My friends and I arrived in Jodhpur about 5pm. As the hotel had its own restaurant and bar we decided to stay in for the evening and just have a few drinks and snacks there while playing games. It was a fun evening, which once more involved playing several rounds of Monopoly Deal.
The next day we picked up our local guide for the day, Sunny. He told us that Jodhpur is known as the blue city, whilst Jaipur is the pink city and Udaipur is the white city. The houses in Jodhpur are painted blue to distinguish the houses of the Brahmin, to keep cool in the summer and because mosquitoes hate blue.
The main attraction in Jodhpur is the Mehrangarh (which means majestic) Fort, which presides over the city from the hilltop. The views from the top are stunning, even before exploring the splendours of the more than 500-year-old fort. It took around 200 years to build and was completed in 1459.
Traditional Marwar painting, which are the best rice paper paintings in the world, decorates the walls around the entrance and is restored regularly. The current Maharaja became so when he was only 4 years old because his father died in a plane crash, and he’s now 72. He has no real power politically and he still lives in the palace. We spent most of the morning walking around the fort and admiring the size of the place and the intricacies of the carvings and paintings.
Partway through our tour we were treated to a short music demonstration using traditional Indian musical instruments. This kind of music in India has been used for meditation and yoga for 2000 years. It was very relaxing to listen to, I really enjoyed it and the proceeds went towards supporting traditional musicians in the area, so I bought a CD of the musician’s music. He told us that his father had been a musician for the Maharaja in the fort, and had taught him how to play.
We continued around the fort and saw a display of Marwar paintings, a statue of the first Maharaja, the cribs that had been used for the previous Maharajas, beautiful coloured glass windows, ornately decorated rooms and stunning views of the surrounding area.
Once we left the Majestic Fort, which truly lived up to it’s name, we drove the short distance to Jadwant Thada, which was built in 1906. Known as the Baby Taj Mahal and built from the same Makana marble used for it’s pure white colour, it is a tomb for the royal family. When the Maharaja dies and is cremated 99% of his ashes goes in the Ganges River and 1% is kept for the tomb.
Inside the tomb the walls are lined with paintings of all the previous Maharajas, each one with the dates of the time they ruled. Our guide Sunny told us that all Maharajas were warrior caste, which meant that the priests always higher caste and could tell the Maharaja what to do but didn’t value wealth so the Maharaja was always wealthier.
Just before we left the tomb, we were given a short taster session of meditation with a focus on chakras. The guide dabbed scented oils on our wrists and gave each of us a rose quartz necklace to wear during the demonstration which represented peace. We were told to choose a small coloured band each, and the guide then explained that each colour represented a different chakra and this was the area we should focus on. We had to put the band on the associated finger and roll it up and down that finger ten times. The guide next used a sound bowl while we closed our eyes and focused on our breathing and chakras for a few minutes.
Our final stop of the day was a visit to a textile shop and jewellery shop, where we were shown beautiful handmade fabrics and intricate pieces of jewellery.
After leaving the shops we said goodbye and thank you to our guide, and set off for our next destination: Sadhargarh Castle.
