North Korea! (Part 1)

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.

Part 2 coming soon!

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No Shopping Challenge Week 11

Another week has been and gone. Time certainly flies when you’re running around at work and hanging out with your friends!

Last week was a bit of an expensive one for Shenzhen (although still cheaper than most of my recent holiday! You can check out my musings on New Orleans here, Miami here and Costa Rica here.). This was mostly due to it being a good friend’s birthday and St Patrick’s Day all rolled into one. My spending for Saturday ended up being 963rmb (£110), although this included laser tag, food, taxis to Shekou and back (about 70rmb/£8 each way), a food shop which I haven’t done for ages (muesli, yoghurt, veg and the like), and of course, lots of drinks on the pub crawl in the evening!

My total spending for the week including that was 2419rmb (£275), so 1456rmb (£165) on all food and transport the rest of the week, including eating out with friends three out of five nights (one meal, mala tang, was only 20rmb/£2.30 including a soft drink!).

One other item that hiked up my spending for the week was medication. Something I don’t talk about very often is that I suffer from depression and have done on and off for years. Currently I’m all good, which I expect is to do with the medication I’m on as much as how great my life is at the moment. This means I want to keep taking the antidepressants in order to maintain that oft-precarious balance. Of course, China doesn’t have the amazing NHS, so my work pays for health insurance for all staff. Luckily my medication is covered, but we’ve just changed insurance companies due to increased fees. Whereas before the full cost of visits to the doctor and medication were covered, now there’s a 20% co-pay, meaning I have to pay for 20% of the cost. For a one month supply of antidepressants I had to pay 399rmb (£45). Yes, £45 for 20%, meaning (in case you can’t be bothered to do the maths) £225 for the whole amount. For one month. That included seeing the doctor for about 2 minutes to get a repeat prescription, with a consultation fee of 300rmb (£34).

Some people complain about the 20p rise to £8.80 for a prescription charge on the NHS, with a free visit to the doctor included. If you didn’t appreciate the NHS before, you certainly do when living abroad! My advice would be to treasure the NHS and do whatever you can to make sure it doesn’t get privatised. Otherwise you might end up paying £225 every time you go to the doctors.

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Whilst I may have spent more than intended this week, I’ve still not bought any ‘stuff’, and my birthday presents to people are staying as treats, meals or activities, so I count that as a successful week.

If you have any thoughts or comments about anything I talk about, please let me know!

No Shopping Challenge Week 10

Back in Shenzhen and back to work after a fantastic three week holiday for Chinese New Year.

Which of course meant I was wiped out after work on Monday so the only money I spent was 2.4rmb on the bus home. Tuesday I had a bit more energy and time so I used these to catch up with friends over dinner (363rmb/£41 – more expensive than we thought it would be!) at as little Spanish place called Mambo. I also used some of my time to pay for the deposit and book accommodation for Summer School, where I will be studying for my MA Education which I’ve just started. I’m not counting the cost of the MA in my ‘no shopping challenge’ as this was already arranged before I came up with the challenge idea. I am, however, going to buy as few books as possible and instead read them online through the university library.

Wednesday was another catch-up dinner followed by the local pub quiz, which we actually won! We won 1000rmb of vouchers for The Brew between 7 of us, so 100rmb each plus a drink each next time. Not bad, even if I do say so myself! Total spending for all drinks and dinner for both of us that night was 548rmb (£62).

Usually on Thursday I go to D&D, but unfortunately I ended up going home early from work with a migraine. I guess the plus side to this was that I didn’t spend any money on dinner, instead sleeping for most of the rest of the day and then just managing toast. My only outgoings were the taxi to and from work (37.5rmb/£4.25 both ways) and 100rmb (£11.30) to top up my phone.

On Friday I had to stock up on muesli and yoghurt (67.4rmb/£7.65) as I finished the last of it for breakfast. A small group of us decided to go and see ‘Black Panther’ at the cinema after work as it was the first day of its release in China – and for 35rmb (£4) it was definitely worth it! This time I even remembered to bring my 3D glasses so I didn’t have to buy a new pair! Of course, we had to have dinner before the movie as well: shrimp quesadillas, chips and bogof cocktails for 153.6rmb (£17.45) at Blue Frog was pretty good.

