Wednesday, 26 September 2012

#30 Go to the London 2012 Olympics with my family

I actually can't think of a better time to arrive home than during the Olympics. Maybe it was the fact that my family was waiting at the airport already in the spirit of things, with flags, hats and a Team E-A chant designed to draw maximum attention to my entrance. Or maybe is was that instead of the grey skies of London I had been expecting (after a month of solid rain), topped off with miserable commuters and fed up tube workers; I was greeted by sunshine and smiles and generally a completely unrecognisable London.

Is that sunshine I see?
I'd been reading about the build-up to the big event for months and we'd stayed up all night in Beijing to watch the opening ceremony in a bar called Paddy O'Shea's (although there wasn't an Irish man in sight). Even though there was only a small group of us, it still felt exciting to watch it all beginning, although I'm not sure that feeling was shared by the staff who had to stay up all night for six customers.
The countdown to London 2012 begins.
And just in case anyone was wondering what the weather was going to be like...
So I was looking forward to getting back home and as soon as I stepped off the plane at Heathrow there was a buzz in the air. When we got to the Underground, we were approached by friendly volunteers who offered to help before we even had time to get our maps out. It was such a huge change from China and it took me a couple of days to get adjusted to how easy everything was to do now that I wasn't trying to figure things out in an alien language. It was kind of like a reversed culture shock.

Everyone got into the Olympic spirit.
After months and months of reading articles about what a shambles it was all going to be, we were also amazed at how straight-forward and well organised everything was. Getting to the Olympic Park was easy. Finding our seats in the basketball arena was easy. Even getting a cup of tea was easy, with none of the massive queues which had been predicted.

No queues... stress.
The atmosphere in the park was incredible and fair play to the Games Maker volunteers who kept going on their megaphones all day. I'm sure I'd have got bored after shouting: "Are you all having a good day?" after about the 20th time.

Having just travelled the world and spent time seeing the highlights of other countries, it was so nice to see so many different nationalities enjoying ours. The fans from each country were brilliant and everyone made such a big effort to dress up in their country's colours. Although I think top marks would go to the Dutch fans who stood out a mile in their orange outfits and could start a chant going in a venue with just two of them. In a weird way it actually felt a bit like travelling, with everyone speaking to everyone and just a general feeling of happiness in the air.

As we all know, "sporty" is not a word which would ever be used to describe me but even those who didn't know the first thing about sport couldn't help getting caught up in the excitement. We had two day passes to the park to watch basketball and hockey matches, which were both brilliant, and we spent the rest of our time sitting out in the sun watching the action on big screens. The atmosphere when Team GB won a medal was unreal.

Prepared for any weather - thanks Sam!

But my favourite event was the women's football final at Wembley. The match was between Japan and the USA and I loved that the fans were all mixed up together, but that even though people were cheering for different teams, it was all really good-natured. We decided to support Japan and although they eventually lost the match they still walked away with a consolation prize of silver. Despite there being more than 80,000 spectators in the stadium, the Elliotts were still the last to leave and eventually the staff had to come and tell us they were locking up. We then went outside and started chatting to the ecstatic Japanese fans and I had a weird moment when it felt like I was back in Asia as a big group started taking pictures of us.
The Elliotts: Always the last to leave.
Some of our new friends.
The ten days we spent in London was also a chance for me to spend some time with my family again. Of course, within minutes of me arriving home it was as though I'd never been away (and the teasing began instantly) but it was also an opportunity to catch up on everything I've missed in the last nine months. Conversations kept beginning with "Did we tell you about..." and suddenly there was almost a year's worth of gossip to catch up on.

It really was the perfect way to end my trip. I was back home, seeing my home country at its absolute best, with the people I love the most. Which totally proves what I've always believed: It's brilliant fun travelling the world, but it's always good to come home.

I DID IT! Ending my list with a brilliant #30.

Monday, 24 September 2012

#29 Visit a place starting with each letter of the alphabet. X to Z.

X is for Xindong Lu in Beijing

I was on my way to see an Irish priest in Beijing (and no, this isn't the prelude to a bad joke) when I came across Xindong Lu. I was really happy to see it actually, as I was already late for the meeting I'd arranged to speak to Father Joseph about Kaifeng Ya Ge deaf school and I was a bit lost. As we all know, despite somehow managing to make it around the world, my sense of direction is not the best. So when the subway station exit I was supposed to get out at was closed it threw me a bit. The subways in Beijing are huge so when you come out of the wrong exit it's not like the right one is just across the street, it feels like it's in a whole other town. Add to my poor map reading skills the ridiculous heat (check out the sweaty face below) and the lack of phone to at least apologise for my lateness (were we all just more organised before mobiles?) I was starting to get a bit flustered.

So it was with a big sigh of relief that I came across Xindong Lu which meant I was on the right track and after lunch with Father Joseph and the other staff members from Bricks The Great Wall Appeal (during which he agreed to host a donation page for Kaifeng Ya Ge - shameless plug - I made my way back to the sign to snap a pic. Then it was just the small matter of finding my way back to the subway station...

