Ca Plane Pour Moi

With Helen earning an honest crust back in Blighty, hemi becomes demiexplorers as I take to the Alps for snowy adventures on high!

Many experts will disagree over how to prepare the body for an expedition into the high alps, altitude training, finger boarding, watching Touching the Void, but for our resident expert, it’s very simple: eat twice as much as normal; and once the six of us had settled into our one-bed apartment, we set about our training with great gusto. A healthy serving of porridge cooked to nobody’s liking, followed by burgers and hotdogs at some of the myriad purveyors in Cham central and heaps of nachos, curry and falafel, all critiqued by our panel of wanna-be chefs, would fuel our forthcoming adventures. During the fleeting moments between meals, we grabbed in some other essential training.

With novice alpinists Glenn and Mick kitted out in boots that first saw action when Mont Blanc was conquered, we handed over €31.50 for the 20 minute venicular train to the Mer de Glace glacier. Here we were to put into action our crevasse rescue (which we had practiced out of the window of our second story apartment the night before) but first we had to descend the 100 metres of vertigo inducing ladders under race conditions. Once on the ice we all took the chance to jump into a 4 metre hole and get pulled out by our comrades. With that successfully completed we attempted to reinact the “prussac challenge” of years past, and I was first into the hole. The aim was to get out by pulling yourself up on two ropes, but once again my flailing limbs got me nowhere, and with no crampons on, I was stuck! Out came the pullies again, and out I was dragged by the gang, scraping over every icy rut and ridge in the process.

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Gripped

A day of conventional rock climbing to hone our rope work and we were ready to head up to the Premier Albert hut for a two day expedition. On previous trips we had stayed in the Albert as it transitioned from classic mountaineers refuge to day tripping tourist hot spot, and we had been shunted to a small stainless steel room to keep us away from the families that later kept us awake all night. This time we had a much better time of it, a three course meal, a quiet night in a dorm to ourselves and a 4 am breakfast to get us going in the morning. A mere four hours later via the Col Superieur Mick, Glenn and myself were battling with other mountaineers for the top spot on the Aiguille du Tour at 3542 metres high. We then made our way over the vast Plateau du Trient to Switzerland and waited for Pinto and Christina at the Trient Cabane, with Mick celebrating on the beers and me doing my best to avoid paying €10 for a 1.5 litre bottle of water. Not too long after our discussions had turned to how long we should wait before alerting the insurance companies to Pinto and Christine’s disappearance, two dots emerged on the horizon and an hour later we were reunited with Team Deux with stories of heart stopping endeavour upon the tricky Table Couloir!

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Evening above the clouds

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Cross

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Mounting

The next morning we swapped the frosty reception of the Trient Cabane for the chilly 4 am air and struck a path to the Tête Blanche. Roped up in different groups and with crevasse investigations completed with varying levels of consent, we made up the north west ridge and mounted the top at 3420 metres. We skipped and bum slid our way down to Chamonix where we celebrated our achievements with a hot dog and double helpings of chilli – the training never stops!

IMG_0551To find out more stories of our adventure that are funnier than a Bobby Davro Box Set, head to tomjarvisuk.wordpress.com

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We’re on a road to nowhere

All the best explorers should be able to say that they have climbed to the tops of mountains, sailed the longest rivers and trekked through the darkest jungles, but to be classed as a true adventurneer, surely a long distance hitchhiking journey is essential! Putting your faith in others, careful consideration of the optimal location, remaining positive as cars stream past you and all the while wearing a smile, hitching, as we discovered can be a tough gig!

Aberdeen to Didcot, a distance of 620 kilometres as the crow flies. There are a few public transport options that are available for this route. The quickest is the train to Edinburgh, then the train to London, then London to Didcot. This takes approximately 11 hours and costs about the same as a fortnight’s family holiday on the Spanish coast, which is what you’ll need to recover from the shock of seeing the Visa bill. The much cheaper alternative is to ride most of the way with Megabus, Aberdeen to Birmingham is £10, Birmingham to Oxford is £5 (advanced fare prices) and then the train to Didcot is £6.30. So the two of us could have traveled back for £42.60, but the bus only leaves Aberdeen once a day, at 18:45 and gets into Birmingham at 4 am the next morning, which would mean that our journey back would take over a day (given that we arrived in Aberdeen on the ferry from Lerwick at 7 am). So, we thought, could we go cheaper and possibly even quicker by hitching? There was only one way to find out!

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Never accept sweets from a stranger

You don’t see many hitchhikers these days. Despite record ticket prices for rail travel and years of austerity people seem inclined to pay the extortionate fees and climb aboard the cramped carriages that offer hold luggage for no more than six passengers per 80 seats and dish out fines for people travelling on near empty trains just because they have taken an earlier departure from the one on their advanced ticket, madness! But why is this? Why, when we told our relatives that we were hitching back, did they give us a grimace and say watch out for axe murderers? To be honest, an axe is not really the best tool for murdering in the confines of a car – no swing room! A garrote murderer, now that is someone to fear!

