Snapshot of the Week: Surpassing all expectations, a week in Albania

Last time we wrote a blog we were just leaving Montenegro with slightly mixed emotions. We’d been away a week or so and found Dubrovnik a beautiful tourist trap, Kotor absolutely stunning and Budva a little disappointing once you left its tiny old town. We were also a little nervous about heading to Albania, a country with a somewhat sketchy reputation. Spoiler alert: that reputation is entirely undeserved – we have absolutely loved it here.

From Budva we headed to Shkodër. Or Shkodra. Or Skadar. Or Scodra. Or Scutari. Basically, translating Albanian into English is more art than science. From now on I’ll stick with the first one because that’s what Wikipedia goes with on its title page. Shkodër is a decent size town of about 130,000, sitting in the shadow of the Accursed Mountains, which – no arguments – have the best name of anywhere we have visited thus far.* The mountains were why we were here – we had a hike planned. Shkodër would be our city base for a trek in the Theth National Park.

Our original plan was to to do what is now quite a well-established route from Valbona to Theth. However, getting to Valbona involved a few hours on a boat as well as a few hours on some twisty-ass roads, which would possibly have resulted in Sadie’s demise. So we decided to go straight to Theth and just do a hike from there – we’d still see the best scenery and we’d be able to take a bit more stuff with us (didn’t fancy leaving the laptop behind in the hostel anyway, to be honest), so it worked out nicely. Our only downfall – literally – was not having hiking boots or poles with us. To be honest, neither of us wanted to lug hiking boots around for a month and a half to use them on one day, so we thought we’d be fine in trainers and be done with it. Wrong. Much to our chagrin, the path up to the pass was in places steep enough to feel vertical and covered in extremely slippery scree. Accursed indeed. Our city trainers were not cut out for this kind of thing and both of us ended up on our respective arses. Sadie still has the bruises for her troubles. I’d love to post the pictures but it’s a bit NSFW for this blog, and I think she’d divorce me faster than you can say “bruises like a peach.”**

DSC_0081-2

Anyway, enough bitching. The views were absolutely mind-blowing – completely worth the bruised bottoms/pride. We took a million photos but none of them do it justice at all. It shot up both our lists as one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been to, and we maybe had to share the entire national park with 50 other people. I’d advise going there now, because when they get their road network fixed it is going to absolutely explode. We’d also suggest doing the traditional route if you want to see the lake, which did look beautiful, but if you want a base Theth is fantastic.

DSC_0117-2DSC_0102-2DSC_0118-2

From Theth we went back to Shkodër and on to Berat, home to distinctive Ottoman-style architecture and one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world. It is also a UNESCO protected site, which is fully justified, even if UNESCO do seem to be giving it away these days, the sluts.

It was beautiful, quaint, quiet on the tourist front and had some of the best, cheapest grub we’ve had on all our travels.

DSC_0003

We are currently in Gjirokaster, another beautifully unspoiled Ottoman-style UNESCO city (SEE?!) and Mark just walked in the door, with fried chicken and a free beer from the takeaway owner who speaks 5 languages fluently. It says it all really.

In summary, get your arses here before this country gets the attention it justly deserves, but don’t tell too many people yeah?

 

* Although I have just remembered Deadman’s Cay in the Bahamas. Call it a tie.

**Sadie: In a way I kind of want to share it too, to justify my whining at the time, but frankly it isn’t my best angle.

 

Post-script
It appears we spoke a bit too soon. Albania, up until writing this blog had been flawless. Alas, on our last night in the country, the bed bug curse struck again – this time with an absolute vengeance. For those of you keeping track, this is the FOURTH time this has happened to Sadie. She has been absolutely, utterly and totally savaged by the little bastards – we counted about 200 bites before we gave up. It is important to point out however that this isn’t a “dirty old Albania” thing. Last time it happened was in arguably our poshest digs of the entire trip, in Kuala Lumpur, and they are frighteningly common in the USA. Essentially it can happen anywhere – it was just a shame that they had to spoil our final day in a wonderful country! We still hope to return for a trip to Albania’s gorgeous coast one day. Until then though, we’ll be checking the mattresses a bit more carefully…

 

 

 

Advertisements

Snapshot of the week: Croatia and Montenegro

It’s been a while. It’s not even like we’ve just been sat at home on our backsides doing jackity boo. Since last time we wrote a proper one of these we came home, got jobs, planned a wedding, left our jobs, got married, drove around Europe, came home and went on tour again. That blog was really hard to write, frankly, so I decided to skip over it and write about the last week or so instead. Actually, I never really tried with the last one. As Homer once said, trying is the first step towards failure.

Dinner 11
We got married!

Anyway, flash forward from last time and it’s now September. The heatwave is long gone, the Beast from the East a mere snowy memory. Everyone is back to school, the holidays are over and dickheads are already posting on Facebook about how many “sleeps” it is until Christmas. Those people can get to fuck, frankly, you’re 29 for Christ’s sake. But I digress.

