Istanbul, Turkey.

How can one describe Istanbul? The city that sprawls across three peninsulas, two continents, two empires and two religions? What words could possibly give justice to the things this city has seen.

When we arrived at Istanbul airport in the early evening, the bus ride to town was our first glimpse of the enormous city. As the sun went down, we could see the valleys of houses around the water light up with brilliant beams of the pink and orange sunlight. Alongside the slow bus, cars sped past in a split second, overtaking here, there and everywhere. If there was one thing that I could count on at that moment, it was that this city moves at a lightening pace.

We found Sulthanahmet Square to be full of tourists and Istanbullu’s alike, with restaurants and souvenir stores stretching for as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t exactly how I had imagined it (if there were any more flashing neon lights I could have had a seizure) but so often the expectations you hold things to are too lofty for reason.

View from Galata tower. Left to right: Aya Sofia, Blue Mosque, New Mosque.

View from Galata tower. Left to right: Aya Sofia, Blue Mosque, New Mosque.

We visited the Galata Tower to take in a spectacular view of Istanbul from above and felt the salty sea winds from the Bosphorus along the foreshore of Eminiou, where the phalanx of fishermen stood patiently for a catch. The Aya Sofia took our breath away as we looked at Islamic inscriptions alongside Catholic mosaics and the scars that transformation has left this iconic building with.

Blue Mosque from the square

Blue Mosque from the square

Inside Aya Sofia.

Inside Aya Sofia.

Even though Istanbul’s monuments have withstood tests of time, much of the city has been shaken in recent times with the protests in Taksim Square. In hindsight, it is lucky we visited at a brief period of quiet as demonstrations and protests have once again escalated. We walked from Taksim Square down Istikal street (a main shopping thoroughfare) and saw reporters holding gas masks as well as a police water cannon waiting patiently. Even though things felt normal as we browsed the shops, I guess it could have changed at any moment.

We liked Istanbul and the exciting energy it has, we loved the food (oh man did we ever…), the people were friendly and hospitable. The clash of popular culture and conservative religious values was one element of the city that was hard to adjust to and I wonder if the generations of travellers before us encountered this as well.

We have found that the only way to describe Istanbul is: ‘endlessly fascinating’.

Spices at the spice market.

Spices at the spice market.

Feel free to comment on my ‘Istanbul, Turkey.’ post below! I would love to know what you thought of the city of Istanbul or your own experiences there!

Essential items for a trip to China.

A sense of humour –┬áLet’s face it, as tourists in China, Jez and I stuck out like sore thumbs. They knew it, we knew it and the best encounters we had were with people who accepted our mistakes and our apologetic smiles.

A sense of humour is also invaluable for your encounters with traffic. If at first you don’t see the funny side of the way the driver packed twelve people and their suitcases into a minivan with tetris-like precision, then I guarantee you will by the end of the ride.

An open mind – There are so many things that are done differently in China. Traffic and queues and food are just the surface. If you constantly compare things to ‘the way it’s done at home’ you will limit yourself and risk ruining your time overseas. What’s the point of traveling then? Go with the flow, observe and save your judgements for later.

An above-average skill for charades – If you don’t speak the language, draw from your dinner-party game repertoire and mime the heck out of what you need. If not, make sure you have a pen handy so you can draw or write numbers.

A thick skin – In general, don’t take things personally. There is lots of pushing and queue cutting in China. That’s just the way it goes. There is lots of horn beeping and cars not giving way to pedestrians in China. That’s just the way it goes. Shrug your shoulders and you’re on your way.

Tissues – Don’t leave home without them. You may find yourself in a squat toilet sans toilet paper and then there is trouble! Again, don’t leave home without them.

Beijing, China (Part 2)

The number one activity on my bucket list for China was the Great Wall. I had researched and planned and imagined how we could get there but nothing – no photo, video, movie, whatever – could prepare me for now incredible the Great Wall of China is.

There was a group of us who took a bus to the Mutianyu section of the Wall, about and hour and a half from Beijing by bus. This section of the wall is less crowded and touristy than some of the other sections of the wall closer to Beijing. Mutianyu has a few interesting sections, namely some very overgrown and run down sections of wall.

