Tag Archives: travel

26 extremely valid reasons why I haven’t written any blog posts since forever (most of them involve food)

Ooh, arty.

Ooh, arty.

Dearest readers, please find attached (well, not attached, but if you keep reading you’ll get there) a long list of elaborate excuses as to why I have officially become the worst blogger in the cyber-cosmos. Some of them may seem a little far-fetched, but each and every one of them is true. I swear. Even the one where I almost got engaged to a Japanese businessman called Akira.

Are you sitting comfortably? (Because this is going be quite long and ramble-y. Seriously, maybe you should go and make a quick cup of tea before we start.) Ok, then. I shall begin…

1. I went to Beijing in January and inhaled so much smog that I almost died. So after all that exam nonsense was over I set off on a six-week Asian adventure to Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, to visit some much-neglected friends and eat terrifying amounts of amazing food. But before leaving the country I spent a few days in Beijing with Daniel. Unfortunately I couldn’t have picked a worse time to go. Did you read the news about the killer smog? It was bad, dear readers. Very bad. In fact, the smog was so worryingly thick that Daniel and I decided it would be much safer to stay inside his Dongzhimen apartment, under a duvet, eating takeaway and drinking soju and watching Sex and the City. Which is exactly what we did. And it was marvellous.

Mmm, smogalicious.

Mmm, smogalicious.

2. I went to Tokyo and couldn’t stop being amazed at all the stuff. I’d been to Tokyo once before, but way back in 2005, so it was great to go back. I spent my first day there aimlessly walking around, gaping in wonder at all the tall, swanky buildings and at all the polite, civilised people. People who patiently wait in queues, say things like “excuse me”, and never use their elbows as weapons. These people are also unbearably stylish – the Japanese all seem to be experts at that “effortless chic” thing. I felt a tad ridiculous arriving at Narita from Beijing wearing a reindeer scarf, zebra-print hat and leopard-print earmuffs (which in China, I swear, is the absolute height of sophistication).    

Fancy!

Fancy!

This is the Tokyo subway map. *Brainmelt*.

This is the Tokyo subway map. *Brainmelt*.

3. I got very drunk in Yokohama. And from what I recall, this is what happened: I met my friend Brenna in the afternoon-ish time, and we did all sorts of wholesome activities, like go on a giant ferris wheel and visit the Cup Noodle Museum (because the Ramen Museum is totally overrated). We were even befriended by a lovely woman in a soba restaurant who climbed a stepladder to pick flowers from a tree to give us. But then we started drinking. Like I said, from what I recall, we went to a party… somewhere… and drank stuff… and then took some trains… and drank some more stuff… and then ended up eating sashimi at 3 o’clock in the morning, while drinking yet more stuff. The next day, to recover from the night before, we spent the entire afternoon sampling beer from Yokohama’s many, many craft breweries. Which of course meant we were soon drunk again. Such is life.

Picking flowers, just for us.

Picking flowers, just for us.

4. I got snowed-in in Hokkaido and the only way to survive was to eat tons of ramen and drink loads of Sapporo beer. Ok, that’s a lie. But there was A LOT of snow. And there was a shovel at the door of my hostel which people actually had to use so we could get out the door. Ah, what a lovely hostel it was! Free coffee and toast and central heating, and other guests who became good friends. Together we visited the Sapporo beer factory (which is basically a very small museum above a very large bar, and therefore excellent) and the city’s little hidden street of ramen shops. Who knew you could order a bowl of ramen with a huge chunk of butter floating in it? My arteries still hurt thinking about it. But the snow, dear readers! It was beautiful! 

It was especially fun dragging my wheely suitcase through this.

It was especially fun dragging my wheely suitcase through this.

New friends Cyndi and Lee at Hokkaido University!

New friends Lee and Cyndi at Hokkaido University!

5. I ate so much sushi that I almost died. Have you ever had that feeling when you know you really should stop eating, but you can’t because it’s SUSHI – and not just any old sushi but HOKKAIDO SUSHI – and even though you’re almost certainly on the verge of death, and you know you’ll regret it for the rest of the week, you just somehow manage to keep shovelling it in? Well, I had that. So I should probably avoid all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants in future.

6. I was busy doing strange rituals at a “love temple”. I met my friend Etsuko in Kyoto and we went to the Love Temple to find out our fortunes. The first thing we had to do was close our eyes, make a wish, and touch a special rock thing, and then walk with our eyes closed to another special rock thing without peeking. Which was kind of hazardous considering how many crazed young women were attempting to do this at the same time. There was a lot of treading on toes and screaming. Then we had to pick a paper “fortune” out of a box, and mine translated to something like, “although you’ll have to wait ages and ages and ages, you’ll probably still find some bloke to get married to, so everything’ll be just peachy, innit”. 

