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The art of being lost

a travel blog by steve_stamp


This blog will hopefully capture some of the most interesting sights, stories and sketches as we wander the Earth in a state of linguistic paralysis and general confusion.

Enjoy.
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Newborn Gazelle

London, United Kingdom


I felt like a newborn gazelle as I walked towards the train station with my backpack. I think I may have packed a few too many items... as I wobbled my way down the hill on legs that suddenly felt even skinnier than usual I was trying to work out where I may have gone wrong. After much debate I decided to take a Pacsafe (one of those ridiculous metal nets that goes over your bag) - mainly because I got offered one for a tenner - maybe that was a bad idea? I like to think I have been pretty good in terms of not taking anything unneccessary. Ok, so a few people laughed at the toothbrush cover and its fair to say that pyjama bottoms are not ESSENTIAL items but they don't weigh much... haha I think it's fair to say I am not a proper traveller just yet- I do have a digital watch though.

Off to China in a couple of hours! Woohoo!

permalink written by  steve_stamp on April 1, 2009 from London, United Kingdom
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
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Beijing and the art of deception

Beijing, China


We missed our flight. We died a little bit inside. We went home. We came back. We got an upgrade! Upgrades seem to be reserved for the rich or the unlucky - suddenly everything was great and before I'd even had time to finish watching my third film on the (very spacious) plane we were bumbling our way onto a bus in Beijing!

Beijing is fucking busy and a bit intimidating at first. The stream of cars, bikes and buses seemed completely unreasonable and we decided to get a tuctuc to the hostel to avoid adding to the manic roadrage around us. Then we decided to get out of the tuctuc and into a taxi because it became apparent that the driver was completely insane. And he hadn't even started driving! Incidentally, this was not the last crazy tuctuc driver we encountered in our first day in Beijing, we had as funny a near death experience as you could hope for on the way to the Forbidden City, but you will have to watch the video I shot to fully appreciate how driving towards an oncoming bus on the wrong side of the road can be funny.

The funniest part of the day, and the part which reflects what I suspect is an annoyingly large part of the Beijing experience was meeting our first friend! A Chinese art student spotted us looking lost and suggested that we go with him to an art gallery where we could see some of his work (which was very impressive!). It was suspiciously uncomfortable when we decided we weren't going to buy anything, but wasn't until we got back to our hostel that we spotted a large notice stuck to every bathroom door warning travellers not to be fooled by people claiming to be art students and offering to take you to their gallery. What a twat. I thought Alan wasn't a very Chinese name...

permalink written by  steve_stamp on April 2, 2009 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Beijing, Tuctuc and NearDeath

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Leaving Beijing

Beijing, China


I really liked Beijing, once you figure out the subway it's not as big as it seems and there are a few amazing places to go. The trouble is that anything ancient or traditional suffers from a swarm of tourists and while high walls attempt to block out the intrusion of industry, the rapidly developing city is difficult to escape.

Waiting in traffic today we had the pleasure of witnessing our driver clear his throat loudly and proceed to open the door, spit, close the door and drive on casually. This is something I am becoming used to now - to be fair they probably think my use of handkerchief is nasty. They'd probably be right.

We have been a bit unlucky with timing which meant that a lot of temples have been closed. I don't really care. The Summer Palace is still by far the most beautiful part of Beijing that we discovered. The huge lake is busy with boats and is surrounded by various temples, halls and palaces which are well worth a look. The gardens are pretty extensive and you may even be lucky enough to stumble onto silence. We found ourselves watching an old man doing tai chi and it was one of the best Beijing moments so far.

We didn't do well with the Bejing nightlife but we did attempt a big night out (on a Monday - bad idea) with a Malaysiuan guy we met at the hostel. He looked about 15 but was actually 30 and went by the wonderfully alliterative name of Tony Ting. We had been joking in the hostel bar that a large Canadian girl who was celebrating her birthday might like to "smash" Tony. In the taxi on the way out, Tony dropped one of the best quotes so far:

"If tonight go well, you will smash!"

You probably had to be there but I was actually crying.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on April 9, 2009 from Beijing, China
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
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Xi'an

Xi'an, China


As soon as we stepped off our soft sleeper train (which included bunk beds, tea and even slippers which were supposed to be one size fits all but actually were about a size 6) it was clear that Xian was a different world to Beijing. The architecture and markets fill the streets with the charm of traditional China and this picture of Chinese culture is framed within the vast city walls -apparently the last major city walls standing intact dontcha know?

We decided to make the most of our early start and got straight on a tour to see the Terracotta Warriors. They are pretty much as you would imagine them to be (amazing, bit dusty, etc...) but what I was definitely not expecting was to see Mr Wu - the old man who, in 1974, stumbled across the first of the warriors! I gave him my best Ni Hao and got a nod from the legend himself. It was clear that Mr Wu is a bit of an unofficial exhibit himself thesedays - our tour guide was not at all surprised to see him and he had his own chair, table and bucket to spit in. Why not.

We cycled round the city walls on a tandem bike (twas as gay as it sounds) and explored the Muslim quarter at night where lots of barbequed stuff gets eaten. The dumplings are the favourite street food so far. Last night, after a surreal experience of the Xian nightlife which I will come back to, I got 10 steamed dumplings off an old guy with a cart for a 10 rmb (a quid!).

Josh left for Beijing last night so I decided to go to the bar and see what was going on. Our hostel bar is the place to be, lots of locals come and get drunk here too. I ended up going out with an American guy who we'd met the night before and a local Chinese girl who was slightly in love with him, to a nightclub. This was interesting. The Chinese clubs are (from what I could tell) mostly seated and the guys order beers in BULK because it's cheaper. So imagine a club with bars running all around it, all covered with hundreds of bottles of beer. There was even a trough where you can put your beers on ice!

We decided the nightclub scene didn't suit us so we went to a strip of bars near our hostel where the usual kareoke and boybands could be heard. We ended up playing some game with marbles and singing Hey Jude with a guy who didn't know how to play it on the guitar. Good times.

The night train to Shanghai leaves at 9pm and gets there at 11am which means I had one more day to explore Xian. I headed for the popular tourist attractions (maybe I should stop doing that), the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower which are located right in the middle of the city. Guys fly strings of kites and the trees nearby are filled with fluttering tragedies, while the clunking machinery of a nearby contruction site filled the gaps between the "tongs" of the drums as tourists paid to have a go.

Infinitely more tranquil and spectacular is the Great Mosque which I stumbled across while weaving my way through the narrow antique market alleys in the Muslim Quarter. Although, perhaps inevitably, you pay an entrance fee, this is the kind of place that has the power to make people walk very slowly and speak very little.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on April 10, 2009 from Xi'an, China
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Xian

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How not to get a train

Xi'an, China


Here is an interesting tale - the moral is never to do anything with a hangover. Essentially what you need to know is that I bought a ticket first thing one morning (even before my hostel fry up) and that I was told about two different trains, details of which were scribbled on a piece of paper. Realising that the first train was full, the ticket seller turned over the paper and wrote details of the second train on the other side - I bought a ticket and was happy.

Now, I assumed that the earlier train had no space and therefore I was put onto the one after. Logical no? No. I got to the train station at 19.40, well in advance of my 21.04 train, but strangely it seemed to be boarding. More strange was that I seemed to be one of only two people actually getting the train... and the other person was running. So I ran too. I sprprinted in fact. Next thing I hear a bell ringing and realise that I have to get on the train despite being about 4 carriages short of my bed. A few miserable minutes of sweating my way through narrow, crowded corridors and pissing off entire carriages at a time, I found my bed and collapsed onto it spectacularly in front of five evidently amused chinese men. I took the piece of paper out and looked at the other side. 19.45. Oh well, at least there was no waiting around...

I spent the next 14 hours trying to Pacsafe my bag and get a decent nights sleep without offending the guys around me. I think I managed it because the next morning I was well slept and chatting to a couple of guys from Xian (Xianese?) about how bad we were at speaking each others language:

Me: My Chinese very bad.

