A Travellerspoint blog

September 2014

Jerusalem, Israel

A city of contrasts


The Israel/Jordan border, Aqaba/Eilat, was a breeze; quiet and straight forward. The only thing is that you have to use their taxi service from the border if you have a lot of luggage because its a fair walk to the main road to try and hitchhike otherwise; these taxis are expensive! WeWe headed straight to the local bus station and caught a direct bus up to Jerusalem. We had arranged our accommodation through Air BnB, which is when local people rent out rooms or apartments and you get the local knowledge of the area too. We'd found that the cheapest hostel accommodation was £40 for two of us, whereas we got a central location, double room and balcony for £14 a night instead. Perfect. We hope to use Air BnB again.

It was late afternoon when we got there and so just had a leisurely stroll into the old town and grabbed some food at an Italian Cafe (food was so expensive here, much more than back in the Uk). Considering Jordan was so close, it felt like a world away from it. It was really interesting to wander around and see the mix of cultures; Jewish, Muslim and Christianity. We found it particularly strange seeing young people, lots of them, carrying huge guns. We knew Israel had national service, but I didn't realise that guns would be so common. When we were sat in a cafe a young couple were having a meal together (in normal clothes) and he had a massive gun by his side throughout the whole time. A very interesting place. We were really looking forward to our full day exploring the next day.

There's plenty to keep you busy in the Old City; the usual sights of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jesus' tomb), the Western Wall, Garden of Gethsemane, Church of Mary Magdoline, The Old City Gates. It's an amazingly preserved old town. People must save their whole lives to pilgrimage here...there were people crying when they were at the Western Wall and Jesus' resting place, lots of praying and displays of emotion. We both felt quite uncomfortable when entering Jesus' tomb because we don't go to Church, we're not religious and everybody around us knew what to do to pay their respects...we just kneeled and stayed quiet. There are also lots of nice cafes, boutique shops and tonnes of opportunities for people watching...so plenty to keep us busy.

Our flat host had recommended we visit Ein Karem. We caught the bus successfully but then got off a stop by the hospital, which appeared to have no access to the old village area. We walked for ages trying to work out how to reach the pretty alleyways of cafes and shops, but then in the end we gave up...it was too hot and instead an ice cold beer was calling.

It'd been the first time we'd had a kitchen to use, and the food was expensive, so we decided to cook ourselves. There's a great food market area called Mahane Yehud. It gave us the perfect chance to wander around and soak up the atmosphere, sample some food and buy our ingredients for our tea. We ended up buying pesto, olives, tomatoes, fancy bread, loads of pastries for breakfast, fruit and wine. We had to make sure we were stocked up because nowhere really opens on a Friday evening or Saturday daytime because of the Jewish Shabbat. We found a small bar with a really friendly owner and enjoyed a few beers; it was also the bars opening day and so we enjoyed free shots and this delicious, spiced, fish filled pitta. It turned out to be a great find.

Jason cooked a lovely evening meal and we sat out and enjoyed it on our balcony. After we had meal one of the flat mates told us what area to go to for a drink in the evening (as most places are closed) and we enjoyed a German beer sat outside the Old City gates. It was weird seeing a very modern city completely closed down on what is usually a busy friday night out.

As everywhere is shut on a Saturday, we had a quiet morning in the flat getting ready for our flight to Turkey. We were just about to breakfast on our balcony when the drain pipe fell off and gathered waste went everywhere. It was a good job it didnt happen the night before as J was sat directly under it. It proved expensive arranging transport to the airport as none of the buses run either, so instead we arranged a taxi pickup. The taxi arrived on time...let's catch a flight to Turkey.

Posted by bloorsontour 10:56 Archived in Israel Comments (3)

Wadi Rum and Aqaba

Camping under the stars


From Petra we took a taxi to Wadi Rum. We arrived at 4ish, just in time for a 2 hour Jeep tour and view of the sunset. The Jeep tour took us from the Bedouin village, around Wadi Rum desert, to the sand dune, to a natural gorge with ancient writing on the rocks and finally arrived at our campsite. Jason decided to take the opportunity to get fit and run up the dune, and instead I leisurely (but with difficulty) walked up it to take in the amazing landscape of Wadi Rum. The views are spectacular.

