This is the story of my travels around the world. It started out in January 2007, although the events leading up to it were many, as were the days working around the clock. What unfolded as I moved from continent to continent is a string of tales, meetings and friendships that I could never have imagined… and that could not possibly be shared in one sitting! So, take a look around, and come back, as more stories are coming!
It’s hard to turn on the TV or open a paper without reading something about China. The questionable human rights record, the Beijing Olympics or Shanghai Expo, and of course the fastest economic growth in the history of civilization. There is so much information on this country floating out there its hard to tell what the truth is.
The fact is, I don’t know either. This is not a country with easy answers. It is modernizing rapidly but has perhaps the longest history in the world. It has some of the world’s largest cities, but still has a small town feel. It can feel crowded or incredibly empty. There really is only one way to describe China, the world’s largest contradiction. At moments the country makes you want to bang your head against the wall, but at sometimes it gives you a sense of calming and fulfillment that you can only truly get being far away from home. The real joy of China is finding your own ways to see the contradictions.
If you aren’t sure where to start to look, here are the nice places and experiences that should help grant a bit of clarity into what China is all about.
Unquestionably a must for anyone who come to this country. The capital is an excellent and through summary for the entire nation. It has new wealth, especially after the 2008 Olympics, yet it is full of history with such relics as the Forbidden City, and of course the aptly named Great Wall. This city has a phenomenal energy that makes you want more.
Beijing is of course the crown jewel of China’s history, however it does not begin or end there. Other major locations to get a good glimpse at China’s magnificent past include the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an, the Silk Road in the West, the Tibetan Capital of Lhasa, and far more locations than I could begin to fully list in this short post.
With its varied landscape, colourful cultures, and cute pandas, Guangxi, Yunnan, and Sichuan provinces are absolute musts for anyone coming to the Middle Kingdom. With a myriad of sights including the magical peaks of Guilin, Tiger Leaping Gorge, and the Panda Research Centre, it is easy to see why the Chinese Southwest is quickly becoming one of the hottest backpacker trails in the world.
Everyone knows that China has a population of somewhere around 1.3 billion and counting, but what people tend to forget is that the population of the Han Chinese makes up 90% or so of the total population. While this seems like a very homogeneous population, the Hans are primarily located on the East Coast and in the Centre of the country. This leaves the other 130 million non-Han people (note: that’s three Canadas worth of people) located mainly on the outside of the country, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and the aforementioned Yunnan. It is simply fascinating to see the portions of the country where China seems to end and turn into something different all together.
Forget everything that you know about Chinese food! The majority of Chinese food in the west usually originates in Guangdong Province and is very Americanized. Chinese food has a variety of different regional styles, from “Numb and Sore” food from Sichuan, to the sweet food from Suzhou, it’s exciting to find the style that suits you best.
While it can be hard to see now, a little over 120 years ago China was getting carved up into various European colonies and treaty ports. When Macau returned to China in 1999 that era ended, however the influence is still very much felt in parts of the country today. The most famous of these places is of course Hong Kong, which feels like a beautiful mix of England and mainland China. There are plenty more places including the Portuguese Macau, German Qingdao, or Russian Haerbin. However the most cosmopolitan is definitely Shanghai, as it has French, British, and Japanese areas which can still be found today.
Yangtze Delta Area
The Yangtze river comes to an end at Shanghai, but the entire region around the city, making up Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces are well worth a visit two. This area includes the two cities that Marco Polo labeled as “Heaven on Earth” Hangzhou, and (my home) Suzhou.
One of the many contradictions of China is that it is home to three of the world’s major religions (Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism) yet it is the most openly secular nation in the world. While the government is officially atheist, there are people in the nation who are very spiritual. Some of the best places to see this spirituality include the five Taoist Holy Mountains (Song Shan, Tai Shan, Hua Shan, Nan Heng Shan, and Bei Heng Shan) or the four Buddhist Holy Mountains (Emei Shan, Wutai Shan, Putuo Shan, and Jiuhua Shan). While I can’t speak about all of these nine mountains the ones that I have been to are absolutely spectacular and I can’t wait to find out about all of them.
