Saturday 21 February 2015

Return to China

It is, it must be said, a slightly surreal moment when you realise you are sat in a railway waiting room in Nanning, a medium sized city in southern China, waiting for a sleeper train that makes you wonder if you’ve slipped through a time portal to the 1960s to whisk you through gorgeous Asian countryside (gentle rolling hills, rice fields and a big open sky) to Hanoi, and almost everyone in the room is staring at you — the elderly gentleman in the seat opposite had fallen asleep and the young girl accompanying her parents was too busy trying to see if my camera bag was huggable to spare any attention for me. 

China is a wonderful country to travel in. Sure, it’s got its share of annoyances: everyone smoking everywhere, a complete lack of manners in most people, a real risk of cracking a tooth on a piece of bone you were not expecting. But these pale in comparison to the friendly and curious nature of the population, how safe it almost always is, how ridiculously cheap everything is, and how this comfortable and convenient country still throws in a bit of dirt and grime and character that makes it so interesting. I love at times how lax rules can be: buying armloads of fireworks on the street, being allowed to walk on the streets to dinner in a restaurant while sharing a beer with friends to name a couple, while still having a reliable police force and almost zero serious crime in the tourist areas. Most of all, I love that people here don’t speak English, because it forces me to practise my Mandarin, and the touts leave me alone.

Returning to Hong Kong after 10 months away was a lot of fun. It’s nice to remember streets and directions and feel less like a tourist, though it can take away the feeling of ‘discovery’ that I love so much. I once again returned to the Check Inn, which is in a great location and has friendly and helpful staff who recommended a great Char Sui place across the street. I was also lucky enough to meet up with some old friends, including my Chinese teacher from Bristol, May Kay, and her husband. The three of us went to eat some great Dim Sum (and isn’t it convenient having a tame local to help you order?) and enjoy a walk among the tiny back alleys and large boulevards that make up the Central district of Hong Kong Island.

And speaking of tame locals, the wonderful Wada girls managed to book me a bus ticket from Shenzhen up to Guilin, a process which would have been next to impossible on my own due to it being so close to Chinese New Year. It’s much easier to get to Shenzhen than I had thought, just use the subway system in Hong Kong to reach either of the two northern checkpoints (I went to Lo Wu), jump out of the train and head through Immigration. Though the words feel odd to say, it’s actually convenient to be a foreigner at Immigration here, as you are part of a very small percentage of the total crowd and will have a couple of lines to yourself. On the far side of customs lies the Shenzhen subway system, and off you go. Just remember that as soon as you pass that border, no one will speak a word of English.

I can only assume the drivers of the night bus had a penguin on board they were trying to make feel at home, as the air-con was cranked up past ‘freezing’ to ‘arctic’ mode. The bed was designed for a hobbit, and the blanket provided was the type that screams ‘bacterial infection’. I wondered if there was a reason it was a queasy yellow colour, like the colour of vomit. Wonderful. Learn from my mistake! Around New Years, it’s best to book the train several weeks in advance and enjoy a comfortable 3 hour ride.

Oh, and on another note. If you plan to visit Hong Kong before China, save yourself the pain of applying for a visa in the UK. I showed up at an agency in the China Commercial Building, dropped off my passport with a £60 fee (about the same as at home) and was told to pick it up the next day. No forms, no print outs, no hotel booking. Swift and simple, I’m never going to do it any other way from now on if I can possibly avoid it.

New Years Eve (the Chinese version) is a lot of fun. Back at Wada, a group of us pitched in together and spent £50 on fireworks. For this, we managed to buy approximately 30 kilograms of high quality explosives. We’re not talking backyard bangs here, we’re talking River Thames level booms. Along with everyone else, at the stroke of 12 we made as much light and noise as possible, and plunged the city into a perpetual smoke that still hadn’t cleared by sunrise.

And then after a brief jaunt through the Rice Terraces nearby Guilin, themselves shrouded in a mist (from the time of year rather than gunpowder however) though still impressive and worth the trip, it was time to jump on the train and head south to Vietnam.