It took us about 3hrs to cover a few sections between the main pylons because the were some pretty steep parts to scale. There were sections that we were climbing with hands as well because they were so steep!

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

The Great Wall at Mutianyu

The Great Wall met every single one of my hopes for my time in China. I am in awe of the people and the empires that built such impressive structures but it was also so much fun to scale this national monument! This one also had a ski lift to the top and the toboggan ride downhill, but don’t worry I was much faster than I was on the last one! I wonder if there are many thing that we could apply this formulas to at home…. (Tall national monument + ski lift + toboggan = interesting tourist destination!)

Don’t think for one second that my bucket list is only about tourist sites. Oh no, it goes far beyond that! It extends quite nicely to food and other delicious adventures. The number one on my food destination list was a Peking duck restaurant. Luckily, there was a famous Peking Duck restaurant called Da Dong very close to where we were staying.

A group of us sat down for a meal of the most delicious duck you could ever imagine. Firstly, a dish of hoisin sauce, melon, cucumber, spring onion and sugar was brought out for each person as the duck was expertly carved by the chef, then, delicate crepes were brought out as well as a fine sesame bread of sorts.

Peking Duck

Peking Duck

The waitress explained to us the process of selecting ingredients to blend for each part of the duck. Lastly, she told us that the crispy skin of the duck was to be dipped in the sugar for a taste sensation. It was divine. Although there was not a huge amount of food on the table that night, we all felt full from the rich duck and delicious accompaniments.

Peking Duck

Peking Duck

It was a perfect way to wrap up our time in China. I felt a twinge of sadness as we packed our bags and made our way to the airport. China had been an eye-opening and exciting experience and it was a fantastic start to this adventure of ours.

Beijing, China

We arrived in Beijing on a hot and humid Monday evening and instantly recognised that thick, orange smog of the Chinese capital. I was prepared for traffic as we got closer to the city but I wasn’t prepared for the 12 lane highway leading in to the centre of the city. This place is huge, I thought to myself.

The sheer scale of the buildings and the size of the city blocks made me nervous that this city might not as easy to navigate as the rest of China. If you open a map of Beijing, this ancient city’s landmarks are scattered over what seems like an incredible distance. So our first impressions of Beijing were ‘wow’.

We were staying close to a wangfujing pedestrian street, famous for its street food, strange snacks (scorpion on a stick anyone?) and souvenirs which seems like a good location for visitors to the city. We were only a 15 minute walk from the Forbidden City and about the same for Tiannamen Square.

Jez and I spent half a day exploring the Forbidden City and the countless buildings contained in the huge walled city. Each building had a particular purpose, where the emperor would receive guests or pray. There were so many patterns and rules explained to us in the audio guide we hired that we think it might have been a good idea to hire a guide instead so that they could help us keep up with it all.

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City

A couple of days in to our stay, we met up with George again at Tiannamen square. I had read that the square itself could hold over a million people and given it’s turbulent history, I wondered if I would feel overwhelmed. However, when we arrived, the square didn’t overwhelm but instead looked like any other large city square with the exception of the police officers that were checking people’s official papers. I have been reminded how lucky we to have the freedoms that we do back home.

After the square, we jumped on the metro to visit the impressive Summer Palace. A place where the Emperor and his family would escape the heat of Beijing, the Summer Palace is about a 40 minutes ride by train from city central. As I have mentioned before, all tourist places in China are packed with people and tour groups so it was hard to move around to see all of the sights in depth. It was a very hot day and there was a beautiful breeze coming off the lake so we decided to hire a paddleboat and ride around for an hour or so. Gimmicky, I know!

Paddleboating at the Summer Palace

Paddleboating at the Summer Palace

We had a very strange experience as we were pulling back to the pier in our paddleboat. Remember how I told you that we were some of the very few Westerners at the national park Jiuzhaigou? Well, as we pulled up in our paddleboat, a western couple that we saw at Jiuzhaigou was also pulling up in their paddleboat! More than two weeks after we had first seen them, it’s a funny coincidence that we were to cross paths again!

