Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Munro bagger

There are 283 Munros in Scotland (mountains over 3000 ft or 914.4 m) and in my almost 10 years living here you might have thought I'd have made it up at least one by now. But, it actually took until two weeks ago for me to "bag" my first one. However, I thought I'd tackle the biggest one first, so can now tick Ben Nevis off my list. As with all the rivers I've kayaked on I'll post up any new ones I climb and hopefully there won't be another 10 year wait.

There was a small group of us making the climb together, so we made a bit of a Fort William weekend of it by heading up on Friday evening (just making it in time to see most of the Olympic opening ceremony), climbing of Saturday and leaving on Sunday. We stayed at a very nice and new B&B called MacLean House.

On the day of the climb we started with a good breakfast before driving the short way to the car park at the base of the mountain. As well as being the highest of the Munros the Ben Nevis climb also starts from close to sea level meaning you do have to scale the whole height. The weather hadn't promised to be very good, so we just headed up the main route rather than tackling anything more challenging. The ascent was interrupted by showers of varying length with occasional breaks of sunshine that sometimes lasted long enough to dry you off. The showers got noticeably colder as we climbed though. Near the summit there was a lovely break in the clouds, but on reaching the peak the ice cold rain returned and the wind picked up. We got our photo taken, but didn't hang about long!

Soon after starting the decent we found a slightly sheltered stone circle in which to have our lunch. We then attempted to get down as quick as possible. This took its toll on my legs and hips, with the bottom third (after passing the lochan) of uneven rocks being particularly tough. In all we made good time with the doing the climb in about 7 hours.

That evening we dragged ourselves on our aching legs for dinner that the Crannog seafood restaurant. The food was great, but tired I wasn't able to make a big night of it as tiredness over took me.

It feels good to have achieved my first Munro climb and I hope to tackle more in the future, but I nay not take on Ben Nevis again.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Honeymoon: Days 14-16

The Maglev to the airport
23/04/12 - We got up for breakfast and packed before getting a taxi to the Shanghai Maglev station. This train just runs from Shanghai to the Shanghai Pudong International Airport and covers the 30km to the airport in just over 8 minutes. The journey was really smooth and looking at the scenery go past you wouldn't have realised that you were travelling at 431kph - other than the LCD display in the carriage. The airport was very modern and nice and we had no problem getting our flight.

Arriving at Hong Kong we had to queue at immigration, but it didn't take long to get through. We bought ourselves train tickets that would get us too and from the airport and allow us on the underground in Hong Kong during our stay. We then got the train to Kowloon Station. From there there was a shuttle bus that took us to our hotel - it was almost the last stop, so we got to see around Kowloon.

Our room at the Hotel ICON
The hotel we were at was Hotel ICON - a new hotel who's designers included Sir Terence Conran and is ranked very highly on Trip Adviser. It was very impressive on entering, but slightly strange in that the porters were wearing beige combats and tops. We were staying in an executive room, so on going to reception we got whisked away up to the top floor to check-in there instead. They told us that between 4-6pm we got free afternoon tea, and from 7-9pm there were free cocktails and snacks. We went to our room (on the twenty-something-th floor), which had a massive window overlooking the harbour, and were able to check facebook and twitter for the first time of the holiday.

After settling in we went up to the cocktail bar for our free cocktails and filled ourselves up with very nice cheese and biscuits. We then went out to explore a bit. Firstly we went to a restaurant called Lei Garden (on Tsim Sha Tsui) to book dinner for the following night - it was in a bit of a strange location in the basement of a slightly run-down looking shopping arcade, but supposedly did very nice food. We walked to the Peninsula Hotel and then along the Avenue of Stars (like the Hollywood version, but with famous Hong Kong actors and I got photo's of the ones I knew). We then waited around for the famous light show - a laser and light display using a lot of the tall buildings around the harbour. It started raining, but not too heavily and it was still nice and warm, and although the light show was a bit of a let down the view in general was still very good.

We then got the Star Ferry across the bay to Hong Kong island and walked to the covered escalators. We had a look at a variety of bars/restaurants and eventually decided to go in a place that had a beer and pizza deal. We weren't that hungry after filling ourselves with cheese earlier, but it was good pizza. We stayed for another drink and to people watch. When we got back to the hotel we found a bottle of wine and wedding card signed by a lot of the hotel staff in our room. I had a glass before going to bed.

Hong Kong view from the Peak
24/04/12 - We had two options for breakfast in the hotel - downstairs in the main buffet area, or up in the bar where cocktails were served. We decided on the first option and were very impressed, filling up on a lot food.

We got the underground to Hong Kong to go on the Peak Tram. It was busy and I had to stand, which required leaning at quite an angle due to the steepness of the ascent. We followed a route around the peak, which had exercise areas set up around it. It was quite overcast, so there weren't any distant views, but there were still nice views back over the city. We saw lots of interesting butterflies and birds of prey riding the thermals around the peak.

On descending from the Peak we walked to the zoological gardens next to the Government House. Until we got there we hadn't realised there was a zoo, but they had quite a few animals - we saw baby (and adult) orang-utans, various lemurs, monkeys, gibbons, and a raccoon (there was also a ginger cat on the prowl, which seemed to disturb some of the lemurs). After that we had a brief wander around some of Hong Kong, but wanted to get the ferry back to the hotel in time for afternoon tea.

A gibbon in the Botanic Gardens
After some snacks we decided to go for a swim in the hotel pool, which was on the roof above the buffet area. The pool (and changing facilities) were very nice, but the wind had picked up, so it wasn't that warm by the pool. I swam for a bit, but Jen went back inside to the sauna fairly quickly.

We went back for free cocktails, where we chatted one of the staff (who was an American girl who'd studied hospitality and was experiencing working in hotels in China) before heading to dinner at Lei Garden. It was only 9pm, but like in Beijing it seemed that service was almost over as there were very few other tables with people at them and a lot of clearing up was going on. There was a lot of exotic stuff on the menu including sharks fin and birds nest soup, but we played it safe. The service was quite brusque, but the food was decent enough - although not as good as a lot of what we'd had in Beijing.

