Stranded at Sea

A few weeks ago I was asked by Gavin, a friend of mine who owns a language centre here in Weihai with his wife, if I could help him out. He is the proud owner of a boat that he has built himself, though it was moored off a pier around a 45 minute drive away down the coast. He needed to sail it back to Weihai’s International Beach, as from there he could take it apart and store it in his garage next to his apartment on the seafront before winter set in. With the weather forecast promising calm conditions and sunny skies I was more than happy to go along for the ride.

Early the next morning I met Gavin and his wife, Tansy, down on the beachfront, where we were picked up by one of their friends to take us to the boat. First impressions were unconvincing. It was unlike any boat I had envisaged, or ever seen before for that matter. It could better be described as more of a floating pontoon. However, Gavin was clearly very proud of it and it seemed seaworthy enough. Besides, it was far too late to back out now so I buckled up for the ride.

It started out very pleasantly, the day truly was a fantastic one to head out on. There was a slight chill in the air, though that wasn’t exactly surprising considering it was mid-November. We slowly chugged our way past countless fishing boats and traps for all kinds of creatures in the depths. It turns out that Weihai is extremely important for supplying seafood to the mainland, catching fish, mussels, clams, squids, lobsters, crabs. Anything and everything the fisherman here can get their hands on. However, the most valuable catch is sea cucumber. The local speciality dish of Weihai, these can be immensely valuable fetching up to £1000/kilo. After around half an hour we were making good progress, especially considering that we had to navigate our way through the maze of fishing nets to avoid them becoming tangled up in the outboard motor.

Then the engine stuttered and died.

Before we had cast off I had noticed that the petrol tank on-board was looking rather low. When I pointed this out to Gavin he had said no need to worry, the indicator was usually wrong and he had done this journey countless times and was sure that we had an ample amount. As it turned out we didn’t. We were barely halfway and there was no-one to be seen, save a single small fishing boat around 100 metres away from which two elderly men were trying their luck. My companions shouted to them in Chinese, telling them what had happened and asking if they paid them if they would take one of us ashore to fetch some more petrol and then bring that person back out to the boat. They laughed and went back to their fishing, clearly uninterested.

We sat around for over half an hour, waiting to see if anyone else ventured by. Thankfully the sun was still shining so the wait wasn’t as bad as it could have been, though the wind had picked up which wasn’t as pleasant. Eventually we saw another boat approaching with occupants that turned out to be much more helpful. Around an hour later we were back on our way with a full tank of petrol, and I was able to get back with just enough time to get to my class. I can’t imagine what the faces of my students would have looked like if I told them that the reason I was late for teaching was that I had been stranded at sea.

Stay Away From Chinese Vodka

I’ve been living in China for almost 2 months now and at times it’s been quite hard to believe. There is so much here that makes it easy to forget that I’m actually living in another country let alone on the other side of the world. I’m teaching in a university, so it feels like I am still a student. Transport is easy and cheap, though actually on time unlike good old Transpennine Express or Northern Rail back home. Western clothing brands such as Zara, UNIQLO and Adidas flood the main mall in the centre of town alongside Subways, Burger King, McDonalds and countless KFCs. You can even order a club sandwich and chips in the university canteen if the other options on offer don’t seem to appeal.

Of course there are also things that are quintessentially Chinese. I haven’t used a knife and fork since I got off the plane, Chinese pop music blasts out of every store (one store in particular appears to play the same song on constant repeat – Little Apple by The Chopstick Brothers if you’re interested in sampling the delights of Chinese mainstream music!), squat toilets are the norm not the exception, and rice is unavoidable no matter what meal you’re eating.

However, what might remind you of home here in China can lead you into a false sense of security, as I found out to my cost. A couple of weeks ago a load of fellow interns and myself decided to check out Playa Bar, recommended by another Western teacher at the university. We arrived and were happy to discover a quaint bar on the beachfront, which, whilst being small, had a good atmosphere and enough seating to accommodate the most westerners this town has ever seen in one place. In due time the Tsingtaos had started to flow and spirits were high.

