A Travellerspoint blog

China

Eight cities in six weeks in what turns out to be a very under-rated country...

sunny 13 °C
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Within about half an hour of getting off the train in Beijing, I really liked China. After nearly six weeks and eight different cities, I LOVE China! It's completely under-rated.

Transport
There are TV screens on the metro, but they aren't showing random channels. It's very much pro-state media. On my first 15-20 minute metro ride they were showing a military parade with crowds of Chinese citizens waving their flags, thousands of marching soldiers and dozens of military vehicles and weapons. Another metro trip I was treated to an overview of their submarine fleet and a dramatised video of a helicopter and fighter jet landing simultaneously on a submarine. I presume the stunt was successful but I had to get off at my stop before I could find out!

I've had my fair share of bizarre taxi moments from officials trying to get me into unofficial taxis at airport taxi ranks, to being left on my own in a taxi (with the engine running) in the middle of a busy intersection while the driver went to the toilet. All pretty standard stuff I found out after a while.

Taking a sleeper train from Beijing to Harbin was an experience. I decided to book the cheapest ticket (which is a seat rather than a bed). I figured that I'd conquered sleeper trains on the Trans-Siberian so it was time to try something else. When I stepped into my carriage, everyone there all stopped and stared like I had seven heads! I don't think they are used to seeing foreigners in that carriage. Thankfully someone helped me get my backpack up on the luggage rack above the seats and I settled in for the night. There are a few habits that are annoyingly China (spitting in the street is one), but watching films and playing games on your phone without headphones is pretty damn annoying on a night train. You get a mix of everything and it's horrible to listen too!

One day I went with another traveller to the red lands, which took about 4 and a half hours on two buses just to get there. On the first one, there was a woman throwing up into a bin, with her partner Holding her hair. Although obviously it was a bit gross, I had sympathy with her... Until I realised that she was talking on the phone at exactly the same time! Seriously?! People in China do just get on with things and don't create a fuss and in that respect we have a lot to learn (I'd draw a line at the above though)!

As for driving... where to start? It's very chaotic, but it seems to work most of the time. Blind overtaking is standard, and on one occasion I witnessed triple overtaking on a single carriage way. And seat belts? Sorry what are those again? Helmets when you hire a scooter? You'll be laughed at. When I was in Lijiang, the hostel owner kindly offered to take me to the post office on his scooter. We went outside and his dog (that's due to give birth in less than two weeks), got on the front. He then got on and I hopped on the back. The other dog that he has then ran alongside us all the way! I only managed to film him on the way back (it's in the video at the end of the blog), but on the way there, he was running in and out of traffic like some trained stunt dog. It was impressive, but terrifying to watch when there's four lanes of traffic and turns at large intersections where no-one follows road rules.

Chinese Culture
Chinese culture is obviously very different to ours but it's been interesting going to a number of different cities. If I'd only seen Beijing or Shanghai, I wouldn't really have experienced China. The reception from local people varies dramatically, as does the food, scenery, architecture and dialect.

One of the strangest things to get used to was people staring at me all the time, especially in Northern China. Sometimes people (normally teenagers) come and ask you for photos, often when I was looking my worst in a hoodie and jeans with greasy hair and no make up. Sometimes they just take selfies with you in the background or blatantly put their phone in your face and take a photo without saying anything and then walk off. One time in a local restaurant two of us were out eating and parents were lining up their children to have photos with us! It's bizarre, but funny.

I also noticed that there are a number of women who take their children to work. In hostels, you would often see the staff's children there playing or eating. Also, on out of city buses where there is a conductor type of role, there would often be a woman with a pre-school age child and some toys to keep them entertained! I'm assuming this would be different in a more formal environment, but again they just get on with things and don't let much stop them from what they are doing.

Sharing food is something that is also common place. Obviously in restaurants numerous dishes are normally ordered and shared. However in hostels or other places, people often take out their food and offer it round to people close by. On the whole people are very friendly and welcoming and are more than happy to help if you are stuck with anything.

Places worth a mention

An unexpected day trip led me to one of my favourite places in China. Six hours after leaving the hostel, a dorm mate and I arrived at the Dongchaun Red Lands. The area is full of rolling hills, is very rural, where there are few/no tourists. There are many local farmers working the land with traditional farming methods and we met a local woman sat at the side of the road, overlooking the hills and sewing new shoes to presumably sell.

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Because we arrived at 4pm (!) and had no idea how we were going to get back again we couldn't stay long. After a hitch hike and a mini bus trip where I had a chicken under my seat, we were back in Kunming. I really wanted to be able to wonder around the red lands, hire a scooter, drive the crazy winding roads and watch local life so it's a shame it was such a brief visits. Another addition to the travel bucket list, but this time in season so it's even more impressive.

Each city I visited had its own selling point, but I was surprised not to be as taken with Shanghai. Beijing has many historical places to look around, Xi'an had the best food, Zhangjaijie had the best mountains, Harbin obviously had incredible ice and snow sculptures, Yunnan Province had lovely parks, people, cafe culture etc. I suppose Shanghai has the best buildings, but the pollution was very bad when I was there which just put a dampener on it.

Harbin Ice and Snow festival is something that you should see in the North of China. But at -23 degrees and the weather app on my phone showing a 'feels like' temperature of -32 degrees, you need to be able to withstand some serious cold weather! It will be unlike anything you ever see, with huge ice palaces, snow sculptures of scenes, people, Disney characters, ice slides, frozen lakes, and rivers to walk across.

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If you've seen the film Avatar, you will know that it is set in a place where there are tall, skinny, floating mountains. Zhangjaijie is the place that the film scenery is based on. Walking around them was amazing and whilst It wasn't the right weather for us to see the 'floating mountains', they were incredible to see anyway, especially with wild monkeys around.

