A Tea Drinker’s Guide to Coffee Shops in Hanoi

Due to poor planning on my part, I spent a lot of time in Hanoi during my trip to Vietnam at the beginning of this year. In total I spent almost two weeks roaming the streets and frequenting various coffee shops, without drinking a single drop of coffee I might add. Usually I order a nice safe peppermint tea, failing that I’ll choose a mango smoothie! As you can probably guess, this will not be a list of where to find the best coffee in Hanoi. If that is what you were looking for then I suggest you look elsewhere (sorry). What this will be, however, is a list of the coffee shops I visited while I was there and my opinions of them. So if that sounds interesting to you, sit back, grab a coffee and read on.

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My favourite travel word… probably because it sums up my life…
  1. The Note ( Open 6:30 am – 11pm)

The Note Coffee was at the top of my list when it came to things I wanted to do in Hanoi. I know it probably should have been the temple of literature or a museum of some sort, but once you see the photos you’ll understand why I was so excited to check it out. It has to be the cutest coffee shop I’ve ever visited! Filled with notes of love left by visitors from all over the world, you can’t help but feel like the walls themselves are giving you one big hug. The peppermint tea was as good as any I’ve had and they do a fantastic matcha iced smoothie too if that floats your boat. I loved this coffee shop and I spent hours there writing blog posts and editing videos, and for most of that time I had a whole floor of the café to myself. If you love post-it notes and good vibes then I would definitely recommend a visit.

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Even the mugs are friendly!
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A room full of love and kindness ❤
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Extra points for the whipped cream on top!

Where to find it: The Note Coffee is right in-between Hanoi’s old quarter and Keim Lake (great view of this busy area from the top floor of the café). Easily locatable on google maps, less easy to navigate yourself to if you struggle to dodge speeding motorbikes and follow directions at the same time! It’s located on the right hand corner of the lake as you come out of the old quarter and shouldn’t be too hard to spot, but I did miss it and walk right past it when I was looking for it…

 

Address: 64 Lương Văn Can, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

 

  1. Hanoi Social Club (Open 8am – 11pm)

When I saw a menu that said “gluten free, vegan spaghetti” I was excited but kept my expectations low. Gluten free pasta dishes can be a hit or miss situation at home, never mind halfway around the world in a country where gluten free is barely even translatable! I was actually pleasantly surprised and had myself a lovely meal. As if things couldn’t get better they even had gluten free chocolate cake! Add to this the homey, comfy atmosphere of the place and you’ve got yourself the perfect spot to hang out for an afternoon. It’s a bit on the pricey side but when you’ve been living off spring rolls for the past two weeks paying a little bit extra for a delicious spaghetti is definitely worth it! If you like a café with mismatched furniture, quirky artwork and dim lighting, then this one is for you.

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You have to order a green drink in a place like this!

Where to find it: Within walking distance of the old quarter this hipster café is definitely in a central location, I did have a little trouble finding it though. It is located down a small side street that google maps has no knowledge of so it took me a while to figure out where to go. Once on the side street, however, it is easy enough to locate.

 

Address: 6 Ngõ Hội Vũ, Hàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

 

  1. Hidden Gem Café (Open 8am – 11pm)

Hidden Gem is a unique and wonderful place with a great mission! Everything in the café is made from upcycled materials from the seats to the décor and even the cups you drink from! The café’s owner is a friendly man keen to talk about his ambitious mission to clean up South East Asia (and sell his motorbike tours of Hanoi). It is built over four floors, three of which have seating in all shapes, sizes and materials. On the ground floor you will find bike parking and smiling staff waiting to take your order, this is also where you get your first glimpse of the café’s upcycled décor with plastic bottle ceilings and water jug light shades. All around the café are posters about climate change and plastic pollution really expressing the inspiration behind the place. I returned to this café a few times and would recommend going in the evening as the atmosphere is truly at its best at this time.

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Even the ceiling is recycled!
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The only spider I’ll ever call cute

Where to find it: When they say “hidden gem” they mean hidden! Well not really but it took me far too long to find this place. The hour long search resulted in a smashed up phone and an essential but brief trip to the next coffee shop I’m going to talk about. If I’m honest I just wasn’t using my eyes… as soon as I sat down in the coffee shop across the street I saw the sign saying “Hidden Gem Café this way” and felt like an idiot as I waited for my apple juice and desperately hoped my phone would fix itself. It is right on the edge of Hanoi’s old quarter and if you bring your brain with you really isn’t that hard to find, if all else fails find Always (the Harry Potter themes café) and look across the street, it will be right in front of you.

 

Address: 3B Hàng Tre, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

 

  1. Always Coffee and Butterbeer (Open 8am – 11pm)

This cute little café needs some TLC but I loved it all the same. It is a Harry Potter themed café and has drinks named after different potions and beverages mentioned in the books and movies. Leave them a review on tripadvisor and you’ll even bag yourself a free deathly hallows necklace. It’s a small café with one floor and a small amount of tables but both times I went I was able to get a seat no problem. As mentioned above, I wasn’t very adventurous the first time I went, opting for what I thought would be a quicker option in the form of apple juice. Unfortunately for me in that moment but something that earns them points in reality, all their fruit juices are made from scratch and so my apple juice took at least ten minutes to come to me. By which time I had been staring at my intended destination for about eight minutes. Disastrous day it may have been, but discovering a Harry Potter themed café was definitely a bright side to my misadventures.  When I returned, intentionally this time, I ordered a Felix Felicis (the famous luck potion from Half Blood Prince) and it was delicious! A mango smoothie floating on top of what I think was lemonade, whatever it was it tasted better than I just made it sound! If you’re a Harry Potter fan this is the place for you in Hanoi.