Then Chloe, another intern teaching at the university, and I decided to order a bottle of vodka.

A reasonable price and a sense of Friday Feeling enticed us and a bottle of vodka duly arrived along with a tub of ice, a large bottle of orange juice and two glasses. However, Chinese vodka is not to be taken lightly. Sure it looks like the real deal, it even has western branding. That’s where the trap lies. It was an eventful night to say the least.

The next day I woke up on a sofa with a splitting headache and an aching body. It turned out that whilst feeling slightly worse for wear at the bar the night before I had gone for a walk along the beach to try and sober up a bit before we headed off to the club. Upon returning I was bundled into a taxi and we were all on our way to G+ Club in the city centre. When we arrived everyone else bounded into the club, keen for more drinks and some dancing. I on the other hand proceeded to spend the next hour and a half throwing up in the car park. Classy I know.

Kelly, another fellow intern, who had mercifully taken it upon herself to look after me noticed that I had blood all over my hands and head. It turned out that I had split my head open, presumably somehow during my time on the beach. I only wish I knew how! Once I was finally in a state to get back in a taxi she took me back to her flat, cleaned up my head and let me pass out on the sofa. This was where I had woken up.

With my head still looking less than pretty the others advised me to go to the local community health clinic to make sure that it didn’t need it gluing or stitches. Thankfully I needed neither as the cut was neat and not dangerously deep, though they did clean it again. They also insisted that it needed to be bandaged up to keep the area clean and allow it to heal. However, as the cut was on my head and surrounded by my hair it would have been impossible to keep it in place with tape. Instead they gave me a ridiculous piece of headwear to secure the bandage in place, which looked like the sort of thing that they keep fruit in to protect it. I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to get back on the spirits out here.

Finding Nemo

After feeding and bathing elephants, watching muay thai, tasting the magnificent street food and sampling the other delights of Chiang Mai we decided to head for the beach, in need of sun and sand. After a monstrous 38 hour journey, made so long by a train accident ahead of us, we stepped off the ferry at Koh Tao in the Gulf of Thailand, a.k.a. Turtle Island. World renowned for its scuba diving and snorkeling this small island was exactly what we were looking for. Long sandy beaches, blueish-green sea and, most importantly, lots of sun. However, after our first day on the beach the sun wasn’t quite as welcome, pale English bodies under tropical sun meant a fair amount of sunburn. Thankfully we had brought some aftersun!

Deciding that it would be a shame to come all the way here and not explore the sea I booked to go on some fun dives with a company called Scuba Junction, a well regarded company that I liked the look of because it also promoted small dive groups. I already had my Advanced Open Water Certification, but it had been a year since I last dived so I decided that I should sign up for a quick refresher dive to go through the key skills, just so I felt more comfortable in the water. This was definitely a good idea. After just 15 minutes going through the movements with French dive master Jan he said I was back up to scratch and so we went off exploring the reefs. Over the next two days I went on four dives, though all were at different sites. The first day was spent exploring Three Rocks (a highly imaginative name deriving from the three large rocks at the water’s surface!) and Junkyard. Junkyard was a very unusual dive site and the name certainly fitted. In the water here had been dropped a huge variety of different things, to act as a base for the coral to grow on and help the reefs to grow. These included a pick-up truck, lots of ropes and netting and around 20 toilets! It was pretty surreal seeing fish where a driver should have sat, but the advantage of this dive site was that lots of fish were based here that could not be found elsewhere on the island. These included bearded filefish, blotched porcupinefish and longfin batfish. We also saw a few saddleback anenomefish, a.k.a. Nemo.

The next day we dived at the sites Nang Yuan Cave and Twins (rather fitting!). The first of these was not so much a cave as an underwater swim-through that was around 10-12 metres long. It got a bit tight at one point but luckily we all fit through! The second dive site was slightly deeper and offered a few of the rarer fish species including a very well camouflaged scorpion fish and a couple of crocodile fish that look very similar to eels.

Whilst we were here we also both took advantage of the snorkelling, exploring the Japanese Gardens dive site where the coral reef is very close to the surface and so offers a lot to see. Annika was very lucky and saw a turtle whilst we were out there. I was gutted, it would have been nice to see a turtle on Turtle Island!

