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Category: The big adventure (page 1 of 3)

Half the world in a nutshell

A few numbers

12 years (gah!) in the making
3 months in the doing

96 Days
13 countries
21 trains
8 long distance buses (too fucking many)
2 ferries
1 bamboo raft
Numerous metros, taxis, tuktuks, motorbikes, and other local transport
1 pair of hiking shoes
1 pair of sandals
1 pair of dance shoes
10 forms of currency
Temperatures from -39C to +39C
23 hostels and guesthouses
7 locals hosts
1 budget hotel
1 resort
8 Lindy socials
1 weekend dance camp

I don’t know how many kilometers or miles I traveled. I probably should have kept track of the distances as I went, but you can see on the map that it’s a bloody long way. I’m happy to leave it at that.

So what did it all cost?

£715 on new gear pre-trip

I didn’t keep track of what I was spending pre-trip. Some of the things I bought I needed for other stuff (like the hiking shoes for the trip to the highlands) and some things I got as gifts. So this is a rough estimate of the total cost of what I bought new within the past year if I’d had to pay for all of it myself (I probably only paid for about half).

It looks like a lot of money, but actually almost everything I bought is really good quality, was on sale when I got it, and will come in handy for trips within Scotland and just in general, so I’m happy I have it all now. The only thing that I’ll need to replace soon is my shoes I think (the bottoms are pretty worn out).

£230 on clothes, shoes, and shipping in Hoi An

I have kept the cost of the stuff I got made (and shipped home) in Hoi An separate from the main budget, mostly because I want to show what all the normal costs added up to on their own. I did some buying of stuff within the budget, but only little bits here and there that were more like standard travel costs. I’m perfectly happy to tell you what I spent though!

overview£4338.52 spent on the trip

This should be pretty accurate, with a relatively small margin for error. I was obsessive about recording absolutely every expense, down to the 5 Baht or 1RMB it sometimes required to use a public toilet (categorised as ‘health’ of course). What I think I probably missed out on were things like adding extra Skype credit or buying ebooks here and there. So let’s say I could be up to £100 out at most, but I’d be surprised if it was even half of that.

 

A word on the cost of full-time travel

When I compared the daily spending average of this trip to the month I obsessively kept track of for a baseline idea of what my life costs (September 2014), I found it was almost exactly the same. The costs I kept track of included all rent and usual bills aside from my US student loan payments, which I also kept out of this trip’s cost within trail wallet, but saving for 4 months payments was a big part of the challenge of saving for this trip – it added £1200 to the cost of things.

The point is, it costs pretty much the same to live while traveling that is costs to live in Edinburgh. And I know the traveling would cost even less if I hadn’t moved so fast.

It’s nice to see proof that it’s affordable, so if you’re the sort who has a location independent job already, you could definitely take it on the road. But I will not tell you it’s easy to work on the road, and unless you want a whole lot of extra stress, I wouldn’t recommend the digital nomad life if you don’t already have the job you’re going to do before you set off. It’s just as hard to find work wherever you are, and unreliable WiFi connections are more common than not.

I’m not saying any of that is impossible, but it’s also not as breezy as some travel bloggers make it out to be. It’s also not for me.

Breakdown

fullpiechartThe categories are as close an approximation I could get to what the money was actually spent on. For example, a lot of hostels included breakfast, but those costs are still filed under accommodation. Any gifts I bought for Couchsurfing hosts are also filed under accommodation.

Drinks includes all alcohol bought on its own as well as coffee or other random drinks during the day (coconuts!) All water is filed under health. If I bought a beer or glass of wine with dinner, it stayed in the food cost.

Miscellaneous includes gifts, postcards, and various clothes and supplies I needed along the way.


Food £876.82 20%
Transport £1309.18 30%
Entertainment £525.89 12%
Accommodation £538.68 13%
Miscellaneous £141.66 3%
Drinks £222.84 5%
Health £475.96 11%
Visas £247.49 6%

Daily averages

Entire trip: £45.19 per day


Europe 7 days £129.78*
Russia 23 days £36.46
Mongolia 5 days £66.60**
China 19 days £49.02
Vietnam 14 days £22.78
Cambodia 17 days £24.83
Thailand 10 days £56.68***

 

*Includes all my first aid kit stuff and various other bits, but the week in Europe WAS incredibly pricey, thanks to going via Scandinavia.

**High because I basically paid for a private guide as I had no one to split the cost with.

***Deceptively high because of The Big Bang. Thailand was cheaper than Cambodia in terms of food, hostels, and entertainment. And the cost of staying at a resort and dancing all weekend was actually pretty low compared to what it would be in Europe.

Resources

Not an exhaustive list, but the most important and heavily used

Websites

Seat 61
The train bible. This guy is a legend. His suggestion for a planning spreadsheet is also something that helped me immensely.

Legal Nomads
Jodi has a travel prep resource page that is second to none and covers everything you need to think of before you go. She also answered my questions about eating street food in Vietnam with a shellfish allergy, which was super helpful.

Too Many Adapters
I got a lot of my tech advice and ideas from TMA. It also has great reviews of all sorts of gadgets you may be thinking of buying for a trip.

Real Russia
Helped organise some of my rail tickets, provided visa support, and answered all of my related questions. They are fantastic and highly recommended.

Travel bloggers of the world
Numerous travel blogs found through Google searches on various different locations. I couldn’t possibly list them all, but I can tell you that if your Google-fu is strong, you can find info on any travel destination on this earth because of the lovely people who write about their adventures (and misadventures).

Apps

xe.com
Currency converter. Could not live without.

Google Maps
Using offline areas (which stopped working or were unavailable in some places).

Galileo
Offline vector maps.

Trail Wallet
Budget tool extraordinaire!

Whatsapp and FB Messenger
For WiFi messaging and sanity. Whatsapp also works in China without a VPN!

Wechat
If you’re going to be in China you pretty much need to get Wechat. Everyone uses it, and it’s also your gateway into a lot of the free WiFi available.

Skype
With Skype-Out credit for uber-cheaply calling friends, family, and on at least one occasion, my bank in the UK.

Google Translate
I used this mostly in Russia, where the instant offline photo translate was super useful for reading signs and menus.

Couchsurfing
For some absolutely lovely local experiences and accommodation.

Booking.com
How I booked most of my hostels. Although if I’d known about Agoda sooner, I’d have maybe gone with that because it lets you pay in advance by card.

Trello
For planning and pre-trip to-do and packing lists. Also how I organise most of my normal life.

My tech and data safeguard arsenal

Crashplan
Every time I was connected to WiFi, crashplan automatically updated my cloud backup. This meant I worried a lot less about my computer being stolen or destroyed because I knew all my actual stuff was safe.

Find My iPhone
Set up in iCloud before I left for both my phone and my computer. More peace of mind knowing I could immediately wipe either if they were lost or stolen (and include a snarky message to the thief should I so choose).

Flickr Uploadr
I took a lot of pictures and I did not want to lose them! Again, every time I was connected to WiFi and the Uploadr detected new images on my computer, it automatically loaded them to my Flickr pro account privately, so I was never in danger of losing any photos I’d put on my computer (and I was pretty good about doing this daily).

ExpressVPN
On both my computer and my phone, for safeguarding data when using banking, email, etc. Also got me under the wall in China whenever I had a strong enough connection.

Google Drive
Used to store copies of all important travel docs and my itinerary plan sheet. These were also shared with my parents and friends in the UK for emergencies.

Dropbox
Further backup for documents, as well as sharing photos with fellow travelers along the way.

Avast
Free anti-virus software to keep the computer squeaky clean.

And finally

This site is proudly powered by WordPress and hosted on Siteground, with a beautiful theme designed by Anders Norén.

This will be the last post for a while as I regroup and figure out what the future of this blog is (if it has one) or if I’ll start a new project. I have kept this up for nearly two years and it has been an adventure in itself. This kind of consistent writing is an exercise in serious self-discipline. It is incredibly hard work (but rewarding!) and it’s been really good for me. I’m at least as proud of myself for sticking with it as I am for completing such a bonkers trip.