 

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After all this time…

Where to find it: Located on the edge of the old quarter, if you see the Hidden Gem Café then look no further than across the street… the best way to find it would appear to be by looking for something else… (come to think of it maybe it is actual magic and not just a cute theme!) Nearby landmarks I can attest to are a phone repair shop (I’m not bitter I promise) and Highway 4 restaurant.

Address: 8B Hàng Tre, Lý Thái Tổ, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam

  1. 65 Coffee (Open 10:30am – 8:30pm)

This tiny shop is where I chose to spend a whole day watching the train pass through Hanoi’s infamous train street! As seems to be the theme with my travels, I was not actually looking for this coffee shop. In fact I was looking for one I had seen in a vlog when researching my trip to Vietnam (I know I might not have a solid plan but I promise I do at least a bit of research before I arrive in a new country). I located my predetermined café “Hanoi Train Track Café” only to find it had closed down. A bit disappointed but determined not to let it dampen my spirits I walked about five minutes down the track and was welcomed by a wonderful smile and told to sit by the owner of 65 Coffee. It was about 35 degrees so the first thing I wanted was a cola but as I said I did spend the whole day there so I eventually ordered myself a lemon ice tea (bet you thought I was going to say mango smoothie)! I must have been there from 12pm to 4pm but time flew by; chatting with other tourists and the shop owners, waiting for trains to speed past at unbelievable speeds for a residential street and making friends with a very dirty but very sweet dog. I definitely recommend this little spot if you are interested in checking out train street. It is much quieter than the other end which is usually crowded with tourists trying to get a snap of the unbelievable sight of a train driving edge to edge with people’s actual homes!

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Not a mango smoothie!
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Everything else might be closed for Tet but not this little shop!

Where to find it: Well, the clue is in the last paragraph really but you can find this café on Hanoi’s train street. I walked there from the old quarter and it was manageable despite the heat. There are a few café’s along the street and if you are interested in train street I will be posting a blog soon detailing my day there.

Address: 65 Ngõ 224 Lê Duẩn, Khâm Thiên, Đống Đa, Hà Nội, Vietnam

For more of my travels check out some of these posts:

5 Reasons to Travel Solo

Every major trip I’ve taken until now, I’ve done it solo. Some could argue that it’s because I have no friends, but I promise you that is not the case and it isn’t because I don’t like other human beings either, although a little time alone never hurt anyone. I need human interaction just as much as the next person and honestly without someone to debrief to after a long day I think I’d go a little bit stir crazy but at the end of when it comes to travel I alway opt for a solo journey. Why? Well, I have my reasons and if you keep reading you’ll find out!

Freedom

There is a great sense of freedom that comes with travelling solo, I especially love the fact that you are free to do what you want when you want to do it. When you travel with other people you have to plan around everyones needs and what they want to do. Someone wants to go shopping and someone else wants to go to the beach but then someone else wants to explore the local area by bicycle. Without a leader in the group all you end up doing is going round in circles until you’ve wasted the whole day trying to plan the day! This isn’t always the case of course, sometimes there is a natural leader in the group and plans are made but this alway means a compromise was made somewhere along the way. Travel alone and there’s no wasted time, there’s no compromise and no one knows if you take a cheeky pool day when most people would be expecting you to be immersed in local culture! Some will call it selfish, I call it self-care! Don’t get me wrong group trips can be amazing too but personally I just love the freedom of solo travel a little bit more.

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Solo travel means self timers and tripods are essential kit! Hong Kong

No Stress

When I do travel with a group I find myself feeling responsible for everyone, I’m a people pleaser so the stress of trying to make everyone happy all of the time can be a bit overwhelming for me. I especially feel this kind of stressful responsibility in airports, for some reason I feel like it’s my job to get everyone to the gate and organised when really they are all adults and if they miss the flight it’s their own fault! I love airports when I’m by myself but in a group I can’t relax until we are all in the air.

It’s Easier to Make New Friends

If you travel with one or more friends the chances are you will stick together, nothing wrong with that but I find it much easier to make new friends if I’m by myself. Groups can be a bit of a safe space for me, but when I travel alone it forces me to talk to new people to find out information. Sometimes these conversations don’t go much further than getting directions or the information you were looking for but they can also lead to a longer conversation and as a result a new friend. This new friend might invite you on a day trip or a night out while you’re both in the country but it doesn’t have to be anything more than that and you aren’t tied to their itinerary for the rest of your travels.

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Go on tours make new friends! Thailand

It Will Build Your Confidence

When I travel with friends I tend to let them do the talking, mainly because I don’t want to be responsible for anything that goes wrong… Travelling by myself has taught me that things are bound to go wrong at some point and as a result my confidence in planning a trip, asking for directions and organising transportation has definitely increased. Having only yourself to rely on forces you out of your comfort zone and forces you to do things that you don’t usually do for yourself. If things go wrong, they go wrong. It’s part of the fun of travelling!

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Travelling alone requires the confidence to ask strangers to take your photo. Hong Kong

The Destination is Your Choice

If you want to go somewhere, don’t wait for someone to go there with you! Nothing is stopping you from seeing the world but you, so pack your bag and just go. When you travel with other there will inevitably be a compromise somewhere along the way. While compromising is a part of life and being able to accept compromise is definitely a desirable trait, you should also be able to see the world on your own terms. Not having anyone to go with is not an excuse!

