Thursday, 18 June 2009

Still alive

Helen: HELLO!!! We still exist. Really, we do. We've just been sucked back into the real world of work and mobile phones and now seem to have no time to do anything other than sit in front of a screen. Bugger. BUT, having said that, we are enjoying being back - so much so that we've actually gone and bought a house. Moving date is July 31st so come and help us celebrate on Aug 7th (had to explain 'housewarming' to our Swedish friend Joel - guess it is a weird expression). The house is literally one minute's walk away from our old, fabulous, flat - it has a double garage with a proper workbench, a wood burning stove and a flower bed that's all my own. C is busy brewing a 'Homecoming Stout' for the's bubbling away in a corner in the kitchen (we've regressed about 10 years and are currently staying in one room of a shared house with our friends. Having a designated shelf in the fridge makes us feel like students again...)

Edinburgh is still beautiful, although they have dug up all the streets in aid of the huge waste of time, effort and money that is the Tram project, so the traffic is truly awful and it's not quite so pretty as it was a year and a half ago. Also, annoyingly, they seem to have closed most of the city's cultural landmarks, museums and galleries for refurbishment - probably in time for the Olympics. So, while I've been singing the city's praises all round the world for being an architectural and cultural gem, it seems to have regressed to its student days as well. Oh well, at least the festivals are nearly upon us - I have brochures for all of them (Book, Film, Jazz, Fringe and International) and want to try to go to at least one thing at each, which means a lot of reading bumf. Or not, if you're Charlie and can't be bothered.

Not sure what else to tell - work is hectic - back in at the deep end. C had his first day of work today in 2 years. Was very pleased with himself as his commute was 10 mins each way, he got taken out for lunch and they're giving him a new laptop!


PS our friend Harold who we met in HK and Beijing is visiting at the moment - we had a hilarious evening with him and his Chinese friend who doesn't speak a word of English last night - I think the Chinese friend got a bit of a surprise when we told him the pub we were in was full of gay men...

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Last Post?

Helen: We're back. Can't believe we're back. It's been grey and wet all day. That I can believe. Feels very odd, and totally normal, all at the same time. Nothing has changed (apart from C's parent's kitchen of course, which looks fab).
Denmark was fun...but prohibitively expensive. £8 for a pint. We saw Hamlet's castle, rode a tandem round Copenhagen (first 10 minutes were a bit tense, but after C stopped shouting it was fine - Copenhagen is a stunningly beautiful city), and saw some ancient Viking ships, so I think we got Denmark pretty well covered.
I'm sure there's more to tell. Just don't know where to start. Plan for tomorrow is to finish wading through the mountains of our mail that have accumulated over the last year and a half (and that's after Laura and Bob have thrown out the real rubbish) and buy a car. Oh, and to try to fish out some clothes from the bags that are currently in my parents' attic. Will be so nice to have some different clothes!
Will post again when we've done something more newsworthy, like found a place to live!

ps. will be in london on friday evening. not sure where, but planning a pint or two somewhere - let us know if you'll be around :)

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Mongolia is like the Lake district on steroids

