“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…
Original posted in London to New York blog, May 13, 2010
International Date Line, South Bering Sea
ON board the Diamond Princess as we plough relentlessly on towards the Alaskan coast are around 3,000 passengers.
All but 19 of them are cruising very much out of choice, having saved their hard-earned (or easily-inherited) for the trip of a lifetime. In the case of many hardened regulars, this is the latest in a long line of cruises.
One couple, whose smiling faces beamed out of the daily newsletter which arrives at our cabin each night to detail what’s going on the next day, have now logged up 995 days on cruises.
For those of us using the Diamond Princess as a means to an end and struggling to complete 15 days, it all prompts one simple question. Why?
We have had our moments on board and you can certain elements of the whole experience would attract people, but this is a long time to be cooped up in a relatively small area, particularly since we last left land in Japan and the weather has dipped to the point where the word minus plays a fairly significant role.
That has meant outdoor activities – our regular basketball sessions, all the outdoor pools and even large chunks of the walkways – have been off limits.
The outcome is that passengers have spent an awful lot of money to spend two weeks or more (word is of one couple on board for 90-odd days from Sydney to Vancouver) in a hotel they never leave. Would anybody do that on land?
There is plenty to do on the boat – particularly for those closer to the target age (and expected bank balance) of the cruise company.
Each day the Princess Patter (which always ends up as toilet reading in our cabin) lists a full programme of the events laid on by the cruise staff. We did, briefly, consider spending today joining in with as many of the activities as possible.
A possible day would have been: 9am – Beginners Bridge with Barbara 10am – Special Interest Lecture (‘Seven Financial Mistakes Seniors Make’) or Ballroom Dance Class for Beginners (Join Kay and Amy for the secrets of ‘Cha-Cha-Cha) 11.30am – Snowball Jackpot Bingo 12.30pm – Martini Madness Demonstration (actually, that might have been worth going to) 1.30pm – Line Dancing with John 2pm – Art Auction 3pm – Golf Chipping into the Pool (really annoying as it means we can’t go for a swim for a couple of hours – they also use plastic balls so the danger element has been reduced) or Classic Cars Get-Together (yet to see any classic cars on board, so attendance may be sparse). 3.30pm – Afternoon Tea
And then it all winds down to let people head off to get into their best bib and tucker for the final formal night.
Having scanned the Patter when it arrived last night, we scrapped my initial plan and, although I have seen very few of the party yet today, the average day of our little group is likely to have gone something like this.
8am – Wake briefly. Consider getting up early and going for breakfast. Remember you lost another hour last night, only got to bed at 3am and need at least another hour. Go back to sleep for a short while. Noon – Wake up 1pm – Finally stumble out of your room and head off to find whatever free food is being served in enormous piles somewhere on the ship. 1.30pm – Sit down on sun lounger near pool, plug in iPod. 1.35pm – Fall asleep 3pm – Get woken by a giant Kiwi eating an ice cream 3.15pm – Get a cup of tea 3.20pm – Return to a sun lounger to drink tea 4pm – Return to room for nap or to write blog
And that’s where you find me. Others have not been quite so lazy (there were reports of a brief game of basketball this afternoon), while others have not reached the getting up stage.
Plenty of us have made use of the activities. There’s been a few takers for the lectures, Pam has tried her hand (or should that be feet?) at ballroom dancing, Freddie has taken up residence in the Spa and Julie and Gerda came back raving about the towel-folding demonstration.
And there has been a lot of activity on the basketball court, the gym (where Marlo has spent more time than most of the staff paid to be there), the pool and the hot tubs, while the yoga and the abs sessions have proved particularly popular.
The films have also been an attraction – never expected to be queuing to watch a George Clooney comedy (Up In The Air) on a Monday afternoon – and a bit of research confirms the plot of Avatar is so straightforward that you can watch the second half of the film without having to sit through the first.
The shows have been a bit more hit and miss (among tonight’s offerings: Songs From The Shows by assistant cruise director Simon) and the two which we stumbled across were both by ‘mentalist and illusionist’ Wayne Hoffman.