So, know that I will be doing SOMETHING eventually, I just don’t know what yet, and I think I’ve earned a bit of a break in the meantime.

 

Let me tell you that I love you, and I think about you all the time

‘Maybe Tomorrow’ by Sterophonics has been on heavy rotation in my Chill The Eff Out playlist for this whole trip, most likely because it’s used on Long Way Round, so it was somehow already intrinsically connected. But it’s on an album called ‘You Gotta Go There To Come Back’, which is a phrase that’s been bouncing around my brain since I boarded my first train at Waverley in November. I had unexpectedly got to a place I never really considered I’d be, which is, loving the place I live in so much that I missed it before I even left.

It’s not true of everyone who travels like this, but a majority of the people I’ve met along the way have some sort of restlessness with where they come from. Sometimes they’re a bit bored of it, sometimes they’re indifferent, and sometimes they flat out hate the place. Those are as good reasons as any to find somewhere new for a while, but I have no such negativity towards my home. I did not aim to get (or run) away from anything – except possibly my old job, but I could have easily done that without leaving the city.

What’s happening here is more like the fulfillment of something I’ve been thinking about for such a long time that it felt like I’d be doing myself a disservice NOT to go. The idea of this trip felt strange and not necessarily impossible, but so big it couldn’t possibly happen in my normal life. So of course I had to prove that wrong. Now that I’m at the end of it it still feels that way. It’s really hard to believe I’ve just done all the stuff I’ve done in the last three months. Rolling into St Petersburg feels like a lifetime ago. This will all fade into a sort of memory legend quite quickly, and I suspect sometimes it will feel as though it never happened.

But I had to go there to come back. Not many people get the chance to prove to themselves they are precisely where they need to be. That’s not what I set out to do. I just wanted to see some stuff really. There was no big deeper meaning or life changing goal. It wasn’t as much of a why as a why not?

Perhaps I’m a bit more patient in some ways, or slightly more adaptable to difficult situations. Maybe my problem solving or resilience is better. Hopefully I’m a slightly better dancer. But I’m still mostly the same. In a bit of an email chat with a friend the other day, he said that clearly I must be tired of being alone because it means I’ve got no one to kick off to. And I laughed because not 30 minutes earlier, I’d been walking down the street thinking, ‘WHY IS IT THAT EVERY HUMAN BEING EVERYWHERE ON THIS PLANET CANNOT WALK DOWN THE STREET WITHOUT THEIR FACE IN THEIR FUCKING PHONE’ (seriously though, why?) but I had no one to rant to. So it’s true – more patient on the outside I may well be, but I am still quick to call out the world’s bullshit. Some things will never change.

Anyway. If you’ve been reading this you know that I was kind of ready to go home a few weeks ago, but I had this one last weekend to look forward to – my first international swing dance camp. This trip has been powered on many things, but predominantly: free WiFi, the kindness of strangers, and Lindy Hop.

Dancing in the street. (Photo credit to Big Bang Swing.)

Dancing in the street. (Photo credit to Big Bang Swing.)

I have been welcomed like family to so many places just because I dance, and I really don’t think this trip would have been as amazing as it was without that. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end it than The Big Bang. To the point where I teared up when writing a thank you on the Bangkok Swing Facebook page because there is really no way it could have been better, and I appreciated the awesomeness of it all even more because of the low-ish place I’d been in the week or so before. Lindy has not only saved every low moment of this trip, it has turned it around into something joyful and magical. Everywhere I danced was great, but Bangkok was truly the best.

Now I’m sitting in the airport (a novelty!) drinking a very strong coffee to combat my total exhaustion from the weekend and waiting to finally go home. I am. So. Happy. About that.

So. Thank you to everyone who put me up, showed me around, woke up early to call me taxis in their language, made me breakfast, bought me lunch, dropped me off, picked me up, jumped in lakes with me, and ordered local food for me. And of course thank you to everyone who danced with me.

Thanks to my rockstar friends who all provided support from afar via some form of modern technology at some point along the way. Every short message and long chat was appreciated more than you know.

Thanks to my family for trying to understand all this and not worrying too much too openly.

And I end with another thing in my regular rotation. You may have seen this coming. It’s the best song for the occasion.

See you soon, Scotland.

Cambodia

I told myself a few weeks before I got to Cambodia that my beach time would be total holiday from travel time. I wouldn’t do any work. I wouldn’t worry about updating the blog or searching for jobs or organising my life. Nothing but swimming and eating and reading. And then once I got there, it wasn’t really the beach I was thinking of.

Because the thing about paradise beaches is… they’re kind of boring.

I KNOW, I know, what kind of weirdo complains about sapphire blue water and sunshine and nightly beach barbecues and people serving you drinks in chairs and all of that. But if you know me at all, you know that I have a pretty hard time doing nothing. Also, perfection is dull. So I have discovered that while this is some peoples’ idea of the ideal holiday, well. I prefer Delaware. Or at the very least, somewhere with some actual waves. Somewhere a bit rougher around the edges.

So I didn’t end up doing much work due to lack of good wifi, but I didn’t really do that thing where you just sit on the beach for 6 days. Because I CAN’T. And that is a valuable lesson to learn. Now I know precisely what sorts of beaches I can enjoy. I think next time I’ll go somewhere like Cornwall.

It wasn’t all bad. One of the first nights when I was in Sihanoukville, there were two girls from Australia, Tina and Darlene, who were Cambodian. Darlene actually spoke Cambodian so a few of us went for dinner at a super local place one night where I had the best Cambodian food I had the whole time I was in the country. And Tina and Darlene were both like, ‘THIS is home food. This is really good.’ And I never would have eaten somewhere like that otherwise.

But after a week of not really loving the beach like I’d hoped, I moved east to Kampot, which is on a river, and far more chilled out. It’s full of expats and therefore full of amazing places to eat, as well as one damn good coffee shop owned by Australians. It was there that I decided to get all honest about what travel exhaustion is like, and that got a bigger response than anything I’ve ever written. That was weird. I’m not really sure what I expected. It did help me work out how to slow down even more and pick out the things I wanted to do and the things that didn’t matter. It also helped me decide to go to Bangkok a whole week early so I could stay in one place and get to do a bit more dancing on the local scene before The Big Bang.

I also took a day trip to Bokor National Park to see the old abandoned Black Palace and French hill station/hotel/casino. THAT was pretty awesome. Particularly wandering through the maze-like Palace Hotel as the clouds slowly descended on the mountain. There was a sunset river cruise included in the package as well, and then I went to a freakin’ wine bar and had a (really good) cheese plate after bemoaning the lack of the stuff in my life, so it wasn’t a bad way to spend a day.

After a week of chilling out in Kampot the way I’d sort of meant to at the beach, I had a brief stop in Phnom Penh where I was able to meet back up with Stu from England, who I’d initially met in the hostel in Hanoi. This was very good for my whole low social energy thing. It was really nice to hang out with someone I’d already got to know a bit. We had cheap beers and dinner and talked travel challenges. I then used my one full day in the city to visit the Prison 21 genocide museum, which is very well done but obviously a pretty rough thing to take in. After that I had energy for nothing but noodles and iced coffee.

No trip to Cambodia would be complete without a trip to Angkor Wat, and I had marked that as my last true Tourist Thing I was going to do. I took a bus to Siem Reap and sort of gave up on trying to find someone to share the cost of a tuk tuk driver with for my day at the temples. This ended up being a better decision than I’d initially thought. If you get a one day pass to the temples, it allows you in for sunset the night before. So I went at 5pm, got my ticket, poked around the actual Angkor Wat temple when it was much less crowded, and staked out a spot to watch the sunrise the next morning. Because THE THING to do is get up at 4.30am and watch the sunrise behind the main temple with about ten billion other tourists.

So I did that, and it was worth it, but I immediately saw the value of paying for my own tuk tuk driver. Before the actual sun appeared, the clouds made the point of sunrise kind of pointless, so rather than wait with the increasingly restless and jerkfaced hoardes, I buzzed out of there early so I could get to Bayon before the crowds followed. This meant I had the place virtually to myself for at least 15 minutes. The early morning light was incredible, it wasn’t too hot yet, and it basically felt like I was in a movie. It was probably my favourite of the temples.

I went on to the rest of the places in the small circuit at my own pace, hopping back in the tuk tuk when I’d seen enough. By the time I got to Ta Prohm, which is the Tomb Raider temple, it was MAD crowded and I was completely exhausted. There are TONS of temples and you could spend days on end seeing them all, but when you’ve been up since 4.30am and it’s 10am and things are starting to get hot and busy, everything starts looking the same and you become INCREDIBLY happy that the when-to-go-home decision is yours and yours alone. Hooray for that. I was back at the hostel just before 11am, where I had second breakfast and a well-earned nap. But know that Angkor Wat is absolutely amazing, and totally worth the exhaustion. I’ll let the pictures speak for me.

I then had one last long-distance bus ride and one last land border crossing and now I am in Bangkok where I’m spending 6 nights in the same bed for the first time since November. I am dancing, eating, and applying for jobs. I got a haircut. I’m doing arts and crafts in the hostel to make my party costumes for the Big Bang. I went to the cinema to see Deadpool and it was So. Fucking. Good. (Also, fun fact, in Thailand you have to stand for the King’s Anthem before all movies. It was… interesting.) I’m basically in travel recovery doing whatever the hell I want. On the weekend I’ll dance my face off, and then I will fly home. And that is that. I’ll post some wrap-ups and probably something on The Big Bang once I’m back, but for this week, I’m really on holiday. Thanks for sticking with me guys.

Saigon. Or Ho Chi Minh. (Depending on who you talk to)

I still don’t have a definitive answer on this, so I have mostly been calling it Saigon. This seems to be what the locals call it. (And the local Lindy Hoppers!) When I was in Hanoi, I was told that most people in the North call it Ho Chi Minh, and in the South, it’s more often Saigon. Apparently sticking to that as a general rule is respectful. It’s all political, as it was renamed Ho Chi Minh to celebrate reunification and it’s all tied up in the war, although they don’t seem to expect foreigners to call it either one. I heard it called both in both places, but definitely more frequently Saigon when actually in the city.

ANYWAY. Saigon is another place I don’t have a lot of pictures of. It was also the first place I was really, really hot. About 33-35C as standard. Yuck. So I spent most time hiding from the sun when I wasn’t searching for tasty street food.

I had another great hostel where I met lovely people to hang out with who were all staying in my room. On the first day, I went with Fran from South Africa to walk around and hit some sights. We went to the museum of Ho Chi Minh City, mostly because we just happened to wander past it, where there was some history of the city along with a few tanks and jets, which seem to be everywhere. Then we went to the Reunification Palace, which is a really cool building designed by a French architect. We both thought it was a shame that it’s only used as a museum now, because it seems like it would be a lovely place for a party. Especially the wicked dance floor on the top.

Fran headed off to do a tour she’d booked for the afternoon while I checked out the bunker in the basement of the palace. Lots of old radio equipment and various war rooms full of maps, which is a bit creepy.

When I got out of there, I found a street vendor selling Kem, which is ice cream of some non-determined fruity type flavour. It’s all different colours and topped with some condensed milk and nuts and it’s delicious. Sold off the back of a motorbike, like absolutely everything in this country.

I had a look at the cathedral, where there were loads of Vietnamese women getting their wedding photos done outside (or perhaps modelling, or both, who knows), and then the stunning post office building. Then I took a very hot walk back to the hostel by way of some lunch to start the routine that has now stood for the remainder of this trip: get up early, go exploring, eat lunch, hide in the air-con or fan/shade until the sun goes back down and it’s mildly less sweltering.

That night was the Saigon Swing Cats regular Sunday social. My foot was not feeling all that great, but good enough to walk, so I decided to go regardless and just take it easy. There weren’t loads of people there because of the upcoming Tet holiday and Wednesday is their bigger night anyway, but it was lovely to meet up with people and do some fairly low-key dancing. Nothing fast and no Charleston for me, which is SO FRUSTRATING BECAUSE CHARLESTON IS MY FAVOURITE, UGH, INJURY. But I think I managed to not push myself too hard. The excellent sangria on offer didn’t hurt either. AND I met at least one person who was going to the Big Bang – Eric, who’s American but living in Bangkok at the moment – so I’ll have a familiar face when I rock up at the Bangkok socials.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. It was such a wonderful thing to go to a social and feel at home in the world. Everyone there was so friendly. And there were other people traveling too (Eric plus a girl from Portugal who had even convinced her non-dancing friends to come along), so you get people who immediately understand you from two different directions. It just made everything worth it all over again. Even the heat.

The next day I went to the War Remnants Museum with Hannah and Eric (different Eric), a couple from Canada who were also staying in my room. We wandered around on our own once we were there, which is good because I spent the whole time getting increasingly pissed off and upset at America. BIG SURPRISE.

There’s a letter to Obama from a 23 year old woman who is a 2nd generation victim of Agent Orange which they’ve enlarged on the wall, and it’s just near the end if you go through things in the order they suggest. She’s admiring him for how he raises his daughters and how he believes in opportunities for all, but then asking why he doesn’t help 2nd and 3rd generation victims get the compensation and help they deserve. This is after you find out that the chemical companies were eventually forced to pay American victims but the Vietnamese have never received a cent. One of these companies is Monsanto. The same one that fucks over farmers around the world, but especially in America, on the regular. These companies are on par with murderous dictatorships. They are pure fucking evil. Unfortunately they’re protected by capitalism and the government and god knows what.

I am well aware that plenty of Americans were against the war in Vietnam. I am not going to go into my own specific politics on any of it. If you read this enough you’ll know I’m a humanity-loving, socialist-leaning pacifist. Suffice to say we should never have been there. We had no business doing any of it. And I don’t think we’ve learned from that error, in terms of the decisions being made today about the military. (And god help us all if maniacs vote Trump into office.) It’s really depressing and it’s a wonder the world doesn’t hate us a lot more. Luckily though, so many people are generous and forgiving. We seem to be on the receiving end of that a lot more than we deserve. But that’s precisely the foundation of my faith in humanity. So.

ENOUGH ABOUT THAT. We went to a cafe to recover from the misery and eat lunch. They had a locally brewed IPA from Pasteur Street Brewing Company that was the nicest beer I’d had in weeks. Not lager! Hooray! And after the requisite hiding in the hostel aircon for the rest of the afternoon, Fran joined us and we all went for dinner.

Epic rice pancake with coconut meat which was bigger than my head.

Epic rice pancake with coconut meat which was bigger than my head.

The next day was mostly wandering around and finding amazing food to eat. Fran joined me again for coffee and lunch, where we had Banh Xeo (rice pancake, which the Saigon version of is HUGE) and Banh Khot (little fried rice cakes with stuff on top), which we practically rolled away from. Those little fried rice cakes were probably my favourite thing in Saigon. But the pancake was good too, and the Pho I had for dinner at a place just down the alley from our hostel which was consistently busy was also amazing. (Although if I had to choose, I preferred the northern style Pho in Hanoi.)

I wish I’d had more time in Vietnam. I definitely preferred it to Cambodia. I could have paid for a visa, but I was being cheap. I’d have liked to see some of the Mekong Delta and the mountains in the north. But I maxed out my 15 days, so it was time to move on.

Hobbling around Hoi An

I woke up on the train to Danang to find the family who’d been in my compartment had gotten off sometime very early in the morning. I was alone, which was nice, but I was freezing. The air conditioning was turned up so high that I could see my breath. I found this hilarious considering I’d just come through Russia on trains that were storming through frozen Siberia but heated to sauna-like temperatures inside. NO ONE knows how to regulate train interior temperatures, it seems.

So I stood in the corridor with mostly everyone else, warming up and looking at the coastline along the last hour of the way. It’s pretty stunning. But I also saw how rough the water was, so I had an early indication I probably wouldn’t be swimming anytime soon. Apparently this was all caused by the same storm making Hanoi very cold.

I met a guy called Rob from Boston in the corridor traveling with his 9-year-old twins, Ella and Dylan. They were also headed to Hoi An, hoping to go on the local bus like I was, so we went off to find it together when we got off in Danang. I don’t spend a lot of time around kids, so this was a bit of a novelty for me.

