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The great rumble and lurch as I hurtle along the concrete path, a sudden lift in the pitch black. The lights become smaller, we bump through the blanket and poooof!

Out we pop above the beautiful marshmallow mattress of cloud-cover. Rolling out into the distance like a soft winter blanket. The purest while, rippled and dappled with the blue of the dawn.

A bright orange speck on the horizon splits through distant cover and streaks a sunbeam across my vision. The colour, the deepest brightest blood orange. A tint only possible made by something Greater.

The sweetest, rawest sunrise over T5, en route to Copenhagen, 7am in October.

The infinite bobble blanket so beautiful, my heart swells. Another small adjustment, a gentle tug forward, and we rise another few thousand feet, the blanket drops away.

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My friends and I have established a rather fabulous habit of heading out for a girls’ weekend twice a year; once in Summer and once in Winter. We make our travel choices based on availability of low cost airfares to European destinations, and, literally on the way home from our last escapade to Copenhagen, we booked our next adventure. How did we make the decision? Search the Easyjet and Ryan Air sales and see which city was cheap to get to, had an interesting ring, and none of us have yet been to. And so it was that we found ourselves on the way to Tallinn, Estonia.

I had very little pre-conceived ideas about Tallinn. A couple times I made the horrendous blooper of saying that we were off to Latvia. I KNOW it is the capital of Estonia, am horrified by my slip of the mind and con-fuddle with other incredible countries in Eastern Europe, but I can safely say that without a doubt, Tallinn is one of Europe’s most treasured secrets, at least for the weekend girl-traveller in search of an adventure.

I fell in love at least 10 times during my 72 hours in beautiful Tallinn. Here are the moments my heart skipped a beat…

  1. The fairy-tale maze of the Old Town

    The old town is a picture book of winding cobbled streets leading to a main square. It’s gorgeous. And it’s small, so you can literally walk from one side to the other, albeit you have to wind a little. The best way to orient yourself is to get yourself onto one of the many walking tours, which we did on our first morning. Ours met at 10.30am in Freedom Square (the tour is free but you tip a well deserving guide at the end) and was a 2 hour tour of the upper and lower Old Town. In our group (mostly comprised of Americans straight off the cruise ship) we climbed the hill to look at the old city wall and hide in the shade of Kiek in de Kok, check out the wedding cake pink parliament building and get a couple vantage points to gaze out over the roof top maze of the city from above. Our guide gave a fabulous potted history as we looked out to the various landmarks puncturing the sky between the medieval spires; the Television Tower, the Tallinn balloon, the two white columns of the “KGB” Viru hotel, and the hulking white masses of the two giant cruise ships docked in the harbour. Lute music played and the sweet smell of roasting nuts added to the medieval vibe of the Upper Old Town. We peeked into the great caverns of two fabulous and contrasting churches; the opulent and over the top orthodox Alexander Nevski Cathedral, with Russian women shrouded in headscarves kissing and crossing at the feet of boxed deities, and the oldest church in Estonia, the Dome Church, a cool escape from the blazing sun, this church simple and peaceful but with rather sinister looking ornate coats of arms hanging on the walls. We diligently followed our guide down into the Lower Old Town cutting through the “Short Leg” street, a steep set of steps cutting through the old city wall, taking in the quirky souvenir shops, cafes and other curiosities peeking out from behind the medieval windows. At the foot of Short Leg street we spotted street art by the local “Banksy” before heading back towards the big stage of the Main Square “Town Hall Square“. Here we left our walking buddies and headed to the shade of a canopied café for a well deserved cup of coffee…
  2. The hideous shot at the local bar

    On the first night we made a mini pilgrimage to a place that we have been tipped off (by one of the guide books – “quirky things to do in Tallinn”) to visit, the infamous Valli bar. We went for two reasons; it was touted as a “local” pub. And that is was. At least it seemed so, the faces all turned as we clattered through the door and I’m sure the barman had a smirk on his face when he carefully prepared the second reason we went there, for the hiddeous “millimalikas” (jellyfish) shots. These beasts taste like paint-stripper but we were determined to sample the local moonshine (although I think it’s made purely for tourists). I thought it looked rather beautiful. It was vile to drink. Some kind of vodka, zambucca and tabasco sauce concoction. I quite liked the tabasco, it was when I hit the zambucca I was struggling. Luckily we got sidetracked into conversation with a small army of Finish girls who were over on the boat for a cheap night out. None of us managed to finish our glasses of jellyfish…

  3. The blue sky at night

    We touched down in Estonia the day after Midsummer celebrations. The timing wasn’t great as we missed out on major party fun and giant bonfires, but we were amused and delighted all weekend by the fabulous blue skies that appeared to extend well into the night. Being that little bit closer to the North pole, Tallinn has longer days in the summer. We would periodically peer out of bar/restaurant windows as night crept on and exclaim “look, blue sky”. It never got old.