Our camp was positioned in the shade of a huge rock, a stunning location! It was with Bedouin Lifestyle and the new facilities had only been open one week. We had lovely brand new showers with hot water and cozy double bedded tents. A short walk from our camp there was a rocky outcrop that was the perfect viewing spot for sunset. We were the only ones there and we sat and watched the sun go down over the desert. Breathtaking!

After sunset we arrived back at the camp and joined a few others to sit around a fire, drink tea and listen to traditional Jordanian music on the lute. The Bedouins had cooked up a real treat for our evening meal. They'd placed chicken, onions and tomatoes in a big metal drum and buried it in the sand over some burning embers for hours. They then dug it up in front of us and there we had our feast for the evening. It was really tasty. After the meal we sat outside, smoked a shisha pipe, listened to more music and took in the sky above us. We were lucky to have a full moon and so the desert was really bright all night, you didn't need a torch. Jason had a star gazing app on his phone and we struggled to work out the constellations. I saw my first shooting star...another amazing day in Jordan.

The next day we woke to a beautiful bright morning in the desert, a feast for breakfast and a camel ride. Ha...the camel ride was a bumpy and smelly experience. I'm glad we only chose to pay to go on it for a short while, whereas there was a couple of girls in our camp that were going on a two day trek across the desert on one...not the comfiest mode of transport. There were plenty of tour options you could have done in Wadi Rum, unfortunately they were out of our price range (I.e. sand boarding, more Jeep tours, trekking sleeping under the stars). Maybe next time...

We moved on to our last stop in Jordan, Aqaba. It's a beach side resort area in the Red Sea. We booked into a cracking little hotel, called Cedar Hotel. They gave us complimentary drinks on arrive, a fruit basket in our room and were really helpful. Unfortunately Jason picked up a stomach bug so we just sat by a pool and relaxed for a couple of days. The Red Sea has a good coral reef and so we invested in a snorkel set each. The fish were really bright and clear, its a shame we didn't have an underwater camera...but I think I know what's on Jason's wish list.

The reason we chose to go to Aqaba was because there's a quiet border crossing into Israel from here...so next stop is a whistle stop tour of Jerusalem.

Posted by bloorsontour 05:44 Archived in Jordan Comments (2)

Petra, Jordan

Magical Petra


The only public bus to Petra leaves Amman at 6.30am, so it was a very early start for us as we had to be at the bus station before that to ensure that we got a ticket. The bus takes you directly to the visitor centre entrance, so often people do it as a day trip from Amman.

Its 50JD for a one day Petra pass or 55JD for two days, so we opted for the two...and glad we did because there's so much to see. From the visitor centre to the Treasury monument there's a 2km walk through a natural gorge, it's a great first impression... with reminants of sculptures hidden in the rock and then, the most famous Petra view of all, the glimpse of the Treasury appears round a corner through a gap in the rocks. Spectacular, it doesn't disappoint. Petra was so quiet when we went that Jason managed to get the brochure shot of the Treasury without any crowds and with a camel perfectly placed in front.

It was really hot and a lot of the site is more of a hike than a stroll. You have to take regular rests and soak up the views. Or, you can opt to go round on a donkey, mule or camel for a fee. There's lots of ruins built into the red rock and you can get a sense of what the ancient town would have looked like all those years ago. It never felt busy, we could soon find ourselves a step to sit on and be by ourselves to admire the view.

