Malaysian Highlights

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Perhentian Island Beach Party Fire Dancer
Perhentian Island Fish
On our way to Perhantian
Skyline of Kuala Lumpur from Batu Caves
Batu Caves
Outside Batu Caves
Petronas Towers Day
Petronas Towers Night

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A Slight Change of Plan

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Before I start, we’re in Malaysia!

After an uneventful flight to Kuala Lumpur and finding a place to stay we spent the following days exploring the city. We figured out the subway system, visited the Petronas towers (day and night), climbed up the 270 odd stairs into Batu Caves and bartered at the markets.

We really enjoyed our time in Kuala Lumpur but we came to Malaysia for some island hopping. Unfortunately we were restricted to the east coast due to the monsoon on the west coast.

We’ve been on Perhentian Island for 5 days and both feel that we need a change of scenery and can get more out of our time travelling. Asia has been an eye opening place to visit and we’ve really enjoyed our time here but we’re both ready for a bit of a change from beaches, beach life and islands.

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So we’re off to South Africa! It was quite an easy choice and somewhere we’ve both always wanted to go back to to visit family, old homes, old schools, Sun City, Gold Reef City, etc. (we were born there).

We’re off to Bali in a few days as planned and we’ll be heading to SA some time in July.

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Is Malaria Really That Bad?

This is the innards of a malaria pill I opened on the concrete floor of our guesthouse – Doxycycline.  A nice luminous yellow… mmm

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This is the same luminous yellow powder three days later…

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I don’t know why I bother taking these, is it worth the risk of more serious damage? Only two weeks left and we’re off them!

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Angkor Wat – back to China for the day

IMG_6568Our tuk tuk driver picked us up at 10am and we agreed a price of $18 for the whole day.  Not particularly cheap for a tuk tuk, but he dropped us at Bayon, waited for us to walk around each one in our own time and was always outside ready to go to the next area.  We eventually got back at about 7pm.  9 hours for $18 isn’t bad!

IMG_6527The tourism in Cambodia is growing, fast.  We noticed it particularly in Angkor Wat. Building work and restoration happening everywhere which is a bit of a shame – a lot of the restored parts are really obviously restored.  Bright white or grey clean sand stone used.  Parts of the place were completely rebuilt in 2007, since then the work has continued with wooden stairs added for ease of access.  It’s hard to get a shot of Angkor Wat itself without some building work or scaffolding.

IMG_6563Nevertheless it was an amazing day out.  I was particularly impressed by the walls and just the pure scale of the place.  Every brick is covered in detailed carvings.  A huge amount of time must have been put into it. Angkor Wat itself is amazing enough, then you’ve got miles of land dotted with the smaller buildings, shrines and lakes.  We only got to see a small slice of the place and unfortunately didn’t have the time to see the jungle and mountain temples.

The amount of Chinese people at the various temples was quite amazing! As soon as we walked into Bayon about 5 bus loads of them squeezed into the place.  It was like being back in China for the day with the crowds, pushing, snorting and the use of outside voices inside. The Chinese really are the masters of tourism.

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Shootin’

Today Craig and I went to the 911 Siem Reap Shooting Range. Formerly a place where you could shoot just about any weapon you like. I’ll explain why soon.

It’s located just outside of the Siem Reap City Centre and is well worth the Tuk-Tuk trip out there just for the ride through rural Cambodia. It took us about 40 minutes to pass through Angkor Wat (our Tuk-Tuk driver explained to the National Park guard that we were only passing through – it usually costs $20 to enter), rice paddies and local villages where wooden huts were up on stilts. The road soon turned into a recently gravelled mud track. We nearly tipped over in the Tuk-Tuk twice from the pot holes, but its all part of the experience isn’t it!?

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We eventually arrived to a small area just next to a military training ground. Inside were 2 or 3 dodgy looking target rooms, with a long range area outside and a larger room housing a selection of guns. I’m not a gun expert but I recognised M16s, AK47s and the odd RPG. There were other bigger machine guns as well, no idea what they were though. They looked like they’d cost a lot to fire.

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We decided to get the M16 and 30 rounds.

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Shooting a gun is something every man should do! It was amazing and a huge adrenalin rush when set to automatic! It was all over way too soon.

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We actually went to shoot hand guns, a 9mm, a revolver or similar, but we were told that a Russian guy had committed suicide at the range we were at and that they had to get rid of them. A shame that one guy had to ruin it for everyone as there’s now a very limited selection of guns available.

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The Cambodian government seems to look down on this sort of place unfortunately and have shut 3 down in Siem Reap over the last few years we’ve been told.

So get out there while you can, it’s basic, dangerous and raw shooting. Something I’ll remember forever and extremely good fun!

