24 Aug

Hong Kong, 20th to 24th August 2012.

We arrived at Beijing airport to discover that despite explicitly asking British Airways and being assured that our baggage allowance stayed the same all round the world irrespective of airline, that our allowance on Cathay Pacific would plummet to 30kg each, and we had 97kg in total! After some outright blagging by Tom we managed to dodge the bullet. Cathay Pacific have a legendary rep for business class, but I have to say whilst it's very good on service (they have a lively multi-ethnic crew) the kit is showing it's age and needs an update. Still, their Cathay Delight mocktail is delightfully minty and we settled in.

We arrived and had no problems getting a taxi and a driver very happy to fit all our bags in the cab, with a bit of bungee holding the boot closed(ish) as we sped from the airport. Ann was able to see the Tsing Ma Bridge, over the Lantau crossing, a bridge that she worked on for a good while selling all the Hyclad stainless steel for it.

We were staying at a Crowne Plaza near to the Times Square shopping area, A very nice hotel indeed, with an Indian doorman, and we zoomed up to the top floor bar and drank cocktails with our old friend Mark Basford (also from the stainless steel days) and watched the flashing neon of the skyscrapers. The next day we found and joined the Big Bus Tour, which is our preferred way to acquaint ourselves with any city. It was a good example of the type and we got a good mix of history, architecture, culture and shopping fed to us in a very pleasant British voice. In the middle of the tour we stopped and took the Star Ferry around the main harbour. Whilst this was a very historical and appropriate tour, the voiceover was a curious mix of the official party line and what seemed to be extracts from developer's brochures. Well worth doing tho' and if we went again I might do it at night to see the sound and light show.

From Hong Kong China


We finished the tour and headed back to our very nice hotel room. [Did I mention that the hotel room was very nice?] Then we took a taxi up Victoria Peak, which is the hill that lies on Hong Kong island and overlooks the main bay. We watched the spectacular view of the vast array of skyscrapers as they pulsed with neon, the most spectacular night show we've seen on this trip, including Las Vegas. Then we ate with Mark and Kate Basford at the Peak Overlook restaurant, which was great, catching up and talking over life, kids and just what work is like in the post quiche world. Only odd thing was that there was no lighting on the table of any consequence, so we read the menus by torch!

The next day Ann was feeling a little fragile so she stayed in bed whilst I packed 18 kilos of dirty washing into a big cardboard box and the very nice conciere in our very nice hotel posted it all back the UK, hence reducing our luggage to 80 kilos in total. We then bought a new cabin bag to put 10 kilos in, and decided to use our small suitcase in the cabin (it's legal for cabin) therefore solving our baggage allowance problem. However, if you choose to book a round the world One World Traveller ticket, be very aware that your effective baggage allowance is that of the lowest allowance, making the vast British Airways allowance a it bloody pointless!

We explored the computer stall market that is 288 Hennessy Road and Tom resisted buying a zoom lens for his Panasonic, and also confirmed what we had seen all round the world, which is that the UK is usually cheaper or more competitive for electronics, and that nearly all souvenirs are made in China! We had a bite to eat in a local cafe, and we tried Hong Kong milk tea, which is basically very strong builders tea with condensed milk, Tom liked it and Ann didn't.

From Hong Kong China

The next day we flew to Thailand. I think. It's all a blur. We were fine on luggage allowance! We liked Hong Kong..

16 Aug

Seoul, South Korea, 12th to 16th August.

Flew in on Japan Airlines, I like JAL. Like Tokyo we got a limousine bus from the airport to the Holiday Inn in Seoungbuk, a rather nice part of Seoul, with plenty of neon, a PC bang, Korean BBQ, bakery in the hotel, little supermarket, Karaoke bang, eateries and one or two mobile phone shops, with huge soaring apartment blocks on all sides. Seould has a population of about 25 million people, and yet a smaller ground area than Beijing and loads of green areas, it's a very dense place, and yet not too oppressive.

We started off with a Korean BBQ. At each table is a hole in the centre of the wooden table and a brass extractor pipe overhead. A bowl of hot coals is placed into the centre of the hole with a grill over it, and you grill your own choice of meat. It's a great idea, and apart from the fact that everything else around the table was weird or known to be ultra spicy, it was good fun. Noticeably I ordered some rice and got a small bowl, Ann ordered noodles and got a bowl of cold soup with cold noodles in, so we shared the rice. As time went on I realised we were in Northern Asia and rice isn't that common or plentiful but noodles, being wheat based, are more common.