Cable car on Lantau
25/04/12 - Our final day of honeymoon gave us a full day in Hong Kong before catching our flight just after midnight. We went for breakfast in the upstairs bar area, then got packed and left our luggage at reception. We then got the underground out to Lantau island. We took the cable car up to Ngong Ping villiage where there was a Buddhist monastery and giant Buddha statue. We didn't opt for one of the Crystal Cabins with a glass floor! It was an impressive ride, but quite daunting when the wind picked up. There were good views back down over the airport, but we soon got up into the clouds and couldn't really see anything except the forest below us. The village had tourist attractions and shops, but we walked straight to the Buddha, which required a bit on an ascent up stairs - the cloud hadn't really cleared, so we didn't really see the Buddha until getting up close. It was quite impressively large. We were able to go inside, which had some exhibits about Buddhism and history of the big Buddha's construction in the 1990s.

The Big Buddha in the clouds
After this we wandered over to the monastery and found that there was a display of acrobatics followed by a Shaolin Kung Fu demonstration. This included a guy being lifted on the points of spears and one breaking a metal rod on his head. The temple still had parts under construction and you could pay for new shrines to be dedicated to you. The entry fee to go up to the Buddha included a snack at the monastery (or you could pay more for a larger meal). The snack was in fact rather substantial including some stir fried noodles and vegetables and several sweets. There were a lot of dogs wandering round the temple and village and we spent a couple of minutes petting a puppy. We then went to the bus stop to get a bus down to Tai O, but it wasn't for another half hour, so we managed to catch part of a pogo-ing demonstration by the Pogo Dudes.

When we got the bus the cloud was really thick and visibility was down to a few metres, but we made it down to Tai O fishing village (and out of the cloud cover) safely. The village has large parts constructed on stilts and lots of small alleys. It unsurprisingly smelled quite heavily of fish as most of the shack-like houses had dried fish of many varieties hanging outside of them. There were also a lot of small shrines outside the houses. It was an interesting place. We walked out to what was a former police station (passing a post office with many stray cats outside it waiting to be fed by the postmaster), which had very recently been turned into a fancy hotel.

Tai O fishing village
We got back to the bus stop just in time to catch the bus back to Mui Wo (on the other side of the island) where the ferry ran back to Hong Kong. It was the end of the school day, so the bus was full of kids squeezed into all the seats and sitting along the floor - they were all of varying nationalities and mainly spoke English. The journey took about an hour. We didn't have to wait long for the ferry and once back in Hong Kong we got the Star Ferry back to Kowloon.

Back at the hotel we were still able to use the showers, so we washed and were able to change clothes. We also were still able to get the free cocktails and snacks. We got the shuttle bus to the airport express station where we were able to check-in our luggage and then got the train to the airport. At the airport Jen bought some sunglasses and we went for some dinner at Pizza Express. A thunderstorm had come in over Hong Kong, so planes were being delayed, but it only held up our flight by about an hour.

The flight back was quite uneventful. And that's it!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Honeymoon: Days 11-13

20/04/12 - Our plan was to go to Suzhou, so we got up relatively early to go to the station. We got the underground there, which unlike going to the French Concession required a couple of changes. At the station the ticket hall was very busy with many long queues. We didn't think we'd be able to make the train that we wanted to get, so we decided to abandon going to Suzhou and buy tickets to go on Sunday instead - we bought a ticket (first class on the bullet train again) from the one English speaking ticket office.

Shanghai model in the Urban Planning Exhibition
Our new plan involved some more sightseeing around Shanghai. We firstly went to People's Square to the Urban Planning Exhibition Center. It was a really interesting place full of information on Shanghai's past, present and future. It contained a brilliantly detailed and huge model of the current and future Shanghai. Some highlights of stuff we also saw were: a 360° CGI video flying through parts of Shanghai like the new Pudong Airport and Pudong district; a very good exhibition of comic strip-like drawings of Shanghai street scenes by an artist called He Youzhi (or Frank He); a cartoon video about "socialistic villages" (planned rural villages, towns and cities, so the farmers don't all move into the current major cities) featuring a water droplet character called Little Drip; and a display of communist party posters from the past 90 years.

Street market in Shanghai old town
For lunch we initially bought food from a van in People's Square and went into a grassy area where lots of locals were having lunch. But, the food was a bit too greasy to eat much of, so we then went to bakery in nearby mall instead. From there we walked to Yu Garden in the old town. It was really busy with tourists and people trying to sell Rolex watches. It was all a bit much, so we didn't stay long. Despite Jen being tired we decided to try a walk around old city from our guide book. It was much nicer once we got away from Yu Garden. The walk took us along street with good markets (live eels and fish in tubs were being sold). We also found a pet market selling birds, cats, dogs, fish, turtles and insects (and probably a lot more besides). At the end of the walk there were a few of the traditional-style Shanghai stone tenement buildings, or shikumen. We then walked back to hotel via pedestrianised part of Nanjing Road East shopping street.

We rested at the hotel for a bit before heading back to the French Concession for dinner - this time getting a taxi having walked enough during the day. At the hotel we'd tried booking online at a Malaysian restaurant, but didn't hear whether we had a table (we had an email from them confirming the booking when we got back to the hotel later). So, instead went to small vegetarian restaurant we'd passed the other night - the food was simple, but not bad. At this point it started raining hard, but we walked the short way back to O'Malleys for a pint. There was a band made up of American ex-pats playing. We then got a taxi back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel we decided to have a drink at the bar. There were a couple of old guys in the bar on their laptops - they were part of a big school reunion for the Shanghai American School that was being hosted at the hotel - but otherwise no-one else was in the bar. We found a guest book in the bar that we wrote a message in, but oddly most of the entries in the book were from single men thanking "the girls" - this seemed rather odd as the bar didn't seem to employ lots of barmaids. This made more sense later on when we discovered that the "karaoke" that some sites claimed was available at the hotel (and we'd not found any sign of) is generally a front for prostitution!

