Going Over

You’re flying somewhere, and the airline has a weight limit for your baggage. It’s always a gamble, do you pack within the limit, or do you take a risk and pack a few kilos more and hope you get away with it at the check in counter.

This happens to all of us I’m sure, and when you’ve been away for a long time, it’s difficult to pack within the weight limit (for most people anyway). There’s books, which are really heavy, shoes, clothes, gifts, maybe food and sometimes toiletries too.

I was travelling back from China, and before I left, I knew that if I packed all my books, I would have no room left for anything else. So I sent my books separately through the post office. The rates were much cheaper than buying excess baggage through the airline (270rmb/kilo with Qatar airlines and through China Post 130rmb for the first kilo and 50rmb/kilo afterwards). I packed all my books up, approximately 12 kilos, not including the box and took them to the post office.

They wrapped it up very well, even putting big thick staples into the box and weighed it, 12.05kg. But when the postman charged me, he charged it as 1kg + 12kg + tax + box fee. I told him he was wrong, because 1 + 12 = 13, my package is just 12kg. He said no, your package is over 12kg, making it 13. I asked if he was serious…it was over by 50grams, did they not learn rounding in school? He said that if it passed 12kg, it had to be classed as 13kg, no matter if it was 12.01 or 12.99.

50rmb is not a lot of money, about £5, but the principal made me so angry, I ordered him to reopen the package so I could remove the smallest notebook to make it under 12kg. He wasn’t very happy with me (he had been sleeping before) but I refused to pay the extra money for going over by just 50g.

I knew when flying home, my bags would be over thr 30kg weight limit I had, but before I left, I decided which things could be thrown away if I was made to at the airport and put them near the top of my bags (plan B for if crying didn’t work). When I got there, the assistant seemed to be in a daze, and didn’t pay any attention to the extra kilos I was packing, which was a relief.

She also didn’t make me weigh my cabin bags, which were probably double what they should have been. But if I’m honest, almost everyone had a small wheely cabin bag and an extra handbag or rucksack, despite the rules being one piece of 7kg + one duty free shopping bag. I guess flying on a big international airline you get a few more priviledges and leeway thatn you do with buget airlines like Ryanair!

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The Towel

There’s one dilemma that will always exist when you go travelling…the towel.

Whenever I take a towel away with me, I know I’ll have to take a shower before I go to bed rather in the morning, to give it time to dry properly. Because if it’s damp it will make everything inside my bag damp and smelly. This is the start of one of the towel dilemmas…

So I pack my bag the night before I leave and the towel is left hanging out to dry. I close my bag, happy that everything’s fit in, then I turn around and say “oh, I forgot about my towel!”.

Towels take up a lot of room when you’re packing, and it’s not like socks that you can just squeeze into the corners, you need a whole two inch flat layer of space to fit that thing in. So when you think you’ve packed everything and then realise you still have the towel to squeeze in, it’s a nightmare!

But then if you decide not to take a towel, you can’t be sure of the quality of the towel in the hotel you’re staying (or if they’ll even have towels at all). Especially in China, even ‘4 star’ hotels provide towels that are scratchy and thin like cardboard, rather than the fluffy towels from home. And even though their texture is probably due to being washed at 100 degrees, you still don’t know how many people have used them before.

So what do you do? Take your own towel and have it take up space in your bag and restrict you from having a shower in the morning,or take a gamble, not take a towel and pray for decent towels in the hotel?

Locals have it better

When you travel somewhere, I think you’re always limited in some way. You have less time than locals, so you just go to the most important, or most spectacular places in that city/area. How do you know which places to go to? Travel guides, tour companies, magazines all tell us the best places, and public transport makes it easy for us (non-locals) to access. If there’s a choice between the famous temple that’s on Line 2 of the subway, or the temple that you have to take three buses and a taxi to get to, I know which one most tourists will choose.

But if you’re a local, you have more time to explore your area than a tourist, you probably have access to a car and know from first-hand accounts what places are worth travelling to, rather than just what is mentioned in the guide books.

An example of this happened just yesterday. A local Jinhua family invited me to spend Dragon Boat Festival with them, and we went to Hengdian World Studios (China’s answer to Hollywood). It’s a bit out of the way, but it’s a really great place to visit if you’re living in the south and don’t have time to visit the ‘real versions’ in Beijing, Xi’an etc.

Yesterday, we went to the Old/New Summer Palace scenic area, and we also stayed to watch the night time show. In 1860, British and French troops destroyed the ancient Summer Palace in Beijing, but even though the buildings were gone, four types of special flowers remained. The night time show was about a dragon who fell in love with a pheonix, and this mythical couple travelled to go and find these four special flowers. Then they came back to see that some ‘demons’ had destroyed their home, but they built a bigger, better and more flourishing summer palace so it was a happy ending in the end.