Rob was a teacher on sabbatical so they were all traveling for the year in China, and they were just taking a few weeks break in Vietnam. By the looks of things, the kids were handling it pretty well. I didn’t talk much to Dylan because Ella latched onto me and talked my ear off about eee-verything from summer camp to how old her father was to what they did for their birthdays in Hong Kong to Goldfish and Cheez-its. When I asked what they missed about being home that was the main thing. Goldfish and Cheez-its. And they were really excited to find them when they were in Hong Kong. But overall they seemed to be enjoying themselves, and I was super impressed that Rob was doing all of this on his own. In CHINA. I’ve already told you how hard China is. I can’t imagine having to look after two kids in addition to myself there.

We all got to Hoi An in one piece and went our separate ways. I didn’t run into them again, but I’m sure they had a good time. Hoi An was a pretty chilled out, easy place to be. So chilled out that I decided almost immediately to spend 5 nights there instead of 3.

Perhaps my brain knew what was about to happen, because the next morning, when walking out of the shop where I was getting shoes made (more on which in a minute), I stepped wrong on the lip of the sidewalk, rolled my foot, and pulled a tendon in it. And inside my head, I just went ‘FUUUUUUUUUCCCCCCKKKKKKKK’.

I have not had an injury since I started dancing and I knew it would happen sooner or later, but this was just a little over a month before the Lindy extravaganza I’ve been looking forward to in Bangkok, and I was immediately worried about HOW injured I might be and how long it was going to take to heal, particularly while traveling.

I hobbled back to my hostel (which was actually quite a long walk when your foot is screaming in pain) and asked the owners if there was a doctor nearby. They were so lovely and helpful, the owner’s sister took me on her motorbike to a local clinic where a doctor had a look, did some crazy ultrasound treatment which was super strange, had me ice it for 10 minutes, then gave me painkillers and anti-inflammatories and told me it was not broken (relief) and it would start feeling much better in 3-4 days, but I needed to elevate it and ice it and all that stuff as much as possible. (All that cost me about £4.)

Hoi An was probably the best place for something like this to happen because it’s not some huge city with mad traffic and everything all spread out. I was able to do more than just lying around in the hostel by using a bicycle to get everywhere. So I spent the next few days going between various places to eat and drink, and the shoe shop and tailors where I was getting stuff made while doing as little walking as possible.

In addition to lanterns and food, Hoi An is known for its tailors, and there are also a bunch of shoemakers there. I had been planning to get a few things made from the minute I decided it was going on the itinerary. What probably put it there was the fact that the website for the Vietnam Lindy Exchange (which is held in Danang and Hoi An every year) suggests getting vintage repro done there during the event. I am tall and I have broad shoulders. I’m difficult to fit at the best of times and I have almost zero patience for sifting through charity and vintage shop racks to find something that fits AND that I like. So this, to me, was potentially the best idea ever if I could find a good tailor. And I did!

I love. This dress.

I love. This dress.

Based on a few blogs and Tripadvisor reviews, I went to Ha Na tailors, and they made me some great stuff. I got a copy of my favourite tea dress with a few adjustments to make it even better, and then I got them to make a 30s style dress, and a 40s style pair of garter trousers and buttondown top, all based on things I’ve found on the interweb and knew would never fit me properly off the rack. They did such an amazing job (and they didn’t do any hard selling). The dress in particular is stunning and I can’t waaaaaait to show it off at the Big Bang vintage party. AND it’s machine washable, which is like music to my cash-strapped ears.

I got some shoes made as well because I have enormous feet and the only dance shoes I can buy in my size are canvas sneakers. That suits me fine, but I have ZERO vintage-y, fancy options because none of them are made in my size. So I got some flat t-straps and also some brogues. I’ve not been able to wear either of these yet, so I really don’t know how well they’ll hold up or how comfortable they are. But even if they only last a year, they cost less than cheap shoes most normal-size-footed people would buy on the high street, and they’re probably much better quality. So I’m happy with them in that respect.

I had to try these shoes on with one swollen, non-functioning foot though, so that was a bit of an issue. The ladies in the shop were laughing at me because I kept doing swivels and half-assed (PAINFUL) suzie-qs across the floor to see if the shoes would be comfortable to move in and if the soles could take it.

When I wasn’t in the tailor or shoe shop getting things adjusted, I was eating. Eating eating eating so much. Or drinking iced coffee. But mostly eating.

I went to Anthony Bourdain’s favourite Banh Mi shop about ten billion times (…ok 3). I had Com Ga (chicken rice), Cao Lau (Pork noodles in strong broth), Banh Xeo (rice pancake), spring rolls, fish, papaya salad, and a banana pancake nearly EVERY morning at the hostel because the ladies there made them so well that I couldn’t bring myself to order anything else.

I also drank a lot of cocktails and beer and more Bia Hoy. And met some fun people in my hostel who hung out with me even though I slowed them down a bit with my hobbling. One of the girls, Lisa, was from Luleå, Sweden, and I was like, ‘I know where that is because one of my favourite bands is from there!’ She had never met anyone outside Sweden who even knew who Movits! were, and I’ve never really met anyone but my friends Duncan and Dan who know who they are, so that was kind of cool.

I managed to meet Wayne AND Emma of New Year Train fame because they both happened to come into town from different directions while I was there. I met Wayne in Dive Bar one night (so called because it’s the home of the local dive centre), which had outstanding cocktails. I had the first Negroni I’ve had since summer and it was The. Best. They also had live music on from this French girl who was playing various covers and amazing gypsy jazz. Then I met Emma on my last day before I had to leave at night for the train. We had drinks and lunch and rode bikes out to the beach for yet another cocktail and it was lovely.

I actually went to the beach 3 days in a row, basically as soon as my foot felt like it could take a small walk. The first day was cloudy and the water was so rough they had ‘no swimming’ signs up and the lifeguards were there simply to keep people out of the water. But  I had a nice walk and a lounge and a pina colada. It seemed walking in the wet sand was actually good for strengthening my foot back up, so I went again the next day. It was sunny, but the water still wasn’t swimmable. The third day swimming was allowed but I was with Emma and I had no bathing suit with me so I just figured I’d wait til Cambodia. But this beach was much better than what I had been looking forward to in Cambodia (which you’ll hear about later) so it’s a shame I didn’t just stay even longer.

I hopped on a late shuttle bus back to Danang to catch the night train to Saigon, and driving through Danang at night was crazy. It was lit up like Vegas. I don’t really know what the place is like, although Eddy, my Couchsurfing dinner host in Hanoi, did tell me it was his favourite place in Vietnam. The beaches did look good and it also looke dlike there was some cool stuff along the river. All the more reason to come back for VLX I suppose.

Anyway, that train was probably my last train of the trip (unless I decide to take the one from the Thai border into Bangkok), which I guess was a little like closing the book on one big part of the whole thing. It was so anti-climactic though. Everyone else in my compartment again got off fairly early in the morning, and the rest of the trip was during the day so I was not surprised that no one paid for a soft sleeper for that portion of the trip. there was no one to share the final moments with, so I napped and drank overpriced coffee from a vendor who hopped on at Nha Trang and stared out the window at some incredible landscapes chugging by one last time.

 

PS: As I write this, roughly 3 weeks later, my foot is at about 85%. Not perfect, but the alarming-looking bruising has gone away and I can more or less walk normally. More on how that progressed in following posts. I’m a week away from the first chance for social dancing in Bangkok, and two weeks from 3 straight days of dancing, so I’m hopeful that it won’t be too big of an issue.

Hanoi

When I got to the China/Vietnam border, I met a guy called Duccio from Italy in the exit queue for China who’d been on the same bus. I wasn’t sure how I’d not noticed earlier, seeing as he was the only other Westerner, but it was way early at the bus station and I was WAY tired. In any case, we stuck together for the rest of the process, not least because we were both going into Vietnam on the 15 day visa-free stamp with nothing but an email printout to prove our exit by the correct date. So if we had trouble, at least we wouldn’t be alone.

We spent an hour in the border queue and after a tiny bit of confusion over his entry (but none over mine strangely) we were through and back on another bus towards Hanoi before too long. Duccio had been studying Chinese for 3 years and was just on a break from his University programme before flying back to Italy for a while. We had a good chat on the bus, during which he mentioned how difficult it is to travel in China alone. Even when you know a bit of the language! I felt vindicated. I WASN’T just being a whingy wimp for the past week, it really was quite a task to handle solo.

The bus stopped for super cheap, tasty lunch at the side of the road somewhere, and then 2 hours later we were pulling into a bus terminal in the south end of Hanoi during rush hour. We had very little cash and the taxis at the station were likely complete ripoffs anyway so we decided to make the 3km trek to the old quarter on foot. (This is probably the last time you’ll ever hear me say something like this on this trip because once I left Hanoi, everything got way too hot to be walking with a massive backpack for 3km.)

And thus we were welcomed to the terrifying process of crossing the street in Vietnam. Utter chaos. Motorbikes and cars coming at you from every direction. Lanes are not really A Thing. You just have to walk out and keep a steady pace so they can judge your speed and get around you. It takes some adjustment, but you do actually get used to it. Crosswalks are going to seem so luxurious when I get back to the UK.

The weather in Hanoi was a bit grey and rainy, and that didn’t change the whole time I was there, but I didn’t mind. The locals were all bundled up in huge coats, but I was walking around in a t-shirt for the most part because 12C is pretty warm as far as my recently-in-Siberia body is concerned. But people never stopped asking me if I was cold.

My hostel was lovely and small and friendly and quiet, tucked away in an alley off one of the old quarter streets. I really got lucky in Vietnam with hostels. All three places I stayed were perfect. Excellent breakfasts were included, the staff were super helpful and friendly, and the other guests had the same non-party travel style I do.

This was a marked contrast to Duccio’s hostel. I went to meet back up with him so we could wander around and find some dinner and he was staying in the epitome of a party hostel. I walked into the bar and was there 5 minutes before the American bartender got on a microphone and informed the entire bar we’d be getting a free shot as he taught us the Vietnamese equivalent of ‘cheers’. After which he announced the happy hour and ladies night specials and proclaimed, ‘let’s get fucked up’.

It was like a bad college frat party movie. I was SO happy I wasn’t staying there. It was really amusing to watch the drama outside these sorts of places from the street though, so at least they had entertainment value.

Anyway, we went and found a little street food hotpot BBQ place and had a pretty incredible dinner plus beer for next to nothing. All the beer here is pretty much lager, but the Hanoi beer has been my favourite so far, and there was plenty of it. At 50p a bottle I could pretty much afford to drink as much as I wanted. There was also Bia Hoy, which is fresh beer that’s brewed to be consumed the same day. It’s about 3 or 4 percent and nothing special, but it’s also the equivalent of about 15p a glass, it’s cold, and it’s cheaper and easier to buy than water. (There are ladies selling it on the street everywhere in the old quarter.) So I did not turn my nose up.

One of the biggest shocks of arriving in Vietnam was that after nearly 2 months of encountering very few Westerners, they were now EVERYWHERE. It was bizarre and slightly comforting yet unsettling all at once. I immediately knew traveling in Vietnam would be easier, but potentially also more irritating as things got more touristy.

I had an early night despite the availability of cheap beer and the next morning I went on the hostel’s free student tour. Three girls from the local university walked around with me for a few hours to practice their English and show me some of the main sights. We went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (no pictures allowed) where I saw one of the two embalmed men on the planet. (If only I’d managed to see Lenin in Moscow I’d have knocked them both out on the same trip!) Apparently Ho Chi Minh’s wish was to be cremated and spread equally in the north, central, and south parts of the country, but when he died that request was ignored. Because communism? The girls didn’t know.

We also went to the Temple of Literature, which was nice, but then it was STREET FOOD TIME. We went for Bun Cha, which was one of my favourite things in Vietnam (I had it again before I left Hanoi), and then some lemon tea, which was more like still lemonade. We sat on the standard tiny plastic stools drinking, eating sunflower seeds, and talking about how our countries were different and how they were the same and how we were all generally worried about the same stuff. It was really nice.

For that night, I’d put out a message asking for meetups on Couchsurfing and a guy called Eddy asked if I wanted to eat dinner with him and his friends. I was starting to feel a bit unwell (possibly from that last Chinese street food) but I didn’t want to say no. He actually showed up on his motorbike and was like, get on! All I could think was if my mother knew I was getting on some guy’s motorbike in a city on the other side of the planet without knowing precisely where I was going, she’d probably smack me senseless. However, he had good feedback and also a motorbike is much easier to jump off of in an emergency than a car is to be escaped from. I decided it was fine, and it was.

What was NOT fine was riding on the back of a motorbike for the first time in some of the most terrifying traffic I’ve ever experienced. In the rain, too. Eddy lived a 40 minute ride out of town and I was already feeling wonky, so that ride wasn’t exactly the most pleasant thing I’ve done in my travels. Eesh. We did stop to buy dinner supplies at a super local market where he just drove up to the stalls and bought things without even getting off the bike, which was really cool. I wish I could have taken pictures, but I was a bit too shell-shocked from the ride to even attempt to reach for my camera.

Dinner was a bizarre and wonderful experience. Eddy lives with his girlfriend in a small one-room flat, and she cooked while we had a chat. His English wasn’t the best, but we got by. He was the only one of his friends who spoke English though, so once they all showed up, We all sat on the floor around the food and I listened to them joke and talk in Vietnamese. It was really cool to see them all doing pretty much what I like to do at home with my friends, and the food was delicious. Fried frogs legs, which Eddy said was one of his favourite things, fried chicken wings, and fresh spring rolls with egg, lettuce, pork pate, stir fried beef, and rice noodles, which we all assembled ourselves. And after that was all gone, we had the nicest fresh watermelon. I wish I could have talked to more of them, and I also wish my stomach hadn’t been acting up, but in general, it was an amazing night. Luckily I got a taxi back into town. I don’t think I could have handled another motorbike ride in the dark. I went to bed early again to recover from my Day O Cultural Experience.

Dinner at Eddy's

Dinner at Eddy’s

The next day I was still feeling a bit crap and it was rainy and cold again, so I went to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, which was absolutely fantastic, then got some ginger tea and fried rice that arrived in a pineapple, which reversed my mood and also seemed to quiet my stomach. Later on I went out to find Pho (finally!) with a South African guy called Grant who was also staying in the hostel. We managed to find one of the best places in the city, with a queue of locals spilling onto the street and some SERIOUSLY good soup. We then went for beer with a view, followed by (much cheaper) beer on the street and swapped entire life stories the way you do when drinking with fellow travelers.

My last day in Hanoi, the temperature actually dropped even further. During the day. The locals (and Australians) were horrified at this development. And now even I needed a hoodie. I had an overnight train to Danang to wait for but it was really too miserable to walk around all day so I hung around the hostel common room watching movies, booking future dance events, writing, and periodically going out to feed myself. Lunch was sticky rice with about ten different kinds of meat on top and was once again phenomenal.

I didn’t take many pictures in Hanoi. I liked the city and it was full of lovely architecture, but really difficult to get good pictures of, not least because of the rubbish weather. It was mostly about the food though, which, along with the universe chucking me a sign it was time to seriously slow the hell down (as I’ll elaborate on in the next post), was the continuing theme in Vietnam. And I am totally ok with that.

Exhausted

Before I regale you with tales of the lovely Vietnam, I’m pausing for some real talk about Getting To That Point.

People, I am homesick. I am tired. I’m a little lonely. And most of all I am very ready to not be traveling anymore.

I feel like an asshole saying and even feeling these things because what a privilege to be able to take a trip like this. And I’m not saying it’s bad, because it is not. It’s incredible. Even when I’m feeling completely overwhelmed and fucking finished, it’s still incredible.

Like. I’m in Cambodia. What?

It’s beautiful! Seriously. And I even had the best home-brewed ginger beer I’ve ever tasted today. Good things continue to happen.

But while the trip has always been a bit of a full-time job, it’s starting to feel more and more like hard work. And the fact that I’m very nearly out of money and reaching unemployed panic point doesn’t help.

