It’s the end of the world as we know it

Shetland, the final frontier. These are the adventures of hemiexplorers, our continuing mission, to explore it’s northerly isles, to seek out new villages and new peoples. To boldly go where only puffins have gone before!

Having finally dried out from our first foray into the Shetland wilderness we packed our bags and crossed fingers for better weather! But before that was the small matter of the Simmer Dim half marathon, Britain’s most northerly half! Having done my best to size up the opposition I found myself in a no-mans land of fourth place for almost the entire route; just me and the huge views out to sea as I was buffeted up and down long stretches of coastal hillside by the stiff westerlies. However, as I reached the bright red lanes of the Clickimin running track I made it up to third spot as one of the runners was fortuitously doing his best Jonny Brownlee impersonation. Better news was yet to come at the awards presentation where I was given second in the senior men’s category – of course, that only means that the guy who came second was an age gap older than me, but still, that’s what it is reported as in the Shetland Times, kerching!

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Lerwick and the Broch of Clickimin 

With so much vast ocean surrounding Shetland it is a Mecca for fish, and so long as you like it deep fried with a bag of greasy chips, heaven awaits! So it was that we began our four day expedition with a pier-side haddock and chip supper at lunchtime in Lerwick, fending off the rather menacing looking gull with a round of claps which were almost misconstrued for a chip. A bus-ferry-bus-ferry-bus combo then took us up to the northern most isle in the Britain. Unst. We stepped off our bus at Saxa Vord – the only passengers remaining, and headed north along the single track lane that ends at the doorstep to the northern most house in the Queen’s realm. One solitary car passed us by, then suddenly stopped and out jumped two familiar faces – Mark and Kara who we had last been chatting to at the finish line of the half marathon, little surprise that in such a remote part of the world it is hard to not know who’s who! That evening our tent pitch was overlooking the bay at Skaw beach. We filled our bellies with a hybrid Orzo risotto concoction and with a chill in the brightly lit evening air headed to our sleeping bags. Our next morning was a drizzle fest, a pretty common occurrence on these islands and we didn’t head off till gone nine, which given sunrise is before four am, is a long while to wait! Once we had saddled ourselves with our heavy rucksacks we aimed for the bird haven of Hermaness. The clifftops were spectacular. Birds were flinging themselves from perilous perches into the dark ocean to bring back food for their chicks whilst sheep grazed above dramatic drop-offs. We made our way until the earth stopped and the water began and nothing but some rocks lay between us and the north pole.

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Not the best location for sleep walking

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Northward Ho!

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Bird watching

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The end of the realm – Muckle Flugga 

We returned (in the drizzle again) to the fabulous visitors centre and made a warming cuppa with the kettle provided for the use of vagabonds like us, and then sort our second night’s pitch on the outskirts of Burrafirth. We were soon chatting with a fellow nomad who opted to strike camp along with us and over a warm brew we discovered that he was best friends with my adventurous uncle who sailed solo around the world. A beautifully tranquil evening set in and a good night’s sleep was had. Our next morning’s hike proved much more of a challenge as we headed in a line across the peat bogs east of Cliff loch. Not only did we have the challenge of moss covered pools and plunging muddy banks, but also the threat of diving bonxies nesting all around us protecting their unhatched young.

Being in the highest part of the U.K. means that pretty much everything has the tag line Britain’s most northerly…” and we duly obliged by playing along, Britain’s most northerly post box, Britain’s most northerly church, Britain’s most northerly abandoned Vauxhall Astra (there were actually two to choose from!). We stopped off at Britain’s most northerly leisure centre (that services a community of 632 residents – by that ratio Didcot would have 40!) for a shower and chat to the chap who came second in the half marathon. Forget the you’re never more than 3 miles from the sea stat – I reckon you’re never more than 3 miles from someone you’ve already met! Feeling refreshed we then set off towards the south of Unst. Our target was to reach the Bordastubble standing stone – Shetland’s largest monolith. Although the shower at midday had provided a great pick-me-up, another five hours of walking was tough going, especially for Helen who was in my old boots! So by the time we had made it to the four metre rock we were not in favour of heading to the secluded beaches of Wick, and instead headed further south in search of a sheltered spot for the tent as the evening had brought the return of some gusts. As we gained height with the wind into our faces, we came across an abandoned crofters house, the roof all gone and no doors or windows, but still a barrier to the stiff breeze. It gave us just enough space for the tent, but the previous occupants had left their mark, with a number of sheep and rabbit droppings requiring a flick away.

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Puffin…away!

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Night two came with a moat

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10 pm and the sun still has another hour to go!

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Fully detached property in need of modernisation

The following morning we returned to the mainland on the 8:30 am ferry and connecting bus service. Our faces told the story of the weather and our photos the views. Unst was a great microadventure! That gave us just enough time to do a tour of the relatives I hadn’t managed to see, get my copy of Into the Southern Ocean signed by Andrew and bid farewell to Greta’s homely meals before we set sail into the swell of the North Sea.

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Put a Shetland pony in your pocket

We may have returned from our world tour of Asia but that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped exploring. In a quest to discover more about the great nation that we call home, it was time to set sail for the farthest reaches of Great Britain!

Portobello beach, Edinburgh at 8pm on a Friday night. Perched on the promenade wall, eating our haddock and chips with the sun stretching our shadows along the sandy coastline we began to contemplate our options for our first night’s accommodation. We had chosen to overnight in Edinburgh so as to get in some parkrun tourism on the Saturday morning and decided our tent would suffice for that night. We were now hunting for the most inconspicuous location for it. The beach seemed reasonable, though still busy with the long evenings attracting dog walkers and families. Next we wandered like vagabonds to Figgate park and settled on a location, suitably hidden behind a hedge. But it was not even nine pm and still an hours daylight remained, what better excuse to head to the local pub, and they don’t come much more local than the Portobello Bar. No sooner had I taken a sip from my pint of Tennants were we being quizzed by the half dozen regulars as to our journey so far. As the beer flowed and the night drew in, our vague answers to their questions on our evening’s sleeping plans began to concern them, and with no option of refusing we were heading home with Leigh-Ann and Stevie to spend the night in their son’s bed. They could not have been more generous. We popped into the shed/extra living space to thank Lewis for giving over his room, then got the full tour of the town house, with pizza and Irn Bru cider to wash it down. By half one we were heading to a much cosier bed than we had expected, though there was not enough time to enjoy it before we were at the start line of Portobello parkrun! A lovely coffee followed in the company of two beautiful ladies new to parkrun, if not to running! Then it was back to let ourselves into our new home for a hot shower and farewell. In this day and age when we imagine that life is always better elsewhere, I couldn’t think of a time during our year in Asia when we had been shown such warmth from complete strangers. 

Portobello fun with Leigh-Ann and her family, our generous hosts for the evening.

