Re-Post: Honeymoon In Marrakesh (Part 2)

This is the second part of a re-post, in 1595 words.

The next day, we went to look at the Koutoubia, and the gardens that surround it. Due to the celebration of Ramadan, the whole area was full of sleeping worshippers, resting during their time of fasting, and awaiting the call to prayer. We did not go into the Mosque, but walked around the gardens, which were dry in the heat.

We then went to explore the extensive market, set around the main square. This is a maze of tiny stalls and shops, most of which are selling the same things; souvenirs of Morocco, and different types of clothing. There were also spice and juice stalls, and a range of fruit sellers as well. The dreaded mopeds were much in evidence, buzzing in and out of the passages between the shops, occasionally bumping you, as they tried to wriggle past.

It was all much as you might imagine. Exotic at first, but with endless haggling, and shop owners pestering, until you soon tired of it all. We retreated to the oasis of our hotel, to relax by the pool with a cold drink.

The following morning, we took an open top bus tour, supposedly the best way to see the sights in and around the city, with some stops further afield in what was essentially a palm-tree desert. This was actually very amusing. There were so few tourists, the bus was presumably running at a loss. As a result, there was no guide commentary, and the headphone commentary advertised on the side was also notable by its absence.

The young lady supposed to be guiding spent the whole time downstairs talking to the driver. We were left to work out for ourselves what we were seeing, with the aid of a map in the tour brochure. We did make the most of the hop-on-hop-off facility though, so managed to see a fair bit of the area, including the famous Marjorelle Gardens and a stunning view of the Atlas Mountains surrounding the city.

Elementor #19753

The bus returned when it was supposed to at least, so we were thankful for that. The older parts of the city within the walls of the medieval Medina were a real delight, and exactly what we had hoped to see. With the lack of tourists, life was going on much as normal, so we were able to see the place as it should be seen, and not just as one giant gift shop.

The hotel staff had recommended two places to visit in the evening, as an alternative to eating in the hotel. One was a swish-looking courtyard restaurant, some distance away in the ‘new city’. This restaurant also featured in our small guide book, and was advertised in a ‘Marrakesh’ magazine we obtained. The other was an evening of folklore and entertainment at an all-inclusive price, with collection and return to the hotel included. We reserved both, though we had serious doubts about the evening of folklore, at a place called ‘Chez Ali’. The staff were insistent that it was a great evening, with unlimited food and drink, and lots to see and do. I imagined a large restaurant, with dancers and musicians.

We went to the nice small restaurant first, having negotiated a return taxi fee with a Mercedes driver who constantly parked outside the hotel, and who was recommended by the staff. (Undoubtedly on a commission) The place did not let us down. After a high-speed journey across most of the city, the taxi dropped us off, arranging to collect us later. He said the staff would call him on a mobile when we were ready.

The restaurant was excellent. We had drinks in the courtyard before going in for our meal, the interior set off by an indoor pool, and beautiful lighting. With superb service, and first-rate food, it was the ideal romantic evening for a honeymoon night out. The higher prices there were about the same as they would have been in London, as was the taxi fare. We got back to the hotel in time for a late drink around the pool, and reflected on a marvellous night out.

Two nights later, we were collected by minibus, to be taken to Chez Ali. We were the only passengers, and discovered that the driver would also serve as a guide, wait for us during the evening, and collect us after the entertainment. Another long drive began, this time into the desert away from all built-up areas. After some time, we asked the driver how much longer it would be, and were surprised to hear that it was still at least fifteen minutes away. We soon spotted what could only be our destination, lit by rows of coloured lights, a good five minutes before we arrived. The size of a small town, Chez Ali was actually a huge complex, surrounded by old walls, and entered by a long driveway.

As we got to the car park, our hearts sank as we saw dozens of coaches and umpteen minibuses, all jostling for space to drop off hundreds of people. It was like going to a football match, to have dinner. The driver told us not to worry, that it would be very nice, and that he would guarantee that we got a very good place. He was obviously in the know, as he was soon chatting to the door staff, and whisking us along -via a ‘photo opportunity’- to our tent where we would be served the meal. What followed, was a far from pleasurable experience, only saved by our sense of humour.

Inside the place, there were dozens of tents, all lined up along something resembling a ‘main street’. There were literally hundreds of harassed staff, suitably dressed in various versions of traditional clothing. Musicians played to welcome us, and our guide took us into a well-lit tent, the size of a circus big top. The first problem was that we were not part of a group. It appeared that it was very rare for couples to book this trip, and all the other tourists, from every country in the world seemingly, were in large groups of twenty or more. As the only couple, we were taken to a table at the head of the tent, and seated separately from the others.

Everyone looked at us, with that look that is a cross between ‘are they celebrities?’, and ‘who do they think they are?’. The food and drink arrived. It was an enormous bowl, containing meat that we thought might be chicken, vegetables roasted to extinction, and piles of rice and potatoes. It was pretty repulsive, and we felt the need to record it on video. We had to eat some at least, and some bread, as we had saved our appetite all day for the anticipated feast. The fruit, brought as a dessert, looked like what was left after the market had closed, and packed away for the night.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the entertainment began. Groups of musicians, dancers, and singers, did the rounds of all the tents, repeating their party piece for each one in turn. By the time it got to us, we had already heard it from the tent next door. It was also all so loud, it was impossible to hear yourself think. This was not a terribly expensive excursion, so it may sound churlish to complain. It was just that it had been built up to us as something very different, so we were disappointed. But at least we were laughing!

