Category Archives: China

Eating Our Way Through Xi’an, China’s Ancient Hub

When our long-term travels through Asia ended so abruptly in early 2015, I never quite finished documenting each of the places we visited. Despite it being nearly two years later, I've decided to continue writing about each of the destinations we visited - primarily for my own personal satisfaction and memories. This post about Xi'an has been sitting in my drafts for quite some time, so it is about time to press the publish button...hope you enjoy!

Xian China16It was a long five hours, the train from Luoyang to Xi’an.

We had opted to take the cheaper slow train instead of the high-speed train that can whip you between the cities in less than two hours.

Our seats were in different compartments and while Alan lucked out with a upper berth where he could relax with a couple of movies, I was on a lower berth where my blonde hair and fair skin meant I had plenty of company! 

I’d started doing some editing on my laptop but it wasn’t long before I had an audience viewing each and every photo on my computer, as well as a young boy being nudged over by his parents with a shy “hello” and nervously offering me his teddy. It was cute and funny the first time, after about the fifteenth time? I was more than ready to arrive in Xi’an!

It was late and dark when we disembarked, and after fending off overpriced taxis outside the train station we began to walk in the direction of our guesthouse. It didn’t take long before tiredness and hunger took over and we flagged a taxi, which turned out to be a wise decision. In the expansive maze that is the Muslim Quarter, our taxi driver had to ask for directions three times, so there really was little hope for us if we had of walked!

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The Muslim Quarter is an area that appears to have thrived since the 1st Century BC. As the starting point of the ancient Silk Road, Xi'an attracted traders from throughout Central Asia and the Middle East - during the 8th century it was the biggest city in the world with more than 1 million inhabitants, many of whom were foreigners. The age of this history just astounds me!

Popular among tourists, The Muslim Quarter is a great spot to be in for hearty street food, and although we arrived late at night there were still a few stalls open. We each grabbed a Rou Jia Mo (a Chinese Hamburger, of sorts), which were quickly demolished as we wandered the streets back to our guesthouse.

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Looking out our window early the next morning, vendors were already set up for the day displaying tables of their fresh fruits and vegetables. I was eager to explore and soak in the hive of activity in the Muslim Quarter!

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As we wandered down the street hunting for a hot breakfast, pots were steaming away and butchers were hard at work.

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Honking motorbikes wove in and out of pedestrians, while cats sniffed for forgotten crumbs.

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Nuts were being shelled and sweet, sticky candy was being hand-pulled.

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Warm aromas of freshly baked bread and sizzling pastries teased our senses.

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These pastries caught our eye and quickly became our go-to breakfast over the next few days. A fried flatbread of sorts, stuffed with what we decided was cabbage and minced meat - though I can't be entirely sure!

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The variety of food in the Muslim Quarter was incredible! Some was delicious, and some not so much - but a great opportunity to try lots of different things.

Xian China18Some kind of glutinous rice cake. It tasted like...rice!
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Xian China15 Xian China14Xian China53They might not be a Xi'an speciality...but they were delicious!

As is the norm across Asia, in Xi'an there are motorbikes everywhere. I loved the motorbike quilts throughout China that riders wore to protect themselves from the bitter cold.

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We spent some time wandering around the city sights including the Bell Tower and Drum Tower - two iconic symbols of X’ian built during the Ming dynasty way back in the 1300's. Historically, the Bell Tower would ring a bell at dawn and the Drum Tower would beat a drum at dusk to signal the end of the day, hence the names.

We didn’t go inside either because, honestly? They were a touch expensive and we were feeling a little over sightseeing.  Very pretty from the outside though!

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Also, we had other overpriced things to spend our money on! Like hot drinks at Pacific Coffee, which became quite a thing for us in X’ian. It was essential to stop every now and then somewhere warm to thaw out our fingers by wrapping them around a steaming hot drink. Not to mention, Pacific Coffee’s English Breakfast Tea Lattes are seriously addictive. I could barely go a day without.

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After some exploring on the first day we were ready to face what would be our most active afternoon since Muay Thai training in Thailand. I’d read about cycling around the city wall on Our Dream Adventure, and was looking forward to doing it myself! A total length of nearly 14km, though being flat is still quite the effort to zip around in a couple of hours (if you return your bikes after 2 hours, you have to pay extra!).

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Chinese New Year was coming up so there were plenty of grand, multicoloured decorations being assembled in preparation for celebrations!

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Xian China25But of course, no trip to X’ian is complete without visiting the famous Terracotta Warriors! Early the next day we made our way to the bus station and caught a local bus out to the site about 30km from Xi'an city.

