World in Pictures: Halong Bay, Vietnam

The other day I stayed in a hotel that was plastered in photographs of Halong Bay. This was not particularly unusual in itself. The hotel was in Halong Bay after all. But the thing that confused me, and stopped me in my tracks, was the fact that every single photo was in black and white.

“But, what…?” I sort of spluttered to myself (this is what happens now I’m travelling solo – I have simply replaced my audience of Matty and The Mongoose with… myself).

“How can they turn these beautiful photos into black and white images, stripped of their colours,” I continued ranting to myself.

For the water in Halong Blay is not blue, or turquoise or any other standard water-colour. Oh no. It is green, emerald green. The water is coloured by the huge limestone karsts that tower out of it, which are also decorated in greenery as luscious shrubbery and trees sprout from the rock face.

It is a green beauty. And surely green beauties cannot be stripped of their colour I argued (to myself).

But then I couldn’t stop staring at the photos, each one captured another side of the bay – its alluring and mysterious side, the side that only looks more dramatic and impressive in thunder storms and fierce rain, and the side that intimidates me with its sheer size.

And suddenly it seemed so right that, that side of Halong Bay was being depicted that I walked straight back into my room and stripped all the colours from my pictures too.

“Why didn’t I think of this before,” I muttered to myself.

Halong Bay Vietnam

Halong Bay Vietnam


Halong Bay Vietnam

Treasure Junk in Halong Bay Vietnam




Halong Bay Vietnam



Floating village in Halong Bay Vietnam

Woman on bamboo boat in Halong Bay Vietnam


If you’re not convinced and are feeling a little colour-robbed then check out the originals on my Flickr stream here.

Paradise Peak: Luxury Cruise in Halong Bay, Vietnam

There comes a time in every man’s life when he must be showered with rose petals. For Matty, it was not when he was crammed into a shared taxi in Uzbekistan, nor when traversing across the great deserts of Central Asia. No, no; his time arrived when we boarded our luxury cruise along Halong Bay in northeast Vietnam.

Being Vietnam’s premier tourist attraction, I’m sure many of you will have heard of Halong Bay, or perhaps even visited yourself. For those that haven’t – imagine a huge bay, stretching as far as the eye can see, pierced with incredible rocky islets covered in lush green shrubbery that jut out of the clear, calm waters. I don’t think there is anywhere else like it in the world.

sun deck paradise peak luxury cruise vietnam

Despite the throngs of tourists that visit, it has maintained something of a ‘forgotten land’ feeling and once let loose to explore for yourself on a kayak you can’t help but indulge in leisurely Christopher-Columbus-inspired-daydreams.

Halong Bay vietnam

I first visited Halong Bay seven years ago with my dear friend Carly (aka Waddles for reasons best not divulged here). We were backpacking and boarded a humble little boat for an awe-inspiring couple of days. I can’t remember much about the vessel but I knew I’d never forget the beauty of the bay – specifically kayaking to a desolate beach where Carly encountered a rather painful experience with a jellyfish that left 20 backpackers debating who should urinate on her leg. There were no rose petals.

But this time it was different. This time I was returning to review different boats to decide which ones to offer for the tailor-made holidays I will soon be creating in this corner of the world.

And that was exactly why we were walking onto a boat called Paradise Peak and why we were being showered with rose petals. Stepping onto the red-carpeted gangway, the petals were scattered from a balcony above us as we were handed our tropical welcome drinks.

Grinning a bit too widely as my name was called, I was introduced to my ‘personal butler’ who showed us to our cabin and, as it transpired, would be waiting on us for the next 22 hours. She was lovely and took my enthusiastic grinning in her stride.

‘Cabin’ really does not really do it any justice. A more appropriate word might be apartment. Or home.

Paradise Peak Superior Suite, Halong Bay Vietnam

We were staying in a superior suite cabin (there are only suites on this boat I hasten to add, daaaahling), and ours consisted of a large bedroom of dark teak wood and the comfiest bed of our trip to date (complete with goose down pillows and duvet), a small dining area that opened out to a private balcony with sun loungers, and finally, a bathroom that felt just as big again. Equipped with a huge rain shower and a large bath tub it was easy to forget you were still on a boat – until you looked out of the floor-to-ceiling windows and saw the dramatic landscape of Halong Bay slowly pass you by.

Paradise Peak bathroom

Paradise Peak Halong Bay luxury cruise Vietnam

Paradise peak luxury cruise halong bay vietnam



But it wasn’t just our extremely luxurious cabin on the boat that turned this short trip at sea into the journey of the lifetime. Nor was it the exquisite lunch I was served an hour later, featuring the biggest and juiciest oysters of my young (ahem) life to date. Although I must add that I will struggle again to enjoy oysters without the delicious ‘Vietnamese salt’ dish that came with them.

Seafood lunch paradise peak halong bay

No, it was not any of that, as incredibly special as they all were. It was the staff and attention to detail that made it stand out – something no picture could capture.

As our seafood platter was placed down we were immediately offered help with our crab from our smiling waitress who instantly relieved my fears of causing a scene with the huge crab laid in front of me. A few minutes later, it was back on our table, beautifully prepared and ready to eat.


