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I crossed one off the bucket list

While I was in Auckland I managed to cross off something that’s been on my bucket list for a while – a bungy jump. I’ve only ever really had the opportunity to jump off a crane or similar – and that didn’t really appeal to me. I thought that it would be more fun over water. So I booked to jump off Auckland Bridge.

It was fab. I can’t pretend that I’m scared of heights (as a former trapeze artist) so it wasn’t some sort of momentous moment of overcoming fear. It was just an opportunity to do something cool. So while a lot of my fellow jumpers were terrified, I was more concerned about making it look good. I mean there’s no point in just falling off the platform like a bag of spuds is there? Well not if the whole opposite gantry is bristling with cameras to immortalise your moment.

It’s quite a long way to look down, and you see various boats gathered to gawp, but once you’ve taken off, it feels like flying. I didn’t even notice the decelleration as I just touched the water (I asked them not to soak me as I was heading straight to the airport and didn’t want an 11 hour flight potentially smelling like a wet dog. Not that I do usually, just you never know…)

I’d absolutely do it again.

So you’d think that my bucket list got a little shorter, but unfortunately I’ve added at least a few more items in the last couple of weeks. I’m going to have to live a very long time to get through all these things!

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The best seats for the Shanghai GP

This year’s Grand Prix season has been pretty exciting so far –with the possible exception of last weekend’s Monaco snoozefest.

By far the most exciting race for me was the Shanghai GP. Not just because it was on my doorstep, but because we had paddock passes. I enjoyed the race and Force India’s hospitality thanks to some rather fortuitous and generous connections. Now I’m ruined for life. I watched the whole thing on a TV at the back of the garage.  In the absence of any commentary I quite honestly had no idea what was going on but I did get to watch the pit-stops from a few metres away. Oh yes.

You could blink and miss this - but this is a pit stop....

One thing that really surprised me is how calm everything was before and during the race. Beforehand, all the race engineers are calmly running through what I assume are pre-race procedures. No tension, just calm.  I’m quite sure I’d be emptying my adrenaline soaked stomach before a race but instead the drivers are hanging out, talking to people, having lunch etc.

During the race, all the race engineers sit on neat rows of seats, motionlessly watching a rather small TV. It wasn’t a bored stiff sort of motionless – they were alert and totally focussed on the events on the screens. They could be statues until just before each pitstop  – when there’s a brief flurry of calm, collected activity. Given that pitstops only last about 4 secs now (ridiculous I know) I barely managed to get my camera out before they had sped away again.

Engineers all watching tiny screens in surprisingly tidy rows

Just around the corner, race techs watch  the cars progress around a virtual track, monitoring a dizzying amount of information about every aspect of the cars’ performance.

Here's where it all happens - every single race variable is constantly analysed and optimised

Another surprise was quite what a British centred event the GP is. You see all the international drivers and assume this is an international spectacle, but really a significant majority of the players seem to be Brits. So each Grand Prix is a small British island of craziness completely untouched by local culture of customs. This mobile island is really like a travelling circus that sets up in a new town, puts on a show, then packs up and moves to the next place. And it packs up remarkably quickly. While the podium celebration was taking place, the paddock quickly filled up with all sizes of packing boxes and packing crates – just one week later it was all going to be repeated in Bahrain.

The final thing that surprised me was quite how starstruck I was. I’ve worked in Chelsea for years and was entirely underwhelmed by the procession of footballers, minor celebrities etc that were sighted every week. But I was genuinely surprised at how excited I was to be standing watching the podium from the pitlane behind Ross Brawn, only to turn round and have Eddie Jordan walk into a picture I was taking. The drivers were strolling around and of course Coulthard was EVERYWHERE.

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Licenced to drive

I’m feeling an enormous sense of achievement. The other day I passed my test and am now the proud owner of a Chinese driving licence. Oh yes.

As I already have a licence (actually two) I didn’t have to do the actual practical test but I did have to do the theory test. You wouldn’t think that would be that difficult as driving signs and regulations are pretty much the same the world over aren’t they?

Actually the test is pretty difficult. This is in part because you have to learn answers to approximately 1000 questions (the book is almost 200 pages) but also because the questions are in Chinglish (I bet they used Google translate for it all). But actually what makes it particularly difficult is the fact that a significant proportion of the questions are completely bonkers. I’ll give you an example of an actual question:

What’s the correct answer?

