The Lure of the Golden Arches

“The Russian rain was falling on the golden arch… All the way from Moscow to New York”

All The Way From Moscow – Jesse Malin

ONE of the great delights about travelling is the constant chance to push yourself out of your comfort zone and savour new experiences, be that meeting people from a different background, staying in alien surroundings or sampling the local cuisine.

But, seemingly wherever you go in the world, as soon as you hit any built-up area there is an option to feast on the familiar.

No longer does grabbing a quick bite to eat in Beijing have to mean nipping down one of the hutongs and wolfing down a delicious, stupidly cheap and ridiculously fast snack from a vendor who has never heard of health and safety (although it is to be heartily recommended).

Now there’s the option of tucking into something familiar. You can actually give directions around Tiananmen Square using McDonald’s and KFC as landmarks.

To eat in one of these homogenised outlets is sniffed at by the travel snob and responsibletravel.com listed it as one of the 15 bad habits travellers should give up for Lent.

Is turning your back on the native food and retreating to the familiar flavours on offer in your favourite fast food joint really travelling? Is it merely a long-distance version of the stereotypical Brit abroad demanding a breakfast fry-up, chips with everything and HP sauce as he soaks up lager and sun for two weeks in the Med?

Or is it perfectly acceptable, at least in small doses? After all, if the idea is to eat where the locals do, who do you think that is queuing up for a Big Mac? This is, when they can’t be bothered to cook, where the locals eat, just as we do back home. Otherwise the global chains would not be here.

And sometimes it is good to take a break from travelling when it is all you are doing 24 hours a day for weeks or months on end.

After an initial reluctance to retreat so completely into the familiar, my view is pretty much relaxed – as long as it is not overdone, but merely an occasional break from more complex meals.

Not that my attitude was always so relaxed and fair-minded.

The first time the ‘To Maccy D or Not Maccy D?’ dilemma came up was on a brief backpacking trip around France.

A week of sleeping on trains, in hostels and on platforms, cycling around the beautiful Lake Annecy, finding out my travelling companion could not swim at the precise moment a ferry looked set to plough into our pedalo and dealing with his sunstroke was highlighted by one of the worst fouls seen on a football field (which broke the post, squashed my duty-free cigarettes and left the young German on the receiving end being helped away, sobbing).

We ended up in the northern coastal town of Caen (having swapped our initial, wrongly-purchased train tickets to the southern coastal resort of Cannes) with little money left and time to kill before our ferry.

My desire to eat native (and save dwindling resources) produced the idea of some cheese, maybe a bit of ham, and a baguette before a stroll around the old town. My friend opted for the stroll, but only until he found a McDonald’s and piled all his remaining cash into the biggest collection of meat and special sauce in buns he could afford.

The difference of gastronomic opinion ended in conflict when his request to share my remaining bread and cheese on the ferry was refused – a division which grew on a long, cold, hungry night on a Portsmouth platform after we missed the last train home.

Good intentions have meant most trips have started with a desire to steer clear of the Golden Arches of the American Embassy, but they have never lasted too long, particularly after a few beers.

On the road from London to New York, that meant post beer Big Macs in Warsaw (where the staff spoke better English than the ones you find back home), just off Red Square in Moscow (strangely satisfying after visiting Lenin’s Mausoleum and with four days of dried food lying in wait on the Trans-Siberian) and on the final day in China. There’s only so many Chinese feasts you can take before craving normality.

And I’ve been kicked out of two McDonald’s.

Neither were entirely my fault. After all, if they were closed, why were the doors still open?

The one in Nashville was an attempt to quash a post-drink hunger (something the Americans don’t really cater for, Dunkin Donuts just doesn’t cut it). For some reason, the staff lined up behind the counter and actually took my order three times before a security guard appeared and escorted me out, leaving me to the vagaries of a motel vending machine for that evening’s meal.

Times Square, New York was a bit different, mainly as it wasn’t part of a search for food. The lights were on, doors were open and staff were inside. It looked open. Even at 5am.

The search for an open toilet ended in the back room of a neighbourhood deli still open and housing a meeting of figures from central casting who watched (and probably listened through the narrow door) my progress in silence. Thought it best to buy a pizza slice on the way out.