I’m not saying this so anyone pities me. I am lucky as hell. But the whole point of this blog is to be honest. And this is just the truth. I’ve never claimed any of this trip is completely rainbows and butterflies but the amazing has always outweighed the difficult. And around a week ago I felt that tide turning.

It is incredibly exhausting moving through the world at the pace I’ve been going completely under my own booking-and-planning-and-holding-myself-up steam. It is more expensive than I’d like when I can’t find a fellow traveler to share costs with but still want to experience the things I’m in a place to experience. (The world is still not built for singles. Particularly the world of travel.) And all of this makes sorting out the next steps more and more like drudgery.

I miss not re-packing my entire life every 3-4 days. I miss walking into stores and knowing what the fuck everything is. I miss use of a kitchen. At this point, I miss weather below 25C. I miss my fantastic, functioning, non-jankety bicycle with the lights and the helmet that Southeast Asia’s health-and-safety-is-not-a-real-thing-even-in-joking stance renders well and truly foreign concepts. I miss planning Fun Group Things For Other People instead of just all my own travel. I miss the pub. GOD, I MISS THE PUB. And actual good beer.

I miss not having to turn up my social energy to 11 every day if I want to talk to anyone because I’m an introvert and sometimes I just want to talk to people I ALREADY KNOW. So of course, I miss my friends. So. So. Much.

Even the eating bit of travel, which has always been something upwards of 60% of the draw for me, has gotten tiresome. Part of this has to do with the fact that I’m now in a part of the world where it’s a lot more difficult to know when there’s shellfish in something so I have to be extra vigilant and can’t just try anything I like the look of. But it’s also just that the whole thing is becoming a chore. Particularly in the energy-sapping heat, which I do not deal well with in any situation, let alone when I’m already drained. I’m concentrating more now on keeping myself healthy and hydrated and upright than I am on eating the biggest variety of local stuff possible. I’ve still managed to eat loads of good stuff, but it’s been more luck than effort at this point. My heart is seeping out of it. I long for my trusty bucket of peanut butter and my standard weekly lime-chili popcorn dinner. I long for proper cheese.

I’m doing my best to put all this aside. I still have history to absorb and famous temples to see. And most importantly, I still have dancing to do. And I remain VERY excited about The Big Bang.

But this is just to say that even epic adventures are real life, and the mechanics of real life always feel like chores at some point or another.

I’m very much looking forward to the point when doing laundry is once again a chore rather than the exciting time of the week when I find that none of my small stock of clothing has gone missing and I have a whole 3 clean t-shirts to sweat right through again.

China alone

Perhaps the best course of action when going it alone in China for the first time was not to go to a tiny town off season where I was unlikely to find many other travelers to buddy up with. But then, I also found that hostels in China weren’t as full of camaraderie among solo travelers. Or even full of solo travelers for that matter. But perhaps that’s the season or just bad luck.

Guilin was rainy, but delightfully less smoggy, so I had a good walk around there and some more great street food, but I was mainly using it as a stopover to get to Xingping. I ended up in a 6 bed hostel dorm completely alone both nights, which was great for the space, but also a little sad because it meant I really didn’t meet anyone at all. The other people staying in the hostel were couples and families and just keeping to themselves, and the common area was too cold for anyone to hang out because they kept the doors open all day and it was still about 12C or so. So I just stuck to myself and wrote some emails when I wasn’t out buying random street food and ashamedly having the thought, when looking at the pagoda towers on the lake, ‘wow, this looks like Epcot Center’. (That’s either bad for Guilin or good for Disney, I haven’t quite decided.)

I took the bamboo raft down the river to Xingping. Four people on some little benches on a few bamboo pipes strapped together with who-knows-what. It was cloudy and rainy, but still pretty stunning and relaxing. My friend Rick had told me about the hostel in this little town nearly a year ago and I wasn’t sure I was ever going to make it. My original plan involved going further West in China and getting to Vietnam via Kunming and through the mountain town of Sapa, but when I decided it was time to seriously slow down, I picked the easiest route south that involved the least amount of time on trains (and no more overnights), and that put me in Xingping.

Adjusting to being on my own again was made slightly harder by feeling completely out of my depth and grasping for someone to take a goddamn walk with. I do not regret my decision to spend 3 nights there. It revealed the bizarre, otherworldly wonder of China to me in a way I didn’t fully see in big cities or with a friend for distraction. Especially the local market. But it was really hard sometimes. Particularly because of the rain that kept me from doing as much as I might have in better weather. I had a lot of idle hours and a lot of people staring.

I will never really get used to people staring at me like an oddity. I mean, I’ll grant them, I AM an oddity to most of them. They probably don’t see a lone white girl wandering their wee town very often. In the cities and some highly touristed spots, Felix and I got used to people taking pictures of us, either on the sly (which was always totally obvious) or straight up asking us if they would get a picture WITH us. Simply because we’re giant, white westerners I guess? But here it’s totally the whole STRANGER. FROM THE OUTSIDE. OOOOOOOO. thing. No pictures, just looks of disbelief.

Like, for example, when eating my dinner, I am totally happy to go eat somewhere by myself. I do it in the UK often enough, and it’s no big deal. Sometimes it’s quite nice! But in Xingping, I wasn’t only alone, I was THE ONLY PERSON IN THE RESTAURANT. Aside from the family who owns it. Who are sitting a few tables away eating their own dinner periodically looking over at me in what was possibly disbelief. This happened both nights I went to find something to eat in town. I imagine in summer it’s not like this, but I don’t know where the other people staying in the hostel were eating dinner (or even hanging around) because I never saw any of them anywhere but as passing ghosts in the hallway. The town is not that big! They must have been somewhere.

It was worth seeking out the local restaurants rather than wimping out and eating pizza in the hostel or noodles in my room, but it never got any less strange regardless of how incredibly tasty the food was. I had a spicy aubergine dish one night that was insanely wonderful, but sitting there eating it was so awkward I’m quite happy I had some (very strong) Chinese osmanthus wine to distract me.

Also, before that particular dinner, I was literally chased down in the narrow streets by a group of student-y looking people with a camera and a box of oranges. They insisted I try their oranges and react to the taste of them on camera. (They asked for my ‘advice’ on the orange, but some stumbling over translations got us to what they really wanted.) I cannot make this stuff up. Somewhere I will appear very deer-in-headlights on a video, perhaps on some Chinese website, saying the orange I’m eating is the best I’ve tasted in this country. It was not a lie, but I was so baffled by the request I just kind of went along with it.

I have had to do a lot of ‘give yourself a break’ pep talks here, because I’ve spent a lot of time lying around planning the last third of the trip or writing or just staring into space. And somehow that makes me feel I’m doing something wrong. But I’m not really. And sitting slightly cold with my beer on the roof terrace alone playing music from the tinny speaker of my iphone staring into the dark, punctuated occasionally by a floodlight from a bamboo boat on the river, was pretty nice. I had been wishing there were people up there with me, but about every five minutes, I decided it was maybe better the way it was.

I really wanted to do some cycling and walking around the countryside while I was there. The weather and the crap state of the bikes prevented me cycling, but I was determined to get out for a good long walk. I had to wait for the last day when I was promised some sun by the weather report. I was also sort of waiting to see if I could meet someone in the hostel who wanted to go with me, but the same non-social atmosphere prevailed, so I set out on my own and headed for a scenic viewpoint up a hill on the other side of the river about an hour and a half out of town.

This was quite possibly the scariest part of the trip so far. I’m not scared of hikes or walking on my own, I do it plenty, but the ground was super wet from all the rain and the traction on my shoes is a bit worn down. I slipped about three times on the rocks, and I just kept thinking the last thing I need is to crack my head on one of these rocks or slip right off the edge when there’s no one here to help. There were locals walking back and forth on the path the whole time, so it wasn’t like I was in a place completely devoid of civilisation, but it did make me decide not to do the bigger hike up the really steep, rocky hill to see the sunset. (I opted for the roof terrace again.) And when I ran into a wee hiking tour on a weekend away from Hong Kong, I joined up with them on their way back to Xingping, happy to have some people to talk to. They even asked me to join them for lunch which was fantastic.

