Thursday, December 22, 2005

I can see me from here!!!

Check out the 'Clustrmap' on the sidebar. It shows where all of the readers of this blog are from. Click on it for a more detailed view. Now we can see who wants to find info about what I'm blogging about, or at least the part of the world they are from.

If you want to get one for your own blog or site just go here and follow the prompts. Its easy as pie.

I reckon it will be interesting to find out the whearabout of people who are interested in what I have to say.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

CITS - A Sometimes Helpful Hand

Who are they?
CITS (or China Tourism Service) were once a state owned and run company who were pretty much the only travel company you could deal with when travelling within China. Now, since China has opened up, CITS have become a private company. They are the biggest travel company in China and the chances are that if you are travelling independantly in the region you will need to deal with them in at some stage.

So are they any use?
Well, that varies from place to place. Generally they are average when compared to other companies but in some cities they are really good.

The best office we encountered was the one in Datong. They seemed like conmen at first the way they tried to grab us as we were getting off the train but they turned out to be very helpful indeed.

The worst office was in Xi'An. They were ignorant and rude (a rare thing in China) and charged extortionate rates for everything.

The office in Yangshou, although helpful, was more expensive than other travel companies in the town.

I will rate the CITS office in each town as I blog about them later.

What do they do?
They can book accomodation for you and are a good resource if you have just arrived in town and have nowhere to stay. They can get good discounts at local hotels and guesthouses (though you can always bargain a discount at hotels for yourself too), even at places where you have been told there are no vacancies.

They block-buy train tickets in all classes, which they will sell back to you with a small markup (some offices have quite a high markup). This can be a lifesaver if for whatever reason you couldn't make it to the station in tome to book one for yourself.

They also organise trips and tours of areas of interest in the region which will have an English speaking guide. However, you may be able to get a similar tour organised via your guest house or hotel for less. Check them all out before you commit to one because there can be quite a difference in price. Alternatively you can get there independantly on public transport, which will be cheaper but will probably involve an indirect route and a longer journey overall.

I'm sure there's probably someone somewhere who mayhave had a good or bad experience with CITS. Please let us all know via the comments section.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Chinese Train Tips

Despite what your guidebook may tell you, train journeys in China are quite easy to organise. All it takes is persistance and patience, oh, and money. Most journeys are epic (China is deceptively huge) and surprisingly comfortable if you're willing to pay a little more for a sleeper cabin, especially for overnighters. Being sure of getting some sort of sleep is worth the extra money. The last thing you want is to arrive at your new destination too tired to enjoy anything after an night of cramped seating, crying babies and inquistive locals.

One thing to keep in mind is that train tickets in China only go on sale three days before the train leaves, so you have to be quick!! You'll have to book early to be sure of getting a seat. If your Mandarin Chinese is not too great (like mine was) you can simply write down what you want by using the language section in the back of your guide book. The tellers always appreciate that you went to the effort and are then eager to help you. If you start blabbering on in English and they have no clue what you are saying then they will simply gesture you aside and attend to the next person in the que. They simpy don't have the time, and when you see the ques you'll understand why.

Sometimes there may be someone working at the train stations who has some sort of English. Thier desk will have a sign above it saying "English". Use them if you can, obviously. If you can't make it to the train station in to book them for yourself you might be able to get your hotel or guesthouse to book them for you for a small fee.

All in all train journeys in China are a good experience, although you may encounter the odd bad tempered attendant who just won't open the toilet no matter how nice you are to them. One way around this is wait until they fall asleep (they always do) then use your trusty penknife to open it for yourself. Make sure you close it afterwards though. Or you could leave it open and freak the attendant out!!

You'll undoubtedly end up with some Chinese people sitting with you, even if you get a cabin as there are four berths to a cabin, and they will always be very interested in you and your belongings. Those who have some English are always eager to talk you and they'll giggle with pride when you understand them. Of course it can be fun trying to communicate when no one has any idea what you are saying - I once had an hour long conversation with a guy in our berth using the language section in the back of the guidebook - but usually they want to look at your books, find out what you do for a living and what's your opinion of China. Another guy got highly offended when I was discussing the exchange rate between the Euro and the Yuan. he couldn't believe that Yuan was worth so little. Rather than insult the poor guy I backtracked and pretended I had gotten the rate wrong. He was satisfied with that and didn't thump me one.

