My last post ended with my stay at a hotel near Bangkok airport, waiting for my flight back to Shenzhen (well, back to Guangzhou, as there weren’t any flights to Shenzhen and Guangzhou is the next closest city). The night before my flight I had messages from several of my friends in Shenzhen telling me that the Chinese government had just announced they would be closing the border to foreigners as of 00:00 on Saturday 28th March (link to article here). My flight was due to land at 11.20pm on 27th March. I thought I would arrive just in time to scrape through passport control and get back home to China.
Unfortunately, this was not to be.
When queuing to check in for my flight, I and other non-Chinese in the line were approached by other foreigners who told us that they’d been turned away when they got to the check-in desk. There was no official announcement, nothing from the staff of the airline. So I continued to queue in the vain hope that I would be allowed on the flight or at least be given some useful information. Instead, I got to the front of the queue and was just told no, please go over there out of the way.
I kept asking people to try and get some official information and eventually was directed to a member of staff around whom was a growing group of foreigners. We were told that even though the plane was due to land at 11.20pm, by the time the plane got to the gate and everyone had their temperature checked it would take about two hours, and so we wouldn’t get through immigration until after midnight and therefore wouldn’t be let in the country.
And so I became stuck in Thailand.
That was on 27th March. Two months, one week and three days later and I’m still in Thailand. And there’s no news about when the Chinese border will reopen to foreigners.
Thankfully, I have two amazing friends – James and Nat – who took me in, for which I am eternally grateful.
I felt at the time that the whole situation completely sucked, and the feeling of being stuck in limbo was horrible; however, I tried to look on the bright side and be grateful that I’m healthy, I have wonderful friends, I’m safe and I have a place to stay.
Since then I’ve had many, many ups and downs.
My work informed me that as I wasn’t able to return to China, once my students returned to school I would no longer be able to teach them. My students returned to school on 11th May, so after 12 weeks of teaching online I had to stop teaching.
In the run up to this point, as well as at many times since being stuck in limbo, I was an absolute wreck. I find it really difficult to talk about such things, but writing about it is – for some reason – a little easier. I’ve had many days where I’ve just been in floods of tears. I’ve been angry, I’ve been sad, I’ve been heartbroken, I’ve been grateful, I’ve been stressed, I’ve been anxious, I’ve been depressed. I’ve pretty much been a roller coaster of emotions over the last four months.
Basically the only things getting me through all this have been my friends, my partner and my family. I honestly don’t know what I would have done, how much worse my situation would be, if it wasn’t for them. They have kept me sane, they’ve given me a place to live, they’ve called me, they’ve made me laugh, they’ve kept me company, they’ve comforted me, they’ve helped me in so so many ways I can’t even count.
I have to give a special mention here to Hela, my flatmate who I’ve never lived with because she moved into my flat after I became stuck in Thailand (which had been planned months earlier). She has spent hours on video calls with me, helping me to sort through all my things, organising and re-organising everything, selling things I wasn’t keeping, coordinating with other friends to sort out and pack my belongings, and generally being just an amazing friend. I really don’t know how I would have got all my stuff in Shenzhen sorted out and shipped if it wasn’t for her.
At this point, it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to go back to Shenzhen before starting my new job in Myanmar. I’m really upset that after nearly nine years I’m not going to have the chance to say a proper goodbye to my friends, colleagues and the kids I’ve taught. Yes, I’m hoping to go back and visit once everything reopens, but it isn’t – it won’t be – the same. I loved living in Shenzhen; I had an amazing time there, met so many great people, did so many brilliant things and visited so many fantastic places. It’s such a shame it’s all ending like this. And I’m truly heartbroken.
Despite all the emotional turmoil I’ve been experiencing, there have been good things that have come out of all this. Here’s a few of the positives I’ve been trying to keep in mind during this whole thing:
I’ve started walking on a semi-regular basis, and I’ve walked a total of 182km since 13th April. Looking at this I’ve just realised if I walk another 18km in the next seven days that’ll make it 200km I’ll have walked in two months. Not bad going for someone who hates exercise, even if I do say so myself!
I’ve gotten back in touch with and had video chats with several friends who I hadn’t spoken to in years – one of whom I think it was nearly 20 years since we had an actual conversation rather than a Facebook chat! It’s been really lovely to catch up with people and have regular chats with people who I live thousands of miles away from.
Since I’ve stopped working, I’ve been using my time to study. I’m doing a Masters in Educational Leadership and Management through the University of Bath via distance learning, and I just have my dissertation left to complete. This has actually given me the time to concentrate on this and (hopefully) I can get most of it completed before I start my new job.