Xianese man: My English very bad.

We laugh.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on April 11, 2009 from Xi'an, China
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Train, Xianese and Ticket

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Shanghai

Shanghai, China


My first day in Shanghai was the first time I got goosebumps from a city skyline. The hostel was right next to the Bund and as you emerge onto it you come face to face with the Oriental Pearl TV tower and the other spectacular erections (haa) on the other side of the Huangpu river.

I walked around aimlessly and found myself in Peoples Park where I came across one of the most bizarre scenes of the trip so far. Groups of people were gathered in the park looking at lots of pieces of paper. I got talking to some English students (there is a place called English Corner where all the students hang around trying to practice their English) and they explained that these pieces of paper contained detailed descriptions of people who are trying to get married – or more accurately who the parents are trying to get married! Many were already deep in discussion with potential matches (or their parents) and I was completely shocked, not just by the Lonely Hearts pages coming to life in front of my eyes but by the sheer number of people who were involved in the process!

I was invited by my new student friends to a tea ceremony – which I was obviously slightly suspicious of. I told them that I didn’t have much money and some of them even offered to chip in for me, I thought fuck it – this is an opportunity to see a traditional tea ceremony with a group of very funny English translators and even if it was a scam – I supposed that is all part of the experience! So for the next hour or so I drank a few different teas and watched as cups were poured over a little statue of what looked like a frog but was actually the God of tea.

The Old Town in Shanghai sounded too good to miss considering most of it seemed to be a sprawling mass of high rises and cranes on dusty building sites preparing hurriedly for the Expo in 2010. I’d read that there was a Sunday market down there so I got up early and after navigating a few construction sites and busy roads I turned onto a shabby looking street where men were fixing bicycles and colorful washing hung across narrow alleys. This was a bit more like it.

Suddenly I turned onto a street absolutely FILLED with sellers. It was a spectacular site– I held my camera by my waist and took sly (mostly shit) pictures as I strode through. There were live fish flapping around in plastic tubs, chickens being killed and plucked by the side of the road, people haggling irratically and sacks and sacks of teas, vegetables and spices- all of which appeared to have arrived by the many bikes which cluttered the scene further.

Old Street itself is busy and has a slightly disappointing faux-traditional feel to it. I did find a very exciting new snack which is basically a dumpling with soup and meat in the middle. It comes with a straw sticking out of it and is a wonderfully ingenious little thing. I ended up having two. The Yu Garden is by far the most impressive thing around the Old Town – a really amazing example of a traditional Chinese garden.

Re-united with Rago Mark after his Beijing football tournament (they came fourth for those that want to know), and also some friends we’d met in Xian who happened to end up in the same room as me in Shaghai, we decided to go and see an acrobat show. It was an amazing show although I was slightly concerned about the amount of time these youngsters must have spent balancing chandeliers on every limb and unicycling upside down on a tightrope when they should have been out having a good time.

We also led our companions across to the other side of town where I had heard about an Art Street where old factories were being converted into exhibitions for local artists. Also nearby was (supposedly) the Museum of National Security which attracted me with it’s promises of gangster paraphernalia but ultimately disappointed me with it’s not actually existing anymore. Not a good thing to admit to your friends after leading them around in the rain for half an hour but luckily the Art Street was good so I didn’t feel like a complete failure. Inspired, I spent the rest of the day taking black and white photos of bicycles and shop fronts.

The Shanghai nightlife is the best yet and without even trying we found ourselves being given free entry into a club with an open bar. We were there drinking, dancing and playing dice games with the locals until 4am and spent absolutely nothing the whole night! We ended up going back to the same place again a couple of nights later because we’d had such a good time (and because we were to lazy to find anywhere else) and although we had to pay about 8 quid entry this time, the bar was just as free and the drinking, dancing and dice just as fun.

