A Travellerspoint blog

Xi'an

rain 20 °C

We flew into Xi’an late Sunday evening, and any worries regarding domestic flights were unfounded. Everything ran smoothly. In comparison with the hundreds of Chinese travellers, we only saw two other Western tourists, but we’re getting used to that now. We took a taxi to our hostel, the ‘Facebook Hostel’. There is no connection, and taking into account that China bans it, it was a little amusing to find a hostel with such a name. There were good reviews and it was centrally located, and cheap too. Our taxi driver got lost on the way and what should have been a forty five minute drive ended up closer to ninety minutes. Still, we only paid 110 Yuan for the trip (€13.50). We quickly discovered the Facebook Hostel was not all it was cracked up to be. The staff have very little English, so it’s difficult to get any advice or ask for anything. The wifi was non existent and you could feel the springs in your bed. We’d recommend staying at the Hang Tang Inn instead which is a couple of doors up. Their staff speak English, they offer great food at a low price, all the mainstream tours and provide free/fast wifi. Fellow backpackers staying there also commented on how comfortable and clean the rooms were.

Xi’an is the capital of the Shaanxi province and has a population of roughly five million people. It’s an easy city to get around and the centre is bounded by city walls, with a bell tower marking the crossroads of the four main streets. Xi’an is best known for the Terracotta Warriors. Approximately eight thousand statues were constructed two thousand years ago and left to guard the tomb of Qin Shi Huang (seen as an archetypal Tyrant). It is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.

Before I get into what we’ve been up to, another amusing cultural difference worth highlighting is the sleeping habits of the Chinese. We’ve seen a few nodding off in random public areas, some in an almost corpse like condition. I’m looking forward to having a snooze on the street if Alberto will let me.

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Monday was pretty much a write off. We woke up to the rain (it has been raining for the majority of our time here unfortunately). Problems with both of our bank cards meant that we were unable to take any cash out and were reliant on the little Yuan we had left in cash. We were just about able to get some street food for lunch with what we had. Three skewers of beef costs only 10 Yuan (€1.20) and a large portion of potatoes stir-fried in garlic, cumin, spring onion and chilli costs 5 Yuan. A bargain, and it’s pretty tasty too. Just make sure any meat is well cooked.

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We spent the day trying out other ATMs, emailing our bank and trying to call them (we have been unable to make any international calls though). Luckily, the Hang Tang Inn allowed us to book our Terra Cotter Army tour and order dinner via credit card, which worked fine. Phew! That evening we stayed in and watched a film on the laptop. It was a pretty frustrating and boring day all-round. We’ve since been able to withdraw cash so the problem seems to have been resolved.

Tuesday was an early start. The Hang Tang Inn offers an all-day breakfast menu so we ate there prior to departure. We arrived at the excavation site late morning and we had a great afternoon exploring three different museums. The government must have known they hit gold when it was found. A trip to Xi’an if you’re in China is well worthwhile for the warriors alone. The farmer who discovered it in the 1970s now works at the souvenir shop for a ‘meet & greet’ and photo opportunity. We're not really sure if it was him or not, but funny all the same. We were too poor at the time to pay for the privilege.

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We made friends with the tour group and that evening we all went out to dinner in the Muslim Quarter where there is a night market. Food stalls offering a wide range of meats, snacks and desserts are plentiful. A few drinks back at the hostel led to a spontaneous trip to the street bars and I finally found my karaoke bar. Every person got up to sing individually or in groups, generally paired with another member from the same country or in the case of Alberto with a girl from Portugal. We christened them team Iberia. And of course they sang the Macarena. We generally called each other by our country name, and in the case of multiples from the same country, you were Australia number three or America number two. After a lot of drinking, and singing we got to bed just after 4am. That evening was probably the highlight of our trip to Xi’an.

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We booked ourselves onto another tour for Wednesday, this time to see the tomb of Emperor Jingdu (regarded as a benevolent ruler who lived during 188 BC – 141 BC). Most of the group from the previous night were also going. We had good craic in the van but unfortunately the tour was a waste of money. There was very little to see and the only saving grace is that we were probably too hungover to appreciate anything really good, so we didn’t have to feel guilty due to our lack of interest.

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[There wasn't a pic worth showing from this tour, so a group selfie in the rain will have to do]

That evening we all met up again for dinner, and went to see a light and water show down at the Goose Pagoda. It took quite some time to get out to see it. Taxi drivers will pull up but as soon as they realise you’re a foreigner they’ll speed away as quickly as they can. We ended up taking a tuk tuk, Alberto’s first experience and I don’t think he’s overly keen. This one was a deluxe model with a proper enclosed carriage to get into so you didn’t get wet, but unfortunately we had to deal with a strong smell of fumes for the journey. We caught the tail end of the show. It was pretty good, and it’s on every evening for free.

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At the end of the night we exchanged some contacts for possible future meet-ups and said our goodbyes. Overall our experience of Xi’an was pretty positive. The constant rain for the last four days didn’t help, but hanging out with a large group of backpackers for a couple of days was really fun, and we hope to do more of that. Aside from the Terra Cotta Warriors though, there isn’t a lot else on offer. We stayed four nights, but would only recommend two to three (in comparison four in Beijing was perfect). Next stop, Shanghai.

Lost in Translation:

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Posted by mattld 03:13 Archived in China Comments (4)

Welcome to Beijing

sunny 28 °C

Ni-hao! We’ve been in China for five days now but it feels a lot longer (and in a good way, we’re not missing Western life just yet). A few well known facts about Beijing to get you started:

• It’s the Capital of China
• There are approximately 15 millions inhabitants
• It was the host of the Olympic Games in 2008
• Beijing is home to the Great Wall and Forbidden City

First impressions of Beijing are of an almost inhuman vastness, conveyed by the sprawl of apartment buildings, in which most of the city’s population are housed, and the eight-lane motorways that slice it up. The currency is the Yuan (pronounced ‘Whan’). It’s roughly 8 Yuan to 1 Euro. Culturally, we’ve observed more than just a few differences in the past few days. The list below is not intended to insult! In fact, these differences are part of the attraction of China (even if just to observe them, if nothing else):

• Spitting – the Chinese think nothing of hacking up a massive spit, deep from the back of their throat (even during mid conversation). It’s not very pleasant and unfortunately there’s no escaping it. Expect to hear this at least a handful of times in one day, if not more.
• Smoking – even in restaurants where it says ‘no smoking’, the Chinese will ignore and puff away. It’s everywhere. The rumour that smoking ‘might’ be bad for you is like a little secret nobody has let them in on yet.
• Fashion – a good few men walk around with their t-shirt tucked up. It's obviously understandable with the heat.

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• Food – most animal parts are up for grabs (hooves, tongue, the head etc.). Spiders, lizards, seahorses, cochroaches etc. are all available at low prices. We got to try some fresh deep fat fried scorpion on Thursday. It was delicious.

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• Dining – I’m a big fan of traditional Chinese music, so I was disappointed that none of the restaurants had any music at all. It leaves the atmosphere somewhat flat. Coupled with the constant noise of chairs being dragged in and out of tables on the marble floor, dining is more a case of ‘refuel and get out’ rather than a sensual experience. Table etiquette… we’ve seen diners dumping tissues, rubbish and even cigarette butts on the ground after they’re finished. Indoors…
• Toilet – stories of having to squat in a public toilet without any privacy or toilet paper are not completely unfounded. Bring toilet paper with you everywhere you go. I don’t know about you, but I just want to be able to go to the toilet with some dignity so I was very happy that the toilet in our apartment allowed you to sit down. Unfortunately it’s not designed to take any tissue, so that must go in a bin and anything larger than a small marble requires multiple flushes and a toilet brush to help it on its way to sewer heaven. Apologies if you’re eating…
• Staring – the visa card you sign when landing refers to us as ‘aliens’ and sometimes you feel like one. One surprise in Beijing is the lack of Western people. You can generally count the amount of Caucasian people on two hands at any one specific area, even popular tourist spots like the Great Wall. The Chinese don’t consider it rude to stare. We’ve had our pictures taken a couple of times which was funny. I’d have appreciated it a lot more had I been drunk at the time.
• Language – as expected it can be very difficult to get around due to a lack of English (and to be fair our lack of Chinese). They rely, naturally of course on the Chinese calligraphy, and not the Roman alphabet. With some planning however you can get by. A Chinese/English translation phrase book is very useful, and we would recommend having a local contact you can use for help when you need it (in our case it was our Air Bn’B host who was fantastic). I must add that the underground rail is fast, very cheap (only 25 cents for a trip), efficient and easy to use. The only downside is it’s packed most of the time.

