Laotian Living

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Latimer: Ridley and I are working hard to get the second book of our Keeping Secrets series read for publication! But, in the meantime, we are daydreaming about the exotic and the far-away, reliving some holidays and thinking about some new ones.

Last I left off on my trip down the South-East Asian holiday memory-lane, I was in Laos, heading towards Vang Vieng and the capital city of Laos Vientiane!

In Vang Vieng, we were lucky enough to stay with a local family in a small village (just a few minutes from Vang Vieng central). It was a real eye-opener because we just don’t live like this anymore in Ireland. Everyone was really nice and the homemade food was yummy.

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Village living
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Little piggys!

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While in Vang Vieng, I checked out the beauty of the Blue Lagoon; petted a butterfly – no really, it felt like I was Snow White or something, it was crazy, I was surrounded for the briefest moment by a flock (?) of colourful butterflies! I trekked up a mountain and had a poke around an amazing cave, which really inspired me for writing! And then, I had some fresh coconut juice. I also had a bit of relaxation getting a brilliant Laotian massage – I definitely recommend them!

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Blue lagoon… beautiful!!
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Stunning butterfly
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My Disney/Snow White moment!!

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We had a few relaxing days in Vang Vieng, ending the trip there with a beautiful sunset and some nice juices…

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Then it was off to Vientiane, the most laid-back capital city in the world. It’s really small, but has this relaxing feel to the place, that just doesn’t exist in… well, basically any capital city I’ve ever been in. It’s such a cool, fun place. We managed to get lost walking around the whole city, but all roads lead to where you want to go eventually in Vientiane! On the detour we managed to check out some nice temples.

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We didn’t have long in Vientiane before we were saying goodbye to Laos and GOOD MORNING to VIETNAM 🙂

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For other posts about South-East Asia check out: Lovely Laos and Trekking through Thailand

Lovely Laos

20140502_091324Latimer: I continued my adventure through South East Asia by crossing from Thailand into Laos. I have to say it’s one of the loveliest, most laid back countries I’ve ever visited. I’ll put my hand up and say I really didn’t know anything about Laos before I went there. So, here’s a quick list of facts/interesting info, about Laos!

  • Laos is actually called; Lao People’s Democratic Republic
  • Hello is pronounced – SAA-BAI-DEE
  • Thank you is pronounced – KUP-JAI; Thank you very much – KUP JAI LAI LAI
  • Currency is called ‘kip’
  • Biggest export is coffee
  • New Year occurs in Mid-April
  • It’s the most bombed country; due to its proximity to Vietnam and Cambodia
  • 75% people are farmers
  • 67% Buddhist; 32% Phii (a jungle religion); 1% Christian

First stop on the journey through Laos was a trip down the might Mekong River. Which gave me some time to catch up on my note-taking from my trip, eat some traditional Laotian food and have my first taste of lychee! 20140502_092012 20140502_102145 20140502_112257 20140502_161101 20140502_17410520140502_103556 20140503_115759

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Thai Buddha art catch up on the Mekong River!

We then went to the lovely town of Luang Prabang. Where I found myself up at 5AM to go and offer alms to the Buddhist monks, along with a lot of other visitors. This was a pretty special moment. My offering was some sticky rice; but… it’s very sticky (go figure!) and it was really hard to dish the stuff out without being overwhelmed by the sea of orange clad monks descending upon the streets of Luang Prabang! In Luang Prabang, I met some elephants and had a misadventure kyakking in a boat that had a hole in it and ended up capsizing, with me onboard, in a river full of elephants and their poo… yeah. That’s happened. The elephants were pretty cool about it though, looking on nonchalant as I resurfaced full of rage.

5AM in Luang Prabang
5AM in Luang Prabang
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Monks collecting alms
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Poor children from the mountains come into town and the monks toss some of their food into the children’s baskets. The children then take these baskets home to their families.
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Sticky rice offering
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Elephant rider
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Beautiful elephants having a snack
The RIVER... yesh.... hmmm, I have mixed feeling about you river...
The RIVER… yesh…. hmmm, I have mixed feeling about you river…
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Views of Luang Prabang

No trip of mine would be complete without me waxing lyrical on the food! I had some good food in Laos… We managed to stop off at a local families house in Luang Prabang for some traditional food, that was so good. We were also given a Buddhist blessing by the family for luck on our travels. Then it was on to the next stop on our journey! Vang Vieng and the capital of Laos; Vientiane! But that’s another blog post!

