Summer holidays are here at last! This semester has been really long – 17 weeks to be exact – and although many things about it have been great this holiday couldn’t have come soon enough.
I have epic adventures planned for this summer, most of which kind of ended up happening rather than being thought of months in advance as most people do! My brief itinerary is: UK; Naples, Italy; Paris, France; Nashville, USA; Guatemala; Honduras; Nicaragua; San Francisco, USA; Hawaii, USA; Seoul, South Korea, back to Shenzhen, China.
My first port of call was, of course, back to the UK to see family and friends, which was really lovely. I also got to show A around, who was visiting on her way back to the States from Kazakhstan, and this meant we did a couple of the touristy things that sunny Milton Keynes is famous for: Willen Lake and the Peace Pagoda, Central MK Shopping Centre, and (of course) the Concrete Cows.
If we’d had more time I would have shown her Newport Pagnell town (where I grew up) with the oldest working iron bridge in the world, and Bletchley Park, home of the enigma code breakers of World War 2.
I also had a lovely family meal (so much food!) plus a great catch up with friends I hadn’t seen for months, or in some cases years. This was followed by a visit to London to take A to the airport and my annual meet up with my great friend Sam and her little one. I then spent an afternoon with my parents visiting Stoke Bruerne, eating lots more lovely food (Yorkshire puddings with cheesy mash, veggie sausages, broccoli, carrots and gravy!), going for a short walk along the canal and watching two barges go through the locks.
This all-too-short visit home ended with going to stay at my sister’s house ready for the next part of my summer adventures: Naples, Italy.
Yes, you read right. Otherwise known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK, North Korea is one of those places that no-one ever seems to visit. So when I saw a tour there during the Chinese New Year holiday I jumped at the chance!
Dandong, China, is the border town with North Korea. I arrived around 8.30pm on Monday 4th February, checked in and met my roommate for the next week, Amaia. Randomly there was a knock at our hotel room around 9.30pm; upon opening the door we were given a portion of dumplings!
The adventure began early the next morning when we congregated in the hotel lobby to meet our Chinese guide Sabrina and the other 10 people on the tour. After collecting our North Korean visas and being given some last bits of essential information we went to the train station (handily, just next door to the hotel) to catch the 10am train from Dandong to Pyongyang. Of course, we had to go through customs on the Chinese side before we were allowed into the waiting area for the train. We were all surprised how busy it was.
Once we were all settled on the train (we were in a Chinese ‘hard sleeper’ carriage, which means there’s 3 bunks above each other in each section) it only took a few minutes before we were crossing the river over the Friendship Bridge and entering North Korea. We then stopped at Sinuiju for about two hours for customs entering DPRK. All our passports and North Korean visas were collected, our luggage was looked through and our electrical items were made a note of. All in all, it wasn’t a lot more of a check than getting the train into Mongolia from China, which I did about 3 years ago.
After we’d successfully made it through customs we were in North Korea proper. The train journey from Dandong to Pyongyang took around 8 and a half hours, including the two hour stop in Sinuiju. It was mostly spent chatting to the other people on the tour, looking at the passing scenery, and snoozing. One thing that made the whole trip extra special was the company – everyone on the tour got on really well, whether they had known each other beforehand or not.
We were captivated by the scenery as we travelled through the countryside, seeing expanses of farmland, barren with the winter temperatures, monuments and colourful murals dotted amongst rural villages and empty roads, and people walking or cycling as they went about their daily lives. Around 6:45pm DPRK time (an hour ahead of China) we arrived in Pyongyang where we were greeted by our tour guide Kim, met our other guide Pak, our cameraman Kim Su and our driver An.
It was dark by the time we arrived in Pyongyang, so we didn’t see much of the city as we were driven to the hotel that was to be our home during our stay in Pyongyang: Yanggakdo International Hotel. We were taken straight to the revolving restaurant on the 47th floor of the hotel for our first North Korean meal – seafood hotpot with shredded cabbage salad followed by grilled fish and rice and ending with breaded pork cutlets (which I didn’t eat as I’m vegetarian) and home-made fries.
