I've never realised how much effort is needed to get a laptop out and force myself to do this blog. It's a bit like school when you're told to do your homework over the weekend and you sort of leave it till late Sunday night when you've had all weekend to do it. At least I haven't got a teacher marking me down for this, don't think I could handle the red marks all over it......
Anyways Mongolia was where I left the last blog and that the capital Ulan Batar was a modern city that surprised me. One thing that really got me was the fact that the previous year the government had banned the selling, buying and smoking of cigarettes 100 metres of a government building, school, college or university. This meant that as most of the buildings in Ulan Batar are governmental buildings, smoking in the city is virtually banned. As a new arrival I had a lot of strange looks when I lit a cigarette up, especially when I was sat outside the parliament building admiring the views. I have no idea if they thought I was being brave, stupid or just one of them westerners who didn't have a clue about their country? I suppose all three for that. Buying cigarettes was just as crazy when I asked at the hostel where I could get them, they gave me instructions where to go and an old woman would 'help' me. On meeting her and saying the magic words 'cigarettes' she looked around nervously and realising no one of importance was there, she quickly opened a medium sized box by her feet which inside she had a number of different brands and then quickly closed the lid asking which brand I wanted. Having only seen a millisecond of what was available I opted for any having no idea what Mongolian cigarettes, she shoved he hand straight into her box brought out a packet and placed it into my pocket at lightening speed while still looking around for anyone that might have seen her. She told me the price and got my wallet out and gave her the cash which she took and put it in her purse as quick as she could then totally ignored me. Walking away I felt that I had just bought some drugs in the way everything was dealt with. When I arrived back at the hostel I decided to have one of my illegal gains and lit one up, which was okay outside a hostel as it was full of foreigners and who cares about their health! I was approached by a young schoolgirl still in uniform and holding her satchel who asked in her best english if she could speak to me, basically she was learning english at school and she wanted to practice with a westerner. I explained that as it was -25 and I was a bit chilly I would talk to the end of my cigarette. She looked at me and agreed and then went quiet, a bit too long but then said she was shy and didn't know what to say so i took the lead and talked about where I came from, my family, my made up pets, my made up hobbies, where I was going, making sure my geordie accent was kept to a minimum, something the Queen would be proud of. I stopped every now and again to ask if she understood what I was saying nd she would nod her head. At the end of my ramblings I asked her if she had any questions to which she said her English teacher was bad and didn't do enough talking and she was glad she had met me! I'll admit I was out there in the colder for longer then I had said I would be but coldness took over my ears and that was when I had to go in to the warmth so she said goodbye and wished me well on my journey. It was quite sweet and hope that she gets more chances to practice speaking.
Back onto the Trans Siberian Express for the final leg to Beijing and met up with Trond and the girl who's name I still can't remember, however she spent the whole time with us suffering from a really bad cold so kept herself for most of the time. As this was the train to take us into China the carriages were full to the brim with Mongolian students going back to University in Beijing after the holiday! The train felt like a youth club on wheels. I shared a compartment with a young Mongolian girl who's lack of english and shyness kept her away to be with her giggling friends for most of the way, it was only after 16 hours when I thought it be best to talk to her and find out why so many spotty teenagers were on board. Yep, her lack of English was evident but managed to explain that Beijing University had an international 'policy' that they would accept a number of Mongolian students every year and that the lessons they had were in English which she was struggling with. I had a hard time trying to decipher what she was saying so god help her teachers!
At the border of China and we pulled into a station and there were so many Chinese soldiers on the platform all lined up ready to board straightaway and custom officials in the background in uniform with clipboards at the ready. My passport was checked at least 10 times by various members of this gang, my backpacks were taken out and opened and searched thoroughly. Nothing like the Russian border where they had just about waved me through to take over the country, this was a proper border check! Trying to show my best smile without looking like a frightened westerner I survived and then the train was driven to a separate area where all the carriages were lifted and new wheels were put on. Seems the Chinese train tracks are narrower then the rest of the world and it would be easier to just swap the wheels instead of changing every single track in the country. This procedure took at least an hour and half to complete as they had to do each carriage individually and then put us back in a different order.