My final night out for the week was on Saturday, and this time there was no alcohol involved! A friend had arranged a movie night at a private cinema for a group of us – 63rmb/£7 for 4 hours in a comfy room with a group of friends watching movies – it was great, and really nice to do something a bit different. I would definitely recommend it.

Sunday came round much too quickly as usual. I woke up quite early but stayed in bed reading for a few hours before finally deciding I was too hungry to stay in bed any longer. Once again I resisted the urge to order takeout, and raided the freezer instead for my last frozen meal from previous cooking escapades. I spent the rest of the day alternating between studying and watching ‘Legends of Tomorrow’, which meant I spent no money at all (and stayed in my pyjamas all day).

My total spending for week 10 was 1442.4rmb (£164.50) plus the accommodation and deposit for Summer School. Still no takeaway or stuff!

8 Things Only Someone Who Lives In Shenzhen Will Understand

Having lived in Shenzhen for more than 6 years now, all of these are still true!

1.  If you want to save money, eat out every day.  Eating out locally is cheap and delicious. There is a great variety to choose from: street food, different types of mien (noodles), jiaozi (steamed dumplings), baozi (steamed bread with various fillings), sizzling aubergine in gravy, sweet potato topped with melted cheese and sprinkled with desiccated coconut, to name just a few. If you eat foreign or Western food out it is more expensive as these are usually specialist restaurants; however, eating locally is cheaper than buying the ingredients and cooking it yourself. For example, you could have steamed vegetable or meat baozi for breakfast at ¥3 for two (approximately 30p or 45¢), a good portion of chow mien or ban mien at ¥5-¥10 (50p-£1 or 75¢-$1.50) for lunch, and squid and broccoli with rice for ¥25 (£2.50 or $3.75) for dinner, with enough left over for dinner the next day too, giving a grand total of ¥38 (£3.80 or $5.70) for a whole day’s meals. Cheaper than one dish at a Chinese restaurant in Britain!

2. Anything red is lucky. Unless it’s a red rainstorm warning.  The colour red has been a sign of luck for the Chinese for a very long time; wedding dresses are red, money is given on special occasions in red envelopes, decorations for Chinese New Year are red. The only time red is not a lucky colour is when there is a severe tropical rain or thunderstorm and a red warning is issued by the local government – then it means stay indoors and take your washing in from the balcony before it blows away. A black warning is the only one worse – batten down the hatches and hope that you have enough DVDs and popcorn to last you the length of the storm.

3. Baths are a luxury. As are ovens.  Very few Chinese apartments have a bath. Most have a ‘wet room’ with the shower often right next to the toilet or sink (depending on how much space there is) and no curtain or separate unit for the shower, unless you’re lucky enough to be able to afford a more expensive apartment. As for ovens – Chinese cooking is all steaming, grilling, boiling or frying, therefore there is no need for an oven. The object in the kitchen that looks like an oven is actually a machine for sanitising dishes; as kitchen sinks don’t usually have running hot water, everything is washed in cold water and then put in the sanitiser.

4. Just because you are in the queue, doesn’t mean you will be next.  Queuing is a very British/Western idea, and it doesn’t always translate to other countries. If you want to make sure you are served before the people behind you, you have to be quite assertive – and even then it doesn’t always work. Whether at the supermarket checkout, getting on the bus or waiting to go through passport control, people will often walk past you as if they are meant to be there – they’re not. You need to stand your ground and not let them past (unless they are obviously going to join someone else or you’re feeling generous), or else reposition yourself in front of them again in order to regain your spot. However, sometimes being a foreigner can have its advantages; on the odd occasion you get to skip the queue simply because you’re foreign and either that means you’re a VIP and get taken to the head of the queue by the staff or it means you don’t understand Chinese (even if you do) and can’t read the signs