Pick a fortune, any fortune...

Pick a fortune, any fortune… oh and by the way it’s 200 yen.

7. I stayed in a hostel in Kyoto and had to put all my energy into not killing all the Americans (no offence, Americans). It was one of those huuuuge hostels with a common room specially designed (with tatami) for irritating backpackers to sit about in all day comparing which Asian countries they’ve “done”. Normally I would have avoided this room completely, but there was free coffee there. And I just couldn’t help listening in on the Americans’ conversations, especially when they were Skyping their moms back home…

“It’s so hard here because, like, everything’s in Japanese, and literally nobody speaks English, so it’s, like, impossible to do stuff.”

“So in Tokyo we went to this, like, fish market, and I tried a bunch of stuff, but I have no idea what any of it was.”

“Ohmygod, the guys in Japan are, like, sooo cute! I met this totally awesome British guy in my hostel in Osaka…” 

I drank my free coffee and thought, Kill. Me. Now.

8. I stayed in a traditional ryokan and couldn’t get out of my futon/stop watching Japanese gameshows. I couldn’t understand the gameshows, but that didn’t make them any less entertaining. Especially since I could watch them from the comfort of my futon while wearing my yukata and drinking green tea.

Any idea what's going on here? Me neither.

Any idea what’s going on here? Me neither.

9. I became obsessed with green tea-flavoured stuff. I was in matcha heaven in Japan. Cake, ice cream, hot latte, iced latte, Lipton Matcha Milk… and when I found green tea shortbread in a bakery in Nara I think actually shed a tear of joy.

Bliss in a teacup.

Bliss in a teacup.

10. I discovered takoyaki. An Osaka specialty, it’s basically bits of octopus in batter, fried and topped with various amazing sauces. And it’s cheap and you can get it all over the city. YUM.

Shoji-san's takoyaki shop of wonders.

Shoji-san’s takoyaki shop of wonders.

11. I almost got engaged to a Japanese businessman called Akira. Shoji-san, who owned a takoyaki shop near my hostel in Osaka, recommended a local bar and said I should go and check it out. So of course I did. The bar was about the size of an aeroplane bathroom and was absolutely packed with tipsy men in suits. “Come! Sit!” shouted the barman, pointing to the one free stool in the room. I sat, and ordered a beer. The men sitting beside me eventually plucked up the courage to introduce themselves, via Google Translate, and before I knew what was happening I was knocking back pint glasses of sake and tomato juice with them. And then another man-in-a-suit came and joined us. “I am very much looking forward to receiving your telephone number,” he said, and showed me his company ID badge. His name was Akira. He continued, “We had a lot of snow here last winter. Rome was not built in a day! I love you!” I ordered another sake with tomato juice from the barman and asked Akira if he was from Osaka. “I love you! I need you! Marry me! We had a lot of snow here last winter!” was his reply. And so the evening continued.

Akira: “Rome was… not…”

Me: “built in a day?”

Akira: “Yes! I need you! Last winter…”

Me: “We had a lot of snow?”

Akira: “I love you! I am very much looking forward to receiving your telephone number!” 

When I decided to finally leave the bar everyone seemed genuinely devastated. “Come back tomorrow,” said the barman. “This is my wife!” shouted Akira.

12. I was busy taking photos of really old people taking photos of really old trees:

You can write your own caption for this.

You can write your own caption for this.

And this.

And this.

13. I was throwing magic beans at Tomomi (who was pretending to be a demon, obviously). The day I met my friend Tomomi in Osaka also happened to be one of Japan’s strangest festivals. “On this day every year, someone dresses up as a demon and everyone throws beans at them to drive out their bad luck,” Tomomi explained. Well I’m always up for driving out my bad luck, I said. So the only question was where could we purchase these special beans? “In 7 Eleven!” said Tomomi. Well of course! So we did the necessary shopping and then went to a park and took turns wearing a plastic demon mask and throwing beans at each other. And I can say for a fact that my luck has definitely improved since, so the ritual must have worked. For example:

14. I got invited out for dinner by two 70-year-old Japanese guys. Ai, a girl in my hostel, and I were wandering round the local neighbourhood looking for a place to eat, when two very enthusiastic and possibly slightly intoxicated gentlemen asked if we’d let them take us for dinner. Obviously, we said yes. It was hilarious.

Just an average night in Osaka, maybe.

Just an average night in Osaka, maybe.