There are some cool places around Shanghai so we decided to do a day trip to Suzhou, famously described by Marco Polo as the “Venice of the East” for its network of picturesque canals. Getting a return ticket was easy and cheap and although we were disappointed with the modern city which Suzhou has become in recent years, the traditional gardens were full of charm and the canals were worth a look. You may also be interested to know that they eat a lot of frogs here (at markets you see them in bags, alive and squashed together into a horrible orgy of squirming green bodies) so to sample the cuisine, and perhaps due to some sort of warped curiosity, I tried a bubbling hot pot of frogs with green peppers and onions. It was actually really nice except that you had to negotiate spines and skins, both of which were slightly disconcerting.

Our next stop was Hong Kong so that morning we decided to go and waste some of our remaining Chinese money on the local watch and dvd sellers. We’d had a lot of fun playing with the sellers, trying to sell them stuff back and asking for things which we knew they would sound funny repeating. Anyway, I ended up buying a pair of fake Ray Bans as my sunglasses were broken (I’ve decided that in Thailand I am going to kit myself out completely in fake designers haha) and I made one beggar very rich. The best line was from one of the sellers, who approach you, by the way, with a piece of laminated card displaying their goods, who said that he had “everything”. When I responded that we had no time he quickly retorted “I HAVE TIME!”. I asked how much and eventually got him down to 1000RMB (about a tenner) for a day which I thought was more than reasonable.


permalink written by  steve_stamp on April 18, 2009 from Shanghai, China
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
tagged Shanghai, Market, Frog, Sellers and PeoplesPark

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Mickey Mouse and the Chungking Mansion

Hong Kong, Hong Kong


After a 20 hour train journey(!), most of which was spent sleeping, we arrived in Hong Kong! I was immediately struck by how clean everything was and, in contrast to Beijing and Shanghai, that there seemed to be no construction going on anywhere! This city was complete! After taking a trip up Victoria Peak for a full view of the city I realised why - they couldn't have squeezed in another building if they tried! High rises cover the whole area as 7 million people cram into 425 square miles.

Our hostel was an unfortunate reflection of the cities accomodation issues. We were led from the hostel (on the 13th floor of a large block of flats), which we found full in spite of our booking, to another partner hostel (also on the 13th floor in a different block which was still part of the same building..!). We were given a "twin room with ensuite" by way of an apology. What we got was something slightly bizarre. There WAS definitely a bathroom... however, what they seemed to have done is move the toilet into the shower cubical and turn the rest of the bathroom into a bedroom. There was no window and the two beds were joined in an L shape along the walls. When I asked about the internet - which was advetised on the website where I'd made this tragic booking - I was told that I would need to use the computer on the reception desk of the other hostel (in the other block)! To get revenge we decided to do this at 5am.

Anyway, we'd escaped from there and after seeing the unbelievably vast city from the hills we wandered into the Botanical and Zoological Gardens. The climate was noticeably different to that of China and huge trees and tropical plants line the streets. so you can imagine what the botanical gardens there are like. It was like walking through a greenhouse in Kew Gardens but we were outside. And there were animals! First we saw flamingos and crazy little fluorescent birds, then ring tailed lemurs,orangutans, sloths and even a massive python!

In spite of our shoddy hostel I was already slightly in love with the city and when we hit the bar scene later that night I realised this was a city living up to its own hype. There are masses of clubs and bars and although they are pricey (everything in Hong Kong costs around double what you pay in China) there are some really cool places. I ended up pickled staring lovingly out the window of a club on the 28th floor.

It is important to note that our hostel was called the Disney Deluxe (most of the hostels ended in "Deluxe") which was written in marker pen on a piece of paper and stuck outside the lift. I got the feeling that they changed the name every few weeks, probably in order to escape negative reviews. The next day, after a little walk around the Museum of History to escape the tropical rain, we got back to Disney Deluxe and were greeted by a couple of little cockroaches...! We asked for a new room but there were none available.... We'd spoken to a couple that morning who had been asked to remove their bags from their room during the day so that they could be rented out to "lovers" so we decided that settling for an extermination session with our landlord, who will forever be known as Mickey Mouse, was probably not the worst option but vowed to leave and find a better hostel for our final night.