The KimChi Disaster

Nestled in the meanders of the cocoa brown Mekong River overlooking jungle and mountains, Luang Prabang really is situated in a very scenic area. We arrived by minibus from Vang Vieng after twisting our way through the mountains, keen to explore more of what Lao has to offer.

Upon our arrival we found a guesthouse just out of the town centre and headed in for some food after visiting a few of the town’s temples. The guidebook suggested that Tamarind Restaurant was well worth a visit with it’s traditional take on Lao food and so that was where we went. Looking through the menu it was clear that the food on offer was unlike any food you would expect to see in many other restaurants. Particular stand outs included stir-fried frog and fried buffalo meat with buffalo bile and tripe to add to the flavour. We opted for some slightly safer options, fish cooked in banana leaves (a Lao speciality) and barbecued buffalo (without the tripe and bile!). The meals were sadly disappointing, maybe we should have been more adventurous!

The next day we headed out to the Kuang Si waterfalls, 32km from the town centre. They were a very impressive series of waterfalls working their way through the jungle slopes, the biggest of which was a huge 50m, you could feel the spray from miles away! We spent a very rewarding few hours swimming in the pools and relaxing in the refreshing cold water.

That evening it transpired that our poor run of luck with regards to food was to continue. We ate at The Big Tree Cafe, given it’s name by the truly enormous tree outside of it’s entrance. Sitting beneath the shade of its branches we chose from the large array of dishes on offer. I decided to be a bit more adventurous after the let down of the night before and opted for KimChi fried rice. I had no idea what it was and hoped it would be good!

Now up until now I have taken care not to order particularly spicy food as I’ll happily admit that I am not great at handling large amounts of chilli.

I probably shouldn’t have ordered KimChi fried rice…

KimChi fried rice turned out to be fried rice mixed with green chillies. After I has taken a few bites my mouth was on fire, I was bright red in the face and apparently I looked like I had just run a marathon with the sweat appearing on my face. Needless to say I will now make sure that when I’m feeling a bit more adventurous about ordering food in South East Asia I will try and make sure that one of its main ingredients is not green chilli! Tonight it seemed that the motto of the SAS is not always correct, he who dares does not always win.

Tales of the Travelling Twins: Viva Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng.

A backpacker’s paradise. Infamous for tubing. Great nightlife. Great fun. Definitely worth a visit.

That is what we had heard and why were so keen to come here. We arrived after a long, arduous journey consisting of an overnight train and what was undoubtedly a local bus from Vientiane to here. It seemed as though some of the people on the bus had brought their whole lives with them they were so weighed down with bags!

Upon our arrival it was pretty obvious that the guidebook had spoken a lot of truth. It seemed as though every building was either a guesthouse or a restaurant, there was certainly not a shortage of either. FRIENDS was on in every other restaurant and there were also a number of adventure tour operators advertising tubing, kayaking, canyoning and caving. The town was smaller than we expected but was incredibly easy to navigate, especially with all the English signs!

Having heard other people rave so much about tubing we were very keen to try it the next day. However, being the rainy season the weather forced us to find something else to do. We therefore spent the day visiting the Kaeng Nyui waterfall trail which turned out to be worth a visit.

However, we didn’t have long to wait for our first tubing experience to begin. The next day the weather was nicer and so we headed out on the river with an American couple we had met the day before who had been here for almost two weeks now they loved it so much. A great day chilling and drinking on the river ensued. Looking at past videos tubing is definitely not how it used to be but we had a great time nonetheless!

However my personal highlight of the last few days happened at Sakura Bar the night before last. Behind the bar was a 5 litre glass jar full of Lao-Lao whiskey. Now Lao-Lao whiskey is bad at the best of times. However, this whiskey had been distilled with 20 dead geckos in it. Not pleasant! One of the guys we were with said he buy one if anyone wanted to try it. I hastily refused but Neeks, much to my surprise, accepted. I guess we know who the braver twin is!