They love their country, and rightly so. It is truly a wonderful and unique place.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Beijing = Fantastic

Beijing is truly a Great city. Big, bustling, friendly and Beautiful. It's a great introduction to China. If you are of Western Origin you will stick out like a sore thumb and be the centre of attention for your whole trip with people staring, pointing and laughing at how unbelieveably strange you look.

Stay Here:
The Far East International Youth Hostel - No. 90 Tieshu Xiejie, Xuanwu District. Probably one of the bset places to stay in Beijing. Its right in the middle of one of the last surviving Hutongs - a smelly, old and very friendly area full of life and character with lots of markets and little nooks and crannys to explore. Tienamen Square is only 10 minutes walk, 5 if you take a rickshaw. The Hostel has recenly been refurbished and, as well as the usual dorms where the backpackers stay, there is a new building across the street of around 3 star hotel standard with fantastic rooms, a restaurant, bar and a very good trip organiser. A double room en-suite will set you back around $12 (US). Comparitvely you can share a dorm, bathroom and shower with 10 people across the street for $8 (US) per night. I know where I'm staying!!

Do this:
Go to the Great Wall. You can easily do it in a day trip or two. Arguably one of the best routes to take along the wall is the walk from Jinsanling to Simatai (about 10km). This is an unspoiled and less touristy part of the wall. Some sections are in some disrepair to say the least, but that just adds to the authenticity. The scenery is quite spectacular too. The travel desk in the Hostel can organise reasonably priced transport to and from the wall. You might need to pay a small entry fee if the officials are on duty. Don't go to Badaling to see the wall, if not for the simple fact that the wall is actually a fake reconstruction, then for the fact that there is a ferris wheel and carosel in a fairground at the entrance. 'Nuff said.

Of course there is plenty to do in Beijing itself. No trip would be complete without visits to The Forbidden City, The Summer Palace and the Temple of Heavan, all of which can be done by yourself with no need for a guide as there is ample information on everything within each of the grounds in about 7 different languages. You can even rent Roger Moore as a guide for the day. Well, at least his voice anyway. Mini MP3 players with his voice can act as your guide and can be rented at the entrances.

Other things I would recommended to see would be a Gymnastics show and a Chinese Opera, bith highly entertaining and reasonably priced. In fact, just wandering around the streets is entertaiment in itself. There is so much going on.

Eat and Drink Here:
Eat anywhere!! The food in Beijing is some of the best in China. It will cost you next to nothing and every restaurant pretty much serves the same thing. The best and most reasonable places (which will serve everything including fantastic steamed dumplings and Beijing Duck) can be found along Qienemen Daije, which runs south from Tienamen Square. For traditional tea check out the tea houses on Tieshu Xiejie, bustling yet relaxing at the same time.

The bars in the Hutong district are a far cry from anywhere in the western world and generally consist of a small room with a few wooden tables and chairs full of smoking men playing board games for money. If you end up in one of these places you won't be dissappointed as they are surprisingly cosy and welcoming. You will be the centre of attention. If you prefer more western style bars with cheesy disco music and (admittedly) a fun and youthful atmostphere then head to the student district around Beijing University where you will also be the centre of attention. Take the undergound metro from Tienamen Square. The staple alchoholic beverage in Beijing (and most of China) is Tsingtao which will set you back about $1 a bottle or less. You can get other drinks as well if you don't like beer but it'll cost a little more.


Friday, December 16, 2005

It's gonna cost me how much!?

"Thats it, I'm getting a loan."

These were pretty much my thoughts after I had discovered how much a trip around the world was gonna set me back.

I had somehow managed to get the time off work (I'm one of those lucky sods who can get a career break from work and still have the job when I get back. God Bless the Public Service). A year should suffice.

A gaint map of the world was hastily pinned up on the bedroom wall and a route was meticuloulsy pieced together with coloured twine and pins, mostly inspired by places that had impressed me on David Attenborough and National Geographic documentaries. All those years of watching them religiously with my Dad had finally paid off. I know what and where stuff is!!! A couple of less wild destinations were included too, mostly for the benefit of my girlfriend who was equally as inspired as I was, but less by action man adventure and more by shopping and relaxation. Compromise is a must when you're travelling with someone else.

Guide books were purchased and read over and over again. We decided to go for The Rough Guide, which just seemed more accessible and a little better layed out than the other ones. You'll find yourself reading them over and over - mostly, I'm not afraid to say, when you're on the toilet and usually resulting in pins a needles in your legs!! It's in this, most personal of places, you become one with your guidebook, finding little gems of information with each read and forgetting them just as quickly when you discover something else that sounds fantastic.

