Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Coming Home...

So after nine months, nine countries and 29 things on a list, I'm heading home to do number 30 with my favourite people in the world. I'll be updating the blog with stories about the last few things on my list once I'm back but I just wanted to write one final post before heading home and being overtaken by Olympic madness. 

At this moment it feels very difficult to sum up this trip and I'm looking forward to being at home and having the chance to look back and reflect on it, something which is sometimes difficult to do when you're busy moving from one place to the next. Having spent the last few months in Asia it's sometimes hard to believe that my trip began in South America, way back in October and in between I have also passed through New Zealand and Australia,

During that time I've climbed mountains; been diving in the sea and travelled on journeys which have lasted days. I've swam with dolphins, danced tangos and trekked to remote villages. I've been thrown off a horse, witnessed a rock fight and somehow ended up appearing in China's equivalent of The Argus. Thanks to my friends I've jumped out of a plane, tried surfing and eaten bugs - things I would never have done without their suggestions.

Over the last nine months I have experienced new cultures and made myself understood in countries where I don't speak a word of the language.  I've been happy, I've been sad, I've laughed so much that I've cried, I've been lost more times than I can count. There have been times when I've been scared and lonely but I have been continuously overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers. I've listened to stories of hardship and heartbreak but I've also witnessed the resilience of human nature. I've had so, so, many amazing experiences and met so many brilliant people along the way. I have memories which will last a lifetime.

And now, after all of that, I'm ready to come home. I want to see my family and my friends; I want to eat fish and chips and Sunday roasts; I want to sleep in the same bed every night and I'm ready not to live out of a backpack for a while. As much as I love the whole backpacking thing I'm looking forward to not sharing a room with snorers and sleep talkers and people who think it's acceptable to use a hair dryer at 6am.

 I 'd also quite like to be able to walk into a room and not find boys underwear strung across it to dry.
I can't wait to gossip with the girls, have a hot bath, eat cheese on toast, wear high heels and pick up the phone to call someone if I'm having a bad day. I'm also excited to see what will happen next and what new adventure life will take me on.

So to those of you I have met along the way, thank you for sharing in my journey and making the last year of my 20s so unforgettable. It's been incredible. And to everyone at home who has supported, encouraged and loved me every step of the way, I couldn't have done it without you.

Lots of love
Em xxx

Sunday, 29 July 2012

#24 See a panda bear in China

I'm not sure Jenny's suggestion that I should see a panda bear wasn't planned to coincide with her trip to see me in China, although she assures me it was purely coincidence. Either way, as we didn't want to see the pandas in a zoo, we set off on what we thought would be a bit of an epic 36 hour round trip to see them at the Panda Research Breeding Centre in Chengdu.

As I said in an earlier post, there's nothing like travelling with good friends who you can just be totally silly with. I'm not sure, for example, that concocting a plan to kidnap a baby panda and name him Dumpling would go down too well with strangers. In fact, in hindsight, we probably shouldn't have discussed our scheming with the other people at our hostel as I think we may have gained a reputation as 'the mad English girls'. Ho hum. At the time it seemed like a perfectly valid way to spend a wish by asking for a baby panda when we let off our Chinese lantern (organised to celebrate the country's Dragon Boat Festival) rather than, oh let's say a job when I get home for example.

Celebrating the Dragon Boat Festival.
Using our wish wisely.
We set off early the next morning with our plan polished and ready to go (it involved apples and rope ladders - and yes, before you ask, I am aware of the fact that I will soon be turning 30) and were the first to arrive. However we then had to spend the next 15 minutes or so body-pressed to the ticket office window as, like I've previously mentioned, there was no way anyone was going to queue to see the pandas. Clutching out first-into-the-park tickets we dashed to find the pandas eating breakfast and they honestly were the cutest/laziest things ever.They ambled out to the huge piles of bamboo before tumbling into a comfortable position (normally on their backs and not too worried if it was on top if one of their mates) to eat.

Laziest breakfast ever,
We were lucky enough to be able to watch them for five minutes or so before the tour groups arrived and, with their huge cameras and zoom lenses, quickly turned the place into some kind of red carpet media scrum. The pandas, completely oblivious to us all, continues with their munching, ignoring every single "ooh" and "aah" whenever they so much as moved a muscle.

A cute cuddly bear or a man in a suit??
We saw some very cute moments, including a mother who was interrupted when feeding her babies when another nosy panda decided to find out what was going on and fell on their heads. But there's also something a bit surreal about being so close to animals you've only ever seen in photos and, weirdly, the more we looked at them, the more they seemed to look like humans dressed up in furry suits. We decided to move on quickly before we uncovered some huge panda-related scandal and came across a baby bear who looked remarkably like we'd imagined Dumpling. He appeared to be stuck half-way up a tree, unsure whether it would be better to go forwards or backwards, which to be fair is exactly the kind of special bear we'd been planning to adopt.