Heading back to Edinburgh train station the following day we boarded our next train to take us further north to Aberdeen and the overnight ferry to Shetland. Having booked our train tickets for our journeys north before we had even returned to the UK we took advantage of advance fares and a two together railcard to take up to 80% off the expensive cost of rail travel. Come 7.30am the next morning we had left the warmer climes of southern England well behind us and had arrived in a colder and wetter Lerwick, Shetland. Once again we opted for the cheap option of the reclining seats rather than a comfier and much more expensive pod or cabin. We had after all survived many overnight bus journeys during the previous year, so another trip on a reclining seat should be a breeze along as the wind was the same, as in spite of his ancestral genes Mike’s stomach still can’t weather rolling seas! 
My first impression of Shetland was true to form, wetter and colder than back home, with rolling hills and not a tree in sight! We were met by Doreen, one of Mike’s many aunts, and whisked off to Hamnavoe. Now I grew up in what would be considered a small village in England, but Hamnavoe, the natural arc of land on the northern tip of Burra Isles where Mike’s maternal side of the family are from, is tiny. We were biding with another aunt, Greta, and her house looks out to the bay, where watching the fishing boats coming and going at the pier provides the daily entertainment. Our first few days were spent in the company of the many relatives dotted about the Voe and being a sooth-moother at times it was like being in a foreign country trying to understand everyone!

Nice to see ewe too!

On our first day we walked out to the nearby lighthouse with Mike pointing out the features he remembered from his childhood visits. Having packed our tent we had half a plan to explore some of the islands on foot, pitching our tent somewhere at the end of the day, however, a couple of rainy days postponed those plans and we explored Scalloway and Lerwick instead. The islands have a rich history to discover and Lerwick museum and Scalloway castle kept us entertained for a couple of afternoons, not forgetting a 4000 year old Broch every few miles to explore as well. 

The corridors of power, Scalloway castle, Shetland’s ancient capital

Spotting a couple of nicer looking days we grabbed our rucksacks and headed down to Sumburgh head, the most southerly point on the main island. Home to a lighthouse and a nature reserve, we hoped to catch a glimpse of some puffins nestled in the rocks and if we were very lucky some orcas. No joy with the whales but a few puffins popped their heads out to brave the winds only metres away from us. Along the coast we explored the ancient viking site of Jarlshof, bimbled across the runway at Sumburgh airport and skipped across miles of beaches that we had to ourselves, and no bloomin’ surprise it was cold! 

Prepared for Shetland’s ever changing weather

Spring watch, signed, sealed, delivered!

As the simmer dim drew in, our thoughts turned to where to spend the night. Having heard so much about St. Ninian’s Isle and it’s location just off the western side of the mainland, a spot overlooking the largest active sand tombolo in the UK sounded perfect. We pitched our tent on a grassy prominent, with plunging 20 metre cliffs down to the sea and cooked up a feast of couscous, chorizo and olives #middleclassmicroadventure ! 

3 am sunrise

A fine if chilly evening was had overlooking the sacred isle but nature had other plans for the next day and shortly after capturing a photo of sunrise, the rain began! The gentle early spots became heavy downpours and the winds grew stronger and stronger. After waiting it out in the tent until a reasonable hour of 8 am, we packed up just before the poles buckled in the winds and braved the conditions for a walk across the famous tombolo. Our venture (and Helen’s lack of waterproof trousers) proved foolhardy in the rain, and as we were neither on scout camp nor a D of E expedition, we decided that it was no longer fun being soaked through so waited at the nearby bus stop for the next bus to Lerwick. It wasn’t all plain sailing from here as the bus then drove straight past us, fortuitously a local came to the rescue and gave us a lift to the main road allowing us to make a convoluted retreat back to Greta’s by myriad buses. We arrived back with the eager anticipation of a warm shower only to be greeted by a broken boiler and news that the plumber had flown off on holiday that morning.

We couldn’t come all this way just for one week, not having a proper job yet does have some benefits after all! We have another week left to explore more of Shetland, fit in another race for Mike and of course there’s always more family members to meet!

Vietnamese food, friend or pho?

Vietnamese food, along with Indian, were the two cuisines I was most looking forward to trying on our trip. Would it live up to the hype and it’s reputation as one of the best countries for food in the world or would I be left feeling pho faced?

What better dish to start with than the ubiquitous pho and we certainly ate a lot of it during our six weeks travelling around Vietnam. It’s another version of noodle soup, generally with thin slices of meat (like our favourite pho bo, beef noodle soup) or meat balls, fresh noodles, a meaty broth and a handful of green stuff, most frequently spring onions and coriander leaves. In addition you would sometimes be given (or there was already a basket on the table containing) mint, lettuce and a weird leaf that I’ve no clue of it’s name but it tasted of fish, I wasn’t a fan of that one!

Our final meal on Vietnam and of course it was pho bo for breakfast

Of the many bowls of pho that we munched and slurped our way through, there are a few that stand out from among the ordinary. Hanoi has many eateries serving pho bo and the one that was recommended by our hotel was delicious, especially as the chunks of beef they used seemed better quality than usual. The other beautiful bowl of pho was with Mary in Ho Chi Minh city, she took us to a local joint not far from where she lives. We all perched on micro stools at tiny tables and ate a delicious bowl of soupy goodness, there was no wondering what other leaves or condiments to add, it was all done for us, we just had to eat and slurp our way through it, mmm mmm! She then took us for proper Vietnamese coffee and Mike was in heaven, as prior to this he wasn’t a fan of the coffee in Vietnam or Cambodia, although this one was incredibly strong! Vietnamese coffee is traditionally served in a stainless steel filter slowly dripping into a small glass with a layer of condensed milk at the bottom and often by the time it’s finished dripping the coffee has gone cold. Save for the coffee in Ho Chi Minh city, I found it to have an acquired taste that I never did acquire, although it was nicer with condensed milk or better still as iced coffee.

Waiting to drink our coffee in Phong Nha national park

Of all the places we visited in Vietnam, two come to mind for culinary enjoyment, Hanoi and Hoi An. Our hotel in Hanoi, Little Hanoi hostel recommended some great places to eat, I’ve already mentioned pho bo and while trying to find one restaurant that served it we stumbled across another where everyone was eating beef fried noodles. After ordering, were we served a big plate of fresh fat noodles piled high with fatty beef on top, we enjoyed it so much we went back for more the next day as well!  

It may not look appealing but this massive plate of beef noodles was delicious!

Our other favourite foodie town, Hoi An has it’s own breakfast specialty, cao lau which soon became our number one choice from the menu at our guesthouse. It’s another noodle dish, made with barbecue pork, bean sprouts, lettuce, some herbs and small amount of broth/sauce. It’s only found in Hoi An as the noodles are traditionally made using water from a well in the town, giving them a distinctive texture and taste, like others I would describe them as being similar to Japanese udon noodles with a slightly chewy texture. Our guesthouse in Hoi An invited us to join them for dinner one evening and grandma whipped up a feast with an endless supply of spring rolls, we perfected our rolling technique that evening! 