Thanks for reading!


Saturday 14 February 2015

Return to the USA

Had you asked me a month ago if I had any intentions of ever settling in the USA, my answer would have been an annoying scoff and a resounding rejection of the idea. But that was before I went back. It’s a shock, returning to a place that resonates within me as one of the happiest periods of my childhood. The wide streets, the big supermarkets, the sense of hope and achievement that seems to permeate through everyone on the street. I had forgotten just how enjoyable and inspiring that is.

I flew Spirit airlines to Chicago, and they have the impressive distinction of making EasyJet seem generous with what’s included. I mean, seriously, the seats don’t even recline. Then again, who else will fly you from Colombia to Chicago without leaving you weeping at your credit card bill? So, I sucked it up and landed without incident at Fort Lauderdale in Florida ready for immigration. It took almost an hour to reach the desk, and I was prepared for a barrage of questions and a miserable and/or hostile experience as I headed up to the officer and handed over my arrival card and passport.

“Good evening, you’re coming from…” he started, looking down at the paper where I had managed to squeeze 8 country names into the space provided. “…woah, everywhere! Sweet!”

I blinked a couple of times and nodded a dumbfounded assent as he started to flick through my passport.

“That’s awesome! Are you travelling? Wow, look at all these stamps!”

Chuffed but pleased, I gave a brief overview of my trip so far and where I was heading next. Cheerfully, he offered to squeeze my American entrance stamp next to the Chinese ones from last year, insisting I clearly needed the space in the later pages for my future adventures. It was the first time any immigration officer has been so thoughtful and welcoming, and I felt very guilty about how critical of them I’ve been in the past.

Then I hit customs.

Not going to lie, they seem to have been encouraged to make you feel uncomfortable. The poor woman next to me was attacked as soon as she arrived by her officer, him demanding why she seemed so nervous. My guy quizzed me for a couple of minutes before casually flicking my passport back at me with a look of disdain. Still, I felt better after experiencing the American kindness and friendliness towards strangers (another aspect of life I had unknowingly missed and is sadly lacking in the UK) when a friendly local guided me to the train in Chicago and saved me at least $50 in taxi fair and provided friendly conversation en route.

After a brief weekend freezing in Chicago, made infinitely better by meeting up with Sharareh again, it was onto a Megabus down to St Louis. There, for reasons intentionally left blank from this blog, I ended up in hospital. I swear I should rename this blog to the hospital tour of the world, for my body seems intent on insisting I visit a hospital on every continent. While there, I was treated to one of the less impressive sides of American life: pure ignorance. They were checking for Ebola symptoms as I walked in, and the girl on the desk asked me if I’d been out of the country in the past 21 days.

“Yes, in the past 3 weeks I’ve been in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.”

A blank look manifested itself, and she started to peer at the Ebola warning poster on the desk in front of me, to her upside down.

“Hmm, are those on the list…?”

“They’re not in West Africa”

“Oh, that’s good. I’m a Missouri girl you know?”

No, not really. 

I was a bit surprised, she was a trained nurse and clearly not stupid. Still, she made up for the lack of geographical knowledge by being professional, friendly and helpful. And let me put this into writing now: there is nothing like a 9 hour wait in an American hospital to renew your faith in the NHS. I don’t care what you say, I have never waited more than 3 hours to be seen in the UK, no matter how trivial the injury, and never bothered with concerns of how to pay.

Then again, on the contrary, I would like to say on record that the nurses, doctors and medical students at the Barnes-Jewish hospital in St Louis were some of the friendliest, most professional and kind medical staff I have ever had the pleasure of being treated by.

St Louis life is wonderful. The supermarkets are well stocked, the Arch stands proudly as the Gateway to the West, gleaming in the sunshine, it snows romantically one day and warms you with crisp clear days the next, and it has giant sports bars filled with infectiously excited and boisterous fans. What more could you want?