5. Wear layers. It is often cold inside.  If you are from a place substantially north (or south) of the equator, you are probably used to the temperature being colder outside than inside. This is not so in China, particularly in Southern cities such as Shenzhen. Whilst the temperature outside in the summer can reach well above 30°C, inside it can plummet to as low as 16°C, regardless of whether you are on public transport, in a store or even at work. Make sure you always have at least one extra layer so you don’t freeze to death the next time you go to the movies

6. An umbrella is essential all year round.  As well as being useful for the frequent showers during monsoon season, umbrellas are often seen during the sunnier months being used as parasols. Protection from the sun is very important, of course, but it is considered even more so for Chinese women. Pale skin is seen as a sign of status dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. If you have dark or tanned skin it used to mean that you were a peasant or worked outdoors; now it means you’re not as attractive as someone with white skin. Once you’ve lived in southern China (or anywhere in South-east Asia) a while you will understand the benefit of having an umbrella with you constantly – instant shade on a scorchingly hot day.

7. It’s important to check around you in every direction when walking anywhere.  Technically motorbikes are banned in Shenzhen; however that gives free reign to mopeds, scooters and electric bikes. These are rarely confined to the roads and seem to ignore any kind of rules or signals when they are. Make sure you always check in both directions when crossing the street, even if the traffic is supposed to only be travelling in one direction. Also be aware that scooters may sneak up behind you on the footpath and then beep really loudly to frighten you out of their way and give the driver a good chuckle. A good game to play with your friends is, ‘How many people / how much stuff can fit on a scooter?’ You’d be amazed at the balancing acts some people perform!

8. Health and safety is optional.  The spectacle of a man hanging out of a window 20 stories up, attached only by a rope round his waist that is clipped onto the window frame, is not an uncommon sight. This is standard practice when fixing air conditioning units, whichever floor you may live on. Be wary around scaffolding and give it a wide berth (there are not always fences) as otherwise you may be hit by the sparks flying out at head height. Even when there are fences it’s often worth keeping an eye out for trucks reversing out across the path just ahead of you or people precariously balanced on ladders working with live wires. Anyone working in a practical industry such as electrics or plumbing deserves the utmost respect as they take their lives in their hands almost every day

Are there any ‘Only in…’ things you’ve experienced? If so, please share in the comments!

What Not To Do in Sri Lanka

Tip: Do not read if you have a weak stomach; jump straight to the conclusion at the end.

I love everything to do with animals and wildlife. This means that I will jump at any opportunity to see animals in their natural habitats. Several such opportunities arose on my trip to Sri Lanka and I was as eager as ever to grab them.

Unfortunately, one of these opportunities turned out to be the worst part of my trip.

On Wednesday my friend and I had booked a whale watching trip at Mirissa Beach, a place well known for such trips. Most of the excursions we had done during this holiday had been either just us and our guide or occasionally a couple of other people. So we were not expecting to see a large boat filled to capacity with at least one hundred people for this trip, as well as several other boats the same size along the crowded harbour. I don’t mind doing the odd group excursion, if that’s what’s usually done. However, my alarm bells started ringing not long after this: as soon as we sat down on the boat we were offered a cup of ginger tea, ginger biscuits and seasickness tablets.

Now, I have suffered from travel sickness (or motion sickness) ever since I was tiny. Apparently, I couldn’t last a half hour bus trip when I was very small. As I’ve got older this has improved greatly – and I’ve never let it stop me from travelling. The last time I was physically ill, rather than just feeling nauseous, was quite a few years ago on a ferry from Wales to Ireland across the Irish channel. Worse. Ferry. Crossing. Ever. If you have the choice, fly!

This trip came a close second. Despite the seasickness tablets and ginger.

Yes, we saw whales; three of them, including spouts from their blowholes and flips of their tails as they dived down again.

However, by that point I had thrown up three times and was feeling rather the worse for wear, so I wasn’t as enamoured by the whales as other people seemed to be (by the cheers and applauding). I wasn’t the only one either. By my reckoning, at least half the sightseers on board were seasick during the journey. Even for those people who weren’t ill, it can’t have been pleasant being surrounded by people throwing up for over five hours.

