I landed in Shanghai at about 9am after a long flight from Heathrow. I hadn’t had much sleep but the time difference meant I had missed the whole night. Immigration was pretty quick, and I was able to get a Chinese SIM card while waiting for my bag, meaning I had internet access before I even left the airport! Everyone in the airport was very helpful if I had questions or needed directions. My hotel was across the city next to Hongqiao railway station, so my first task was to get to the hotel and get rid of my suitcase. I opted for a shuttle bus to Hongqiao railway station, which took about an hour, and planned to get a taxi for the short hop from there. I’d initially planned to get the subway, but I was so tired I didn’t fancy trying to navigate the ticketing and the system. When I got to the station I decided to pick up the train tickets that Yang had bought for me, as it was still early and my hotel room probably wasn’t ready. I knew Shanghai was big but nothing can prepare you for the scale of Hongqiao railway station. It’s absolutely enormous, with at least ten ticket offices spread through the massive halls, plus all the departure gates. It feels much more like an airport. Most people could collect their tickets from machines by scanning their ID card, but as mine are linked to my passport I had to go to the counter. After waiting in the huge queue of people wanting to change tickets, I got to the front and got served. With a bit of help from my Baidu Translate app and a lot of help from context, I soon had my tickets in hand. Finally, I sought out a taxi and arrived at my hotel, which was spectacular. Normally I go for a pretty cheap place, but I knew I’d be tired so I went a bit more expensive. It was worth every penny. My room was well appointed, very comfortable and clean, and all the staff were very helpful. My room had a view of the train station and airport, which have massive red signs on top like real-life map labels. I slept for a few hours, ate my sandwich from Heathrow, freshened up and then headed back out into the city. Hotel staff gave me a map and some advice on where I was going and how to get there. They were keen to book me a taxi but I was ready to brave the ticket machines after my sleep! As it was possible to walk to the subway station at Hongqiao railway station, I decided to go for a wander. The trip to the station took me through a modern mall and office development. It was all huge and shiny but there weren’t too many people around. I got to the station and found the ticket machines. Luckily they have an English button, but I didn’t realise you have to select a line and then destination. Someone gave me a hand cheerfully and refused to be thanked. The lines are displayed along the bottom, and you select your destination by tapping it on the map. You can show it in English too, but the Chinese version looks cooler. My destination was Lujiazui for the Oriental Pearl, otherwise known as the ball on a stick tower. It’s about half an hour away from Hongqiao on the subway. Before you go down to the train platform there’s a security check like in the airport, with a bag scanner, and the platforms have a barrier between you and the train. There are also guidelines on where to stand on the platform. I had to wait ages for the platform to clear before I took pictures. All of the stations I used had multiple exits, leading to different streets and different places. I ended up getting out of Lujiazui into a big shopping mall, and after wandering around there for a little while I asked for directions and found the right exit. Again, the scale of these stations is amazing. I came out of the station to be confronted by downtown Shanghai in all its glory. Even if you’re not a city person, I don’t think you could fail to be impressed by these buildings. It was really cool to see them all lit up at night – some whole buildings were turned into dynamic displays for advertising. Shanghai’s defining landmark is the Oriental Pearl tower. The middle ball of the three contains a sightseeing deck as well as a second lower deck with a glass floor. I got a ticket (about £15) and went inside. In contrast to the brand new buildings and Hongqiao, the style of the inside was a little older. It was clearly built with high volumes of tourists in mind, and was decorated for new year. The tower also proudly displays the Chinese government’s highest rating as a tourist attraction. Again there is a security check and plenty of people in smart wool coats and caps to help you. You take the lift up to the observation deck and the view is spectacular. Some of the buildings are now below you, and some still tower above. You can get a full 360 of the city, and can look out over the river and the Bund, a riverside promenade on the other bank which has European style buildings. The full moon was orange and hung over the skyscrapers. The overall effect was like being in a city on another planet! The glass floor