A huge lake that seemed to stretch all the way to the sky greeted us upon our arrival in Sambhar. Only a two hour drive from Jaipur, Sambhar Heritage Resort has two locations – one in the town of Sambhar and one the other side of Sambhar Salt Lake, the largest salt lake in India. We got a little lost finding the resort but we made it eventually and had our breath taken away by the stunning views across the lake.Shreyans, the manager, welcomed us to Sambhar Heritage Resort. We were given a drink of fresh guava juice with a rim of salt from the lake, and then shown to our rooms which were Swiss tents.The resort rooms are all tents because the land is owned by the government and so permanent structures are not allowed to be built there, other than those already there. One such building is the resort restaurant, NaCl, which is 150 years old and was built by the British. We had a delicious lunch in NaCl and around 3.20pm we set off for our local tour.We were asked if we’d rather drive along the road or across the lake, to which we said definitely across the lake! As it’s dry season the water level in the lake is lower than usual and so it’s possible to drive across part of the lake bed as a shortcut to the other side. We stopped for a few minutes to admire the view and look at the flocks of flamingos through the binoculars Shreyans had considerately brought with him for us to use.As we continued on our way we saw a few nilgai which is the largest of the Asian antelopes and whose name means ‘blue cow’. The females are brown and the males are a blue-grey colour. We got quite close before they bolted.Sambhar Salt Lake is 9% salt with a maximum depth of only 3.5 feet and is about 90 square miles. In comparison the ocean is usually around 3.5% salt.Across the curve of the lake we reached a small peninsula. Here we visited Shakhambari Temple, where there are Indian records showing there has been a temple here for at least 2000 years.In the temple we were blessed by the priest and each given a red bindi, our first of the trip. We then climbed up to a viewpoint where we had a 360 degree view of the lake and the hills behind.In this part of India Marwari is the local language and only a couple of the staff at the resort speak English. Shreyans’ English was excellent, which may be why he was our main contact and guide while we stayed in Sambhar.Once we’d had our fill of the views we drove back through a local village and to a small shop, encountering a few local animals on the way.We went back to the resort where we picked up bicycles so we could cycle along the dam across the lake. After a rather bumpy ride Shreyans showed us agood place to stop and watch flocks of flamingos fly overhead while the sun set. It was beautiful.We cycled back to the resort, and my bike chain came off for the second time whilst Toby’s bike broke completely; he got a ride on the back of the motorcycle Shreyans had ridden in on the back of, while he walked back with Toby’s broken bike.We had a few minutes chilling out in the room then met around 7pm for dinner, which was included in our tour package. We had an Indian feast! To start we had vegetable, noodle and coconut milk soup followed by an appetiser of tikka paneer. We then had palak paneer, mushroom curry and dal, accompanied by garlic naan, saffron rice and salad. This banquet was finished off with a hot carrot pudding, which was interesting in both flavour and texture. I quite liked it but the others weren’t so sure!We ended the evening playing Monopoly Deal with a couple of glasses of beer (or Bacardi breezer in my case) in Jo and Nikki’s room, before a very quiet night’s sleep interspersed with the sounds of wild animals.After a breakfast with all of the food, we went on a tiny train that seats only six people plus staff. It’s around 100 years old, stopped working in the 1970s and was renovated in the last couple of years to be used as a tourist attraction. It still has the same engine as when it had originally. It was used initially by the Britishers and engineers to check on the salt production. They always had to have five people on the train (three in the driver’s cabin and two in the back) as when they got to the far end the train had to be physically picked up and turned around to go back again! So for safety, we also had to have five people as well as us in case the train needed to be picked up and turned around.We rode the train out to the salt pans, with a short stop for the points to be manually changed. The colour of the water, and the stillness was incredible.At the salt pans water is pumped from the lake to the salt pans to a depth of 3-3.5 feet. It is left for about three months didn’t which it evaporates down to about 1-1.5 feet. Salt crystals form on the surface and once they get to a certain density they sink to the bottom. You can literally put your hand in the water and scoop out a handful of salt crystals.The larger pans use tractors to scoop out the salt crystals, the smaller ones in town are done by hand. Once the salt has been removed the remaining water is pumped out back to the lake. This left-over water has a very high bacteria content which means algae grows well which attracts the flamingos to the lake. Workers then remove the top layer of soil in the bottom of the pan by hand, add a fresh layer of soil then pump fresh water in from the lake and the whole process starts over again. Start to finish it takes around 3.5 months. As this is a government enterprise the salt is sold at only 5 rupees per kg. This is very cheap as most companies sell their salt for 12 rupees per kg.We stopped out by the salt pans while the manager Shreyans explained the process to us, and then waited while the workers collected some fresh salt to give us.There are 32 or 33 salt pans here and they produce 10% of the salt consumption for all of India. Sambhar salt is just for Indian consumption, it isn’t exported as mostly Himalayan salt is exported from India.This was our final experience in Sambhar, and absolutely fascinating. We were each given a small pot of the salt that had been collected for us to take home. A perfect souvenir before setting off for our next stop, Jodhpur.