Conclusion

If you suffer from motion sickness even the tiniest bit, don’t go whale watching at Mirissa Beach. If you’re anything like me, you won’t enjoy it and will spend the whole time (apart from the first half an hour) feeling sorry for yourself and just wanting to be back on dry land. If you’ve never suffered, however, by all means go and see the whales! Just be forewarned – there’s a first time for everything.

 

Food Glorious Food!

Food is always a good topic for discussions. Who likes what, where’s good to eat, have you tried this?

As part of my writing for BasedTraveler.com I’ve started reviewing places to eat. So far I’ve chosen my two favourite restaurants in Shenzhen – The Kitchen for Western food and Big Grey Wolf for Chinese food.

Please have a read of my reviews here and let me know what you think!

Now a couple of questions for you, my readers:

  • Which type of eatery I should review next?
  • Do you have any recommendations for places to eat in Shenzhen or Hong Kong?

I look forward to your suggestions!

My 2015 Review

Yes, I know, everyone’s been doing reviews of the last year. Well, I thought it was about time I did one too, especially as I had a notification from WordPress that I started this blog exactly a year ago today. And looking back, it was actually a pretty great year.

I began the year in Cambodia with two good friends and ended the year in Thailand with my sister, partying the night away in Koh Phangan at the New Year’s Eve Full Moon Party (see my guide to it here).

In between I did many amazing things. In February three friends and I went to South Africa for our friends’ wedding and made a trip to Botswana while we were there, which was amazing. I saw the sights in and around Cape Town – Table Mountain, Robben Island, a tour to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, Simon’s Town and The Boulders penguin colony, wine tasting near Stellanbosch, a tour of Langa and Khayelitsha townships, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and the V&A Waterfront. The four day trip to Botswana was stunning. We stayed in an all-inclusive resort (because there wasn’t anything else, we were in the middle of the Okavango Delta) called Khwai River Lodge and did two safaris every day during which we saw pretty much every animal you could see there. To name a few: hippos, wild dogs, giraffes, elephants, baboons, warthogs, vervet monkeys, tree squirrels, lions, impala, red lechwe, zebras, hyenas and many different types of birds. The highlight was seeing a mother leopard and her two cubs! We were very lucky. The last part of our trip was spent in and around Johannesburg, where my friends were getting married. As well as the amazing wedding day and spending time with friends and family, a large group of us also went to stay at a resort called Sun City via an elephant sanctuary. Whilst there we did a safari in Pilanesberg National Park where we saw rhinos – the only one of the ‘Big Five’ that we hadn’t seen in Botswana. For something completely different I also had the chance to do the world’s fastest zip line – two kilometers long and speeds of up to 160kph – it was awesome! (And completely got rid of my hangover!)

If you’d like to read more about my travels in South Africa and Botswana, check out my other blog entries here: Africa Adventure Summary, Cape Town, Botswana and Johannesburg and Sun City.

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I spent the summer travelling by train on the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian Railway from China to the UK via Mongolia, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany and France. I’ve written three blog posts about my summer travels so far – Beijing, the Trans-Mongolian Railway and Mongolia – but not completed the rest of them yet (they’re on my list!) because of the next thing that happened…

In addition to all this, I also got accepted as a writer for BASEDtraveler (B.emusing A.dventure S.ought E.very D.ay). This has involved a lot of work and it’s been a steep learning curve, but I’ve enjoyed it all! I’ve got my website all set up – BasedTravelerShenzhen – and I’m gradually getting the hang of all this social media and networking malarky. I’m also working on the Shenzhen Primer, a book with all the key information someone moving to Shenzhen would need, which was something I very much could have done with when I first moved here. I’ll keep you posted about my progress and when it’ll be published – hopefully around the summer!

For the October holiday I went to the Philippines for the third time, which was a nice chilled out and relaxing holiday, making the total number of countries I visited in 2015 the grand total of 15! Maybe I should aim for 16 this year?

