Welcome to the first of three travelling posts! After leaving Mulhouse at the end of April I had a family event in Dublin in the middle of May so I was looking for something to do in between. I had friends that were studying in Mulhouse last semester during their Erasmus year and who had moved to Innsbruck in the second semester and I thought that this would be as good an opportunity as any to visit them. I was looking for somewhere to go on the way there and Munich, while not on the way, was in the right area. I’ve wanted to go to Munich for a long time so I figured it was a perfect addition to my itinerary. While I was in Austria to go to Innsbruck, I also fancied going to its capital, Vienna. Innsbruck and Vienna are on almost opposite sides of the country but only four hours or so by train. And that was how I decided on my two week itinerary.

I’m going to take you day by day through my itinerary for each city because while some of the things I did were very specific to my own interests (you’ll see what I mean), I think in general I found a good balance of seeing some of the main sights and discovering some nice hidden spots. There’s also always more places that you wish you had time to go to or to see, no matter how long you spend anywhere so I’ll let you know what those are for each place as well.

Something else I’m going to include is a breakdown of what the trip cost me. I think there’s this impression, or at least I had the impression, that this kind of backpacking in Europe is really expensive and more unattainable than somewhere like Central or South America or Southeast Asia. Some things are expensive, like hostels and transport, but on the day to day it’s possible to keep costs down. I started out wanting to keep to a €20 a day budget and by the end of the two weeks I had increased it to €30 a day (not including accommodation or transport). €20 was fine for days when I wasn’t doing any activities that I had to pay for or when I was cooking my own food for all my meals but it didn’t have a lot of wiggle room. Sometimes I wanted to eat lunch or dinner out, especially if I was away from the hostel for the whole day, and if I wanted to do something that I had to pay for, it was impossible. I wasn’t rigorous with the budget, there were days when I went over even €30 but it was a good limit to aim for.

So without further ado, let go!

Saturday 30 April

This was my first travel day. I wasn’t leaving until 1pm so the morning was spent packing up the remnants of my stuff in my flat. Thankfully I’m able to come back in September so I can keep my things there but I’m changing rooms so I still needed to put everything into boxes.

I got to the train station in Mulhouse with plenty of time to spare and loaded up on train snacks (€7.10 for a baguette sandwich, some crisps and a bottle of fizzy juice). My travel involved taking a train to Basel where I changed onto a service heading to Berlin (a whopping 8 hours long!) although I was getting off at Karlsruhe, only 1 hour 45 minutes later. I was only supposed to have 7 minutes in Karlsruhe to change to the train that would take me to Munich but 7 minutes would have been too easy. Instead the train was a little late so it was only 3 minutes to transfer. The conductor was very encouraging when he told us over the speaker that we should have enough time to make it if we hurried! You could tell who was trying to make the same connection because we were all pressed up against the door, raring to go and raced out as soon as the train pulled to a stop. Thankfully we just had to go down some stairs and across a few platforms and I think everyone made it. They might have even delayed the Munich train for a few minutes to make sure everyone could get on. Overall this little adventure from Mulhouse to Munich cost me €28.25 (all my train tickets were bought using my carte avantage jeune, a young person’s discount card).

It turned out that my hostel, Wombat’s City Hostel Munich Hauptbahnhof, was right by the train station (the name should have given it away, bahnhof is German for train station). I stopped in at a supermarket on the way as the following day was Sunday and like in France, not much in Germany is open. I spent €5.10 on some bananas, pasta and pesto, the traveller’s staples!

I immediately liked the hostel when I walked in. It has this great common area with a big high ceiling made out of windows that makes you feel like you’re in a building in a botanic garden. Food was high on my agenda and the first person I met while I was cooking in the shared kitchen was a Chinese girl who studied in Dalian of all places! We were there at different times and studying at different universities but what a coincidence!

After all the travel and commotion of the day, I was very tired so I didn’t actually go out anywhere on the first evening. I chilled in the common area for a while and then went to bed. My spending for the day came in way under budget at €12.20.

Sunday 1 May

For my first full day in Munich I didn’t have anything in particular planned. I have to admit that I was a little underprepared for this trip. Other than asking people for recommendations for the cities I was visiting and putting all the answers onto a Google Map, I hadn’t done much research. In a way this was nice though because I was able to look around the city, read the information boards in the hostel and talk to people who had already been there for a few days to get inspiration. I definitely got some good recommendations that way, both for what to do and what not to do! The weather was also a little limiting while I was in Munich because while it didn’t rain that much other than two evenings, the weather forecast kept threatening that it was going to.

I figured a good starting point would be the main square in Munich, Marienplatz. This is where you will find the Neues Rathaus, the new town hall. The building includes the famous glockenspiel, a clock that reenacts two very important events in the history of Munich. The first is the wedding of Duke Wilhelm V and Renata of Lorraine, commemorated by a jousting competition, and the second is the Schäffler dancers who danced in the streets once the plague was gone from the city. It can be seen every day at 11am and 12pm and also 5pm between March and October. However, today the main attraction was very different. Seeing as it was 1st May, Germany was celebrating May Day or Labour Day. There was a big stage set up with performers and the square was packed with people waving banners and handing out flyers for unions and other organisations. Someone even tried to recruit me until I sputtered out my go to line in German – ‘Ich spreche kein Deutsch!’ (I don’t speak German!).

Marienplatz on May Day

From Marienplatz I headed deeper into the old town, with the vague destination of the English Garden in mind. It’s basically just a massive park but seeing as this was potentially going to be my only day of dry weather I wanted to go and wander around while I could. On the way I passed by the Munich residence which was the official residence of the Bavarian royal family for more than 400 years until 1918 and is the biggest city palace in Germany. I didn’t go in but I walked through the garden and later learned that the building now houses multiple museums so if that’s your thing it’s a good spot!

Just beyond the residence was the bottom of the English Garden. Here is where you will find one of my favourite spots in Munich and a bit of a legendary sight. The Schwabinger river runs into the garden and at the most southern point in the park you can find the Eisbach wave. The rock formations at this point in the river create a wave that is perfect for surfing! It’s only for pretty advanced surfers but even if you can’t partake, it’s fascinating to stand on the bridge overlooking the wave or the banks of the river to watch those that can. It’s such a curiosity and I loved whiling away some time watching the surfers there.

The Eisbach Wave

After being entranced by the surfers, I walked into the actual garden and wandered around for a while, coming across the Monopteros, a small Greek style temple. I was starting to get hungry so I found a biergarten, appropriately enough the Chinesischer Turm Biergarten (Chinese Tower Beergarden) which has a pagoda in the middle. I spent €9 on some currywurst (sausage with a sweet tomato and curry sauce poured over it) and kartoffelsalat (potato salad, pretty much the only reason I got this instead of chips was because when the guy asked me what I wanted, I recognised the words and was very chuffed with putting my Duolingo level German to use!). I was tempted by a beer but the only option was a 1L stein that would have cost the same as my food!

After a busy morning full of walking I was a little tired so headed towards one of the recommendations I’d been given, a coffee shop in the university district to the west of the garden. It was called Lost Weekend and was exactly my vibe! It was filled with young people with their laptops and books out, was part bookshop and has events like open mic nights and poetry readings in the evenings! I got a coffee and read my book there for a while, happy to take a break from being a tourist and blend in for an hour or two.

I dandered back towards the hostel past some of the museums that I was considering visiting later in the week and then stumbled across a square with a Greek style gate called the Propyläen and also the Sculpture Gallery and the State Collection of Antiques which were both in interesting buildings. Back at the hostel I was wiped out so I just made some more pesto pasta, got a beer from the hostel bar (€2.80 for a pint!) and got chatting to an Australian woman about her extensive travels.

My first full day in Munich came out to €14.30 after walking everywhere, just taking in the sights of the city plus eating breakfast and dinner in the hostel. Off to a good start!

Monday 2 May 

My plan for day 2 stemmed from the conversation I had with Lisa, the Australian woman, the night before. She recommended going to see Schloss Nymphenburg. It’s a palace a little further out from the centre of the city but is easily accessible by tram. It was €3.50 for a one way ticket, a little expensive in my opinion, and I was very confused about where to buy it until I realised that the ticket machines are actually on the trams. From where I was staying near the main train station it was about 15 minutes to the tram stop named Schloss Nymphenburg and then the palace is right there. I decided to skip the pais entry to the building, at a certain point once you’ve seen one fancy building you’ve seen them all, and instead spent a few hours wandering around the extensive gardens. There were some nice buildings and statues hidden away amongst the trees and I paused by a lake to read my book as well.

