What’s your Favourite…?

Day 23 of the blog post a day in May and we are off on our travels with a list. Two of my favourite things.

GET home from any long trip and it will not be long before somebody asks a question that starts “what was your favourite…?”.

The most common end to that question is place or country and, to be honest, no matter how many times it has been asked, not sure have ever given a proper answer.

Always had to veer off on a tangent, explaining that favourite moments on overland trips are not so much based on places but memories or moments, where they were is not necessarily the key factor in why they were so great.

Often reel off Rwanda among my favourite African countries, but was only there for about 72 hours.

Those three days included an extraordinary hour with mountain gorillas, a harrowing if hugely worthwhile trip to the Kigali Genocide Museum (both of which are real must sees) and a bizarre afternoon at an eccentric bowling alley.

It is also a beautiful country, known as the land of a thousand hills, but can that really qualify it as one of my favourite places of all my travels?

The same applies to the remaining moments picked out as my five favourites from 10 months on the road in Africa – an afternoon with the children of Lake Bunyoni in Uganda, an evening camping the heart of an isolated village in Cote d’Ivoire, digging a truck out of a waterlogged hole in the Congo and a visit to an orphanage in Ghana.

Trans Africa – The Best and the Worst

All amazing, but enough to land on my favourite places list? Probably not. Even goats on trees is not a good enough reason to lift Morocco onto that list.

Equally, having a few gripes about a place is not necessarily enough to disqualify it – Zimbabwe made it on my best and worst countries in Africa list, such are the delights and frustrations of a remarkable nation.

So have finally tried to work on a definitive list of my favourite places, defined by the city, country or region itself being what earned that ranking rather than some fleeting moment or experience.

Also need to have spent a certain amount of time there – love loads of places having spent very little time there, often just passing through – and the one guarantee of this list is that am determined to go back there. But that’s a very long list.

Diving in to this without having settled on the definitive list – suggest will want to change it pretty much immediately and fairly certain it will include a fair amount of places in the States.

Kept it to 10 or we could be here all day – can rattle on about endless number of places absolutely love – and in no particular order.

Boston
No surprise on this one, have long had a bit of a love affair with the state capital of Massachusetts (not the one in Lincolnshire).

Feel instantly comfortable and relaxed there – my overseas destination of choice to just get away from it all and feel under no pressure to go sightseeing or charge around ticking off the must-sees.

Wandering around Boston, hanging out in a bar or catching a Red Sox game is my version of a beach holiday.

Boston for First Timers

New York
Could easily live in Boston, not sure that is the case with New York but a few days always an exciting prospect, but with the similar feeling of being on familiar – if more hectic – ground.

You cannot run out of things to do, places to see and have every intention of doing and seeing a lot more there.

Watching the Red Sox win in Yankee Stadium would be near the top of the list.

New York for First Timers

Deep South
Bit of a cheat this one, lumping together such a large and varied area but it contains a huge number of places which could easily have made it in their own right.

From the antebellum charm of Charleston – which will always have a special place in my heart – and Savannah to the music capitals of Memphis and Nashville (plus Austin, Texas, which strictly doesn’t qualify) via any number of stops in smalltown America.

And for each of those memorable major centres, there are countless smaller stops, all with the requisite southern charm and fantastic scenery – if you are going to take one road trip, try the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway twisting through the Appalachians. Or the Great River Road down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

Could go on and on.

Chilkoot Lake
Sunset over Chilkoot Lake, Haines

Alaska
The largest state of the union is one of its least accessible, but one of its most rewarding.

It is huge (it is the most northerly, westerly and easterly state, courtesy of a geographical quirk) and that size strikes you at every turn. You will travel for hours between stops and, if the weather is good in the summer, there will rarely be a poor view.

Several American national parks could have made this list – Yosemite, Yellowstone, Badlands, even the Grand Tetons which gave this blog its name – but Alaska just does it all bigger and better.

Edinburgh
You do not have to travel across the globe to find memorable cities – Edinburgh has always provided a great stop and each visit (all far too short, often far too drunk or with too much time spent working, occasionally both) leaves me wanting to go back for more.

Cornwall
Slightly surprised that a place not visited for years makes the list, but could not find a reason to take it off. My Dad always used to say ‘if the weather is right, you can’t do better’ and he’s not too far from the truth.

Cape Town/Western Province
Definitely topped the list of places to go back to in Africa, largely because it is simply stunning and Cape Town provides a wonderful centrepiece.

The Beautiful South

Bamako
The capital of Mali was not on our original itinerary and events in the north of the country have not exactly helped it as a travel destination. But the chaos, friendliness and sheer fun introduced us to what was to come in sub-Saharan African.

Beijing
There are people who have trouble with China and, yes, there is a lot to question. But it is a remarkable place, a history and a culture which is totally new to anyone from the west. And the best place for street food.

Namibia
Had to include one African country. Nearly went for the whole west coast or some of the wildlife hotspots of the east. But Namibia combines the best of both – amazing wildlife experiences, the sense of wilderness of West Africa and its own extraordinary natural sights. It is also a mecca for thrillseekers and overlanders, who come together after weeks or months on the road.

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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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