Archive for Travel

Why do people go wild when they travel?

When recalling a night spent in Cusco, Peru while I was travelling recently, I couldn’t help but think “wow I did some risky stuff when I travelled”. That time in particular, I was probably quite lucky that nothing went wrong. After reading this article on SMH, it reminded me again of some of those situations.

http://www.smh.com.au/travel/why-do-people-go-wild-when-they-travel-20140723-3cedx.html

I can’t relate to the parts about drugs, but this part of the article did hit home – “People ride on the roofs of buses because it’s fun, and nothing will go wrong. Probably. They take rides in dodgy boats, because what choice do you have? They hang out of train doorways, they cling to the back of taxis. They do all these things that they wouldn’t do at home because overseas you can, and you want to, so you do.”

The night in Cusco aside, I can think of two times where I took risks because I found myself in a situation where I didn’t have much other choice.

The first was in Venezuela, towards the end of 2011. I had been travelling with a friend, but was on my own again after we wanted to see different things, and was heading for Choroni on the Caribbean coast. I had booked a bus ticket from Merida to Maracay, where I planned to change to another bus to Choroni. When I arrived at the bus terminal in Merida, the ATMs weren’t working. I was running low on cash, and had been told that there weren’t ATMs in Chorini, but wasn’t too worried as Maracay was a much bigger city. I figured there would an ATM at the terminal there.

The long distance bus trip went smoothly, despite the freezing aircon on Venezuelan buses, and I arrived in Maracay early in the morning. The first thing on my “to do” list was an ATM search, but after a decent time spent wandering around, I couldn’t find one in the terminal. Eventually, I approached a woman who worked at one of the bus company ticket offices. When telling this story, I often credit the Spanish skills I built up for saving me in this situation, as she couldn’t speak any English.

I explained that I needed to get a bus to Chorini, but needed to go to an ATM first to pay for my hotel. Her fist suggestion was taking a taxi to Chorini, which was much faster than the bus, and they could drive me to an ATM first. I didn’t want to pay for a taxi, as the bus was about one tenth of the cost. Her next idea was storing my bag in her office, while she took a taxi with me to the city centre to go to an ATM. After locking my bag in her office, my thoughts went to if I would ever see it again, while she was questioning me on whether I had enough money to pay for the cab. I assured her that I did, and she flagged one down.

Crossing my fingers and hoping for the best, we made small talk during the short trip to the centre. When we got there, she made the taxi wait, and stood guard while I withdrew money. Despite having no idea where I was, the trip back to the bus terminal seemed slightly more relaxing. Her questions revolved around whether I was planning to come back to Venezuela, while I took comfort in the fact that it seemed like we were heading in the direction we came from.

When we arrived back at the terminal, she got my bag and walked me over to the bus I needed to take to Chorini. With nothing more expected than an appreciative thank you on my part, she was gone and I was on my way. In hindsight, I could have planned a lot better, but was lucky to find someone so helpful. And to top it off, when I arrived in Chorini, it turned out the info I was given was old, and an ATM had recently been installed!

The second time I relied on slightly questionable transport to get me out of a sticky situation was in Costa Rica in late 2012. I had planned to stay a few days in Jaco on the Pacific coast, but decided to go somewhere new and headed to nearby Playa Hermosa.

The day I was leaving, I had an afternoon flight to Miami, and had planned to take a bus from Jaco to San Jose, and get off at the airport. My side trip to Playa Hermosa didn’t change much, I would get a taxi back to Jaco in time to make the bus to San Jose. The problem occurred when the owners of the place I was staying were nowhere to be found when I needed to leave, hence no one was around to call me a taxi. After ringing the bell multiple times to get their attention and walking to the main road to try to flag one down both failed, I headed to the nearest hotel I could find to see if someone there could call one.

The girl at the desk was very helpful, and promised me a taxi straight away. About 5 minutes later, a blue, unmarked car showed up. Taxis in Costa Rica are red, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that this was a friend of hers, not an authorised taxi. I weighed up my options for a few moments – I had no idea how else to find a taxi other than walking back to my hotel, and I was running out of time to make the bus to make my flight. Despite knowing it went against everything we were advised, I agreed to go with him after confirming the price several times.