Our hitchhiking journey began with a fabulous pre-hitch Aberdeen parkrun #304 along the long beach promenade followed by coffee and breakfast bap at the Stratosphere Science centre.  Our plans were given a boost with an offer of a shower and lift towards the edge of town from fellow runner Clare, duly accepted! By 11:30 we were smelling fresh and on the side of the recommended A90 with our thumbs out and sign aloft. It was a busy road, about a 50 mph limit and the cars were whizzing by. We had placed ourselves a hundred metres down from a petrol station to give the passing motorists the chance to see us and pull in and beckon us to them. I took the first step to the traffic’s edge and smiled, chest out, shoulders back. Drivers acknowledged us. People made various hand gestures. But no one stopped for me. I gave it my best for a quarter of an hour, but it felt much more. The excited anticipation that someone would stop for us almost instantly had passed. We swapped out, and Helen took point. Within seven minutes, we had struck luck! A Spanish family had stopped for us in the side road and presented us with two seats. They were on a trip of Scotland themselves and had taken a suitcase each and rented a Vauxhall Corsa; just perfect for three adults with a week’s worth of luggage, not so for five! We tried, but couldn’t manage it and so had to pass on the offer. We sent them away and got back on the side of the road. But this family were determined. They pulled into the garage, rearranged their luggage and then the mother jogged down the road and beckoned us back. They were not leaving without us, and so we crammed ourselves in and settled down for a two hour trip to Stirling. We were on our way! Virginia and her family were great companions. We chatted about our travels and her new life in Scotland as Alexis followed Google maps south. They dropped us in the centre of town and told us to keep them up-dated with our journey just in case we needed their help later on!

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Where it all started, the boot of a Corsa!

Of course, town centres are not really idea for hitching; people are coming and going from all directions. So we needed to walk to the southern edge of the city to get the cars headed the same way we were. It was around four, we had no idea how long it would be until our next lift, so we got a bag of scampi and chips and wondered off with my “non-axe murderers seek a lift south” sign strapped to the back of my rucksack. Before we had managed to tuck into our deep fried feast, our next lift was on offer, the sign had worked! So we jumped into Lisa’s Audi A3 and headed to Grangemouth! Lisa gave us a full description of the sights, the impressive Helix figures and the Forth valley and I recalled nights in Falkirk’s premier establishment Behind the Wall. We disembarked at an Asda near a lorry depot and bid our farewells as Lisa set off on a night out to celebrate her recent promotion. The plan was to get some milk and snacks (easy) and get a lift at the depot. But at 17:30 on a Saturday night, none of the lorries appeared to be making any efforts to leave, so we headed off on foot towards to main roads. Our walk took us past the Syngenta laboratories where I spent three months as a PhD student working on a compound called Warhead Lactone! We placed ourselves at the end of the industrial estate and began hitching. After 20 minutes we encountered our first comedians, two lads in a vajazzelled Yaris. They displayed all the classic signs, pulled over 50 metres away, kept the engine running, didn’t get out or unwind a window, wore baseball caps. I was happily relieved when as we approached them they screeched off. That was the cue to make our way to a different spot as we were getting nowhere. As we did so, the Yaris had to go back past us, with the passenger burying his head in his arms in apparent shame. A kilometer further along and we had better luck, after a 15 minute wait Danny and his girlfriend took us a few miles along the road in their Ford Focus and pointed us in the direction of Bathgate – now I had a plan. Within minutes Helen had blagged a ride with a taxi of all things and Mazi took us the six miles into town in his VW Passat. We were now only a few miles from Livingston, where as chance would have it, lives an old friend of my mum’s. As it was now closing in on nine pm, I made a few calls and we had our accommodation for the evening arranged. At this point we opted for the bus to get us swiftly to Mary’s. It turns out that buses in this neck of the woods are anything but swift as they take in all sorts of nooks and tenements and charge a whopping £3.40 EACH! We ended day one with a warm shower and a soft bed, 177 km closer to home.

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Deep in the diamond of doom, we found our own gems!