I went back to the hostel for lunch and went back out in the evening to explore Frühlingsfest. One of the things Munich is most famous for is obviously Oktoberfest, a beer festival held every year from mid-September until the first Sunday in October. Frühlingsfest is the much smaller version held in April and May (Frühling means spring in German). In comparison to Oktoberfest’s 14 large beer tents, Frühlingsfest has just 2. Due to the pandemic, Oktoberfest hasn’t happened for the last two years so this Frühlingsfest is the first similar event to take place since Oktoberfest 2019. I haven’t been to Oktoberfest but to me Frühlingsfest felt a little more like a funfair with a few extra beer tents than the mass drinking event that is Oktoberfest. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, it’s a more low key and still very enjoyable atmosphere. I wandered through the rides and the various food stalls until I was tempted by one of them. A Bratwurst sausage in a bread roll and a waffle covered in icing sugar cost me €7.

Inside one of the beer tents at Frühlingsfest

Along with my two tram tickets and food at Frühlingsfest, I also picked up some more groceries, things like cashew nuts, Pringles and some granola bars so my overall spending was slightly over my allotted goal at €23.16.

Tuesday 3 May

I had a slow start to my third full day in Munich because I was waiting around for a phone call that amounted to a job interview for some extra teaching once I get back to Mulhouse in September. I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know it went well! I made it out just in time to get to Marienplatz to catch the 12pm showing of the glockenspiel which I had missed the first day I was there. I went to the neighbouring Viktualienmarkt, a food market, to get some lunch. I had been recommended a stall called Schelmmemeyers and been told to get the rostbratwurst, another form of sausage in a bread bun. I had a proud language moment when the guy asked me if I wanted mustard (senf) and I understood and was able to say yes! I also got a potato rosti purely because it was called an Elsässer rosti and Elsässer is how you say Alsace in German! It was €6 for the two.

My main activity of the day was very specific to my interests. I had been reading the information board in my hostel and came across an ‘off the beaten path’ recommendation from one of the staff members. There is a public swimming pool in a beautiful old baroque building that I thought would be fun to visit called Müller’sches Volksbad. It was a little out of the centre again in a direction I hadn’t explored but not too far by foot so I walked over and got to see a new neighbourhood on my way. It was only early afternoon when I arrived in the area so I found a cafe nearby and got an iced latte for €4.30. Café Blá itself was a great find!

Café Blá

The pool was actually just down the road so I found it easily enough but it took me a couple of tries to find the door because despite the building being very grand and impressive, it’s actually rather inconspicuous. I wasn’t totally convinced from the outside that it was currently in use. It must be a ploy to keep it a well kept secret because inside was stunning. It cost €3.50 for a student ticket which was 100% worth it because when I got through to the actual pool there were barely five other people in there! I don’t know enough about architecture to do a description of the inside any justice but I’ll just say that I’ve never enjoyed backstroke so much! There was so much to look at on the ceiling, even in the changing rooms. There are two pools that used to be separated for men and women but now the only difference is in temperature, with the former women’s pool being a few degrees warmer. Overall, this was actually one of my favourite things I did in Munich!

My evening was spent back at the hostel again with some sandwiches for dinner so adding in a few extra pieces I picked up at the supermarket my total for the day was a respectable €21.76.

Wednesday 4 May 

Several days of well over 10,000 steps a day were catching up to me a bit at this point so I had a more chilled day planned. I wanted to go to a museum or gallery today and one that had caught my eye, again on the hostel information board, was the Museum of Urban and Contemporary Art. I got talking to a guy while I was eating breakfast and he was looking for something to do that day as well so asked if he could come with me. The more the merrier!

The museum itself was really cool. You couldn’t take pictures which was at the same time a shame because there were a lot of pieces that I really liked but also a really nice idea because it lets you just enjoy the art that is in front of you. There were a lot of pieces from Banksy, including one from his Dismaland installation and one entitled ‘Are You Using That Chair?’, based on Edward Hopper’s famous late night bar scene ‘Nighthawks’. My favourites were by an artist called Vhils, sheets of iron that had designs burned on to them with acid. The skills it must take to get the level of detail that there was is incredible. There was also a whole room devoted to Richard Hambleton’s shadowan, an eery silhouette that haunted the streets of Manhattan in the 80s. To top it all off, entrance was only €5!

As we were leaving, the rain that had been promised all week finally arrived. It had rained a bit the previous evening but I was already tucked up in the hostel by that time but I was fully caught in it this time. Luckily I had the foresight to bring an umbrella with me to help me scurry back to the hostel. I ventured out again in the late afternoon once it had stopped raining. The sky still looked pretty menacing though and I did in fact get caught in an even bigger shower, nay thunderstorm. I was in the process of deciding what I wanted to eat for dinner and in the end I was forced into Five Guys as much for shelter as for sustenance.

When I eventually made it back, slightly damp, to Wombat’s I ran into one of my dormmates. When I first arrived I had been sharing my mixed six bed dorm with a group of five Irish guys who were there together and liked to snore and come in loudly at 5am. Safe to say nothing was particularly pushing me to make friends with them but after they left there was a much nicer group of individual travellers that came in. I spent what was my final evening having a drink with some of my dormmates, Mohammed from Afghanistan, Gael from Israel and Nic from the French speaking part of Canada, and playing a board game. It was really nice to hang out with them because while I had gotten chatting to a few people over the course of my stay it was mostly on a one to one basis. I struggled a bit during the first few days with feeling like I was out of practice with the social aspect of travelling. I think everyone’s social skills have suffered a bit since the start of the pandemic as we just haven’t had the opportunities to be amongst people we don’t know and to make new friends and I felt this at first. It was good to shake that feeling off and it turned out that Nic was even going to be in Vienna at the same time as me!

For my last full day in Munich I spent €21.45 on my admission to MUCA and my Five Guys dinner so still more or less on track!

Thursday 5 May 

I was leaving to head to Innsbruck but not until mid-afternoon so I still got the morning in Munich. In a slightly backwards turn of events I was spending my last morning doing a free walking tour. Ideally I would have done it on the first day but the company that I wanted to go with, Sandeman’s New Europe, only had tours later on in the week. It would have been a perfect way to get to know the city centre a little but even though I had already seen a lot of the places we went to, I got to learn more about these places. The main spot that I hadn’t seen until then was the Hofbrauhaus, one of the most famous breweries in Munich. While the walking tour was technically free, donations are suggested at the end. You can pay what you want, depending on how much you enjoyed it and I thought it was great so I gave €10.

Before getting my train I went back to Viktualienmarkt to get some lunch. I wanted to try schnitzel while I was in Germany, which is pounded, breaded and then fried cutlet, usually of pork. It’s very popular and very common but I was a little disappointed. It was like a dry chicken nugget because it’s so much thinner. A portion of schnitzel with chips cost €7. It was a pretty heavy meal but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as it would keep me going during my journey to Innsbruck!

I arrived into Innsbruck at around half 5 and was met by my friends. We got the tram out to my hostel (€1.70) and then went out for some drinks (€8). All things together, I spent €28.10 so starting to creep a little higher. For more details on my arrival to Innsbruck and Austria, you’ll just have to wait for the next post!

Theatine Church

I said I would let you know what I didn’t do that I wish I had and that was Schloss Neuschwanstein. This is an iconic castle in the Bavarian hills, if you don’t know the castle I’m talking about have a quick Google search and you’ll recognise it. I really wanted to go but like I mentioned the weather forecast kept threatening rain in the afternoons which either didn’t happen or only in the evening. The castle is about 2 hours away from Munich which is fine if you know it’s going to be worth it. What I didn’t want to happen was that I went all that way and spent the day in the rain without getting any good views of or from the castle. I kind of wish I had just gone but I did my best with the information I have and I guess it just means that I have to go back!

Some final thoughts on Munich – I liked the city a lot although maybe my impression of it was slightly dampened by the weather (boom boom). My favourite thing I did was actually going to the old swimming pool which is maybe a lesson in choosing wisely – sometimes the most popular things aren’t for you but you can surely find something that is. Overall I think I could have done with one day less or even just to have left earlier in the last day. I felt like I had more than had my fill of Munich by the end. Saying that, I would still like to go back, maybe to experience Oktoberfest or even just to finally make it to Schloss Neuschwanstein.

A final break down of my spending –
Transport (train from Mulhouse to Munich) – €28.25
Accommodation (5 nights in a 6 bed mixed dorm room) – €142.65
Average daily spending – €20.16

Up next – Innsbruck, Austria!

Skiing in Switzerland

Before we get into the all important blog content, you may or may not have seen that Sara Somewhere now has it’s own Instagram account! If you have Instagram and would like to follow along there, you can find it at @sara_somewhere_. See you there!