As we headed toward Jaco, I once again found myself hoping for the best. Given there was only one road, I at least knew I would be able to tell if we went the wrong way, and was prepared to jump out of the car if I had to. It turned out that I didn’t have to worry too much as I arrived safely at the bus terminal a short time later. When we got there, he offered me a lift to San Jose for a much faster trip, which was above my budget even if I didn’t want to go any further than I had to in a dodgy (but utlimately successful) taxi.

The moral of both stories? Better planning would have prevented these situations. But as Ben mentioned in his article, there is a certain feeling of invincibility when you travel. It may not have been something I did on my first or second trip, but after travelling for awhile and gaining confidence and experience, the thought of “it will be fine!” definitely applied.

As for the night in Cusco, that is another story for another blog!

Note: stay safe when you travel! Stick to official taxis and don’t take rides from strangers.

Should travel experiences become part of real life..?

Not long ago, I read an article from SMH’s Backpacker blogger Ben Groundwater titled “You Will Never See These People Again” about friends you make when you are travelling and promises to meet up that often fall through.

Ben’s article considered an interesting point; that perhaps these encounters when you travel are supposed to be just that – encounters that affect, influence or even change your life in that moment, but forever remain in that situation and not be brought back to your real life at home.

I had mixed feelings when I read it. I have made travel plans with people I met on the road that we actually saw through, and had a great time. I have met people during one part of a trip, and caught up with them again later in the same trip, and had a great time. I have also hung out with people I met travelling when they have visited Sydney and enjoyed it. But after spending a few days in Colombia with someone who had a big impact on my life at the time, and never seeing or hearing from them again, I can understand the value of a meeting that was only ever supposed to last a short time.

It got me thinking about the experiences you have when you travel, and if these are something that are supposed to become part of your “real life” or stay on the road.

Before my first trip to Mexico and Central America in 2009, I was curious about the Mayan history in the area, and only knew a few words of Spanish despite having a close friend with South American background. But when I was over there, I became captivated. I wanted to come back and study Spanish, I wanted to learn how to dance salsa and, of course, I “fell in love” with a Latino.

When I arrived back in Australia, I split the time I used to spend running or watching sport with salsa and Spanish classes. My schedule was so busy trying to fit everything in that I didn’t have a single night of the week where I just went home and relaxed. It got a point where something had to give, and after a second trip in late 2010, it did.

In preparation for another 8 months travelling, the only thing I cared about was Latin America. Group Spanish classes had become one-on-one lessons, and salsa classes had eventuated into social dancing a few times a week, sometimes late enough that I’m not sure how I made it to work on time the next day. The third trip took the situation to the extreme – months of being immersed in the culture meant I had reached a point where I wanted to live there. When I got home, I was happiest when I was around my South American friends, they knew my music, and the places I had been and understood why I loved it so much.

It didn’t seem like a big deal when friends I met over there who had started going home seemed to go back to their normal lives, without the desire to sign up for salsa classes, go to reggaeton clubs or join Spanish conversation groups. It just meant I loved it as more than just a place to travel. It had been a joke with a friend I met in Brazil that I had been born on the wrong continent. The truth was that I was completely obsessed.

Leaving for the fourth trip was supposed to be the one where I stayed over there. I had my TESOL qualification on hand, had narrowed my choice down to three countries and had started to look at schools where I could get a teaching job. But when it came time to put research into action, it turned out that I didn’t want to stay.

The disconnect didn’t happen as soon as I returned to Australia. I went on a few dates with an Argentinean guy, and I was still going to salsa once a week. I even finally managed to convince my South American BFF the significance of Ai Se Eu Te Pego.

The first hint that something had changed was buying a ticket to Pitbull after a few drinks, and when I remembered the next day I really didn’t want to go (so glad it was cancelled).

But it was when I walked into Margaritaville for salsa last night that it became really obvious. I hadn’t been dancing for about 6 months, at first because of City2Surf training, then because of my broken foot and lastly because of lack of motivation. When I arrived last night I realised the underlying reason behind all three – lack of interest. I had a few dances and while it was fun enough, my heart wasn’t in it. It was a strange feeling, how something that not long ago was a huge part of my life, now felt so foreign. The description of bachata as “the most beautiful dance” and merengue as “sexier than salsa” might have resonated with me in the past, but last night felt impossible to relate to.