We arrived in Jaipur around 10pm after a long day sightseeing in New Delhi followed by a long 5 hour drive. There was a bit of a mix up with the rooms but we (or rather, Toby) got it sorted and we eventually got to bed. We had breakfast at 8am and left at 9am to pick up our local guide, Arvind.
Arvind was a fountain of knowledge about Jaipur. He told us that Jaipur is known as the Pink City, it was founded in 1727, and built by the Hindu Maharaja Jaising. The red ochre colour of the buildings means good luck and welcoming, and was chosen by the Queen of Jaipur at the time. The interior city is 10 square km and surrounded by a wall with gates on the four sides, with a 2 mile 40 yard long straight road from the Sun Gate to the Moon Gate. Hindi is the main language in Jaipur, which is one of 18 languages spoken in India.
Our first stop was the Palace of the Wind. It has 5 floors, lots of tiny windows and was built in 1799.
Next we headed to the Amber Palace. Once we arrived in the small town surrounding the palace, we were asked whether we wanted to ride an elephant up. Toby and Nikki rode an elephant (all the elephants that walk up to the palace are well-looked after and only do a maximum of five trips a day, and are all female); Jo and I went in the car up the hill. Around the town and the package is a 12km long wall, like a mini version of the Great Wall of China. It was built in the 16th century, around the same time as the palace which was completed in 1592 by three different kings and took 25 years to build. In the town is also a palace from the 10th century with the same name.
The town next to the palace, Amber Town, is over 1000 years old. The town and palace names are the same, named after the Hindu goddess Amber, goddess of art. There was a 400-year-old painted fresco of the Hindu goddess Lakmi with lotus flowers, which is her flower and the symbol of prosperity and good luck. In the palace is a saffron garden; saffron is only grown in three places in the world: in Kashmir, India, in Spain and in Iran. Within the palace are two separate areas, the winter palace and the summer palace on opposite sides. In the winter palace is a mirrored room made with glass imported from Belgium. Interestingly, the Maharaja had a wheeled chair as he had 4kg of jewellery that he wore and so he couldn’t walk when wearing it all. He had 12 wives, and each wife had her own apartment within the palace.
Another thing our guide told us was about the Indian caste system. Hinduism is all across India, and there are 4 castes – priest is the highest level then warrior, merchant and lower caste. Maharajas are all warrior caste, which means the priests are above them although don’t have any wealth. Families are very traditional in India; people must marry within their caste and around 90% of marriages are arranged. When daughters get married their parents must provide a dowry, which means that in a poorer family with several daughters some of them may never marry. However the divorce rate is very low with only 5-10% of marriages ending in divorce. Unfortunately, due to this traditional outlook, a high percentage of women are still illiterate, mostly in the countryside.
Next we went to see Jal Mahal, the Water Palace, which was built in the 18th century and was where the Maharaja and queen would stay in the summers.
Jaipur is known for block printing fabric. Wooden blocks are used (minimum 1, maximum 7) or metal blocks for silk, to print intricate designs on a large sheet of fabric. This fabric is then turned into clothes, scarves, cushion covers, bed spreads and much more. Only vegetable dyes and all natural fabrics are used. Once the fabric has been printed it is then left in the sun for 40-60 hours then washed 2 or 3 times to fix the colours. They have to stop production in monsoon season, but otherwise it continues all year. According to the manager of the store, block printing is like a married man, never perfect! But that’s part of what makes it unique. More than 400 families living in nearby villages work on this project. After the demonstration we looked around the shop where they sell all the products and we were shown samples of all the different fabrics. None of us bought anything, although it was all very interesting.
Next it was time for lunch, and this time we had a buffet for 600 rupees at Aanandam restaurant. The food was fine, although not as good as lunch the previous day.
After lunch our guide took us to the City Palace, or the Palace of the Maharaja. We decided not to go in as cost was 3500 rupees (about £35) for the full tour, 2000 rupees (£20) for half or 700 rupees (£7) just for the museum.
