You know you are a long way from home when strangers stop you in a public toilet and ask for photographs. Small children stared open-mouthed on the subway while their parents pointed and talked about us unashamedly. Beijing is an intimidatingly big city and we got our first real taste of cold weather at -10 but the subway system is brilliant and free dumpling Friday at the Chinese Box Courtyard Hostel was an absolute winner. We befriended several Australians (the first of many) and embarked on a 3 hour bus trip to the Mutianyu section of The Great Wall. The guide insisted we go up in the cable car like everyone else but being cheap and stubborn we defiantly chose to trek up the hill to tower 10 of the structure instead. Although this part has been heavily restored, it still gave incredible views over the mountains and a gut busting 1 hour climb to tower 23. The new wall meets the 600 year old original at this point and it remains in impressively good condition. We scrambled along this section for another tower before boosting back to the bottom for a traditional lunch of food that I could not name but tasted quite good. Exploring the area was definitely the highlight of the trip so far. We also visited the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in the days leading up to Vodkatrain starting. I practiced my chopstick skills on slippery dumplings and we drank the local brew with our Aussie roommates until it was time to relocate to the new hotel and the real trip. I may or may not have gotten the hotel completely wrong and caused a three hour detour with all of our gear on our backs to wind up only six blocks from our previous hostel - but we got there in time for the five o'clock briefing. Our whole group consisted of three other people (all from across the ditch and great value) and we immediately set to swapping stories of our struggles with the local culture - the spitting takes some getting used to. With two more days in Beijing, we split up to cover the attractions still left on our individual lists and snuck in a Chinese acrobatic show. I'm still not sure how I feel about what we saw, but the eight guys on motorbikes all inside the crazy circular cage thing was awesome. Next stage, Mongolia.
The Golden Time 2 in Hanoi is possibly the greatest hostel in the world. I've only been in about six so far but I'm pretty confident it doesn't get much better than this. Situated in the Old Quarter and staffed by some bend over backwards for your every need types, the rooms are awesome and coffee is free. I'd probably move here if I hadn't been heartbroken to find the cheap North Face gear isn't legitimate. After spending a day dodging street vendors and sampling the local cuisine in Hanoi, we set off to Ha long Bay in a bus full of friendly Scandinavians and were ushered onto a tender and driven out to our waiting accommodation for the night. Our two-storey junk was looking a little worse for wear as we were hauled aboard by the crew but the inside was really tidy with modern bathrooms and deck chairs so smooth you slide right off them. We set sail immediately for a large cave I never caught the name of. Our enthusiastic English speaking tour guide was somewhat difficult to understand and spent a good hour using a laser pointer to show all the "animals" in the stalactites. For future reference 'toto' is turtle and the unicorn is one of "Vietnam Supernatural Animal". The cave was pretty impressive and took a good amount of time just to wander through. We followed this up with a hike to the top of a neighbouring island (hike is used very loosely here and may refer to anything from a set of stairs to a full on trek). Those brave enough to venture out in the chilly 15 degree weather then jumped in double kayaks to explore the bay further. We were having a relatively relaxing time paddling along the shore and through a cave when we popped out into another bay and were suddenly surrounded by monkeys. Less then three metres from the boat and swinging through trees above our heads, these guys obviously aren't phased by the sight of a motley bunch of tourists as they dug for shell fish quite happily on the beach. The following day we were dropped at Cat Ba Island for more hiking in the National Park where we climbed to the top of a sizable hill and enjoyed full panoramic views of the area. The hotel for the night was also really nice until the guys fixing power lines down the road cut electricity to the whole block for the day. We spent our afternoon wandering the empty beaches and roads and trying to picture the teeming crowds that apparently swarm the island in summer. It was a quiet night and another early morning back to the boat and across to the mainland for our trip back to Hanoi. In true western fashion we had KFC for dinner - just for a break from not knowing what we were eating and wandered along Hoan Kiem Lake where preparations for Vietnamese New Year is in full swing. Actually very fond of this city, even if beer prices vary 300% from one pub to the next it's nice not to be sweating the moment you leave the hotel. China in three days.