Viva Vang Vieng!

Tales of the Travelling Twins: Part One

So, after months of waiting, we are finally in South East Asia! Our journey here was luckily very smooth though the stopover in Abu Dhabi was certainly not enjoyable due to the fact that it was at 4am English time. We touched down in Bangkok at 8pm local time which tuned out to be very good for us as we got on the sky-train to a stop just a couple of minutes walk from our hostel, which was very easy to find. We collapsed happily into our beds!

After a good night’s sleep we spent the next day exploring the temples of Bangkok. We visited the very touristy Wat Po and it’s 46m long, 15m high reclining Bhudda depicting Bhudda going into the final nirvana. It really was enormous! We also visited some much smaller temples, one of which stuck out more than the others. It was very small with one man sitting outside who was very friendly and inviting. He explained the statues in the temple for us, prompted us to bang a gong three times for good luck and showed us a box of wooden sticks. These all had numbers written on and you stood in front of the Bhudda and shook the box whilst asking for something. When a stick fell out of the box you looked at the number. That number corresponded with numbered sheets of paper on the wall. You took the relevant one and it told you whether you would be lucky in what you had asked for. Ours were not great!

During our time in Bangkok we also explored some of its markets, including the 7 storey MBK which is easily the biggest shopping centre I’ve ever been in and sold everything and anything you could ever want. We’ll be sure to visit again before we fly home!

After Bangkok we heading East, bound for Cambodia. A very long and very hot train journey ensued past seas of paddy fields and farms. Thankfully our border crossing was very quick and easy, though no thanks to our tuk tuk driver who took us to a “official” visa office round the back of a building which had a sign on the window for double the price of what we knew it would cost. We simply walked around the building and down to the actual border, they didn’t even try to stop us. Still, some people sadly must fall for it.

We arrived a few hours later in Siem Reap, hoping for a great couple of days visiting the temples of Angkor, the 8th wonder of the world and the world’s largest religious building. Up at 4.45am we set off in the tuk tuk we had hired for the day to try and catch the sunrise over one of the largest temples, Angkor Wat. Arriving in the dark the temples were very ominous and intimidating. Surrounded by people we saw the sun begin to rise about 20 minutes later. However, after about 15 minutes it was obvious that there was far too much cloud for an impressive sunrise. Therefore we thought we’d try and beat the crowds to one of the other temples and so headed back to our tuk tuk driver. He then drove us to Bayon with it’s 216 huge stone faces, also very spooky in the early morning light made even more so by the fact that there were only 2 other people there. The next couple of hours we we pretty much on our own with no-one else to be seen which was great but also a little disconcerting. We were just waiting for the Cambodian ghosts to appear!

After exploring some of the smaller temples around Bayon we also visited Ta Prohm, known as the Tomb Raider temple as some of the film’s scenes were shot there, and revisited Angkor Wat to explore the inside and look at some of the carvings that stretch for 180m around the temple. We were both very glad that we had made the journey as it was completely worth it. The temples certainly lived up to their reputation as one of the best things to see in Asia if not the world.

Turns out our luck hasn’t been too bad after all!

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Angkor Wat at sunrise

Always make sure Dad has his reading glasses on

After a great couple of days in Varna, lounging on the Black Sea beaches in the hot sun, we fortunately left on the day it started to rain. And rain it did! Public transport was thankfully not affected and we sped off on the train to Gorna Oryahovitsa, a town in central Bulgaria. From there we were hoping to move on to Veliko Tarnovo, described in the guidebook as a very scenic university town with mediaeval ruins and lovely narrow streets.

When we arrived in Gorna Oryahovitsa a few hours later the rain was still in full flow, with mini-rivers gushing down the streets. We had the option of waiting around for about half an hour for a train that would take us on to Veliko Tarnovo. However it was pretty cold in the train station and we were keen to continue on as soon as possible. Besides, Veliko Tarnovo was only about 6 miles down the road. Therefore we decided to get in a taxi to take us the rest of the way to Hiker’s Hostel in Veliko Tarnovo.