I have amazing memories of dancing merengue in Panama, but I’m happy to let them stay as memories. It will never be the same trying to recreate them here, because they represented a moment of significant change in my life. It was as much about the feelings associated with it as it was about the dancing.

I loved travelling in Latin America. I love the culture, the music, the food, the language. I loved watching the top 20 countdown on HTV while eating breakfast, shopping at Exito, buying Choco Bigger ice cream to survive the heat, running on the beach in Rio, drinking Aguila, Pilsen and Club Colombia, and of course, dancing.

But after a few years of trying to incorporate some of those things into my life here in Australia, I realised that I like it just fine the way it was. Because sometimes the experiences you have when you travel are about the impact they have on your life in a particular moment, not something you need to bring home with you.

*Disclaimer, I’m not suggesting all dancers, Spanish students or Pitbull fans are obsessed with Latin America, just was the case for me.

My A-Z of Travel Bucket List

Earlier this week I read an article on SMH that listed the ultimate A-Z travel bucket list, so I decided to compile my own. Fitting everything in the alphabetical format did make things challenging, and I had to bend the rules in a few places to fit everything in and will admit that some of my reasons are a little weird. But I’m a little weird, and I think it’s a great list!

Here is my A-Z travel bucket list:

A – Atlantic Coast of Portugal – walking trails along a beautiful coastline, sim por favor.

B – Brazil 3.0 – I always say that Brazil could be a trip of its own given the size and things to do. Next time I go back, Salvador, Florianopolis, Buzios, Lopes Mendes beach (Ilha Grande) are all on the list. And Rio, again.

C – Colombia 5.0 – I don’t know how it’s possible, but there are STILL things I haven’t seen in Colombia. I’m not sure I will ever get enough of this country. Caño Cristales, Rio Claro, San Andres Island are top of the list.

D – Dominican Republic – I love the Caribbean, and it’s hard to go wrong when choosing an island destination to visit. Personally, I’m a little biased towards the Spanish speaking countries which means the Dominican Republic won over Jamaica.

E – España – What to do when there are too many places starting with “S”?! (Yep, I think I’m pretty clever). Spain is on the top of my list for Europe. I’m curious to explore the cultural similarities and differences with the Latin American countries I’ve visited.

F – Fraser Island – I will admit that I didn’t know much about Fraser Island until a backpacker friend stayed with me earlier this year. The largest sand island in the world, 100 freshwater lakes and it’s right here on the Queensland coast. What’s not to like?!

G – Germany, Switzerland and the UK to visit my friends in Europe – is it cheating to list three places under “G”? I have friends in these three countries I’ve been wanting to visit for a long time (and I guess I could do some travelling while I’m there too).

H – Hong Kong – I didn’t have time to stop here when I went to China in May, but it’s a priority for when I go back. I want to take the tram to Victoria Peak for views of the city, eat as much street food as possible and see the city skyline from the harbour. Macau is a must visit too.

I – Israel – This is on the list mostly due to constantly hearing how amazing it is on my 2011 trip. First it was a guy I met at the Grand Canyon, then it was the abundance of Israeli travellers I met in South America telling me how amazing their country is. One in particular I remember told me about its diversity, and said that you can drive from the beach to the desert to the snow in one day. Combine that with a big coastal city that has captured my interest (Tel Aviv) after being named in the top 3 most innovative cities in the world in 2012 along with two of my favourites (Medellin and NYC), and Israel definitely makes the list.

J – Jurassic Coast, UK – I love any kind of coastal walk or drive that offers beaches, cliffs and views out to the ocean. Highway 1 in California is my current favourite, but this is one of two on this list that might compete with it.

K – Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

Enough said.

L – Lisbon – I’m cheating a bit her again by separating Portugal into two letters, because I wanted “P” for something else! Lisbon fascinates me, mostly because of its coastal location, food and nightlife. I often get surprised reactions when I tell people that I haven’t been to Europe, and my love for Latin America does make me biased towards wanting to explore Spain and Portugal first. I’m expecting them to have their differences, so I’m interested to see if these countries end up being my favourites in Europe or I prefer somewhere else.