Other ups and downs have included the anniversary of the passing of both my maternal grandparents, the death of a close family friend, the nine year anniversary of announcing I was moving to China, and getting a new job in Myanmar as KS2 Coordinator (overseeing classes in years 3 to 6/ages 7 to 11 for non-teachers!). I’m very much looking forward to my new job and settling into my new home; I just hope the borders open in time for me to get there and finish any quarantine that’s required before I’m due to start at the beginning of August.
I haven’t been on social media much recently, simply because everything has been so crazy and I’ve been trying to get my head around a whole load of things. Now I’ve been in one place for a few days, here’s what’s been happening with me.
My school’s Chinese New Year holiday began on Saturday 18th January, and I flew to India on 21st January for a fantastic tour around loads of places with great friends. At the time the novel coronavirus was just starting to be a news item, but as it was a two hour flight away in Wuhan, we initially didn’t think it would affect us at all. I had a fantastic time in India; however, it was gradually overshadowed by the increasing number of cases spreading throughout China. In the third and final week of our holiday, our flights back to Shenzhen were cancelled and we were informed that our school would not be reopening on 10th February as planned.
At this point we all had to make decisions about what to do and where to go, which ended up being all different places. I continued with my original plan of visiting one of my good friends in Goa while I figured out what to do next. Autum suggested I go to stay with her in Kazakhstan, as then I wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel, so I booked a flight to Dubai and then on to Atyrau as it was about £200 cheaper to do it that way. Plus it meant I got to visit Dubai for a couple of days and go up the tallest building in the world.
However, things are never that straight forward of course. Autum’s work were concerned about me coming to visit as I live in China, even though by the time I would have arrived I would have been out of the country for nearly three weeks, and suggested I don’t come immediately. This was quite upsetting as it seemed really unreasonable at the time and left me slightly stranded. My flights then got cancelled as there was a time change which meant the connection didn’t work, but at least it meant I could get a full refund. However, I’d already booked a hotel in Dubai and tickets to watch the sunset from the 155th floor of the Burj Khalifa.
I booked a new flight to Dubai, and bid farewell to my friend in Goa. After lots of discussion and looking at options, I then flew to Bahrain for a few days. This gave me a base to work out of for a week of remote teaching which wasn’t too far from Dubai and so wasn’t too expensive to get to or stay in.
At this point we found out that school wasn’t going to reopen on 17th February, as per the first update we received, but was being pushed back again to 24th February due to requirements from the local government in Shenzhen. I had been wondering about this and hadn’t yet booked my outward flight from Bahrain, as I wasn’t sure if I would have to go straight back to China or if it would be better for me to stay out of the country for now. As it seemed that this whole situation wasn’t going to get better overnight, I booked a flight from Bahrain to Kazakhstan for the Friday of that week.
Bahrain seems like a lovely country, although I didn’t really get to see very much of it. The whole time I was there was the first week of remote teaching, and I had to do this using only my phone. When packing for India I had decided not to bring my laptop as I was fairly certain I wouldn’t be doing any work (school work or masters) during my travels. This meant that from the moment we found out that school wasn’t going to open on 10th Feb, halfway through the last week of our CNY holiday, we had to start planning for online teaching and learning. And I had to do all my planning, finding and making resources, recording and editing videos, uploading videos and resources, communicating with my year group colleagues, and checking and marking children’s work just using my phone.
All the things you have to do as a teacher take long enough as it is. Add to that: adapting everything for online learning, adapting teaching input to a series of under-5-minute videos to make sure they will actually upload, a constant stream of messages and emails about what we’re doing and how to do it, more messages about the changes happening in China, even more messages from parents concerned about their children’s education and what we’re doing about it, making lesson plans in word, making PowerPoints and pdfs for lessons and work for the children – and having to do it all using only a phone. As you may imagine, it all took rather a long time.
At this point in time many members of staff were in parts of the world and therefore time zones other than China, so staff were asked by school to be available from 2pm-8pm China time instead of the usual school day times. Bahrain is 5 hours behind China, which made it 9am-3pm for me; pretty reasonable times. However, as most of my colleagues were in China at this point I was waking up to around 200 messages every morning that first week. Once we started lessons and the children were uploading their work, I also had around 150 pieces of work to mark. Every day. Needless to say, I was working long after the time we were supposed to be available. Especially in the first couple of weeks, teaching online is so much more work than teaching in class. Everyone I have spoken to agrees with this. It’s so much easier actually being in school. On top of this some of the parents didn’t like the way we were teaching or the fact that school was closed, and started demanding that either they had a refund of the fees for semester 2 or the semester should be extended into the summer holiday. Of course, the teachers weren’t happy with this suggestion as we were all putting in more hours than we normally would be.
