Altitude. Heat. Humidity. Pollution!

Over the last three weeks I have been in China. Where in China you might wonder? How about Beijing, Dunhuang, Lanzhou, Xining, Xi’an and Shenzhen? And yes, it was frantic three week trip to visit all of those cities!

The first stop was the capital. Like every Westerner that visits China, I too saw The Great Wall, The Imperial Palace, The Summer Palace, and Tiananmen Square! My hotel was in-fact very close to the Forbidden City and I found a nice 5 km loop to go for a run. Running three loops was a good start to the day. However, I tried this run next day after visiting attractions. Big mistake!

The temperature late in the day was almost 30C. The air was also heavily polluted. After my run I coughed and spluttered for 20 minutes… no wonder they call it the “Beijing Cough”! The pollution hit 194 AQI. That’s 21 times worse than what I’m used to!

Fortunately I recovered from the ordeal and went to Dunhuang, a city famous for the Mogao Grottos, Crescent Lake, and The Whistling Sand Dunes! I too saw these attractions. I also went for a run in Dunhuang. This was the first time that I had ran at altitude (1200m) and 25C+ heat! No problems.

We then travelled to Lanzhou to visit some of my father’s friends. Lanzhou is not known for attractions but infamously known for once being China’s most polluted city. Fortunately, Lanzhou has since changed and is no longer as polluted as it once was. Running along the walkway by the Yellow river ended up being a trip highlight! A lot of locals are there too, walking, whip cracking, playing with diablos or just dancing! Oh and Lanzhou is one mile above sea level!

The next two stops involved even greater heights. Although we were not there for long, I was dead set on running at Qinghai Lake. At 3200m above sea level, this is in high altitude training territory. Despite gradually building up to this altitude over several days, I had a slight headache while at Qinghai. But it was now or never! The first kilometer of the run felt odd. The air was noticeably thinner as was the cool temperature. However, each stride became harder and harder. Soon my legs were completely dead and called it quits after a mere 4km!

Humbled by the high altitude experience, we headed back to Xining. At 2200m above sea level, my run in Xining was fine albeit slower than my usual pace. I enjoyed the cool climate and the much cleaner air!

Next we headed to Xi’an, one of the great ancient capitals of China. And just like the other thousands of tourists, I too visited Xi’an to see the Terracotta Army! Another interesting relic of the past is the 15m high, 14km perimeter long city wall! A perfect place for a run? Although the air was not smelly like it was in Beijing it was visibly polluted. I ended up doing two laps of the city wall on a day that was warm (23C), hazy and heavily polluted (174 AQI). I think I also got Bronchitis from this run. Was it worth it? Ask me after I recover from it! Cough splutter cough…

Finally the last city we visited was Shenzhen. Known as the “Sillicon Valley of Hardware”, 90% of the world’s electronics are made in Shenzhen! There are literally five story buildings packed to the rafters that just sell USB cables for iPhones! In order to preserve my lungs from the polluted air I decided to run at night, where it is usually cooler (low 30C!) and less polluted (<100 AQI). One night it was 33C. Suffice to say when I got back from my run, my tshirt was drenched in sweat!

Altitude, heat, and humidity! Whether you are after altitude training (right up to crazy 2+ mile high runs!) or just curious to see if you can handle running in the mid thirties with high humidity, China has a city for all environments.

Runner be warned! Many cities in China are badly polluted, as I’m sure you already know. So caveat emptor, if you’re in one of China’s large, polluted cities, choose another sport!

Summary of my trip to Europe

Over the last two weeks, I have spent my time evenly between London, Paris, and Rome. These three cities are quite different and offer their own charm. I found London to be by far the busiest out of the three. It also appeared to be the most multicultural; it was quite common to hear people speaking other languages on the bus. London also had the most activities and the public infrastructure was first class.

Although English is not the native language in Paris, I had no problem getting around as everyone involved in retail spoke English. Most people could speak English in Rome. The buildings in Paris were very well maintained and the Metro was good. However, the public transport in Paris does not operate around the clock. This caused me some grief when catching a 6:45am flight from Orly Airport, as I had to catch a shuttle. It was expensive but the only option.

