Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Chiang Mai

I've been ill the last few days, but I've tried to make the most of it. I finished a book and started reading two new ones; watched Johnny English Reborn (terrible), Hot Tub Time Machine (quite funny), and The Prestige (amazing); and listened to all seven Foo Fighters albums in chronological order.

I'm in Chiang Mai for another week (Shaneel is leaving slightly earlier because he's going to Ko Tao before me to do his PADI Open Water course), and we're hoping to go trekking with elephants and white water rafting some time in the next few days. I'll finally have a chance to test my aquapac in action and hopefully take some waterproof photos.

Finished reading: Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams
Now reading: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Business Stripped Bare by Richard Branson
Listening to: Foo Fighters

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Bangkok

We've been away for just over a month now. Our last few days were spent in Bangkok, mainly eating street food, curry, and pad thai. The city is covered with loads of interesting little markets selling a wide selection of fake clothes, DVDs, tailored suits, and delicious fresh pineapple/watermelon/mango.

Bangkok: Khao San Road

My dad, who's working in India at the moment, flew over to Bangkok for the weekend to meet us. We took some Thai cooking lessons on Saturday and spent Sunday visiting the Grand Palace, which was fairly nice, and then went to the old king's residence to look at some teapots.

Cooking Lessons

Our original plan was to go to Siem Reap (Cambodia) to visit Angkor Wat (the world's biggest temple complex), but since large parts of that area are currently flooded we're skipping it and getting the train to Chiang Mai tonight, where we'll possibly go trekking.

Bangkok: Royal palace

I've uploaded some more photos, which you can see at http://www.flickr.com/photos/hcarlens/.

Finished reading: The New Paradigm For Financial Markets by George Soros, The Restaurant at the End of The Universe by Douglas Adams
Now reading: Life, the Universe and Everything by Douglas Adams
Listening to: Back in Black by AC/DC, The Black Album by Metallica

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Laos

Our first stop in Laos was Luang Prabang: a world heritage site, a haven of peace and quiet on the Mekong river surrounded by beautiful scenery. We had a great meal on our first night where some hot coals were put in a hole in the middle of our table and we had our very own mini bbq. Day two was spent walking around town, taking in the sights and as much food as often as we could manage. Travelling around Laos has been much easier than China since English is more widely spoken here, and there are far more western tourists.

Next was Vang Vieng, where we've been for 2 days now. It's completely different from Luang Prabang. We arrived here at 8pm to find a lot of drunk, mainly British, tourists wandering the streets. We headed out for dinner, and decided to go to a bar for a bit afterwards. We ended up going to two bars on the main street, and when they closed we joined everyone else in an island bar a short walk from the main part of the town. We met some awesome people, including two Austrian guys who, when asked about tubing, gave us the following piece of wisdom: 

  "When you go tubing, you think: '
   Oh no! I am going to die. 
   But don't worry, you won't die.
   ...Well, actually, you might die. '"

After getting back to our room for a quick nap, we headed out to rent tubes and get a tuk-tuk to the river. Tubing was described to us by most people as 'Going down the river on tractor inner tubes, stopping at bars along the way.' I would say it's more like going to a few bars which happen to have a river flowing between them. A lot of people don't even bother with the tube part, but there are swings and slides which were quite popular. We got to the first bar just after lunchtime, where we stayed until we crossed the river to the second and third bar, where we stayed until the evening. 

Part of the fun of tubing was slightly damped by knowing how many people die doing it, and it's hard to watch people dive/jump/slide into the river completely off their face without waiting to make sure they come back up again. Everything ended in a big water fight, and I made the mistake of asking a girl why she had mud all over her face which she replied to by saying "I had a mud fight. Have you ever had a mud fight?", followed by mud on my face and most of my upper body. We had a really good time and got a tuk-tuk back to town because it was too dark to tube back. 

We had dinner with two Cambridge girls we met on the river, who gave us some tips on travelling around Thailand and headed out into town again. Today, our last day in Vang Vieng, has gone quite quickly so far.  We went to one of the many bars in Vang Vieng which have continuous showings of Friends and sat around mostly doing not very much until it turned out to be evening again.  Tomorrow we're getting a sleeper train to Bangkok, where hopefully I'll be able to upload some photos.


Now reading: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
Listening to: Passive Me, Aggressive You by The Naked And Famous, Led Zeppelin II by Led Zeppelin, From the Sounds Inside by John Frusciante

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Kunming - Full Moon Festival

At the end of our first day in Kunming, we ventured into town to find
somewhere nice to eat. After finding what we thought was an open
restaurant (pictures of food on the walls, tables set out, staff
walking around...) we tried asking the staff for a menu, to no avail.
No one spoke English, and they kept saying something in Mandarin which
we, obviously, didn't quite understand. After a while they gave up
trying to say whatever they were saying, and just directed us to a
table.

Kunming - Full Moon Festival

Someone whom we assumed was a customer there came and sat down next to
us, offering us a lovely piece of the apple he was just peeling and
cutting up. We tried refusing, but in the end we just had to eat it.
After about 20 minutes of us sitting there awkwardly, someone who
spoke English turned up and explained to us that the restaurant was
family-owned, and closed for the night so the family could celebrate
the Full Moon Festival there. Family members started flooding in, and
we felt a bit out of place. They kept insisting we stay though, so we
did.

Kunming - Full Moon Festival

We ended up having an amazing meal, with endless amounts of delicious
food. We were also offered what we thought was wine (yes please) but
turned out to be some 42% spirit they drink with dinner (ok...well now
that you've brought us it I guess we'll just have to drink it). The
family was really friendly, we had a fun night and got an insight into
Chinese family life (in stark contrast to European culture, most of
the conversation was about how each of the male family members seemed
to have gained some weight).
I've tried attaching a photo with this post but I'm not sure if it
will work. For some reason Flickr isn't working here. I'll upload
some more photos when we get to Laos, which should be some time
tomorrow evening.