I managed to do a short tour of Bahrain on one day, by making my lesson videos and preparing everything the day before, and in between being constantly on my phone for work. Luckily, I was the only person on the tour so I could ask my tour guide, Ludmila, to repeat information if I missed anything she said! She was very accommodating, which was great. I saw the Tree of Life, the first oil well, Bahrain fort, the king’s camel farm, Al Fateh Grand Mosque, Bahrain National Museum, Bahrain Formula 1 track and Manama souq. It was a busy but interesting day!
On Friday 14th February, four days after school was supposed to open, I flew from Bahrain to Dubai to Almaty to Atyrau, finally arriving about 1am the next morning. Autum met me at the tiny airport with a borrowed winter coat, as I had gone from a balmy 20C to a slightly colder -5C. Atyrau in February is so cold that the river freezes over. When I visited last year we walked across the frozen Ural River and I stood on the line where Europe and Asia meet.
Week two of online teaching was considerably easier as I was able to borrow Autum’s laptop, and as the time difference was only 3 hours behind China I didn’t have quite as many work messages to wake up to. However, we had new requirements for online teaching from the Chinese Education Bureau and so had to change our timetable for that week to ensure we were meeting those requirements. This still meant making videos for every lesson, planning what we were doing, rewriting the planning into child-friendly instructions, having our Chinese Teaching Partners translate all the instructions into Chinese so the parents could read them too, making the resources and uploading everything to an online server for the parents to access. The first day of online teaching my TP had tried to email all the instructions and resources to all the parents – and her email had crashed. The school IT guy set up the online server as a solution, and that’s what we’ve been using ever since.
I felt much less stressed about the whole situation once I was staying with Autum. I’d been there before, so knew a few people as well as the place, and having a laptop to use for work made such a difference. Of course, the situation wasn’t done changing. The third week of online teaching we had another new timetable, still with video lessons as there were many staff and students still out of the country and so in different timezones.
At the end of the third week, we found out that we would be starting live online lessons the following Monday, 2nd March. This meant that I would begin teaching at 5am every day due to the time difference. The Education Bureau sent out information that the children should have a maximum of 2 hours online teaching per day in primary, with offline work also provided to follow on from the online lesson. This whole time I’d been in constant contact with my colleagues in Year 6 via WeChat, organising everything we had to do between us. (And I will say at this point that my colleagues have been awesome.) With the live lessons we were given the choice of using either a WeChat video platform or Zoom. As WeChat was only available in Chinese, we opted for Zoom!
Starting this whole process of teaching online was a complete baptism of fire. None of us had ever taken part in an online meeting system, let alone had any training. A lot of it was trial and error, at the same time as researching the best ways to do things, adapting our lessons, and trying to ensure that the students and parents were as happy as they could be, considering the difficult situation. What made the whole thing more difficult was the constant changes. Every week we were given different expectations for what and when we had to teach, and so a different timetable of lessons.
Once we started the online live lessons, it was really nice to see the kids again, have a chat with them and find out how they were doing. We got positive feedback from the parents as well, as they preferred the live lessons to video lessons, and the complaints and demands for a refund of fees stopped. For the second week of live online teaching, the number of lessons for the children increased to three per day, but as we were still limited to two hours online by the Education Bureau they had to be three 40 minute lessons back to back. Any offline work we set for the children had to then be completed after all the online lessons had finished.
On the Friday of week 4 of online teaching, and after we’d done all our planning for week 5, we were told there were more changes coming from the Education Bureau. These were supposed to start the following Monday, but as it was such short notice my school decided to keep with our then current plan of changing to three lessons each day for week 5 and start the new plan the week after on Monday 16th March. Previously, this date had been the proposed reopening date for school and all staff were encouraged to return before that date just in case. However, with the new information from the bureau it seemed that this was not to be.
Just to add to all the stress of teaching online, the constantly changing timetable, and the state of the world in general, I was only allowed to stay in Kazakhstan for 30 days and there was no way to extend my stay. This meant I had to leave by 14th March. Of course, this wasn’t going to be as straight forward as it should have been. 14th March was also the beginning of Autum’s spring break holiday, but due to the spreading virus her plans were cancelled as well. My original plan had been to fly to Thailand and stay with friends near Pattaya, so that I was closer to Shenzhen to make it easier to get back and the time difference was only an hour to make it easier for live online teaching. However, the day before I was due to fly, Thailand was added to the list of countries that meant a 14 day mandatory government quarantine upon arrival in China. So I had to decide whether to stick to my original plan and fly to Thailand regardless, fly somewhere else like Turkey or Uzbekistan that I could get a cheap or direct flight to from Atyrau and then return to Atyrau (although by many people would be there then due to the holiday) and start my 30 days again, or go from there back to China but with no guarantee that that country wouldn’t be added to the list before my return to China and therefore I’d still have to quarantine. Plus somehow making sure that I still had access to wifi and enough technology that I could teach my lessons (hence the original plan of going to stay with friends who could lend me a laptop).