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Choeung Ek – The Killing Fields – Cambodia

Today Craig and I visited one of the hundreds of killing fields of the Khmer Rouge era, now a memorial ground, in Phnom Penh.

It was a quiet and eerie place; you could somehow feel that thousands of lives had been taken unlawfully as you walked through the mass graves, even though it was a beautifully sunny day (37c!), with green grass and the sound of children playing in the school next door.

A little bit of history:

The killing fields are areas where mass graves were discovered after the Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer Rouge was set up in 1968 and was made up of members of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, a branch of the Vietnam People’s Army. The party took charge of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and were lead by Pol Pot.

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The pits.

It is thought that roughly 1 in 4 people were executed in these camps after they had been forcefully removed from their homes. Every city, town and village stood empty as thousands of people accused of being Chinese, Thai, Cambodian Christians, intellects (speaking a different language, professors, teachers, or even if you just couldn’t see properly and wore glasses) were rounded up and sent to work.

The basic goal was to make Cambodia a self-sufficient country of agriculture, however this also included medicine. The result was millions of deaths due to an unrealistic goal set by Pol Pot. It was demanded that rice production be tripled. An impossible task even for trained farmers. No one knew how to sew seeds or tend to the crops, they were ordinary people. Malaria was also a problem and the lack of knowledge on how to produce the vaccinations caused plenty of deaths.

Bones and clothes can still be seen as you wander around.

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The Killing Fields themselves were merely mass graves for the 2.5 million people that died. Bullets were expensive so the victims would be bludgeoned to death while communist music blared out from the speakers to mask their cries of pain. Truck loads of people arrived every day from the torture centre Tuol Sleng (also know as S-21) and were executed on the same day.

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The Khmer Rouge was eventually dethroned by the Communist Vietnamese in 1979. Unfortunately Pol Pot lived to the ripe old age of 82 under heavily guarded house arrest. What a nice way to go for such a great guy…

The killing tree. Infants were killed against the tree for fear of revenge later on in life.

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There was an odd atmosphere walking around the graves, and in some places still seeing the bones and old clothing of the victims lying around the grounds. Its one thing reading or seeing this sort of stuff in a museum, but when you’re actually there to see the evidence, it’s a whole different experience. A must see if you’re ever in Phnom Penh.

Commemorative stupa holding skulls, clothing and bones.

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Thailand Highlights

We realised we didn’t post much on Thailand. Maybe we spent too much time on the beach! From now on we’ll aim to do at least one post a week.

Here are some highlights from Thailand:

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Big Buddha – Koh Samui
Alien & Predator made of old motorbike parts – Koh Samui
Sunset – Koh Samui
Sea view swimming pool – Koh Phangan
Motocross – Koh Tao
360m+ up – Koh Tao
Jumping off the rock on Tanote Bay – Koh Tao
Charlie Beach – Koh Muk
Charlie Beach – Koh Muk
Mopeds – Koh Muk
Boating to Koh Tao
Ao Maya – Koh Phi Phi Leh (The Beach)
Bamboo Island – Koh Phi Phi Leh
Sunset
Railay West – Krabi
Walking to Centara resort via the monkey trail – Krabi
Ao Nang Beach – Krabi
Khao San Road
Khao San Road
Monkey on Ao Nang beach
Big Buddha – Koh Samui
Boat to Koh Tao (which was pretty much full!)

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Cambodia

th_IMG_5829We’re in Cambodia!

After three aeroplane breakfasts we finally landed in Cambodia.  Not our longest flight, but we changed planes twice, so through security a total of 3 times. Bangkok, Malaysia (yes we landed in Malaysia, our next destination!) and finally Phnom Penh. No problems at all.

One of the first things we do when we land is get some local currency from an ATM in the airport.  I tried the first one available, just before Phnom Penh customs.  US dollars only… strange. I then tried a few more after 2 full hand prints were taken by customs. All US dollars!

We asked around and every ATM in Cambodia will only give you dollars, you can only get riel by exchanging it.  Not too much of a problem, we still have dollars left over from the Trans-Mongolian so got a tuk-tuk to the place we had booked – Eighty8 Backpackers.

After a little more research in the local shops and on the internet we started to understand the crazy currency system they have here:

  • $1 = 4000 riel when paying for stuff (regardless of the actual exchange range)
  • $1 = 4060 when exchanging dollars to riel
  • No coins are used in Cambodia.  They don’t use cents, instead they use smaller amounts of riel, so $0.25 change would be 1000R

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We exchanged some dollars (for more riel than they’re actually worth! We profited exactly $0.75 because their rate is wrong – yay!) to use to pay for smaller items (water, food, etc.). Every shop here accepts both US dollars and riel at the same 4000 exchange rate apart from the more up market supermarkets that have a slightly worse rate in which case you’re better off using dollars. It can all get quite confusing when you’re handed a few dollars backed by a bunch of riel as change.

