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Emily and Adrian’s Day at the Beach

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Going to the beach is no big deal, right? Wrong! Dear blog readers, in 7 years of holidays with Adrian, I have until now failed to get him anywhere near sand. He has always refused to spend holiday time undertaking such an “unproductive and futile” endeavour. However, I managed to persuade him that it would be a cultural offence to visit the Australian East Coast without going to the beach at least once and arriving in beach paradise Noosa gave us the perfect opportunity to experiment with sand-based enjoyment. This is the result …

Hey, sand is fun!

Hey, sand is fun!

Nap time

Nap time

Paddling is nice ...

Paddling is nice ...

... but watch out for jellyfish!

... but watch out for jellyfish!

Shadowy figures

Shadowy figures

Scary face in the sky

Scary face in the sky

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Written by Emily

December 5, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Australian Road Trip: Part Two

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Missed Part One? Read it here!

Day 6: Finch Hatton Gorge – Rockhampton

After two glorious days of rainforest relaxation, we were feeling pretty upbeat about the remaining section of our road trip. Our optimism was, however, to be short-lived. Given that the Platypus Bushcamp was unpowered there was no possibility of booking any ongoing accommodation online. Wazza kindly rang around a few places in our intended destination (the town of 1770, where Captain Cook first alighted Down Under) but no-one had availability. We therefore drove into nearby Finch Hatton, which had a small local museum with a couple of internet-connected PCs. 1770 is a popular destination and there was very little available at short notice, so we settled on Captain Cook’s Holiday Village, which we booked through lastminute.com.au, paying in full for two nights.

Half-way there, just outside the Australian beef capital, Rockhampton, we pulled over to make a phone call to the hotel, as we’d experienced quite a few delays due to roadworks and thought we had better arrange for a key to be left for us, as we now did not expect to arrive within the reception’s desk hours. What happened next was truly astonishing: a confused woman answered the phone, and told us she did not really know how to use the computers, her boss was away, and she had never heard of lastminute.com.au. Furthermore, she said, she could not “let us stay” without a booking. Our protestations that we definitely did have a booking and had paid in full fell on deaf ears and the exchange ended with an abrupt hanging-up of the phone (her not us).

Night driving

Night driving

Unwilling to drive a further 200 kms through the night to a tiny town which may or may not have alternative places to stay, we instead decided to look for a hotel room in Rockhampton. The first listing in Lonely Planet was for an old period hotel just a few kms down the road called The Criterion, so we headed there and were pleased to be met by a friendly and helpful receptionist who was glad to accommodate us and even loaned us a DVD player free of charge. We concluded our day with a well-deserved steak dinner.

Day 7: Rockhampton

Rockhampton is a curious place. The reason we’d intended to drive through it rather than stay there was because Lonely Planet and everyone we met in Australia said there was nothing to see or do. However, when we stepped outside of our lovely hotel onto a street of gorgeous Victorian buildings lining an attractive quayside, it occurred to us they might be missing a trick. The staff at The Criterion were so friendly, and the room so comfortable we were keen to stay another night if we could find something to do. There just happened to be a tourist information office a few doors down from the hotel, which is where we learned about the Dreamtime Cultural Centre just outside of town: a museum dedicated to Aboriginal history and culture, including digeridoo demonstrations and lessons in throwing a boomerang. Far too good an opportunity to pass up!

Adrian throwing a boomerang (it didn't come back)

Adrian throwing a boomerang (it didn't come back)

After a fascinating couple of hours at Dreamtime, we headed for the local zoo to check out the crocodiles, kangaroos and koalas, and then had dinner at a local pub. Conclusion: if anyone tells you not to bother with Rockhampton don’t believe them!

Koala bear - so cute!

Koala bear - so cute!

Day 8: Rockhampton to Noosa

Having secured our refund from lastminute.com.au for the failed attempt to secure a room at Captain Cook’s Holiday Village, we checked out of the Criterion Hotel and headed for the local library where free internet and cheap food – both rarities in Australia – awaited us. Our next destination was Noosa, where we managed to book an online special for a holiday apartment near the beach. After calling to make sure they’d definitely received the booking, we headed off for some traditional Aussie beach fun!

