the next picture was taken, and when I had separated from my now former travel buddy.

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My legs, in different countries – Shanghai

2.  Shanghai, China

shanghai

Taken on my first full day in the most populated city in the world, Shanghai.  I travelled on the bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai the previous afternoon – cutting 819 miles (1,318 km) into just under 5 hours.

Both boarding and alighting felt as security tight and precise as an airport, unlike the slower trains I was to take around China after this.

Finally arriving at the hostel – aka bed – I woke up to my first full day exceeding 40 degrees and the most intense heat I’ve ever experienced.  So hot, the marble blocks around this area burned my skin when sitting on them (I was wearing shorts!) before being shortly ushered off and away from them by security officers, who seemingly came out of nowhere.  Sitting upon the extended wooden arms of these marble blocks were allowed though.  But still burnt.

My travel buddy I was with at the time and I went to meet a German friend, we had met at our hostel back in Beijing.

Walking around Shanghai in this heat was exhausting, the air was thick and I felt slimy with sweat (not my most attractive sentence.)

We walked down Nanjing Road, before settling down around this spot on The Bund, heat weary, just staring over at Pudong for an hour or two.

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10 Tips on Surviving the Trans-Mongolian Express

You may have heard of the Trans Siberian Express, but are really thinking of the Trans Monogolian.  The world famous Moscow, Russia to Beijing, China train travels 4,735 miles, passes through Mongolia and takes 6 days to get to the final destination. The former travels from one length of Russia to the other; whereas, arguably, the Trans-Mongolian is the more interesting route – I took this one, and here are some of tips of surviving one of the longest train journeys in the world:

transm 1.  Pack up before leaving Moscow
So you’ve experienced the vast metropolis that is Moscow and you should have already had a taste of Russian culture.  Dig it or not, things are fast going to become more and more Russian.
The train leaves from Yaroslavski station every Tuesday night, there is a supermarket nearby to the station – no matter how long or short you’re staying on the train; stock up with food, snacks, water, alcohol (if you wish), toilet paper and self cleaning products such as a roll on deodorant and wet wipes.  If you are not one of the lucky ones who can afford a 1st class sleeper, then you’re gonna be waiting a while before you can shower.

2.  Getting to grips with the Russian and the Cyrillic alphabet
Do not fear if you see the final destination is ‘Peking’, before or whilst you on the train.  Russians still call Beijing by this name and it looks like this in the Cyrillic alphabet: Пекин.
But you don’t need to take a master-class in Russian to go on the Trans-Mongolian, there is a timetable on the train showing the stations and the times you will arrive at these stations is printed both in Russian and English. For courtesy reasons Russian for thank you is ‘spa-ci-ba‘ and ‘pah-tral-sta’ for please, (both spelt phonetically!)

3.  Levelling your expectations of comfort and style
Particular tourist websites showcase comfy, wiped-clean shots of the train and its compartments – don’t believe them.  Speaking from sole experience of traveling on the Chinese train it can be a bit rustic, not modernised and gets dirtier throughout the journey.  Don’t let this put you off, it is all part of the wonderous Trans-Mongolian experience!
My radio music player thing didn’t work, and I don’t think anyone else’s did, the toilet is less than desirable but that’s why I told you to bring extra toilet paper!  You want luxury?  You’ll have to pay double for the 1st class sleepers.  Can’t afford it?  Enjoy it for what it is and the way things run in another part of the world.

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4.  DO talk to strangers!
It is a worry to many passengers who they may end up sharing their sleeping compartments with.  It’s not clear whether the Trans-Monolgian tries to put all tourists and locals separately or not.
In my experience, my whole carriage was full of tourists, not just from England but from all over the World. You’re very likely to find other tourists on the train who are doing exactly the same journey as you – talk to them, make friends and drink a beer together!  I met some fascinating people on my journey, including: a couple from a town near me I’d never met, a guy who had climbed Everest, another guy who had met Kate Bush and four old men who had been friends since childhood and holiday on train journeys such as this – this was their 2nd time on the Trans-Mongolian!  It certainly passes the time meeting and talking to new people, plus who knows, you could make some friends for life.