Mandarin Chinese is an incredibly difficult language, but it is well worth the effort. Learning bits about the language has helped me learn a bit more about the culture and vice-verse. Also, the locals will be thrilled with any progress in the language and will be ecstatic with even the simplest “ni hao”.
About the Author: Glen met Celine met in the charming Chinese city of Pingyao while they were both wandering the world. After sharing a few bottles of Tsingtao they realized that they had a great deal in common. Then in August 2008 Glen has realized that he can’t stay away from the Middle Kingdom, where he works in Suzhou as a teacher in an International School. In his spare time he rambles about China at the popular Chinese blog Lost Lao Wai.
Money Saving Tips for Travelers in Pricey London
Museums are free! and London has some of the best museums in the world. The Tate Modern and the British Museum are absolute musts. The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&ZA) is impressive, and also worthwhile are the Natural History Museum, and the Museum of London.
Don’t take taxis. Walk where you can, take the bus, or buy an Oyster Pass for the metro (the famous Underground, the Tube). You pay something like five pounds deposit for the pass, then you buy credit for it, and travel for a lot less. Last time I checked, a one way ride on the tube costed four pounds!
Eat a big lunch. If you’re eating out, try to make lunch your big meal of the day and get buy with something light, fast (cheap!) for dinner.
Get out of London and see the rest of the country! If you’re planning to explore outside London (and you should!), try booking a bus online ahead of time. Fares can be as cheap as five (yes, 5!) pounds if you book enough in advance. Most other towns in England are much less expensive than London.
Top Ten (Oops, 12!) Things to Do and See in London
- The Tate ModernThis is probably my favorite museum in London… their collection is so huge, that even in this massive building, there isn’t room to show everything at once, so the displays change frequently, and they often have huge exhibits on the ground floor. Even better, it’s FREE! Hop on the Tate Boat to get to Tate Britain and the Tower of London.
- The Tower of LondonHere you can view the crown jewels and stand on the execution site of three English queens.
- Buckingham PalaceNo trip to London could possibly be complete without seeing the famous changing of the guards. This is the Queen’s official residence, and State Rooms are open to visitors in August and September.
- The British Museumis full of treasures British soldiers brought back from faraway places. The Rosetta Stone, the Elgin marbles, Easter Island statue, and the earliest known image of Christ.
- Victoria and Albert (V&A) MuseumSee the world’s best collection of art and design, along with 3000 years’ worth of artifacts from some of the world’s richest cultures.
- Natural History MuseumNear the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, in South Kensington, this one is fun for all ages. Here you can see dinosaurs, walk underneath a massive, life-sized Blue Whale, and experience what an earthquake feels like.
- Houses of ParliamentHere you can see Big Ben, the clock tower that chimes every 15 minutes and is the most famous symbol of London. Cross the Westminster bridge to get the best view of the Houses of Parliament, from the South Bank.
- Trafalgar Squareis an icon of London. Not just a tourist attraction, this is also a hot spot for political demonstrations. See Nelson’s column and the four lion statues, but don’t feed the pigeons! The National Gallery is also here, free and worth a visit. If you’re here in December, you can see a beautiful Christmas tree donated by Norway each year.
- Museum of London. London history from Roman times to present.
- Street Markets. London is well known for its bustling street markets. Camden Market and Portobello Market are two of the most popular.
- Covent Garden MarketEnjoy free entertainment every afternoon in the West Piazza. Sreet performers here are not only licensed, but have had to pass an audition before being allowed to perform here!
- London Eye. Last but not least, this 32 capsule ferris wheel carries 10,000 people each day. Because of the way they are suspended, you get a perfect 360 degree view of London at the top. Avoid the long queues by booking online.
