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!

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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 12 & 13

Time certainly does fly! I’ve been so busy at work this week that I didn’t realise the date. One of my very good friends is getting married on Sunday and I’m lucky enough to be able to go. I didn’t end up packing until today (Friday), and I’m flying now! It was all fine though, and I even ended up getting to HK airport ridiculously early. I’m currently on the first plane waiting for take-off from HK to Seoul.

I had a very big (in shopping terms) dilemma earlier. I’m not usually one for brand names, however I love Kipling bags. They’re sturdy, long-lasting, functional and classy/fun. The first one I ever bought lasted me more than ten years before one of the zips went funny, so they may be a little more than I’d usually pay for things but the quality is definitely worth it. Anyway, there’s a Kipling shop in HK airport, before you go through to departures, and they had certain items on sale with 30% off. One of my bags is starting to fall apart so I’ve been thinking for a while about replacing it. I always said with this challenge that it’s fine for me to replace items that have worn out as long as I get rid of said items and don’t keep both. Of course there was a really lovely bag with 30% off and a very helpful sales assistant who let me check that my tablet fit in the bag, and I very nearly said yes, I’ll take it.

But then I thought about this challenge I’ve set myself and how the whole point is to downsize and reduce the amount I spend on things that I actually don’t really need. I really liked that bag, and I would have used it and got rid of my old bag, but I don’t really need it. So I walked away. And – much as I still really like that bag – I know that I made the right choice because my old bag still has a bit of life left in it, plus I have other bags of different sizes that I can make do with.

Now I’m sitting on a plane heading to the US for what I’m sure will be a fantastic wedding, and I have lost nothing by not buying that bag. So many times we give in to impulses – not that that’s always bad, mind you! – for things we don’t need, we just crave in the moment. If you can get past that moment you will find there’s very few things you regret buying; more often people regret what they haven’t done, not what they didn’t buy.

***

Now it’s a few days later and I need to catch up on posting this so I can start on this week’s post!

Spending for week 12 consisted of food, drinks, transport, a trip to the cinema to see Pacific Uprising (not bad, bit of light entertainment), plus playing football (along with hiring the pitch) and a night out for a friend’s birthday. Yes, people who know me, I played football. Willingly. And it was the most fun I’ve ever had playing football! Total costs for week 12: 2,349rmb / £265.

Week 13 ended up being almost the same amount: 1498.6rmb + HK$604 (483rmb) + US$43.50 (274rmb) = 2255.6rmb / £255. This included a food shop, dinner out, getting my hair cut and dyed, drinks, transport, getting to HK airport, dinner at Pizza Express in HK airport, and transport from Atlanta airport. I’ve been staying in a shared house with friends and my friend’s family, which has been really lovely. This means we’ve shared the cost of groceries for the house, transport around and days out. My share of the house I paid for quite a while ago, and it was only £122 for 6 nights. I’ll write more in my next post about where we’ve been and what we’ve done as week 13 ended the day after I arrived.

Over a quarter of the year has flown by already and I’ve pretty much kept to my original challenge rules, with only one or two tweaks where necessary to ensure I could stick to it without compromising my social life. I’ve not bought any ‘stuff’, although I’ve been quite tempted on occasion, and I’ve only had takeaway once (McDonald’s when I was drunk!).

Anyone else want to take up the challenge?

No Shopping Challenge Week 8

Costa Rica!

Although I’ve relaxed my budget for food while I’m travelling, I’m still trying to stick to the ‘no buying stuff’ aspect of my challenge. So far the only things I’ve spent money on in Costa Rica have been food, accommodation and transport, and I’m going to try and keep it that way.

I’ve been here almost a week with my best friend from home, E, and it’s been fantastic. Although it’s less expensive than the US was, I’ve still spent a fair amount as we’ve been eating out for almost every meal and doing lots of fun stuff.

We began the week, having just arrived in Playa Chiquita near Puerto Viejo, Limón, heading to the nearest beach with the best reviews – Punta Uva. One of the staff at the lodge we were staying at persuaded one of his friends to drive us there when there were no taxis available. This turned out to be a fortunate turn of events for us as he was a font of information about Puerto Viejo. He recommended places with the best coffee, the best Asian food, the atm with the shortest queue and various other useful titbits. The journey from where we were staying to one of only three ATMs in Puerto Viejo, back past where we were staying to Punta Uva and Arrecife Beach (definitely the best beach in the area) cost 10,000 Colones or $17.50 between us. Not bad for a 30-odd minute journey with free advice.