5.  Telling the time and letting go of the idea of time
Time on the Trans-Mongolian can get bloody confusing.  You’re passing through three very different countries with around 10 different time zones.  Instead of  baffling passengers into working out the time each time it changes, some genius thought of keeping it to Moscow time – all the way through to Beijing.
Sounds a great idea at first, but then it’s unshakably bewildering thinking it’s 3am, but outside looks like 8am, and you mobile says it’s 11pm.  My advice: forget time exists, or just go by if the sun is up or down.

6.  Entertainment
Six long, hard, smelly days on the train seems a long time because it is a long time. There will be moments when you’ll be itching to do something different other than chatting to new found friends and staring out of the window at the scenary. Try to take things such as a book, a board game, a set of cards and anything else that does not require electricity.
There are power points on the train, but from my experience they were particularly fussy on which adaptor they liked or not – take a few, or a charging pack.

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8.  Running out of supplies
There is a restaurant cart attached to the train throughout your journey, I’ve intentionally failed to mention this because it’s unreasonably expensive (around £10 each meal.)  If you’re on holiday and can afford a meal on the train then good for you, whack it into your budget.  If however, like me, this was the start of a gap year backpacking trip around Asia then think noodles.  There is a hot water dispenser at the end of each carriage, but, noodles can get old pretty god damn fast.
A lot of stations the train stops at allow you to get off and stretch your legs for 15-20 minutes.  Do this and see what offerings the little old Russian ladies have to sell on the platform – a lot of it looks pretty grim for fussy eaters, I’m afraid to say, but there is usually bread, tinned fish, a spattering of meat and more noodles. Beer is available on the platforms too – but also from the cheeky guards for a higher price, when the restaurant cart is closed.

9. Sleeping
1st class contains 2 beds and a shower (lucky ‘expletives’…) 2nd Class contains 4 beds and no shower – great if you’re traveling in a foursome, not if you’re sharing with people you’ve never met and things can get a bit tight.  You still have your own private space of course, in a makeshift bed thinner than the usual single.
Claiming the top bunks is the best thought-out plan – you have the freedom to sleep and get up whenever you want, bottom bunkers are not so blessed (their bed doubles up as seating.)  Ear plugs are hard to find in Russia, so take some with you before you set off!

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10. To make, or not to make, any stops?
Of course you can split up your journey and see different cities and towns on the way.  I didn’t, and did regret it somewhat, but am still proud to make the whole journey through start to finish – which is a different experience in itself.
The popular stops seem to be:
– Irkutsk, where the World’s largest Freshwater lake lies (which you can see at sunset even if you stay on the train.)
– Ulan Bator, Mongolia, the stop I most regret not taking.  From the people I’ve met who made the stop and traveled out into outer Mongolia have always filled me with a pang of jealousy.  Looks and sounds amazing.

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Despite taking a long time writing this post, I can still put aside whatever I’ve said above and truly say this was one of the most amazing experiences in all of my travels.  All photos included, that are all my own, are filled with blissful nostalgia to a journey I wish I could take over and over again.  Enjoy every minute, you might not do it again.


China Short Stories #4

Nancy

From all my wild and weird stories from visiting the People’s Republic of China I’ve decided to compile some of the most memorable into a list of short stories. If you want to read all of them, with my other tales from China, please click on the category ‘China Short Stories’ to the right of this page. These are not posted in chronological order.

A fond memory I have of China is when I met Nancy.  Pictured above, when we were having dinner in Lijiang, which was also the same day we met.

The night train arrived in Lijiang morning time and the weather was bright, sunny with a light breeze, highly welcomed from me who experienced the most intense heat since being in China and it was a far cry from the wet and miserable time I had in Kunming.