Perfecting the sweaty pose!

Y is for Yashow Clothing Market in Beijing

Now, unsurprisingly for me, I've already written at length about the shopping in Beijing ( But obviously I still needed to tick off Y and in the name of completing a challenge (no other reason, honest!) I headed to Yashow market. What I love about this place, which is five floors of shoes, handbags, jackets, skirts, t-shirts and every sort of Chinese-themed souvenir you could possibly think of, is that it is just down the road from all of the fancy shops and is probably more popular than all of them put together. The other brilliant thing is that there is a beauty floor at the top of the building, so after a hard day's shopping you can always treat yourself to a foot massage.

A little bit of retail therapy, all in the name of completing a challenge. Obviously.

Z is for Zhangzizhonglu subway station in Beijing

I'm not going to lie, the alphabet challenge was probably one of the most difficult to complete of the entire trip. It sounded really easy when I added it to the list - 26 places beginning with letters of the alphabet in nine months. Not a problem. Except it is a problem when you have to do them in order and in South America you realise that getting to the next town, which begins with the letter you need, is an eight hour bus ride away and that in Burma and China they use a totally different alphabet to us and when translated some of our letters don't even exist!

So it really was cutting it fine when on my last day I set out on the subway to find Zhangzizhonglu. But it felt like a nice way to end the challenge. I really loved the subway in Beijing. It's so easy to use and is, surprisingly, often far less congested than our own lovely Underground.

It was also something fun to do on the final day of my trip. Even though it hasn't always been easy, this was a good challenge to do as it often forced me to go to places I hadn't been planning to visit. Looking back on it now, every letter has a memory attached to it: walking miles across Yangon in the blazing heat to get a photo of Kandawgi Lake; getting ridiculously excited when I found Emily Creek in New Zealand and getting lost in Dolavon in Argentina. And, as is often the way with travelling, I ended up having many adventures along the way that I hadn't been expecting.

Z is for Zhangzizhonglu - #28 completed, just in time!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

T to W (continuing with the alphabet challenge)

T is for Tai Kang Road in Shanghai's French Concession

Shanghai is definitely the city in China which most people instantly fall in love with. I wrote about it in a previous post ( so I won't bang on too much about it. But one of the areas I really like is the French Concession. It's a super expensive area of the city, filled with artists' studios and coffee shops and is full of tourists and people who can afford to spend a fiver on a cup of tea. But it really reminded me of the North Laine area of Brighton, with its quirky shops full of things which you don't really need but you really want. Coming towards the end of my trip I was starting to feel quite homesick so it was lovely to find a little corner of the city which felt like home (albeit a home where everyone speaks Chinese and stares at you quite a bit.)

You have to be chic to hang out in the French Concession.
Oh la la!
Makes me miss Brighton.

Making life easier for Mr Postman.

Who needs to feel homesick?

The other thing I love about this area is that, like most places in China, no matter how cool it is, daily life still goes on within it. I think it's something which is quite unique to certain countries. You wouldn't, for example, get people hanging out their underwear among the high rise office buildings in The City in London would you?

Presumably the home of the Chinese Bridget Jones.

U is for UTels

I think what I didn't grasp when accepting this challenge is how hard it would actually be, especially with my trip ending in China. I just thought 'oh great, China, they'll be loads of Xs', without actually taking into account that many of the other letters don't actually exist in the Chinese language. Take U for example. Impossible. Due to the fact that in Pinyin (the official system of writing Mandarin in the Roman alphabet) syllables starting with u are written as w instead. So I was just starting to resign myself to the fact that I was going to have to miss a letter when we checked into the UTel hostel in Shanghai. Now I'm not saying I'd necessarily recommend the hostel (I met a girl in tears at the front desk who had found bed bugs in her room and was besides herself when the unsympathetic staff just offered her a free washing token - I didn't sleep too well that night) but it did help me with my U dilemma.

V is for Victory

However, I was not so lucky with V. The letter V is unused in Pinyin so the only place in the whole of China I could find beginning with it was Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. Now while I am fairly committed to the cause, in order to go to Hong Kong, you need a whole separate entry on your visa to get back into mainland China. Which would have meant applying for a whole new visa (for the third time) and explaining my reasons for wanting to leave and re-enter mainland China. I wasn't too sure how well my alphabet challenge would go down with the quite strict Chinese officials and as my flight was leaving in just over a week I didn't fancy my chances.

So as I was admitting defeat and moaning about it to another traveller she pointed out that you see Vs everywhere in China -all the time. Thinking about it I suddenly realised she was right. You can't actually have your photograph taken with someone without the obligatory victory sign being made by the mad keen person standing next to you. I think it might be something they teach in the schools. So I know it's cheating a bit but give me a break, sometimes in China you've just got to take what you can get!

Well it's kind of V...
W Wangfujing in Beijing

Wanfujing Snack Street is famously where tourists in Beijing head to eat starfish, cockroaches and scorpions. But having done more than my fair share of eating bugs ( I decided to skip that option.

