Thursday, 8 December 2011

A Christmas market, Parisian style

I almost hate to admit it (because it leaves me disappointed that I left visiting for so long, when it was always very much in reach), but Paris really impressed me. Completely different in atmosphere from the others areas of France we'd been to before - more cosmopolitan, faster-paced, yet still retaining a 'local' feel - it boasted great architecture, even-better-in-real-life sights and a warmth of feeling. Sure, people replied in English when we were trying very hard with our French (and both speak a reasonable amount), and yes, I did feel rather out of place next to the designer coats/boots/scarves, but overall we met with nothing but friendly faces, an easy to navigate environment and a place we both agreed we need to see more of.

Anyway, we still had pretty much a full day left, and had heard from the lovely family at the Eiffel tower about the Christmas market along the Champs Elysees, so the following morning we wrapped up warmly and set out, hoping to kill a couple of birds with one stone.

Christmas market or not, we had always intended to head in that direction to visit another of the infamous Parisian sights - the Arc de Triomphe. Napoleon's victory gate is a dominant feature of the landscape, seven major roads branching off like a fan in every direction. The Arc sits on an island in the middle, traffic rushing underneath, the pale stone simultaneously graceful and solid. We found our way through the subway to the centre, first staring upwards at the sweeping curve of the Arc and it's carved facades, and then down to our feet to read the bronze inscriptions charting the periods of French history it commemorates and remembers.

After we'd finished at the Arc, we crossed via the subway once more, and started down the Champs Elysees, half of the famous shopping street temporarily given over to the Christmas market. There was the typical mulled wine and German sausage stalls, crafts and toys, but also the Parisian touch with cashmere scarves and jumpers and lots of fur and chic bags. We were tempted by chocolate fancies, and eventually settled for waffles covered with rich chocolate sauce and smothered in strawberries. A few Christmas presents and a couple of cups of mulled wine later, and we managed to tear ourselves away.

With a short time left until our train, we walked to the Madeleine church not far from the market; a beautiful Parthenon-style building mounted on steps and looming over the surrounding streets. There was a small christening taking place, so we sat down quietly for a short while as small boys dressed in cute suits in the christening party offered sweets to all the visitors wandering around the church. A kind gesture that summarised our experience of Paris in the shape of a small cellophane wrapper. Coming out, we took a final walk down some of the side streets before making out way to the Gard du Nord and our waiting train home.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

An evening at the Eiffel Tower

Waddling out of the restaurant after our huge lunch, and not quite ready for more walking, we hopped back on the metro to Trocadero. Boasting a platform perfect for viewing the Eiffel tower in all her glory, it was packed with cameras (and a person hanging off the end of each one, naturally). Families posed for photos, friends took turns positioning their hands in just the right place so it appeared it were holding up/pushing down the tower ("a little to the left, no, to the right, no it was better before...") and couples kissed, holding the pose while a kind stranger clicked a few shots. Our token effort at a photo in front of the tower (self-taken) resulted in me having an Eiffel tower hat - clearly needing a bit more practise at the self-portrait shots.

Darkness was already creeping towards us, so we walked down and across to the park opposite, walking underneath the huge complex structure as we did so. Much more impressive close up than at a distance, the soaring criss-cross of metal loomed over our heads, browner than I had imagined but looking as new as the day it was built. We watched the sky darken from a covered bench, chatting to a family who visit Paris every year, before walking back underneath the black sky and watching the tower light up with hundreds of twinkling lights, flashing on and off to mark the hour before settling into a soft glow.

We returned back to Trocadero to experience the full effect of the evening gloom on our surroundings; the tower a solid beacon of light, the racing traffic underneath a blurred white line. Impressive by day, it was by night that the tower's beauty was revealed. Eventually getting a little too cold, we stopped off at a local supermarket to grab some baguettes, cheese and wine, and enjoyed a makeshift picnic-dinner with some of our favourite French delights.

Monday, 5 December 2011

From fine art to stone gargoyles: a weekend in Paris

After an intense period of work, a weekend lay blissfully free in our diary. No obligations or plans, and no urgent work that needed doing. In other words, a weekend that was crying out for a short city break away... After meeting a lovely French couple in the summer, F and I had recently laughed about the fact that we'd been to some of the furthest reaches of the planet, but had never hopped across the water to Paris. We've both spent times in other areas of France in the past, and had even driven around the capital, but had never ventured inside.

A quick look on the eurostar website and one cheap hotel deal later, and we were set to go. It never fails to astound me that I can spend a weekend abroad for less money than a comparable stay in a nearby B&B would cost. Friday arrived, and after a pleasant couple of hours on the very efficient eurostar we were in the centre of Paris ready for a weekend of relaxing and exploring.

After finding the metro easy and quick to navigate, we located our hotel and had a full night's sleep. The following morning, up early, we set off for the Louvre. Although it was the first weekend of the month, and entrance would be free the following day, we'd heard stories of huge queues winding around the pyramid, and decided to pay the 10 euro to save time and our sanity.

Of course, we couldn't visit the Louvre without saying hello to the immortal first lady of France, so made a beeline straight up the Mona Lisa before too many people arrived. Although I can see why the painting is so loved, it isn't really my sort of art, and the imposing thick glass and cordoned area remove most of the atmosphere. After a brief stop, we moved on, staggered by some of the incredibly huge paintings and thoroughly enjoying wandering through the sculptures. The winged victory, overlooking a central staircase, was particularly magnificent, as were the cold yet expressive pale marbles of the Greek statues. Naturally, the solemn and serious expressions we'd assumed while scrutinising the art turned to immature giggles once we set eyes on our new friend below, who looked as if he was holding an iphone up to take a self-portrait. We could just imagine the facebook/twitter status update: 'Me vanquishing a massive beastie. LOL.'

As the visitor numbers grew, we took our leave of the Louvre, and went outside to wander around the impressive pyramid and surrounding buildings with their rich, delicate detail. If anything, the relentless rain which had been a fixture since the previous evening made the colours come alive, and didn't dampen our spirits (no pun intended...).

We walked along the river to Notre Dame, fronted by a huge Christmas tree. After exploring the interior, we joined the queue for the tower, and spent a cold and damp hour waiting to ascend. Once we finally made it to the front of the line, we were becoming a little impatient, and dashed for the stairs. Around 100 steps up the narrow winding tower, and we were beginning to regret the quick pace we'd set. As is probably obvious by now, myself and steps do not get on, so I'm not sure what I though I was hoping to achieve by attempting to run up them. 300 stairs in, and we were both feeling dizzy, and despite people behind us having slowed down, we still felt guilty in case we were holding anyone up. By the time we finally emerged into the open air, I needed a sit down.

After a short recovery (and lamenting the large dinner of the previous night and the morning's snacks...), we set off gargoyle hunting. As much as I heard of the little stone figures in the past, or seen pictures, I was incredibly impressed. Each with it's own personality, watching over the city eternally, they were beautiful, creepy and majestic all in equal parts. After unsuccessfully attempting to imitate their poses/faces for photos and nipping inside to see the great bell, we made our way up yet more stairs to the very top of the cathedral for a sweeping view across the city before descending once more.

Feeling like we had earned our lunch by then, we found a gorgeous little French restaurant on a side street and hunkered down out of the cold and rain for some thick and cheesy onion soup, creamy mussels, steak and cheese tart, washed down with some nice red wine. An utterly delicious way to build up our energy for the afternoon.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

China: Do's and Don'ts!

China is a country unlike any I've been to before. There are more people than I thought it was possible to squeeze into a space (you have to see it to believe it!), and this has a huge affect on the attitude and actions of those living there. In order to get ahead, there is a degree of ego-centrism needed, and although this can result in a bit of pushing and shoving, we met a number of people who also stopped to ask if we needed help when we clearly looked a little lost, and the physical demands on infrastructure mean that on the whole, things are up-to-date and work efficiently. Here are some do's and don'ts to help get the most out of a trip...


- Take advantage of the brilliant metro system. Clean, shiny-new trains, English signs and cheap prices - the metro system is popping up in major cities and was the best way to get around - providing you avoid rush hour! Put down a deposit on a metro card if staying more than a few days and it can be topped up quickly at one of the many English language ticket machines. One of the best underground networks I've ever been on.

- Be prepared to put on a bit (or a lot...) of weight sampling the delicious variety of Chinese food on offer. From regional delicacies to the universal noodle soups, the cuisine was incredible. Best of all were the 'cook it yourself' options such as the very spicy Sechun hotpot, where you can tailor your choices and see what you are eating. Most restaurants we visited had some form of English language menu (often including comedy translations - "michellaneous bacteria" being one of my personal favourites), although even the Chinese menus have pictures to give you an idea. If you have any taboo foods then check the menus carefully - there are some ingredients we won't eat on principle which crop up often - leading to a near disaster when we spotted a yummy looking soup on 'special price' which we realised contained shark fin. Luckily, we managed to grab the waiter and change our choice in time, but be aware.

- Come prepared for the effect China will have on your body. Although this one might sound strange, I had never imagined the physical impact the country (and particularly Beijing) would have. The smog coupled with pollution left my hair sticky and grimy, my skin dry and dull, my head pounding and my body lethargic. A decent supply of headache tablets will ease the third problem, whilst the others might just require some TLC on your return home. If you are very sensitive to any of the above, then timing your trip to coincide with the best weather and pollution conditions might be wise.


- Be disheartened by the sheer number of visitors at every popular sight. From the thousands of people flooding the Forbidden City to the many groups on the Great Wall, Chinese tourists by far outnumber foreign visitors, and there are many of them. Our experience at the Terracotta army was a classic example of the detriments of this, but don't despair. Hidden gems such as the tomb of emperor Jingdu were virtually empty as they don't make it onto the tour itinieries, and if you can give yourself enough time at the big sights (a whole day for each would be ideal), then as soon as you spot a flood of groups, retreat to the nearest cafe and watch them swarm in and then out before continuing your own visit.

- Expect much spoken English, but also don't panic about being able to get around. Although it is true that the level of spoken English is very low, we always found enough English language signs to lead us in the right direction. The newer museums nearly always have multi-language displays, and learning a few Chinese words will take you a long way. Please, thank you, no thank you, can I have the bill and a few numbers took us far, and good old-fashioned pointing at a map or hand gestures often got the point across. - Forget to the play the wonderful translated signs game. An oldie but a goodie, finding the best translation is always fun. Along with our 'michellaneous bateria', but also had 'no slapsticking' at the Great Wall (clearly other forms of comedy are fine...), and my absolute favourite 'no flushing when meeting emu' in an overnight train toilet.

Like this post? Check out others on China:

The less-famous tomb: Xi'an's hidden gem
Cute, fluffy eating machines: Pandas in Sichuan

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Exploring The Forbidden City and Summer Palace

With the smog still lingering but no longer bothering us quite as much, we spent the next couple of days exploring the huge palatial complexes within the city. The Forbidden City, a maze of buildings surrounded by a high wall and moat smack bang in the centre of Beijing was first up, the crowds even early in the morning confirming once again that there is no 'low season' in China!

We purchased a very cheap map at the entrance after giving in a rather persistent hawker, and it turned out to be a stroke of luck. The central route passing through the biggest buildings is quite straightforward, but the endless identical smaller buildings clustered around the sides, intersected by alleys, are a real maze. Interlocking roofs covered perfectly formed courtyards, with ornamental shaped trees and detailed gateways.

The city revealed some unusual features, from a huge fake 'mountain' to trees formed to make arches, and some beautiful examples of traditional statues and sumptuously decorated rooms. There were a few exhibitions well worth checking out, from the elaborate hall of clocks (if you are there at 2pm they wind a few up and set them off) to the gorgeous imperial jewellery rooms, with intricate jade and coral creations.

Hours and a couple of pairs of aching feet later we finally emerged on the other side, impressed with the sheer scale of the city. We spent the evening in the business district, containing the longest LCD screen in the world - a huge open air display stretching out over our heads. After another delicious dinner (this time of Beijing duck), we were ready to tackle the second palace area the next day.

The Summer Palace, located in the north west of Beijing, was a completely different experience. A large park, complete with winding paths up and down slight hills, the buildings were tucked away providing points of interest to stop at. The main focus point is a vast lake, complete with a marble boat and covered walkway. Keeping only half an eye on our map, we wandered through the paths, finding colourful gates, elegant bridges and near-empty buildings. Within a park so large, the crowds soon thin out, and we had periods of time where there was no-one else around.

Although we enjoyed the Summer Palace, I'm sure that its overall effect is better in the summer months. The smog and light rain obscured the lake completely, the colours duller and the paths slippery. It was still a nice relaxing morning, with the added bonus of a bit of fresh air!

After leaving the palace, we hopped on the metro and headed south to the antiques market, a wonderful collection of stalls selling everything from jade to old coins, bronzes and game sets. How many are actually 'antiques' is debatable (although if you believe the sellers there's an awful lot of imperial objects for just a few dollars...), but it's great to wander around and grab a bargain or two.

The rest of our days in Beijing were spent exploring the restaurants (of course!), some small city markets and the very interesting art district, with its imposing sculptures and bare factory buildings filled with edgy shops and numerous art students. Soon it was time to bid farewell to China, and although my stomach was unhappy leaving the cuisine behind, the rest of my body was looking forward to recovering from the smoggy air.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Only in China: Tobogganing at the Great Wall

You know those great photos of the Great Wall? The ones with sweeping views over miles of hills, the wall snaking up and down grassy mounds, towers breaking up the line? Soft blue skies with maybe a little haze?

Yep. I don't have any of those. In fact, if I hadn't had been looking for it, I might have missed the wall altogether...

On our return back in Beijing, the smog had decided to rear its ugly head and was so thick that we couldn't see the next building in the morning. Undeterred, we were determined to make the most of our time and set of for the wall nevertheless, bypassing Badaling (are the horror stories about there as never-ending as they seem to be?) and going a little further afield to Mutianyu. This part of the wall was relatively quiet, and we soon caught the cable car up the hill.

Once at the top, we mounted the wall, and squinted. The smog was so heavy that we could see only a few metres in front of us clearly, the far hills indistinct blobs. We had a sense of a winding wall, but it wasn't quite as I'd imagined. As we walked up and down the wide steps, the smog lifted slightly and we were able to see further, but it still wasn't the view of the classic photos. However, the smog also gave us some advantages. The thick mist gave an eerie perspective, and the autumnal trees in soft reds, oranges and yellows looked beautiful against the grey of the stone.

We spent time exploring the towers and watching the wall fade in front of us, smiling at fellow visitors we kept bumping into, and enjoying the cool weather - perfect for huffing up and down the steep inclines.

Once we had finished, all there was left to do was get back down again. We could have taken another cable car, but a much better exciting opportunity presented itself. A sign led us to the most unlikely thing I could have imagined - a toboggan ride down the hill. A shiny silver slide wound 1000m, allowing us to wizz down to the base of the wall site. Although I'd been on a very similar slide before in Switzerland, it was the oddest feeling, sitting on a narrow piece of plastic with a rickety brake looking out on the Great Wall of China whilst waving at the safety personnel as I zoomed by.

Not very conventional, but hey, when in China...

Monday, 14 November 2011

A taste of Sichuan spice

Once we'd crossed pandas off of our list, it was time to tackle the spicy food for which Sichuan is commonly known. The favourite local dish is 'hotpot', so we scouted out a recommended local restaurant and after waiting a short while for a table (this place was popular - always a good sign!), we settled in, rumbling stomachs increased by the delicious smells around us.

The hotpot is a simple concept - a big spicy broth with some veg into which different meats are cooked, using the broth to boil and flavour the meat. We were able to pick our meat - choosing skewers for which we would will billed at the end, and cook it all ourselves at our table. There were some interesting choices on offer... whole fish skewered down the middle, from mouth to tail, bits of stomach on sticks, and a big whole brain wobbling on a plate from which you could have a slice.

Nothing was labelled in English, and being slathered in more spice it was difficult to tell what we were picking up. Tiny nibbles once cooked helped (the stomach was soon discarded once we'd had a taste...), and also prevented me from burning my mouth too much - although perhaps the gallons of drink I quaffed helped with that too. After a while the chili sort of coats your mouth, numbing it a little, but it's definitely a hot experience!

Pandas and good food - what more could a person want?!