After a vehicle falls into water, the wrong method for the driver to rescue himself is to:

A)   Close the window to prevent water from flowing into the vehicle

B)   Immediately use hand to open the door

C)   Let the water to fill up the driver’s cab so that the water pressure both inside and outside is equal

D)   Use a large plastic bag to cover the head and tight the neck closely.
Well, I thought that anything that involves putting a plastic bag over your head HAS to be the LAST solution to any problem, and therefore the right answer. It isn’t. The right answer is A. So it’s better to put a bag over your head than close the window. Ooooookaaaaay.

There are a series of first aid questions that are somewhat confusing. There is one where the correct answer is “cushioned limb folding”. I have no idea what that involves, only that it is the right thing to do in cases of “upper shank bleeding”, whatever that is. Then of course there are all the police hand signals – you’d think that the sign for “go left” would involve some pointing in a general leftwards direction. Well it doesn’t…

Alarmingly there are also a surprising number of questions that relate to cars losing control of brakes or steering or falling into water. Obviously those are big concerns here.  That and honking at everything that moves (largely encouraged).

I think you’re probably getting the picture. The bottom line is you just have to learn the questions and answers as you have to score at least 90 out of 100 questions to pass. I’m feeling super smug as I managed 97%. Woo woo.

Now I have my licence – the good news is that it lasts six years, the better news is that it allows me to drive cars (no chance) and any sort of motorbike. Watch out Shanghai.



Dan Bing – the BEST Shanghai street food

There are many small markets around the apartment here – they sell a varied assortment of fresh vegetables, live fish and chickens and eggs. I love the energy of these markets – they are always bustling hives of activity where there’s always something going on. Usually it’s a lot of shouting but sometimes you can see someone chasing a live fish or frog as it makes a bid for freedom across the street. They also sometimes sell cooked foods – often dumplings, filled bread-like things and many items I just can’t identify. This week a couple of friends introduced me to one of the amazing street snacks they sell here – the dan bing.

These are essentially crepes – made with a batter that looks suspiciously like wallpaper paste. This is spread on a large round hot plate. When cooked, an egg is cracked over the top and incorporated into the pancake.  Then come the herbs, the other small ingredients, the spicy sauce, the unidentified brown sauce that looks like chocolate but isn’t, then a mystery crunchy thing. It is rolled, cut in half and presented in a small plastic bag. You have to eat it immediately – which prompts thumbs up and smiles from all the locals as they know it is delicious. Actually it is inspired. It is soft and crunchy, spicy and fresh.

I was introduced to this just the other day and I’ve already been back. It’s also ridiculously cheap – 3 kwai (about 45cents) a one egg version and 4 kwai if you want to go crazy and have two eggs inside…I think I could eat this every day. The only snag is that it’s a breakfast food so you have to get there before around 9am or it will have run out and been shut down. I still think I’ll be a regular at this particular stall though..

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Flight from Hell

I was pretty pleased with the upgrade I managed to secure heading to Barcelona, but it seems that making this archaic process work used up ALL my travel karma. Last Sunday, returning from Barcelona via Munich to Shanghai I experienced the most utterly miserable flight experience of my life. I was disappointed that there wasn’t availability for an upgrade to try out my second shiny United certificate but I was absolutely not prepared for what happened.

I still have Gold Star Alliance status so I boarded early in the process. Much later in the boarding process the passenger who had the neighbouring seat arrived. To say that this man was morbidly obese does not fully explain his size. He took some minutes to squeeze himself into his seat – although in actual fact much of him failed to squeeze into his seat and essentially overflowed over the armrests on both sides. Needless to say he needed a seatbelt extension, although in the event of an incident, even without a belt he would have remained firmly wedged in his seat as his belly was braced against the seat back in front of him. His tray table was unique in having a more unpleasant flight experience than I did. Think I’m exaggerating? Nope. Here’s the picture.

I was of course horrified at the prospect of spending the eleven hour flight without the benefit of the use of a significant proportion of my seat. It is a source of considerable regret that I did not immediately call a member of the cabin crew and insist on the exclusive use of the entirety of the seat I had paid for. I did not, however as a) it was late in the boarding process, the cabin crew looked really busy and I didn’t want to hold up departure, b) given how long it took the gentleman to get into his seat I thought it would take too long for him to stand up to let me talk to the cabin crew and, being British I was uncomfortable about complaining about this man’s excess weight across the top of his gargantuan bulk. So I resolved to find another seat once the plane had reached cruising altitude.

