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

Wandering Free

1401550280017Ridley: So, I’m back from my week in Portugal (you’re probably going, ‘eh? I never knew you even left!’) and Latimer is back from her fantastic travels too. If you follow us on twitter, our feed has been packed with pictures. I have to say we’re extremely lucky that we’re both able to do these things, as I know not everyone has the opportunity, and while I didn’t go as far afield as Latimer did on her amazing travels, I still had a brilliant time. We also both had pocket sized travelling Buddhas to keep us company on our separate adventures. He has a little spindle and a giant smile. Latimer gave me mine, she got him in China, you’re not allowed buy the little man you have to be given it, so I was well chuffed to get him!1401550283680IMG_20140531_124548

So with my little Buddha, I was able to step out of my life and into another for a short time. Whenever I go abroad I always come back wishing I could spend my life exploring, to be able to wander to the farthest reaches of the earth, learn new languages, eat unusual foods and experience different cultures. I’m a firm believer in working to live and not living to work. I know on my deathbed I won’t be wishing I’d spent more time at the office. Well maybe I’ll wish I’d once visited an office, as I’ve never worked in one, but you get my meaning!1401551450575

While in Portugal, I got to listen to people speak a different language, try a few words myself, I tasted octopus, sea bass, swordfish, and I had the best of ice cream (lots of it). There were palm trees, cockroaches, crickets and weird beetles, colourful birds and lots of cats, all things that we don’t really have in Ireland (except for the cats, but these are Portuguese cats, so I’ll count them). The houses were painted bright exciting pinks and blues that were complemented by the sparkling sunshine and the tiles of the roofs were beautiful vibrant terracotta.IMG_20140529_200137 1401550285752 IMG_20140531_143657 1401550277759 There was blistering heat during the day, where I burned to a fire engine red, and freckles, that I never knew were lurking just beneath my skin, popped up like uninvited mushrooms. Then night time, it was freezing, the stars were so exceptionally bright, and the darkness came so much earlier than at home. It’s the differences between places, and often times the similarities, that I love and get excited over. I’m certain that there are lots of people out there that feel the same way, right?

I think the one thing I really need to learn to do though, is appreciate what I have in my own country too, to see it through the eyes of a visitor and know that while our houses aren’t bright colours, and we have no palm trees, it’s still a great place to live. 1401551449963Everyone commiserated with me when I returned home on how bad the weather was, that the rain was what greeted me when I stepped off the plane, at first I agreed wholeheartedly, but when I thought about it I decided that there was just a different type of beauty in the dark storm clouds rolling by overhead and the patter of rain, the gurgling of water filled gutters, while I liked being away from it all, I have to say I would miss it if I never had it ever again too.0212

On that note, I’ll leave you with more pretty pictures!

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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!!

 

Monkey Madness

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Latimer: Who knew walking up a Chinese mountain to stay the night in a monastery could lead to close encounters of the wild monkey kind? I sure as hell didn’t, but it happened!

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Our Chinese guide said the monkeys of Mt Emei Shan were well-known for jumping onto people’s backs, opening their bags and stealing food (and anything else they could get their hands on). Sometimes they mistook phones and cameras for food and on realising that they couldn’t eat the precious electronics and priceless memories, they’d toss them over the edge of the cliffs.

Nice!

The monkeys had adapted to the influx of people climbing the mountain to see all the temples and monasteries. They were being opportunists – ‘okay cousin humans, you can traipse around our home, but be aware, we are going to steal your crap!’ And, because the monkey’s had no fear of human’s anymore, the human’s had turned them into a tourist attraction (but of course!).

You can buy nuts to feed the monkeys so that they’ll jump up on your back and you can get a photo with them. Wooden bridges have been built along the mountain to allow people the chance of a close encounter… and there are even people called ‘Monkey Police’ (who scare the monkeys away for you if you are about to be robbed).

The monkeys are so unafraid of humans that they get mad when you try and stop them stealing and they get pretty aggressive. So, we were warned to be careful. We were given bamboo sticks to scare them away (not hit them, just smack the ground and scare them). The sticks were cool because walking along a mountain is not the same without a stick!

I didn’t want a monkey to jump on me, but I did want to see them…

On the walk up the mountain the only monkeys I saw were on the ‘encounter bridges’.

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A few people from my group went out – brave souls. One had a monkey jump up onto his back and the rest of us started shouting – “He’s trying to open your bag! He’s trying to open your bag!”

Seriously the monkey was pulling at the zippers; he knew exactly what to do. He didn’t have any luck though, our group member sauntered back, indicating his double-zipped super bag and in a cool American accent, smiled; “This isn’t my first rodeo!” 🙂

I was half-disappointed and half-relieved not to have had more of a monkey encounter. We all made it safely to the monastery on the mountain – the walk to which nearly ended me! I thought, ‘they’ll have to leave me here, I’ll learn Chinese and live off the land!’ – it was rough!

There’s a small kitchen/café near the monastery – the oddest most remote place – and they had the best pancakes, and half the world thinks so too judging by all the messages people had left on the wall – all talking about the pancakes.

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I found some Irish one’s, so that made me smile – these girls, they have v.good Irish!

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It’s a husband and wife duo that run this kitchen (and live above it); I got some photos of the kitchen, xie xie (thank you :-)) to the woman for letting me! Isn’t it an amazing place?

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And this was the monastery we stayed overnight in…

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We stayed one night then headed back down the mountain in the wee hours of the morning – I thought that was the end of my potential monkey encounters… but OH no… they’d only just begun.

The monkeys are very active in the morning as it turns out. There were big groups of them. By the time I’d realised that we were surrounded I was at the back of the group with the tour guide and local guide, when holy crap this big angry male monkey appeared (he was massive!).

I fear feeling fear in front of animals, because I’m always thinking; ‘they can smell my fear!’

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All I could think was the warnings we’d been given; if they jump on you don’t scream (yeah right!) and don’t show them your teeth (that’s an act of aggression in monkey speak).

The tour guide tried to scare the monkey off with the bamboo sticks, and you know what this monkey did? He paused, took one measured look at the stick, and the man to which it was attached, and seemed to say; ‘I’ll have you!’ and charged back at the man, swiping his hand at the stick, trying to whip it away from the guide!

The guide managed to ‘scare’ the monkey away in the end and I scuttled off down the path. It was pretty scary!

Monkeys (and apes) are so intelligent; there’s a new series on the BBC called Monkey Planet and it highlights some really interesting traits that monkeys and apes have! When I watched it I kept getting flashbacks to the smart, scary, monkeys on the mountain!!

The Art of Terracotta

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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…”

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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!

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Pit 1
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Pit 1
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Pit 1
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Pit 1
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Pit 2
Pit 3 (a lot left to find eh?!)
Pit 3 (a lot left to find eh?!)
Pit 3 (broken statues!)
Pit 3 (broken statues!)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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