observation deck is not for the faint hearted, and there are warnings posted ‘banning’ people who are scared of heights, agoraphobics, pregnant women and ‘violent sports’. I did eventually manage to convince myself to go in the glass and look down, but it’s impossible to walk on it and look down at the same time. At least, it was for me… Kids in particular were delighted by their parents’ trepidation. I eventually came down and took the subway again (like a pro) just over the river to see the view from afar, and to explore Nanjing Road, famous for its bright lights and food. Most of the shops had open fronts and there were plenty selling souvenirs and snacks. I went for the biggest crowd and found kebabs. You could choose from beef or lamb, paid your money and were given a paper bag, proving you’ve paid. Once your stick was ready it was popped through the bag to keep your hands clean. I chatted with a fellow buyer in the queue, and she turned out to be a travel agent from Thailand, in town to sell her newest tours to the Chinese market. The meat was tender and a bit fatty, with a mildly spicy and sweet marinade. It was tricky to pull the meat off the stick as some of the pieces were quite well welded on! The other snack that was being sold all along the road was a glass jar of yogurt, sold under signage proclaiming its Shanghai provenance, unique slow fermenting method and health benefits for the elderly. I bought one and stuck it in my bag for later. There were loads of people on Nanjing Road, and everyone looked like they were enjoying the evening and the shopping and food. I walked along as far as the Bund, and was greeted by this unbelievable view of the skyscrapers once I got to the end. The full moon and the brightly lit cruise boats were the icing on the cake. It gave me goosebumps to see it in person. I got the subway back to the hotel again, and had my special Shanghai yogurt. It was thick and creamy, not as tangy as plain yogurt at home. When I finished I finally noticed how tired I was, and went to sleep.
Another day, another hill! This time we took the bus up to Am Himmel, which means “in Heaven”. On the way we went through some picturesque spots in Vienna, and then left the city limits!
We had dinner in Oktagon, a restaurant right on the top of the hill. The building was windows all around, and almost felt like eating outside, except for the warmth! We had tafelspitz – topside of beef boiled with vegetables and served with apple sauce and sour cream, as well as creamed spinach and potatoes. It was fantastic, especially the potatoes! Lisi and I had hot red grape juice and Aimee had apfelschole, apple juice mixed with carbonated water.
Now we were well and truly ready for a walk. As we went out of the restaurant very fine snow started to fall, and the cloud hung over the city. We walked through the vineyards. To my surprise, we were visited by a green woodpecker! First one, and then another. The first one made himself known very loudly – you can see him and listen to his call on the RSPB page. Can you see why he was somewhat unmissable?
The other side offered this view of the city, and Aimee and Lisi were amused by the sign which said that all the wine grown in the vineyard is fertilised by Viennese green waste – the food scrapings and potato peelings that go into the little recycling bin on everyone’s kitchen counter. Apparently “nobody talks like that!”
On the way back down the hill we walked down some long streets, and Aimee pointed out how different some Viennese houses were from each other, thanks to planning regulations – or lack of them – in some parts of the city. These two are pretty different from one another!
As we got further down a few neighbourhood cats took an interest in us, coming and asking for a pat. One stayed high up on a fence and scratched its chin and cheeks on some straw which was sticking up, making a very happy face as it scraped away! Occasionally it changed surface and went for the wooden fence post instead.
Travelling abroad always brings linguistic joy… two stand-out instances came along in just a couple of minutes thanks to this unintentionally hilariously named street, and this amusing family name.
We eventually got back to the U-Bahn near Karl Marx-Hof, which hides a spectacular station in unassuming wrappings.
We took the U-Bahn to the Pink Christmas Market, which was festooned in pink and was playing possibly the worst dance remixes of Christmas songs we’d ever heard. Even the people selling their things there were complaining about the music! It seemed to be a very short playlist too. There was a good selection of stalls open selling quality things, though most of them seemed to be food stalls, with lots of preserves and schnapps on offer. I bought some painted papier mache baubles (Lisi encouraged me to buy two, much to the amusement of the stall holder). There was another stall selling these… not quite my taste but they may well delight others!