"Hey guys? A bit of help here please!"
We spent a lot of time taking photos with him and then a lot of time with other tourists taking photos of us. So there were a lot of photos all round. Not sure what I'm going to do with 100 photos of pandas just yet. May have to consider cropping the batch at some point.

After deciding that there were many parts of our plan we hadn't though through fully (already heavy backpacks; strict customs officials; lack of bamboo in Brighton etc etc) we decided Dumpling would probably be happier in his current home. So we left him hanging out/stuck in his tree and headed for our train, which is when the next part of our adventure began...

The bunks on the overnight trains in China are on three levels, so the person who gets the top one is basically sleeping in the luggage rack. We attracted the usual attention as we bumbled down the narrow carriageway, whacking into everyone with our backpacks and discovered that the people in the opposite beds were three generations of a family - son, mother and grandmother. The son was about two and looked cute enough. How wrong we were.

I guess it's never ideal for parents to have to spend 24 hours straight on a train with a small child. But what always surprises me here is the lack of stuff parents seem to bring for their kids. At home I know my friends who are parents are super prepared when they take their children anywhere and a journey of that length would have been planned with military precision. In China they don't even bring a toy for them to play with, which leave two options. 1. Sit quietly and patiently until we arrive (which, to be fair, most of the kids do). 2. Run around screaming for hours. Unfortunately we had a screamer and the more he screamed, the more his grandmother (who seemed to be the main care-giver) screamed at him to stop screaming.

For the first few hours we humoured him as he hit us; tried to steal our food and repeatedly threw things on the floor. After 12 hours it had started to get a bit tedious and after 24 hours we were well and truly ready to get off. As 5pm approached we started to get our bags ready and were eagerly looking out of the windows for our first glimpse of Shanghai's skyscrapers. Half an hour later we were still sat in exactly the same position, wondering why no-one else seemed to be getting ready, when Jenny asked the fateful question: "Why did we think we arrived at 5pm by the way?" I got out my piece of paper I'd written all of the train times on and sure enough I'd written what the moody girl at the train station had told me: 5. Having already spent one night on the train we'd just assumed it meant 5pm the next day but suddenly, one by one, it dawned on us that it could actually mean 5am... We checked with the men playing cards next to us who confirmed our suspicions with a cackle of laughter. It was one of those travel moments where it you didn't laugh, you'd have cried. Despite having eaten all of our food; facing another night on the bunks (me in the luggage rack) and worse still, being stuck with China's most annoying child, we managed to see the funny side. Just about...

Discovering we had another 12 hours left on the train.

But #24 was worth the 48 hour round-trip.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

#23 See the Terracotta Warriors

There are some sights that no matter how many photos of them you've seen, it still absolutely takes your breath away when you see them for the first time. I was totally in awe when I saw Macchu Picchu for example and when I went diving in the Great Barrier Reef, doing the real thing was a million times better than just seeing it in photos. But then on the other hand, there are those that don't. Some famous landmarks you see and just think: "Yep, that's exactly how it looks in the pictures." And I'm afraid the Terracotta Warriors was one of those place for me.

I know it sounds really bratty and don't get me wrong, the story of how they weren't discovered until the 1970s by a farmer digging a well is pretty remarkable and the fact that every single warrior has a different face is amazing. But you've read it so many times that the facts seem a bit diluted by the time you actually get there. (I think this is my China equivalent of Karl Pilkington describing the country's most famous landmark as The Alright Wall.)

Yep, there they are, just like in the pictures.

Also, I know this may sound a bit stupid, but I had expected the 6000 warriors to all be standing. The professional photographers certainly take their pictures from a good angle, making it appear so.

I'd kind of expected these guys to be standing.
But in fact most of them are still in pieces and many are even buried. And while it's very interesting to watch the archaeological work take place, you can't help feeling you expected a bit more. Which maybe explains why alongside the halls containing the warriors there is also such an array of tourist souvenirs - such as getting your own face imposed onto a model of a Terracotta Warrior. Personally I couldn't think of anything more creepy. Where would you put it? Right beside your mini replica of The Alright Wall I assume.

