Mixed weekend

On Saturday I drove to Gosford to catch up with Stan, a very close friend of Mum’s in recent years. We spent a great couple of hours catching up at the Davo RSL (it had been far too long), and I learnt a great deal about the corporate shenanigans that caused the demise of a formerly iconic Australian conglomerate during the 80s and 90s where Stan spent many years as a high-level manager.

Today is “winter cleanup” day: a big tidy-up and sorting-out exercise. I’ve never been a great hoarder, and after emptying Mum’s house last year I’ve become even more ruthless in culling what isn’t necessary. And the cold, crappy weather today means I can’t find any more excuses to avoid the task!

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Back in business

“So what are you looking for?” asked Sharon, some time well after midnight on my last night in Wellington (NZ) last week.

“I’m not sure” I replied, “but I think I’ll find it. Being completely free from the routine of normality, I reckon I’ll work out what I really want out of life.” And even if I don’t, it’ll be a hell of a trip…

We were referring to my travel plans for later this year, which have crystallised in recent months and which will be the realisation of several long-held dreams. Sharon is my step-sister-in-law, and Joel and I stayed with her and Stephen (my step-brother) during a fantastic visit to NZ recently to see family and friends. The end of that trip marks the end of my hibernation over the last six months… though it’s been great and definitely helpful for me to hunker down for a while after the traumas of last year, I know I dragged it out longer than necessary. And with what’s coming up soon, I definitely need to get back into the swing of things now if I’m going to make the most of the trips!

So what’s ahead? In September I head off with my best friend for three weeks in South America, flying into Santiago for a while and then to Buenos Aires and Montevideo before finishing back in Chile. The airlines were falling over themselves to offer ridiculously cheap airfares some months ago, and with return airfares at just $1006 each including taxes we figured it’d be a crime not to go!

But South America is just the appetiser. After that I’m back to work for a month in October, then off again for a whole FIVE MONTHS. Woo hoo! This is the dream I’ve been nurturing for years: having the time to wander without needing to stick to a schedule, or even caring that much about what comes next. In November I fly to Singapore and have ten days to get to Kuala Lumpur, then I fly to Vientiane in Laos. After that I’ve got three and a half months to get back to Singapore, via Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, China and who knows where else. It’s possible I will get the travel bug out of my system with this trip… or it may burrow so deeply that I’ll never be rid of it. Only one way to find out 😀

Oh, and sandwiched in between both journeys is a little thing called the New York Marathon. Against the odds I gained entry to this year’s race via the lottery, so I’m going! This is another dream that I honestly did not think could be realised until 2011, but I’m seizing the chance while I can. Thanks again to super-cheap airfares I’ll have a week in Gotham at the end of October to take part in the most famous running race of all. By all accounts it’ll be an amazing experience, and it will also ensure I am super-fit for the big trip through Asia.

Work has been fabulously accomodating, even though my absence will cause great disruption. They know that this is something I need to do. And after a long silence I will also be blogging every trip, promise!

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Harbin Ice Sculptures at night In the frozen north of China, not far from Russia and North Korea, Harbin has become famous over the years for its Ice Festival held every winter. Teams of sculptors work for weeks to create massive replicas of famous buildings from around the world, and when viewed at night its a crazy theme park of lights, ice, slides and people. In a word: awesome!

The city is very attractive too, with a relaxed bustle on the streets. Before we came we both had some doubts about staying for three days. Would it be too long? Would we get bored? In fact it was the perfect amount of time, though splashing out for the luxury of a classy hotel in the centre of town made a huge difference. I’m sure it’s a nice place at any time year, but coming during the Ice Festival is definitely the way to go…

Some snapshots:

* Ice skating in the sun on the broad frozen river that divides the city, followed by hot chocolate, coffee and cake in a warm cafe

* Visiting the Siberian Tiger Park on the outskirts of town, where several hundred tigers (plus some leopards, jaguars, lions and ligers) are kept in a vast icy park. Like most people we toured in a minibus, though amazingly private vehicles are also allowed to drive through if you’re game enough!

* Wandering slowly up and down Zhongyang Dajie, the long cobbled pedestrian thoroughfare in the heart of town, people-watching and window-shopping

* Going to the Ice Festival a night before it officially opened, when the crowds were not so frantic. Ice slides, silly poses and tube-riding down a slope kept it fun; being in just the right place for a long fireworks display made it magical

* Spending one lazy day almost entirely in the comfort of the hotel, venturing out only for a few hours of chatting over coffee at SPR. And loving every minute of it

And was it cold? Oh yeah! Daytime maximums were around -11 celcius, though when the sun went down the temperature would rapidly drop to -20 or lower. But there was no wind and we came prepared with proper clothing, plus three weeks of acclimatising as I slowly headed north from Shanghai helped enormously. Beijing’s current range of -6 to 4 degrees will be summery by comparison 🙂

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Bus, boat, train

Snow sculpture festival, Harbin

Snow sculpture festival, Harbin

Our last night in Qingdao was New Year’s Eve, and like all good party nights this one came together without any planning. Several coffees in the early evening, some dry hot-pot with Welm’s chinese friends (very spicy, and it included a few bonus ingredients such as sauted tripe and cooked duck’s blood), playing pool, more than a few drinks, and finishing off with barbequed skewers and more beer at 3am with an English teacher from Rockhampton and his Chinese fiancee.