21/04/12 - We had a long lie in and lunch of sandwiches and crisps in the hotel cafe. We then got the underground to the French Concession again to do another of the guided walks from our guidebook (although to mix things up we walked it in the opposite direction!) The walk took us through Fuxing Park where we saw a crowd around a band, old people playing with diablo's and kite flyers. Near the park there were lots of fancy newly built properties. We went through a set of narrow alleys (Tianzifang) filled with boutique shops and cafes that, had we known about it before, would have been a nice place to go in the evening. The walk ended up going through an area with lots of arty cafes with bookshops and galleries. We also passed a Scottish coffee shop(!) housed in a former Russian Orthodox church.

For dinner that evening we'd booked at a fancy restaurant called M on the Bund, which overlooked the Huangpu River and Pudong. The starter and main meal were very nice, but it was the puddings that stood out and were amazing. We had a platter containing small versions of each of the desserts and they were all lovely. We finished the evening with a couple of cocktails. The place we also good for people watching and trying to work out the relationships of the other diners.

A Maitreya Buddha at the Beisi Pagoda
22/04/12 - We got up early again to get our train to Suzhou. The train was a slightly different make to the one that we'd got from Hangzhou, but was just as nice and fast. Suzhou is supposedly a big tourist destination, but when we got to Suzhou station it's an understatement to say it wasn't very tourist friendly. There were lots of people touting guided tours, but we had a basic map in our guidebook and thought we'd find our own way. This proved problematic and it took us at least half an hour to find our way from the station to something we recognised on our map - this was partly because there were no better maps in the station to show the way and also because between the station and town centre there was a massive building site.

Once we got heading in the right direction we also discovered that the city was bigger than we'd thought and it took quite a while to walk between the sites. It was also very hot. The first major site we came to was the Beisi Ta pagoda, which we climbed to the top of. This gave us good views of the city, but the air quality wasn't great, so you couldn't see that far. We then walked down to the Humble Administrators Garden, where we got ourselves ice lollies to cool down. It was very busy with tour groups, but was quite pretty. After another long walk we saw a sign for another garden (the Couple's Retreat Garden, which was another World Heritage Site), which took us slightly off the main road. This only had a few tourists in it, so felt a lot calmer.

The Humble Administrators Garden
We then had to head back to the main road and found our way to Pingjiang Road. This road followed along the canal and was most like the Suzhou Street we'd seen at the Summer Palace in Beijing. It was busy, but nice along the canal, and the street was lined with little cafes and shops. We stopped for sandwiches (and a beer for me) in an American-style bar, but we couldn't hang about as we had a long walk back to the station and wanted to try and see one last site. We managed to walk down to the Shuang Ta (double pagodas), but just saw it and then turned back to head to the station. We walked past an underground station, which we thought might get us back to the station, but it seemed that the underground system was still being built, so it was no use. The walk back, which took us through the main shopping street, was quite hot and exhausting, so the coolness of the station was very welcome. It was very busy at the station, so it was nice to get on the train and relax again. I think to properly explore Suzhou it would have been sensible to get a tour guide with a car and maybe stay a couple of days to get more of a flavour of the place.

When we got back to Shanghai we just went back to the mall on Nanjing Road East and went to a Japanese noodle fast food place. It was a very pleasant evening in Shanghai with clearer air then before and nice temperature, so the walk back to the hotel was nice. I also got some final pictures of wedding photo shoots.

Honeymoon: Days 9-10 (Shanghai)

The bullet train
18/04/12 - On Wednesday we were travelling to Shanghai. Jen was starting to feel better, but still had a sore throat. We had the good breakfast buffet again and then went back to the room to finish packing. We then got a taxi to the train station. At the station we had to go through security, with an X-ray scanner checking our luggage. We'd got there in plenty of time, so had to hang about for 45 mins before the train departure. They didn't allow you to wait on the platform for the train, so we waited in a departure lounge, which gradually got busier and busier. About 5 mins before departure we were allowed through the barriers to the platform. There were a lot of people, but the (bullet) train was so big it didn't seem too busy. We didn't need to worry anyway as we had seats reserved in first class. The seats were huge and were able to recline quite far, and the atmosphere in the carriage was nice and calm (especially compared to trains in the UK). Looking out the window during the journey we noticed that there was barely any countryside between Hangzhou and Shanghai, with the only agriculture in the form of some poly tunnels. The trip took just over an hour and a half.

On getting to Shanghai station we were initially thinking that we'd get the underground to our hotel, but after wandering around the massive station for a bit we decided it was probably a better idea to get a taxi.
Our hotel room in the Astor House hotel
Our hotel in Shanghai was the Astor House hotel - established in 1846 it was the first Western operated hotel in all of China and has had many uses over the years, and many famous residents (including Albort [sic] Einstein). It was a lovely colonial-style building and had a good feel about it - definitely a lot more character than the Hyatt in Hangzhou. They didn't have the room we'd originally booked, but (as in Beijing) we got put in a far bigger room instead - it was huge! It was obviously very recently renovated and other rooms on the corridor were still being done up - in fact the first two rooms on the corridor were being operated as offices for businesses! After settling in we briefly explored the hotel - during this we encountered the first (of many) Shanghai wedding photo shoots. On leaving the hotel we saw more wedding photos on the bridge opposite the hotel - this proved to be a very popular location for photos. [These photo shoots did seem very elaborate and lasted for hours without any obvious sign of the rest of the wedding party and with the brides dresses often pinned. We later found out that a lot of couples have their photos taken months in advance of their weddings, so they can use the images on the day itself.] It was drizzling a bit and quite overcast, but we had a brief wander up and down the Bund (the main promenade along the west of the Huangpu River) to get our bearings.

Despite the day of travelling we weren't feeling tired (I suppose we'd only had a short train ride to deal with) and decided to be a bit more adventurous by heading for dinner in the French Concession, which required an underground journey. The Shanghai underground was more comprehensive than the one in Beijing, but also a bit more expensive (maybe an extra 10p!). It wasn't quite as obvious how to buy a ticket from the machine as rather than the single fare that existed in Beijing there were different fares depending on the destination (and the machine required the correct change, which we didn't have, so we had to go and buy a drink [and cake] to get some coins), but we figured it out and bought the correct tickets. The underground was still very modern and clean.