Both London and Paris are very expensive cities to visit. Neither of these cities would be a great place to live on a low wage. Rome, on the other hand, was easier on the wallet and eating out was feasible. Apparel was also reasonably priced.

I felt let down by the “rundown” state of Rome’s infrastructure, which pails compared to that of London or Paris. Most of the roads had either potholes or loose cobble stones and had very faint road markings. Many of the buildings had graffiti and were caked in grime. The Roma Termini also smelt like urine and there was some litter on the streets. Naples was a lot worse, which is a shame as it looks to be in a nice location by the sea and near Mount Vesuvius.

All three cities had beggars and scammers. The beggars and scammers were worst in Paris, as they were outside every tourist attraction and even at the exits of the Metro! The scammers in Rome appeared to take full advantage of tourists. In one instance, I was conned into paying money for advice that I did not ask for or know I would have to pay for.

In all three cities I missed seeing the sea. I have always lived within 20 minutes from the ocean and found it unsettling living in an inland metropolis. If I had live in London, Paris, or Rome, it would have to be London. That is because I felt most at home there and there was simply more things to do.

I have never ventured further than Singapore before so it was quite something for me to go to the opposite side of the globe. It also was quite a testing journey, especially on long haul flights with crying infants nearby! It took around 40 hours of travelling (including stop overs) to travel from New Zealand to Europe.

This trip to Europe was truly an eye opening experience. I was shocked to see how busy London was and once I returned found Auckland to quite desolate and empty in comparison. The pace of life was also a lot busier and put New Zealand into perspective. The most fascinating part of my journey was seeing all of the ruins in Rome. It was almost surreal visiting The Pantheon, which has been standing since 125AD. Compare this to New Zealand’s oldest building which was constructed in 1822!

A summary of the things I saw:

London:

Paris:

Rome:

Finally I would like to thank my cousin Christine for her expert advice on what to see and my colleagues for their advice. I had no trouble backpacking my way across Europe and look forward to the next opportunity to do so!

Parking in Rome

From the moment I checked into my hostel in Rome I got the sense that Italians are very laid back. Indeed, the receptionist seemed in no hurry to check in people and was often interrupted by her colleagues while serving people. I also got the impression that Rome has fairly relaxed rules about parking! I came across many roads where cars had been improperly parked, where either it stuck out on the road or jutted into the footpath! It was also common to see an additional layer of cars parallel parked. It was also quite popular to own a two person car. These owers made full advantage of the short body of their vehicle and parked perpendicular in between other parallel parked cars! I found car parking in Rome quite amusing!

Left speechless in Rome

It is 9am 28th July 2014 and I have arrived in The Eternal City! I catch the Roma Airport Bus which takes me to the Roma Termini. My hostel, Hotel des Artistes, is conveniently a five minute walk away. I check in to the hostel. The room isn’t ready and I’m told to come back at 3pm. There’s a secure room which I leave my large backpack at and begin exploring Rome!

First stop: the Coliseum! It is well within walking distance from the hostel so I head off on foot. The walk ends up taking most of the day as I end up taking quite the detour: Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs, Trajan’s Market, Altare della Patria, Capitoline Hill… I even stop for some Nutella flavoured gelato! I eventually make it to the Coliseum but notice the lines are quite long. I’ve got a spare day in Rome so I decide to postpone my visit for tomorrow…

I wake to my second day and I’m outside the Coliseum. Unfortunately, the ticket lines at the Coliseum are just as long as they were yesterday! I ask a local and they suggest I buy my ticket at the entrance into the Roman Forum. There the line is much shorter and consists of just 20 people! Over the next couple of hours I walk through the ruins of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. I leave the ruins and return to the Coliseum. It is crazy to think that this structure was built almost 2000 years ago and it is still standing! Compare that to my flat which was built in the 1980’s and is falling apart! Incredible!

It is now midday and I backtrack towards the city and arrive at Trevi Fountain. Unfortunately, it is under maintenance and all of its water has been removed. It is astounding seeing countless amounts of coins travelers had tossed in there… and this is just from this morning! Next, I visit the Pantheon. Again, it is an impressive structure which is in very good shape given it was built in 125AD! I walk up the Spanish Steps and walk around Villa Borghese. Today I’ve done a lot of walking and am glad to return to the hostel to rest my feet.