Cao lau, a great way to start your day

Early on during our trip through Vietnam, we took a day trip to the Mekong delta from Ho Chi Minh city and saw the rice paper wrappers for spring rolls being made. It looked like laborious work as they steamed sheet after sheet and then piled them up on bamboo drying racks. Spring rolls were served in a variety of ways in Vietnam and always with a dipping sauce, they were either fresh, such that the filling was rolled in the rice paper and then served, or prepared the same and then deep fried before serving. The other variation we tried tasted like glutinous spring rolls, perhaps the rice paper wrappers were freshly made and not dried out, giving them a much stretchier and glutinous texture.

It may not look like it but this was in fact spring rolls

While trying to decide where to eat each meal time, we soon came to understand a few of the restaurant signs, the two we could easily spot were pho and com. Com in fact should be com tam and means broken rice and is a common fast food dish as the rice is cheaper to buy, a meal would consist of meat, generally pork and often barbecued, served with a few vegetable side dishes, perhaps a bowl of soup and of course a large portion of rice. The most memorable com we tried was on the outskirts of Dalat, it was barbecued pork, topped with a fried egg and served with a bowl of soup and some salad, the taste was probably improved by us being starving hungry but I can still remember the chefs staring at us as we wolfed it down! We also ate at quite a few restaurants that just served one dish, this may seem like a strange concept to everyone used to perusing a menu to decide what to eat but if you only cook one dish then it’s easy to prepare and from the places we ate at, it was cooked really well, so why bother with other dishes?!

So hungry and such delicious food, that I couldn’t sit still for the photo!

Finally a collection of the weird and wonderful. The weird was a dish we tried in Hue, which was glutinous rice served 5 different ways, it was made into a paste and spread thinly with a variety of fillings including shrimp, in our whole year of travelling Asia it was like nothing else we tasted, perhaps Japanese mochi comes closest but this was much thinner and stickier. Now for the wonderful, whilst travelling if we saw people eating something that looked nice we would often try one for ourselves, Cu Do was one example, they are peanut waffle sweets bound together with caramel, everyone stopped to buy the during one bus journey so we indulged too! Another gem we discovered was morning glory, also known as water spinach, it was frequently served fried in garlic and was delicious, we always ate it if we spotted it on a menu. 

Fried rice (cakes) with morning glory in the background, so good!

So Vietnamese food, wow that was a long list of the food we tried and it all sounds impressive and delicious to read it back. However, in all honesty, although we did have some amazing food, it wasn’t quite the culinary delight I was expecting and we ate a lot of food that was average. Perhaps as I was so looking forward to Vietnamese food, the reality was going to be tough to live up to the expectations but a good bowl of pho is still hard to beat and I look forward to trying it again, some day, somewhere. 

Bye bye Beijing, Beijing bye-bye

And so, the end is near, and so we face our final three days in Beijing then it’s back to blighty and life returns to this normal that people talk of…385 days.

China is absolutely massive. I think I might have mentioned that before, but I need to say it again. Huge. But it’s not the kind if massive that you get in India, with people doing everything everywhere because there is nowhere else to do it. China has a bit more space, and when it gets crowded, they just go upwards. But they use the space well, and seem well prepared for the population of the world to live within it’s boundaries; large manicured parks to rival Japan, free and clean public toilets to rival Singapore, a transport network better integrated than Thailand and landscapes up there with Nepal. But of course, China does have a lot of people, and we are currently on a bus heading to the Great Wall on the Sunday of a public holiday!

Our first objective as we arrived in Beijing was to make for Tiananmen Square. I had been put off my idea of taking a toy tank with me by fellow travellers who said the security checks were more rigorous than a Norwich & Peterborough bank account; but it turned out to be nothing more than the standard X-ray scan, and not even the usual flammable liquid in water bottle check. I found the square underwhelming. It is massive, obvs, but it’s kinda just a large vacant area. Big flags vigorously whipped the air around the people’s monument and the state buildings either side of the barren eight lane highway that encircle the perimeter are true imposing communist classics, but it all felt a bit sterile and devoid of energy and it certainly gives nothing away about it’s history other than a constant procession of young soldiers who would probably struggle to passify a quiche.

Keep the red flag flying

As well as hosting the worlds largest public square, Beijing has a bunch of really good museums and surprisingly for China, they’re free! With our budget having taken a blow from the national park fees and two rather expensive internal flights, we were up for as much free stuff as possible, and so the forbidden city remained forbidden to us!

This could be Rotterdam or anywhere

Surrounding the central sites, myriad alleyways known as the hutongs stretch out east and west and contain a mix of quiet everyday housing and thrusting tourist shops selling all manner of colourful wears and the most spectacular flower sculpted ice creams. For one of the first times in China we were in the company of lots of westerners, though still outnumbered by young Chinese couples in matching T-shirts, cutsey! Curiously for a capital city, I find this scene of bustling low rise streets to be the norm much more than tall glass covered skyscrapers that seem to have taken over in every other capital – or even every other city come to think of it here in China. 

Finally we arrive at the Great Wall. With the traffic delay we now have only a little more than two hours, of which a good chunk is consumed with the walk up hill just to get to it, it is after all perched along the ridge line of the mountains. We chose to explore the Jinshanling section. Even with our brief time the Wall was spectacular. First to Five Window Tower for 360 degree vistas, then east along a rough and ruined section of broken footway and crumbling parapets, then west for the revamped slippery smooth inclined path and thigh high steps. When a fellow Didcot Runner told us it was his toughest marathon yet, I can now see just how much it must have hurt!

If you’re gonna do a lean on a wall photo, make it a Great one!

Awestruck

So we end our world trip of Asia with a 2:30 am flight out of Beijing, which means a long day on the streets of the city, turfed out of our hotel with rucksacks on our backs. But we’re ok with that, if anything, it’s one of the lessons of our year; endurance in the face of long hours on buses, waiting at stations or eeking out things to do in towns that do not always offer the tourist much in the way of entertainment. It feels as if I should follow that sentence with a list of profound life changing qualities that we have now gained from our journey. But the truth is, we enjoyed our lives before our trip, and are rather excited to return to them. Sure, there are a few elements that we will change due to the past year: we will bus and cycle more and not use a car as much, our patience will extend for longer and we will certainly think twice before making purchases, a year on a budget requires discipline. But we left the UK (whilst it was still part of Europe) as thirty somethings with plenty of life experiences in the bag, we were not hoping to come back changed people, we just wanted to add some more stories of adventure to our dinner party repertoire!

Everybody was kung-fu fighting (for the bus), those Pandas were fast as lightning

Just like the Chinese, we wanted our pounda’ flesh and fortunately we were in just the right place… 379 days in. 

Our flight into Chengdu was a battle of plane versus air currents, and the air currents put up a jolly good fight! Somehow, amid jolts left and right and short sharp descents the hostesses managed to throw everyone their inflight brown egg and sugar puffs, though these only added to the jeopardy of possible turbulent mishaps. By the time we landed at nine pm we were on the green side of queezy and just wanted a bed, but Chengdu wasn’t going to make it so easy for us. Whether the four guesthouses that I had pinned on maps.me existed or not, I have no idea, but at each location there was an absence of anything remotely hostel like. Although, we did find a hotel in one of the places; getting a bit desperate we decided to enter the block of flats to see if somehow it contained a guesthouse, and even more bizarrely on the second floor was the plush reception of a midrange hotel! We trapsed on, rejected by some hotels for not being Chinese enough and refusing others based on the number of calling cards until settling on a cosy enough place a bit above our budget but by now it was 11:30 and we had covered half of Chengdu!… Well, okay, a small fraction, with Chengdu’s population at 14 million it’s bigger than most countries capital cities, but then with China, everything is just more massiver!!!