Monday, 23 July 2012

P is for Ping Yao (continuing with the alphabet challenge)

There were many, many, things we loved about Ping Yao. From it's oldy-worldy streets packed with Chinese tourists to its crazy traffic system, in which the drivers of the bikes, scooters and golf carts which are allowed within the city walls all seem to make up the rules as they go along. We also loved our hostel owner Mrs Deng (who we nicknamed Peggy Mitchell on account of her love of leopard print dresses and the fact that she always knew what was going on in other people's business) who called the three of us collectively "Emileeeeeeeeeeeey".
I'm not sure where she is, but be assured somewhere in the middle of this "dispute" is Peggy.
The walled town, filled with traditional houses and narrow alleyways, is exactly what we were expecting China to be like. The thing I really liked about the old city though is that despite the fact that it's an obvious tourist magnet, plenty of locals still live in the centre so daily life goes on around you. Old grannies sit on their doorsteps gossiping; washing lines fill the narrow backstreets and women buy fresh fruit from carts in the road. We spent a whole afternoon sitting in a pagoda people-watching as parents brought their children to the park to play and fly kites and old men stood around watching a game of Chinese chess and practising Tai Chi.
Totally unimpressed by the Judy Blume antics.
One day we hired a bicycle made for three - amazing - and (once we'd actually got the hang of it) we spent the afternoon amusing everyone we cycled past. Once again we also experienced the kindness of strangers as people came out of their shops and stopped their golf carts to help us when the chain came off our bike. Later on as we sat in a cafe and it started to rain the owner rushed out to put plastic bags on our seats so they wouldn't get wet.

Today's entertainment will be provided by members of the Judy Blume Club.
The locals looking after us.
But our absolute favourite moment in Ping Yao was when the girls went to get a massage. We walked into a shop on the main street which has a sign and a price list outside of the different treatments on offer. So far, so legit. However when we went inside there was just one lady watching some kind of Chinese soap opera. When the girls asked for a massage she couldn't have looked more confused and as she handed them an English price list she looked as though she'd never seen it before in her life. Jenny opted for a foot massage and Anna asked for a back one. Still looking totally confused (to the point where we wondered whether she actually worked there) she made a couple of phone calls, stuck Jen's feet in a bin filled with water and went back to watching tv. Five minutes later her friend arrived and joined her in front of her programme. After another ten minutes, as lovely as it all was watching a soap opera in which we had no idea what was going on, we decided to ask her whether someone was actually coming. Again she kind of shrugged her shoulders, which we took as a sign to wait. By this time we were considering just making a run for it. But seeing as Jen's feet were stuck in a bin we figured we probably wouldn't get very far.

Who's more confused: Jen or the woman who  works there?
Eventually another lady arrived who was almost beside herself with excitement that she was going to get to give Anna a massage. She took her to another room, from where we could actually hear the slaps as Anna was given a massage which she described as so painful that somebody would be charged with GBH for it back at home. Jenny, meanwhile, had a foot massage from the first woman who kept the same confused look on her face throughout, as though she didn't quite know how she'd ended up in this position. Maybe she had just popped in to watch the telly...

Ping Yao, one of the highlights of our entire trip.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

A Birthday Wish

The one thing I think most travellers would agree on is that visiting different countries makes you appreciate the life you have. Whenever I travel in poorer countries I am so grateful that I grew up in a safe, secure, home with loving parents. I am thankful that I always had enough to eat and clean clothes to wear and I know that I was lucky to be born in a country where healthcare and education are free.

During the last few weeks in China I've learnt a lot about how close to poverty so many of its people live and how something as simple as an illness can tip even a middle-class family into debt. I heard a story the other day about a 30-year-old woman diagnosed with breast cancer who believed it would be better if she died rather than be a burden to her family who had to pay her medical bills. Can you imagine being my age and thinking you'd be better off dead? I can't. I also can't imagine having to give up my beautiful baby, not because he was born different and not "perfect" (the most common reason why children with disabilities are abandoned in China) but because I couldn't afford to pay for the operations he needs for his cleft palate or heart operation. But that's the sad reality of some of the children I spent two weeks with when I volunteered at Starfish Foster Home in Xian (more of that in a later post).

Right now I'm volunteering at a deaf school in Kaifeng. Most of the children at the school can hear on some scale, thanks to hearing aids they have been provided with, but the majority could not even talk when they first arrived. They had spent the first few years of their lives scared and frustrated, unable to communicate with those around them. One woman brought her son to the school as a last resort, against the wishes of her husband who didn't believe it would work. They had been told by doctors that he would never hear, unless he had an expensive operation which they couldn't afford. After three years at the school he can now speak, lip read and hear to a certain extent.

Most of the 70 children at the school come from poor families. More than half of them board there as they live too far away to travel every day. The monthly fees per child should be 138 pounds, most families can't even afford to pay half. And yet headteacher Zhang Hong and her staff carry on tirelessly. The teachers are all young and enthusiastic, even though they struggle with the frighteningly low wages. 

Always smiling.
The school, which has been rated as the best of the province's 56 deaf schools in terms of its teaching, is very basic. The children eat their dinner in shifts as they only have six tables; their dorm is just a room of bunk beds, with no toys and some of the classrooms are currently out of use as the ceilings have fallen in and there is no money to fix them. 