We then spent some time at the most stunning beach with warm, clear water, which was just perfect.

***

Since I wrote the first part of this post I’ve been busy doing holiday stuff, so I’m going to summarise my spending for the rest of this week. Otherwise it’s going to take a long, long time and I’ll just end up repeating what I’m writing on my post about my travels. If you’d like to find out more about what I did in Costa Rica, please have a look at my other blog posts here and here!

To summarise, all my money this week was spent on: taxis and tuktuks to and from the beach, restaurants and various places we explored; food and drink; cocktails; entry to the Jaguar Rescue Centre; horse riding along the beach and through the jungle with Caribe Horse Riding Club; transport from one side of Costa Rica to the other and back to the airport; accommodation; and tattoos.

I managed to resist the urge to buy things by telling myself they were all things I didn’t actually need, which is true, so almost all my spending was on food or transport apart from my various holiday activities.

Saturday we had half a day in Miami. Since we’d met up, we’d been talking about getting tattoos together (E’s idea!): as a memento of our trip, our friendship and a significant birthday this year for both of us. It would be E’s first tattoo and my 12th. After trying – and failing – to find somewhere to get the tattoos in Puerto Viejo where we were staying, I looked into tattoo artists in Miami. I found an article about the top ten artists in Miami and emailed a couple of places on the list who weren’t too far out of our way, to find out whether they’d be able to do what we wanted in the time we had available. Only one place came through, and it just so happened to be Love Hate Tattoo, where Miami Ink was filmed a few years ago! This made the tattoos even more special and everything went according to plan (even if that meant getting very little sleep. Stupid flight times). This, of course, has added a significant amount to my spending this week ($262.50/£190), however, I’m much happier spending that money on a beautiful tattoo with a beautiful person than on more stuff that I don’t really need.

My last stop this week was Bolinas, California, a lovely little town where my aunt and uncle live. My uncle picked me up from the airport on Saturday evening then treated me to entry to see a reggae band at the local community centre and a glass (well, tin cup) of wine.

Sunday was very chilled out. After breakfast I took a stroll into town taking a few photos on the way. I had lunch ($37) at the Coast Cafe – the only restaurant in town – bumped into my aunt by the People’s Store, met up with my uncle, bought a few food items (my uncle paid) and went back to the house for the evening.

***

My total spending for the week was $579.62 (£415) plus $222 (£160 between us) on our accommodation for the week, plus the tattoos. Not too bad for a week full of fantastic food, awesome adventures and gorgeous scenery!

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.

No Shopping Challenge Week 7

A little different this week as I’m in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and on Thursday I’m going to Miami for a quick stopover then Costa Rica! I’m still planning to stick to my not buying ‘stuff’, and keeping track of what I’m spending, however, I’m not giving myself a budget for food, drinks or experiences while I’m travelling. Travel was one of the only things I didn’t restrict myself on when I was first deciding my criteria for my no shopping challenge. The idea is to reduce the number of physical items I have, not to reduce the number of experiences I have; if anything to increase them as an alternative to buying stuff.

The first day of this week ended in my spending US$147.96 (£106.80), the vast majority of which was on food and drink. In fact the only money which was not spent on food or drink was $16.49 (£11.90) on a pair of leggings – because I completely didn’t think of bringing any with me and now I’m wearing a skirt in the Mardi Gras parade tomorrow (Tuesday) (lent to me by friends who live here/lived here and are visiting for Mardi Gras) and it’s going to be much too cold not to have leggings on as well (it’s predicted to be around 12°C in the morning) – and $22.04 (£15.90) on a New Orleans Mardi Gras Tricentennial anniversary t-shirt. I knew I’d find it difficult not to buy anything when travelling as I always like to get a souvenir of some sort. Usually I get something small like a keyring or a fridge magnet, but I thought it would make more sense to get something a little more practical, and this I will actually wear. Plus I have about a million fridge magnets and keyrings already; I really don’t need any more! To counter these purchases I will get rid of/donate more clothes when I get back to China, to add to the four bags I’ve already given away.

