What better place to visit in the middle of the Chinese National Holiday than Tiananmen Square, that hub of Chinese nationalism, right? Actually, right! Ok, so getting there may have been like being carried helplessly on a tide of human bodies, but once we arrived in that vast open space the crowds dissipated and there was plenty of room to breathe (not too deeply though, given the state of the air that day).
One of the centrepieces of the square is the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong - closed when we visited - flanked by some pretty impressive monuments to the people power of Communist China.
The strong Communist iconography sits in stark contrast to the rampant commercialism that we witnessed in present-day Beijing.
The real people in the square were excellent people-watching fodder. We sat and watched the comings and goings for almost an hour, never tiring of the ever-changing parade of faces in front of us.
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There is a saying in China that “you are not a great person until you have visited the Great Wall”, so obviously we weren’t going to miss out on that one. Through our hostel we joined a tour bus full of foreigners and drove three hours to the remote Jinshanling section of the Wall.
Upon arrival at the Wall we quickly realised that our “tour” had consisted of the bus ride there with a five minute explanation by an enthusiastic girl called Irene, after which point we were left to our own devices. Not that we minded.
The easiest way to get to the older (i.e. more interesting) sections of the wall was to catch the cable car up, an option we happily took given our time constraints.
We took the ride as opportunity to enjoy our red-bean mooncake.
It feels redundant to describe just how monumental that wall is, but the scale and the engineering of this solid brick thing that snakes over the jagged mountains and out of sight is beyond impressive.
Add to that the overwhelming feeling of finally visiting a monument that we have heard about since childhood and you have a pretty special day.
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We made it to China! Now that we have been here for a whole week it’s hard to remember what I was so worried about - but I was a little worried before we cam.
This is my first time in Asia (Adam has been to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand before) and my main worry was the language barrier.Our Mandarin extends to ‘ni hao’ and ‘xie xie’, and unlike other countries we have visited before (Italy, Mexico, France… even Turkey) where I felt like I could speak the language, or at least pick up the odd word here and there, Mandarin to me is so utterly foreign that I don’t even know where to begin.
While it would obviously make things much easier, and allow us to communicate with people so much better, we have found people thus far to be incredibly understanding and patient with - even amused by! - our severely inadequate language skills.
Plus sometimes our total ignorance makes for better stories; like our first afternoon in Beijing when we had wandered in search of something to eat and saw people queueing outside a small window from which came wafting the heady aroma of something delicious and well-spiced. Our attempts at asking people in the queue what we were waiting for didn’t shed any light, so we decided to just wait it out… for about half an hour! When we finally reached the front of the queue we were handed the very last roasted duck of the batch, costing us 23 yuan (a whopping £2.30!). This guy was well worth the wait, devoured on the steps of a nearby mall, his crispy skin and melting flesh calming our stomachs that had only eaten bad airport/aeroplane food for the last 24 hours.
We had arrived in Beijing two days before the beginning of a week-long National Holiday (“China’s birthday!” as one schoolgirl described it to us), one of the busiest times of travel within China.
We decided to try to beat the crowds and hotfoot it to the Forbidden City on our first morning (the day before the holiday started), though our early-rising efforts were slightly thwarted by the fact that Tiananmen Square and many of the surrounding roads were closed off for an official event.
This only meant that our route to the Forbidden City was a little more circuitous than it could have been, so we got to see some back streets and friendly faces that we would have otherwise missed.
We found ourselves at the entry of what we thought was the Forbidden City, paid a bafflingly low ¥2 (20p) entrance fee and entered the totally empty palace grounds.
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What follows is a brief representation of our brief morning spent in Split after disembarking from the ferry and before a five-hour bus ride to Zagreb in the afternoon.
In case you didn’t know (I didn’t) Split is the second-largest city in Croatia. However most tourists (ourselves included) tend to focus their attentions on the relatively compact walled old city beside the port.
The old city dates back to Roman times, and is a beautiful maze of white stone buildings and alleyways - totally car free. Since it is a little larger than Dubrovnik it feels like there are more hidden squares and streets so it is a little easier to escape the hordes.
Although it’s hard to go very far without having to cross through the Diocletian’s Palace in the centre of the city, where the crowds seem to gather.