We also saw the Olympic site during our time in Beijing, the Birds Nest and the Aquatic Centre looked impressive, if a little worn down. The number of people walking up and down the boulevard made me think the Olympics were still on! It was great to see that there was a positive energy still at the site after 5 years.

We still have lots of amazing things in store for Beijing!

The Bund, Shanghai, China.

The symbol of Shanghai, the ‘museum of buildings’, whatever you want to call it, The Bund is a must-see for every visitor to Shanghai. The most impressive time to visit is night time as the river and it’s foreshore comes alive and swarms with activity.

The Bund

The Bund

The Bund is a perfect apex of old and new. You have the impressive architectural stamp of the bygone colonial era standing proud, opposite the modern Pudong financial district on the other side of the Huangpu river. On weekends, the Huangpu river is a thoroughfare of cruise boats, luxury liners alongside tankers and tugboats.

Pudong

Pudong

The thing that I liked most about the Bund was the wide promenade that was packed with people. While this means it’s almost impossible to get a photo without someone walking through, it makes for fascinating people-watching. The majority of these people would be foreigners to the city of Shanghai, the spectacular skyline brings people of all nationalities together.

In one instance, I saw two men, one of Chinese and one of Eastern European appearance, mime enthusiastically over the quality of the Chinese man’s camera. The specifications, the angle, the lighting, there was a whole conversation happening through facial expressions and hand gestures! As we were leaving, yuan (Chinese money) were being waved about as the European man offered to buy either the camera, or the photo… I couldn’t quite follow the conversation from that point, but I hope that they could!

Along the foreshore.

Along the foreshore.

Shanghai, China.

With a population of more than 1.3 billion people, China’s big cities are bound to feel crowded and chaotic. This could not be more true for one of China’s great cities, Shanghai. It’s a great city because of it’s size as well as it’s sights, the history that is present on every street corner boggles the mind.

But that’s not to say history is the only thing to be admired here. Shanghai’s expanding metropolis reminds me that China is cementing its future as well. We have been amazed at how much of China is under construction!

We stayed at a fantastic place near the pedestrian street Nanjing Road. Just to give you an idea of how busy it was, I’d like you to think of Sydney on NewYears Eve. George Street, Darling Harbour, the Harbour foreshore… Teeming with people as you get swept up in the crowd. The only difference is that this crowd appears in Shanghai every single night of the year.

Nanjing Rd

Nanjing Rd

Hangzhou, China

Friends and acquaintances alike have described Hangzhou as the most beautiful city in China. Despite the torrential rain and mist that quite literally dampened our visit, I definitely agree with them.

West Lake bridge

West Lake bridge

Our hostel was tucked away in a pedestrian street near the Drum Tower, surrounded by shops and specialty stores selling silks and tea. It was a 20 minute walk from Hangzhou’s famous West Lake and we enjoyed walking amongst the crowds on the Friday night, especially with the tempting smells of dinner from the hawker stalls!

As the mist rolled across the City, we ambitiously set out to walk the entire perimeter of the West Lake. It was no easy feat, as the walk took about 4 hours in total. There were so many beautiful vistas, weeping willows touching the water and pagoda’s gently resting alongside the lilypads that around every corner there was ‘the perfect’ photo opportunity.

West Lake 2

West Lake 2

Walking home from our lake expedition, we came across a shop with a large crowd gathered in front. If nothing else, traveling has taught me that if there is a crowd, you follow it! My instincts to zone in on the shop paid off as they were selling the most delicious desserts – crepes filled with peanuts and ice cream. The crowd was drawn to the shop as shavings were hacked from a humungous block of peanut brittle and placed on the crepes, then scoops of ice cream were added before it was folded and wrapped up tightly. The perfect on the go snack!

Look at that block of peanut brittle!

Look at that block of peanut brittle!

While we were not able to venture very far around Hangzhou because of the rain, I think that we would definitely visit the city again to see what it has to offer when the sun is shining.