In the French Concession it took a couple of minutes to get our bearings and work out which side of the road we were on on our map. Once we'd sorted that out we decided to head to The Boxing Cat Brewery (the best microbrewery in Shanghai), where we had beer and burgers (including a pint of Glasgow Kiss Scotch Ale). The rain had picked up, but we decided to explore a bit more and headed for another drink at Abbey Road (which was so busy that we had to sit outside on a table with an umbrella), and then another at a huge Irish Bar by the US consulate called O'Malleys. In general around the French Concession, due to the large number of consulates there were a lot of non-Chinese people and a lot of English being spoken - the area felt far more western in general and compared to Beijing there were far more pubs!

The Sightseeing Tunnel
19/04/12 - Today was going to be a day of sightseeing - starting off with the Sightseeing Tunnel! This is a tunnel under the Huangpu going from the Bund to Pudong (the financial district) - it consists of a small carriage that takes you on a "journey through the Earth" consisting of a mental psychedelic light show. It cost far more than it should do (especially when compared to the price of the ferry), but it was an experience, and the epic surrealness meant that it had to be done - just the once though! The tunnel complex also had lots of other kitschy exhibitions, but we decided that the tunnel itself was enough for us. Prior to taking the tunnel we'd briefly wandered down the Bund to find the location of a restaurant we planned to go to. During this walk we were accosted by two girls asking us to take their photo and then chatting about where we were from - eventually they asked us what we were doing that day and whether we wanted to join them for a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. Our guidebook had warned us about these being scams to bilk tourists out of large sums of money, so we declined and walked on. Once this had happened we spotted many other pairs doing similar things to other tourists.

The Jinmao Tower from the SWFC observation deck
Pudong is full of skyscapers and we had tickets to go up to the top of the (currently) tallest one in China - the 101 storey Shanghai World Financial Center, or the bottle opener as it is sometimes known due to the hole at its top (this is soon surpassed in the tallest building category by the under-construction Shanghai Tower). Going up to the observation deck was another surreal experience, which felt like we were travelling into some futuristic sci-fi universe. On going into the entrance to the lift up to the observation deck we were the only people there and were greeted by three women wearing identical futuristic clothes who guided us through slick and sparce white rooms to a model of Pudong, which featured a lit-up night time mode with a firework display. We were then led into the lift, which was a creamy white colour, with smoothed corners and a pulsating light on the ceiling. It felt like we were ascending into a space ship, and the longer we didn't see anyone else the more strange it got. The ride was very quick and smooth and when we arrived at the floor 100 observatory the sci-fi illusion was broken as we encountered other regular looking tourists (and a cleaner). It was quite misty, so we couldn't see that far, but it was still very impressive being that high. There were some glass panels on the floor that I walked over, but Jen wasn't so keen.

The tunnel in the Shanghai Aquarium
After the tower we headed to the Aquarium via a fancy supermarket in the IFC Mall (to get washing powder to clean our clothes). The aquarium was impressive and had a very long underwater tunnel - as would be expected we saw a variety of fish, sharks, turtles, seals etc, but the penguin exhibit was closed. We then walked down to the ferry terminal (which was further than we expected) to cross back to the Bund.

For dinner we went to a mall on Nanjing Road East. After checking out all the food options we decided on a Japanese BBQ banquet place, because it had an all-you-can-eat (and drink) option. We weren't sure of the etiquette of ordering, so we started out not getting that much food, but after seeing others ordering a lot more we happily got extra (although there was some confusion with one of the dishes, which I wasn't sure if I'd ordered and sent away, but it turned out is was mine). The food was very nice, especially the strips of beef.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Honeymoon: Days 7-8 (Hangzhou)

16/04/12 - We got a private car rather than taxi from our hotel in Beijing to the airport for out trip to Hangzhou [Hangzhou, which is relatively near Shanghai, is reputed to be one of the most beautiful cities in China and is a popular tourist destination for the locals]. It was with a guy who was hanging about outside the hotel who's main job was doing private tours, but had time before his first tour group to do an airport run. He spoke excellent English and was very chatty - he said that we should go to Xi'an (probably best know for the Terracotta warriors), where he'd studied, if we got the opportunity as it had the best sites from the ancient dynasties. Unfortunately it wasn't on our schedule, and having done a lot of historical sites we were quite looking forward to seeing different things.

We were in Terminal 2 of the airport and it was quiet and easy to get through security. They had free wifi too, which Jen made use of. After boarding the plane on time we were then told it was delayed due to a lack of take off slots being available. So, we got fed before take-off, but we didn't really eat much of the unappetising looking chicken and rice dish.

We weren't too delayed in getting to Hangzhou airport, which again was a new and modern looking building. From there we got a taxi to take us to our hotel on West Lake. In general the surroundings were much greener and less dry than Beijing. But, like in Beijing there were loads of building sites en-route, mainly for what looked like hi-rise appartment blocks. The houses along the road also had a quite distinct look about them that seemed quite specific to the Hangzhou area. The taxi ride took about 40 mins, but was slightly longer due to the taxi driver's meter not working properly and him having to stop by the taxi office to get a new SIM card!

The dancing fountain at West Lake
We were staying in the Hyatt Regency hotel - as a big chain hotel it was very international with better English spoken and a lot of non-Chinese residents. It had a very impressive lobby. There was a slight issue with our room not being ready, but this was sorted out quickly. The room we got was nice, but not as big our one in Beijing. We hadn't paid the extra for a room overlooking the lake. After settling into the room we went for a wander about the bit of West Lake nearest the hotel. We discovered that just opposite the hotel there was a dancing fountain, which performed a music and light show every half hour (we went back to watch the show later when it got dark, but I was particularly underwhelmed, especially as the views across the lake were so amazing anyway). On the lakeside promenade we got accosted by an old man on a mobility scooter who was Chinese, but had learned English (to a very proficient level) by listening to BBC Radio 4 over the internet - he did admit that he found some of the characters with strong accents in the Archers hard to follow (later we passed him again chatting to a group of German tourists in English). We also saw the original (we think) The Grandma's restaurant, which, as in Beijing, had big queues.