It was a chilly winter's day so a hot cuppa was essential to warm up the insides for a day of exploring!

Xian China34 First up we visited the museum, which was really interesting and provided plenty of information and insight into the history behind the Terracotta Warriors.

They were created in the 3rd century BC as the burial site for Emporor Qin Shi Huang, presumably to protect him in the afterlife. We learnt about the detail of the statues, right down to their distinct hair texture and facial features. Incredibly, each was intricately different,  with uniforms and style depicting the statues' ranks.

The statues were so colourful! Though much of the colour has decayed over more than 2000 years (!!), there is a full display about the colours, how they were made and how they are being preserved. Which is especially fascinating, considering when the statues were created.

This kind of history just blows my mind.

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The Bronze Horsemen were also on display in the museum area.

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First discovered in 1974 by a local farmer digging a well, it is believed that only as much as 25-30% of the warriors have been uncovered so far - that is just over 2000 warriors from an estimated 8000+. There is still plenty of excavation more to be done!

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There are three pits open for public viewing, however Pit 1 is the most active and impressive. There are sites where excavation work is still being completed and other areas where pieces that are found are meticulously out back together, like a highly meticulous puzzle!

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It was a fascinating day at the Terracotta Warriors and I'm so pleased we made it to Xi'an to explore the area!

After another day of our favourite activities - wandering, street food and perhaps another cuppa from Pacific Coffee - it wasn't long before we were jammed amongst the crowds awaiting our overnight train to Beijing.

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With a 1200km journey ahead of us that night, we hoped we were going to be able to get some sleep on this train...

Stay tuned for Beijing and ticking one enormous wall off my bucket list in my next travel post!

Christie xx


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The Awe-Inspiring Longmen Grottoes

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Don't you love it when you have little expectation for something and it turns out to be AMAZING? That's what happened to us when we visited the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, China.

To be fair, it wasn't so much that we had low expectations - more that we didn't really know anything about them. We had planned to stay in Luoyang so that we could visit the nearby Shaolin Temple, so after our research what else to do in the area kept popping up with the nearby Longmen Grottoes we figured we should make some time to visit. And I'm so glad we did!

The Longmen Grottoes are located on either side of the Yi River, and are essentially a series of 1,400 caves excavated in limestone rock-wall, housing tens of thousands of Buddha statues. With mind-blowing history tracing back to the Northern Wei Dynasty when Luoyang was one of China's four ancient capitals, it is believed that many of the grottoes were excavated as long ago as 493 AD. These kind of dates I still find it hard to wrap my head around - we're talking more than 1500 years old!

We braved the freezing weather for a day to explore this fascinating UNESCO World Heritage site. I hope you enjoy the photos!

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At the entrance: temperature reading 3.1 degrees C. Freezing!

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Xiangshan Temple from across the Yi River

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Fengxian Temple

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Each of those dots on the left wall is a Buddha!

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Binyang North Cave

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Breathtaking view from Xiangshan Temple

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Xiangshan Temple

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Bai Garden

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Do it yourself:

At the time of writing, the entrance fee is 120 yuan (approx NZ$25). Your ticket includes entry to the Longmen Grottoes on the west and east hills, Xiangshan Temple and the Bai Garden.

You can catch the 81, 53 or 60 bus there and will cost between 1 and 2 yuan. Make sure you have small money for the bus as you will not receive change! We paid 4 yuan for both of us to get there and back from our hostel in Luoyang Longmen (thats just 80 cents total!).

Allow at least 2 hours to look around, though we had plenty of time and spent almost 4 hours there. During warmer times of year, the Bai Garden would be lovely to spend some time exploring. We were frozen solid by then so whizzed around them quite quickly!

Have you ever visited somewhere that you hadn't heard of, and ended up totally loving it?


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A Day Trip to Shaolin Monastery from Luoyang

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"It's not here," I panicked. "The hostel isn't here!"

It was pitch black at night and after arriving into Luoyang an hour ago we had already missed our bus stop, backtracked in a taxi for ten minutes to the address of our hostel, and anxiously walked up three flights of stairs in an abandoned building with broken tiles, dust and glass fragments strewn everywhere - at the exact address our hostel was supposed to be. This building seemed like no one had graced it's stairs for a number of years.

My heart was racing. "No, no, there's no way this can be a scam - it's got good reviews online!" Alan assured me.

We traipsed back down the stairs in the dark with our heads hung low, each mentally contemplating what our next move would be and how we would find somewhere else to stay this late at night. At the bottom of the stairs we noticed a dim crack of light peeping through a gap from behind a very thick, quilted curtain, something we both hadn't noticed as we'd entered the building earlier.