Helen: It's how i imagined NZ was going to be. Honestly, it looks like something from LoTR. Except, up close, it's not quite as impressive - it's sooo dry and dusty. it's just the end of winter here, and everything's just beginning to recover from being under snow for the last 6 months. It'll probably all be green and gorgeous in a few weeks - before the temperatures get up to 40 degrees! I just don't know how anyone manages to live here - the climate is so extreme. but they do - in little white felt covered gers. and they are so hospitable (probably because the climate is so harsh). we stayed with families this past week, or in tourist camps which weren't properly open yet, so we had a real insight into Mongolian life in the countryside - mostly it was just us, our guide who spoke english, our driver (who didn't) and some leathery skinned, toothless herders and their families. Mongolian life in the countryside seems to involve a lot of vodka. but you can't just drink it. you have to dip your third finger of your right hand in it, and touch your forehead (for you) and then flick some vodka in the air over your head (for the sky) and then four flicks around you (for the corners of the earth). then you have to down it. girls are allowed to drink less, but men get funny looks like they might be pansies if they pass. c went off with the driver and a herder to drink when the girls had given up. they came back the minute the vodka was finished though. not at all like sitting around with a pint for hours! it's all about the vodka...
felt like townies the other day - we went for a romantic walk along the shore of yet another stunning mountain lake on the morning of our (6th!) wedding anniversary, and on the way back we found a sheep. It was obviously not a happy sheep as it was on its own. Sheep are never on their own if they can help it. And it didn't move when we went closer. Turns out it was stuck in the mud. Literally. So we walked all the way back to the ger and asked them to come and help us get it out (it really was stuck and was going to die if we left it there). Our driver essentially told us that one sheep wasn't worth the effort as there are so many in Mongolia. One of the herders did come with us though (in a standard shopping car, over rocks and bumps, balancing his 1 year old daughter on his lap). He just manhandled the sheep out of the mud by grabbing it by the neck. C and I felt like such townies - we'd expected that it was going to take machinery or at least 3 people and a lot of time. The country way was so much easier and quicker! We drove past the sheep later in the day and she was doing normal sheep stuff (munching on grass) so all was well in the end.
Back in UB now - thankful for the end of the week long meat diet (no goat testicles, but we did get presented with a bowlful of freshly boiled sheep innards on our last day. I was brave enough to try the smallest bit of stomach lining but it just smelled too bad to eat much before wretching. C refused (which is a bit whimpy I think, considering the day before I'd even eaten a whole cherry tomato). And our Mongolian guides looked at us like we were passing up chocolate brownies as they tucked into blood pudding, heart and lungs.)
Not having the greatest day today though - wanted to buy boots at the market (it's closed), go to a free folk music gig this evening (it's sold out), and sit in our favourite cafe while we use the internet all afternoon (internet's broken). Oh well. Meeting up with a friend we met in Bangkok this evening for a curry, and then it's up at sparrow's fart to get the plane to Denmark tomorrow. No one mention trains...
ps have a good example of Cyrillic for you: PECTOPAH transliterates as RESTORAN - no prizes for guessing what that means!

Monday, 11 May 2009

Blue skies at last!

Helen: we were in china and hk for over 2 weeks and it was overcast pretty much the entire time. must've been pollution - 30 hours on a train to get to ulanbator in mongolia and all of a sudden the sky is a brilliant blue. the view from the train was stunning - first the gobi desert - flat sand as far as you could see with the occasional ger (yurt - felt tent) camp and a few horses, and then rolling hills with spiky mountains in the background and melting snow everywhere. and then, bam, the city of ulan bator. it's got such a lovely vibe to it compared to beijing - probably on account of its size (1m as opposed to 14m) - but also the people. they are v friendly and don't stare as much as the chinese. ub isn't going to win any prizes for architecture, and it's very grey here (not much grows in a desert so there's barely any trees and no grass, and most ofthe buildings are soviet inspired), but the food has been great (all european so far - we're stocking up as we're expecting nothing but goat meat and curdled cheese for the next week when we head out into the countryside). we visited a buddhist monastery this morning - was full of monks (with jumpers under their robes it's so damn cold here - we're both wearing our down jackets, thermals and hats - what a difference fromthe last year in the tropics!) but there were also loads of people in suits and on mobile phones, and wearing traditional costumes, just coming to pay their respects. felt like a living working place, not just for the tourists like in beijing
our guest house is crazy - we seem to be living in a (well estalished) shanty town on the outskirts of ub - its like the nomads just moved their lifestyle to the city - you can live in western appartment blocks and wear fashionable sunglasses if you want, and lots of people do, but here, they live in gers and family compounds like they always have. there is even a delightlful nibbly kid goat running around our place (its mother, which belongs to the owners in-laws who live in the countryside, abandoned it, so they are hand rearing it til it can rejoin the flock). c is impressed at their resourcefulness - they have just taken out the engine of a land cruiser in the yard, without a crane, and replaced it with another!
so, we're off for a tour in the countryside tomorrow, back on the 18th. will be our 6th wedding anniversary while we're away! (believe it or not, but we think we're going to buy an original Mongolian modern artwork as a pressie for each other - i know modern art isn't what springs to mind when you think about mongolia (more goat testicles, horses (we've had to impose a moratorium on Horse while we're here - there are just too many!), and furry boots), but we really liked it. picture to follow...
bye for now

ps amusing ourselves no end by just wandering around trying to decipher cyrillic words on bill hoardings. often if you can transliterate the word, it makes sense. often, of course, it's nonsense, but it's fun trying. half their letters are backwards,which explains why it sounds like talking backwards when they speak. somehow, even though we can only understand a handful of words (cafe,internet, bank) it feels much less foreign and more inviting than china where everything was just squiggles. c made a good point - he said this place feels more familliar to us because it's a mix of asian and european - pity we won't see the culture change all the way back to europe...