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Go where you want, when you want! China

I feel like it is important to note that travelling solo has its flaws too, it can be lonely at times and in some places it just isn’t safe to travel alone. I’m happy with a good balance between my solo travelling and meeting up with friends along the way but its not for everyone.

What do you think? Is travelling solo better than travelling with friends? Are there any other advantages to travelling alone?

To read about some of my adventures, solo or otherwise, click on one of the links below:

 

Harbin Ice Festival: The Three Main Parks and What They Have to Offer.

We arrived in Harbin on new Year’s Eve after a long and interesting journey by sleeper train. Once we had checked into our hotel and freshened up a bit, we decided to go for a walk down the main street to see if we could find a bar or a restaurant to spend the evening in and celebrate the changing of the year. The main street was beautifully decorated with fairy lights and lined with ice sculptures, some still a work in progress. Along this street you can also find high street stores, shopping malls, restaurants (yes there is a McDonald’s) and some of Harbin’s famous ice cream parlours. Apparently no trip Heilongjiang province is complete without ice cream and so, this is how we found ourselves in a bar at quarter to midnight ice cream in one hand and a drink in the other. I think the main appeal of Harbin ice cream is the novelty of eating it in sub-zero temperatures, but it is still really good ice cream so I do recommend giving it a try.

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Harbin Ice Cream
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The strongest Jack and Coke I’ve had in my life!

The ice festival in Harbin doesn’t actually start until the 5th of January so we travelled Yabuli for three days of snowboarding. Yabuli is located about three hours south of Harbin by train and is probably the most well-known Ski Town in China, boasting three major ski resorts. More about this in a later post though…

There are three main parks in the Harbin Ice Festival, two I would say are a must do and one that I would recommend you squeeze in if you have time but is not essential for the overall experience.

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The snow sculptures were indescribably impressive!

The first park I suggest you go to is Sun Island Snow Sculpture Competition and Scenic Area. My research told us that it was best to see this park during the day and I do agree with this but make sure that you stick around for sunset as seeing the large snow sculptures bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun was definitely one of my favourite things about this park. We arrived just before midday and left as the sun was setting around half past three, spending roughly four hours there in total. I don’t think you need four hours to see the whole park, you could probably see everything in around two and a half hours, but we spent a good amount of time warming up in the coffee shops that are scattered around the park. Another reason we were at this park for so long was because of the amount ice related entertainment on offer, they had everything from giant ice slides to ice bikes and sledging. I pretty much had to drag Justin away from the attractions before I froze to death!

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Sunset over the ice rink.
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One of my favourite features were the sculptures you could climb inside and become part of!
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He told me not to dab but I did it anyway…
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No such thing as too much fun!

Also on offer at this park, and included in your ticket, is a shuttle bus from the main entrance to various stops around the park and back again. We chose to walk around the park first and then got the shuttle bus back to the entrance  because when the sun goes down in Harbin the temperature starts to drop really quickly!

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Looking like a marshmallow is mandatory in subzero temperatures

The second must see park and main attraction of the Harbin Ice Festival is Ice and Snow world, also located on Sun Island. A popular option for visitors to Harbin is to do the Sun Island Scenic park and the Ice and Snow World park in the same day. This is definitely a good way to do it but is not necessary if you are in Harbin for more than two nights. We chose to do the parks on separate days as we had more than enough time in Harbin and didn’t want to feel too rushed.

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Ice and Snow World begins to impress before you’ve even made it through the gate!

Ice and Snow World has been on my China bucket list since I made the decision to come to China way back in 2017 and it did not disappoint. I have never seen anything quite as impressive as the ice sculptures in this park. Before we travelled to Harbin I watched a few videos online and read a couple of blog posts as research for our trip, but even that did not prepare me for the scale of this place! The park has everything from to-scale replicas of famous landmarks to rides and slides made from ice. There were towers of ice blocks as tall as a block of flats and actual castles made from ice! Words honestly cannot do this place enough justice and even in photos it is hard to appreciate the wonder that is Ice and Snow World. I would say two hours is probably enough time to walk around the park and, as with the Sun Island Snow Sculptures, there are plenty of place to nip inside and warm up when the cold starts to get too much. We arrived around seven in the evening and stayed until the park closed at half past eight, we would have arrived earlier but I could not figure out how to get there. My advice would be to flag down a taxi and just show them a picture of Ice and Snow World, this is what we ended up doing and it was far easier than trying to figure it out on google maps!!

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Replicas in ice form can be seen of famous landmarks such as the Roman Colosseum.
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The ice blocks are carved from nearby Songhua River.
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Fireworks over the Ice Sculptures of Ice and Snow World.
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The view from the highest point in the park is like nothing I have ever seen!

The third park I recommend taking a look at is Zhaolin Park. This park is free to enter and has more than 1,000 ice sculptures. These sculpture are more like what you would traditionally think of when someone mentions ice sculptures. Intricately carved designs lit up brilliantly with coloured lights line the pathways through the park; figures of animals, people and even an axe made up the art works alongside some smaller ice-block buildings. Don’t feel like you have to squeeze this one in if you are a bit short on time, it is worth checking out but there are ice sculptures dotted around all around the city so if you don’t make it to Zhaolin then you are still pretty much guaranteed to see one somewhere!