A long day of travelling and excitement had left everyone on the tour tired and ready for a good night’s sleep after dinner and a bit of exploring . The rooms in the ‘special class’ hotel (equivalent to 5 star) were comfortable and spacious, and the beds were much softer than most Chinese hotel beds! There were also all the usual facilities in the hotel – a shop, three restaurants, a swimming pool, pool tables and a casino. Myself, Amaia, Christina, Hossam and Thomas decided to check out the casino after dinner. There was a long row of fruit machines along the corridor, more round the corner, and in the main room were several baccarat tables with a few Chinese players and two tables with a dice game a little like roulette. Thomas had a bit of a gamble on the dice game while we all watched; it was fun! We also checked out the hotel shop, buying essential supplies like drinks and chocolate. This came to the grand total of 245 North Korean Won (17RMB or £1.95), which we had to pay in either RMB, US dollars or Euros as foreigners are not allowed to have North Korean currency.
The morning of our first full day in DPRK was spent on our minibus driving to Masikryong Ski Resort through dramatic mountainous countryside speckled with ice and snow. On the way we stopped at the Mausoleum of King Tong Myong where we were told about the 5000 year long history of Korea by a lecturer.
We left the mausoleum around 9.20am; about halfway through our journey we stopped for a rest break where there was a frozen lake.
We eventually arrived at Masikryong Ski Resort around 1pm, where we checked in and went straight for lunch: pickled radish, polenta pancake, shredded potato (the meat-eaters had grilled fish), tempura daisy herb leaves (pork chops for the others), kimchi and tofu with red pepper sauce. Each dish was brought out one at a time and it was all really tasty (although the kimchi was a bit too spicy for me!).
After lunch most of our group went skiing whilst Christina and I decided to get the cable car to the top of the mountain. The cameraman decided to join us and film us in the gondola – slightly awkward in such a small space! At the top of the mountain we bumped into a few of the lads from our group who were setting off to ski downhill; the cameraman then decided to go and film them – probably because skiing was much more interesting than watching us drink tea and coffee in the café at the top!
Once we returned to the base of the ski slope we bumped into Hossam and Jane going on a ride on snowmobiles up the mountain, and Kim on skis for the first time. Myself and Christina decided to check out the spa facilities and Frances, who had had a go at skiing with the others but had had enough by then, decided to join us to get out of the cold. The spa was in the basement level of the hotel, and oddly we had to walk through the changing rooms and through the swimming pool to get to the massage room, where the masseuses kicked out the Chinese man who was in there so we could have the room to ourselves! We had a foot massage which was lovely and relaxing, then headed back to our rooms for a bit until we all met up for dinner.
Dinner followed a similar pattern to the previous meals – several small dishes brought out individually: potato pancake and shredded vegetables, kimchi, tempura vegetables (fish for the others), sautéed cabbage and other veg (or beef stir fry), spicy seaweed soup and rice with peas. We then all asked for ice cream (which we had to pay extra for) and had a bit of an interesting time trying to figure out the flavours available – first of all we were told pink or yellow then that there was only yellow or coffee. I of course went for the yellow ice cream which turned out to be pineapple flavour and delicious.
After dinner Amaia, Christina, Hossam and I decided to look for the karaoke in the hotel basement level. We found a room labelled ‘Dance Hall’ which was empty apart from a small stage with a drum kit, guitar and bass guitar on it, a bar opposite and one member of staff. She proceeded to turn on the disco lights and hand us a book of available songs for karaoke, so we took that as a sign that we were there to start the singing!
We were really surprised at all the Western songs that were available to sing; such classics as Bohemian Rhapsody, Like A Virgin, Wind of Change, I Will Survive and Breathless to name a few. After a while JP came and joined Hossam to serenade us with House of the Rising Sun, followed by Thomas, Alexander, Daniel and Marius. Christina finally persuaded the four lads to sing a rousing rendition of 99 Red Balloons in German (as they’re all German!). Our two tour guides Kim and Pak came and joined us for a while and we cheered them on to sing too. They treated us to a traditional Korean folk song followed by the well known ballad My Heart Will Go On, which we all joined in with.
One of the best parts of the evening was during a lull in the singing. A demo Korean song came on the TVs and JP had a go at singing along with it (and a very good effort he made too!). When the second Korean song came on the bar lady changed it to a new Korean song, stood up in front of us and performed amazingly. She graced us with two more Korean songs after that as most of us felt we couldn’t follow an act that good! It was a wonderful end to a brilliant first day in North Korea.