The first was passable, the second – billed as ‘Adult Comedy’, but more akin to stuff you might have seen on Crackerjack – drew most of our crew and assorted hangers-on and was, putting it politely, absolutely awful.
All this, of course, is purely opinion – there were those who chortled throughout, lapped up the ballroom dancing and are, as we speak, folding their towels into the shape of a baby echidna.
We are, by a long chalk, outside the average target market and while a significant number of us are climbing the walls desperate to get off this boat, the vast majority here are having a wonderful time.
Can’t speak for all the clan (we’ve barely seen some of them since we got on board), but several would have sacrificed the ideal of doing the whole trip on land to have got off the ship and spent time in South Korea or Japan before catching a plane to Alaska.*
This way of travelling is not without its charms (others have enjoyed it greatly), it’s just so far removed from the rest of the trip and has split the group asunder. Instead of being together for the bulk of the day, you can actually reach late afternoon having seen next to none of the group. And for the first time on this trip, we are having to find ways to fill the time.
But on this ship we are and, despite the grumbles – which are more to do with the sheer amount of time we have been at sea now than anything else – we have managed to create our own entertainment.
None more so than the Pirate Party, held to coincide with Marlo’s birthday.
Since the idea was first mooted (sometime in Eastern Europe), raiding parties have been storming pretty much every market we have come across in search of pirate gear – hence us staggering aboard the boat with toy swords, bandanas, jewellery and whatever came to hand.
And so, as the rest of the ship got dressed up to the nines for a formal night, we descended on the Calypso Bar and Horizon Food Court in full pirate gear – complete with stuffed parrot and, ahem, squid – to be met with a mixture of surprise and amusement. With the odd bit of disgust thrown in, some of it from people we know.
From there it was off to Skywalkers for a night of debauchery – well, drinking and a bit of dancing really – as, for the first time, the full ranks of the 19-strong crew (briefly) gathered together in one place, other than to be transported somewhere.
Our numbers were augmented by the ragtag bunch of misfits who have shared our usual drinking holes this week (basically, nearly all the other cruisers between 21 and 50), so thanks to Mat, Lynsey and Ramsey, Nottingham Mike, Shane (go to bed earlier next time), Brad, Shannon and the random punters and even members of staff who stumbled in and opted to join in the carnage.
The night careered on (and on) into the early hours and by the time I finally stumbled to bed just after 7am, there was somebody from another room asleep in my bed and I had to hoist myself onto the top bunk.
Details must remain hidden (for reasons well beyond the normal protocol), but suffice to say there were casualties and the aftermath is still being felt.
Phil and I now have competition from Fran as the tour’s official carrying people to bed duo (although, not for the first time, my services were needed to hoist the victim off the toilet floor), Freddie was left on clean-up duties in his cabin and there was a repair bill.
Thankfully, considering it was such a write off as we slept off the night before, we got two cracks at Monday, May 10, courtesy of crossing the International Date Line (for which we now all have shiny certificates) and which sent us from 11 hours ahead of the UK to 11 hours behind in the space of an hour.
The second version of Monday was heading the same way until we shrugged off the lethargy and stumbled our way to the theatre to watch Up In The Air.
Any expectations of more sleep were ended by an interruption from Happy Captain Bob, whose intermittent broadcasts are met by great anticipation to see what level of misery he has reached today.
But this was no normal broadcast. Sounding unusually chipper, Cap’n Bob informed us of an outbreak of Norovirus on board and proceeded to issue a lecture on how, when, where and why to wash our hands.
No sooner had we digested this information (more than the 150 or so reported sufferers have managed no doubt) than we had another interruption for a ‘Code Alpha’ on Emerald deck.
Sadly, unlike the reportedly-contained virus, this appears not to have such a happy ending with unconfirmed reports of our first death on the ship.
We were unaware of the details as Phil, Phoebe and I shook off the cobwebs of the previous two days and took full advantage of the affects a rolling ship has on a swimming pool before relocating – complete with Duncan – to dinner in the Santa Fe restaurant.
The Limoncello shots offer – $4.95 for a shot glass and endless refills – may have been a good idea on most diners, sadly it backfired with us as we polished off the first decanter they produced, did the same with the second and offered to finish up the last one they had left.