Later that evening it begins to rain very heavily. The weather improves but it is still raining the next morning. This is unfortunate as most of the city’s sights are outdoors. I wait for the rain to stop and head over to Vatican City, mainly to see what the entry lines are like. And they are huge! I head back to the hostel by following the walkway along the Tiber River.

On my fourth day I catch a 6:30am train for a day trip to Pompeii. Before getting on the train, it was not immediately obvious which train I to get on. An overly kind local walked me to the correct train but then demanded 10 Euros for 30 seconds of his time! I was a bit shocked by this. I made it clear that 10 Euros was outrageous but agreed to pay him 2 Euros. This was my first bad experience in Rome. I decided from this moment on never take advice from people who came to me as their “free” advice has been followed by extortion.

Once arriving in Naples I look for the final train to take me to Pompeii. I have done some research and know I need to catch a train on the Circumvesuviana line and exit at Pompeii Scavi. I’m now on the train and it’s uncomfortably packed with people, most likely visiting Pompeii as well. It’s also a rough ride and the train screeches as it travels along the track. After a deafening 40 minutes on the train I am finally inside Pompeii, The Lost City!

As I walk through the streets of Pompeii I am lost for words. Unlike Rome (where the ancient buildings have been worked on for centuries), the excavated Pompeii ruins are as they were since being buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD! It is moving seeing the “Garden of Fugitives” where plaster casts of victims remain as they were on their terminal breath.

Next I take a tour bus up Mount Vesuvius. The road up the mountain is a wreck and the ride is very bumpy. I’m seated at the rear of the bus and I’m frequently bumped off my seat. I find the bus trip up Vesuvius more thrilling than any of the rides in Disneyland Paris! The bus is now out of the treeline and gives fantastic views of Naples. The bus stops just short of the summit and 20 minutes later I have “walked” to the top of Mount Vesuvius! I peer into the crater and it is enormous! Pictures cannot describe how big and deep the crater is. I soak in the scenery and head back down and begin the journey back to Rome.

My final day in Rome is devoted to the Vatican City and its museums. I take a bus from the Romi Termini over to the Vatican. I’m now at St. Peter’s Square awaiting to get into St. Peter’s Basilica. Although I have arrived later than planned, at 10:40am the lines are not too bad. Since the Basilica is a sacred place, a respectful dress code is strictly enforced. I had no problems getting in with jeans and a t-shirt.

Once inside St. Peter’s Basilica I join the queue for walking up to the Cupola (dome). Near the top the steps become quite narrow and involve climbing a couple of very tight spiral staircases. It is quite hot up here and is awkward navigating the stairs with curved walls both sides. Finally I am at the top of the dome and the view makes it worthwhile. I wander back down and spend some time admiring the basilica. Although some of the sections are closed off, it is by far the largest and most impressive church I have seen!

I leave St. Peter’s Basilica and enter the Vatican Museums. Over the next four hours I am wowed with the art on exhibition. I enjoy the sculpture section a lot as well as the Egyptian Collection. I am equally wowed by the Sistine Chapel. The entire ceiling took Michelangelo four years to paint and must have been quite challenging to do so in situ! I revisit some of exhibitions for a second time and then head back to the hostel.

Out of the three cities I have visited, Rome has been the one which has completely blown my mind. Rome is rich with history and generally friendly people. I was captivated by the ruins in Rome, and really enjoyed the Vatican Museums. I felt that five days was more than enough time to visit Rome (including a day trip to Pompeii). I thoroughly enjoyed my stay and recommend Rome to everyone!

Five nights in Paris

A young, attractive woman approaches me and asks if I speak English. I say yes. Once she has me charmed she thrusts a pen in my hand and asks me to sign a “petition”. I try to read it but most of it is obscured by her right hand. She insists I should sign it as it is for a good cause (for blind people apparently). But just before I do so I catch a glimpse of what her hand was concealing – the part where you had to pay money! I immediately give back the pen and tell her no thanks. She’s angry but I make a stern exit…

It has just been a mere 10 minutes since I stepped off the Eurostar in Paris. A Gypsy has tried a scam on me! I have been warned about pick pockets but not about other unsavoury aspects of Paris!