After the food was cleared away, we followed the crowds towards a large open area, with tiered seating. It was completely dark by now, so the dramatic son-et-lumiere that followed was surprisingly effective. There were various tableaux of historical re-enactments and parades, culminating in a display by riders dressed as Berber tribesmen, firing guns as they rode their ponies around the arena at breakneck speed. It might have been worth the trip, just to see the historical events in the arena. Might have been, but not really. We were pleased to be making our way back to the hotel soon after, happy to put the whole evening down to experience. One we would not be repeating. Here is a link, if it sounds like something you might enjoy.
http://www.moroccotriptravel.com/activity-fantasia-dinner-show-moroccan-folklore-chez-ali.html

The last couple of days in Marrakesh were spent peacefully relaxing around the hotel, which had returned to its former state of calm after the weekend invasion by the trippers from Europe. That had not turned out to be at all bad, as there were still not enough guests to make the hotel feel crowded.

The evening before we were due to leave, we went to the market to engage the services of a horse and carriage for a gentle tour of the old city. We had been advised to haggle, but I took just one banknote, worth slightly less than £18, and said to the driver (in French) “This is all we have left, we go home to England tomorrow.” He accepted this tactic, and we set off for almost an hour of gentle driving around the area. This was definitely the way to see the place in comfort, and far better than the bus, or walking. It was also the perfect romantic ending to a memorable honeymoon.

I have no connection with the hotel where we stayed, but I will add this link to their website, so you can see for yourselves just how nice it is. If you are ever considering a trip to Marrakesh, it is one to put on your list.

http://www.lesjardinsdelakoutoubia.com/fr/hotel-luxe-marrakech

Re-Post: Honeymoon In Marrakesh (Part 1)

I am reposting this from 2013, as not many of you have seen it. I Have divided the original very long post into two parts. This part is 1480 words. The second part will be posted tomorrow. There are no accompanying photos, as I was still using a film camera at the time.

I got married for the third (and last) time, in September 2009. We had a fairly traditional wedding, though in a hotel, rather than a church. It was a lovely day, and I will always have great memories of it. We decided to go on honeymoon to somewhere that neither of us had been to before. We had to consider the cost, as the wedding had used up some of the budget We thought that a week was long enough, so we could not go too far afield.

Places for consideration that would be new to both of us included Mexico, Cuba, Hong Kong, South Africa, and The Caribbean. These were rapidly ruled out, due to either the long flights involved, or the weather conditions in mid-September. North Africa looked promising, but I had been to Tunisia and Egypt before, which left Morocco as a good option. We had a choice of beach, probably Agadir, or inland, with Marrakesh as the most attractive prospect.

After some perusal on the Internet, and a flick through some brochures, we paid a visit to a large travel agent in Oxford Street, in London. As luck would have it, the agent had just returned from a junket in Marrakesh, and unhesitatingly recommended a hotel in the heart of the city. We looked at her suggestion online, and it really looked the part. It is called Les Jardins de la Koutoubia, as it is directly opposite the famous Koutoubia Mosque. The courtyard location, outdoor pool, and cool-looking terraces inside, all exuded Moorish style and architecture at its most desirable.

We decided to book independently, and get our own flights as well. Unfortunately, we were sorry to learn that Easyjet was the only airline with direct flights to Marrakesh. Other airlines go there, but they do so via other places first, putting hours on the journey. Undaunted, we booked with them, and arranged car parking at Gatwick. Holiday booked, we were suitably excited, and got on with the wedding plans. The hotel had been easy to arrange, and they even offered to collect us from the airport.

On the day, we found that it was not as bad as we had expected travelling with Easyjet, though we did make certain to comply with their notoriously draconian baggage regulations. On arrival at Marrakesh, we were pleased to see the promised good weather in evidence, and we were collected without fuss, for transfer to the hotel. We knew beforehand that Ramadan would be beginning when we arrived, and had expected this might cause some problems with cafes and restaurants being open, and possible restriction of service in the hotel. This was not the case at all, as the touristic nature of the place means that only the locals have to endure the privations of this religious season.

Arriving at the hotel, we could have been forgiven for being disappointed. The small driveway leading to the entrance was full of cars, and some very run-down looking workshops. The few shops looked to be stacked with unappealing goods, and a long wall running along the right side, gave no indication of the city beyond it.

Once through the unprepossessing entrance, all fears melted. It was simply wonderful. The reception was cool and shaded, and was home to one of the largest vases of red roses that I have ever seen. The cloistered courtyard, with the serene pool surrounded by sunbeds and relaxing leather chairs, was an early indication of the service and luxury to come. When we were shown to our room, we were not unhappy either. Everything we could have wanted was there. From a huge bed, to lovely Moroccan decor and fittings, as well as a TV if we desired to catch up on the news, and a balcony looking directly over to the Mosque that gave the place its name.