Finished reading: Booky Wook 2 by Russell Brand, Hitchhiker's Guide to
the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams
Now reading: The New Paradigm for Financial Markets by George Soros
Listening to: The Empyrian by John Frusciante, I'm With You by Red Hot
Chili Peppers

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Last few days in Chengdu: Sichuan Cooking Lessons

We decided to do something productive with our last full day in Chengdu, and paid £12 each to get Sichuan cooking lessons. Again, the photos (http://www.flickr.com/photos/hcarlens/) will probably do a better job of describing the experience than any of these words I'm writing will. Even this one: Delicious. 

We got taught how to make Kung Pau Chicken, Sweet and sour pork, spicy tofu, and pork dumplings. It was fun, and we got a few meals worth of food out of it.

Chengdu cooking lessons: Our meal

In a few hours we'll be getting a 20 hour train to Kunming, our last destination in China before we head off to Laos. 



Finished reading: Slash by Slash and Anthony Bozza
Listening to: Appetite for Destruction by Guns N' Roses, Slash by Slash

Karaoke with Vivien and Juizhaigou National Park

We met Vivien's cousin and one of her friends, and went for lunch followed by a karaoke bar. It turned out that all of the girls were great singers, which Shaneel and I...aren't. We spent about three or four hours desperately trying to recover from our initial, terrible, attempt at singing Rockstar by Nickelback. We did have a good time though, and definitely enjoyed listening to everyone else sing.

The next day Vivien's dad drove us to the bus station (thanks!), and she gave us some rice cakes that her mum had made for us (again, thanks!). We set off on what we thought was a 6 hour journey to Jiuzhaigou, but turned out to take 10 hours. We drove through scores of mountains in an area which had been badly hit by the 2008 earthquake, littered with huge rocks from landslides and collapsed bridges. When we arrived we managed to find a room for the night, even though no one in the village really spoke English and neither of us are quite fluent yet in Mandarin, which was incredibly cheap and seemed nice at first until we discovered a huge spider next to our mirror. We spent a while trying to get rid of it, but in the end it managed to hide somewhere behind a table and we never saw it again.

Jiuzhaigou National Park

We got up early so we could get to Juizhaigou park at 7am, which turned out to be well worth it. Although it was freezing, the landscape was probably the most beautiful I've ever seen. We spent the entire day walking around seeing lakes and waterfalls, all of which had a mysterious blue colour, and were impossibly still and transparent. It's hard to describe how amazing it was, and even the photos (which I've just uploaded, see http://www.flickr.com/photos/hcarlens/) don't quite do it justice. 

The journey back took an even longer 12 hours and, once back in Chengdu, finding a taxi to take us to our hostel proved impossible so we walked for a while until we stumbled upon the right bus route by accident.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Chengdu

Our 16 hour journey to Chengdu was great. We got to see some beautiful scenery, managed to get a lot of sleep, and I finished reading another book. I've started enjoying long train journeys now, and I'm actually looking forward to the 20 hour journey to Kunming on Sunday.  

Chengdu has been a blast so far. We arrived at 5.25 AM on Sunday, and after unpacking we met up with Vivien, a friend from Selwyn who lives in Chengdu. She gave us a quick tour, and took us out for a delicious hotpot dinner.
Sichuan hotpot

On Monday morning we went to visit the Giant Panda Base in Chengdu, which was a great experience. Giant pandas are some of the stupidest animals I've ever seen, but they are sooooo cute. I spent half an hour watching a young panda attempt to climb a ladder and it got cuter every time, as he almost made it but inevitably fell off. Vivien took us out for dim sum for lunch, and took us shopping in the afternoon. Shaneel got some hiking shoes for our upcoming trip, and I managed to get a blue mini guitar for £20, thanks to Vivien's amazing bartering skills. 

Chengdu - Giant Panda Base


On Wednesday we'll be going to Jiuzhaigou National Park for a few days, for a bit of a walk. 

Finished reading: The Quants by Scott Patterson
Now reading: Slash by Slash and Anthony Bozza
Listening to:  Leaving Through The Window  by Something Corporate

Friday, 2 September 2011

Xi'an

The train journey to Xi'an wasn't as bad as we expected. Our carriage had air conditioning, and we each had our own seat. I managed to read a lot, and it didn't feel like I slept at all, but every time I looked at my phone it seemed like a few hours had suddenly gone by so I must have got a bit of sleep. It wasn't the best journey though since we were sitting down for about 13 hours, they left the lights on all night, and some of the guys on the train were nice enough to each bring their own speakers so they could all blast out different tunes at the same time, any time of night/morning.  

We spent our one full day in Xi'an visiting the Terracotta Warriors, which were nice to see even though the setting seemed a bit contrived. It felt more like a museum than a discovery site, but the detail in each one of the warriors' different faces was pretty incredible. The warriors were part of the Emperor's tomb, which is the largest tomb in the world.  Each of the warriors has a standard army uniform, but is given the face of the worker who made it. At the end, all the workers were killed and buried underneath there, to keep the tomb a secret. Slightly grim really. In the evening we went for a bike ride on Xi'an's city wall, which was fun but bumpy.  
Xi'an - City Wall
We're getting a 16 hour train to Chengdu in a few hours, for which we managed to secure sleeper tickets so the journey should be slightly more enjoyable than the previous one.  

Finished reading: In defense of food by Michael Pollan, The Game by Neil Strauss
Now reading: The Quants by Scott Patterson, Booky Wook 2 by Russell Brand
Listening to:  High Violet by The National, I'm With You by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Led Zeppelin I by Led Zeppelin, Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones