Sparky Travels

December 30, 2009

Christmas in Coogee

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Christmas Day in Coogee!!!!!!
I awoke with the customary feeling of a good previous Eve-ning and anticipation of the overindulgence ahead. Amanda, Chris and I opened our presents. They gave me a pair of much needed flipflops AKA thongs, the obligatory IrnBru and some good old UK Wine Gums. I gave them some tat from China. Helen had sneakily also given me something the day before (a fetching t-shirt with a beautiful tree on it) since I was spending a Christmas away from my family. I had cleverly anticipated such an event and had given her some tat from China.

We gathered our consumables and hopped on a bus driven by a particularly sour old bugger. Everyone else on the bus was suitably christmassy or excited Japanese.
After saying hello to everyone in the 2 flat venue in Coogee and dumping the stuff, me and Chris decided that this is no time for guys to be about so headed off for a swim. It was warm but overcast and the beach was half full. The water was refreshing and built up our appetites.
Dinner was unveiled to the 18 guests; a grand spread with turkey and ham, 3 varieties of stuffing, veg, yorkshire puds all the trimmings. There was more than enough for everyone to eat their fill and drink the wines on hand. Dessert was luverly trifle and xmas pudding with custard. Everyone convened to the downstairs flat for booze and sporadic wii games. A lot of whisky, beer and wine was consumed along with an equal amount of cheer. The bus home was less memorable than the one out and soon Christmas Day had ended for another year.

Boxing day was a recovery day. I managed to stumble out of the flat to meet Helen for a few jars at the Cheers Bar. The next day I finally managed to book Hogmanay in Byron Bay.
For the next few days I went to a watchable football game between Sydney FC (1) and (0) Adelaide, met Helen, tidied the flat, prepped my bag and caught the 11pm Greyhound bus to Byron Bay on the 29th.

December 24, 2009

Sydney & Blue Mountains

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For the few days up to the 22nd of December I continued to settle into life in Sydney. I went for a trip to Bundeena beach in the Royal National Park with Amanda and Chris. The Royal National Park is 30km south of Sydney and the beach was pretty and quiet. I went to the Museum of Contemporary Art (*** stars), The Rocks Museums and walked along Sydney Harbour Bridge. The Rocks museum had a particularly comprehensive amount of information on the history of Sydney.

On the 22nd I met Helen at some ungodly hour at Central station and took the train up into the blue mountains. Within two hours we were at Katoomba, a charming town perched not far from Megalong Valley. Our hostel was the aging but perfectly adequate Katoomba Mountain Lodge which is in the centre of town and isn’t really a lodge. We explored the town, had lunch in one of the many cafes and walked to Echo Point. Echo Point is the main attraction around Katoomba where the ground falls away to reveal a vast rainforest valley and impressive rock formations. Photos were snapped and we headed back to the hostel. On Tuesdays pizzas from Dominos are only $7 each so we combined these with a few beers in one of the cosy communal rooms within the hostel. We spent the evening chatting with the ‘two Johns’ one from England, one from Canada who were here to escape the pace and cost of backpacking in Sydney.

We had impressive trekking plans for our first (and last) full day in Katoomba. Unfortunately, after diligently going shopping making sandwiches, hydrating, checking routes and having lunch we left it too late to do our planned route into the valley. Instead we did the leisurely cliff walk between Echo Point and Scenic World which afforded good views of the valley at the various viewpoints and a couple of waterfalls. Dinner was a sumptuous meal at one of the cafes in town. My chicken dish was real quality restaurant fare and enough for two people. We finished the evening frequenting one of the few pubs in the town for a couple of shandies. Partly to taste the nightlife and mainly cos we’d forgotten to retrieve our beers before the hostel kitchen closed for the night.