The main reason my sister and I chose to stay in Naples for our holiday this year was so we could visit Pompeii. We researched lots of different options and in the end decided on a full day tour which consisted of a guided tour of Pompeii in the morning, lunch and wine tasting at a vineyard on the slopes of Vesuvius and climbing to the top of the volcano in the afternoon. It was on the expensive side (around £256 for 2 people) but well worth it, and something I would thoroughly recommend if you have the time and budget.Once we’d made our way to the pick-up point by the train station, we had a short coach ride to Pompeii for a three-hour guided tour. Our guide was very knowledgeable and made sure that our group had time to look around for ourselves as well as showing and telling us about different areas. The main thing that struck me about Pompeii was the sheer size of the place. I knew it had been a town, but I hadn’t realised it had been a sizeable city of several thousand people before Vesuvius had decimated it in 79AD. Two thirds of it have been excavated, giving a huge area that can be explored. It’s absolutely amazing. If you haven’t been there, go!At the end of our guided tour of Pompeii we had a few minutes to buy a drink and souvenirs. My sister and I got matching bracelets made of Vesuvius rock and Murano glass beads, as well as a lemon granita as it was really hot. Our group headed back to the coach and then to the vineyard on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius where we would have our lunch.The vineyard was gorgeous. We were given a short tour which included an explanation of how they use roses at the end of each row of vines to check for diseases instead of using pesticides. Lunch was held in an open room which looked out towards Vesuvius’ peak.Along with lunch we got to try six different wines produced at the vineyard. It was a really great way to do wine tasting, as it really made a difference and gave you an idea of the kinds of dishes different wines would go with. We had a sparkling rosé, a still rosé, a white, two reds and a dessert wine, all of which were delicious and went perfectly with the simple yet scrumptious food. Of course, I preferred the reds, and if I hadn’t been about to go travelling for a few weeks I may have bought some to take back with me! My sister bought one of the rooster jugs as it was really cool – the water poured out of its beak!Instead of the usual post-lunch nap, our afternoon was going to be spent walking off lunch by going to the top of Mount Vesuvius. The hike up took about 45 minutes and was quite steep most of the way, but the views were absolutely worth it. We had enough time at the top to stop for a quick cold drink, get a good look into the crater and walk most of the way around the rim. There were also souvenirs in a small kiosk, which my sister took full advantage of!After we’d admired the view sufficiently, we made our way back down the volcano, found our coach and headed back to Naples for dinner and some chill out time before an early night. It was an exhausting but awesome day, and definitely one to tick off the bucket list.The next day we visited Herculaneum or Ercolano, as it is in Italian. This was another town which was devastated by the same eruption of Vesuvius as destroyed Pompeii; however, this one was covered with lava rather than ash. This meant that many more buildings were preserved in a much better condition than those in Pompeii.When we first entered the site we were a little underwhelmed by the size of it having just been to the city of Pompeii. Once we started looking around though, we discovered just how well-preserved it was. Many buildings still had roofs, mosaics on the floors and paint on the walls. It took us nearly three hours to look at the most significant buildings and it was fascinating to see the detail in the mosaics and wall decorations.If you visit Pompeii, ensure you make time for a visit to Herculaneum as well.As a side note, there are two train stations in Ercolano and the site of Herculaneum is about a fifteen minute walk from either one, pretty much in the middle of the town. Don’t let a taxi driver talk you into believing it’s 6km away and charging you €10 to take you there via a very scenic route as we did!
As we’d had such a hectic day on Saturday with our day trip to Rome, my sister and I decided to have more of a chilled out day on Sunday.After breakfast we walked down to the seafront where we saw one of Napoli’s castles. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to go inside, but it was impressive nonetheless.
We walked along towards the harbour and stopped in a small park for a short rest in the shade and to work out where we were going next. We wanted to see the Piazza del Plebiscito, but due to construction work the stairs up to it were closed.
This meant we had to walk down to the seafront, where we were greeted with a stunning view of Naples Bay and Vesuvius opposite. We decided to stop here and try the granita we had been seeing everywhere – a little like slushies but made with actual fruit juice and so much more delicious. It was really lovely just sitting and relaxing by the bay.
