Monday, March 26, 2012

Project Life weeks 9 & 10

Without further ado, here's my week 9 and 10. Not really 'real' weeks as I mentioned before, but it does get me back on track with the weeks of the year, and that makes me happy in my OCD little way!

Still absolutely loving this project.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Washi Tape tea lights

Another ridiculously quick and simple project using Washi Tape! Decorated tealight holders! I love having lots of candles around the place, and so long as I'm 'around' I don't always bother putting tealights into proper holders. But why not at least make them look a little cuter?! Haven't you noticed that washi tape is pretty much the perfect width to cover the edge of the tealight holder?!

Just pick your washi tape, line it up with the top edge of the tea light and wrap around. If there is any excess at the bottom simply fold under.

Voila! Perfectly cute Washi tape tealights!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Crockpot African Chicken

During our time in Macau we dined at Henri's Galley. I'd read about some of Macaese culinary specialities in the guidebook and Henri's Galley came highly recommended as THE place to go for African Chicken. The restaurant was fabulous, and the meal was simply to-die-for good! There were little paper placemats which included a recipe for the dish. Actually though, on closer inspection, it wasn't really a complete recipe (that would be giving away his secret I guess!) but just an ingredients list.

I knew I had to have a go at recreating this dish - the flavours of chilli, garlic, coconut and peanut was so good! And so I pulled out my trusty slow cooker, collected up the ingredients, dumped them in and came back 4 hours later - my kind of cooking!!

It was great! Not that similar to the original in the end, but a unique and original recipe created by moi! And worthy of this write-up. If you're looking at a copycat Macanese African Chicken this is not it. But you've still got a fabulous combination of flavours inspired by the original and an easy-peasy slow cooker meal.

Macanese African Chicken (Crockpot-styley!)
Ingredients (serves 4)
  • 8 Chicken Thighs
  • 1 1/2 cups Chicken Stock
  • 1 cup Shallots (finely chopped)
  • 1/4 cup Garlic (finely chopped)
  • 1 cup Red Pepper (finely chopped)
  • 1 cup Fresh Coconut (finely grated)
  • 1 Tbsp Chilli Flakes
  • 2 tsp Chinese 5 Spice
  • 1/4 cup Paprika
  • 2 tsp Rosemary
  • 1 tsp Maggi
  • 1/2 cup Peanut Butter
Dump everything (except the peanut butter) in the slow cooker and cook for 4 hours on low. Add PB, stir and cook for an additional 1/2 hour. Serve with coconut rice*

*(Use the liquid from the coconut to boil up your rice. Unless you have a mutant large coconut you will probably need to use some water aswell!)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Project Life weeks 7 & 8*

So going on vacation causes havoc with Project Life. Especially when we leave mid-week!! (I've told Chris that next time we go away it has to be on a Sunday!! - OCD?! - me?!!?)

Obviously I had so much to share, but I want to do a mini-album of our trip too, so it was figuring out what goes in Project Life and what goes in the mini book. And really that took me the longest time. Too much time - it's supposed to be simple! I felt I had 5 separate 'parts' to these last few weeks - the part week before we left, Beijing, Macau, Hong Kong and the part week we got back.

My week 7 runs from Sunday 12th February (as normal), and covers before we left, the travel (2 days since we lost a day crossing the International Date Line!) and our first day in Beijing (really just a ta-da! - we're here kind of entry!). So it's only a 6 day period.

My 'week 8' isn't really a week at all. It covers the 4 days we were in Beijing. (18th - 21st Feb)

To follow are my 'week 9' (again won't really be a week - it's 9 days in Macau and Hong Kong, 22nd - 29th Feb) and 'week 10' (will actually be a week and a half - the part week we got back and all of the following week at home - not much happened so I'm combining them, 1st - 10th March)

I always said I'd be cool about having different date ranges for each spread, but actually when it came to it I had issues. I mostly wanted to keep the week numbers 'correct', hence the final week being a week and a half - this way it gets me back on track without missing anything. I'm finding so many others taking part in this project refer to the weeks of the year, and for ease I'd like to follow along the same format, plus it helps keeping my head straight!