To make amends for the day before, we got up early on the 24th with sandwiches and a resolve to do our missed trek. This involved heading down the Giant Steps, a network of 900 stairs, some of which were hewn out of solid rock and some which were metal staircases. It tested my knees but we we reached the bottom glad in the knowledge that we didn’t have to climb them after the trek. Down here at the bottom of the valley, the views were less impressive but it was much more enjoyable to be walking through paths in deep forest cover. it was quite quiet down here other than the half dozen Germans and Japanese who seemed determined to catch us in some Axis-style pincer movement. Using our best “pidgin-deutsch” we evaded capture and followed along behind enemy lines.
After a few kilometres we reached scenic world. This is a naturey tourist attraction with wheelchair accessible ‘walk’ways based at the site of Katoomba’s 19th century coal mine. We wasted a bit too much energy seeing exactly the kind of stuff we’d just trekked through before choosing our route back up to Katoomba. Our choices were:

  • Lots of steps
  • A cable car
  • The STEEPEST furnicular railway in the world. 54 DEGREES!

We chose the furnicular. It was short and quite steep.

The walk back to town was made easier by ice-lollies and the thought of retrieving what would be our recovery beers from the hostel fridge. The beers drained us as fast as we drained them so I slept all the way back on the sweaty airconditioner-less train. After parting with Helen at Central station I went back to Chris and Amanda’s for dinner before we headed out to Coogee for the traditional Christmas Eve drinks. it was nice to meet some more of the people I’d be spending the next day with celebrating the birth of our saviour Brian H. Blessed.

December 18, 2009


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I arrived in Sydney on the 11th of December and immediately began chatting away to anybody I met including  customs officers, ticket sellers and passengers. Its good to be back in a friendly English speaking country! I got the (needlessly expensive) train to Circular Quay in the centre of the city and went round the corner to the Opera House. I’d already seen it from the plane on the way in to land which was one of the most visually captivating landings I’ve experienced. This time I was right up beside it and given that I was an hour early I had plenty of time to enjoy it. My hosts in Sydney (Chris and Amanda) were at work so Helen kindly came and met me. I was pretty bushed from my flights (less than two hours sleep) the night before as well as carrying a cumbersome bag so we went a few hundred metres into the Botanic Gardens and spent the day having a picnic and lazing in the sun.

In the evening I pitched up at Chris and Amanda’s where they laid on a barbeque before we headed out for drinks with some of their friends. After a couple of schooners I headed to bed AKA Chris and Amanda’s sofa.

I was mighty impressed that on my first day in Australia I had two girls running around the city trying to track down Irn Bru for me. Its a rare and expensive tipple here, only found in specialist shops. Its an Australian manufactured version but tastes surprisingly good. I don’t know how I managed 5 months without it!

We got up on the twelfth and had brunch at a local cafe before Chris and Amanda headed off up the coast. I strolled into town and met Helen. Finally having access to a kitchen we headed to Coles to buy some supplies and then made nachos and a whole roast chicken dinner. Our nachos starter was so large that we barely had space for any chicken but we forced some down as we watched Aliens on tv.

The next couple of days were settling in days with cooking, relaxing and a trip to The Rocks being my main activities. I’d noticed on Facebook that Dave Barnett - a friend from Fleet - was in town on holiday so we met up for beers on the 14th. I also met Dave the next day for a trip to a beach, namely Manly. Thats my first beach and first swim in the sea since Tioman in Malaysia back in October. After that we went to Darling Harbour for a few drinks with Amanda, Chris and a couple of Dave’s mates.

On the 16th I met Helen again to go to the famous Bondi Beach, Prior to that I unlocked my phone and bought an Australian sim card. if anyone wants my number drop me an email. Bondi was very nice although the sand seemed to get whipped up on what was a relatively breezy day. We grabbed dinner in a tasty Thai restaurant down some sidestreet before heading back into Sydney.

