London

I’m now working in IT which is mostly good fun so I don’t have much time for blogging anymore. I’m also learning a lot of new technologies too which is interesting. In fact the only reason I have time now is that I’m heading up to Manchester by train to meet up with a good friend from University, which means I have three hours to kill. Additionally as I got an advance ticket I managed to grab a first class ticket for less than £20 one way, which as the train was pretty damn full was probably a good idea. It was nice to get a table, a bit more space and free food and drink (which alone almost made up the extra £7 it cost over standard class.) the only problem with first class is that its a damn Voyager as my friend Dave would say and the seats aren’t any more comfortable than standard class (I’d go so far as to say they were less comfortable.).

However last weekend I headed down to London a couple of days in a row. The first evening I headed to a gig of Earthless and Pontiak, these are both American rock bands that are fairly heavy but also pretty damn good. I wouldn’t have gone on my own, but it was thoroughly enjoyable. The second band only played four songs in their entire set (including encore) and the second lasted for a good 20 minutes, which was really cool to listen too. It was a little long for my tastes (and I did get a little bored halfway through) but it still managed to work well as a song.

The gig was at a great little venue called Borderline which is just a short distance down Charing Cross road from the Astoria. It is a great little venue, and I can’t wait to go back as I’m sure it made the music even better. The Astoria is one of London’s more famous music venues and it has now been shut so that a CrossRail station can be built underneath it. I have to admit its not my favourite venue, but a lot of famous gigs have been played there. After CrossRail is finished the venue is apparently going to be re-opened – hopefully they can make it into a decent venue at the same time :p.

When we went to the gig we went on the bus from Oxford to London which is probably the nicest bus journey in the country in terms of quality. Even so you get 4 seat across rather than 3 you’d get in other countries. The only bonuses are the toilets which were decent enough and “free WiFi” though on 2 out of the three buses I took it didn’t work with my iPod touch at all – and with the other it was barely functional – “broadband” only to the standards of developing world free hostel internet. That said it still manages to take the timetabled 1 hour and 40 minutes to get to London even on the way back after midnight which means that that estimate is really only an aspiration of how long it will take most of the time which isn’t really very good.

I mention this as when I was in Cambodia I was talking to the people who owned my hotel about the buses you can take there and they didn’t believe that the buses in Cambodia were better/as good there as in the UK – sadly it is true. Mostly because those who are rich enough take the train – though to be honest Via Barriloche in Argentina spanks the first class train I’m on now in terms of comfort – maybe we should sell our railways to the Argentineans :p.

As we went on the bus we got in a little further into London than you would on the train so we got a nice walk down Oxford Street including the eastern end which I have never been down before. Oxford Street is quite nice and Selfridges is in a very impressive building though the sign outside seems more than a little tacky to me. What surprised me is that even though the east of Oxford Street is fairly posh overall it is more like Nanjing road in Shanghai than Orchard road in Singapore.

The next day I headed into London to meet up with some other friends who I mostly know online in Hyde park this was great fun until it started to rain and then we decamped to the pub in Kensington to the south of the park. This was great fun and I had a great day. Unfortunately I stayed a bit too late missing the last train back to Oxford so I had to take the bus home taking bus three of the weekend. After all that excitement I was due a relaxing evening before Monday morning.

Smart cards

I’ve got some smart cards left over for Tokyo, Singapore and Shanghai and the latter two even have some credit on them so if you’re going to any of those cities and would like a smartcard then drop me an email. Note that the one for Tokyo is less useful as if you dont have a railpass you get a “free” one with the narita express into central Tokyo.

Summary of the trip: Mainland Euroasia

I was always going to give some awards at the end of my trip and this is the award for the final third of the trip. As well as this I will follow this post with some overall awards which will include some additional awards as well. That post will follow this evening UK time.

Best site

The Great Wall, China, the Great wall was stunning, especially seeing it snaking off into the mountains – apparently 20% of the entire Chinese population worked on it at one point, meaning it probably wasn’t the great military success it was supposed to be.