To see in Phnom Penh:

  • The Killing Fields
  • Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (S-21)
  • Wat Phnom (pictured)
  • Central market
  • City Mall
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It’s all about the Baht

While we’ve been enjoying Thailand and its beaches, you can’t help but get frustrated at the locals charging you for everything, and the prices aren’t particularly cheap for a westerner.

We’re staying in Ko Phangan at the moment, an island I imagined to be full of drunken party goers similar to one of these European ‘expat’ retreats. It’s not. Instead it’s quiet (one of the quietest islands we’ve been to) and actually pretty relaxing. If we had more time here I’m sure we’d happily stay for another week.

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But that doesn’t stop the locals trying to wring every baht out of you. Petrol is charged at £1.05, usually for a litre (a lot of smaller places offering gasoline will decant it into smaller 500ml bottles and sell it for the same price, watch out for that), every single public toilet has a charge attached to it and in the centre of Had Rin where the Full Moon party takes place, toilets are a business. They are locked during the day and open after you’ve finished your bucket of gin and coke. At first glance I thought it was a night club, nope, just a toilet.

Taxi, or Songthaew rides are fixed at 100 baht on Ko Phangan, there’s no haggling, everyone pays the same expensive price. The Thais have caught on to the fact that every westerner will have to pay these rates. It’s a shame really, there’s a lot of fun to be had when haggling. And if you do manage to get a decent price, make sure that’s what you pay at the end of your ride. I’ve lost count of the many times that we’ve agreed a price only for it to change at the end of the ride. Stand your ground and they will eventually give in.

Some beaches cost 50b to walk on and some view points cost 40b to enter even if they are just down the road and take no maintenance costs. And of course 1000b fines should you enter without permission or not having paid.

Rental companies only worry about scratches on the bikes. It’s the only thing they check, so ride it like you stole it! Just don’t crash it. A couple of South Africans we met had come off their moped and scratched the front. The rental company wanted 12,400 baht. The bike worked perfectly. In the end they had to leave the island without their passports and get emergency passports from Bangkok. Always take pictures of the bike before you sign anything.

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One particular incident I remember on Ko Muk was when we accidently paid 16 baht instead of 26 baht for a couple of drinks (soft drinks, you won’t get alcohol any cheaper over here than you can in the UK). We took them to the beach and stayed there until sunset, a good 2-3 hours. Riding back in the dark a figure stands in the road so we almost knock her over and waves us down. “you pay 16 baht, it’s 26 baht!” – Wow we thought, you waited all that time there in the dark for 10 baht? I know they don’t earn much (during low season) so they’re desperate for money, but the way they act towards you is very off-putting and doesn’t show Thailand in a good light. My sister always says, “it’s the Thais that ruin Thailand”, I think I’m beginning to agree!

Not wanting to sound completely negative about our mostly positive time here, it’s not always so bad. We stayed with a Muslim lady in Ko Muk who offered us free fruit from her garden and gave us discounted prices on her food (best Thai Green Curry we’ve ever had!) – “if you want fruit, you take from my garden, free, free!” she told us. We had free reign on coconuts, pineapples, mangos, bananas, durians, jack fruits and pomelo. Every meal she’d cut us up fresh fruit. “free!” she said excitedly, as though it’s something that never happens in Thailand. As we got to know her she explained that during the high season (and she laughed, alot) she could charge the ‘Farangs’ – westerners/tourists – 150baht per coconut.

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Generally Thailand is cheaper, but you have to shop around a bit. We managed to stumble across this place for £8 a night…

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So is it the Thais giving Thailand a bad name, or the tourists that are willing to pay the stupid prices?

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The Perfect Beach

After China, Craig and decided that we’ll take it easier in Thailand and try to relax by finding the perfect beach. It’s been difficult!

Our criteria is pretty simple, white/gold sand, warm clear water, a place to stay nearby and somewhere close by to eat. Sounds easy…far from it in Thailand!

The tourism industry has played a big part in our struggle to find our ‘haven’ – if we find perfect waters and sand, you’ll be sure that you’ll pay at least £25 for the night. Some places range from £30-250 a night – a bit out of our budget…

Saying all that, we’ve found some amazing places, unforgettable and something everyone should experience once in their lives.

So in no particular order, our favourite places so far:

Ao Nang Beach – Krabi

Lot’s of tourists (mainly because this is the hub to most islands in the Andaman sea), not a particularly nice beach, but a nice calming swim with small swells and virtually no waves, and at the end of the day you can watch the monkeys playing in the trees at the end of the beach.