We then walked up to the Piazza del Plebiscito – a huge open square with the Palazzo Reale di Napoli (Royal Palace of Naples) on one side and the Basilica Reale Pontificia San Francesco da Paola facing it.
After admiring the Piazza, we walked down Santa Lucia street and camber across a funky-looking cocktail bar called Misture. Of course, being on holiday it would have been rude not to stop and see what they had to offer! We weren’t disappointed. The cocktail menu was a deck of cards with a different cocktail on each card as well as a few cards explaining the history of Naples. When we finely decided which cocktails to try, they arrived along with delicious nibbles to snack on.
Although the cocktails and nibbles were delicious, we thought it might be an idea to have some proper food for dinner, so we asked the barman for ideas. He recommended a restaurant called Ciru next to the other castle and the harbour. I have to say, the salad I had was decidedly underwhelming, however the views were gorgeous.
Finally, we got a taxi back to our B&B and went to bed. Our nice relaxing day had ended up with us walking over 13,000 steps or 8.4km (5.25 miles)! Still, it was a really lovely day.
When we were organising our holiday to Naples, my sister Sarah and I decided to do a day trip to Rome. We booked as much as we could in advance – train tickets, guided tour of the Vatican, entrance to the Colosseum and Roman Forum – and we were very glad that we did. It meant we skipped most of the queues and saved us a lot of time which we then spent doing other, more exciting things.
We had an action packed, tiring and brilliant day. Starting off with possibly the best train service ever on the train from Naples to Rome at 8am, we got free soft drinks and snacks plus a nearly empty carriage meant we could both sit facing forward (we both get motion sickness and can’t deal with travelling backwards). After a bit of a search through Roma Termini train station we eventually found tourist information, got a map, found out where everything was we wanted to see and how to get there, and got a metro ticket for the day.
Our first stop was the Spanish Steps to followed by a short walk to the Trevi Fountain. Lots of people of course, but definitely worth seeing. I had forgotten how big the Trevi Fountain is, and my sister was very impressed by it.
From here we headed back towards the metro and stopped at a small cafe to share a four cheese pizza for an early lunch, before going to the Vatican for our guided tour.
The three hour tour around the Vatican, including the museum, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica, was a whirlwind tour that gave us a snapshot of everything the Vatican has to show. I’m going to do a separate post with all the photos I took inside the Vatican because there are just so many! Here’s the entrance though…
After the Vatican tour ended at 3.30pm, our Colosseum entry began at 4.40pm so as our feet were aching from so much walking already we decided to get a taxi there so we could sit for a few minutes. Definitely worth the 8 euros, especially as we drove past the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, affectionately known as ‘The Typewriter’.
The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine next to it are very impressive, and although you can see both of these without paying a penny the entrance ticket gives you access to the Roman Forum as well as the inside of the Colosseum. Inside there are many displays with information about the history of Rome and artefacts which were found in and around the area. Specific tours can even take you down to the floor of the arena and into the pits underneath where the gladiators and animals waited before the games.
The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill are more examples of the spectacular achievements of the Roman Empire, just a short walk from the Colosseum. There you will find temples, monuments, statues and ancient government buildings where the Roman Senate itself was founded. Beyond these is the Circus Maximums, which was the first and largest circus in the Roman Empire, where chariot races were held.By the time we finished looking around the forum, we were starving so we went in search of the closest restaurant. The place we eventually found was Angelino ‘ai Fori’ dal 1947, where we had delicious food and cocktails (although my sister didn’t like her aperol spritz!).Finally we made our way to the station for our train back to Naples only to find out that it – and all the other trains to Naples – had been delayed by around 2 hours. Luckily we were able to get on an earlier train that had also been delayed, meaning we only left Rome about 40 minutes later than planned instead of 2 hours. Despite this it was an epic, if exhausting, day.
My advice to other people? Spend at least 2 days in Rome so you’re not shattered after trying to fit everything in!
The first day of mine and my sister Sarah’s holiday in Italy began with getting up ridiculously early for our flight to Naples. We managed not to argue despite the grumpy tiredness of everyone, and due to my sister’s boyfriend very kindly driving us to the airport we arrived in good time – only to find our flight had been delayed for an hour. When we eventually boarded the plane we found out the reason for the delay: the pilot hadn’t shown up for work and the captain we had had only found out he was flying our plane 20 minutes earlier! All credit to the new captain, he got us flying as soon as he could and we arrived in Naples a little over an hour later than planned.