After a crepe and some mulled wine (finally!) we went back home. We caught the bus close to this sweet shop with a terrifying window display…
Happily, the strange mannequin was balanced out by this display of lucky new year pigs and toadstools! Thank goodness for small mercies…
I first went to Budapest when I was about 17, travelling to meet a whole bunch of friends I’d met online. After a few more flying visits, once again I found myself in striking distance of this city that I enjoy so much. I last visited in 2009 with my dad, as part of our interrailing trip.
The alarm went off at six and I got up quickly, having been too overexcited to sleep well. I got my things together and prepared for our day trip to Budapest! Aimee awakened herself with a cup of tea and then we headed out to the bus. We had to sprint a little at the end but we made it! Then we ran down the escalator to the U-Bahn to the West railway station. It never ceases to amaze me that building a shopping centre around a train station is the done thing in many countries – Austria included. After negotiating our way through to the ticket office Aimee bought our return tickets to Budapest, leaving in ten minutes.
Aimee asked if we were able to buy food on board, and the answer had been “You can, but it’s Hungarian”. Pass the paprika chicken please… We had just enough time to grab a couple of croissants out of a bakery before getting on to our train – just in case there was nothing we fancied.
We had been warned by the booking website that this train would be really busy, but in fact we had our six seated compartment to ourselves for a lot of the way. I chanced letting a few friends know we were going to be in town, and waited to see if they were free to join us. We crossed the border into Hungary after a short while, and our mobile phone companies let us know by sending us texts full of prices.
After a while longer, two people got on who also had seats in our compartment. We took this as a good moment to investigate the restaurant car. In the end we just got a drink. I had a really sweet hot chocolate in a glass cup, and Aimee had a really sweet cappuccino, which looked incredibly uninspiring. It was more covered in scum than with actual froth. As the train rocked from side to side, a few tablespoonfuls were lost to the saucer on either side. Needless to say, Aimee wasn’t disappointed about that.
We sat in the restaurant car for the rest of the way, and I finished my chocolate. Just as the final station was called, out waiter returned and gave us the bill in Forints. They accepted Euros too, which is lucky as we didn’t have any Forints yet! I tried out my extremely rusty Hungarian – just politeness phrases – and was pleasantly surprised that I still had some left in my brain!
In the meantime, I had received a whole bunch of messages from team Hungary, who had gotten their heads together and come up with a meeting plan. We were to go to a cafe, Rengeteg, which is fairly close to Keleti station and have hot chocolate. Only one of my friends, Sirpi, could make it, so he booked a table for us and we arranged to meet him there. Once we arrived at Keleti we had to get some Forints, go to the loo and sort out a transport ticket for the day.
Since last time I was there they had put in a metro line connecting the station to the rest of the network, and had redone the area around the station. Areas right next to stations are never the most pleasant, but the atmosphere was improved from last time. We got ourselves sorted out with transport cards and then headed towards the cafe, planning to find it first and then explore the area around it for a while. We had a go at finding three different geocaches but failed them all. We ended up in the Corvin shopping mall in the warm looking for the last one, but didn’t manage to find it either.
We wandered back around to the cafe and went inside…
There isn’t a lot around in this street, but the cafe really stands out with its red door, and when you go inside you go down the stairs and find this…
As well as the coffee and tea and chocolate all stacked up around the counter, there are also lots of old bits and bobs scattered around the place, especially teddy bears. There are also lots of games and other toys, as well as some completely unknown objects. On the handrail on the stairs there’s even an old ticket validating machine from a tram/metro/bus.
We got a table and soon Sirpi arrived – shortly followed by Mária! What a great surprise! She wasn’t feeling 100% but had come along to share a drink with us. It was really lovely to see them. Some hot chocolate soon woke us all up. There was no particular menu for the hot chocolate – I was told to just come up with a flavour, so I did… below you can see my hot chocolate with orange. The hot chocolate itself was really thick and almost like angel delight, but not bubbly. I ate mine with the spoon.