Honourable Mention

Taj Mahal, Agra Although Agra and frankly the rest of northern India isn’t exactly the nicest part of the world to travel in, the Taj itself is absolutely stunning. Angkor Wat was pretty damn cool as well too.

Best museum

Hermitage, St Petersburg, although some of the artwork wasn’t amazing a large proportion of the artwork spread over 400 rooms was stunning, the rooms it was kept in were pretty good to look at as well.

Honourable Mention

Shaanxi Museum, Xian, this museum gave an excellent overview of Chinese history – excellent.

Best tour company

No Winner, all of the tours I have been on in this part of the trip have been significantly flawed though I have to admit I haven’t been on very many.

Best city

St Petersburg, Russia, St Petersburg is absolutely stunning to look at and it is great to see a European city that hasn’t been ruined by plate glass like Oxford has for example. The European style buildings that exist throughout the centre are stunning and the streets are wide enough as well.

Honourable Mentions

I thought that Singapore was going to win the best city award as there was enough to keep me busy for the 8 days while I was there, that was until I got to Beijing, which was frankly better as it has two world class sites within its city limits. It was then pipped to the prize itself by St Petersburg. This is undoubtedly the top 3 however.

Best non-Family accommodation

Etour hostel, Shanghai, I was going to give it to the Beijing Novotel but they offered a dodgy tour to the Great Wall so I’m not granting it to them, but Etour hostel was well located behind the JW Marriott on People’s Square. It also had a great lounge with good food and drink – and excellent staff and th

Best food for under US$25

Food court, apm, Beijing, after eating far too much Western food in China it was good to get some Chinese food for a change, and the apm food court in central Beijing was excellent.

Honourable mention

Singapore and Malaysia’s foodcourts for being consistently strong and cheap too.

The Lee, Mohan and Tim award for the best burger

Burgers seem to be turning into a staple on this trip and in honour of my time in Chicago when I had four burgers in six days with the guys from Chicago (including two for two successive meals.

Rice Burger @ MOS Burger, Singapore, this was gorgeous, disappointing I had to wait until Singapore before I could understand the menu enough to get to try a rice burger. The burger was delicious too – can we have a branch in Oxford please.

Best nightlife

St Petersburg, Russia, because clubs in half finished buildings are cool and the ballet was pretty solid as well.

Best Activity

The acrobatics, Shanghai Centre, Shanghai, this was absolutely awesome and kept me riveted to my seat for 90 minutes.

Friendliest People

The Russians the Russians always seemed to be friendly and went the extra mile to help pretty damn frequently, given their limited resources it was great to see.

Best Transportation Company

No Winner, nothing particularly stood out, but China rail, the metros in Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore and the buses in Xi’An were all pretty damn good.

Best bargain

“Russian” coat from Giordano, ¥299 for a coat that would probably be the better part of £100 in the UK was a great deal.

Biggest rip-off

The tour to the great wall for costing probably 3x as much as just doing it yourself on public transport with the Chinese and then taking us to a dodgy medicine centre on the way back.

The Patrick Levy award for cinematography

When I went to South East Asia my friend Patrick (who doesn’t need much sleep) would watch films before going to sleep in the evening. Therefore I am dedicating this award to him. However even though films you watch while travelling are usually bad I’m giving this award to the genuinely most entertaining film.

The winner is Milk, a great film on American gay rights – and given the “great” state of America at the moment, maybe it has wider importance to all the other issues in the country.

Shoes and Shanghai national museum

On my final day (Monday) in Shanghai I first had to buy some new shoes. My “bargain” shoes from New Zealand which cost NZ$25 (£8) turned out to be not so great and they were still so wet in the morning that I had to borrow the orange plastic flip flops from my hostel to go across People’s square to the shanghai department store to pick up some shoes as I wanted to have dry socks to try them on.