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It's also round the corner from Tainman Mountain, where we took the worlds longest cable car and walked over a glass walkway that's nearly a mile above the lower mountains below! Thankfully we got from one end to the other in one piece.

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Other China experiences
When travelling you have a lot of amazing times and occasionally, a few flat times. I had a day that managed to go from one extreme to the next, all because of the people I happened to meet during the day. For me, this is why travelling is so worthwhile.

I'd woken up in a lot of pain as my back was hurting from falling onto my back off an ice slide the night before at Harbin Ice and Snow Festival (yep it's on film). Walking hurt like hell, but I had the equivalent of 9p left in cash and randomly I hadn't really eaten in 48 hours, so had to get money from an ATM. After trying five banks unsuccessfully I gave up and decided to go back and try and exchange my emergency US dollars. A guy overheard me asking reception where I could do this and offered to exchange it with his Chinese Yuan, as he was American so could use it. Lifesaver! That meant that we got talking about why we'd chosen to travel and I could help with their itinerary for the day as I'd been where they wanted to go. Win win. A bit later the lady from reception came to my room and offered to exchange the money for me if I hadn't already. Very thoughtful, even though I was now sorted. Then I met a guy who was in my dorm from another area of China. I had such a hilarious evening (see photo below of him trying out my backpack) and I got to listen to some songs he had recorded, and see sweater designs he has made, discuss films and other random things!

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I didn't see any of China that day. I was in pain, temporarily broke and hungry - but the people I met made it an enjoyable day. This is why I'm so pleased that I went travelling, its a good reminder of how amazing people can be.

To end on a funny note, the English translations for Chinese signs are comedy gold. It's strange that at official public places, the English can be so bad. I don't really understand because there will be a Government officials who can translate, so I'm not sure how these few slipped by...

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Hostels in China are interesting to say the least. Most of them don't provide soap and you have to buy your own toilet paper. I've had a shower with a see through glass door onto the dorm room, woken up to find a cat trapped in the room and spent hours battling with near non existent wifi. A lot of young Chinese residents and students live in hostels, so sometimes you are in a room with people who have been there for weeks/months. In Beijing there is a policy that they don't mix Chinese nationals and foreigners, so I was a bit baffled to wake up (after checking in at 2am), to find all of my dorm buddies were in fact Chinese. I know it was dark when I checked in, but surely the combination of my accent, features and UK passport should have given the game away to the person checking me in!

Final thoughts...
I love China and will be going back to explore more, but in summer next time. I feel like I haven't even started, but it's the size of America so I was never going to cover it all in 6 weeks! I did manage Beijing, Harbin, Shanghai, Zhangjaijie, Xi'an, Kunming, Dali and Lijiang but there's so much more to do. The North and South were very different experiences and I personally prefer the south as its a bit more of a slower pace, people seem friendlier, there were more cafes, beautiful backdrops to cities and less high rises/pollution. I think travelling off peak had its positives, as the touristy areas weren't so busy and there's so much domestic tourism that I think in summer it could completely change your experience as it would be so crowded.

I hardly met any British travellers whilst in China. Those that I did meet were generally travelling whilst in their school holidays as they were teaching there. I think us Brits have written off most of China as somewhere to avoid, and would only go to see the Great Wall and Shanghai. But that's not real China. The culture, scenery, friendly people and places that make you say 'I cannot wait to come here again' are outside of those areas. I would recommend visiting if being immersed in a different culture interests you and if you go to Yunnan Province in the south you can't fail to fall in love with the place 😊 Just don't expect many people to be speaking English!

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It's not the easiest place to travel, but it's fine when you get the hang of it and very rewarding!

Five Facts I Learnt Whilst in China
1) I could easily live there for a year
2) It's nearly the size of the U.S. (hence three internal flights I hadn't planned for)
3) Wechat is the Chinese version of what's app which is so much better. We all need to convert. Right now.
4) Most Chinese people have an English name, they vary from Jonathan to Sugar
5) Had I mentioned it is totally under-rated?

Chinese mash up video: http://youtu.be/2ojH4jj-K2k

Posted by Poppy90 23:51 Archived in China Tagged #travel #china #blog Comments (1)

North Korea (DPRK)

An insight into the world's most secretive country with fireworks, palaces and soldier selfies

snow -2 °C
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So I know people have been waiting to read this blog! I've tried to split it up into bite sized chunks and obviously haven't included everything, but it's longer than my previous ones as there is so much to write about.

Firstly, I can only write about what I saw/heard. I'm aware of the terrible human rights abuses that happen in North Korea, but we clearly weren't about to be taken around forced labour camps. This whole trip is viewed as a PR exercise by the government so that they can tell foreigners 'the truth'. We were told things that were clearly untrue, but there were some things where I wasn't sure either way. Maybe you'll form your own views by the end (if you get that far 😊).

Flying into North Korea
Standing at the gate waiting to board a plane for Pyongyang at Beijing airport, was a little surreal. I was flying with Air Koryo (North Korea's national airline) and I knew that from this point forward, anything goes!

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The plane was relatively new which was as a relief as I'd read that there are some very old planes in their fleet that don't need basic safety standards. I was given a magazine and newspaper on the plane which made for some interesting reading. Articles included how farms had delivered bumper crops after being visited by the leader King Jong Un and the life of a young national diver.

Waiting in line at immigration, I was a little apprehensive to see what would happen as I knew we would have to through different checks to usual. The guy in front of me spent a few minutes trying to convince the semi-stern immigration officer that the photo in his passport was actually him and that his black beard had turned grey because he had aged! He was finally let through and I wasn't overly excited about it being my turn. I handed over my passport and documents and the officer looked at them, held up my passport, smiled sand said 'you are very beautiful'. It took everything in me not to fall over laughing! I just smiled and said thank you before taking my documents back.