We had dinner in the hotel restaurant and despite the very good looking buffet decided to go for pasta (Jen) and a burger (me) as we felt in need of some western food! After dinner we went back out to watch the dancing musical fountain. Later we went to go swimming in the hotel pool, although the set up they had was very confusing. I swam briefly before we tried going for a sauna, but we found there were only separate saunas and hot tub areas for men and women, so didn't stay long.

We planned to get the high speed train to Shanghai when we left Hangzhou, so rather than attempting buying tickets at the station we went to the hotel business centre who booked the tickets for us (they needed to take copies of our passports, because foreigners, who don't have the state issued ID cards, need to give their passport numbers when travelling about on the trains).

Wedding photo shoot
17/04/12 - Jen was unwell overnight with a high temperature and sore throat. We made it down to breakfast for the very good buffet, but then Jen went back to bed. I walked all the way around West Lake (I'd planned to go round a bit and turn back, but once I got near half way I decided I may as well go all the way round) - this took about 3 hours. It was pretty busy with lots of golf-cart-style tourist buses going around the lake, which you had to make way for every few minutes. It was pretty, but there was a low mist over the hill surrounding the lake that meant the views weren't as good as they could have been. I also spotted the first, of what would prove to be many later sightings in Shanghai, wedding photo shoot. Later in the afternoon Jen had recovered enough to venture outside. We briefly walked through the shops behind the hotel and then walked all round the lake again. This time we went slower than I had before and spent more time at some sites like Solitary Hill Island. We also saw barges setting up the big light show that happens at the north of the lake, and a few rowers out doing lengths.

For dinner than evening we went to Chamate (one of the chain of Taiwanese restaurants that we went to in Beijing) for dinner. It was on the edge of lake and we got to eat outside, although it did get rather dark and it became quite difficult eating in the dim candlelight.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Honeymoon: Days 4-6

I'm going to start shortening and merging the honeymoon posts now otherwise I'll never finish writing them!

The "Guide Map of the Jinshanling Great Wall"
13/04/12 - We were up early on Friday for our trip to the Great Wall of China. It looked like it was going to be a very nice day. Before getting a taxi to the hostel where the tour was leaving from Jen went to the Subway across the road to get sandwiches for lunch. Having found the hostel the day before we got there easily. There were a couple of different trips departing: one to a closer, more touristy, part of the Wall, and another to further away part of the Wall (at Jinshanling) where you could trek along it for about 6km. We were on the latter trip, which had about 32 people on it of various nationalities. It took about 2.5 to 3 hours to get there on the coach (with one toilet stop along the way), although a good chunk of this time was taken getting out of Beijing. The scenery got quite impressive as we heading towards the mountains. On nearing the Wall the guide on our bus gave us a bit of Wall history - the various parts built by different Dynasties over several millennia to keep out changing enemies.

The Great Wall
The section of the Wall that we walked along was about 6 km long and passed through 22 towers. About half of this was reconstructed in 1980s other half was older and wilder. The tour guide had said that the start of the walk would be steep, getting steeper and finishing off steeper still. We'd been warned that along the Wall there might be people (mainly displaced farmers) trying to sell us stuff and following us along the way, but this wasn't really the case - at some towers there were people selling drinks (and sometimes t-shirts), but they didn't hassle us at all. Other than our group there weren't too many people on the Wall, but there was a large school trip going in the opposite direction. We were given about 3 hours to walk the section and we set off to the front of our group (we got overtaken by a couple of couples when we stopped for lunch). It was hot and sunny for most of the walk, but just before we got to the final tower it got windy and a short dust storm came in (with a few large drips of rain too). There was one very steep section, which required hands to scramble up, but otherwise it wasn't too difficult a trek. We got to the final tower about an hour earlier than necessary (we were the second couple to reach there in the end). When everyone had arrived (and the sky had cleared) we headed back off the Wall down to the coach. The coach home took us passed the Olympic stadium. We got off by an underground station and took that back to our hotel.

For dinner that evening we just stayed local and went to the shopping mall (where we'd been for lunch the day before). After looking around all the restaurants we decided on a place where you got a barabeque in middle of table. On this we cooked up some lamb and cod amongst other things. We bought some beers at the local shop to drink back in our hotel room.

14/04/12 - Our massage was booked for 11am, so we got to have a long lie in. Even so we still managed to get down to the hotel breakfast before it finished. The Dragonfly Spa was very fancy. We seemed to be the only people there at the time. We had opted for the one hour Chinese massage (there were a variety a different massage styles to choose from), which at about £16 each were probably far more expensive than you would pay in less fancy establishment. The massage was nice, with a few slightly sore moments.

The Temple of Heaven
The day's sightseeing was the Temple of Heaven. This required another underground journey. The Temple is set in a huge walled park that you had to pay to enter (we got a ticket that got you into the main sites within the Temple grounds), but it seemed that locals with ID cards were able to get in free. As with the day before it was very hot and sunny. We saw all the main sights in the Temple that our guide book had recommended (including the building that was on the front cover of our guide book). Jen had her photo taken with some tourists again. We stopped for an ice cream and sat down near some people playing tennis. The park also had the ubiquitous sight of people dancing.

We decided to walk back to the hotel via some hutongs. We initially thought that they might have all been demolished due to another new underground station being built, but on crossing a major road we found they were still standing (although some recent demolition was evident). We'd heard about a fancy restaurant in the former American embassy in the old legation district, so we tried to find it. We weren't able to find it, but did find a nice old street to walk down (Dongjiaominxiang Alley, which is apparently the longest alley in Beijing) with an old church on the corner. We passed a big sports centre with lots of people playing either football or basketball. We also walked through the huge mirrored Oriental Plaza where the Grand Hyatt hotel was.

Oriental Plaza
For dinner we planned to go to a Thai restaurant back at the Qian Hai lake. For some reason we couldn't get a taxi to take us! We managed to flag down a couple of taxis (which was a feat in itself!) and showed the drivers a map to where we wanted to go, but one looked blankly at it and shock their head and the other wanted to charge us far more than it should be. So instead we went to a restaurant across the road from our hotel - it was busy with locals, so looked good. The food was quite basic, but was very nice - Jen's felt a bit poorly afterwards, and suspects that the food contained MSG.