The highlight of the night was where we saw in the midnight hour, a top-floor bar with fine views across the city that was effectively a private party. Feeling uncannily like that late-night bar that Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson went to in Lost In Translation, a skilled band of expats we playing rock classics (lots of Led Zeppelin, for example) throughout the evening. Fronted by a very drunk Melburnian who could still belt out tunes pretty well until the very end, many of Qingdao’s tiny circle of foreigners were here and the beers were super-cheap (Y10 each, A$2.20). A great way to see in the new year!

What followed was two days of travel, as we headed to the frozen north for the Ice Festival in Harbin. Rather than the easy option of flying (it’s approximately 1700 kms away), we decided to go overland so we could visit Yantai and Dalian on the way. Great in theory, but the practice didn’t work out so well…

Waking up quite dusty on New Year’s Day, we eventually made our way to the bus station to get a ride to Yantai. Luck was on our side here, as a “booming business class” bus was just about to leave. With very large reclining seats (exactly like those up the front on a plane), movies and even a hostess who served water and tea, this was the PERFECT way to sleep off a hangover! Yantai was rather disappointing, though we didn’t have much time to explore the night we arrived. Intending to catch an express ferry to Dalian the next day we slept in, only to discover that express ferries don’t run in winter. Our only option to get to Dalian would take nearly seven hours, giving us just an hour and a half before the night train to Harbin departed 😦

This really sucked, as we’d heard great things about the place, but what could we do? We got two sleeper beds for the ferry, which turned out to be extremely spacious berths in a room shared with four others, and to our surprise we slept most of the way. Fortunately the rest of the journey went smoothly, in large part to the help of Wonder Wang. The Chinese train system does not have a centralised booking system, so apart from a handful of routes you can only book a ticket in the city you want to depart from. This makes it hard to plan if you’re on a tight schedule! Talking with Kate about this online, she said I should contact a friend of hers who lives in Dalian to see if he could help. Yes indeed: Wonder (also known as Wang Xi, but Wonder’s a much better name) organised two prime bottom bunks for us on the train we wanted, was waiting for us at the ferry terminal when we arrived and was even willing to take us on a tour of Dalian if we’d had the time. Sadly the boat stuff-up meant that was out of the question, but he did recommend a very fine Taiwanese restaurant for dinner before the train.

The train itself was excellent, the “hard-sleeper” cars (so called because the bunks are open to the corridor rather than in enclosed cabins like “soft sleepers”) very comfortable and uncrowded on this journey. Welm likened it very aptly to a white-collar prison dorm: dozens of middle-class people incarcerated in a clean and tidy cell with nothing to do but read, chat, play cards or sleep. Amazingly, after all the rest we’d had in the previous two days, we still slept most of the way. And arriving at our Harbin hotel uber-early (6am), they still checked us in and even gave us an upgrade to a finer room. Praising the Holiday Inn chain heartily, we crawled into the first soft bed either of us had used for weeks (months for Welm) and slept some more.

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Lazy days

Qingdao is famed for its beaches, amongst other things (eg. German architecture and Tsingtao beer), and they’re quite nice as beaches go. Wandering down to the city centre for a look yesterday morning there were people going for a dip in the ocean, kids playing with sand, and a lively beach volleyball game with half the middle-aged players dressed only in speedos. A typical beach scene. The sun was shining, but did I mention it was barely above zero degrees? These folk really love their beaches!

The last few days have continued the relaxation theme, though not entirely by choice. We went to a Boxing Day house party in the east of the city with a bunch of foreign English teachers (mostly British, American, Australian) – great night. Since then Welm has been working much of the time, and we’ve both been fighting minor colds which has sapped all energy. Fortunately I’ve been introduced to the superb US drama series The Wire on dvd so I’m sorted. Today is cold and wet, I’ve tried to head out for a wander but really all I’m up for is a long day on the couch. Hopefully we’ll both be back on our game soon…

Qingdao is a great place to eat, too. Welm lives right in the centre of a thriving restaurant/bar/shopping district about 10kms east of the town centre, and in my opinion it’s the nicest part of town by quite a way. Over the last few days we’ve had quality Sichuanese and Japanese meals, the aforementioned Best Pizza in The World, and last night some truly superb Italian at a tiny bistro just around the corner. If the Japanese chef decided to set up shop in Sydney he’d instantly get two hats I reckon, but I think he’s happy plying his trade in his six-table micro-restaurant here. Still on the menu over the coming days is Korean hot pot, western food at The Diner and probably more Chinese if we can possibly fit it in. Lazy days indeed 🙂

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