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Incognito rock stars

Helen: We've spent all day saying 'ooh, don't forget to put that on the blog', so I'm afraid there's only one thing for it. A list. So, in no particular order, here's what's made us laugh and groan over the last few days:

- we have eaten soooo much. It seems to be the mark of a good Chinese host to make sure that there is food left over at the end of a meal. So they just order, and order and order. And you eat and eat and eat. And then, just when you think it surely must be at an end, more food arrives. It's nuts! (but very yummy)
- people have been taking pictures of us. Lots. And not just in the serupticious way they did it in Vietnam with camera phones. No, since we got to Beijing people have been sitting beside us, plonking their kids next to us, even accosting us in the street and insisting that we shake hands and have photos with every person in their group. At first I thought we were special, and that maybe they thought C's silly hair/beard/sunglasses/hat/tattoos combo meant he was a rock star incognito. But, sadly, no. We're photo worthy just because we're tourists. You would think that Beijing, being the capital city, would be pretty cosmopolitan and they'd be used to seeing people like us. Maybe the people taking pictures of us are Chinese tourists on their hols from the countryside who can now go home proudly with a picture of the foreign freaks? Or maybe they aren't as exposed to Western culture as I thought - our guidebook says only 10 Western films are approved for release every year in China...
- in a similar vein...we were dumbfounded last night when we were having dinner with an old school friend of mine (yes, I know, Old Senockians are everywhere) and his Chinese girlfriend, and we were talking about how odd Cambodia 'after what happened there' and she, quite straight faced said 'what happened in Cambodia?' Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge meant nothing to her (she's pretty much our age). Wierd what state censorship can achieve!
- we got horribly lost when we arrived to Beijing. Our taxi driver didn't know where our hostel was (surprise surprise, although at least he only charged us 20 ickeys - C was very proud of himself for avoiding the taxi touts who wanted 180 for the same journey - that's why he's in charge of the cash - I probably would have gone with the first guys!) Anyway, we got dropped off next to the right block for our hostel...but unlike other cities on grid systems, the old part of Beijing is arranged into 'hutongs' - each big block is subdivided into lots of little alleyways which are mostly pedestrian/used by bikes. It's really charming - usually grid systems are souless, but this way the traffic can still flow and you still get a really intimate feeling. So, we got dropped off 'near' our hostel, then walked in circles for a good half an hour carrying our heavy bags before I went off on my own armed with only my guidebook. Eventually a security guard and his mate at the local hospital helped me out - they took me to a doctor on the 6th floor who spoke a bit of English and then escorted us to the door. Predictably, only 5 mins walk away! We managed to have a great conversation - he spoke Chinese and I spoke English and neither of us understood a word of what the other said, but somehow it worked!
- final point, before my fingers fall off from typing too much - C wants me to tell you about Chinese tour guides - they all have headsets with microphones, attached to loud-speakers that hang from their waists, so it seems that they are shouting from their tummies. And they use the speakers even when the person they're talking to is standing next to them. Very amusing to watch!

OK, nearly out of juice. (had a wonderful day at teh Great Wall today - awesome scenery, good hike, almost totally deserted. Totally opposite to yesterday at the Forbidden City. Swarming with tourists and lacking in information.)


Wednesday, 29 April 2009


Helen: Apologies for the lack of posts for a while. This has been due, unusually, to lots of late nights and drinking. It's mid-day now, and our party of 4 has just about surfaced and made themselves respectable, so you see what I mean...
We're in HK at the moment, staying (in the tiniest flat - it makes London living look palatial) with Mike, an old friend from school, and he is doing a fabulous job of showing us around. It makes such a difference having a guide - we've been to so many places we just wouldn't have known existed (bars and restaurants (and a gym)) that are on the upper floors of tower blocks - they have no signs at ground level to let you know what's upstairs, you just have to know! And often to get to a bar, you have to enter through a shop in a mall. But, usually the view is worth it - we had drinks last night from the balcony on the 8th floor with the HK skyline lit up behind us.
HK has been a true delight - I was expecting just the skyscrapers, and was only coming here to visit Mike. We both figured that it would be another Singapore or KL and we'd want to leave after 2 days. But we've just booked our train tickets to Beijing and we're staying over a week because we're having so much fun. It turns out HK isn't just HK island - there are lots of outlying islands, the whole of the New Territories and it's easy to escape to the hills. Yes, hills. Well, mountains really. Yesterday we climbed Lantau Peak, which is a Munroe at 934m. It was steps all the way up. Hard work at the best of times, but especially bad the day after a session at the gym (Mike goes regularly and C really wanted to go, so I went along for a laugh. Now everything hurts. My stomach. My quads. My neck for goodness sake.) The hill was awesome. At the bottom there is a 'giant buddha', a disney type village with a starbucks and hordes and hordes of tourists. But we only saw 5 other people on the trail. Was blissful. It was like Arthur's Seat in as much as you could look one way and see the airport, but if you looked the other way it was as if you were well and truly out in the countryside. Wonderful :) And today we're going to Macau, which is supposed to be totally different again - long Portuguese colonial history, forts, cafes, pastries. Will report back.