Day 9: Noosa

We have to admit, Noosa is gorgeous. It’s the kind of picture-postcard beach resort paradise most of us dream of throughout the drizzle and cold of the UK winter. Definitely a rich-kids’ playground, Noosa is packed to the brim with plush resorts, holiday homes and marinas for yachts and sailboats. That said, it makes reasonable provision for the budget traveller, and our apartment was of a surprisingly high standard considering we didn’t pay much above hostel prices for it.

Our day in Noosa began with a swim in our complex’s pool and a soak in the hot tub before heading down to the beach. Those of you who know Adrian will be aware that he’s not really the sit-around-on-a-beach type (Emily is much more amenable to this concept!) but on this occasion he was persuaded to spend a full 10 minutes lying in the sun and enjoying doing nothing! This is such a rare occurrence that we decided to create a special picture blog all about our day at the beach.

Day 10: Noosa to Brisbane

Brisbane is only 1.5 hrs estimated drive from Noosa. Based on our experience of driving on Australian roads, we decided to allow 3 hours – which still gave us most of the day in Noosa. Unwilling to spend large amounts of money on expensive watersports, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that it was actually fairly cheap to rent a small motorised boat to self-drive along the Noosa Sound. Thus was our morning spent – and with glorious sunshine, incredible views and a clean, bright white boat, it’s hard to imagine having made better use of our time.

Boat people

Boat people

Arriving in Brisbane in the early evening, we were struck by its hills and busy streets, which seemed oddly reminiscent of San Francisco. Our hotel for the night was the delightful Annie’s Shandon Bed and Breakfast: a Victorian inn that is still owned by the grand-daughter of its founder Annie. The couple managing the inn were Jan and Murray, from New Zealand, who made us feel extremely welcome and even invited us to have tea and cake with them: a very satisfactory end to a wonderful road trip.

Australian Road Trip: Part One

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We are halfway through our ten day drive from Cairns to Brisbane, and we already have so many stories from the road that we’re going to struggle to fit them into a single blog piece. So without further delay, this is where the first five days on the road have taken us:

Day One: Cairns

A man and his motor

A man and his motor

We collected our car in Cairns: a bright red Toyota Camry which Adrian had managed to secure for us as a free upgrade from the Corolla originally booked. Car hire in Cairns is actually very competitive, presumably because the Australian East Coast is a popular road trip route. Having spent the previous day snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef (a must-do for anyone visiting this part of the world!), we were ready to hit the road.

Day Two: Cairns – Townsville

Our first proper drive was to Townsville, 345km south of Cairns, for no other reason than it was the first town on our route of sufficient size for us to be able to book a hostel online before we left Cairns. In all honesty, our road trip was a rather last-minute idea, born out of a realisation that buying Greyhound bus passes to reach Brisbane within 10 days was going to be just as expensive and a lot less flexible than renting a car, so all we really had time to plan on that first day was where to spend the night. As soon as the sun rose, we got up, got in the car, and headed for the infamous Australian Outback …

Day Three: Townsville – Charters Towers

Situated 135 kms south-west of Townsville, Charters Towers is an historic Gold Rush town. A 9-year-old Aboriginal boy called Jupiter discovered gold in the tors (hills) of Charters Towers in 1872 and before long thousands of people had flocked to the town to seek their fortunes in gold mining. The town became one of Australia’s most important gold industry centres, and was so well regarded that it was nicknamed ‘The World’. To this day, the residents of Charters Towers are extremely proud of their town’s history.

We of course wanted to learn more about the town’s gold mining history so we signed up for a tour of the fascinating Venus Gold Battery, which is best described as a outsourcing centre for gold miners. Established by the entrepreneur Edmund Plant shortly after gold had been discovered, the battery offered a service to independent miners and small mining companies where they could bring their mined quartz containing the gold fragments, and hand it over for the pure gold to be extracted, thus saving them the expense of having to construct their own processing centres. The battery remained in operation until 1972.

Peter showing us the gold battery

Peter showing us the gold battery

Our tour guide was a gentleman called Peter Bagley, who had returned to Charters Towers to be closer to his elderly parents after 37 years away. Upon his return, Peter discovered that the battery was falling into disrepair due to nobody being willing to take it on, and was in danger of being sold off or even demolished. Not wanting to see a key part of his town’s history disappear, he leased it from the state of Queensland and is now actively pursuing his goal of restoring the battery to its former glory. We were Peter’s only customers that day, and he explained that he is currently in the process of building a website and raising more funds for up-keeping and marketing the battery to attract more visitors.

That evening, we drove up to the top of Towers Hill, where Jupiter had discovered gold all those years ago, for an open air screening of the film ‘Ghosts of Gold’, which was also presented by Peter. We thanked him for giving us such a memorable day, and wished him all the best in bringing more visitors to Charters Towers to learn about the Gold Rush. It has certainly been one of our Australian highlights thus far and we would recommend it to any blog readers who are planning to visit this part of the world.

Day Four: Charters Towers – Finch Hatton Gorge

A rainforest retreat

A rainforest retreat

Our experience in Charters Towers had taught us that exploring places away from the beaten backpacker trail (i.e. the coastline) could be very rewarding. As we awoke in our lovely period room in the Royal Private Hotel in the town centre, we decided our next stop would be at Finch Hatton Gorge. Our Australian friend and travel blogger Dave Robertson had suggested we visit Eungella National Park as this was a good place to spot a platypus. Having checked the map it looked like a reasonable distance from Charters Towers, and we were further persuaded to visit by the discovery of a place to stay called the Platypus Bushcamp, where you sleep in a treehouse and shower in the rainforest. Irresistable!

This day’s drive was to teach us two valuable lessons about Australian road trips: first, just because something looks like a reasonable distance on a map doesn’t mean you’re going to get there in anything like the timeframe you imagine; and second, a GPS system is only as a good as the highway it’s used on. The minute you turn off the main road, it’s as lost as you are. After several hours of twisting, turning, and attempting to locate roads that didn’t exist, we admitted defeat, followed signs to the nearest town, and pulled over to ask a helpful local lady for directions.

Arriving in the dead of night to an unpowered bush camp can be something of a challenge, but we were spotted by a friendly fellow camper, who guided us with his flashlight through the forest path to the camp HQ. Amazingly, this fellow camper was a chap called Owen who came from a suburb in Cardiff called Llanishen – just two miles from where my parents live!

Day Five: Finch Hatton Gorge and Eungella National Park

There’s nothing quite like waking up in a rainforest tree house. Although very basic, our hut was wonderfully comfortable, and we had one of the best night’s sleep on our travels thus far. With the benefit of sunlight, we were able to explore the Platypus Bushcamp a lot more effectively than the night before, and we were intruiged by the kitchen, cookhouse, huts and rainforest showers, all hand-built by Wazza, the eccentric but charming 60-year-old proprieter, and all operating without electricity. The best part by far was the creek behind our hut, and we started our day with a refreshing swim.

A great day for a swim ...

A great day for a swim ...

... and a float!

... and a float!

The remainder of the day was spent lazing around the camp, sipping beer on the big swinging couch and pulling faces at Wazza’s two parrots, followed by a walk to Araluen Falls in Eungella National Park.

A visit to the Platypus Bushcamp would have been incomplete without at least trying to spot a platypus in the nearby waters. They come out for a swim at dawn and dusk, and despite Wazza’s strong urging to get up at 4.30am for the dawn showing, we opted to try our luck in the afternoon. After about 30 minutes of waiting still and silent at the waterfront, we succeeded in glimpsing a platypus, although unfortunately it managed to hide almost completely from our camera’s view.

Spot the platypus!

Spot the platypus!

We were joined for the evening by a New Zealand couple called Laurie and Kirsten or, to quote Wazza: “It’s bad enough we’ve got the Poms here without the bloody Kiwis turning up as well”. It was Laurie’s birthday, which worked out well for us as he kindly shared his chocolate cake and champagne with us. Our relaxing and enjoyable day in the Australian bush was rounded off with another restful night’s sleep, and considering what awaited us as we made our way further south the next day, this was fortunate indeed … stay tuned for Part Two!

Seoul, City of Love

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Love takes many different forms in Seoul, from the sensuous to the scary. Here are three of them:

1) Love terrace

seoul love terrace

A wonderfully romantic spot on the way up to the Seoul Tower, this terrace is designed to celebrate love. It even has specially sloped benches, so that when you sit on them you’re pulled close to one another. Awww.