God I miss North America, and now if you ask me if I could move back? I’d ask where to sign.

Tuesday 27 January 2015

Final days in South America

Cartagena was a shock to the system after so long since sun. True, Cali was hot, but Cartagena was HOT. My skin started to sizzle as I left the plane, and I was pleased to see that the airport had done up the debarkation area in a sort of tropical style, with lots of wooden panels and green plants.

I spent my first night at the Cartagena Beach Hostel, which in reality is just the Playa Club hotel stuffing 5 single beds into a standard room. While a nice idea, the lack of lockers, hot water or a common area that wasn't packed with OAPs and families detracted from it somewhat. It was also at the far end of the new part of town, and the main thing I had come to see was the beautiful old town: a 40 minute walk in 34 degrees heat? I think not. I moved to Casa Nativa the next day, run by a pleasant woman who spoke excellent English, and conveniently located in the San Diego district of the old town.

The next day I decided I was going to go and spend a night on Playa Blanca, the famed beach to the north east of the city. It’s simple enough to get there: show up at the market docks at around 9am and jump on a boat heading that way. Most of these are loaded up with all the goods they cannot get at the beach (i.e: everything), and passengers are a bit of an afterthought. Eventually though, after waiting for a couple of hours, we pushed off from the dock and set off across the bay.

Make sure you bring suncream. Seriously. And money. On the beach, you can buy alcohol, water, some food and that’s really about it. I, stupidly, had neglected to rebuy suncream following my flight up from Cali (incredibly, flights through the country are at times cheaper than the buses, and obviously take a fraction of the time) and so wandered fruitlessly up and down the beach looking for a shop that sold some before overhearing a group of people speaking English and begged for them to let me use their suncream before I turned into a giant tomato. They were Canadian, so of course they said yes.

And after that, it was sipping Pina Colada’s out of freshly cut Pineapples on the beach, and relaxing in the sun. I had a delicious Red Snapper for dinner, and eventually fell asleep in my hammock on the beach for the night. It’s definitely worth a visit. A note though: there is no wifi there, so don't expect to use Facebook!

The Cartagena old town is postcard perfect at every turn, and incredibly safe. It’s surprising, when you ask people to picture Colombia, it’s Escobar, drug running and homicide that springs to mind. But really, this is a first world country, full of beautiful people, beautiful sights (both natural and man made) and beautiful food (well, it’s really good food, but I was trying to keep up with the theme there).

Sadly, I was struck down with a bout of food poisoning the day I arrived in Bogota, but I can still highly recommend the Andres D.C. restaurant, which is (if I counted correctly) 6 floors full of cheerful and charming waiters and waitresses, some of the best steak I've had outside of Argentina and some great music. Downside? Like most places in Bogota, it’s almost as expensive at home, but the food is much much better.

And so now, it’s onwards to the Northern part of America, before Hong Kong in a week or so!

Thursday 15 January 2015


My first impression of Colombia was the small border town of Ipiales. Everything you could possibly dislike in a town, squished together decrepit buildings, a distinct lack of any decent restaurants, and a sprinkling of run down hotels with rude staff. Still, the Las Lajas church I mentioned in my previous post does offer a small redeeming quality.

So it was with a pessimistic heart we rode into Cali, the third largest city in Colombia and one that the Lonely Planet is quietly disparaging about. True, while it lacks the attractions that most travellers seek out: museums, public attractions etc, it welcomes you in with open arms and propels you out into a mad sea of salsa, great restaurants and an unbelievably welcoming and friendly populace. This is a city that thrives on the pulsing beat of salsa, and the people practically glide their way down the street, propelled on the rhythm of whatever song is in their head.