And then there was the beautifully prepared breakfast that was brought to the comforts of our cabin the next morning after an early kayak around the towering mountains of the bay.

breakfast paradise peak halong bay



The rose petals, somebody spraying our feet with water and handing us a cool, wet flannel and a glass of iced tea as we returned to the boat after every excursion, the fact the staff knew our names, the rain macs they carried on our excursions in case of a down pour. All of those little touches turned it from a beautiful floating hotel into something very special, incredibly personal and made me feel like the luckiest girl in the world.


But if there’s one thing even more beautiful than all of that, it’s Halong Bay itself. And swimming in the water and watching the rain drops bounce off the surface and fall down again.

halong bay

But it’s pretty cool to know you can go and step into your huge rain shower afterwards and tuck into a five-course asian fusion dinner. Yes, that is very cool indeed.

Travel Tips

Paradise Peak offers one and two night cruises along Halong Bay. We took the one night cruise and the itinerary included an option to see into a cave or float into a lagoon on the first day as well as 30 minutes kayaking – and a chance to try your hand at squid fishing after dinner. The next morning we were offered tai chi on the sun deck before breakfast, followed by a trip to an Oyster Farm and another 30 minutes of kayaking or swimming.

If you are interested in organising a trip through Vietnam or Cambodia, with a stay on Paradise Peak included, feel free to contact me at Fleewinter, a UK-based independent tailor made holiday company –

Disclaimer: As a travel consultant, I receive special rates for going on trips like this. My views remain my own – and this blog remains my personal account of my travels – but every now and then I will tell you about some of my the very special places that I visit as part of my work.

The Old Quarter in Hanoi, Vietnam

If there’s one thing that budget travelling teaches you about it’s sharing. Not that I’ve never had to share before, I grew up with my brother and while I was not that fussed about playing with many of his toys, everything else was shared. Our parents’ attention, the one family television, even our bedroom was shared for a little while.

But then you get a bit older, have your own place and get used to things just being yours. Until you go travelling at the ripe old age of 29 that is and suddenly you find yourself queuing for the bathroom again, having quick showers so the queue doesn’t build up too much, sharing your bedroom with 12 other people – and even sharing your train seat (that cost good money) with a couple of others that would otherwise be standing. And you just sort of learn how to share all over again.

And I thought I was doing pretty well. Until I got to Hanoi, Vietnam that is.

Welcome to the world where entire families share a motorbike and will squeeze all five of them onto the back of it. I kid you not. In fact yesterday, I saw a guy riding a bike with his dog sitting quite happily on the seat behind him (I mean, seriously which British dog would do that and not try to jump off on some sort of terrified suicide mission?) He stopped, two others got on and the dog just sort of shuffled up between them. Even the dogs know how to share here.

But the really remarkable thing is how people live. The Old Quarter in Hanoi is the beating heart of the city. Consisting of hundreds of buildings crammed in next to each other, it is an intoxicating blend of architecture, with French influences, Vietnamese influences and just plain desperation all piled on top of each other.

Hanoi Old Quarter

With height restrictions in place by the Government, Hanoians have taken to throwing tin extensions onto the front of their homes that jut out in the air in a precarious manner, while also lowering ceilings to create more levels inside the buildings.

“It is a mixed mess,” our tour guide An told us smiling. “Not a miss-match, a mixed mess.”

And she’s not wrong. Dozens of huge thick black wires hangs haphazardly across the streets, entwined.

Electricity wires Hanoi

“They tried to put all the wires underground a couple of years ago,” she explained. “They did two streets and then gave up. It’s just too big a job.”

“Sometimes if your lights go out, they are fixed but then your internet goes out,” said An, looking up to huge mass of black wires above us.

Electricity wires in Hanoi

But somehow the higgledy-piggledy mess of wiring and housing is sort of what gives the Old Quarter its heart beat. And it is a city that beats loudly. The noise in Hanoi is overwhelming.

The first noise is the motorbike. With a population of more than six million, it is said there are about four million motorbikes in the city. And it is overwhelming. The revving of the engines and the honking of the horns feels like an angry orchestra that is playing its crescendo over and over again. Crossing roads is not for the faint-hearted.

Motorbikes in hanoi

But underneath that noise, if you can find it, there is so much else. There is a lot of singing. If you listen carefully you will hear the women who carry fruits and sugary snacks in the baskets they carry over their shoulders on long poles, softly singing about their goods.

Hanoi woman

Hanoi basket woman

Hanoi woman carrying baskets

But listen even more carefully and you will hear the sound of dozens of birds singing. Hanoians love their birds and almost every stall has a handful of budgerigars in cages around them, chirping and twittering their way through the day.

Budgerigars in Hanoi

Budgies in Hanoi

Hanoi budgies

And then there are the sounds of the tradesmen as they go about their work on the pavements – the banging of tin and copper, the sanding and chopping bamboo or the sound of children running aroud with their new “clackers” on toy street.

Because the streets in Hanoi don’t sell everything. No, no, the Old Quarter is just like a massive market and while one street will be “shoe street”, another is for underwear, toys, copper or decorations – there is even one for cellotape where shop after shop has hundreds of rolls stacked up on top of each other.