15. I went up the Umeda Sky Building and OH MY GOD.

As the Lonely Planet says, it's like  "Arc de Triomphe meets Bladerunner"

As the Lonely Planet says, it’s like “Arc de Triomphe meets Bladerunner”…

And involves going up the scariest escalator ever...

And involves going up the scariest escalators ever…

To see views like this!

To see views like this!

16. I went to Taiwan and it was Chinese New Year and I ate so much food that I almost died. After Japan I spent ten action-packed days in Taiwan, which is probably the best country ever. I was lucky to be staying with my wonderful friend Meikai and his family, and that meant that I got to experience Chinese New Year in the proper way: with family, friends, temples, red envelopes, lottery tickets, card games, and (of course) a LOT of food.

Have you ever seen anything more amazing?

Have you ever seen anything more amazing?

17. I was busy going up and down mountains in Taiwan at a fzillion miles an hour with Meikai who should not really be allowed behind the wheel when there are hairpin bends involved. But what’s important is that everyone survived. So no need to worry, mother.

18. I couldn’t stop shovelling amazing Taiwanese food into my face. As you know, I’m quite adventurous when it comes to trying new food (must I remind you of the duck feet?) so every time somebody asked, “do you want to try ___?” I responded with an enthusiastic YES, OF COURSE… I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT IS BUT GIVE ME ALL THE FOOD NOW. And  I swear, everything I tried was beyond delicious. Even the stinky tofu. And the slimy oysters. And the mysterious black soup.

Mmm, stinky.

Mmm, stinky.

Mmm, slimy.

Mmm, slimy.

Mmm, mysterious.

Mmm, mysterious.

 19. I discovered Ice Monster in Taipei. Remember ages ago when I said that frozen yoghurt was the new ice cream? Well I have news for you, dear readers: Ice Monster is the new froyo. I went to this snazzy joint with my friend Vivian and ordered (on Etsuko’s recommendation) a mound of mango flavoured shaved-ice-stuff roughly the same size as a basketball. “I’ll never be able to eat all of that!” I exclaimed, before devouring the entire lot. And what a satisfying brainfreeze I had afterwards!

 20. I was writing wishes on a paper lantern and sending it into the sky, and it was ever so nice:

Original artwork by me.

Original artwork by me.

IMG_20130214_194154-1

Up into the stratosphere, or somewhere.

21. I went to Hong Kong and they have things like Irn Bru and pear cider and hummus there, and so I temporarily forgot about the outside world. But can you really blame me? 

22. I was watching another sunset from another skyscraper. I’ve decided that my new travelling “thing” will be to go up to the top of a skyscraper on my last evening in a country, take arty pictures of the sunset and get all sentimental about leaving.  On my last evening in Japan I went up the Umeda Sky Building, which was by far the best skyscraper I’ve ever been up (did you SEE the pictures?!), but the place was kind of overrun with affectionate sunset-observing couples and I felt a bit like a stupid foreign gooseberry. The top of Taipei 101 was more fun because I had Meikai to take arty pictures of the sunset with. But in Hong Kong, for the last night of my six-week Asian extravaganza, I was alone again in my skyscraper. And also it was so misty/smoggy that the view was sort of non-existent. But I still managed to get all nostalgic, and there was a coffee shop, so it was ok.

It's a long way down...

It’s a long way down…

23. I came back to Baotou and have gone mad and joined the gym. Please try not to die of laughter, but since I got back to Baotou (nine days ago) I have decided to turn over a new leaf and take some exercise. Which means I’ve been doing ridiculous things like running on treadmills and participating in “hot yoga” classes. Yes, dear readers, I know exactly what you’re thinking: why in the name of Genghis Khan did I wait a year after leaving INDIA to take up YOGA in INNER MONGOLIA? And the answer to that is… well, actually I have no idea, but I can tell you this: I did a headstand last night in a ten-billion-kajillion-degree room and I didn’t die. And the Chinese yoga teacher even kindly helped me when I got stuck upside-down, and he didn’t even laugh. Very much.

24. I have finally started studying Chinese. Seeing as I live in China and am surrounded by quite a lot of Chinese people, I thought it might be about time to consider expanding my vocabulary beyond “ni hao” (hello) and “ting bu dong” (I don’t understand). And so I have been in Baotou Library with my very patient friend, Dani, practising the four infamous tones and whatnot. So when a group of naked-but-friendly ladies in the gym changing room started a conversation with me the other day, instead of looking gormless I was actually able to say “I’m learning Chinese, but I can only speak a little bit.” To which they responded, in the typical Baotou way, by screaming and flailing and telling me that I’m beautiful.

Proof that I did some studying!

Proof that I did some studying!