M – Marathon overseas – I have been considering running the Rio marathon for awhile now (any excuse to go back to Brazil), but New York, Boston, maybe London if I could get an entry would be awesome too.

N – North Western coast of Australia – Cheating again here, because I couldn’t use “B” for Broome. This has been on my list for awhile, I just wish it wasn’t so hard (expensive) to get to. The isolated west coast beaches, with their beautiful sun sets and the striking red colour of their rocky surroundings are calling me!

O – Other Spanish speaking countries – Aside from the ones I already have on this list, Paraguay and Puerto Rico are my next choices. I have been to 15 of the 21 countries that have Spanish as an official language and I think it would be cool to make it to as many as possible.

P – Pearl Harbour, Hawaii – I want to go to Hawaii in general (and am in January), but this was the easiest way to fit it on this list. But I will also admit that I do want to go to Pearl Harbour and visit the USS Arizona memorial. Why? I’m not really sure. Morbid fascination about being able to see the sunken boat maybe. Like I said, I’m weird.

Q – Queenstown – I’ve been told by the same friend who went to Fraser Island that Queenstown in the highlight of New Zealand. I’m going to the north island this weekend, so next time I go back I will visit the south island and see if I agree!

R – Road trip the Great Ocean Road, Victoria – This is part two of the coast lines that could beat highway 1 in California. The Twelve Apostles look amazing in pictures, I imagine they would be even more impressive in real life. This is one of the places in Australia I am yet to visit and have wanted to see for a long time.

S – Sailing Croatian Coast – When thinking about Europe, this was actually on my list before Spain and Portugal after a friend told me about it when she went in 2008. I’ve wanted to go ever since. My list for Europe is a little abnormal, I don’t even have France or Italy on there yet! Though anywhere on the Mediterranean Sea would be awesome, and so would the French Open. And Wimbledon. I’m going off topic! Croatian Coast is on the list.

T – Turquoise Pool, Chile – Maybe Chile is my France and Italy of South America because in the two times I went I didn’t have a huge interest in going to Chile. I’ve heard mixed reports, some people loved it and some say I didn’t miss much. But when I saw this photo of the Turquoise Pool earlier this year, this is definitely something I’d want to see!

U – US cities I haven’t seen yet, mostly Chicago. I’m pretty lucky with the US cities I have managed to get to, but Chicago is a notable exception. Memphis would be cool too.

V – Vietnam – This originates from watching a Top Gear special about a motorbike road trip around the country. Random, but it looked amazing. And I’ve only heard good things about it since then. I was donated a copy of the Vietnam Lonely Planet guide earlier this year, next destination maybe?

W – Watch planes land on the beach in St Maarten – Planes fascinate me. Yes I’m weird!

X – Xela and Semuc Champey, Guatemala – Yes, it’s a real place! Years ago I read about a 3 day hike from Xela to Lake Atitlan, which I haven’t had the chance to do yet. There are also hot springs scattered around Xela which I never say no to. As for Semuc Champey, I’ll let the picture talk again.

Y – Yacht the Whitsundays – I’m bending the rules again to include the Whitsundays, another place at home that has been on the list for ages. I’ve never been further north than Brisbane in Queensland, but have had a few failed attempts at going to Hamilton Island. The Whitsundays is a must, I will make it there sooner or later. And I’m sure I will go on a yacht at some point.

Z – Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, Utah – I love the Grand Canyon, one of my favourite places ever. Sedona, Arizona is amazing too. For completely different scenery, Yosemite is stunning. There are reasons to visit so many of the national parks in the US, and you can guarantee that different parts of the country have different landscapes to offer. But my first choices would be Utah, Zion and Bryce Canyon. The emerald pools of Zion National Park and the vivid colours of the unique rocks pinnacles in Bryce Canyon are two things I would definitely return to the US for.

My Airbnb stay in Houston

During my last trip, a friend introduced me to Airbnb. An alternative accommodation option somewhere between a hotel and couchsurfing, the basic premise is that people with a spare room in their house rent it out to people looking for accommodation in their city.

With unique options to choose from, a room, an apartment, my friend rented a treehouse in Costa Rica, Airbnb offers a different accommodation experience, sometimes with the help of a local to share their inside knowledge.