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We then collected our luggage and I had to hand over any literature I had, my camera, phone and iPad for inspection. They handed me back my kindle, they didn't seem entirely sure what to do with it. They then looked through some photos and videos on my iPad and let me have it back. It took a long time, but was relatively painless, although I wouldn't like to see what happened if you had 'The Interview' on your laptop or tablet!

We left the airport in our group of 17 and we had three tour guides and a driver for the duration of our four night stay. I say three tour guides....I would say one tour guide and two 'minders'. We were given a brief overview of the country, including some rules, which I think are worth sharing:

1) When taking photos of pictures of leaders they must be the full pictures, no cropping or part photos allowed
2) Absolutely no photos of the military (although my selfie with a North Korean soldier I took later in the trip seemed fine!)
3) No photos of construction sites or builders
4) We must look after the magazine we were given on the plane as it has a photo of the leader inside and if you roll it, that's classed as being disrespectful
5) If you have religious material on you, you must keep it on you and not even leave it in the hotel room

And then we have my personal favourite....

6) Don't walk alone without a tour guide, people will think you are an American, the enemy, will call the police and you'll be taken into custody with a big fine to pay!

Society
Throughout the trip we were told about some of the ways of North Korean society, but as a group we also asked questions on other matters and had some interesting answers. For example, Maternity leave is five months (paternity leave doesn't seem to exist), and after the five months women have off, they then work six hours a day but get paid for the full eight hours, like men. I wish I'd asked about childcare, but that chance has gone now.

Internet isn't permitted in North Korea, although the guide just told us that they only have intranet because they are a relatively new country and 'Rome wasn't built in a day'. Okay, so you can develop nuclear weapons, build some of the most incredible monuments in the world, develop sophisticated spyware, but you can't work out how to use the internet? Nice try.

North Korea is 30 minutes ahead of Beijing, and I remember reading about this last year, as they decided to create their own time zone. This is in addition to the fact that they have their own calendar. So whilst we were there we celebrated Juche 105 (2016) as they started their calander from the year that Kim Il Sung was born.

In terms of transport, there are many cars, new and old, from Chinese brands to VWs, which surprised me. The main method of transport was bicycle, especially when we went outside of the capital and saw farmers and locals travelling.

Housing, healthcare and education are free to all residents. When you marry, have a child or another significant life event happens, you apply to the state for a house. They review what you do and then assign you a house somewhere in the country. So people have no choice as to where they live. The state also group together professions, for example we saw one block of flats all for teachers at the university and one block of flats for singers. Interestingly as we were driving around, the guide said that their buildings were like those of Dubai.....just in case you were wondering that wasn't the case! Some newer apartments looked similar to modern blocks in the UK, but some of the older ones looked very run down, cold and showed that some people have a very poor standard of living with no chance to move.

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Children go to school from 5 years, until 17 years. They were very pleased to tell us that they supply milk to all primary school children everyday and there are free extracurricular activities after school. They also have schools for gifted children. The parents or teacher identify a particular talent and the children are then moved to these schools to focus on it. After 17 years they can go to university, join the army (all voluntary) or work. I read before I went that North Korea has the fourth largest army on the world. We were told that joining the army is seen as the greatest thing you can do and that it's also a huge hit with the ladies!

Whilst we we're there we went to many restaurants, all of which were very nice. There was always lots of variety and large bowls and plates full of food. We had fresh vegetables, tofu, egg, potato, kimchi, rice cakes, beer, tea etc. I felt uncomfortable thinking that we are eating so well, knowing that food supply is still something that the country struggles with. Some of our group had dog soup whilst we were there (obviously I didn't try this being veggie)! The national dish is cold noodles, which were actually okay and the countries main staple foods are rice and potato.

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We asked one day if homosexuality was illegal in North Korea (playing ignorant is the best way to ask questions without offending). The guide said 'actually, we don't have have any gays.' Another moment of trying to keep a straight face a s I was sat near the front of the bus. She quickly followed by adding that it is illegal though. They also have no criminals in the entire country, or any prisons. Of course you don't...

Monuments/Places of Interest
Our first stop (before we had even dropped our bags off) was the Liberation War Museum. It was very impressive from the outside, but it was dark and unfortunately we couldn't see the weapons they used in the war, which they display outside. They tried to show us those kept outside that they had taken from the US and kept as war trophies. As my eyes started to adjust to the dark area we were in, I realised I was practically nose to nose with a burnt out fighter jet, with a U.S. tank next to it and other weapons and aircraft! Pretty eerie to say the least! I've managed to find a photo online to show you below.

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We were then taken around the corner where there was a huge US warship moored in the river, the best 'war trophy' North Korea have. They say the US disguised it as a civilian ship but that it was actually used for espionage (I can believe this). We were taken on a tour of it and saw the espionage equipment inside which was interesting.

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When we got into the huge museum we couldn't take photos. I've never wanted to take photos more in my life! There was a huge chandelier in the shape of the North Korean star and two beautiful large marble staircases. At the top was a colour statue of the leader which was about 30 meters tall. He is smiling and waving with fireworks in the background. It felt a like a warped Disneyland! We then watched a film called 'Who started the Korean War?' No prizes for guessing it was very anti US and included very disturbing images of dead children and apparent secret U.S. documents accepting they started the war for geographical reasons. Throughout the tour we were told that they have a confidential US document stating that they would start the war on a Sunday as no-one would believe it was them that way as they are a Christian country and another document explaining that North Korea is geographically key which is why they want control.

Parts of the war museum tour were just odd. We walked into a room with a display of dead US soldiers being eaten by vultures. I quickly learnt then that you'd just never know what was coming next in this country! I cant explain the extent of the anti US feeling and I can see why US advise all citizens against all travel (although there were some Americans on the plane anyway). There was a lot of talk about revenging the enemy and if you were North Korean and believe all you are told, you'd want revenge on the biggest scale possible.