15/04/12 - For our last day in Beijing we went to the Summer Palace - it's essentially a huge park surrounding a lake on the outskirts of the city. We got the hotel concierge to flag us down a taxi to take us there. The journey took about 40 mins. Again it was a really hot day.

Kite flying in the Summer Palace
When we entered the park it was really busy and we soon hit a massive jam of people trying to go round a narrow path by the lake, so instead we searched around a bit to find a less busy path. We went round all the main sites (again we had a ticket that gave us entry to all these) including the Long Corridor, Buddha Incense temple, the Seventeen-Arch bridge, Suzhou Street (which is a small scale mock version of part of the canal-ringed city of Suzhou, which we visited later on the holiday) and the Marble Boat. In Suzhou Street you could take gondola rides, but a short trip (that an American tourist wanted us to take with him) was going to be £50, so we declined. All round the park there were people selling peeled cucumbers to eat, but we decided to just have ice lollies instead.

We did go on a boat though, getting the ferry across the Kunming Lake, which was far cheaper (a few 10s of pence I think) than the gondola. On the Seventeen-Arch bridge there were quite a few people with kites who had attained a serious height with them! We could have spent hours in the park, but it was hot and we were quite tired out and decided to head home. At this point the wind picked up and blew up dust and also made the lake rather choppy, which was interesting for all the people out on it in peddloes.

To get home none of the officially licensed taxis wanted to take us using the fare calculated on the meter and were all asking for more than it should be. So, we took the risk of an unofficial taxi who was going to charge us less (about £10). Despite it being an unofficial taxi it was all okay and we got back without incident.

Overlooking Kunming Lake in the Summer Palace
For dinner we went to the nearby mall again. We wanted to go to The Grandma's (a chain restaurant serving Hangzhou-style food), which we'd seen huge queues outside every night. We weren't quite sure how the system of getting a table worked, but there was a screen, and automated voice, outside that seemed to shout out when your table number was ready. I got a table number from the reception area and got told something, which the person behind me in the queue kindly translated into the fact that we'd have to wait about one and a half hours for a table (our number was in the 120s and the current number on the screen was in the 60s). It seemed that there was a touch pad that we think you could put your mobile number into and receive a text when your table number was about to be called, but we just decided to hang about and have a look around the mall until it was ready. We also went out on to Wangfujing and had a quick beer, although the temperature had dropped by then, so we didn't hang about. The one and a half hour wait was well worth it as the food was fantastic. We had a pork dish, a fish stew (on the menu it's spiciness scale was 1 out of 3 chillies, but it was very hot by our standards), cauliflower and vegetable spring rolls.

Afterwards we just headed back to the hotel to pack our bags for the trip to Hangzhou in the morning. We attempted to use the huge bath in out hotel room, but it was so big and took too long to fill to a reasonable level, so was abandoned after I had a little paddle!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Honeymoon: Day 3

12/04/12 - After the exhausting day of walking the day before we slept in until 11am. After getting up we swapped rooms, being downgraded back down to the style of room we'd paid for. Had we not had the initial upgrade and seen the size of that room we'd have thought the new room was huge. Even-so, it was still pretty big with all the same furniture and bathroom style, just in a slightly smaller space and with no small courtyard area.

The hutongs near Jishuitan
Our plan from the night before had been to visit an insect market in the morning, but given our late start we ditched that plan and just decided to do a hutong walk from our guide book. As we'd missed the hotel breakfast and it was late we went for lunch before our walk. We gave the beijinger website a second chance to recommend us somewhere and found a Taiwanese dumpling chain restaurant called Chamate. It was very close to the hotel in a very swish 6 floor shopping centre on Wangfujing. The shopping centre was still under construction with escalators being installed around us! There were loads of restaurants in there, so we actually had a lot of choice and we used it more in the next few days. It also contained a lot of western shops including a new Forever 21 being built - like back home on Buchanan Street apparently (this was Jen's observation not mine). In Chamate, which was very busy, we had squid balls, scallion pancake, shrimp noodles, sweet and sour pork ribs, sweet green tea and a papaya milk shake. It was all very good and cost about £16 in total.

After satiating ourselves we got the underground to Jishuitan to start our walk. To start this involved walking down a very busy shopping street (Xinjiekou Bei Dajie), which included a large array of guitar/ instrument shops. We turned off the main street into alleys of hutongs, some of which had been remade and some were more original. In most of the hutongs there was something for sale like fruit, drinks (all food and drink in this area was on sale far cheaper than on the main streets, but we didn't take advantage of this), bike repairs, or even doors. There were generally children about and clothes drying outside, so they were all homes as well as businesses. We purposely went slightly off the directed walk route, but got ourselves back to the right place quite easily.

The shrine to the 'four immortals' (including a hedgehog) in
Prince Gong's palace
Next on the walk, going passed Beijing Normal University, was Prince Gong's palace. Around the palace you could tell it was getting more touristy as we started seeing lots of rickshaws and were getting asked if we needed a ride anywhere. We went in the palace and it looked quite quiet and peaceful. It was very nice, but when we got to the garden at the back of the palace we hits load of tour groups (in coloured hats as before). The gardens were beautiful, and a shrine of note was that for a hedgehog amongst other animals!

After leaving the palace we walked past through more hutongs towards the bottom end of the Houhai Lake, and then on the Qianhai (where we'd ended up on the first night). Looking in to some of the courtyards we passed we could see that they'd been done-up and looked very fancy. We walked round Qianhai (there weren't any bands playing in the bars this time, but we did see a bar by Houhai that sold "Fucking good mojitos") through lots of hutongs that had been rebuilt with tourists wanting to see "old style Beijing" in mind. We stopped for an ice-cream (a rum and raisin Cornetto cup for Jen) before walking up to the Drum Tower.

Armchair dogs on Gu Lou Dong Da Jie 
Walking on from there (passed some dogs on armchairs) we found the North end of the street (Luogu Hutong) we had originally planned to go to on the first night. On this street was also found the hostel that was organising our Great Wall of China walk. There were lots of very cool gift shops along the street, and many cafes and bars. We also found that the other end of the street was actually accessible by going around the building site that had stumped us before.