It might have been a fun challenge to try and complete the whole trip with a pair of flip-flops but it wouldn’t have been fun in Siberia where I head next for sure! I first headed upstairs to the outlet section where they had real (but old) Nike and Adidas shoes. Unfortunately they were all very trainery and unsurprisingly few of them looked particularly good though the quality looked fine. So instead I headed to the lower floor to pick up some smart shoes as I need some and the Chinese don’t seem to have many shoes in the middle ground between trainers and smart shoes – I’ll have to pick some up back in the UK. There I got some good quality shoes for ¥420 but they are rubbing a little at the back so I think it was probably my least bargainous Shanghai buy.

Then after returning the flip-flops and picking up some insoles for my new shoes (which was difficult actually as they weren’t generally sold by shoe shops.) I headed to the shanghai museum. This had some interesting Buddhist statues and some excellent and really detailed bronze and jade work that was worth seeing as well as some interesting Chinese art – they seem to be keen on greyish nature pictures which makes an interesting change and is very different from European landscapes. There was also some good pottery but it was no more impressive than any other I’ve seen in other places. Overall it’s worth visiting but it’s not amazing and it is difficult because everything is catergorized to get a feel for the history. Credit though is due as virtually all the descriptions were in English as well as Mandarin.

After that I returned to my hostel and we went for a traditional Chinese Mcdonalds before I went and caught my train to Xi’An. The train was uneventful though IMO not as comfortable as the Vietnamese first class trains we took there as the beds are a little narrow. It was pretty quick though taking 13.5 hours to cover the 1200km from Shanghai to Xi’An.

Shanghai

I arrived into Shanghai on Thursday afternoon and then headed to my hostel on the metro where in the evening I settled into my hostel. I met up with a canadian and we went out to buy some (fake) designer fake leather belts – I needed a belt to hold up my trousers so I thought why not. In the end we bargained hard and ended up getting them for ¥40 including adjustments to make them fit – apparently the customers are generally really fat! Aside from the fact that they are designer (and we all know that adding a label is a very expensive process and so justifies a large price premium.) the deal wasn’t that great – you can get a Tesco fake leather belt of equivalent quality for £2.99 or maybe less. Anyhow personally while I do like my clothes to look good and be of good quality I don’t give a damn about the designer label on them as it doesn’t mean anything to me.

After this we went back to the hostel and went to have a massage (which was great actually and it was a real massage that didn’t come complete with a “happy ending“.).

The next day I headed out to do some initial exploration of the city – first I decided I was going to give the maglev train a go to see what it was like to go the fastest it is generally possible to go on land. The maglev is pretty damn quick as it goes up to 430km/h and that is faster by about 100km/h than the Shinkansen – however comparitavely it is only a little faster so it wasn’t as impressive as I thought it’d be. On the way back I got off one stop before peoples square where I am staying and did some shopping where after visiting a number of both western and Chinese stores I found a good quality and stylish coat and a jumper for a decent price from an outlet of Giordano (¥299 and ¥126 respectively.) – you’d pay £30-£35 for the jumper and probably a similar multiplier for the coat.

The next day it was Saturday and I wanted to see some more than shops. First I headed to the museum of contemporary art to see the exhibition there. It had some work by couple some of which was interesting but it gave no interesting insights into love which was the premise of the exhibition so that was a little underwhelming. After that I met some girls outside who wanted a photograph and suggested I went to see the acrobatics with them. As it seemed innocent enough I followed along until they said that rather than going to the box office we were going to go to a teahouse instead to buy the tickets – obviously at this stage it was a scam so I just walked off but it was very subtley done and even the prices given were entirely correct as I’d find out when I went to the box office. Its said to see this pulled though as I often legitimately ask people for photos of me.