At the airport we were greeted by Enrico the host of B&B Foria, our home while in Naples. After a short drive we were welcomed by Teresa and shown our room, which we were very happy to be able to check into straight away despite arriving 2 hours before the official check in time. Luckily we’d been able to sleep a little on the flight, so once we’d freshened up we were ready to explore.
The first thing we needed to do was find food, and after a short walk we found an amazing seafood restaurant with huge lobsters in a tank.
We shared a bottle of wine (has to be done for the first meal of the holiday!) and a platter of calamari and prawns, although this came out after our main courses instead of before due to our lack of Italian!
I had a delicious seafood risotto and my sister had homemade linguine with two types of shrimp. Really filling and tasty. We were also serenaded by a man playing well-known (by the other customers) Italian songs on guitar, which added to the great atmosphere.
After all that food we were extremely full and took a very slow walk down to Napoli Central train station to find out how to get there for our visit to Rome the next day. On the way we saw what looked like a castle with a huge stone entrance. One of the things I love about Italy is how you come across random ancient buildings and monuments.
More exploring (at a slow pace as we were still full) followed until we found a cute little cafe bar to stop and have a break in. I also had to finish writing an article, so I did that while my sister read her book.
By this time we were quite tired so we headed slowly back towards our B&B a different way. We walked past an old church which had a free art exhibition on, so we took a look around and saw some stunning pieces as well as the wonderful building they were in.
After this we came across a gelato shop, so of course we had to try some. Sarah had chocolate truffle and I had hazelnut. I think mine was tastier!
We then accidentally found Napoli cathedral so had a look around there once we’d finished our gelato. It’s a beautiful building, although quite hidden away – you don’t realise it’s there until you come across it.
By the time we finished looking around it was 7.30pm so we headed back to the B&B via a little market and a shop to pick up some olives to nibble on. The rest of the evening was spent chilling out ready for our trip to Rome the next day.
Looking back at my posts I realised my last one was much longer ago than I thought. So here’s a summary of my year of no shopping and various other bits and pieces along the way.
I started 2018 with a pledge to myself not to buy unnecessary things. Essentials and replacements for things like clothes, shoes and bags, were fine, as was money spent on experiences and travel. Although I haven’t been as good at keeping track of exactly what I’ve been spending since the summer, I have kept to my pledge of not buying unnecessary things. I’ve bought no jewellery, no books, no electronics and no makeup this year. And I’m no worse off for it. I’ve also tried to become more ecologically inclined, so I have bought a bamboo toothbrush and metal straws as well as soap, solid shampoo and conditioner from Lush to try and cut down on plastic.
As for travelling, I’ve had a great year! This time last year I was in Hong Kong with 3 great friends, having watched the fireworks display in the harbour by boat. For Chinese New Year I met my best friend from home in New Orleans where we celebrated Mardi Gras, then had a day in Miami before heading to Costa Rica for 8 days, which was fantastic. We had one more day in Miami before she flew back to the UK and we got awesome hummingbird tattoos at the shop where the tv show Miami Ink was set. I then flew to San Francisco to stay with my aunt and uncle for a few days in Bolinas before going home to Shenzhen.
After CNY we had a really long semester (15 weeks) with no proper break other than a couple of long weekends. However, I was lucky enough to be able to attend my good friend J’s wedding near Atlanta, USA, in April. It was really lovely to be able to attend and after the big day we all did fun touristy stuff, like visiting a gold mine and Rock City.
My summer holiday was jam-packed. I didn’t have a single day of doing nothing, but it was all great stuff: catching up with friends and family and adding a few more countries to my list. I had a spa weekend with my sister in the UK; a few days in Cyprus with one friend; a few days in Ibiza with two other friends; a week in Dubrovnik, Croatia, with my Mum, during which we did day trips to Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina; a week in Bath, England, studying for my MA with my friend T who I work with in Shenzhen, and while we were there meeting up with another friend we used to work with and has now moved to Peru; and finally a few days in Paris with my friend O from Finland as well as catching up with another friend who lives there. My friends joked I was coming back to Shenzhen for a rest!