What to expect… when you’re heading home?

1 month today we’ll leave NZ. After almost a year away, I absolutely can’t wait to see family & friends and I’m looking forward to home comforts and the end of living out of a bag! This milestone has also prompted thoughts about what it’ll be like to return home.

How much will have changed?

When you’ve been out of everything for a while, you feel like you’ve missed a lot and wonder how much will be different to what you remember. The big things like births, deaths, birthdays, weddings and engagements, but also just a year’s worth of the everyday.

However most people have said that, beyond the surface, very little really changes when you’ve been away. A friend of mine recently returned home after 5 years living abroad, and even then, most things felt the same as when she’d left. Hopefully it won’t take too long to catch up and get back into the swing of things.

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Planning our final 3 months in NZ

As expected, our trip has flown by in many ways and we only have approx 3 months to go. I should probably add a disclaimer to the name of this blog, as it’ll actually only be 10 months we spend in New Zealand, book-ended by other travel.

We’ve got some decisions to make about what we want to do before we leave and how to stretch the budget!

These are a few things we have in mind…

Return to Queenstown

We packed in as much as we could to our 2 day stop in Queenstown during our south island tour, but it just wasn’t long enough. If money was no object we’d love to spend a fortnight on the slopes, as the region’s ski season starts in June. Unfortunately as beginners the cost just seems to rack up too quickly.

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48 hours in Hong Kong

Our last stop before heading to Auckland was Hong Kong. It would have been great to spend a bit longer here, but this is what we did in the 2 days we had.

Although the post includes some tips, it is by no means an attempt at a guide on how to see the most of the city as, at the end of a fortnight in China, we spent portions of time wandering aimlessly…

We stayed in Aberdeen, a harbour area on the south of the island, in the newest addition to the city’s Ovolo hotel chain. We had a very comfortable room with plenty of perks, including a free mini bar, a ‘loot bag’ of sweets and complimentary drinks & snacks during happy hour every evening. I also particularly liked the bathroom, which had rain shower in a (frosted!) corner window overlooking the city and all the toiletries you could need.100_0856

On our first day we headed for city’s tour bus to get a feel of the main areas and sights (best way to see a new city?!). They have 3 routes; we managed the tours of HK island and Stanley & Aberdeen but didn’t have time for the one on Kowloon across the harbour.

We hopped off the bus in Causeway Bay to see the Noon Day Gun: a cannon which is still fired every day at 12. ‘The one-gun salute tradition is said to have started when a Royal Naval Officer who was new to Hong Kong became annoyed at the tendency of Jardine employees to fire off a gunshot when the head of the company sailed into port – gun salutes being reserved for military commanders only. As punishment, Jardine were required to fire a one-shot salute every day at noon’ (HK tourism board).

We waited for 20 mins, but here is my amateur video of the last minute of tension.

It was interesting to hear through the headphones about the island’s history: the Japanese invasion (1941-45); the opium war (1839-42), which led to years of British rule and the hand over back to China in 1997. This colourful history has led to a strange mix of influences, and contrasts – the most stark being a commercial financial centre just off mainland communist China.

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The scale of the buildings is phenomenal and probably the best way to appreciate the city’s expansive skyline is from the top of the Peak. We got the peak tram at approx 4pm in the afternoon when the crowds had died down, but we still queued for about half an hour at this hot tourism spot. There is a multi-story mall at the summit with restaurants, shops and Madam Tussauds. We were hoping to see the sunset but after an overcast day, it was less spectacular than I imagine it could be.

The following day we took the Star Ferry across the harbour to Kowloon for a walk around the streets and park – this is where a lot of our aimless wandering took place!

Back on HK island, we appreciated the captivating views from the Avenue of Stars for Eastern film stars.

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On the tour bus we went past the suburb of Stanley, famous for its market and the misleadingly named ‘Repulse Bay’ with a beautiful beach. If we’d had another day, I would have liked to spend it here.

  • We got a great deal on the Ovolo booking through Agoda approx £75 for 2 nights for a deluxe sea (/harbour) view room.
  • The Big Bus day tour cost $49 for 24 hrs, including lots of extras such as the ferry to Kowloon, the Peak tram ticket and a Sampan ride in Aberdeen. They also offer a 48 hrs ticket (which in retrospect we should have bought) and you can get a discount if you book online.

Practical thoughts on China

We’ve almost spent two weeks in China now (really just the cities). Here are some bits and bobs we’ve noticed that might be helpful to people planning to visit too.

LANGUAGE
Not many people speak English so be prepared. Locations and addresses need to be written in Chinese for taxi drivers. I’d also make sure you have the phone number of anywhere you’re going so the driver can call for directions. This came in very handy a couple of times in Beijing.

Also remember that people often learn American English so be aware they might be more familiar with American terms e.g. “check” rather than “bill” in a restaurant.

FOOD
There is some amazing Chinese food (definitely try a roast duck) and some stuff that isn’t so good to western tastes- a dish described as “smelly tofu” comes to mind. Some restaurants have English translations on the menu but not all are accurate so I’d recommend getting out there and trying as much as you can, you’ll find something delicious.