2) Love motel

love motel korea

Pretty much what it says in the description. A motel for lovin’ – you can hand the money over to an anonymous pair of hands behind the frosted glass reception desk and buy anything from a 2 hour “rest” to an overnight stay. Rumour has it the rooms are fully kitted out for their purpose, though if you’re looking for flowers and champagne you may be disappointed: it’s more likely to be adult movies and mirrors on the ceiling. Did we stay in one? Certainly not! (My mother is reading this).

3) Love of foreign women

Seoul old man

Even more frightening than the concept of a love motel is a certain old man who spends his time hanging around tourist spots in Seoul to con unwitting foreign women into posing for photos for him. After some innocuous-seeming conversation outside Gyeongbukgong Palace about how much we liked Seoul, he asked me to stand still and look upwards at a tree. As I did so, his camera appeared and before I knew it I had been added to his photo gallery, which he then proceeded to show us. He’d collected photos of various beauties from locations as diverse as Germany, Sweden, Canada, China and Japan. The only criteria for receiving the dubious honour of being in the old man’s gallery appeared to be as follows: young(ish), non-Korean, and female. Ick!

Written by Emily

November 19, 2011 at 8:09 am

An Asian Extravaganza

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Apologies for the recent absence of any new blog pieces. We have a range of excuses for your reading pleasure including, but not limited to: No WordPress access in China; unreliable internet in other parts of Asia; constant jetlag, tummy trouble and other ailments; and too many fun things to do besides update our blog.

The time has come, however, for us to share with you some of the finest moments from our 6 week Asian expedition, as we have now arrived in Australia and are about to embark on Phase 2 of our round-the-world trip.

For anyone who hasn’t been avidly tracking our every move (i.e. everyone except my Mum), this is where Phase 1 has taken us:

1. Beijing (5 days)

2. Seoul, Busan and Jeju Island, South Korea (2 weeks)

3. Shanghai (6 days)

4. Nanjing (4 days)

5. Hangzhou (3 days)

6. Hong Kong (6 days)

7. Singapore (2 days)

8. Bintan Island, Indonesia (3 days)

Here are some of our most memorable experiences:

  • Walking the Great Wall of China, as discussed in a previous blog post.
  • Making the good people of Beijing collapse in hysterical laughter by driving a funky yellow car around the park.
Only for kids? Not if you're British!

Only for kids? Not if you're British!

  • Having a Korean barbeque with our friend Goeun in Seoul. She taught us the Korean phrase for ‘thank you’ (‘kamsahamnida’) which came in handy for the rest of our time in this wonderful country, which is full of people who are happy to help you without wanting anything in return.

    Adrian with Goeun in Seoul

    Adrian with Goeun in Seoul

  • Drinking soju with the self-titled ‘Beetle Circle’ (i.e. a group of trekkers) whilst climbing Mt Halla, South Korea’s highest mountain.
  • Riding the wonderfully tacky Bund Sightseeing Tunnel with cousins Philip and Cathy who happened, in a bizarre twist of fate, to be visiting Shanghai at the same time as us.

    With Philip and Cathy in Shanghai

    With Philip and Cathy in Shanghai

  • Spending 7 hours wandering around the incredibly romantic West Lake in Hangzhou, China.
  • Eating ‘delicacies’ like bullfrog, chicken livers and duck hearts due to our lack of Mandarin language skill.
  • Alternatively laughing and crying at our windowless cell in Hong Kong, which cost us more than double the price of our luxury four poster king size bed the week before in Nanjing.

    Call that a double bed?

    Call that a double bed?

  • Spending Halloween in Hong Kong. Ady had recently received his Masters results – high distinction, if you’re interested 🙂 – so I treated him to Halloween at Ocean Park (a big theme park). As well as the usual rides, there were 8 specially constructed ghost houses ranging from a laser quest ‘shoot the zombie’ game to an otherworldly paper doll party house. The evening was rounded off with a delicious four course dinner in a restaurant overlooking the famous Victoria Harbour.
  • Accompanying our friend and professional anthropologist Nick Long as he carried out fieldwork in TanjungPinang, Indonesia, affording us a glimpse of the country that few tourists are able to see, including a visit to a local school where the children were very excited to see us, and a fantastic meal of stingray and rice at a local restaurant.
  • Shopping for just about everything we need for the rest of our trip during our brief time in Singapore, including some 32 GB USB memory sticks – for which Ady bargained hard – that are enabling us to store and upload our ever-growing collection of photos.