Basic bedrooms.
Dinner in shifts.
Bath time for 40 boarders must be interesting.
And yet, despite all of this, the children are some of the happiest I have ever seen. They are always smiling and laughing. Due to the fact that I'm one of the first volunteers to have visited the school they are besides themselves with excitement when they see me crossing the playground. Sitting in on their lessons it is clear to see that they love learning. They are enthusiastic and fun and I could honestly sit and watch them all day.

Ever managed to get a group small children to look in the same direction at the same time? No, me neither. 
The other day I asked Zhang Hong what her 'wish list' would be for the school. She said she would think about it and let me know and the next day she sat down with a list. I was a bit worried that it might include lots of fancy, expensive, equipment, but this is what she said she would like:

10 tables
100 chairs
9 blackboards
Curtains for six classrooms

That list alone makes me want to help her.

So this brings me to my birthday wish. Every year people ask me what I'd like for my birthday and every year I rack my brain. I have a reputation in my family of being difficult to buy for (on the basis that I once or twice returned a gift). But the problem is I usually can't think of anything I want or need. This year, more than ever, I really don't need anything. I have just had the most incredible nine months - my birthday present to myself - and the memories will last forever. So what I'm proposing is that if anybody had been planning on buying me a gift or sending a card for my 30th that they instead consider making a donation to the school.  And I know if I was reading this I'd probably be thinking "she's just been on a nine month jolly so it's a bit rich expecting a present as well". Which is totally true and is why I'm not expecting anything. So if you're totally skint and you've got bills to pay and babies to feed, then honestly don't worry about it. But if you would like to donate a couple of pounds then I'd really appreciate it and I know these little guys would too.

We've got ourselves a beauty queen on the front row.
I promise that this is a matey hug, rather than a headlock.
(Anyone who would like to make a donation can email me at emilyann.elliott@gmail.com or DM me on Facebook and I'll let you know the best way to go about it.)

Em xx

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Things I love about China

There are many traditional sights in China that can sum up the country in a snapshot for me: red lanterns lining streets filled with restaurants; old men playing Chinese chess surrounded by a crowd of on-lookers and large groups practising early morning Tai-Chi in the park, to name just a few.

This is China.
And then there are other crazy sights which also sum up the place just as well, albeit in an 'only in China' kind of way. There are far, far, too many to list them all, but here are my top five:

1. Fighting over the bill (literally)

Being from England, the first time I heard the tell-tale scrapping back of chairs, I got ready to run. The men behind me were clearly disagreeing about something as voices had been raised for the last few minutes and it appeared that the argument was about to get physical. However one of my dining companions assured me it was all just a good-natured disagreement over who would pay the bill, which would be quickly resolved. I was a bit dubious about the good-natured part of it as the two men began wrestling over the table, their faces contorted with rage. But as everyone else in the crowded restaurant continued to ignore them I came to realise that it really was a normal occurrence.

In China pride is everything and losing face over something is the worst thing that can happen. Therefore, in the same way that it's totally acceptable for men to take their shirts off in restaurants when they get a food sweat, it is also fine to wrestle over who gets to pay the bill.

Indeed, five minutes later - after one man had successfully  managed to run after the waitress and rip his friend's money from her hand - the pair were laughing and drinking together again. No doubt running up another bill which could be argued over later.

One way or another this is going to cost you: either your money or your pride.

2. Baby poo pants

Now many of you will know my view on poo pants, the adult version of which I had never worn and hated until a couple of months ago when I invested in a pair and discovered they are man's best friend when travelling. However poo pants in China are taken to a whole new level. I still haven't got to the bottom of why small children are dressed in the trousers which have huge splits underneath but I have been led to believe it's something to do with early potty training.

Whatever the reason, everywhere you go in China you are confronted by little bottoms as children run around completely oblivious to the fact that their parents have dressed them in the most inexplicably bad outfits. Obviously the Western world's fear of paedophilia (which is so extreme back at home that parents won't even let us put their child's name in the paper "just in case") has not caught on here.

The main argument in favour of poo pants seems to be that they allow children to squat down anywhere to do their business, without the hassle of having to pull their trousers up and down. This can lead to some pretty inappropriate situations though - the worst we witnessed was when a woman allowed her grandson to poo on the floor outside a toilet cubicle on a train because it was occupied. And, no, she didn't clean it up.

But what I really don't get are the babies who are wearing them. Ok, I understand nappies are expensive, but are mothers really so intuitive here that they know when their babies need to go? How do you never seen any accidents when babies are being passed from person to person?

Anyway, I think it's safe to say that poo pants won't be catching on in England. I can just imagine their faces when I take it to the Dragon's Den. Unless I'm wrong and my friends who are mums are reading this and thinking it's the obvious answer to potty training. In which case, send me your orders.