Thankfully, this curtain hid the doorway to our hostel and we both heaved a sigh of relief after those brief moments of panic, that we had found what would be our home for the next few nights.

Luoyang Longmen Youth Hostel was nothing fancy, but it did the trick. Coming from our luxurious five-star experience at the Tonino Lamborghini the previous night, I'll admit it took me a few minutes to reacquaint myself with hostel life and all that comes with it. Here, it was the sewerage pipe running through our bathroom from the level above that wafted unpleasant smells through the air - though as long as we kept the door closed and held our breath as long as possible while in there it was no problem, we got on with it. Our room was warm, and that was the main thing because now that we had traveled further north the temperatures were dropping and we were looking at days of between 0-5 degrees Celsius.

One thing about hostels is China that is different to what we had experienced in Southeast Asia is that in SEA breakfast is usually included with your room, whereas the opposite tends to be true in China. Not to worry, we Alan had been carrying around a half pack of rolled oats since we'd been living on Koh Samui that my frugal self couldn't bear to part with - I knew we would eat them some day! Well, what do you know. All we needed was to buy a few bananas and a pack of instant coffee to feed my addiction and we were set for breakfasts for the next few days.

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We had three days to spend in Luoyang, and with a couple of full days ahead we decided to spend day one doing a bit of planning, a bit of exploring and a bit of shopping - despite stocking up on a few winter woollies in Chiang Mai we were still short of gloves and a beanie - items we had quickly realised were a necessity!

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Defrosting with a hot drink

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Dumplings and beer in Luoyang - is there any better combination?

Feeling refreshed after a fairly straightforward day and organised with enough warm clothes to keep us toasty, we were up early on our second day for an independent day trip to the Shaolin Monastery. Located on the Shaoshi Mountain (hence the name) in the Songshan Mountain range, Shaolin Monastery and its associated temple were established during the Northern Wei Dynasty in the year 495 A.D. It is one of China's four holy Buddhist temples and the birthplace of Chan Buddhism.

Though, perhaps Shaolin Temple is best known as the home of Kung Fu! There is a Chinese saying that "all martial arts under heaven arose out of Shaolin," so with a boyfriend who is right into his martial arts it seemed only fitting that we visit while we were nearby.

We had decided against an organised tour to Shaolin Temple. According to our research, we could catch a series of public busses to get there and, as is usually the case with tours, doing it independently would be significantly cheaper. It was going to take a couple of hours each way, but why worry, we had all day! Famous last words...

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Firstly we took a twenty-minute bus into the central city of Luoyang, where we located the central bus station and, despite some language difficulties, were eventually loaded onto a bus that we were told was going to take us to Shaolin. Alan and I were the only passengers waiting on the us to begin with, so the driver kindly put an English movie on for us to pass the time while we waited. By the time we had watched The Fast and the Furious 1 in its entirety, the bus was finally full and we set off in the direction of the Shaolin Temple.

It was nearing the end of 2 Fast 2 Furious when we pulled into the bus station in Dengfeng and were herded off our bus onto a smaller bus, that would take us the rest of the way to the temple, which was another twenty minutes or so. Despite getting an early start, we had completely underestimated the time it would take to get to Shaolin Temple. I was quickly mentally planning our route for the afternoon so that we could be sure to see all the best bits of this enormous temple complex!

At last, we arrived at the entrance, eagerly paid the 100 yuan entry fee (NZ$20), and raced through the gates to begin exploring.

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I'd seen some photos of how busy Shaolin Temple can be in the summer months - so despite the freezing cold it was incredible to have a place like this just about all to ourselves. We could explore and soak in the rich history without being shoulder to shoulder with other tourists all day.

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Our first stop in the complex was visiting the Shaolin Temple itself. It is enormous and you could easily spend hours here, wandering around and exploring every corner. But due to our, uh, transport delays of the morning, we were now on a rather tight schedule so as to not miss the last bus back! We spent about 45 minutes looking around.

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After we had finished exploring the temple, we walked through the Pagoda Forest which is the resting place for revered monks. It is said to be one of China's largest pagoda forests, consisting of more than 200 pagodas. It was pretty, though not particularly lush during winter, so we quickly ticked that one off in order to make it in time to the Kung Fu show!

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Kungfu continues to be practiced and studied at Shaolin Temple, as it has been for more than 1500 years. As we walked in the direction of the performance centre we saw hundreds and hundreds of students training out in the chilly winter air.