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Zhaolin Park has some smaller ice buildings and has no entry fee.
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There were some incredibly intricate designs on display!
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Harbin’s main walking street is lined with ice sculptures during the festival.

Harbin was the perfect way to end off my year in China (I was originally meant to begin my year there but with the Chinese New Year festival they changed our orientation week to Beijing instead).  The festival for me really summed up my experience in China, it is the perfect combination of Chinese culture and the “how is this real?” moments that were a running theme throughout my time there. If you find yourself in need of sub-zero temperatures and pretty lights then Harbin is the place to go. Given the opportunity I would return to the Ice and Snow Festival in a heartbeat and I wouldn’t mind another one of those ice creams either!

Why not check out some more of my adventures around China?

 

China by Sleeper Train: If Sleep is for the Weak then call me a Body-Builder…

December 29th, the day after my 25th birthday, I boarded my first ever sleeper train. It is a backpacker rite of passage when travelling through Asia to take at least one journey on a sleeper train and, having been in China for a whole year, I figured it was about time I gave it a go! Besides, I had only ever heard good things about China’s sleeper train network.

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Snow on the tracks delayed our train by about six hours!

Let me tell you first of all that the thirty-six-hour journey between Guangzhou and Harbin is not for the faint hearted! One hard sleeper ticket buys you a bunk in a six-bed compartment that is roughly the size of a large cupboard. Justin had taken a sleeper train before so reserved us each a top bunk as, in his opinion, it was the best option. It does offer the most leg room of the three and you do have easy access to the luggage rack, but that would probably be where the benefits end for me.

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This is me for two nights…

As I settled down in my bunk I suddenly remembered how much I disliked small spaces… The space between the bed and the roof of the train is not even enough to sit up in which does lead to a feeling that the you are the last sardine being pressed into the tin before it is vacuum sealed and ready for the shelves. Getting up and down from the bunk was a whole other struggle for me and my non-existent upper arm strength, the top bunk is about twice my height! The sight of me trying to pull myself up onto the bed must have given a few passengers a good laugh. Take care on the steps, they are about the size of cd covers and they can be folded away so double check they are still there before you get out of bed. There are designated smoking areas on the train but either people were just ignoring them or maybe the doors weren’t closing properly because all I could smell was cigarette smoke which is not what I would call a pleasant smell and definitely did not help me sleep. Our train also ended up delayed by about six hours which put our journey time up to forty-two hours, almost a full two days!! On the plus side I did read about ninety percent of “Eat, Pray, Love”, a book I have wanted to read for about a year so it’s not like I wasted my time in sleepless solitary confinement.

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My Kindle saved me on this trip!

At the end of the day it got us where we needed to go for next to no money, so I can’t complain too much. You get what you pay for, and the heavy duvets were definitely appreciated as we were travelling in winter! All I can say is that the sleeper train is an experience that everyone should try at least once. I have been told since that I was unlucky and that the cigarette smell is not usually a feature of the sleeper train experience. If you have been to the gym more than five times in your life, then pulling yourself onto that top bunk also shouldn’t be an issue for you like it was for me (maybe start the push-ups now though, just in case).

Final verdict: do it for the backpacker points, but I highly recommend choosing a shorter journey than Guangzhou to Harbin… much, much shorter…

 

Sleeper train from Guangzhou to Harbin: 600 yuan (about £68), 42 hours

Flight from Harbin to Guangzhou: £186.98, 4 hour and 40 minutes

 

TEFL Tip Tuesday: What’s it all about?

I had a thought recently that maybe I could share what I’ve learnt over the past year on my blog for people who are looking into teaching English as a foreign language. Coming into a classroom as a new teacher can be daunting and sometimes it is nice to feel like there is someone right there with you when you are faced with forty (or more) new students all staring at you expectantly. That thought turned itself into an idea and that idea is TEFL Tip Tuesday!

Essentially every Tuesday I will post a tid-bit of knowledge, a helpful hint or a fun way to get your students involved in the classroom and really loving English. The novelty of having a foreign teacher will always mean that your classes will be more looked forward to than their usual school English teacher but it can be hard to get students to focus in class, especially when you don’t speak their language! Hopefully through these posts I can share with you what I find useful and maybe, just maybe, you will find these things useful too.

If you have any questions about teaching English abroad then please feel free to leave a comment below, message me on Instagram or pop me an email. I’ll be posting a blog with my most commonly asked questions soon as well, so watch this space…

 

For now why not check out some of my previous posts about teaching abroad:

How to get to the Leshan Buddha (from Chengdu).

I arrived in Chengdu with one plan and one plan only: visit the Panda Research Centre! With four days to explore the city it was clear I was going to have to add some other activities to my itinerary, so I did a little research and discovered the Leshan Buddha just outside of Chengdu.

Despite being the largest stone Buddha in the world, the Leshan Buddha was not exactly easy to find and definitely took a bit of planning to get to. Leshan is a town about an hour away from the city of Chengdu if you take the bullet train, which I recommend! Travelling by train in China is cheap and the trains are comfortable and air conditioned, so if you have the option of travelling by train then I would take it over a coach journey. Book your ticket in advance using the Trip (trip.com formerly known as Ctrip) app, the ticket should cost about £9 per person each way and the app makes it so easy to pick up your tickets from the station.

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trip.com is the easiest way to book trains in China.