Maybe there are times when the familiar fast-food joints are a welcome destination…

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Norwegian Wood

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 29, 2010

Beijing, China

SCALING the first set of steps onto the Great Wall of China at Badaling, you are greeted by the inevitable gift shop.

Amid the panda hats, trinkets and customary tourist tat hangs a series of T-shirts in a variety of colours and designs.

Most of them proudly display the same slogan to tempt in the mass of tourists who flock to this section of the 4,000 mile long structure: “I Climbed The Great Wall of China”.

Great Wall of China
Ancient and Modern – The Great Wall of China snakes past a Beijing Olympic sign at Badaling

Chairman Mao declared anyone who scales the wall automatically becomes a man (even if they are a woman).

So quite what he would have thought about my adventures on the wall is anybody’s guess. There certainly weren’t any T-shirts to commemorate my visit.

Not one reads: “I Threw Up On The Great Wall”.

Those of you who paying attention will remember the previous night’s meal in Datong left a lot to be desired. There wasn’t much wrong with the food, it just wasn’t what we thought it was and stretched our delicate European tastes a little too far.

Great Wall Group Shot
Flying the flag on the Great Wall – The massed ranks of the OzBus take the photo opportunity

And by the following morning, mixed in with another bout of erratic driving from our permanently bemused-looking driver, it had started to have an affect.

But all that is slightly irrelevant when you get to the Great Wall.

Always pinpointed as one of the must-sees of the trip, it is – even crawling in tourists and their related paraphernalia – a staggering place to visit.

It qualifies among the elite group of places – alongside, so far, London, Red Square and Tiananmen Square – for a group picture. But it outranks them as, apart from getting the flags the right way up this time, pretty much everybody hung around to get their own pictures taken on the wall.

Then it was a mad dash up the wall. Followed by the immediate drop in pace as we realised how steep it can be, followed by the first of many stops for breath.

Great Wall
It gets steep up there

And as others headed off into the distance, the combination of trekking up the hill and my less than perfect state of health all came to a head and left my mark on the Great Wall.

Or rather over it.

Only later, refreshed by something a bit simpler to eat and a more comfortable ride from our original, far more sensible Chinese driver, did we come to the conclusion it was over the wrong side – opting for the Chinese side rather than into the land once occupied by the Mongols it was built to keep out.

Obviously disappointed not to get as far up the wall as possible, it was still a remarkable experience and will rate as one of the sightseeing highlights of the trip.

What followed – via a trip to the Ming Tombs – was one of the social highlights of the trip as we welcomed our latest arrival, and met up with some old friends, in spectacular style.

Ming Tombs
Emperor Dongle at The Ming Tombs

From the Ming Tombs, last resting place to most of the Emperors from the Ming Dynasty, we rolled back into Beijing and a return to our previous hotel just south of Tiananmen Square.

As well as being reunited with the gear we had stored ahead of our tour of the provinces, we were also introduced to Pamela, the 18th traveller.

To mark her arrival, virtually the entire party decamped to Bar 365, the hostel bar which had become our local on our previous stay.

Even more local was the hostel housing our lovely Norwegian friends Mari and Sunniva, who first crossed our path in Irkutsk.

Sunniva
Sunniva leaves her mark in Beijing

They trumped my tale from the Great Wall in some style, managing to shed a lot more than me to mark their visit (if you are reading this ladies, you can always send the photographic proof of your antics to my e-mail or Facebook – your story definitely needs checking closely).

With our numbers bolstered by Mari and Sunniva and residents of the hostel above the bar joining us over a few beers, by the time Nick was lured into a reprise of his bongo heroics to a rousing rendition of Wonderwall, virtually the entire bar and staff were involved in a truly international session of singing, dancing, drinking and acquisition of flags.

What followed as the Tsingtao beer flowed at about £1 a pint is a touch hazy and it needed the now traditional trawl through each other’s cameras to discover exactly what happened (which also taught Leila never to leave her camera unguarded in a bar).

Several questions remain unanswered: How did drinking for that long produce a bar bill that low? Where did Duncan get that fruit from? How did Phoebe lose the dance-off rematch with one of the waiters? How did Barry get into just about every picture? And what countries are some of those flags from?