As a solo backpacker on a limited budget, hostels were still a far more economical option. But towards the end of my trip travelling in Texas, they were harder to come by than in other places. When I needed somewhere to stay in Houston for a night, I decided it might be finally time to give Airbnb a go. My friend recommended the person she stayed with there, but they had no availability, so I picked another user with a lot of positive reviews that seemed to be in a convenient area. It was a quick stopover, so I needed somewhere close to the Megabus station. After a bit of correspondence about how to get to the house and an easy online payment it was all sorted.

My stay in Houston was one night between an impulsive trip to San Francisco and going back to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I took an early morning flight from San Francisco to Dallas, then a bus from Dallas to Houston. By the time I arrived there, it was after 7pm and I had spent the whole day travelling. I had a 7am bus the next morning, and feeling pretty exhausted I was planning to have an early night.

My Airbnb host, William, wasn’t home when I arrived but his roommate let me in. I had showered and was starting to think about sleep when he arrived, and threw a curveball to my plans of an early night by asking if I wanted to join them for drinks with some of his family members who were in town for a wedding. It was a nice offer, and I only had one night to see some of Houston, so I pushed my tiredness aside and said yes.

A little while later, we were driving somewhere I couldn’t find on a map if my life depended on it. I’ve always been a fan of the notion that hanging out with locals gives you insight to a city that you can’t get otherwise, and that night was one of the best examples I’ve experienced. I don’t know much about Houston, other than downtown is the business district and not really the place to go at night. We went to a street in a completely different location with a few bars and restaurants.

The place we went was fairly small and not crowded, and had a chilled vibe. William’s family were incredibly welcoming, and not at all phased by having a random Australian traveller along for the ride. We talked about a lot of things, but the one thing that sticks out was Colombia and travel which morphed into a discussion about Pablo Escobar. They were fascinated to hear I had travelled there alone, and that it wasn’t as dangerous as the general perception people have.

It’s common to meet people from different worlds and backgrounds and share stories when travelling, but more often than not they are other travellers in hostels. Meeting locals can be harder, and it occurred to me at some point when we were chatting in that bar that I never would have meet any those people if it wasn’t for Airbnb. I didn’t see much at all of Houston, but it was a better night than I could have ever imagined.

After the bar we got tacos from the restaurant next door, then headed back. I still got a relatively early night, and was up in time for bus the next morning. William drove me to the bus stop and took me for coffee and doughnuts on the the way. I have to admit, I was pretty spoiled!

My friend who recommended that I try Airbnb told me she has had some great experiences and some that were just good. I have only used it that one time, and William set the bar very high. It might not always be at that level, but Airbnb is a good alternative to a hotel if you are looking to meet new people and get some local tips about a city.

Visit www.airbnb.com for more information.

What not to do when you come back from travelling

A friend of mine is coming back to Australia this weekend after almost 2 years out of the country travelling and working. Last time we talked, she told me she wasn’t sure if she is ready to come back – a feeling I have had when each of my trips has come to a close.

Every long term traveller returning home will encounter the question at some point whether they want to pick up and head off again. The answer to that question for me was a definite “yes” before my second and third trips to Latin America, and it’s always an appealing option. But when you choose that option, it’s important to make sure it’s for the right reasons. My “yes” decision before my fourth Latin America trip last year definitely wasn’t. So here are my 10 recommendations of what not to do when you return home from travelling!

1. Don’t confuse a travel romance with a potential real relationship. If the only way you communicate is on Facebook, it’s a travel romance.

2. Don’t hold on to your travel romances, they will never turn into relationships. Connections formed with your fellow backpackers on the road operate in an endless honeymoon period. And I can guarantee that the [insert activity] instructor you had a fling with in [insert exotic country] has met a hundred other girls since you left.

3. Don’t plan to go back and work in a certain city or country if any part of the reason for going is to see one of your travel flings again. I know that you have totally always wanted to live overseas, and you were totally thinking about it before you met him, so it totally wouldn’t be a big deal to pick the dirty, dodgy city in his country over the far more appealing, cosmopolitan capital next door, right? Wrong! Only go if it’s completely for your own reasons.

4. Don’t fork out a decent amount of money for an ESL teaching qualification to create your own reason. (And if you do, at least make sure you like teaching so you can use it at home!)