Also in view were the small but well-tended hotel gardens, and the half-size second pool. The hotel had an extensive underground spa facility housing its third pool, which was surrounded by dozens of candles, as well as lovely mood lighting, all providing a relaxing semi-darkness.

As we had opted for bed and breakfast only, we looked into the choice of the hotel’s three restaurants for our meal that evening. We had a choice of eating outside or in, and for the first evening, we chose the local food, stopping off first in the delightful old-fashioned bar, for a pre-dinner drink. The speciality of the house, the Koutoubia Cocktail, was the first on our list, and delicious it was too. The staff were all exceptionally friendly, and we learned that there would be few other guests until the weekend, when French and Spanish visitors arrived for just two days. The whole hotel felt half-empty, and in a good way, as we almost had it to ourselves; the perfect honeymoon location.

The meal was excellent, and I thought that we should explore after dinner. Leaving the hotel, I decided that the landmark of the Mosque would serve as a beacon, so we could not get lost. I thought that we should turn right, to look for the famous ‘Night Market’ in Djeema El Fna, the main square, which is also the main attraction of Marrakesh.

As someone who normally has a good sense of direction, I let myself down that evening.

Turning right, we entered what can only be described as the ‘Kwik-Fit’ district of the city. Every shop front seemed to be involved in the roadside repair and servicing of some of the thousands of mopeds that buzzed around the place. The pavements were clogged with vehicles, tyres, spare parts, and busy mechanics. The locals gave us quizzical looks, and it was impossible to make progress on the pavements, forcing us into the very dangerous roads.

Traffic is something not mentioned in the tourist guides. If you are considering a visit, then give traffic some serious thought. Crossing a road is almost impossible, and potentially suicidal; add to that the mopeds, and there are seemingly unlimited numbers of them, all appearing to try to run you down. They drive at you along the road, along the pavement, down alleys, across squares, even inside shops. In fact, anywhere you happen to be, or want to go, you will have to contend with moped riders whose one rule seems to be, ‘take no prisoners’.

After some time moped-dodging, we had still not come across the market. I carried on further, into the heart of the old town, passing tiny Mosques, bijou hammams, women-only bath-houses, and some Medresas. (Koran schools) It was a fascinating glimpse of real local life, but time was getting on, and we had still not found the market. We were hot and tired, and Julie was uneasy, as low rooftops and canopies now hid the Koutoubia Mosque from view, losing me my point of reference.

We were saved from further embarrassment by the arrival of a small group of street urchins. Probably no older than nine or ten, they latched onto us, and one of them said the magic words, ‘Night Market?’ I said yes, and they indicated that they would show us the way, by following them at the fast pace of a fit young child. It felt like a route march, and took some considerable time. There was always the possibility that they were leading us along some back alley, in the hope of robbing us, but I was not unduly concerned, as they seemed friendly, and the place did not feel remotely threatening.

After what seemed like an hour, but was probably twenty minutes, I saw the reassuring shape of the Koutoubai Mosque ahead, and moments later, they led us into the Night Market. Just to our left, perhaps ten feet away, behind that large wall, was our hotel! We had been within throwing distance of the square as we had gone out, and I had turned right instead of left! They asked for a reward, but as I had only large denomination notes, I gave them some small change, about 30p.

This was considered an insult, and they asked for cigarettes as well. Luckily, I had a packet spare, and handed them over gratefully. (This leads me on to something else about Morocco. It is a place for smokers. Smoking is allowed everywhere, in hotels, bars, and cafes. Some have non-smoking areas, but none were smoke free, at least in 2009. For a smoker, it is a paradise.) The Night Market was impressive, but we were too tired to enjoy it then, and resolved to return the next evening. This visit would be a lot easier, as it was only yards from the hotel, after all…

Re-Post: A Trip To China (Part Two)

This is a re-post of the second part of my visit to China in 2000.It is a long post, at 2,900 words.

By the end of the first week, I had more unusual experiences to recount. I had been for a meal in a Turkish restaurant, in China! It was different, to say the least, being served traditional Turkish fare, by Chinese waiters and waitresses. They even had the large Shisha pipes available, as well as totally authentic coffee. If it had not been for the staff, and the view from the window, we might well have been in Ankara. We had also been out with the previously mentioned hedonist, the Turkish friend, businessman, and ‘diplomat’. I got the feeling that he was a shady character, underneath his urbane, party-going exterior. If Turkey has the equivalent of the CIA, I would bet my car he was in it.

We went to his large house for drinks, before going out to eat. He had a ‘houseboy’, and other servants, and I was amazed at his ability to drink huge amounts of whisky without any apparent affect on his demeanour. He then took the whole group of us to a Japanese Teppanyaki restaurant, in a very smart area of the city. This was a really exclusive place, and served delicious food cooked in front of you, on sizzling griddles. I ate until I burst, as everything was so tasty. At the end of the night, this unusual man covered the whole bill, for everyone. When we left, he invited us to accompany him to a bar the following week, and my friend accepted on our behalf.