We, on the other hand, are in the sunny Balkans. We flew into Dubrovnik, aka King’s Landing, and spent a few days there being touristy as hell without letting our wallets be too badly brutalised. (There is a witticism in here somewhere about Lannisters paying their debts but I’m too stupid to think of it, answers in the comments please). Dubrovnik is bloody beautiful but goodness me they know how to rip tourists off. The city walls, about 2km long, were £20 – each – to walk on. This time last year they were £15, this time 4 years ago they were free. Apparently it’s a result of the mammoth amount of cruise ships they receive. During high season there are at least 6 cruises a week into the city, meaning 2000 extra people each day flood into the tiny little old town, and since they don’t eat in the restaurants or stay in the hotels, the powers that be decided that the best way to make money from these tourists was to charge a large fee for the one thing that every visitor to Dubrovnik wants to do.

DSC_0055DSC_0067DSC_0103

Still, the weather was absolutely glorious and we met some lovely people. We shared a taxi from the airport with a couple, Richard and Philip, as our flight was delayed and we missed the last bus. Another brief digression – Luton airport is absolutely fucking grim. I reckon I’ve been to over 100 airports worldwide now and Luton is up there with the very worst (JFK or Nairobi, since you asked). Well, this turned out to be a stroke of luck as they recommended a tour for us to do – an obligatory Game of Thrones walking tour with a bit of history thrown in for good measure. We geeked out for a bit and spent the afternoon in the bar with our new friends, which is up there with my favourite ways to spend a day.

 

DSC_0144
“It will be quiet at night,” they said…

Too soon it was time to leave Dubrovnik and head to a new country (yay!), Montenegro. The bus down was predictably shit – overpriced, slow, late, and with customer service learned from a concentration camp, but it got us to Kotor safe and sound. One thing we swiftly learned from Montenegro was that our phones didn’t work, at all. This was a shock to the system to us, now so used to our data being included in EU countries. It really makes travel so much easier – no maps, no printouts, no payphones, no need to be organised essentially. As we arrived nearly 2 hours late our pre-arranged lift was not still there waiting for us, but luckily the bus station staff were kind enough to let me use their phone and call our guy. He came and picked us up and we cracked on with Kotor. Set in what looks like a fjord but Wikipedia reliably informs me is not, the Bay of Kotor is ridiculously beautiful. I don’t know what they put in the Adriatic water but it is somehow bluer than seas elsewhere. Surround that with dramatic cliffs, picturesque villages and crystal clear skies and you have a heck of a holiday destination.

DSC_0012

I’m writing this from Budva, half an hour down the coast towards the Albanian border. Budva is a gorgeous old town surrounded by a bit of a “meh” town. It feels a bit like Eastern European Benidorm. The old town however is bloody adorable. Our next stop is Albania, which is a little different to say the least. It will be fun to hit another new country and have some new challenges along the way. Bet our phones don’t work there either, though.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR5611.
We’re back!

 

 

Snapshot of the Trip: Coming Home Again

1 year, 4 months and 9 days. 71 weeks to the day after setting off for Mexico, in considerably worse shape and more than considerably worse off, we’re coming home again. Yes, we have been back in the meantime, but this time is different. It’s different because we don’t know what is coming next.

Reaching the end of a mammoth trip like this is strange. It’s like the end of a relationship in a way, but one where the travel has dumped us and not the other way around. There’s a lot of sadness that it’s over and reflections on the stuff we could have done differently, rather than remembering all the brilliant times we had. Lots of “shoulda woulda coulda,” and very little in the way of acceptance that maybe this is the best thing for us, simply because we want it back.

The latter stages of such a long adventure have been so different to the backpacking we had done previously. We found a second home in New Zealand, a place that thanks to the generosity and the welcome of friends, found a place in our hearts like no other. On a practical note, we had a car of our own, a bedroom, a place to put our clothes, a local shop, all the things that we didn’t know we would miss before we left. It made it gut-wrenching to leave, but thankfully we next headed to Australia where once again we were made so welcome by our friends. In Sydney we stayed with an old friend Kate, someone who both Sadie and I have known since we were children. It was like staying with family, and softened the blow of leaving NZ somewhat. Our next stops were Brisbane and Melbourne, and we stayed with friends who we had met back in our very first stop, Mexico. Having only known them all for short periods of time, we didn’t know what to expect too much, but their hospitality absolutely blew us away. Our “travel friends” will be friends for life, of that I am certain. They showed us kindness that I can only hope we will repay one day if they ever find themselves in our hemisphere.

The flip side of this wonderful experience was that it made us feel very much at home. That doesn’t seem like a bad thing – and it isn’t – but we felt like we were living in a place, not visiting. It took all the urgency out of us and that, coupled with what by now is quite apparent travel burn-out, we struggled to motivate ourselves to go and be tourists. We were happy simply to see our friends and do what they would do on a weekend, something which I think may have surprised our hosts, who would have wanted to show off their incredible cities. Burn-out affects lots of long-term travellers. When you become apathetic to the amazing things you are seeing in front of you, and to not be grateful for the opportunity you’re currently experiencing, it’s time that relationship comes to an end. It’s time to go home.

To exemplify my point, I am writing this in Dubai. Our friends Lauren and James have put us up in their lovely apartment and they want to show us the city. Unfortunately, Sadie is unwell and the weather hasn’t been on our side, but we are just as happy merely existing, going to the mall and watching films, as we would be exploring the cool stuff on our doorstep. It’s laziness, induced by the feeling that maybe we’ve seen everything, or at least enough, already. And to be honest, that makes me feel guilty as hell, like a spoiled, prissy, first-world-problem-burdened little shit, and adds to the teetering “shoulda woulda coulda” pile to boot.

