Latimer: It’s been very hectic these last few weeks here at M. Latimer-Ridley! We’ve been busy with Unbroken Ties, Keeping Secrets 2… and editing the follow-up, Keeping Secrets 3!
Added to all that – I’ve just moved country! Yup, for now I’m M. Latimer-Ridley’s London correspondent, at least for the foreseeable future!
I’ve been trying to get out and see things, subliminally advertised to me via the London Underground! There was recently an exhibition in the Natural History Museum, so last Saturday I took myself off to see some Mammoths and Neanderthals!
I made the mistake of thinking London would maybe not be packed with tourists (this will never happen I’m sure)! There was a big queue to get into the museum, a queue to get to the exhibitions and a queue to see the dinosaur skeletons, which happen to be super popular (I’m not surprised, dinosaurs are great!).
The Natural History museum is amazing. No one does buildings quite like the English – always so grand!
The Mammoth exhibition was very cool; the museum had on loan Lyuba, the baby mammoth that was found in Russia – the most intact specimen of a woolly mammoth, she even has hair!
I also learned here that ‘woolly mammoth’ is just a type of ‘mammoth’ and the biggest was actually the Columbian Mammoth. They had a life-sized model of it and it was amazing. I could have stood starring at it for hours. Nearby there was also a statue of a Short-Nosed Bear; which basically dwarfed a grizzly.
This all led me onto the ‘evolution of man’ exhibition. I love me some evolution!
Recently, in the last few years the Neanderthal genome was sequenced, and it turned up some interesting details. Among other things, the results showed that non-African populations had some Neanderthal markers in their genomes, indicating that there had been some crossovers, and interbreeding between Neanderthal’s and modern humans in Europe.
It appears that when our common ancestor moved out of Africa they migrated north and eventually became Neanderthals, who were adapted to survive in the frozen climate. While, the African common ancestor evolved to become modern humans. Some of these modern humans then migrated north and became lighter skinned Europeans, and encountered their cousin the Neanderthal.
It was assumed that Neanderthal couldn’t talk, but actually the genome work showed that they have a similar gene to us called the FOXP2 gene that is involved in speech and language.
In the exhibition they also said that the Neanderthal markers that are present (to varying degrees, about 2%) in Europeans, largely affected the immune system. So it poses some interesting questions about responses to diseases.
There were also more ‘types’ of humans than just Neanderthal’s wandering around at the time, and they may have also contributed to the modern genome. This all raises the question of what we actually mean now when we say ‘modern human’.
Anyway, these were some great exhibits and I’m looking forward to seeing what else they show during the year!
And of course, I’ll be doing a series of museum hops around the city while I’m here 🙂
Latimer: 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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
Then from Thailand, I took a bus into Laos! But that’s a post for another day!
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.
And they have some amazing food markets! The Muslim Quarter in Xi’an was one pretty cool food spot…
From hotpots to noodles, to taro chips… I ate well in China!
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!!
Latimer: Overnight trains in China are an experience, let me tell you! On my tour I think I ended up taking 4 of them. I was really worried about the first one, because I like my creature comforts; I’m not proper backpacker material at all!
So, standing in an unbelievably crowded Beijing train station waiting to board the overnight train to Xi’an, my mind was racing with the thought – “I really don’t want to do this…”
Coming from a small Island where the longest journey from one end of the country to the other is probably about 6 hours, I sometimes get overwhelmed by the fact that 14 hours on a train doesn’t even take you from one end of China to another, not by half. It reminds me how vast the country is – I thought you could go to Beijing, see the Wall, then pop off to Xian and see the Terracotta Warriors, almost in the same day – oh what a fool!
The train to Xi’an could carry up to 1,000 people, and it felt like there were 1,000 people waiting to board it. I must have looked like a caged animal – there are more people living in Beijing than there are on the whole island of Ireland, I was well out of my depth!
The train ride wasn’t so bad in the end and by getting to Xi’an I was off to see the glorious Terracotta Army!
The Terracotta Army belongs to Emperor Qin Shi Huang – he of the Great Wall fame.
He became the first Emperor of China at age 13yrs and started planning his tomb straightaway. He is buried inside a man-made mound that is overlooked by Mount Li (a scared mountain), in a valley that is considered to have excellent Feng Shui. The Emperor’s body is said to rest with his feet towards the Yellow River and his head towards Mount Li, because this is Feng Shui (which means ‘wind-water’).
The Emperor’s tomb has never been opened – it’s said to be an underground palace with rivers of mercury and Terracotta concubines. The reason it hasn’t been excavated is the technology doesn’t exist to open the tomb without damaging it. And the tomb is booby-trapped.
It’s also said to be full of great treasures. In fact, the whole city of Xi’an is said to rest on top of enough treasures of jade and gold to purchase the whole of America (I might take that with a grain of salt though!). No one’s excavated so it’s hard to know, but if it’s true there could be more amazing things yet to be uncovered in China!
The Terracotta Army stand in battle formation around the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. They face outward, ready to be led into battle by the Emperor. Each of the men in the army has a different face; this was a mandate by the Emperor, each warrior had to look as unique as any person did. If the artist failed to do this, he was executed and the warrior destroyed.