  4. The beach holiday moment I wasn’t expecting

    The weather in Tallinn was rather up and down, with bright sunshine one day and torrential downpours the next, but throughout it was very pleasantly warm. Luckily we decided to use the first day of bright sunshine to make the short taxi ride to the beach. From our conversations in the Valli bar the previous evening we learnt that Pirita Beach is the place to head when you want some beach time. So, after a fairly long day of sightseeing we decided to spend a well-deserved couple of hours on the sand. We jumped in a taxi and within 10 minutes we were walking out onto power sand and a beautiful view of flat calm Baltic sea. The water here is very shallow so you can paddle out a long way before taking a deep breath and sitting down to get your full body immersion in that refreshing icy water. The heat demanded it though and once you get your shoulders under you are truly invigorating and back in the world!It’s a really beautiful spot, with trees tumbling down right onto the beach, some beach apartments and a couple cafe/restaurants to keep you satiated. It seems to be mostly locals rolling out their towels and a very chilled way to spend an afternoon. Gazing over to the left you can see the spires of the old town, the Tallinn balloon making its “flight” up and down the line, and the giant ferries slowly leaving dock into the hazy afternoon

    A beach holiday in a couple hours. Complete down time. The salt in your hair, the sun
    on your shoulders and the sand in your toes. Ahhhh perfect…

  5. The tongue-tingling mind-expanding delicious cuisine

    The one thing I was not expecting what to have some of THE most delicious food I have ever tasted. And all packed into 3 days. We may have been lucky, but I can HIGHLY recommend these spots for food that will literally have you moaning out loud with food pleasure!

    Von Krahli Aed
    . For a romantic/cosy evening meal in the old town. Have the Roasted Rainbow Carrots and Pan Fried Trout. Don’t leave without having Magic Mushrooms for desert.F Hoone, in Telliskivi. Perfect for a lazy lunch with a large glass of wine. Could make decisions over this incredible menu, so went for two starters (and a large glass of wine). Grilled goats cheese with fig jam, beetroot pesto and raspberries, AND Spicy coconut soup with shrimp. Came back here again for brunch, and tried their beautiful (to look at and to taste) Botantist’s Gin cocktail.

    Mekk restuarant. We ducked in here to escape a torrential downpour and discovered the best rye bread in Tallinn. Classy place with sophisticated plates. I opted for delicious dumplings. The cocktails were out of this world.

    Rataskaevu 16. Just down the street from Von Krahli Aed. Stunning food in a stunning building. The service was exceptional – super friendly and welcoming. And the food was deeeeelicious!! I did two starters and a desert again here as couldn’t make decisions. Creamy tomato soup with smoked fish and lentil salad with goats cheese cream. Divine. The warm chocolate cake was the desert winner. Again, this place is perfect for a cosy evening meal. Watch out for the cabinet of moths and beetles in the ladies loo!

  6. The sinister secrets of the KGB
    The Viru hotel. Built by Russians and the only place that “foreigners” were allowed to stay during the Cold War. The hotel was built of the strongest and finest materials. The hotel had an incredible kitchen with top chefs, a hairdressers, the finest shops… all the things that you couldn’t get outside in the City. But the walls were filled with spy cameras and microphones, there were bugs in the ash trays and cooked into the crockery. The whole hotel was buzzing and humming with surveillance. The KGB ran this place and had whole floors out of limits where they were listening, watching, and sleeping. A man behind a newspaper in the bar. An old lady reading a book on one of the halls…. This short but exciting tour takes you up onto that “off limits” floor and gives you a peek behind the scenes of this fascinating hotel. Oh, and if you dare, you can stay there! Entrance to the KGB museum gets you free entrance to the
    nightclub. We didn’t risk it 😉
  7. The cool industrial hipster district

    Telliskivi is a seriously hip part of town with cafes, bars, boutique shops all nestled in warehouses covered in graffiti. Known as the “Creative City” this part of town was run down and crawling with undesirables in the fairy recent past. Now you can have lunch in a train carriage, browse the weird and wonderful flea market, take selfies along the graffiti wall, and sip some SERIOUSLY delicious cocktails at our favourite food/drink spot F Hoone. This place is super cool, photogenic and we didn’t see half of it! (our timing wasn’t great, as it was the holidays a lot was closed – so we had to window shop). Just across the train tracks outside the Old City, this place is a funky alternative spot to shop, eat, drink and be merry.

  8. The cab connectivity

    Somewhere I heard that Tallinn is the most digitally connected city in Europe. I’m not sure if it’s true but one digital experience that was noticeably superior to any place I’ve been recently is what I am referring to as the “cab-connectivity”. We had to use cabs as one of the girls was on crutches with a broken foot (not great on the cobbles!), otherwise you could easily walk everywhere. But the cabs were a DREAM. And this is because we used the app Taxify. Don’t pick up cabs on the street (if you do, check the yellow stickers and make sure the starting fare is low – they can vary from 2 Euros to 5…), use this app instead. It’s incredible. Your taxi is ordered and you are being whisked away within MINUTES (the max we had to wait was 5). You watch the taxi arrive on your map, rate your driver, and you can see the fare in advance, so no getting ripped off. They also have Uber there, which was supposed to be even
    cheaper, but we were VERY happy with this one!
  9. The karaoke bar that creates memories to inspire a movie

    I don’t know why but sometimes in these old and exciting cities, I would rather seek out a karaoke bar for a night of howling into a microphone over sticky drinks than hitting a local night spot for some dancing. Well, you can dance in karaoke bars! We randomly happened upon this karaoke bar on our Saturday night. It was down an alley and we had to pick our way over some off duty strippers who were taking a break outside a “Gentleman’s Club” at the entrance to said alley to get to the bar. It was sticky, neon, empty except for a very inebriated man who was leaning against the wall crooning badly into the mike. A group of locals looked up at us as we peered into the karaoke palace, bemused. I just knew we had to come back.

    I find those places deeply romantic. Not in the love sense of romance but in the “this feels like somewhere straight out of a novel or movie, about a girl on the run, adventuring across Europe. Meeting nameless characters and having lost conversations in sticky bars.

    So anyway, it didn’t take a HUGE amount of persuasion of my girlfriends to suggest we head along after dinner. Just for one song. We had the place to ourselves for the first 45 minutes, racking up all the power ballad favourites, ordering in the drinks. Jumping and spinning on our own private dancefloor. It was sticky-neon-singalong-heaven. Then our howls started attracting more punters and before long we had a small collection of those waifs and strays that always find their way into these kind of bars. Some boys from Austria wanting to join in our fun. A gang of Finish guys taking it very seriously, an older couple knocking our the Estonian favourites, and the bar man joined in with about 3 different versions of Wonderwall. It was hot and sweaty, we sang until our throats were raw, the movie was rolling. 4 hours passed in the blink of an eye.

  10. Serious but smiley; the friendly Estonians

    I seem to always say “the people are so friendly here”, but genuinely our experience of people in Tallinn was excellent. Most people were those who served us, so in bars, restaurants,  the dude in the Tallinn Balloon, our many taxi drivers… But all were interested in us and really helpful. The fabulous lady who met us at our AirBnB not only drove us around the local area to give us some orientation, she took us to the supermarket and waiting whilst we piled all manner of snacks into our basket and then she drove us home! The Estonians (or Tallinners) we met had an air of seriousness about them, but were incredibly welcoming. Our last encounter with a Tallinner was in the airport on the way home when we needed an escort with a wheelchair for our hobbling friend. Kaarel, a fabulous young man straight out of the army and now with his sights on University swept us through the airport, chatting about his life and dreams, Brexit, and all sorts, and got us quickly and safely onto the plan ahead of all the other passengers. With a serious face but a smiling face 🙂

Other things to do:

  • Cure a broken heart with a love potion from the Raeapteek pharmacy on the old square.
  • For the best views of Tallinn, take the 120m high flight on the Tallinn Balloon. Go before 10am to beat the crowds and get the best ticket price.
  • Stay in this very cool AirBnB. Close to all the action (walkable distance to the Old Town, Telliskivi, and two big supermarkets) and it has it’s own hammock for relaxing in the afternoon.
  • Spend a couple hours connecting to Tallinn’s recent past and the days of Russian and German occupation, at the Museum of Occupations.

 

 

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This year, my birthday coincided nicely with a prize that Chris won at work. A prize that was worth a lot of money. Money I would never chose to spend on what it was, but I was very happy to experience it… a night at the Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.

We arrived shortly after 3pm, it was a rather grey day and the light was fading fast as we were the other side of December 21st. The days were at their shortest. The dark sky was still full of rain, although it wasn’t falling, which was a relief.

As we parked we were met with by a very attentive concierge, who whisked our bright overnight bags away whilst we were then led on a short tour of the main house, the dining areas, the champagne lounge. Warm, cosy, expensive. Then onto our room “Sandalwood”. An African theme, a big plush bed, a tray with sherry and glasses, champagne on ice. Classical music playing. And a birthday card from Raymond!

I found a small box of sugared almonds. I devoured them. They were divine.

Off to explore the gardens. So beautiful, even in the fading light.
Amazing sculptures. Beautiful lines of kale in rows. The tranquil pond.

After dusk back to enjoy the warm, cosy room. The champagne on ice. The deep hot bath full of bubbles. The soft pillows and fat white duvet. Extra heavenly in contrast to our mid-renovation house at the moment. Glossy magazines filled with even glossier fashion and far-flung exotic destinations.

At 8.30 we headed to the champagne lounge for pre-dinner drinks. The wine menu was a little extravagant. Cheapest bottle £129. We opted for £17 cocktails. A tray of small but delicious appetizers appeared in front of us.

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Then we were led to the dining room for our 7 course menu.