This makes it $109.43 (£79) on food and drink, and $38.53 (£27.80) on clothes. I knew I’d probably spend a fair amount on food and drink here, but I think that amount is not going to be feasible every day! Mind you, $73 (£52.70) of that was on dinner alone at Pere Antoine: Shrimp Creole, 2 Sex in the Quarter cocktails, and Bananas Foster Beignet Fries for dessert. All delicious and very filling, and definitely worth it – especially because of the great service. Our waiter seemed really tickled by us and kept saying he was going to record our banter!

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Mardi Gras!

Such an awesome day! And yet I managed to spend $40 (£29) less than yesterday. This was due to being bought some drinks by lively people; having a really late lunch of crepes with cheddar, goat’s cheese, mushroom and onion (delicious); getting a bit of an iffy tummy after dinner and drinks at the Hard Rock Cafe (thanks IBS!); and being a little tired after walking over 20,000 steps since 8am so only staying out until about 11.30pm.

Still, much fun was had by all! Money isn’t necessary to have a good time, especially when you’re with great people in a place with a fantastic atmosphere.

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Our last full day in New Orleans I spent even less money with almost all of it being on food, apart from $1.25 on the street car from near Lafayette Cemetery back to Canal Street and the edge of the French Quarter. What ended up being even better (although it was really annoying at the time) was that our dinner at Carmo took absolutely ages and the service was really bad, but after complaining they comp’d the whole meal! Because of that we did give them a tip of $10 in the end, although we hadn’t been going to give them any tip until then (tipping 15-20% is standard and expected in the US, and where most wait staff make their money as the minimum wage is so low). This made my total spending for the day only $57.73 (£41). Much better than the previous days!

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Sadly we said goodbye to New Orleans this morning (Thursday), but then hello to Miami!

The airport shuttle had been paid for on the way to our hotel, so there was no extra cost there. We took an Uber from the airport to South Beach ($22.49/£16) as it was the quickest and easiest way, then left our luggage at the Luggage Locker on 9th Street between Washington and Collins Streets for $10 (£7) each so we could enjoy the day without dragging our suitcases with us.

After grabbing a quick slice of pizza and a drink for lunch ($11/£7.80), we headed for the beach! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a wide sandy beach before. It went on for miles! With practically no shade anywhere other than beach umbrellas and loungers you had to pay for, of course. We ate our pizza lunch in a small bit of shade we found next to a cabin-type construction then I went for a paddle while E changed into her swimwear. As I burn something chronic in the sun, even when I use copious amounts of sun block, I decided that a paddle was enough for me, and headed along the main road next to the beach to find somewhere I could sit and chill while E went for a swim. Eventually we found somewhere that wasn’t blasting out party music at full volume, and I set up camp there.

Of course, I had to order a drink while I was there and decided on a South Beach Vice cocktail, which was half mango and half strawberry frozen margarita. It was the most enormous cocktail I’ve ever seen! Just ridiculous!

But very tasty. E returned about an hour and a half later, by which time I was just about finishing my huge cocktail, which we then replaced with a free one of the same and shared. Once we’d finished that and got our bill, the waiter brought over two large glasses of tequila with salt and lime on the edge for us, for free! That definitely sent us over the edge and into fits of giggles, and all for the princely sum of $50 (£35).

Dinner was in a lovely vegetarian restaurant down the street called Plant Therapy, after retrieving our luggage as the storage place closed at 6pm. I had an artichoke ‘burger’, which was delicious, and we both had a couple more (regular-sized) cocktails (total $46.68/£33 each).

Finally we got an Uber to Fort Lauderdale Airport for $44.44 (£31.65) to catch our flight from Miami to Costa Rica and the next leg of our holiday.

***

Costa Rica!

Our flight arrived at 1am on Friday 16th February. Not the best time to arrive anywhere really. After a lot of checking information and considering options, we decided it would be best to go straight to the place we were staying Friday night. This was a three hour drive away from San José Airport in La Fortuna. I had arranged for a driver from our hotel to pick us up from the airport at 1.30am, with the plan that we’d sleep on the plane and in the car, and the money we saved from not paying for a hotel that night would go towards the cost of the airport pick-up ($140/£99). Unfortunately I didn’t sleep well on the plane and the road was so twisty and foggy on the drive to the hotel that I felt really ill and couldn’t sleep then either.