Chengdu’s image is based around the ubiquitous panda. Of the 2000 wild ones remaining, they almost all live in the mountains of Sichuan province. Chengdu has also grown a specialty for breeding the bears, with 146 of the black and white beauties running around in the research and breading centre, quite literally! We were amazed at how active they were when we saw them in the morning, having read one of our fellow traveller’s blog from their visit in December. One female was especially rampant in her destruction, charging up and down her enclosure; though never with much aptitude for staying upright! But of course, it was the cubs that stole the show. Their playful antics, mock fights and forees up tree trunks that seemed destined to end in a fall had everyone exhaling a huge group sigh as LiLi and QiQi made it back down to earth with only a slight bump; it would appear their tree climbing proficiency takes some time to hone.

Someone’s going in the gardener’s bad book

Left paw

Panda eyes, panda poo and red panda

As our time in China was nearing the end we decided what better way to spend two days than on the twenty hour round trip bus journey to Jiuzhaigou national park! Sichuan’s must-see sight, after the Pandas of course and another tongue twister of a name to get our heads around. With mesmerising blue lakes and verdant forests, the guidebook description had Mike hooked months ago when thumbing through a copy. Having purchased our budget busting entrance tickets at 310 yuan each (£36) including bus tickets, we joined the hoards queuing for the entrance. Receiving over 2 million visitors per year, hoards doesn’t feel like a large enough term to describe the number of people, they were everywhere you turned (as was the awful smell of their bad breath). During our nine hours spent in the park there were only a handful of times when we weren’t surrounded by other tourists and mainly domestic ones, although the guidebook had warned us of this so it didn’t detract from my experience. 

Jiuzhaigou means the valley of nine villages and you could visit some of the villages inside the park, with traditional Tibetan houses, prayer wheels and flags, you could learn about the local culture as well. We decided to stick to the natural beauty and made good use of the buses to navigate our way between the lakes and waterfalls, as the national park covers an area of 720 sq km (the size of Exmoor national park back home) and ascends from 2000 to 3000 metres. The national park is ridiculously overpriced for what it is, some lakes and forests, however, it is well maintained by an army of staff. According to one of the bus conductors (who spoke pretty good English), they employ over 10000 people, have a fleet of 500 buses to transport tourists around and when you are on foot, you never leave one of the many well maintained boardwalks. 

Azure

Camouflage

Forty metre long waterfall

Glaciated valley

The national park is beautiful and without doubt our best experience in China. What made it so impressive you must be wondering? With truly picturesque scenery at every turn, you can’t help but take picture after picture. Beautifully clear cobalt blue lakes, sit at the bottom of pine and larch tree lined, steep sided valleys. Waterfalls softly cascading over limestone rocks. Fallen trees and roots making fascinating patterns just under the surface of the crystal clear waters. Apparently the park is beautiful in all four seasons and our visit was when the signs of spring were starting to appear, the birch and rowan were coming into bud and the fruit trees had pretty pink blossom. Although that didn’t mean winter was over yet, as on the day we returned to Chengdu it rained constantly and as the bus crossed some of the high passes the rain turned to snow, the scenery turned magical and everyone’s eyes turned to the windows.

Leaping Tiger, Hidden Payments

Our final week in Yunnan and it’s yak to the Himalayas…374 days in.

We are sat looking out over the roaring upper Yangtze 50 metres below us deep in the heart of Tiger Leaping Gorge. The khaki coloured river tumbles to a turbulent froth for a furious 100 metres, sending a crescendo of sound upwards to our vantage point. We have decided to end our journey here as opposed to continuing down to witness the violent rage at close hand, this is not due to the fear of being swept away but just because it’s tiring being continually pestered for more money. 

Our journey along the gorge began three days ago. Alighting the bus we had briefly been swapped onto after a three hour climb from Lijiang, we began slogging our way up the northern side of the gorge with a French couple. A tough two and a half hours in which we never managed to lose the sight or sounds coming from the huge construction work on the southern bank and we entered the hanging corn filled courtyard of Naxi’s guesthouse. A delightful late lunch of an ‘omelette’ that came on a pizza style base helped make up our minds that we had put in enough effort for the day. We said adieu to our companions and sat on the balcony entertaining the kids with my magic trick, which was quickly solved and performed back to me with as much finesse as you could expect from a 12 year old. A night of wonderful food including aubergine (which I never imagined myself saying before we entered china) and enlightening conversation from Larry Taiwanese Lee, aided by some Norwegian questioning sent us to bed happy, if a little chilly in our open air eatery at 2500 metres up.

Hardy breed

We emerged from under our duvets to rain and decided to wait it out, after all, the food was excellent. The rain never ceased, just like the dribs and drabs of hikers passing through, making that tough call to continue on in the rain or call it a day. For us it was easy, and we spent all day taking shelter, blogging, reading and playing cards. Our box room was akin to the type we had stayed in whilst trekking the Everest region of Nepal and offered little in the way of warmth; and to make matters worse there was no communal yak poo stove to keep us snug. Fortuitously the following day gave us a reprieval from the rain, if a little overcast. We struck out early, head on into the infamous 28 bends. Carrying our full rucksacks rather than leave them behind (we weren’t sure if we would make a return to the start or if other directions would beckon) made for a tiring trek, and three hours in, a hot chocolate at Tea Horse was just the tonic. Further up the trail we reach a group of guest houses, and set about deciding which we should grace with our presence. With barely any walkers on the trail, I was sure of negotiating a bargain, but try as I might, no one would budge, even the completely deserted Come Inn with around 50 beds seemed happier to keep it that way; a complete contrast to Nepal where you can sleep for free because once you are in a hostelry they make their money on supplying you with food; this is not what I expected from entrepreneurial China. No sooner had we selected our beds at the much cosier Half Way guesthouse, the sun made a rare appearance and we sat above the rubble of what Michael Palin concurred as being the number one toilet in heaven and earth. All but a few sinks and half demolished tiled walls remain where Palin once perched, but the sentimental Mr Fang has built another trough toilet next to the new dormitories that now hug the gorge cliffs that once again give unparalleled views. As we’re on the subject, many of you will be familiar with one of my Facebook albums “toilets of the world”. Once in the world outside of China, this will receive many updates of the variety of ways this nation chooses to deposit it’s deposits; China may be racing towards becoming a world leader in magnificent engineering feats, but their loos are stuck in a bygone era!