After visiting a travel agent who contacted the immigration office for me to check I definitely couldn’t stay longer than 30 days in Kazakhstan, and the airline office to see if I could change or cancel my flight (I couldn’t without a fee and/or losing ask the money I’d paid for the flight), and having conversations with Autum and other friends about what to do, I decided to keep to my original plan of going to Thailand as I figured that wherever I went at that point is probably have to quarantine when I got back to China anyway, and at least that way I’d be with friends, the time difference would only be an hour and I could borrow a laptop for my lessons.
About an hour before my taxi to the airport for my flight to Bangkok, Autum decided she would come with me. Her dog was already being looked after as she was originally supposed to be away for two weeks, and she decided she didn’t want to just stay in Atyrau for the whole two weeks with very few people around. She quickly packed her backpack and we headed to the airport for the first flight to Almaty. When we arrived there and went through to the departure lounge, there was quite a while when we were the only passengers in the whole departure area – the only other people were staff. Then just to freak us out even more, the hands on the main clock on the wall started whizzing around!
The second flight and our arrival in Bangkok went without any further drama. We simply had a temperature check once in the airport and were asked to download the app for the airport to keep up to date with changes. The car I’d organised was waiting for us and a little over an hour later we arrived at my friends James and Nat’s place just outside Pattaya. Unfortunately, the laptop I was going to borrow died but as Autum had come with me I could continue borrowing hers for the time being.
The day after we arrived there was an announcement by the Kazakhstan government that they were going to close the country’s borders the next day at 8am, meaning people could leave but no-one could enter until at least 15th April. This meant Autum couldn’t go back at the end of her spring break. James and Nat had kindly said we could stay as long as we needed to; however, neither of us wanted to impose on them for longer than necessary. We just needed to figure out what to do.
My family suggested I go back to the UK, but at this point there were restrictions in place for people arriving from abroad and I’d have nowhere to quarantine. Plus my parents and sister are all in the high risk group, so I wouldn’t want to put them at risk by staying with them, and with live online teaching I’d have to teach from midnight until 8am every day, which would be horrendous. I decided I would go back to Shenzhen as now things were starting to open up again as the only cases were imported. However, it turns out that getting back to China is not as easy as I had hoped.
I wanted a direct flight to Shenzhen as it’s only about 3 hours and usually not very expensive, and this would save me the hassle of going through Hong Kong when all but one border is closed. When I looked at flights the earliest direct ones weren’t until the last couple of days of March, and the prices and times were ridiculous. The first flight which was a reasonable price and was at a time that ensured I didn’t miss any of my online classes was on 1st April, so I booked it and let my work know what I was planning on doing. A couple of days later I was checking that everything was still ok with my flight; I found out that my flight no longer existed. As I’d booked through an intermediary, it took them a couple of days to catch up, but I had already decided not to wait and looked for a new flight to Shenzhen. There weren’t any.
At the same time, Hong Kong had just announced that they would only be letting in Hong Kong residents, meaning I couldn’t fly into HK either. That left me with one option – to fly into Guangzhou, the next city to Shenzhen. I booked a flight for Friday 27th March, again so it wouldn’t affect my online teaching time.
While I was dealing with this, Autum decided she would go to Hawaii to stay with her parents until she could go back to Kazakhstan. Initially there was no rush to get back by a particular date, as she was still on holiday, but then Hawaii announced a mandatory 14 day quarantine for everyone on arrival from Thursday 26th March. In order to get back before that so she could self quarantine instead, she booked a flight for Wednesday. Just to add to the stress of flying under the circumstances, when she got to the airport the majority of flights were being cancelled. Luckily, hers was not, and she successfully boarded the plane from Bangkok to Hawaii via Tokyo.
In the meantime, the Thai government started introducing various restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. Whilst Autum was in the air, I found out that if I waited until Friday to go to Bangkok I might not make it there at all as starting Thursday people would not be allowed to travel between provinces. Thinking it wouldn’t be a good idea to get stuck and miss my flight, I booked a hotel near the airport for two nights, and a car to get me there. I finished my lessons for the day, packed, and hung out with James and Nat for a little while before getting the car to my home for the next couple of days.
So this is where I am now, watching the occasional plane land and take off as I eat a late dinner, hoping my flight on Friday will go ahead and enable me to get back to China, and wondering what awaits me when I arrive there.