Getting from Xingping to Nanning was a relatively dull, long-winded affair involving many buses, both local and long-distance, a bunch of traffic, and an exhausted, slightly frantic search for an ATM that took something other than a Chinese bank card for a frantic hour in Yangshuo, because there are none of those in Xingping and I needed to get cash for my next ticket. And OF COURSE the bus in from Xingping arrives at the station across town from the station where the Nanning bus departs. Of course.

Anyway. Nothing much happened in Nanning. It was warmer. I walked around and watched people doing dancing lessons and various exercises in the park. I ate more food. I think the last street food I ate was probably responsible for the only stomach upset I’ve had on this trip thus far, but as travel illness goes, it wasn’t bad, so, I wrote it off as world travel health tax and got on with life. I went for one last bowl of DIY soup and picked so many things to put in they had to make it two bowls. WHAT A GLUTTON.

Buying my bus ticket to Vietnam was a bit of a palaver. I tried to book it through the hostel, and they said it had been done and all I needed to do was arrive an hour early to pick it up the next morning. Seeing as how the bus left at about 8.20 and I had nothing better to do the day before, I went that evening, and man am I glad I did. First of all, massive queue (which persisted the next morning). Second, when I got up to the counter and tried to show the girl the thing the hostel had written out for me so that I could pick up my ticket, she had absolutely no idea what it was on about and also insisted there was no bus at 8.20, only one at 8.50.

I gave up trying to figure it out with her – because there was a huge, increasingly restless queue behind me – and went to talk to the other women at the info desks. They agreed there was no 8.20 bus, only an 8.50, and said to just buy a fresh ticket (since I never paid for the first one this wasn’t really an issue). So I got back in the queue and when I got to the front pointed to the 8.50 that the girl had initially wrote on my bit of paper, but then she circled my 8.20 and was like, you want this one? Somehow magically within the last 15 minutes, the 8.20 existed?! So I just bought it. I think my original ticket was still booked as the seat number was lit up in red on the screen, but whatever. I had an actual ticket now despite how little sense the entire situation made. I double checked it with the info desk girl who seemed as baffled as me that there was now an 8.20 bus, but she confirmed the ticket did say it left from that stop, so after my frustrating hour at the station I finally went back to find some food and get my last sleep in China.

China with company

When I set out on this adventure, I said that I was doing it alone not because I have some deep desire to be on my own in the world, but more because it’s hard to find someone crazy enough to match your particular travel style and intentions who also has the budget and time to join you.

So imagine my joy when, along the way, I stumbled upon the absolute perfect travel buddy. I’ve never made such fast friends with someone. I’ve never wanted to bear-hug and strangle someone with equal ferocity in one day (or even in the same five minutes). I have never put my full faith into someone so quickly.

Well, except when it comes to hostel booking.

Felix and I ended up sticking together for nearly two weeks. From the minute I entered China, I didn’t have to worry about navigating it alone, which was such a relief, because I was getting to the point where I really appreciated the backup. Being on my own is totally doable, but extra exhausting. Having someone to balance my crazy, split costs with, and order extra amazing food to try was just The. Best.

Throughout this trip, I’ve felt a pretty good split of emotions on being on my own. About 50% of the time, I’m pretty neutral about it. 25% of the time, I really wish I had someone with me, and the other 25% I’m quite happy I’m alone. The way I knew I’d found the perfect companion was when I realised that regardless of him driving me up a fucking wall sometimes, I don’t think there was ever really a point where, in my head, I was like OK I WOULD PREFER TO BE ALONE NOW PLEASE GO AWAY. We seemed pretty well in tune to when it was just time to be quiet and read a book. Or in his case, go to sleep, as he seemed frustratingly able to do at any time in any place. (WHERE DO I LEARN THIS SKILL, UNIVERSE? I thought for sure that three months of traveling would teach it to me, but thus far, NAE LUCK.)

So after the madness of Harbin, we took the bullet train back down to Beijing. We got to enjoy some first class seats because everything else was gone by the time we’d decided what to do, so we paid through the nose but at least there were big comfy seats and free (weird) snacks. Beijing was mercifully low on smog. We got really lucky with the wind and the sunshine that way. On the first day, we wandered around Tienanmen Square taking goofy pictures, then got an overview of the Forbidden City from hill in the park behind it before indulging in another massive hotpot dinner.

The second day was for seeing the Great Wall. I hadn’t wanted to go to the really touristy bit at Badaling, but it was the easiest option, so in the end I lost. But it was fine. It was still too cold for massive crowds and we had a good long walk before catching a train back to the city where we met up with Galaa (from the New Year train!) and some of her friends to get REAL Peking Duck in a super fancy restaurant. (We had a booking she made in my name, but they’d misheard, so it was under ‘cake’.) The place even had crazy Japanese toilets with heated seats that opened for you when you walked into the stall and all sorts of spray functions I was too intimidated to try. But it was the polar opposite of the squat toilets everywhere else, so it was almost equally as impressive as the duck we’d come to eat.

That night was also my night to try dancing in Beijing. It ended up just being a taster lesson in 20s Charleston, and there weren’t many Lindy Hoppers about, but it was a cool bar and I did get one or two dances in. The others sat upstairs and watched for a bit.

We did some walking around the hutong district and shopping on our last day before getting the night train to Xi’an, on which we downed a bottle of delightfully cheap Great Wall wine and I did a lot more not sleeping. Xi’an was full of smog, but we got some breakfast, soldiered on and got the bus out to the Terra Cotta warriors, which is every bit as impressive as you hope it would be. There are just SO MANY. And the place is a working archaeological site, so I thought it was really cool to see piles of clay appendages with what were more or less giant post-it notes on them as some kind of sorting system as well as things in varying stages of restoration. We spent most of the afternoon looking at clay men and watching most of the very old 360 degree film about the site whilst providing a ridiculous running commentary under our breath, then we headed back to town.

On the bus ride back, we could actually see the smog get heavier the closer to the city we got. This put Felix in a particularly foul, depressed mood. I was mostly trying to ignore it (the smog and the mood). But Xi’an soon redeemed itself, at least a bit, by having the best street food EVER in the Muslim Quarter. Stalls and stalls and stalls of different barbecued meats, tofu, fried dough filled with greens and spicy lamb, sweet sticky rice cakes, flat bread with seeds, more hawthorn, nuts, fruit, candy – all KINDS of amazing things. We didn’t get quite enough for dinner so we went back for breakfast and lunch AND a stock of snacks the next day before getting on yet another night train to Shanghai. (On which we also downed a bottle of wine, naturally. And I even managed to get a bit of sleep this time.)

By the time we got to Shanghai, I was so burnt out on cities – and Shanghai is basically a mashup of London and New York only Chinese – that I just had no desire to do anything other than eat and dance. We got a really good hostel again and did a lot of wandering around and eating, but we really didn’t do any sightseeing at all. I’m not even sure what sightseeing there is to do in Shanghai because I didn’t bother looking. I did spot a Tesla showroom in the fancy downtown bit of the city which I think may have made Felix’s year. And I found some Couchsurfers to meet for dinner, so it was really good to get to speak to someone local and share some food.

Dancing was the main reason I wanted to go to Shanghai at all, so I was really happy when it turned out to be the best Lindy night on this trip yet. And I even managed to teach Felix the basics when it turned out there was no beginner lesson. I am not a good teacher, particularly when it comes to teaching the lead side of things, but I shuffled through 6 and 8 beat steps with him off to the side. And then the man got on a crowded social dance floor multiple times without ever having danced a step of Lindy in his life. Mad props. I would not have been able to do that. And he did really well!

We checked out the roof terrace before we left to get the full panoramic view of the city and then we ended up AGAIN at McDonalds because it was one of the only things open and we were hungry. I couldn’t actually believe it. I’ve avoided the place for over a decade and I hit it twice in as many weeks in China. Personal food fail. But it’s all part of the experience in the end.