Tuesday was a long, long day. Due to delays with both flights, our total travel time from leaving the house (thank you Barry for the lift at 7am) to arrival was just over 20 hours. We flew with Ethihad via Abu Dhabi. For both of us it was our first time to fly with them. Overall the service was fine, but nothing spectacular (it was no Virgin or Qantas). We arrived into Beijing just after 10am local time, Wednesday morning. We thought our bags had gotten lost as they took more than twenty minutes to appear, but thankfully they arrived. We booked an apartment via Air Bn’B and took a metered taxi out (our host told us in advance it was only 100 Yuan for an hour long drive, which is roughly €12.50). We decided to stay at a hutong, which is a traditional block of three to five apartments with a very small courtyard providing a common area. We would highly recommend it, and in particular booking with a local Chinese host. She helped us get from A to B and even booked two internal flights for us. You cannot book a flight using a foreign credit card unless you send a scanned copy of your passports and the visa card itself within two hours of booking. We didn’t feel comfortable sending copies of the visa, so thankfully our host booked instead and we paid her in cash. That afternoon, we had a sleep, shower and change of clothes before heading out to get acquainted with our surroundings. If you’re visiting Beijing (and I suspect a lot of China), bring a torch! A lot of areas away from the city are not well lit. We had a really nice meal for €5 including two drinks. We haven’t had it as cheap since mind you but there are bargains out there. We also got some free drama with this meal when a local refused to pay his bill. He shouted at the top of his lungs for a few minutes before eventually throwing his drink on the ground and storming out. Afterwards we took a walk around the shops before heading home for an early night. Beijing is at its best at night time. There are coloured lights dotted throughout most streets offering a Christmas feel. The little side streets and hot food stalls are really enjoyable to walk through.

We spent Thursday morning at the Forbidden City. During the five centuries of its operation, there were 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Ordinary Chinese were forbidden from even approaching the walls of the palace, hence the name. It’s one giant history museum and we really enjoyed the architecture, designs and side rooms filled with ornaments and relics. We only spent just over half a day here, but you could spend a lot more than that exploring the thousands of rooms.

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[Not gonna lie, we stole this cool pose from two Chinese girls]

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On Friday as we ventured out to one of the largest shopping areas in China, just by the Wangfujing station. We’d really recommend it, you’ve got a massive shopping mall with all the designer names including a BMW store (not that we spent a penny in the mall with our budget). The outdoor street section is a little like something you’d see in central London or New York. There is also ‘China Town’ style section filled with traditional cuisines and the previously mentioned insect dishes.

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That afternoon we visited the Summer Palace. It’s a vast public park filled with traditional Chinese garden landscaping in addition to a number of temples.

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Saturday was a 6am start, as we headed off to the Great Wall. There are three main sections you can visit. We avoided the most visited section, known as Badaling (too crowded, too many sales people and most of the wall here has been rebuilt in recent times taking away the authenticity of your visit). Instead we went to Mutianyu, a little further out, but much quieter and with most of its original structure still in tact. We took a cable car ride up (recommended given the steep ascent). With the heat and humidity, it’s challenging to walk even a small segment, but equally rewarding when you’ve climbed a good height. It’s impossible not to admire how spectacular the whole thing is, especially when you consider it was built in the 5th century BC. However it’s worth noting the thousands of poor Chinese people who died during the building process.

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That night we ventured out to celebrate Alberto’s birthday (he turned 33 on Sunday). Our host recommended the Shicha Lake Area (aka Houhai). A wide range of bars and restaurants surround the lake, all lit up by coloured lights at night. There’s plenty of variety in terms of live bands playing e.g. Jazz, Rock, Pop etc. We failed to find a karaoke bar but a nice meal, a few mojitos and dancing with the locals = a great night had by all.

Overall and unsurprisingly, Beijing is a must visit. The pollution is obvious at times, but not enough to put you off. The Great Wall and Forbidden City have to be seen in person as pictures don’t do them justice. Despite the huge population, many locals we encountered were a friendly and welcoming bunch. One lady walked with us for almost ten minutes in order to show us to a book store we were looking for. ‘Welcome to China!’ at the end she told us. Love it. Another walked with us to a range of restaurants when we got stuck one evening. More than a few also know Ireland. It’s the ‘home of Westlife, and Riverdancing’, which is very cute.