I am still the train station and come across somewhere to put my backpack. Unfortunately, the bag lockers are operated by coins only. I look for a merchant to exchange my notes for coins, explaining the situation. No can do! Even after buying a token item they are unwilling to give me coins instead of notes!

Coinless and frustrated, I head back down to the baggage storage area. Once my luggage has passed through an airport-style security scanner I discover there is a self-service machine which converts notes to coins! My large backpack is now safely stored and at 11am on 23th July 2014 I’m ready to explore Paris!

I catch the Metro and get off at Chatelet. Half an hour later I am inside Musee D’Orsay! I spend three hours there. Although I am taken away by the paintings and sculptures (and even the museum’s building, a decommissioned train station!), I have been “museumed out”! It is tempting while on holiday in Paris to see all of the museums but there’s only so much one can digest.

From Musee D’Orsay I continue on a long walk to the Basilica Sacre Coeur (a.ka. “The church on the hill”)! By the time I reach the Sacre Coeur I have worked up quite a sweat. Fortunately, there’s a water fountain there with chilled water. The Sacre Coeur is impressive but I enjoy walking around Montmartre even more. The streets are narrow and are bulging with tourists… there’s even a petit “train” they can take if they’re feeling lazy!

It is now the evening. I head back towards my hostel: St Christopher’s Inns Canal! It is situated along Canal Saint-Martin which is a nice area. Although I have paid some 50% more for my stay in St Christopher’s, it is of a much higher quality than that of London’s RestUp. The beds are assigned come with individual privacy curtains. There is even free lockable storage!

It is still bright outside so I go for a run along the Canal. It is one of the most picturesque runs I have been on. Paris is a pretty city and it must cost a fortune to keep it that way.

I wake to my second day. I’ve hopped off the Metro closest to the Eiffel Tower. It is 9:45am and there are already lines Eiffel Tower. Fortunately, the “walking up line” is a lot shorter and within 15 minutes I begin the 647 steps up to the second level! The walk up is no problem and another 15 minutes later I’m at the second level and join the queue for the elevator to the top. This line is deceptively long and 45 minutes later I am at the top! It offers fantastic views of Paris.

I leave the Eiffel Tower and have lunch in the park that surrounds it. Again, I come across the “petition” Gypsies but know better than to engage. I also see the “ring scam” which involves a guy dropping a “gold” ring close to unsuspecting tourists and offers to sell it for price much more than it is worth. It is quite obvious from where I am sitting and people are not fooled. Next stop: the Palace of Versailles!

I arrive at 2pm at the Palace of Versailles. To my relief the lines are short but inside it is packed full of people. As I shuffle through the palace I hate to think how much it would have cost to build and cost to rebuild it. Every square metre of its 67,000m^2 floor is impeccable but to me it well beyond grandiose: why would someone ever need a place so big! The gardens are even bigger and after spending a couple of hours wandering about I am exhausted!

The next morning I arrive at the Catacombs de Paris. I join the line at 10:45am and it’s a couple of blocks long! For the next three and a half hours, the line slowly creeps forward and finally I am at the entrance! The adventure begins with a long spiral staircase that takes you 20m below ground. Down here it is a chilly 14C and after a lengthy walk through head-height tunnels I now stand before a stone portal. In English it reads: “Stop! Here lies the Empire of Death”! Beyond this are walls artistically stacked with bones and sculls. Apparently the catacombs hold the remains of about six million people! It was quite an experience but to reduce time wasted in the queue I suggest to arrive an hour before the gates open.

An hour later I arrive at Notre Dame through a very tall doorway under an impressive archway. I’m wowed by Notre Dame’s facade and also by the stained glass at Sainte Chapelle. Seeing the sunlight through the stained glass panels is something worth viewing!

I’ve managed to compress the schedule, giving me a free day in Paris. It has been a long time since I’ve last been to a theme park so I head to Disneyland Paris! I make my way around the theme park rides but unfortunately the adrenaline junkie in me in not satisfied!