What to do on a rainy day

Scowling Mountain

Our fourth day in the gorge was wall to wall sunshine. The two hour stroll downhill to Tina’s was full of huge vistas, though telegraph poles and water pipes had a habit of cropping up at each photo opportunity. Arriving at noon we had three hours to make it down to the bottom of the gorge before the bus left Tina’s. We parted with £3 at our first ‘path maintenance’ check point, handing over the cash to a lady well into her eighties who lives in the stately pad on the opposite side of the road. Further down, a fee of 50 pence was required to follow the path which led to a bridge that required a extra pound before the return leg up the Sky ladder for another £1.50. I don’t care if your dad built the path, my dad worked on the A406 but he doesn’t send me out to collect cash from the passing motorists. On the other hand, these families need to earn a living somehow, so I shouldn’t begrudge them so much, even though I suspect that barely any of the money is used for maintenance!

The tiger had gone by the time we got there

Toilet with a view

Bridging the gap

The journey back up the steep sides of the gorge in the searing heat and thin air was tough on Helen’s lungs which are now 50 % dust, 20 % mucus and 5 % rice porridge after a fortnight of Chinese living and for a moment I was thinking how me and that little old lady at the ticket booth were going to manage to carry her up. Of course that was obvious, the little old lady would stuff Helen in a bamboo basket and whisk her up in no time. But needless to say, Helen’s resolve got us to Tina’s in time for the bus and a wonderful journey passed the snow capped Haba mountain (an ‘easy’ 5500 metre climb) and to the mystical village of Shangri-la.

One day I might write a book. It will be about a fantastical village set between a famous river and a national trail with a magical railway line and spectacular power station. Then in years to come when historians pin point the setting and the tourists flood in they’ll have the same expression as we did when we got off the bus in Shangri-la. Maybe it’s the effect of experiencing other ancient cities, maybe it’s the chill in the mountain air, it’s almost certainly a bit to do with the mass hype around the place! Now I don’t know what it was that James Hilton said about the town, but I doubt he used the words bland, concrete and regimental government buildings. Though given it’s reputation, in our four days of eeking out entertainment for ourselves we have barely seen any tourists; and the same locals seem to crop up at all the same places: the prayer wheel, the evening dance and in between walking the empty streets. Even commerce seems to be at a standstill, with myriad hardware, tool shops and plastic pipe work stores bereft of all but a frozen looking owner staring blankly at his mobile phone.

Shangri-la street in full flutter

If this doesn’t answer my wishes, nothing will – the world’s largest prayer wheel

Now, to add a little balance, I must dilvulge that a fire in 2014 did destroy a great passage of the old town, and as a result, all the buildings around the central temple are either brand new, or soon will be. The town is also under the grip of the great railroad expansion and huge chunks of land are bumpy dust balls, including the final few kilometres on the bus. But that doesn’t explain where the town’s population are, they can’t all be washing cars (though a good many of them do, and with a constant stream of dusty white cars, I dare say it’s a rather lucrative business).

Of course, there are a few attractions around town, we could have visited the largest three dimensional mandala (sand art thing) had we decided it was worth £12 each, or popped into the Sumtsaling temple to look at monks for a whooping £16 each, but funnily enough, we’d rather spend the cash on food glorious food and anyway, we’ve been to Nepal!

Breakfast is included, you say, oh well!

Myanmar may be where India meets Southeast Asia but can the same be said for it’s cuisine? After three weeks munching our way around the country, here’s my verdict and opinions on food in Myanmar.

Reading the guidebook description of Myanmar cuisine didn’t instill me with enthusiasm for what lay ahead, especially the description of Burmese curry. However after travelling for 10 months and only getting ill from food twice, I plunged straight in on the first day, thinking how bad could it be? Turns out pretty bad as something we ate in those first few days wiped out most of the next week! Arriving in Myanmar as well as dealing with a churning stomachs, we were also faced with yet another language that doesn’t use the roman alphabet. Restaurant menus were often only in Burmese so we had no clue what was on offer or how much it would cost, however, spoken English was pretty good in the places we visited so we had no problems ordering food. Any problems that did occur were resolved with Mike peering in cooking pots and pointing at what we wanted, which was how we often ended up eating Burmese curry. 

The description of the curry that filled me with apprehension was that “a great deal of oil is added to Burmese curries, supposedly to keep the bacteria out, but, like the locals, you can skim the oil off”. As per our experiences with national dishes so far on this trip, they range in quality from the brilliantly delicious examples to the downright unappealing, here with a really thick layer of oil on top. A Burmese curry consists of the curry (meat or fish or sometimes just the choice of spicy or not), rice, side dishes and a soup. I thought the soups were all pretty bad, with some cabbage greens and a taste somewhere between fish sauce and farmyard smell, one sip was generally enough for me! The side dishes were my favourite, sometimes you could choose two from the selection on offer or other times we would be given up to 7 small plates. They were always vegetables, most often beans (butter, green or broad) or cauliflower. Burmese curry was standard fare at service stations which we sampled on bus journeys and vying for the title of best curry for me is the service station on the outskirts of Pyin Oo Lwin and a family restaurant a couple of blocks from our hotel in Mandalay. 

Burmese curry in Mandalay. The dish in the middle was a bit like houmous, made from beans I think and totally delicious.

Another renowned Burmese dish, well according to our guide book at least, is salad. Having eaten lots of meat in the previous weeks in Thailand and Laos, vegetables and salad was a delicious change. Different to a green leaf or Mediterranean salad you might find in Europe, in Myanmar they consisted of one principal item maybe with some onion, garlic, nuts or fish sauce to liven it up a little. Those that we tried were tomato, potato, bean, egg and the iconic tea leaf. Mike wasn’t so fond of the century egg salad but I really enjoyed all those that we tried and they were cheap or at least reasonably priced. 

Salad selection at the restaurant across from our hotel in Monywa, the middle dish is tea leaf salad

Sharing a border with India, we were expecting some good Indian food in Myanmar and we were not disappointed. From the places we visited Yangon had the most Indian restaurants and the best curry we’ve had outside India and Nepal, although the roti didn’t live up to expectations. In Pyin Oo Lwin in Shan state, we spotted some Indian restaurants and our hotel even recommended one nearby for breakfast, they made a deliciously thin and crisp egg dosa, although sadly no masala tea. This made for a welcome reprieve from the normal hotel breakfasts, which consisted of fried egg or omelette, toast (made from really sweet, tiny bread), jam (more like strawberry sauce) and fried rice or noodles, no fruit, curd and muesli in sight now! Ah well at least the beer was cheap and plentiful, with beer stations in every town serving draught beer and pretty good food and free nuts from the few we tried!

Myanmar also shares a border with China and there were a lot of Chinese restaurants or ones serving Chinese style cuisine such as the ubiquitous sweet and sour. The best food we tried was without doubt Shan food, restaurants served a variety of dishes, BBQ, noodles and other fried dishes I would describe as being similar to some Chinese dishes, which makes sense as Shan state borders China. Dishes referred to on a menu as Shan noodles, were either dry and like a cold noodle salad served with onions and coriander and a separate bowl of soup or all mixed together and served as a soup.

