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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Goodbye 2018!

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.

Dinosaur hoodie I knitted for my friends’ baby boy

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.

Giant cocktails in Miami

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.

See Rock City, Georgia, USA

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!

View from a castle, England
Sunset in Cyprus
Ibiza
Dubrovnik, Croatia
Paris, France

August and September were back to work as usual, ending with a lovely long weekend near Pattaya, Thailand, visiting good friends J & N and their little boy with my friend T. The first week of October is a National Holiday in China and I went back to a different part of Thailand (Railay Beach) with a different friend for more of a beach holiday. This included scuba diving, paddle-boarding at night and getting two bamboo tattoos. Awesome stuff!

Railay Beach, Thailand

The week after that I went back to the UK for a funeral. Although it was a really sad reason to be going home, it was also really nice to see friends and family at such a difficult time. My birthday was not long after that, and while I was home I had surprise birthday drinks with my friends organised by my sister, and a surprise birthday meal for me and my Mum (as her birthday had been at the beginning of October) organised by my sister and her boyfriend. It was amazing, and so thoughtful.

Joint birthday family meal

Back in Shenzhen my awesome friends threw me a surprise fancy dress birthday party. It was the best birthday ever! 70s theme, free flow drinks, 70s music, everyone sang happy birthday to me as I walked in, an amazing birthday cake in the shape of the world with a little icing model of me and a panda, and a video made by friends and family from around the world.

In typical China fashion, however, things never go completely according to plan. My friends had booked out a room in a hotel for the party, but some Chinese people decided they wanted to take over one end of the room and of course the staff let them. At around 11.30pm we were told by hotel security that we all had to leave (not the Chinese people though, just us foreigners). As we still had a load of alcohol we couldn’t go to a bar or club so we decided to go to a local park and continue the party, because, well, why not! A while after that I invited the remaining partiers back to my apartment to finish off the night playing card games and having a dance. The last ones standing left about 7am! Although it didn’t quite go according to my friends’ plan, it was still the most epic birthday ever. The perfect way to celebrate a significant decade.

In November I spent two consecutive weekends in HK; one for HK Pride and the other for a fab music festival called Clockenflap, which I’ve been to for the last 6 years. Both weekends were brilliant and spent in excellent company.

Clockenflap festival, Hong Kong

To finish off the year myself and T went to stay with J & N and their baby boy for Christmas, which was really lovely. Much food was eaten, games were played (including a brilliant Jurassic Park board game), drinks were drunk and laughs were had. We bade them farewell on the last weekend of 2018 and saw in the new year on the rooftop of our hotel in Bangkok, watching the fireworks.

Chao Phraya River, Bangkok

That about wraps up my 2018. Let’s see what 2019 brings!