Cute, fluffy eating machines: Pandas in Sichuan

Another overnight train - this time a 16 hour journey - and we found ourselves in the Sichuan district, known primarily for spicy food and those cute black and white beasties - pandas. We were determined that any trip to China would involve these lovely animals (and F was rather keen on the spicy food too), and being quite anti-zoo - particularly anti Beijing zoo from what we'd heard, our only option was a considerable detour out west.

Chengdu as a city was a real surprise. Modern and bustling, it was also friendly and welcoming. Within minutes of getting out at our subway stop and trying (and failing) to decipher the small and outdated map we had, someone had stopped to offer help and we were back on our way.

Grateful to stretch our legs after the long train ride, we hopped on the local bus to the panda research centre around an hour outside of the city. As with all places that use 'enclosures', we weren't sure what to expect, but had read good reviews of the centre and were keen on their policy of breeding for re-introduction to the wild. The centre was huge, with very generous outdoor enclosures for each panda mimicking their natural environment as best they can. One of the keepers told us they ship in around 5 tonnes of bamboo a week from a relatively nearby farm, with the adult pandas eating up to 40kg a day!

The pandas were lovely - munching constantly on their food and playing around in the brief breaks between consumption and sleeping. After a couple of hours we had to leave to catch the last bus back to the city, but arranged to come back the following morning spending a day on the 'keeper program'.

Bright and early the next day we were back, and after some information about the centre from our guide, kitted up in protective gear and helped with the morning feeding and cleaning of the indoor enclosure spaces. Weighing the panda poo was an interesting experience - the keepers have to monitor the food intake of each panda, and the easiest way to do so is to see how much comes out the other end. The high fibre content means the poo doesn't smell at all, which was a very good job as despite the protective clothing I still managed to get it all up my trousers...

After a morning's hard work, we had a break for lunch and were then given a guided tour, spotting the baby (and very tiny) pandas out on a blanket for a bit of sun, and the gorgeous russet coloured red pandas with their huge bushy tails. Stocking up on panda toys for just about every young child we know, we finished the day and headed back to the bus stop. And that's when things went a bit wrong. After our great experience with the bus the day before, we had committed the ultimate travel faux pas and forgotten to bring along the Chinese version of our hostel name. After an hour and a half of waiting for the bus, most of the other Chinese visitors had grabbed taxis or found lifts, and we were stuck. No bus, and no way of communicating with the taxi drivers (despite multiple attempts). We were beginning to wonder which patch of ground would be the warmest to spend the night when a Thai visitor and his friend who by complete chance happened to be staying in the same hostel as us (and the name written down) offered to share a ride - friendly strangers who offered us a bit of a lifeline!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The less-famous tomb: Xi'an's hidden gem

After our mixed visit to the Terracotta army, we were desperate for a little calm and quiet. Although Xi'an is mainly known for that one big sight, smaller tombs are dotted around the surrounding area, none nicer than the very impressive tomb of Emperor Jingdi. Not served by public transport, we hired a driver for the day and set off for the short (less than one hour) journey to the site.

The tomb is part of on-going excavations, and visitors can see a mound still undergoing work, along with explanations of the site's importance. But it is the presentation of the finalised excavations areas that are the real draw, and make this a day trip not to be missed.

Entering the new museum, we were greeted with soft lighting, detailed English-language explanations of the history of the site, and important artefacts. One of the better museums I've been to, it didn't overwhelm with too much going on at once, but was spacious and laid out to lead visitors fluidly through. The best bit, however, is the open excavation laid out in the centre of the museum, covered with glass so you can actually walk over the pits and see the artefacts left in situ. The tomb was found to contain thousands of small doll-like human and animal figurines, making it similar to the Terracotta army in having a full set-up for the afterlife. The figurines were originally clothed, although very little of the textiles remain. Some have been removed to be stored or presented in the museum's displays, but many have been left in the pits, identical faces staring up at us through the glass and blueish lighting casting shadows around the pits.

After we'd finished in the museum area, we walked around the vast site, to the tomb mound of the Empress and then to a second museum with a more detailed explanation of the dynasties and the findings from the tombs.