Rocking the baby poo pants.

3. Dressing inappropriately for the occasion

Anyone who knows me knows that I love shoes. Shoes are my thing and at 5ft tall, the higher the better is usually my motto. So spending the last nine months with one pair of walking boots, one pair of flip flops and some ballet shoes which have seen better days for 'nice' occasions has been a struggle. So I've got to hand it to the women in China, who treat every street as a catwalk, stomping along in their stilettos or wedges whatever the time of day.

However even I have to draw the line somewhere and going to The Great Wall in heels is not appropriate. Neither are stilettos really adequate footwear for walking around the Forbidden Palace (lots of steps and cobbles) or visiting the Terracotta Warriors (miles to walk). But unbelievably a ridiculous number of women seem to think that it is totally normal to spend the day tottering around historical sites. How you don't see more women with broken ankles amazes me.

Also there are the hats, fantastic wedding-esque creations, which, like heels, can be worn on any family day out. With my tiny pea head I can only envy the girl who can wear a huge white hat complete with a veil on a day trip to see the pandas.

Just your average day out at The Great Wall.

4. Express lane toilets

One of the things you quickly learn in China is that queueing doesn't exist. This is a difficult concept for a Brit to get their head around - why if there is on person standing in front of you would you not automatically stand behind them to form a line? But in China that concept is nonexistent. If someone is being served at the checkout at the supermarket, it is perfectly acceptable to put your own goods under the assistant's nose; if a bank clerk is speaking to a customer no one bats an eyelid when someone leans over to ask their own question and even when there is a queue at the train station (enforced by cattle grill-style fences) people still walk straight to the front and nobody says a word. In England there would be uproar.

So waiting to go to a public toilet is always interesting. Firstly, you have to just chose a couple of doors and guard them until someone comes out - there's no point expecting that because you were there first you'll get the next available one. Secondly, while using the squat loo you've also got to keep one arm outstretched (as most doors don't have locks) to stop the tiny Chinese women who are freakishly strong from whacking the door open for all the world to see.

But my favourite toilets so far have been the express lanes ones which specify they are for "urinating only". They were what I can only describe as a trough which ran under every cubicle, with a constant source of running water going through them (negating the need to flush). Which, while it may indeed save you an extra two seconds, also meant that the waste from the next cubicle is also flowing on by. So probably best not to look too closely.

Totally not taking the "express" part seriously enough.

5. The things they do for love

Something I've discovered in China is that the girls are very spoilt by their boyfriends. After watching the way they pout and stamp their feet when they don't get their own way and giggle and hang on to their boyfriends' necks when they're in a good mood, I've realised where I've been going wrong all these years. The boys seem to be quite happy to put up with it and whether it's something to do with the fact that by 2020, thanks to the country's one child policy, there won't be enough girls to go around, I'm not sure.

But the funniest thing is that the poor guys always have to carry their girlfriend's handbag and it's hard to look macho when you're carrying a Louis Vuitton. We've seen guys trying to mix up the look a bit, one carrying it with the strap around his forehead and another with it hanging around his neck. Presumably the poor guy was contemplating ending it all.

The other trend in China right now is to say "I love you" by wearing the same t-shirt as your other half. The 'his and hers' tops are in shops everywhere and couples are embracing the look, the boys apparently perfectly comfortable with wearing a t-shirt with a giant love heart emblazoned across the front. Funnily enough I can't see it catching on at home.

However I've noticed that the craze is starting to spread to families now, with mum, dad and son or daughter all wearing variations of the same t-shirt, and I'm seriously considering investing in some for when the Elliotts do the Olympics. If nothing else it might stop us losing dad so often!

Monday, 16 July 2012

#22 Walk On The Great Wall in China

I spent a week waiting in Beijing for two friends from home to arrive. Every day groups from the hostel went off to the Great Wall and when they came back I tried not to listen to what they were saying about it as I didn't want to have any preconceptions before I saw it for myself. Which is a bit silly right? Because a wall is a wall, is a wall. Except when it was built more than 2000 years ago and took more than ten years of hard labour to complete of course.

The wall was actually built in chunks between various natural defences like mountains. Nowadays the sections are in different states of repair, with some sections being patched up or rebuilt, while others have crumbled away or are completely overgrown with trees and shrubs. We went to a section called Mutianyu, which is 90km northeast of Beijing and is famous for its 26 watchtowers.

Seeing even just a small section of the wall is impressive, especially when you take in the mountainous region it was constructed in. After a bit of a sweaty walk up to it we were rewarded with incredible views of the surrounding mountains.

Admiring the view.