After making our way up over the rocky path, we reached the monastery. This was my favourite of all the sites at Petra. It's huge! When we first got there there was a Bedouin boy climbing and jumping over it...and I thought "crazy"! Not knowing at the time, that later we'd follow a crazy Bedouin to an even higher point of the Monastery to watch the sunset. There's a perfectly placed cafe opposite the Monastery where we stopped to have a drink and started chatting to a local Bedouin. He told us a lot about his life, working in Petra, the Bedouin way, it was really interesting. He said he'd take us to the best place to watch the sunset...and it really was! If you look at our photographs, there's a dome shape at the top middle of the Monastery ruin...well that's where we sat to watch the sun go down! Again, I had a little vertigo episode (probably made worse by the boy that decided to balance near the edge and on the very top of the Monastery spire), but it was worth it! This had been one of my best days so far.

I hadn't quite sussed out how we were going to leave the Petra site once the sun had gone down and we were in pitch black...the only answer was by mule! We relied on a group of Bedouins to help us get back; although Jason had to run alongside in the dark because he was worried about being allergic to the fur. We got taken back to the Bedouin village where we had a cup of tea. A great end to a perfect day!

We only stayed in Petra for half a day the next day because we were shattered from our previous day's adventure. We hiked up to the High Point for amazing views of the site...you could see for miles and it highlighted new areas that we hadn't explored yet. It's breathtaking, honestly one of the most beautiful and interesting sites/parks I've been too. I could have spent hours just sitting, perched on top of the mountain, taking in the views. There must be so much more we could have seen if we'd had more time to explore.

Our hotel was really nice too, AlAnbat Hotel. The staff were really friendly, there was a pool, they cooked great food, and more importantly there was an onsite Turkish bath. After all that walking, we figured we needed a treat. We loved it...a steam room, a man to scrub you down and then sud you up with soap, then a full body massage, followed by jacuzzi and apple juice. Amazing! It was a little off putting when the man showed us how much dead skin he'd managed to scrub away...there was a lot!

My descriptions don't do justice to Petra. I hope you get an idea from our photographs how spectacular it is. We will continue to recommended Jordan, and especially Petra, to everyone we meet. Truely magical!

Posted by bloorsontour 08:34 Archived in Jordan Comments (2)

The Dead Sea, Karak and Madaba

A little bit of luxury and a Nissan Sunny

We'd debated whether to hire a car for the whole of our Jordan trip, but instead opted for 3 days in case we didn't like it and we'd also heard that you could get to tourist sites relatively easily on public transport.

We'd got a night booked at the Crown Plaza, Dead Sea, as a little treat using Jason's hotel points he'd collected whilst working away in the UK. To make the most of our day of luxury we dashed down to the Dead Sea in our little Nissan Sunny and managed to check in early. Wow...it was amazing...first, an upgrade to a sea view room, then a chauffeur in a golf buggy to our room (as the place was huge), then free mini bar , then a knock on the door with a present of free baklava, then free mud minerals on the beach, amazing pool and the sun was shining. I was in my element. After all this travelling a little bit of luxury was greatly appreciated. Apart from the sun bathing we really didn't do a lot, but we would definitely recommend the Dead Sea as an experience. It's so weired! There is nothing you can do to sink and Jason tried his best to push me down in the water but I just popped straight back up again. You can't swim because your feet end up floating above the surface so you can never kick to get anywhere. It gave us a lot of entertainment. In order to get the best Dead Sea mineral experience for your skin you are supposed to soak in the water and then apply the mud until it dries and then dip back in the sea to wash it all off. We followed this advice, but not sure we look 10 years younger for doing so...?

Jason did all of the driving and made the most of quiet, winding roads that take you through the desert and mountains (I think he secretly quite liked the Nissan Sunny). It was great to take in the scenery, stop when you wanted to and go to wherever you decided...we spent a night in Karak. It was a very quite town and had a budget hotel for us to stay in (a bit of a downgrade from our previous room). We tried to eat locally and sought out the busiest place in the town...a kebab house. I was disappointed with my meal, which was basically a chicken and cheap cheese sandwich, but Jason's BBQ chicken and veg with pitta was much nicer. Karak has a castle, which was why we chose to go there, because Jason likes castles. The castle was OK, not kept in the best condition for a tourist site, but it did have great views of Jordan's desert landscape and we virtually had it all to ourselves.