The pavements are not for walking. They are for working. Hundreds of women will be selling their wares, sitting on tiny plastic stools for hours upon hours outside alleyways. But it’s what’s behind those alleyways that explains the real secret of Hanoi.

Hanoi grocers fruit seller

For each alleyway is the gateway to one of the towering buildings that make up the Old Quarter. Each alleyway leads to a house that may hold on average seven or eight families. Each family has a room of their own where they will sleep in a fittingly higgledy-piggledy manner, but they will share everything else. The kitchen, the bathroom (yes that’s right, one bathroom for seven families), the washing area, everything is shared.

The communal kitchen in one of Hanoi's Old Quarter homes

Often it is the ground floor of this building, that will be open-air to allow natural light into it, that will hold the communal facilities with doors and stairs leading into the homes of the families.

I looked at the communal sink of the house that An had led us down and saw about 20 tooth brushes lined up next to it. And suddenly I realised I’ve never really had to share anything.

As we walked out of the alleyway we glanced at the lady selling deep fried tofu and rice noodles.

“If you come back at lunch-time you will find a different woman selling pho, or at dinner-time you will find another woman selling seafood,” An explained.

“That’s the prime business spot for the families of this house so they have to share it,” she added.

Of course they do. Because really, there is nothing that is not shared here. And as I watched the vendor chat to everybody around her and calling out at children that ran in and out of the alleyway I was reminded by just how much more you get when you share with others. And I vowed to get a little bit better at it.

Travel Tips

I got under the skin of the Old Quarter by taking a walking tour with a company called Hidden Hanoi. Lasting about two hours and costing $25, it was worth every penny. We explored alleyways that I would never have dared explore alone, tasted delicious coffee in hidden coffee shops and were taken into people’s homes in the Old Quarter. It finished with a 20 minute cyclo tour of the city – the perfect way to see it all without being distracted by whizzing motorbikes!

Led by the wonderful An (pictured below), I can’t recommend it enough. Their email address is:

Our tour guide Anh

World in Pictures: Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces, China

I love green. I decided green was my favourite colour a few years ago and am now the proud owner of a number of green t-shirts, dresses and jumpers. I don’t have any green trousers yet, that’s on my ‘to do’ list.

I love the dark green glass of wine bottles, I adore the sight of olives – whether eating them or painting my walls in their very same shade, and I cherish the bright little slices of lime and cucumber that decorate my gin on sunny afternoons.

Green is an amazing colour and I love almost every shade it comes in. So imagine my delight when arriving to a huge area of rice paddies in China to discover lush greenness as far as the eye could see.

China is surprisingly rainy at the moment. I say surprising because I never checked what the weather was supposed to be like in September but naively expected sun, which has been the staple of our trip so far. Instead, China’s been the victim of huge downpours and floods that have left many homeless and others worse still.

But for the rice paddies of northern Guangxi, near Guilin in South China, the results of the rain are remarkable.

Rising up over 1,000 metres, the terraces of rice paddies are broken only by small villages of wooden buildings that blend beautifully with their surroundings. The tribal women that live in the villages have shiny long black hair that has never been cut and is piled up on their head like a glistening black hat. It is a sight to behold.

There is only one thing to do here: slowly meander up the terraces, observe the local village life and take in the astonishing panoramic sights around you that seem to get better with every step. The misty fog that engulfed us during our stay only served to make it all a little more magical and the greenery prettier still.

Here’s a few of our favourite pictures:








Travel Tips
We stayed in the village of Darzhai during our stay at the Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces. It is easy to catch a bus from Guilin (outside the train station) and it takes about three hours. When you are dropped off, it is a 45 minute climb through the terraces up to the village – a beautiful walk in itself.

We stayed at the Dragon’s Den Hostel, which had a fabulous communal space downstairs although as it is completely made from wood there is nothing in the way of sound proofing! Their website is

Eating Dog in China

Dog. Now there’s a word that should never appear in the food section of any travel blog. Ever. It should also never be put next to words like casserole or soup. But unfortunately China breaks all the rules – and so, so will I.

Here’s the thing – I love dogs. We got our first dog when I was 10 and he looked like something out of an Andrex advert; tiny, golden and a right little scamp. He came from a little house in the country where a beautiful Golden Retriever had given birth to a litter of honey-coloured pups with oversized paws. He bounded playfully over to my brother and I, licking our hands. We didn’t choose him as such, he selected us.

We called him Hobbes. He slobbered a lot, which secretly distressed some of my friends in our teenage years when he decorated their favourite glittery jeans in his gloopy, white saliva and laddered their tights in one enthusiastic bounce. But they loved him really.

He was part of the family. He would sit by me when I was sick off school, he’d wait by the front door for my mum to come home from work every day and he’d play football/puncture footballs with my brother in the garden. He even brought home a pair of trainers in my dad’s shoe size from the woods one day. Nobody asked any questions, dad just wore them for the next two years.