My friends and I arrived in Jodhpur about 5pm. As the hotel had its own restaurant and bar we decided to stay in for the evening and just have a few drinks and snacks there while playing games. It was a fun evening, which once more involved playing several rounds of Monopoly Deal.
The next day we picked up our local guide for the day, Sunny. He told us that Jodhpur is known as the blue city, whilst Jaipur is the pink city and Udaipur is the white city. The houses in Jodhpur are painted blue to distinguish the houses of the Brahmin, to keep cool in the summer and because mosquitoes hate blue.
The main attraction in Jodhpur is the Mehrangarh (which means majestic) Fort, which presides over the city from the hilltop. The views from the top are stunning, even before exploring the splendours of the more than 500-year-old fort. It took around 200 years to build and was completed in 1459.
Traditional Marwar painting, which are the best rice paper paintings in the world, decorates the walls around the entrance and is restored regularly. The current Maharaja became so when he was only 4 years old because his father died in a plane crash, and he’s now 72. He has no real power politically and he still lives in the palace. We spent most of the morning walking around the fort and admiring the size of the place and the intricacies of the carvings and paintings.
Partway through our tour we were treated to a short music demonstration using traditional Indian musical instruments. This kind of music in India has been used for meditation and yoga for 2000 years. It was very relaxing to listen to, I really enjoyed it and the proceeds went towards supporting traditional musicians in the area, so I bought a CD of the musician’s music. He told us that his father had been a musician for the Maharaja in the fort, and had taught him how to play.
We continued around the fort and saw a display of Marwar paintings, a statue of the first Maharaja, the cribs that had been used for the previous Maharajas, beautiful coloured glass windows, ornately decorated rooms and stunning views of the surrounding area.
Once we left the Majestic Fort, which truly lived up to it’s name, we drove the short distance to Jadwant Thada, which was built in 1906. Known as the Baby Taj Mahal and built from the same Makana marble used for it’s pure white colour, it is a tomb for the royal family. When the Maharaja dies and is cremated 99% of his ashes goes in the Ganges River and 1% is kept for the tomb.
Inside the tomb the walls are lined with paintings of all the previous Maharajas, each one with the dates of the time they ruled. Our guide Sunny told us that all Maharajas were warrior caste, which meant that the priests always higher caste and could tell the Maharaja what to do but didn’t value wealth so the Maharaja was always wealthier.
Just before we left the tomb, we were given a short taster session of meditation with a focus on chakras. The guide dabbed scented oils on our wrists and gave each of us a rose quartz necklace to wear during the demonstration which represented peace. We were told to choose a small coloured band each, and the guide then explained that each colour represented a different chakra and this was the area we should focus on. We had to put the band on the associated finger and roll it up and down that finger ten times. The guide next used a sound bowl while we closed our eyes and focused on our breathing and chakras for a few minutes.
Our final stop of the day was a visit to a textile shop and jewellery shop, where we were shown beautiful handmade fabrics and intricate pieces of jewellery.
After leaving the shops we said goodbye and thank you to our guide, and set off for our next destination: Sadhargarh Castle.
A huge lake that seemed to stretch all the way to the sky greeted us upon our arrival in Sambhar. Only a two hour drive from Jaipur, Sambhar Heritage Resort has two locations – one in the town of Sambhar and one the other side of Sambhar Salt Lake, the largest salt lake in India. We got a little lost finding the resort but we made it eventually and had our breath taken away by the stunning views across the lake.Shreyans, the manager, welcomed us to Sambhar Heritage Resort. We were given a drink of fresh guava juice with a rim of salt from the lake, and then shown to our rooms which were Swiss tents.The resort rooms are all tents because the land is owned by the government and so permanent structures are not allowed to be built there, other than those already there. One such building is the resort restaurant, NaCl, which is 150 years old and was built by the British. We had a delicious lunch in NaCl and around 3.20pm we set off for our local tour.We were asked if we’d rather drive along the road or across the lake, to which we said definitely across the lake! As it’s dry season the water level in the lake is lower than usual and so it’s possible to drive across part of the lake bed as a shortcut to the other side. We stopped for a few minutes to admire the view and look at the flocks of flamingos through the binoculars Shreyans had considerately brought with him for us to use.As we continued on our way we saw a few nilgai which is the largest of the Asian antelopes and whose name means ‘blue cow’. The females are brown and the males are a blue-grey colour. We got quite close before they bolted.Sambhar Salt Lake is 9% salt with a maximum depth of only 3.5 feet and is about 90 square miles. In comparison the ocean is usually around 3.5% salt.Across the curve of the lake we reached a small peninsula. Here we visited Shakhambari Temple, where there are Indian records showing there has been a temple here for at least 2000 years.In the temple we were blessed by the priest and each given a red bindi, our first