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But of course the highlight of our visit was the Kung Fu demonstration! We watched a group of monks performing a series of Kung Fu techniques, followed by a breathtaking showcase of qigong - where all of one's inner energy is focussed into a certain exercise. We witnessed a monk bending a spear with his neck, and another who threw a small needle at a sheet of glass, piercing the glass and popping a balloon held behind it. Very impressive!

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After our journey from Luoyang to Shaolin Temple took over three hours, I was more than a little worried about getting back. I was feeling antsy the entire time we were exploring the temple that we would miss the last bus back. We were directed to board a bus and - after apparent road closures, a couple of hours of navigating rugged farm roads, a bus breakdown, a woman on our bus that insisted on numerous photoshoots with me, waiting in the middle of nowhere for a new bus and then elbowing our way through a mob where we managed to snap up the last two seats on the new bus - STRESS! - we finally saw the lights of Luoyang ahead. I'm pretty sure I melted with relief.

Our journey to and from the Shaolin Temple was the kind of day where we just had to put our faith in people and trust that we would end up in the right place! Although I wish we had more time to explore - there was SO much more to see! - with the beauty of hindsight, it was still a pretty amazing day. Amazing because of the  incredible history, but equally amazing because we made it there and back - there were plenty of moments I was sure we wouldn't! So with that said...

...if you are going to visit the Shaolin Temple yourself, here's some tips.

Yes, it is totally possible to do an independent day trip from Luoyang - though from my experience if you don't speak the language it is likely be a rather stressful day! It is a lot cheaper (transport there and back cost us all up about $11 each) but also a lot more difficult. You may also be tight on time like we were and have to miss out on exploring certain areas of the complex.

My recommendation would be if you want to enjoy the day fully and you're staying in Luoyang, fork out for an organised tour. You'll not only spend the day worry-free but also get a lot more information out of it with a local guide.

Otherwise, and this is what I would do next time, stay in Dengfeng where you are much closer to the temple to begin with (only 13km away). This option would allow you to spend all day at the temple as you don't need to worry about missing the last bus back to Luoyang. Also there is tonnes of cool stuff to do around the mountains too that we missed out on, if you have a full day or two you will get to see and do so much more!

In my next post I'll be writing about our final day in Luoyang, where we visited a place that we had never even heard of...and turned out to be an absolute highlight of our time in China!


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Love and Luxury in Huangshi, China

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China was added to our itinerary months ago because we had a wedding to attend! We decided to make the most of it while we were in the country and take a three week tangent from our route through Southeast Asia - an interlude from the heat and instead layer on the winter woolies to beat China's glacial mid-winter temperatures.

To be perfectly honest, I was a little nervous about travelling in China. Of course I had heard plenty of good things, but on the flipside, I had also heard that the language barrier can make it a particularly tough country to travel. I’m always up for a challenge but after spending four months in the well-trodden tourist paths of Southeast Asia, China was beginning to feel particularly scary. Southeast Asia was so easy (well, most of the time), what on earth was ahead of me?

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We flew bright and early from Bangkok to Wuhan, where we surprisingly quickly managed to score the last two seats on a stuffed - and stuffy! - bus to Huangshi, my friend’s hometown and where we would be staying the next five nights to spend time with her family and attend her wedding.

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Wuhan airport impressed me with its unexpected, Singapore-esque cleanliness. Get this: the bathrooms had a sensor you would hover your hand over as you entered the cubicle, which would automatically activate a new plastic seat cover that slid onto the seat - without you having to touch a thing! Can I just say - hooray for not having to hover, and hooray for western toilets! Unfortunately over the next three weeks we learnt dirty squatters tend to be the norm - but hey, I appreciated it while it lasted.

From Wuhan it was a couple of hours on the highway with a view that seemed like boom town - in every direction we could see a countless number of cranes assisting the build of skyscrapers and apartment blocks. The province of Hubei, that is home to both Wuhan and Huangshi, has a staggering population of 57 million - so I can't really be surprised, can I!

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On arrival in Huangshi, despite doing the very best planning we could, we had absolutely zero idea where we were when we were dropped off by our bus at the final stop. However, the friendliness and desire to help from the locals came to our aid immediately. One young guy about my age got chatting to Alan in broken english and asked the bus driver if he could drop us directly at our hotel - despite the bus journey being over and our hotel being a further 10 minutes drive down the road! That was the first of many experiences we had in China where, despite language difficulties, people generously went out of their way to help us hopeless foreigners.

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Huangshi is not on the tourist trail - even when we were looking for accommodation in advance it was difficult to find more than a few options on any english-language website. No hostels or budget guesthouses set up for backpackers here! We decided to splurge a little and booked the hotel that the wedding was at - a plush four-star - which was especially welcome following our budget guesthouse accommodations of the last four months.