Shan noodles

Another reason we enjoyed Shan food was the variety and freshness of vegetables on offer and BBQ potatoes! These were a revelation, tiny little BBQ potatoes that we couldn’t work out if they were that size originally or if they’d been mashed and reformed before grilling, either way they were delicious and something to try and replicate back home in the summer. Shan food was often meat heavy, especially at the wedding we dropped in on where there were only pork dishes on the table, but they were the best pork dishes we sampled during our stay in Myanmar. The same could be said for the BBQ meat dishes we tried were succulent and surprisingly reasonably priced.

So what was the verdict? When cooked well Burmese food ranked up there with some of the tastiest we tried on our trip, there was, however, quite a lot of food that was average at best. It was refreshingly different to it’s neighbours and we just loved Shan food and the little BBQ potatoes. Burmese cuisine will feature in my memories from our visit along with the people and if you’re planning a visit to the country my advice is to be bold, take the plunge and try the local food!

Gimme Shelter 

War may only be a shot away, but everything else is a long bus ride or two…368 days in.

You certainly get the feeling that you’re under close supervision in China. To catch the bus to the Stone Forest we first had to buy our ticket from the counter, passports handed over to customise the receipt. We then walk to the start of the barrier to have our tickets validated. Proceeded down the line to the X-ray scanner and pat down. Three guards then aided our way up the escalator before another ticket check, two metres before our final ticket check, and we were on the bus. A bus, not an aeroplane. And there’s hundreds of buses with thousands of passengers being held in queues whilst all this checking goes on, no wonder they indulge in a bit of argie bargie! The stone forest itself was a attraction of two parts. An unusual name until you arrive and see it, it is indeed like a forest of rocks; Karst ones of course! Twenty metre pillars of limestone rising above the tree line and casting shadows for over a kilometre in every direction. But in China, such a view comes at a cost, £20 per person. Now there ain’t many stones that I’d pay to see, and just like the originals, these ones draw a big noisy crowd paying over the odds for the privilege. Walking through the theme park style entrance gates and the immaculately manicured lawns with baby Karst pillars we arrived at the marvels, along with every other day tripper and a hoard of ladies cloaking anyone unwitting enough to refuse their offer of a traditional outfit to make the perfect photo. It was a commotion of selfie sticks and it was an ordinary Tuesday afternoon. I was a muddled bag of emotions. How could they take such a unique natural phenomenon and tame it with paths and gardens lifted from the likes of Capability Brown? And therein was my first feeling of a contradiction, was not England once an untamed land? And how else can they manage the desire of two million visitors a year without building toilets and view points. We had to escape, and amazingly within less than a few hundred metres we found ourselves in the company of monoliths and birds alone, the change was as dramatic as the scenery.

Karsting role

Karst adrift

Karst above

Three hours of peaceful meanderings and we were ready to head back, and waiting at stop 4 for the shuttle bus (that we had paid an additional £2.50 for), we sat down by some local tourists. Twenty minutes passed when the Chinese couple spoke with the four park police who had been sat smoking on the opposite side of the road to us all the time. After the brief discussion the pair walked off, suspicious as Helen’s former boss would say. Yet by now we had the company of two Europeans and so chatted for a further ten minutes, when a second group spoke with the guards and moved off on foot. That was enough and so we engaged the guards and got the notion that the bus is not coming, despite there being a few hundred in the compound at the entrance. I was full of rage, what on earth did the stone police think we were doing sat at a bus stop? Why did the Chinese couple not think to usher us on! And this came just after one of the Europeans was saying how helpful the Chinese are. We had been told just the same earlier in Kunming by another traveller when telling us about the cities free bikes, ‘just stop a local and they will use the app to unlock them for you’. I did, five different times, and they didn’t, even one who worked for the free bike company (though quite why free bikes need locks makes me think big brother wants to know something that’s worth more than a bike). It’s not that I find the Chinese unfriendly, but helpful when they are not engaged in providing a service for which you are paying for (the restaurant owner or hotel receptionist) then that’s different; perhaps it says more about the lives of the Russian and the German that dispensed the sentiment.

Keeping an eye on things

Kunming, the city of eternal spring, was a pleasant province capital. The population of 3.6 million enjoy a clean modern lifestyle full of New Balance franchises and pet grooming shops for myriad poodles being tugged around on diamanté leads. It would be a thoroughly nice place to live. But as a tourist, especially ones on a budget, it’s a bit bland. The museums have moved a long way out of town, the parks are rather small and it could be any city anywhere. Add to that our smoke fragranced room and squat toilet immediately below the shower head and our three days there was plenty. Our check in experience once more highlighted the bizarre treatment you get as a foreigner. We had a booking, and I presented the receptionist with my mobile, but rather than punch in our passport details, the next twenty minutes were spent with her typing into her awful translation app (to be fair, they are all pretty poor) repeating the details of my booking in as many combinations as possible. I even understood that we had to pay a room key deposit the first time she said (well, Helen did), hence I handed over 200 RMB more straight away. We’ve stayed at plenty of places in Southeast Asia where English is little spoken, but nowhere has made such a meal of communication than China. For such a rapidly developing country to not furnish your citizens with a few fundamentals of the main spoken language of international business is almost like you don’t want them to independently flourish in the world.

We had obviously made a faux pas on the provisions we took with us for the six hour train ride to Dali. Everywhere you looked commuters young and old were tucking in to pot noodles, and massive sized ones to boot. Each carriage comes equipped with it’s own hot water dispenser for you to prepare your feast. But the thing that stood out for me was the mini fork that comes inside the packet. We’re in China. I have now eaten 30 meals here and not once have I been provided with a fork. The noodle packs are all made in China, so who decided that a fork was suitable to eat these noodles with? As children grow up eating packet noodles with a fork, twisting the noodles around the prongs, will they not think, this is easier than chopsticks? Is this to be the end of one of the most distinctive emblems of Asian culture, dispatched by the ready meal…?

When they cast for the remake of The Great Escape, I’ll be waiting for the call

Two thousand metres high and on the edge of China’s third largest lake, Dali is a popular destination for the Chinese. After our scrum for the bus and long trudge down town to find cheap accommodations to match our budget, we had time for a quick mozie and dinner. For the home grown tourist, it would appear that holidays are all about spending more money than you would normally on everyday items and I was appalled to be wafted away when told two bananas were going to set me back 58 pence; for that price I want them sliced, fried in batter and dripping with chocolate sauce! To evade the touts selling selfie sticks (how can there possibly be people in China still in need of a selfie stick?) we hired an e-bike and dynamoed out of town, but not just any e-bike, I went for the upgrade, for Queen and Country! Many detours, some self imposed, many roadwork enforced, later, we arrived at a Benzhu temple. It was nothing special, in fact, it was rather run down, but as we sat on it’s steps, exchanging waves with the ladies working the fields alongside us, we looked over a landscape of well constructed homes, agricultural land and power lines. The rural life looks hard, everything is done by hand, and the rewards presumably low in return, but there are no shacks, the homes are well built and the streets well maintained (though having used them, I can’t say the same for the public toilets), maybe state welfare for the rural community works here; close to the tourist centre? But why is everything still done by had? We are far from the rice terraces, here the land is flat for some 400 square kilometres. A few tractors and combined harvesters could free the enslaved lives of the old ladies, bent double. People are naturally lazy, or rather, they seek the simplest solution to labour, from the loom to the computer, so what prevents a few entrepreneurial farmers buying more land and reaping the cash?