On another day of our visit, we went to the statues of the great leaders. As we approached we were asked by our guide who wanted to pay respects with flowers... awkward silence! Some group members did buy some in the end. I personally didn't because I feel that having to bow every time we see a statue to pay our respects is bad enough (this bit isn't optional). When we arrived we were turned away as there was a bit of snow on the statues and they had to be cleaned first. We went and 'paid our respects' another day.

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Another interesting place was the International Friendship Exhibition in the mountains. It's about a 3 hour drive from Pyongyang and built into the mountains and is over 70,000 sq meters! The building is very magnificent and has grand marble pillars and stair cases everywhere, it's just a maze of huge rooms and corridors (one over 400 meters long). Seriously - whoever builds and designs all of these buildings and monuments in insanely talented. The building shows all gifts (over 180,000) given by 185 countries. This includes the UK and supposedly one from the Labour Party in 1982.

We saw an armoured car sent by Stalin for the leader during the Korean War, along with a huge bullet-proof train carriage. I thought nothing more could surprise me until I walked into a room off the corridor with many other rooms on it to see.... a HUGE passenger plane on display in a room. I'm serious. I was so taken aback, I was actually speechless and momentarily forgot my fear of standing near aircraft! This was also gifted by the USSR. We saw the wax works of the former leaders in their own rooms (they looked spookily real), but had to do up our coats before they opened the doors and we then bowed as instructed (there are some strange rules sometimes). We went to the top of the museum which looks out to the mountain and had tea, before leaving to see the Pohyonsa Buddhist temple.

On New Years Eve Day we went to the least celebratory place you could think of - the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Once we'd gone through the check points and seen the museums we went to the actual area where negotiations take place, in a small room (centre blue building in the photo below). The border line runs through the middle of the room, and I got to 'cross' into South Korea. The photo below does a better job of explaining the layout, but essentially you've got the U.S./South Korea and North Korea facing off to each other. The buildings are directly opposite each other and both have dozens of CCTV cameras on them. The photo is taken from the North Korean side.

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Managed to get a selfie with a soldier too! The strict no photos of the military rule bizarrely didn't seem to apply in one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world....

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Whilst we visited many other places, the last place I'll cover is the Palace of Sun. This is where Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il lie in state. As you'd expect this was another unimaginable huge building with many long corridors and very strict protocol. I seemed to have missed the part in my intro pack about dressing smart whilst there, so whilst some people were in full suits and dresses, I was rocking around in my walking boots, jeans and jumper! We had to be briefed on how to pay respects whilst in the rooms and we bowed in lines of four as we walked around their open coffins, covered by clear glass. After we saw each leader there was then a room with all of the medals, titles and certificates that had been given to each leader by other countries. I was keeping an eye out for the UK and found one. Apparently in 1984 we presented (wait for it...) The Medallion of Derbyshire County. I've literally never heard of some thing so made up 😂 did a quick internet search but unsurprisingly, I haven't found anything!

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The metro is worth a quick visit as it had very old trains and beautiful stations. Of course all of these grand monuments, palaces and stations which must be amongst some of the biggest in the world, is such a waste of money when the people need it more, but this country is all about statements.

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Bus Banter

With a lot of time spent on the bus going from place to place, the tour guides would use this as time to tell us about a site, history of the country, or....tell jokes. For this reason I feel a section on 'bus banter' is justifiable.

The first joke ended with a punchline about throwing Americans off a plane that's crashing as they are extra weight not needed. Another one was about the Taliban capturing three world leaders in Afghanistan and Bush ends up being shot. I asked if these were taught at tourism university (I genuinely did) and was told no (hmm). There were also some light hearted riddles in there- 'Why was number 6 scared of number 7? Because 7 ate 9'. All in all it was pretty hilarious and surreal!

On the second day, one of the guides stood up and said he would like to do a presentation. He said that we were now all one team and we proceeded to talk us through Tuckman's group model of 'forming, norming, storming and performing'. The short 2 minute speech concluded with us needing to perform like a united team whilst on the tour and basically, could we not be late tomorrow morning!

Another occasion our guide spoke to us about the history of Korea. This included mentioning that the U.S. now has 1,000 nuclear weapons and 40,000 U.S. Army in South Korea. They said it was true that they have nuclear weapons and that they are clever enough to hold them. One guide in particular was very informative and passionate about international relations. He felt that the North and South will be reunited one day, but that the U.S. should not be involved. He feels sanctions are unfair and it means that there is not a level playing field when others are allowed nuclear weapons. He believes that dialogue is the way forward. Obviously it's not that simple and the way in which North Korea conduct themselves is not helpful (especially with recent testing of nuclear weapons again), but putting yourself in a citizens shoes, with the information they are provided, I can see why everything seems grossly unfair.

Tourism
We stayed at the Yanggakdo international hotel, where most foreigners stay. The hotel itself has 47 floors with a revolving restaurant at the top. The rooms have everything you could expect and they very much cater for international visitors. I was still amazed to find BBC World News and Aljazeera News channels- clearly this is part of them showing how 'normal' they are. Interestingly we had two occasions where we saw breaking news about North Korea on TV, which was slightly disconcerting when this headline broke....

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The hotel has pool tables, karaoke and bowling lanes so that visitors can stay entertained. You aren't allowed to leave the hotel without a guide, so I guess having things for us to do also benefits them, by reducing the risk of us wondering off. Electricity is relatively scarce in North Korea and of the eight large lifts in the hotel, only two or three would run at a time. On one occasion, the lift we were in came to an almighty halt. It can't have been for more than 3-5 minutes until they sorted it, but that was probably the scariest moment on the whole trip!