Sunday 08:15 on the A71 at the edge of an outlet centre that didn’t open for trade until 10:00, I wasn’t expecting an easy thumb. But then I hadn’t counted on Callum coming past in his battered Suzuki Alto. It’s funny the things people reveal to total strangers. Things that don’t need to be revealed as they do little to help the anxiety that can begin to establish traveling along narrow country lanes. The number of incidents involving speeding motorists. Pointing the locations of where the cars left the road into the forests. Having only passed their driving test six months ago. Having battled with a drink problem (as we were in Scotland this could really have just been assumed). Callum was keen to give us a run down of his past. Fortuitously it was a brief ride and as we never managed to find the service station he was aiming for, we got out near a slip road onto the M8. We were of course, still deep in the diamond of hitching doom. The no-mans land in between Glasgow and Edinburgh where all roads go east-west and no one travels south. For 90 minutes we waited. Plenty of cars passed us by, a few chortled at our sign and two even stopped, but they were off to Edinburgh and that felt like a step backwards. Eventually, with thoughts turning to a hike to the service station, white van John gave us the life line we needed. Bags chucked in with the carpet runners in the back of the Iveco and faith restored. A slight detour in John’s journey back planted us at junction 5 of the M74 at a place where “ye’ll get n’bother from the cops here”. And not only that, but we got an almost immediate pick up! Camp John was a joy to ride with. From Glasgow to the Lake District we talked theater and grandkids. His Seat Leon was very comfortable and the scenery was sweeping by. We said our goodbyes at the Killington Lake services with a bag of fruit to see us on our way. It was gone 1 pm and with the sun shining we took advantage of the lovely views to make up a brew and eat our sandwiches, topping up our water bottles at Costa Coffee for free.

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Across the border

Pete and Paul’s BMW 3 series was yet another piece of unexpected luxury. On their way down from a Tough Mudder in Scotland, they drove us to Lymm services with a rock soundtrack. Our last two hitches had eaten up the tarmac and we were optimistic of arriving home that evening. But we now hit a problem. We just could not get a lift. Maybe it was that most people were on the M56 rather than the M6? A lady trying to be helpful suggest we move to the truck stop at the back…all truckers take hitchers right? No. We did try with some truckers, but none would take us. I managed a chat with an AA driver who gave me the “our insurance prohibits us” scenario, which lies somewhere in the sandwich of truth but with a big filling of I just can’t be bothered. We were not alone in waiting for a lift. A young naval officer on his way back to Plymouth was also waiting for his mate to pick him up. Having taken pity on us, Scott and Tommo spared us room in our second BMW of the day and we sat back with Jimmy Carr on the stereo. It had taken a while, but we were now at Hilton Park services, and on any ordinary day, only 90 minutes from home. But we still had a tricky section to overcome. Leaving behind the straight line of the M6 we now joined Gavin in his sporty Celica. The miles whizzed by as we talked about traveling and adventure. The familiar route towards the M42 was as if we were on a homecoming, but Gavin, having done the fortnightly child transfer with his ex was on his way to Northampton, so we elected to be deposited at the Coventry Welcome Break.

What a bad choice. It was a mini diamond of doom again for anyone wishing to go south like us! It soon became 19:30, and hopes were fading that we would make it home – we still had 99 km to go and would people people give hitchers a ride at night? We shifted places around the petrol station to get some shade in the hot summer sun. Campervan Mike spotted us and enthusiastically told us to climb in. I was straight in the back along with the beds, sink, cooker and all the paraphernalia of a weekend racing his Morgan Barrel Back. We cracked open the maps and looked for a strategy that would get us on the right track and get Mike to Suffolk. There was not much of an overlap in our Venn diagram of destinations, but we opted to head for Northampton, perhaps we could pop round to our new friend Gavin! The A5199 just off the A14 looked a likely road that could get us into Northampton and offer us the chance to get to Oxford on the A43. Within minutes our planned look on track as Saint John pulled up in his Jaguar. This ride came with a caveat – we had to help entertain his daughter with severe learning difficulties who was in the back. We duly obliged and had a great time singing Michael Bublé songs and pretending to sneeze. We learnt about Trailblazers – a charity run by John that mentors young offenders and were amazed at the patience and charisma of our chauffeur. We spent over an hour on the country lanes and traveled to Aylesbury bus station. It was 21:30, there was a bus to Oxford in 15 minutes and we had got to within 40 kilometres of home, we were done.

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Thumbs up for everyone

At 23:55 we opened the front door of our house and were back. It had taken 36 hours and in the end cost £25.30 for the both of us. Was it worth it? Well, we did save £12.70 (wow!) but we didn’t have to spend an evening on an overnight bus, and we’ve certainly had our fair share of those recently. But we got to travel with 15 fun people. Not only did we receive great hospitality and generosity which helped us on our way, but our rides also gained a little sense of benevolence; they offered two total strangers a lift and asked for nothing in return, they did their good deed for the day and drove off with a small hint of pride that they had been a good citizen. I asked Camp John if he had ever given a hitch before. He hadn’t. I asked why had he stopped for us. He answered “I don’t know really, I just thought, hell to it, they look like a nice young couple, why not!” Campervan Mike was more of the old school. He had hitched to Italy in his youth. But by and large, those that gave us the looks of disapproval for our activities were of the older generation, those in their 60s who surely grew up when hitchhiking was a more common place activity and people knew who their neighbours were. These are the people that tell us our streets aren’t safe, the young people don’t call in to say hello anymore and there’s foreigners everywhere you look. Well, thanks to a few foreigners and some young people, we made it back! We may not do another journey quite like this again, but we are glad we gave it a go and found that there just aren’t as many axe wielding murderers out there as you may think!

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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.