 

Thailand for Christmas & New Year 2015

I went to Thailand for Christmas & New Year with my sister, who flew over from England. It was a brilliant holiday, equal parts exploring, adventure, relaxing and chilling out.

I arrived in Bangkok a day before my sister and did a bit of exploring as well as going to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens as my sister hasn’t seen the other films and has no interest in seeing this one! In the process I found a free Star Wars exhibition, which was pretty cool.

Once my sister arrived we had a busy couple of days in Bangkok seeing the Grand Palace, the Emerald Buddha, Wat Po, the 45 foot tall Buddha, the reclining Buddha, Patpong night market, going on a cruise down the river, eating lots of delicious food, wandering along Khao San Road and generally exploring.

We also watched a little of a ping pong show and almost got ripped off for a lot of money. Luckily, I’ve lived in and travelled round Asia for over five years now and I’m not about to let myself be taken advantage of. We were approached by one of the many people walking around Patpong night market with a ‘menu’ showing what we could expect to see at the show. We were told that there was no cover charge, we just had to buy a drink. Upon being given a menu with no prices, we checked this again and were told that we just had to pay 100 baht (about £2) each for the soft drinks we ordered. The ‘show’ consisted of four ladies on a stage in the centre of the room, who took turns in displaying their ‘talents’ – blowing out candles on a fake cake, shooting gherkins across the room, ‘smoking’ two cigarettes and shooting ping pong balls across the room to be batted back by customers. In between these performances the ladies just stood on the stage and kind of swayed next to the poles, or ‘entertained’ the male customers. To be honest they all looked quite bored and unimpressed with the whole situation, and both myself and my sister found the whole show slow and slightly disturbing. Needless to say, we decided to leave as soon as we’d finished our drinks. We got our 200 baht ready to pay and went to the counter, only to be given a bill for over 8000 baht (£160)!

I immediately said to the staff that we were told there was no cover charge and drinks were only 100 baht each. The woman who was apparently in charge started making fun of me saying ‘We were told, we were told.’ At which I gave her the 200 baht, grabbed my sister’s hand and walked out. they let us leave, knowing that they were in the wrong for trying to scam us ‘stupid foreigners’.

If you decide to check out one of these shows, don’t let yourself get taken advantage of!

After the excitement of Bangkok my sister and I headed to Koh Samui for a bit of chill out and relaxation time. Koh Samui is lovely; lots of things to do and see such as tours of the island, Big Buddha, ziplining, ladyboy cabaret shows, elephant rides, and coconut farms; plus plenty of gorgeous beaches, massages and delicious food to help you relax.

We also enjoyed a delicious Christmas buffet dinner at the Anantara Bophut Hotel, whilst being serenaded by a fantastic singer from Estonia.

We ended our trip at the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan – an amazing end to a fantastic holiday.

Read my guide to the Koh Phangan Full Moon Party here!

Exciting News!

I’d like to start with a non-apology! I haven’t posted anything on here for a while, and there’s a good reason for that…

I’ve been contracted as a writer!

So exciting!

My new website has just gone live: http://www.BASEDtravelershenzhen.com

I’m working for a company called BASEDtraveler which has expat-local writers in different locations around the world (at the moment England, Germany, South Korea and now China). We don’t just write about life as an expat, but also offer advice, ideas for excursions, useful information, hints and tips, how-to guides and more.

Please check it out and spread the word!

Also if you have any ideas or suggestions about what else you’d like to see on the site, please send me a message.

I will still be writing about my own travels on here as well (I still need to finish my Summer Adventure series) but it will be less often now. However, I’ll be publishing something every Sunday on my new website.

You can also find me and BASEDtraveler on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.

B.emusing A.dventure S.ought E.very D.ay

Summer Adventure part 2: Mongolia

Mongolia was surprising, a mix of big city and vast plains, hard living and great vegetarian restaurants. The people are friendly and generous, happy to welcome you into their homes and to share their food, despite the language barrier.