The next stop in the car was Madaba, which is about one hour south of Amman. It's famous for its mosaic pavements and an old mosaic map of the Holy Land and religious sites across the Middle East before borders were made. The mosaics themselves are very impressive considering their age, however the Mosaic Park is a rip off considering half of the sites weren't open when we went...nevermind. We did visit a nice church, which had a bell tower you could climb to get a view. Dad, it would seem that I have your gene for fear of heights after all. I started to climb the tower, thinking nothing of it, but then looked up at the huge bells ahead of me and got very dizzy and couldn't take a step further. Jason made it to the top and informed me that I'd missed out on a cracking view...oh dear. I hope this doesn't become an issue for me...

The Nissan Sunny had successfully made it around the Dead Sea, Karak and Madaba and it was time to head back to Amman for another Hasheem restaurant fill...yummy!

Posted by bloorsontour 01:59 Archived in Jordan Comments (3)

Amman, Jordan

"Welcome to Jordan"

DSC_0347_1.jpgDSC_0280_1.jpg86B00371FBDEFF43BAAC63EBFB3F3673.jpgDSC_0285_1.jpgDSC_0286_1.jpgDSC_0290_1.jpgDSC_0293_1.jpg86C4BA5F966BACC3A81EF2197ACEE6C4.jpgDSC_0287_1.jpgDSC_0305_1.jpg86C96D27E9C195934B37A0B388612D5D.jpgDSC_0314_1.jpgDSC_0311_1.jpgDSC_0313_1.jpgDSC_0317_1.jpgDSC_0326_1.jpgDSC_0334_1.jpgDSC_0341_2.jpgDSC_0342_2.jpg86E7C871C69FC997E82966F54D444AFD.jpgDSC_0365_1.jpgDSC_0370_1.jpgDSC_0368_1.jpg86FDE69DA4F1B04EAAC0A48A80A0D6CB.jpgDSC_0373_1.jpgDSC_0382_1.jpg87001FD5C3E58166DA49B8231582B90D.jpgDSC_0387_1.jpg270_DSC_0394.jpg87048F6CA748990CEAAB43459AC56AA0.jpg270_DSC_0379.jpg"Welcome to Jordan" (everybody greets you with this). This vibe started at the airport when the information desk man went that extra mile to make sure we got to our hotel, gave us information about car hire and was generally very smiley & helpful. It then continued with our taxi man who was exceptionally friendly, and then our hotel receptionist too. In fact, its everywhere...beautiful Jordanians. A very good first impression to this amazing country.

Our hotel was in downtown Amman, where all the locals do business, go to mosque, eat and socialise. It's a refreshing change from Asia, a completely different feel and new culture to get excited about. The eery call to prayer rings out over the city, theres new food to explore and the smell of shisha pipes in the air. As you walk down the street everybody says "Welcome to Jordan". There was no time to sleep off the jet lag, instead we wanted to explore.

Our first visit was a food stop at Jafra restaurant... delicious! We sat out on the terrace to people watch and feasted on halloumi, spiced green beans, pitta and lamb pieces in houmus. I was in my element. Jason has also found a taste for Jordan coffee, served strong and infused with cardamon. A lovely anniversary meal.

We then headed down to the souk, the mosque and explored the ancient amphitheatre that sits in the heart of downtown Amman. We spent a good amount of time just sitting in the amphitheatre, soaking up the atmosphere and surroundings. The landscape is hilly and the houses line steep streets that make way for the amphitheatre at the bottom. We wandered up through the sand coloured streets that occasionally had a brightly coloured piece of art painted onto buildings in stark contrast and reached the top, the Amman citadel. By the time we got there it was probably about 5.30pm and we virtually had the place to ourselves. There are interesting ruins, but more impressive than that is the view. Amman looks beautiful at sunset. We sat and watched the sun go down, cast shadows over the ruins, listen to family parties in the streets and the call to prayer.