When you arrive in Leshan head right out of the train station and cross the road to the bus station. From here you take the number 13 bus and it should only cost about 1 yuan (roughly 10p). There is another bus that goes to the Buddha from the station as well and either one is fine, just ask one of the members of staff in the station if you are unsure. The bus goes all the way to the gate of the Leshan Giant Buddha, so it is ideal!

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The bus takes you right through Leshan town and across the river to the Buddha entrance.

When you arrive at the gate there are two options available to view the Buddha:

Option one – take a boat ride down the river, 70 yuan (about £7): the boat ride lasts about twenty minutes to half an hour and gives possibly the best view of the Buddha. The boat stops right in front of it and you are able to take in the sheer size and scale of the sculpture without the crowds.

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The boat has a open viewing area as well as an indoor seating area.
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The boat stops for about 10 minutes in front of the Buddha, plenty of time for photo opportunities.

Option two – go into the park and climb the cliff face that the Leshan Buddha was carved out of so many years ago, 80 yuan (about £8): this option really gives you a real sense of how difficult it must have been to carve such a giant figure out of the rock that sits right on the river edge. The climb also shares a side of the Buddhist culture and history of the site that is not visible from boat. Stone steps that lead you to the clifftop are accompanied by many more small stone carvings, some worn and eroded by the weather and others perfectly preserved but all equally beautiful. Once you have reached the top of the stone staircase you are greeted by the Buddhist temple and the smell of burning incense as it floats throw the temple doors. From here you are level with the Buddha’s head and have the perfect view to count the 1,021 buns in his coiled hair! If you are willing to wait in the queues then you can take the narrow stone staircase down to the giant feet of the Buddha, each foot is large enough to fit 100 people each.

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The Leshan Buddha temple.
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Worshipers light candles at the entrance to the temple.
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The Leshan Buddha has an impressive 1,021 buns carved into his stone head.

We chose to do both the climb and the boat ride and if you have the time then I would recommend doing both. The two options give such different perspectives of the site and it is so cheap to do that it is definitely worth it.

I had absolutely no idea that this incredible statue existed until I was looking into things to do in Chengdu and I am so glad I took the time to visit despite how difficult it was to find. It is definitely a whole day excursion but completely worth it if you have the time. I hope this little guide will help if you are heading to Chengdu because it is incredibly easy to get to when you know how!

Check out my last blog post if you are looking for more inspiration for things to do in Chengdu.

Chengdu: More than just the Panda capital of the world

Think of Chengdu and the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the Giant Panda Research centre but as I found out recently there is a lot more to this ancient town than the fluffy face of the world wildlife foundation.

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Young Panda Cubs at the Chengdu Panda Base

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province in Western China and has some outstanding places to visit that weren’t even on my radar before my visit in July. It took four hours to travel to Chengdu from Xi’an on the fast train, I accidently booked myself onto a first-class carriage but no complaints from me (that leg room was more than worth the extra £5)!

The metro system in Chengdu is easy to navigate for the most part, as long as you check the map before you get on the train it is almost impossible to get lost. There are however a few places that are not accessible by the metro lines such as the main market street, the panda base and the Leshan Buddha which is actually located outside of town (I will be writing a separate post all about how to get there soon because it is a bit more complicated than other attractions in Chengdu).

My accommodation was perfectly central and easy to get to from the main railway station when I arrived in Chengdu. I stayed in a quirky little backpacker’s called the Blacksmith Hostel and I have to say you definitely get what you pay for. If you are looking for luxury then I maybe wouldn’t stay here but it was perfect for me and my tight budget. My only complaint would be the lack of insect screen on the windows as the room was almost constantly filled with mosquitoes and I ended up covered in bites, literally from head to toe! The toilets and showers were both accessed from the balcony which made the thought of going to the toilet slightly unappealing in the middle of the rain storms that frequented my stay. I maybe wouldn’t stay there again, but it fulfilled it’s primary purpose of somewhere to pass out at the end of each day.

 

I spent 3 full days in Chengdu and hardly even scratched the surface on what the city has to offer but if you are heading there anytime soon then these are the places I recommend visiting;

 

  1. The Chengdu Research of Giant Panda Breeding

No trip to Chengdu is worth the journey if you don’t make it up to the research base on the outskirts of the city. This is usually the main reason people visit Chengdu and it was definitely my motivation for booking a trip to Sichuan province. The base is currently home to around 83 pandas varying from new born cubs to adults and is by far the best place to see these adorable creatures up close. The base has been working in Giant Panda conservation since 1987 and has played a huge role in taking the bears off the endangered species list. It rained the entire time we were at the base, but it was still one of the best experiences of my life. Being able to see pandas up close and watching them interact with each other was beyond anything I had ever imagined before. There are plenty of places to eat around the park as well as a panda museum and red panda enclosures; definitely enough to keep you occupied for a whole day.

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You’ve never seen a happier human than me next to a group of panda bears!
  1. The Leshan Buddha

The largest sitting stone Buddha in the world, Leshan Buddha has to be seen to be believed! This impressive stone structure took 90 years to build and was completed only after the death of the Monk who originally commissioned it. There are two options to view the Buddha; you can take a boat down the river to right in front of the towering monument or you can view it by climbing to the top of the cliff face it has been sculpted out of and descending the steep stone steps that are carved all the way down the side of the figure’s surrounding walls. We opted to do both, and I would highly recommend this if you have the time.