SOUPE DE POTIRON, NOIX DE SAINT-JACQUES (Roasted pumpkin soup, scallop)

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CONFIT DE SAUMON, CONCOMBRE AIGRE-DOUX, CRESSON AND POMME DE TERRE (Confit of oak smoked salmon Loch Duart salmon, pickled cucumber, watercress and potato)

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OEUF DE POULE, CHAMPIGNONS SAUVAGES, TRUFFE D’AUTOMNE (Free-range hens egg, wild mushroom tea, autumn truffle)

FILET DE BARBUE, HUITRE, CONCOMBRE, WASABI (Braised fillet of Cornish brill, oyster, cucumber, wasabi)

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CHEVREUIL ROTI, CELERI-RAVE ET TRUFFE (Roasted loin of venison, celeriac and truffle)

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‘TROU NORMAND’ (Compressed apple facon tatin, Granny Smith sorbet and calvados)

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‘FRAICHEUR CAFÉ ET CHOCOLAT’ (Coffee panna cotta scented with orange. Macae chocolate ganache)

Each course amazing, delicious, different, new flavours, new textures, strong, powerful, beautiful. The anticipation of the next dish, the presentation stunning. Looking around at our fellow guests, trying to guess who they were, what they did. How they can afford a night here.

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After our full seven courses our stomachs were full with what we imagined were over 100 ingredients. Time to head back to dive into those crisp white sheets and get a start on digesting all that amazing food!

Breakfast the next morning was an incredible breakfast buffet with all the usual suspects, but these were Raymond Blanc usual suspects. Including an out-of-this-world Raymond granola bar (I had 3!!). I also ordered Eggs Benedict and a pot of Roibos tea. We had our final blasts in the hot shower, re-packed our overnight bags and then time for one final stroll around the herb garden before heading for home.

 

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I’ve just returned from a weekend in the Woods with 200 shiny people who were all buzzing at the edges with energy and ideas around escaping the Corporate world and embarking on what is known (in those circles) as a “21st Century Career”. But more on that later…

At the festival two things happened (well, again, much much more, but relevant to this post); 1. I turned my phone off for the weekend, and 2. I encountered an amazing group called the Rebel Book Club, with wonderfully book-obssessed people, who meet monthly to read and discuss a world-changing book. I have plans to join.

So today, back at my desk, fully hardwired back into interweb-networks, I found myself scanning their Twitter feed and a post to this article:

How Making Time for Books Made Me Feel Less Busy (Havard Business Review)

And I spend my very short lunch hour (not an hour) at my desk, reading the article and drinking my soup. Not really getting away from my glowing screen.

I immediately wanted to jump on Facebook to announce to my world (my Facebook world) that I was leaving Facebook for a month and heading to the mountains of digital detox-dom. But then I realised we have a New Year’s Resolution Club meeting next week and I need to be on Facebook to promote and so forth. Not that easy.

So instead, I have decided to follow Hugh McGuire’s excellent 3 step approach to becomming less busy through reading more books:

1. I get home from work, I put away my laptop (and Phone).

2. After dinner during the week, I don’t watch Netflix or TV, or mess around on the Internet. 

3. No glowing screens in the bedroom (Kindle is OK, though).

You’ll need to read How making time for books made me less busy for the positively bouncey benefits, and I am completely sold. This kills two birds with one stone – how to feed and nuture my bookworm, whilst taking baby steps towards a full on digital detox (which I’m not sure is entirely possible given that I work, but a partial, out of office hours detox could be the way forward).

I’ve been trying to get TV out of my life for ages, this may help. Netflix went last week, replaced with NowTV (so much better). So that will be a tough cookie.

My phone and ipad have been taking up residence on the bedside table (on top of the Kindle). I will now banish them to another room.

We have the builders coming in in less than two weeks and right now there are a million other things we should be doing rather than messing around on the internet. So I’m hoping this will really make a difference. Let’s give it a whirl for a month and see what happens!!

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My friend Anita has a beautiful outdoor porch. She uses it as her retreat, leaving the confines of the house with walls, out in the garden, surrounded by trees and the click and bleep of a thousand invisible insects.

This haven is set deep in a sub-division of Raleigh, North Carolina. I’m entranced by the exoticism of the garden surrounds; bright pink and purple flowers hanging heavy on tree branches. Red birds flitting around the feeder. And that noise. That jungle-loud insect cacophony that rings out from the dense woodland lining the housing estate, constant, other-worldly, hypnotic.

We paint on the porch. Picking over the long lines of white paint tubes, all spattered in a kaleidoscope of colours. Squeezing and dabbing and swirling that paint onto clean white canvases in many shapes and sizes. Seeing what flows from the brush. Listening to the bleeps, working alongside each other in silence, feeling waves of warm air drift through the porch, and out into the expansive woodlands behind.