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Food, home cooked foooooood
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Yummy fresh mango and….. a traditional dessert, kind of tasted like coconut…. sorta!
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Blessings and welcomes; I would loose these along with my Buddhist blessing from Thailand when I fell in the river… damnable RIVER!!

For other posts about South-East Asia check out: Laotian Living and Trekking through Thailand

Trekking around Thailand

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Latimer: Lately I’ve been doing some globetrotting. Every time I hitch up my trusty wheelie bag and head off into the far blue yonder, I come back with lots of stories and lots of ideas. I think the most recent trip to South East Asia has me all inspired for writing!

Ridley and I are really excited to be working our way through our Keeping Secrets series, plotting and outlining all the books to come. We are back firmly on track now – and we’ll be releasing Book 2 by the end of August! So stay with us for updates!

In my recent travels I visited Thailand. It was a quick run through the north of the country from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, to a fly-by visit at Chiang Rai and then Chiang Khong (to cross into Laos). I didn’t see that much of Thailand really, but what I saw was stunning, beautiful, strange, inspiring and… stranger still!

Bangkok is a pretty cool place. There are lots of things to see there – when I was there I took a trip around the canals in the city and went to Wat Pho to see the huge golden reclining Buddha, which was amazing. Buddhism (and monks) feature strongly in my Asian travels; I sometimes think I’m starting to understand it, then I always get stuck and realise actually I don’t know much about Buddhism, but it’s really interesting.

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Bangkok canal views
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Reclining Buddha… massive!!
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He looks like he’s pretty comfortable here!
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Wat Pho outside views
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More of the Pho
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Yet more Pho!
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Another Buddha inside another temple in Wat Pho – I ear-wigged as this guy was explaining Buddhism to these people!
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Lot’s of monks – notice how young some of them are! All men in Thailand must serve a year (at least) as a monk before they get married, to be considered ‘a good man’ for marriage
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Thai green Curry… because… it’s Thailand!
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From the back of a tuc-tuc… the only way to travel in Thailand… I love tuc-tucs!

From Bangkok, I got an overnight train to Chiang Mai. Lots of people on the tour were worried about the overnight train, but having experienced the Chinese ones, I was no longer afraid. The ones in Thailand are actually brilliant; and compared to the Chinese ones, they are very spacious and comfortable – this coming from someone with extreme ‘creature comfort’ problems!

Chiang Mai was a fun place; we had a walk around in the blistering heat, went to see beautiful Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple ate some lovely Thai food and went for a cool bike-ride around the city. While on our bike ride we stopped at an orphanage for Hill tribe children, for dinner. I bought some lovely artwork by the children – it was Naruto inspired 🙂

During my time in Chiang Mai, I was coming to terms with the heat, I won’t say I ever ‘got used to it’, just learned to accept I would always be dripping sweat and needing to drink water and isotonic drinks.

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Train station catching my ride to Chiang Mai
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These trains are fantastic! So clean and comfortable. There’s a bunk that comes down from over these seats and the seats themselves are transformed into another bed – big and very comfy.
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I had the top bunk, which was fine… but not as big. I had some pocky for the trip!
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Some cool outside dining in Chiang Mai
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Artwork on the streets
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Beautiful, random temple
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More temple action
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Buddha outside the temple
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A very cool dragon vomiting snakes… well, maybe not but that’s what it looks like!! Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
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Walking up to the temple, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
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Wat Phra That Doi Suthep bells
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Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
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Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
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Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
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Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
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Getting my fortune at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
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Monks visting Wat Phra That Doi Suthep
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I got this white blessing bracelet from a monk in Wat Phra That Doi Suthep; he said a prayer over it, for luck and safety in travel.
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A delicious vegetable spicy soup…. it was feckin hot though!
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Buddha overlooking the river on my bike ride around Chiang Mai
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Handle bar views in Chiang Mai
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Buddhas in Chiang Mai
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More views from my bike in Chiang Mai
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Chiang Mai temple
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Chiang Mai temple
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Chiang Mai temple
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Cool artwork done by the Hill tribe orphans
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More temples from my bike ride Chiang Mai
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Buddha and candle wax – from bike ride Chiang Mai

From Chiang Mai, we stopped off briefly in Chiang Rai to see the White Temple, which is a bit like Sangrada Familia in Barcelona, in that it’s unfinished at the moment and being built by the artist that designed it. It’s full of demons and cultural references – though I never got to go inside, as we were late getting there and it was closed! It’s supposed to have like cartoony stuff inside and be really strange and interesting. This temple was badly damaged after we had seen in, in the earthquake that hit Thailand – so I feel lucky to have seen it before that happened!

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Batman and Pinhead… heads.. .weird!!
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Freddie, Pinhead and Hellboy… retro weirdness!