They used to be brightly painted but once they were excavated the paint faded and was destroyed. They were painted green, pink, gold and blue; bright colours that were lucky and said to fend off evil spirits. The one’s uncovered in recent times are sprayed with special chemicals to keep the paint from fading.
When the Emperor died and was entombed, the army was buried in underground pits and covered over with wooden planks and grass to hide them from the rest of the world.
But after the Emperor died, there was a rebellion in China (called the Farmer’s Rebellion) and the rebels broke into the Terracotta Army pits to steal the bronze weapons that the army held. On the way out of the pits, the rebels set fire to the wooden planks, this caused a cave-in that smashed and buried the statues, so that today they find the warriors in pieces. There are always archaeologists in the pits trying to excavate the statues and piece them back together.
3 pits have been uncovered to date. They contain; infantry, chariots (and horses), archers, lieutenants and generals. In the first pit there are estimated to be 6,000 warriors and only 1,000 have been excavated.
The warriors were discovered in the 1970s by farmers. They discovered the head of one of the warriors in their field. They thought it was bad-luck (evil spirits) to their families and the village, so they smashed the head and brought it to a priest. The priest sent to the cultural department in Beijing and the excavation of the field began.
Today you can meet one of the old farmer’s at the site and shake his hand if you like!
Seeing the warriors, was amazing 🙂
On my way off the site, I managed to pick up my own mini warrior – it’s the General (pronounced Jun-Jwin in Chinese)… 🙂 well I couldn’t leave China without one!
Latimer: There are lots of things to be excited about when you’re going on holidays; you don’t have to worry about work, you’re going somewhere new and you can relax and do what you want – it’s a great feeling. Aside from the food, which is one of my most favourite things about being on holidays, one of the best things is getting to see famous places you’ve only seen on the TV!
In Beijing there were lots of famous places to stamp my foot on.
You can’t go to China and not go to the Great Wall.
To me it was one of those places that I’ve known about my whole life; it’s a place of massive human achievement, but had it been overhyped in my mind – could it really be that good?
Yes, as it turns out! It was as amazing as people say.
Getting to stand on the Great Wall and stare around the valley (like a boss), as it criss-crossed the landscape, weaving up and down like a great stone snake slithering over hills through smog into the far north of China – spectacular!!
The Great Wall started its existence as a series of small walls that were unified into one Great wall by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (namesake of the Qin Dynasty). This is the Emperor who also built the Terracotta Army – a busy man right? Up to a million people died building the ‘Great Wall’ and are actually buried within the wall itself. So there’s an eerie feeling walking along the wall and thinking about that!
The part of the wall that I was on is called the Jiangshanling Great Wall; it’s a bit of a less touristy spot. It was great because there was hardly anyone else on the wall. It was basically empty, so it was even more incredible to be able to stand on one arching swell and look into the distance and see nothing but the wall and its watchtowers 🙂
As I walked I noticed that there was a lot of graffiti – people had carved their names into the wall. This started a conversation about how if the graffiti’s been there long enough it becomes historic (is a 400 year old piece of graffiti terrible… or historic?).
When people used to visit Shakespeare’s home (a long time after his death), they used to write their names on the windows to say that they were there. Lots of famous writers (Dickens etc) signed the windows, and now they are a museum piece within the house.
It’s an odd one and it happens everywhere; I’ve seen names carved into the stone at our own Newgrange (which is 5,000 years old, which makes this really bad).
It is sad, and you do shudder at seeing it; ‘I’d never do that! That’s terrible’… but then if enough time passes… does it become alright? Do you start to think; ‘someone in the 1800s was standing where I am now, in awe of this thing I am seeing that they once saw too… (of course they were busy carving their name into it, so we aren’t really experiencing it the same way, but still!)’
People like to write their names on things because it says; ‘I was here, I existed once and I was here’. And I get that, but…
Argh, it’s a tough one; but people shouldn’t be doing it anymore – that’s what the visitor’s guestbook is for!
While on the wall I ate the bag of Hula Hoops I’d gotten in Dublin airport (and failed to eat on the plane – I told you we’d be seeing those food items again!)… That was bizarre!
Then it was on to the Forbidden City (give or take a day, ha). That place is amazing.
It was built according to the rules and laws of Taoism – the cultural religion of China. For example, Taoism is crazy about numbers. The number 9 (and 5) is very important and lucky in the religion. The doors of the city’s gates have gold circle embossing – there are nine rows with nine circles across.
The Forbidden City is also said to contain 9999 rooms; the Emperor is the only one on earth who can have 9999 rooms. This is one less than the Jade Emperor (the King of Heaven in Taoism); only he can have 10,000 rooms. The Jade Emperor sounds cool doesn’t he?
There’s a lot to see in the Forbidden City, I found myself just wandering on my own at one point, enjoying my own novelty as a white foreigner (I’m hardly ever exotic, so that was fun!).
It wasn’t long before my time in Beijing was at an end, but I did manage to check out the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Cube before I was off on an overnight train (13 hours!) to Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors, but that’s another post 🙂
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!
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).
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!)
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!).
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 🙂