We hope this gives you a flavour of what we’ve been up to in the last few weeks. If time and internet access permits, we will upload more detailed pieces of some of our more entertaining stories from the Asian phase of our trip. In the meantime, we’ll be heading off on our Australian road trip: Cairns to Brisbane in 10 days! As they say in showbiz, don’t go away, we’ll be right back …

Written by Emily

November 11, 2011 at 11:51 am

Emily and Adrian’s Korean Adventure, Sponsored by Lotte

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Lotte is everywhere in South Korea. Literally everywhere. What began life as a fledgling enterprise selling chewing gum to schoolkids in post-war Japan is now South Korea’s biggest conglomerate, employing more than 60,000 people.

What amused us was the way in which this company – which is still run by its founder’s family – has managed to grab a slice of just about every market. Sort of like Virgin, but much more ubiquitous. If you go to South Korea, you can stay in Lotte Hotel, shop in Lotte department store, watch a movie in Lotte cinema, eat a Lotteria burger … and pay for all of it with a Lottecard. You can even watch the Lotte Giants play baseball, and buy some Lotte insurance in case you’re unlucky enough to get smacked on the head by the ball.

By far the best Lotte money-spinner, however, has got to be Lotteworld, in Seoul – South Korea’s answer to Disneyland, and in some ways very reminiscent indeed (see photo!). Lotteworld is an indoor theme park set over 4 floors with an ice-rink in the basement and a bridge leading to an outdoors ‘island’ with yet more exciting rides.

Magic Kingdom, anyone?

Magic Kingdom, anyone?

We were astonished that Lotteworld was in fact a proper theme park – being indoors we assumed it was probably more like a fairground, with a waltzer, a carousel and not much else. Well, it had a waltzer, it had a carousel … but it also had some seriously impressive rollercoasters, a ghost house, several ‘gyro drop’ contraptions, an indoor boat ride through Pharaoh’s temple (yes, really) and, possibly best of all, a balloon ride suspended from the ceiling which circled the perimeter of the park.

Look down for ice rink, up for balloons!

Look down for ice rink, up for balloons!

Even though we visited on a Friday, Lotteworld was packed with schoolkids who were clearly having a marvellous time. A group of them even cajoled us into posing for a picture for them outside the Ghost House. [Directorial instructions: “Make a scary face. No – more scary! No – even more scary!”]

By about 4pm, the kids were marched away and we enjoyed an evening of many rollercoasters with reasonably short queues. Unlike the UK, Korea has the sense to keep its theme parks open until 11pm, because there’s nothing quite like strapping your exhausted body into a motorbike-style coaster seat and plummeting face-first into a terrifying abyss … go Lotteworld!

Written by Emily

October 13, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Great Wall, Poor Tour

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It’s unforgivable to visit China and not check out the Great Wall. Despite its singular title, the Great Wall is in fact a series of walls, built between the 5th Century BC and the 16th Century, to guard against potential threats from nomadic tribes in Mongolia. Archaeologists estimate that, in total, the walls were over 5,500 miles long.

Most of the wall sections that still exist today were built during the Ming Dynasty, i.e. from the mid-14th Century onwards. The current condition of the wall varies from completely destroyed, through to well preserved/ restored.

Three sections of the wall are accessible on day tours from Beijing, which was our first stop from London: Badaling, a restored section with a reputation for being overcrowded; Mutianyu, another restored section a little further away and less busy; and Jinshanling, an original part of the wall even further away. Usually, there is a 10km hike that can be undertaken from Jinshanling to Simatai, concluding with a cool zip wire ride, but at time of writing Simatai is closed for restoration, so if you start walking along the wall from Jinshanling, you have to turn back and retrace your steps to reach your starting point – a detail that would become quite important for my (Emily’s) experience of the Great Wall.