Despite there being a couple of thousand people there, I think I was definitely the only foreigner there. I think not many foreigners will have had the chance to watch this show, so I felt very lucky to be able to watch it.

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Before the show began

Looking over the lake, there were so many special effects I didn’t know where to look – fireballs, fountains, a huge LED screen, lit up buildings, fog… it was incredible.

The movie was projected onto three big screens of water, that splayed out like the wings of a peacock, so all the images were 3D. There were fighting dragons, a break dancing dragon, dancing moths and it was just crazy…I don’t know how much money went into producing it, but it just seemed to have everything.

So how can we get these ‘local’ experiences if we’re not locals ourselves? I think the best way is to just get on the streets and do as the locals do, eat with them in the local restaurants rather choosing a BigMac. When the waitress tells you ‘most foreigners like to eat …’, ask her what the local’s favourite is. Even just going to the park can give you a great insight into local life.

So I challenge you to live like a local!

 

Seeking love

There’s a phenomenon in China, similar to some other Asian societies, that values marriage very highly. People simply have to get married. But in a time when everyone is busy working overtime, making the commute to and from work, a lot of white collar workers especially, don’t have time for dating and meeting potential partners. So how do these Chinese people find their life partner?

You might have heard of the Shanghai Marriage Market where grandparents in one of Shanghai’s parks hold posters and pin up all the information about their single grandchildren. Well I didn’t go to that one, but I did stumble across something similar when I was in Hangzhou.

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Looking for a suitable candidate

It was close to where I was staying, so just went to have a look around. It was absolutely packed with parents and grandparents holding sticky note pads for writing potential date’s phone numbers on (nice to see a large group of Chinese people not scanning each other’s QR codes for a change).

I read some of the signs, which contained a lot of personal information about the ‘candidates’ – age, Chinese zodiac animal, university graduated from, annual salary, if they have a car/house, height, weight, body type and where their hukou is from. But I can’t remember seeing any names on any of the posters. They would also write down what they looked for in a partner, similar to those categories above. It all seemed quite superficial and materialistic, the parents were simply looking for people of a certain age, who earned X money and had X, Y and Z. There were rarely any required values that involved personality – no “dog lover, likes to play footy on a Sunday, looking for a kind, sporty person  with GSOH” kind of thing, which I think is more important than social status, income and height when it comes to marriage.

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It was nice to see a mixture of hand written adverts too

Being a foreigner (with big curly hair that was down that day), within a few minutes, I had a crowd surrounding me, and the questions began:

  • Did you come by yourself?
  • What year were you born in?
    • Oh, ’91, you’re a bit too young to get married
    • No, no, it’s ok…’91 makes her 26
  • Are you taller than 160cm?
  • How many brothers and sisters do you have?
  • Where are you from?
    • England! Wow, you’re children will be so tall and intelligent
  • Are you looking to relocate to China?
    • Because my son’s English isn’t good, he can’t follow you to the UK
  • What did you study at university?
  • Is your hair natural?
  • Are your eyelashes natural? (And your eyebrows, nose, mouth, etc)
    • But why is your hair so curly? Are you sure you haven’t curled it?
  • What are your requirements?

Sorry, what are my requirements?….

They were asking me how tall and heavy I wanted my potential partner to be, where he should have a house, how much money he should earn and have in the bank. Of course, I’m not actually looking for anyone, but I told them how in my country, we meet people and if there’s a connection, we’ll get to know each other better before making any decisions. Although we might have some preferences about religion, age, body type etc, I wouldn’t say they are requirements  before you start dating someone.

Suddenly, one brave man whipped his pen out of his jacket pocket and shouted

留一个号码,可以吗? Give me your number, is that ok?

I said no, and then he started telling me all about his son, which prompted the rest of them to get out their memo pads and ask me for my phone number, saying how great their son was, how much he earned and how beautiful our children would be, because mixed race children are always more intelligent and beautiful.

One woman grabbed me by the arm and said ‘just call me 婆婆 (mother-in-law) already, go on, call me 婆婆, call me 婆婆’. I felt like I was being hounded and it reminded me of Lina’s Momzilla, so I quickly left the area, after giving a fake phone number.

It was a bit of an intense experience, but I learnt a lot about the marriage market in China and how parents try to set their children up.

Best Places in Chongqing

Chongqing is a massive sprawling city in the west of China. I spent a month living there during winter holidays and here are my highlights.

