Friday, July 31, 2009

Sweden for the herring impaired

For those of you holding your breath, I made it to Sweden in one piece.

Exhausted and jet lagged sure, but here I am.

It was a nine hour flight from Beijing to Copenhagen (ten if you count the hour we spent sitting on the runway waiting for our turn to take off), where I got processed/stamped into the EU. I was to spend an hour there before my flight to Sweden so I figured what else to do but check out the duty free; make the most of the tax free alcohol before having to take out a mortgage just for a drink. Alas, here I was to meet my first frustration with the EU rules. It turns out that once you land in the EU you must pay tax on all things; the duty free stores are for passengers leaving the EU only. So here I was talking to a predictably gorgeous shop assistant about the merits of duty free systems in civilized nation-states, trying to helplessly convince her of the futility of charging duty on goods before even entering a country.

The flight to Sweden was uneventful, and managed even to get a little sleep on the plane. For the record, even the Danish scenery (from the air, at least) is beautiful; windmills strategically dot the horizon, with some even installed in the ocean, haystacks and clean air completing the picture of the venue for the December Climate Change conference (they even have the catch phrase “Hopenhagen”).

I arrived at the airport on time, and was greeted at the gate by Bjorn Ulvaeus from Abba. Okay so that’s a lie. They don’t actually meet everybody at the gate of Stockholm International (Arlanda). They don’t even play Abba on the stereo in the arrivals lounge (or Roxette, for that matter).

I was met at the gate by my friends Rob and Emma (the reason I’m here on this trip) and after allowing me to stop to fill in a complaint card about the distinct lack of local music on arrival, we embarked back to Uppsala (30 min north of Stockholm). The scenery was distinctly beautiful, if for no other reason than I could see it without the tint of pollution, and was probably very similar to the scenery you’d see driving State Highway 1 (North Island) in NZ, only without the constant road works.

Yesterday I went with Rob to explore the city of Stockholm. We started with a tour of the Vasa Museum which houses a massive ship that sunk in the Stockholm harbor in the 1600s because, basically, it had too many cannons for the amount of ballast it had. They managed to salvage it back in the 1960s, and keep it in a climate-controlled museum designed to limit the moisture and temperature to stop/slow the rotting. Very cool.

We then strolled past the native Canadian geese and took some lunch at a piazza somewhere in South Stockholm (no herring on the menu, so I had the salmon), where we sat for an hour or so catching up. We then strolled around the ‘old city’, which is basically what you think of when you think of Stockholm (or google images of it). It was crowded, but not in a painful way like Beijing, but it was also very cool – lots of old buildings and shops and stuff.

Also checked out the King’s Residence (a square and unremarkable building) and the Parliament buildings (slightly more remarkable, but pretty much like every other parliament I suspect), and saw a spectacularly awesome trubadour trio serenading the crowd with a woeful old world dance number:

Today, more Stockholm.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Wall. Great.

The Great Wall of China is over 10,000km (or 5,434,783 Steves) long. I am 1.84m tall.

Fortunately I did not have to walk the whole length of the wall, but the section I did walk was very impressive indeed!

We left Beijing at 9am to the Mutianyu section of the wall – with far fewer tourists than the section closer to Beijing. So while it took a little while to get there, it was totally worth it!

As you can see, the wall was not very crowded that day, so we got to spend some quality time there without being rushed about by Americans. Don’t get me wrong, there were still plenty of Americans around, including some NBA players (who kept following me and trying to talk to me and stuff – would totally have been cool if they weren’t also making a documentary about how friendly NBA players were or something), but there was at least a good chunk of wall available per person – a rarity in Beijing!

I also made friends with some of the local Japanese tourists:

All in all a good day.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Some walls are born great...

Went to the Great Wall yesterday.

That was pretty cool.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Beijing - it's my thing

The pollution continues to be a problem here.