That evening when we got home we found Mickey sleeping in the corridor outside our room! I have no idea what was going on in that 15 storey building but most of it is dodgy - it was full of Indian and African immigrants selling fake electronics and clothes by day and hash and women by night. We had one particularly horrific encounter with one of the big African ladies who sell their more than ample selves in our building. Her approach was as tempting as it was subtle, shaking her bum cheeks and clenching them while looking at us in the mirror and pouting.

After leaving the horrors of the Disney Deluxe hostel we went out into the warm, wet city and had a look around the Art Museum and walked around one of the many shopping districts. We ended up getting one of the best meals of the trip so far in a restaurant overlooking the harbour - 3 courses each and about 5 pints of chinese tea. By the time we had finished it was dark and the city was lit up in all its glory. We headed back to the mainland by ferry and headed up to the Temple Road Night Market. This is my favourite market so far - some pretty good items, very little harrassment and lots of cheap but amazing looking seafood. We didn't have room for anything after our epic feast but it was still fun to watch the huge prawns and crabs squirming around before being flung to their delicious doom.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on April 22, 2009 from Hong Kong, Hong Kong
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
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Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand


I didn't have high expectations for Bangkok which is probably just as well. The heat is ridiculous and keeps you in a constant state of sticky discomfort while the city itself seems to have very little to get excited about. Until night falls... After dark Bangkok gives birth to seedy clusters of bars and shows which seem to cater mainly for bizarre sexual deviances (Cosmo - they didn't have any shows involving amputees, I checked. Soz.).

More exciting but in a very different way was the arrival of Kalleem Kalleem and Seapa D! Our group was now strong enough to take on even the most heavyhanded of ladyboys and so after another swelteringly hot day we decided to venture into the murky depths of the Bangkok scene. We drank a load of Chang beers (which say that they are 6.4% but apparently vary between 6-11%) and after wandering around being pestered by greasy little characters holding cards reading "sex show" and listing the various oral accomplishments of the girls inside their bars (some involved writing letters, some mentioned opening bottles...) we ventured up a staircase and into one of the infamous shows.

I'd had a naive idea that you bought a ticket and an audience would be sitting watching a little performance - kind of like the circus but funnier and slightly more disturbing. The reality was much more sinister and immediately it felt like we were going to be scammed from every angle. We sat down and ordered a couple of beers; In the meantime a girl had positioned herself on stage in front of us next to a basket of ping pong balls. For some reason (maybe I look like a pervert) I was given a bat... This took me completely by surprise - I had no idea there would be a bat! I assumed she would be firing them into a little basketball hoop or something. Before I had any time to consider where I was expected to be hitting these balls, she aimed and fired!

My natural response to this ridiculous attack was one of self-defence - I hit the balls straight back. At the girl. Now, I used to play table tennis as a kid but I never considered myself to be particularly gifted. Maybe it was the Chang or maybe it was just good luck but I returned each of the three balls fired with unusually devastating precision- all three hitting her in the head! Obviously we were all wetting ourselves at this amazing scene and it only got better when, fuming, she grabbed handfuls of pingpong balls from the basket and started throwing them at me! At this point our drinks arrived so I decided this was the perfect time, and excuse, to leave.

The night ended with us being invited back to the stupidly expensive penthouse apartment of some American girls who had a collection of bongs and Thai weed. They had videos of thai guys getting their names tattooed on their chests which was a bit weird but they were really funny and I left with the promise that I would get one too. I'll probably get a tribal design all over my back or an elephant on my foot or something. Not really mum.