The weekend excursion was arranged through the Turkish Embassy, a family trip by small coach, to last all day Sunday, and including lunch. We left the apartment early, to get to the embassy by taxi for 8am. There was a group of around ten people there already, and I was introduced all round, instantly forgetting everyone’s name. I was also told the name of the place we were going to; a park in the hills, with amusements for the children, scenic views and country walks, and a hilltop restaurant. They had been before, as it was a popular summer day out for the more affluent Chinese, as well as foreign residents. I had forgotten the name of it, so looked it up; Muianyu. This is now called The Great Wall Slide, as on the way down, you can see a section of the Wall, at some distance. It was not called this when I went there, at least I don’t remember that.

This place is about fifty miles outside Beijing, so we got to see some countryside at last. On arrival, we went up the hillside on a cable car, that was a bit like a ski lift. The restaurant at the top was basic, but we had a lunch booked, and enjoyed a set meal in excellent weather. The small rides and amusements were very old-fashioned, and only for smaller children. I don’t think that they are there anymore. We walked around a bit, but did not get close enough to the Wall, as we had not arranged to go to this section. For our group, the attraction (apparently) was the ride back down the hillside, on the famous slide.

This is more like a toboggan run, the sort you see in the Olympics, though more sedate. That said, it does reach a fair speed at times, and the individual toboggans are supplied with a large brake lever, to slow you down. I was encumbered with an enormous, overstuffed camera bag, that I had to wedge in between my legs. I cannot recall seeing any of the Wall at any time on the way down, as I was preoccupied with not crashing into the rider in front. I did enjoy it, but this was marred to some degree by getting covered in thick grease from the brake gears. As this sounds a little crazy, I have included a video clip from You Tube, showing what it is like. It takes over five minutes to descend, and it seems a long time, as you are clattering down.

The next week started with a suggestion that I ought to arrange some trips for myself, as my friends were busy for a couple of days. I went over to one of the big hotels, and asked about a trip to the Great Wall at Badaling, and the Ming Tombs combined. I was assured that it would be a small group, only ten people, and we would have an English-speaking guide. It would last all day, from 7am, and lunch would be provided, with an afternoon stop for refreshments too. At less than $30US, I thought it was OK, so booked up for the following day. I had an early start, and met my group outside the hotel. I was the only English person, along with two Japanese, three French people, and four Chinese tourists, from other parts of China.

The minibus headed out of the city for the long trip ahead, and I got to see more of the China I had anticipated. Small villages, roadside shops and stalls, and a look at the agricultural lands outside the built-up areas. It was very hot, and I started to feel a little unwell. The rich food, heavy drinking, and constantly being on the move, was getting to me a bit. By the time we arrived at the Ming Tombs, I was not feeling too good. I told the guide to go in without me, and waited in the shade, with a cold drink from the cafeteria there. I was sorry to miss it, after coming all this way, but I had nobody to support me, and felt that I might pass out, or disgrace myself by being sick. I had to content myself with a wander around the edges, and some of the sights there. It proved to be a wise move, as by the time they got back, I was re-hydrated, and feeling much better.

We pushed on to The Great Wall, and it was worth the effort. This was a section that I had not seen on TV travel shows, and consisted of small forts, or bastions, connected by long stretches of the Wall. I was unprepared for both the sheer scale of it, and also the incredible steepness of the stepped sections. After being shown around some of the first parts, we went for lunch in a lovely old building, with an airy terrace where we could get some relief from the 38 degree heat and humidity. The guide then told us that we had two hours to explore, before leaving on the journey home.

I suffered badly, mainly from taking too much camera kit. My large Billingham bag was stuffed to capacity. I had three camera bodies, five lenses, a flash, two power winders, as well as an assortment of accessories, filters, and ten rolls of film. In the heat, on the near vertical steps, it became very difficult to manage. Ironically, I shot almost every picture with a Canon T90, on a 24mm wide-angle lens. I could just as well have left everything else behind, and I was taught a valuable lesson that day. The Wall was a sight to behold. It stretched as far as the eye could see. At one stage, I put a 400mm telephoto on the camera, with a x2 converter, just to see how far it went. I needn’t have bothered, as I later realised that it followed the contours of the hills and mountains for hundreds of miles of course.

I had to keep resting, because of the heat, and also from searching for photo opportunities that didn’t show too many other tourists, which was difficult. When it was time to leave, I was very pleased that I had seen it, as there could be nothing like this anywhere else on the planet. The afternoon stop was at a cafe that was part of a shopping ‘opportunity’, somewhere that sold expensive Jade souvenirs, and other carved items. I didn’t buy anything, but presumed that the guide must be on commission, as he tried so hard to get us to purchase things.

The rest of the evening at the flat was very peaceful, with a visit from another Turkish diplomat who came for dinner. After he left, we spent some of the time on the small balcony, getting the cooler air, and drinking Jack Daniels, chatting about the old days in London. When I went to bed, I put on the noisy but welcome air-conditioning unit, and slept like a baby.

I decided to stay in the city for my next trip, which was to be to the Temple of Heaven. Situated in a large park in the Chongwen district, this was about as far from my friend’s place as you could get, so I decided to take a taxi. I showed the driver a picture of the temple, from a tour leaflet, and he took me straight to the entrance. I bought a ticket to go in, and looked at a map on a board there. I suddenly realised that the place was vast, and actually covers an area larger than the Forbidden City. There are various temples, including the iconic building seen in so many photos of Beijing. The grounds are full of the most amazing trees, and it is all very peaceful there, despite a considerable number of tourists. I spent a couple of hours there, taking in the most impressive sights. I could easily have stayed the whole day, as there was so much to see.