We had a map of Veliko Tarnovo with the hostel marked on it and so we approached a taxi driver outside of the train station. We showed him the map, and though he looked a bit confused he beckoned us to get in the back. We hopped in, thankful to get out of the rain, and we soon on the road for Tarnovo.

By the time we reached the pretty town, nestled in a gorge, it was clear that the driver had no idea where the hostel actually was. He seemed to realise that we knew this and so dropped us off at the taxi rank in Veliko Tarnovo. This was fine. What happened next was not.

Dad approached one of the taxis at the rank and a female taxi driver wound down her window to allow him to talk to her. He showed her the flyer we had been given with all the information about the Hiker’s Hostel, including the map. Confusingly she looked very puzzled and after a few minutes of consulting the map she seemed to come to a conclusion and said she’d take us there. We climbed in and were soon dropped off in a part of the old town of Veliko Tarnovo. We got out and the hostel was nowhere in sight. The taxi driver pointed up a cobbled street next to us, clearly telling us to go up there. It was no surprise that she did not want to drive up there as water was cascading down the street, making it practically impossible to drive on. We paid her and took shelter underneath a shop canopy nearby. At this point I asked Dad if I could look at the map to make sure that the hostel was up that road, as I didn’t want us to set off blindly in the pouring rain. Almost immediately as soon as I looked at the flyer that Dad had shown to the taxi drivers it was apparent what had caused all of the confusion and why we could not now see the hostel. Dad had shown them the map for Hiker’s Hostel in Plovdiv about 200km away!

What’s the Bulgarian word for help?

Descending from the mountains of Transylvania we arrived at the Romanian capital of Bucharest in the middle of the afternoon. Following some dodgy directions provided by the hostel and due to some major tram-building works taking up a whole main street that threw us off track it took us over an hour carrying our rucksacks around the city until we eventually found our hostel. We then had a well needed shower as temperatures were still in the mid-thirties and we were pretty hot to say the least!

We headed into the centre of the city to explore the old town on a tour at 6pm. It provided a real insight into the city, particularly the lasting impacts of Nicolae Ceausescu, the previous Communist Dictator, whose regime redefined the city and had a massive destructive influence. His oppressive reign was plain to see, particularly with the enormous Palace of the Parliament, the second biggest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon, towering over the city. We also learnt how many Romanians had tried to save the old, historical parts of the city. They even moved a whole church by digging it up and rolling it on wooden logs down the city streets! A truly fascinating city we were glad to have stopped there as opposed to just pushing through it, the Communist influence on Eastern Europe cannot be more clear in any other city.

We left Bucharest bound for the Black Sea, taking a train to Constanta where we changed onto one for Mangalia. From there we got on a bus and eventually reached our destination, Vama Veche. This old customs point appeared to have only recently discovered tourism but had a great appeal to it. Rumoured to be a home of hippies and rock and roll the place had a great chilled out feel. We spent a lazy day on the beach before moving on again. We would be leaving Romania for Bulgaria.

From Vama Veche we got on a bus to take us to the Bulgarian border and then got off and walked across. From what we had gathered from the Internet we thought a bus would be waiting for us on the other side of the border to take us on to Varna. There wasn’t.

For about 5 minutes we were thinking about what we should do. We thought about hitching or finding a taxi to take us to the nearest town where we’d hopefully be able to catch a bus to take us on. Then Dad suddenly spotted a car with British number-plates. Hoping to find someone that could help us out he approached and knocked on the window. A surprised Romanian wound it down, though he spoke very good English. It turned out he was a Romanian who worked as caretaker in England and had returned to Romania for the holidays. He was driving into Bulgaria with his Bulgarian wife who had a 20-year high school reunion in Veliko Tărnovo. We explained our situation and that we needed to get to Varna. He said that Varna was on their way and told us to hop in the back. They then drove us the entire 120km to Varna which was extremely kind, and dropped us off at the main cathedral in the city centre from which our hostel for the night was only a street away. As the Lonely Planet guidebook states, something to look out for in Bulgaria really is the kindness of strangers.

Out for the Count

Transylvania: land of mountains, forests and vampires. The supposed home of Count Dracula was the next stop on our trip.