Friday, March 9, 2012

A China Experience (Hong Kong)

And so our vacation was rapidly drawing to a close. We spent our last 3 nights in Hong Kong before our flight home. We caught a super efficient high speed ferry from Macau over to Hong Kong - just a 45 minutesjourney! Hotels were pricey in Hong Kong and in the end we stayed in small hotel right on Wan Chai Road - a bustling place but perfectly located. We had a room overlooking the road, which didn't bother us at all (but Ian and Axelle had the 'same' room 3 floors above us and had trouble with the noise - I guess it depends on how light a sleeper you - I just find enough cocktails will always knock me out for the night!!)

The weather was awful. We realised that as soon as we arrived. Extremely misty, overcast, drizzling with rain and actually a bit chilly. I'd pegged out a few sights that I wanted to hit up in our few days here and at least 2 of them (Victoria Peak and Tian Tan Budha on Lantau) were at the top of rather large hills - it wasn't looking good! However, not to be deterred we set off to explore. The other thing that Hong Kong seems to be rather good at is laying on a good street market. We'd had several recommended to us to check out. We headed off around our local neighbourhood - not sure Wan Chai market is anything special for tourists but it was certainly full of locals - lots of produce, meat and fish stalls. We watched with amusement at one of the fish stalls where a couple of fish had made a dash for it. Sadly they hadn't gotten far and were floundering in the gutter. People were pointing them out to the stall keeper but she didn't seem too bothered - I guess it must be a pretty common occurrence!
Top Left & Middle: World's Longest Escalator
All others: Temple Street Night Market & food

We spent the evening at the Temple Street Night Market on the Kowloon side. This is one of the 'big' ones mentioned in all the guidebooks. We weren't really looking to shop, but did find some nice bowls and a small picture. What we did enjoy was the street food. And I can't beleive I'm actually saying was Chinese!! When you're in a foreign country, surrounded by foreign foods it just seems totally wrong to order pizza or Burger and Chips (and we did do that a few times in Macau). But now we were feeling up for challenge again so ordered what turned out to be a great meal (no MSG!). We sat outdoors in a small alleyway, with a collection of plastic chairs and table clothes, under a giant tarp - but it was the best food! Later that evening we took the infamous Star Ferry back across the harbour and home to our hotel, but not before gazing at the magnificent harbour view at night and a lantern festival celebrating the Chinese new year.
Top: Skyline of Hong Kong Island from Tsim Sha Tsui
Bottom: The Lantern Festival celebrating the Year of the Dragon

Monday we walked to the terminus for the Peak Tram which would take up to the top of Victoria Peak in a matter of minutes. We already knew we weren't really going to see anything when we got to the top, but it was about riding the tram too! It's ridiculously steep in places (so steep that the floor of the tram is actually stepped rather than a flat floor!) and it's majorly preferable to walking! Once at the top we had a quick look around a very over-commercialised shopping centre and braved the winds and mists for a quick look around outside before heading back down. That afternoon we headed for the Flower Market and Bird Gardens on Yuen Po Street. A whole street with shops almost entirely dedicated to flowers - it was the best smelling place we'd been in 2 weeks! And the orchids, ahhhh - gorgeous - I just wished I could have brought some home with me! The Bird Garden at the end of the street is a small park where the old men take their caged birds (winged variety!) for a walk! A small specialised market has grown up here with all the supplies you could imagine for keeping birds - the cages, the feed, and plenty of new birds. Monday night we took a bus to the south side of the island to Stanley. Sitting atop a double decker bus weaving along small roads following the coastline was quite the roller coaster ride in itself! There's another of the big well known markets in Stanley which we did take a stroll around, before walking along the waterfront and getting comfortable in a bar for the evening. After several cocktails, we were eventually joined by Ian and Axelle who had just arrived from Macau to spend our last day with us. Much of the rest of the night after this point is a little bit of a blur, but from what I remember it was a very good night! ;-)
Flower shops and Birds on Yuen Po Street

Our final day and we took the MTR out to Lantau Island and then a bus up into the hills to Ngong Ping Village and the Po Lin Monastery. Again the bus journey was incredibly enjoyable in itself. I love travelling by bus in foreign places. You have no responsibility as to where you're headed and local buses go slow enough and stop often enough that you can enjoy the sights along the way. Ngong Ping itself is a pretty ugly over-developed fake village which is the upper terminus to a huge cable car (it was closed for maintenance at the time we were there - it was something we'd planned on using but we travelled by bus instead which worked out peachy as it turns out) The main draw here is the Po Lin Monastery and the Tian Tan Big Budha. When we first stepped off the bus we couldn't even see the Budha the mist was so low!! We had to pick our moments carefully as the mist was swirling around by the minute. When we did climb the steps to the top of the hill to see the Budha up close we got just a few moments of clarity before being enshrouded in cloud yet again. It was incredibly cool - and extremely large! Apparently it weighs more than a jumbo jet and symbolises the harmonious relationship between man, religion, people and nature.
Tian Tan Budha and the Po Lin Monastary. Lilies were everywhere - and I love a good lily scent anyday but there were simply so many the smell was overpowering! The hike up to the Budha Statue.