Locals react differently to seeing tourists about. With around 3,000 international visitors a year (this includes tourists), it's quite a rare sight for them. Some people are very friendly and smile and wave. Others are not so, and stare at you so that you feel very uncomfortable, pretty quickly. This can only be expected given the things they are told about the outside world and how much they hate Americans (who are they to know we aren't from the U.S).

Tourism is all about North Korea being able to tell 'their side' of the story. The only reason they do tours of the DMZ is because South Korea were doing it and they didn't feel people were being told the truth. Of course, this was always going to be a tightly controlled trip, but there were some things that I didn't realise. There are a few companies you can book with to travel to North Korea. When you arrive though, everyone is with guides from 'KITC' (which stands for Korean International Travel Company). All the buses are branded the same and of course all the guides studied at the same place. So effectively North Korea set the agenda and have full control and a western company market it. I started to piece things together and it started to make sense to me as to why you can only go at certain times of the year; they only want to show off their big events, and they've recently added New Years Eve to that list. On a few occasions the tour guides would show us something and say 'seeing is believing', and this fits in with the idea that they only show us the side of the country that can be viewed as positive.

New Year's Eve/Day

On New Year's Eve we went to a restaurant right on the edge of Kim Il- Sung Square, where the fireworks were due to take place. As there were so many different nationalities on our tour, the evening consisted of sharing drinking songs, singing national anthems (feel sorry for those of us who were the only member of their country there) and some North Korean karaoke from our tour guides! At 11.50pm we headed out to the square where I played a balloon game with some locals, toasted the year in with strawberry champagne and said happy new year to the locals in Korean. Unfortunate the fireworks were cancelled, which was probably for the best as the fog was extremely thick, even with the flood lights on the square. Luckily we got to see them the next evening and they were pretty spectacular.

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New Year's Day there was a large square with children playing lots of folk games, which we were told is a tradition on New Year's Day. I ended up in the middle of a large skipping rope with about 30 people watching. There were children playing with balls, roller skating or skipping around. Another interesting addition to the start of 2016 (or Juche 105...) was going to a shooting range and firing a rifle at a target 50m away. I did pretty well and the woman working there couldn't seem to believe how well I had done. This did lead to some locals clapping though and the suggestion I should join the army. I think I'll pass.

Some of what we were told during this was clearly untrue and I think that it's these types of things which throw doubt on everything they say. I personally feel like western societies are also engaged in anti-North Korean propaganda, as much as North Korea have anti-western propaganda. Ultimately the people suffering are the citizens of North Korea. Outside of what we were specifically shown, I saw run down houses, and a rather harsh reality of living.

I'm still unsure about how I feel about tourism in North Korea, at times I felt like a VIP visitor of the state and had moments where I didn't want to be a part of what was going on. For example, for locals to see westerners paying respect to their leaders who've committed such crimes, cannot be a good thing. However further isolation of North Korea cannot be a good thing either, and by locals seeing foreigners, having positive interactions where possible and allowing them to see another way of life, must be beneficial in the hope that this eventually leads to positive change.

Facts about North Korea
1) 80% of the country is covered in mountains
2) Leaving the country without state permission is illegal (and can lead to death if caught)
3) Saying 'North Korea' whilst we were there was frowned upon and we were asked to say DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) instead
4) Sunday is the only weekend day that they have
5) They have amazing tea (Kaesong Koryo Insam Omija Tea)

Random things I can say I've done in North Korea
1) Been stuck in a lift
2) Shot a North Korean rifle
3) Had a selfie with a soldier
4) Entered South Korea at the DMZ
5) Shopped at a department store

For those who want to learn more, I've put a few starting links below
- Tedtalk from a North Korean who escaped to China http://youtu.be/PdxPCeWw75k
- My footage from North Korea (a little shaky but worth it for the fireworks at the end!) http://youtu.be/oyK-a05LN8A

Posted by Poppy90 21:17 Archived in North Korea Tagged #travel #blog #northkorea #dprk #pyongang Comments (4)

Mongolia

An country with friendly people, rich culture and amazing views....

sunny -25 °C
View World Trip on Poppy90's travel map.

We arrived at 6am into Ulaanbaatar, and got off an overnight train. We had thought that it arrived at 5am, so we're a little disappointed we'd all missed out on an hours sleep just because they hadn't changed the summer timetable on display to the winter one!

Ulaanbaatar
It was -25 degrees when we arrived, so for those who may wonder what that's like, it's bloody cold!!! It was made worse by the fact that the train had been a ridiculous 30 degrees, so we were dealing with a 55 degree change! We were pleased to find out that we could check into our hotel and grab a shower and some sleep before heading out for the day. Driving through the city, it was interesting to see how westernised some some things were. Opposite our hotel there was a 24 hour chicken takeaway place that has everything in English (including how to find them in Facebook through a neon sign)- yet there are no McDonalds in the country, which is pretty unusual.

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The hotel was very nice, so it was a surprise to be told that we needed to run the shower for 15 minutes as the water would be dirty and wouldn't be clean or hot until then!

On our first full day we packed a lot in considering we'd all gone back to bed. We had lunch, visited the state shopping mall (they had a Next clothes shop?!) and went to the Buddist Gandantegchein Monestary, all before 2pm. The Monestary was beautiful and had a massive Budda inside, along with hundreds of prayer wheels. It was explained to us that Mongolian Monks have different rules to other monks, as they are allowed to eat meat and have children.

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The next stop was The Black Market where Mongolians can purchase anything they need, from entire gers (the tent like accommodation they live in), to trinkets and washing machines. It was really interesting to look around, although I wasn't too keen on the number of animal parts you'd casually find on a stall that wasn't selling anything animal related! Taking the steps up to the mountain view point of the capital was well worth the view (also showing how urban and modern it is) and we then headed to the cashmere factory. Unfortunately it was a Sunday so the factory itself was not producing any items. I had hoped it would be opened as 100 women from North Korea work there, although we were told that the NK government take 50% of their wages. Obviously I don't speak Korean, but as most of you know, I'm just interested with North Korea, hence the visit later in my travels!