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Yummy food in Chiang Khong
Yummy food in Chiang Khong

Then from Thailand, I took a bus into Laos! But that’s a post for another day!

For other posts about South-East Asia check out: Lovely Laos and Laotian Living

Hong Kong

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Latimer: Well, all things must come to an end and Hong Kong is a pretty nice place to end things.

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I was only really there for one day, but I got to go to the cool Sino Centre, which was like being back in Tokyo, with all the Asian drama and anime stuff.

Then I headed across on the ferry to Victoria Peak to check out the views of the city.

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And then it was more or less homeward bound!

Having been out and about travelling a bit again, reminds me that there is so much to see. As the Discworld’s first tourist, Twoflower, once said:

“Sometimes I think a man could wander across the disc all his life and not see everything there is to see. And now it seems there are lots of other worlds as well. When I think I might die without seeing a hundredth of all there is to see it makes me feel… well, humble, I suppose. And very angry, of course.” 

So true 🙂

A Chinese St Patrick’s Day

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Latimer: I know Saint Patrick’s day is long over, but this year was the first I’d spent ‘off world’ and it was a little out of the ordinary!

I didn’t really expect to see any Paddy’s Day stuff in China and just as well because I didn’t. I had to explain Paddy’s Day to my Chinese guide. In primary school we all learned about Patrick from An Bhreatain Bheag (Wales, that’s what we were told anyway), and how he was kidnapped by the Irish slaver Niall of the Nine Hostages and taken to Ireland.

I got a bit of a way into this story and paused.

‘Well, Saint Patrick’s day itself is more about celebrating your Irishness’; the guide looked confused, so I carried on, feeling the weight of the whole of Ireland bearing down on me. ‘It’s for the people that went away’, I smiled, ‘you know like in China when people leave and then they want to feel connected to home?’

He nodded. I’m not sure I explained it well enough in the end!

It’s just an Irish holiday to celebrating your culture and where you come from, or just having fun (or craic – Irish for fun)!

I spent the day in a monastery! I had fun letting everyone back home know I was in a monastery on Paddy’s Day!

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During the day I climbed the Giant Stone Buddha at Leshan, looking for any ‘signs’ of Paddy’s Day –  haha, which I didn’t find!

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There were no signs – no green, no shamrocks, nothing… BUT! When we got to the monastery to check-in we were introduced to our local guide.

Aside here: in China, people take Western names (like Tom, John, Seamus, Charles) so it’s easier for Western’s to say their names (their parents don’t actually call them John etc). These names are usually given to the Chinese people by their English teachers.

The local guide introduced himself; “Hello, my name is Patrick!” And I just started laughing. Brilliant.

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 So that was my Paddy’s Day in China – a simple name had me smiling all day!

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My Bailey’s Irish Cream drink 🙂

What’s for Dinner?

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Latimer: I’ve said this before (a lot!!), but honestly one of the best things about going to a different country is getting to eat their food! And I’m the sort of person who takes photos of the food they eat and Instagrams them – hence this post is photo heavy!

I love Asia food but I wouldn’t have ever said I particularly liked Chinese food. As with most countries, we have Chinese takeaways in Ireland and they’re fine. But having been in China, I don’t think they are making proper Chinese food (I think it’s Westernized to suit our palettes). But, I wish they weren’t, because as it turns out, proper Chinese food is so freckin’ good!

I was asked a lot about the food when I came home – people would grimace, ‘what did you eat?!’ Well, okay, to be honest in Chinese food, they use everything and the food is always fresh (i.e. the fish is alive in the tank then cooked and put on your plate). It’s harsh to look at, but you have to respect that Chinese people know where their food is coming from; we eat the steak and the pork and we don’t think about how it got there.

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Weighing the fish
And here the fish is cooked moments later (it's called Beer Fish a dish from Yangshuo)
And here the fish is cooked moments later (it’s called Beer Fish a dish from Yangshuo)

And they have some amazing food markets! The Muslim Quarter in Xi’an was one pretty cool food spot…

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Muslim Quarter Xi’an
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The yellow stuff is rice cake
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They are making this sticky bar type stuff from peanuts and honey… beating the crap out of it with mallets!
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A prune, fungus drink… wasn’t nice! 😦
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Roasted walnuts
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Kitchen in the Muslim Quarter
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A kitchen in the Muslim Quarter
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Making fried wraps
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Yummy fried wraps
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Squid on a stick!

From hotpots to noodles, to taro chips… I ate well in China!