After this I headed to the Shanghai museum as I had planned to before and like the scammers had said the museum was free – what they hadn’t mentioned was the absolutely massive queue outside so I decided against it and instead headed on the metro across the river to get a view of the city from one of the towers there. I headed to the Jinmao tower and first made my way up to the lobby of the Hyatt which was about half way up – unfortunately the bar at the top was closed so I couldn’t go for a beer instead of paying to go to the observation desk as I had in Chicago. So at that point I went down the tower and reluctantly paid the ¥60 (it’s ¥88 for adults.) to go to the top. The view from the top was good – though it was a bit blurry from the pollution even though it was a nice day so you couldn’t see as well as you otherwise might have been able to. After seeing this and after having a wander around at ground level I headed back into town were I decided I’d go to the acrobatics anyhow. First I went to the nearest teahouse on a backstreet to ask where I might be able to get some tickets. I headed to one of the theatres known for putting on a performance and it was on the right metro line (though conveniently 1/2 way between two stops.) so I headed in that direction.

It was actually surprisingly hard to find the box office as the signs pointed to the theatre itself even though it was actually in the forecourt of the shopping centre concerned and I had to “borrow” the conceirge services of the onsite RitzCarlton to get directions – they also sold tickets though it was definitely wise to go to the box office itself. This is due to the way the tickets themselves were sold I managed to only pay ¥150 for sitting slightly further back and on the side and was within 1m of people who had paid ¥280 or nearly twice as much. Unfortunately that was the end of my financial success for the evening as I then went to dinner. As I was outside the Ritzcarlton and between two branches of high end jewelry retailer Tiffany less than 1km apart I was, to put it mildly, screwed, with regards to finding a cheap meal outside of the traditional western chains. I decided that after saving over ¥100 on the theatre I could blow it all in one go on a meal in a nice restaurant. I did get quite a good meal of sichuan style duck and some traditional Chinese tea but to be honest it wasn’t really worth the extra – maybe I should just have stuck with McDonalds or gone slightly upmarket with a slightly pricier western food chain. After this I returned to the theatre to watch the acrobatics which were absolutely stunning to see. They did lots of different things from plate spinning to dancing to jumping through hoops – it’s well worth seeing if your in Shanghai and is without a shadow of a doubt the best such evening performance I’ve seen on my trip.

Then on Sunday morning I headed off to the Bund which is the strip of colonial buildings along the river and which was OK but not really that exciting as typically the skies had opened once again to prove that my shoes from New Zealand that I got a great price* on really were made of cardboard (though in credit to cardboard it probably would dry out quicker :rolleyes:) – I’m off in the morning to buy at least one further pair. Then, determined not to have a western lunch I went to a Japanese food chain to get some food like everyone else I left my umbrella (hey it was a ¥50 umbrella that was bent and missing the cap and case from Marks and Spencers in the UK.) at the door before having a lunch of rice and chicken and cheese on a scewer which was a speciality of the south of Japan I think and which was very good.

Now if you were paying attention you’ll notice the large amount of attention to the umbrella in the last paragraph – yes, I return to the door to find that the umbrella has gone. There were some other similar ones but they all looked absolutely god-awful so I made a fuss and extorted ¥30 from the restuarant which given my previous shopping successes* I thought would be enough to get a replacement**. I then went into the first Chinese department store and used my fluent Mandarin pointing skillz to find the correct department. First I checked the price which was ¥40 which was fine by me and then – just to confirm I opened the umbrella unfortunately it failed to open correctly and pointed up initially on the outside. Now this wouldn’t be an issue except that a second failed to open as well. As I expect it to work at least the first time I walked out and this was then repeated in a further two stores (one of which was recommended by tourist information.). Fortunately at this point I found a store of Giordanos and managed to get a decent working umbrella for ¥45 as well as another jumper for ¥126. Now the shock here wasn’t the price or necessarily the quality but the combination – if they are charging that kind of money which is almost as much as you pay in the fairly pricy M&S I was shocked at the total lack of quality. Hell in a lower class UK chain you could probably get an umbrella for ¥20 that was better – and probably also made in China!

After this I headed to Xintiandi which is a block of restored Shanghai houses from the 1930’s that is full of coffee houses as you would expect in a similar place in the west. It was interesting though – and they also had a museum on it. I then went to have a cup of tea and a muffin. Following this I headed over to the Wu garden in the old city (the rest of which seems to be being rapidly demolished.) which was quite interesting to see as a traditional Chinese garden. Chinese gardens include lots of rocks and water features but seem to be plainer than Japanese gardens and there is also less gravel – they are fairy similar though.