Terelj National Park
The next day was amazing! The bus took us out to see the Genghis Khan statue, which is the tallest statue of someone on horseback in the world. They also have the worlds largest boot on display...they do like to say 'this is the worlds largest/tallest/coldest etc' for a lot of things! The museum detailed the Mongolian empire and explained why Genghis Khan is such an important figure to Mongolians. It's clear that all Mongolians are very proud of their country, traditions and history and our honcho was always sharing her knowledge with us.

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In the afternoon we arrived at the Ger Camp in the Terelj National Park, where we stayed for two nights. We stayed in traditional gers which are large round tents with four beds and a fire in the centre, where a lady would come in every few hours (including in the night) to keep the fire going. The scenery was beautiful and I don't think you could get bored walking out from your ger every morning and seeing the snowy mountains.

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Activities that we did included watching the film 'The Mongol', walking up one of the steep hills to look down on the valley and ger camp, sledging and dressing in traditional Mongolian clothing.

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Inside the National Park there is a rock that looks like turtle and is aptly named 'Turtle Rock', so obviously this was a manditory stop on the bus to get a photo.

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Horse riding through the national park was the next thing we did and I couldn't get over how beautiful the landscape was...

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We then visited a nomadic Mongolian family. The lady made us all Mongolian tea and told us (through our honcho) that she had been a nomad for 22 years. The gers that they live in can be packed up in 30 minutes and some families move around 3-4 times a year. Children who live in rural Mongolia all go to boarding school from the age of 6 years, and this is funded by the government, leading to a literacy rate of 98% across the country. We ate traditional Mongolian snacks, which were interesting and certainly tasted quite sour. To quote my sister it was an 'I'll eat it but I won't have it again' moment! As for Mongolian tea, it's tea with milk and a lot of salt. Seriously. I drank some as I was really keen to try it and as the nomadic lady made some as she knew I liked my tea, I couldn't really not. I won't be recreating it any time soon! Treats and tea aside, I don't think I've ever eaten so well. The vegetarian food they cooked was incredible, including marinated tofu and fresh vegetables and it's fair to say even some of the meat eaters said that our veggie dumplings were better!

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Mongolia is definitely a country I will visit again, it's not really on the traditional tourist map, but it should be and I think the photos speak for themselves. The scenery is incredible, the people are the friendliest I've ever met and another bonus is that you don't need to sort a visa. Their culture is so interesting and there are so many things to do and you have an amazing city to explore as well as stunning national parks within an hour of each other. Already looking forward to the next trip there as I'd like to see it in summer where it will be completely different again! 😊

Random Facts I learnt about Mongolia
1) Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital in the world
2) Mongolia has a closed currency, so money can only be exchanged in the country itself
3) The Mongolian empire was the largest land empire ever to exist
4) Mongolians have a saying that is 'those that built the Great Wall of China were great, but those who they built it to keep out were greater' ....seeing as I'm in China at the moment I'll leave that there....
5) 70% of Mongolians are under 38 years old

Posted by Poppy90 23:52 Archived in Mongolia Comments (2)

Russia

The beginning of the Trans-Siberia Express and world wide travels!

snow -10 °C
View World Trip on Poppy90's travel map.

First blog finally published! It's taken me a while as I've been so busy, but I will publish one for each country 😊, with interesting facts at the end of each blog...so here it goes!

After nearly missing my flight to Russia (as we were stuck on the M25) and having no phone or internet at the airport (as O2 had started to switch over my SIM card and Heathrow's wifi wasn't working), I was a little concerned that the start of my travels was not quite going as I had imagined!

St Petersburg and Moscow
Thankfully it all changed after boarding the plane and sitting next to a very chatty couple who I spoke to all the way to Russia! Once I landed I went through security and got the bus and the metro to my hostel. I went for a quick wonder around the city and was pleased that it was snowing as that is how I had been imagining St Petersburg.

Whilst in St Petersburg, I visited the Winter Palace which is in a huge square with an incredibly tall column which has no foundations. I walked to the top of St Issac's Cathedral which had amazing views (although the wind meant that it was extremely cold that high up). I should confess to easing myself into travelling by then boarding the hop on hop off bus - not really backpacker style I know. In the evening I met Krill, who lives in St Petersburg and had offered to show me around. We walked through the city and he told me about more obscure things that would not normally be covered- including a metal bird on a small metal stand which can be seen below if you look over the side of the river. People were throwing coins into the river to try and get it to sit on the metal stand because if it stays there, the story goes that your wish comes true. I'm pretty pleased to say that mine remained on the stand, so here's to hoping my wish comes true. After walking we went to a vegetarian restaurant where I had cabbage soup, a local dish. I'm not going to lie - it tasted like salt water. I didn't have it again!

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The next day I met Mo, an Eygtian who has moved to St Petersburg to study. We went for hot chocolate in Singers cafe that overlooked a cathedral. Afterwards we went to the Galleria, which is the largest shopping mall in St. Petersburg and we had lunch and I just had a baked potatoe with cheese, but Mo kindly bought me a tea as he felt it was compulsory as I was English!

I returned to the hostel and met the group of people who I would be on the Vodka Train Tour with (aka the trains-Siberian express) and we went out for some food, vodka shots and karaoke! The next day we boarded the overnight train to Moscow and arrived at 6.45am. After dumping our bags at the hostel, we set out for the day and explored the red square. In the evening I went to the Russian ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre, which is infamous for its performances.