To follow on from my dad and sister’s visit to Mulhouse, we had decided to make our way to Switzerland for a few days skiing. Now, Switzerland in general is known for being expensive, as is skiing as an activity or a holiday so surely skiing in Switzerland was going to be really expensive? I won’t lie, there are definitely cheaper places but the reason that we decided on Switzerland and not somewhere in France or even Germany is because of the accessibility by train. We only had Wednesday to Sunday and didn’t have access to a car so the place we settled on, Grindelwald, was perfect.

As I mentioned at the end of the last blog, my dad and Kirsty left earlier in the day than me to head to Switzerland as I was working until 1pm. I took my wee suitcase with me to work and left directly from there to go to the train station. The first leg of my journey was just to get to Basel, only 20 minutes and a route I know well at this point. I had a solid 20 minutes to change trains, plenty of time to navigate the station – I should have enjoyed it while it lasted… From Basel, I was on the train for an hour and a half to Spiez, a town on the shore of Lake Thun. In Spiez, I only had three minutes to make my connection. THREE MINUTES!!! I panicked when I first noticed that on my ticket, to the point that I googled what platform I was getting into and what platform I was leaving from. Thankfully I got into 2 and left from 3 so all that was needed was a quick hop across the platform. I went another 20 minutes further along Lake Thun to Interlaken, nestled between Lake Thun and Lake Brienz, where there was no need for more panicking because I had 10 minutes to change trains. I was finally on my last train of the day, the one that would wind its way up through the mountains until it reached Grindelwald.

My favourite view from the train ride, looking at Lake Thun

It sounds silly to say this but the landscape in Switzerland is just so… Swiss. It’s exactly what you would think it is, going from the rolling green hills to suddenly great sheets of mountain slicing their way up from the earth to the wooden houses littering the fields. The journey from Basel to Spiez was nice, with my first glimpse of mountains as we pulled into and out again from Bern. From there until Spiez was incredible though. All of a sudden these mountains popped up on one side, sliced through with deep ridges and dusted with snow, and on the other side was Lake Thun. It had this deep turquoise water, darker than the bright turquoise that you might find in the Caribbean. I actually found the area around Spiez much nicer than approaching or around Interlaken. Once we left Interlaken and started heading into the mountains towards Grindelwald, the view out of the train window started to remind me of walking through the edge of Moosch, a small village outside Mulhouse where I’ve gone hiking before. The houses started to get more and more scattered and the mountains more prevalent. We were travelling down a valley, green on either side but heading towards a wall of white. 

I was met at the station by my dad and Kirsty, both waving frantically to make sure that I got off at the right station, Grindelwald Terminal rather than Grindelwald. I didn’t know there was another option! Our apartment was just over the road out of the station, couldn’t have gotten closer if we tried, but we went down to the ski rental shop before going over. The station is part of a big complex that has some shops, ski lockers and very usefully, also the two main lifts to get up to the ski slopes.

The view from outside our apartment, looking towards the Eiger

Along with Lauterbrunnen, Grindelwald is part of the Jungfrau region, sitting in the Bernese Oberland mountains 1034 m above sea level. It is surrounded by mountains, most notably Mönch, Jungfrau and Eiger. The Eiger is the smallest but most well known of the three mountains because of its intimidating north face. The north face is 1,800m high, making it the biggest north face in the Alps and one of the most challenging, and therefore tempting, ascents for climbers. It was first climbed in 1938 but since 1935 at least 64 climbers have died during their attempts. This has earned it the nickname mordwand meaning murder wall in German, a clever play on it’s actual German name, nordwand (north wall). The Jungfraubahn is the railway that climbs from Kleine Scheidegg, one of the main passes and ski stations in the valley, up to the Jungfraujoch, the saddle between Mönch and Jungfrau. It includes a tunnel that goes through the Eiger. It is the highest railway in Switzerland and Europe with the station at the top being the highest in the continent as well.

Grindelwald has three main areas for skiing, Kleine Scheidegg, Lauberhorn and Männlichen. As a ski resort, Grindelwald is great for beginners because it has blue slopes relatively high up, meaning the good snow isn’t kept just for those capable of doing black runs. After an 8 year break, it’s safe to say that that isn’t me anymore! It’s not just skiing though, there are also a number of tobogganing routes and winter hiking paths. Nothing sounds worse to me than winter hiking but we saw lots of people out enjoying them.

Männlichen was where we started on my first day of skiing since I was 16. It hadn’t been quite as long for my dad and Kirsty but still a good three or four years. Because we’d all had an extended break and because we only had a short amount of time to get back into it, we had decided to get things going with a private ski lesson. We took the bubble lift (Männlichenbahn) up from Grindelwald Terminal to Männlichen and I could barely contain my excitement on the way. We met our teacher, Mela, at the top. She was lovely and throughout the lesson was really encouraging. It was good to start things off with someone who could lead us down some runs and fix our technique. We went down a blue run that turns into a red following the Männlichenbahn down to the Holenstein mid station, the halfway point. It being the start of April we were approaching the end of the season so the snow in general was a little icy but not too bad to ski on. Earlier in the season, with better snow, it is possible to ski all the way down past Holenstein and right back to Grindelwald Grund.

Going up!

We basically just went up and down the same run three times over the course of the two and a half hour lesson. Mela gave us some exercises to practise certain things, like short turn, bending our knees and leaning forward for body position, holding our poles in front of our body and keeping something between them, practising hockey stops (basically emergency stops), 360˚ turns and skiing backwards. I was so surprised by just how quickly it all came back. On the first run, I was a little slow and cautious but by the end of the lesson, it was like I never left! I was always a fan of a bit of speed and I felt that coming back a bit too. What also came back however, on a slightly less fun note, were the muscle pains. Skiing takes a lot of physical effort and after just a few minutes my thighs were screaming and I had some cramp in my feet. For me, it wasn’t too bad and was just part of the normal process of adjusting to your ski boots. Anyone that has ever gone skiing knows that the best part about wearing ski boots is taking them off! Kirsty on the other hand was suffering too much from her boots so stopped in at the equipment shop that is at the top of the Männlichenbahn to get them changed.

At the end of our lesson we stopped in at a cafe at the top of the bubble to have a coffee and some chips. In a bid not to bankrupt ourselves with Swiss prices we had brought some homemade sandwiches with us for lunch but it was nice to get a little hot food and drink as well. We actually decided to head home after our snack because we were all knackered after skiing again for the first time in years. We spent the rest of the afternoon in various stages of passing out, with just a brief trip out to the closest supermarket for provisions.

After a great, if short, day 1, I was ready to get back out there and have a jam packed day 2. The weather had other ideas though. The wind was supposed to be a little heavier today plus there was a chance of rain and was just generally warmer than yesterday. We headed into the station at Terminal to get our stuff from our ski locker and then had a look at the lift map. Because of the wind, the Männlichenbahn was shut and was going to be all day. But never fear, there was another option. The Eiger Express is a gondola that takes you up to the highest point you can ski, the Eigergletscher station.

The wind really picked up as we were going up in the gondola, to the point that we could hear it whistling through our bubble and could feel it swinging about. It really wasn’t pleasant so Kirsty and I distracted ourselves by singing In the Heights until our dad pointed out how inappropriate the song choice was! It was the longest 15 minutes of my life to get to the top but get there we did, only to find out that the Eiger Express was now closed due to high winds. We must have been one of the last groups to get on and got to feel the exact reason that it had been shut.

When we got to the top of the Eiger, there were a few options. You can change to a train heading for Jungfraujoch, via the actual Eiger (which we weren’t going to do because it takes 45 minutes to get up there and costs an extra 60 CHF per person). The next option is to just start skiing, either on a blue, red or black run or there is the train that goes down to another station, Kleine Scheidegg. We decided to take a minute to figure out what to do because none of us had been happy in the gondola and didn’t want to ski in wind like that. In the end we decided to get the train down to Kleine Scheidegg because the high winds meant that there was only one chairlift open. It’s all well and good to find a run to ski down but it’s no help if you can’t get back to the top again! 

A (half) view of the Eiger

Kleine Scheidegg is actually the same height as Männlichen and it is possible to use the runs and lifts to work your way over from one to the other, not that that was something we did or really wanted to do. We took the blue run down from there to the chairlift that was open but the blue was actually quite difficult! For anyone not familiar with difficulty levels for ski slopes, green is a learner slope, usually wide and flat. They aren’t very common in Austria and Switzerland, Grindelwald doesn’t have any. Blue is a beginner slope and red is intermediate. The reds can sometimes be challenging the whole way down or be relatively easy for most of it but have one more difficult section. Black slopes are expert slopes – much steeper and much more challenging! This particular blue run wasn’t steep at all but it was really narrow which none of us liked. There was a red run starting from the same place and ending at Arven as well so we gave that a go and it was much better despite a fairly steep section in the middle that was a bit mogully.