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Tonsai Beach – Krabi

The almost perfect backpacker getaway – if you can stand the mossies – accommodation can be basic. Closed off from anywhere else and only accessible by walking through the jungle via Railay Beach – or hiring a Longtail boat, Tonsai can be a great place to relax and get away from the flashpacker tourists and spend the evenings partying alongside the beach – ‘The Beach’ style.

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Railay Beach East – Krabi

Only accessible by boat. Huge white sands but unfortunately not many accommodation options for the budget backpacker. Places to eat are limited and there’s a wealth of and I quote Lonely Planet ‘speedo clad tourists’ roaming the beaches. A nice day trip.

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Railay Beach West – Krabi

The views of the limestone islands, soft deep golden sand and amazingly clear blue waters, it’s a great places to swim. Unfortunately this is the posh side of Railay. Bungalows to rent go up to 18,000 baht. About £400.

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Phra Nang Beach – Krabi

By far one of my favourite beaches for sand! It’s amazingly smooth, deep and goes all in the way into the sea, so no stubbing your toes on rocks you can’t see! At one end is an amazing cliff/cave, no DSLR could capture its sheer size as you swim beneath it. While the other ends leads to inaccessible jungle and mangroves. Unfortunately it’s owned by one company who have a monopoly over the accommodation.

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Bamboo Island – Ko Phi Phi Leh

We were dropped off here by speedboat (it’s a long story) and swam for a while. It’s packed with tourists but the waters are clear and would be great if the current wasn’t so strong. The only lodgings here that we could see were tents.

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Ao Maya – ‘The Beach’ Beach – Ko Phi Phi Leh

The famous beach, and it definitely lives up to the shots you see in the film. The sands are whiter that white, soft and the water is amazingly clear, allowing you to watch the small fish as they swim passed your legs. Again it’s packed with tourists but if you can stand them it’s a worthwhile place to visit. It took a hit in 2004’s tsunami but is still the top beach out there.

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Ao Lo Dalam – Ko Phi Phi Don

Located on the east side of party island Ko Phi Phi, Ao Lo Dalam is a nice place to sit and read a book under the trees that line the beach. Swimming can be a bit dirty during low tide (rubbish and oil) but during the morning the views in the distance are beautiful. When you get a bit hungry head just down the street behind the beach to one of the dozens of restaurants.

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Hat Farang Beach – Ko Muk Island

Huge swells and amazingly awesome waves, Craig and I really enjoyed the surf. The beach is nice and sandy and there are dozens of trees to read a book under when the sun is out. Just off the beach is a restaurant selling reasonably priced food, and if you can afford it there are basic huts that can be rented as well. The sunset here is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen in Thailand.

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The search for the perfect beach continues. We’re off to the Gulf!

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Thailand

th_IMG_4232We arrived in Thailand on 27/04/13 after the airline messing up our flight.  Upon booking our tickets we were told that we didn’t need flight details, just our passport as it’s all electronic and they would be able to look it up.

When we arrived, after standing in the check-in line for an hour, they couldn’t find us anywhere on the system.  At this point it was only an hour until the flight departed.

th_IMG_4226The information desk then sent us to check in desk K in the other terminal who sent us to H who sent us back to a different K desk.  After trying to explain to the guy at the desk that the flight leaves in 30 minutes to get him to work a bit quicker he eventually printed our tickets.  What a relief. We then had to run to the late check in area. Once passed security the flight was then delayed by 2 hours!

th_padthai8 hours on an airport floor at Kunming and an hour in a tiny tropical-like airport in Banna later and we were in Bangkok!

After spending a night near the airport in Bangkok we headed straight for the famous Khaosan Road and filled up on Pad Thai!

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Xi’an Highlights

A few of our highlights in Xi’an

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Boarding the High Speed Train to Xi’an – Beijing
Chinese Calligraphy lessons with a local at our hostel – Xi’an
Chinese Dumplings lessons at our hostel – Xi’an
Soldiers patrolling the city wall – Xi’an
Someone being an idiot in front of the statues in the garden of the Small Goose Pagoda – Xi’an
Bell Tower at night 1 – Xi’an
Bell Tower at night 2 – Xi’an
The Muslim quarter (aka tat market with good food) – Xi’an
Photos 1-4 – Terra Cotta Army – Xi’an
Drum Tower at night – Xi’an
Craig in front of the Bell Tower at night – Xi’an
View of busy traffic/light pollution from Bell Tower – Xi’an
Table Tennis lessons from a Chinese Pro – Xi’an
In front of the water fountain display – Big Goose Pagoda – Xi’an
View from Mt Hua – Xi’an
Golden Lock Pass – Mt Hua – Xi’an
Small Goose Pagoda – Xi’an
View from Xian city walls – Xi’an

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The Great Wall? Easy. You are not a hero till you climb Mt. Hua!

th_IMG_4150On the penultimate day of our trip in China we decided, at the last minute, to visit Mt. Hua.