Dali Shores

Our second day in Dali, and after a hill run 650 metres up the side of mount Malong that tops out at 4122 masl (it was a rather ambitious summit attempt) we decided to embrace the ancient city and it’s overpriced offerings. Fortunately, walking along the ramparts watching the engaged couples having their prenup photos directed by a team of photographers and roadies was free! If we thought Dali was touristy (and everyone does) then it was merely a prelude to what we would find in the next city, Lijiang. However, to wonder around this ancient city incurs a £9 fee, needless to say we went after the ticket booths closed, though not that we had much chance to get in during daylight as yet another hotel check in displayed ineptitude of significant effort. This time we had seen the room, agreed the price and been given the key. I had been sent across the road to another hotel who used their translator app and after five minutes of procrastination used it to ask if I liked the room; we were in it weren’t we! I went back to our room only to have a boy knock on the door with a translation on his phone that read “we can’t except your papers”. Could they not have decided that 45 minutes earlier?

Competition for Stephanie 

Lijiang is a maze of smooth stone pavements with yawning chasms of water courses beckoning the unobservant pedestrian or diligent amateur photographer as they try to arrange their muse. At night the labyrinth is a noisy hustle of vendors purveying silverware, leather goods and food, all looking spectacular and commanding a price tag to match. In the middle of this the scene changes to bars and clubs, each with a live performance belting out a tune, some rather somber, others with pulsating lights and dance routines; yet all still in ye olde worlde wood and stone buildings. It was York meets New York, Chinese style, and still there was room for quiet alleys and lanes where where the rapidly expanding ancient city outwardly sprawled exactly the same shops undisturbed from eager punters. Clearly the two ancient towns of Dali and Lijiang are little more than purpose restored shopping arcades with only a few walls being anything like genuine, but they certainly know what their customers want and have given it to them by the bamboo basket load.

Buffalo momo, in the heart of the Annapurna

With our taste buds still tingling with delight after our month in India, we crossed the border to Nepal. How would it’s fare compare? Would we soon tire of momos and uninspiring dal bhat as fellow travelers had told us or would it be a culinary bohnanza? Here’s my verdict and opinions on food in Nepal after nearly two months munching our way around the country.

Dal bhat, the national dish and for once it means that everyone eats it, lunch and dinner, everyday, 24 hour power or so the t-shirts say. Meaning lentils and rice, it’s a large portion of rice, with vegetable curry (or often just potato), lentil soup and can also include pickle, spinach like greens and papad (an oily poppadom). The quality varies between each servery but you can always be sure of one thing; plenty of it, they keep coming with extra helpings of rice, curry and dal. Whether you’re at a roadside shack, halfway up a mountain, or a fancier Newari restaurant, you can be certain that dal bhat will be on the menu. It may never grace the table of a Michelin starred restaurant but it’s cheap and easy to cook, plentiful and to me feels like a healthier alternative to samosas or other deep fried snacks often available at lunchtime, Mike just has to remember to say no the extra helpings!

Our last supper in Nepal and we chose dal bhat, this was possibly the nicest one of the trip!

Dal bhat was not the only traditional dish available, in Kathmandu, Pokhara and some of the larger cities you could find upmarket restaurants serving Newari cuisine. This typically took the form of a set menu, served in a similar format to dal bhat and you might even have the choice of meats, buff or chicken and there was choice in the carb other than rice! We tried chiura (dry beaten rice, that was a bit like cereal) and another that looked like mashed potato. Opinion was divided among the three of us as to whether we preferred a Newari set, personally I would rather have a good dal bhat with a delicious vegetable curry than a chewy buff curry. Buff (water buffalo) was the most frequent meat option, from buff momos, buff curry and what felt like buff everything. 

Newari set with chiura and buff meat.

Another renowned Nepali dish is momos, in fact a Tibetan delicacy but they are ubiquitous across Nepal. Generally described in English as dumplings, they bear no resemblance to a dumpling nestled on top of a hearty British stew, Italian ravioli would be a better analogy. Dumplings are prevalent in Asia, each country has a different name and way to cook them, gyoza in Japan or jiaozi in China, same same but different as they say. The standard range of fillings was vegetable, buff or chicken. Then there’s the choice of how they are cooked, steamed, kothey (pan fried on one side), fried (as in deep fried) or c-momo – chilli momo, steamed or fried momos in chilli tomato sauce with a couple of pieces of onion, pepper and tomato, it probably has a few other ingredients but it’s hard to tell with the chilli, they always make my nose run but definitely my favourite type!

Clockwise: steamed, kothey, c momo and spinach and paneer steamed momo – my favourite filling but hard to find!

A large portion of our time in Nepal was spent treking in the Everest region, as such we ate a lot of Tibetan influenced food, which frequently featured potatoes and noodles. The often potato heavy dishes felt a bit like a winter back home when you have run out of fresh green vegetables so bulk out your dish with potatoes instead, although a hash brown the size of your face and if you’re feeling extravagant with yak* cheese is an awesome lunch after a morning’s treking. Other methods for cooking the trusty tuber included frying and stewing and the dish is given the prefix of sherpa to make it sound more exciting. This may sound like I was unimpressed by the food and cooking while treking, yes meat and variety in vegetables or ingredients may have been scarce (or expensive) but the number of dishes that were whipped up at 4000 metres is impressive, especially as most the dry ingredients and fuel to cook with had been lugged up the mountain by yak or human! Besides momos another traditional Tibetan dish we tried while treking was Tibetan bread, a fried bread usually eaten for breakfast. The best way to describe it is the love child of an Indian nan bread and a doughnut, with two slashes across to middle to help it cook. Unsurprisingly it was pretty oily and not my favourite breakfast choice but the honey it was served with made it more enjoyable, especially if you had a cup of hot ginger, lemon and honey with it, the Nepali cure for all minor ailments. * It should technically be called nak cheese, as a female yak is a nak.

I don’t have any pictures of food from treking, so if it’s good enough for Alpen…

Outside of the main tourist areas of Kathmandu and Pokhara, options other than dal bhat or momos were often limited to fried rice or fried noodles. Noodle based dishes ranged in quality and often it was just a packet of instant noodles, however if we spotted them on a menu, our favourite were the Tibetan dishes of thukpa and thenthuk. Served as a soup or dry (fried), thentuk are fat fresh rice noodles and thukpa are thinner noodles (or sometimes just instant noodles). Noodle dishes were a welcome change as we entered Nepal after a month of Indian curries.