Two big fans on the ceiling gently throw invisible sheets of cool air down on us, a welcome relief. We swill our brushes, heavy with turquoise, pink, orange, green, around in the murky water in the jam jar.

Faces emerge from our canvases. Lizards, birds, animals, humans. We rip and stick newspaper cuttings, messages from the print. Sequins, beads, glitter. Wash over with another layer of paint.

Our hands and legs grow freckles of paint. I have some in my water glass. A dab more, a dash here.

And then it’s done. We lift our canvases up to take a look, and prop them up on the mosquito netted windows to admire our latest creations.

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Beijing

The drive from the airport

Greener than I thought, although the green here is different, it’s a dry dark green. The leaves look like they can stand some serious heat. Mum told me of a friend who visited Beijing and didn’t see any birds. I saw two flocks on the way from the airport to the CBD. They were on the outskirts though. As my eyes scan the strange letters and the unfamiliar sights (motorcyclists with umbrellas for shade and oven gloves on to protect them from hot handles), I start to feel lucky, to have this opportunity to visit such far flung corners.

Fairly quickly we joined a tangle of highways, gridlocked into the centre. A good hour buffeted between the lines on the road, cutting across cars and weaving through the lines of vehicles. I could taste the fumes from within my air conditioned car.

The hotel, 05.24am GMT, 12.24PM local time

Safe inside my shimmering, glittery palace. Air cooled and conditioned to trap out those fumes. Pristine white sheets, spa-style bathroom products. A deep bath, a cup of jasmine tea, and some yoga to shake off the stiffness and lethargy of my 10 hour flight.

Tried to phone-home, or at least fire up Facebook or Gmail to post or email. Internet times out. I think the sites are blocked. It lets me into my work email, so I can send my signal home

The first afternoon.

Walked miles in my flipflops. Intense heat searing down, slowing my western steps to fall in line with the eastern meander. Lines of metallic umbrellas in every shade of pastel, beating back the sun. People crowded into shady spots. Queues to get into Tiananmen Square and the surrounds. Inadvertently found myself standing in the queue, the one I was told to avoid. Oh well, go with the flow, it’s too hot to go against it.
Beautiful ornate roofs, lined with fearsome animals protecting the temples from fire. The scale of the Forbidden City is huge. I walked for miles. It just kept going, Lots of pictures, stops in the shade. The orange tiles glimmering and shimmering in the heat.

At the far northern side of the city is the Imperial Garden. Some welcome nooks and crannies to find escape from the sun. Rocks, gnarly trees, fountains and pagodas.

Wound my way back through some hutongs, peering into old and crumbly courtyards. Stopped to buy a strange pastry snack and an even stranger cold sour yoghurt drink. Trying to fit in with the locals. Somehow, what felt like hours later, popped up in the shiny Oriental Plaza, home to my hotel.

Grabbed an ice coffee from Starbucks on the Plaza. Lay briefly on my pristine white sheets. Dozed off for a second before jumping up – NO STAY AWAKE. Another bath, called my contact in Beijing, a friend of a friend – he’s taking me out to eat tonight. I need a beer and some food that isn’t scary looking.

Oh, and there are birds everywhere!

Day 2: The office

There is nothing like having heavy eyelids first thing in the morning. Set up in an office on the 15th floor of Tower E2. Strong sugary coffee at my side. It’s nice working at this time. My laptop clock tells me it’s 3.50am in the UK. My American colleagues are just about to say goodnight. The world falls silent around me. Beijing, however, remains noisy. The gentle thrum of the air con in the corner and the musical bib-bib of the horns of Beijing traffic outside my window. Yes, Beijing, I know you are there, you cannot be ignored.

The rain storm

Mid-afternoon, the air is thickening in the office despite the air-conditioning. The ring of the car horns continues outside. A low rumble joins in. The view from the 15th floor has turned grey, diagonal lines of rain streak across the view. The pavements far below are slick. The storm sets in.

The evening

Battling heavy eyelids all afternoon, leave work just before 6 back to my hotel room, to lie down and drift off into a hazy sleep for a couple of hours. A delicious night in the hotel with unadventurous room service and HBO. And sleep.

Day 3: The Great Wall

Up early and into a cab to get to Nan Luo Gu Xiang. A funky street ploughing through the middle of a labyrinth of hutongs. It’s early so everything is shut, a few locals busying about their days. Window shopping on the way down. Peering into hidden alleys. Find the hostel, wait with the backpackers, get in the van, drive for 3 hours.

Walk the wall at Jingshanling. It’s majestic, built up in places, crumbly in others, snaking over the green mountains, the dramatic countryside with its rolling hills and valleys stretching out as far as the eye can see. And as far as the eye can see there’s more wall and more turrets.

