Paris!

I haven’t published anything for a while because I’ve been super busy starting a Masters in Education through distance learning at the University of Bath, plus, well, life. Rather than getting further behind while trying to catch up, I thought I’d write a quick post about my trip to Paris while I’m still in Paris, and sort out the rest later.

Paris! Always a beautiful city, always so much to see and do with a landmark around practically every corner. Here for a few days with my friend O, the time has just flown by.

I arrived Tuesday evening, getting to my hotel (Le Glam’s Hotel) in Port d’Orleans around 8pm. Although quite a small room, the hotel itself is very nice, the staff are friendly and it’s very conveniently located near bus, tram and metro stops. And with the temperature exceeding 30 degrees every day I was very pleased to find that the room has air conditioning.

After checking out the room and dropping off my things I set off again to go and meet K, a friend I’ve known for many years who now lives in Paris. I say now, he’s lived there with his wife and two (soon to be three) children for a few years. It was really lovely to catch up over a glass of wine and a bite to eat. The last time we saw each other was about 2 years ago, so there was a lot to catch up on and not enough time to say everything. Still, we made the most of it and a few hours flew by, and before we knew it it was time to say goodbye again.

On Wednesday my friend O arrived around lunchtime, so the first plan of action was to find food. We went to a funky car-themed cafe called Auto Cafe, a short walk from our hotel. I had delicious hot goat’s cheese on toasted rye bread with rocket salad, and O had a huge smoked salmon salad. We couldn’t resist dessert so shared caramelized French brioche with salted caramel ice cream – scrumptious and just the right amount.

For the afternoon we decided to go and see the Eiffel Tower and then figure out what else to do. Both of us have been to Paris before so there wasn’t a mad rush to try and see everything, which was nice. Unfortunately the area under the Eiffel Tower is now closed off and you have to go wait in a big queue to through security before you can get in. It was much too hot to do that, so we walked around to the other side of the park where we could at least get a good view of the tower.

By then it was time for a coffee break; O found a little place called Terres De Café a short walk away which served good coffee (for her) and tea (for me).

The rest of the afternoon we spent at the Louvre, and even though we spent several hours there we still didn’t see everything. We didn’t even make it to the second floor! Most of my photos are on my camera which I haven’t had time to download yet, but unfortunately it ran out of battery towards the end of our visit so here are a few photos from my phone.

This is just a few of the many, many photos I took. Let me know if you’d like to see more and I’ll make a gallery.

The building itself is a work of art with elaborately painted ceilings and carvings everywhere, behind all the stunning sculptures and paintings that make up the contents. If you haven’t been I thoroughly recommend a visit.

The following day we met a friend of O’s, who lives in Paris, for lunch in the Jardin Des Tuileries. Although it was once again a scorching hot day (around 34 degrees) it was really lovely sitting in the shade under the trees, chilling out, chatting and eating ice cream.

As the Musée de l’Orangerie is in the grounds of the gardens and we both love Monet that was our next port of call. Les Nymphéas or The Waterlillies is a stunning collection of paintings. If you’ve never seen them in person the size of them will stun you. The main floor of the building was specially designed by Monet to display the finished pieces – two oval rooms each containing four paintings, one on each side of the room. Natural light filters down from the ceiling, adding to the ambience. It would be wonderful to experience this with an empty room and silence as the paintings take up so much of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, it’s always busy, probably due to their reputation around the world. And they are still well worth going to see.

The next floor down hosts other exhibitions, permanent and temporary. Masters such as Renoir, Picasso, Gauguin, Cézanne and Matisse, to name but a few, line the walls with an array of art to suit every palate. The temporary exhibition we saw portrayed the influence of Monet and his waterlillies on other artwork, particularly the abstract movement, with artists such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler displayed alongside various other works by Monet.

Having enjoyed our fill of art for the day, we met a couple of other friends who live in Paris for a few glasses of wine and a platter of cheeses – divine! We didn’t stay out too late, however, as we had an early start the next day. Versailles!

What a wonderful place to visit on our last day in Paris. Especially as neither of us had been there before. One thing I strongly recommend if you go there is to get your tickets online before you go. We got there around 10am, as that was the time we had booked the tickets for; there was a horrendous queue stretching all the way across the main courtyard. Apparently people were queuing for around 2 hours, with no shade in temperatures well over 30 degrees. By the middle of the day it had reached 37 degrees! I was very glad I’d brought sunscreen, sunglasses and an umbrella with me. (Yes, an umbrella – also useful as a sunshade on hot days – a little trick I picked up from living in China!)

As we’d already bought the tickets we could skip the giant queue and go straight to the entrance – and another queue, this time for a security check. Luckily this one was mostly indoors and so in the shade, so at least I wasn’t at risk of getting sunburnt. Plus it moved quite quickly and then we were in the grounds of the palace.

If you’ve never been, the size – of not just the palace itself but also the gardens – beggars belief. It is huge. The gardens literally stretch as far as the eye can see and then even further. The building is covered in opulence and luxury, both inside and out. Ornate gold decorations catch the sunlight and temporarily blind you as you walk around the interior courtyard. It is simply spectacular.

After almost two hours exploring the State Apartments, we decided to go for an early lunch in the Angelina restaurant. Again we made the right decision as we were nearly at the front of the queue for the restaurant opening at 12pm, which meant we got a table quickly and were served quickly. The individual salmon and spinach quiche was tasty and just the right amount, followed by possibly the best raspberry macaron I’ve ever had (and I love macarons). By the time we left around 45 minutes later, the queue for both the restaurant and the snack bar next door stretched out of the door and halfway when the stairs.