25. I am busy stalking my Chinese future husband. More on that later, perhaps. 

26. I am getting ready to start another term of “teaching”. Yes, dear readers, the long holiday is finally over and I have to go back to work tomorrow. But now that I know my students (and am practically fluent in Chinese) it really doesn’t feel like work anymore, but more like chatting with loads of ridiculously friendly Inner Mongolian girls about life and love and what we ate at Chinese New Year. So I’m actually looking forward to it. All those weeks of travelling in all those places was incredible and fabulous, but there’s something about Baotou that I just love. You still might not believe me, but Inner Mongolia really is the centre of the universe.

The End-of-Spring-Festival fireworks in Baotou, last Saturday.

The End-of-Spring-Festival fireworks in Baotou, last Saturday.

Life’s better on wheels

It’s the beginning of my fifth week in Baotou. I know! How time flies, etc! The weather is getting steadily chillier, and teaching English to ten different classes of twenty five Inner Mongolian students (per week. You can probably do the maths, but if not, trust me – that’s a LOT of Inner Mongolians) is getting steadily less terrifying and more enjoyable.

Especially when your students have names like Cinderella, Rapunzel and Barcelona.

Anyway I’ll talk about my students another time. Right now, what I want to tell you about is this: 

Finest quality, madam!

Yes, dear readers! I am the proud owner of a beautiful new bicycle. It’s white, with a basket on the front… and it’s got… wheels… And I love it.  Yes.

One happy foreigner

You can probably guess that I don’t know much about bikes. I told my friend back in Edinburgh (who’s a proper cyclist) about the new addition to my perfect Inner Mongolian life, and she immediately replied with “Nice! How many gears has it got?” Well, none, I said. But you don’t need gears in Baotou. The city’s as flat as a pancake. What you do need is some nice, shiny handlebars, a bell, perhaps a furry leopard print cover for the saddle, and a basket to put your shopping in. That’s it.

I think I was about ten the last time I rode a bike – apart from a couple of times in Bosnia a few years ago, and both of those times I fell into a ditch so we won’t include them – so it took me a while to get confident on my wheels. Luckily there are cycle lanes on all the major roads here, and the traffic’s not particularly crazy.

The one problem is that they drive on the right in China. Or at least that’s the general idea – like in India, traffic rules here are more like friendly suggestions. So there have been a couple of times where I’ve caught myself happily pedalling down the wrong side of the road… but so far it hasn’t resulted in anything life-threatening.

Besides, whichever side of the road I happen to be on, the locals seem to LOVE watching a big, tall foreigner speeding along in faux Ray Bans with the wind in her hair. Young people smile at the traffic lights; children wave; old people stare in total incomprehension – and in response to all of them I grin, nod, and say one of the four Chinese phrases I know: NI HAO! NI HAO! NI HAO!!!

When I’m not cycling, my lovely bike rests in the college bike shed amongst millions of others. The shed is guarded by a friendly old woman (with not very many teeth) who always tries her best to have a conversation with me and insists on wiping the dust off my bike before I get on. Hopefully I’ll be able to actually speak to her soon – I’m going to Chinese evening classes. But that’s another story…

Me + my bike 4ever

Beijing to Baotou: from bamboozling bizarreness to being beautifully blissed-out in the Back of Beyond (have I gone overboard with the alliteration?) Part One

 

So, my dear readers, we’ve got two options here: either I start from the beginning and describe everything that’s happened over the past five days in excruciating detail, or I write some sort of fancy narrative with a well-thought-out paragraph structure and lots of flashbacks. I think unfortunately I’m going to have to go with the first option because I can’t be bothered using my brain today. I’m still jet-lagged, you know.

So.

This story, like so many others, begins at Heathrow Terminal Four, where a sour-faced Russian woman (I had ignored the fervent warnings of several friends and booked my ticket to Beijing with Aeroflot) made me repack my suitcases three times before finally checking them in. “Is still too heavy…” she said with no emotion whatsoever. I stared at her pleadingly until she finally caved: “…but… is okay.”

On the plane I was sandwiched between a screaming Russian baby and a strange Russian woman who asked for a glass of water filled with lemon wedges, and then proceeded to eat each wedge one by one with a plastic fork. Skin and all. And to pass the hours of my Moscow stopover I drank a terrible cappuccino, which for some reason was served with a straw in it. I made a mental note to travel in Russia sometime so I could uncover these mysteries.

Anyway, I eventually arrived in Beijing. The passport-checking guy said “ni hao” and, amazed that I could actually understand him, I said “ni hao ma?” I totally thought we were on a roll, but I have no idea what he said after that.