Admittedly, the shots had an impact, meaning the decision not to join in the outbreak of dancing to the sound of Phoenix Rising in the Wheelhouse Bar was as much to do with concern about another Great Wall moment as complete lack of dancing ability.
We eventually stumbled up to Skywalkers for a late-night session which ended, sometime around 4am, with Phil, Phoebe and I hiding in the ladies loo from one of the ship’s more ‘colourful’ characters.
No wonder we missed the towel folding the next morning…
* Scrap that thought. Was a bit lost at sea when writing that. Looking back, many of us remember this leg of the trip with a fair bit of affection and are glad we stuck to the surface route.
NB When this post appeared in the original version of this blog in May 2010, my reference to mentalist Wayne Hoffman prompted several some less than favourable comments from people who enjoyed his show – most of which had to be moderated due to the particularly forthright way in which they were expressed.
Original posted in London to New York blog, May 8, 2010
Muroran, Hokkaido, Japan
BACK in my former life, when each day presented a load of empty sports pages to fill rather than a new experience to savour, the last few months were spent trying to explain how this trip was heading from London to New York without flying.
Very few people seemed to grasp the fact that at no point were we boarding a plane.
But we remain glued to the earth’s surface and, rather than flying across the Pacific Ocean, here we are on the Diamond Princess.
We have just crossed the International Date Line in the middle of the southern Bering Sea, about 90 miles away from the western reaches of the Aleutian Islands, still three full days away from docking in Alaska.
Writing this, flanked by one of the endless group of pensioners playing cards and a pool given added spice and enjoyment by the introduction of an impromptu wave machine supplied by the motion of the ship, it is hovering just above freezing outside and we are under strict instructions to wash our hands frequently to wipe out a Norovirus scare.
More than one member of our party has been sick since we got on board, but having witnessed both people involved moments before it happened, there is fairly strong evidence no virus was involved.
Rum and cokes, yes. An ill-judged bottomless cocktail offer by the waiting staff, yes. But viruses, touch wood, no.
But more of that in the next episode, let’s rewind to Tianjin in China and our arrival at the Diamond Princess.
We have stood out from the crowd from the off. Large chunks of crew and passengers we stumble across seem to know all about us before we meet (“Oh, you‘re one of THAT lot”).
Amid the pristine luggage lined up on the quayside and equally pristine passengers being processed through embarkation, 19 less than pristine backpacks and their owners descended into their midst.
For the first 24 hours, the mission was simple: get out around the boat and find out what there is to do, where to go and what bars we can go to without upsetting too many people.
By the end of the first night, we had achieved several of our aims, stumbling on the largely uninhabited Skywalkers Nightclub (throbbing to the tunes of DJ Brian), which has become our late-night hangout. Mainly as it is the only bar left open after 12.30am.
It reminds me, particularly when DJ Brian chucks on the cheese, of the nightclub in Only Fools and Horses where Rodney first dances with Cassandra (the one they go to after Del falls through the serving hatch), only with fewer people and a view over the empty pools and hot tubs at the back of the boat. And the Pacific Ocean if it wasn’t dark.
But it has served us well. As have the hugely-attentive staff, particularly the ever-cheerful Romel who had all our names and orders committed to memory within the first couple of days.
Courtesy of endless time changes (the clocks have gone forward almost every night, apart from the ones when we’ve gone backwards to tie in with shore visits and the one when we went forward, repeated a day and ended up 23 hours earlier than where we were – confused, you should try living it), there have been some extremely late finishes in Skywalkers.
Most of which have continued in the Horizon Food Court, our 24-hour home for breakfast, lunch, early dinners, snacks, late-night/early-morning food runs and endless cups of tea.
Imagine the glee experienced by the first post-club raiding group who discovered piles of pizza, hot dogs, chips and even, evidently, salad sat waiting for us at 3am – even after we had troughed down a four-course meal just a few hours earlier.
Disgraceful gluttony admittedly, but after the deprivations of the train, we are all more than willing to take food where we can get it – although that initial excitement has worn off as we work our way deep into the second week at sea.