The 17th was a scorcher but I spent most of it shopping online. In the evening I went to Coogee with Amanda to meet up with some of the people I’ll be spending Christmas with. Amanda and Chris kindly got me included in their Christmas day dinner plans which involves 18 people, turkey, ham and the obligatory trip to the beach. After getting back from Coogee I went straight back out to meet Dave and his mates for a pissup in Kings Cross. Bouncers here seem as bad, if not worse, than back home with each of us getting refused re-entry for ‘appearing intoxicated’ at points through the night. Mine was just after I’d finished my first beer!

Today’s main successes were opening a bank account and watching Doubt (Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman), a film I’d had no interest in watching but which was surprisingly good, not least for the quality of the actors. After yesterday’s roasting weather it was raining all day. Not what I expected but better than the snowy weather back home.

Its been a refreshing change to be in no rush to sightsee or head of to another place this week. I should pull my finger out and do a bit more during the day though.

December 11, 2009

Shanghai MkII

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8th of December.
Arriving back in Shanghai only 48 hours after I’d left I checked back into the hostel and headed straight to the bar. After Skyping Mum I started chatting to some fellow drinkers. A trio of student teachers from Scotland and England and a couple of Australians hanging about in Beijing before a business conference later in the week. We spent the evening playing pool and killer pool before doing some music swapping.

On my last full day not only in China but Asia as a whole my main task was shopping. I walked around the city first going along the Bund. Normally it would be the main sight in Shanghai but due to the upcoming 2010 Expo the whole street was covered in building work. The building were impressive but I had to walk right up alongside them while drills and diggers hammered away so the experience was diminshed somewhat. I shopped for a few hours in Yuyuan Bazaar to get my last taste of haggling. Being a real tourist trap the initial prices here were astronomical so some hardcore haggling (i.e. starting at less than 10% of the initial price) was required to get an acceptable price. With this exhausting experience over I went back to the hostel where I chatted to Kim on Skype and packed my bag for Australia.

I got a taxi to airport in the early afternoon of the 10th and had a trouble free flight to Guanzhou. We arrived 30mins late so I had less time than I’d have liked before my connection to Sydney. It was weird walking past the baggage reclaim and hoping my bag would follow me to Australia. After officially leaving Chinese territory and rushing through duty free I boarded my second China Southern aircraft of the day for the 9 hour flight.

After 155 days in Asia its time to hit Oceania.

December 8, 2009


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After a comfortable 90 minute train journey from Shanghai I arrived at Hangzhou East Station. Neither Lonely Planet or my own research gave a definitive answer on how to get into town so I jumped on the first bus that looked like it was going in the right direction. With an eye on my map and our route I jumped off before the bus headed back out of town. I figured I was only a few km from my destination so started walking, stopping off at a handy tourist information place on the way. After walking too far I doubled back and found the hostel handily perched on the side of West Lake, the main attraction of Hangzhou. I had some dinner at the restaurant next door and then headed into town. I’d realised that Hamilton v hearts was on today and thought that the obligitory Irish bar (The Shamrock) would have it. An hour later and after confusing many locals I got back to the hostel. Apparently The Shamrock had moved to a new location on the other side of town without telling me. Instead I sat in the hostel bar reading the text updates on the game. I wish I hadn’t bothered (2-1 Hamilton and 5 red cards, including one for the masseuse!). The bar was described at Wikitravel as lame and that is precisely what it was. The only other people there were 6 or so chinese staff watching soaps on DVD. I soon headed to bed.

I woke on the 7th of December ready to tackle the West Lake which dominates the city. The weather was very pleasant and I spent the day strolling along the picturesque banks, tree-lined  causeways and cobbled promenades. The trees still had their autumnal jackets on which made it all the prettier.

As I got round the south of the lake ( which is around 15km in circumference) I decided to visit Leifeng pagoda which dominates the hillside.  Dating back to 975AD, the current incarnation of the pagoda was only built in 2002 but it has good views over the lake so was worth a look and has some nice treasures which were discovered during the latest excavation.