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The Buddha from the boat
  1. Chengdu Museum

Firstly, this is a completely free activity, so you have no excuse not visit the museum! Secondly, I spent so much time wondering from floor to floor and learning about Chengdu’s history that the place was closing by the time I strolled out of last exhibit… oops! Seriously though this should definitely be on your list of things to do if you are interested in the history of the places you visit. The museum covers everything from the first settlers in the area all the way up to the present day including a very detailed and fascinating showcase of traditional Chinese shadow puppets. Add to all this that it is right in the centre of town you really have no reason not to have go and check it out.

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I waited ten minutes for this guy to leave so I could take a photo of the shadow puppets and ended up liking the photo with him in more than the one without…
  1. Jinsha Site and Museum

While you can find most of the information about the Jinsha site in the Chengdu museum if you are interested at all in archaeology then it is worth-while going to the Jinsha site to see the excavation process. As well as the impressive archaeological site there is a whole museum dedicated to the important finds found on location including the beautiful “Golden Sun Bird” a ring shaped piece of foiled uncovered in 2001 and the “Golden Mask” an eerie gold mask believed to be over 3,000 years old. Also on the site is a beautiful bamboo garden and “ebony forest” surrounding the two museum buildings.

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The excavation site at Jinsha Site Museum

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of history there is to find in Chengdu. I arrived knowing only that I was desperate to visit the Panda Base and left with a deeper understanding of the city and it’s culture. I could easily return to Chengdu and have a completely different list of things to do, there is just so much to this city it truly took my breath away. I know it is easy to book onto a tour that takes you to Beijing for the Great Wall of China, to Xi’an for the Warriors, Chengdu for the Pandas and back again, all in one week! But, if you can, I highly recommend spending at least a week in Chengdu in order to fully experience everything this city has to offer.

Rain Rain Go Away!: Zhangjiajie, Hunan, Day Four

Our last day in Zhangjiajie was also our worst weather wise, not ideal considering our chosen activity for the day was Tianmen Mountain which is more suited to a warm sunny day than the wet and cold day we were stuck with. We decided to give it a go anyway, we had known this was going to be our worst day in terms of weather when we booked the tickets and you never know when the sun is going to break through the clouds here in China (seriously, one minute it is chucking it down with rain, thunder, lighting, the whole lot and then you blink, and it is glorious sunshine, blink again and the ground is completely dry!).

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The Longest Cableway in the world

Tianmen Mountain offers two ticket options; option one is to start at the Stairway to Heaven and then take the escalator the rest of the way up the Mountain and the cable car back down, option two is to do the opposite and start with the cable car. We chose option two, we figured we’d done enough walking up concrete stairs for one week, walking down seemed like the much preferable option. We were advised to go for the earlier ticket time as the queues can get very long in the afternoon, and I have to say that even in the morning the queue took about half an hour to get through! The Tianmen Mountain tourist information boasts its cableway as the longest cable car in the world; the journey takes around half an hour and, despite the rain, it was a spectacular way to view the city. The lower cable car station is located right in the centre of Zhangjiajie city passing over the bus station, houses, train station and even takes you over a smaller mountain first. All before the ascent to Tianmen Mountain even begins.

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Cable Car Views.

About ten minutes before the end of the cable car line we realised the main disadvantage of our weather situation, the cable car began rocking in the wind and then, slowly, we entered the cloud that had draped itself over the summit of Tianmen Mountain. From here all we saw was the occasional cable car appear out of the fog periodically and pass by us on the right-hand side disappearing back into the fog; until we reached the top of the Mountain, where we saw the occasional human appear out of the fog. The minute we stepped off the cable car we were hit by the freezing cold wind that was circling the summit. I made a B-line for the concession stand to buy myself a woolly hat, predicting that my two jackets and thick jumper just might not be enough for what was waiting outside of the centre. Best two pounds fifty I ever spent!

 

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In a cloud with my new hat.

Our main attraction for Tianmen Mountain were the glass walkways that could be found at various points around the summit so, given the fact it was about 2 degrees Celsius, we decided to head straight towards which ever one was closest. I can only describe the view from here as a wall of pure white cloud. I imagine there is an almost straight drop underneath the walkways, which on any other day would have left me as petrified as the previous day on the glass bridge, but with the clouds safely masking the truth from sight I managed to stroll across the walkway as if I was walking on solid ground.

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What I’m sure should have been a beautiful mountain top view.
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Can you even tell we’re on top of a mountain?

We didn’t hang around long after this, the wind was bitterly cold and the warmth of pretty much anywhere was the only thing any of us could really think about. We decided to head back down the mountain and relax for the rest of our day, agreeing that we all deserved a rest after such a busy week. I have to say that of all the experiences Zhangjiajie has to offer, an escalator through a mountain has to be one of the more bizarre experiences I encountered on this trip. Just the thought of an escalator inside a mountain seems a bit surreal, but it exists and I’ve taken it.

As you exit the escalator you find yourself in Tianmen cave, a naturally formed archway through the mountain that is around 430 feet tall. The cave leads out to “The Stairway to Heaven”; the stairway has an incredible 999 concrete steps built into the mountain-side and it is ridiculously steep (not ideal when it’s been raining for the better half of two days and you are as clumsy as I am)!