We particularly wanted to get onto the plank walk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NsGC0lZ-5g8).

Once dropped off at the east ticket gate (and paying the rather expensive 180 yuan entrance) we had to take a taxi to the west gate which is where you can start the hike up to the various Mt. Hua peaks.

th_IMG_4162After reading various websites and speaking to people along the way we found out that the walk takes 2-5 hours depending on which route you take and which peak you want to get to.  The quicker routes are the most difficult (Soldier’s Path).  We weren’t particularly worried about which route to take, as long as we got to the plank walk.

After 5 hours of hiking with just a couple of short breaks, only a couple of pieces of fruit and not enough water we came across a friendly Canadian guy that had been walking since the gates opened at 6am.  He broke the news to us that we have another 3 hours to go to the plank walk and it was closed! At this point I was probably the hungriest I’ve ever been, dehydrated and very tired.  After admiring the view for a while we headed back down.

th_IMG_4111We would have continued, but another 3 hours up meant missing the last bus/train back home and potentially being stranded on the mountain unless we got an extremely expensive taxi back home (Mt. Hua to Shuyuan Hostel is about a 2.5 hour drive in the traffic).

Mt. Hua is definitely one we’ll be coming back to, we both want to walk the plank at least once!

(People add locks to the chain hand rail to symbolise good luck/health for their family.)

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Terra Cotta Warriors

Since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to visit the Terra Cotta Warriors in the Shaanxi province of China. Discovered by a farmer digging a well (the poor guy probably never saw a cent of the millions China have made from tourism) in 1974 in Xian, 3 pits containing over 8500 soldiers and horses, protect Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.

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There are plenty of guides and tours you can take, if you want to spend the money. Craig and I decided to go at it alone and take the bus, 1 hour out of the city. As we arrived at 9am we were swarmed with women wanting to take us on tours around the place. “120yuan for 2 hours!” they shouted. What they don’t tell you is that they’ll take you around in a huge group (wearing bright orange hats of course) – something we’re not fans of.

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Pit number 1 contains the majority of soldiers and a few horses scattered here and there. It was amazing and is often called the 8th wonder of the world. It certainly is something you do a double take on. The sheer amount of them and the way they’re placed in the pit is very special, something no camera can capture.

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Pit 2 contains the chariots and horses. Unfortunately they’re that not visible and very much buried under the original roofing of the tombs. A little disappointing.

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Pit 3 is considered the command centre, housing the generals and commanders. Here we saw the usual terra cotta soldiers/generals with horses guarding the entrances.

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We travelled over 1100km in China to come and see the Terra Cotta Warriors and it was well worth it. I’d recommend it to anyone visiting China, especially if you’re into archaeology.

Excavating of the soldiers is ongoing, so as you walk around you’ll see scientists working on the site. As you get to these parts you’re strictly told that no photography is allowed. Odd? We took pictures anyway. What do they have to hide?

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At times we felt that the Chinese had something to hide, some soldiers were immaculate considering they’re over 2000 years old, and in one area I was told off for filming. Worried all my pics would be taken off my SD card, I quickly hid the camera.

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You can tell some of the soldiers have been ‘placed’ for effect, but overall it’s a great experience and an amazing place to visit.

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“You are not a plucky hero till you climb the Great Wall”

th_IMG_3353We were recommended a township called Gubeikou as somewhere to see, and climb the original un-restored Great Wall. We decided just to go for it. After a little research we found bus 980 from Beijing (Dongzhimen) takes you to Miyun, a minibus will then take you to Gubeikou, more specifically Hexi Village which is where you can find a place to stay.

We’re not a fan of Miyun. After an hour and a half on an ‘express’ bus we arrived somewhere in the city and were immediately swamped by taxi drivers shouting ‘HELLO!’ to catch our attention wanting to take us to Gubeikou for 150 yuan, that’s only about 7 times more expensive than normal… also very unhelpful locals!

th_IMG_3362After a lot of wandering around and turning down a grotty overpriced room in a hotel-ish type place and attempting to speak to the locals we found a lady who, after speaking to her English speaking friend on her mobile, offered us a place to stay. It was some sort of guest house, but she lived there with her husband. There are absolutely no other tourists in the area. When looking around we came across quite a few guest/tourism houses – converted/expanded farm houses. It’s almost as if a ton of money was pumped into the village at some point, but the project was abandoned or not maintained.

th_IMG_3309With a base established we decided to visit the Great Wall. Our host lead us to the start of the path that takes you up Yanshan mountain to a huge section of the wall that’s completely unspoilt, unmaintained and free of tourists and restrictions – right up our street. After about 2.5 hours of uphill climbing we hit the highest point of the wall in that area. Incredible views of snow capped mountains in the distance, Gubeikou and Hexi Village below, farmland and housing in the valleys and the outskirts of Mongolia.

th_IMG_3012Gubeikou was a nice break from the big city and it was nice to see the sun in a blue sky. The sun often struggles to shine through the smog in Beijing, it really is that bad. It’s especially noticeably when you look into the distance down one of the longer streets and when you travel close to the traffic (e.g. bicycle).