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.

~~~

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?!

No Shopping Challenge Week 9

Note: This is a week late as I completely forgot to post last weekend in my jetlagged state! Week 10 will follow soon.

For most of this week I’m in Bolinas, California, staying with my aunt and uncle for the last part of my Chinese New Year holiday. Once again I’m not limiting the amount I spend on food and eating out, but I’m still sticking to not buying ‘stuff’.

Monday was a gorgeous day with bright blue skies and a cold wind. I went into San Francisco with my uncle where – after my uncle making a trip to the bank while I had a cuppa ($2.55/£1.80) in Peet’s coffee shop next door – we went to the SF Museum of Modern Art. Uncle H paid for our entry saying I could get lunch instead! We had lunch in the museum cafe ($55/£40 for both of us to have carrot and ginger soup, a pastry and a drink) then looked at the exhibits – mainly Robert Rauschenberg plus a few other artists such as Matisse, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Dali and Zammit. SFMoMA is a fantastic place and well worth a look if you’re in SF. Once we’d finished we drove back to Bolinas over Mount Tamalpais and made dinner from bits and pieces in the kitchen, so no further spending there.

Tuesday I asked Uncle H to drop me into town on his way to work, where I went to the Coast Cafe for lunch ($57/£41 for three courses and two glasses of wine, including tip – not cheap, but it’s the only restaurant in town and the food is pretty good) and did a bit of reading and writing. I then took a lovely walk along the beach and circled back around into town to meet my uncle, where I found him next to the wood-fired oven that is brought out twice a week by a guy who makes great pizza, waiting for a pizza he’d ordered for us for dinner. Topped with goat’s cheese, kalamata olives, mushrooms and sundried tomatoes, it was delicious.

On Wednesday it was my uncle’s weekly trip into the city (San Francisco) to look after his goddaughter’s two children, so of course I went too. The last time I was here, the oldest was four years old and the youngest was a baby; now they’re seven and four-and-a-half – such a difference! After picking them up from school and nursery, and meeting mum back at the house, we went to the California Academy of Sciences. The first thing we did was have lunch in the cafe ($13.71/£10 for mine) as it was gone 2.30pm by then and although the oldest boy had had lunch at school the rest of us were starving. The rest of the afternoon was spent looking at the penguins in the Africa gallery, playing tag and watching all the different fish in the aquarium section. Great fun! Plus free entry because mum is a member. Once we’d had enough fun we all piled back into the car to take the boys and mum to their home, where Uncle H and I were invited for dinner. We spent a lovely evening chatting and the oldest boy drew me a picture of his favourite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants. On the way back to Bolinas we had a fantastic conversation (well, mostly Uncle H talking and me listening) about my grandparents (his parents), he and my dad (his brother) as children and various things about the rest of the family. We carried on talking about this for the rest of the evening and H showed me a few old family photos as well. To top off a really lovely evening, my Aunt C then arrived home with a delicious persimmon pudding, and I finally had a chance to have a catch up with her as she’d been working lots all week.

My last day in Bolinas came around much too quickly. After breakfast with my uncle, he went to do some jobs while I stayed in, repacked and chilled out. The afternoon was spent in Point Reyes at KWMR radio station where my uncle interviewed me on his radio show ‘Teatime Books’. It was great fun and you can listen to the archived show here. Let me know what you think!

After the show we picked up pizza and salad ($33/£24 for both) from the new restaurant in town, Eleven, and took it back to the house to enjoy with a glass of wine (for me) and a cup of tea (for H). My aunt came home early from work so we had a bit of a chat and all too soon it was time to say goodbye and drive to the airport for my flight back to HK.

I spent my last $22 (£16) on a drink for the flight and chocolate to take back with me – Ghirardelli sea salt almond chocolate is heavenly.

Friday I spent nothing as the day pretty much didn’t exist for me. I went back in time 16 hours and the little part of Friday I did get was spent on a plane, so I went straight from Thursday night to Saturday morning. The quickest and easiest way from HK airport to where I live in Shenzhen is by Skylimo – various companies run minivans between the airport and the various borders, and if you pay a little extra they’ll take you all the way to your apartment (total 200HKD/£18).

After a nap which ended up lasting most of the day I made it out for dinner with my flatmate E and another friend T. Lovely Italian food and a cocktail later (306rmb/£35) they went home and I went for a few drinks (210rmb/£24) with some other friends who I hadn’t seen for ages even before the holiday.

Sunday was mostly spent hungover and jetlagged in bed or watching tv and chilling out! The only money spent was on bread and fruit juice (52rmb/£6), both very much needed.

My total spending for week 9 was US$195.26 + 598rmb + HK$200 which equals (to put it into one currency) £227.50 – not bad for most of a week in the States on holiday and a night out catching up with friends. I also didn’t buy any ‘stuff’ or takeaway, even though it was very tempting to when I got back.

Week 10: Back in Shenzhen.

