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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Memorable Journey #6: 28 Hours on the Trans-Mongolian Express

This is a guest post I did for Clara from expatpartnersurvival.com, all about the first train journey I did on my Summer Adventure. Hope you enjoy it!

Epic train journeys – they’re the stuff of many true travellers’ fantasies. I know I have always wanted to do one of those mega-trips, the ones that you read about in the travel section of the Sunday papers and think ah, one day….But actually are they a bit over-romaticised? I’m sure if you’re willing to take out a second mortage on your house, you can still pay for one of those ultra-luxury Orient Express affairs and traverse the countryside in proper style. But how about doing one of those famous trips without the four-course dinners and the viewing lounges? What is it really like? For the latest in my Memorable Journeys series, we hear from Rachel of Persephone’s Blog – who actually wrote this half way through her amazing trip from China (where she has been teaching) to the UK.

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Travelling from Beijing, China, to Ulan-Bator, Mongolia, could have taken a few short hours on a plane. However, myself and the two friends I was travelling with decided that a trip on the Trans-Mongolian Express train would be a better idea.

I know it’s a long way, but I think calling it ‘express’ is being a bit overambitious.

We were picked up from our hotel at 9.30am by the tour guide and driver who had been organised by the company we’d booked our travels with. The guide seemed nice enough but also didn’t seem to pay any attention to what we said to him. He started explaining that we would have to walk to the end of the street as the driver couldn’t drive up such a narrow street; we told him we’d been there for three days and were dropped off in the same place when we arrived so we knew about walking to the corner, but he paid no attention, even to me saying, “We know. We know. We know!” In the end we just let him talk. It was easier.

Arriving at Beijing Train Station we had to queue for about 15 minutes for our passports and tickets to be checked before being allowed through to security for our bags to be scanned – just like at the airport. We then had to wait for our guide to be allowed through (as he didn’t have a ticket), even though by the time he caught up with us we had found out where we needed to go and which platform our train was leaving from. Not that difficult, really, if you know your train number and time of departure.

After picking up a few snacks and drinks for the journey, we got to the platform entrance only to find that the platform wasn’t open yet and many other people were also waiting there with suitcases, rucksacks and random boxes. So began the first of many periods of waiting on our journey.

The platform was opened after a while and we eventually found the carriage and compartment that were due to be ours for the next 28 hours or so. Luckily for us, no one else joined us in the tiny four berth compartment, which gave us a little more space. We departed promptly at 11.22am, Beijing time.

Once the train had got going, one of the guards came to our compartment and gave us tickets – for food, we discovered – lunch and dinner, which was a nice surprise. Lunch consisted of rice, cabbage and some kind of meat with carrots in a nice sauce – much better than many meals I’ve had on flights and the like. We were lucky we went straight to lunch as soon as we got the tickets as otherwise we wouldn’t have got a table. There was really not enough space for everyone that wanted food at the same time. In some ways this ended up being a good thing, as then we started chatting with some of the other passengers.

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The afternoon consisted of reading (I finished my book), looking at the passing scenery, taking occasional photos and chatting, until 5.30pm came around and it was time for dinner – which was very similar to lunch. However, this time we had wine with our meal (Great Wall wine which cost £4.50 a bottle and we had to add coke to, Spanish style, to make it drinkable). We chatted with a few more people and ended up ordering another bottle of wine (plus three cans of coke) as we watched the beautiful colours of the sky as the sun set over a vast plain.

Our conversation was only interrupted by a guard coming to tell us that we were nearly at the Chinese border and we had to go back to our compartments (in broken English, “Now, border, go,” with accompanying hand gestures). We shortly arrived in Erlian, had our passports and departure forms collected and then had another passenger told us we should get off the train as we would be stopped for hours with no available toilet. Accordingly, we disembarked and went into the main building… only to watch our train disappear down the tracks with all our luggage and passports and the doors be locked behind us. Slightly disconcerting.

I checked with one of the staff and she told us that the train would be back at 11.45pm as the wheels were being changed (due to different gauge tracks in different countries). The time then was about 10.40pm and we’d already waited almost an hour, so we decided it would be a good idea to go to the shop and buy vodka to keep us going!

The train eventually reappeared around midnight. We piled back on, got our passports back, were given another form to fill in for Mongolian customs, waited for ages then set off about an hour later on a short journey (about 20 minutes) to the Mongolian border. More officials then walked the train, checking and collecting passports, disappeared while the train moved backwards then forwards, backwards again, forwards again then stopped. We got our passports back with a small green stamp on a random page at the back. All this time we couldn’t use the toilets, and by then it was 2.40am. Sleep? Who needs sleep?! Thankfully, we didn’t have to get up at any particular time as we wouldn’t be arriving in Ulan-Bator until after 3pm the next day.

Around 3am we finally got to sleep, lulled by the rocking of the train. To be honest, I didn’t sleep that well but that was due more to the hardness of the bench I was sleeping on than anything else to do with the train.

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After a few false starts, I awoke properly just before 10am. The landscape was dramatically different. We’d been talking the day before about the changing landscapes we went through and whether Mongolia would look significantly different to China – and it was. Before we’d travelled through mountains, past lakes, through cities and past agricultural areas, all overshadowed by a misty sky the whole day. Mongolia was a vast, burnt umber plain disappearing into the distance as far as you could see, with a few cows grazing here and there, surmounted by clear blue skies with not a cloud in sight. It was breath-taking.

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A few hours later, spent mostly reading and snacking on the random junk food we’d picked up, we arrived in Ulan-Bator. We were finally in Mongolia, the second stop on an epic summer adventure. The next day we would go to visit and stay with a local family for two nights, sleeping in a ger out in the countryside. I couldn’t wait!

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Epic train journeys – they’re the stuff of many true travellers’ fantasies. I know I have always wanted to do one of those mega-trips, the ones that you read about in the travel section of the Sunday papers and think ah, one day….But actually are they a bit over-romaticised? I’m sure if you’re willing to take out a second mortage on your house, you can still pay for one of those ultra-luxury Orient Express affairs and traverse the countryside in proper style. But how about doing one of those famous trips without the four-course dinners and the viewing lounges? What is it really like? For the latest in my Memorable Journeys series, we hear from Rachel of Persephone’s Blog – who actually wrote this half way through her amazing trip from China (where she has been teaching) to the UK. 

MONGOLIA, Ulaanbaatar, Railway station MONGOLIA, Ulaanbaatar, Railway station

Travelling from Beijing, China, to Ulan-Bator…

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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.