Such is the contradiction we are both feeling. We know it’s time to go home, but we don’t want to. We want to travel more, see more awesome things, eat more exotic food, meet more incredible people. But we both know that if we carry on we aren’t going to appreciate these things. We need a dose of reality to make us realise quite how fortunate we have been.

This time however, the reality is tinged with uncertainty and contradiction. We want to keep travelling but need to go home. We need some structure but don’t know for how long. We need to save some money but we can’t move back into our own house. We’ve got a wedding coming up in August, but what after? Maybe a trip to Eastern Europe or Asia, maybe work for a month or two more. We’re honestly not sure right now, which is both as liberating as it is terrifying.

For now, it’s time to say goodbye to the road. As George Moore once said, a man travels the world over in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it. We have had, make no mistake about it, a fucking unreal adventure. We’ve seen things we never thought we’d see, done things we never thought we’d do. We’ve met incredible people and made friends for life. We’ve been to 31 countries on 5 continents, covered hundreds of thousands if not millions of miles and spent enough money that it makes me cry if I think about it too much. We made mistakes, we were too ambitious at times, not ambitious enough at others. We spent far too much money. Had too much structure and pre-booked too much. We slept on airport floors, got savaged by bedbugs. We burnt, we froze, we got stuck at borders, we got stranded in the middle of nowhere, got lost, got robbed, got sick and fell out (a lot). And you know what? I wouldn’t change it for the world.

We’re coming home. I think we found what we were looking for, I’m just not quite sure what it was yet. I’ll let you know when I do.
P.S from Sadie: As much as I wish I could tell you I’ve changed for the better, that these experiences have enriched me or taught me something deep about myself, I can’t. From the age of 18 and my first big trip abroad, I have treasured travel. Nothing challenges me quite the same way, and I can’t stress how important I think it is to see as much of this beautiful world as possible, with its varied cultures, people and privilege. I never dreamed to see so much of it in a lifetime, and as clichéd as it is, I feel so damn blessed to. I also feel a little sad, that I can never experience so much afresh again, which is one of the many reasons it is time to take a break. I feel very lucky to have met the people I have, and experience such generosity from so many.

 My lasting feeling though, is how lucky I am to have every spent every beautiful, frustrating and tiring day with the man I am going to marry. My parents worked their asses off, waiting for the weekend, for holidays, for retirement, for some proper time to spend together. Unfortunately, my father died at the age of 56 and left my dear mother to experience that well-earned freedom alone. This whole trip kinda started because I didn’t want to take that same gamble, to wait for our lives to start. Thank goodness I didn’t, and thank you Mark, for looking after me, loving me, and most of all, joining me on this crazy adventure. It’s been a blast.

Some of our highlights…

Snapshot of the… ever: Lazy Blogger Syndrome

So over the last few months we’ve caught something called LBS – lazy blogger syndrome. The last time we wrote something we had just left Korea, which now seems an actual lifetime ago. Since then we’ve been to Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and finally been rocking around New Zealand for the past month. Although the absence of posts has been primarily laziness, it hasn’t been helped by the conspicuous lack of decent wifi in both the Philippines and NZ. Seriously, how hard is it to get a decent router in this hemisphere? Anyway, enough excuses – for the first time in 2018, it’s update time.

There is no point in writing a this-is-what-I-did-on-my-summer-holidays summary of the last 9 weeks or so. It would be a) massive and b) boring as hell. Instead, I’m going to do a handy bullet point list, country by country since we last wrote something for you to revise for a quiz at the end. So here goes:

  • Japan – Where do you even start? We left off in the ridiculously colossal Tokyo and for just over two weeks covered about a million miles on Japan’s incredible train network. (A boring digression: did you know the Bullet train was first introduced in 1987? So Japan’s trains 30 years ago were still light years ahead of ours in Blighty now. It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic.) We got blinded by Tokyo’s neon lights, spoiled ourselves rotten at a traditional Ryokan and saw the famous snow monkeys in Shibu Onsen, got a true taste of Japan’s incredible history in and around Kyoto and then got a real taste of modern Japan in Osaka. Japan is one of the only countries we have visited that we can truly say we’ve done justice, thanks almost entirely to the trains. If you ever go, get a JR pass and try and see as much of this incredible country as possible.

IMG_20171124_165150_834IMG_20171124_203426_855IMG_20171128_195043_450IMG_20171122_082411_216

  • The Philippines. Or is it just “Philippines?” Why do you put a “the” in front of any country name? Another time, maybe. Anyway, (The) Philippines was (should this be “were”? Are they plural? Argh!) a bit of a mixed bag for us. As this was our second visit here we decided to do something a little different before we headed back to the country’s famous beaches. We landed in a sweltering, heaving Manila and headed north to Sagada, a beautifully cool hilltop town surrounded by jungles, caves and, confusingly, coffins nailed to cliff faces. From here we went to Bohol for a more traditional Philippine experience, where we both got our Advanced Open Water PADIs and enjoyed some bloody beautiful sunshine, as well as some unseasonal downpours. Not to worry, we thought, in Malapascua, our next destination, the weather would be beautiful…