Escalator(!) to Pagoda

Escalator(!) to Pagoda

My evening was a repeat of night before except I didn’t head to The Shamrock cos I learnt that lesson. I did see a couple of westerners but they were checking out. Apart from them it was just me and the Chinese tourists/staff. The hostel itself (Mingtown International Youth Hostel) is well situated and clean with decent facilities. If it was busy it’d be a good place to relax and meet people. Not in December it seems. I did finally get around to watching The Last King of Scotland though. It is nowhere near as good as the book but a decent enough watch. James McAvoy and Forest Whittaker were both excellent but the ending was a little abrupt and unbelievable.  I somehow managed to sleep even though 3 out of 5 of my Chinese roommates were snoring.

After a dumpling breakfast on the 8th of Dec I left the hostel and walked to Hangzhou Main Station (which is one of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen) to catch a train to Shanghai. Again it was a luxury train which got me into Shanghai East Station around 3pm.

Btw, using a simple google maps application I figure I’ve covered well over 18,000 miles so far (including 5 flights). If I’d used roads and rail  rather than ‘as the crow flies’ I’m sure it’d be closer to 20,000.  I don’t know if thats good or bad but with Australia next its going to increase by a fair bit.

December 6, 2009


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I arrived an hour late into Shanghai Train Station at 11:30am. I took the underground to the hostel which is situated on the outskirts of the city but right by a tube station. After some food and a recovery sleep I made my way into town to get a feel for the city. The area I found myself in turned out to be the expensive area of the French Concession and struggled to find somewhere to get food for less than £10. I managed to locate a bakery and with a bag full of savoury goodies ( some containing real cheese!) I strolled on. Due to the time all of the sights were closing for the day so I had no choice but to head back to the hostel. A few beers later it was time for bed, anticipating an early start and busy day of sightseeing tomorrow.

I woke up on the 5th and grabbed some free breakfast in the hostel cafe. The hostel is one of the most modern and professional I’ve stayed in. It resembles a Travelodge but with warm and welcoming common areas and stylish shared bathrooms. It is 60Y a night (£6) but that’s not too bad for Shanghai and the free breakfast makes it better value than otherwise.

After breakfast I got the underground into town and began my sightseeing. First up was Shanghai Art Museum. Situated in a pretty old building near People’s Square it contained a surprisingly good collections of paintings. I can add some examples because everyone else was taking photos so I joined in. The highlights were the work of Liu Yi, a lecturer at a university in Shanghai. His work was almost photo-realistic with exquisite lighting and a dreamlike quality to them.

The paintings of Nancy Woo Chu on the other hand were abstract with a beautiful vividness of colour and texture.

Still in an arty mood, I popped next door to the Shanghai Grand Theatre Gallery which had some mediocre work by a Chinese guy living in Denmark. It was more of a showroom/business than a museum but it was free.

The next stop was the Shanghai Museum, a much lauded place right in the centre of People’s Square. I deftly avoided the girls trying to invite me to a teahouse (where I’d have received an outrageous bill and no choice but to pay, every hostel has a warning about these scams) and headed through the airport-like security at the entrance. I’m very used to the over the top security now since it is at every attraction, train station and underground station. The museum was pretty underwhelming since I’d seen its likes before in Xi’an and Beijing: jade,caligraphy, bronze, stone Buddhas etc. The porcelain exhibition was the one bright spot and really showed why we still know porcelain as ‘china’.
I managed to make it to the sight of the first national congress of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and had fun reading the propaganda about their formation. True to form, security started ‘ushering’ everyone out while we were halfway through due to it closing in half an hour and pictures were forbidden in the room where the congress was actually held. Across the road was the postal museum. I’d read that this was an excellent place to visit and housed in a grand building. I was disappointed until I realised that this was the ‘Postal’ museum and not the ‘Post’ museum which is a different place entirely. This one is just a post office with a few exhibits and a brief history of post in China. I did manage to buy some stamps though.
Back at the hostel I rested my now weary legs and watched the Man utd v West Ham game.