The next day we did a bit of shopping and drank one last bottle of crap wine as a goodbye toast before I joined Felix on his trek to the airport to see him off. I hate goodbyes, and losing my travel partner-in-crime made me quite mopey. China would have been very different for me without him. I definitely think I got more out of it with someone to share it with. Certainly in terms of food alone, but also in terms of a recharge from someone who’d been traveling for much longer and understood where I was with things, both in my head and in the world.

I went back to the hostel bar and had a drink, but no one there was being sociable (which would turn out to be par for the course in China as I’d soon find out), so I gave up and went up to pack and get ready for my early morning train to Guilin.

Start as you mean to go on

We were standing around drinking near the toilets at the Erlian border station shortly after midnight when Wayne asked what everyone was doing at this time last year. It seemed like a simple question but it took me ages to remember because it felt like so much longer ago and further away.

Last New Year, I went for a curry with Kate and Steve, then we hung out with Fred the greyhound watching the hootenanny and jeering every time anyone but Paolo Nutini came on to play. New Years Day I went home in the morning by way of a coffee at Casa Amiga, then I took my quiet hangover to see The Imitation Game (because Finn Polmar) and went home to bed. This year was so incredibly different it may as well have taken place in another universe.

But I’ll start at the beginning.

The plan ended up being that I would be on the train on New Years Eve. From Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. I booked this before most of my Russian trains because I needed to show my entry to China for the visa, and this was pretty much the only real thing I included on that visa application.

In any case, my plan was to make the best of it, Scotland style, and force a party on whomever may find themselves in my compartment. And when I met Felix and he ended up booking a ticket to join the train from Sainshand (halfway from UB to the border), I was OVERJOYED because I was finally sure I’d have at least one person to celebrate with. Lucky me, I ended up with him plus three more.

The train left UB at 7.15, so after meeting my compartment-mates Galaa (from UB and visiting home, now returning to Beijing to study) and Emma (from the UK, a lawyer who retired early, currently seeing the world), we all promptly went to sleep for a few hours.

I woke up before everyone else because I never sleep and stared out at the vast passing Mongolian landscape for a bit. Emma and Galaa slowly emerged from sleep and I told them to expect Felix at the next stop. Emma mentioned that Wayne, a guy from England she’d met while in UB, was also on the train in another compartment and would probably also join the party later. We stopped in Sainshand and gained our German just about 3pm and the epic, 12-hour, New Year train party began.

We started drinking the beer we’d acquired almost immediately while Felix shared Dinner for One with us. It’s this English short play that was originally aired in the 60s and has somehow become a German New Year tradition to watch. It’s actually hilarious. Apparently the thing to do is drink every time the butler trips over the tiger’s head. So of course we did. And now I have a NEW New Year tradition to add to my repertoire.

We ran out of beer quite quickly (completely underestimated ourselves) so Felix and Emma gathered up the rest of everyone’s Mongolian cash and trekked off the the restaurant car, making it just 5 minutes before they closed it and bought all the beer they could afford. This added to our stash of fizz for midnight and a whole bottle of Mongolian vodka did us well for the remaining hours of 2015 and the first few of 2016.

Chinese tracks are a different gauge from Mongolian, so when you go through the border, not only do you need to clear customs and immigration, you need to wait while the wheels on every carriage of your train get switched. According to the interweb, sometimes they let you off while this happens, sometimes they don’t. It seems to depend on the whims of the conductors. We were hoping they’d let us off so we could have a party somewhere the toilets were not locked, but once we got to the Chinese side and they gave us our passports back, Galaa, who had done the route a few times by now, said that things did not look good for us getting off before they changed the wheels.

So Felix and I sat in the corridor of the carriage with our vodka putting the world to rights to pass the time while we all got shunted back and forth and up and down during the wheel changing. And after about an hour or so of this, we got a small window where they were letting people off the train for the remainder of the border station stop. We threw on our shoes, gathered up the booze, and ran out to the station building where there were mercifully open toilets and even a wee shop upstairs.

This was about 30 minutes before the end of the year, so we readied our fizz and I queued up ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on my phone and the corks popped at midnight on some rubbish, too-sweet fizz when I made my favourite New Year toast (‘Start as you mean to go on’, of course) and there were hugs all around. We rescued Wayne from the train about 15 minutes later so he could rejoin the party, and we goofed off outside for another half an hour before taking the party back on board, watching Dinner for One again, and yammering into the wee hours.

The next morning, we all emerged an hour or two before pulling into Beijing and said our goodbyes. I was fairly certain I’d see Emma, Galaa, and Wayne again though. And Felix was now stuck with me for at least a few days at his own suggestion. So we went off to secure our tickets to Harbin, and ended up eating at McDonald’s in the train station (I know. I KNOW. Not my choice!) because entering China was far too much for our brains to handle unfamiliar food with a hangover, both from the festivities and the being so used to things written in Cyrillic.

We then spent another 8 hours on a bullet train north, by the end of which I think we knew each other better than I know most people after months, or even years. And it’s a good thing we found how incredibly well we got on, because our arrival in Harbin was, I would say, less than smooth.

I am used to organising everything for myself (and everyone else), so when a few days earlier this man I had only met once said, ‘Hey I’ve booked us two beds in a hostel in Harbin, it’s all sorted’ I was like, hey, someone else is doing some sorting out of things FOR me for once! Enjoy the luxury, Kate! And I just trusted that is was all dandy.

Then we got in a taxi and he didn’t have the address in Chinese. After a very confusing (and probably maddening for the driver) 10 minutes, we finally got the driver to call the phone number we had and listed to what seemed like one side of an overlong conversation for the purposes of finding out an address. But then he drove on. And we got to the place (its around 11pm at this point) to find out they’d given up our beds.

This is where the benefits of having a travel buddy became truly apparent, because one of us got to freak out and one of us got to remain calm, and things are just a bit more balanced when those two things don’t have to happen in the same person. I was actually the calm one this time around, but we tended to swap off in that respect over the following two weeks.

This is where we ended up. Could have been worse, I suppose.

This is where we ended up. Could have been worse, I suppose.

With the help of three girls staying int he hostel who had a bit of English, the receptionist managed to communicate to us they’d found us another place to stay. We just went with it because at that point we had little choice. There are a bunch of hotels and hostel in China that only take guests who are Chinese citizens, and I believe the place we ended up was one of those places. It was… mildly terrifying. I’m sure I was the only woman on the premises. They put us in a room all the way at the back. It dingy and cold and not very comfortable and everything smelled of smoke. There was one very dirty squat toilet for the whole place, and no shower (and ALLLLLL we wanted after being on trains for 48 hours was a friggin’ shower). But the people who worked there were really just trying to be helpful in a bizarre situation for everyone, and there wasn’t much else we could do but go to sleep and solve it in the morning.

When I woke up, I WiFi’d up and found that there was an Ibis hotel in the city centre that was not exorbitantly priced and insisted we would be staying there for the remainder of at least MY time in Harbin. This was not met with much protest, particularly after throwing my ‘you best believe I am in charge of this decision’ look. So within the hour, we were in a room with a western toilet and a proper hot shower and it was probably the most relieved I’ll ever be to be in a soulless budget European hotel chain in my life.

From then on, things got much better. We had some absolutely incredible food. We hung out with an American couple we met randomly in the street. They were teaching English in China and were on a weekend trip to the city. (And were also Lindy Hoppers!) We walked on the frozen river and took a ride in some tubes pulled by a snowmobile. I discovered a love for hawthorn berries dipped in sugar. We wandered through the magical ice festival in awe despite our fingers and toes being completely numb just about the whole time. And somehow, rather than getting entirely sick of one another, we decided to stick together for the next 10 days until Felix headed back to Germany from Shanghai.

But only after agreeing I would be in charge of hostel booking duties from now on. Of course.

Harbin was probably the most expensive leg of this trip, what with the hotel and the ice festival tickets and the last minute train bookings. I never would have gone if it weren’t for this dude I jumped in a freezing cold lake with convincing me to freeze a little bit more to see some lights in some ice. And despite the massive added expense and the numbing cold and the slightly shady first night of the year, I’m so happy I agreed to give it a go. Because I mean, just look at the pictures!

And, as I wrote in my notebook while this was all happening, what a fucking way to start a year.