Our visit coincided with the beginning of a vintage car rally so as well as the beautiful scenery we were treated to an impressive line-up of 1920’s-1930’s BMW’s, Rolls Royces and Jaguars, to name a few.
For a piece of everyday life we visited the small fish market where (surprise!) there were actual people doing their daily shopping! And real fishmongers!
It’s easy to forget that they all still exist amidst the mayhem that is peak tourist season.
From Split we bid farewell to Tony and Andrea and hopped a bus back to Zagreb, then the following day flew to Beijing! So coming up next… China!
After our wild and stormy night we needed to get moving to the next island (as you do). We got about half an hour of smooth sailing as we headed out of the bay (during which time Adam got to benefit from Lina’s other skill - she’s a trained physiotherapist!).
However the calm waters only lasted until the mouth of bay, after which point it was a few hours of 35 knot winds and swells as high as three metres. I know this probably doesn’t sound like much to those sailing folk out there, and most of the team was loving it… except for Sophie and her tendency towards motion sickness. I tried to tough it out for an hour or so but eventually caved and took an anti-nausea tablet, which thankfully knocked me out for the remaining couple of hours.
It wasn’t the ideal conditions for taking photos so all we can show you is the calm beforehand, the rest is up to your imagination.
We finally made it to Vis, and after an hour or two of downtime (recovery time, for me) Lina took us to a favourite spot of hers for dinner. We had to reserve ahead at this little agritourism restaurant in a vineyard about fifteen minutes’ drive from the harbour (one of the owners drove us there and back in their mini-van), and when we arrived we discovered why this was necessary.
The restaurant specialised in peka, a traditional Croatian dish whereby meat (or fish) and vegetables are cooked for hours in their earthenware dish covered in coals in an outdoor open fireplace.
The prolonged cooking time under the watchful eye of the fire-master meant that everything was meltingly tender and lightly infused with smoke - a Croatian hangi if you will!
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From Dubrovnik came the part of the trip we had all been eagerly anticipating: one week of sailing on a 39 foot yacht with our own private skipper/tour guide Lina - a gorgeous 24-year-old former sailing champion, who was not at all the grumpy old Croatian man we had been expecting.
We set off from Dubrovnik marina under ominous skies, but after a day of constant downpours this was an improvement, and made for some dramatic photographs as we sailed down the coast.
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A couple of weeks of shoddy internet has been enough to get us way behind on these posts, but we finally managed to catch up with the uploading so I’ll be doing my darndest to write some words to go with them and have them sailing through the airwaves to your screen in no time. Since we last spoke we’ve covered a few thousand miles, so shouldn’t take too long, right?
To pick up where we left off, we left Plitvice National Park, spent a quick night in Zadar and then drove south along the coast towards Dubrovnik, with a quick photo stop in Makarska so Andrea and Tony could show some friends that they’d seen their hometown.
In Dubrovnik we drove around in circles for about half an hour as we struggled to find our Air BnB apartment (and a parking spot, in the notoriously car-free city), but when we finally did we were rewarded with a gorgeous little top-floor apartment with these views:
The apartment overlooked a tiny little cove, just outside Dubrovnik’s old city walls, which meant it was perfectly central without being among the droves of tourists that descend on the town every day. And afforded us the best views of the local Granny Bathing Team.
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From Lake Bled we drove right back through Slovenia again to Plitvice Lakes National Park, in east Croatia, near the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The park is made up of dozens of interconnected lakes surrounded by lush forests and bordered by hundreds of waterfalls. We arrived there after a few days of seriously heavy rain (see previous post) which meant that a few of the lakeside walkways were flooded and impassable. But that didn’t stop us from getting around.
To begin we took a boat from one side of a lower lake to the other and then accidentally found ourselves on a half-closed walking track that wound around the hillside above the lakes, affording us with some pretty incredible views…
Of course a few photographs were taken along the way, and hereto-forth you shall be inundated with them. You’re welcome.
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We departed Zagreb after a night of driving rain and had some serious driving to do - all the way to Slovenia!
As we got further into the countryside we discovered that we hadn’t seen the half of it with the rain and rivers around the country had broken their banks causing widespread flooding! Ever the helpful tourists, we stopped to take a few photographs when we were unable to cross a bridge to visit a little town since their main street was looking like this:
Other parts of the country were happily unharmed, and the ever-changing landscape of little country houses dotted around rolling hills and growing mountains kept us entertained for hours.