Costa Rica: La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano

My first two days in Costa Rica with my best friend E were fantastic.

I had arranged for a driver from Hotel Las Orquideas, where we stayed in La Fortuna, to pick us up from San Jose Airport when we arrived at around 1am. We thought it would make more sense to try and sleep on the plane and in the car while we travelled instead of staying in a hotel for one night and then wasting the next day travelling. This definitely turned out to be the best option, and not just because the B&B we were going to stay at emailed to say they weren’t open at 1am so we couldn’t arrive then anyway.

We arrived at Hotel Las Orquideas around 4am. E had slept most of the way but I hadn’t because the roads had been twisty and foggy which made me feel quite ill, and closing my eyes made me feel worse. However, I needn’t have worried. The driver showed us to a tiny room with one bed and got us duvets and pillows so we could sleep there for a while until the place opened at 6am. They actually let us stay there until our proper room was ready at about 11am and let us check in early at no extra cost (the regular time for check in was 2pm).

E went for a walk while I was still catching up on sleep and explored the town a little. When she got back we decided to spend the rest of the day at the thermal pools and hot springs that are one of the main attractions of the Arenal area. Once again our host Gustavos came to the rescue and got us a great deal – $35 each for use of all the thermal pools and a buffet dinner at Los Lagos Hotel. We’d heard of Baldi hot springs from other people and when researching about the area so we originally asked about going there, but as entrance alone is $35 each we decided to go for the cheaper option and went with Gustavos’ recommendation.

We weren’t disappointed. It was probably an ideal day to spend at hot springs as it rained on and off all day, however, because we were in nice warm water anyway it didn’t really matter. Los Lagos Hotel has 17 thermal pools of varying temperatures and sizes, some with water jets, bubbles, waterfalls or water slides. The main pool also has a poolside bar, which was lovely. We had a lovely relaxing afternoon and evening; perfect after the long night of travelling with little sleep. The buffet dinner was better than expected as they had a good range of vegetarian food for both of us. We both slept very well that night!

The following day we had brunch at Red Frog Coffee Roasters – a lovely cafe with a great range of traditional Costa Rican food, amazing coffee (according to my friend), a friendly owner who speaks English and a little gift shop. I had a traditional breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans) with plantain, fried eggs and vegetables, which was delicious and the perfect meal to set me up for the day of hiking.

After brunch we got a taxi to Arenal Volcano National Park. The driver recommended a different trail to the main one we’d asked him to take us to, which he said was better, quieter, cheaper and less touristy, so we took his advice and followed the Arenal 1968 Volcano View and Lava Trails. The walk up the trail to the viewpoint was gorgeous – surrounded by rainforest full of wildlife you could hear but couldn’t quite see apart from the birds, of which there were many different beautiful species. There were also epic sections of volcanic rock in abstract formations where the lava had flowed in 1968, causing devastation for 15 square kilometres around the volcano. Three small villages were buried and 87 people died; in total more than 232 square kilometres of land was affected by the eruption.

The view at the viewpoint was spectacular. No-one is allowed up the volcano itself because it’s still active, so the viewpoint is the highest elevation you can climb to. It gives a perfect view of Arenal Volcano on one side and a view out to the lake on the other. We saw eagles swooping around hunting for prey, heard howler monkeys in the rainforest and spotted specks of what looked like quartz in the volcanic rock we were standing on. By this point it had stopped raining and the clouds looked like they were going to lift from the top of the volcano; we waited for a while, admiring the view and watching the eagles swoop and soar, but unfortunately the clouds just played tricks on us and we didn’t see the peak.

Once we’d made our way back down the other side of the volcano and through some ridiculously tall grasses, we went for some refreshment at the ‘cafe’ – more like a booth selling soft drinks and cocktails, with a handful of chairs outside under a canopy and another great view of the volcano (if it weren’t for the pesky cloud cover). There were also some very friendly white-throated jays who were good enough to pose for photos!

As we’d arranged earlier, our local taxi driver picked us up at 5.30pm and took us back into La Fortuna for dinner. Unfortunately, the restaurant he recommended had very little in the way of vegetarian food so we had one cocktail there (it would’ve been rude not to!), then headed for a restaurant called Veggie Sub. The name is misleading as they do veggie/vegan burgers, pasta and breakfast as well as subs and sandwiches, so there was much more choice for both of us.

Of course we had to end the evening trying out the cocktails at a nearby bar, including one containing the local liquor Cacique, which is made from sugar cane. Delicious.

The next day we once again had brunch at Red Frog, followed by a quick visit to the free hot springs which all the locals go to. It was really lovely to go somewhere natural that hasn’t been bought out or turned into a fee-paying tourist attraction.