With my new backpacker buddies we trek up the many steps, in the blazing heat, learning each other’s stories and stopping for shelter from the sun at each turret. Sweat clings our tshirts to our bodies, the temptation of ice cold coke or ice cold beer by the farmer’s wives at each turret. We push on. Taking photos on each and every corner and new views of the sweeping wonder reveal themselves. 6km and about 2.5 hours later we’ve made it. Hearts hammering and all now good friends, I finally give in to a persistent farmer’s wife. A fresh T-Shirt “I climbed the Great Wall” and an ice cold coke, for the heavily bargained down price of 20 Yuan (about £2.40). We climb down from turret 22 to the car park below and get back on our blue bus for the 3 hour trip home.

Back in Beijing and at the Backpackers place the road that was so quiet this morning is now pumping. It’s packed with local cool kids, promenading and posing up and down the alley. Bars and cafes blast music, neon lights flicker, karaoke is underway. Bright coloured drinks bubble, meat is served on skewers. People stop every 5 seconds for another selfie…

I wait to meet Dave and Bridget but they’re late. A lot of people watching later I give up and head to the subway, then I get a text – they’re here! Stuck in the throng. I walk back to meet them and find them with “the beast” their motor tricycle. It’s amazing but slow moving in the people crowd. I hop on the back and Bridget carefully guides us through the crowd. We pop out at the end of the lane and navigate crossing the exceptionally busy road. It’s exhilarating waiting in the middle of this huge intersection with cars whizzing past me, blowing up my hair from being so close, and bibbing very loudly.

We head down a quite dark road, passing a park with a bunch of older women doing a choreographed dance to tinny music, and find a cute little restaurant, lit up with red lanterns. Dave orders plates of food and beers and we settle in for a much needed dinner.

After we get back on the beast and head towards my hotel – we’re nearly there anyway, weaving in and out of the maze of streets we suddenly pop out on Wanfujing Street, the main shopping street, Bridget hops off and heads for home whilst Dave drives me at top speed through the late night shoppers and back to drop me off at my hotel. A final swim before heading for bed.

Day 5: Sunday in Beijing

Lie in. Breakfast. Work.

Subway to Jishuitan. Walk along main drag, shops of every kind. Duck into a street cutting through more hutongs. Weird and wonderful alleys. Coffee shop with strange animal in cage.

Walk around the hutong tour area. Then onto the lake. Duck palace. Come back and over the Silver ingot Bridge. Watch karaoke singer with everyone else. Then back onto depths of hutongs, some quiet, some crazy. Shady temples, pop into bar for iced tea and to escape the heat. Regroup.

Head to the park to watch the locals with their pride and joy only children, all dressed up and parading. The lake is beautiful with the view of the White Pagoda, the lake is full of boats, duck shaped, lotus flower shaped.

Visit the 9 dragon mural and get a call from Dave and Bridget – go and join them back in the hutongs for a massage.

Massage is insane, breaks me and puts me back together. Howling in pain from the Great Wall yesterday. Come out feeling like I’m floating on a cloud.

Get on “the Beast” and heat north past the Drum Tower to another hot spot and have a dinner of delicious dumplings before I say my final farewells to Dave and Bridget and jump in a taxi back to the Wangfujing street. Final stop is the Night Market and then Snack Street to see skewers of scorpions (live) and Seahorses, and the pained expression of someone singing Chinese opera, before I hot foot it back to the hotel room to Face Time with Chris, have a bath, pack, check in for my very early flight tomorrow, and bed.

Shanghai

The journey from the airport

I take the maglev bullet train from the airport to Longyang Station. An 8 minute journey. On this one you really feel the acceleration as I watched the on-board speedometer rapidly tick up to 431km per hour. Being the only tourist (so it seems) on the airport train, I sneak a photo. The whole carriage tips as we round a corner. My heart quickens. I love fast trains.

After the joy of the bullet train, I decide to take a taxi the rest of the way. Some guy at the station leads me round a corner to a taxi. It didn’t feel quite right. 30 minutes and 400 RMB lighter I know I’ve been ripped off. Frustrating, but that’s China sometimes.

The afternoon in the French Concession

Monday is a public holiday in China. I’m now at the start of our conference week and I am starting to see some familiar faces checking into our Shanghai hotel. I do some work, settle into my hotel room, and then decide to go for a walk. Being inside the hotel is dark and oppressive. I head out into the French Concession.

I decide to loosely follow a “90 minute walk around the French Concession” from my guide book. Heading out of the hotel and find the main road and start my journey. The air is thick and heavy with humidity. Trees hang over the road to make a tunnel of dripping leaves. It feels more tropical here. South East Asia, or New Orleans spring to mind. I pass boutiques and small local shops filled with fruits and plastic toys. Men and women sitting on low chairs in their doorways. The atmosphere is very relaxed. Bicycles ride up and down the long streets. Birds sing in cages, hung from balconies overhead. Occasionally there’ll be a break in the shops and my view will open up to a construction site, with huge skyscraping buildings towering up into the overcast sky. Progress.