WRONG. In Malapascua, it was worse. Much worse. It was too stormy for us to do a shark dive, the sole reason we went there. We spent an expensive few days there before the locals advised us to get the hell off the island thanks to an incoming tropical storm. What fun. We got the very last boat off the island in some fairly, erm, interesting seas (we couldn’t dock due to the conditions so we had to wade to shore through god-knows-what with our suitcases on our heads – urgh) and thankfully got a van back to the airport 5 hours south. From there, a few days earlier than planned, we flew to…

IMG_20171207_001348_639IMG_20171209_223124_771IMG_20171213_200944_988IMG_20171215_231118_602

  • Well, Kuala Lumpur specifically. Again, another destination we’d been to before but it was a necessary stop on our way to New Zealand anyway. In all honestly, neither of us were particularly excited to go back, as we felt we’d somewhat exhausted its opportunities the last time. Despite all this, we really enjoyed it. First of all, the weather was amazing. We had a pool. We had a great kitchen. We had culinary options other than the Philippine speciality of meat and rice. We had air conditioning and shopping malls. Basically, it was comfortable and we were glad of it. Our last night we had stunning view of the Petronas towers from our rooftop pool, by far and away the nicest accommodation we’ve stayed in on our travels. Sadie got bitten by bed bugs – go figure. I, for the third time on our travels, was left untouched. Bed bugs aren’t just annoying, they’re selective bastards.
  • New Zealand. We’ve spent just over a month in this green and good land, and have exactly two weeks left. It’s been a hell of a busy month.

Christmas was spent with our friend Amber and her family, her fiancé Nick and two other mutual friends from home – Witty, who has been living in New Zealand for the last 8 years and has played host to us on several occasions, and Kate, who moved out to Aus almost 2 years ago and will be harassed by us once again in a few short weeks. Basically, Lancaster invaded New Zealand for the Yuletide period. After Kate, Amber and Nick had flown the nest, Mark’s sister Rachel and her friend Jenny joined us for a week on part of their whirlwind Australasian adventures. Unfortunately, two lovely days with them were followed by an almighty and completely unseasonal storm (deja vu?), which put a very real dampener on our plans, although we did manage a trip down to Wellington for my birthday (also soggy) and moseyed down to the the South Island to be reunited with YET MORE FAMILY.

Yep, the parents all flew out to join us too, and for a few glorious, wine-filled days in Marlborough we all basked in the joys of New Zealand’s summer. We then left poor Rachel and Jenny in a very wet Christchurch, and drove a casual 1000miles or so across the South Island for a week with the parents, before heading back up North for some beach days and thermal action. The weather continued to confound, but was varied enough to not hamper our plans, still see the good shit, and have a few beautifully sunny days in which to predictably burn ourselves. We only now have a few days left with them, before heading up to the Northlands to check out the famously stunning Bay of Islands…hopefully without the bloody rain.

Our next stop is Australia to crash with Kate and some friends from the road. The prospect of coming home is getting very real now and we plan to enjoy our limited time away as much as possible. I would say to watch this space but let’s face it, it could be months before we post anything again anyway. Happy new year!

small.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Snapshot of the Week: Catching Up (Part II: Korea)

Korea was a story of friends and foes for us. We started out in Seoul and popping up to see the friendly neighbours to the North, then headed South and South again to visit some friends from University, now all teachers in Daejeon and Busan.

First though, the North. We decided to take a tour of the Demilitarised Zone (The DMZ, pronounced “zee” thanks to its American administration) and of the Joint Security Area, where soldiers of the two nations meet face to face. On the way, we visited the northernmost station in South Korea, constructed in the early 2000s in the hope that trains between the two countries could start running between the two and starting the extremely long slog towards unification. This happened with some success for a few years until North Korean soldiers shot dead a southern visitor when she strayed off her permitted path. After this incident, the border was slammed shut again. With this anecdote fresh in our minds, it was onto the frontier.

DSC_0238.JPG
The train station.

Before embarking on a bus to the border itself, we were asked to sign a disclaimer which explained that the United Nations were not responsible for your death in the event of an unexpected act of aggression from the North. It was one of many stark reminders that the two Koreas are still technically at war, having only signed an armistice – never a peace treaty – after the war in the 1950s which left millions dead in its wake. We were allowed into the conference room which straddles the border where the armistice was signed, meaning we technically strolled into North Korea by about 4 yards (still counts). We saw North Korean soldiers standing stoically staring at us, but we were under orders not to wave. This was very tempting for reasons I can’t entirely explain, but I was keen not to spark a diplomatic incident. Speaking of which, only 2 days after our visit, a North Korean soldier defected to the South across the JSA, getting shot 40 times in the process. Miraculously, at the time of writing, he is still alive. Another reminder, if we needed it, that these two nations are at an incredibly tense moment in their already tragic histories. We can count ourselves lucky that we have such stable world leaders at this time.

DSC_0248
South Korean soldiers facing North. They do this 24/7.
DSC_0255
The border. We are technically in North Korea taking this photo.