I got up late on the 6th and went to Shanghai South Train Station to catch the next available train to Hangzhou. The next train available was the luxury ‘D’ class coach which was pretty swanky and only took an hour and a half. It only stopped at Hangzhou East station rather than the station in the city centre but it beat waiting 3 hours for another train.


Shanghai (Shanghai museum on the right)

December 3, 2009

Beijing pt2

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I struggled out of bed at 4:30am on the 1st of December and jumped on the first tube of the day to Andingmen station north of the Forbidden City. A 20 minute walk later I was at Beijing Downtown Backpackers Hostel. Over 20 other backpackers congregated and we boarded a couple of minibuses heading towards the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, 100km North-East of Beijing. I got chatting to a fellow Scot (a Dundonian) and a couple of Londoners. Three hours and a couple of toilet stops later we were deposited at the entrance to the wall. The area is arid and mountainous and completely lacks the tourist trappings that are supposedly par-for-the-course at other parts of the wall. We did of course each have our own personal hawker who followed us, befriended us, warned us of treacherous sections, told sob stories and tried to sell us anything they could. My old hawker lady had obviously met scots before as she gave up on me quite swiftly after I rejected her wares. We were given 4 hours to traverse the 10km of wall between Jinshanling and Simitai. This was ample time givijng us chances to take photos, eat our provisions and rest after some of the steep and crumbling sections. There were 30 towers along the route ranging in condition from unsafe ruins through well preserved originals to rebuilt ones. The weather was perfect, not too cold and sunny with good visibility. The area is arid and mountainous with few signs of modern civilization which really gave a feel of authenticity. The tour group gradually spread out along the route so that at points it felt quite deserted. Other than the dozen or so hawkers, we only met one other person on the route. After crossing the a suspension bridge to the 30th tower we had two choices to get to the pickup point. Either a flying fox over a reservoir and dam or a 20 minute walk. Most of us opted for the flying fox which gave an exhilarating, if short, finish to the trek. I’d happily have gone back up for another go if we’d had time. 3 hours later we were back in Beijing and I headed back to the hostel to relax.

I got up on the 2nd with a the desire to see a dead communist leader. Fortunately Chaiman Mao Memorial Hall was a ten minute walk from the hostel. As with everything at this time of year, it was quiet but that doesn’t really have any effect for this attraction. Busy or quiet, you get funnelled past the suspiciously well preserved body of Mao Zedong in 20 seconds with no chance to stop and strictly no photos. I’m happy though, Mao & Uncle Ho done, only Lenin remains unseen.

Next, I headed along to Beijing train station to buy my ticket to Shanghai for the next evening which was easily done though it did cost 327Y (£32). I opted for a hard sleeper to ensure I had some sort of rest before arriving in Shanghai.

Hunger was setting in so I made my way half and hour up the road to Wanfujing snack street, a lane with stalls full of various exotic delights. I started with some fresh doughnuts followed by some fried dumplings. My immediate hunger sated I moved on to the scorpions. These were wooden sticks with 4 live scorpions welded onto them. They were thrown into a vat of oil for 60 seconds and then handed over for me to eat. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to eat the pointy end of the stingers so I snapped them off and munched away. They weren’t unpleasant which I wish I could say about the next skewer. This held three whole chicks or tiny birds of some sort, plucked and with the front half of their heads lopped off. They were crunchy and tasted like a bunch of innards. I threw some noodles in pancake down my gullet after them to take the taste away.

By now my cold was really taking hold so I retired to the hostel and spent the evening chatting to my roomate, Nicolas. Nicolas, from Normandy, is cylcing round Asia for the next few years but was taking a wee break in Beijing waiting for his mate to join him. He was good chat but then I have to say that cos he’s probably reading this. ;-)

On the 3rd, the day of my train to Shanghai I had a relatively quiet one to try ( successfully it turns out) to and beat my stinking cold. I did manage to buy some trainers since my old ones are quite literally falling apart. After that exertion I relaxed and finished The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the warmth of the hostel bar. For dinner I ventured out to Donghuamen Night Market where I bumped into Nicolas. For the last few hours before my train we  swapped movies and music from our laptops.

