¡Hola! España

We have arrived in Madrid – to flamenco, hot chocolate and churros, and the delicious freedom that comes with free, (hopefully…) unlimited wifi.

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Out the AirBnb window

We’re AirBnB-ing it near the Estación de Atocha (Madrid’s largest railway station). We were met by Ricardo, who is from Portugal. He has left his 2 children in Portugal because he had concerns they wouldn’t adapt or pick up the language (?!), so he was interested to know how Matilda has moved through life in Australia, China and now Spain. She moans constantly and her dream is to live in one big house surrounded by all her family, and she constantly makes me wonder if I am a cruel parent for dragging her round the world all these years.

Saying that, although she is all in a muddle after 2 months in Oz with family, I think the years are paying off now she is older. She turned 11 right before we flew, and this is the first overseas travel we’ve done where she has jumped straight back into it, and we’ve had none of the drama and tantrums (me) that have sometimes plagued our past travels.

I booked Madrid for a week as initially we thought we’d have paperwork that would be done more easily in the capital. That plan changed, but now we have a chance to explore before we transition to our new life as unemployed folks who cannot afford to travel!

I’ve been hit by terrible jetlag so our first few days have been slow, and yesterday (Monday) was bureaucratic – SIM card etc. We have discovered not much (business-wise) is open on the weekend in Spain. Also, similar to Asia, things don’t open until mid-morning (gah). Can’t say much about the evenings yet as I keep falling asleep at 5:30.

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Metro trumpet player

Getting around: we got a Madrid Metro Tourist Card on the first day. I am not sure we will end up taking enough travel to justify the €40,20 (1A/1C), mostly as the main line from our apartment to the city is closed for maintenance. We met a friendly local girl while we were trying to buy the ticket which made it all worth it. She is teaching English, has worked in Costa del Sol and was able to give me some advice. It made our first day a little bit special. On the 2nd day a random guy played the trumpet in the carriage for our entire trip. So the Metro has made our “good beginning” in Spain.

I think I’m going to cave and also pay €31 to do the Madrid Tourist Bus. These are good for getting a feel for a place, and the city does feel like it is kinda sprawling. I also want to get Matilda excited about the history, and it’ll sound better coming through headphones than from me!

SIM card: Spain’s prepaid mobile plans are even more rubbish than Australia. I really thought Telstra had the monopoly on “world’s worst Telco”, but there you go. €15 for 28 days with 1.5 paltry GB, 50 mins talk and NO SMS with Vodafone. Other options are apparently Orange and Movistar.

So, it’s been less museums and history and more bureaucracy and falling asleep on the couch at 5:30pm so far!

Viva la adventure lol.

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Chengdu chill #blogjune 27

245am before we finally crawled into bed after foolishly booking late flight, which was delayed, then half an hour in taxi line before picking lunatic driver who said yes, yes, yes and took us in the wrong direction 😭 

We’re feeling it today. Lessons learned: 

  • wheeled suitcases are great. Just because you have a fancy backpack doesn’t mean you need to use it
  • Late flights are just silly
  • Overnight sleeper trains vary according to train class. No more K trains!
  • Luggage lockers only appear when you don’t need them. If you need one because your back is about to break and you are sweating up a storm and wishing for death, then Nanjing local government will build 2 new railways and NOT install luggage store

Good news is there’s no hurry. We don’t really have to be anywhere. So we wandered Chengdu this morning, ate some pancake flatbread thing for breakfast, washed down with hand squeezed orange juice outside a Buddhist university. 

<still no photos because VPN can’t handle the upload>

Currently sitting in the Bookworm cafe, one of the longest serving western establishments in Chengdu. The concept is cool – what’s not to love about a cafe inside a bookstore? It seems the sort of place where you could hide in a corner with your laptop and never have to fear being moved along. Service is awkward and slow (they just came to let me know I can’t have a cappuccino because there is ‘something wrong with the machine) but staff are sweet and the food is good. Times like these I really should improve my TripAdvisor reviewing abilities…seeing how much I rely on them for advice. But I just want to lie here with my new book…