I walked towards the exit after coming off the station platform and noticed a young and pretty Chinese girl running to walk alongside me.  Not out of the ordinary, as I’ve said before.  “Hello, where are you from?”  Again, the usual conversation starter any English-speaking Chinese person with an intrigue to talk to a European-looking tourist would ask.

I answered and – “Oooh England.  I would like to visit England, one day.  I learnt English at school, what is your name?”

“Emma,”  I said, “What’s yours?”

“Nancy.”  As she spoke she blushed, looking down with a shy smile, which also made me smile.  She said her English wasn’t perfect and apologised for this, which was maybe why she was blushing, but I told her it was perfect and I understood every word she said.

Nancy told me she was in Lijiang to travel and see Lugu Lake, I told her I was here to trek to and see Tiger Leaping Gorge (which deserves its own story in this series.) And when I explained I was alone, traveling, in China, Nancy almost gasped at me in delight and amazement.

“Oh I am too, but my parents do not know, I told them I was going with a friend, but really I wanted to experience traveling alone.”  She blushed again.

She was really cute and dressed in a long, flowy skirt, a pale yellow cardigan which was buttoned up and almost reminded me of some of the styles back home.  She helped me get the right bus, which was the same as hers before I had to change to catch a different one.  When we parted ways she asked for my number to possibly meet up in Lijiang whilst we were here.

My hostel was tucked away from the main square and touristic streets of Old Town and had no other guests around when I arrived.  Quiet and a bit bored, I felt at lost what to do with myself as I was still trying to adapt to solo-traveling, I decided to walk around Old Town and take some photos.

Lijiang

A few hours passed and whilst I was walking back to my hostel I received a txt from Nancy.  She was walking around Old Town and we agreed to meet up.  She told me she was by the Water Wheels in a white skirt and pink top.  When I spotted her she was wearing that similar long, flowy skirt again with a buttoned up cardigan.

We walked around Lijiang together, chatting and eventually sat down for dinner in a scenic riverside restaurant (first picture above.)  We ordered a few dishes and shared, as is the custom in China.

She explained her parents believe a girl traveling alone in China is dangerous, hence the lie she told them about coming here with a friend.  Her father, in particular, does not want her travel alone or at all outside of China.

When I told Nancy my plans of what countries to visit after China I felt she was in awe of me and she told me she would love to do the same, one day.  I said I was meeting a guy I was dating back home in Vietnam to which her eyes lit up, I showed her pictures of him and she then told me she once met an English boy whilst visiting the Forbidden City, in Beijing.

From then on she had a “shot of love” with him, as she described and they wrote each other letters with he actually travelled to visit her in her home province.  This sounded a while ago, however.  “English men are so handsome.”  She blushed again.

After dinner she said she’d like to stay with me at my hostel, in my dorm.  Feeling charmed by her gentle friendliness I said it would be a lovely idea so we walked back together, through now a very busy Lijiang, trying to weave in and out of the crowds in the narrow streets.

It took twice as long to get back and when we arrived Nancy discovered there were some boys staying in the same dorm as me, which I could see she didn’t like and to which she said she’d go back to her own hostel, because she wasn’t comfortable with that.  A little disappointed but understanding, I told her that’s fine and I’d walk her back to the Water Wheels.

The crowds didn’t get any quieter and when walking through them I was mostly leading the way.  It was dark now and this is when Nancy grabbed my hand to hold, again I felt her real innocence and so I held her hand all the way through before we said goodbye, back at the Water Wheels.

Lijiang 2

The next time I heard from Nancy was a few days later and on the night I was heading back to Kunming.  We realised she would also be heading back that night too and our trains were actually half an hour apart so we could hang out again, which we did.  Nancy showed me pictures of the stunning Lugu Lake and I showed her my pictures of Tiger Leaping Gorge.  She then took a few photos of us both and uploaded them on what looked like a Chinese Instagram, which I would love to see now.

We still messaged each other occasionally throughout my trip and when I was in Australia I found out she was getting married soon to an ex-boyfriend, who proposed to her in a Church filled with candles.  She told me he too likes to travel so may ask for my advice on where to go in the future.