After this I returned to my hostel to investigate my onward adventures. I had lots of ideas but they were put to bed by lack of trains or cheap accommodation so in the end I decided to do a day trip to Suzhou and then head straight to Xi’An this did take a surprisingly long time – travelling to more remote parts of China is still difficult, if they had a single overall computer system (and website) that would help a lot. In the evening I settled down and watched a couple of films – the first was a weird Japanese film and the second was this is England – a movie on skinheads in the early 1980’s. I really liked it as it exposed everyones limits and how people can be manipulated.

On Monday morning I got up early and got my train ticket for Xi’An on Tuesday evening before heading out to Suzhou but this post is massive enough as it is so I’m going to write it now and post it later, maybe tomorrow or the next day from Xi’An.

*= of course like the camera I got a great deal on in Chile it wasn’t in the end such a great deal – we shall see if my great deals I’ve bought here do better – I think they will as I checked the quality quite carefully.
**= I promise this story is at least moderately interesting :p.

Getting to Shanghai

Note that £1=¥9.71, $1=¥6.84

On Thursday I relaxed in the morning in my private room – the first since Cambodia and the last for the rest of my trip before catching the train to Shanghai. For breakfast I had a “British breakfast which consisted of fried eggs and tomato and orange juice and tea which cost ¥20 (£2). There was no bacon or sausage and to add those would have cost another ¥12 each – making the breakfast cost about the same as at Wetherspoons in the UK.

This was actually a bit of an interesting adventure. First stage was getting to the train station – I was advised to go by taxi but I instantly ran into the problem of how to ask to go to the station as asking for the “train station” in English failed (of course the taxi drivers may have understood the older “railway station” better :p.) so I walked the 500m or so to the bus stop I got off yesterday as that bus went to the station – that was the cheaper option as well as it only cost ¥2. This worked surprisingly well as the bus was quick and clearly frequent as I just missed one and even then only waited a few minutes.

After arriving at the station I was a bit overwhelmed as there were clearly lots of queues to get tickets but I found the information counter and was quickly pointed in the direction of the tickets for the Chinese Shinkansen train (though Shinkansen is being a little optimistic – actually the train was about as fast as a UK express train. Still the train took 84 minutes rather than a minimum of 120 before; also the line extends from Hangzhou onto Nanchang which used to take at least 10 hours and now takes 4 hours which is a big improvement.). This was a surprisingly ordered queue as the only person who did any even slight pushing was me and it was really a draw who arrived first. Getting the ticket was fine too, it cost ¥54 to get to Shanghai and I wasn’t even thrust into first class which was good. This also led to me getting to sit in seat 61 of my carriage.

Before getting on the train I found the waiting room for the train before heading off to buy some lunch from a nearby stall. This was a couple of Chinese sticky rice cakes that were nice but a bit difficult to eat – they were very filling though and slightly sweet. In the waiting room I also got to chat to a Chinese girl in the waiting room while I slowly but surely got the plastic off my ricecakes which was also interesting.

The train isn’t the only part of china that is modern – Hangzhou feels nice too – from my short time there it feels nicer than even malaysia in my view. I think a good comparison to another city would be to Leamington Spa – though obviously it’s much bigger.

Another thing I noticed today is how nice the Chinese’s mobile phones are – they also seem to be keen on western pop songs as ringtones. The girl sitting next to me on the train had the “MacBook Air ad” song and on the bus I heard Nickelback’s new song – sadly Katy Perry’s Hot n’ Cold which seems to be the soundtrack of my trip hasn’t yet made an appearance on anything other than my own iPod touch when I picked it up on iTunes.

After arriving into Shanghai the people weren’t quite as friendly as I picked up a smartcard for the metro. Though they were friendly as I made my way to my hostel which seems to be very nice so far.