Bird's Nest
Racing not allowed – The Bird’s Nest Stadium, Beijing

But two questions stand out above all else: Who was that in the gents toilets? And did she get all her clothes back?

Sadly, the question which had been occupying many of us for the previous few days was not answered the following morning at the Birds Nest, home of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

It reminded me a lot of Edgar Street, what with the rectangular patch of green surrounded by stands. It’s just a lot bigger, far more spectacular and had far more people milling around just to have a look than bother going to watch Hereford on your average Saturday.

Unfortunately, the athletics track was declared out of bounds and our planned 100m race had to be cancelled.

For the record, my money was very much on Marlo to beat Freddie, while there remain serious doubts over whether many (or, indeed, any) of us would have made it that far in the veterans race.

Bigger Than Jesus
Getting arty – Marlo lives up to his nickname (Bigger Than Jesus) in an impromptu art installation

From one of Beijing’s must-sees, we headed off to one of those unheralded surprises this trip keeps throwing up, the 798 Artists Village.

My art knowledge is roughly the square root of bugger all, but this rambling former factory site turned art commune proved a fascinating stop with some extremely interesting photo galleries and one eccentric, if challenging (see, picked up a few phrases), modern art studio complete with a room full of pink gas.

We even tried our hand at an art installation of my own involving Marlo and a statue of Jesus rising out of a coffin.

China’s obviously had an affect – or was it just the sun?

Pink Gas
But Is It Art? Portrait of the Artist In Room Full of Pink Gas

Either way, that was it for Beijing and China as the trip wandered off into a completely new direction – two weeks at sea on board the Diamond Princess.

Of which more next time…

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If You Go Down In The Woods Today…

Original posted in London to New York blog, April 27, 2010

Pingyao, China

“He’s going on about Ming, Ding and Hot Wings, I don’t know what shit is going on” – Marlo

“Don’t share with The Bear” – Ancient trip saying

THIS trip is full of contrasts as we tick off the countries, cultures and assorted accommodation.

The cramped, smelly and uncomfortable days on the Trans-Siberian, where food was limited to what we could buy on the platforms and cook with boiling water, are a million miles away from the luxury of the Diamond Princess, with an army of staff waiting to serve us an array of food available 24 hours a day and look after our every need – even if four blokes sleeping in one room is still a bit cramped.

And the differences between China, Russia and our early destinations through middle Europe are many and varied.

De Je Yuan Guesthouse, Pingyao
The main entrance, De Ju Yuan Guesthouse, Pingyao

But rarely have we swung so rapidly as the relatively short hop from Xi’an to Pingyao, which marked the start of the return loop to Beijing.

Whereas Xi’an is a modern, bustling city where you want for little, the ancient walled city of is very much hanging onto its past.

Tower blocks, new buildings and wide highways are replaced by narrow, car-free streets and single-storey shops and guesthouses, while our sparkling new hotel was replaced by an old-fashioned guesthouse.

And a charming place it was too – at least the guesthouse was.

Guesthouse courtyard, Pingyao
Open to the elements – Snow storm hits the courtyard of the guesthouse in Pingyao

Pingyao itself, once the initial charm has worn off, does not have that much on offer.

It was also the place I ignored the acknowledged wisdom of the trip and shared with “The Bear”. And what’s more, did it in a double bed.

For double bed, read huge expanse of mattress and duvet which provided more than enough room for the two biggest blokes on tour to enjoy some of the most comfortable conditions of the trip, as well as sprawling large chunks of kit all over the bed.

At one point we had four people on the bed and it was not in the least bit crowded – although one of them had to be asked to leave for eating biscuits.

Downtown Pingyao
The mean streets of downtown Pingyao

As for “The Bear”, that is the nocturnal name for Phil, all 6ft 4in of him and my only serious rival for the title of biggest snorer on tour (although we are not as far ahead as some others would like to think).

He reckons my snoring’s not actually that bad. Wish the same could be said for him. My iPod and headphones came in handy.

Away from the sleeping arrangements, Pingyao did throw up a few moments to remember – not least biting wind and sudden snow storms, little more than 24 hours after wandering around Xi’an in shorts and sunglasses.