Opposite the gate was a modern indoor market, full of local people shopping. I crossed the road, and went inside, finally coming face to face with real life in China. There were no tourists or foreigners there, and no prices or signs in other languages. The sights, sounds and smells were wonderful, and I saw everything for sale, from strange live amphibians (for eating), to jewellery. I bought a small piece of jade jewellery as a gift, once again bargaining with the help of an electronic calculator.

Leaving the market by a different entrance, I resolved to walk back, at least to see how far I got. I had travelled from east to south-west in the city, so I reasoned that a right turn would do to start with. I was soon wandering inside the fascinating Hutong district. This quarter had remained unchanged for hundreds of years. The Hutongs were small dwellings, with outside taps, shared toilets, and no bathrooms. The families lived in one or two rooms, in a communal fashion. Were it not for the modern clothes, I felt that I could have been wandering around in the seventeenth century. People looked at me suspiciously, unused to tourists.

Before the Olympics, eight years later, the government demolished many of these dwellings, and forcibly re-housed the occupants. They did not want the outside world to think that people still lived that way, in modern China. Some remain, and are now a tourist attraction. I walked around a large area, as I was no longer carrying all my camera gear, having restricted myself to one camera, and one lens for the day. I did get a bit lost, but in a good way, as I later found myself out on the main thoroughfare again, approaching Tianenmen Square from the west. It was more by luck than judgement though, I am sure. By the time I arrived back, I had been walking all day, including the trip home from the park, which took just under three hours. I was pleased with myself though, as I had got off the tourist trail and managed to find my way around, unable to ask for help from anyone.

Other trips that week included the TV tower, a very high building affording great views over the whole city, and a trip to a different market, a special souvenir market, run by local people selling lots of interesting memorabilia from the Maoist era. I did buy a fair bit of stuff, including a classic ‘Mao’ hat, a ‘little red book’ in Chinese, and a nice assortment of posters and painted ceramics. I had to leave it at that, as I needed to cram all this extra stuff into my suitcase.

We then went out for the evening trip with the Turkish diplomat, arranged the previous week. It was just the three men, and we started off once again with drinks at his house. He then took us to the Sanlitun district, where I had been during the day. At night it was very different, with flashy bars and night clubs, all catering to well-off foreigners, and the more affluent Chinese. He was well-known everywhere, and relished his popularity. This was soon evident, when he was draped in a couple of Mongolian prostitutes, within minutes of arrival. I declined the offers of some of their friends. I wasn’t being prudish, I just found them unattractive; their gaudy make-up, and incredibly flat faces didn’t ring my bell. They did seem very popular with most of the men there though, and I was told that they were ‘incredibly good value’.

My friend and I spent most of the evening buying pirate DVD films from vendors who came into the bars. They had every film imaginable, and at $1US each, I couldn’t resist. Most of them played well when I got them back to London, though the three rows of subtitles, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Indonesian, did get wearing, after a while. We eventually left the mysterious Turk alone with his girls, and got a taxi home. I didn’t see him again, and I wasn’t sorry. Despite his generosity, I felt uneasy around him.

Before departing for home, my friend’s Chinese boss insisted on taking us out for dinner. She viewed me as a kind of visiting dignitary, and despite telling her that I was only a Paramedic in London, in a very normal job, she seemed to imagine I was some sort of government executive. Anyway, her sense of hospitality would not allow her to let my visit go uncelebrated. She took us to the famous duck restaurant, Quanjude. Arranged over seven floors, and able to seat 2,000 diners at a time, this is one of the most famous restaurants in China. With the menu in Chinese, she ordered for all of us, telling me that we would have numerous courses, which would all be different styles of duck. It was a veritable duck feast.

We had it roasted, boiled, in a terrine, a soup, and fried with noodles and ginger. There were also the shredded duck pancakes, as well as duck livers, and other offal. I managed it all, and found it delicious, with the exception of duck feet. These were served as you might imagine, webbed and clawed, as if they had just been severed from the unfortunate bird, and fried. They were almost impossible to eat, with a texture like rubber bands. The Chinese diners actually ripped them apart with their teeth, but I had no appetite for these, and after sucking them politely for a while, left them on my plate. It was a very enjoyable evening though, and a great experience.

After paying the entire bill, the lady mentioned that she would be in London early the following year, and that I could return the favour.

(I am pleased to report here, that I did just that. I collected her from her Knightsbridge hotel, and took her to a specialist English Food restaurant in Bayswater. One very strange evening, I can tell you. She asked me what was good, and I recommended a few dishes, so she ordered them all. Unaware of the starter/main course tradition, she expected to get a variety of small dishes. I didn’t have the heart to correct her, and she must have wondered what was going on, when it all arrived at once. She did manage to eat most of it though, so full marks to her. I spoke to her that evening about how we found eating small dogs distasteful, as they were so loyal, and we had them as pets. She thought about this for a while and then said, ‘But you eat baby sheep’, before forking in her next mouthful. Back in Beijing, she told my friend that she had really enjoyed the evening, and that she found me interesting company.)