There’s always downtime when you travel, and it’s important to relax as well. Alberto downloaded a few TV series and movies before we left. One show we have to recommend is called ‘The Strain’, which just recently launched on Fox TV in America. You can watch the episodes on the official website or download. It’s a cross between the Walking Dead, Salem’s Lot, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the videogame Resident Evil 4. If you like any of them, watch it now. Advertisement over (but do tell me if you watch it and what you think)! Today we decided to take it easy as we fly to Xi’an, our second destination. Originally we had planned to get the train down, but given that the price is roughly the same and you’re saving at least ten hours in transportation time, a flight was a no brainer. We’ll also fly to Shanghai but following that we’ll take a train south to Guilin finishing up in Hong Kong and Macau. So far so good, loving it China!

Lost in Translation:

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Posted by mattld 10:08 Archived in China Comments (3)

Here we go again...

Almost four years ago I set off on my own to travel around the globe. It was one of the best experiences I ever had and I knew it was only a matter of time before I would head off for another backpacking adventure. This time I'm even luckier to be travelling with my partner Alberto and we're spending the next four months in Asia and Central America, before we move to Australia for what we think will be a year or two. Tomorrow morning we fly out to Beijing for our first stop. We spend roughly 3-4 weeks in China, 3 weeks in Thailand (I had to go back) and then we have a month in Indonesia. There's a quick pit stop in Dublin for three days and then it's on to Costa Rica as we make our way north to Guatemala *deep breath*. I know very little about Central America and can't wait to find out more. We spend two weeks at home for Christmas (that's Ireland for me and Spain for Alberto). And then we're off to Sydney. A new job is waiting for me on January 5th, but I won't think too much about that right now. The last three days have been exhausting. The photograph below doesn't do it justice, but you get the idea...

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Packing up a house is not easy. It's made all the more difficult when followed by three nights of parties (thanks to great friends who have sent us off in style). Right now I have no home, no car (sold to my brother) and no job. I must say it's very liberating. I'm sitting in my mum's sitting room at the minute to upload the first blog entry. I'm looking forward to some sleep and then it's an early start, up at 6.30am for our 9.20am flight. It seems Facebook is banned in China so we'll be using the blog to keep our friends and family up to date on our travel. Hopefully it might serve some purpose to you, whether you're interested in the places we're visiting or just want to have a laugh at our expense at the culture shock we're allegedly about to receive.

If you're following let us know and comment (or throw questions our way). You can sign up for notifications as well. I'm sure we'll be back at the end of the week with a few interesting stories :)

Posted by mattld 14:29 Archived in Ireland Comments (4)

Last Stop - Los Angeles

sunny 31 °C

I had written most of this entry in LA but unfortunately I ran out of time due to my flight. I’ve been back home now a few days and it’s just been mental catching up with everyone so I’m only getting around to posting this now:

Well, it's the final day of my trip. In some ways it only seems like a few weeks ago that I was leaving for Singapore (which was seven months ago). Right now I'm just killing time before my flight in a few hours so at this stage I'm looking forward to getting home and seeing everyone. Anyway, here's what I've been up to on my final few days.

The train ride from San Diego to LA was smooth and fast. The three hours flew by. This time I managed to stay awake and actually enjoy some of the scenery. When I arrived into Union Station I took a bus outside to Santa Monica Boulevard, the place where I would be staying for the next few nights. I thought I had come across enough insane people in San Diego. Unfortunately there would be one more. On my bus this older man ended up getting on halfway through and decided to talk the face off me for the rest of the journey. There was no escaping. He spoke in a very high pitched wheezy voice so it was hard to decipher a lot of what he was saying. There was plenty of smiling and nodding on my behalf. On the plus side, I was offered a job sealing envelopes for 40 hours a week so if I don't get a job when I'm home I have a back-up option!

I met up with my good friend Troy a little later. He flew down from Vancouver to hang out which has been great as LA is not a place you want to be on your own - it just wouldn't be any fun at all. He booked us into the Ramada which was really reasonable price wise and perfect in terms of location. It's without a doubt the gayest hotel I've ever stayed in - over 90% of guests are! I wasn't complaining. Speaking of gay, the whole city is gay ville. You actually have to look around to spot the straights and the whole commercial market is targeted towards the pink pound. Gyms with the gay flag in the window and men posing in minimum underwear in clothes shop feature, along a frozen yoghurt outlet called Yoghurt Stop which actually has disco balls in it! Hilarious. Thankfully there weren’t too many screaming camp queens roaming the streets.