In general, the snow today was much wetter and heavier than the slightly icy snow we’d had the day before and this wasn’t helped by the fact that everyone else that wanted to ski today had also flocked to the area around Kleine Scheidegg and the only chairlift that was consistently running. The slope got worse with each run we did and Kirsty was really struggling with cramp in her feet and shin splints, made worse by the bad snow. We stopped for a little break at the restaurant in Kleine Scheidegg and got some little pizzas to share while we figured out where we stood. It was frustrating because we all wanted to ski more but the weather was really working against us. We got the train down from Kleine Scheidegg to Grindelwald Grund, another small station a short walk away from Terminal (15 minutes with ski boots on, 5 minutes without). It was really cool to wind our way down the mountain, at much closer proximity than in either the Männlichenbahn or the Eiger Express.

After a frustrating but ultimately out of our control day 2, day 3 was exactly what we were all hoping for! It had snowed during the night and still was when we left the house. Most of the lifts were open too which was encouraging to see after yesterday. We started by heading up the bubble to Männlichen but were met with a new issue – visibility was really low because the snow was still coming down. None of the runs had been pisted either so there was a thick layer of powder. We hung around until it cleared a little, although it was still not great. We took the run that we knew well from our lesson on day 1 but it was still really difficult to get down and very tiring. Powder is great when you know how to ski on it, which we all used to but not anymore. We didn’t even make it down to the midstation and we were already exhausted and not having fun. We got a chairlift back up to Männlichenbahn (side note, it had a cover that you could pull down to protect yourself from wind and snow. Great for staying warm, less good if you’re claustrophobic!) and went into the cafe again to regroup.

The same view as above at the end of day 3 with a fresh coating of snow!

The final decision was to get the bubble back down and brave the Eiger Express again. Thankfully the wind was a lot lighter than yesterday so we were able to get to the top without fearing for our lives. We got down to Kleine Scheidegg and went down the same red run as yesterday and it finally felt like things were clicking into place. The snow was still quite thick but manageable plus it was a slope we were familiar with. I even began to enjoy the steep section with moguls! The other two tried a path that skirts around that bit and were happy with that. We were bombing up and down there several times, happy as Larry with just a few pauses to go to the bathroom and for falls. It was absolutely the best part of the whole week for all of us. It was a shame that this only came on the last day but at least we got a good day in at the end after a rockier first two days.

The next day we headed home, back to Mulhouse for me and home to Dunblane for my dad and Kirsty. It was so so so so lovely having them here (can you tell I had a good time?). I enjoyed being back on the slopes and it’s made me want to try and go more regularly next year. You can ski in the Vosges, the mountain range in Alsace, so it’s right on my doorstep and ever since I went to Andorra in October, I’ve been tempted to go back for some skiing! My favourite bit of their visit though was just having them in Mulhouse and showing them my life there. Sharing my favourite spots, giving them a tour of my apartment, introducing them to the local cuisine, it made me feel even more at home there because of how comfortable I felt doing it. It’s a good thing I like it so much because there were more visits coming up straight away!

Andorra – A Hidden Gem

Andorra might seem like a rogue choice for the second half of my trip but it’s actually somewhere I’ve wanted to go for years. There something about it’s tiny size, it’s position entirely enveloped by France and Spain and the fact that it’s relatively unknown by many people. I myself didn’t know much about it at all but just the fact that it’s a bit off the beaten track drew me in. I knew I was leaving Lucy in Valencia on the Wednesday, the same day her parents were arriving, so I thought I might as well make use of my remaining time by going somewhere else – and why not Andorra? This was my chance to finally satisfy my curiosity about the little country. In doing some research before booking my trip, I read varying opinions from different travel blogs about whether Andorra was worth a visit but regardless, I knew it was something I had to do for myself.

A little background for those of you who, like myself, don’t have a lot of existing knowledge about Andorra. Andorra, or technically the Principality of Andorra, is a landlocked microstate located in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. It is the sixth smallest state in Europe with an area of just 468 square kilometres, making it about a third of the size of London, with a population of around 77,500. Catalan is the official language but French and Spanish are also widely spoken. Tourism accounts for the majority of Andorra’s GDP due to it’s tax-free shopping, ski resorts and hiking paths. Fun fact, in 2013 Andorra had the world’s highest life expectancy at 81 – must be all that mountain air!

Pont de Paris

From Valencia I took a bus to Andorra, via Barcelona, which took about 8 hours in total. It’s nothing I’m not used to but the buses were definitely more comfortable than the chicken buses in Honduras. There is no airport in Andorra nor any railways so the only way to enter is by road. The scenery along the journey was stunning, with the arid mountains on one side and the sea on the other on the way to Barcelona and then climbing higher and higher as we approached Andorra in the second leg of the journey. I arrived in to Andorra around 6pm. Andorra is in the Pyrenees so the last hour or so was coming through these amazing mountains that climbed up to the sky with the road sitting in the depths of the valley.

I arrived into the capital of Andorra La Vella, the highest capital in Europe. As most of Andorra is made up of mountains, the city is nestled in one of the country’s three valleys. I walked from the bus station up to my hostel which was technically in Escaldes-Engordany, another town that is basically attached to Andorra la Vella. It was about half an hour walk, slightly uphill all the way through the main shopping district. After a long day of travelling all I was really interested in that evening was going straight back out to find some food!

I had two full days and three nights in Andorra. I figured that between the two days I should have one in the city and one in the mountains. After looking at the weather, the next day, Thursday, looked like the better option for heading into the mountains. Considering that I didn’t have any proper hiking gear and that I would be going by myself, some of the more difficult or isolated hiking routes weren’t appropriate. I asked Rebecca who works at the hostel if she could recommend somewhere. She looked at the fact I was in jeans and sneakers and suggested taking the bus to a town called La Massana and walking from there to another town called Ordino.

It took me a while to find the right bus stop but eventually I was heading out of the city. La Massana isn’t very far from Andorra La Vella but feels quite different. I could really see the presence of the ski industry even though there was no snow yet. There were ski hire shops everywhere, ski schools, and even a chair lift heading into the mountains. It also feels more in the mountains than Andorra La Vella which sits in a valley surrounded by mountains by comparison. The timing of my trip, at the end of October meant that I had gorgeous views of the autumn leaves accompanied by soft sun and crisp air.

Leaving La Massana

I headed out of La Massana towards Ordino as instructed. The walk took about 40 minutes in total, heading uphill along a valley. The sun was shining and it really wasn’t cold at all, though Andorra was definitely cooler for me having come from Spain, mostly because of it’s altitude. By the time I reached Ordino I had taken my jacket and jumper off and was just walking around in a tshirt so still not that cold! All the way up I had views of gorgeous mountains with the most amazing autumn colours blazing across the forests. On my way I passed by a vineyard and also the Ruta del Ferro which charts iron production in the area.

Ordino was cute and even smaller than La Massana. I wanted to find somewhere to sit and have a drink and I came across a place that had such an amazing view that I had to stop. I sat for a drink and some lunch – a delicious crispy-based pizza topped with rocket, tomato, parmesan, beef carpaccio and a balsamic glaze. A big shoutout to what might have been my best meal of the holiday! The view itself was so gorgeous I almost felt a bit emotional! I really took my time there, enjoying the crisp air and the warm sunshine while eating my pizza and appreciating the view.

I got the bus back from Ordino and had a pit stop at my hostel for a wee rest before heading out for a walk around town. Safe to say my step count was off the charts this week! I set out towards the old part of Andorra la Vella that has most of the main things to see. The sun was starting to go down so it was a really nice light. First up, and probably most surprisingly, I walked past a sculpture by none other than Salvador Dali. The Nobility of Time (or ‘La Noblesse du Temps’) has been there since 2010. I remember studying Salvador Dali at school so it was pretty cool to see an authentic piece out in the wild.

Thank you to the couple that provided the only picture of me while in Andorra!

Public art installations are actually an important feature around Andorra, including another of Andorra’s must sees – the 7 Poets. The seven figures sit around 10m off the ground and represent the seven parishes of Andorra. It can be found below Andorra’s government building and lights up at night in a range of colours. Nearby is Casa de la Vall, an old manor house that was the parliamentary building until as recently as 2011. The square in front of Casa de la Vall gives an amazing view over Andorra la Vella, over to Escaldes and the surrounding mountains.