Now you see it, now you don't. These photos were taken within the space of a minute that's how quickly the cloud was rolling in!
We had some last minute free time on our final day. Lunch with an old school friend of mine I hadn't seen in 14 years, travelling on the world's longest escalator (hey don't knock it till you've tried it - we thought it was super cool in a geeky kind of way!), another trip across the harbour on the Star Ferry (just because) and a quick shop in the Wan Chai Computer Centre. Let's just say all of a sudden Chris was extremenly interested in shopping!! (2 stories of shops with everything computer related - a big kids candy store!)
Star Ferry
The best bit about the trip has got to be seeing my baby brother, and we loved spending some time with him and Axelle. But it always tough to say goodbye. However after 2 weeks, I was excited about getting home too! Bye-bye China, and thank you for the memories!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A China Experience (Macau)

We had added Macau onto our itinerary so we could spend some time visiting my brother, Ian, and his girlfriend Axelle. They are currently living there after scoring jobs working as Safety Divers on the Franco Dragone production 'House of Dancing Waters' (if you're at all familiar with Cirque du Soleil's 'O' it's rather like that - a water-themed acrobatic, dancing and stunt show). I'm not sure Macau is a very typical tourist destination. It's a small, former Portuguese colony which they handed back to the Chinese in 1999 (much like the Brits handed over HK in 1997) and operates as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China (which basically seems to mean we didn't need visas to get in!) These days its best known as the Vegas of the East. Since 2006 Macau casinos have been generating more revenue from gambling than Las Vegas!

The first thing we noticed was the dramatic change in climate. We knew of course that it was going to be a lot warmer than Beijing but it was so hot and humid and MISTY. We spent 5 nights in Macau and not one day did we have a completely clear view from the balcony of their 40th floor apartment. (which I'm assured is a fabulous view if you can see it. Actually we were seeing how bad it could get - some nights we actually couldn't see the road 40 stories below!)
The view from the 40th floor! Even with all the mist we had it was still spectacular, if a little dizzying!

Our first couple of days was all about the relaxing, and catching up with I&A. We hadn't seen either of them since we met up with them for a few days on our Cuba vacation 2 years ago! Lazy mornings, lazy lunches and a bit of a wander around the place. Our second day Axelle had arranged for a 3-hour spa experience for me and Chris! Full Body Scrub, a Hot Stone Massage finished off with Ear Candling. And my back is STILL loving the experience a week and a half later. The scrub was so amazing - I'd been suffering from dry skin all winter and it's still reaping the benefits - smooth and soft and not a trace of dry skin left! The Ear Candling was something new - a slightly odd sensation, but not unpleasant - but the package as a whole was just dreamy. We had side-by-side treatment beds in a cozy, warm room (heated blankets to lie on!) - Oh so good! Thank you again Axelle - xxx

We of course went to see THE SHOW! We had second row seats in the 'wet zone' complete with personal towels on each of our seats. And we needed them!. The whole show is a marvel. A huge circular stage which moves up and down, in and out of a huge pool. The show opens with a pirate ship emerging out of the water and the performers crawl out of the water then climb the masts to dive and jump off it. There are trapeze artists, ballet dancers, African acrobats, motorbike stunt riders and more! One minute they could be performing on a dry stage, the next minute the stage seamlessly disappears and there's water and swimmers, high divers and dancing fountains. It was brilliant. And was only set to get better....because the following day we got a backstage tour (there are so many levels in the theatre - obviously at the bottom is the several metre deep pool and the performers sometimes have to go from being in the water, dash up 5-6 flights of stairs to the top to hook themselves up to a harness to come dancing down from the roof! - it's insane. These performers are so incredibly fit and the costumes are spectacular too - obviously having to endure all the chlorinated water - for one scene they wear these gorgeous masks covered in Swarkovski crystals - apparently worth $3000 each!) Here's a link to a great trailer for the show on you tube here
House of Dancing Waters - 2 left photos show some of the scenery during the show, Top Right is the empty dry stage (it's almost completely 'in the round' except for area in the top of the picture. Bottom middle are the fabulous African acrobat team and Bottom Right is Chris trying on the Swarkovski crystal mask on for size)