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Meet in a bun… sooo good… and spicy cauliflower
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Noodles in Xi’an (they’re known for their noodles – this was the only time I had noodles actually! wow)
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Spicy beef
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Yummy spicy cabbage
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Sweet and sour fish in Beijing
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Dumplings in Xi’an
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Some seriously spicy hotpot in Chengdu (they have the best hotpots apparently!)
Do you see the brains? Yup... I did not try that! ah... ha... nooo...
Do you see the brains? Yup… I did not try that! ah… ha… nooo…
Spicy potato... Love me some spuds!
Spicy potato… Love me some spuds!

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We stopped off at a local woman’s house for lunch in Yangshuo. This green stuff (a type of lettuce I think?!) was soooo tasty… I could have ate the whole plate!
These were homegrown in the above woman's garden... yummy!
These were homegrown in the above woman’s garden… yummy!
Taro chips.... They could give potatoes a run for their money!!
Taro chips…. They could give potatoes a run for their money!!
I went to a cooking class and this was my end result.... not too bad?!
I went to a cooking class and this was my end result…. not too bad?!

If you ever go to China know that you are going to eat well!

And to round things off you’ll find some nice drinks too!!

This beers quite nice... and bloody massive - I could hardly hold it for this photo!
This beers quite nice… and bloody massive – I could hardly hold it for this photo!
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Strawberry soda
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coffee art… how can you drink it now!!
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More coffee art… so cute!!

 

Middle Kingdom Musings

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Latimer: I’m back! For reals, not from a place of scheduled posts! Yup, my epic trip around China has ended and I’m now suffering from a major case of ‘holiday hangover’. You know the feeling; ‘It hurts so bad! It’s over!’

I think the only cure is to go on holiday again… *cue sneaky smile* well, maybe you never know!

Basically this can be applied to holidays too o_O
Basically this can be applied to holidays too o_O

But for now let me rewind my memories – do you want to come with me on a trip to the Middle Kingdom? Sure you do! Let’s head back in the way-way-back machine! This will either be cathartic or depressing for me. If you look to your side at any point and see a smiling Latimer, good times, if she’s weeping, please take a moment to comfort her J

So, this trip was a reward for me finally finishing college. Yes, I was still in college; institutionalised possibly (definitely). Thankfully, the ending was a good one (i.e. piece of paper, awarded – just need to dot the i’s etc) and so, I was off I went to CHYY-NA (or ‘wild CHYY-NA’ as I kept calling it) with a travel group.

First the long-haul flight… okay so, I don’t sweat them much anymore, but they are still annoying. I’ve been on a lot of them, so I know my pattern pretty well at this stage; a) I can’t sleep very well and b) I can’t eat the plane food (can’t even stomach the smell of it). I literately recoil when the steward/ess trusts it under my nose – “no! No I don’t want it! Please don’t make me…”  

So, knowing this at the airport I’ll stock up on essentials (food and water), like someone planning for the zombie apocalypse (where we’ll only be able to get crap, ‘it’s bad for you but who cares there are zombies’, food). This time, in the wonderful Terminal 2 of Dublin Airport (this is our really fancy new (ish) terminal), I found a nice shop to buy sandwiches in, which may not sound like much, but when you are contemplating your fear of airplane food it does mean a lot!

Oh and by a nice sandwich, I mean, one that doesn’t contain mayonnaise (for some reason this type of sandwich is hard to find). In this shop I found a plain cheese sandwich (I almost wept for joy). Then I nipped around for some water, Hula Hoops crisps and a chocolate bar (these bad boys will pop up again in China). 

On the flight I stayed away from the plane food and scoffed down my sandwich and water. Then when I got to my layover in Dubai (that’s a new, semi-novel stop for me; what a nice airport it is), I got some food (a stir-fry, easing myself into the Chinese food) while I watched my gate for my Beijing connecting flight.

I gulped down my food getting a bit nervous about when my flight would start to board. Then I had to fight the rush of Chinese people trying to board the plane. It was a bit of a free-for-all; even though the airline was calling out the rows that would board first, it seemed like people were having none of that. I had to push my way up through the crowd to board (as my row had been called, not because I’d turned into the Hulk and just decided it was ‘my time’ to board, people be damned).

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After a bit of a wait, we were off to Beijing!

When we were close to landing, I started thinking about transportation from the airport (like I always do). I start to… not worry, but overthink it? This is the part of my holiday I research and research and print out very piece of information before I leave my house (unless Ridley is travelling with me, then I use her like a GPS and guidance system; she is basically a map that you can interact with and befriend, haha. Seriously though she knows she’s part map)!