It still makes me wince when I think of how he just fell to the floor one day after having an operation to remove a tumour. I walked into the house to find my parents wrapping him in a blanket, stroking his head, hours after he had stopped breathing. We mourned him for weeks. And today we still talk fondly of him, laughing at his silly old ways.

So when I got to China I was apprehensive about the dog meat situation. As a meat eater I questioned whether it was right to pick and choose between which animals you consume. Should one life be more precious than another, I asked myself.

But then I imagined eating dog and immediately felt guilty of cannibalism. Dogs are pets, one of the family. I could never eat one I concluded.

We occasionally saw it on the menu and I would shudder.


I reminded myself that my condemnation was a cultural one and tried to challenge it. After all, dog eating in China stems back to the years of the Cultural Revolution where people were starving to death during freezing winters and huge famines.

But now food is in abundance. And plenty of Chinese people have pet dogs.

I found myself desperate to understand the tradition and not judge, while at the same time wanting to scream at waiters: “How can you put this on the menu?” And make large (for a backpacker anyway) donations to dog protection charities in the country.

These thoughts circulated in my mind as I toured the country, while tasting and relishing almost every other dish on the menu. But then we did a cookery course.

It started off innocently enough. A trip to the market to buy all our ingredients… We smelt the herbs, squealed at tubs of eels and snails that had been freshly plucked from their shells in front of us and asked all sorts of questions.

“What’s that numbing spice that is in almost everything and completely anaesthetises your mouth?” Colourful pepper, we were told.

“Ooh – and those amazing thin, black mushrooms that are in almost every stir-fry,” we asked. Black ear, we were told. It’s a tree fungus don’t you know.


It was all going very well when suddenly we turned a corner and found ourselves in the meat section. Or live animal section, I should say.

Our guide-cum-food-teacher promptly left us to do “some shopping” after warning us that many people found this part of the market hard to deal with and was not for the faint hearted. There were chickens in cages and big fluffy rabbits behind bars, alongside ducks, geese and other clucking, squeaking creatures that would soon meet their end.


I was not particularly phased by that. I believe if you are a meat eater you should face up to the reality of what that means. So I kept walking. And then the live animal section became the abattoir and I had to remind myself to make peace with the choice I had made.

But then I saw the dogs. It all seemed to happen in slow motion in my mind – but in reality I think it was a less than a second.

First I saw the live dogs in cages behind the butcher and, I kid you not, for a split second I thought: “Ahh, she has her dog with her.” But before that sentence could finish in my mind, it was replaced by another – that this was no pet.

Then I saw what was hanging, gutted in front of me – undeniably the carcass of a dog. And then my eyes fell to her hands, which were viciously slamming a huge meat cleaver into the flesh on a table in front of her. A dog, I concluded.

And then my eyes fell to the ground, because I couldn’t look ahead anymore. And there, by her ankles, was a cage of cats. This time my first thought was no longer of pets.

I took a photo because I couldn’t not take one. I’m sure many of you will think that is strange, and I’m sure many of you may think that photo should certainly not be posted her here. And I did not want to upset or offend anyone so I have not copied it below, instead if you want to view my images, click here.

Why do I take any pictures when travelling? To record what I see, places I’ve been and capture a life and world that is alien to me.

And why do I keep this blog? For exactly the same reasons.

This was no different. In fact, I like to think that one day, when dog is off the menu forever, these photos will become nothing more than a little piece of historical evidence. An image of times gone by. And there is a growing movement to end dog eating in China so I like to think that hope is somewhat founded.

My first rule in travelling is to accept others’ cultures. Things are not wrong just because they may not seem right to you – and it is only when you accept these alien ways of life (even if you don’t agree with them) that you have any real hope of gaining an insight into other cultures.

But sometimes you just can’t accept them. The poverty in India, the lack of women’s rights in Afghanistan, dog eating in China. I can’t accept any of them and so I suppose I have broken my first rule.

But perhaps the second rule of travelling is to listen to your own beliefs and morals and challenge them to truly understand them. And then, if you still carry them in your heart, don’t ignore them.

So I’ve broken one rule and lived by another. Dog is off the menu for me. What do you think?

Food on Chinese Trains

Chugga-chugga-chugga-slosh-slurp-slosh-choo-choo is the noise a Chinese train makes as it hurtles across the tracks carrying hundreds of people eating pot noodles.

The Chinese like their food. In fact, when travelling in “cattle class” as we now affectionately call the hard seat tickets, it feels like the Chinese do little other than eat. And that suits me just fine.

So on our recent 29 hour journey from Xi’an to Guilin I decided to live like a local and spent an evening, a night, a morning, and afternoon and another evening doing little but eating.

The best thing about Chinese trains is that you can get on with no food and still eat your way across the country. And, in stark contrast to aeroplane food, the grub that is served up on Chinese trains is brilliant. So great in fact that I thought I should tell you all about it.

First up was dinner. Dinner was especially important because we were sulking a bit at this point. We had 29 hours ahead of us in the same seats and to make matters worse The Mongoose and The Yank (Karen, the Mongoose’s better half) had splashed out on a soft sleeper. They had a soft, comfy bunk in a private 4-bed cabin, we were sharing our carriage with about 100 others – many of whom did not even have seats so were squashed onto the end of ours. We were bitter.