That evening we watched the show for the second time from the control box. That in itself was incredible - we could hear all the commands and directions - being run with military precision. There are 4 teams of safety divers in the water for each quadrant of the stage and all have to be in precisely the right place at the right time - to move props (many props live under the water) and to assist the performers (being ready with air and to help move them 'off stage') Seeing the show was something I was most looking forward to on this trip and it didn't disappoint. Getting all the 'extras' treatment from I&A with our personal backstage tour and control box seats just made it even more special - thank you again I&A!!
Macau Street scenes

Macau isn't just about the massive casinos (though they are certainly a blot on the landscape). There is still lots of lovely old streets, and the Portuguese influence is still very much apparent - cobbled streets, churches, and old fort and lots of small parks and green spaces. A collection of these old buildings and squares has in fact been recognized by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. Macau for us was mostly about just wandering the streets. Soaking up the atmostphere and sights and sounds and smells. We visited a bunch of the 'attractions' mentioned in the guidebook. The A-Ma Temple was just down the road from where we were staying and is the oldest temple in Macau - the place was smoking with incense - you could buy anything from an 8in stick to some 8ft tall and 4 inches in diameter!! We loved the look of the incense coils - we saw them a lot in Macau temples (you can be walking a street and will stumble into small temples in the most random of places - next to the bank or mechanics shop you mind find one!)
Top: A-Ma Temple
Bottom: On the left is the lovely old Macau, on the right is the face of the new Macau (The Grand Lisboa, affectionately called 'The Turnip')

We also visited the Macau Grand Prix museum (of course - Chris can sniff out motorbikes at 100 miles!), Senado Square, the Ruins of St Paul, the old Fort and one lovely little highlight - The Mandarin's House. We could actually see this from the apartment balcony (on a clear day!) It is an old house, that belonged to a prominent city resident beautifully preserved. Obviously he was very wealthy - the gaff is 4000sq ft! Most of the rooms were sadly empty - I think they could do more with it by adding in furnishings as it was when it was being lived in. But the building is gorgeous.
Top: Senado Square
Bottom: View from the old fort (that cannon isn't aimed up for that brash 'old hotel is it?!), Ruins of St Paul's

Top - The Mandarin's House
Bottom - all the streets were lined with scooters - the main mode of transport it seems! Pateis de Nata (yummy Portugese Egg Custard tarts - another Macau speciality. Doing a quick workout Macau style - the parks are full of these exercise stations - just hop on and get your sweat on!)
I also need to mention the food. We did shy away from Chinese food to the best of our ability - there is too much of a good (and not so good) thing!. Either way I don't think I need to sniff another MSG-laden Chinese meal in a very long time. I'd read up in the guidebook about one of the specialities of Macau as being 'African Chicken' - described as chicken prepared in coconut, garlic and chillies - it sounded right up my alley!! We set off to find one of these finer establishments serving this great sounding dish and ended up at Henri's Galley on the Macau Peninsula (also recommended by the book - Lonely Planet). A seriously good recommendation. Axelle was working, Ian and Chris wimped out on me and had omelet and chips (Seriously guys?!) so I ended up with the best part of a whole chicken to myself. Oh. My. Goodness. Amazing. AMAZING! Luckily there was plenty to share around and the restaurant gives away paper table mats with the recipe on it - I would like to convert this to a slow cooker version sometime soon!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A China Experience (Beijing part 2)