Fortunately the wall wasn't too crowded although we did manage to overhear some brilliant catchphrases from fellow tourists. "We're on a wall - let's walk it!" being our favourite from a very enthusiastic American lady. We also met a lovely old Chinese man who almost fell over with laughter as he stopped to take photos of us and amused lots of other people as we tried to capture a classic 'jumping in the air' shot. For me it was brilliant to be able to make the trip with Anna and Jenny. Although it's great to meet new people when you're travelling alone, there's nothing like doing it with friends who you can be just as silly as you like with.

We made it! (You won't believe how long it took us to get this shot.)
In true Chinese style it appears it would be impossible to suppose that people would visit a national monument purely because it is the attraction your country is most famous for and therefore something else has to be offered as well. In the case of Mutianyu, it's a toboggan down. It's the most surreal thing to one minute be walking along a very old wall and the next to be whizzing down a hill to the bottom, with an automated voice shouting: "Danger! Slow down" the whole way.

Once you've walked the wall there's only one way down!
As soon as Anna got off she proclaimed it to be the best part of the wall and spent the rest of our trip telling people about it. Even at the end of three weeks she said it was her favourite thing about China. That either says a lot about the toboggan or a lot about Anna.

#22 comes complete with a comedy hat.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

N and O (Continuing wiith the alphabet challenge)

N is for the National Centre for the Performing Arts

Like it or loath it, the egg-shaped NCPA is an example of Beijing's more modern side and is in complete contrast to its traditional buildings. The titanic steel structure is held up by 148 bolsters, each weighing eight tonnes and whoever designed it obviously didn't worry too much about how it would be cleaned, as the glass panels apparently have to be scrubbed by cleaners on ropes.

Don't fancy that cleaning job.
Inside it is absolutely huge, so big in fact that we got lost just going up and down the various escalators looking for the main opera theatre. The building itself is more impressive than the exhibitions, which seem to just chart the success of every show which has ever been performed there. (I've discovered that explanations at Chinese museums tend to focus more on what you can already see in front of you rather than any background information).

A room with a view.
Although it was interesting to see, in a country which you wouldn't really associate with freedom of expression, how keen the centre's bosses are to become one of the best venues in the world. Like many events in China, they don't do things by half.

As is often the case in Beijing, at times we were swamped by Chinese tour groups in matching caps who follow the coloured flag their tour leader carries in front of them with a steadfast determination - whether of not you're in the way. In fact one of my favoruite moments, as well as listening to a singer perform in the auditorium, was seeing a tour group going mad over the free water machine. It appears that the Chinese love a freebie as much as the next person.

O is for the Olympic Stadium 

With the London Olympics (and number 30 on my list) fast approaching, there seems to be lots of talk about the opening ceremony. The latest I heard was that it's going to include live animals. Hmm...think I'll reserve judgement for the time being. But I really hope whatever they do, it's going to be good. Because visiting the Olympic Stadium in Beijing really made me remember how amazing China's opening ceremony was.

The fact that the government hasn't really found a good use for the 2008 stadium yet was apparent when I transferred to the subway line which was built especially to it and immediately got a seat - something which is usually a cause for celebration on any of the other lines.

I made it! (Along with the Chinese tour groups.)
When you get into the stadium it feels strange to be walking around the corridors totally alone in some parts. Even with the never-ending stream of (mostly patriotic Chinese) tourists, it's so huge that it still feels pretty empty. Inside thousands and thousands of red and white seats overlook the track where Usain Bolt broke the 100m world record. Thanks to a promotional film, complete with stirring music, it was easy to imagine the stadium filled with people, especially for the opening ceremony. Sure, I know they've got the people power and the strict discipline to ensure thousands of performers can hit their drums at exactly the same moment (imagine if you were the person who got a beat out) but there's no denying it was impressive.

Where the magic happened.
Unfortunately the attention to detail has not been transferred to the momentos of the past and there's only a half-hearted display of Olympic memrobilia. Also, although I'm sorry to say I missed out on it myself, but there is inexplicably a waxwork room with models of men who were involved in the setting up of the Olympics.

After walking what felt like a million miles around the stadium I sat down to have a rest. The Chinese tourists, clearly having exhausted taking photos of everything worthy of a picture, then decided they may as well take it in turns to get a snap with me. Now I know how poor Tom Daley felt.

I know it looks as though he would rather be anywhere else than stood next to me, but he did ask to have his photo taken with me - honest!
Bring on London 2012!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Real China

Before coming to China I was really worried. The stories I'd heard about it from other travellers had not been promising. One girl summed it up to me by saying: "It's the kind of place you hate when you're there but when you leave you realise you loved it". Everyone agreed that the people are rude and unhelpful, the food is terrible and the country is filthy. Not great recommendations when you're about to spend two months in a place. I tired to console myself with the fact that after university I'd spend a month in Japan and, despite only being able to say five words in Japanese, I'd managed to get by thanks to the kind people I'd met along the way. But the bearers of bad news were quick to tell me that wouldn't be the case in China. "No one will help you", they assured me.