Fried scorpion anyone?
It's also a place where you're likely to be descended on by "art" or "English" students who'll chat away to you before inviting you to a tea shop where you'll end up being landed with the extortionately priced bill. Having heard so many warnings about the scam I was surprised at the number of travellers I'd met who'd been caught out by it. It's really sad to be so suspicious of people and one of the things I love most about travelling is that you meet so many truly kind people. Fortunately this is the case for the majority of people in China and you're far more likely to meet someone who just wants to make a Victory sign in your photo than someone who wants you to pay for an expensive cup of tea.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

So why do we travel?

I was interviewed by the lovely Lizzie from Wanderful World for her Spotlight series which features travel bloggers and their reasons for travelling. You can check it out here:

Thursday, 6 September 2012

#28 Write yourself a postcard from every country you visit on your trip (suggestion from Ruth)

I love this suggestion from my friend Ruth. When you're on the road for a long time you have the tendency to forget about the little details of each country and, as I'd predicted, I quickly banished thoughts of any of the problems or down days I'd had along the way. The other nice thing about writing a postcard is that it really makes you focus in on your overall feelings about a place. It may not surprise you to know that I tend to witter on a bit (no, really?) and mostly live by the rule of 'why say something in one word when you can say it in ten?' So having to condense down my experiences into a single postcard was a great exercise and really made me think about the country I'd just been in.

So I really enjoyed my little routine of writing a postcard to myself in the airport of the country I was leaving as I waited for my flight to my next adventure. And now, looking back at them, they provide a perfect snapshot of each country - the highs, the lows, the people I met along the way.

#29 - Thank you Ruth!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

#27 Shop till you drop in Beijing, China

Anyone who knows me knows that I love to shop. I'd been so good in the lead up to my trip, watching every penny I spent, wearing the same top on every single night out for about a year and managing to turn my eye from the lovely shoe shops as I walked by (even when the sales were on). On my way around the world I was carrying all of my possessions in a backpack I call The Beast (and not in an affectionate way). Lugging 16kg on your back for nine months is no joke so my shopping was somewhat limited for most of my trip. For every thing I bought I usually had to sacrifice something else from my backpack and as a natural hoarder this proved pretty difficult, so I usually just tried to buy small things I could tuck in to my bursting backpack somewhere or other with the justification that it "doesn't weigh very much".

So by the end of my trip, after nine months of being very, very, good I felt like I deserved a treat. And where better place to shop than China? For starters the bartering is amazing. Being a Northern girl I've always got my eye out for a bargain and China is the perfect place to haggle. My favourite place to shop in Beijing is the Silk Market. Five floors of goods ranging from handbags and shoes (my personal area of expertise) to traditional teapots and fans, where prices start off a ridiculous 90% higher than the amount you actually end up paying.

Oooh, where to start?
The first time I went to the market it felt pretty overwhelming. The shop owners are pushy to say the least. Sales techniques range from shouting at you and stamping feet to hanging on to your arm and fake crying. It's definitely not a place for the faint hearted and I met a number of other tourists who said they'd rather just go to a normal shop and pay the asking price. But where's the fun in that? It's just a case of having to hold your nerve - and run when it gets too scary! During my shopping trips I was chased through the market, manhandled in stores and even chucked out of someone's shop. But I soon got the hang of it as I realised that most purchases went something like this:

Me: How much is this?
Scary Shop owner: (Taps furiously into her calculator.)
Me: What? No way! That's far too expensive!
SSO: Ok, ok, how much you pay?
Me: (Tap 10% of her original figure into calculator.)
SSO: What? You joking lady? You talking dollars? You give me real price, not joking price!
Me: That is my real price. No joking.
SSO: Ok, ok, for you discount. Normal tourist price is this but I like you. I give you special price. For friend. (Taps an ever-so-slightly lower price into calculator.)
Me: No, no, still too much. (Tap an ever-so-slightly higher price into calculator.)
SSO: (Hanging on to my arm/blocking doorway/generally not allowing me to leave the shop.) You give me a little bit higher, a little bit more! (Taps again.)
Me: This is my final price. (Taps again.)
SSO: No. Cannot do lady!
Me: Ok, thank you. (Go to leave, feigning indifference, even though it's a really, really, pretty bag.)
SSO: Ok. (Feigning indifference, even though she really, really, wants my money.)

[Two minutes later, as I'm walking away]

SSO: Ok, lady! Lady, your price ok!

Another day, another shopping trip.
The only problem with leaving all of your shopping until the last week of your trip is that you get lulled into a false sense of security. Phrases like: "I'm sure I'll fit it all in somewhere" and "It'll be so much more expensive at home" became commonplace and as I added another purchase to the growing pile of bags I didn't really properly think about how on earth I was going to a) Pack it all and b) Carry it all home. Which is how I ended up in this situation the night before I left China:

Hmm...I'm sure this will all fit in somewhere.
But where there's a will there's a way and it may have almost broken my back but I somehow managed to get it all back home. Now just to find somewhere to put it...

#27 - Definitely my easiest challenge to date!