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Where do you come from? Part 2

Just down the road we came across a quiet café/bar and said we’ll just have 1 beer as we haven’t got that much money to spend. Although 4 euros isn’t much for a beer in England, it’s pretty expensive here. After getting to know them a bit better, snacks were brought through and we chatted a bit more. “More beer they asked?” “No thanks” we said. After 20 minutes or so (they had ordered themselves a few juices in between, no more alcohol for them after they had had only 1 beer, they weren’t on a budget, odd?) they asked if we’d like to try a pot of Jasmine tea. Craig and I hadn’t sampled that particular tradition yet, and how expensive could a pot of tea shared between 4 people be? So we said yeah, why not.
After a bit more chatting they expressed their interest in Karaoke and how well they could sing. Come and watch they said. So we were lead off to a Karaoke room where after we refused red wine, they sung song after song, always wanting us to join in. Craig and I looked at each other as I signalled the money sign to him, we both knew we were in the middle of some sort of scam. I suppose we had subconsciously known all along by refusing the drinks. We just didn’t know how to walk away once we had been roped in.
We made some excuse about needing to get back to our hotel, and would like to pay up. “would you like to go for dinner later then?” they asked. Nope. We wanted to see what this little adventure had cost us. For a pot of tea, 4 beers, 2 juices, 2 “snacks” (peanuts) and the use of the Karaoke machine (which was never explained to us) the total came to 1400 yuan, about £155…this was over about 30 minutes or so. That would mean mine and Craig’s beers cost us £38.75 each!
Knowing it was a scam thoughts came into my head like, will they lock the door and not let us out, who are they calling every time they got their mobiles out, and will there be 5 guys with baseball bats waiting to ‘escort’ us to an ATM? We got into a slightly heated conversation about how it wasn’t explained that every single item brought through had an extortionate price attached to it. Eventually I started getting up and looking as though I was leaving after explaining this isn’t what we agreed to. We settled on paying 100yuan between us. About 15yuan more than we had originally wanted to pay for the 1 beer, so we were only out of pocket 1 euro or so.
We handed over the cash and hastily made our getaway, noticing the two guys sitting just inside the doorway dressed in all black leathers.

After this scam had happened and we’re luckily talked our way out of a 1400yuan bill, we have been approached again by 3 or 4 more women. Some on their own, some in pairs. All start out with the phrase “where you from?” – a little bit more streetwise we ignored their approaches.

As I write this I feel a bit stupid, it seems so obvious on paper. But when you’re out there, on your second day in a strange country, it’s very easy to get sucked into.

After reading up on the internet, both of these are very common scams, something Craig and I didn’t do any research on. The only reason why we had alarm bells ringing on scam no2 was because of the TV show, The Real Hustle.
Lesson learnt!

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Week 1 of China

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Left to right –

Starfish and Scorpions – Wangfujing Market, Beijing
Lizard, Gecko, Spider, Silk worm, Snake, Scorpion – Wangfujing Market, Beijing
Dumplings and stir fry noodles – Suzhou Road, Summer Palace, Beijing
Wangfujing Night Market, Beijing
Various delicacies – Dong Hua Men Night Market, Wangfujing Street, Beijing
The Great Wall (restored) – Mutianyu, Beijing
The Great Wall (restored) – Mutianyu, Beijing
The Great Wall (restored) – Mutianyu, Beijing
Entrance to The Forbidden City – Beijing
View of The Forbidden City from Tianan Square Gardens, Beijing
View of The Forbidden City from Tianan Square Gardens, Beijing
Summer Palace, Beijing
Climbing up to Tower of Fragrance of the Buddha – Summer Palace, Beijing
View of Summer Palace waters, Beijing
Suzhou Street waters – Summer Palace, Beijing
Suzhou Street waters – Summer Palace, Beijing

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Where do you come from? Part 1

Uploading pictures seems to be a problem at the moment, so here’s a story.