On the first day, myself, still accompanied by the three I had crossed the border with, clambered bleary eyed from our night bus from Ipiales. The journey is 12 hours, and while even 18 months ago this would have been a foolhardy journey to do overnight, today the route is patrolled heavily by military and transport police (we were searched in the middle of the night by a shotgun-armed man) and the trip was surprisingly pleasant, with far-reclining seats and snacks handed out after we left. The bus company was called Transipiales, and tickets at time of writing were between 60 and 75 thousand Pesos (about £20). Oddly for a Monday, everything appeared to be closed, until we were told that it was a national holiday (the last day of Christmas, which gets shunted to the following Monday from last Tuesday).

I checked into the Caelum hostel, a converted house on the edge of the busy section of the city, and run by a group of charming and lovely people. At time of writing, due to an issue with gas from the city, there were no hot showers. It’s my only complaint, though with the heat of Cali it wasn’t too onerous an issue, especially at about 10am. It’s surprising just how extreme a 6 hour bus drive made to the temperature, in Ipiales it was 8 degrees and I was shivering, while here it’s pushing 30.

One of my companions had heard of a Colombian game, located in a workers club on the far side of the city, and encouraged us all to pile into a taxi and head on over. When we arrived, the entrance looked like the entrance to a small house, but after crossing the threshold, we found a group of amazing people happy to serve us the local Colombian food specialities (half of it was on the house), provide us with ice cold beer and show us how to play their game, called Tejo. The idea is simple enough: take a stone, throw it about 25 feet into a plate of mud and try and get as close to the centre as possible. The catch is that in the centre of the plate lies a metal ring, about 15cm in diameter, where four paper arrows are placed. Inside these arrows is, wait for it, gunpowder. So, if you hit one of those, an almighty bang fills the room, everyone gives a cheer, and you get a point. Fantastic game.

We reluctantly, and somewhat drunkenly (the only thing to do in that heat is drink something ice cold, and you can guess how many other beverages they served), stumbled away from the club a few hours later and sobered up in preparation to head out for an evening of salsa. My god. The only way I can describe Colombian dance clubs is if you got a group of supermodels, gave them the skill of the professionals from Strictly Come Dancing, had Luis Vuitton dress each of them, and pushed them into a hall with a bar at one end and a dozen speakers blaring Salsa music, you would be close. We gringos sat on the edge, jaws agape as they span, twisted and dipped their way around the room. And then, jaw-droppingly friendly bunch that they are, they invited us to dance with them. Apparently they call it a Culture Exchange evening, and it’s every Monday. I so truly humiliated myself I checked myself into Salsa lessons for the next day. My muscles still haven’t recovered.

So, Colombia: leave your preconceptions at the border, because this place is truly incredible; Argentina is in serious danger of being knocked off the top spot of my favourite South American country. And hell, it’s only my fourth day in the country. Wow.

My apologies for the lack of photos, I have managed to break my power converter and thus cannot charge my laptop until I find a new one, which is easier said than done in this part of the world!



Monday 12 January 2015

Banos, and some more time in Quito

After so many days spent in cities and towns, I was pleased to jump into a van with a dozen others and make the 2 hour journey to Secret Garden Cotopaxi; based in the valley between 5 or 6 volcanos, all dormant except Cotopaxi, who is now overdue for a nice big explosion. Slight catch is that the most telltale sign: an ominous bulge, cannot be seen due to the giant glacier that covers the top of it. When she blows, it very well could be a complete surprise.

Despite this, I massively recommend spending at least a couple of days here if you're passing through Ecuador. There is no internet apart from emergencies, all food is included, and you can pass your time with energetic walks to waterfalls or up volcanos, or instead relax in the hammocks outside, swinging slightly in the light breeze and drinking a cup of tea as you while away the day. Very enjoyable.

Now accompanied by three others, two English girls and an American guy, we split the cost of a taxi to drive us down the PanAmerican highway (lovingly referred to hereafter as the PanAm) through Ecuador to BaƱos, with a brief detour through the Quilotoa loop. The loop is a 32 KM hike around the lip of an extinct volcano, now a giant lake that fills up the crater. We didn't have time or energy to hike the entire loop, but instead walked down to the lakeside and back up again; an energetic 90 minute hike past donkeys and dogs that conveyed or followed the tourists that didn't want to do it themselves. If you enjoy excellent views, beautiful lakes and a good walk, then I highly recommend this one too.