Beijing International Train Station was one of the busiest stations I have ever been to. So much so that when walking out it was so slow that impatience took over and I tried to move past people to go a bit faster but that didn't work. I had instructions on how to get to the new hostel and a couple of dutch people looking lost asked me if I knew where I was going to. They were actually staying at the same hostel as me so we made a chain and led ourselves down to the underground metro and looked at me as their leader as I seemed to know how to get there!!! The hostel was easy to find and once settled I went out and explored and discovered my first Mcdonalds in weeks, well since Moscow, but I was hungry and could be arsed trying to work out a chinese meal in chinese.
My first full day was off to the Forbidden City with one of the dutch girls I had befriended and headed off to the Forbidden City on push bikes! The pollution of the city is extreme and riding around breathing it all in affected my chest really bad, in fact on day 3 I got so bad that I found it hard to breath, mind you alcohol was involved in that. Anyways the Forbidden City is something that most people have heard of and you read of the stories and the history that it feels like something that has to be done and judging by the crowds of people trying to get in, it was something that I was looking forward to until I got in and have never been so disappointed. Lots of buildings that looked identical with a couple of temples looking buildings and a few signs explaining that the building you were looking at was somewhere the Emperor would change his clothes, or another where he would wait for his wives or whatever. Very disappointing! But at least I can say I have seen it, but I knew I would be doing it again in 2 days time when Liam arrived. Leaving this site we grabbed our bikes and headed off to Tiananmen Square where lots of policeman told us to move on when we stopped on the road to take pictures. Boring people, do they not realise we are tourists and have the right to stop in any road and take random pictures, oh yeah they have guns and lots of prisons, so off we went. Day 2 was spent walking around the centre and met up with Trond to catch up with a coffee which ended up going to the night food market and looking at fried spiders, scorpions and all sorts of weird and wonderful things. Sorry Trond lets go and find an Irish bar and forget that this is happening, which in fact was a bad mistake as we got a bit too drunk and ended up drinking till very late! So the next day saw spend in a sorry state but ended up on pushbikes again and heading randomly round various areas until we found a park in the middle of the city that was clean, peaceful and full of people doing lots of activities, from Tai Chi, cracking whips, dancing in fact it was what I had been trying to find in a Capital city what was like any other, it was Chinese and it felt like I was actually in China if that makes sense. Day 3 was a quiet one with nothing happening and sorting things out ready for Liam arriving the next day. Liam was to be my travelling partner in crime for the rest of the journey. Arriving on Day 4 at 7 in the morning, I had agreed to meet him at the airport, mainly because this would be the first time for him outside of Europe and what a country to go to! Obviously I missed judged the train timings to get there so was late and I eventually met up with a relieved Liam who was tired and hungry but first things first, get to the hostel and book in and then head to the Forbidden City! I tried to look surprised at all the buildings and I think that Liam was too shattered to be impressed but he made it through and after that with a walk to the Tiananmen Square for lots of pics we went back to the hostel for food and he went straight to bed! Next day I forced him onto a push bike and took him to the park where I had been with Trond seeing life in a wild capital where cars obviously have more right on the road then bikes! The following day was a tour to the Great Wall of China, one of the Wonders of the World and I can totally understand why. To be stood on the Wall and looking at the views is something that will never leave me. It was amazing, outstanding and breath taking all at once. We had picked a good day with hardly tourists and perfect weather. You stand there and look into the distance and still see the Wall carrying on and think about how it was built, why it was built and how long it took you understand why it is a must see thing for people to visit whoever you are. Arriving back to the hostel it was time to pack and move onto our next port of call Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was to be a weeks visit staying with good friends of mine Matt and Sam with their kids. I had met the family when I had been posted to the Congo and had kept in touch so when Sam found out that I was going to be in Asia I was invited across which I wasn't going to turn down. I would go through each day and say exactly what we did but even I haven't got long enough to type it all down. All I can say is that we were treated as part of the family for the time we were there and I cannot thank them enough for showing us around Hong Kong and the days that they were working I dragged Liam around to see as much as possible. Highlights of the trip was definitely going up the Peak and having all you can eat/drink Sunday lunch which Matt had labeled it as the Champaign Challenge! Disappointing was the views as most of the week all we had were foggy days. We saw the Big Buddha, Midday Guns, night markets where we bought selfie sticks, used them once and never again, boat trips and a few alcoholic drinks! Randomly we met up with Will Peat who was the bloke I travelled with through Asia last year who was on a stop off on his way to Australia to join the Australian Army, it was strange seeing him again as a former travelling partner with my new one but it shows you how small the world is.