5. Don’t lie to yourself about 1, 2, 3 or 4.

6. Don’t start dating someone who reminds you of the guys you met travelling. Just because they speak a certain language, like to dance and know all the songs on your playlist, doesn’t make them the right person for you.

7. Don’t rush into booking your next trip. In the few weeks leading up to going home, all you will be thinking about is when you are going back. Another trip might be the right decision, but you don’t need to put your next flight on your credit card just after you come back because there was a sale. If you really want to go, you will still want to go when the travel bubble isn’t clouding your judgment.

8. Don’t actively try to stay in the travel bubble. Just because someone doesn’t speak a certain language, doesn’t like to dance and doesn’t know a single song on your playlist, doesn’t make them less interesting.

9. Don’t be indecisive. Once you have made a decision to go, don’t complicate it by looking for reasons to stay. If there is any part of you that would wonder “what if..?”, you’re not ready to hand in your backpacker card.

10. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you realise how delusional you were for breaking the first nine rules!!

Despite everything, my last trip ended up being pretty awesome :) And funnily enough, nothing on this list was a problem when I came back!

8 things to do in Beijing

This post has taken me so much longer than I wanted it to because life has caught up with me lately, and I combined two topics to make it 8 things. Writing about China actually reminds me of my current travel dilemma; go back to Asia and see some new countries or go back to Brazil for the World Cup. Hard problem to have!

On that note, here are my top 8 things to do in Beijing.

The Great Wall of China

This was the number 1 item on my list for my trip to China. I considered doing the Great Wall marathon because it was about a week before I arrived, but decided against it. In hindsight, it was a great decision. I think I will stick to road running when I do my first marathon.

The Great Wall is truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Only two hours outside of the city, it could have easily been another world. Crowded streets and smoggy skies were replaced with green mountains stretching in every direction and the stone wall running along them one of the only structures in sight. I visited the Mutianyu section, which consists of a 2.5 km restored stretch of wall open for visitors to explore and 22 watchtowers at 100m intervals. This section of the wall was used to defend the capital and nearby tombs. Merlons are built into both sides of the wall, meaning shots could be fired on enemies approaching from either direction. With less visitors than other sections of the wall, we managed to get moments to ourselves for some spectacular photos.

We caught the cable car up, although it is possible to walk, and one reason I don’t want to do the Great Wall marathon became obvious straight away – it’s hot in May. The second one also became obvious very quickly, some sections are very steep. My competitive nature compelled me to climb the steps to the highest point on this section of the wall, though there is no way I would ever want to do that as part of a race. The view was well worth the effort, the Mutianyu section is surrounded by an abundance of greenery covering the mountains and valleys on either side of the wall.

Entry – 45 RMB

Cable Car return – 80 RMB

Ming Tombs

A total of 13 tombs belonging to Emperor’s of the Ming Dynasty are scattered around Beijing. I visited Changling Tomb, the first and most well preserved of the Ming Tombs. Located about 50 kilometers from Beijing, Changling Tomb can be combined with the Great Wall for a fantastic day trip out of the city. Changling Tomb is the tomb of Emperor Zhu Di, the most significant emperor of the Ming Dynasty and his empress. The tomb was completed in 1427, and occupies an area of approximately 120,000 square meters.

The main building of the tomb, Ling’en Hall, is made from a rare kind of wood that has been preserved from the Ming Dynasty. The hall features an impressive statue of Emperor Zhu Di, sitting on a throne decorated with dragons. The room is filled with a collection of objects and photos detailing the achievements of Emperor Zhu Di, including moving the capital to Beijing and constructing the Forbidden City.

Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, or Imperial Palace, was home to 24 emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties. You could spend a full day, or more, exploring the city, but my tight schedule in Beijing meant we had an afternoon to fit in as much as possible. Construction of the city began in 1406 when Emperor Zhu Di moved the capital back to Beijing from Nanjing in southern China. The palace was remained the political centre of China until 1912, despite damage to parts of the city during the shift between the Ming and Qing dynasties, and occupation by foreign forces in the second Opium War and Boxer Rebellion. After becoming a World Heritage Site, the Palace Museum commences a restoration project to return the city to its historical state.