We sadly checked out of Las Orquideas and were picked up by Caribe Shuttle to take us to our next destination – Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

One Day in Miami

Miami. Stunning expanses of beach, funky music blaring from bars and restaurants, gorgeous sunshine, enormous cocktails and delicious food. This is my summary of a few hours in Miami in between our (mine and my best friend E) flight from New Orleans and our flight to San Jose, Costa Rica.

After landing at Miami International Airport at 12.30pm, we got an Uber to South Beach – by far the quickest and easiest way to get there when time is limited: $22 (£15) for a 30 ish minute drive. I’d done a little research into finding places we could store our luggage while at the beach and found Luggage Locker. If you’re not looking for it, it could be tricky to spot as it’s inside a tour place and the sign on the window is quite small. We successfully left our luggage there for $10 each. One thing to be aware of is that they close at 6pm (which isn’t on their website) so luggage has to be collected before then or another $20 fee paid for the manager to come back to the store so you can pick it up at a time of your choosing.

We grabbed a slice of veggie pizza and a drink from the pizza place across the road and headed down to the beach. And what a beach it was! I’ve never seen such a vast expanse of white-gold sand. Edged in the brilliant blue of the Caribbean Sea, the beach went on for miles, dotted with blue beach umbrellas and loungers available for hire. We found our own spot of shade next to a small cabin-like structure and enjoyed our pizza on the beach.

I went for a quick paddle in the sea, which was colder than I was expecting, while E changed into her swim stuff. I decided I didn’t want to get burnt to a crisp on the beach and I wasn’t fussed about swimming just before a flight so we looked for a cafe where I could sit, chill and write while E went swimming. We walked along the sea front past several restaurants and bars, all of which were blasting out music. Eventually we found one that was a little quieter and decided to stop there. Of course a cocktail was in order by that point, especially as the lady who seated us said we could buy one, get one free. The South Beach Vice cocktail which appeared was huge! It was practically the size of my head. E tried a little, then left me to it and headed back to the beach for a swim. An hour and a half later when she returned I had just about finished it! We got the second free one, which we shared, and after we’d got the bill ($50 including tax and service charge) the waiter brought us over two large glasses of tequila with salt and lime wedges on the rim – completely free! Downing those set us off into fits of giggles. I’m not entirely sure how we managed to make it back to the luggage place to collect our suitcases on time, but somehow we did.

A short walk along the road with our suitcases took us to Plant Therapy, a vegan restaurant just inside The Whitelaw Hotel. It wasn’t cheap but the food and cocktails were delicious. I had the artichoke ‘burger’ which was fantastic. A lovely way to end our day in Miami.

New Orleans

I’m in love!

I don’t know what else to say. New Orleans is my new favourite place in the States.

***

Although I wrote that after a few drinks and a busy day, it’s still true (apart from Bolinas of course, which will always hold a special place in my heart).

Waking up with a slight hangover after our first full day in New Orleans made me very grateful that breakfast was included at our hotel. I went down for breakfast as my best friend E was feeling more worse for wear than me, and brought her back a plate after I’d enjoyed my toasted bagel with cream cheese. Then it was back to bed for a little more recovering from the previous day’s escapades.

Every day so far has felt like a holiday. I know, I know, I am on holiday, but this place really puts you in the party spirit – whether that means fruity cocktails, delicious food, extravagant shopping, wandering the streets, meandering through various boutique stores, admiring the architecture, chilling out overlooking the river or a combination of everything. I swear I will have put on about 20kg by the time I get back to China!

What started out as a chill day on Monday ended up being just about as exciting as the first day (which I just realised I have yet to tell you about).

***

So to go back to the beginning!

After arriving late Saturday evening and eventually finding each other in the airport, our first full day in New Orleans was on Sunday. We had a pretty good breakfast of toasted bagels with cream cheese at The Whitney Hotel where we’re staying. It’s in a great location on the corner of Poydras and Camp streets, only a few minutes’ walk from Canal Street and the French Quarter and the next street over from St Charles Avenue, which is one of the main parade routes. If you’re coming here for Mardi Gras make sure you book as far in advance as possible. I booked several months ago, as soon as I knew my holiday dates but before I booked my flights, just to make sure I got a hotel in the best location for the most reasonable price.

The French Quarter was our first port of call after breakfast where we had a good wander around looking at the stunning architecture and boutique shops. Lunch was at Bubba Gump Shrimp, accompanied by a Georgia peach iced tea cocktail each to celebrate the start of our holiday.