At 22:15 I said goodbye to Beijing and boarded my train to Shanghai. Bottom bunk in a hard sleeper carriage for 12 hours. How very familiar that has become.

December 1, 2009

Beijing pt1

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I arrived in Beijing’s humongous West Train Station at 10:30am on the 28th and caught the bus into the centre of town, just south of Tienanmen Square. I followed the scribbled directions from the Irish guys who recommended the hostel and checked in. Breakfast was an American cooked breakfast from the hostel, quickly followed by a nap. I awoke 3 hours later feeling like I could do with another 3 hours sleep but got up and went for a stroll round. Tienanmen Square was closed for the national flag raising the following day so I walk round the outside and took some photos of Mao’s picture hanging across the Gate Of Heavenly Peace.

Heavenly Gate

Heavenly Gate

Dinner consisted of some baozi and spicey rabbit kebabs (sold at a stall close to the hostel and really tasty). I aimed to do some of my blog but ended up watching Zodiac with an Aussie called Angus and his Dutch friend (Magdalene IIRC). Its a decent film, expertly directed by David Fincher but extremely long and - obviously - has an unsatisfactory ending.

The next day I headed out to start my sightseeing. The closest and easiest destination was the Forbidden City which dominates the area north of Tienanmen Square.  Some say that you need 2 days to fully explore the collection of Emperor’s palaces and residences but I managed to cover most of it in 4 hours. It would only take 2 days if you forward-rolled your way around while copying down the descriptions. I could have filled a day by looking at every exhibit and paying to go into the Treasure Museum within the grounds but by the time it was close to closing time I’d seen enough. I think temple (or palace in this case) fatigue has set in again which is quite timely given that there wont be much of such things in Australia. Its an impressive place nonetheless and the clock museum was worth the extra admission fee. Its another place that seems slightly too well renovated.  On the other hand, the bright decor makes it photogenic and it is certainly good value for the 40 Yuan entrance fee (£4).
I spent the evening partly doing my blog but mainly chatting to an Indian/Canadian guy who works in China.

30th Nov

After a late start Angus, Magdalene and I headed along to the 798 art district in North East Beijing for a bit of culture. The district is an old industrial block of warehouses and vfactories that has been taken over by the Beijing art scene. There are over 100 galleries and workshops alongside trendy bars and restaurants. We strolled from gallery to gallery appreciating and ridiculing the various works on display. Most of it was very good and equal to western art. It was also surprisingly subversive with interesting takes on Mao, government control and corruption. It was well worth the hour each way on crowded public transport and if we hadn’t been penniless backpackers I’m sure the bars and restaurants would have been good places to hang out.

I love art

I love art

I swapped underground lines on the way back and headed to a hostel that I’d heard ran good Great Wall tours. Beijing Downtown Backpackers is situated in a charming hutong north of the Forbidden City, resembling Carnaby strret in London. I was tempted to move there but the 50% difference in price and 30 minute walk to the nearest tube put me off. They did have daily trips to the Great Wall so I booked for the next day. As I headed back to the tube station I passed a fish and chip shop and realising it was St Andrew’s Day I couldn’t help but go in. Soon I was walking along the road munching a fish supper. It was really tasty with the right amount of grease, chips that were just soggy enough and tasty cod covered in perfect batter. I’ve had worse chippies back home. It was £3.50 mind you and lacked an orange carbonated soft drink but beggars can’t be choosers.

I didn’t manage to get to bed until midnight after buying food for the next day, sorting out my bag and chatting to my dormmate. Not ideal when you have to leave the hostel at 5am.

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