Eling park 鹅岭公园

This park is not one for you if you’re unfit, there are a lot of hills, climbing and steps, but that means that when you get up to the park, you get amazing views of the city and two rivers (Jialing and the Yangtze). There’s a tower in the middle of the park, which costs 5rmb to go up and you can see even more of the city, unless pollution is high, like it was when I went. It’s a peaceful park and there is a big tea garden where you can get a cup of tea leaves and a huge flask of hot water, making for a bottomless cup of tea. I sat here for a while writing my diary. There were some noisy people with an electric keyboard, singing high pitched songs, but there were also people fishing nearby in a lake.

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Huahui park 花卉公园

I’ve already talked about this great park before, but I think it deserves another mention. It’s pretty, has plenty of activities for you to watch (and join in with!) such as KTV, karaoke, mahjong or just making chitchat with some grandads. There’s also some tea gardens here as well as a boating lake.

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Ciqikou 磁器口

This is an old style Chinese town, that is full of old style buildings, stairways and surprisingly still has an authentic feel, despite being quite touristy. I liked the narrow alleys and the flowery garlands were so cute, I had to get one. If you go right down to the bottom, there is a nice open area by the river, with plenty of food stands and coconut juice sellers as well as…tea gardens too yep! Do you see a theme here?

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Night time scenery on Line 2

The night time scenery in Chongqing is really amazing and my photos don’t do it justice at all. All the tall buildings have great displays and lights on them that are reflected in the rivers. If you take line 2 of the subway from Linjiangmen heading west, you will see amazing views on the right hand side. A lot of the subway is above ground, making it a very worthwhile 2rmb trip. You often find photographers with fancy tripods stood in some of the stations on this line, waiting for the perfect picture or making time lapses.

 

Park Life (in China)

Despite how polluted and urban China is, it still has lots of parks in it’s big cities. Today was  初一, the first day of the Year of the Monkey, and I decided to spend the afternoon in one of Chongqing’s parks, I settled for 花卉园 (Chongqing Flower Park). I was originally planning to go to 鸿恩寺公园 (Hongen temple park), as it looked bigger on the map, but as I was ill, I didn’t want to have to talk to a taxi driver too much, so just stayed at the flower park because it was right next to the metro station.

I first had a walk around, and I felt tired, so looked for a place to sit, most of the tables were full of people playing mahjong.

Mahjong players
Playing mahjong

 

So I found a seat in a quiet pavillion where there were some old men sitting quietly, at first they just stared at me in silence, then one started to talk about my shoes. He was talking in Chongqing dialect, but from what I understood, he said that young people like me like wearing flat shoes, but older people, aged 30-40 wear high heels, or maybe it was the other way round?

Lads in the park
Lads in the park

More men came along, one by one and they all greeted each other with a closed fist 拜年 action. One talked to me in normal Mandarin, asked what I was doing here etc, then they all started discussing those semi politically incorrect questions you’re not supposed to ask Brits between themselves – was Thatcher good or bad for the UK?; are the Falkland islands are British or Argentinian? I let them discuss it by themselves and continued writing my diary.

So much love for his hat
Love his hat

Then one of the old men started talking about good luck, and how luck varies for each person, depending on where and when you were born, so no two people in the world have the same luck. One wise guy was like ‘what about twins?’ but he was quickly shut down. He told them how to read their hands to find out something, so they all held their hands up to their faces. It was really interesting sitting with them, but after a while I left to explore more of the park.

 

I heard the familiar sound of a corny square dance song 广场舞 so followed it. To my surprise there were loads of people there, dancing all different kinds of styles, I couldn’t keep up and stayed watching for a while. A man much older than me asked me to dance with him, I politely declined. It was a bit school disco-ish in the way that people sitting around were waiting to go dance with someone or be chosen, I just wanted to people watch. Each song lasted about 10 minutes, then people changed partners or sat down to rest.

I also came across a group who had a little KTV karaoke session set up, with a prop-up TV with the lyrics and songs on, an amp and a mike.

After an awfully scarring toilet break, which I may or may not share on this blog, I went to the ‘good view platform’, but the view wasn’t all that good at all before going back to the square with all the dancing. This time I was a little bombarded by the guy in the stripey top, as you can see below towards the end of the video. He told me he was a professional dance teacher and he would teach me for free. I kept telling him I didn’t want to and eventually ran away when he turned his back, because he came and whispered “你们英国人很美” in my ear.

I had a great afternoon in the park, chilling with the locals, listening to Chongqing dialect and taking lots of pictures too.

If you’re in Chongqing and want to visit the Flower Garden, take the metro line 6 (the pink one) to 花卉园 Huahuiyuan, leave the subway at exit 2 and the park is right there.