of the trip. We then climbed up to a viewpoint where we had a 360 degree view of the lake and the hills behind.In this part of India Marwari is the local language and only a couple of the staff at the resort speak English. Shreyans’ English was excellent, which may be why he was our main contact and guide while we stayed in Sambhar.Once we’d had our fill of the views we drove back through a local village and to a small shop, encountering a few local animals on the way.We went back to the resort where we picked up bicycles so we could cycle along the dam across the lake. After a rather bumpy ride Shreyans showed us agood place to stop and watch flocks of flamingos fly overhead while the sun set. It was beautiful.We cycled back to the resort, and my bike chain came off for the second time whilst Toby’s bike broke completely; he got a ride on the back of the motorcycle Shreyans had ridden in on the back of, while he walked back with Toby’s broken bike.We had a few minutes chilling out in the room then met around 7pm for dinner, which was included in our tour package. We had an Indian feast! To start we had vegetable, noodle and coconut milk soup followed by an appetiser of tikka paneer. We then had palak paneer, mushroom curry and dal, accompanied by garlic naan, saffron rice and salad. This banquet was finished off with a hot carrot pudding, which was interesting in both flavour and texture. I quite liked it but the others weren’t so sure!We ended the evening playing Monopoly Deal with a couple of glasses of beer (or Bacardi breezer in my case) in Jo and Nikki’s room, before a very quiet night’s sleep interspersed with the sounds of wild animals.After a breakfast with all of the food, we went on a tiny train that seats only six people plus staff. It’s around 100 years old, stopped working in the 1970s and was renovated in the last couple of years to be used as a tourist attraction. It still has the same engine as when it had originally. It was used initially by the Britishers and engineers to check on the salt production. They always had to have five people on the train (three in the driver’s cabin and two in the back) as when they got to the far end the train had to be physically picked up and turned around to go back again! So for safety, we also had to have five people as well as us in case the train needed to be picked up and turned around.We rode the train out to the salt pans, with a short stop for the points to be manually changed. The colour of the water, and the stillness was incredible.At the salt pans water is pumped from the lake to the salt pans to a depth of 3-3.5 feet. It is left for about three months didn’t which it evaporates down to about 1-1.5 feet. Salt crystals form on the surface and once they get to a certain density they sink to the bottom. You can literally put your hand in the water and scoop out a handful of salt crystals.The larger pans use tractors to scoop out the salt crystals, the smaller ones in town are done by hand. Once the salt has been removed the remaining water is pumped out back to the lake. This left-over water has a very high bacteria content which means algae grows well which attracts the flamingos to the lake. Workers then remove the top layer of soil in the bottom of the pan by hand, add a fresh layer of soil then pump fresh water in from the lake and the whole process starts over again. Start to finish it takes around 3.5 months. As this is a government enterprise the salt is sold at only 5 rupees per kg. This is very cheap as most companies sell their salt for 12 rupees per kg.We stopped out by the salt pans while the manager Shreyans explained the process to us, and then waited while the workers collected some fresh salt to give us.There are 32 or 33 salt pans here and they produce 10% of the salt consumption for all of India. Sambhar salt is just for Indian consumption, it isn’t exported as mostly Himalayan salt is exported from India.This was our final experience in Sambhar, and absolutely fascinating. We were each given a small pot of the salt that had been collected for us to take home. A perfect souvenir before setting off for our next stop, Jodhpur.
We arrived in Jaipur around 10pm after a long day sightseeing in New Delhi followed by a long 5 hour drive. There was a bit of a mix up with the rooms but we (or rather, Toby) got it sorted and we eventually got to bed. We had breakfast at 8am and left at 9am to pick up our local guide, Arvind.
Arvind was a fountain of knowledge about Jaipur. He told us that Jaipur is known as the Pink City, it was founded in 1727, and built by the Hindu Maharaja Jaising. The red ochre colour of the buildings means good luck and welcoming, and was chosen by the Queen of Jaipur at the time. The interior city is 10 square km and surrounded by a wall with gates on the four sides, with a 2 mile 40 yard long straight road from the Sun Gate to the Moon Gate. Hindi is the main language in Jaipur, which is one of 18 languages spoken in India.
Our first stop was the Palace of the Wind. It has 5 floors, lots of tiny windows and was built in 1799.
Next we headed to the Amber Palace. Once we arrived in the small town surrounding the palace, we were asked whether we wanted to ride an elephant up. Toby and Nikki rode an elephant (all the elephants that walk up to the palace are well-looked after and only do a maximum of five trips a day, and are all female); Jo and I went in the car up the hill. Around the town and the package is a 12km long wall, like a mini version of the Great Wall of China. It was built in the 16th century, around the same time as the palace which was completed in 1592 by three different kings and took 25 years to build. In the town is also a palace from the 10th century with the same name.