In towns and cities you would often come across Indian food, especially samosas and other fried snacks. The quality was not quite as good as in India and one shack we stopped at for our final lunch in Kathmandu was probably the source of delhi belly for Glenn and I only just escaped a case as well! The rest of the Indian food we tried in Nepal was really good, especially restaurants serving curries, they were simple looking places but could they cook! Having habituated ourselves to a daily lassi in India, we could still get our fix in Nepal as most restaurants had them on the menu, although a little more expensive. No trip to Bhaktapur would be complete without trying juju dhau, king of curds and it was a delicious and creamy curd, although perhaps the king had been put on a diet as it seemed a rather small portion!

A tasty lunchtime snack, no repercussions from this one! Photo by Glenn

The most impressive food from our time in Nepal was during the three day whitewater rafting trip. With the chef and his assistants negotiating their boat through the rapids with just one burly man and a pair of oars, as soon as we arrived at each location the kitchen was rapidly unpacked and reinstalled. With one gas bottle and three burners, they whipped up a plethora of tasty dishes for us each mealtime, including plenty of option to suit the pickiest of western eaters. With popcorn as soon as we had set up camp, pasta, chips, banana fritters and even a freshly baked cake on our final night, I’m still amazed at how they manage to prepare it all, fear not we still had dal bhat one evening, we were in Nepal after all!

Chef putting the final touches to the lunchtime feast and another snap by Glenn

So Nepali food, was it a culinary delight or was the only bohnanza to be found just the endless games we played of it while treking? Personally on the whole I enjoyed the food, especially momos and dal bhat, if it was a good one. With a mixture of curries, noodles, momos and some really good western food, Nepalis can cook! I wouldn’t recommend visiting the country for the food alone but there’s plenty of reasons to visit Nepal and you certainly won’t go hunger while you’re there. 

It was a theme she had, on a scheme he had, told in a foreign land

Little did I know that one of the derogatory playground terms of my youth was actually a province in China. Yunnan, 360 days in…

Full to bursting with our last bowl of phó we crossed the Red River and made our way from Lao Chi, Vietnam and into Hekou: China! Any worries we had of a full body search from the border forces were put at ease as a guard made small talk to us in the immigration queue; or was this just a case of playing the good cop role? Not at all, and within ten minutes we were through, only having to retrieve the washing powder from my bag to demonstrate I was not a drugs mule. The difference was striking as we stepped onto even Chinese pavements, unobstructed with motorbikes and with waste bins placed at regular intervals. 

Our first and rather mundane task was to walk to a guesthouse, typically a simple case of following Google maps. However, we were now inside the Great Firewall of China, where Google products cannot cross. So instead we followed our noses, tested the water and our Mandarin in a few hotels before stumbling across the 1982 hostel, far more modern than it’s name would suggest! By this time, with China an hour ahead it was lunch, we found a place with pictures on the walls and were eating delicious steamed dumplings in no time and under the constant watch of two small children (communist party members in the making!). A few bananas caught our eye as we passed a fruit stall, we signalled for four (which is much more different than you may think), and for whatever reason, these bananas were free! China was growing on me quickly! 

Everything is bigger in China, well, other than the obvious

We passed the rest of the day in Hekou watching commodities being loaded onto rickshaws and walked to Vietnam, practicing our Chinese with a bunch of schoolgirls, walking along the banks of the red river listening to street side karaoke (we had no option on that one) and posing as property investors at a luxury tower block sales room. We struck out early the next day making for the bus station where we were sure to find food stalls and a nine am bus; no on both counts. But after red bean soup out of a can we were rounded up by our bus driver and just before ten were on our way to Yuanyang, rice terrace country!

The only trouble with getting a bus to Yuanyang is that it’s like asking for a bus to the Lake District. Chances are, you’ll get dropped off at Kendal, which although nice enough is nowhere near any of the good stuff; so an extra hour on a bus uphill then a twenty minute taxi ride and we were in the heart of it, and it was spectacular! We have witnessed many good rice terraces: the amphitheatre of Batad, the spidersweb of Cancar and the misty views across Sapa, but they are all dwarfed in comparison. 

Our first glimpse from 2000 metres up

 

Sunrise over Duoyshu

Yuanyang is almost certainly the best example of a UNESCO world heritage site that we have been to on our travels. The none too cheap fee of 100 RMB (which our taxi driver offered us the chance to avoid if we paid him double the fare!) has been put to good use around the villages, connecting them all with 120 kilometres of cobbled brick roads, ensuring that all buildings conform to the same colour scheme and authentic stone materials, and laying down trails to help tourists make their way through the terraces; it all seemed well thought through. As for the terraces themselves, they are dated to the Ming dynasty and have been cultivated over a few thousand years. For those of you, like me, that wonder why the paddies are full of water, our guesthouse owner, Richard can explain; the soil is heavy clay, if left to dry out, it hardens (making it hard to plough) and cracks (making them leak), so they are kept full of water all year round!

Green Green rice of home

That’s a lot of Ricicles

Simmer Din

The multi-vehicled descent from the highland terraces to the hot plains during which we encountered our first internal rear view mirror with live video feed of the road ahead, music player and email stream – but no ‘rear view’ brought us to a bus ride away from our next destination and we duly took our seats on the back row. I had been looking forward to such a commanding position as it gave me range over eight seats from which to request the occupants follow the no smoking sign. Within ten minutes my opportunity arose front left, I lean in and placed me hand on the man’s right shoulder. He turned, I smiled, pointed at the sign, his fag and determinedly said bu yao. The next few moments he expressed surprise, I expressed my thoughts, and the man next to me said, “it’s ok to smoke in China”, and we left it at that, he continued smoking as I knew he would (though possibly not as often as he may have done on our four hour ride) and I was happy that I’d made a stand. In fact, the smoking issue (well, it’s an issue to me if not the Chinese populous) is not as bad as I feared it would be. We are currently three hours into a train ride and although many of the men smoke, they do so out of the carridge area where there is reasonable ventilation and the smell is only faint and we have only once had a room that smelt of cigarettes, though that was still unpleasant each time we returned to it.

This week’s line up are…

And so our bus arrived in Jianshui, a small town but with a big history as the centre of Confusionism, though the main temple was both overpriced and underwhelming. Far more attractive was the 17 arch bridge, the city gates and the well healed streets through town, all of which were free to admire. This was also the scene of our first completely non English speaking hotel, which was an overcomplicated affair. After pointing at the room rate that was acceptable to us, having been shown the room and presented the lady with our passports and money, we were unable somehow to check in. After a few attempts at repeating the same sentence to us, she dashed off next door and brought back the receptionist of another hotel (in fact, the hostel we had been looking for). It turned out the lady was most probably a cleaner and didn’t know how to check us in, somethings you just can’t reckon on! This was our first go at using the much hailed maps.me as a Google replacement having been told by many a traveller how smitten they were with it. As you can probably guess by the way I have brought up the subject, I am less than convinced! There are no user reviews of the hotels or attractions that it marks (like on Google maps), the road our hotel was on was simply missing and on the day we left Jianshui it took us to a train station that was non existent (it claims to use Google maps, and without being able to compare them directly, I can’t say that Google would not have shown the derelict station, but a user review would probably have prevented us from going there). Anyway, we’re now four hours into that train ride and the slow accumulation of smoke is starting to irritate my eyes. China, it’s been a decent start!

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