Also, if you find yourself craving western food then there are plenty of western restaurants in the big cities although they tend to be a bit more expensive.

TRANSPORT
Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong all have metro/subway systems which make these cities easy and cheap to get around. I think the most we’ve paid for a subway journey is 4 yuan which is about 40 pence. Taxis are also cheap and there are loads of them, just watch out for ones that don’t use a meter, they may well over charge. Make sure you’ve got your destination address written down in Chinese.

The cities (especially Shanghai) seem pretty easy to walk around and navigate. They have great road signs telling you what street you’re on and also what direction you’re heading in

CULTURE
The Chinese people we’ve met have been kind, friendly and very generous. Conversations can be tricky but if you can learn a few words of the language it’ll go down very well even if your pronunciation is bad. Respect of older people seems to be a big thing too so be sure to give up your seat on the subway.

Some Chinese people will sometimes ask you to pose in photos with them or their family especially at tourist spots. We’ve done it a few times but have never really understood the reasoning.

CROWDS
There are a lot of people in China, sounds silly to mention it but there are. Tourist spots and the city centres can be very, very crowded. Personal space doesn’t really exist and queues are a bit more flexible than in Europe. Brace yourself.

The Forbidden City and Great Wall (Beijing)

On our first full day in Beijing we took a tour to the big tourism sites.

We were on a minibus with two other couples and had an English-speaking guide, Merry. She picked us up from our hotel at 7am and was very perky for that time in the morning!

Our first stop was Tiananmen Square, which felt ceremonial and steeped in national pride as well as historical significance. As its been an annual national holiday, following the celebration of China becoming a Communist republic on 1 October 1949, there was a giant flower and fruit display and soldiers minding the national flag pole.

We didn’t visit Mao’s Mausoleum, where the previous Chairman’s body lays but his photo hung as a focal point in the square. Merry gave us a detailed tour and covered key events in the square and country’s history.

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We found it surprising that at such a key landmark in the capital, local visitors still found a Western tour group interesting and Rob posed for a few photos with Chinese families!

We then crossed the road to the Forbidden City – where the emperors of the historical dynasties used to live and was therefore forbidden to the public. This was a vast expanse of temples built up on tall defences. It would be an impressive feat of modern engineering, but even more so that it was built between 1406 and 1420 by about 1 million Chinese workers.

In the afternoon we headed out to the Great Wall, which was about 90 mins drive out of the city. We took a cable car to the top and walked along sections of varying steepness. There’s no way you could have done that with any fear of heights! The wall and views were immense, it’s incredible such a structure was built across the unforgiving terrain.

As with everywhere we’ve been to in China, it was very crowded. The quote of the day had to go to an English-speaking guy who said ‘once you’ve seen one bit of wall, you’ve seen them all’ – we really hope he was joking, as each step brought a new wonder and was awesome in the true sense of the word.

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Ideally, we would have liked to spend longer on the wall but it was the last day that the cable cars were running before being closed for maintenance so they closed quite early. There were various things like this and ticket-buying times that we wouldn’t have been able to negotiate with our a Chinese guide.

We had lunch at a Jade Gallery and once we returned to the city after the Wall we visited a tea house. These definitely felt like tourist ‘shoppertunities’ that we’d been warned about from guide books and though we were encouraged to buy souvenirs, we didn’t feel too pressured. We enjoyed the ‘Dr Tea’ house, which is the biggest in Beijing. A knowledgeable and sweet woman gave us a demo and we tried 4 teas including the jewel in the crown ‘Puer tea’, which supposedly helps with weight loss!

  • Our tour was with National Travel agency, which run trips all over the city. The one we booked was 1 day for 280 yuan (approx £28) each and included a trip to Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City and the Great Wall.

 

The sights and crowds of Hangzhou

We arrived safely in Shanghai on Wednesday morning and the next day headed to the tourist spot of Hangzhou in the middle of a national holiday.

We caught the Maglev ‘bullet’ train from the airport which sped at over 400km/h into the city of Shanghai. In the afternoon we headed to The Bund – a strip of skyscrapers which were obscured by the polluted smog, hopefully we’ll visit again when it’s clearer. It was there we had our first Chinese Dim Sum meal, which included ‘1000 year egg’, tofu, dumplings and lots of tea!

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We’ve spent the last two days in Hangzhou (Hong-jo) – a lake side area of the Zhejiang province. It is a week long national holiday in China so many people leave the cities and head to country tourism spots… and so there were masses of people in Hangzhou – it was similar to the first Saturday of the summer holidays at Alton Towers.

We spent the first day walking around the West Lake and on the second day visited the LingYin temples; they were a very impressive series of temples with giant Buddha statues and many Chinese people lighting incense and praying before them.

We’ve experienced quite a lot of staring and curiosity from locals, as Rob said ‘I’ve never felt so interesting’. Some people tried out their English by saying hello and we were asked by one family to asked to pose for a photo with their young daughters – feels very strange.

Yesterday afternoon we escaped the crowds by going into a village near the tea growing plantation. We enjoyed the view from the balcony of a private tea house and had dinner in a restaurant in the village.