We started Day 3 with a visit to the Summer Palace which was just minutes from our hotel. This was where the emperor and his royal household would head for during the hot summer months. It's an enormous walled park covering more than 700 acres with a large lake as it's centrepiece. There are paths all around and among the buildings and palaces. The Summer Palace in particular was a favourite of the Dowager Empress Cixi who 'ruled' over the empire from 1861 to her death in 1908. She joined the royal household at age 15 as a Concubine and quickly became a favourite and bore a son. When that emperor died her infant son was too young to rule so she became regent, ruling in place of her son. Except it seems that she carried on ruling for the next 35 years (I'm thinking he wasn't still infant and incapable at that point?). Stories about her that our guide told us sounded like she was a bit of a nut - extravagant and misguided. Linking lots of the buildings along the lake shore is a 700m covered corridor (supposed to be the longest in the world or something, but then we thought the network in Mount Pleasant in the Falklands had that claim so who knows?! - ....I've just checked Wikipedia and it appears WE DO know best!!) I have to say, having visited both, the Summer Palace is a heck of a lot prettier! We also had time to stop by the Marble Boat - another of Cixi's indulgences - it's one heck of a lakeside pavilion....and it doesn't even float! This was the first time on the tour that I felt a little pushed for time. Whilst I think we saw a lot of the 'key sights' it's the sort of place I would have liked to spend less time 'box-ticking' and more time soaking up the atmosphere - a walk around the lake and a picnic here would have been a peachy way to spend the morning. But for us it was time to move on...
The Summer Palace: There was this delightful little old man writing Chinese Calligraphy across the pathway inside the palace (apparently - according to a sign he had, practicing Calligraphy helps prevent senile dementia!). The architecture in the Palace was so full of colour - the reds, blues, greens and golds made for such a pretty sight wandering around.

To the old neighbourhoods of Beijing - those that so far have escaped the demolitions and will now probably be preserved as part of old Beijing. The Hutongs are the traditional courtyard style housing and are narrow alleys full of single storey housing that to us now appears very cramped and dirty. The houses have little or no plumbing so every couple of hundred yards there are public washrooms which are for the residents to wash and toilet! - eewh! We rode around the area by cycle rickshaw which was fun! - our guide spend a fair amount of time sizing us all up to match us to a suitable peddler! We also had lunch in a family home inside the Hutong. Not sure how 'legit the whole family home thing was - it's a tour group after all and I'm ever the cynic. But I have to say it certainly appeared that we were dining in someones bedroom! The food was a refreshing change - slightly different dishes to all the restaurant meals we had and looking a lot more natural and dare I say it, even MSG-free?! (Surely not?!) It was good and a surprising highlight.
The Hutong Neighourhood: A peaceful street scene with our rickshaws waiting for us during lunch. The doorway was into the family home where we had lunch! Such a great way to travel - slow enough to enjoy the view but snuggly enough under our blanket to stay warm and cosy!

To work off the lunch we all took in a quick Tai Chi class in the grounds of the Temple of Heaven. I think this was more for the entertainment of the locals rather than us - a bunch of Westerners doing Tai-Chi in the middle of the park worked up quite the crowd - we even had a video-photographer stopping by! We then had plenty of free time to wander the Temple of Heaven. It was Sunday so there were crowds of locals out - playing checkers, mah-jong and hacky-sack. Hacky-Sack was quite the game for all ages and we were mesmerized by some seriously groovy moves. We succumbed to buying a few ourselves and set up an impromptu game though we've got a long way to go with our moves! The hacky-sacks are different to what we're used to. These are a bunch of feathers attached to some discs of old aluminum cans and a bit of plastic (OK - that's a fairly dire description but they work sweetly!) And finally, a day wouldn't be complete without a quick visit to some shop or factory now would it?! - Today's offering being a Silk Factory where even we nearly suckered ourselves into buying a silk duvet (the last minute thought better of it which was just as well as we couldn't remember the size of our bedding and would have bought the wrong size!)
Temple of Heaven: Checkers Players and some silly-looking Western tourists attempting Tai Chi
Day 4 was originally a free day on our itinerary but group consensus was that we all wanted to do the same thing - SHOP! And so for a few extra Yuans we 'bought' a guide and bus driver for the day and set off to the markets. Specifically we wanted fakes - and lots of them. These markets are crazy and not for the faint-hearted. The Silk Market was six stories of goods and hundreds of different stalls all inside one giant building. The basement alone was just handbags and shoes and is where we headed for my 'top-notch' Mulberry and Tod's handbags - fake as heck but at $15 a pop I'm not really too bothered! Bargaining is all part of the fun - the seller started at 800RMB for each bag and after a brief interchange of way too high prices, followed by us walking away with her calling out ever-lower prices she eventually shouted out 100RMB we turned around and sealed the deal! We resisted the watches and outdoor clothing but did buy a few art items, some silk table runners and a mah-jong set - real ivory I'm sure ;-) We worked a steal of deal for the set only to discover there were no instructions so she managed to sting us an extra 10RMB for those - overall the set was still just $6!! Now we just need to figure out how to play it because the instructions are quality Chinglish and seriously complicated - anyone? anyone?