A post-lunch stroll was definitely in order, so we then headed out to the gardens. Fountains, hedges, trees, sculptures and endless paths beckoned us onwards, accompanied by classical music playing tastefully from hidden speakers.

We saw quite a few people driving round in golf buggies, and if we’d realised quite how big the gardens were we would have hired one ourselves, especially considering how hot it was. Luckily the trees provided plenty of shade, apart from down the main boulevard which was too wide for the shadows to reach anywhere near the other side.

By this point a cold drink and a rest were in order so we bought drinks and found a bench in the shade a little further along the canal to sit, cool down for a bit and enjoy the view.

We still had time for some more exploring, so we then headed for the Grand Trianon. A majestic building filled with mirrors and ornate decorations, but not quite as grand as the palace itself. It was built by Louis XIV of France as a retreat for himself, his wife and a few select guests, away from the strict etiquette of court. With its own gardens, it’s almost a miniature version of Versailles.

By the time we finished exploring the Grand Trianon it was time to head back to the station for our train back to Paris. Luckily there’s a Little Train that takes passengers between different points of the grounds for €4 each, as we were both fairly worn out with walking so far in the heat.

Once back in Paris we went straight to meet our friends (the same friends who we met the previous day) for dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant. Once again my umbrella came in handy as the weather went from 37 degrees to a thunderstorm and downpour in no time at all! Bizarrely, once we were seated in the restaurant and our friends had arrived, the rain was interspersed with large hail stones. Very odd! Aside from that it was a lovely meal, and we followed it up with drinks on the river with a view of the Eiffel Tower. A really lovely end to a short, busy and exciting visit to Paris.

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I wrote the first part of this post while sitting in the gardens of Versailles when we were enjoying a short break from our day out at the palace. It was around 37 degrees and scorching hot in direct sunlight, although quite pleasant in the shade and with a bit of a breeze. The rest I’ve written on my journey leaving Paris and going back to the UK, during my in between time at the airport while waiting for my Mum and my next flight, and during this week while I’ve been in Croatia. Guess where my next post will be about?!

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Europe: Coming Soon…

Last summer I travelled by train from China to England via Mongolia, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Germany and France. It was an amazing trip, however life has gotten in the way of writing about all of these things!

This summer I’m planning to go to Milan, Budapest and Helsinki (as well as the UK).

I’m in the process of writing about all my adventures, so stay tuned. And if there’s anything particular you’d like to know about, please comment below. Thanks!

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?

 

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.

End of the Year, Beginning of an Adventure

I can’t believe the end of the (academic) year is finally here. After a sixteen week semester with no break, numerous crises both emotional and political, a graduation ceremony to arrange, SATs exams to do and work towards, and many, many other things, I’ve finally made it to the end of the year.  This semester has probably been the most stressful and difficult since I moved to China. (At work, not at home.) There has been so much drama going on, most of which is completely unnecessary, along with management politics, rumours and whatnot – and that’s just the staff!

It really doesn’t feel like I’ve had a last day with my kids. Usually there’s much more of a feel of ‘now we’re on holiday’, but today just feels a bit ‘meh’. This afternoon felt really rushed at the end; I forgot to give the kids some of their work that had been on display, and then my last three kids were helping me take down things from the walls and didn’t want to leave! Also – and I’m not saying this because I expect anything, more because of the difference in culture between China and the UK – I didn’t get any presents from my class. Nothing.

I’m assuming that their parents thought putting on a show for us year 6 teachers and buying us dinner was enough of a present. Which is absolutely fine – they went all out for us, singing, dancing, even a magic show! So please don’t take this as a complaint – it was lovely. It’s just that this is the first class I’ve had absolutely no presents from at the end of the year, and I like to have something to remember them by, whether it’s a mug, a photo or a handmade card. Anyway.

A couple of days ago I finally booked the last few details for my epic summer adventure.  Only in the last couple of days have I allowed myself to become excited about the trip. Although it still doesn’t seem real.

So here’s the plan…

On Sunday I fly to Beijing with two of my friends, E & L. We then have two full days to sightsee (although I’ve been there before so may do different things to my friends who have never been) before getting on the Trans-Mongolian Express train to Ulan-Bator in Mongolia. We have a few days there which includes a city tour and a homestay in a ger for two nights, before getting back on the train to Irkutsk, Russia. Again a few days there before getting on the Trans-Siberian Express, crossing the Siberian wilderness, stopping in Yekaterinburg for a couple of days before arriving in Moscow. All of this, including excursions, we booked through Real Russia; the representative who booked everything for us has been fantastic.

We decided that we’ll go straight to St Petersburg from Moscow so as to catch the last weekend of the White Nights Festival – that time of year when they have 24 hours of daylight and many events happening. We’ve already booked tickets to see Madam Butterfly and the Atrium string quartet performing Beethoven, and I’m sure there will a lot more going on besides. We will then return to Moscow to see the sights and spend a few days there before L leaves us to fly back to the UK. Myself and E are going to continue on by train across Europe – Moscow to Kiev, Lviv, Krakow, Prague, Vienna, Munich, Paris, London. That will then give me about ten days at home in the UK to see my family and friends and catch up with people.

As I said, an epic adventure!

I just hope everything goes according to plan and we don’t have any major fallings out on our trip. Having said that, I have all the tickets as I booked all the trains, so they have to stay on my good side! 😉

Tomorrow is my last day at school this year – without the kids this time.  This gives us chance to say goodbye to those staff who are leaving and we have a nice buffet lunch together, which is nice as the last day with the kids is usually manic.

Now I just need to pack…