After taking a 6 hour train from Bangkok in the early hours of the morning all the way to the Cambodian border, I wasn't in the mood for the scams and lines that awaited us. Dropped by our Tuk Tuk driver at the "Visa Application Office" we had to walk a further 500m to the real border and queue for half an hour to have our passports stamped. From here it was another 6 hour trip in a taxi with two Poms we enlisted for the journey to Siem Reap. Thankfully post earthquake Christchurch had prepared us for Cambodian roads and we bounced and weaved happily along dirt, shingle and broken asphalt all the way to the Panda Guest House. Angkor Wat is the main attraction in this mini metropolis of dirt roads and bare foot children but the people are awesome and the cocktails very cheap also. We hired a Tuk Tuk for the day and headed out to see some temples the next day. At $12 for 6 hours and a 20km round trip, it's a pretty good deal. The temples are pretty incredible and I got my Lara Croft on jumping down stairs and exploring the ruins of Ta Prohm. The journey to Phnom Penh was in a beautifully air conditioned mini van along more of the crazy highways (dirt tracks). We spent the night missing AC just a little bit but we hardened up and got some sleep in the end. The Killing Fields the next day were a sobering reminder of just how awful things had been in Cambodia not so long ago. We visited S-21, the old prison from the Khmer Rouge and now the Genocide Museum depicting the atrocities that were carried out there. 20 000 were sentenced to execution over a three year period just in this compound alone. We spent the rest of the day sampling the local cuisine, followed by more cocktails - it'd be rude not to.
Speeding through the crowded streets of Bangkok at 120km in the back of a beat up Thai Taxi with no seatbelts was more than enough to wake me up after 24 hours of straight travel. I especially enjoyed how Mr Taxi driver weaved recklessly from one lane to the next trying to find the fastest path down the freeway to our hotel. I'll never have to see Fast and the Furious again. We did make it unscathed to Bangkok at midnight local time and checked into the K T Guesthouse for our first two nights on holiday - finally. Having visited the city before, we were well versed on 7 Elevens, crossing streets full of scooters and not drinking the water. It was a less exciting taxi to the Grand Palace the next morning after a breakfast of fruit pancakes and sweet iced tea. We dodged several charming locals trying to rip us off and made our way to Wat Pho, the home of a giant reclining Budda and many feral cats. We had planned to follow this with a trip to the Palace but were put off by the extortionate entrance fees. Instead we headed across the river with its floating islands of trash to Wat Arun to attempt some free soloing up the side of a monument covered in bits of broken plates. This was pretty impressive until we had to climb back down and I suddenly remembered I'm afraid of heights. We finished the day with a trip to Khao San Road - along with every other tourist in town. This place is knock-off central and packed with Aussies. For obvious reasons we didn't hang around too long. Unfortunately we had to walk about 10 blocks away from the area before we could find a Taxi driver who would actually run their meter. Cambodia tomorrow.
We felt it appropriate to hit up the Ferry Ale House and bring in the new year to the immortal genius of Jordan Luck. If you haven't picked up on our blog name, Airway Spies was one of The Exponents first singles released a good six years before either of us were born and nine years before the traditional Kiwi anthem Why does love do this to me. Despite being mostly surrounded by our parents' generation and possibly the only three people to be checked for ID all night, we toasted 2013 in style and tequila. Now that the festivities are over and we are four days away from leaving the country things are getting a bit more exciting. Visas for Cambodia and Vietnam have been approved online, packs are packed and jabs have all been jabbed. We have also reached the point where we realised New Zealand is not the place to buy clothes for Russia so we are relying on buying some of the major items when we get to Beijing - hopefully some cheap North Face gear will do the trick. On a side note we have also been given crazy neon light poi to take travelling with us from Home of Poi. Like most Kiwi kids I had made my own from newspaper and wool when in Primary School and diligently practiced the basic twirls and swings (all the time thinking how awesome I must look). These things however are on a whole new level and change colours as you swing them around. The only issue is now we need to learn how to use them properly - I'm seeing some busking potential here. Poi on The Great Wall or Poi on Mt Vesuvius maybe? I'm especially looking forward to explaining them to customs in a country where I speak none of the language. Here's to 2014 and the first leg of our trip next week, South East Asia.
Rachael and Jeremy