Having said that, my Chinese drastically improved as soon as I got into my taxi because the driver seemed absolutely determined to teach me how to count to ten, both with the Chinese words and the special hand signals. He almost collapsed laughing at my pronunciation but when I finally reeled off all ten numbers in the right order he screamed “YEEEAH!” and gave me a high five.

From that point on I knew I was going to love it here.

Beijing is fantastic and crazy. Nothing like as crazy as Delhi, mind you, but any city that serves ducks’ feet in restaurants and shows a cartoon on the subway trains called “Happy Bread Ring” has got to be on the list of the World’s Strangest Capital Cities. On my first day I mostly concentrated on not getting lost, but got lost anyway and then finally gave up and went back to my guesthouse in the Hutongs of Xicheng District to eat noodles and play with the cat.

Saturday was spent drinking Japanese beer with a friend from Taiwan, and Sunday involved posh restaurants and coffee bars in Sanlitun with stylish Italian expats. On my last evening in the capital I met up with Yuan, a local Beijing-er who I’d met on the plane, and we walked all through the narrow Hutongs, taking photos and window shopping. “Let’s try some local food,” she suggested. “Okay!” I replied enthusiastically. “I’ll try anything!”

About four minutes later there was a plate of wasabi-flavoured ducks’ feet in front of me. Actual feet. With ankles and toes and webbed bits. “Try one,” said Yuan, picking up a floppy foot with her chopsticks and popping it into her mouth. “Many British people can’t accept this kind of food,” she said, chomping the toe-webs. Well I’m not ‘many British people’ I thought, and picked up a duck foot and shoved the whole thing into my mouth.

As I fought the gag reflex, my eyes watered wasabi-juice and I worked my molars through the crunchy, chewy, soft, hard, gristly, slimy duck foot. It truly was repulsive. But Yuan looked so proud of me that I grinned through my tears and said “it’s SO DELICIOUS” and reached for another one.

(All night I couldn’t stop reliving the feeling of chewing through those toe-webs. I’ll try anything, yes. But I won’t try that again.)

Thankfully we left the restaurant and got some fresh air and some milkshake-type-things, and started walking through one of Beijing’s popular nightlife spots near the Bell Tower. In every bar we passed a live band was playing, and buskers on the streets were playing their keyboards and wailing love songs. Eventually I hailed a cab to go back to my guesthouse, and the driver put on a CD of Chinese power ballads and hummed along as we drove through the neon-lit streets. I was in love with Beijing, but the next morning I would be catching my flight to Inner Mongolia…

 

Don’t know when I’ll be back again…

I’m leaving! On a jet plane! Tomorrow!

***

Six months ago it was winter and I was in Delhi, wearing fuzzy boots and a yak wool shawl, sitting on a floor cushion in Kunzum Travel Cafe in Hauz Khas Village. Brandi was working there at the time, and so I was in the habit of going along regularly to drink honey and ginger tea and distract her.

That day my main purpose of going to sit in Kunzum was to agonise over the job I’d been offered in Inner Mongolia. The job I’d applied for a week earlier on a complete whim. The job I’d applied for kind of as a joke, because “Inner Mongolia” sounded like the most obscure place on the planet, and  therefore I obviously needed to go there.

That day Kunzum was doing a project-type-thing with postcards, where someone would write something on one, and it would be sent to another someone, somewhere else. Loads of people had emailed in their mailing addresses so they could receive a mysterious anonymous postcard, but not that many people had actually come to the cafe to write one. So Brandi gave me a postcard and a pen and told me to get started. And this is what I wrote.

***

Six months – and a lot of agonising – later, my bags are packed (well, sort of) and I’m ready to go and start living another one of my whims. On Friday I’ll be in Beijing, and next Monday I’ll be in Baotou, my new home by the Gobi desert. I just hope that China’s infamous Great Firewall doesn’t completely block WordPress, because I imagine this next year will come with a lot of writing opportunities. Stay tuned!

In memory everything seems to happen to music

My American (oops, I mean Scottish) friend, Brandi, has just made this lovely little film and I thought I’d share it with you.

Made up of lots of clips and short moments, it documents the long train journeys we took from Delhi to Puri (Orissa), to Varanasi, and back to Delhi again, and includes some of the strange and fun and nice things that happened in between. Like puppies. And rowing boats.

I’ve watched it about eight times so far and it’s made me REALLY miss India. It somehow manages to completely sum up everything that’s wonderful about the country, and I totally think Brandi should consider selling it to the India Tourism board.

Just One Journey | 77 Hours of Sleeper Class from Brandi Dawn Henderson on Vimeo.