The next day we took a shuttle bus to catch a round the city hop on and hop off bus tour. It was air cinditioned, thank goodness, and we saw quite a good bit of town before stopping off at Itaewon which is a rather tourist area, clearly focused at the large number of US forces personnel in town. Some people are a bit iffy about it, but frankly I rather liked it, and we went to a tailors and started the process of having a bespoke suit made for me! Hoorah! [Ate at Outback, a rathe good Aussie steakhouse chain we've seen all along our travels.]

That evening we went to N.Seoul Tower, which is a ruddy great tower on the top of a ruddy great hill in the centre of Seoul. The city is very much a sea of neon and so we (along with about 300 people and many millions of screaming kids) watched the city change from grey to neon through dusk.It certainly is a great city to view from up there, late at night, and some of the buildings have great displays, not to mention the tall red crucifixes that rise up from the very many Christian churches (usually architectural monstrosities). At the end we took the cable car back down, which I rather enjoyed despite my dislike for heights.

http://flickr.com/photos/55048848@N00

Picture by Andrew Bell, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The next day we went to the DMZ. The Korean Demilitarized Zone is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula that serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea which runs along the 38th parallel north. The DMZ cuts the Korean Peninsula roughly in half, crossing the 38th parallel on an angle, with the west end of the DMZ lying south of the parallel and the east end lying north of it. It is 250 kilometres (160 miles) long, approximately 4 km (2.5 mi) wide and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. The Northern Limit Line, or NLL, is the de facto maritime boundary between North and South Korea in the Yellow Sea and the coastline and islands on both sides of the NLL are also heavily militarized. [Previous paragraph, source Wikipedia, see page for licence details, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Korean_Demilitarized_Zone]

Frankly we did not have a great time. The guide was good, but the day consisted primarily of a very long coach trip, a very long wait in a very hot car park, then a near lethal walk down a very steep tunnel to a very low wet tunnel to look through a tiny hole at a another tiny tunnel, then a closed railway station, followed by a viewing platform where we look across opend land to North Korea. Ah well, bucket list and all that. On return we explored a rather nice small area of town called Insadong where we had a nice cup of coffee (good coffee is an expensive treat in Asia) and browsed some typical arts and crafts, tried a Korean doughnut (yummy), ate at Burger King (yummy) and staggered home in a taxi.

Cuteness even extends to the fuzz in South Korea!
The next day the skies opened and it rained. No, that really doesn't cover it. Someone threw a bucket of water thru a sieve over Seoul. I've been in a few tropical rainstorms in my time, but this was unbelievable. I was in a cagoule and I was drenched in about 15 minutes. Anyway, all part of the fun. We went and had a fitting for my suit and then zoomed off to Gyeongbokgung Palace, where we drowned as we squeezed from palace to palace. I kinda liked it, Ann was quite dispirited, and Steve Culy would NOT have been able to call it a 'clearing up shower', although truth be told, when it did clear up, the city was ruddy clean!

From Seoul, South Korea


We then visited the Hongdae area is a region in Seoul, South Korea near the Hongik University, after which it is named. It is known for its urban arts and indie music culture, clubs and entertainments.

We used a mixture of taxi and the metro in Seoul, and whilst taxis are simple and inexpensive, the congestion is unbearable and the driving quite aggressive and bad. The metro, on the other hand, is clean, fast, simple to understand, and uses a smart card payment system called T Money that makes life uncomplicated. I particularly liked the fact that you can get little mobile phone charms that act as smart cards for payment, rather than using a card, obviously there was a Hello Kitty one! We also found the fact that you can pay for your taxi ride with a T Money device as a great recognition of the true potential for integrated ticketing. We’d like to send out a big thank you to Canadian Andy, who we met in a B&B in California, who gave us some great advice on where to go in Seoul (not all of which we followed) and also her T Money card.

14 Aug

Tokyo, Japan 8th to 12th August 2012

This blog written by Ann, over to you Ann.

Greetings from Tokyo. Flight was good – 11 hours flew by (see what I did there…) although JAL's seats were not quite up to BA's flat bed standards. The food and the service, on the other hand, were superb. We seem to have handled the 16 hour time change rather well, so far. There are many excellent limousine bus services from Haneda aiport to the main hotels, at about 7000 yen single per person. They're very efficient and happy to deal with heavy bags. We actually got in just a little late for the last bus to our hotel so they advised us to go to the Hyatt and take a taxi to the Intercontinental, it all worked well. Japanese staff seem very service oriented, wouldn't accept a tip if offered (would be offended in fact) and are extremely willing to meet your needs. The best thing to do is immediately goto the customer information booth when you land, they're very very helpful.

How to describe Tokyo? Clean to the point of clinical. Affluent. Industrious. Expensive. Refined. Classy. Confident. Safe. Painfully polite. Geeky/ nerdy. Kinky. Cookie-cutter 'salarymen', girls as individual as the fashions they wear. Crazy high heeled shoe-wearing taken to whole new level (in all this humid heat and concrete – respect!) Brilliantly funny 'cartoonized' public messages. Clam-shells, not smart phones (!) Superb quality food (even sandwiches are world class). Do I like this city though? Not much.