But then a smiling man paraded down the carriage bearing a food laden trolley and this was served (at the bargainous price of 20 Yuan – £2).


Feast your eyes upon this ladies and gents. At the back a giant portion of steamed rice was served with a fried egg on top so you could even make your own egg fried rice in the pot if you so desired. It was accompanied by three delicious dishes – a black bean pork number, a rich soy sauce based beef dish and chilli tofu.

It was delicious, filling and made my chopsticks work at an alarming pace. I have no idea how this creation is whipped up on the train – is there a mini kitchen somewhere with a little Chinese lady in it who has three huge woks and a large pan on the go? I wanted to go and find her and shake her hand.

After dinner we decided to grace The Mongoose and The Yank with our company and arranged to meet on neutral ground – the Buffet Car. Oh, the Buffet Car – a delicious way to get out of cattle class for a few precious hours and eat something else.

It was an odd set up I won’t lie. We were charged 30 Yuan (about £3) for the privilege of sitting there and were told we could stay for nine hours until 6am. We were told some food would be on its way. We guzzled some Chinese wine (more on that another time) and waited patiently.

Soon a man appeared with a huge box of goodies and dished out an array of treats for us.


Buttery biscuits, tea, coffee and best of all a huge packet of semi-popped corn, that tasted like dried Sugar Puffs. A fine treat indeed.

Matty and I made the most of our Yuan by crashing out in the buffet car until 6am after the other two went back to their palace. Once rudely awoken we trudged back to our seats and grabbed some breakfast from the trolley.

Ding, ding. Welcome to the Chinese breakfast. Yummy, soft dough balls and a spicy cabbage and bean stir-fry. Delicious. Only let down by a strange bowl of glutinous rice slop that they insist on serving at every breakfast.


This part of the meal went straight down the loo.


A nap later and we were ready for our mid-morning snack. The Pot Noodle. The essential travel partner in China. Dozens of people up and down carriages across the country can be found slurping on these noodles at any one time.

The trolley man boasts three shelves of multi-coloured pots for the picking and at either end of the carriage you will find huge tanks of boiling water. When word gets out they have been re-filled you must not be elbow-shy as dozens rush forward clutching their cardboard pots with a ferocity that is somewhat disarming.


A far cry from the pot noodles at home, these are spicy, flavoursome and wholesome. Ok, the last bit was a lie. These things can’t be good for you.

In between the meals there are plenty of snacks on offer. Including packets of chilli tofu, which once opened must be sucked out of the packet with your mouth, chilli nuts, sweet nuts, seeds of all shapes and sizes and crisps which I can only describe as ‘Chinese flavoured’.

And so it was that 29 hours later we waddled off the train as it sloshed and slurped to a hault in Guilin. And I was ready to get off that train. Really ready. I just couldn’t eat anything else.

The Tale of Three Silk Traders and an Onyx Egg

So here’s the slightly embarrassing thing about our recent jaunt across the Silk Road from Turkey to China: We made for terrible traders.

Following the ancient trade route from the west to the Far East, we felt obliged to get involved with a little trading of our own.

So when we were in Turkey, the first post of the Silk Road on the west, we thought long and hard about what we could trade for some silk in the Far East.

What had traders never before carried across 7,000 miles of treacherous desert, remote mountain ranges and right across the Caspian Sea? What would be gazed at in awe as soon as we reached China and have our fellow merchants fawning over us to give their finest silk in exchange?

And then suddenly we saw it. The shiny, almost marble like onyx egg.

We were in Cappadocia at the time, admiring fairy chimneys and what-not, when we spied a man spinning onyx stone into egg shapes.

Yes, we thought, that will secure our fortune and reputation as great traders. So we purchased one at the bargain price of £5.

We lovingly wrapped it in the plastic bag that it came in and tucked it safely away in a corner of Matty’s day bag. The egg would make us rich, we vowed.

We carried it through Turkey and pulled funny faces with it.

In Georgia we took it all the way to the Gergeti Glacier.


In Amenia we showed it a large lake by a beautiful church.

In Azerbaijan Matty got a bit inappropriate with it.


In Turkmenistan we took it to the ancient ruins of Merv.


In Uzbekistan the egg saw the beautiful blue tiled mosques of Samarkand.


In Tajikistan the egg got all giddy at high altitude.


In Krygyzstan the egg got all arty among the rolling hills.


And then it got all the way to China… and enjoyed posing by the Bell Tower in Xi’an, our final stop on the Silk Road.


And it had its last moments with the Face of Ignorance…


And then finally the big day arrived. Four and a half months after making that fateful purchase Cappadocia, it was time to trade the egg at the far eastern post of the Silk Road; Xi’an, China.

Our first mistake was that we had grown unnaturally attached to the egg. It sort of felt like the fourth member of the clan, so to speak. It had seen everything we had… If eggs could talk. I fear this may have affected our professionalism.

Our second mistake was the egg was no longer in top notch condition. Truth be told the plastic bag didn’t quite provide the protection we had initially hoped for and as Matty threw his bag down after a few local special brews, we would hear it smash against the hard floor and cringe, hoping for the best.