We left Seoul the following day to reunite with Anna and Sean, who were kindly putting us up in Daejeon, two hours south of Seoul. We spent our first night getting stupendously drunk and doing Korean karaoke, which is like normal karaoke but you have a room to yourselves. Shitfaced as we were, it was hilarious, but we certainly paid for it the next day, especially Anna. A takeaway McDonalds (the shame) and a crisp, country walk later and we were back in the game, ready for Korean fried chicken, which is utterly filthy fayre. Our last day as a four was spent in Jeong-Ju, a traditional small town packed with tourists, where Sadie got to fulfil a childhood dream of being a princess, for an hour at least. The town was beautiful and in the throes of autumn, again to Sadie’s delight. It was a great end to a really fun few days, and we were really sad to leave.

20171111_162044
Country strolling the hangover away. Note the water, and lack of a (bedridden) Anna.
IMG_20171111_181319_511
Boom, autumn.
DSC_0360
Princess Sadie in Korean traditional dress.

Next stop, Busan, Korea’s second city where Alice was next up to host us. She promptly took us for Korean BBQ and beers, so we felt straight at home there. Busan is a really cool little city (well there’s nearly 4 million people there so it isn’t exactly little…), full of character and charm. It is one of the very few Korean cities that wasn’t almost entirely decimated in the war, as the Northern forces didn’t quite make it into the city during their eventually failed invasion. There is everything from stunning temples to hillside villages to gleaming metropolitan skylines – it really had everything. The only downside was Alice contracting full blown man-flu while we were visiting, which I am pretty sure we were responsible for. Still, she was the most obliging host.

We are so lucky to have such great friends dotted all over the globe who are happy to offer us their beds and sofas (although admittedly we sometimes don’t give them much choice). If it wasn’t for them, our travels would be so much less of a rewarding experience and from time to time we have to remind ourselves of that. If any of you kind folks are reading this – thank you for putting up with us.

DSC_0391
Busan old…
DSC_0501
… and new.

After Busan we headed back to Seoul for a few days to have a little explore, then flew on to Tokyo, where I’m writing this. Japan will have to wait for next time, whenever we get round to it.  Let’s face it, it will be more than a week.

DSC_0525.JPG
Seoul’s answer to Beijing’s Forbidden City: Gyeongbok Palace.

Snapshot of the Week: Catching Up (Part I: Hong Kong)

Why I even use the word “week” in the titles of these blogs any more I simply don’t know. The fact is we are either too busy or too lazy to write them that frequently and, let’s be honest here, we aren’t actually that interesting. That said, our last blog was three weeks ago and we haven’t bloody stopped since then, so here’s one half of what we’ve done in the meantime.

Our parting note from the last blog was our excitement about entering Hong Kong. We’d had useless and restricted internet for three weeks in China, and we were a little tired of being not far off completely unable to communicate due to the language barrier. Due to Hong Kong’s recent British past, neither of these would present much of an issue once we had left the mainland. Firstly though, we had to get there, which proved more stressful than it should have done thanks to China’s notoriously punctual bullet train network losing its notorious punctuality for a few hours. Still, late at night we pulled into the Pearl of the Orient, dishevelled but relieved. Incidentally, I’m pretty sure nobody calls it the Pearl of the Orient any more.

Our first impressions of HK (I’m a lazy typist) were, frankly, not good. Our Airbnb was in a gritty (read: shite) area of Kowloon and the stairwell up to our apartment was straight outta Trainspotting. Our room had no window. We were paying a small fortune for the privilege of this, which was a serious shock to the system after cheapo-China. It’s safe to say we weren’t exactly enamoured.

The next day we had earmarked to go and visit Jen, a schoolfriend of Sadie’s on Lamma Island. Lamma is not what you think of when you hear the name Hong Kong. Instead of glittering skyscrapers there are one- and two-storey buildings. Where you imagine eight-lane superhighways there are narrow streets with no cars (save the adorably tiny emergency service vehicles). Rather than the vast, busy harbour, there are white, sandy beaches. HK is in the tropics, after all. We spent a lovely afternoon catching up, drinking coffee and making sushi, and once Jen’s hangover had disappeared, cracked open the wine. On the ferry home, HK was enamouring itself to us somewhat more.

DSC_0126
The view from The Peak.
2017 Hong Kong
We ruin the view.
DSC_0170
HK looks better at night.

It continued the next day. We explored HK’s crazy markets and visited the famous Victoria Peak (just “The Peak” now they’ve thrown off the shackles of colonialism, the ungrateful swines). We met a lovely Canadian lecturer called Deb on the way and, despite getting somewhat lost, spent an evening taking a million photos of HK’s incredible skyline. We rounded off the evening walking back home with my school and uni friend Matt, now a HK resident, drinking convenience store beers and eating dim sum. The weather and smog tried their damndest to spoil our last day, but we saw Jen again at the harbour at what has to be one of the finest night-time drinking spots in the entire world. We left the following morning, sad to be saying goodbye but with Jen’s insistence that we return and stay with her still ringing in our ears. We plan on honouring our promise.

Find Part II here.

DSC_0207
Smoggy Mc Smog Face
DSC_0235
But when it clears… wow.

 

Snapshot of the Week: China

As a child, I was obsessed with China. I adored everything about it – the elegant women with their powdered faces, the beautiful countryside and it’s pointy-hatted farmers, the palaces and temples, the legends of warriors and dragons, the emperor’s with cracking beards. Basically, I loved the simplistic, imperial China I’d seen in the Disney classic Mulan. Wear silk gowns all day and have a pet talking dragon? Yes please.