The town next to the palace, Amber Town, is over 1000 years old. The town and palace names are the same, named after the Hindu goddess Amber, goddess of art. There was a 400-year-old painted fresco of the Hindu goddess Lakmi with lotus flowers, which is her flower and the symbol of prosperity and good luck. In the palace is a saffron garden; saffron is only grown in three places in the world: in Kashmir, India, in Spain and in Iran. Within the palace are two separate areas, the winter palace and the summer palace on opposite sides. In the winter palace is a mirrored room made with glass imported from Belgium. Interestingly, the Maharaja had a wheeled chair as he had 4kg of jewellery that he wore and so he couldn’t walk when wearing it all. He had 12 wives, and each wife had her own apartment within the palace.
Another thing our guide told us was about the Indian caste system. Hinduism is all across India, and there are 4 castes – priest is the highest level then warrior, merchant and lower caste. Maharajas are all warrior caste, which means the priests are above them although don’t have any wealth. Families are very traditional in India; people must marry within their caste and around 90% of marriages are arranged. When daughters get married their parents must provide a dowry, which means that in a poorer family with several daughters some of them may never marry. However the divorce rate is very low with only 5-10% of marriages ending in divorce. Unfortunately, due to this traditional outlook, a high percentage of women are still illiterate, mostly in the countryside.
Next we went to see Jal Mahal, the Water Palace, which was built in the 18th century and was where the Maharaja and queen would stay in the summers.
Jaipur is known for block printing fabric. Wooden blocks are used (minimum 1, maximum 7) or metal blocks for silk, to print intricate designs on a large sheet of fabric. This fabric is then turned into clothes, scarves, cushion covers, bed spreads and much more. Only vegetable dyes and all natural fabrics are used. Once the fabric has been printed it is then left in the sun for 40-60 hours then washed 2 or 3 times to fix the colours. They have to stop production in monsoon season, but otherwise it continues all year. According to the manager of the store, block printing is like a married man, never perfect! But that’s part of what makes it unique. More than 400 families living in nearby villages work on this project. After the demonstration we looked around the shop where they sell all the products and we were shown samples of all the different fabrics. None of us bought anything, although it was all very interesting.
Next it was time for lunch, and this time we had a buffet for 600 rupees at Aanandam restaurant. The food was fine, although not as good as lunch the previous day.
After lunch our guide took us to the City Palace, or the Palace of the Maharaja. We decided not to go in as cost was 3500 rupees (about £35) for the full tour, 2000 rupees (£20) for half or 700 rupees (£7) just for the museum.
As we were leaving we saw a small boy (who we had also seen at the Water Palace) who wanted to show us some magic. As it seemed he had followed us all the way there and waited for us we agreed to watch his magic show. He was actually really good. We just hoped that the tip Toby gave him wouldn’t be taken from him by older street children.
Next we went to Jantar Mantar, which means ‘instrument of calculation’. This is a large complex of huge astronomical instruments that are part of the buildings. It was built in 1728 by the founder of Jaipur city and took 6 years to build. The various instruments are used to calculate the angle of the sun, planets and constellations, as well as make people’s horoscopes. You can also find the biggest sun dial in the world here, and loads of chipmunks running up and down one of the trees.
Finally our guide took us to a spice market stall, some flower stalls and a small bazaar (which was really a line of small shops) selling jewellery, shoes and clothes.
On the way back to our hotel we drove past Albert Hall, which was built in 1876 and named after Prince Albert who came over from London to visit Jaipur around that time.
For dinner we explored the area near our hotel and eventually found a place not too far away. We ended our stay in Jaipur with some tasty food and a couple of drinks.
Travelling from Hong Kong to New Delhi, India, turned into a bit of a saga. To begin with our flight time was changed to an hour later. We boarded for the new flight time of 8.35am and then sat on the tarmac until finally taking off at 10.10am. Probably because of this delay, we then had to make an unscheduled landing in Varanasi to refuel! We eventually landed in New Delhi at 3.50pm, 3 and a half hours later than scheduled. By the time we got our luggage, found an ATM and got sim cards, the driver who was picking us up to take us to our hotel had been waiting around 7 hours for us! I felt really bad for him, but there was nothing Toby and I could do except explain and apologise.
Another hour and twenty minutes later, and we arrived at our hotel for the night where we met our friends Nikki and Jo who we would be travelling with for the next two weeks. We had a delicious dinner of paneer tikka butter masala with garlic naan in the hotel restaurant, and then went straight to bed.The next morning began the first day of our tour. At 9am after breakfast we were collected from our hotel by our driver, Swami, who was to be with us for the whole two week tour. We picked up our local guide for the day, Shiva, and drove to our first site: Jama Mosque.