We didn't have much time to sit around and relax on the first day as Troy had gotten us free tickets to a live screening of the Jay Leno show. We headed out to NBC studios and queued for a while before finally being letting in. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take any photographs past the point of entry so the picture below is the closest one I could get. The show generally has some really good celebrities on it but we were in a bit unlucky on this one. We got stuck with Kendra Wilkinson and Tyler Perry. I had never heard of either. Kendra apparently spent time living in the Playboy mansion before moving on to the current series of Dancing with the Stars. Tyler is an actor/comedian who is starring in Madea's Family Reunion, a film that looks funny but is a complete rip-off of Big Momma's House. To be fair the guests did entertain as Tyler was quite funny and Kendra ended up coming across as the complete stereotypical air head many people would presume her to be. I must add poor Jay isn't looking too well these days. I think botox is taking its toll. He comes across well on-screen but off-screen there are few facial movements going on and he's starting to look quite plastic. He was a bit more nervous than I expected considering his experience but after the first ten or fifteen minutes he got into his stride. It was cool to be able to see a show like this. It's just a pity Jerry Springer wasn't on at the same time I would have loved to be in the audience for that (Jerry, Jerry!).

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That evening we took it easy as we were up the next morning for Six Flags theme park. I had been here before a few years ago when I took a day trip visit to LA from Las Vegas in order to go. It’s without a doubt one of the best rollercoaster theme parks in the world. My only complaint about visiting is price. The park entrance itself is just 35 dollars, but when you add in 55 dollars for a return shuttle bus and another 100 dollars for the best fast pass (which is necessary to be honest) it makes for a very expensive day out. However, how many times do you get to this? And I’m a big theme park fan. It was like a military operation getting around the place as it’s huge. We just about got it all covered by the time it was closing. The best rollercoaster I’ve ever been on is in this park - X2. It’s just awesome. That night we headed out clubbing and got to see Kelly Rowland perform live. We didn’t know about it until the evening. She came on and sang her three songs. I was loving it.

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We didn’t stay out too late though as the next morning was another early start, this time for Universal Studios. This is the third Universal Studios I have visited, the other two being Orlando and Singapore (at the very start of my trip). I wasn’t sure about whether to go or not but Troy really wanted to as he hadn’t been before. It was cheaper to do than Six Flags when you take in all the costs and a lot closer by. Many of the attractions are similar to the other geographical locations but there are a few unique rides. The best one was the Hollywood Studios tour where you get to drive past the studios where most American shows are filmed. They bring you through outdoor film sets and then into this cave for a 360 degree Imax experience of King Kong, whilst on a shuttle bus. It was pretty impressive. That night we headed out again and this time it was a late one. I think I ended up getting to bed by 6am. There’s lots of choice club wise in LA and it’s a pretty fun scene to go out on, if a little OTT.

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On Sunday we had a sleep in and headed down to the main Hollywood strip where the Walk of Fame is - it’s funny seeing all the celebrity stars as you walk up and down the street. There is some serious names there too, as you’d expect. One highlight on the way to the strip was our taxi - we were picked up in a Hummer jeep! The comfort and style inside was unbelievable. Only in LA would you have a taxi man pick you up in a Hummer. That afternoon we paid a visit to Madame Tussauds and then saw the film Insidious in the infamous Asian themed Grauman Theatre. That film is possibly the scariest movie I’ve ever watched and I’m a big horror film fan. Make sure you see it! That night we ended up seeing a second film in the Grove Shopping centre near our hotel as we weren’t going out. Scream 4 - load of rubbish!

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The next day we booked the Hollywood celebrity homes tour. It’s a couple of hours long. They first bring you out to see the famous Hollywood sign. Unfortunately though the weather was very cloudy that day so it was hard to get a decent shot on the camera. After that we drove through Beverly Hills where our driver pointed out all the stars’ homes. Below you can see Britney Spears' and Simon Cowell's homes. Before we returned back to the hotel he drove us down the well known shopping district Rodeo Drive where scenes in Pretty Woman were filmed.