Then, in February 2014 I finally visited my land of dreams…and didn’t particularly like it.

Mark and I had spent one way-too-brief week in Suzhou and Shanghai visiting a good friend who was teaching for the British council. Despite a happy reunion, some great food and our hosts ever-impressive tour guiding talents, our impressions weren’t glowing.  It was grey. And noisy. Everyone smoked, everywhere. There were too many people and too much rubbish. People dropped food on the floor in restaurants, and shouted at each other constantly, Cars wouldn’t stop beeping, and the biggie: thanks to the overwhelming pollution, you couldn’t even see the sky. Coming from the idyllic beaches of the Philippines to Shanghai was like getting slapped in the face with a dirty towel. For someone who is slowly sliding down the OCD scale and at the time worked for a book publishers who specialised in sustainability, China outright upset me.

143
Look how young we were… and how awful the quality of that photo is.

 

I wasn’t alone, Mark didn’t rate it much either. Which is why, when I suggested about a year ago that I wanted to give China a good and proper chance, he balked. But a few convincing arguments about the merits of not judging a very large book on one tiny page, and a couple of photos of the Great Wall and some nice National Parks, and he was in too.

After spending the last 3 weeks in China, I can honestly say, thank fuck we did come back. Because, China – messy, dirty, frustrating, noisy, capitalistic and communist (baffling, really) China – was worth it. I can’t pretend I’m on board with everything (for one, their smoke-filled trains are full-on disgusting) and I certainly couldn’t live here, but we’ve had a cracking time, and, thanks to our insanely overpriced 2 year multi-entry visa* we’re definitely coming back again.

Now, I’m sure if you’ve bothered opening my self-indulgent prattle you probably want to know what we’ve actually done here. So as a very brief overview, here goes:

 
Beijing
We did: Hung out and got drunk with Mark’s brilliant old school chum, James. Visited the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, The Bird’s Nest, Great Wall of China, Jingshan Park. Walked a ton and ate a lot of great cheap grub.

DSC_0317
A wall, that is great, found in China.

We thought: Really enjoyed our 6 days in Beijing, hated our overpriced and somewhat damp Airbnb. James was a cracking host and we had a couple of days of perfect weather to see the Forbidden City and the Great Wall – the latter of which was very deserving of it’s bucket list status. Found Beijing very affordable and accessible, though our first introduction to trying to order off a Chinese menu was borderline traumatic. (Luckily it was all super tasty and didn’t resemble dog one bit). When we were there the Communist Party Conference was in full swing, which was both positive (a lot of factories were closed for the week so pollution was much lower than usual) and negative (crazy amounts of security – we couldn’t even get in to Tiananmen square, and all the bars had been closed for the week). Coming from an – at least allegedly – very liberal country like the UK, into prime Commy stomping ground was a little bit of a shock though.

 

DSC_0187
Beijing can be surprisingly pretty.
DCIM100GOPROGOPR4803.
When in Rome…

Chengdu
We did: Visited Quinchengshan Mountain and the famous Panda Sanctuary. Walked a lot and killed our stomachs with spicy Sichuan food.

We thought: We really, really liked Chengdu. For a city that makes basically every Chinese holiday itinerary, it was surprisingly unspoilt by tourists. Our hostel was almost half the price of our Beijing Airbnb and absolutely beautiful, the food here was the best and cheapest we’ve found, and the Panda Sanctuary and day trip we made to Quinchengshan Mountain were both super affordable and great fun. We could barely deal with the cuteness of the baby pandas. Smaller and much easier to navigate than Beijing, Chengdu felt very liveable.

 

DSC_0073
The baby panda cuteness broke Sadie.
DSC_0125
Alright, mate?

Xi’an
We did: Only spent 2 days here and came solely for the Terracotta Army and the history of this ancient city.

We thought: Honestly, the Terracotta Army was a little overrated and a lot overpriced. Coming from lovely cheap Chengdu to a city getting its teeth well into exploiting the millions of tourists who visit every year was an unpleasant shock to the system. Everything in Xi’an cost more than anywhere else. A pagoda in the middle of a busy roundabout called the Bell Tower – nice but really nothing amazing – cost more than the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Terracotta Army, very overcrowded and slightly underwhelming, cost more than the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Panda Sanctuary combined. Essentially, our two days in Xi’an were very expensive, but we would have felt something amiss if we didn’t see the famous Warriors on our tour of China.

DSC_0168
Standing in line to / See the show tonight/ And there’s a light on / Heavy glow…

 

Yangshuo
We did: River cruising, partying, motorbiking, swimming and enjoying the ludicrously beautiful countryside.

DSC_0278
Bamboo boating on the Yulong river.

We thought: One of our favourite places we’ve been to on our entire trip, but one we most likely will never return to again. Yangshuo is becoming unbelievably popular, largely with Chinese tourists, and is on the tipping point or being ruined by it’s own success. If we thought Xi’an was expensive, Yangshuo is a bit of a piss-take. If we’d visited even two years ago, prices were literally ten-fold cheaper, according to blog posts from the time.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR5110.
‘Sup.