We walked back to the hotel through a park area in the middle of a wide boulevard (Beiheyan Street). We saw little children and parents playing, many small dogs and children doing homework.

Back near the hotel there was a Dragonfly Spa, so we booked massages for the Saturday morning (the day after our Wall walk). We also bought water/ beers/ crisps for our packed lunch on the walk.

Dessert at Hua's Restaurant
That evening we went to dinner at Huajia Yiyuan in the Macau Centre near the hotel. It was very fancy with a huge reception area and we got a table for 8 people to ourselves. Despite it being not that late it seems that people eat dinner early in China, so the restaurant was emptying and being cleaned-up while we were there (this was a common theme on the holiday). There was loads of choice on the menus and there were pictures, so we knew what to order. We had duck pancake rolls, aubergine abalonie sauce, hau's special cabbage, fish kebabs, veg fried rice, and an amazing special Beijing regal dessert - bird cage pastries! We also got more complementary fruit. It all came to 362 Yuan, but for some reason we were charged 260 Yuan. Jen speculated that we'd got a special ginger discount!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Honeymoon: Day 2

11/04/12 - We got up at a reasonable time in the morning as we wanted to make the most of the day and get down to breakfast before it was cleared away. Breakfast in the hotel was nice, although not the best out of the hotels we stayed in - generally during the whole holiday we stuck to eating western food at breakfast (all the hotels had egg stations!), although there was always a selection of Chinese dishes that we could have tried.

Entrance to the Forbidden City
The day's plan was to go to the Forbidden City, which was only about 10 mins from our hotel. The rain of yesterday was pretty much a one off for the honeymoon and on this day the weather was hot and sunny (it stayed like this in Beijing). Walking to the entrance there were a lot of tour guides touting for business and saying that they could get passed the ticket queues quicker, but we just wanted to sort it by ourselves. At the entrance there were huge queues of Chinese tour groups in which each group had there own colour and style of hat. The ticket queue for non-tour groups folks was quite long, but actually took under 10 mins. We then got our audio guide and went into the City. It was interesting place and really big - we probably spent a couple of hours in there, but Jen was quite shocked by her first (and worst of the whole trip) experience of a Chinese public toilet. Near the exit people were being stopped going through by soldiers and there were official looking cars about, so we thought it might have been state officials going by. We went back the way we'd come and found another way through (we ended up at the same place, but after our detour the officials had passed and people were allowed through). Also, whilst in the Forbidden City it was the first time on the trip that Jen had someone request having their photo taken with her (due to her red hair we assume.)

Across the road from the exit was Jing Shan park, which has a happy story of an emperor hanging himself in it! The hill in the park was actually constructed from the soil excavated during the making of the moat around the City. While walking up to the top Jen attracted the attention of a large group of photographer with telephoto lenses trying to discretely take her photo. The tower at the top of the park contained a large Buddhist shrine and offered great views back over the Forbidden City. The park also offered a better second toilet experience than that in the City.
The Forbidden City from Jing Shan Park
From there we walked back down the side of lake in Beihai Park and the side of the Forbidden City to Tianamen Square. There were a lot of soldiers about including some rather obvious plane clothes soldiers/police. We saw the famous portrait of Chairman Mao and headed and through the gate at the north of the Square, which turned out to be the wrong way and just headed back to the Forbidden City entrance! Going back out to the Square we got accosted for the second time, so that a man and his son could get their photo taken with Jen. Initially I was in the photo, but they then asked me to move out the way, so it was just Jen and the man's son! Crossing under the road via the subway (which had X-ray machines) we were in the main part of the Square. We wandered past Mao's mausoleum (not going in to see his body) and saw the changing of the guard. At the south of the Square we went into the Qianmen Gate building - this offered a good view back over the Square, but didn't contain much of interest.
Mao's mausoleum in Tianamen Square

We walked down Qianmen street and went for a pot (well many refills of a pot) of tea at Haos Tea House. We'd not eaten since breakfast, so also had an ice cream from the Hagen Das across the street. After passing a shop for London Olympic merchandise (presumably a reassignment of a previous Beijing Olympic shop) we found a physics-themed footbridge at the bottom of the street. Around this area our guide book had said there were Hutongs (the narrow alleys and courtyards where people would traditionally live) that you could walk round, so we attempted to find them. But, they seemed to have all been flattened for new buildings (we did find some others over the next few days), so we just walked back to our hotel.

We booked dinner at the Pure Lotus vegetarian restaurant, which required us to take our first subway journey. We had to use two different lines, but it was very simple and cheap (20 yuan each). The map we'd brought with us didn't quite extend to the restaurant location (and we hadn't even noted down the address!), so we had to wander around slightly randomly for 30 mins before we found it. It was a rather fancy place with a huge wooden door at the entrance. The food was all served in very elaborate dishes and it looked rather impressive. There was a huge wooden menu that was very confusing. This confusion meant we ordered far too much including a chilli and fake "chicken" thing served in a huge banana-shaped dish (which we didn't really ask for, but just got told about and accidentally brought). But it was all very nice albeit very spicy (given the large amount of chilli). At the end we got complementary fruit served in dry ice!
Complementary fruit

After dinner we went to find bar we had found on the beijinger website, called Q bar, which was supposed to be good for ex-pats. After a 20 min walk we found the bar, which was above a slightly dodgy looking hotel - it was packed, but a bit odd and we couldn't get drink! We left with the feeling that we'd stumbled across a special singles, or swingers, night!?

It was now too late to get the underground home, so we tried hailing a taxi. Eventually one did stop for us. We had a card from our hotel with its address in Chinese script, but the driver had very thick glasses and didn't seem to be able to read it. The driver did seem to have understood the card though and got us back to the hotel for a fee of about £2.40.

Honeymoon: Day 1

It's been over a month since my wife and I got back from our honeymoon. While away we kept notes of what we did each day with the plan to write these up here as soon as we returned. Well it took a bit longer than planned to get round to it, but here is the first of our day-by-day instalments: travels to Beijing (we went to China in case you couldn't guess!) It may be a bit more detailed than absolutely necessary, but it's also there as a reminder to us.