A flight of steps rose up to the entrance, where we had to leave our shoes and rent a long robe (women only) to wear over our clothes. Built in 1650-1656, Jama Mosque is the largest mosque in India and is still used for religious ceremonies and services as well as being a tourist attraction.
After a tour of the main courtyard and building, we were asked if we wanted to climb the tower for an extra 100 rupees. Of course we said yes, and proceeded to climb the 120 very narrow, steep and twisty steps to the top. At the top there was no barrier around the stairs so it felt rather precarious on the tiny landing, especially as there were four other people already up there. However, it was definitely worth it for the view.
After returning the robe and paying a small fee to the man who was looking after our shoes, we drove to the Rajghat – the memorial for Mahatma Ghandi. He was cremated in Delhi and his ashes were scattered in the rivers of India. The stones of those rivers were then placed around the memorial.
It was very peaceful, and I found it quite surprising that such a large, green area was in the middle of New Delhi after all the noise and dust of the traffic just a short distance away. Flying just overhead were many eagles, which I also found surprising as I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many in one place in the wild.
We drove past the president’s house which was surrounded by people setting up for celebrations for Republic Day on 26th January. We weren’t allowed to stop as tourists aren’t allowed in any of the 340 rooms in the president’s house. India has a president as well as a prime minister; our guide Shiva told us that the president is just a signatory with no actual powers and the prime minister is the main person in charge. He also told us a little of the history of India: Independence Day is celebrated on 15th August; India was ruled by the Moguls 1246-1857 and ruled by the British 1857-1947. He also told us that Muslims always used red stone for buildings with some white marble to make it beautiful, apart from the Taj Mahal which is all white marble, whereas the British always used sandstone so this is how you can tell who built various buildings.
The India Gate was our next – very brief – stop. A huge war memorial of the British times and reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe, it was built 1912-1929 at the same time as the president’s house and parliament buildings. This is the VIP area of the city, with all the buildings designed by the same architect, Edwin Ludynes.
Our next stop was a delightful restaurant called Suribachi for lunch, which was so delicious! We shared dishes of paneer butter tikka masala, cauliflower curry, broccoli roasted with yogurt and cheese, garlic naan and saffron rice. I tried to order fresh lime juice but instead was given salted lime juice. I asked for sweet lime juice instead and they just added sugar to the same drink so it was still salty, if a little less so. I tried to ask again for sweet not salty and the same thing was repeated. On the fourth attempt I finally managed to get a fresh drink with just sugar and no salt added! A classic example of the language barrier in effect, but I was none the worse for wear and tried a salty lime juice drink I would never have ordered otherwise.
After lunch we were taken to a shop selling carpets made from Kashmir wool, pashmina and silk. We were given a talk about how the carpets are made on a hand loom: a carpet 2.5ft by 4ft takes 5 months to make; a carpet 6 by 9ft takes 14 months with 282 knots pet square inch, and costs £1485 delivered to your home somewhere in the world; the largest size carpet takes 2.5 years to make. They draw the design on graph paper first then transfer it to a coded chart, which they follow on the loom. The carpets are hand-knotted: each knot is individually tied, pushed down into the row and cut. Each is cut downwards which gives a diagonal direction to the pile, and you can then tell the difference between a hand-knotted carpet and a machine made carpet. Also cutting the threads diagonally gives a different shade of colour depending which direction you look at it, dark one side, light the other, which machine-made carpets don’t have. Then the row is pushed down and the base threads are switched front and back before repeating the whole process with the next row. The edging is done separately. When the carpet is finished on the loom it’s taken off and trimmed with special scissors flat on the floor. Only natural vegetable dyes are used to dye the threads. The back is as good as the front with the design, which is another way of telling hand-made carpets from machine-made. The carpets are always washed before being sold as they have been on the loom for months, or sometimes even years.
Our final stop of the day was Qutub Minar, which is named after the person who designed it and had it built, and is a UNESCO World heritage site. It was built in 1193-1210 and is 72.5 metres tall – the tallest building from the 12th century – with 379 stairs to the top. The buildings next to it were built in the 4th century as a Hindu temple but then were converted into a mosque when the minar was built.
In 1296-1311 work on the nearby Alai tower began. It was planned to be 150 metres tall but Alai, who was building it, died and no one else thought it could be done so it was left unfinished and only the base remains.
Once we left the Qutub Minar our tour guide Shiva left, with a tip of 1000 rupees from us, to catch the bus. We set off on a 5 hour drive to Jaipur after a fantastic first day in New Delhi, India.
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.