When the plane reached altitude and the fasten seatbelt signs were switched off I duly headed off to speak to them. I spoke to two separate cabin crew members to ask for another seat. Both told me that the flight was fully booked so there was nowhere to move to. Both were somewhat evasive when I explained the problem and were reluctant to help in any way despite the fact that I was very close to tears on hearing this news.

As a result I experienced the most unpleasant flight of my life – with my left arm and shoulder mostly squashed under the monumental vastness of my fellow passenger. It goes without saying that I was unable to sleep for the duration. The incredible bulk next to me had no such problems however, so for many hours I experienced a prolonged and frankly revolting series of full body twitches and shivers as he moved in his sleep. Do I also need to mention that it felt like sitting next to a furnace because of the heat he produced?

It is now several days later and I’m still horrified by the experience. I do think that Lufthansa neglected their duty of care. Not only is it reasonable to expect to use the seat you paid for, but in the event of an incident I would have been effectively trapped in my seat – so the lack of an effective Lufthansa policy in this matter is also a safety issue.

I want to share my feelings with Lufthansa. Lufthansa don’t want to know about opinions. There’s a generic compliment/ complaint email form buried somewhere in the website. I don’t want a generic email – I want to complain to an actual human being- preferably one responsible for customer relations. I know these people exist in Lufthansa, but they are impossible to find (check LinkedIn and see if you can find any…). As a result I’m writing to pretty much anyone I can think of as a sort of personal therapy. I really want to share this experience with them though (not by phone as they can’t then see the photo) so if anyone has any Lufthansa contacts please let me know.

*update 18the March* – I have been in correspondence with Lufthansa for the last week or so. So far they have offered frankly insulting compensation. So far it appears while they are extremely rigorous in policing excess baggage, they are not so strict when it comes to excess body. So they won’t make you share your seat with somebody’s excess bag, however they have no issues with you having to share it with somebody’s excess blubber. The correspondence continues.


Hello? Is that United Airlines? It’s the 80s. They want their processes back…

This weekend I fly to Barcelona for the Mobile World Congress. I’m really pleased to be going to the show after a few years’ absence and am really looking forward to catching up with old friends and new technologies but the flight isn’t going to be much fun.  It’s a long way from Shanghai, particularly if you are in the back of the plane, and I admit it, I’ve acquired quite a taste for the sharp end over the last few years.

My airline status is linked to United so I tend to try to fly with them when possible (I really am a sucker for those long haul upgrades). However, Shanghai to Barcelona on United involved four flights so I booked with Lufthansa. Easy so far. The next part of the plan was to ask United to apply a couple of my Systemwide upgrades to the flights – they are both part of the joined up Star Alliance happy family after all.

So I called United to ask them to apply my upgrades. No problem – they said. Great, that was easy.

But this is United Airlines we are talking about.

Like an idiot I assumed that they would just press a button that would send the request for upgrade waitlisting to Lufthansa – it was an eticket that was booked online after all. That would clearly be the most obvious way of doing things so of course that’s not at all how it works.

Instead of using the wonders of the Internet to magically transmit this information from one company to another, United has a slightly different process. They print out actual certificates and send them. Even worse, they printed out certificates in America and then sent them to me in China. They didn’t even use Fedex to send them as they had promised, they used regular mail. This took just over 3 weeks to arrive (actually that was pretty impressive – I just received a card this week sent FROM CHINA before Christmas).

Here’s what the little beauties look like:

I’ve had a theory for some while about United. I think that new planes are equipped with shiny new cabin crew, which then ages slowly with the same plane (although presumably with fewer parts replacements). That would explain the pensioners they have serving business and first class. Seriously, some of them just dodder around during the flight – so much for being there “for your safety”.  I now suspect the same thing happens with United’s processes. The printing things off and posting them worked just fine in the 1980s, so why should they be changed now?

That said I felt like I’d just received one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets when they arrived. Now at least I’m in with a tiny chance of comfort (although United business seats flatten to a rather jaunty angle that makes you constantly feel like you are sliding off feet first….)

I’ll find out tomorrow if this has all been worth it. Tomorrow I take my shiny new certificates to check in where I will have to ask them nicely to consider me for an upgrade. In my experience the Pudong airport check in staff have not been terrifically customer service focused, or indeed interested in human beings in general so wish me luck!