I stop enroute at one of many funky looking coffee shops. Relieved by the air conditioning and the comforting feel of takeout cup in hand, and the welcoming taste of milky coffee. I walk for about 40 minutes, turning left, then right, enjoying the feeling of a new strange city, so completely different to the one I was in a few hours ago. Enjoying the feeling of moisture on my skin, the fragrances here, the gentle new sounds, the more mellow atmosphere.

I find a park and wander in. Elderly Chinese people sitting on benches, on the exercise machines, enjoying their afternoons by doing, well, not much really.

Quite by accident I stumble across a labyrinth of shops and bars and restaurants. Crammed into packed little lanes. Weird and wonderful boutiques and eateries. It’s much busier here. Young people bustling around. I let myself be taken along with the sweep of humans. Bright colours, loud noises, close contact. A lot to take in. I pop out on a the main street and buy a pink plastic umbrella. It’s about to rain, I can feel it.

I feel the ping of my blackberry and my colleague has arrived at the hotel. We agree a meeting point , a subway ride away. The subway is surprisingly easy and clean. I even tell a tourist how to buy a ticket, and it’s my first time too!

30 minutes later I pop out on Nanjing Road. The main drag, Nanjng Road. Shanghai High Street. Big, wide, busy. The Apple Store looms. Another side of China. Another side of everywhere. I dodge the people trying to sell me selfie-sticks and wheels to put on my feet and take a pew to people watch and wait for Clare. We meet and walk down the drag to get to the Bund.

A beautiful man-made skyline. A line up of concrete souls rising up out of the river. Space craft.
We catch a ferry to get on the water and find ourselves enjoying another view from the foot of those stunning skyscrapers, whilst drinking German beer and eating Goulash.

We walk along the river promenade. It’s dark now and the Bund is alit with neon. The skyline takes on another personality. The people of Shanghai are out in force, promenading along the banks. Small children throw glow in the dark missiles into the sky.

My guidebook tells me about a kitsch tunnel that you can take back under the river. We finally find it and climb into the ski-lift carriage which takes us back under the river. This bizarre experience reminds me of the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the original) when they go into the factory for the first time. I expect to see an oompa lumpa.

The week at work

I’m here on a work conference with our Asian sales teams. It’s an intense week of workshops, presentations, and brainstorms. We’re in a conference room in the hotel which is feels far away from Shanghai. Most of our meals are served in the restaurant, which serves an abundance of food, but I’m not entirely sure what most of it is and I don’t feel that adventurous after hearing they served turtle on the first day.

It’s amazing to spend time with my colleagues from all over the world. We get to steel back into steamy Shanghai in the evenings, with foamy beers in nearby bars, watching the locals perform their evening dance routines in the park, we take a trip to a big shiny Chinese restaurant in Wu Gardens, and another jaunt to see the Bund again. One night I take the marketing ladies back to my discovered labyrinth. We find a cosy Thai restaurant and have cocktails and green curry, a welcome break from the Chinese food!

Our final night we say our goodbyes to our colleagues as they head back out to their corners of the world. There are a few people left (mostly from the Middle East team!) and we head out for Lebanese food. We’re all tired, and after a beer at the Boxing Cat Brewery, we head back to the hotel. A second wind then catches us all and we end up in a Bowling Alley after midnight, followed up by a massive night club with booming base and vodka flowing. Another city that never sleeps.

My last day in Shanghai

I’d always planned a final day in Shanghai before flying home but wasn’t sure what would happen. One of my newly acquainted colleagues from India invited me along to spend the day with a friend of her friend, a French lady living in Shanghai. Why not?

So, we have a whirlwind day buzzing around Shanghai, taxi hopping between old and new all day. From a delicious dimsum place to the Wu Gardens (this time in the day) for temples, shops, the tourist bridge and some turtle spotting. From the local bird and flower market, spotting crickets in plastic balls and baby chicks and baskets of terrapins, to the multi-floored “fake market” with handbags and sunglasses from every “designer” under the sun. We walked through an antique market that was in the process of being pulled down, small kiosks crammed with “antiques” surrounded by piles of rubble. Back to the Bund and this time up to the 32nd floor of the Hyatt for a Peachocolada cocktail with one of the best views of my trip. That neon river scene, and the classic Shanghai aerial shot that you see in all the movies. We ended up in a really funky contemporary restaurant, Japanese and China fusion. Beer in round bottomed glasses and mouth-watering fusion food before being whisked off in our last taxi for our final goodbyes and to pack, as my China trip had come to a close and an early morning taxi to the airport beckoned.

Beijing and Shanghai, two very different siblings, the older is more formal, traditional, unlike any city I’ve ever visited, the other young, vibrant, full of life but trying to be like others around it. It was a privilege and a joy to experience both side by side. I’ve only seen a scratch of China and now I crave to get out into the country-side and see a whole other side. The cities are loud, proud and attention seeking, and next time I’ll head farther afield.