The 7 Poets
Casa de la Vall

After going for a walk in the mountains yesterday and also walking around the old town, I decided to take it pretty easy today. There wasn’t really much else I wanted to do and after almost a week of travelling and some pretty busy, activity-heavy days I was feeling a bit of the old travelling fatigue. I had toyed with the idea of going to Caldea, the famous spa, as it’s not actually super expensive but in the end I decided against it. I had a slow morning and then went out just to have a wee walk around and a coffee, mostly for something to do. I headed down to the central park and then looped back up to the main shopping street.

I spent most of the afternoon just chilling in the common room at my hostel, reading my book and chatting to people. One of the things I like most about staying in hostels is making friends with other travellers. It can be an intimidating thought when you’re by yourself and it definitely pushes me outside my comfort zone but sometimes that’s where the best experiences and connections happen. My hostel was full of Argentinians (and one Venezuelan) who had all recently arrived in Andorra for seasonal work. I got chatting to them on my first evening and got to know them more during the rest of my stay. It was nice chatting to them in Spanish, though the Argentinian accent is one I find difficult to understand. It was fine while I was directly involved in the conversation but it got a bit overwhelming once they all started talking to each other. After just a day though, I was able to follow their conversations a bit more as I got used to the accent. I ended up speaking way more Spanish while in Andorra than I actually did in Spain!

Now might be a good point to talk about some interesting things I noticed around Andorra. First of all, while I’ve already mentioned the fact that French and Spanish are both widely spoken, I only ever used Spanish. In my hostel, this was obviously because of all the Argentinians that were staying there but even when I was out in the streets, I heard much more Spanish than French. Whenever I was in a cafe or shop or spoke to a local I would naturally start in Spanish. I think Spanish’s proximity to Catalan, the actual official language of Andorra, might have something to do with it being more widespread, or at least seeming that way. Interestingly, the school system is also split into Andorran schools, Spanish schools and French schools, with the teachers in the latter two systems being funded by Spain and France respectively. The student population is pretty evenly split between the three, with slightly more in the Andorran system and slightly less in the Spanish system. Andorra also doesn’t have it’s own postal system. It relys on either the French La Poste or the Spanish El Correo.

I could definitely see the effect of the ski industry, even though there was no snow yet. Particularly in the smaller towns like La Massana I was reminded of the places in France I’ve skiied just without the snow, which I think is coming soon! The temperature was already getting cooler though I was lucky to still have good weather, at least for my first day. It was cool and clear and with blue skies and sunshine there was nowhere nicer to be. Saying that, on my second day I saw just how easy it is for the sky to fall in. It also took a long time for the sun to appear in the mornings and the opposite in the evening, the sun disappeared long before it actually got dark. I blame this on the steepness of the sides of the valley that Andorra La Vella and Escaldes-Engordany sit in.

Looking down the valley towards the Spanish side of Andorra

When it comes to the people of Andorra I have nothing but good things to say. Rebecca, who worked in my hostel, was lovely and very helpful whenever I, or anyone else, had questions. She made the hostel a warm and friendly place from the moment I arrived. Everyone I encountered, from servers in restaurants and cafes, the woman in the tourism office and the old lady at the bus stop who helped me find the bus I was looking for, to the woman I got chatting to before my bus out of the country, all were very open and willing to help or chat. I’ve already spoken about the other people in my hostel that I met and got to know, they had such an impact on my trip as well and are a big reason I’ll look back on Andorra with such fondness. It actually wasn’t just my hostel that was brimming with Argentinians but the whole city of Andorra la Vella. Just walking down the street I would see multiple people sipping on mate, a traditional tea-like drink from Argentina served in a gourd cup and drunk through a metal straw.

My journey back to Mulhouse started with a bus back to Barcelona on Saturday. I had the afternoon and evening there before flying out early on Sunday morning. I arrived about 2pm and walked to my hostel, stopping for some food on the way. It turned out the hostel I had booked was on the Passeig de Gracia, which I didn’t know by name but recognised when I got there. It’s one of the main roads that comes off the opposite side of Placa de Catalunya from Las Ramblas. It’s also just one block away from Casa Batlló, my favourite Gaudí house in all of Barcelona. My hostel was huge, quite a different atmosphere from the cosy, friendly vibe in Andorra. It had a fantastic roof terrace though, with views across Barcelona.

The view from the roof of my hostel
Casa Batlló

It was pretty late in the afternoon by the time I was ready to do anything, plus I was tired and Barcelona was uncomfortably humid so I decided to just go for a short walk. First up I headed to Palau de la Musica Catalana, quite possibly my mum’s favourite building in the entire world. I obviously had to phone her to rub it i- ahem, I mean let her enjoy it too… I looped round to the Barcelona cathedral (different from the Sagrada Familia) and headed back to the hostel to prepare for my 4am start.

After one of the worst night’s sleep of my life, I was on a plane and back in Mulhouse by 11am. It was a very easy journey home, if a little slow. As it was a Sunday, I had to wait longer than usual for the bus then the train then the tram back to my apartment. Even after an incredible week away, it’s safe to say I was happy to get home and into my own bed!

I really didn’t know what to expect when it came to Andorra but I was blown out of the water. I mostly came to satisfy an interest that I’ve had for years. I was prepared for it to be a bit underwhelming but at least then I would know. But that is absolutely not what happened at all. I loved my few days here. One thing I would say is that if you come any time other than the ski season, you probably don’t need very long. If you wanted to do a bit more hiking by all means come for a few extra days but my two days were perfect. I’m very tempted to come back in the future to experience Andorra in full swing during winter but I’m glad that I came when I did for my first time. The blazing autumn colours of the leaves were a sight to behold and were such a gorgeous contrast with the bright blue sky and dusty, far off mountains. I loved Andorra and think it’s perfect for a more unique long weekend away. A hidden hem indeed!

¡Vamos a Valencia!

Carrying on from my whistlestop trip to Paris, there’s no rest for the wicked as I left the next day for Spain! I had a week off from classes so had decided to go and visit my friend Lucy who is studying in Valencia for a semester at the moment. The plan was to stay for a few days and then head north to Andorra. It’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit and this seemed like as good a chance as any! You can hear more about that part of my trip in the next blog.

Thankfully my flight wasn’t until late afternoon so I was able to sleep in after my busy day in Paris. The travelling was all pretty easy, the flight is about two hours from Basel to Valencia and I only had a backpack with me. I breezed through everything on either side, so much so that I actually beat Lucy to the airport. It was so good to see her when she finally got there as we’ve been able to support each other going through some of the same things in the past few months with moving to a new European country around the same time.

We took the metro straight to somewhere in the old town to get some food. My first night in Spain called, of course, for some tapas. Lucy had heard good things about the place we headed to but in the end it was a bit disappointing. It didn’t have a lot of choices so we just had some olives, manchego cheese, olive oil crisps and a beer. We caught up on how France has been and how Valencia has been and then walked around a little bit to find somewhere else. We found a new place near the Mercado Central and got some patatras bravas and a wee cod fritter each. I also tried a version of Valencia’s signature drink, Agua de Valencia. Typically it is made with cava or champagne, orange juice, vodka and gin. The one I tried was a little different, I think it had a little bit of cranberry juice or something in it but either way it was very nice!

Lucy actually still had classes that week including an 8am the next day so we headed home after we finished eating. We walked through Plaza del Ayuntamiento which is the city’s main square with the council buildings, post office and art museum. The buildings are all beautiful and very Spanish looking. Our taxi got us just opposite the main train station and the bull ring which looks like a mini coliseum. Apparently they still run the bulls in Valencia even though a man died during a bull running festival in the Valencia area only days after I was there.

The next morning I headed off on my own, following some of Lucy’s recommendations while she was in class. Lucy had suggested that I head down to the City of Arts and Sciences (La Ciutat de les Arts i les Ciènces) which is a really cool area to wander around. It was about a 25 minute walk from her apartment in lovely warm, sunny weather. The main buildings there house a science museum, an IMAX theatre and a performance centre in some incredible architecture. There is also the Umbracle which is a strip of enclosed garden space that was full of cats! From there I went and sat in La Turia which is a park that fills the old river basin. After a flood in the 1950s the river was diverted out of the city and the space converted into a 12km park that runs from the City of Arts and Sciences in the east around the north of the city centre.

