Tianjin: Great Wall of China

One should always travel to the cities that are not particularly popular; I have always believed that you might find hidden treasures that way. I was excited for a number of reasons. Firstly, I was taking the slow train (the oriental express as I would call it for the rest of the trip) and secondly, we were going to climb the Great Wall!

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The train ride was a little awkward. I suspect that not so many foreign travellers take the slow train. I mean, you have the option of taking the bullet trains. An hour and a half of stares, fishy smells and heat, we arrived in Tianjin to get in to a taxi with a mad driver! She was on her phone, laughing and talking to herself and rarely looked at the mirrors. She dropped us off at the address I had shown her. Except, there was no sign of a hostel there. Oh dear! After approximately 45 minutes of charging phones, looking at maps, asking people if they know of the hostel, we took a leap of faith and got in to the elevator with other residents. We got off the 6th floor as the address stated…still no sign of a hostel. We knocked on apartment 601 and with a great sigh of relief, there is was: Marco Polo Hostel. The sign was behind the door! From there on, we came to a realization that Tianjin does not like signage.

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We didn’t want to waste the limited time we had in Tianjin so we went out for a little walkabout. With an over-enthusiastic taxi driver who mentioned Nelson Mandela as soon as I told him that I am South African, we made it to the Italian Quarter looking for pizza, pasta and wine. Nope. Everything was shut except for a place that sold salty box pizza. Disappointed and freezing, we headed back to the hostel for an early night before a day at the wall.

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Early start. We took the bus to Jixian, just outside of the Tianjin city centre. Well, an hour and a half out. Then, from the final stop you can take a taxi to the Great Wall (Huangya Pass). We didn’t get a taxi but we negotiated a return price with a local using his private car. Thanks to Matt, the driver agreed to drive us to the Wall, wait for three hours and drive us back to the bus station before sun set for only CNY 200!

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It was a fantastic experience! My legs didn’t think so, though. After climbing about 10 00o steps, it was time to call it a day! Plus, our driver was waiting for us. Chairman Mao once said, “He who has not been to the Great Wall is not a true man.” I’m a man!

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The Deets

Where to stay: I use Agoda to book hostels around China. We stayed at the Marco Polo Hostel which cost CNY 52 per night.

Transportation: The subway is cheap and reliable. Taxis are also in abundance, just make sure the driver uses the meter. Beijing to Tianjin slow train: CNY 30 . Bus trip from Tianjin to Jixian: CNY 35.

Entrance to the Great Wall: Huangya Pass Entrance will cost you CNY 65.

Tip: Try not to visit the city during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). Everything will be closed.

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Life Below Zero:Winter is Coming

Winter has come. But, it’s about to get worse.

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I honestly didn’t know that I could live in sub-zero temperatures; this is an alien concept for a Durbanite. I have, many a times, considered getting a bobsled just because it seems fitting. I now know what it feels like to crave warmth. I want to walk out in a flowy summer dress and slops feeling the sun kiss my ebony skin. But…I have neatly packaged those thoughts away and placed them right at the back of my mind. I have another 3 or 4 months of cold.

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The great thing about this weather is that I can stay in and cook warm, hearty meals. People don’t judge you for wanting to go home to curl in to ball and drink tea (read: wine) on a potentially good night out. I have been browsing the net looking for healthy winter meals to indulge in this winter. I found a winner a couple of weeks ago. Off to the morning market to find fresh produce I went! It was worth waking up at 05:30 am to find giant blocks of tofu for RMB 1.50! Hella crazy! I made a Thai Tofu, Butternut Squash and Aubergine Soup. You can find the recipe¬†here.

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I am mentally drawing up a winter survival kit. Food, fun, friends are at the top of my list.

With warmth,

x

Fast Track to Beijing

A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed a weekend in Beijing. This was not much an exploration trip but a reunion trek. I hadn’t seen one of my good friends that brought sunshine to my university life in four years. So, you can imagine we had heaps of catching up to get through so I didn’t plan much sight-seeing.

As the lone wolf that I am, I booked a return fast train ticket from Harbin to Beijing which should take just under 8 hours. This is phenomenal as it would normally be a 20-24 hour drive! I had to be at the Harbin West Railway Station by 06:30 am – I am a morning person so I chose the first train out so I could be in Beijing for the afternoon and enjoy a night out in town in the evening.

Seeing Maya again as she she was waiting for me at the station exit. We both shrieked in disbelief. Four damn years!!

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The train ride was alright. I had a book, my travel journal and some sleep to catch up on. I had booked myself a second-class soft seater because a sleeper would have been a little awkward. A cabin always has four bunk beds so travelling as a lone female would make me a little uncomfortable. After my little nap against the window, I woke up to the gentleman sitting next to me watching me sleep. Then guess what? He smiles at me as if watching strangers sleep is normal. I couldn’t get myself to sleep after that.

I stayed at Peking Youth Hostel which is owned by a florist so you are surrounded by flowers and plants which is a winner, of course. This is on one of the ancient hutons (alleys) in Beijing, NanLouGuXiang. It was clean, cosy and the staff were friendly so I might be a regular. I say this because I fell in love with this part of Beijing. It is lively, youthful and friendly. My first meal in Beijing was a falafel pita! Oh My God! A small Israeli restaurant tucked away in one of the hutons. Heaven and reminded me of my Durban Night Markets which always ended in a juicy falafel wrap!

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The evening ended with some beer and food at a bar with live music. Well, open mic, to be exact. We moved out swiftly when we could no longer handle the croons of a shiny clothed expat with his Michael Jackson look-a-like friend. No, really! I really could not hold in my chuckles!

