Thursday, 31 October 2013

Travelogue: Walking the Great Wall

Ok, so you might not actually be able to see it from space and it's actually not one continuous wall, but walking it has to be one of the most spectacular experiences of my travels.

I hadn't put much thought to travelling in China as I had so many places to visit in Southeast Asia that 'the big one' had been somehow overlooked. So when I found out we would have the opportunity to visit Beijing it felt like an added bonus on an already incredible year.

For sometime now, and this is a ridiculously spoilt thing to say, I have felt that our over exposure to images of iconic places and buildings, somewhat diminishes the reality when at last you visit in person. Real life is not through an instagram lens and you can't photoshop picture postcard skies into reality.  This did not happen at the Great Wall!  

On the days before our trip the sky was grey over Beijing. At one point we either went to the wall on a day the BBC Weather app predicted rain or relinquished our trip to Shanghai. For me there was only one choice: to wait for the perfect day to visit the wall as this would be something to remember for a lifetime.

So one September morning, a little after sunrise we set out with a gang of fellow Peking International Youth Hostel residents to take a three hour bus ride to Jinshanling. From there we walked up and down and up and down and up and down over 6k of wild and not so wild wall to Simatai.

There are so many different ways to visit the wall from taking a cable car up to hiking through snow. We went for the most sensible option. Go as far as possible from Beijing where the crowds don't bother to roam and then do a decent 4 hour trail seeing both restored and non-restored wall. For us this was perfect. We experienced breathtaking views of rural China from what for us will always be the only man made structure visible from space (damn those truth tellers).

Monday, 14 October 2013

Travel Journal - Beijing baby

I didn't know I was headed to Beijing until a few weeks before arriving at Changi airport. I already feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to see so much of Asia while living in Singapore so this trip to China really was the icing on the cake. One of the best things about impromptu travel is a lack of preconceptions, so when you arrive you have a clean slate to discover the destinations' charms.

I have been reading a number of books set during the Qing Dynasty so understandably I was very excited to step back in time and enter the Forbidden City, the traditional home of the emperor and his 2,000 strong entourage. The world heritage site did not disappoint and the dense Beijing smog added a atmospheric mist which actually accentuated the mystical feel of the seeming endless courtyards, pavilions and gardens.       

Part of the magic is the beautiful names given to the buildings like the Gate of Supreme Harmony and the Palace of Earthly Tranquility which sound like they fell from a poem or song. 

One thing I was unprepared for was the sheer volume of tourists who descend daily upon this sight. After five hours wandering, plus a climb to the top of a hill in a nearby park for an aerial view, we were two very sleepy travellers. 

Beijing is a city with one foot very much in the past. For me its greatest attraction is wandering the endless historic 'hutong'. These backstreet alleys are lined with low rise courtyard homes with communal facilities and an enviable village feel often not present in mid size towns let alone one of the world's most populated cities.  But we wanted to see what the Beijing of the future was, whether its inhabitants were breaking free of its old ideologies. So we headed to the 798 art district.      

The artistic community at 798 have regenerated a vast area of disused factories to create a surprisingly gentrified creative zone. It is possible to walk for hours nipping in and out of gallery after gallery. To me it felt like we had turned a wrong corner and ended up in a hip part of East Berlin.

Beijing is a city with so many tricks up its sleeves it surprises you at every turn. From quaint tea houses to vast communist structures there is so much to absorb. We ticked off iconic sights from Chairman Mao's portrait in Tianaman Square to the circular wonder of the Temple of Heaven and what did I learn - there is too much to cover in one blog post alone!

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Cruising Singapore - Lazarus beach

Singapore might be more concrete jungle than idyllic paradise, but it does have some pretty nifty secret getaways when you scratch the surface. Now on a Sunday my idea of hell is being turned into an icecube in over aircon-ed malls with a million other people. Luckily for me Singapore has so much more to offer. Look past the fake beaches at Sentosa and out in the far distance is the untouched beauty of Lazarus Island.    

Now there are two ways to hit the beach both of which we have tried and tested. Option no 1: Pack up a picnic blanket, grab your love and head down to Marina South Pier to catch the ferry to St John's Island. When you get there follow the walkway over to Lazarus Island and a hop, skip and jump through some foliage and bang you're on Singapore's best beach (don't believe me ask Expat Living mag). We arrived a bit before 10am on a Sunday morning and shared the beach with its only other inhabitant; a rather scary monitor lizard.

Option no 2: call up your buddies, charter a super yacht and its party time. Unfortunately we were not aboard this rather cool looking Chinese number but a more traditional yacht complete with a huge deck for sunbathing, sound system to get the tunes pumping & kayaks for paddling round Lazarus bay. 

Whether you go by fancy smancy yacht or on the mega cheap ferry afterwards there is the opportunity to visit Kisu island to see the turtle sanctuary before sailing back to the metropolis. 