 On day 2 in China, Craig and I decided to check out Wangfujing Street, part of Jinbao Street. Here we could find the famous night market and general souvenir tat you’d see in any big city. The market opens at 17:30, we left at 15:30 so we had some time to kill. As we were making a slow walk along a main street, we were approached by two late teens, Uni looking students. They asked us if we were from England, we said yes and complimented them on how well they spoke English. They said they had studied at Uni and were now concentrating on art. They happened to be going to their art exhibition they had going that day and wondered if we wanted to take a look. Knowing we still had 2 hours before the market opened, we decided to take a look at their art work. They lead us a little further and eventually into a building which could easily pass for an exhibition. Security guard at the door, travel agencies and so on. It looked legit. We got into the room where dozens of pieces of artwork were displayed, typical Chinese hanging art, the stuff glued to bamboo and stuck to silk. They told us how they had to go on location during 4 different seasons to get the best shots of the place which happened to be the Great Wall, and some waterfall. Craig and I thought they would be great gifts for someone at home considering we had met the artists (each had their own ‘unique stamp’) and they had told us all about the paintings. They were also just small enough to fit into our backpacks.

We paid 100yuan each, about £10 or so. As I handed over the money he gave it straight to the guy sitting at his computer, they said all money they make from the exhibition had to go to their teacher/tutor…

I became suspicious but not enough to question it yet. Before we left he helped arrange a Great Wall tour for us (which turned out to be amazing and at a discounted rate, but that’s another story) at a ‘student’ discount. As he got his ‘student’ card out I noticed the name on it was western (something like Terry, easier for tourists to pronounce I guess) and he had the heading ‘TRANSLATOR’ so clearly it wasn’t his student card, but a business card. He assured us it was a student card. Again alarm bells started ringing, but very faintly…

We said goodbye and left. As we got out I looked at the building and said to Craig, “it doesn’t look very studenty does it?” we carried on and found the market. As we were browsing we came across a guy selling paintings. “150 yuan!” he shouted to us. We quickly looked at his stuff just out of interest, and in the corner spotted the same painting we had just bought from the students…I had that horrible sinking feeling along with butterflies in my stomach, had we just been scammed!? I thought we were brighter than that. Quickly we found a quiet spot and opened up the rolled up painting and quickly discovered they had been legitimately painted, but onto a printing, rushed and inaccurate.

We headed straight back to the ‘exhibition’ and luckily found the two fools standing by the entrance of the lift. Not wanting to cause a stir I told them we were very sorry but we were disappointed to find exactly the same paintings in the market. They refunded us straight away.

I think we were extremely lucky that they had decided to stick around for a while, any later and we would have never found them again.

A lucky escape.

Happy we had our money back we relaxed a bit and continued back to the market, determined to try scorpion or some other weird insect on a stick! As we were walking we were approached by two attractive girls, about our age. They asked us if we spoke English, where we were from and where we were going etc, and eventually offered to show us around the market. Great we thought, some locals to show us around. They told us about traditions of the market, what’s good to eat, what’s not and even bought some scorpion for us to sample. After a while they asked if we wanted to get a drink with them, who wouldn’t?

Part 2 to follow!

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Rations

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Mongolia

If you’re ever planning on doing this trip then don’t listen too much to the guide websites or books! Actually the Trans-Siberian Handbook Trailblazer book was the most accurate in the end, but not completely. The Trailblazer book is a must-have for the trip though (Bryn Thomas). If you look out the window you will see a marker every kilometre telling you how far you’ve come from Moscow, you can then that up in the handbook which will tell you exactly where you are, how far you are from the next stop and how long the stop is going to be and any notable landmarks/places. The book also has a very useful timetable of stops, distances, stop times time zones as well as a ton of other useful information.

We had lunch in the Russian restaurant cart on the first full day for lunch. At £8 for a small piece of chicken, and cold uncooked tomato and cucumber we weren’t impressed at all. The carriage didn’t seem too clean and the staff not particularly friendly.

We had packed a few packs of 11p noodles from Tesco, soups, some bread and apples which we planned on having every so often for a meal to save money, but we now had to ration the food to last the 5 and a half day trip. After counting the food and water we took with we had:

Our daily rations:
Breakfast: Half a cup of porridge + black coffee
Lunch: Bin Bon (pot noodle) noodle or 11p noodles for lunch
Supper: Soup with 1-2 pieces of bread
Snack: 1 black coffee with 1-2 biscuits
Water: 1l per day

After the 4th day our porridge ran out, so it was an apple or soup for breakfast.

Me at one of the Mongolian stops

Me at one of the Mongolian stops

A few times a day the train would stop for 10-20 minutes. During that time we did manage to find Big Bon noodles (the local equivalent of pot noodles) and some out of date/stale bread which helped with the food situation. Everything had quite inflated prices compared to the supermarkets we had been in in Russia; I guess they do that as they know the people on the train are going to be starving!

We did try the Mongolian restaurant cart when they attached it in Ulan Bator. Very nicely decorated and the food was nice, but at $14 a head we stuck with our noodles and bread.

Overall a really enjoyable trip though, we got to know everyone in our carriage – an Israeli guy to our right, followed by a Swedish couple, then on our left an older English couple followed by a guy in the military and another English guy. It was a bit weird getting out after all that time and all going our separate ways.