The next day we hopped on a local bus to Jaresh, an hour north of Amman and Jordan's second tourist attraction. And again, we were virtually the only ones there. We had a brilliant day exploring the ancient ruins of this city. It compared to Pompeii in Italy and Ephesus in Turkey, but in some ways more impressive as you didn't have to fight your way through the tourists and instead take in the enormity of this ancient city and how it used to be. I hope the photos do it justice...

It's such a shame...many people have told us that tourism has dramatically dropped due to the recent unrest in the Middle East. Jordan borders Syria, Israel and Egypt, all of which have bee, or are still at war, yet Jordan is a very peaceful country and nobody should be put off by its neighbours unrest.

Our second day was topped off with a cracking evening meal. It was a table of salad, pita, houmus, falafel and drinks for two all for just £2.40...bargain. It's Hasheem restaurant and its always packed with locals. There's not an extensive menu, but their falafal is the best we've ever had.

A brilliant first two days here and we're looking forward to hiring a car to explore the country ourselves tomorrow.

Posted by bloorsontour 04:53 Archived in Jordan Comments (2)

Hong Kong

A city with everything

DSC_0216_1.jpgDSC_0217_2.jpgDSC_0223_1.jpgDSC_0227_1.jpgDSC_0235_1.jpgDSC_0240_1.jpg5502890F91B52B0C2922CF1B5A5561B5.jpg5505FB089C3EB22A6BFA5021067A19C4.jpg55072DB5AAC7BFFC3B1349CD64CCCB95.jpg55093AC9DE1CD60DACAC9916AC7FFEEF.jpg550AF2C50B7E6ED998253C0B56B723E0.jpgDSC_0254_1.jpg55129632979A4D7E4669055563649798.jpgDSC_0261_1.jpg5515D8EF08FF6C61FA8EF09CD832B4BE.jpgDSC_0259_1.jpg55193375FAEEE6C2B0BAA8D4DE711F4B.jpgDSC_0273_1.jpgDSC_0278_1.jpgWe loved Hong Kong, think Jason could see himself living and working there. There's a little bit of everything...

We'd booked ourselves into a little guesthouse in the heart of Kowloon, literally in the middle of all of the hustle and bustle. We stayed within the Mirador Mansion building, but there's also Chungking Mansion which is similar. They're worth visiting anyway...a collection of counterfeit goods, Indian food stalls, dodgy guesthouses and locals flats. When we first arrived we both thought "oh no, where have we booked?!". We had to work our way to the fourth floor and asked numerous people where to go through the maze tower block...we found our room and it was actually nice and clean (if a little small). The mansion block was really busy when we left our room, people hanging out over the edge of the balconys, peering down at the police below. We wondered what was going on and then Jason pointed out a small tent and when we asked a local lady she informed us that a lady had thrown herself off the top of the tower block right in the middle of the building in everyone's view...grim! What a first welcome to Hong Kong.

Once we'd got over the shock of what was on our doorstep we went exploring around Kowloon. There are lots of shops and restaurants, very busy and VERY expensive. Hong Kong was going to stretch our purse. In some respects its like shopping at home, with good old Marks & Spencer and other familiar UK stores. We had heard that there was some of the best food to be had in Hong Kong, unfortunately not much of it was in our budget. We managed to find a little cafe that served us prawn wontons in noodle soup and chutney pork & noodles. Later in the evening we walked along the avenue of stars...a bit like the Hollywood stars,but with an amazing skyline view. It's worth going to this area for the view and we heard that at 8pm the skyscrapers put on a free light show. We missed it on Kowloon side and it wasn't very impressive from the other side of the sea, Hong Kong side. Nevermind...maybe next time.

Luckily for us I'd managed to save some points and got us two free nights accommodation at a nice hotel, the Cosmopolitan Hotel, on Causeway side of Hong Kong. It was really nice, and I was particularly desperate to get out of our other accommodation. In our room we had a free smart phone with information about tourist atractions , restaurants and transport. The phone also meant we could phone the UK for free so got to catch up with those that don't use Skype and my brother on his birthday.