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It was with a bit of sadness that we bid goodbye to Sardinia, and Italy in general. There is something so nice about traveling in a foreign country where you can (to the locals’ great surprise) actually speak their language enough to get by… none of that in Croatia, or for the next two legs of our trip (China and Vietnam) I’m afraid.
But there were plenty of other things to look forward to in Croatia. After returning our rental car to Alghero we via Rome to Split where we picked up another rental car, spent the night, and then drove up to Zagreb the following morning to meet up with Adam’s parents, with whom we are sharing this Croatian leg of our trip.
We were pleased to find ourselves in a nice apartment within walking distance of Zagreb’s old town - though our first afternoon in the city was spent walking through heavy rain to the Mimara museum.
The weather was decidedly better on our second day in the city so we were able to meander up to the older part of the city, stopping for an obligatory coffee along the way (Croatians rival the Italians for their coffee culture).
I think we were all pleasantly surprised by how nice Zagreb was - many of the older buildings and churches remain intact and there are charming pedestrian-only streets that make strolling a pleasure.
Adam and I - as always - were keen to check out the local market, which consists of many small farm stalls packed side-by-side under their bright red umbrellas in a large square adjacent to the city cathedral.
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Since we cut our stay in Bosa short by a couple of days we found ourselves with extra time to play with so picked up a rental car in Alghero (a stunning 90-minute view-filled bus ride from Bosa) and drove towards the Golfo di Orosei on the other side of the island.
Sardinia’s inland landscape is dotted with over 7000 of these nuraghi - great conical stone structures that predate Christ by hundreds of years, but yet no-one can definitively explain their purpose. We stopped to have a nosy around one located conveniently beside a church (of Santa Sabina) just outside Macomer.
The nuraghe is more than just a pile of rocks. Inside the entrance (which Adam models so gracefully, don’t you think?) is a tall room with three small alcoves around the sides, almost like shrines. Then to one side is a staircase that winds around the outside of the room and climbs to the roof.
Academics can’t seem to agree on whether these structures were religious, military, or just fancy dwellings… but for now they make for interesting additions to the already stunning scenery.
Speaking of scenery… the further west we drove the more rugged and mountainous the landscape became, until we finally turned a corner in Nuoro and were struck by this view of the distant (soon to be not-so-distant) Supramonte mountain range.
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We are taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming of Instagram reposts* to bring you this blog post with actual written content! And photos taken on a real camera! A pretty nice one at that. We take so many of them that we may as well share with, well, our grandparents who are probably the only ones that still check this blog semi-regularly.
So the deal is we are way behind on blogging (surprise, surprise) - there is still Iran to finish, plus a lovely trip to Devon and Cornwall that we should write about - but in the last few weeks we have left our life in London, shipped the majority of our stuff back to New Zealand, and embarked on another four months of traveling as we wind our way back home via Sardinia, Croatia, Slovenia, China and Vietnam. We’ve decided to try to write about this trip as we’re doing it, and can hopefully catch up on all the other stuff when we have time along the way.
And with that we bring you our first port of call: the beautiful village of Bosa on the western coast of Sardinia.
*We’ve actually had a team meeting and decided to stop the Instagram reposts all together and take this space back to proper written content. Hopefully this should make it easier to find written posts without having to scroll through reams of photos (though, pro-tip: click ‘archive’ on the right-hand side there and it will allow you to find written posts pretty easily. And look through our extensive archive. Funny that).
Friends of ours had done a workaway stint in Bosa this time last year and it sounded so great that we decided to follow in their footsteps and start our trip the same (somewhat-culturally-immersive, budget-friendly) way.
We arrived to find a gorgeous array of pastel and terracotta buildings tumbling down a hillside beneath a medieval castle, and ourselves housed for the first few night in a house nestled in an olive grove on the opposite hill. Needless to say, the evening walks up the hill were rather mesmerising.
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Lips by cuttlefish risotto, in Split.
That beach down there? It’s where we spent our last day in Sardinia, trying to catch up with the Italians and their tans. Never going to win that one.
Antipasto last night: a kind of patè made from blood, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, and mint. So much better than I expected!