Consisting of massive courtyards and impressive palaces, the city seems to stretch on forever. The restoration project means the buildings boast striking colours and detailed patterns that give the site a distinct visual appeal. The gardens at the back of the site offer a shady retreat from the sunny courtyards that was a welcome escape on the 36 degree summer day I visited. Featuring smaller pavilions and unique statues, it is easy to get lost in imagining what life may have been like for the Emperors and Empresses who lived in the palace.

 

Entry – 60 RMB

Tiananmen Square

Across the road from the Forbidden City is Tiananmen Square. Both are easy to access using Beijing’s subway, and their close proximity to each other makes for a good day trip. In contrast to the quiet, somber feel when I visited Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City, it’s hard to associate the square with its infamous history. Despite the heat, the area was crowded with a flurry of activity. The Monument to the People’s Heroes stands tall in the centre of the square, with visitors huddled around for photos. Groups of people gathered around food vendor vans and laughter and chatter from the crowd could be heard ringing out across the square. The lack of chairs and trees in the square meant people were lined in the small strips of shade provided by lampposts and flagpoles as they waited for the symbolic lowering of the flags at sunset.

The square is surrounded by a number of important buildings in addition to the Forbidden City. The National Museum of China is one side, while the Great Hall of the People stands on the other. The only indication of the events that have taken place in the square is the heavy security, including the vast police presence and bag scanning at entrance points.

Summer Palace

I almost couldn’t believe it when I was told that the Summer Palace was bigger than the Forbidden City. It seemed impossible that anything could compare with the mammoth stretch of buildings and courtyards that made up the Forbidden City, but it didn’t take long to see that the Summer Palace definitely did. The literal translation of the name means “Gardens of Nurtured Harmony”. I’m not sure why that didn’t make it into the English name, but Summer Palace sounds impressive enough to represent what this stunning site has to offer.

The Summer Palace is a former imperial palace and was later a holiday resort for Empress Dowager, who saw the reconstruction of the palace after it was damaged during the Anglo-French invasion in 1860 and the eight allied nations invasion in 1900. Centered around the man made Kunming Lake, the palace features a collection of temples, houses and bridges, lined with leafy gardens. The picturesque setting heightens the feeling of retreat from the outside world, the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s busiest cities seemingly miles away. Rising above the lake are the site’s most iconic buildings, the Temple of Buddhist Virtue and the Tower of Buddhist Incense. The climb to the top rewards you will views over the lake, it’s best on a clear day.

Entry – 50 RMB

The Gardens of Perfect Brightness

Otherwise known as the old Summer Palace, this was something I will admit to having no knowledge of before going to Beijing, but something that is an extremely important part of China’s history and worth visiting. Like the nearby Summer Palace, the beauty of this location is undeniable. The palace was used by emperors of the Qing Dynasty and contained extensive architecture, lakes and gardens. One of the gardens, the Garden of Eternal Spring featured European style buildings, which were built at the request of the Qianlong Emperor. However the majority of buildings that made up the palace were traditional Chinese style structures.

In response to a group of British and Indian troops being taken hostage and killed during the second Opium War, the palace was destroyed by British and French troops. The garden was set ablaze and burnt for three days and the buildings were looted. The palace was destroyed again in 1900 during the Eight Nation Alliance invasion. Unlike the Summer Palace, this garden was not restored after the attacks, and visitors can see the full effect of the destruction with damaged buildings left in the condition that resulted from the invasions.

Entry – 25 RMB

Beijing Olympic Park

The few weeks leading up to and during the Olympics were in Sydney in 2000 were some of the most exciting I have ever experienced. I was in the torch relay, participated in a “trial run” of the athletics prior to competition starting and was in the stadium for Cathy Freeman’s gold medal run. The Olympics holds a special place in my heart, and a visit to Beijing Olympic Park was a must do for my trip.

The iconic “Bird’s Nest” stadium is as impressive up close as it is on television, and the fountains dancing in front of it make for a great people watching opportunity. The water cube is best viewed at night when its striking blue colour is illuminated. Walking to the cauldron will take you past a long wall listing the medalists from 2008 – searching through the names to see who you can find might be slightly nerdy, but was also a lot of fun.

 

Eat Local!