After lunch – a local favourite of tortilla española in a baguette – we headed towards the beach. This was one of the only things that I requested we do because I love the beach and the sea but am very solidly landlocked where I am in Alsace. We walked via the port but it still didn’t take long to get there. It’s a really long, wide beach and it had some decent waves, not quite big enough to surf in but fun for swimming. After we’d been for a swim and jumped around in the waves a while we headed to a bar just off the beach that Lucy wanted to try called La Fábrica de Hielo. It was a really cool space that apparently does live music sometimes. After that it was time for some dinner and I couldn’t leave Spain without eating some paella and drinking some sangria!

We started my second full day by going to the Mercado Central where I got some maracuya juice (passion fruit, a favourite from my time in Honduras) and a caramelised onion and goats cheese empanada. From there we walked around the old town and saw La Estrecha Valencia, the narrowest building in Europe which is just 107cm wide! We headed towards Torres de Serranos, one of the gates in the old city walls that gives you a good view over La Turia and the city. The afternoon included a stop at 100 Montaditos, a little chain that serves cheap beer and tiny little sandwiches, and Cafe Ubik, both in the Russafa neighbourhood, an area popular with young people. Cafe Ubik is really more of a bar and a bookshop than a cafe but was really cool. At this point we were really just killing time until going to a Honduran restaurant for dinner, the second of my specific requests for my time in Valencia.

Valencia has quite a few Latin American restaurants and even a few specifically Honduran ones. Lucy was in Honduras with me so we were both super excited for Honduran food but a little apprehensive in case it didn’t live up to our fond memories. The restaurant was called El Saborcito Hondureño and was decked out with a neon sign with the name of the restaurant and also the outline of Honduras itself. We obviously had to start with a Salva Vida, one of Honduras’ national beers, and then decided to split a couple of things. We ordered a portion of baleadas con huevo (a flour tortilla folded in half with refried beans, dry cheese called queso seco, mantequilla which is a bit like sour cream and scrambled eggs in the middle), catrachas (a deep fried tortilla topped with refried beans and cheese) and pupasas de queso y frijoles (tortillas stuffed with refried beans and cheese). It was… perfect. It tasted exactly like in Honduras and immediately took both of us back. When we were paying we got talking a little to the staff and I’m pretty sure they’re all a Honduran family which explains the authentic taste.

We ended the night with a drink at another bar by the beach, Mercabañal. It was like a food hall with different food and drink vendors. It was Lucy’s 23rd birthday the next day so we had a pre-birthday drink before heading back to her flat to celebrate at midnight. It was a nice way to finish my time in Valencia and visiting Lucy. My bus left at 10am the next morning so that pretty much wraps up my time in Spain. Even though I’ve been on wee staycations in the UK, this felt like my first proper holiday since Covid started and it was amazing. I really liked Valencia as a city, it’s a bit bigger than Mulhouse but not an unmanageable size. There’s lots to do, lots of neighbourhoods to explore and of course the beach is a big plus! Thank you to Lucy for being my host, tour guide and translator for the length of my stay – your 5 star Tripadvisor review is coming soon!


In comparison to my last blog this one will be much shorter, I promise! From Shanghai , I headed to Huangshan (黄山), the Yellow Mountain. It is thought to have been named by Huangdi (黄帝), the Yellow Emperor. According to legend, Huangdi ascended to Heaven from this mountain. Huangshan is one of China’s many sacred mountains and it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From Shanghai it takes about three hours on the high speed train to get to the city of Huangshan. I wasn’t staying there but in a little town closer to the entrance of the mountain park called Tangkou (汤口). The whole place, including my hostel, was pretty quiet seeing as it’s winter and therefore the off season.

The hostel I was staying in was nice, especially the Chinese girl who checked me in. Over my time there we ended up chatting a bit for me to practise my Chinese and her to practise her English. There was only one other foreigner in the hostel, an Irish girl called Ruth, who was in the same dorm room as me. We were both planning on climbing the mountain the next day so we decided to go together.

Unfortunately there’s a reason the off season is the off season. The weather wasn’t exactly ideal for climbing a mountain. It was very overcast and damp when we set off and it didn’t get better during the day.

Just getting to the mountain involved a lift to the bus station and then an hour long bus journey to the cable car that takes you up the first part of the path. You can walk up but it more the doubles the time it takes to get to the peak and as I said, we didn’t exactly have optimum weather conditions. The cable car at least provided us with the best (and only) views of the day before we entered the clouds.

Just above the cable car is one of the most famous things to see in the mountain – the guest welcoming pine (迎客松) and is thought to be more the 1500 years old.

We continued up to the top at Bright Summit Peak (光明顶), getting slowly more sodden as we went. A couple of people wanted to take pictures with us which meant I got talking to them in Chinese but all in all it was just too wet and cold to hang around.

Once we got to the top we started going down the other side. There was another cable car going down but because we’d gotten started early it wasn’t even midday so we decided to walk down. By this point my hastily purchased rain poncho was futile and even my jacket was soaked through so what difference would another couple of hours going down make? A lot apparently. My knees were not happy by the end of it and my calf muscles are still protesting.

Huangshan is definitely somewhere I need to go back to when I might actually get to see some of it. What I did manage to glance was spectacular so I can only imagine what it’s like in the sunshine!

From Huangshan I braved a 12 hour overnight train to head to my next destination – Zhangjiajie (张家界), home of the ‘Avatar Mountains’!

Shanghai (& Hangzhou & Suzhou)

It’s taken me a little while but finally a blog on the next part of my travels, a fabulous five days spent in and around Shanghai (上海). After my wee trip up to Harbin I had one full day back in Dalian to fully pack up my stuff and then I was off to the airport, destination – China’s largest city.

Two of my Edinburgh friends live together there so I was lucky enough to be able to crash with them – thanks again to Jack and Conlan for putting up with me. The day I arrived Conlan was actually still travelling himself but got back the day after. Jack and I hung around for a few hours, catching up on what has been an eventful few months for both of us and then we headed out into the Shanghai night.

Our first stop was a bookshop that is what dreams are made of. Tucked away in a corner of Fudan university (复旦大学), it was crammed to bursting point with second hand books. Obviously the majority were in Chinese which is still a bit more aspirational than practical for me but we did find a little corner of foreign language. I succumbed to temptation and bought a bilingual English-Chinese book called ‘About Women’ (关于女人) about Bing Xin, a Chinese writer from last century who covered topics like social injustice, family conflicts and feminism.

We went just across the road for dinner to a sushi restaurant. It was something different and delicious, but let me tell you the wasabi is made of a completely different stuff to at home, it almost blew my top off!

We ended our evening in Tianzifang (田子坊) on a little bar hop. Tianzifang is a network of traditional alleyways housing charming bars, cafes and boutique shops. We started at a bar in the street where we had some very tense games of Connect-4 and mini Jenga. Next up was a Tibetan bar and finally a bar that gave me the largest mojito I’ve ever seen. I ordered a large and it was no joke as big as my head! Safe to say that was not what I was expecting, not that I wasn’t happy about it.

For day 2, I actually headed out of Shanghai to visit Hangzhou (杭州) for the day. I met up with a friend from Dalian who was visiting his sister who lives there. We spent most of the day wandering around the West Lake, Hangzhou’s main attraction. It was first created by the governor of the city in the 8th century and has been developed and cultivated over the years. The beauty of the lake has been inspiring Chinese poets for generations. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t amazing so I think I missed out on some of the beauty of the place.

When I got back in to Shanghai that evening I went out for some drinks with Jack and Conlan to a bar with one of the best views possible across to the the Pudong area of Shanghai, including the famous Oriental Pearl Tower, on the left of the photo.

On day 3 I met up with another friend from Edinburgh who happens to be working in Shanghai this year. Kim and I were both part of the water polo club but she graduated in the summer and has been teaching French here. We met up in Tianzifang and had lunch and then wondered around some more of the French concession area.

To finish the day, I met up worth Conlan and we went to Yuyuan Gardens (豫园). Originally built in the Ming dynasty, the gardens have been restored after sustaining damage in several 20th century conflicts. It was absolutely packed to bursting point and was the first time that I’d seen the Spring Festival crowds I’d been warned about. The year of the rat is fast approaching so there were a lot of lantern around featuring next years zodiac animals. The whole place was lit up beautifully and worth braving the crowds to see.

The following day was another day trip, this time out to Suzhou (苏州). Suzhou is is known as the ‘Venice of the East because of its many canals and is also famous for its harmonious gardens. Definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve been so far in China, Suzhou somehow managed to be serene and tranquil even while filled with tourists. We spent the whole day visiting gardens and just walking around the old town.