First thing to report on, is the toilet situation. There are 2 kinds in Tokyo. First kind, you sit down on a heated seat and there are buttons to: a) jet-wash your 'posterior', b) activate the bidet function (sprays your front bits) c) blow dry the above mentioned, with jets of warm air. Second kind of toilet: squat pan in the floor. Now, I'm starting to rather like the first kind, in a slightly embarrassed kind of a way but, having narrowly missed selection for the Olympic gymnastics team, I'm struggling somewhat with the latter. Solution: double-dose Immodium for the next 4 days!

We visited the Imperial Palace Gardens, hot, empty and utterly uninteresting. Ginza, expensive and soul-less window on top end brand shopping. We went to Akihabara Electric Town, which is a declining PC and electrical goods area which has turned to 'otaku' fans of anime/manga and which is full of manga/anime shops, games arcades, 'maid cafes' and was frankly all quite weird even if you like anime or manga. We then went to the Edo-Tokyo museum which had some excellent models and some great exhibits but also strange omissions in the history, especially over the Imperial Japanese War in the Pacific, China etc.

Off to see what the crazy Tokyo teenagers get up to on a Saturday night in downtown Shibuya. The crossing there is the one you always see in films and news broadcasts and it boasts the busiest Starbucks in the world. Cup of coffee before we go then…

Shibuya was excellent and just the Japan we were looking for, neon, people, activity, mix of old and new. Right on the mark.


Just been in a Pachinko parlour. This is a kind of vertical pinball slot machine into which you pour a basketfull of small balls and then manipulate them, through the pins, into certain locations. Directly gambling

on pachinko is illegal in Japan, so balls won cannot be exchanged directly for money in the parlour, but are exchanged for tokens or prizes, which are then taken outside and exchanged for cash at a nominally separate place.
The Japanese government estimates the annual revenues of the pachinko industry to be in the region of ¥29 trillion (US$378 billion) – approximately four times the total annual profit of WORLD-WIDE legal casino gambling!!!!!!!
Quite apart from the damage to the pocket, the NOISE level in these places (which are on every street corner) is deafening.

So, Tokyo, very expensive, only way to live is to eat the excellent white rice balls or white sandwiches with the crusts cut off from the 7-11 or Lawsons convenience store. It's not a very tourist friendly city, not least because it's so expensive (and I checked Japanese salaries and it's expensive for them, our salaries in real terms are very similar) but also it's not at all geared up for foreigners. Ironic eh? One of the world's key suppliers of tourists, from a place that's not at all interesting!

Ah well, it's ticked off the bucket list.

07 Aug

California, 29 July to 7th August 2012.

We flew into Los Angeles from Chicago and, quite efficiently, made it from the airport to the Avis office to collect the car, only to have to queue forever; sigh. Then the ‘Medium – Premium’ car turned out to be the reason the US car industry almost died: a Ford Crown Victoria, a relic from the 1960s, partially upgraded into the 1980s and then allowed to lumber on like some dinosaur. After a while I nicknamed it the BOAT due it’s oil tanker like steering and size. Still, all part of the great American experience, eh?  We stopped off in La Brea to buy a window mount for my phone so we could use the rather good SYGIC satnav system, or as Ann puts it, the totally crap SYGIC satnav system, take your pick.

We didn’t want to get too bogged down in LA but we had to see Hollywood, and boy is it a freaking dive? The guidebooks say it is in a process of redevelopment and renewal, I can only assume it used to have dead junkies and hookers lying in sewerage on the streets before they started. We saw the sign and left as quickly as the BOAT would let us, north to Santa Barbara. This is a lovely town, carefully controlled by building and planning codes to be a low rise, Spanish Mission style town of bohemian seasideness with a touch of pier, pelicans and some young folk skateboarding and enjoying the summer. Loved it and the delightful Holiday Inn Express, ate at Joe’s café and had the best blueberry pie EVAH, before we had to steer ourselves up the US 101 and onto the Pacific Coast Highway.

Santa Barbara CA USA

Let Ann take up the tale: “Late afternoon went to Hearst Castle, the former home of William Randolph Hearst. If we thought Boldt Castle was worth seeing, this was in a totally different league. It's a 6-mile coach trip up the drive to the place that sits atop a mountain. UNbeLIEVEable. Three times the breath was knocked out of me as I entered a room. The 50-seat cinema was probably the most awesome of all. The whole place is stuffed full of priceless antiques and was frequented by Hollywood stars; Charlie Chaplin; Winston Churchill; to drop but a few names. It, like Boldt, remains unfinished, but only because he and his architect would never have tired of continuing to build it. You'd give your eyeteeth just for one of the guesthouses in the grounds. The cost estimate, at today's value, is something like $400,000,000.