As we were leaving we saw a small boy (who we had also seen at the Water Palace) who wanted to show us some magic. As it seemed he had followed us all the way there and waited for us we agreed to watch his magic show. He was actually really good. We just hoped that the tip Toby gave him wouldn’t be taken from him by older street children.
Next we went to Jantar Mantar, which means ‘instrument of calculation’. This is a large complex of huge astronomical instruments that are part of the buildings. It was built in 1728 by the founder of Jaipur city and took 6 years to build. The various instruments are used to calculate the angle of the sun, planets and constellations, as well as make people’s horoscopes. You can also find the biggest sun dial in the world here, and loads of chipmunks running up and down one of the trees.
Finally our guide took us to a spice market stall, some flower stalls and a small bazaar (which was really a line of small shops) selling jewellery, shoes and clothes.
On the way back to our hotel we drove past Albert Hall, which was built in 1876 and named after Prince Albert who came over from London to visit Jaipur around that time.
For dinner we explored the area near our hotel and eventually found a place not too far away. We ended our stay in Jaipur with some tasty food and a couple of drinks.
Travelling from Hong Kong to New Delhi, India, turned into a bit of a saga. To begin with our flight time was changed to an hour later. We boarded for the new flight time of 8.35am and then sat on the tarmac until finally taking off at 10.10am. Probably because of this delay, we then had to make an unscheduled landing in Varanasi to refuel! We eventually landed in New Delhi at 3.50pm, 3 and a half hours later than scheduled. By the time we got our luggage, found an ATM and got sim cards, the driver who was picking us up to take us to our hotel had been waiting around 7 hours for us! I felt really bad for him, but there was nothing Toby and I could do except explain and apologise.
Another hour and twenty minutes later, and we arrived at our hotel for the night where we met our friends Nikki and Jo who we would be travelling with for the next two weeks. We had a delicious dinner of paneer tikka butter masala with garlic naan in the hotel restaurant, and then went straight to bed.The next morning began the first day of our tour. At 9am after breakfast we were collected from our hotel by our driver, Swami, who was to be with us for the whole two week tour. We picked up our local guide for the day, Shiva, and drove to our first site: Jama Mosque.
A flight of steps rose up to the entrance, where we had to leave our shoes and rent a long robe (women only) to wear over our clothes. Built in 1650-1656, Jama Mosque is the largest mosque in India and is still used for religious ceremonies and services as well as being a tourist attraction.
After a tour of the main courtyard and building, we were asked if we wanted to climb the tower for an extra 100 rupees. Of course we said yes, and proceeded to climb the 120 very narrow, steep and twisty steps to the top. At the top there was no barrier around the stairs so it felt rather precarious on the tiny landing, especially as there were four other people already up there. However, it was definitely worth it for the view.
After returning the robe and paying a small fee to the man who was looking after our shoes, we drove to the Rajghat – the memorial for Mahatma Ghandi. He was cremated in Delhi and his ashes were scattered in the rivers of India. The stones of those rivers were then placed around the memorial.
It was very peaceful, and I found it quite surprising that such a large, green area was in the middle of New Delhi after all the noise and dust of the traffic just a short distance away. Flying just overhead were many eagles, which I also found surprising as I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many in one place in the wild.
We drove past the president’s house which was surrounded by people setting up for celebrations for Republic Day on 26th January. We weren’t allowed to stop as tourists aren’t allowed in any of the 340 rooms in the president’s house. India has a president as well as a prime minister; our guide Shiva told us that the president is just a signatory with no actual powers and the prime minister is the main person in charge. He also told us a little of the history of India: Independence Day is celebrated on 15th August; India was ruled by the Moguls 1246-1857 and ruled by the British 1857-1947. He also told us that Muslims always used red stone for buildings with some white marble to make it beautiful, apart from the Taj Mahal which is all white marble, whereas the British always used sandstone so this is how you can tell who built various buildings.