My first encounter at the airport seemed to confirm that. I arrived late at night, clutching a map to my hostel, with all of the instructions written in Chinese. I couldn't have been more prepared. As I headed towards the taxi driver he actually rolled his eyes and shouted something to his friends which I'm pretty sure was along the lines of "Why do I get stuck with the foreigner?" He then drove me to the hutong (the old residential alleyways of Beijing) where my hostel was located before abandoning me at 11pm, because he couldn't find it and he didn't want to turn his car around or ask anyone. Luckily I was quickly saved by someone who pointed me in the right direction and over the next few days China continued to be nothing like I'd expected.

People were kind and helpful when we were lost; they translated for us when we needed to buy train tickets and went out of their way to walk us to museums. They lifted our huge backpacks onto the luggage racks of the overnight trains (without threatening to sue us for doing their backs in) and they ran over to ask us to be in photos with them (I can only imagine them going through their holiday snaps: "Here's the Great Wall, here's a white person...")

A little help with our Chinese.
The food has also been surprisingly good. Obviously I've avoided the fried cow tendon and pig's brains, but the noodle and rice dishes, along with the meat I can actually identify, has been really tasty. I guess what people mean when they say they don't like the food is that it's not the same as Chinese food at home. You don't really find things swimming in sweet and sour sauce here. So far the only food mishap we've had was when the girls ordered what they thought were two plates of potatoes but turned out to be some kind of lumps of fat. Not the best for two vegetarians.

There'll be no dieting in China.
In terms of being dirty I think, for a country of more than a billion people, that it's actually very clean. Everywhere you go there's a band of people cleaning the streets and even on the trains someone will come around every hour or so to sweep up. I don't know whether it's just because I've spend a month in Burma where everyone is constantly spitting red bettle-nut juice in the street, so I've become immune to it, but I even think the number of people spitting here (which seems to be other travellers' biggest complaint) is relatively low.

Obeying the sign perhaps?
Of course, we've met a couple of miserable people. As rumoured, the staff at the ticket offices in railway stations are not the most patient. But then again, I probably wouldn't be either if I had a million people trying to buy a ticket at the same time and absolutely nobody understands the concept of queueing.

But we've had many, many more lovely moments with people. Times when we've had entire conversations in sign language, times when people have come up to us just to say the three English phrases they know and times when they've seen us and just laughed and laughed (whether with us, or at us, we're never quite sure). So to me, this is the real China.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

M is for Myanmar (continuing with the alphabet challenge)

Myanmar, Burma? Burma, Myanmar? Even its name is confusing. Should you call the country Burma, its former name which Aung San Suu Kyi believes it should still be known as because its new name was chosen undemocratically? Or should you call it Myanmar, the name its residents actually use on a daily basis? Like most things in the country, its never black and white.

Myanmar/Burma is a place you fall in love with the moment you arrive. The kindness of the people and the feeling that you've stepped back in time to the 'old Asia' make it incomparable to any place I've ever been. But it just as quickly breaks your heart, when you see the women and children building new roads by breaking rocks with their bare hands, who are paid £1.50 for a day's work. Or the 15-year-old delivery boy who has to carry 50kg bags of chicken feed on his back. It's a country that has been brought to its knees by corruption, where the majority of its inhabitants live in poverty. 

Also difficult is the fact that everywhere you go you're aware that people can't say exactly what they think. Even in teashops conversations are guarded, because you never know who's listening. Coming from the UK it's almost impossible to imagine what it's like to not have freedom of speech, where the media is censored and you can be thrown in prison simply for expressing opinions which don't tow the party line. Because even when you have absolutely nothing, you should at least have the basic human right to say what you think.

But right now in Myanmar there's also a feeling of hope. A new government has been elected and Aung San Suu Kyi has left the country for the first time in more than two decades. Everyone is looking ahead to the next big election in 2015 and everyone is hopeful that change is on its way. The level of trust and affection people have for Aung San Suu Kyi is huge. Everywhere you go pictures of her remind you of the role she plays in locals' lives. She looks over you as you eat dinner in a restaurant and peeks out from the dashboards of taxis and tuk tuks. I even spotted one or two people wearing t-shirts with her face on, something I'm fairly certain must be quite a recent development.

I'm sure the road ahead won't be easy and that there will be many more difficulties to overcome along the way. But if the sweet, kind, lovely Burmese people, who have already suffered such hardships and repression, can hope then surely we have to too.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

J to L (Continuing with the alphabet challenge)

J is for JJs

Considering that I've spent the last month rotating two pairs of trousers and four t-shirts in order to keep my legs and the tops of my arms covered so as not to offend the locals in Burma, who are always dressed in ankle-length longyis, it was difficult to decide what to wear to Yangon's one and only nightclub. We had planned to go to JJs to celebrate Nina's birthday so eventually the three of us decided it would be ok to wear dresses as long as we made sure our legs were covered with tights or leggings. As it turned out, we needn't have worried.