Bored of Bangkok, the next day just felt like a repeat (although I thought I would quit while I was ahead in the ping pong)... we walked around talking in rhyme and investigating propositions with strange and confusing questions. Every bar and club just seems the same after a while and even Kao San Road (where all the travellers go) didn't really have much going on beyond a few buckets and a load of white people with dreadlocks and shell necklaces who look like they could do with going home. The best thing about Bangkok is the food- I am loving all the spicy curries and stir fries. My digestive system doesn't seem to agree but fuck you digestive system - get used to it! Finally on the overnight train down South, I was excited to be going somewhere a bit less intense.


permalink written by  steve_stamp on April 26, 2009 from Bangkok, Thailand
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
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Phuket

Phuket, Thailand


We headed down to Phuket and stayed in a hostel which was more like a hotel - huge rooms with air conditioning, a balcony, towels, etc but following an encounter with a particularly hardened traveller, who would undoubtably have been played by Steven Seagal in a film of his life, we were beginning to feel like we weren't slumming it enough so we promised ourselves that the next one wouldn't be as nice. The hostel is 2 minutes away from Karon Beach which is long, white and quiet, with big green waves; being by the sea was really welcome after so much time in hot dusty cities. It finally felt like proper Thailand.

The nightlife was laid back and we spent a couple of evenings playing pool with prostitutes and pretending we were pilling. We were more interested in Koh Phi Phi which was a short ferry ride away and to get near the ferry port we moved to Patong Beach for a night. Patong is a horrific collection of English pubs, McDonalds, loud bars and ladyboys - we got straight out of there on some rented mopeds and drove up the coast to a small town called Kalim (funny for those that know...) where locals barbeque meat and fresh seafood. I had a squid on a stick for 20p among other things which was the best food find so far. We carried on our little journey and ended up on a secluded beach called Kamala Beach. We immediately wished we had been a bit more adventurous in our search for accomodation. On the way home we stopped for more food in Kalim (beef soup, bbq banana, pancakes...) and had a romantic swim as the sun set. Who needs prostitutes anyway?



permalink written by  steve_stamp on April 30, 2009 from Phuket, Thailand
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
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Ko Phi Phi

Ko Phi Phi, Thailand


Ko Phi Phi was highly recommended and when I got there it seemed to be the perfect place for a real Thailand beach experience; we were staying in a wooden shack on the beach in a bay surrounded by beautiful hills covered in dense tropical forests. I was happier than a pervert in Phuket. It is not free from the plague of tourism that we had experienced so uncomfortably in Patong and although the nightlife is much cleaner, the ladyboys and prostitutes were replaced by mindless westerners and topless twats gyrating all over everything. In spite of a run-in with a particularly meaty meat-head we had a really good few nights there dancing on the beach to weird remixes and I even went for a drunken semi clothed swim which was amazing - although the next day my trousers smelt like a harbour.

We spent a few more days in this beautiful and slightly surreal environment - one of which was spent on a tour around the two islands. This included kayaking in Maya Bay (of The Beach fame) at sunset, visiting a beach with a load of monkeys on it and some snorkelling. Snorkelling was definitely a highlight for all of us, the other three having never snorkelled before.Tropical fish filled the water with colour and the only sounds under the water were the occassional hum of a longboat going by and the tiny chomps of the bigger fish nibbling algae off rocks. I liked swimming down right next to the coral and watching everything close up as they sense danger. Hugo summed it up perfectly, saying "We had a proper Planet Earth day today."

We'd also been tempted to go and see some Muay Thai fights but had decided against it as most big fights charge a lot of money. On Phi Phi, however, we found a bar with ring in it where fighters from the local training camp would come and fight in front of the enthusiastic, bucket swilling tourists for free. We watched guys being kicked to the floor only to come back and lay out their opponent. Definitely the best fighting I have ever seen live - although I suppose I only have streetfighting outside West Kebab to compare it to...

The incredible scenery and hilarious nightlife was not enough to keep us in this most perfect tourist trap and so with Josh on a mission to Kuala Lumpar to get his credit card(!), we decided to go back to Karon Beach for some more moped adventures. After waking up itchy and looking like rasher of bacon (I assume its heat rash or maybe a reaction to too much heat and deet) I was also looking forward to some air conditioning. Mmmm.

permalink written by  steve_stamp on May 1, 2009 from Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
from the travel blog: The art of being lost
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