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The Trans-Siberian Train
The next day was the start of the Trans-Siberia! It was 28 November and we weren't getting off this train until the 2 December! That's five days and four nights on a single train....And the start of over 9,000km of train travel 😊

The Trans-Siberian Express is an experience in itself for many reasons. Getting to understand the Russian culture of long distance travel is the first. Near silence is expected in the carriages which is pretty hard with a group that are on an exciting adventure! The fact that we'd been threatened with the police less than 12 hours in kind of sums it up!

Each carriage consist of about 10 compartments and each compartment has 4 beds and a small table near the window. Sometimes the lights in the cabin work, sometimes they don't. In the walkway there are two plug sockets for the whole carriage, so if you want to charge something, you have to stand with it (that's if they are working too...). There are also two toilets in a carriage, which 'flush' straight onto the tracks. I say flush as you just press a foot pedal and it empties. There is a sink with taps and soap- but there's no running water, which we had all agreed was the hardest part! At least that's what we thought until day four - we then found out there is water we were just all using the taps wrong! There is a guard in each compartment who is there to check that everything is okay throughout the journey and they stand by the doors at each stop to check tickets before boarding. Finally there is a boiler with hot water, so we bought our own tea bags so we could drink free tea. We mostly ate noodles, as you can just add water, however there's no where to wash up or rinse as the boiler has no water tray etc, so everything is cleaned (whether it's your hands, face, bowl, mugs etc) with baby wipes.

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The length of time we spent on the train was five days and four nights. A few of us thought it was one night less until we realised on the second day we had it wrong! So that's an entire working week spent on one train. It's strange being so detached from the outside world. We had no idea what was going on, or even what the time was. Siberia has so many time zones, the time frequently changes. However all train tickets and departure times work off Moscow time. This means that the train clock is showing Moscow time and our train ticket said that we leave the train on 2 December at 03.28. The real time in our destination though will be 09.28 as they are six hours ahead. So we've basically experienced jet lag without stepping foot on anything as luxurious as a plane. As a result we would often find our phones just moving on an hour or so as we pass into another time zone. The other strange thing to get our heads around is not knowing where we are at any stage. All I would know is that I was a long way from Moscow and a long way from Irkstuk, where we would finally get off!

My time was generally filled with card games, a lot of backgammon, random conversations, card games with drunk Russians, noodle eating, tea drinking and sleeping. One evening our group went for dinner in the dining cart and did speed dating with each other - that's what happens after four days on a train!

The scenery for the first three/four days was very similar. It was flat, with some trees and snow covering the ground. Occasionally there will be a large town or city, or smaller houses that are very remote. Most stops on the train are 2 minute stops. Sometimes they are scheduled for longer stops and then it's normally about 20-30 minutes. When you get off the train to stretch your legs, local people are selling food or items such as scarfs etc. At one stop there was a woman selling huge fish and clearly half the train bought some as the train stank for the rest of the day! On the last day or so the landscape changed. It was more hilly, and the houses turned to wooden shacks.

Irkutsk/Lake Bikal
On day five, we finally arrived at Irkstuk and took the bus to Lake Bikal. Unfortunately the lake hadn't frozen over yet as they were having a 'mild' winter, at a mere -12 degrees. The lake itself is gorgeous and we were very lucky one evening to see the most gorgeous sunset from the top of a hill.

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Whilst in Lake Bikal we did a number of activities, my favourite by a long way was snow mobiling! We had an hour and I was passenger with Sam driving, until swapping half way around. It was probably best this way as I don't think he'd have got me off if I'd gone first! We went through a beautiful winter wonderland of snow, forests and mountain back drops to finish it off. Husky sledging was also fun, with 6 dogs pulling us along one by one.

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The scenery is amazing and Siberia in winter is definitely somewhere I would recommend going. After heading back to Irkstuk to catch our train, we did a quick walking tour of the city, stopping off at the remembrance square, having some food in 'The London Pub' (not very authentic when you serve earl grey in a coffee dispenser) and then we boarded another overnight train. This is where the scenery changed dramatically. It was like a white desert when we woke up and it looked surreal. It's definitely been my favourite view on the train so far. We passed through the Russian exit border (which took five hours) and the Mongolian entry border stop (another two hours) and this is where my Mongolian blog will pick up....

I'm lucky that the start of my travelling experience has been so positive. I've met a great group of people, and Russia has some beautiful buildings and scenery to explore.

Five facts I learnt about Russia
1) A superstition they have is that if you are a student and you see a plane, you should duck to get good grades
2) The Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest in the world
3) Our journey was over 9000km
4) 77% of Russia is made up of Siberia
5) Lake Bikal alone can supply freshwater to the entire world population for 60 years and is the worlds oldest and deepest lake

My video mash up of the trans-Siberian express that I've put together, brings it all to life 😊 http://youtu.be/hZWhG8p9ofc

Posted by Poppy90 19:18 Archived in Russia Tagged #blog #stpetersburg #moscow #irkstuk #lakebikal #vodka #russia #transsiberia Comments (2)

Remembering the positives, along with the negatives

My final blog from Greece...

sunny 20 °C

This is my last blog about the refugee crisis in Greece, as I've just landed back in England. There are a few last things I would like to share if you have the time to read through.

Last week we had a day that was very quiet, with hardly any boats arriving- and it appears it was very much planned that way by the authorities. The Greek Prime Minister was on the island to see the crisis and to see how everyone was coping. It turned out the Turkish coast guards stepped up their coastguard patrols and stopped ALL boats arriving on Lesvos. They also sent four large boats from Lesvos to Athens to clear a number of the refugees from the island, so that it looked like everything was under control. This meant that at about 11pm there were about 10-15 boats that arrived (approx 600 people) in the pitch black after the coast guard had stepped down for the day. I was so angry that people's lives are put at risk even further just to try to conceal things for political reasons.