And what made the trip all the better? We were pretty much the only people there. In the carpark we spotted two other cars, but the site is big enough that you don't need to bump into smaller numbers of visitors at all and we spent a lovely few hours soaking up the calm after the crazy previous day.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Arguments, aggression and a never-ending parade of gift shops: A slightly traumatic visit to the Terracotta Warriors

Think of China, and along with great food and the Great Wall, the famous Terracotta army will probably be up there. Thousands of life-sized figures in rows, every one unique, representing incredible workmanship, the warriors are definitely on the 'must-see' list. A few years ago we saw a fantastic exhibition at the British museum on the history of the army, along with some choice examples, so were excited to have the opportunity to see them in situ and in the amazing numbers that made them so admired.

Leaving Beijing behind for now, we took a night train to Xi'an. The Beijing train station was an experience in itself - huge and overwhelming, with what felt like millions of people dashing to their platforms, we were pleased we'd arrived early, and finding our waiting zone we boarded the very nice train and snuggled down for the night. Arriving in Xi'an with only a few days to spare, we wasted no time and after dropping our bags off at our hostel, jumped on a bus out of the city.

We probably should have picked up some warning signs on our arrival. Dropped off in a car park a good 10 minute walk from the site, once we eventually arrived and figured out where to purchase our tickets we were ready to see some warriors. However, before you can do so you have to walk another 15 minutes through a winding parade lined with souvenir shops. With no signs of anything looking vaguely archaeological we were beginning to get worried that we'd taken a wrong turn, but persevered, politely rejecting offers every few feet of terracotta warriors of all sizes, until finally we arrived at a large open space containing imposing buildings and an airport hanger.

Excited, we decided to go with Lonely Planet's recommendation of working backwards - building up to site 1. Site three was lovely - although there were very few figures left in the deep trenches the lighting was nice and the room relatively peaceful. Site 2 jumped up considerably in size, and we were beginning to really understand the scale of the project. Again, there were surprisingly few people, and none of the tour groups we'd glimpsed outside. Optimistically concluding that we must have timed our visit right by coming in low season, we finished looking around the surrounding smaller buildings before approaching site 1, the airport hanger which houses the largest number of warriors, over 2000.

Walking in, we were blown away. Not by the warriors themselves mind you. Oh no, we couldn't actually see those. We were blown away by the number of people there. I'm pretty sure I'm exaggerating here, but it seemed like thousands. Chinese tour groups of upwards of 50 visitors each huddled around their guides, who were shouting at the top of their voices to be heard. As we edged our way down the steps, we were shoved out of the way as people dashed around, holding their cameras high and snapping a quick shot before moving on. No-one seemed to be actually looking at the warriors. At least, not for longer than it took to get the right photo. We found a space and slid in, awed at the incredible sight in front of us. Warriors stretched out in long columns, each placed exactly in position, facing the front, their expressions all different, stoically standing to attention for all of eternity.

Then the crowd shifted, and we were pushed out of our space. We made our way around a little further to try again, away from the entrance. Finding another clear spot, we moved in, and I smiled at a little baby perched on a parent's shoulder. Suddenly, a big camera moved closer, and the baby was pushed out of the way by the camera's owner. A baby. Pushed out of the way. And so we moved around again. I was shoved a couple of times (not always responding quite as maturely as I could), becoming increasingly frustrated. We've visited many of the 'big' sights around the world. They are often busy, but I'd never experienced anything like that - people shouting at each other, snapping their photos and then leaving.

By the time we left site 1, we felt satisfied that we'd seen it thoroughly. A combination of standing back and waiting for groups to pass, coupled with holding ourselves in one spot for a while before moving on enabled us to take in the amazing details of the terracotta figures, from the different hairstyles to the beautifully carved horses, the imprints in the ground left by wooden chariot wheels to the figures not yet completely excavated. Seeing it in all its magnificent size, then focusing in on individual details really helped to appreciate the achievement of building a full-sized imperial army for the afterlife. However, the atmosphere just wasn't there. I've read many blog posts suggesting this is the case for many of the big world sites, and on the whole I completely disagree, and at many the atmosphere has been amazing. However, the noise, bright lights and overwhelming number of people at the Terracotta army was a bit too much.

We still hugely enjoyed our visit, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone. The figures were extraordinary and I'm so pleased I've been able to see them in situ. However, I would recommend wearing some body padding to anyone thinking of dropping by...