Veganuary – Oreos

As part of Veganuary, me and my friends who are also trying it out are discovering loads of brands and foods that are Vegan-friendly. One of those is Oreos…even Chinese Oreos! As I had a 27 hour train journey from Jinhua to Chongqing, and I saw individually wrapped packs of Oreos, I decided to do an experiment and see which flavour was the best.

I’d already tried the Tiramisu ones the week before and thought they weren’t bad. I picked five flavours, although China has many more, just not individually wrapped. Unfortunately, the birthday cake flavoured ones had milk in them. I ate them throughout the train journey and here are the results.

5 Vegan Friendly Chinese Oreos

1. Raspberry and blueberry 

These tasted pretty sweet and sickly, but I finished the pack of two. The blueberry half just tasted really artificial and like an awful blueberry milk tea I bought one time that was also just too sweet for me.

2. Mango and orange

Another sweet flavour, but not as sickly as the first one, still I wouldn’t buy a whole packet willingly. They were a bit tangy, maybe the orange, but the combination didn’t work well with the Oreo chocolate.

3. Peach and grape

I was actually looking forward to this one the most out of all the ‘double flavoured’ ones, because grape and peach juice is pretty nice. But these were absolutely awful, like I had a toothpastey kinda taste in my mouth and I only ate one of the biscuits. I gave the other to a young boy on the train.

4. Chocolate

This flavour is fine, but after all the other Oreos, I just wasn’t really in the mood for biscuits if I’m honest. This is probably the best of the bunch, but still isn’t something I’m mad about.

5. Original

Some people are mad about Oreos, but I don’t see the big fuss to be honest. I ate the final original flavour, knowing what to expect, no surprises or anticipating an awful taste, and it was ok. Nothing special, as usual.

So after all that, what have I concluded? Well actually, I think I don’t actually like Oreos all that much after all, apart from when they’re in a milkshake or a McFlurry (both non-vegan). So I won’t be running back to a supermarket to get any more, nor will I try any of the other flavours – green tea, banana milk, ice cream or white strawberry.

Local Laowai

This time last year, I’d just arrived to China for the beginning of my semester abroad. I didn’t really know what to expect. I was sent this infographic to post on my blog a few months ago by Yang Yang. If somebody had showed it to me a year ago, maybe settling in would have been a bit easier. It includes some really good tips for those who haven’t been to China.

Being a Local Laowai - Yang Yang
Being a Local Laowai – Yang Yang

Top 5 Things Which Would Improve Life in the UK

There are some things that I’ve seen abroad that I think have been genius inventions. I’ve waited for them to arrive in the UK but they haven’t as yet. So here is a list of my top 5 things as seen abroad that should be introduced to the UK!

1. Coat hooks under tables in pubs/bars

As seen in: Spain

In the UK, normally, anyone who would dare to feel underneath a table may find hard bits of chewing gum stuck to the bottom that have been there for possibly decades. But in Spain, if you put your hand under the table, you will find conveniently placed hooks so that you can hang up your coat and/or bag right besides you, without having to use an extra chair or put it on the floor. I think this stems from the old Spanish belief that “if you put your bag on the floor, it gives thieves permission to take your money”. Also, who wants to be putting their bag on the floor or carrying it the whole night? If pubs and bars were to put little hooks under the table or at the bar, I’d love it.

Coat hook under the table

2. Baskets with wheels

As seen in: Spain

Do you ever sometimes go to the supermarket for just a few bits, bread and milk for example? If you do, you’ll probably get a basket rather than have to find a pound coin for a trolley. And then when you’re walking from the dairy to the bread section (conveniently placed far away from each other), you get distracted by the offers and your basket starts to become heavier. In the UK, you have to heave that heavy metal basket around the supermarket until you get all your items. What about in Spain? In all of the supermarkets, the baskets are plastic for a start which makes things lighter in the first place, they’re also deeper and have two sets of handles. A short one if you want to carry your shopping and also a long one so if you’re struggling (or just like wheeling around a little basket) you can put the basket on the floor and wheel it behind you.

They even come in different colours!

3. Boiling hot water dispensers

As seen in: China

In China, you can’t drink the tap water, but in dormitories, universities, on trains and other places, there would be boiling water dispensers so you could fill up your flask and sip on hot water. You just open the tap and hot water comes out, it’s great. You can use this hot water for whatever you like, adding to tea leaves, a pot noodle, cleaning cutlery etc. And best of all it was free in most places. Now when I go to a water dispenser at uni and can only choose between cold and ice cold water, I’m disappointed.