Our third mistake, and I think this was where we really went wrong, was that someone had already taken onyx eggs to China. To our dismay we found rows and rows of egg shaped onyx creations, even onyx egg holders and other strange, elaborate statues that we fear somewhat undermined the status of our own little onyx treasure.

And finally, we couldn’t find the silk market in Xi’an so we headed to the Muslim quarter and hoped for the best.

After spending a couple of hours being distracted by the great street food and souvenirs that line the lantern adorned lanes of the Muslim Quarter we remembered our mission and hunted for a silk trader.

Eventually, by a stroke of luck as we made our way to the train station almost completely defeated, we chanced upon a lady selling silk scarves.

We played by all the old ancient trading rules – causally running the scarves trough our fingers, pretending we were only half interested. Well, until I cried: “This one, this one,” pointing enthusiastically at a piece of white silk with Chinese writing on it. That might have been another mistake.

So, the haggling started. She started the bidding at 100 Yuan (about £10), to which I came back with an offer we thought she couldn’t turn down: The Egg.

“This egg has travelled 7,000 miles from Turkey – it’s original onyx from Cappadocia,” I explained.

“We saw it being made by hand,” added the Mongoose.

We all looked towards her expectantly. And then something happened that I never, ever foresaw.

She laughed. She looked at our little old egg and broke into a great, mighty cackle.

“Ok, 10 Yuan and the egg,” I offered quietly.

More laughter. The bidding continued but she seemed to be more preoccupied with the money than the egg. It was not going to plan.

After a little while she softened and took the egg into her hand. She smiled.

“50 Yuan and the egg,” she offered.

Ok we agreed. We had a train to catch after all.


We took the silk scarf into our hands, which we plan to cut into three pieces because what better souvenir could three traders ‘cut from the same cloth’ possibly hope for?

As the exchange was made we watched in surprise as she placed the egg into her handbag instead of on the market stall.

“I think it will bring me luck,” she said smiling, still giggling a bit.

And we nodded in agreement. Financially it may not have been our best move – travelling the egg across the Silk Road cost us about £5,000 each, plus the £10 spent on the two transactions. We were left somewhat in negative equity.

But luck? Yes, the egg had definitely brought us lots of that.

Xi’an, China: The end of the Silk Road

It all started on the stairs. The stairs of the great Constantinople walls in Istanbul.

These were not any ordinary stairs – these stairs were ridiculously steep and unfathomably narrow. There was room for your toes on each step but even the ball of your foot was left dangling off.

“It’s easy,” the Mongoose tried to assure me. “Just pretend its a ladder, climb it like you’d climb a ladder,” he said. But it wasn’t a ladder, it was a hard, brick staircase that screamed death.

“No,” I said. “There is no way I’m climbing those stairs. Not under any circumstances.”

Two minutes later my shoes were off and I was putting my right toes on the first ‘rung’ of the stairs. Matty was in front of me. The Mongoose was behind me. And slowly we made our ascent.

Before I knew it my knocking knees and I were standing on the top of the old Constantinople walls.


We turned and faced east – the road to China – the road I would spend the next four and a half months travelling.


We put our arms around each other. We took pictures of our feet. Our six feet that would travel more than 5,000 miles together. And we couldn’t imagine what the road ahead would have in store.


It was the beginning of the Great Adventures of the Three Must-Have-A-Beers. A throw away comment made by my dad as he bid his farewells to us in London, which quickly became our label – our motto – the sentence that made me do the things I was scared of.

“Come on Delia, we’re the Three-Must-Have-A-Beers, we have to do this together,” The Mongoose would say when I threatened to wait at the bottom of perilous mountains or treacherous staircases with the bags.

And that is exactly what got me up those stairs that day. Yes, I thought, I trust these loons, we’re in it together.


But that was some 7,000 miles ago now. Technically 5,676 as the crow flies but we certainly did not travel like crows – we zig zagged our way across the Silk Road like a trio of drunk moles lost in a forest. Up, down, across and up and down again we went in Kyrgyzstan. From Georgia to Armenia and back to Georgia again before Azerbaijan. No we did not travel like crows.

Although it often felt like we were flying. Or standing on the top of the world at least.

I had to remind myself I was not on Mars when driving across the desolate, high altitude Pamir Highway of Tajikistan, known as the “rooftop of the world”, I had to assure myself I would get back to Earth eventually when stuck at the top of a mountain in a flimsy tent during a 12-hour thunder and hail storm, and I had to pinch myself when staring into the burning fire crater of the Turkmenistan desert.

And after catching what must have been weeks of sleeper trains, days of buses and hours of taxis, we reached our final destination: Xi’an.
But our journey wasn’t complete the moment when our tired feets touched Xi’an soil after a long sleepless train from the west. No, our final destination was the Bell Tower in Xi’an.

And so we began the final walk of the Silk Road. We paced down a colourful Xi’an street before coming to a sudden stop at the end. For we knew that as soon as we turned our heads to the left we would see the end of our road, and we weren’t quite ready for that.