Horizon Court is also the breakfast hangout of the lovely Vera, our Russian angel of the morning who has ensured our bleary-eyed party found each other every morning (at least the ones when we made it to breakfast) and were constantly stocked with tea and orange juice.
So, apart from eat and drink, what else is there to do at sea?
Swimming was a big part of our routine in the sun-kissed early days when we roamed the ship dripping water everywhere in search of the best pools.
On the first morning it was possible to track Phoebe around the boat by the wet footmarks she was leaving on the Lido Deck in her quest to find the pick of the pools and hot tubs.
Our eventual choice was the adults only (so why they let us in is anyone’s guess) pool at the front (sorry, fore) of the ship, conveniently located next to the spa, gym and the tennis/basketball court, which saw us sinking endless hoops throughout the day and night.
Actually, scratch that. That should read trying endlessly to sink hoops. A lot of balls were aimed, very few found their intended target.
Elsewhere, we have tried our hand at Cyber Golf (managed to stay unbeaten in two games, despite being a combined total of 27 over par for 17 holes), wine tasting, which was hugely informative, entertaining and alcoholic (although we never did find out how they dealt with the Rothschild) and an awful lot of lounging around.
The evenings have fallen into a familiar routine – meet around 7.30pm, have a drink or two before dinner, debate which restaurant to eat in and then debate which bar to drink in before heading up to Skywalkers.
We have varied the routine by going to shows (well, other have, my option was to sit in Churchills Sports Bar and wait for the others to walk out), to see a late-night film (we are still explaining Shutter Island to Mike) or even gracing the casino.
We took advantage of a few free lessons in the early stages and while Nick swept all before him on the roulette table, a glimmer of success on the Blackjack table was enough to convince myself to enter a tournament the next night.
So keen were we that Nick, Phil and myself left dinner before dessert to claim our places at the table.
Sadly, by the time dessert was served, we were all out with one hand of our qualifying round to spare – a result which was repeated when we had another go, although just one turn of a card stood between me and returning a very healthy profit (the anguished cry of the gambler).
The first week on board was broken up by a series of days ashore.
While few of us bothered too much in Dalian and Qingdao, having already seen a lot of China and being keen to enjoy the sunshine on deck, we were all keyed up to jump ship in Busan, South Korea.
But we had to wait. And wait. And wait, as thick fog closed the port until well into the afternoon.
When we were let off, with the promise of a late departure, we all went a bit nuts and decided to experience Korea by sampling what exactly they had to offer. In a bar.
And a fun time was had by our little raiding group (Mike, Pam, Marlo, me and the eager Freddie and Fran, both keen to break out of the restraints of the American legal drinking age) in a bar where we had to collect our drinks from supermarket style fridges, were fed copious free snacks, got handed free carry outs and were even given our own membership card.
Sadly, we never quite got away with the cowboy hat from the mannequin which was still on Marlo’s head until the girl behind the counter ran into the lift after us. An honest mistake.
Still, our exploits were nothing compared to the trip to meet a friend of Phoebe’s which left Nick passed out and unable to remember most of the previous evening and Phil asleep, at various points, in both the theatre and Horizon Court.
Sadly, our last two shore trips were also dogged by the weather.
An early party made it to the gates of the port in Vladivostok before turning back absolutely soaked – not that they missed an awful lot if the afternoon’s windswept organised excursion was anything to by.
The Eagle’s Nest lookout was dramatic, particularly in the high winds, but when the most interesting thing on view is our ship, it doesn’t say an awful lot for the place.
There was, possibly, even less to see in the rain of Muroran, Japan, but that was compensated by the sheer friendliness and welcome shown by the people who turned out in force to welcome us, translate and make our brief, soggy, visit a happy one.
Bedraggled, we stumbled back onto the ship for a solid week at sea.
What could go wrong…..
Next time: Pirates of the Pacific (And Its Endless Sequels), Cap’n Bob tackles the Norovirus and how to waste the same day twice.
Original posted in London to New York blog, April 29, 2010
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Original posted in London to New York blog, April 27, 2010
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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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