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Because the city is not on the tourist trail, in terms of western visitors the numbers Huangshi sees are few. A handful of the hotels may see perhaps a handful of western businessmen over the course of a year, but certainly young tourists like us (especially a young, blonde one like me!) are an absolute oddity. Therefore we were stared at constantly, wherever we went - some people even came right up to us for a closer look. We may have been the first westerners some of the local children had ever seen!

Huangshi is a city of beautiful lakes, and by China's standards is really just a small town of 650,000. We spent five nights in Huangshi, exploring the city with my friend and her family by whom we were also generously treated to a number of delicious, banquet-style meals. Of course, plenty of time was also spent lounging in our room (I’m still convinced the bed was a cloud sent from heaven), and ended on a high with the most EPIC buffet breakfast of all time on our final day. I may or may not have indulged in two helpings of bread and butter pudding before 10am in the morning.

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But we weren’t in Huangshi to talk about bread and butter pudding, we were there for a wedding! As it was not my special day I won’t go into too much detail, but I will note that the bride looked incredibly beautiful, I caught the bouquet (in fact I think my friend’s cousin and I both caught it together and I over-enthusiastically tugged it out of her hands…sorry!), and post-wedding we celebrated with karaoke until the place closed at 3am. Good times were had by all.

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Other notable highlights of our time in Huangshi included:

  • A $6 gel french manicure (what a bargain!), though this could be argued as a lowlight for Alan as he had to sit and watch the whole thing.
  • Trying stinky tofu, wasn’t my favourite but try anything once, right?
  • Catching public busses, because our poor receptionist was horrified when we mentioned we were going to catch the bus and encouraged us to take a taxi instead. She probably thought we would get lost and never found again - ha, we proved her wrong! Well, we did get a bit lost, but…
  • New Years eve dumplings, cooked by my friend’s mum (who makes the best Chinese food ever), and eaten by us in the hope of prosperity and wealth in the year ahead…YUM.
  • Our final night we splurged on the fancy five-star Tonino Lamborghini Lakeside Hotel to stay with our friends after the wedding. So lush!

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It was so wonderful to see a couple of our friends from home after months on the road. But all must come to an end and before we knew it we were back on our own again. We had a series of trains booked to take us north to our next destination and had to collect our tickets at the station a couple of hours beforehand.

Naturally, there were a couple of momentary episodes of pre-train panic - once when our taxi driver nearly took us to the wrong train station, followed by a few drawn out minutes when the ticket lady insisted we did not have any tickets booked and there were no seats left today...uh-oh. Turns out we did have tickets booked after all, phew! It simply took a bit of convincing because the ticket lady had just never seen a booking confirmation from an english website before...we were probably the first westerners in the history of time to catch a train from this station!

Tickets tightly in hand and panicked moments behind us, we entered the station and waited patiently for our train. One of the guards came over to us and started speaking to us in Chinese, of course it was very clear that we didn’t understand. This happened about three more times and we were beginning to wonder what was going on, then he managed to recruit an english-speaking passenger to translate - the guard wanted us to follow him with our luggage. We were led past the giant queue that was forming for our train, bypassed security, and shown to our seats on the empty train - all at least 15 minutes before anyone else was allowed to board! It was such a generous and welcome gesture, he must have been so worried about us!

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If only all our train experiences were that easy…

Stay tuned for some stories from our next destination in China, Luoyang, where we checked out some breathtaking history!


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Off to China – and a Happy New Year!

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After two incredible months in Thailand its time to say good bye to South East Asia...just for a few weeks!

At the crack of dawn tomorrow we will be jet-setting off to China for three weeks of adventure - The Great Wall, Terracotta Warriors and Shao-Lin Temple await. Not to mention the #1 reason we are braving the bone-chilling temperatures of China's winter: to attend a great friend's wedding, I can't wait!

This will be the first time I have visited China, so I am full of nervous excitement. There is no doubt it will be a challenge, but will be very worth it I am sure!

I'll be offline while in China, so I wanted to get in before the new year rings through and wish you all the best for the remainder of 2014, and pass on a huge thank you for following along with my blog these last few months. I appreciate all of your views and comments so much!

Of course, Alan and I are nowhere near done with Southeast Asia yet! After cooling down in China we will be headed to Vietnam to top up our tans in just a few weeks time. I'll be back in 2015 (whaaaat!) with lots of stories all about our two months in Thailand plus our Chinese adventures.

Thailand, its been a blast.

See you next year!


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