From here, after a brief detour back through Quito (which I used as an opportunity to return to Zao, a pan-asian restaurant up in the New Town, that does fantastic Sushi and a really good Vietnamese soup - worth it if you like your Asian food), myself and a different three people started our long journey up to the Colombian border. Getting here is not a simple, or even safe, prospect. While much better than it was a couple of years ago, we still needed to take the first bus up to Tulcan, the border town on the Ecuadorian side. Bouncing through the hills, it takes about 5 hours from Quito, and passes through Otavalo, the largest open air market in South America.

Change money on the Ecuador side, either here at the bus station, or at the border. The rate is a little better than in Colombia, though as always, haggling is a must. I kept a few emergency dollars in reserve in case they were needed, and then we headed for the border by taxi. You can't walk effectively, it's about 8KM away from the bus terminal through rolling hills, so grab a few other gringos who will no doubt be loitering around and head to the border. Make sure you have not lost your Andean card! This is the small piece of (admittedly easily loseable) paper you were given at entrance to Ecuador. After stamping out, it's a short walk across the bridge to the Colombian side, where you get stamped in after answering the short questionnaire. Every other border in South America has usually been a brief look at me, a mumbled word or two and then a stamp, but Colombia wanted some extra info, including when and how I was leaving, what I did for a living, etc. Nothing too onerous however.

And then, into another taxi into Ipiales. This small border city lacks much to do except for the breathtaking Las Lajas church that spans a gorge to the north of the city. Built in a beautiful neo-gothic style, it's worth spending a couple of hours to swing by and check it out.

While even 18 months ago, it was highly discouraged to get a night bus from Ipiales, these days it's safe enough, and preferable to spending 12 hours bouncing through the daytime to Cali, the next city north. The buses are cheap and comfortable enough to sleep in, but if you prefer to wait until the next day to proceed, there are a handful of cheap hotels in Ipiales to spend the night. I can't recommend Hotel Belmont(e), which Lonely Planet does, because the staff are rude and dishonest. If I was to repeat the journey, I would just have seen the church and jumped on the first night bus I could. Make sure you grab your bus tickets early though, as the queues after 6PM were astonishingly long.

And now, Colombia!

Thursday 1 January 2015

Quito, and a happy new year!

The original plan was to spend a night in Quito, then head onwards to Colombia. Due to how long it took me to get to here, and with a flight from Nicaragua slated to leave on January 24th, Ecuador was unfortunately on the chopping block. While at times it can be very relaxing not to plan things ahead, over the past couple of weeks it really has come back to bite me, as I realised with a shock that in order to get to Colombia, I had the choice between a $550 plane journey or a $550 boat journey that would take a week, thus eating up my time even more. The three companies that fly from Colombia to Panama City have gotten together and agreed to have no competition, so they can collectively rise prices to optimal cockbag levels. It is cheaper for me to fly from Bogota to Rome than it is to fly to Panama City.

Luckily I was saved by my airline allowing me to change my ticket for $120 to leave from Bogota instead of Managua, so I now have more time to enjoy Ecuador and Colombia, and save money. I'll have to come back in a few years and spend time sailing around the Caribbean and Central America, which doesn't sound so bad.

Quito is spread north/south in a valley between enormous mountain ranges, and I've settled myself into the very pleasant Secret Garden Quito, which commands a breathtaking view out over the old town. Run by an Australian and his wife, they offer breakfast and dinner for decent prices, and unlimited Ecuadorian coffee, and really, that alone would be worth it for me. I'm such a coffee addict.

The old town was rightly so named the second ever UNESCO World Heritage site, on the same day as Krakow, and is peppered with beautiful churches and colonial buildings, but with a handful of chaotic driving and hectic Ecuadorian life. To the north of the old town lies 'gringoland', or the new town, where the high rises and the international restaurants are plentiful.