Nottingham: Not just Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forwest
If you make it to Nottingham, (and why on earth wouldn’t you?!) check out England’s oldest pub, Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem on Castle Road (yep, it’s right by Nottingham Castle). They’ve been serving beer since 1189. While you’re there, check out the medieval times version of darts. A small metal hoop hangs from the ceiling, and you have to swing it just right to make it land on the hook on the opposite wall. Much easier said than done! www.yeoldetriptojerusalem.com
1. Go to Sherwood Forest, the home of Robin Hood legend, and see The Fifth Most Important Tree in England. I didn’t know there was such a list, but now I do. And so do you.
2. Visit the caves of Nottingham where you can see 750 years of history in the sandstone caves right underneath the city center.
3. Go to the rooftop terrace of Saltwater, above The Cornerhouse, to have a relatively inexpensive cocktail and enjoy a sunset from the best view in Nottingham.
4. See a movie in the world’s smallest cinema. There are just 21 seats at The Screen Room on Broad Street, they play cult classics, and tickets are only £4 for students.
5. Trendy Hockly restaurant Shimla Pink’s does an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet on Sunday. Students can stuff themselves for around £10.
6. Or, Splurge and treat yourself to Nottingham’s best offering of England’s number one most popular cuisine, and stuff yourself with delicious Indian food at 4550 Miles to Delhi.
Before you go: Culture Trip!
Enjoy a little British culture before you set foot on the island. What better, or more fun, way to get into the mindset of a place, than enjoying some of their cultural (or at least noteworthy) contributions…
16 of the Best British Films
- Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994, Mike Newell)
- James Bond 007: The Spy Who Loved Me (1977, Lewis Gilbert)(or any other Bond flick)
- The Full Monty (1997, Peter Cattaneo)
- Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam)
- The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella)
- Monty Python The Life of Brian (1979, Terry Jones)(and any and all Monty Python films)
- The Ipcress File (1965, Sidney J. Furie)
- A Room with a View (1985, James Ivory)
- Tom Jones (1963, Tony Richardson)
- A Fish Called Wanda (1988, Charles Crighton)
- Trainspotting (1996, Danny Boyle)
- Love Actually (2003, Richard Curtis)
- About a Boy (2002, Chris Weitz & Paul Weitz)
- Secrets and Lies (1995, Mike Leigh)
- A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)
- Sliding Doors (1998, Peter Howitt)
10 Best British Rock Bands
- Kaiser Chiefs
- Arctic Monkeys
- Bloc Party
(Many people think the Killers, my absolute favorite band, are British, but they are in fact American.
11 of the Best British Books
Yes, there does appear to be a pattern: most have been made into a movie. Still, the books are excellent, usually better than the movie.
- Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. This is NOT just for chicks! I had this book with me on a road trip with a guy friend, and we were absolutely rolling with laughter! Great fun to read, the movie was good, but the book outdoes it a hundred times over. Really gets into the female psyche, with a lot of British particulars.
- Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Okay, so you’ve probably already seen the movies. But honestly, the books were very well written and a fun suspension of realty.
- The Yes Man by Danny Wallace (Scotland). Ride along on the journey of the guy who decided to change the way his life was going, quit his office job, traveled for a year, and started saying “yes” to everything, with amazing results that transformed his life.
- Animal Farm by George Orwell. Classic. Of course you know this one. If not, read it now!
- 1984 by George Orwell. Another classic. Again, if you haven’t read it already, now is the time.
- Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl. This one may difficult to find, but it’s a deliciously dark collection of short stories that you will never forget.
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
It’s especially important for solo travel that you do some research about the countries you are going to. Some countries are notoriously dangerous and always make the travel advisory list. Others have specific issues you need to be aware of, and more so if you plan on solo travel. However, if you are informed and aware, you will likely not find trouble. (This is not to say that going to a country in the middle of a civil war, or traveling through jungles known for violent gang activity is safe. Of course, if you are going to Somalia or the likes, that is a whole different story. Not only will you be required to hire a personal bodyguard, but you might want to start praying too!)