On our Great Wall day, Adrian and I ended up taking different tours: Adrian to on a ‘guided tour’ to Mutianyu, and Emily on a ‘hike’ to Jinshanling. Adrian was still recovering from a sprained ankle and he wasn’t sure a tour with the word ‘hike’ in the title would be the best idea. Neither experience was quite what we were expecting, however:

Great Wall at Jinshanling, by Emily

Before I start complaining about the crapness of my tour I would like to make the point that a day spent at the Great Wall of China is a day you will never forget, or regret. It’s absolutely incredible, and worth just about any amount of grief to get there. However, whinging about tourist rip-offs is always fun, so here goes:

Essentially, the tour description and itinerary bore no resemblance to the actual experience. I paid £30 for a ‘Great Wall hike from Jinshanling’ to include entry fee, lunch and private bus. The allotted time was 6.30am (ouch!) to 6.30pm, with 6 hours’ travel time built in – so I figured we’d start the hike at 9.30am, stop for lunch on the way, and be picked up by the bus around 3.30pm. I wish. In fact, the round trip was closer to 8 hours, with plenty of faff on both sides. We had less than two hours on the wall, which in no way represents a hike as you simply potter along one stretch of it, then turn round and go back – and you’ve got to allow well over an hour to get the cable car up and down the mountain, due to the enormous queues. “Lunch” was in a canteen next to the car park, and consisted of some cold noodles and egg. The guide simply pointed the way to the cable car (the £5 cost of which was not included in the “tour”) and advised us not to get lost because “foreigner’s face all look same to Chinese”. The private bus, which was the main part of the fee, was so overcrowded they had to pull out special mini seats that clogged up the aisle. We got back to Beijing at nearly 9pm, where the bus stopped outside a random subway station and the guide advised us to get off because it would take a further 1.5 hours to drop everyone off at their hotels due to the traffic.

Summary: If you want to see the wall at Jinshanling (and I recommend that you do), take a public bus for less than £1, stay overnight in a hostel, and take your time hiking along this magnificent stretch of the Great Wall.

Great Wall at Mutianyu, by Adrian

My tour was thankfully a little more successful, primarily as it actually was a tour, with a guide with a suitably fake western name, Harry (Potter’s brother, apparently). The day started with a rather rushed visit to the Ming Tomb which is an underground emperor’s tomb, seeming largely to consist of red boxes containing the emperor and his concubines’ remains. His favourites concubines (from a total of 3000) had the great privilege of being buried alive alongside him upon his death. Nice.

The reason for the rushed tour became apparent as we approached the jade factory. A tour by another fake western-named guide showing the construction of various useless ornamental jade objects, following by a painfully long browsing opportunity. To my dismay, the more moronic looking members of our group actually bought some of the overpriced crap, thus condemning future tour groups to this same depressing ritual.

Next was lunch, rather surprisingly inside the jade factory’s very own massive restaurant. A rather pleasant meal, aside from the omnipresent messages regarding jade’s great beauty and investment potential.

Following lunch, we finally made our way to the Great Wall itself, seemingly alongside the rest of Beijing – despite being the apparently less popular section, the roads approaching Mutianyu were so clogged with traffic that we abandoned the bus and took an impromptu hike to the cable car. Here were were greeted with Tour Pleasant Surprise #2 – the unexpected extra costs. Despite claiming to include admission, our tour cost didn’t include the cable car cost, a rather steep £8.

The wall itself was pretty amazing, though. Three of us were determined to make it to the top of the restored section within the allocated 1.5 hour window, which turned out to be rather ambitious due to the brutally endless steps to climb. We made it, then rapidly turned back again and, after facing a lengthy cable car return queue, arrived back about 30 mins late. The Japanese kid, who’d spent most of the journey looking at his watch, wasn’t happy, whilst myself and the Spaniard considered this a moral victory following the jade gift shop experience.

Brutal traffic marked our return journey, but we were happy to be approaching Beijing city centre again by 7:15 (our planned return was 6pm)… but Harry (the non-magic one) informed us that a second shopping trip was required, and seeing as the silk factory was now closed we would be visiting the pearl factory. As the last group of the day, a rushed demo of pearl harvesting was conducted, before some aggressive sales pitch action, which thankfully even the morons didn’t fall for this time, and we headed off home.

Fairly standard tour action then: a 13 hour day with only 1.5 hours at the key attraction, a 33% unexpected extra cost, and me developing an even greater contempt for fat tourists with baseball caps who buy crap.

Written by Emily

October 9, 2011 at 8:28 am

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