The next day I started at 7am, but it was also quiet with only one boat arrived in the morning, as the Turkish coastguard is still preventing all boats from crossing. I took a break at about 2pm and I had a quick power nap before heading back at 6pm. When I arrived at Oxy camp there were only about 100 refugees and everything was a bit quiet. So the ex-brownie leader in me decided to get some people together to play a game as I had found a football! I went round and found people who wanted to play, set up two goals and refereed a football match. I know- I think it's hilarious too. It was really good fun and after one yellow card for a handball and two penalties (for when the ball was accidentally kicked over the barrier so the ball had to be searched for over the cliff), the game ended and everyone was happy.

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Photo: The football team (excuse the hi vis jacket!)

The night became busy from about 10pm when quite a few boats arrived. I was in the food tent so was taking people's food tickets (which we give them for free when they arrive) in exchange for food and water. One father was doing a very impressive job of balancing his child on his shoulder whilst holding juice and posing for the photo!

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Photo: A very impressive multi-tasking dad!

By about 2am it was very quiet again and most refugees were asleep, so we closed the good tent and headed home...only to hear that four more boats had arrived (approx 200 people), so we quickly turned around again! The extra problem with night time crossings is that everyone turns up wet generally from the waist down, including children/babies and it is very cold. They are shivering so the race is usually on for all available cars to pick people up so they didn't have to walk for two hours. When they get to Oxy we quickly give them food and dry clothes. On this evening, I finally got into bed at 7.15am for some much needed sleep.

One morning, after we had bussed everyone to the registration camps, we had an empty camp. It's fair to say that the camps were covered in litter and bedding, so we all got stuck in clearing up the rubbish, to make it more pleasant for when the next set of people arrived.

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Photo: Before

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Photo: After

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Photo: Evidence that I got stuck in for those who may not believe me ;)

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Photo: I found this whilst cleaning up...a great example of a picture painting a thousand words

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Photo: The camp has a beautiful backdrop

Another evening a man stood with me in the clothes tent and helped translate. He stayed with me until 3am, helping translate for when I needed to move families into tents, describing symptoms of sick babies to medical professionals and other situations. He even went and came back with a tea for me! He used to run a factory in Syria and was a successful business man, he has sold his house and is now travelling to Europe with his family where he wants to be able to set up his own business again in a safe country.

One more myth to dispel is that refugees are coming to Europe to claim off states and take all money. All I have experienced is refugees being helpful and hard working. When I was cleaning up litter the other day, a man from Afghanistan came over and asked if I would like some help. He grabbed some gloves and a bin liner and got stuck in. I thanked him and he just said he was pleased to be doing something. He used to translate for the British Army in Helmand Province and other areas, until he was shot in the foot and felt it was no longer safe. If these were Americans and Australians, would our reaction be the same? Would we doubt their intentions? Assume they aren't really in danger and that they are just milking it to get benefits? I very much doubt it.

In my first blog, I said I was uncomfortable about being surrounded by tourists, given the current crisis. I have changed my perspective on tourism since first arriving though. Tourism is so so important for this small island. Without tourism, this island will suffer even more and some bookings for next year have already been cancelled. For people to be around to help refugees, we need the local economies to function, so tourists should still be coming here, but just need to be sensitive to the situation (and preferably spend a day or two volunteering) in my opinion :) .

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Photo: Ariel picture of Mytilini, Lesvos

One day it was incredibly stormy (we struggled to walk down the road in a straight line, things were falling off buildings)! To our horror, some boats still arrived. Some mentioned that the people smugglers had been offering a discount from $1000 to $600, because it was so dangerous. This shows these people couldn't care less about safety. I was told of one woman who arrived a few days ago with a baby who was an hour old. She had given birth on the beach in Turkey and was told that she must still get on the boat. As soon as she arrived in Greece, a doctor was on hand to see her and her child. I could keep going with heart breaking stories that I've heard first hand from refugees themselves, but I think I've painted a picture by now.

On the flip side of all of these sad stories, I think it's important to talk about the positive experiences I've had too. Seeing people excited in the hope they can now finish their education, the joy on a girls face as she called her mum from my phone to tell her she was safe after being rescued from a sinking boat by the coast guard, the constant compliments and thanks that we've had from people who just can't process that volunteers care about them (as they have often been treated so badly, especially in Turkey), the few people I've met who I have swapped details with and will keep in touch with to see how they get on and one day hopefully meet again when they are settled in Europe, the girl of about 8 who came up to me and wanted to play clapping games, the language barrier not being a problem. The list of positive experiences is also very long and shouldn't be forgotten.

I've been lucky to be with the volunteer group 'Starfish' for the last 10 days or so of my trip. The volunteers at Starfish are amazing and the group are doing incredible things. Without this group there would be no proper 'welcome' to Europe for those arriving in the north of the island, often no food, no dry clothes and no transport to the other part of the island. If you have time, please read the article at the end of this blog where Melinda (who runs the group) was interviewed for Al Jazeera news, and she talks about the important role the group plays. This whole trip has been truly life changing and will stay with me for ever for many, many reasons.

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Photo: Why the group is called 'Starfish'

Finally a really big thank you for taking the time to read these blogs. I really wanted to share this experience and convey the realities of the refugee crisis, to share some of the stories of the people seeking refugee and to increase our understanding of why people are forced to take this route to safety. I've been able to do that because you have taken the time to read- so thank you 😊

Related links:

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/10/captain-table-restaurant-helping-refugees-151012133022206.html

http://www.itv.com/news/2015-10-12/i-cant-sleep-at-night-greeces-coast-guard-count-the-cost-of-the-refugee-crisis/

http://www.itv.com/news/update/2015-10-13/funeral-held-for-baby-who-died-during-crossing-to-lesbos/

Posted by Poppy90 09:00 Archived in Greece Tagged people #greece #lesvos #refugees #volunteering #blog #molyvos Comments (1)

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