It’s not a bad idea to read your government’s travel advisories, but don’t let them scare you off of going; remember that anything you do in life, including walking out your front door and driving down your street, carries danger. It is up to you to determine if the odds are strong enough to discourage you from doing something, as well as to make sure that you inform yourself so that you can take precautions to avoid many danger scenarios. Also, assess yourself honestly. Not everyone is cut out for solo travel. If you are very shy and find it painfully difficult or torturous to talk to random people, perhaps your should travel in a group. If you find yourself nervous or fearful in neighborhoods you don’t know, or so suspicious of people’s intentions that you can’t let your guard down, solo travel may not be for you. The point is to be alert and aware.
Solo travel: Doing your research and being prepared
In general, trouble strikes solo travelers most when they simply aren’t paying attention. Good resources for country-specific information are Lonely Planet guidebooks, which also give details on current scams happening in each area, as well as your government’s travel advice website. Don’t let it scare you, however; government sites seem to exagerate. The point is to be informed and aware. If you know what to look out for and act accordingly, you should be fine.
It’s a good idea to invest in a few things that will make you feel more safe and secure, such as a good money belt with wire waistband, a belt with built-in money stash, and a bag with strap that crosses your body. A hat which can help obscure your gender and nationality, GPS and whistle are some other items that are worth carrying if they will help you feel more secure. Do what you need to do to make yourself feel comfortable to solo travel; it is well worth it!
Solo travel versus traveling with a friend or group
Deciding on solo travel necessitates being more aware and cautious. Traveling in a group of course give some safety just from sheer numbers, and the luxury of letting your guard down a little. Please don’t let that discourage you, however; there are so many reasons to travel solo, and in doing so you are more open to meeting people who can not only enrich or transform your experience and perception of a place, but also become friends for life. I highly recommend solo travel. Just because you board that first flight alone, does not mean that you are relegated to solo travel forever. On the contrary, as a solo traveler you will be more approachable for other travelers and often the people you meet on the road can be more compatible with your travel style than your friends at home (the ones who couldn’t go because of their job, boyfriend, or fear of staying in hostels…). Sadly, many friends leave their country for a big international trip together and don’t return friends. Travel, and especially solo travel tests your character; traveling with a friend tests your relationship.
Passport. Make sure your passport is valid through the length of your trip, even better if you have at least six months to spare. Check, because some countries will not issue you a visa if you have less than six months’ remaining on your passport.
Banking. Buy travelers’ cheques if you plan to use them. Call your bank(s) to be sure your ATM/debit cards can be used overseas. Ask what the fees are for using your card abroad, such as transaction and foreign currency conversion fees. Tell them what countries you will be visiting and when. Get phone numbers to call from overseas if you need to. Most banks have international collect numbers that you can call from a pay phone if need be.
NOTE: Look at your bank cards and credit cards to be sure they won’t expire during your trip. It’s a very easy thing to overlook, but the biggest pain in the butt to fix!
Documents. Photocopy important documents such as your passport, credit cards, visas, travelers’ cheques, travel insurance policy and itinerary. Leave a copy with a reliable loved one so that if need be you can call and have the documents faxed/emailed to you. Email a copy to yourself, and make sure your email password is as tight as Uncle Scrooge.
Travelers insurance. You will probably never have to use it, but it’s a must. Compare policies. Nomad and travel1 are excellent companies I’ve used.
Keeping in Touch. If you are planning to take your mobile phone with you, call your carrier to find out exactly what the rates are to make and receive calls and texts in each country you plan to travel to. Even better, get your phone unlocked and buy a local SIM card when you arrive. Usually for just a few dollars, you can have your own number on which you can receive calls for free (someday, hopefully the United States will get on board with the rest of the world and not charge you to receive calls…).
Skype. If you don’t already have a skype account, set one up now. This is your best bet for calling home or anywhere else. Not only can you talk for free with your friends who have skype, you can also call anywhere you want to for pennies through the computer. You can get a local Skype number that for just a few dollars a month that you have forwarded to you wherever you are (watch out, though; with this option, YOU pay to receive calls). Most internet cafes now have skype-ready machines. If it’s the middle of the night or you can’t find an internet cafe (they do seem much less plentiful, what with every cafe, hotel and even hostel offering wi-fi these days), an international calling card is a good idea. Even the worst ones will give you far better rates than your mobile carrier from home will give you for international calls.