Backpacks were next on our long list and we spent a good few weekends scoping out all the different ones. And with so many to choose from it can take quite a while. In the end we each went for a mid-priced one which has proved itself to be a veritable 'life on your back' indeed.

These are our backpacks in the airport in Xi'An, China. Very eh.....affordable.

While all this planning was going on there were always thoughts on the finance aspect of our trip. We really didn't know how much we would need at first, but the more we read up on places we wanted to go the more we got to grips with the cost. And it came as quite a shock.

Before we even left Ireland we had spent over Euro2500!! Between paying for plane tickets, vaccinations, backpacks and then stuff to go in the backpacks we had spent a small fortune. There were times when we thought we would have to call it quits and cancel our trip as it was just going to cost us way too much. We had saved so hard for months, scarificing nights out and other activities that could have kept us sane for the benefit of having a few more bucks for out trip.

In the end, after much thought and deliberation, we gave in and got a loan. And let me tell you, we didn't regret it one bit. Whats a few thousand Euro, eh? We can always pay it back when we get home.

So how much will it cost? Well, without going into too much boring detail (and it is extremely boring) the total trip was going to cost us the guts of Euro10,000 each all inclusive. It seemed like a lot of money at the time but when you consider how much you will spend on crap at home in a year it will probably come very close to this amount, if not even eclipse it. So why not spend it doing something new and exciting every single day for a year instead?

So there you go. You can do the world in style for 10 grand (Euro Grand!!). And over the next while Im gonna try to tell you how.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

To Bring Or Not To Bring...

To bring or not to bring. That is the question.

Sitting down and deciding what to bring is a definitive moment in any travellers itinerary. Mess up here and you could end up too cold, too wet, too warm, too sweaty, too tired, too....well, you know what I'm getting at. The really hard part isn't figuring out what you will bring, its figuring out what you will have to actually leave behind. Travelling for a long time without your 21 outfits a week wardrobe can seem quite daunting for some. As much as you might love that cosy three quarter length leather jacket with matching boots and scarf you just know you're gonna have to leave them behind. And how about those new brilliant white trousers you bought just last weekend? Surely you'll be able to keep them clean when trekking through dense jungle foliage in Tropical Queensland in search of cute little Koala bears?

As you can see it can be quite the dilemna.

So what do you bring? Well, to be honest, I've never met anyone who's been able to tell me. At least not definitivley. It seems nobody really knows. It really depends on the person. Some people can get by wearing the same pair of socks two days in a row. Some people would find that disgusting. I've met people who could make a small tub of hair gel last 6 months (some sort of miracle workers), others can barely make it last a week.

So what's compiled here is a list of stuff that I would bring if I was preparing for big trip, based on lessons I have learned from packing for my current trip. So you can base your own list on your own interpretation of my advice.

Clothing
The clothing you bring all depends on where you are going and the weather conditions. But as long as you are not going to be spending weeks in zub zero conditions you should get by with a nice combination of warm and light clothing. Women tend to be a bit more industrious when it comes to clothing for travelling and they hardly need some bloke like me telling them what to pack. But here it goes anyway:

  • Underwear: 5-7 pairs
  • Socks: 5-7 pairs
  • Bra: 3-5. 'What would a guy know about bra's?' I hear you ask. This is based on advice carefully extracted from female travel buddies
  • Trousers (pants): 2-3 pairs. Preferably combat type that don't show up dirty too easily yet are fashionable enough to be worn on a night out or to a restaurant. One warm pair at least.
  • Shirts: 2-3. I much prefer shirts to T-shirts. They look better (yes I am incredibly vain) and are usually better quality than t-shirts which means they last longer. You can have the sleeves rolled up or down depending on the temperature or if you just want to keep off the mozzies. And they look better for when you eat out. You don't need business type shirts, just your typical casual wear about the place cotton shirt will do fine.
  • Shoes: 1 pair of good sports sandals. 1 pair of comfortable walking boots (which will take up masses of space in your backpack. I also packed a comfy pair of mockersons, which have had no end of use.
  • Rainjacket: Bring a decent breathable rain jacket thats not too heavy and can be worn comfortably over warm clothing if necessary.
  • Fleece: A light yet warm fleece is essential if you are going to be in the cold. Don't pack one if you are sure that you won't be in a cold location.
Toiletries:
You don't need to bring an endless supply of toothpaste and shampoo with you for your trip. Just one of each item will do fine. You'd be surprised at how much room toiletries take up and at how much they increase the weight of your pack. Besides, you can buy most major brands of toiletries anywhere in the world now and if you can't find the one you want there's bound to be something similar you can get.
  • Toothbrush
  • Tootpaste
  • Dental Floss
  • Shower Gel (some of these come as combined shower gel and shampoo which can be great)
  • Shampoo (if yo prefer to have it separately)
  • Conditioner (some women can't live without it)
  • Hair Gel or Mousse if required
  • Disposable Razors
  • Shaving Cream
  • Deoderant
  • Toilet paper. You should always make sure you have some toilet paper handy. Many a situation will make you very glad of it!! You can buy it all over the world, and keep in mind that in some parts of Asia they will find it hilarious that you use it)
  • Sunblock
  • A towel. From personal experience "travel towels" are over rated.
Women will obviously have to bring thier essentials hygiene products too, and as previously mentioned, you can buy all the necessary anywhere in the world.