We had only expected to meet for a drink, but Mária suggested a whistle-stop tour of the main sights in Budapest by car – we headed straight for the Hungarian parliament building as Mária talked us through lots of the sights along the way. She used to work as a guide and claimed not to remember much any more – even so she barely drew breath until we jumped out of the car and took a walk by the parliament and along the bank of the Danube.
The number 2 tram is a lovely old-fashioned one, and Mária recommended it as a good way to see the sights as it goes along the Danube and has great views.
After the walk around the parliament building Mária drove us up the hill to look at the beautiful view from the top. We parked slightly outside the car park, which is apparently jam-packed in summer at peak season – even in the winter it was quite a busy spot. We managed to get into some space and take in the view.
We came back down the hill and Mária and Sirpi dropped us off at Deak Ter in the centre of Budapest. We were really hungry so we went to a “Traditional Hungarian Restaurant” closeby which seemed to have a very high turnover. We had lángos, which are somewhere between a calzone and a pancake. Mine was filled with delicious paprika chicken.
We paid and left quickly – with not too long left before our train. Near the metro station was a big Christmas market selling all kinds of things. We got some tokaji for Christmas after tasting a few of them, and stood in the queue for kürtőskalács, cakes which are made from spirals of dough and then cooked over coals. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to wait to get some of our own, but we did have some sausage and potato fritter to keep us going – we’d hardly had anything to eat all day apart from our hot chocolate!
After packing our bags, we went down the high-speed escalator to the metro and went back to the train station for our three-hour train journey back to Vienna.
The day started with a hearty mutton fry made by Sellappan’s mam, and I gave Sellappan his cookbook gift I had kept secret since arriving. We went for the bus early and I enjoyed travelling back on the 3.33 Electronic City Express in the daylight, watching the scenery change as we left the hills of Salem and went back to Bangalore. We got a phone call from Sellappan’s building manager in Bangalore to say that Holi was being celebrated downstairs – where were we? I had stayed some extra time in Bangalore especially for Sellappan’s birthday and Holi, so I knew what was ahead, but this was a day early, and we certainly weren’t dressed to be covered in powder paint and coloured water!
We got back to Bangalore and took a rickshaw back to the flat, where we saw all kinds of coloured carnage unfolding! The building manager grinned through his colours and approached menacingly – only Sellappan’s cry of “New shirt! New shirt!” saved us from a full on attack! We did, however, receive some green colour on our faces, with cries of “Happy Holi!” We went for the lift before anyone changed their minds!
We unpacked, changed into more suitable clothes and went back out to get supplies for Sellappan’s birthday party. I was pleased I’d brought a backpack for all the snacks and sweets we ended up with! Eventually the shopping was done, and we got back to find another group of about ten people all celebrating Holi. We just managed to put down our bags and take phones out of pockets before all hell broke loose! Between all the different colours of powder, the super soakers and the silver and gold face paint, we were all thoroughly covered in short order!
We must have been playing for a while, as Sellappan’s friends began to arrive – I say began to arrive…three of them walked towards the apartment block and when they saw what was going on they walked slower and slower… clearly not wanting to get too messy! They escaped with some silver paint to the face, and we all headed upstairs, carefully not touching anything.
Sellappan graciously allowed me the first shower, and it took forever to get the colours out of my hair – I couldn’t even tell if they were off my face or not. The soap and shampoo ran magenta into the drain, and I finally managed to come out with some semblance of normality. Poor Sellappan was still standing not touching anything and trying to avoid dropping more powder everywhere. Once he was cleaned up, more people started to arrive and we spent a lovely evening wishing Sellappan many happy returns – with the help of two cakes! Plenty of people managed to squeeze into the flat, and the evening was a great success!
While Sellappan ran some errands, I spent the day relaxing and playing with the millions of photos we’d taken on our trips. Zubair popped over and we all had some snacks thanks to Sellappan’s mam.