So instead we huddled together, put our arms around each others shoulders and shared a few words. The hugs got tighter, kisses were planted firmly on cheeks and then, with our arms still locked together, we turned the corner and saw it illuminated against the dark blue sky at the end of the road. The Bell Tower.



And it was more beautiful than I could have imagined. We slowly strode towards it, clutching our bottle of ‘Champagne’, and did not stop until our palms were touching the cool brick of the tower. We had made it.

We had completed the Silk Road. We had laughed, we had cried (well actually just me when I found out my friend’s baby had been born), we had travelled miles and miles together, without catching a single plane.

And it was with all this emotion that three of us placed our hands on the huge piece of wood swinging besides the large, ancient bell at the top of the tower, ready to create an almighty noise. But security stepped in and we were abruptly shooed away before some giant fluffy character took it in his hands while rolling cameras filmed him posing with it. Of course.


So instead we took pictures of our feet. And stared west – the road to Turkey – the road we had spent the last four and a half months travelling.



And after we climbed down the stairs of the bell tower, a far cry from those of the Constantinople Walls, we popped the Champagne and lit a cigar.

“To the adventures of the Three Must-Have-A-Beers,” we toasted.
“And to all that we’ve seen….
“And to all that we’ve overcome…
“And to each other…”

I love these loons.

Wandering Monks of Labrang Monastery, Xiahe, China

A group of kids are running and skidding down an alley way, kicking a football high into the air. The ball flies over the wall and they briefly shout in protest before one of them runs round to try and find it.

An ordinary situation – I could be anywhere in the world, I think. But these aren’t ordinary teenage kids. Instead of sporting the latest Nikes and skinny jeans, these boys are wearing red wine coloured robes and their hair has been shaved. They are monks in training, or monklets as I like to call them.


Welcome to Xiahe, a Tibetan town in China, that doesn’t really feel like China at all.

It was a tricky journey here, I won’t lie. A sleeper train from Dunhuang and two buses later we arrived, bleary eyed, hungry and a little confused. A monk passed me on his mobile phone, another was clutching his shopping while laughing with his friend and a third just silently chanting to himself as he walked through the busy high street of Xiahe (pronounced sheeya-huh in case you were curious).


Why aren’t they living in caves or fasting in the monastery, I can’t help but wonder, as I wander the streets. Clearly I am out of date with monks. The irony that I share their name is not lost on me. But if anywhere is going to bring you up to speed with the life of the Tibetan monk it’s Xiahe, which has been completely built around the Labrang Monastery.

Sitting proudly at the end of the town’s busy, colourful, horn-honking high street, you will find everything from woollen shawls and prayer beads to cans of Coca Cola as you make your way to the monks’ extensive complex. Oh and the town has a resident goat.


But once you enter the narrow streets and winding paths that snake around the monastery’s buildings, a new sense of quiet emerges and you find yourself almost tip-toeing past the muttering monks.


A 3km horse-shoe shaped path takes you around the key buildings. Lined almost entirely with brightly painted prayer barrels, it has become a significant pilgrimage path, as monks, nuns and locals walk the circuit, spinning the barrels as they pass, chanting, praying and genuinely lost in thought.



“Oops, sorry,” I bumble apologetically as I accidentally elbow a praying monk who is mid-barrel spinning. But the monk barely notices, he is about six barrels down by the time I finish my sentence.

Labrang Monastery is a hypnotic place. The devotion of those around you is infectious and it isn’t long before I am completely under the spell. The temples are decked out in a dizzy array of colours – what look like multi-coloured silk ties (the garish kind your teachers might have sported on non-uniform days) hang from the pillars while huge, gleaming gold Buddha statues drape sheets of golden yellow silk down to smaller gold Buddhas at either side. Brightly coloured Buddhist tales are depicted on the temple walls and white space is scarce.

Sadly no pictures are allowed inside but here’s a taste of the colourful exterior…





The incense fills your nostrils, as does – more bizarrely – the huge candles that appear to be made out of yaks butter that nevertheless, give the temples a wonderful flickering, soft light.

And then there are the monks. Often found sitting against a wall in the temples, chanting, singing and praying or banging huge drums and golden cymbals, they are, without a doubt, the star attraction of the monastery.


Their chanting turns into laughter as I walk past them and I self-consciously glance round to a line of big, grinning faces. I grin back. I don’t understand them but I instantly warm to them.

And so as when the monklets’ football rolls towards Matty’s feet it feels like the most natural thing in the world for him to kick it back their way. They grin and shout their thanks before carrying on their game. It could be anywhere in the world I think, but I’ve never been anywhere quite like it.

Singing Sand Dunes, Dunhuang, China

The great desert sand storm. Even the hardiest Silk Road travellers feared it, the camels could tell it was coming, and many never survived it.

As if there weren’t enough perils on the road already; vagabonds and thiefs, tireless Turkmen tribes that guarded the sandy desert plains like ocean pirates, suspicious kings and emperors who could throw you into a pit of snakes as soon as you enter their city walls (true story), and then there was Mother Nature herself.

If you survived all of the above, and you didn’t die of dehydration, then the winds could get you yet.