It is my last day in Paris and I arrive at Musee des Arts et Metiers. I’ve also made a detour to arrive at the Arts et Metiers station and find it without a doubt the cleanest and most appealing of the Metro stations I’ve visited in Paris. Inside the museum I am enlightened by the scientific instruments and other important technological developments. It is a must for any keen scientist or engineer!

Finally I head towards Arc de Triomphe as my last activity in Paris. As I get closer there are more people and Champs-Elysees is closed off. Fortuitously, I have arrived an hour before the 2014 Tour de France finale! The streets are overflowing with spectators as well as some talented buskers, but all eyes turn to the streets once the peloton arrives. I know the cyclists go fast but it is still incredible being close as they blitz along Champs-Elysees several times!

As the day becomes to a close, I take time to reflect of my stay in Paris. Day one left a bad impression of unfriendly locals and irritating Gyspies. However, the attractions made up for this. I felt that five nights was adequate to see Paris provided one did not go to The Louvre. I’ll save this one for my next trip to Paris!

A tour of London

I arrive at St Pancras train station at 10am on Friday 18th July 2014 and it is a swelteringly hot day.

Before I start my five day tour of London I search for a post shop. I have to get “rid” of 5kg of books I accumulated along the way! But to my horror the most economical price to send the books back to New Zealand is 105 Pounds! Reluctantly I pay. I know my experience of Europe will be better without carrying such heavy luggage!

Next: figure out how to get around London. I head back to St Pancras and top up an Oyster Card a friend gave me. I also pick up a map of London’s public transport routes. I catch a bus which takes me to my hostel: RestUp London!

I arrive at RestUp London and unpack in a 10-bed mixed dormitory room. As I open the door I am dealt a soft blow for skimping on accommodation. There are five barely single double-bunk beds are crammed into a tiny basement floor room!

Fast-forward to day two: museum day! I have got the hang of getting around by bus. As an alternative, I catch the underground “tube” towards the National History and Science Museums. Although the tube is packed to the rafters, I am highly impressed with the efficiency of London’s network of buses and trains.

I first visit the National History Museum. Like most museums in London, admission is free! I enjoyed looking at all the dead insects and others amongst the many exhibitions. The Science Museum very close by but is nowhere near as impressive. Having said that, an interesting fact I learnt was that each of the boroughs of London used to have its own electrical mains system along with a unique appliance connector!

The following day starts at the London Dungeon. This tourist attraction takes you through London’s macabre history. It was worthwhile to do once. The next attraction I enter is the London Eye. It’s a great way of getting some great pictures with the iconic London landmarks and well worth the money on a fine day! Next I check out the London Aquarium. Finally I catch a bus to Maddam Tussauds.

Before I know it I am on the red carpet mingling with stars with my hand around Kate Winslet’s waist and chilling on the couch with George Clooney! But, alas, I am no celebrity; I am merely posing with full sized, life-like wax figures at Maddam Tussauds! I leave the first room filled with A-list “celebrities” expecting that this was it. This was just the beginning. The figures in the next room I find more interesting: Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator, Maralyn Munro, Einstein… there’s even Shrek! Maddam Tussauds continues to impress and there are many other rooms filled with interesting wax figures. Highly recommended!

I wake to my last day in London. Despite scattering my belongings over my bed (to indicate it was mine), I have ended up sleeping each of the five nights in a different bed! This was annoying but nothing compared last night where one guy snored as loud as humanly possible! You could hear everyone else turning in their beds, groaning, praying for some brave sole to throw / prod / do anything to end his snoring! Their prayers were never answered. He happily continued to snore throughout the night, oblivious he was ruining everyone else’s sleep!

Groggy with a half night’s sleep, I get out of bed and head to the city to revisit parts of London. These include: Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, and Chinatown. Afterwards I make my way to Westminster Abbey at 4:45 pm. At this time I’ve avoided the admission fee and long queues while getting a chance to listen to the church choir! This lasts an hour which aligns perfectly for my next event: “Warhorse”. Warhorse is the first theatre show I have seen and I really enjoyed it. The full size horse props looked fantastic and it takes you to an era before motion pictures.

I really enjoyed my stay in London. Getting around the city on a bus or on “the tube” was easy. There is so much to do in London. Five days was not enough to see the city!