Today it was maybe 200m visibility, and every now and then there’d be a strange smell in the air. For the most part you don’t notice a thing other than the smog. But sometimes the smell just kicks you in the face and it’s all you can do to control the gag reflex. The Chinese would tell you that the level is well below the ‘dangerous’ levels as indicated by the US pollution scale. The US has a scale that measures pollution between 1 and 300 (300 being as bad as it gets in the US). According to the live twitter feed from the US embassy in Beijing, the pollution in Beijing is consistently over 400 (on the scale that tops out at 300). This is what I’m breathing in.

Yesterday I discovered the Beijing night markets, but during the day. It was exciting and bustling and crowded and everything I expected Beijing markets to be. I met a couple of lads from the mother country (Britain), and we wandered through the throng to stumble across a half-dozen food stalls. At first I didn’t realize what I was looking at, but soon I discovered that I am not the intrepid traveler I thought I would be. I had stumbled on a vendor selling live scorpions on a stick. To eat. Live scorpions.

I watched as the ‘chef’ grabbed live scorpions from a bowl and planted several on each skewer. I’ll admit, part of me was tempted to try one. But another part of me managed to overpower the other, and so I walked on. Not without feeling considerable unease at the thought of a live scorpion crawling over my tongue as I bit down…

Tomorrow I am going to the Great Wall. My friend who I am staying with has recommended a driver to take me and one other to the wall and to see Ming’s Tomb. I’m rather looking forward to it, and it’s going to be a rather full on day.

Possibly with cake.

The day I saved a child's life.

I have always wanted to buy a Rolex. I have also always wanted to save the life of a child.

Today, I achieved one of these things.

I arrived outside the gates of the Forbidden City around 11.30, to which a throng of people headed towards me. The first person to approach was a kindly gentleman with a crooked smile: “Hello Sir, would you like to buy a Rolex?” Catching my sense that this offer was too good to be true, he quickly added “…don’t worry, it’s a fake.”

My heart sank.

I knew it was a fake. He knew it was a fake. But I thought that was the beauty of the whole ‘street merchant bargaining’ process. He’d tell me it was real, and was selling it to pay for his kid’s heart surgery, I’d tell him it wasn’t real and that I wouldn’t waste my money buying something that looked like it had been found in a kinder surprise; and I especially wouldn’t pay more for an extra ‘L’ in Rolex. Eventually we would agree on a price amounting to $5NZD having danced our merry tango. But alas, even the street hawkers have now some sense of openness. Okay, so maybe I’m not being fair. No sooner had I left this merchant without so much as partaking in an offer/counter-offer dance of death, when a disheveled woman approached me crying, while clinging onto a limp child.

“Sir, my child is dead”, she said. She turned him around to face me, when I saw him open his eyes, ever so slightly. So I did what anyone else would have done in that situation – I pulled a silly face, making the child laugh. “Lady, I have good news…” I said. I didn’t get a reward, or even so much as a ‘thank you’. That’s what you get for helping a stranger, I suppose.

The Forbidden City was pretty cool – it cost 60rmb (about $15NZD) to get in, and I started out by photographing everything I thought was interesting. I realized it was probably a bit overboard when I found myself photographing concrete (albeit ornately patterned), and ended up getting lost in the many halls and palace rooms of the city. It was the home of the emperor, his family and concubines, but what really struck me was that nothing about the palace suggested luxury. Sure there was plenty of extravagance and fancy statues and such, and the imperial family were all ‘let them eat cake’ near the end, but the rooms weren’t particularly lavish nor comfortable – nothing like you’d expect to find in a European castle/palace, for instance.