The India Gate was our next – very brief – stop. A huge war memorial of the British times and reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe, it was built 1912-1929 at the same time as the president’s house and parliament buildings. This is the VIP area of the city, with all the buildings designed by the same architect, Edwin Ludynes.
Our next stop was a delightful restaurant called Suribachi for lunch, which was so delicious! We shared dishes of paneer butter tikka masala, cauliflower curry, broccoli roasted with yogurt and cheese, garlic naan and saffron rice. I tried to order fresh lime juice but instead was given salted lime juice. I asked for sweet lime juice instead and they just added sugar to the same drink so it was still salty, if a little less so. I tried to ask again for sweet not salty and the same thing was repeated. On the fourth attempt I finally managed to get a fresh drink with just sugar and no salt added! A classic example of the language barrier in effect, but I was none the worse for wear and tried a salty lime juice drink I would never have ordered otherwise.
After lunch we were taken to a shop selling carpets made from Kashmir wool, pashmina and silk. We were given a talk about how the carpets are made on a hand loom: a carpet 2.5ft by 4ft takes 5 months to make; a carpet 6 by 9ft takes 14 months with 282 knots pet square inch, and costs £1485 delivered to your home somewhere in the world; the largest size carpet takes 2.5 years to make. They draw the design on graph paper first then transfer it to a coded chart, which they follow on the loom. The carpets are hand-knotted: each knot is individually tied, pushed down into the row and cut. Each is cut downwards which gives a diagonal direction to the pile, and you can then tell the difference between a hand-knotted carpet and a machine made carpet. Also cutting the threads diagonally gives a different shade of colour depending which direction you look at it, dark one side, light the other, which machine-made carpets don’t have. Then the row is pushed down and the base threads are switched front and back before repeating the whole process with the next row. The edging is done separately. When the carpet is finished on the loom it’s taken off and trimmed with special scissors flat on the floor. Only natural vegetable dyes are used to dye the threads. The back is as good as the front with the design, which is another way of telling hand-made carpets from machine-made. The carpets are always washed before being sold as they have been on the loom for months, or sometimes even years.
Our final stop of the day was Qutub Minar, which is named after the person who designed it and had it built, and is a UNESCO World heritage site. It was built in 1193-1210 and is 72.5 metres tall – the tallest building from the 12th century – with 379 stairs to the top. The buildings next to it were built in the 4th century as a Hindu temple but then were converted into a mosque when the minar was built.
In 1296-1311 work on the nearby Alai tower began. It was planned to be 150 metres tall but Alai, who was building it, died and no one else thought it could be done so it was left unfinished and only the base remains.
Once we left the Qutub Minar our tour guide Shiva left, with a tip of 1000 rupees from us, to catch the bus. We set off on a 5 hour drive to Jaipur after a fantastic first day in New Delhi, India.
The main reason my sister and I chose to stay in Naples for our holiday this year was so we could visit Pompeii. We researched lots of different options and in the end decided on a full day tour which consisted of a guided tour of Pompeii in the morning, lunch and wine tasting at a vineyard on the slopes of Vesuvius and climbing to the top of the volcano in the afternoon. It was on the expensive side (around £256 for 2 people) but well worth it, and something I would thoroughly recommend if you have the time and budget.Once we’d made our way to the pick-up point by the train station, we had a short coach ride to Pompeii for a three-hour guided tour. Our guide was very knowledgeable and made sure that our group had time to look around for ourselves as well as showing and telling us about different areas. The main thing that struck me about Pompeii was the sheer size of the place. I knew it had been a town, but I hadn’t realised it had been a sizeable city of several thousand people before Vesuvius had decimated it in 79AD. Two thirds of it have been excavated, giving a huge area that can be explored. It’s absolutely amazing. If you haven’t been there, go!At the end of our guided tour of Pompeii we had a few minutes to buy a drink and souvenirs. My sister and I got matching bracelets made of Vesuvius rock and Murano glass beads, as well as a lemon granita as it was really hot. Our group headed back to the coach and then to the vineyard on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius where we would have our lunch.The vineyard was gorgeous. We were given a short tour which included an explanation of how they use roses at the end of each row of vines to check for diseases instead