PS. Hmm, don't seem to have mentioned China at all yet - we only spent 3 days there before coming to HK - was ok - rained a lot! Had a few language problems, but the people were super friendly and we were always helped out by English students who wanted to practice with us (in fact, we've just got an email from one we met in Nanning who wants to be our penfriend). The landscape was pretty similar to N Vietnam - we went to see some stunning terraced rice fields. Oddly, the other tourists on the trip weren't western backpackers, but domestic Chinese tourists from Beijing. They travel en masse and all buy the same souvenirs and take the same photos. Very bizzare. And, at the top of the hill...there was ice cream and beer! We always joke when we're hill walking in Scotland that there will be beer and ice cream at the top (an insipring thought when it's cold and wet and you're wondering what you're doing on the hillside). Of course there never is. But in China, oh yes. And postcards, souvenir shops. The works!

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Toc That

Helen: We seem to have slowed somewhat in our whirlwind trip round SE Asia - we have been in Vietnam for nearly a whole week now. A whole week! Since the last post we took a bus to Phnom Penh (crazy crazy traffic - we sat in a bar and played motorbike poker - we were both tied with 5 people on a bike each, when C spotted a guy carrying, I kid you not, a full size wardrode. We also visited the Tuol Sleng Museum - the old school that was S21 prison during Pol Pot's time. Thousands of people were tortured and murdered there, and it's been left as a memorial to them. There are photos of them on the walls. It was almost too horrific to really take it all in. It didn't really seem real. The most interesting room was an exhibit by a Swede who had visited in 1978 as part of an official tour. Apparently communism was big in Sweeden at the time, and so when he visited he genuinely thought that the Khmer Rouge was a good thing. The exhibition shows the photos he took at the time with his thoughts from 1978, along with his thoughts from now (once the true details of the regime came out he changed his mind - just goes to show how people can be fooled by propoganda - even educated people who ought to know better).
Anyway, I got sidetracked. From PP we went to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) - stayed just long enough to get ripped off by a taxi driver (first time spending Dong so no idea how much stuff costs - we paid at least 10 times too much!) on the way to the train station, and then we spent 4 days in the hills around Hanoi. Wow. Wow. Totally amazing. Have a look at the photos on Flickr to see what we mean. Everywhere we've been so far that's been pretty has looked like Scotland. Not N Vietnam. It looks like nowhere else. Crazy limestone mountains, bright green paddy fields, people working the fields by hand with conical hats, cows that look more like elephants or rhinos. We stayed in stilt huts and traveled on roads that tourists never take - they were rutted, gravely, muddy - C did brilliantly with me on the back. You could tell that tourists never get to these places because every time we stopped to talk to the locals they would stare at C's hair. They would always ask if it was real ('toc that' means 'real hair') and they'd build up the courage to come and pull at it with toothless grins! Our guide Hai was great - he looked like a korean popstar, and was always flirting with the ladies, but he was a real gentleman. He really wanted us to like his country and went out of his way to make sure we had a good time. We stopped and had raw sugar cane juice and sticky rice cooked in bamboo. We saw chop sticks being made and he even took us to his house to meet his family (grandma had black teeth from chewing betel nut and didn't seem to mind that we didn't understand a word she said). We were so lucky - just the two of us and Hai for 4 days.
Right. Off to China tomorrow. Hope we have time to go and see Ho Chi Minh himself before we leave...

PS thought you'd like this - we stopped to have lunch one day and a family invited us to join them. We had to decline their offer of home made rice wine (like vodka) but joined them for green tea (we've drunk so much tea in the last few days). We wanted to share with them so we offered them some chocolate. They ate it as if it was beetles, like they were only being polite! Actually, they didn't eat it like it was beetles, because the Vietnamese like beetles (we got served some the other night, and the only reason C ate one is because I ate one first). They eat grasshopers and snails and snakes and chicken feet and pig intestines willingly, but apparently not chocolate!