My trip came to a close, with a taxi to the airport, where I had to wait in the ‘luxury lounge’ reserved for foreigners. This was the only place where smoking was allowed, and all drinks and snacks were sold at an extortionate price. A very small coffee was $5US, and it went up from there. It was their last chance to get your currency, I suppose. I had really enjoyed the trip, though it was more of an experience, than a holiday. I had met some nice people, some strange people, and eaten some fantastic meals, the like of which I have never seen since.

I am the first to admit that I did not see a great deal of this vast country, or a lot of the ‘real’ China that I had expected to encounter. But I was glad that I had gone, and even looking back today, I would do it all again.

Re-Post: A Trip To China (Part One)

I am reposting this from 2013, as so few of you will have ever seen it. It is a very long post, of 2,390 words.

I had always wanted to see China. Ever since watching films as a child, and later reading about Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, and others, it seemed a place of mystery, and home to a totally different idea of culture. Later interest in the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese invasion in the 1930’s, and the Communist dictatorship formed by Mao, and I was more than ready to go and see this legendary country. But it never happened.

Despite travelling to lots of other places, China had always seemed too daunting, too vast, and also too expensive. Over the years, I often wondered if I would ever get to see the Great Wall, The Forbidden City, and the other spectacles on offer.

In the late 1990’s, an old friend contacted me. He was working for an advertising agency, and he had been offered the management of the Audi contract, through an agency in Beijing. He was off to China, and he would be in touch, and let me know how it was there. His wife and son were going too, as it might be a long contract. After a period of settling in, and adjustment, he contacted me.

At the time, I was single, and living in London. I had recently moved to a flat in Camden, subsidised by being in my EMT job. I had a reasonable amount of savings, and a fair bit of disposable income, courtesy of that reasonable rent. I had two weeks holiday booked for September 2000, and with a bit of shift-jiggling, I could manage a few days either side as well. The world was my oyster, and I was looking to do something extravagant.

My friend suggested that I come to visit him in Beijing. He would put me up in his luxury high rise in the city centre. Although he would have to work, his wife would be around most days, (and I knew her already) and he would arrange some weekend trips, as well as some interesting evenings out after work. I made some enquiries, and found that I could fly direct, with British Airways, for around £700 return. With Visas, spending money, appropriate gifts for my friends, and a reasonable crop of souvenirs, I could definitely do fifteen days, for around £1500, maybe £2,000, at an excessive pinch. I decided to throw caution to the winds, and booked it all. I could never see a time in the future when I would have such an opportunity again. OK, it was ‘only’ Beijing, but as that was my first choice anyway, so what was the problem?

I went to Oxford Street, and booked a scheduled flight with British Airways, which came in at a shade under £650 for the chosen dates. I also applied for my visa, to be collected from the Chinese Consulate in Portland Place, a short walk from my flat. My friend was really happy that I was coming to visit. I went shopping in Camden, and bought his son a model car, and his wife some perfume. He would be content with booze, which I would get at the airport. I sorted my camera gear, ready for the photographic opportunity of a lifetime, and arranged all my leave, and finances.

When the day came, I was more than ready. I took a cab to Paddington Station, and the Heathrow Express out to the airport. It was nice to be travelling on a scheduled flight again, so much more civilised than some of the package tours that I had become accustomed to. It was a little disconcerting to be travelling alone, though the prospect of being collected by and staying with a good friend assuaged any concerns. The flight was long and uneventful, but very comfortable. My arrival in Beijing was exciting, but the time of day meant that my friend had to drop me at his flat and get off to work, arranging to meet four hours later for lunch.

I learned the first rule. Do not sit behind the cab driver with your window open. Despite a humid temperature in excess of 35 degrees, my old pal closed my window, and I soon discovered why. The Chinese spit. They do this constantly, and habitually. Everyone does it, from old men, children, housewives, to attractive young girls. All the time, day and night. Their culture demands spitting, to expel the things in their system that they believe are bad. They see nothing wrong with this, or with contaminating their walkways and paths with gobbets of spit. It is accepted, even encouraged. It is very different to what we regard to be acceptable behaviour, and it takes a great deal of getting used to.

I also discovered something else that I had not expected. Six-lane highways choked with cars, and wall to wall traffic. Tower block offices, western advertising signs, neon-lit garish illuminations. Subway, MacDonald’s, Starbucks, and any other Western-influenced product or establishment you can think of. Every high street bank familiar from the UK, and chain hotels from the same companies known so well here. I was left wondering what had happened to the China that I had imagined. I felt that I could have just as easily been in Chicago, or Hong Kong perhaps.