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Running the green corridor

Now I've finally acclimatised to the crazy Singapore heat, I've been trying to fit in a little more running. The pros include seeing the remaining rural parts of our beautiful home (which makes me feel nostalgic for the island it must have been before the concrete jungle), and rewarding ourselves with extra visits to our local cake den Plain Vanilla.  

The big con is the sweat. Now I'm a pretty ordinary gal, in normal life back home in the UK, I don't think sweating has ever been an issue. But In Singapore I sweat so much when running that I actually water damaged my iPod so badly it's totally bust.  But the worst part about sweating this much is the awkward journey home after the run. Taking the MRT is simply not a option. I just couldn't do that to our fellow passengers. Taking a taxi is worse as the poor Uncle has to dry out the back of his cab after we take a ride home.

With this in mind I discovered a new running route that leads us back to our front door - the green corridor. This route is essentially the old abandoned train line that runs from Tanjong Pagar up into Malaysia. The section we like to run starts at the Rail Mall and takes us all the way back to town, ending 10 mins walk from our home in Tiong Bahru.   

As well as taking us through a leafy narrow path, this route passes by well preserved railway sleepers and a mysterious abandoned train station. I love the fact the path is so unkempt. Such a contrast with the neat & tidy appearance of the rest of the city. 

See you there 7am next Saturday!  

Saturday, 17 August 2013

A stroll around the Chinese & Japanese Gardens, Singapore

Each weekend I try to discover a new corner of my sunny Singaporean home. I could happily spend every weekend tootling round Tiong Bahru on my bike looking at the pretty art deco buildings, quaffing artisan breads & browsing at the arty bookshop but I am on a mission to fully explore the Lion City.     

Last weekend we headed out on the MRT (only 20 mins on the East-West line) to the Chinese and Japanese Gardens. It's very easy when you live in Singapore to forget you are living in Asia. With all the malls, the mish-mash of cultures & the best food from around the world you feel as if you could be living anywhere and everywhere at the same time. These beautiful gardens are a place to recapture the tranquility of the East. 

We loved the manicured gardens, striking red bridges and the sweaty walk eight floors up in the baking heat to the top of the look out tower.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

East coast cycle adventures in Singapore

I love my Singaporean hood - but there is one other part of town I would move to in a heartbeat. 

The East coast neighbourhood centred around Joo Chiat Road is another world from the hustle & bustle of the urban jungle. It's a conservation area with a nostalgic air, made up of turn of the century shop-houses, Vietnamese restaurants, low key drinking dens and quaint bakeries.

My favourite street of all is the macaron coloured Koon Seng Road. Its 1920's & 30's Peranakan architecture is a delight, complete with faded pastel facades, original tiles and rustic shutters. This street has charm by the bucket load.

A Sunday could be spent very easily wandering these picture perfect lanes but that's not all this neighbourhood has to offer. Its also right next to East Coast Park, a long and thin green space stretching along 15k of Singapore's South coast - the ideal spot for a lazy cycle.

Lucky the park has heaps of bike rental shops as I'm not sure the single geared ladies bike I'm currently rocking would manage the journey across the island. You can choose from regular bikes, tandems (these babies are not designed for the long-legged) four person buggy-like contraptions and rollerblades.

The ride along the coast is pretty idyllic for a country like Singapore where over 5 million people are crammed into one teeny tiny island. The route takes in sandy beaches, shady paths, piers and local fishing spots.

If I have only one negative about cycling in Singapore it's that the sun beating down on you. But that's just a good excuse to end your cycle with a swift half back up near Joo Chiat Road at Rabbit Carrot Gun, a public house with some damn fine nosh. 

Let me know if you make it down to Singapore's East Coast for a spin.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

A date with a Durian

Since moving to Singapore there has been one inevitable date I have been avoiding... Trying the infamous durian, known in Asia as the king of fruits. My stinky thorn-covered nemesis is in season so along with buddies Natasha & Jenny, I decided to conquer my fears.

Natasha my culinary guide (due to her previous durian eating experience) has had much success convincing us to partake in foodie adventures. From Turkish vermicelli-like puddings to milky rose water drinks and Indian chaat, Natasha has lead the way. So on Tuesday when she raised the challenge we knew it was time.

The first thing to do is to find a durian seller. Luckily Natasha knew an excellent stall (on the back street behind the Bugis+ mall). Next it's time to select your durian. As durian novices it was recommended we go for a mild version. Then ask your friendly durian seller to hack the durian in half with his handy axe type thing.

We decided to eat the durian right then and their on the street, sitting on little white stools, as that way our nostrils had time to acclimatise to the pungent odour and the fresh air might help! The helpful seller even gave us plastic gloves to prevent our fingers stinking for the rest of the day.

So now to the review of the durian. Well Natasha reported that it was creamy and sweet. Jenny and I had a slightly different opinion. The texture is lumpy & gross, it tastes like a rotten onion and it gave me terrible heartburn. 

So who is up for trying jackfruit next week?