 

In spite of all of this though, Yangshuo has captured our hearts. It is breathtakingly pretty and in the Autumn it harbour a near-perfect climate. A bamboo boat cruise down the Yulong river was a highlight, and a motorbike adventure to the mountains through the weirdly Mediterranean-looking countryside was stunning, if a little scary to contend with Chinese driving. If you’re planning a Chinese adventure, get your arse there now, or better yet, get it there five years ago.

 

DCIM100GOPROGOPR5079.
Li River, the money shot.

We’re leaving for Hong Kong on Saturday. Part China, part independent and a weird cross between British and Cantonese, not to mention unrestricted internet access! We cannot wait.

 

*Be warned – Brits can now only choose this £180 option. Thanks China, you big meanies.

China_Yangshuo3.JPG

Snapshot of the Week: Rushing through Russia

It’s safe to say that Russia does not have the best reputation internationally. Barely a day goes by without some scary story out of the Kremlin: an election rigging here, a corruption scandal there, a political assassination the other way. Nearly every documentary you see about the country involves the journalist being harangued by the police at some point, regardless of whether they are attempting to show Russia in a positive light or not. With Anglo-Russian relations at something of a low point, and given the painstakingly difficult process to get a Russian visa in the UK, you can imagine our nerves before our border crossing into the world’s biggest country.

Just to get this far had been, frankly, a pain in the arse. Due to the aforementioned geopolitical shenanigans between our two respective nations, each country has seen fit to punish the inhabitants of the other by making international travel between the two as difficult as possible. Consequently, to get a Russian Visa, we were require to fill in a stack of paperwork dozens of pages long (each), get a letter of invitation from a travel company, get new passport photos (in Sadie’s case a new passport because hers was full), declare all our social media profiles and assure the Kremlin that we had not ever, nor had any intention of overthrowing the Russian government or doubting the sovereign integrity of its territory. The paperwork also required us to list every country we have been to in the last decade, including when and why, which as you can imagine for full-time wanderers, took a while. Lastly, we had to go to bloody London to give our fingerprints and retina scans, which actually cost us more than our bus into Russia itself.

Anyway, I digress, but you can imagine how welcome we felt as we rocked up to the border. Our bus from Helsinki was full of Russians, all of whom seemed to know how to “do” the border, and they pointed us in vaguely the right direction. Eventually, with a bit of a scowl, they let us in. Success!

Our first stop was St Petersburg, Russia’s most popular tourist city. Within moments of arriving in the centre, we could see why – it was stunning. St Pete’s was designed by the Tsars over the centuries to impress upon people the grandeur of Russia, and it worked. For whatever reason, St Pete’s also escaped the ravages of the two great scourges of Russian architecture: war and Stalinism. Either that or after it was destroyed by the Nazis they painstakingly rebuilt it. Still – beautiful city. We spent days just wandering around the place soaking it in (literally – it rained every day). We went to the Winter Palace, an insanely opulent former Imperial residence, so full of gold and priceless artefacts that it made you realise why the Russians overthrew their royal family a century ago. We met an old friend for breakfast and made a new friend over drinks. We went to see a ballet (when in Rome) which I’m pretty sure was aimed at children, but never mind. All in all it was just a brilliant place.

St P 4
The Winter Palace
St P 10
Night streets
St P 14
Celebrating a break in the rain
St P 15
Palace Square

An overnight train later and we found ourselves in Yaroslavl, self-proclaimed capital of the so-called Golden Ring – preserved Russian towns which are essentially open air museums to Russia’s past. Yaroslavl was absolutely full of beautiful churches, to an almost ridiculous extent, and all of them were adorned with the famous “onion domes” which make them so unique. We really enjoyed walking around the town and probably would have done even more so, had it not been for the incessant rain that was becoming more and more a feature of our Russian experience.

Next stop: Moscow. We’d planned the last leg of our stay so we had a night in Moscow, then a one day trip to Vladimir, another Golden Ring town, then back to Moscow for a couple more nights before leaving. On reflection it was a bit thick, because it severely limited our time in Moscow itself, cost a pretty penny to visit, and was (quelle surprise) a bit of a washout. It was frustrating because you could tell the town was beautiful, just underneath a thick blanket of fog and drizzle. We also tried Russian wine there, which was sadly terrible. We headed back to Moscow, damp and praying that our last few days would be drier.

Vlad 3
I’d had enough of the weather

They weren’t. We really tried to make the best of Moscow but the rain finally got the better of us. We spent a night at the opera at the iconic Bolshoi Theatre, which was a heck of an experience. We saw the Red Square, the Kremlin and its most famous sites, and spent a freezing afternoon at a colossal souvenir market, but it simply would not stop raining and there is only so much sightseeing you can do when you’re piss wet through and shivering. We got our taxi to the airport a little sad that we hadn’t made the most of Moscow, knowing how hard it is to get in the country that we likely will not be returning to for a while, if ever.

Moscow 13
The stunning St Basil’s Cathedral by day…
Moscow 18
…and by night

I’m writing this from Beijing, jet lagged and somewhat irritable due to the annoying-as-hell great firewall of China. This basically means you can’t use Google (and therefore Maps, Translate, Chrome, the Play Store, YouTube), Facebook (and obviously therefore Instagram, to Sadie’s dismay), Twitter (wtf?) and a whole host of other things. You can’t even get on Pinterest for fuck’s sake. I mean really, who is going to bring down the government with a mood board? Anyway, more on that next time. If they don’t block the post, that is.