China farewell #blogjune

Languishing in Nanjing airport. Blog June has fallen by the wayside as I’ve frantically raced to pack, ship, trash, clean, book flights, trains, hotels, cars, arrange gifts, attend farewells and send ‘last emails’. Oh, and finish my Library Annual Report. Can’t believe I managed to do it. It’s not 100% but I did it in such a short timeframe and in spite of being told nobody cares and I shouldn’t bother by just about every staff member)

Our Farewell China tour commenced with an overnight hard sleeper train from Qingdao to Nanjing which I am bitterly regretting right about now. NB – don’t forget trains in China decline not only in speed, but in amenities, cleanliness and general passenger behaviour the further down the train heirarchy you fall. My daughter is obsessed with hard sleeper (6 berth, no door) so I thought we’d try just one. But foolishly booked a K TRAIN!!

On arrival in Nanjing our plans took a dive as both railway stations are being upgraded and don’t have storage facilities. Ludicrously I decided we’d both carry backpacks on this trip so after 2 hours we got on the train to the airport, where I am currently trying to stay awake until our 9pm flight to Chengdu. I could try to get us on an earlier flight but I don’t think I have the mental capacity right now 😁

You’ll have to imagine photos as my tired, cranky brain cannot deal with slow China Internet today. 

China farewell tour #blogjune 14

Before we depart China we plan to travel mostly by train from Qingdao to somewhere near Guangzhou. The train is my Ms 10’s idea. She is particularly fond of overnight trains (ugh). Fortunately they’re not too bad in China. A couple of good websites for travel planning are helping us identify places to stop: Travel China Guide and China Highlights. They can be a little liberal when it comes to the realities of what is on offer in a particular city, but their info is usually up to date and very thorough.

For booking in China, I use local travel website, Ctrip. It’s okay, but has some limitations, such as stupid rules that won’t allow you to book adult and child tickets together online. They also won’t let you book train tickets instantaneously. I usually find prices on Ctrip then take the screenshot to a local travel agent to purchase. This agent is a desk inside a mobile phone store. One of life in China’s infinite frustrations is that one end of the desk is for booking flights and accepts card payments, while the other end of the same desk is for train bookings and accepts cash only.

China Itinerary

Well, since having this idea it seems overnight trains may be frequent North to South, but not so much East to West. We may need to fly some routes. Or take a weird southerly direction to get East, hence:

Nanjing: Nan 南 means south. One of the cool things about Chinese cities is that some of the major ones are named for their points on the compass.  “Bei” 北 means north (Beijing), “Xi” as in Xi’an, means west. Nanjing has been the capital of several empires and the Republic, and features in many important events in Chinese history – the Opium Wars, Taiping Rebellion, and was the site of the worst horrors of the Japanese occupation.

Wuhan: water village sort of outside Shanghai

Our main stops though, are:

Chengdu: home of the panda 

Lijiang – Shangri La, tiger leaping gorge, minorities 

Guiyang/Guizhou: minority groups and hand papermaking. There are supposed to be UNESCO listed villages (listed for their traditional methods of papermaking) in this area. 

Guilin/Yangshou: pretty. You know those dome shaped mountains and rice field photos of China you see? They’re mostly taken here. 

Kunming/Guangzhou: depends who has the cheaper flights back to Qingdao

Now I just need to get all this booked!

Catchup #blogjune 10, 11, 12

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Insadong hanok house

We’re home from Korea, back at work and back behind the Firewall.

Seoul is very cool. Could live there. Incheon airport could be better. No ATMs airside, and only 3 in the arrivals area. 1 would not accept Aussie visa, or China unionpay, and a big queue for the other. (On that point – a Citipoint ATM in the Seoul subway gave me a receipt for withdrawing 100000krw, but didn’t actually give me the cash. Am still negotiating on this with my bank)

Hanok guesthouse: ok – something to do once in a lifetime. Having to move between bedroom, wardrobe & bathroom via an external verandah got to me a bit. So did having the hosts around all the time. Every time I fumbled the front entry and couldn’t get in, one of them was there to make me go through it again, with them watching and instructing, (and of course it worked first time). Argh.

Great coffee in Korea. The trap of traveling to all these cool places in Asia while we live in China is that every time we get out we are so desperate for western food and comforts we sometimes miss out on local cuisine because we are so excited about bread, or pies, or crepes.