of using pesticides. Lunch was held in an open room which looked out towards Vesuvius’ peak.Along with lunch we got to try six different wines produced at the vineyard. It was a really great way to do wine tasting, as it really made a difference and gave you an idea of the kinds of dishes different wines would go with. We had a sparkling rosé, a still rosé, a white, two reds and a dessert wine, all of which were delicious and went perfectly with the simple yet scrumptious food. Of course, I preferred the reds, and if I hadn’t been about to go travelling for a few weeks I may have bought some to take back with me! My sister bought one of the rooster jugs as it was really cool – the water poured out of its beak!Instead of the usual post-lunch nap, our afternoon was going to be spent walking off lunch by going to the top of Mount Vesuvius. The hike up took about 45 minutes and was quite steep most of the way, but the views were absolutely worth it. We had enough time at the top to stop for a quick cold drink, get a good look into the crater and walk most of the way around the rim. There were also souvenirs in a small kiosk, which my sister took full advantage of!After we’d admired the view sufficiently, we made our way back down the volcano, found our coach and headed back to Naples for dinner and some chill out time before an early night. It was an exhausting but awesome day, and definitely one to tick off the bucket list.The next day we visited Herculaneum or Ercolano, as it is in Italian. This was another town which was devastated by the same eruption of Vesuvius as destroyed Pompeii; however, this one was covered with lava rather than ash. This meant that many more buildings were preserved in a much better condition than those in Pompeii.When we first entered the site we were a little underwhelmed by the size of it having just been to the city of Pompeii. Once we started looking around though, we discovered just how well-preserved it was. Many buildings still had roofs, mosaics on the floors and paint on the walls. It took us nearly three hours to look at the most significant buildings and it was fascinating to see the detail in the mosaics and wall decorations.If you visit Pompeii, ensure you make time for a visit to Herculaneum as well.As a side note, there are two train stations in Ercolano and the site of Herculaneum is about a fifteen minute walk from either one, pretty much in the middle of the town. Don’t let a taxi driver talk you into believing it’s 6km away and charging you €10 to take you there via a very scenic route as we did!
When we were organising our holiday to Naples, my sister Sarah and I decided to do a day trip to Rome. We booked as much as we could in advance – train tickets, guided tour of the Vatican, entrance to the Colosseum and Roman Forum – and we were very glad that we did. It meant we skipped most of the queues and saved us a lot of time which we then spent doing other, more exciting things.
We had an action packed, tiring and brilliant day. Starting off with possibly the best train service ever on the train from Naples to Rome at 8am, we got free soft drinks and snacks plus a nearly empty carriage meant we could both sit facing forward (we both get motion sickness and can’t deal with travelling backwards). After a bit of a search through Roma Termini train station we eventually found tourist information, got a map, found out where everything was we wanted to see and how to get there, and got a metro ticket for the day.
Our first stop was the Spanish Steps to followed by a short walk to the Trevi Fountain. Lots of people of course, but definitely worth seeing. I had forgotten how big the Trevi Fountain is, and my sister was very impressed by it.
From here we headed back towards the metro and stopped at a small cafe to share a four cheese pizza for an early lunch, before going to the Vatican for our guided tour.
The three hour tour around the Vatican, including the museum, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica, was a whirlwind tour that gave us a snapshot of everything the Vatican has to show. I’m going to do a separate post with all the photos I took inside the Vatican because there are just so many! Here’s the entrance though…
After the Vatican tour ended at 3.30pm, our Colosseum entry began at 4.40pm so as our feet were aching from so much walking already we decided to get a taxi there so we could sit for a few minutes. Definitely worth the 8 euros, especially as we drove past the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, affectionately known as ‘The Typewriter’.
The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine next to it are very impressive, and although you can see both of these without paying a penny the entrance ticket gives you access to the Roman Forum as well as the inside of the Colosseum. Inside there are many displays with information about the history of Rome and artefacts which were found in and around the area. Specific tours can even take you down to the floor of the arena and into the pits underneath where the gladiators and animals waited before the games.