After all the shopping a little refreshment was in order and so we headed to Xiaochi Jie or 'Little Eats Street'. This was an alley full of food stalls. But not your run-of-the-mill food stalls. Oh no. Pick a beast, any crazy-assed beast - preferably with numerous legs, spikes, scales and/or wings, fry it up in a bit of 3-month old oil and stuff it on a skewer and sell it to a foreigner. THAT kind of food stall. Locusts, Silk Worms, Centipedes, Scorpions (either the fresh, smaller still-wriggling variety or the giant black 'run-like-heck' variety), Starfish, Seahorse, cat, goats balls and things that to date I'm really not sure about. As a group we tried pretty much everything on offer. Obviously Chris is much more robust than me and was suffering from a severe bout of male bravado so was game for most of it. I just sampled the Starfish (which was crispy and tasted like 3-month old cooking oil). Certainly an entertaining afternoon and great fun to be with a group at times like this! Our final night as a group we had a great dim sum and dumplings meal in downtown with a few beers followed by a major session back at the hotel. We were still going after the bar staff went home for the night evidenced by the beer bottles still on the lobby bar tables when we went crawled down to breakfast the next morning. We 'broke' our young tour guide well and truly - he arrived to meet us in the lobby the next morning with an emergency sick bag in his pocket and excuses about not being able to take us to the airport so he'd managed to arrange a favour for someone else to escort us!!- too funny!
Xiaochi Jie: 'Small Eats Street' In the top left pic are the mini scropions stuck into the cabbage - these are still alive and wriggling - they 'lightly peirce their bellies with the skewer then fry them up super fresh from wriggle status. As opposed to the Scorpion in the top middle picture that Chris is clearly eager to devour! Starfish was my bravest (only) effort I admit!!- yum, yum!

Beijing was brilliant. And after having always snubbed the whole 'tour' thing in the past I have to say it was an excellent way to see much in a city like Beijing with such radically different culture and language. I would highly recommend it and SNA tours in particular were awesome. We were fortunate to have such a fun bunch of fellow tourers (I think the age range of our group had to do with the Groupon offer - after all not so many blue-rinsers groupon now do they?!) We were able to do and see so much with the convenience of our own driver and tour guide and that alone was a huge plus.

Next stop Macau...

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A China Experience (Beijing part 1)

So the tour was called 'A China Experience' and who am I to disagree?! It really was an amazing experience and an amazing vacation. This all started out after purchasing a bargain-priced Groupon for a 5 day tour to Beijing, and in the end we added time in Macau and Hong Kong for a total of 2 weeks. At times it seemed like a fabulous long holiday, in other ways it shot by in a flash. I know though that it was brilliant, and just the right length of time away.I've spent the last 3 nights sorting through our photos and sifting the original 1400 or so down to around 900 (that was just 'phase 1' - I normally do a couple of rounds of delete button action!) But I don't want to put off blogging too much longer, I want to record these great memories. And so...

I think this is the first time Chris and I have crossed the international date line. Although I'd been to Hong Kong before, since we lived in Europe we would've travelled the other way round the globe. Talk about messing with your brain (and sleep pattern!) We arrived in Beijing on a Thursday evening and got met and ferried straight to our hotel in the north west part of the city. We were delighted to find we were in a really great Four Points Sheraton (rather more plush than our usual lodging budget allows!). After a long day of travel we weren't really up for any food adventures the first night and just grabbed a 'western' meal in the hotel and called it a night.