Men who travelled the Silk Road hundreds of years ago gave horrendous accounts of sandstorms. Tales described how the wind would suddenly accelerate and change course, throwing huge fistfuls of sand at the exposed traveller, who was forced to hide under a heavy blanket and sit it out. Some would come round to find themselves half buried in the desert, for others it became their grave.

And ever since I gave the nod to travelling the Silk Road, I couldn’t help but fear the worst. The Mongoose kindly bought me some Silk Road non-fiction books for my birthday last year. There was a terrible scene with the wind, sand and a traveller in the Taklamakan Desert in China that made me put the book down in terror and pick up a map in fear. My worst conditions were confirmed; we would be crossing the Taklamakan Desert in China (aka desert of death), and it was HUGE.

“It’s different these days,” Matty tried to assure me.
“They have air conditioned buses and trains going across the desert, it will be no different to travelling any other terrain.”

But I was unconvinced. Something inside me just knew we would get to the train station to be told: “I’m sorry sir, we have no trains today, just camels. Have you a thick blanket to hide under?” (In Chinese, of course, which we would spend the next hour trying to understand before realising the horror of the situation.)

But it turns out Matty was right, kind of. We were thrown onto an old, hot, hectic, cramped train where we were to sit for 26 hours, watching the desert out of the window. Occasionally the carriage would fill up with dust and sand and everyone would rush to pull the windows down.


The conditions were deeply unpleasant but not as bad as riding a camel I reminded myself.

So, by the time we reached the Singing Sand Dunes in Dunhuang I forgotten all about my fear of being buried in sand. I was going to see some singing sand dunes, it would be nothing short of magical I thought, while also wondering what they would sing.

Only 3.5km from the centre of Dunhuang in western China, we decided to cycle to the sand dunes on some vintage bikes that we hired for 50p an hour. Doesn’t the Mongoose look impressed?


And then, suddenly, at the end of the long straight road we could see huge, towering mountains of sand. It looked both magical and unreal, as if I had accidentally walked into a Disney set.

This feeling was somewhat compounded by the ridiculous commercialisation of the dunes, which cost an almighty £12 to ‘get into’ and have a huge ticket office and landscaped car park that puts Euro Disney to shame.

But even that couldn’t detract from the marvellous scene before us, and I had to pinch myself to remind myself it was all real.


With tickets in hand, we made our way to the base of the dunes that just rise out of the ground suddenly, as if just dropped there by mistake. We kicked off our shoes and felt the familiar, comforting sensation of warm sand under our bare toes as we began our ascent.

It reminded me of those frustrating times in life… Two steps forward, one step back as my feet fell ankle-deep into the thick sand. I watched kids huffing and puffing before just giving up and rolling down the side.

What fun! The five year old inside me wanted to get involved while the 20-something exterior (yes I can still say this for three more weeks) shuddered at the thought of getting that much sand in my hair.

So we kept climbing, and sinking. And climbing, and sinking.




And then we found ourselves at the top of this giant sand dune just as the sun was making its goodbyes for the day. We found a quiet spot and bid our farewells to the wonderful burning ball of fire (I could have been a pagan sun worshipper easily, I think.)





And just as as we held our arms out to the sinking sun as it disappeared behind another dune in front of us, it happened. The wind said hello.

Without even so much of a warning, it just pelted sand at us. The tiny, innocuous grains almost felt like back of someone’s hand, stinging as it hit our backs.

“We have to get down,” cried Matty as he slid down one side of the dune for shelter. But the wind found us there too, throwing sand in our eyes, our noses and our mouths.

“The camera,” I cried, looking down at our SLR that was now covered in sand before shoving it in my bag quickly, trying not to think about it.

The Mongoose cleverly pulled up his Afghan scarf over his mouth and nose, while I messily spread my hands over my face as we raced back down the sand dune. The wind didn’t give up and the sand just felt stronger and harder with every gust.

But soon we we back on hard ground with shoes on our feet once more, talking about what dishes to order at our new favourite Szechuan restaurant in town. And as we clinked our ice cold beer bottles half an hour later, it felt only right that the Three-Must-Have-A-Beers got a taste of the almighty desert and its powerful wind.

Now we really are Silk Road travellers.

PS Our “Silk Road” journey is soon coming to an end, in just a few days time we shall find ourselves in Xi’an – the final, ancient port of trading in the east. But fret not, this blog will continue to tell our tales as we journey down south and begin a new chapter of our lives in Vietnam next month… I promise to keep you posted 🙂

PPS The sand dunes didn’t sing for me but apparently they are called so because as sand grains shuffle down the slops they produce a deep, groaning hum that can be heard for miles. Clever, huh?!

Travel Tips

Visiting the Singing Sand Dunes in Dunhuang is an absolute must if you find yourself in this corner of the world.

I recommend you do it either first thing in the morning or later in the day to avoid the burning sun that would make climbing the sand dunes bare foot all a little too painful! We were told that the hottest time of the day at the Singing Sand Dunes is in fact at about 4 – 5pm, not mid-day as you might expect.

We set off from town at about 6pm, which was perfect for watching the sunset.

We hired our bikes in Dunhuang from Mr John’s Information Cafe, and they cost 5Yuan an hour.