Hearst Castle CA USA


We spent last night at the Inn at Morro Bay in the deep fog that bedevils the Central Coast region of California in the summer. Our room was literally on the edge of the ocean but we couldn’t see a thing. After a wonderful dinner, we woke this morning to dozens of seals frolicking just in front of our window. We had a great day, driving the PCH. Totally unbelievable scenery, quite breathtaking. Early on we were thwarted by the sea fog, but as it burned off it was "wow", in spades.


We stopped off and saw a beach full of elephant seals. The whole thing was just spectacular and we had many great stops including one at the wonderfully typical Pfeiffer Beach. Then we stayed in (another) great Holiday Inn Express at Monterey. Tom had a sauna, I did the laundry and ironing…”

We then made a long, smooth drive across the Central Valley, passing endless farms and places like 'Castroville, artichoke Capital of the world‘ (really!) and Gilroy, Garlic Capital of the World’ (stinky as hell!) and bought and ate loads of huge, delicious cherries and strawberries before reaching the foothills of the High Sierras at Ahwahnee, and the Natures’ Inn B&B, a very sturdy log cabin in the woods. A nice hot tub and sleep later we set off into Yosemite. Back to Ann: Bloody great day in Yosemite. Redwoods fascinating at Mariposa Grove although oddly not quite as big as we’d expected (go figure). Glacier point awesome but terrifying for Tom and his vertigo. Yosemite Valley and Touolumne Meadows fascinating and beautiful – at elevations far greater than little old Mount Washington! After a particularly scary run down a steep sided valley, we eventually got into June Lake on the other side, with Tom soon in bed with full-blown migraine from the stress! I had done most of driving, while he just panicked about going over the edge. Then he drove the last bit, downhill, on the widest roads of the day and totally freaked out! Big girl's blouse!”

Yosemite CA USA
The motel at June Lake was a total shit-tip and if it hadn't been for a) the migraine and b) the fact we'd pre-paid, we would almost certainly have bailed. Next day, we visited Mono Lake, a truly silent and fascinating alkaline saline lake with a very simple chemistry and ecosystem that supports hundreds of thousands of California and international birds. The lake has been systematically allowed to evaporate away since 1941, due to the demands of Los Angeles for water diverting the streams that supply it This had been gradually destroying the ecosystem and putting at risk vast numbers of wildlife. An agreement was reached in the 90s to restore the levels to a mid way point, and the lake is slowly recovering. It’s an eerie, silent and strange place with calcium carbonate tufas that rise out of the lake; brine shrimp and swarms of alkali flies that number millions. Ann and I were quite touched by the silence and strangeness.

Mono Lake, CA, USA


We then stayed at the Silver Maple Inn, in Bridgeport, a place where almost everyone was a fisherman and no-one was from there, even the staff. It’s some 7000 feet high, and it clearly has fierce winters. The Inn was a very well turned out motel, sadly with crap Wi-Fi. Our tour of US pie cuisine continued, but none matched the blueberry at Santa Barbara.

Then, next day, a hard drive north to Lake Tahoe, avoiding the 11,500 feet pass we’d originally planned (for Tom’s nerves), and stopped for lunch at Lake Tahoe with all the holidaymakers, right on the Nevada/ California border. It was a continuous downhill drive, riding the brakes for ever, as we went from about 8000 feet back to sea level.  By evening we were in a nice corner suite,  looking up at Nob Hill, in the City by the Bay.

San Francisco CA USA

Ann says: “Cable car museum was good. Went to Fisherman's wharf, hanging off a cable car, then afterwards took a streetcar to Castro – the 'gaybourhood'. Men walking around stark bollock naked! Was desperate to take a photo, but too scared to ask! Other than Castro, which I thought was great, I can't say I have taken to SF very much. Alcatraz tomorrow though.”

“Enjoyed 'The Rock' today. Quite thought-provoking/ emotional, but a great day out. We were very lucky travellers again with the weather – no fog at all today. Needed the jacket though – bloody windy on there! “

“Am now thoroughly sick of 'The City' though; would not want to come back here. It's too difficult to get about for a start. Walking anywhere is a nightmare ‘cos of all the hills; there's plenty of public transport, which we have used extensively – cable cars, streetcars and buses – but it's all so SLOW, not to mention crowded as hell. The people are either very abrupt, or down right rude, depending on your point of view. Fisherman's wharf is OK for a bit, but it's so crowded all the time. It reminds me of Blackpool but without the fun bits.“