Bright and breezy Friday morning we met the rest of our tour group - 18 of us in total from various parts of Canada and the US. We were surprised to discover that, bar 3, Chris and I were probably the oldest there! I think when we'd booked 'a tour' we had resigned ourselves to touring with the blue rinse brigade, instead the average age I would say was around 30 - a pleasant and welcome surprise. With no time to waste we headed off on our small tour bus with our young guide Ba-yong (excuse my spelling I'm sure - this is just how we pronounced it!) and our driver Sexy-Don (I think his name was probably something like SeSe-Dong - phonetically but you can see where we were coming from with the nickname!) First stop the Capital Museum with heaps of displays (and plenty of English signage) on Jade, City History, Traditions, Artifacts etc. After our first fabulous* authentic Chinese lunch (it was fabulous the first time, the third, fourth, fifth....not so much - it got a little 'samey' shall we say!!) We headed to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It was bitterly cold and hanging out around the square was tough going. I was actually surprised that it didn't seem as BIG as I thought it would be. But still very imposing nevertheless, especially with the portrait of Mao staring down over everything and everyone. Having read a few books about the Chinese Great Famine, and crazy-assed ideas he had (Red Guards etc) I just don't 'get' how this guy is still so revered in the eyes of so many Chinese, but he certainly seems to be...
The Forbidden City was full of wonderful buildings and doors and gates, leading to more gates and doors and buildings - it's like a maze. A very beautiful, ornate maze of a city - just check out the middle picture - that's a just a lil' old rooftop decoration!

We went through the city gate into the Forbidden City. And then through another gate. And then another gate. And then I think we may actually have entered THE Forbidden City (the first gates just being 'on the way' apparently) After all those big walls and big gates it really is another world once truly inside. You'd never imagine there's this crazy bustling city of 20 million people buzzing around just outside - it's so peaceful and serene. It's times like this having a tour guide is awesome. Not only so he can direct us toward the 2-star graded toilets (Yes - the Beijing Tourism association rates their toilets - we saw as high as 4-star, and sadly all too many unrated ones. Lets just say you should be looking for 2-star and up!! - you can sit instead of squat and you should have toilet paper at your disposal! - you can also see that the porcelain is in fact, white), but also he was able to give us plenty of running commentary and history about the various dynasties that ruled China, and stories of the Emperors and households that lived there. We followed him through the city for the most part, but then also had some free time to wander off on our own. Its such an amazing place to wander around - it's just SO BIG!
Olympic Park Birds Nest Stadium, Water Cube and the funky 'dragon' building to the left of the Cube is apparently an uber-expensive building. Plus the wonderful kite sellers pestering us.

Day 2 we headed out first thing to the 2008 Olympic Park where the Birds Nest Stadium and Water Cube are. It's an enormous open, pedestrianized space - great for wandering. I loved the architecture of the stadium - so funky. We had plenty of free time to wander the sites in this area. The afternoon was the 'biggy' - the Great Wall of China! We had a few hours here - plenty of time to go hike...after watching a romantic proposal of marriage from one of the guys in our group to his girlfriend we set off on a mission. I think we climbed about 1000ft up the section of the wall to the highest point and a dead end at a watch-tower. We could see for miles back down into the valley where we'd started and way off in the distance the suburbs of the city. It was a tough climb - the steps are so uneven. One minute they are barely more than a few inches high and the next they are taller than my knees - it was a tough slog up not being able to get into a rhythm, but it was tougher down - at times it felt like suicide it was so steep (and my ankle was getting fed up with the strain!). I'm so happy to have finally got to see one of the greatest wonders of the world - THE great wall of China (GWOC) Incredible!
Our tour group, plus various pictures showing you just how far we hiked up. If you look on the bottom left picture you'll see the valley floor and the winding road to the left of the wall - that's where we started! And you don't mess with Mao Zedong - 'He who doesn't reach the Great Wall isn't a true man' - thankfully my husband is (now) ALL MAN!

As with any tour I've had the misfortune of partaking in, there will be the obligatory visit to 'the shops' Ah Yes. "Ok, we'll spend 10 mins at the GWOC followed by 2 hours at the local [insert drossy shop/factory of choice here]". It was to be expected, and thankfully wasn't quite as excruciating as it could have been because for the most part I felt like we'd had plenty of time at the 'real' attractions. Stops at the factory shops generally meant clean toilets and a small bar whilst others would shop till they dropped at super inflated prices!! After the GWOC we had a stop at a Chinese Tea House and took part in a traditional tea ceremony where we sampled about 5 different types of teas which was great - really. (it was the half hour for shopping after that gets me - $20 for a box of tea - seriously?!) Dinner on our second night was another of those meals I was looking forward to. REAL Peking Duck from Peking (And lets just talk identity crisis here for a moment - this city has had more name changes than you can shake a stick at over the past 3000 years - Nanjing, Peiping, Zhongdu, Beiping, Peking (this is not a complete list!) and finally Beijing (again - it had been Beijing back in the 1400's) in 1949 seems to have stuck (for now)
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