Once I left the city I walked through to Tiananmen Square, home of the massacre (or ‘the incident’, if you’re a local). Suddenly I was back to people asking me if I could help their child or if I would like to ‘see some art’ (total scam, by the way). So far I have experienced two of the three major scams focusing on tourists in Beijing:

  1. Art scam. Strangers will come up to you and ask if you like art, as there’s an exhibition around the corner. It would mean a lot to them if you went, as some of their art is on display. They’ll lead you into a room and try and convince you to buy what is actually just a cheap knock-off of sometimes famous art, including works by Rodin. I have met three artists, so far.
  2. The motorbike scam. Motorbikes with carriages will stop and pick up tourists waiting for a taxi, and when they drop you off (often nowhere near where you wanted to go) they will show you a card which says “Beijing Motorcycle Scenic Tours – 120rmb” ($30NZD) and demand that you pay that. Now, you can get a taxi for around 10rmb, and they don’t warn you of that beforehand. I got caught out, and spent a couple of minutes arguing with the driver telling him I would only pay 13rmb. Of course I won.
  3. Tea scam. Someone will approach you and ask if they could practice their English with you, so you go to a teahouse where you have to foot the bill, usually for over 1000rmb ($250NZD) – the tea lady and the ‘student’ will then split the winnings. I haven’t met this scam yet.

The first thing I bought in China was a pair of shorts.

It’s hot here. Not the kind of happy-hot that you can escape with a cold beer or an ice-cream; rather the unhappy-hazy-polluted-muggy-hot that happens when you walk into a sauna full of uncombusted diesel.

You get used to it surprisingly quickly though, and I have since found that the haze really only happens at certain times of the day.

It was really difficult to see very much of China coming in on the plane for all the haze and cloud in the sky, and also from being positioned nicely over the wing, but from what I’ve seen so far it’s quite a spectacular city. There are some crazy cool buildings around – some with lights all over them and some that are almost shaped like (but fall failingly short) like other famous buildings (Eiffel Tower, Pegasus Tower, Freyberg Building).

The people of Beijing (Beijingians? Beijingites?) have put quite a bit of effort into making the walkways into something of a sensory experience. I saw one shopping area “The Place” that has a giant rooftop over the walkway, which, when you gaze up at the ceiling, is actually a giant television – approximately 200 meters long by 40 meters wide. The promenade is surrounded by cafes, bars, and specialty stores, and is also the entrance to (what I think is) a shopping mall. I had to stop and take stock when I heard the theme from The Titanic gently wafting from the speakers surrounding the courtyard, and it was only when I looked up that I noticed that the giant tv screen above me was playing the music video. Nothing says “I’m in a foreign country now” like 800 square meters of Leonardo DiCaprio (with Celine Dion in surround).

After leaving The Place I went to the famous Silk Alley. It is absolutely nothing like it sounds. It sounds like some atmospheric marketplace that you might see on a movie about the 1800’s, where people will sell you silk scarves and handwoven rugs for as much as it costs for the taxi ride to take it home.

But no.

It’s basically a giant shopping mall filled with market stands, and it’s loud and crazy. Every stall I walked past I was asked if I wanted to buy something, and if I made eye contact with them it was as though I had agreed to buy everything they owned in the shop.

I was doing rather well at not buying anything (I don’t want to blow all my budget on my first day!). I past 7 stalls selling pens (Mont Blanc – probably all very nice), jade Buddhas, and all other kinds of trinketry and chicanery. And then I saw what I had hoped I wouldn’t see. An optometrist. No, the irony isn’t lost on me.

The best part about this place is that you have to bargain. Hard.

I bought

  • a new pair of glasses
  • a new pair of prescription sunglasses, and
  • replaced my current lenses in my glasses and prescription sunglasses

for just over $650 NZ. Not bad. Even better when I talked them down from $3000.

Today I take on Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Tuesday I’m heading to the Great Wall to fight the Mongol Hordes.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Auckland - a good place to fly away from (T-0)


I'm not actually in Beijing yet, but am sitting in the Koru lounge waiting to board my flight. It's been a bit of a mission so far. I was supposed to meet my dear Auntie in Auckland on arrival in Auckland, but when she didn't show I went to meet her at the international terminal. Only she wasn't there.