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At the top of “The Stairway to Heaven”

A shuttle bus service is provided from the bottom of “The Stairway to Heaven” back down to the cable car station in the centre of town and is included in your Tianmen Mountain ticket. The shuttle bus route takes you along the 99 bend road and, let’s just say, you’ll never be more glad to have a seatbelt securing you to your seat than when you are whizzing down this steep and winding road…

 

Trip Info:

  • Zhangjiajie 1982 Chujian International Youth Hostel: 135 yuan (£15 for 3 nights) http://www.booking.com/Share-ayycez 
  • Tianmen Mountain Cableway ticket: 258 yuan (about £26) includes cable car up the mountain, escalator down the mountain and shuttle bus back to cable car station.
  • Glass walkway: 5 yuan (about £6)
  • Zhanjiajie National Forest park ticket: 248 yuan (about £27.60) allows entry to the park for 4 days.
  • Local Bus: 10 yuan each way (about £1 per ticket)

Too Hot (Pot) to Handle: Exploring Sanxaing and Zhongshan

This time last month was my first day in Sanxaing, I know I keep saying it, but I cannot believe how quickly time is going here. The last month has been an absolute blur of experiences but I am going to try my best to put them into words.

 

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One of the best days and the best view!

 

Our first week started with us finding a true hero, that hero is called Jack and he also works here in San Xin Bilingual school as an English teacher. We found Jack in a crowded cafeteria when I spotted the only other white person in the room and we descended upon his table like moths to a flame. He was then bombarded with the same set of questions twice as those of us at the end of the table struggled to hear the conversation. Luckily for us this was somehow not an off-putting experience for Jack and he has become our guide, translator, handy man, rice pudding chef and an invaluably useful friend to have around. He has helped us so much, we probably should have paid him some kind of fee to be honest! First stop on Jack’s guided tour of Sanxaing was a trip down the main road next to the school. Although affectionately known as “Death Alley” (due to the sheer volume of traffic, including busses, that somehow squeezes itself through the narrow street along-side pedestrians) by the foreign teachers we were quickly reassured that no one has actually died there… to the best of their knowledge. Here you can find everything you need; grocery stores, hairdressers, E-bike shops, coffee shops, the lot!

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Market street

Next on to the main market street which runs on weekends, and then down to the shopping mall. This has everything from a two-story supermarket to a cinema, a KFC to more traditional restaurants and even a small arcade. Dinner was an experience that I’m sure no one will be forgetting in a hurry. Spicy Hero is a hot pot restaurant near the mall and really the clue is in the name, order spicy you will get spicy!! We ordered a mild spice soup for the vegetarians and plain soup for the meat eaters, but mild spice at Spicy Hero is anything but mild. I have never been reduced to actual tears by a meal before but here I was bright red, sweating and shivering at the same time and despite my best efforts eyes watering like someone was cutting onions under my nose. We took about two full cups of chillies and chilli oil out of that soup added litres of new water to it but in the end, we had to admit defeat and switch to plain soup. Mild spice in China is not the same as mild spice in Britain… lesson learnt!

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No Spicy Not a Hero (We are not heros).

That weekend we made the forty-five minute bus journey into Zhongshan, the neighbouring town, to visit some of the other interns and to see the Lantern Festival that marks the end of the Spring Festival celebrations. The festival took place in Sun Wen Memorial Park in Zhongshan which had been filled with lanterns of all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, we missed the fireworks, but it was still incredible to see the park lit up completely by lanterns and LED lights. There are many theories as to the origin of the lantern festival, but its roots can be traced back almost 2000 years and it is most commonly believed to be linked to the reign of Emperor Ming of Han and the rise of Buddhism in China. In the past it was most likely that the lanterns would have been of simple design and would have probably been red to symbolise good luck going into the new year. Now the lanterns are shaped into everything from animals to buildings as well as the more traditional simple designs.

 

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Fairy Light Covered Trees.

 

 

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Lantern Structure.

 

 

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Fairy Light Tunnel.

 

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Of course I found the Panda Lanterns.

 

A trip to one of Sanxaing’s hot spring resorts provided us with the most relaxing day. There was a pool for every flavour you can think of; vinegar, coffee, rose petal, lemon, wine, mint, the list goes on! For around £16 you have access to the hot spring, swimming pool, buffet and nap area for the whole day (provided you don’t leave the resort). They will even help you organise a car back into town, just be prepared to wait a little while for it to arrive…

 

 

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Chrysanthemum Pool.

 

Jack also introduced us to his friend Enrico who owns an Italian restaurant in the centre of Sanxaing. Between them they have shown us some of the best places to eat around town, but we always go back to Enrico’s, and why wouldn’t we with Nutella Pizza and Tiramisu on offer for desert!

 

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Jess, Jack, Jessi, Molly, Luke, Me, MC and Justin at Enrico’s.

 

 

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More of the crew at Enrico’s.

 

One of my favourite days so far has to be when we climbed the hill at the back of our school for sunset. From the top you can see the whole of Sanxaing and it was one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. The hike up only took us about an hour and for the most part there was a very clear path through the trees, only towards the end did it get a bit overgrown, but we made it through with a bit of effort. Coming down we got a little bit lost as I suggested we avoid the overgrown path in favour of a path that looked a bit more manageable in the dwindling light. Despite this diversion we did eventually make it home and joined up with the rest of the group to go bowling at the bottom of “Death Alley”.

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Jumping photos are hard to perfect… I think we need a bit more practice.