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Troy’s flight was shortly after the tour so we said our goodbyes and he headed back on a flight to Vancouver. I moved from a hotel to a hostel in order to save some cash and went to see Rio that night in the Grove Shopping Centre to pass some time. Great film. By this stage the trip was pretty move over so time went by a lot slower as I was eager to get home to Dublin. My flight to London was with British Airways. It was comfortable and I slept for a few hours but it’s not as good as Qantas. I guess I’ve been a bit spoiled by them over the past few months. I had another few hours then to kill in London airport before my flight to Dublin. My mum, sister and niece picked me up and we headed for lunch before I finally got home. It was really strange! And I couldn’t believe the good weather - sun in Ireland and no rain! I was dying to see my house again and finally have some space. The last few days have been spent catching up with friends and I’m now on the job hunt with a few interviews lined up for this week.

I really enjoyed my time in LA and I think it gets a lot of unfair criticism. It’s not somewhere I’d live by any means but for a 4-5 day trip it’s a lot of fun. Just make sure you’re with at least one friend and have plenty of cash because you can burn through money far too quickly here. I’d definitely go back again to visit but not for a long time.

It’s hard to believe the entire seven months is now over. At the beginning it felt like I would never be at this point. I’m going to write one final entry this weekend on some of the highlights from the past seven months. It has been such a fantastic experience. It hasn’t really hit me yet that it’s all over but I know it will once I start working. Until then I’m going to enjoy the last couple of weeks off before it’s back to reality.

Posted by mattld 15:13 Archived in USA Comments (2)

San Diego & Tijuana

sunny 17 °C

I’m sitting here in an internet café a few minutes down the road from my hostel. A large middle-aged man has fallen asleep on his keyboard and is currently snoring the house down. I’ve tried informing the woman working here (like as if she hasn’t heard) in the hope that they would wake him up. She just went ‘yeah he is’. So I’ll just try and ignore him as I type this.

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Sunday was indeed the longest day I’ve ever had – 41 hours! It was all nicely straight forward though I must admit. The flight was just under ten hours. I managed to get the aisle seat I was hoping for, watched a film (Hereafter with Matt Damon, bit rubbish) and then drifted off to sleep, all without the aid of my precious sleeping tablets. I must have been more tired than I thought. When I woke up, it was time for breakfast and I was almost there. I just love it when that happens. When I arrived into LAX airport the security was a pain in the arse. It took me well over an hour to clear not one but two customs desks that did the same thing. And an additional baggage scan. There must be a lack of trust going on with the Americans and their security guards. I thought showing the passport, having my photograph taken, giving them my fingerprints and answering a long line of questioning would be enough to satisfy them. Obviously not! Still, better safe than sorry I guess.

Once I finally cleared customs I took a shuttle bus to the train station and from there a three hour train to San Diego. The scenery on this drive is meant to be great but unfortunately I fell asleep for most of it and missed it! I’ll have to try and keep myself awake on the return journey for a bit of it. After checking into my hostel, I went out for dinner and had a general look around. Apart from the much cooler temperature in comparison to Fiji, the first thing that really sticks out at you are the homeless people. There are a lot of them in San Diego. In fact I found out today there are 10,000 homeless living here, out of a population of just over one million. Scary… In addition on my second day I came across seven different people who were definitely insane – they were just randomly on the street when I was walking around. Most of them are talking to themselves out loud (they weren’t on their mobile or ‘cell phone’). Others just stand there looking spaced out in an almost zombie style fashion. It’s weird, you go to countries such as Laos and Cambodia and you don’t see any of this. But in the USA you can’t escape it. The other stereotype of morbidly obese Americans is also rearing its ugly head (the ones in scooters wearing flowery moo moos) and I haven’t even visited a theme park yet.

Anyway, the homeless, insane and morbidly obese aside, I’ve enjoyed the last few days here in San Diego. It’s a little bit overhyped if you ask me but it definitely is a city worth visiting. On my first day I took a bus to Balboa Park which offers a vast array of attractions including a handful of museums and a massive zoo. I decided to visit the Air & Space Museum. I mainly went for the space section, which of course you had to pay extra to get into. You can view space shuttles, take part in interactive educational games, touch a piece of rock from the moon and view videos on space travel. One good feature there is the infrared camera. You can see a picture of me below – the red parts are the hottest sections.