If you're looking for things to do, there is a free walking tour that leaves every day at 10:30 AM from Community Hostel in the New Town - ask for Ovi. The church pictured above is amazing to clamber around; they let you in and you're free to roam wherever you like, including across rickety wooden bridges and up ladders to reach the top of the tower. I was also lucky enough to stumble across a street party of some kind out of a side entrance:

I hope everyone had a wonderful New Years celebration, I'm enjoying the gorgeous sunsets reflecting off the clouds that keep floating over the mountains here, illuminating the El Panecillo statue on the hill (the Virgin of Quito). Tomorrow it's off to Cotopaxi to see a volcano!


Monday 29 December 2014

Don't commit to writing a blog when you lack discipline

The Christmas period for me has been a haze of alcohol fuelled parties, and I've come a long way north since I last wrote. I'll do my best to summarise.

From Cusco (or Cuzco, depending on whom you ask), every man and his dog is selling a tour to the nearby Inca city of Machu Picchu. Luckily for me however, the local council or perhaps the government runs a small unbiased tourist information centre just off of Plaza de la Armas where knowledgeable and friendly people will happily give you all of your options.

I decided to do it myself. Most tours start at $130 for a two day, one night tour, which allows you a few hours to stroll around the site before having to head back towards Cusco. And that was after bartering; I saw several for over the $200 mark, and if you wanted to take the train instead of the bus, the price rose over $500. It was simple enough to pick up one way ticket to Hidro Electrico, the final of the stopping off points along the road to Aguas Calliente. There isn't actually a road into the village; only a train line that runs up the main street with a bellow every morning at 7am (good luck sleeping through that). So, the buses trundle through the countryside until they meander along the sides of the cliffs that hug the valley edge, and drop you off at the hydroelectric plant. From here, it’s walking time.

A one way ticket cost me 40 solas, or about £10. As an added bonus, the rest of the people in the bus were in a fully paid for tour, so the bus driver gave me a free lunch too without realising. After lunch, I took a wander through the tiny village that we had stopped in (I believe it was called Santa Teresa), and was enjoying the sunshine when a loud bang, coupled with a screeching of brakes erupted over my left shoulder. I whirled to see a girl, no older than 6, flying across the road and a pale taxi driver throwing open his door as the parents started screaming and running from their perch in front of their shop. I hoisted my bag onto my bag and started towards her, calling for them to not move the girl, but before I had made it three steps the father had bundled her into his arms, opened the door to the taxi and yelled at him to drive. I assume to hospital. I hope she’s ok.

Since arriving in Aguas Calliente (the name means hot water, and is the Spanish name for the town, taken for the hot springs nearby, the Inca name is Machupicchu - all one word - or Machu Picchu Pueblo. Good luck trying to book a hotel) I've been reading about how much damage the spread of the town, and the influx of tourists, is doing to Machu Picchu. I sincerely hope that more curbs are placed on it soon, as it’s a gorgeous location, and of course an almost incomparable historical wonder, and to see it vanish is a disservice to the generations to come.

Well, Machu Picchu, words can do it no justice. I just highly recommend a (soon) visit, and I'll leave these here:

And from here, it was almost Christmas, so after a brief detour back through Cuzco, and a massage to ease my aching limbs (the masseuse was nothing short of horrified with the state of my shoulders, and asked if I was a builder by trade) it was onwards to Lima for parties, sushi and exploring the city. Honestly though, while it was pleasant enough, there wasn't a huge amount to report on.

All the buses were full, so it was onto the most ancient plane I've ever been on, with physical plastic push buttons for the lights above the seats, to fly upwards to Piura, and then a pleasant enough journey to Mancora for Christmas on the beach.

And since then, I've crossed the border into Ecuador, had a mild panic attack over the state of my finances, cancelled my plans to enter central America, and am now chilling out in Quito over New Years. Soon onwards into Colombia!

Pictures are going up onto Facebook if you have it.