 

There is still so much more to see and do here in Sanxaing and I cannot wait to experience all of it. There are probably things that I have done here already that I have missed out from this post just because this month has passed by me in such a blur. I am slowly starting to figure my way around the area and to be honest as quickly as it has gone, it also feels like I have been here my whole life at the same time. I don’t usually find it hard to settle into a place, but I didn’t really think I would feel as at home here as I do. This is my home now, for now at least.

 

P.S. Benjamin is Awsome…

Beijing: Rice for Breakfast, Halloumi Chat and the Great Wall of China

I have been in China for three weeks, I did mean to start these blog posts earlier but time has been flying by! Now that I have settled into my placement and got my timetable of classes, I finally have the opportunity to sit down and write about it.

My journey began with a couple of days in London to catch up with friends and, because it actually worked out cheaper to fly from Heathrow than Glasgow or Edinburgh, it just made sense to travel from there. London to Beijing involved two seven hour flights, one airport sprint and about zero hours sleep! Add this to a time difference of eight hours and it might just be understandable that I made a bit of a strange first impression on my fellow interns… Let’s just say that if you don’t want to be known solely for your favourite type of cheese, then maybe don’t spend ten minutes talking about Halloumi the first time you meet a new group of people. Luckily I wasn’t the only jet-lagged traveller in the group and soon enough the conversation had escalated to what can only be described as over tired nonsense, but hey if you can’t bond with a group of strangers over the classic Nintedo game Nintedogs and British tv drama Dr Foster then what can you bond over?!

 

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The view from my room in the Training Centre.

 

Week one in China was orientation week; a chance to meet the rest of the interns, learn some Mandarin, gain some cultural knowledge and explore Beijing. First thing I did was join a couple of interns to a convenience store at the end of the street, this was definitely and experience! With my knowledge of Mandarin limited to “hello” and “sorry”, no existence of a queue system and a 100RMB note that was clearly far to big to be buying one bottle of water and a chocolate bar with, I have to say I have never felt more British in my life! Thankfully, we survived the ordeal and legged it out of there and back to the safety of the training centre until we had a bit more of a clue as to how to communicate with, well, anybody.

The first official day of orientation and with a good night sleep, a freezing cold “refreshing” shower and the shop incident pushed to the back of my mind we headed down for breakfast. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting but when I was met with a plate of rice and a boiled egg, I did wonder for a minute if I had slept in and somehow wandered into lunch time. It was breakfast though and I should have saved my judgements because it actually tasted incredible! For the non Coeliacs there was also a choice of interesting looking fried buns if rice was a bit too adventurous for a Tuesday morning.

 

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Breakfast

 

Orientation began with a quick introduction about ImmerQi and what we might expect from our placements and time in China. We then organised Chinese sim cards (so if you have tried to text my old number I’m afraid I won’t have received it) and spent the majority of the remainder of the day using the WIFI, reasuring family members that we had survived the journey.

Day two and we were up bright and early for a Tai Chi demonstration in the grounds of the training centre, if the cold shower didn’t wake you up that morning then the temperature outside did the trick, but I would not have missed it for anything! The instructor was quite possibly the most chilled out person I have ever seen. He made each move look completely effortless as he flowed from one leg to another gliding through every motion with an ease that put us all of us wobbling and falling about to shame. He also had the best sense of humour, “attacking” some of the boys in the group to show why each step was important in terms of defending yourself against someone if they came at you in a fight.

 

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Tai Chi in the Training Centre Grounds

 

 

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Our Tai Chi Group.

After this we were taken to a Calligraphy class where we were shown how to write Chinese symbols with traditional brush and ink. It is fair to say my attempt was not the best in the class, but at the same time I don’t think it was the worst either, so at least I have that. (This is also where I learnt that “squint” is used only to refer to someone “squinting their eyes” in every other country apart from Scotland… where it can also be used refer to something being squint, or off centre as everyone else calls it!) Traditionally the symbol painted on red paper for the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) is done so with the paper at an angle. I was not very successful at this part of the task; for some reason, even though I started with my piece of paper squint it somehow ended up straight again. The important thing is I tried.

 

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My attempt at Chinese Calligraphy.

After lunch it was Mandarin class and then a group of us decided to take the subway system into the centre of Beijing. I always knew Mandarin was going to be hard but, man is it hard! A few more lessons are definitely required before I can attempt to have a conversation. The centre of Beijing was an interesting experience, I had been told about Chinese people taking photos of westerners on the street but I don’t think I fully understood what that involved. I am not exaggerating when I say that we were, at one point, surrounded by a group of about ten all trying to take photographs of us and telling us we were on tv.

The highlights of the week for me were definitely getting to explore the Forbidden City Gardens and visiting the Great Wall of China. The Forbidden City is breathtakingly beautiful; the moat was completely frozen over and the art work was so delicate and perfectly painted on to each structure it was like nothing I have ever seen before. We spent a whole afternoon just wondering around the gardens before heading back to the training centre, where I promptly passed out after such a full week.

 

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The Forbidden City.

 

 

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The Forbidden City Gardens.

 

 

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The Forbidden City Gardens.

 

Our last official day of orientation was our trip to the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember and it was at the very top of my list (after visiting Pandas) of things I wanted to do while in China. It did not disappoint; the views were incredible before we even started climbing, some of the steps were higher than my waist and it was actually surprisingly warm considering how cold the rest of the week had been. It took us around an hour to reach the top of the section of wall we were climbing, including rest stops for photographs and water along the way. From the top the views were even better than expected and I have to say that it was the perfect way to end our first week in China.

 

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The Great Wall of China.