Watching bizarre foods Beijing the other night was a good reminder of some of the interesting street food in this city. I didn’t go to the night markets, but visited Wangfujing pedestrian street with its famous snack street. The narrow street is tightly packed with crowds and an almost overwhelming mix of wafting scents coming from the countless street stalls and restaurants. Those brave enough to try anything will not be disappointed – seahorses, starfish and various kinds of bugs on skewers were in almost every store. I’ve seen my fair share of unusual snacks in Central American markets, but I wasn’t prepared for the scorpion skewers, with the still live animals wiggling around on the sticks as we walked by.

I went for a much safer option with my street food purchase, choosing a lamb skewer and a fruit skewer that consisted of a small red fruit covered in hardened candy (Tanghulu). My dentist might have been horrified if they saw it, but it tasted amazing.

Another must try item is Beijing’s famous Peking Duck. Served in China since the Imperial times, Peking Duck is known for the crisp skin and unique style of serving where the duck is sliced in front of the diners. The meat and skin are served separately, the skin often eaten with various sauces. The meat is rolled up into a think pancake and eaten with cucumber sticks. There are many restaurants throughout Beijing that serve Peking Duck. We ate at Bianyifang, one of the longest serving duck restaurants in Beijing, currently located in the New World Shopping Mall.

9 things to do in Beijing

Because life has been keeping me too busy to blog as much as I would like lately, I’m going to post a preview of my next post – 9 things to do in Beijing.

It probably goes without saying that the Great Wall of China is high, if not first, on the list. Aside from my brother’s wedding, it was the highlight of my trip. The spectacular views and the picturesque natural landscape make it very easy to forget that you are only a couple of hours from one of the busiest cities in the world.

So my next blog which I WILL finish in the next week, will include this must see destination.

Tips for Shanghai

The amenities of a big city can be a welcome treat after spending time in some more remote places during your travels. But occasionally, when a city is the size of Shanghai, it can be hard to know where to start. Here are my 4 tips to help navigate this exciting city.

1. Catch the Maglev train

Shanghai’s high speed train to the airport gets its name from the magnetic levitation that operates it. Reaching speeds of up to of 430 km/h. The 8 minute trip from the city to the airport would take about 45 minutes in a taxi. A train passing in the opposite direction is a case of “blink and you’ll miss it”. My brother caught one going past on video.

The train in the opposite direction goes past at 1:50

2. Use the Metro

The Shanghai Metro is also almost worth taking just to experience its hectic nature. The system transports 8 million people daily, and is a fantastic way to get around the city. It is well equipped with signage, all of which is in Chinese and English, and announcements operate in both languages. It is fast an efficient, just be ready for a squashy ride if you get on in peak hour.

3. Eat, eat, eat

During my week in Shanghai, I tried dumplings, steamed buns, a Hong Kong style restaurant, traditional Shanghai banquet, hot pot, Japanese and of course, street food. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but the DIY cooking in the hot pot restaurant was a lot of fun.

I tried a few different types of street food – mushrooms, something was described to me as “a relative of a pineapple” and my brother was brave enough to sample organs. The most interesting street food I saw had a pretty elaborate set up, almost to level of plastic chairs on the side of the road, Colombian Style. This particular snack looked a bit like a pancake, but included an egg and your choice of other ingredients. When my brother and his wife weren’t around to translate, the “point method” worked perfectly.

Street food

Hot pot restaurant

4. Shop til you drop

There is no shortage of shopping options in Shanghai, with something to for everyone. The Financial District has several malls with popular international brands, and Nanjing Road is one of the busiest pedestrian shopping streets in the world. The prices are reasonable (for someone who has been on a backpacker budget for the last few years), but if you want to save money ask for someone to point you in the direction of a mall that sells knock off items of well known brands.

My guest blog for HI Hostels is posted!

Check out my tips for Iguazu Falls!

http://www.hihostels.com/hostel/2013/06/a-guide-to-iguazu-falls/

The funny English translations epilogue post

Just when I thought I wouldn’t see anymore, some classics popped up on my last day in Beijing!

Steps are a foot ladder and the bathrooms are a sighthseeing ladder?

I’m used to minding the gap, but the hilly road is a new one.

Slack season!

Never leave home without your traffic strategy if you don’t want to get lost!

I would just like to clarify that my brother took this and sent it to me!

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