We stayed between Insadong and Bukchon, so had art, culture and tourist delights all at our doorstep. And giant ice cream. Matilda found no less than 3 different types.

Last stop was Kyobo Books, which meant we had to check in our carry-on bags as they had doubled in weight.

Non-immigration related post #blogjune 5

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Dabaiyi wedding in Yunnan Province (China Daily)

My last day as a Teacher Librarian will be Friday 24th June, so this *sort of* counts as a “library related” post (if that’s even a #blogjune rule?). Decision on shipping/removalists is still pending, so I’m not entirely sure which day we will actually leave, but we do have a bit of a plan about where we will spend our first few days, weeks, months… of Freedom.

Itinerary

24th June: last bottle of Tsingtao in Qingdao.

July: 2 – 3 weeks travelling China, mostly by train and mostly in Yunnan province, home of majority of China’s minorities and apparently the “trendiest destination for China’s exploding domestic tourist industry”. Well, I guess after 2 years here we’re starting to think like locals. We’ve been to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong a few times, we’ve seen the warriors in Xi’an, and we’ve even had a weekend on the lake in Hangzhou and one on the beach in Shenzhen. These all tended to be “city trips” and I do not want to leave without seeing the scenic sites. Just irritating it has to be in July when it will be super hot!

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I think Yunnan can be considered a scenic site.

Current itinerary depends on a lot, including the possibility of meeting up with another school librarian who has been working in Tianjin and has a daughter the same age (that would be brilliant!):

  • Qingdao
  • Nanjing : ancient capital, location of many (rather violent) historical events
  • Wuhan : port town for Yangtze cruise (which was initially part 1 of our itinerary but, alas)
  • Chengdu : pandas!
  • Lijiang : deep in Yunnan country. Tiger leaping gorge, in my mind home to China’s “colour”. This is where the miniorities are, and much of the costume and landscape and ‘idea’ of China. I really want my daughter to leave China with a lasting impression of the place as interesting and diverse. Even if that is getting less and less so.
  • Kunming : well, at first I wasn’t convinced but after a closer look it sounds like an interesting city.
  • Guiyang : Guizhou province – hoping to find some hand papermakers in this region.
  • Guilin : beautiful. Has to be done.
  • Guangzhou : airport, although I have heard there is an ancient village that is also a hub for printmakers – Guanlan printmaking base – and if there’s time I want to explore.

Thailand for a week (sigh. Hard life). Hoping to find printmaking workshops!

July to September: the magical Land of Oz. My family don’t know we’re coming as this was not on our original itinerary, but as it happens it would be better if we put off arriving in Spain until after the tourist season (July/August). I was looking at Croatia and Romania, but a few things have gone down lately with my family and us ‘dropping in’ will hopefully distract from the not so cool stuff going on.

September: Hola Espàna!

Trans-Siberian

Here’s a post I started and discarded…

Source: http://www.statravel.com.sg/trans-siberian-rail.htm
Source: http://www.statravel.com.sg/trans-siberian-rail.htm

I’ve thought about the Trans-Siberian railway since last time we were in China. We looked at it last summer but we decided to go home to Australia for a month instead. This time it’s our “last chance” so I am seriously considering it. The ticket prices if booked independently (as opposed to part of a “tour”) are reasonable. We plan to travel to Beijing, then overnight to Ullaanbaator in Mongolia, where we are super keen to stay in a Ger. I found a short stay option that looks really cool – with Stone Horse Mongolia It is 3 days with a local family. A cool blog about the stay here (also worth reading the rest of Rachel’s Trans-Sib trip). I have a friend in UB from my Rotary GSE exchange back in 2013, and it would be cool to catch up with her.

From Mongolia we would travel on to Irkutsk, where our plan is to stay on Olkhon Island (great info on this site).

Our biggest challenge is obtaining visas. As we have Chinese Temporary Residency, we are eligible to apply for our Russian and Mongolian visas in China, but we would have to do this on a weekday, in Beijing. It’s a 1.5 hour flight to Beijing or a 5 hour train journey. And we would have to travel back 5 or 6 days later to collect. I searched for agencies who could do this on our behalf, but the response was either “only for mainland Chinese” or “only for people who also book train tickets with us”.