The flat, right in the heart of the business district, was luxurious. On the nineteenth floor, with panoramic views, tiled floors, and a well-staffed concierge entrance. I was taught my first words in Mandarin; ‘Neih Ho’, and ‘Shei Shei’. Hello, and thank you, both addressed to the immaculate staff in the foyer. I did not learn much more, save for something that sounded like ‘Jella Ting’, said to taxi drivers when you wanted them to pull over on the right. After settling in, I met my friend in Subway, of all places, for lunch. I told him that I was disappointed, that Beijing was too modern, too western. He assured me that I would see the ‘real’ China during my stay. He also told me about his contract and salary, and the fact that his Chinese female ‘boss’ was only earning $200 dollars a month, and she spoke three languages. She also supported her family on this salary, as well as running a new car, so she wasn’t doing too bad. However, this was only a tiny percentage of what he was getting, over $200,000 a year! So some indication of how economics worked there at the time. It was nice to see his wife and young son again, and we spent the first night in the flat, catching up.

The next day, his wife took me to the shopping district, and to a large department store. We went everywhere by taxi as it was very cheap, comparable to bus fares in the UK. I got cash from an ATM, a branch of my own bank in England, with the same pin number, and no formalities. I found the Yuan notes colourful, and the exchange rate was good. I bought cigarettes at half the price compared to England, and we went for a light lunch, in a reasonable outdoor restaurant that was acceptably cheap. Things that did prove to be expensive were red wine, and some western sweets that I bought for their son.

We ate at home again that night, and I was introduced to someone from the Turkish Embassy (my friend’s wife is Turkish) who was a heavy drinker, and a complete hedonist. My head was spinning, as here I was in China, and I was eating Turkish food, and getting drunk with an Englishman and a Turkish diplomat. I resolved to see more of the city, and decided that the next day would be spent exploring.

I started out early, and took the easy walk to Tianenmen Square. This was a long time after the televised demonstrations, and excessive reaction from the authorities, that have since given this place an infamous, rather than famous name. It is certainly huge, and home to many official buildings, heroic sculptures, and hundreds of tourists. I was a lone westerner that morning, and could feel what it was like to be so out of place. Opposite the square, the huge portrait of Chairman Mao, so often seen on TV, marks the entrance into the Forbidden City, the main destination for me that morning.

Built in the fifteenth century, this vast complex of almost 1,000 separate buildings was the Imperial Palace of Chinese emperors until 1924, when the last emperor was forced to leave. It has since been a museum, and an amazing one too. To go into detail would take a complete post in itself, but it is an overwhelming place that cannot all be seen in one visit, let alone one day. The entrance fee was very reasonable, and the large numbers of tourists, almost all Chinese, really did make it feel as if you were wandering around in a populated city, at the time of the Ming Dynasty.

The architecture is fully restored, and each level leads into the deeper depths of the city, to where the Imperial family would have resided. It is crammed with interesting statues and carvings, with the numerous buildings each housing exhibits. My camera was on overdrive, and I was so excited, I almost ignored the 35 degree heat that was sapping my energy. I stopped and bought water and a strange twisty bread confection from a vendor, and had a break. Carrying on later, I realised that I would never see it all, and even after almost five hours inside, I still felt that I had not done it justice.

On the way back in the late afternoon, I noticed how many cycles, mopeds, and motorcycles were on the roads, and alongside them too. They all seemed to be heavily laden, often having to be pushed instead of ridden, so high and wide were the loads. Crowds of brightly-uniformed children were getting off buses and coaches returning home from school, and street vendors were beginning to set up for the evening, in the streets around the main station. Crowds gathered around their stalls, which all seemed to be selling food. On closer examination, I realised that they were selling fried insects of some kind, grasshoppers, or similar. They were selling fast too, as hundreds of people walked around with the stiff paper cones, full of the crunchy creatures. And no, I was not tempted to try them.

As I strolled back to my friend’s flat in the business district, I took in the sights and sounds of the approaching rush hour. Thousands of people, and almost all of them, including children, and young women, spitting constantly. The traffic was already at fever pitch, and the strangely old-fashioned looking vans and trucks all belched black smoke into the sky. Looking across at the horizon, the pall of pollution was easy to see, hanging over the natural basin that Beijing is built in, like a cloud of low fog. I had to almost pinch myself. Here I was, wandering in Beijing, as if it was nothing. I could never have imagined this, thirty years earlier. It felt fantastic, but as I was alone, I had nobody to share it with. Perhaps the only downside to being a lone traveller, on that occasion.

That evening, we went to an expensive restaurant, housed on the penthouse floors of the same building my friend lived in. I was raving about my day, and how much I enjoyed this strange city. They were unhappy living there, they told me. They found the Chinese to be ‘difficult’, and were hoping for a transfer to somewhere else. They had not even bothered to visit the Forbidden City at that stage, though they did recommend a trip coming up that weekend that they had arranged, along with a group of diplomats from the Turkish Embassy and their families. I ate the best Chinese food that I had ever seen in that restaurant, though I confess to refusing a huge black scorpion, deep-fried, and offered as a complimentary starter. I just couldn’t do it. I had delicious braised eel, snake ‘cooked in its own blood’ (according to the translated menu), and various delicacies, best not elaborated on here. Other than the insects and arachnids, I did not refuse to try anything. We had numerous courses, and copious amounts of alcohol, and I went to bed thinking that it had been a great day indeed, one of the best ever.