Causeway and Central side of Hong Kong were fantastic, I liked it here a lot. There's an area with an escalator that goes right up through the skyscrapers and through cute little streets filled with gorgeous restaurants. I'm not sure how long we can keep using the 'its nearly our anniversary' card, but we treated ourselves to an Italian meal complete with a lovely glass of prosecco! I could have spent days window shopping and eating at different restaurants. Due to our budget we got a bottle of wine from M&S food and took it back to our hotel to enjoy...its a lot cheaper than Hong Kong restaurant prices.

Hong Kong is very busy, so it was nice to get away from it all and catch a ferry to Lamma Island for some beach time. We thought it might be busy because we chose to go on the weekend, but because Asian people generally don't like sunbathing the beach was relatively quiet. We'd both been nominated for the ice bucket challenge and it had caused us a bit of a problem. However problem solved...a hot beach and a refreshing bucket of ice water to cool us down...perfect. I think if we had moremore time we would have spent time exploring the different islands, apparently the islands have some good trekking routes on the coast.

Our last night in Hong Kong and we wanted to enjoy it...Lan Kwai Fong is the place to be. There are loads of bars and restaurants; we had a delicious Thai meal. The nightlife spills onto the streets and it can be relatively inexpensive if you want it to be (which we did). The local 7Eleven shop turns into a bar itself, where you queue to get your beers from out of the shop fridge to drink on the street outside the pricey bars. We were happy as we found a place showing Premier League football. It was a great night and Jason had a hangover to match.

Asia has been incredible, but now it's time to head to the middle east... can't wait! Asia, we'll see you in November.

Posted by bloorsontour 23:27 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Shanghai, China

Cocktails with a view


We flew from Beijing to Shanghai and arrived at our hostel at 1am...I'm now starting to get really tired from our busy travelling schedule in China. We have both agreed that after Istanbul in October we're going to start taking things a lot slower. Jason was not impressed with Spring Airlines...he'd bought a large bottle of gin and had put it in his hold luggage and they said he couldn't take it on the plane...this was a new rule to us and none of the information signs had anything about this on either. He was gutted!

Sightseeing time. There's an area of Shanghai called the French Concession and it's very busy, trendy, filled with boutique shops, bars and restaurants. We spent the morning just wandering around the area, general people watching and grabbed a huge burger...delicious! We were both really tired and flagging, so went back to our room for a well needed afternoon nap. Feeling revitalised, we went for a walk along the famous Shanghai riverfront, the Bund, at night and the Pudong skyline really was spectacular. The Oriental Pearl Tower is the iconic tripod structure that takes pride of place and then there's the Jinmao Tower too that are illuminated in a changing aray of colours. There's also a new skyscraper being built too that looks like its going to tower over all of them in the future.

We ate at a local Chinese restaurant for our evening meal because we felt guilty that we'd had a burger earlier. It consisted of sizzling beef and oyster greens with rice. It was nice,but Jason was even more impressed that there was a local bakery that only sold Portuguese custard tarts that he loved when we were on honeymoon there. I lost count how many he had.

We had a really chilled day in Shanghai on our last day. For anybody that skyped us on that afternoon you will know that we spent it taking advantage of the happy hour in a bar we found. It was buy on get one free...who could resist?! Plus they served amazingly huge pizzas. As it was nearly our 2nd year anniversary we decided to treat ourselves to a drink with a view at night...the 87th floor of the Jinmao Tower, Cloud9 bar. It was simply spectacular...the other buildings looked like toy houses they were that far away. I had a lychee margarita and Jason had a Manhattan...I thought it was worth every penny. It's worth knowing that the Cloud9 bar is there as it was £16 for two cocktails in a beautiful bar on the 87th floor rather than paying £12 each to go to the observation deck on the 88th floor. It was a perfect end to our 5 weeks in China.