In the end we decided that due to visa issues we would travel in China instead. We did have some success with Monkey Shrine travel agency, who were able to offer us a quote for “train tickets only” which worked out around Euro780 each (they didn’t offer child discount). This meant they would help obtain our visas. However the price tipped over our budget when they confirmed everything – 40euro per visa application per person, and a 65euro per person “late notice” supplement. I think their service was reasonable, but this was before I had even started looking at hotels, or travel from Moscow onward.

Special mention for the unfailingly useful Man in Seat 61 site I do not know how that guy does it. My “go-to” site for train travel, anywhere in the world.

Paper in the Monkey year

We’ve had a hectic month. Given the crazy flight costs and that I am potentially unemployed come July, I decided to stay closer to home for out Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) holiday, and had thought we might do a short trip to Seoul to explore their hanji paper in the middle. Fortunately I didn’t book any flights, as we both came down with a shocking flu. One of the worst I can remember. We were bedridden for 4 days straight, which the locals celebrated by releasing tones of fireworks, from around 6am until 10 at night. When we finally recovered we were able to stagger into the city for a couple nights in fancy hotels, but our plans of heading to Korea faded.

Around the same time I’ve received disheartening responses from every university in Australia where I’d hoped to enrol in a research degree. Tasmania never replied, despite multiple attempts. CDU sent me a copy/paste of their website, telling me to identify a supervisor, which would be fine if they put any identifying information about staff online! Not even an email address…

University of Newcastle were the most promising, and I received a lot of advice and direction, AND they have an onsite paper mill.  However the artistic lecturer I found was not qualified to be sole supervisor, and although half a dozen others expressed interest in the project, none of them felt qualified to take me on as a candidate. The art lecturer also indicated that I should gain more practical experience, and I feel this may have influenced the rejections. He is right, so I have decided I should focus on this for now, and come back to the research at a later date.

The problem is, I live in a backwater in China. I can’t find supplies here to create a home studio. I have the blender and frames, felt and etceteras, but cannot find the mesh. Intensely frustrating. So far the onlmy practical experience I’ve had were two goes at elephant poo paper parks in Thalamd. It was fantastic, and I’m so desperate to get started on making all my mistakes so I can be closer to being an expert craftsman, it kills me! I’m hoping the upcoming Easter break will provide an opportunity. I’m looking at washi paper in Japan, hanji in Korea, Thailamd again, or visiting the Miao or Dai ethnic groups in south China.

Zoo Praha

On the advice of our AirBnB host we set out for Prague Zoo. We switched trams to take us through the Jewish and Old towns as we still haven’t managed to visit either. With the sun out and boats on the water I can see the reasons people fall in love with Prague we’ve missed out on by staying out in the ‘burbs.

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It took over an hour to reach the zoo, which was annoying. Fortunately we splurged the extra kronen for 90 minute tickets. We spent 20 minutes wandering between tram stop 17 (which terminated) and the 112 bus. We spied family groups and followed them to the station. A hot bus ride later (what is that all about?) we arrived at the hot zoo sans hat and sunglasses. The former because I’m an idiot and the latter…well, same reason really. At least we had sunscreen and water so not a complete #parentingfail

Zoo entry 200kzc adults and 150 for kids. Teller took my card and paywaved it, which fortunately worked! I’d downloaded the pdf map on advice from Tripadvisor, but there are maps around, and occasionally signs. We still managed to get lost but that was okay as we saw everything. It’s fairly open plan – lots of electric fences at kiddy height – and (possibly the highlight of the trip for both of us) people are allowed to bring their pet dogs. M because she adores dogs and has a heart attack every time one appears, and me because I just could not believe it. Surely this is not sound practice??

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Lunch was cool – we stopped at the bistro near the African section and got 2 meals and possibly the best cider (Kingswood?) I have ever had on tap for 210kzc (about $AU10).

The only thing that could top this would be wifi, and there are hotspots but they have passwords and signs are all in Czech. The first zoo where the Latin names have made more sense…

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Make sure you check out the lemurs, who have no regard for zoo fences. And their rather shabbily dressed (wearing flip flops!) zoo keeper.