Luckily, the people in Costa Rica are super friendly, and even though our room wasn’t ready when we arrived at Hotel Las Orquideas at around 4am ish, the driver showed us to a tiny room with a small double bed and got us a duvet and pillow each so we could get some sleep. In the morning, the owner let us check in as soon as the room was ready about 11am, instead of waiting for the standard check-in time of 2pm. We decided to give him a good tip (C10,000/$17.50/£12.50) and a great review as he was so friendly and really helpful during our whole stay, not just at the beginning.

We were both fairly shattered from the overnight journey so decided to spend our first day at one of the hot springs resorts. We got a good deal through Gustavo, our hotel owner, of entry to Hotel Los Lagos thermal pools plus dinner for $35 (£25) each. It was really lovely there and the perfect thing to do, especially with the intermittent rain.

Saturday we had brunch at Red Frog (delicious Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto, vegetables and fetid eggs with a cup of tea for $11/£8) and then spent the afternoon hiking around Arenal National Park and admiring the still-active volcano, the surrounding rainforest and the many different birds (C13,000/$22/£16 entrance fee for 2 people to the park, plus C12,000/$21/£15 taxi there and back).

The day ended with dinner and cocktails in La Fortuna: Cocktails at restaurant Nene C10,500/$19/£13; Dinner at Veggie Sub C10,000/$17.50/£12.50; after dinner cocktails C11,100/$20/£14; taxi home C1750/$3/£2.20). As you can see, food and taxis are pretty cheap, alcohol not as cheap but still better than in the UK.

***

Sunday has come around much too quickly.

After brunch at Red Frog again (it really was tasty), we had a little while to go and see the free natural hot springs (definitely worth checking out for the price of a taxi there and back C17,500/$30/£22) before our shuttle picked us up from Hotel La Orquideas at 1pm and we said goodbye to Gustavos and Arenal Volcano.

The shuttle took about 5 hours 30 minutes to get from La Fortuna to Puerto Viejo, Limon, on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica and cost $62 (£44) each with Caribeshuttle.com. By far the cheapest and best way to get from one side of the country to the other.

Once we’d checked in, we left our luggage in our room, went for a quick walk down to the beach and then went to find food for dinner. The first place we found was closed, but outside was an older couple who we started talking to and they invited us to join them in finding a restaurant for dinner. It turned out they’re American and have lived here for six years since retiring. We accompanied them to a gorgeous Italian restaurant called La Pecora Nera, which we would never have found ourselves, and we had a really lovely evening with them (C24,750/$43/£31 each for dinner and wine, plus C4,000/$7/£5 for the taxi back to Playa Chiquita Lodge where we’re staying).

***

Week 7 has been much more expensive than any of the previous weeks so far, which I completely expected, totalling $866/£617 for the week. This does of course include lots of travelling, eating out and activities which I wouldn’t usually be doing. I’ve still pretty much stuck to not buying ‘stuff’, and it’s made me think much more carefully about what to buy for a souvenir that would actually be useful not just decorative.

Next week more Costa Rica!

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)!

Summer Adventure part 2: Mongolia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next stop: Irkutsk, Russia.

Summer Adventure part 1: Beijing

My epic summer adventure – travelling from China to the UK by train across Asia and Europe – began with two days in Beijing.

Myself and my friend Emily arrived quite late on Sunday night and were met at the airport by the guide arranged through RealRussia, with whom we had booked the first part of our adventure – Beijing to Moscow via Ulaan-Baatar, Irkutsk and Yekaterinburg. Emily decided that she wanted to see the flag raising ceremony in Tiananmen Square at dawn, which meant she had to leave at 4am to get there in time. I decided to stay in bed! And when she returned a few hours later I was quite glad I had as her description of the event was “underwhelming”. Her advice – don’t bother getting up for it. Most of the square is cordoned off, which means you end up standing a fair distance away behind the huge crowds of people that have also made the trip, the soldiers are in their standard uniform and the music is canned.