Posted by bloorsontour 00:37 Archived in China Comments (3)


Temples, hutongs and a massive wall

DSC_1094_1.jpgDSC_1099_1.jpgDSC_1110_1.jpgDSC_1105_1.jpgDSC_1113_1.jpgDSC_1119_1.jpgDSC_1121_1.jpgDSC_1122_1.jpgDSC_1128_1.jpgDSC_1130_1.jpgDSC_1133_1.jpgDSC_1134_1.jpgDSC_1141_1.jpgDSC_1147_1.jpgDSC_1146_1.jpgDSC_1158_1.jpgDSC_1165_1.jpgDSC_1171_1.jpgDSC_1237_1.jpgDSC_1238_1.jpg81EF99AEE86EFC535E8AB7D125B45FCE.jpgDSC_1247_1.jpgDSC_1277_1.jpgDSC_1251_1.jpgDSC_1258_1.jpgDSC_1268_1.jpgDSC_1271_1.jpgDSC_1273_1.jpgDSC_1287_1.jpgDSC_1279_1.jpgDSC_1283_1.jpg8216D058CDEEF323078F8A3BCABADA52.jpgDSC_1288_2.jpgDSC_1282_1.jpgDSC_1193.jpg8231F4D1EE124713A6E1CB4B2F520AA7.jpgDSC_1182_1.jpgDSC_1189_1.jpgDSC_1199_1.jpgDSC_1201_1.jpgDSC_1217_1.jpgDSC_1213_1.jpgDSC_1206_1.jpgDSC_1172_1.jpgDSC_1178_1.jpgDSC_1185_1.jpgDSC_1219_1.jpgDSC_1190_1.jpgWe arrived in Beijing after an overnight train and pulled into Beijing train station. After a fair bit of confusion in our delirious state, we realised we were actually at Beijing west. After an hour of walking and subwaying in the Beijing rush hour with huge bags and the general Chinese lack of personal space awareness, we made it to the hotel to be told to come back 4hrs later... fairly exhausted, we walked around the area we were staying (by the Lama Temple) and paid an extortionate amount for a coffee and cake at Costa - the only place open.

Our room at the Grand Hotel du Palais Rouge (a ridiculously grand name considering it seemed to be run by 2 young girls who shared the 24hr manning of reception, breakfast duty and we suspect the massage service) was nice and very Chinese. Only downside was the lack of segregation between bedroom and bathroom- not romantic! The staff generally responded "no" to every question, bit they did do it with a smile so not as bad as some of the other Chinese service that we'd been used to...

Enough of the domestic arrangements, once we caught up on a little sleep we got out exploring and started to love it. Behind our hotel was a cool hutong with all sorts of cafés, restaurants, bars and shops. There was even a homemade sausage restaurant called Stuff'd which served the best sausage that I have ever had! We also frequented a food hall a few times on the main shopping street where you can choose food from stalls specialising in different regional specialities and it is pretty cheap. I treated myself to a few new threads and also stocked up on a few electronic essentials. Sophie trawled the cosmetic counters and we had some minor disagreements about the price one can put on maintaining rosy cheeks...

On the eve of our first night in Beijing we headed to Tianamen Square. I hadn't noticed the smog too much but as the sun went down the bright orange sun disappeared and our eyes burned a little. We were accosted for photos numerous times, but spent some time people watching in peace. Seeing the deadpan expressions as they took the hundredth selfy of the hour and watching families in matching outfits cavort around with kites and streamers was pretty entertaining! Note: the deadpan photo of Sophie is a bit of a micky take of the photo culture in China. The square was very closely monitored by the police/army and as darkness descended, those of us remaining on the square were herded off. It was interesting seeing Chinese suppression in action having seen how westernised much of the city is.

Day 2 was the Forbidden City. I expected not to enjoy it, but thought it something we should see. We joined the hordes to enter the palace but managed to go straight to a ticket window and then found plenty of spots away from the crowds. The complex is huge and pretty impressive and far more enjoyable than expected. I tried to teach Sophie the Wil Poole method of fast walking, but she wasn't willing to give it a proper go... After the forbidden city we wandered around and came upon a bustling hutong, complete with cheap giant mojito stall - an excellent find!