And even now since I’ve come home we still email each other now and again and I hope one day when Nancy visits Britain I’ll be able to see her again.


China Short Stories #3

350px-Kunming_Golden_Horse_Memorial_Archway

From all my wild and weird stories from visiting the People’s Republic of China I’ve decided to compile some of the most memorable into a list of short stories. If you want to read all of them, with my other tales from China, please click on the category ‘China Short Stories’ to the right of this page. These are not posted in chronological order.

I spent a lot of time in Kunming when I was China, not particularly out of choice, but more to use the city, known as the City of Eternal Spring, as a base.  First of all, as I’ve mentioned in another post (My first day in Vietnam) I needed my Vietnam visa, which was obtained at the Kunming consulate and also because to travel to Lijiang (Expats in Sleeping Lijiang) by train is only possible from Kunming.

The ‘waiting’ days between collecting my visa and returning from Lijiang were bloody boring – to be to the point.  Kunming has little to offer for a single female traveller, for the city supposed to be the eternal spring it rained a lot and had nothing to do or see. I found my only option (other than my much-anticipated visit to Lufeng Dinosaur Valley) was to visit the Stone Forest, which was expensive to do on my budget, so I left it.  However, despite my time here being one long wait to leave, Kunming was not without its weird experiences with some of the locals…

I stayed, always, at the Hump Hostel when I was here, which had its own set of characters, but one in particularly was a middle-aged Chinese man I noticed reading a lot in the seating area.  He mostly read newspapers but whenever I passed him he would look up and smile, a friendly smile, not often accustomed to your typical Chinese man.  How English, I remember thinking.  Whilst brushing my teeth in the communal sinks he spoke to me a day or so later, in perfect English and explained he indeed teaches English in Kunming and at first sight of me believed I was English (not hard to spot) and wanted to introduce himself.

Unfortunately I cannot remember his name but only recall what happened when he moved rooms into my dorm thereafter.  I was sitting on my bed, a bottom bunk, my back against the wall and my legs in a straight line in front of me, with my feet just at the edge of the bed (I’m quite small.)  He walked slowly over to me and stood opposite me and started a conversation, just like before, very polite and even with a natural English accent.  He talked about teaching English and that I should consider this too because in China this job is paid well. After he discovered I was in Kunming waiting for a visa for Vietnam he proceeded to give me tips and advice for when I was there, as he has made this journey a number of times. For example what taxi firms to trust when I arrive in Vietnam, what a reasonable price would be and how to barter with the driver.

He soon learned I was planning to travel onto Cambodia, Laos and Thailand after Vietnam, where I “simply must get a massage” whilst I’m in Thailand, as they’re so cheap but incredibly relaxing.  “I always get one when I’m there,” he said “but mostly, I go for the sex.

The sentence for me dropped like a bomb.  But to him, it was as if it was a normal thing to say like ‘oh yes make sure you try the fish and chips when you’re at the seaside…‘  He didn’t stop there either, he continued to tell me the Thai women are beautiful and know what they’re doing.  “But for you,” he concluded finally, “do try a massage.

During an inevitable awkward pause he began to smile at me, sweetly, as if he were my grandpa and I his granddaughter, and rubbing his hands.  “Can I touch your feet?”  He then said.

WHAT?!  I thought in my head and before I had a chance to answer he knelt down and touched them anyway, rubbing them.  “You have lovely little feet.”  I was in complete shock, unable to speak. He giggled – yes, giggled!  As if he was now the naughty little child.  “Can I touch them again?

And again he rubbed my feet without waiting for an answer and I, still stunned, probably had a look of worry on my face which I tried to express through a construed smile.

There, now you will remember me, I hope you enjoy Vietnam.”

And with that he strolled away, probably to read his paper and I, forcing myself into the habit of wearing socks and sitting cross legged from then on, collected my Vietnam visa a day later, looked out for this man when I was leaving the hostel. Feeling relieved I couldn’t see him, I left without saying goodbye.