Later in the evening, Sellappan and I went to see the Doctor at his surgery. As we were chatting there was a sudden rush of patients, so we left and Sellappan took me to a department store where he wanted to get a souvenir for me. He ended up choosing a stainless steel dinner set – I had asked for a plate, which was included in the set – and he got it engraved with the dates of my trip. It’s common practice to engrave cookware with names. As Sellappan’s birthday was coming up, he also needed to get some party supplies like paper cups and plates, so we got those too.
We paid a visit to a kitchen showroom for Sellappan’s mam, accompanied by Zubair. We also went quickly to a CD/DVD shop to get the soundtrack for Highway, the Hindi film we had enjoyed so much. We even managed to squeeze in a few more minutes with the Doctor, seeing as his rush had subsided.
We went to a restaurant and met up with the whole Salem network for a meal. The young waiter ran around for us like the floor was made lava, and we got lots of different dishes. I finished off my meal with a sweet lime juice which was very tasty. All too soon it was time to say goodbye to everyone, and we left to the sound of “Happy Birthday” and “Safe journey home”.
Today we finished up lots of little odds and ends, but first we paid a visit to Naveen and Ashwini, who wanted Sellappan to come with them to view a property they were thinking of moving to. Once we’d had a look around and a chat about it, Sellappan and I went to the Forum mall. We went for a geocache first – my first attempt in India (GLDJ1M23). There aren’t many in India at all, but there are a couple in Bangalore and this one was close to Sellappan’s place so we were able to go for it in the morning before work. Thanks to the hint, we got to the right spot almost immediately. Unfortunately, there were lots of people around, and while we were surreptitiously searching, someone came up to us to ask for money. Eventually Sellappan persuaded them they were on a hiding to nothing and we zeroed in on the likely spot. I couldn’t see anything obvious at first, but sitting down on the wall for a think we dismissed most places around us until only one remained. Sellappan stuck his hand down the back of the likely spot and bingo! Cache in hand! The log was signed and the cache was replaced quickly.
We crossed back to the mall for the next few tasks. We went to a bookshop and I got some comics as a gift, and got three books for myself in case I needed something to read on the plane. One of these was a second copy of The White Tiger, a book which I had enjoyed before visiting India – I wondered if it would feel the same having been there. We also managed to find a Chumbak store to get the motorbike shirt we’d seen when we were waiting for Sujay and Kallu at the cinema across town. Time was running out, so with everything stuffed into my backpack, Sellappan dropped me off at the flat with some brunch before going to work.
After work, we were making full use of the fact that Mohan and Kowshalya were back in town, and so went out for dinner with them to a restaurant specialising in food from Andhra Pradesh. We had to wait a little while before getting into the restaurant and getting seated which normally isn’t a problem, but we had a bus to catch! Sellappan, Mohan and I enjoyed some non-veg dishes while Kowshalya stuck to the veggie options. We left it at that and paid the bill before rushing back to the flat, picking up our bags and heading for the night bus to Salem via rickshaw.
We made it with some time to spare, and then Mohan and Kowshalya appeared on their bike to keep us company. It was really nice of them to do so, especially as we ended up waiting ages for the bus which was late! Eventually we got on and Mohan and Kowshalya disappeared off into the night.
We hadn’t managed to get our usual seats of 17 and 18, and ended up sitting in the back row of the bus, which felt very strange after always sitting in the middle. Clearly this didn’t bother me as much as I thought, as the next thing I knew I was waking up on the outskirts of Salem, with Sellappan laughing at me because I’d actually managed to nod off before he did. My bus sleeping level: Advanced.
We got off at Salem bus station and got to Sellappan’s house by taxi, and had a nice morning’s sleep on beds that didn’t move.
Mohan picked me up from Sellappan’s place in the evening, and we went to his for dinner. Kowshalya cooked for us and we had chapathi with tomato curry, followed by panayaram with sambar, yum! It was a very relaxed evening and we enjoyed each others’ company for a while, chatting about the day’s events. Sometimes you can’t beat a night in and home cooked food with friends.