The only city in Mongolia, Ulaan-Baatar has around half of the country’s three million-strong population in its grasp. The city is busy, with numerous cars and trucks adding to the dusty roads. Many people move here from the countryside, hoping to earn more money, hoping to develop a different lifestyle. Less and less young adults are willing to take over their family’s nomadic traditions and livelihood. Perhaps one day the only place you will see a ger (the traditional circular fabric and wood tents that Mongolian nomadic families live in; often known by their Russian name ‘yurt’) is in a museum. In the city, strange letters decorated shop signs interspersed with occasional English words: Edinburgh Scottish Pub; Sod Classic Shop; Singer on a huge mural of a sewing machine. After less than a day, myself and the two friends I was travelling with (Emily and Louise) set off to experience life in a ger for ourselves.

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Only an hour or so after leaving the city, the landscape was dramatically different. Vast swathes of myriad hues of green covered the land; plains of grasses mingled with flocks of trees; occasional cows or villages added other shades of colour. Mountains emerged from the ground, adding their magnificence to the natural splendour surrounding us.

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The nomadic family we stayed with consisted of an older married couple, a young woman who was a cousin of some sort, a young boy about three years old and a pet sheep. We were told that the couple’s children were grown up and married and lived in the city. The small boy was their grandson who had come to stay with them for the summer; the dozen or so other children who we saw around and playing had also been sent to the encampment to stay with nomadic family members for the summer. This gave both the parents and children a bit of a holiday whilst the grandparents could spend precious time with them and teach them some traditional processes.

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One of these was milking the cows, which we all had a go at! This was done morning and evening every day, regardless of the weather (it rained the evening we were there so they milked the cows a little later than usual, once the rain stopped). I think I did an okay job of milking, although it wasn’t easy and I only did it for a few minutes. By this point it was quite chilly outside with a bitterly cold wind; I was very glad I’d bought a fleece in Ulaan-Baatar the day before as I’d forgotten to bring any kind of jacket or jumper on my travels!

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The family’s primary income was from dairy farming and produce, so we also got to see (and taste) a couple of other products: sour curd which is dried in the sun on the roof of their outdoor seating shelter next to a dead bird so that the live ones wouldn’t eat it, and a butter-type spread. To us it was very strange because almost everything tasted or smelled a little like sour milk, and some things (like the tea) were much more salty than we were expecting. In Mongolia it is traditional to add salt to tea and milk; our guide and translator told us that she preferred tea that way as that’s what she’s used to. I personally didn’t really like it, but that’s not to say I couldn’t become accustomed to it if I had to. (Although I hope I never have to! I’m very typical English when it comes to tea drinking.)

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Facilities were very basic. They had some electricity from solar panels on the roof, enough to power lights in the evening and a tiny television and satellite dish. The toilet was the other side of the cow field and was a shed with a long-drop. People washed themselves and their clothes at the nearby river. This was their summer location. In the autumn they would pack everything up and take themselves, their belongings, their gers and their cows to their winter location a few kilometres away. I have so much respect for these people; they have such hard lives and we just had a tiny taster of it.

Back in Ulaan-Baatar the next day we went on a city tour of the key historic and important areas, including the National Museum. One of the most impressive was a huge monument to Chinggis Khan (or as we know him, Gengis Khan) overlooking the central square. Bordering on another side was the National Theatre where we saw a traditional show including an orchestra made up of all traditional Mongolian instruments, a contortionist, dancers, fantastic costumes and – the best part – Mongolian throat singers. It was amazing! I would definitely recommend seeing it if you ever go there.

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Mongolia was a really interesting contrast to Beijing. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and I found out lots of fascinating things about Mongolia, its history and its people. Four days was at the same time too long and too short – too long for staying in the city, too short for exploring the stunning National Parks and meeting the people who live in them. My recommendation would be spend one day in the city and much longer (if you have time) exploring, although make sure you check that the standards of where you’re staying match your preference, as they can range from the very basic (which we had) to complete luxury (along the lines of ‘glamping’).

Our next train took us about 38 hours to reach our destination, and as it was very similar to the first one I’m not going to write a separate blog post about it! You can read about it here if you’d like to.

Next stop: Irkutsk, Russia.