It was time to leave and a very sad goodbye and off to Thailand we went, arriving in Bangkok at midday I had tried to book into a hostel that I knew well however the websites told me it was full and so we spent a few days just off Koh San Road in a dirty, rat infested room. It was the first proper introduction of life on the road to Liam as a back packer, don't think he was too impressed! After a week and a half of non stop sight seeing in China and Hong Kong it was only proper that we relaxed a little. I introduced Liam to Back Home Backpackers which was the hostel I wanted to stay at and Sophie the owner. The laid-back atmosphere at the Back Home hostel was ideal and we got to know a few of the guys staying there, so much so that we ended up getting a little drunk a few times with them talking to various nationalities about life on the road and their stories. After 4 days we headed down to Laos to Vang Vieng on a 12 hour bus journey which tested Liam's patience as he's not the best at sleeping if not lying down. Customs was a bit straight forward paying American Dollars to enter with a new fresh stamp on our passports. Arriving at our new destination we found our hostel which had been recommended to us and it was a diamond of a place with a better room then our last place, plenty of people to talk to and staff that were just awesome, who became friends straightaway. Vang Vieng is only a small place and is famous amongst backpackers for one reason only.... TUBING. Basically they provide you with a large rubber ring that you get on and float down the river, along the way there are various bars with locals that will throw a rope to you and drag you in to drink and then you go to the next pub. Lots of alcohol later you make your way to the end and hand back your tube. Although a lot of travellers stay for 2/3 days and do tubing once, we stayed for a week and carried out this tortuous activity 3 times, each time as good as the last. Days in between was spent chatting at the hostel, relaxing and just getting rid of hangovers. Our last night I found that Trond was in the area and we met up for a beer, from Mongolia to Beijing to Laos it was a random meet up!
Back to Bangkok we went and actually got into the Back Home Backpackers hostel where it was a little bit sedate compared to last time but it was a good chance to detox and catch up with Sophie and the girls and decide where we were going next. I had no plans of what was going to be the next adventures but I knew that I wanted to go to Koh Lanta, an Island that I had been to last year that was going to be beaches, snorkelling and relaxing. Plans changed and me and Liam went on to do 4 islands, Koh Tao, Koh Samui, Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi. In the 2 weeks of doing this it was a mixture of too much alcohol, meeting up with people we had met earlier in our trip and exploring. On the last 2 islands we met up with Jane and Victoria who had been in Laos with us and sort of stayed with them. They opened our eyes up to how much alcohol people can actually drink while still standing on 2 legs (just). It was at this time that Liam told me that although he was loving the traveling and adventures, he was homesick and wanted to go back to UK. This was something that he had thought about for days before telling me and he knew that it would upset me as we had planned this together and even had plans for what we were going to do in various countries when we got there. So after a final night of Koh Phi Phi he left with the promise that he would be back in a couple of months once he had got it out of his system, where ever in the world I was going to be. I was now a solo traveller and knew that I had to carry on which is now the present day in Langkawi, Malaysia. My detox island and something to write about in the next blog..... I know this is as long as the last blog I did and I sort of rushed the last few weeks and I've not even checked through the spelling or grammar so I can imagine a lot of red pen going through this but I know the rest of the blogs will be updated more often and will be a hell of a lot shorter.
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