We arrived in Brasov from Budapest at 9.30am after a 14 hour overnight train from Budapest. Not exactly the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had! We hopped on a bus to the centre and then made our way to our hostel. It luckily wasn’t very busy, allowing us to immediately check in and have a well-needed shower! Due to the lack of sleep from the previous night most of the day was a fairly lazy one, with the exception of wandering back into the centre to grab some lunch. By 6pm we were once again in the impressive main square, meeting a guide next to the fountain to go on another free walking tour. On the tour we visited many of Brasov’s main sites including the Black Church and one of the narrowest streets in Europe. A good tour that was very enjoyable.

The next day we caught a local bus bound for Bran Castle. Linked with stories of the notorious Vlad the Impaler, who gained his name from impaling over 20,000 people on wooden spikes in just 6 years, the castle is said to have been a major inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The castle was not particularly imposing from the outside, though in the height of summer it was unlikely to be. However, the inside was a very interesting mix of big, old rooms and little interlocking corridors, and the creaking of the wooden floors as we made our way around did stir some of our imaginations! We made sure to look around the museum of mediaeval torture instruments also located in the castle. Afterwards and feeling a little queasy we headed for some lunch, unsure how much we’d be able to stomach!

The rest of the day was taken up by a trip on the cable car up the mountain next to Brasov for stunning views over the city and a very winding walk back down. The next day we would be heading for Bucharest. Though we were disappointed that we hadn’t seen the famous Count who knows what we may find in the Romanian capital!

Don’t stop the sparty

After a few relaxing days in the Tatra Mountains we headed for Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Arriving late at night we were hit by a wall of heat when stepping off the air-conditioned train and made our way to the hostel, thankfully very close to the station. A patchy night of sleep followed as the hostel too proved to be extremely hot and stuffy.

The next morning we headed into the Old Town to join a free walking tour of the city. This proved to be extremely interesting, particularly the parts about the changes to the city under Communist rule and how many older Slovakians reminisce fondly of the Communist times when everything was provided for them. Later that day we set off on a train to Budapest, glad to have stopped in Bratislava where the contrast of the old city and the modernist city constructed by the Communists was definitely worth seeing, though there was no doubt in our minds that it is certainly a one or two day city.

We arrived in Budapest to more high temperatures and headed for our hostel for the next three nights, Wombats. On the way there we bumped into a girl I know from uni, it is a small world after all! That night I went for a drink with her and some of her friends in the famous ‘ruin bars’ of Budapest. These bars are literally situated in ruins and manage to achieve an effortless cool with minimal but weird decor.

The next day was a fairly lazy one due to temperatures once again hovering around 40 degrees. However, that evening, when the air was cooling, we once again went on a free walking tour. Again this was very enjoyable. One highlight was at the fountain in Liberty Square which has motion sensors that turn off the water when you approach, allowing you to walk over the areas that moments ago were spouting water. However, for one unfortunate English girl they did not turn off quickly enough and she was completely soaked! The tour ended around 9pm and we made our way back to the hostel through a city that clearly appeals to young people though which we were quickly growing to like.

The idea that Budapest hugely appeals to young people was even more apparent the next night. For the whole day the hostel was buzzing, excited for the ‘sparty’ that was on that night. Basically a party in the biggest thermal baths in Budapest the ‘sparty’ held every Saturday night had a great reputation and people were clearly excited for it. Keen to go I picked up a ticket and joined a couple of others I knew who were also going drinking with a load of very loud Australians in the hostel bar. After a couple of hours and way too many cheap Hungarian spirits we set off for the baths.

Getting off the metro we could almost immediately hear the music pumping from the baths and as we approached we saw the lights inside. Getting more and more pumped we went through the entrance and down to the locker rooms to leave our towels and valuables. We then headed outside to a sea of people in one of the thermal pools, surrounded by bars and a DJ on a stage above the pool. Needless to say a great night ensued! The only downside was having to walk back to the hostel in the pouring rain after finding out that the metro had closed, but not even the rain could dampen the experience!