Because who has time to find a kettle and wait for it to boil?

4. Available parking space lights

As seen in: Spain

There are many underground car parks in mainland Spanish cities. They’re dark, narrow and it’s hard to find a space to park. But some genius invented these special lights. Above each of the car park bays, there is a sensor with a light. If there is nothing below the sensor, the light shows green so as you are driving around the car park, you can look for a green light and you know there’s a free space. When you park your car under the sensor, it changes to red to let people know that somebody has already parked there.

I think these are great

5. Taxi driver app

As seen in: China

Taxis work differently in most countries, but I liked the Chinese system (at least the Qingdao one). From my understanding, each driver was on his own, unaffiliated with any type of taxi firm. If you couldn’t find a taxi, locals had an app where they as a customer wrote down where they are going from and to. The taxi drivers also used this app and through GPS it linked them up to a customer nearby. Using this app also saved the customer the 10p petrol charge added to all journeys. In Coventry at least, there must be over five different taxi companies and when I’ve finished work at the nightclub at 5 or 6am, no taxi companies have answered their phones to me, leaving me a little stranded. If there was an app to connect me to closeby taxi drivers, it would cut down waiting time and mean I wouldn’t have to walk to the nearest taxi rank in the early morning.

My knowledge of Chinese road names was never good enough for me to take full advantage of it.

Are there any things you’ve seen abroad that you wish were in the UK? Leave a comment below!

Dublin: Not the Quaint Capital I Thought it Would Be

Dublin. Capital of the Republic of Ireland. That small country next to the UK. I always thought that Dublin would be a small, quaint, quiet capital city. I expected to see old couples sat on benches watching the world go by, cute little pubs with a chubby landlord at the door and to hear the murmuring of Irish folk with their distinctive accents. But I’ve experienced none of the above here in Dublin.

It’s a much more modern, vibrant and international city than I imagined. If you closed your eyes and just listened on the streets, you could mistake it for any other capital city as you hear the beeping of the traffic lights, different languages being spoken and the whir of car engines and buses that pass by. I am surprised to hear so many Spanish speakers on the streets and not all of them are tourists. The River Bar holds a weekly Latin night and Mexican ‘cantinas’ are dotted around the city adjacent to Italian, Lebanese, Greek, Korean, American and Chinese restaurants.

I first (and last) came to Dublin as a child, and I don’t remember it at all. But I can’t help but feel like the big wide world has honed in on Dublin and taken away some of it’s Irishness. Something tells me the Ha’penny Inn of Temple Bar which has “TRADITIONAL IRISH PUB” blazened on its walls is not as traditional as it claims to be.  Don’t get me wrong, the bridge itself over the murky river Liffey was lovely, painted in white with only a few love locks on it, but the pub with the same name just seemed a bit touristy and even tacky to me.

Halfpenny Bridge
Halfpenny Bridge

Dublin still keeps it’s Irish charm in the architecture, Celtic patterns, grand Catholic churches and the Irish language which accompanies each street name.

Irish and English

Guiness is also prominent in the city, with most pubs having a Guiness signs or barrels outside. Many of the buildings here have the Irish flag flying proud above them and there are many things painted green – lamposts, postboxes, decorations etc.

Church in Dublin
Church in Dublin

Yesterday, we went to Malahide Castle, it was a 30 minute train journey away and well worth the visit. As the train arrived at the little village station, I felt relieved to be away from the capital and it’s busyness. The ticket to the castle included a guided tour which was well worth it to see all the rooms of this beautifully kept little castle and it’s long history. After looking around the gardens, we went to a local pub for a lunch of fish and chips for €5. The people in the pub were friendly, it wasn’t overflowing with people and more importantly, it didn’t need to write the word ‘Irish’ on its walls to show its charm and heritage. I enjoyed the food as well as the peaceful village feel that Malahide had to it and would recommend it to people wanting to take a trip to somewhere that feels a bit more authentic that isn’t too far away. A round trip from Tara Street to Malahide was only €6, with a student ticket to the castle €8 it was great value for money. And just look at those blue skies too! I couldn’t have asked for more.

Malahide Castle
Malahide Castle

Despite Dublin not being as ‘Irish’ as I hoped, I have really enjoyed my four days here and will be sad to leave tomorrow. I must admit, I didn’t like the Irish coffee and Guiness still leaves an irony aftertaste like blood in my mouth but most of the locals (we were greeted by a swearing bus driver at the airport) have been great – helpful, jolly and happy. The weather has treated us well, it’s been chilly but the blue skies make it better and the small size of Dublin means I haven’t taken a bus since I’ve been here. I’ll be back.