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I have just returned home from my first ever trip to Japan and I’m slowly unpacking and going over fresh memories from the last 9 days. Before my visit I was expecting to be dazzled by Japan and it’s quirkiness and I was not disappointed, although the things that captured my heart and imagination may not have been the obvious things, I kept a list by my hotel bed of those quirks that fascinated and delighted me along the way. So here are twenty things I love about Tokyo (in no particular order)…

  1. Warm toilet seats. And all the other wonderful functions of a Japanese toilet.

  2. Style. Socks and sandals/high heels working together. Clear umbrellas. Funky backpacks. Nail transfers. Pink hair. Matching outfits being the epitome of cool.

  3. Same same but different. It looks kind of the same as home. A big city with city buildings and city roads winding around. They drive on the left, they have a circle line. The weather at this time of year is even the same. But it’s not the same. A different current runs beneath. It’s quirky, it’s subtle, and it’s very, very different.

  4. Respect and rules. The depth of the bow, the exchange of business cards, where you sit in respect to the door, taking your shoes off, putting on plastic sandals for the bathroom. It feels safe there. Order is maintained.

  5. Karaoke. Perhaps a symbol of throwing caution of the wind in the face of the rules. After dark (or actually, 24 hours a day) on every corner, glass palaces of rooms built for singing. Pick up a tambourine and set of maracas, order your included drink, turn on the mic and select your song. Then abandon your senses with the music. Repeat. 3 times a week, if you have good sense (as I did!)

  6. Tokyo Hands. A 9 floor department store packed with the weird and wonderful. Personal stationary. Gadgets for non-surgical face lifts. Cute things to pimp your phone. DIY. Lunchboxes. All the things you didn’t know you wanted or needed.

  7. Green tea and plastic food. In my whole 9 days in Tokyo I had back to back delicious food, from the cheapest to the most expensive, all happy, healthy and delicious. The green tea is sublime, like nothing I’ve tasted in the UK, the ramen, the katsu curry, the sashimi and sushi, the gyoza, the many forms of chicken tasted in a chicken restaurant, all looking better than the plastic food displayed out the front to tempt in customers, all tasting better than the next. The drink equally intriguing and delicious, from the ume (plum) sour, to the sapporo beer to the warm saki. All good.

  8. Sound effects everywhere. Bird song piped into the corridors of our hotel, muzac blasted on the train platform, bleeping in the street to guide the blind.

  9. The Tokyo Tower, lit up like lucozade in the night. A garish Eiffel Tower, providing a perch for the view of the Tokyo skyline.

  10. People watching. On the train all eyes are down, each body entranced by their mobile phones, I get a chance to keep my eyes up and have a good look around. Fascinating.

  11. Cuteness (Kawaiiii!!!). Tortoro, Hello Kitty, a weird fried egg thing and 5 floors of kitsch cute craziness in Kiddyland. Phone jewellery, every company has a mascot, every advert has bunnies. Pose for a photo, throw up the V sign, get ready to be cute.

  12. Shibuya. Scrambling on the world’s most famous pedestrian crossing. Walking the neon lit streets, peering into small izakayas, karaoke bars, pachinko parlours, the noise, the people, the lights, the life. This is the Tokyo from my imagination.

  13. Juxtaposition, spending £12 on a cocktail in the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt (a la Lost in Translation), then grabbing a 450 Yen curry from a vending machine at the station.

  14. Cherry Blossoms. We missed the main season but there were a few final trees throwing out their beautiful blooms at Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens. Each day punctuated with a dash of pink.

  15. Salary men. Getting drunk and passing out on the train. Cramming into small bars and restaurants, lined up in their disheveled black suits. Reading comics on the trains. Faces red, ties squiffy.

  16. Vending machines. On every corner. A can of hot coffee, the most delicious dinner.

  17. Godzilla. Seen on the streets of Tokyo.

  18. Cafes. For cats, dogs, rabbits, owls. Didn’t make it to any of them, but I know they’re there.

  19. The bullet train. I swooned at the sleek lines of this rocket ship that stays on the ground. So beautiful.

  20. Fuji-san. After a week of searching for him in the haze, I saw him from the train, peeking from cloud cover. One day I’ll return in the summer and climb to the top!

So that’s my list, but even now there are more things that pop into my memory, after work drinks at an off-license that converted into a bar, stepping out into the patchwork streets of Shimokitazawa, singing Pearl Jam and Les Miserables in our glass corner Karaoke room in Shibuya, sneaking peeks at beautiful brides during a morning trip to the Meiji Shrine, a haphazard driving tour of Tokyo, taking in the Asashi building, the Imperial Palace, the Sumo stadium and ending up mixing and making okonomiyaki on a high floor in the Ebisu building. Green tea kit kats, wrestling with chop sticks, high fiving with drunken salary men, and the wonderful, warm hospitality of my work colleagues.

I have fallen in love with the city on the island on the other side of the world. It’s left new memories, new flavours, new sights, new experiences for every sense. And for that I can only say…

Arigatōgozaimas!!!!!

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