Bills. If you are going away for a month or more, make sure to pay any monthly bills that will come due while you are gone. Even better, set up online banking so that you pay all of your bills with a few clicks of a mouse. It’s free, provided by your bank (if not, you need to find a bank that has entered the 21st century! Hello!), your payments arrive faster because they are sent electronically, and you don’t have to find envelopes or lick stamps. Done.
First night accommodations. It’s a good idea to make a room or bed reservation for your first night. Write down their address, phone number and directions.
Know how to get out of the airport. If you plan to navigate yourself with public transportation, write down specific directions, and don’t be shy about double checking with the bus driver to make sure you’re going the right way. If you plan to take a taxi, find out what the distance is and/or what the taxi fare should be, and don’t be shy about disputing the fare if the driver tries to charge you three times what you expected. Unscrupulous taxi drivers routinely rip off tourists in every city in the world, but when you call them out on it, you usually end up paying a more fair price.
Traveler’s Diarrhea: Prevention and Treatment
The dreaded travelers’ diarrhea can put a big damper on any trip, but don’t worry, there is a lot you can do to prevent it. Your risk of getting sick while traveling can be greatly reduced by being careful what you eat and being aware of how the food is prepared and handled.
If you aren’t used to spicy food, but you want to try some local specialties, ease in! Experiencing local cuisine is a wonderful element of traveling abroad and not to be missed. Realize, however, that the stomach needs time to adjust to radical changes in diet, and may react violently if thrown outside its comfort zone too suddenly!
Take note of your surroundings. If everything around you is filthy, or you see raw meat sitting out, or the same hands that handle money are touching your food, you would be wise to find somewhere else to eat. Avoiding salads and any other raw vegetables or fruit, unless it has a thick peel or shell. Any cooked food which sits out for a long period of time carries the danger of bacteria. A good rule of thumb is, if it is prepared cold and meant to be eaten cold, it should be stored cold. Likewise with hot food: if it is meant to be eaten hot, it should be kept hot. If something is pre-prepared and you don’t know how long it has been sitting there, you’re much better off ordering something that has to be prepared for you fresh, and even better, in front of you.
Rehydration and Recovery
Dehydration resulting from diarrhea can be life threatening. It is essential to replace lost fluids immediately. Carrot soup, rice water, gruel, fruit juice, green coconut water and weak tea are all good things to consume to help restore fluids. Alternatively, or additionally, you can buy or make rehydration fluids.
Here is a simple rehydration solution that you can make anywhere that can literally save your life.
- one teaspoon salt
- eight teaspoons sugar
- one liter of clean fresh, or boiled and cooled, drinking water
Stir all together until sugar and salt are dissolved. Molasses or cane sugar are good substitutes for white sugar if available.
Once you begin eating again, be gentle on the stomach. Avoid spicy and greasy foods. The BRAT diet of Bananas, Rice, Apples and Toast is easy on the stomach while also helping to absorb and flush away and remaining unfriendly bits.
Rupert and Verity are the best… as usual, the first thing they ask me after I walk in the door is if I would like to do laundry. And after washing my clothes in the river all this time, I can think of nothing nicer.
My emergency replacement credit card arrives and they’ve spelled my name wrong. Not a big deal, since it’s only good for two months anyway, but I’m worried that when I try to pay for a flight online, it may not work because the name doesn’t match my passport. So I call and find out that I can’t use the card for online purchases, or at an ATM, and if I use it in a store, they have to manually put the number in. I ask what the card good for but they are clueless as to how this could be inconvenient. Seriously, what is with these banks—Capital One, for example—being “international” but then it being such a major hassle when you’re traveling and you have a problem. I’m being treated like I am the one who forged my card. I try to use my card at the airport for a 31 Ringgit purchase and it’s declined. Honestly, not impressed with Capital One.
By the way, I finally found out what the deal is with the long pinky fingernail… it’s not a good luck thing, it is a status thing. It means you don’t “work” for a living!