Day 1 (and a bit)

09/04/12 - Just over a day after the wedding we boarded our flight to China. We flew with Emirates going from Glasgow to Dubai, with just a couple of hours in Dubai airport, and then on to Beijing. We arrived in Dubai airport late at night feeling pretty exhausted mainly due to finally starting to come down from the wedding high. Having realised I'd forgotten deodorant and Jen needed some make-up we did a bit of duty free shopping before trying to find somewhere for a snack. After much indecision we settled on a fish-based cafe where I had a beef sandwich, Jen had a croissant, and we drank some Sprite. This slightly revived us for the second leg of the flight. Originally the Beijing leg was supposed to be in an Airbus A380, but in the end it was downsized to a more standard Boeing 777.

10/04/12 - We arrived at Beijing airport in the early afternoon. We passed through a thermal imaging machine to check if you've got a fever and need to be quarantined, and then went into the impressive immigration hall. We passed through immigration without any problem and after a short monorail ride our luggage was waiting for us (this can often be an issue for me - in the past Jen has blamed my luggage woes on flying with a big back pack, so I'd been made to buy a proper suitcase for this trip). Our taxi driver from the airport was friendly and kept trying to point our things for us to look at, but as he spoke no English and us no Mandarin we just looked, smiled and nodded. Getting in to the centre of Beijing we were mainly struck by the size of the place and the buildings - everything was massive. We arrived at our hotel (the Hotel Kapok) in late afternoon just as rain broke.

Our first room in Hotel Kapok
The hotel had a quite funky facade and looked pretty swish when we got inside. They didn't have the style of room we'd booked available, so they upgraded us to a bigger room (it even had a small outdoor garden area) for a day (this turned into 3 days, but unfortunately not the whole stay). The room was massive, with a huge bathroom, and even came with its own gas masks in case of fire!

Night street food market
After having a brief rest we headed out to get some food and have a bit of an explore. Just about 100m from our hotel there was an outdoor food night market and one of the major Beijing shopping streets called Wangfujing. We perused the food market starting off with corn-on-the-cob-n-a-stick (rather than tucking straight in to the starfish/seahorse-on-a-stick) before heading down Wangfujing. Just off that street we found another small alley containing more colourful street food. With the rain having eased off we headed back to the main street market where we had crab dumplings, fried dumplings,spring rolls and banana fritters, which were all very tasty.

The band at a Qianhai lake bar
Despite the long day we'd got a proper second wind and decided that we'd try and find a pub. We briefly went back to the hotel to check our options before deciding to try and find a bar on Luogu Alley. We also decided that we'd try walking there as it didn't look too far on out map. It turns out that the city blocks in Beijing are larger than they look, but after about half an hour of walking (and seeing our first instance of the Chinese street dancing craze) we arrived at where the entrance to the alley should have been. Unfortunately it seemed to be a building site for a new subway station (a few days later we found out that there was a way through to the alley), so we decided to carry on walking to Qianhai lake where there were more bars. Another half an hour later we found it (after passing a bizarre Christmas display!) and walked round to look at the bars. All of the bars had live music going on in them and none were that appealing, but we wanted some alcohol after our long day and eventually just went into one after being accosted by a bar promoter type. The band in this place weren't that bad, but hadn't attracted much of a crowd. We both had a single drink and left to head home.

I made a slight wrong turn on the way back, but I realised my mistake quite soon and we headed in the right direction back to our hotel. After another long walk we made it back without any problems and quickly got to sleep.

I expect the following posts will get shorter than this!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Slalom in the sunshine

Today was one of the final canoe club trips of the academic year. But, unlike most club trips this one was happening on a gloriously hot and sunny day rather than the standard weather of cold, wet and windy.

Seven of us headed up to Grandtully to go on the section of the Tay there. We travelled quite a scenic route to get there at the behest of our SatNav (via Crief and Aberfeldy), but still got there with plenty of time to paddle. At this section of the Tay the Scottish Canoe Association has it's national slalom site, so there were easy parking facilities there. This river section has a short series of rapids (with slalom gates set up) followed by a long flat section, so we just stayed at the rapids and ran down them several times interspersed with a lunch break. There wasn't a huge amount of water, so the rapid weren't particularly big, but we were able to practice getting into eddies and play about a bit. We didn't attempt making the slalom gates though, although there were quite a lot of other paddlers on the river, so of who were slalom-ers. There was also a  group of rafts heading down the river.

It was nice to get off the river and be able to get changed in the sun and get kit mostly dried before packing it. We took a more direct route back home with a brief stop at a service station outside of Perth for an ice lolly.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

First trip to Fort William

Today saw my first ever kayaking trip north of Glencoe - in fact it was my first ever trip north of Glencoe up the west coast of Scotland for any reason. The canoe club were having a full weekend of boating up around Fort William, but I decided just to head up for the day. With an early start I managed to meet the rest of the group at the village hall in Ballachulish at 08:10. We first headed to check out the Loy, which was a bit low, so carried on further along the road to the Arkaig. This river did have a fair amount of water in it.

The river is a fairly easy run except for a large Grade 4 rapid (the "Main Event") near the start, which is where we spent the majority of the time. We spent a while checking the rapid out and looking at possible lines. In general it was looking pretty hefty. I was at the back of the first trio to head down the rapid. There were a lot of huge holes along the way and I seemed to get stopped in all of them. I made it all the way down, but got stopped before the final drop, so had no speed to carry me off the rapid. Basically I got flipped at the bottom and after one failed roll attempt I became the day's first swimmer. The rapid claimed a few other swimmers after me, but quite a few people went back for seconds and thirds. I decided one swim was enough for the day for me, so didn't give it another go.

The rest of the river was pretty uneventful with just a few small rapids. We practice a bit of ferrying and breaking in and out of eddies. I did have some rather novice wobbles a couple of times on eddy lines (I don't think anyone else noticed), but other than that did manage without another swim. The rest of the group headed to another river to get a short run in, but I preferred the option of getting dry and heading back to Glasgow while it was still light.