So touching down in Beijing, without Ridley, I was armed with all the information and warnings internet could provide me on – a) fake Chinese money (and how to detect it; it’s all in your Mao’s ladies and gentlemen; run your nail over Mao’s hair, if it’s ridged your note be real, if not your note be fake and no Chinese person will take that bad boy off you – tip, always check your Mao’s!); and b) getting a taxi from the airport.

Ah, one thing about getting a taxi in China; don’t get the black taxis. These are fake and they’ll over charge you.

Okay, fair enough I thought, I’ll not fall into their trap, oh no, I am an informed Westerner!

“Stay in the queue for the taxi” – the internet warns you, “don’t let someone lead you out of the queue! Look at the locals!”.

So, what happens when I get to the top of the queue and the people directing Chinese people to their taxis carefully ignore me?

Oh yeah, some man comes up and takes my little piece of paper with the hotel’s name on it and reads it; “I can take you there!” he says in English with a smile, trying to lead me to his black car.

Oh hells no!

I smile, laugh, take back my paper; “No thanks, I’ll wait here” (inside growling Wolverine style: back off bub!)

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The thing is, the people directing people to the taxis, they backed off and let him try and lead me off; after he didn’t manage it they were still half-ignoring me. It was very strange. Basically they know what’s going on, but it’s like, “oh well let him have a go”. Not cool ladies.

Later I found out that one of our travel group did get one of the black taxis and ended up paying 100 USD for the trip that cost me 12 euro in my registered taxi (12 euro = approx. 16 USD – a BIG rip off!).

My first taste of a taxi ride in China was strange – my taxi driver hacked and spat out the window three times (as we were driving, amazing dexterity). I was staring, then cringing in amazement – where was I?!

Then I started to notice other odd things. He had an empty glass jar of coffee resting next to his gear stick (phrasing!). There was liquid the colour of pond water in the jar, and what looked like twigs and leaves gently tapping against the glass; like something you’d find in a science museum from the 1800s. Me staring stupefied at the jar as he gulped down the contents and zig-zagged through traffic (there are no rules of the road), kept me occupied for the whole trip. I’d come to see this empty glass jar and strange contents again and again and again over my trip (it’s tea, or something, but it looked really weird straight off the bat!).

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Another top tip from the internet was to always have your hotel address written in Chinese and also to have the phone number of the hotel. Thank you great and noble inter-web, you saved me there too!

My taxi driver had to call the hotel to find out where it was. And even though I don’t speak Chinese, I could tell he was saying; “Where the hell are you? I’m out here on the street and you’re not here – haha, what the hell? Where? Oh… hmm”

He ended up dropping me off on the side of the street, gesticulating and shouting in Chinese at some building hidden behind a row of other buildings. I stared at it.

“Yeah, I got yah.” I said nodding and pointing at the hidden building (my hotel’s name emblazoned on the very top of the building). The taxi driver watched me as I walked across the street; then started shouting at me in Chinese and pointing at the building again.

“I know!” I called back, nodding again and struggling to find a way through the row of buildings that blocked my hotel. Why was it hidden behind a fortress of other buildings? How did one get inside? Did I have to walk through the small convenience shop in front of it, was there a way through it or what the hell was going on? I felt like Pacman caught in a corner!

The taxi driver was driving away by now, slowly passing me as I walked up and down the street trying to figure out a way through the buildings to my hotel. Would I have to tunnel through, like Andy Dufresne from Shawshank?

The taxi driver starts shouting at me again and I just know by the tone and his actions what he’s saying – “Hey! Idiot, your hotel’s there! It’s right there you foolish girl!”

And I reply laughing (but frustrated); “I know! I know! Thanks!” Then I watch him shake his head and drive off. I stare at the guys outside the convenience shop (who are staring at me too). I make for the door, dragging my wheelie bag with me. They talk to me in Chinese and point down the street and make the universal ‘around the corner’ sign.

I nod. “Thanks lads!” and walk off towards a car park barrier. I stare down the lane; it looks like an office car park or something. Shrugging I walk down and turn the corner, finding my hotel nestled in an odd little courtyard, hidden from the rest of Beijing (and mankind).

The combination of jetlag and culture shock has me buzzing by this point. I meet up with my group and our Chinese tour guide (and I am only semi-conscious) and we go out for Peking duck. My mind is racing from lack of sleep at this point; “god it’s colder here than I thought; why is it called Peking duck… I really want to go to bed but I have to have a shower when I get back… plane rides make my hair greasy… I really want to go to bed!”

Yup, and so ended my first day in China! The adventure continues 🙂

Next post: Walking Along a Wall