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After that I stopped by the Science Museum which was free in. They had an IMAX there too so naturally I had to go. You can’t beat those documentaries on those huge screens! I saw Galapagos, a nice little feature film on some of the rare and endangered wildlife on the famous island which is just west of Ecuador.

The next day I took the ‘hop on, hop off’ bus around San Diego city. I got off at two of the stops – one was at the Old Town which is heavily commercialized into a ‘Wild West’ style town. Another stop was at the Marine harbor where you can visit three large ships and two submarines. One of the old fashioned pirate style ships is being used for the upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean film. That evening I headed out for drinks with another guy Dominic who I met here and found a nice little bar featuring ‘buy one, get one free’. A very drunken but cheap night was surprisingly had.

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Today I woke up with a banging headache but had no choice but to get up. I booked myself onto a tour of Tijuana, the Mexican border town. It’s only 45 minutes away and I’ve always wanted to visit Mexico. Naturally I’ll go back another time and visit it properly. I had heard a few dodgy reports prior to the USA about going to Tijuana. Stories about police robbing you, holding you hostage etc. had been told to me by more than one person. I was assured by the tour company that if it wasn’t 100% safe they wouldn’t be running it. I met another girl in the hostel who wanted to do it too so we took the gamble. Obviously as I’m writing this, I’m still alive and not locked up in some Mexican prison cell! I wouldn't have been impressed.

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It was a great trip. We only had a few hours to spend in Tijuana. I’m a huge fan of Mexican food so first on the list was getting some nice authentic Fajitas for lunch. A Vietnamese tourist from the bus joined us. It's not often you see tourists from South East Asia as given their salaries most of them unfortunately cannot afford to travel far. However this guy is working as a senior brand manager for a drinks company which explained it. It was cool having a chat about Vietnam with him, discussing the cities I had visited and having a go at some phrases I had learnt along the way. He made a comment that he didn't like the pushy style of the Mexicans. Before I could say 'pot kettle black?' he admitted that the Vietnamese are just as bad. I didn't argue. Anyway, the waiter in our restaurant made our salsa in front of us which I thought was a nice touch. The food itself looked great. I’ll be honest in saying it wasn’t the nicest Fajitas I’ve ever had (there were bones in the chicken pieces) but it was still tasty and nice to finally try Mexican food in Mexico. After that I went searching for a small souvenir and managed to get myself something for three dollars (bargained down from 14). The Mexican people are incredibly pushy. They are essentially all over you like a rash clambering for your dollars. My experience in South East Asia has gotten me used to this type of thing so it didn’t bother me too much. Just smile, say no thanks and quickly walk on. And keep repeating it!

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The final part of the trip involved getting some photographs and an obligatory cheese-fest photograph which you can see below. Even I'm a bit embarrassed by the level of commercialised mozzarella cheese in this one but I paid a dollar so it’s being featured either way. I felt sorry for the donkey (painted as a zebra) so I bought some food for him after.

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On the way back to the border we could see the two large walls separating the two countries. You can see a photograph below. The crosses on the walls signify the death of each Mexican who was killed trying to cross the border illegally. This was quite sad to see…

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When entering Mexico, you’re not required to show your passport (bizarre). On the way back to the USA, it’s like getting into Fort Knox. The queues are incredibly slow and in similar fashion to the airport you’re given a long line of questions to answer. The officer I had couldn’t find my American Visa stamp on my passport – I frantically had to search through the pages for it and for a few seconds I had that awful feeling of ‘what if they didn’t stamp me in LAX?’. Thankfully, they did and I got through – but not before they could ask me ‘why have you been to so many communist countries?’. He was referring to my stamps for Laos, Cambodia and possibly even the Russian Visa I have. Even though they’re no longer a communist country he did scrutinise it quite closely. I kind of froze up and stupidly replied ‘I’m not a communist. I was just visiting as a tourist’. He looked at me straight in the eye for a few seconds with the standard serious face before finally telling me to go through. Phew!

Tonight I’m getting to bed at a decent time as I’m up early for my train back to Los Angeles. I’m meeting up with my Canadian buddy Troy and we have a nice little itinerary planned for the next few days. This time next week it’ll be back to reality at home again in Ireland so I better make the most of it…

Posted by mattld 20:11 Archived in USA Comments (2)

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