We then went to meet J, a friend of mine who I’d met last time I was in the States 4 years ago. She’s actually a good friend of my Aunt C who lives in California and I’ll be visiting in the third week of this holiday. The wonders of Facebook have meant that we’ve stayed (vaguely) in touch, so I sent her a message to ask about meeting up a couple of days before we arrived. I’m so glad I did! It made such a difference being shown around New Orleans by someone who lived here for 17 years (she doesn’t live here anymore but was back visiting for Mardi Gras). One gay bit of travel advice: always get a local to show you around if you can. It can make it break a trip and gives you a completely different view of the place from that of a tourist.

J showed us around various places and introduced us to various people in the French Quarter and Bywater, including a nice little bar with an art gallery attached to it, a street artist who wrote me a poem on the spot, and her hosts in NOLA, Z and C.

We spent a while with J, Z and C at their huge house, drinking wine, eating goat’s cheese and crackers and chatting about all kinds of things. They are really lovely people, and apart from welcoming us into their home, feeding us and giving us alcohol, they also furnished us with costumes to wear in one of the Mardi Gras parades and invited us to join them! Of course we said yes. It’s one thing to watch parades, it’s quite another to be in one! Needless to say we were both quite excited.

Around 8pm ish C gave us a lift to Frenchmen Street on the edge of the French Quarter so we could walk back to our hotel easily from there. This meant walking back along either Bourbon Street or Royal where – of course – we passed several bars and decided to pop into one for a couple of drinks and a bit of a dance, which was great fun and a perfect end to our first day in New Orleans.

***

As I was saying earlier in this post, what started out as a chill day on Monday ended up being just about as exciting as the first day. I ended up going for breakfast by myself as E was still sleeping, which was fine as I read my book (Carol by …, in case you’re wondering), and I brought up a few breakfast bits for E when I was done. After going back to bed for a bit (We were both tired after the long day the day before, plus all the travelling to get to NOLA), we took a walk down to the Mississippi River. On the way we popped into an art gallery with some gorgeous photos and other random pieces of art, then had lunch (tater tot poutine for me) at a World of Beer, just because it was on the way and had veggie options.

When we got to the Riverwalk Outlet Mall there was a small stage set up with a band playing for Lundi Gras (which I didn’t even know was a thing until I got here). After a quick stop in the mall we then headed back to the French Quarter along the river, and on the way found the Coyote Ugly Saloon bar. Of course, we had to stop in for a drink, and somehow I ended up doing a catwalk through the bar with Harlequinn’s cape on, along with a few other customers with various fancy dress items! Brilliant, and I definitely recommend a visit if you’re in the area.

We spent the rest of the day looking around the French Market (where they were starting to pack up so we couldn’t have the crepes we wanted but had sangria instead), going for dinner at Pere Antoine, then walking back to Canal Street where we found the Krewe of Orpheus parade happening. We hadn’t realised how long the parades go on for and thought we’d missed them all for the day, so it was a nice surprise to come across this one. The floats were amazing! So much detail had gone into the decoration and costumes of people riding on them. And this is where we collected our first beads! Every float had people throwing beads, balls and various Mardi Gras-themed items into the crowd watching the procession. We ended up with loads of beads of all different colours and sizes. Even though everyone around us also had lots, there was a huge amount of beads (and rubbish) left on the ground once the parade finished. The parade was fantastic to watch; I’m so glad we saw it and it was a great end to the day.

***

Tuesday was Mardi Gras! It was such a fantastic day. The whole city basically had a party! Everyone dressed up and some of the costumes were amazing; so much time and effort had obviously gone into them.

Unfortunately we missed meeting up with J in the morning because of traffic, but luckily Z spotted us a little later and then we found their house again where we said hi to C and tried King Cake for the first time (delicious). Our first drinks were bought for us by a lovely lady i was chatting to at the bar, as it was our first Mardi Gras – so kind!

We had a few more drinks (red wine and frangelico) with Z and C and their friends, and hung out with them for a bit meeting other people and watching the rest of the St Ann’s parade go by. Z and C invited us to walk with them as part of the parade to the French Quarter, which was so much fun. When we got there, there was a huge street party unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. And there was none of the aggression or violence you might get in other places at such an event. Everyone was so friendly and chilled out.

Around 3pm we decided it would be a good idea to go for lunch, so we said our goodbyes to Z and C and headed off to find the crepes in the French Market, which were very tasty. After a bit more exploring of the city we headed back to the hotel for a short rest and a change of clothes before heading out again about 6.30pm for dinner, drinks and a dance. We tried a few places for food but all of them either had too long a wait or very little in the way of veggie options, so we went back to the French quarter once more where we spotted the Hard Rock Cafe and decided this would be the best option as everywhere was so busy. They at least had veggie burgers! I have to say, I was quite disappointed with the lack of vegetarian options in the restaurants here, unless they were specifically veggie or vegan places.