Moscow 5
A night at the opera

 

 

 

Snapshot of the Week: Finnish Friends and Ballin’ in Tallin

We’re back! Aren’t you glad? Haven’t you missed our self-congratulatory yet somehow self-pitying rants, observations and witticisms? No, obviously you haven’t, because a) it’s only been like 3 months and b) we only have like 50 followers, which is depressing. Hell, never mind, onwards and upwards.

So after a long, wet English summer, taking in two weddings, an engagement party, a funeral and two broken bones (Mark fell off his giant friend’s shoulders at our engagement party, utterly shitfaced, the dick), we packed up and left the UK again. This time, however, we weren’t heading for perpetual summer as we usually do. We were heading north to Finland to reconvene with our friends whom we had last bumped into, also shitfaced, in San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, way back in November last year. You know when people say “Yeah you have to come visit us!”? But you both know it will never happen? Well, we aren’t really the type for missing an opportunity to visit chums in foreign lands (complete with free digs), so 10 months later we rocked up at Helsinki airport to be greeted by Karoliina and Juha, our incredibly welcoming and obliging hosts.

DSC_0112
Finnish Friends!

Helsinki is a lovely little unassuming city. Despite being hampered by fairly shocking Baltic weather for over half the time we have spent here, we’ve really enjoyed our brief stay. We’ve also managed to do some really Finnish things – we went to a herring festival, as you do, we went to a sauna, jumped in a lake which was about 7°C and ate reindeer.

IMG_20171004_194046_099
We swam in this bad boy (briefly).

As an added bonus we spent a day in Tallinn, Estonia’s pretty little capital, courtesy of a bargainous €10 return ferry. We were a little surprised at how hipster Tallinn was outside the Old Town’s walls, but pleasantly so. The old town is as pretty as you would expect for a historic European capital, which thankfully escaped the ravages of the Soviet era’s architectural policy, if you can call it that. We rounded off our day in the most oddly-decorated bar possibly in the entire world. I can’t even begin to explain it, but there was one room decorated in foil and another with headless dolls dangling from a chandelier. Think a Salvador Dali-inspired acid trip meets 60-Minute Makeover and you probably won’t be far wrong.

20171002_151212
Look at that mental room.

We leave tomorrow for Russia, feeling a pretty familiar combination of excitement and apprehension. Russia is the first place we have been to where we can’t even read the alphabet and we can’t really expect any of the locals to understand a word of the Queen’s. We’ve also heard slightly unsettling whispers of the fun that can be had with corrupt Russian officials and incredibly tedious border crossings. Still, should be fun!

The Americas: Number Crunching

So here we are in Gatwick Airport (delayed, obviously, it seems appropriate really), and we have bid a sad farewell to the Americas. Since we last did a blog we celebrated America’s Independence from the nasty Brits on 4th July at a kindly strangers rooftop party, got stuck on a bus for what seemed like eternity on the way to Washington DC, further celebrated America’s Independence from the British in Boston with an old friend and did a lot of New Yorky things in New York.

The last 6 months have been, in no particular order: challenging, scary, tiring, fun, eye-opening, leisurely, cultural, beautiful and pretty damn amazing. There have been ups and downs, a lot more work than we anticipated but just as many rewards. We’ve met so many wonderful and generous people who we owe so much to, and cannot thank enough. We can’t quite believe that it was 9 months ago we quit our jobs and went on this trip, but thank goodness we did. It felt right, being on the road, just as it feels right to be heading back to the UK for the summer. We might get itchy feet, but right now they’re pointed towards home.

To try and sum it all up would be impossible, and frankly, very boring for you to read. So below is our last 6 months in numbers:

186
 Days (4464 hours, 267840 minutes, 16070400 seconds).

£19,375 spent (ouch). Inc of all flights, shopping and daily spends. This works out as….

£95 spent on average per day, for both of us. The complete cost per country can be found here

12 Countries
3 Continents
2 Hemispheres
20 US States
6 Timezones

55 beds
28 Flights
11 Overnight buses
2 Airport overnighters

1 Case of food poisoning (both of us)
1 Root Canal
1 Road trip
1 Booked wedding 🙂
6 Visits from/to friends & family
2 Multi-day hikes which both ended in torrential rain
We’d also like to sign this off with a massive thank you to so many people. Firstly and of course most importantly, thank you to you for reading our rambles. Then thanks to everyone we’ve met along the way: our friends and our families who gave us a bed and a roof over our heads, all our Airbnb hosts, hostel owners and all the random strangers who have pointed us in the right direction, invited us to parties, helped us with our bags and all the random acts of kindness that go unmentioned but not unappreciated. It’s been a hell of a trip and we couldn’t – and wouldn’t – have done it without you. We won’t be boring you for a  short while as we try to undo the financial damages of the last 8 months, but we’re back on the road in the autumn and we’ll post more of our self-indulgent babbling then.

We can’t wait.

Mark and Sadie x19601300_10154889832904075_325640112210836640_n