The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill are more examples of the spectacular achievements of the Roman Empire, just a short walk from the Colosseum. There you will find temples, monuments, statues and ancient government buildings where the Roman Senate itself was founded. Beyond these is the Circus Maximums, which was the first and largest circus in the Roman Empire, where chariot races were held.By the time we finished looking around the forum, we were starving so we went in search of the closest restaurant. The place we eventually found was Angelino ‘ai Fori’ dal 1947, where we had delicious food and cocktails (although my sister didn’t like her aperol spritz!).Finally we made our way to the station for our train back to Naples only to find out that it – and all the other trains to Naples – had been delayed by around 2 hours. Luckily we were able to get on an earlier train that had also been delayed, meaning we only left Rome about 40 minutes later than planned instead of 2 hours. Despite this it was an epic, if exhausting, day.
My advice to other people? Spend at least 2 days in Rome so you’re not shattered after trying to fit everything in!
Yes, you read right. Otherwise known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK, North Korea is one of those places that no-one ever seems to visit. So when I saw a tour there during the Chinese New Year holiday I jumped at the chance!
Dandong, China, is the border town with North Korea. I arrived around 8.30pm on Monday 4th February, checked in and met my roommate for the next week, Amaia. Randomly there was a knock at our hotel room around 9.30pm; upon opening the door we were given a portion of dumplings!
The adventure began early the next morning when we congregated in the hotel lobby to meet our Chinese guide Sabrina and the other 10 people on the tour. After collecting our North Korean visas and being given some last bits of essential information we went to the train station (handily, just next door to the hotel) to catch the 10am train from Dandong to Pyongyang. Of course, we had to go through customs on the Chinese side before we were allowed into the waiting area for the train. We were all surprised how busy it was.
Once we were all settled on the train (we were in a Chinese ‘hard sleeper’ carriage, which means there’s 3 bunks above each other in each section) it only took a few minutes before we were crossing the river over the Friendship Bridge and entering North Korea. We then stopped at Sinuiju for about two hours for customs entering DPRK. All our passports and North Korean visas were collected, our luggage was looked through and our electrical items were made a note of. All in all, it wasn’t a lot more of a check than getting the train into Mongolia from China, which I did about 3 years ago.
After we’d successfully made it through customs we were in North Korea proper. The train journey from Dandong to Pyongyang took around 8 and a half hours, including the two hour stop in Sinuiju. It was mostly spent chatting to the other people on the tour, looking at the passing scenery, and snoozing. One thing that made the whole trip extra special was the company – everyone on the tour got on really well, whether they had known each other beforehand or not.
We were captivated by the scenery as we travelled through the countryside, seeing expanses of farmland, barren with the winter temperatures, monuments and colourful murals dotted amongst rural villages and empty roads, and people walking or cycling as they went about their daily lives. Around 6:45pm DPRK time (an hour ahead of China) we arrived in Pyongyang where we were greeted by our tour guide Kim, met our other guide Pak, our cameraman Kim Su and our driver An.
It was dark by the time we arrived in Pyongyang, so we didn’t see much of the city as we were driven to the hotel that was to be our home during our stay in Pyongyang: Yanggakdo International Hotel. We were taken straight to the revolving restaurant on the 47th floor of the hotel for our first North Korean meal – seafood hotpot with shredded cabbage salad followed by grilled fish and rice and ending with breaded pork cutlets (which I didn’t eat as I’m vegetarian) and home-made fries.
A long day of travelling and excitement had left everyone on the tour tired and ready for a good night’s sleep after dinner and a bit of exploring . The rooms in the ‘special class’ hotel (equivalent to 5 star) were comfortable and spacious, and the beds were much softer than most Chinese hotel beds! There were also all the usual facilities in the hotel – a shop, three restaurants, a swimming pool, pool tables and a casino. Myself, Amaia, Christina, Hossam and Thomas decided to check out the casino after dinner. There was a long row of fruit machines along the corridor, more round the corner, and in the main room were several baccarat tables with a few Chinese players and two tables with a dice game a little like roulette. Thomas had a bit of a gamble on the dice game while we all watched; it was fun! We also checked out the hotel shop, buying essential supplies like drinks and chocolate. This came to the grand total of 245 North Korean Won (17RMB or £1.95), which we had to pay in either RMB, US dollars or Euros as foreigners are not allowed to have North Korean currency.