Those of you who have contact lenses will have to bring a supply of solution and lenses to last you pretty much your entire trip, unless you don't mind changing to an unknown brand while travelling which could be risky. You could arrange to have it sent to Post Restante in a place where you know you will be able to pick it up, thus lessening the burden on your already overloaded back. Alternatively, you could get corrective laser surgery on your eyes and save the hassle of having to look after your lenses constantly. It can be an expensinve once off payment but it will have paid for itself as soon as you realise how free you are without your lenses.

Other items:
  • A digital camera. This is an essential. Your photo's will be priceless!! Make sure you have a decent enough sized memory card. Learn how to use it and get comfortable with it before you leave.
  • A hard disk music player. Any of the brand names will do the job. They can be used for listening to your music collection (obviously), but most importantly (for me anyway), they can be used as storage for your photos when your memory card has filled up. You don't want to be spending half your trip in net cafes burning your pics onto cd's or to be caught with a full memory card during a perfect Kodak moment. Just make sure that the player you take with you can take data from your digital camera or memory card. The best and most robust ones come from Archos, iRiver and Creative. Some of them have colour screens on which you can view your photos and some even play movies, which can come in very handy on those long overnight train journeys.
  • A penknife. Preferably something like a swiss army knife or leatherman. With all the bits and bobs. Can come in very handy.
  • A good book. You don't need to bring a library. There are lots of places where you can trade and exchange your books. I will highlight good places in each town/city for you when I blog about them later.
  • A ball of twine (for washing lines and other things)
  • Insect repellant
  • Sun Glasses
Obviously someone is going to spot something they reckon I have left out. If you do please let me know and I'll add it to this list.

My next post will be about preparation for your trip, planning your route and finances etc. Stay tuned!!

Monday, December 12, 2005

Flashpackers Guide to the Not So Lonely Planet

Attention travellers who are sick of the same old cheap rubbish!!!

Hands up those of you who have so often been tricked into staying in a crappy roach infested hostel simply because your Lonely Planet Guide told you it was fantastic? Who among you has spent countless hours just wandering the streets of some far flung city trying to find that restaurant that came highly recommended in your Rough Guide only to discover that it has recently been turned into a KFC? And how many other travellers have you met who bleat on and on about how they got the same tour for less than half of what you paid?

And whats with all those scruffy, smelly, penny pinching backpackers who spend every waking minute in thier hostel because they can't afford to do anything but annoy everyone else? They argue that they "get to meet nice people" and they "like the atmostphere". Get real folks!! Why would you take a once in a lifetime opportunity, like seeing the world, and squander it by spending all your time and money in crappy hostels.

Ok, so maybe I'm being a bit harsh. Hostels aren't all that bad, and usually your guide book gets it right. And as for the smelly Backpackers, well, maybe they really do like what they do. But what if you want something different? What if you don't want to stay in the same hostel as every other traveller? My advice is: don't settle for it!!

Become a Flashpacker!!

Thats where this blog springs from. I got sick of staying where everyone else was staying and eating what everyone else eats and so tried my damndest to avoid it at all costs. And guess what? It can be done, and without too much effort.

Over the next few weeks I'll be posting info and tips on where to stay in various places around the world (China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and more), all from my own experience with pros and cons for every place I visit, as well as those travel tips on what to bring and, just as importantly, what not to bring.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not exactly a travelling legend or anything like that, but I reckon some of you could maybe use what I have to offer. And I know I would have been delighted to find some sort of resource that offered something other than the norm.

Anyway, first post tommorrow.