We enjoyed a slow morning and started off at a dumpling restaurant with a smorgasbord of delights. We should really practice eating with our stomachs and not our eyes. Steamed broccoli, fried dumplings, steamed dumplings, potato and aubergine goodness and tea! Don’t forget the rice!

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After waddling out of the restaurant, we took a beautiful stroll to the Lama Temple. There are so many hidden treasures. So many! I wanted to stop every 5 minutes just to explore.

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After meandering the hutons, exploring all the nooks and crannies, we made it to the Lama Temple. I loved the incense and looking at the ancient buildings. I found it rather peaceful to browse the information building with a monk reciting his chants in the background.

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Since it was a Friday night and two friends from Harbin were joining us, we decided to paint the town red. Well, not quite. We started off at a live music bar called Temple. My kind of place, really. Live rock music! We watched two bands play (the second band was a little strange) then decided it was time to check out the salsa bar! My goodness, what a jam! They had a reggaeton/latin dance band playing and it was awesome. I felt like I was in a Dirty Dancing scene.You know, a guy eyeing you across the room with the music in the background then comes over to the bar to talk to you..

It was time to leave this bar!

We went back to Temple and sang old school rock music at the top of my voice while having cheap tequila shots. Please note that I had to set my cellphone alarm to 03:45am so I could leave the bar to meet up with Maya to go to the National Day ceremony at Tienanmen Square! This ceremony takes place at sunrise so this is 05:00. So, straight from the bar to a family ceremony! It was hilarious!

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As a foreigner, the locals thought I should stand in front to see exactly what was happening! So, there I was, a black South African celebrating China’s National Day (the day China became the People’s Republic).

This was a memorable trip and I will be doing it again soon. I still need to walk the Great Wall.

x

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What They Don’t Tell You

I have had a fantastic weekend in Beijing to see one of the best humans I know. This is enough to keep you happy, right? We explored the ancient hutons, ate amazing dumplngs, danced the night away and caught up. This should be enough to keep me happy.

But something happened.

When I was back in my apartment. Alone. Missing familiar faces. Receiving a cold text. After hearing my mother’s voice on the phone, chatting to my nephews, missing eating breakfast with my family after arguing about who will make it.

I broke down.

What we show you about our expat lives is always about the fun and exciting. Always about discovering new amazing foods, exploring the landscapes and meeting amazing new people. But, we are almost too ashamed to tell the world, to tell our families and friends that we are missing them incredibly that you find yourself pacing up and down your apartment trying to breathe. I had never had a panic attack before. I wish someone had told me that it feels like someone is squeezing your heart and you cannot breathe. Then you have insane thoughts – I can’t die here, I am 11 000 km away from my family. Then the thought of death just makes the entire situation spiral.

What they don’t tell you is that sometimes, amidst all of the amazing adventure, you will sorely miss familiar foods, familiar faces and familiar landscapes.

You will break down.

But, this will make you stronger. You will regroup then think about the mission and purpose. The reason why you opted for this lifestyle. You will have a cup of tea and appreciate the little things all over again.

It happens. It happens to everyone.

With love, x

Settling In..

It’s almost a month since I have moved to Harbin and I seem to be settling in now. I have my own apartment, I take the bus to school and pretty much every mode of transport available to go around, and I have become friendly with some of the people in my community.

I might live in a really old part of Harbin but my apartment is stunning and modern. Also, I like getting the feel of real local living. At the moment, I am looking after a little dog for three weeks before she runs along to her forever home – she is a rescue pup. She keeps me very busy.

I am finally getting used to the routine: the commute, long hours, eating out like its going out of fashion, lesson planning. All of it. I am taking it all in.

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I have been sight-seeing and have had some odd encounters so that will be coming up soon. But for now, I need to walk the pup and get ready for work work work.

With love, x

Hello, Harbin..

After a year of plotting and pondering, I am finally in China. Harbin, to be exact. Leaving Durban was a bittersweet moment – you know, knowing that you finally did it. But, leaving the people you love behind. It doesn’t make it easier that I am not quite a fan of flying. I often choose the window seat closest to the emergency exit. Then, I drink at least 3 glasses of red wine to help me sleep. It was comforting to sit next to another cryer (she was leaving her husband and daughter to teach in Dubai) so both of us had our tissues in hand as we took off.

I was a little silly to buy the cheapest ticket to Harbin; it was the longest 3 days yet. Arriving in Beijing was madness – that’s when the culture shock started. No queues. There were thousands of people at the airport yet it was way after 23:00. Then getting the taxi was even more daunting. I had the address written on my phone in characters yet no one wanted to take me to my hotel (I needed to rest on a bed and shower as I had a 9 hour lay over). It was time to use some Bing Translate. I asked a young gentleman to help me get a taxi to the hotel. To find that the reason why the drivers would not take me: the hotel was too close. Eventually, I made it. And, passed out straight after a much needed shower.

I went in to a restaurant at the Beijing Airport and asked for breakfast. I got noodles with an egg. Even though I asked for a vegetarian option, I still got a chunk of something meaty. I took the China Southern Airline to Harbin which was small and rattle-y. Thank goodness, I was so tired that I passed out. The food: a dry bread roll and milk and one dried prune. I am not even joking. As the pilot announced that we are descending in to Harbin, I looked out the window. Beautifully green.

Two hours later: what a warm welcome. Theo and Sara were waiting at the arrivals gate with huge smiles and somewhat, sighs of relief. With the stares and at times, the outright racism, I am glad I have come here for an adventure.

I have finally sorted my VPN and internet connection so I can write regularly.

With love,

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