There’s not that much to see – most of the streets blend into one after a while – but our softly-spoken guide managed to find a few places to visit, although if any of us had realised just how close we were to the guesthouse for much of the tour, he would have found it even harder to keep our attention.

Taoist Temple, Pingyao
Taoist Temple, Pingyao

He led us around the city walls in a bitter gale, an old bank, the historic local government offices, complete with prison, and (most interestingly) a Taoist temple, but the real high (and low points) came from our food and drink outings.

Our hosts treated us to a noodle and dumpling making lesson. Several of our number joined in with contrasting results, before serving up the results – and some they had made earlier – in possibly the finest feast of our Chinese leg.

It was given an extra frisson of danger by a sudden gale which blew down the ramshackle wooden scaffolding on the building opposite, although that was rather less exciting for those of us sat in the window as it clattered down inches from us.

An afternoon diversion into a tiny, sign-laden bar by Phil, Nick, Phoebe and myself (ostensibly to escape another bout of winter weather) produced another unexpected gem. Once, that was, we had discovered we weren’t meant to balance our drinks on the uneven tables, but pour them into bowls and drink from there.

Pingyao Bar
Leaving our mark in the bar in Pingyao

We left our mark with an addition to the signs which decorate the walls and while we are proud of the alliteration, we apologise for the language.

But from there it all went downhill, a disappointing meal back at the guesthouse followed by an even more unfulfilling trip to the Pirate bar around the corner, which not only failed to satisfy our growing pirate obsession (all will be explained), but has earned a nomination as the worst bar any of us have ever been in – which provides plenty of competition.

Empty, cold, black and with just a few Pirates of the Caribbean posters to suggest any pirate link, we also had to endure the eccentric landlord playing guitar to us. At least that was a break from the dreadful music we were subjected to.

Pirate Bar, Pingyao
Warning signs – The Pirate Bar in Pingyao

Duncan’s assessment (“Let’s wreck this joint”) was met with support until we realised it looked like somebody already had.

Things did improve at our next port of call – but only just. Not only did we have to put up with sporadic power cuts, but a visit to the toilet entailed walking through the middle of a foot massage parlour.

Sadly, nobody was too reluctant to hit the road the next morning, although our 6.30am departure was heralded by my opening words to Phil which, tidied up for family viewing, were: “Phil, it’s twenty past ***%$* six”.

Latest travel tip: Don’t leave setting the alarm to your roomie.

Going out in a bit of a rush and missing breakfast was not that bad an error as having no food in my stomach proved a blessing for much of the day (particularly considering the next day’s events).

Hanging Temple, Hengshau Mountain
‘We’re going up there?” – The Hanging Temple

A fairly terrifying drive on, for large chunks, the wrong side of the road, was followed by the climb up to the Hanging Temple at Hengshau Mountain.

Composed of places of worship for Taoists, Buddhists and Confucius, the temple is built halfway up a cliff face with sheer drops off narrow wooden walkways and the path up to it is treacherous in the best of conditions.

In the snow and ice which greeted us, it was even more so, leading both to snowball fights and one or two people looking less than enamoured by their precarious position at the high point.

Hanging Temple, Hengshau Mountain
Long Way Down

There was more Buddhism at the Yungang Grottoes, a series of caves containing thousands of statues ranging from 2cm to 70m tall.

Very impressive it is too, but to echo Marlo’s immortal summation of the situation, our guide bombarded us with so many names and dates, it all became just a bit too confusing and we were reduced to using the caves for shelter from the biting wind.

Listened a bit more would have paid off as Gary struck me with an impromptu quiz on Buddhism. Not was expected when asking someone where the toilet is.

Thankfully, we were well sheltered from the wind when we reached our hotel in Datong which – apart from the first bath of the trip – was notable mainly for most of us not leaving the premises in search of a drink.

Yungang Grottoes
The largest of the thousands of Buddhas at the Yungang Grottoes

Sadly, it was also notable for the worst ordering of the trip and left four of us trying to down a bizarre collection of fat, gristle, bones and red-hot chillies. Well, three of us, Duncan opted to throw most of his over the tablecloth as he tried desperately to show off his new-found chopstick skills.

It all added up to an early night, but it was to bite back in some style the next day.

Of which, more next time…

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