I waited.
She wasn't there.

I eventually got hold of her by ringing her house - an enormous (and embarrassing) miscommunication and stuff-up by me meant that I was waiting outside while she was driving around outside.


But never mind. I am now through airport security and have made my way to the Koru Lounge where I have liberated a lonely bottle of Marlborough Sav from the fridge and am proceeding to indulge in a little of NZ's finest. It's because I'm patriotic.

This time tomorrow I will be in Beijing. In fact, in around fourteen hours I will be in Beijing.

It is unlikely that I will be updating this blog until I reach Europe (difficulties with internet access), so my next update will be from Sweden. Lovely.

I'm sad to leave NZ, but I'm even more excited to be going somewhere awesome (i.e. THE WORLD)!!

I don't mind Auckland - it's a good place to fly away from.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Big Wellington, Little China (T-4)

My goals for Beijing:
  1. See the Great Wall
  2. Eat Peking Duck
  3. Buy cheap clothing, perhaps from a sweat shop outlet store
  4. Buy an iPod
  5. Introduce democracy
Four days to go.

This is awesome - in four days I'll be on a plane heading to China. My flight should have just left Auckland, and I'll be sipping on some bottled water and whatever else I managed to sneak out from the Koru lounge.


First stop Beijing. I'm being met at the airport by a friend of mine, so that instantly makes things easier. I finally got my visa to travel there (the delay was due to my laziness in applying), so all I have to do now is hope that I don't get targeted as a swine flu risk (being from NZ). My goal will be to somehow restrain my desire to be the centre of attention and not draw too much attention to myself - this might help.

I'm in Beijing for four days, which may not be enough time to do all the things that I want to. It should be enough time to get a good feel for the city, and try a few local restaurants and such, but I'm not sure I've left myself enough time to get to the Great Wall or see many of the other attractions. I shall have to play this by ear.

Like my life.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

...and so it begins (T-10)

Right, so here it is then.
10 days to go before I embark on my big adventure overseas.

I have finally sorted most things out:
  • I've found somebody to take over my room (maybe even including my bed!!)
  • I've packed most of my stuff up and taken it home to the folks
  • I'm now living out of a suitcase, and
  • I have set up a blog so that I can keep all of you up to speed without having to write you another stinking email (love you Mum).
For those of you that don't know, I am going on a trip. Well it's probably more of an adventure, really. My very good friends Roberth and Emma are getting married, and I've decided that it's exactly the sort of thing I should go to. The wedding is in Sweden, so I figured that I would make a trip out of it and see some of the northern hemisphere for a while. Here's what I'm doing:

I'm leaving NZ on Saturday 25th July, and going to Europe. Through China. Apparently it's what we do now, so I'm excited about that. My vague itinerary is this:
  • 26 July - arrive in China (Asia)
  • 29 July - fly to Sweden (Scandinavia)
  • 10 Aug - make my way to Copenhagen (Denmark), hang out
  • 14 Aug - make my way to Vienna (that's in Austria!)
  • 14-26 Aug - take part in an organised group tour with people who are hopefully over 23years old... this will go to:
  • Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Berlin, Amsterdam, then to
  • 26 Aug - Paris!
  • Stay in Paris for a week, then go to Spain or the UK.
  • Hang out in the UK for a month, then...
  • 28 Sep - fly to NY!
  • Hang out in the US, then...
  • 5 Jan - fly to San Fran, then...
  • 14 Jan - fly home to NZ!
Wow, so I'm tired (and broke) just from writing that.

These will be my travels, and one of my goals is to keep this updated at least a little bit while I'm away. Another goal is to make it back in one piece. I also have a couple of side-goals (win lotto, solve the recession or a rubix cube), but for now I'll stick to what I know.

Keep a look out,

PS - I will never start or end my blogs with bible quotes or lame poetry (though maybe a haiku). This is a promise.