After dinner we walked through the French quarter along Bourbon Street which was so busy! It reminded me of Lan Kwai Fong (the main area that people go out to bars and clubs in Hong Kong), only worse! After escaping to a slightly quieter street we found a club to have a dance for a while before calling it a night and walking back to our hotel.

***

Wednesday was our last full day in New Orleans, and the city was much quieter. We began the day with a lie in as neither of us wanted breakfast then walked to Seed vegan restaurant for lunch, where I had an eggplant poboy (nice filling but the bread was stale) and E had a tofu poboy (which she loved). Lafayette Cemetery wasn’t far from the restaurant, so we went and looked round for a while. It’s interesting because everyone there is buried above ground due to the high water level, so there’s no regular graves just tombs. After a brief stop for coffee/frozen lemonade we got the street car along St Charles Avenue back to the French Quarter. We wandered round lots of shops along Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and E bought a few bits; while she was in one shop I was given giant beads for taking a photo of a horse and carriage. Random! I then sat in the Market Cafe and had a glass of wine while E went on a hunt for t-shirts and gifts for her family as I’m doing my ‘No Shopping Challenge’.

A short walk brought us to Carmo for dinner – a restaurant that specialised in vegetarian and vegan dishes as well as having a few for the meat-eaters. The service was really bad and our main meals took an hour but when I spoke to the manager he gave us the whole meal for free, plus desserts! A pretty good ending to another great day in New Orleans.

***

Today is Thursday, and we left NOLA on a 10am flight. So now it’s goodbye New Orleans, hello Miami (for a day)!

No Shopping Challenge Week 6

Six weeks in and still going strong!

I wrote that at the beginning of the week… Now it’s Thursday evening and I’ve gone over my 1000rmb budget already. This is for 3 reasons: I had to pay off my credit card from Christmas spending in Johannesburg (2766.96rmb/£315); putting money in the bank account to pay for bills for the next couple of months (1000rmb/£114); and taking a friend who’s leaving China out for dinner (483rmb/£55). If I take those costs off then I’m well within budget! (584.1rmb/£66.50 spent so far this week.)

The next three days are definitely going to start getting more expensive. Friday I finish work for the Chinese New Year holiday and catch my flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco, so that will include the cost of getting to the airport and dinner when I get there. Because of the time difference, I leave HK at 11.40pm on Friday and arrive at 7.40pm – on Friday. It’s a very weird experience to go back in time! I’ve done it once before. Flying to the States from HK means you gain a day on the way there and lose a day on the way back; when I fly back I’ll leave on Thursday, arrive on Saturday and miss Friday out completely – which really throws your knowledge of what day it is!

After one night in a hotel near the airport, I’ll be flying from SFO to New Orleans where I’ll meet my best friend who’s flying over from the UK for this holiday. I’m so excited to see her!

***

Now it’s Friday evening and I’m waiting to board my flight from HK to San Francisco after a lovely meal and a couple of glasses of wine at Pizza Express (HK$432.20/348.3rmb/£40). Let the time travel begin!

***

I’m in San Francisco! Still feeling really excited as this evening I meet up with my best friend from the UK, E. In this blog I’m going to focus on spending and my no shopping challenge. I’ll be writing other posts about my adventures in New Orleans and Costa Rica.

I ended up spending US$30 on a taxi to my hotel last night as I’d had no email confirmation from them about getting their airport shuttle. Slightly annoying as that would have been free, but ah well, I just wanted to get to the hotel by that point. The hotel cost $90.19 plus a $100 deposit; it’s lucky I got cash out at the atm in the airport as they wouldn’t accept my Chinese credit card because it doesn’t have a chip, it just swipes. I have a feeling that may become a problem here!

After being sat on a plane for 12 hours, and feeling a little peckish, I fancied a walk so I went for a stroll to the nearest store, which was a few blocks away. I picked up a drink, a chocolate bar and a large packet of salt & vinegar crisps (yay!) for just under $5.

A good night’s sleep (helped by a sleeping tablet to get me into the right time zone) was followed by a delicious breakfast of banana pancakes topped with strawberries with a hash brown on the side and a cup of tea (total $17.37). Free shuttle to the airport, a short wait chatting to my sister on WhatsApp, and now I’m boarding my flight to New Orleans. Can’t wait to see my best friend this evening!

***

My estimation of more expense this weekend was not without merit. Due to factors previously mentioned, plus the first couple of days of a new trip, I went way over my estimation, as follows:

Total Week 6: 760.5rmb + credit card + bills + Nat’s dinner + HK$432.30 / 348.3rmb / £40 + US$310.36 / 1957rmb / £224 = 3065.8rmb / £350.

Despite this, I have still not bought any ‘stuff’, despite other people trying to convince me otherwise!

The first couple of days in New Orleans have been amazing. Hopefully they will continue that way while I continue my no shopping challenge.

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!

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!