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We got arrived back in Shanghai at lunchtime and visited an area of independent shops, similar to Camden market, in the French Concession this afternoon. We bought some traditional Shanghainese ice cream and cake but didn’t feel pressured to buy any other goods.

Tomorrow morning we fly to Beijing for a few days and we’ll see how we get on in the Forbidden City and on the Great Wall without my aunt’s Chinese translation!

Last minute prep

We’re out of our flat, have packed our bags and are as ready as we’ll ever be!

Following our farewell party, we’ve had some further final goodbyes; a gorgeous afternoon with friends in Sheffield on Saturday, followed by a meal with my parents for me and a wedding for Rob. Yesterday, we had our families together for a very British afternoon tea.

I feel like I’ve written quite a bit about packing (it occupies a lot of your thoughts before you actually go anywhere!), but I’ve had some excellent last-minute tips from a friend from school, who is a well-seasoned Antipodean traveller, including:

  • Good things to include in your hand luggage: nasal spray to avoid nose drying which makes you more susceptible to bugs; fluffy socks; a pen for boarding/arrival cards; a separate little bag for things you’ll want handy on the flight and a jumper.
  • To print your NZ work visa to show at customs on arrival
  • Rob’s mum also advised that we mix up our clothes so we have some in each, just in case one bag gets lost/delayed (heaven forbid).20130930_113035

We asked my uncle that we’re staying with in China if he’d like anything bringing over from the UK. He said he’d like a pork pie and, as Rob is from Melton Mowbray, we’ll be taking him the king of all pork pies!

I’ve spent some this morning devouring travel blog posts (time-wasting or getting into the spirit!) including:

This afternoon we are travelling to London to stay over ahead of our flight tomorrow.
We’re a mix of emotions but feel very excited and lucky to be setting off on this adventure!

2 months to go

With exactly 2 months to go until Rob and I head off on our NZ trip, it’s all beginning to feel very real.

We’ve given notice on our lovely Leicester flat and there are upcoming gigs/shows that we can’t book for (missing Queens of the Stone Age is particularly hard to bear).

I’ve been thinking about what I’ll miss (beyond the obvious of family and friends) and also what I’m most looking forward to.

So in no particular order…

What I think I’ll miss: 

The bringer of hope

Tea: the bringer of hope

  • English tea
  • Sleeping in my own bed
  • Leicester – in all its multicultural glory.
  • Watching Rob’s band – the mighty Madam Fade – play in the city
    Our weekly visits to Phoenix, Leicester’s independent cinema
  • Walkers salt and vinegar crisps
    (wonder how bags many I could stash in my suitcase)

…but I will be thrilled to bid farewell to my daily commute!

What I’m looking forward to:

  • Experiencing a completely different culture during our stop off in China
  • Discovering the arts and culture of Auckland with my friend Ingrid (http://keepingupwithnz.com)
  • Seeing my friend Amy in her homeland and hopefully visiting my own childhood home
  • Meeting new people
  • New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

I’m sure both lists will grow over the next 2 months and we’re doing our best to let excitement win over fear!

Do you have any home comforts you don’t travel without?

And we’re booked!

After a few months of planning, Rob and I have booked our flights to NZ!

We leave on 1 October and will spend a fortnight in China en route. I’m lucky enough to have family that live in Shanghai, so we plan to spend approx a week staying there before heading north to Beijing. We know we want to visit major attractions of the Forbidden City and Great Wall and I’d like to see the Birds Nest Olympic stadium, but we need to research what else we’d like to do there (time permitting!) We’ll then spend a few days in Hong Kong, before flying out mid-October to Auckland.

We have booked flights and insurance through Travel Nation, our consultant has been very helpful so far and patient with our deliberations. We managed to get all 4 flights for £1228pp – thanks to a late quote from a local travel agent we managed to reduce the price a little and this was by far the best price we found without needing to compromise our route.

As flights can only be booked about 11 months in advance, we’ve booked with ‘dummy dates’ and will set the exact dates for our return flights (London via San Francisco!) for Sept 2014 with Travel Nation, when they become available.

We waited until our visas came through before booking our flights, which may have been over cautious. Mine took about a week longer than Rob’s (nearly 4 weeks), which may have been because I’ve entered the country before (sounds a bit too grand!). If you’re using the Immigration New Zealand website, keep your log in details safe as this is the only way to check the status of your application. I locked myself out and the only option was to phone NZ to reset my password, which was a pricey and tricky-to-time phonecall!

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I’m trying to gather recommendations and contacts from family/friends at the moment. A couple of weeks ago at a friend’s party I met her friend who is planning a similar trip to Oz with her husband, also leaving in Oct. We’ve been in touch about flights and hope to keep in contact with her as we plan our trips.

Things on current to do list include:

1) Apply for Chinese visa – the form looks quite formidable!
2) Research where to stay/visit/eat in Beijing and Hong Kong
3) Think about work options and prep CV
4) Create a yearlong, travel themed playlist 😉

If you have any tips or Q’s, I’d love to hear from you!