As a side note, the cold water in our shower room was a slight trickle and when the tap was turned to hot, nothing came out at all. A cold “shower” using a cup isn’t much fun!

th_IMG_2198Our recommendations:

  • Don’t expect to be able to clean – take a flannel or sponge to make “showering” easier
  • Take a mug. There is unlimited free hot water at the end of each carriage.
  • Take loads of porridge/oats
  • Take lots of snack type stuff – biscuits, crisps, sweets for yourself and to share with your neighbours
  • Take lots of fruit, the stuff the locals sell doesn’t look great
  • Take lots of noodles and cous-cous. Anything that can be prepared with just boiling water
  • Bring something to wipe and clean the window with. A few days into the trip we could barely see out of the windows. We used water and cloth which really helped, but wasn’t ideal. Even if you buy a bottle of window cleaner and throw it out after the trip, it’ll be well worth it. Have a friend to give you a leg up as you won’t reach the windows yourself!
  • Bring toilet paper. The Chinese man running our carriage was fairly good at re-stocking, but every so often there wouldn’t be any for a good few hours.
  • Bring enough water to have 1.5l-2l a day. There is nothing worse than not drinking enough.
  • Bring an MP3 player to drown out the repetitive noise of the train every so often. Don’t use it all the time though, you might miss out on something!
  • Bring a Kindle (they’re only £69), or a thick book. If you’re travelling onwards from China after the trip then a Kindle is essential (in my opinion), especially if you don’t like giving away/throwing away books.
  • Last of all, try keep up with local time. The train runs on Moscow time until you enter Mongolia, so if you’ve been living on the train’s time then once you hit Mongolia you’ll be massively jet lagged. We did lose track of time quite often travelling into a new time zone almost every day and were extremely tired on the last day. The alarm woke us at 4am on the last day due to a mix up of time zones!
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Men are men, women are women

th_IMG_1768After spending nearly 25 hours on a train from Berlin to France we stopped at 00:58 in Belorusskiy station, Moscow.  It was about -10c and after Ramadan (the Russian we were sharing the 3-berth with) told us yesterday that it was -18c in Moscow we made sure to wrap up before getting off the train – 2 t-shirts, 2 pairs of socks, hat, fleece, coat, rain coat and a scarf fashioned out of my cotton sleeping bag liner.

We were armed with Google Maps directions, however after walking around for a while we weren’t able to figure out where it was trying to take us and struggled to get our bearings due to no street name signs.  After asking a few people (none of which spoke any English) and being directed a different way every time it was already 2am.

Whilst wondering around we were approached by multiple taxis trying to get our business as well as some dodgy unmarked cars with fully blacked out windows randomly stopping & following us.  Our big backpacks were attracting more attention than we would have liked at that time in the morning.

Yet another car pulled up beside us (blacked out windows, unmarked, seems pretty normal for Russia!).  At this point it was snowing heavily, almost blizzard-like and we were starting to get cold.  He stopped us several times in his car even after we said we were fine & would walk.  He eventually pointed to our map & wanted to see it, so we went over to give him a look, he nodded and it seemed like he knew the way and pointed for us to get in.  After telling him we had no money using the universal ‘finger rub’ sign he shook his head, smiled and opened the boot.  We took a huge risk at this point, and got in (with our bags on our laps of course).  There are two of us, so we hoped for the best! Mark told me he had both hands around his bag & his hand on the door handle ready to jump out should anything happen!

After driving around Moscow for 10 minutes or so I started to recognise some of the streets from when I looked up the hostel on Google Street View, what a relief!  The hostel is down a smaller side street (Chocolate Hostel) so he struggled to find it at first.  He was kind enough to call the hostel and got directions from them.

He then got out and showed us to the door and didn’t even hint at wanting any money – a genuinely nice guy that just wanted to help out.  I’m sure you can imagine how anxious we were, but the risk paid off in the end! We were greeted by lady that runs the hostel (what a relief to hear someone speaking English!), who showed us to our room.

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th_IMG_1915The following morning the same lady gave us a map of Moscow & the Metro and told us what our itinerary would be for the couple of days that we were there – we didn’t argue with a Russian lady!  We couldn’t have seen all we wanted to without her help – The Red Square, Kremlin, changing of the guards (Red Square), various Stalin buildings, shopping/souvenir areas & the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, all in the day and a half we had.  The metro was extremely useful at only 28py6 for a “1-pass” which means you can take one trip on the metro regardless of the distance & line.  That’s about 60p!

One last note on Russia: the men are men and the women are women.  No gelled, quiffed metrosexual hairstyles, no tight jeans or fancy clothes for the men and the women are just plain stunning.

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