Day 3 was something I'd been looking forward to for a long time; the Great Wall. I was hoping that it would live up to expectations and spent a while looking for the best way to see it. Areas such as Badaling have been restored and converted into theme park type attractions with huge number of tourists trampling around, cable cars and the usual Chinese approach to mass tourism. We found a few other options with complicated transport arrangements, but settled on joining a local walking group: Beijing Hikers. The other walkers were locals and expats, they spoke English and were really well organised. It did cost £35 but was well worth the money! The walk set off at quite a pace and Soph wasn't too impressed. One of the walkers was in full trail running attire and did running drills when we stopped... Not sure she quite appreciated what a hike should entail. Our view is that it involves WALKING, eating, surveying the scene and a general sense of wellbeing. Anyway,she gave us plenty of entertainment as well as something to moan about and we walked at the pace we wanted to so she just had to wait. The views from the wall were better than I imagined, stretching out as far as we could see (a long way on a perfect blues sky day), perched on the precipice of mountain ridges. It was fairly hard going with the heat, the changes in elevation and the state of the wall and watchtowers in places. That said, the condition of wall was amazing considering it's age. It was easy to imagine how easily the army would have been able to march right across the tops of mountains; journeying in minutes what would otherwise have taken hours. As you can probably tell, this was one of the highlights of our trip so far for me!

We took things fairly easy the remainder of our 5 days in Beijing, taking in: the Olympic park, the Summer Palace (huge lake, stunning pagodas and thousands of tourists), the Tmple of Heaven (impressive temple and park complex and surprisingly quiet), the Lama Temple (one of the most sacred Tibetan temples outside of Tibet, stunning, busy but with a reverence and refreshing quietness not normally witnessed around Chinese tourists) and lots of food establishments. One of the highlights was Beijing (Peking) duck. We thought they'd made a mistake and brought us 2 as we had so much food but when the bill came it was all one portion...a pleasant surprise. So much so that we treated ourselves to a glass of French red wine at a nice cafe in our hutong.

I was a big fan of Beijing: an interesting mix of east and west, it felt like we only scratched the surface. The weather was also amazing and I was only bothered by the smog on the first night. Sophie did get ill whilst we were there and whilst it would be a candidate for somewhere to live more permanently, I'm not sure it has made Sophie's shortlist...

Posted by bloorsontour 03:17 Archived in China Comments (2)

The Terracotta Warriors and the Muslim Quarter

Xian, China


It's been a flying visit to Xian, just one nights stay here. We felt like the terracotta army was a 'must see' when in China and so made sure we had time to visit it.

The first day we got there we had an afternoon of fooding it up in the Muslim Quarter. It's a series of bustling back streets and alleyways filled with street food,restaurants and shops. Jason was fine,but unusual for me I struggled to find my appetite after having a bout of food poisoning. Jason managed to work his way through squid kebabs, herb filled fried pastries, chilli potatoes and slow cooked lamb burgers. We spent a fair few hours just taking in the atmosphere...groups of men bashing nuts in big pans, people heckling for your custom, neon lights, the smell of bbq'd meats, lots of tourists for people watching. The day after we also came to the Muslim Quarter again for some food,but this time found a highly recommended restaurant for traditional steamed baotzi, which is a sort of rice dumpling filled with beef, that we had with chilli soy dip. Delicious.

We'd been really looking forward to seeing the terracotta army based on a documentary we'd watched at home that presented its history, gradure and advanced technology in detail. Unfortunately it didn't live up to my expectations. I think I'd built up this idea of seeing a huge army up close that had been buried for years, but instead it was a lot of unexcavated broken ruins that had yet to be pieced together. There is no doubt that the army is impressive from an historical point of view and the horses & chariot are particularly incredible, with beautiful detail and colours. However it is extremely busy and you have to fight your way to get a photo and you are quite far away from the ruins in the big pitted arenas. Jason thought it would be a tourist trap and may not live up to expectations and came away impressed. The whole idea of this army being made in so much detail all those years ago to protect Emporer Xin in his afterlife is where its awesomeness lies. All in all it is one of those sights you must see.

Posted by bloorsontour 03:48 Archived in China Comments (2)

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