The next morning, I took myself off to the famous street market, to buy souvenirs, and to get a feel of everyday life once again. I was a bit early, and many stalls and shops had not yet opened; but as soon as they saw me wandering around with a camera, and a presumably bulging wallet, they waved me in anyway. Disappointingly, most places specialised in clothes. Padded jackets, winter gloves and hats, ski wear, mittens, and waterproofs. This seemed strange in late summer, when I was sweltering, but this part of China does face harsh winters. I did buy a watch with Chairman Mao on it, his arms serving as hands. I still have it, but it no longer works, unfortunately. I had to haggle fiercely, even worse than in Egypt, or Istanbul. The start price was just laughable, hundreds of dollars. The whole transaction was carried out on a calculator, due to the language problems. After spending an eternity with this lady, I finally bought the watch for $10US, about £7 at the time. (My friends later told me that I was too easy, and should have paid no more than £1, but it was acceptable to me.)

I took a taxi to Sanlitun, the embassy district popular with ex-pats, to have coffee and lunch. Taxis were all metered, and no attempt was ever made to rip me off. If you gave the driver a tip, he would be very appreciative. Sometimes I could see them cruising the area, hoping to get me as a return fare, waving at me as they went past.

I had not even been there a week, and felt that I had seen and done so much. The rest of the trip will be covered in part two, otherwise this post will be far too long.

(Part Two to follow.)

Holidays At Home

The pandemic is still going to affect foreign travel, so it is a brave soul indeed who is prepared to book a holiday in some exotic location for 2021.

With much of the UK now in the same lockdown situation, holidaying in Britain might be the only option for many people used to seeking sun and excitement in foreign countries.

Fortunately, our own country does offer many places to enjoy, despite the unreliable weather.

But where to go?

I found this article online that has lots of suggestions. I have visited quite a few of the locations mentioned, but also discovered some I didn’t know about.

It does have some sponsored links, but they will be helpful on this occasion, so you can find out more.
(I get nothing for recommending this article, just so you know.)

https://www.stylist.co.uk/travel/the-ultimate-uk-bucket-list-britains-places-to-see-and-travel-to-before-you-die-travel-hot-spots-adventure-experiences/4688?utm_source=pocket-newtab-global-en-GB

Cleethorpes: A Deserted Beach

(All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them)

A trip north to the once genteel resort of Cleethorpes delivered something of a shock. Despite being end of season, the town was absolutely packed with tourists, and it took a very long time to find a car-parking space.

Dogs were not allowed on the beach until the end of the month, so we had to walk along the busy promenade with Ollie. Although the streets were full of people, the beach was almost deserted.

In the distance, I spotted what was left of some wartime fortifications.

The pier that once served as an elegant entertainment venue is now just a gigantic fish and chip shop.

It was a sunny and warm day, and we were able to find a good place for a delicious lunch later.

Kiddie Funfair: Mablethorpe

At the end of the season, there were few takers for these gentle rides at the rather sad-looking funfair.

(Both photos can be enlarged by clickling on them.)

These attractions have changed very little since I enjoyed them as a child in the 1950s. Only the paintwork is different.
(And the cost per ride of course)

I have warm nostalgia for British seaside towns, and don’t mind at all that some are unchanged.

Queen’s Park: Mablethorpe

On the recent holiday to Lincolnshire, we walked just over three miles to the nearby town of Mablethorpe. This rather down-market seaside resort is still very popular, and as well as a busy beach, it has an old fashioned park with a boating lake.

(All photos can be fully enlarged by clicking on them.)

The swan boats were all stored in the centre, as there was no boating going on, presumably because of Covid-19.

Someone was working on the red boats that day.

Back, but not quite

I returned from the short holiday yesterday, and I am happy to report that it was a success. It didn’t rain, and it was bright and sunny every day until Friday, when it turned cool in a strong sea breeze. In fact, the small ‘cabin’ was so nice, I have booked it again for the same week next year. Let’s hope I am still around to enjoy it!

Unfortunately, I am not able to keep up with any blog posts that arrived while I was away, and have had to delete all the notifications in a very packed email folder. I wil do my best to start from scratch next Monday. Next week I will also compile all the parts of the last serial, ‘Vera’s Life’, into one complete story.

The dining area floor is being laid from tomorrow, so I have a couple of days of disruption to deal with first.

Ollie.

Ollie adjusted well to the change. He particularly enjoyed the good-sized porch, which enabled him to watch the world go by in the hotel garden. Almost everyone had a dog, and that gave him some canine friends to check out too. Once his bed was placed outside on that porch, he would happily lay on it all day, just watching the comings and goings. Anyone interested in seeing what they are like can use this photo gallery link.
https://www.bacchushotel.co.uk/gallery.php?gallery_category=log_cabins
However, his lack of energy and vitality is becoming increasingly apparent every day now. A three-mile walk on a warm day along the seafront to the next town of Mablethorpe almost wiped him out, and we had to bring him back on a bus. His first bus journey!

These photos taken on a phone show him looking his age, and upset me greatly.

From now on, his regular walks are going to have to be a lot shorter, and he will be in need of more attention and affection.

As for me, the break made me realise just how much time I spend blogging, to the detriment of everything else I should be doing. I am rethinking my future about blogging, and may be posting considerably less in the weeks to come.

Best wishes to all, Pete.