When we arrived at JJs it was like stepping into a different world. Men opened the doors of our taxi and helped us out; excited staff members ran to shake hands and welcome us and a whole group of workers accompanied us up in the elevator, explaining the club's 'facilties' to us. After paying our one pound entrance fee (turns out it was ladies night) we entered the first room and got the shock of our lives. I have never seen so many short (and I mean short short) dresses in my life. The place was absolutely filled with girls - some who barely looked over the age of 16 - in tiny skirts and dresses and tottering heels. I think what made the sight even more surreal was the extreme contrast to the very conservative style of dressing we'd experienced over the past month. I don't even know where you'd start to look for a leopard print mini in Burma.

We were ushered to a table, where six waiters stood in a protective circle around us. I think it's the closest we'll ever get to VIP treatment. Drinks were expensive - it was three pounds just for a coke - and as we looked around we realised that none of the girls were actually drinking or dancing, or, as a matter of fact, doing that much at all. They just seemed to be sat or stood around in groups, waiting for some rich men to appear. And when they did, they flocked around them, trying to be the girl who got their attention. It was actually really sad to see.

We were instantly swooped on when we tried to take photographs of each other and told that it was "against the law" to take pictures inside. Presumably to protect the girls whose families did not know they were there or, more likely, the men who were not supposed to be frequenting the place. A security guard then parked himself near us.

As we watched the strange scene in front of us we wondered how the girls actually got to JJs in their skimpy dresses. I can't imagine they'd blend in on the walk to the club. The answer was explained in toilets, where a mountain of bags reached half way up the wall. Girls sat on the floor, applying makeup and sticking on false eyelashes. They looked like teenagers who had told their parents they were staying at a friend's house before sneaking out for the night.

The waiters were keen for us to hit the empty dance floor, where Western music blared out, but we were waiting for the 'fashion show' we'd heard about. At 11pm it began and it was probably the most bizarre thing I've ever seen in a nightclub. As each piece of music began between six and ten girls would take to the stage, each wearing exactly the same dress. They would then parade up and down in a routine, occasionally bumping into one another as their timings were a bit off. I think they were all trying to achieve 'moody model' looks but most of them just looked bored. Some were so shy they couldn't take their eye off the floor. There appeared to be some kind of system that if a man liked one of the girls he could pay for a garland to be put around her neck and at the end of the night the girl with the most was named Miss JJ - a title she kept until the following night when it happened all over again.

In between the catwalks two dance groups entertained the crowd. The dancers had crazy hairstyles and clothes and did energetic routines (which some had got the hang of better than others) to songs by artists like Lady Gaga. While you couldn't fault their enthusiasm it all felt a bit like sitting at a school show. We finally decided to call it a night as pounding dance music brought everyone onto the dance floor where the security men tried, quite unsuccessfully, to stop the boys dancing too close to the girls.

It had been a really funny, surreal, evening and definitely one of the strangest things I saw during my time Burma. As we ventured back out into the real world we discussed how on one hand it was sad to see the girls trying so hard to get the attention of men, already knowing what a difference money would make to their lives. But on the other hand it is the first place, in a society which is still heavily controlled, that we had actually seen young people, particularly girls, being able to express themselves. Something which we so often take for granted at home.

Nb. No picture I'm afraid, due to 'privacy' laws.

K is for Kandawgyi Lake

I'm not sure walking an hour and a half in the scorching sun, risking crossing six lanes of traffic en route, before discovering that a) I didn't have enough money to pay the entrance fee to get into Kandawgi Lake in Yangon and b) that there were no English signs anywhere to take a photograph of, is going to go down as my best travel story ever. But still, that's K done!
This may or may not say Kandawgyi Lake.
L is for Lucky Seven

I think one of my previous posts made it clear just how much I love the teashops in Burma and Lucky Seven in Yangon is the best of the best. I went there on my last day in the country and ordered a plate of samosas and a cup of tea. Sitting outside in the courtyard, which was filled with plants, I watched the three middle-aged ladies gossiping in front of me and the couple next to me who popped in for a quick lunch, and thought about how much I'm going to miss this country. Its kind people, its quirky customs and its simple way of life.

As if to emphasise my sadness, thunder grumbled in the sky and the heavens opened. I decided to stay put under the shelter, as the streets around us instantly flooded due to the shocking drainage systems. With my flask of tea and a book, I couldn't have been more content. Eventually after a couple of hours I decided to squelch my way back to my hotel and as the teaboy handed me my 40p bill, I added something else to the list of things I'm going to miss.