My last day in Shanghai was just about filling in some gaps of things I wanted to see. I met up with Kim again at the Bund. Dominated by art deco and neoclassical buildings, the Bund housed the cities banks during the concession era. From there we walked down Nanjing Road (南京路) to People’s Park (人民公园). Finally we went for coffee in a cafe housed in a very inconspicuous office building which (if it weren’t for the fog/pollution haze) gives incredible views across Shanghai.

For my last meal Jack, Conlan and I went for hot pot which is a sensational Chinese speciality. There is no photo because I hadn’t eaten all day so fell on the food as soon as it came. For hot pot you get a big bowl of broth, usually spicy, in the middle of the table on a heater to keep it warm and then you order all the sides of meat, veggies, tofu, noodles as you want to cook in the broth. It’s both a meal and an activity and great fun.

My overall thoughts on Shanghai are overwhelmingly positive. It’s one of those cities that I wasn’t sure if I was going to like, much like New York, but then ended up loving! I had so much fun exploring and it was nice to be in a city that has a very different feel to it than Dalian, which is obviously much smaller, but also from Beijing. Where Beijing has all of its history behind it, Shanghai very much leans on its modernity. A big part of why I loved Shanghai so much was getting to meet up with and hang out with some great friends that I haven’t seen in a while. I loved my visit but it has also been great in once again reaffirming my choice of Dalian for this year – I would struggle to see myself living in Shanghai, at least while trying to study Chinese. Overall a great city, a great visit, a great time.


I am finally, finally, finally finished with exams! That can mean only one thing – it’s time to travel! I have been waiting for this ever since I got back from Beijing in October and been planning for weeks (though admittedly not as long as I probably should have).

My first stop has been Harbin (哈尔滨). It is about 850km north of Dalian in Heilongjiang (黑龙江) province and has a strong Russian influence in its history, architecture and culture. The Russian presence first appeared towards the end of the 19th century when Russian workers arrived to build a railway line to Dalian(!). They were followed by Russian Jews and then White Russians fleeing the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Jewish community in Harbin was the largest in the Far East, numbering 20,000 in 1920. Now synagogues, temples, churches and even a mosque stand together in the city. These days Harbin is probably most famous for its Ice and Snow Festival (冰雪节 – hang around to here more about that).

I went with Wilson, one of my friends from Dalian and we met up with another friend Yerin and her friend once we were there. We got the fast train from Dalian in the morning which takes about 4.5 hours so arrived around lunchtime. We had some lunch and settled into our hostel before heading into the centre of town.

The tourism in Harbin is centred around the Daoli district (道里区), especially Zhongyang Street (中央大街), a pedestrian road with lots of shops and restaurants housed in old Russian style buildings. Our first stop was the Church of St Sofia (索菲亚教堂), a beautiful red brick Russian Orthodox Church. It is one of the main sights in Harbin and was beautifully lit up against the evening.

From there we strolled down Zhongyang Street doing our best against the cold. We knew Harbin was going to be colder than anything we’ve had in Dalian but even so it took me by surprise. For the few days we were there, the temperature hovered a couple of degrees above or below -20°, a.k.a. the coldest I’ve ever experienced! Taking in too deep a breath made me cough and walking around for too long would lead to my legs burning from the cold, despite wearing multiple layers!

We met up with Yerin and her friend to head out to the star of the show – Harbin Ice and Snow Festival. It is the largest festival of its kind in the world. It has been going since 1963 and while it mostly attracted Chinese tourists to start with it is now very much an international event that saw 18 million visitors in 2018.

It was truly spectacular and had me marvelling at the size of the structures and wondering how long it took to build them. There was lots to see but because of the cold we probably didn’t see all of it. We did our best, ducking into a cafe and a restaurant at various points seeking some warmth.

Day two brought the same bitter cold, but thankfully Harbin’s temperature doesn’t seem to come with a wind which I think would have made it unbearable. The four of us met up again for lunch and then headed to the cable car that traverses the Songhua river (松花江) which freezes over completely from November to April. The beautiful vistas and Wilson’s very nervous face were definitely worth it.

Wilson, Yerin, her friend and I on the cable car

We wandered back towards the Main Street via an old abandoned mosque and Harbin Main Synagogue (now a concert hall). Last up, once it got dark, was Zhaolin Park (兆麟公园), where there were some more ice lanterns on display.

We finished the day with a great big meal of various North-Eastern dishes (东北菜), including di san xian (地三鲜, fried potato, aubergine and green pepper), lazi ji (辣子鸡, crispy fried chicken pieces and dried chillies), and a pork, Chinese cabbage and vermicelli noodle stew that is very representative of Harbin style food, thick and hearty. Some other food that I enjoyed while here was lunch on day one which was spring pancakes (春饼) with scrambled egg, bean sprouts and a few types of meat to fill it with. The main tourist street is also filled with stalls touting sausages on a stick as well as all types of other meats, seafood and even insects! Those with a sweet tooth can enjoy the selection of fruits covered in hardened sugar or the yoghurt popsicles that are popular there, despite the temperature!

Two nights in Harbin was probably just the right amount of time for me. There were a few more things we could have done if we were around for a few more days including seeing the Siberian tiger breeding centre or the Japanese Germ Warfare Experimental Base Museum but honestly, I think I’m good on both of those fronts. Plus the cold, while an interesting thing to experience, meant that the idea of just wandering around to see the city was less than appealing.

National Week (Part 2)

We’re back for round 2! After a more chilled day, hiding from the National Day madness, I threw myself back in. On Wednesday I headed over to Tianjin (天津) for the day, a city about 80 miles east of Beijing. I was going to Tianjin because in a serendipitous series of events one of my friends from high school has also ended up in China this year, for her second year in a row. And as my mum pointed out to me Andy Murray was also in Beijing at that time so that makes as least three Dunblane folk in China! There’s no stopping us…

Kayleigh and I!

Kayleigh was acting as my tour guide for the day so I had left the itinerary to her. Our first stop was Ancient Culture Street (古文化街), a wonderful assault on the senses. It was packed full of lots of people, delicious smells and even more people! While we were there I tried jianbing guozi (煎饼果子), a Tianjin specialty. It’s a wrap with egg cooked into the outside and filled with what is essentially a thick poppadom (or at least that’s the only way I can think to describe it) and various sauces.

Ancient Culture Street (古文化街)

Next up we headed over to see where Kayleigh studies, at Tianjin Normal University (天津师范大学) to see where she lives. We also got mala tang (麻辣烫), a kind of build your own soup to have for dinner. Our final stop was Minyuan Stadium (民园广场) which was originally built by the Scottish athlete Eric Liddell who was actually born in Tianjin and returned there after his sporting career. The original stadium was torn down in 2012 and redone so that it is more of a public square but the running track remains.

It was a fantastic day and so nice to catch up with Kayleigh – it had been a while!

Due to some unforeseen issues with my phone over the next few days my exploring was more limited but I did manage to get over to see the Drum Tower (鼓楼) and Bell Tower (钟楼) in the centre of Beijing. The Drum Tower was originally built for musical purposes and then became a way of marking time for the residents of the city. They stand at opposites ends of a courtyard and on a clear day give you an excellent panoramic view of the city (or so I’ve heard, my day wasn’t particularly clear as you can see from the photos I got).

Looking over to the Drum Tower from the top of the Bell Tower

The Drum and Bell Towers are situated in an area of Beijing that is still dominated by hutongs (胡同), narrow alleyways that used to make up the majority of Beijing. They are characterised by their one storey buildings that form courtyard residences. Many hutongs were demolished starting from the middle of the 20th century to make way for the development and modernisation of the city. Many of the remaining hutongs now have protected status to preserve this chance to look in on the city’s past. I took the chance while I was in the area to have a stroll around.

The Bell Tower

And then all of a sudden it was my last day! I had been trying to get out to the Temple of Heaven (天坛) before I started having phone problems because so many people had told me that it’s their favourite place to go in Beijing. I finally got there on my last day and it just so happened to be blue skies and sunshine too! The Temple of Heaven is located in the south of Beijing and is actually a large park that was used by the emperor for various kinds of ceremonies and rites in imperial times. It has been open to the public since 1918 and is one of Beijing’s 8 UNESCO Heritage Sights.

The main event is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (祈年殿), the largest building in the park. This is the first time I can say I really noticed the immense number of tourists that were in Beijing this week. It was packed around all of the main buildings with queues to even get in to some buildings! However the park covers over 2.5 square kilometres so it’s easy enough to find a quiet spot around the edges or in the forest areas. That was actually my favourite part, just wandering around the gardens enjoying the nice weather. It was a really nice way to spend my last day in Beijing.