After Emily’s return around 6am we both went back to sleep for a while before starting our day properly about 9.30am. We found out we were too late for the hotel breakfast, which finished at 9am, so we found a little noodle bar down the road for brunch instead.

Having replenished ourselves we set off for the Summer Palace. Emily had intended to visit the Forbidden City after watching the flag raising ceremony, however, contrary to the information on the website, it is closed every Monday.

We had a lovely day at the Summer Palace, which is huge. Even though I’d been there before, because we entered through a different gate I saw a great deal of the grounds, lakes and buildings I hadn’t seen before. We took a boat ride across the lake from the market street to the bridge with seventeen arches, which wasn’t particularly cheap but was a really nice a relaxing way to get around and see the palace and its grounds.

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With a pit-stop for coffee (Emily) and ice cream (both of us) halfway through our visit, we finally left at around 4pm (once we’d figured out how to get out! You’d think there would be signs…) to head back towards the hutong we were staying in. We were due to meet a friend of Emily’s but as he was late we had a wander around the hutongs and along the main street of the area. Lined with shops, stalls, cafes and various other food and souvenir products, it was a lively bustle of music, smells, people and fascinating things to see; everything from the shop selling handmade porcelain ocarinas shaped like different animals, to ice creams shaped like roses, delicate fans of every colour and design you could imagine, to someone dressed as a hot dog to attract people to the American-style diner.

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MaoMaoChong was our next port of call – a great little cocktail bar in the hutong with an excellent range of cocktails, an owner who speaks English and is happy to cater to your tastes, and delicious pizzas. It was there we met Emily’s friend Z and his girlfriend J and tried some of the tasty cocktails for ourselves. This was followed by dinner at a local place that served a whole leg of lamb over a hot grill in the middle of the table, accompanied by homemade bread and various side dishes such as black fungi, radishes with black bean sauce and a white, thinly sliced vegetable with some kind of gloopy sauce. The lamb was absolutely delicious; so much so that we ordered a second!

We ended the evening having a couple of drinks at a different local bar that has several homebrews as well as a Shenzhen special (which I found quite surprising!). Luckily for me, the owner told me I could order a non-beer drink via him from the restaurant next door and they would even bring it through for me. It was a great end to the first day of our trip.

The following day Emily had booked a hike along a lesser known part of the Great Wall with an organisation called Great Wall Fresh. It’s a family runs business that grows all their own produce and escorts visitors on hikes of various routes and challenges, whilst also providing them with a healthy home grown meal before and after their journey. I had already decided that wasn’t for me, so after having breakfast together and wishing Emily well, I went back to bed for a bit. I was still on sleep catch-up after a really long semester.

In the afternoon I went for a wander around the huntongs by our hotel. It was lovely just wandering around the little back streets, passing odd shops here and there and admiring the traditional architecture wherever I came across it. After a while I came to the back of the nearby temple the hotel staff had told me about before I set off. I followed the wall around to the entrance and discovered it was a huge and well-known temple called Yonghe Temple. I spent well over an hour exploring the grounds which were pervaded by the scent of incense. Looking at the different styles of architecture that had been used for the different temples within the complex during different periods of time or because of variations in the local religion gave an interesting insight into the history of the place. You’re not allowed to take photos inside any of the buildings as they are all still used as active places of worship and prayer; this gives each temple a sense of peace and dignity that all visitors respect, regardless of their own beliefs.

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After a bite to eat for dinner at a random place I found in the same area we’d been the night before, I headed back to the hotel to meet Emily after her Great Wall adventure. We decided that we’d enjoyed the cocktails so much the night before we had to go back and try some different ones. We were not disappointed. We also tried the pumpkin, pine nut, rocket and feta pizza, which was delicious and the perfect accompaniment to the cocktails.

We ended the evening with a walk through the huntongs and along the canals to a lake, all beautifully lit among the trees, and had a final drink at the East Shore Jazz Café overlooking the lake. Unfortunately there was no live music and so we were the only people in there, but it was nice and relaxing.

When we got back to our hotel, our other friend Louise had arrived (she was supposed to be on the same flight with us to Beijing but had been delayed), so we said hi to her before going to bed.

The following day began our Trans-Mongolian Railway journey with 28 hours on a train from Beijing to Ulaan-Baator, Mongolia.