The morning of our first full day in DPRK was spent on our minibus driving to Masikryong Ski Resort through dramatic mountainous countryside speckled with ice and snow. On the way we stopped at the Mausoleum of King Tong Myong where we were told about the 5000 year long history of Korea by a lecturer.
We left the mausoleum around 9.20am; about halfway through our journey we stopped for a rest break where there was a frozen lake.
We eventually arrived at Masikryong Ski Resort around 1pm, where we checked in and went straight for lunch: pickled radish, polenta pancake, shredded potato (the meat-eaters had grilled fish), tempura daisy herb leaves (pork chops for the others), kimchi and tofu with red pepper sauce. Each dish was brought out one at a time and it was all really tasty (although the kimchi was a bit too spicy for me!).
After lunch most of our group went skiing whilst Christina and I decided to get the cable car to the top of the mountain. The cameraman decided to join us and film us in the gondola – slightly awkward in such a small space! At the top of the mountain we bumped into a few of the lads from our group who were setting off to ski downhill; the cameraman then decided to go and film them – probably because skiing was much more interesting than watching us drink tea and coffee in the café at the top!
Once we returned to the base of the ski slope we bumped into Hossam and Jane going on a ride on snowmobiles up the mountain, and Kim on skis for the first time. Myself and Christina decided to check out the spa facilities and Frances, who had had a go at skiing with the others but had had enough by then, decided to join us to get out of the cold. The spa was in the basement level of the hotel, and oddly we had to walk through the changing rooms and through the swimming pool to get to the massage room, where the masseuses kicked out the Chinese man who was in there so we could have the room to ourselves! We had a foot massage which was lovely and relaxing, then headed back to our rooms for a bit until we all met up for dinner.
Dinner followed a similar pattern to the previous meals – several small dishes brought out individually: potato pancake and shredded vegetables, kimchi, tempura vegetables (fish for the others), sautéed cabbage and other veg (or beef stir fry), spicy seaweed soup and rice with peas. We then all asked for ice cream (which we had to pay extra for) and had a bit of an interesting time trying to figure out the flavours available – first of all we were told pink or yellow then that there was only yellow or coffee. I of course went for the yellow ice cream which turned out to be pineapple flavour and delicious.
After dinner Amaia, Christina, Hossam and I decided to look for the karaoke in the hotel basement level. We found a room labelled ‘Dance Hall’ which was empty apart from a small stage with a drum kit, guitar and bass guitar on it, a bar opposite and one member of staff. She proceeded to turn on the disco lights and hand us a book of available songs for karaoke, so we took that as a sign that we were there to start the singing!
We were really surprised at all the Western songs that were available to sing; such classics as Bohemian Rhapsody, Like A Virgin, Wind of Change, I Will Survive and Breathless to name a few. After a while JP came and joined Hossam to serenade us with House of the Rising Sun, followed by Thomas, Alexander, Daniel and Marius. Christina finally persuaded the four lads to sing a rousing rendition of 99 Red Balloons in German (as they’re all German!). Our two tour guides Kim and Pak came and joined us for a while and we cheered them on to sing too. They treated us to a traditional Korean folk song followed by the well known ballad My Heart Will Go On, which we all joined in with.
One of the best parts of the evening was during a lull in the singing. A demo Korean song came on the TVs and JP had a go at singing along with it (and a very good effort he made too!). When the second Korean song came on the bar lady changed it to a new Korean song, stood up in front of us and performed amazingly. She graced us with two more Korean songs after that as most of us felt we couldn’t follow an act that good! It was a wonderful end to a brilliant first day in North Korea.
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 ofPersephone’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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.