The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests

It was interesting to be back in Beijing for a bit longer than I was last time. It gave me a chance to get more of a feel for the city as well as be shown around by some people who know it better than me. I got the chance to think back on my first impressions and see if any had changed.

The public transport system is definitely easy to use – I used the subway a lot to get around which was super easy to navigate, I attempted the bus while accompanied by responsible adults (aka Beijing students who knew what they were doing) and I also learnt about the public bike system which, while I couldn’t use it because I didn’t have the app, is a cheap and super convenient way to get around Beijing as it’s as flat as a pancake.

The food is definitely great just like I thought. I already mentioned the mouth numbingly spicy and delicious Sichuan food but a special mention also has to go to the cheese tea I tried (definitely not as disgusting it sounds), biangbiang noodles, which use the most complicated character I’ve ever seen to the point that it’s not even used in menus and my computer’s Chinese character keyboard doesn’t have it, as well as the delicious food I tried in Tianjin.

Mid way through my 煎饼果子!

I knew two days wasn’t enough, especially jetlagged, but even a week wasn’t long enough! You’ll probably have noticed that I didn’t get out to the Great Wall – I had planned to go but the weather turned and it was windy, cold and raining that day. There’s lots more I still want to do, I haven’t been to the Forbidden City at Tiananmen or seen Beihai Park so I guess I’ll just have to go back!

National Day (Part 1)

It’s been a while since my last post, both due to very poor internet connection and being away for the week, both of which were as a result of the National Day holiday (国庆节). I had decided to take advantage of what will be my last bit of time off until January(!!!) and go back to Beijing to explore a bit more. I had a great time and crammed as much in as I could so I have a lot to write about! Because of this I’ve decided to split the blog in two so you don’t need a whole week to read about it. I also took many, many photos so there will be lots of those in here too!

I left pretty early on Saturday and got a D train from Dalian to Bejiing which, even though it only takes 6 hours to cover almost 600km, is considered the slow train! There is another which only takes 4-5 hours. It was a very comfortable ride, lots of leg room and remarkably smooth considering we were travelling at upwards of 185 miles per hour! Once I got to Beijing I had secured luxury accommodation for myself – a sofa in some of the other Edinburgh students’ flat. A big thank you to them! They live in a pretty studenty area in the northwest of Beijing called Wudaokou (五道口), near to Peking University (北京大学) where they study.

Beijing Railway Station (北京站)

For my first day in Beijing, after a travel induced lie-in, I decided to head to the Summer Palace (颐和园) as it is one of the sights closest to where I was staying. The Summer Palace is a large park based around Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake that dates back to 1153, although it was massively enlarged in the 18th century by Emperor Qianlong. Kunming Lake is entirely man made and the excavated earth was used to construct Longevity Hill. Because of these feats of landscaping and engineering, the Summer Palace was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.

I entered from the north gate and splurged for the all access ticket (a whole 60 yuan/£7, hey big spender) so that I could hit all the added bonus buildings, museums and gardens inside. I went in by the north gate so started with Suzhou street which has cute walkways along the river and is supposed to look like the famous canal town, Jiangsu (江苏).

A teahouse (茶馆) on Suzhou Street

Then I had to climb up to the top of Longevity Hill and wandered through the Buddhist Temple of the Sea of Wisdom, the Buddhist Fragrance Pavilion and the Cloud Dispelling Hall before coming across the most beautiful view of Kunming lake, dotted with little boats and glittering in the sunshine. I wandered along the Long Corridor down the side of the lake and finished my day at the 17 arch bridge.

For day 2 I headed to the opposite side of Beijing to the Lama Temple (雍和宫), also known as the Palace of Peace and Harmony. The temple used to be the royal residence of Emperor Yong Zheng but was converted to a lamasery in 1744. It survived both being the site of an uprising against the Nationalist government in 1929 and also the tumultuous period of the Cultural Revolution, completely intact. 

It is actually still a functioning temple and also a wildly popular tourist attraction. Because of this, some visitors are actually there for religious purposes and work their way around the five main courtyards, burning incense and praying. I really enjoyed walking around the temple. It was very relaxing and absolutely beautiful, with its mix of Han and Tibetan styles, strong colours and intricate designs.

My favourite, and most unexpected part was the massive, 18m high Buddha statue! It was carved out of one block of sandalwood, each toe is the size of a pillow and it even has a plaque of recognition from the Guinness book of records! It was a gift from the seventh Dalai Lama to Emperor Qianlong and it took three years to transport from Tibet.

Tuesday 1st October was the day the whole country had been waiting for. National Day marks the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China by the Communist party on 1st October 1949. It is one of three Golden Weeks in China, along with the Lunar New Year Week in January or February and the Labour Day Week in May. These weeks are hotspots for domestic tourism which is a burgeoning industry while also allowing people to make long distance trips to visit family, the idea being to improve everyone’s standard of living. For the important anniversaries, like the 70th anniversary this year, there are huge military parades around Tiananmen Square. Internet connection also becomes slightly more limited and VPNs are also cracked down upon so sorry if I left anyone waiting for a reply last week!

I had a pretty quiet National Day because a lot of transport and shops were closed so I just hung out with friends. Another advantage of staying with friends, other than saving some money, was that in the days I could do all the touristy stuff and then the evenings were spent hanging out, eating amazing food and having a few drinks. I was introduced to the spicy wonders of Sichuan food and took part in my first ever karaoke performance, a group rendition of 500 Miles (what else were a group of Scottish uni students going to choose?). A big thank you again to Tom, Ruby, Cameron and Thomas for putting up with me on their sofa all week!

That’s it for now! I’ll fill you in on the rest of week soon.

Guat’s Up Belize

I know I’ve been a bit quiet over the past month but that’s because the last month has been a bit quiet too. Saying that there have been a few interesting things. 

A few weeks after my birthday we went to Santa Rosa with a small group of other volunteers for some celebrations followed the next weekend by a trip to Gracias. This one was quite interesting because we were trying to get back to Candelaria the same day as the primary elections. This meant there were less buses running or in the case of Candelaria, none.

Happy birthday to me!

Seeing as we couldn’t get back on Sunday we decided to take an impromptu trip back to Yamaranguila with Grace and Hannah (free accommodation, what can I say?) and because our bus to Candelaria from La Esperanza wasn’t until 12 on Monday, we got to visit their school.

Abundant Life Christian School is a big contrast to Escuela Urbana Mixta de José Cecilio del Valle. It’s a bilingual school which we hadn’t actually seen before and blew us away. The school is also in a beautiful location surrounded by mountains and pine trees and in cool air. 

Classrooms at Vida Abundante
Nivelación class – an intense English course for the kids starting in August

We did eventually get ourselves back to Candelaria and in the next two weeks we finally started some adult classes with a small group including our host mum Saida, celebrated World Water Day with a parade through Candelaria, were laid up in bed for a week (that one’s just me); and had our visit from Vegas and Fra. 

Vegas is our in country rep who lives on Roatán and visited us back in October to see how we were settling in and Fra is our country coordinator from Coll. Thankfully I was just about better from my bout of sickness in time for their arrival, after having been floored with the flu and/or dehydration the last time Vegas visited us. We had lunch together and Fra came to see us teach in the colegio in the afternoon and then we had a meeting with the people involved in our project in the evening. 

Parading for World Water Day

Amy and I plus the girls from Tomalá and the 6 month project San Francisco have just gotten back from Belize where we have been to renew our visa. We stopped for a few nights on the way in Livingston in Guatemala. Livingston is only accessible by boat but it’s the same boat that takes it across to Belize so it was kind of perfect. 

We stayed in Casa de la Iguana, a hostel highly recommended by Calum and Tom who have stayed here before, and used our few days to do a few boat tours in the area, one of which was to Rio Dulce where part of Jurassic Park was filmed and another where we had dolphins swimming around our boat! 

Livingston was covered in gorgeous street art
With our man Edmar on a river tour

We moved on to Hopkins in Belize because as nice as it is, Guatemala does nothing for our visa. I’m not sure if I’ve explained this before but it’s because there’s something called the C4 in place here. It basically means a 90 day tourist visa is valid for Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua so a visa run involves a quick hop into Belize or going all the way to Mexico or Costa Rica in order to renew it.

Hopkins is one of the most chilled places we’ve been. That’s maybe because most of our time was split between the beach and the hammocks in our hostel, The Funky Dodo (what a name, I know!). 

Just what we needed!

We wrapped up our visa run by heading back to San Pedro Sula to pick up our families at the airport! I now have my dad and Kirsty visiting for the next two weeks which should be interesting! 

(Also I apologise for the title to those people who find puns offensive but I really just can’t help myself, there’s just too many good ones!)