**UPDATE** I got my upgrade. There was some consternation at the check in desk but got a business class seat. OK the seat in question was one of those that is described as “flat” suggesting horizontal, but actually is flat at a rather jaunty angle – I imagine that if you reversed the head and feet that it would be the perfect angle for waterboarding. I digress…the weird paper based certificate resulted in me having a rather nice seat and mostly recognisable food items. Happy days.


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Plane Bonkers

Every internal flight in China I have been on, or indeed any flight that originated in China started with an announcement in multiple different languages along the lines of: “We are ready to go but we need everyone to SIT DOWN before we can push back off the stand.” This is repeated with increasing levels of tension and volume until finally people sit down. When in the past I have looked along the aisles, there are people just wandering around, hanging out, generally doing anything except sitting in their seats. It’s SO much worse on arrival though….

You know how, when you are on a plane and it’s time to leave you get up, wait for the people in front of you to gather their belongings before you take yours and make your way to the exit? It’s generally fairly civilised with an unwritten “people in front first” rule that everybody abides to.

It’s not really like that in China. People jump up and often start wandering around pretty much seconds after the plane has landed (sometimes before) and while the plan is still taxiing to the gate. On today’s flight,fellow passengers waited several whole seconds after the announcement that says “please stay seated, with your seatbelt fastened until the aircraft has come to a complete stop…”

When it comes to getting out into the aisle, nobody will stand politely by while you faff with your stuff. You have to physically muscle your way out of your seat and into the surge of people. Under no circumstances will someone wait for you. If you have a bag to retrieve from the overhead locker, you have to be careful as, when you turn sideways, you present a smaller surface area. People will pretty much climb over you unless you are large enough to block the entire aisle, and even then they will probably try. (My trick is to always make sure to put my rucksack on if I have one before turning sideways.)

Then when you are in the aisle with your belongings, it’s still not over.  As you take a step towards the front of the plane, the person behind you will bang his/ her bag hard into your Achilles. You turn and give the bag a hard look just to make it clear that it was a bit of you and not, say a chair, that it bashed. Anywhere else in the world the person behind would look a little sheepish and maybe even apologise. Not in China. Every subsequent step you take will be accompanied by another equally unapologetic bash from behind.

The crazy crush to get out of the plane continues, very much not helped by the people who exit then for reasons I fail to fathom, procede to stand RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE DOORWAY.

Then they pile off quickly to then STAND on the miles of travelators that lead to Immigration. All that hurrying and now they are standing on a bit of rubber moving at approximately 0.5 mph. (Obviously they stand on both sides) I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.

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Fascinated by the top of the world

Almost constant companions during our trip to Nepal were the Himalayas themselves. In Pokara, I was charmed that from almost anywhere in town you were watched over but not a single peak, but a whole range of impressive mountains. The one that captured my imagination from the start was my first actual sighting of Everest with its distinctive black pyramid shaped peak.

Am I tempted to try to climb it? Well I can’t pretend that I didn’t think about it. Briefly. Some of this was brought about by meeting a Nepali girl who has climbed the mountain several times. She is about 80llbs soaking wet so if she can do it I figured I might have a chance. I certainly like the idea of a challenge on such a huge scale, but while fit but relatively inexperienced people have reached the summit in the past, without significant appropriate experience it seems pretty stupid. If anything goes remotely wrong (and when things go wrong in the mountains it happens quickly and tends to be bad) you really want to know what you are doing up there. So realistically I don’t think I’m about to put in  years and years of mountaineering training and hardship…oh yes and it costs an absolute fortune. I don’t have $60k+ burning a hole in my bank account right now.

I’ve decided instead to focus on climbing mountains vicariously. Since my return from Nepal I’ve devoured a series of books on the subject – I’ve actually read Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” twice – a gripping account of the tragic events of the 1996 season, in addition to Anatoli  Boukreev’s account of the same events in “The Climb” plus several of Ed Viesturs excellent narratives of his own climbing career.

What I hadn’t realised prior to reading these books is quite how debilitating extreme altitude is. Of course I appreciated that it is harder to function with less oxygen, but what I hadn’t realised is that breathing supplemental oxygen only somewhat mitigates the problem. Modern climbing plans for Everest and other 8,000m peaks tend to involve a series of sorties to increasingly high camps to maximise acclimatisation. These ascents, sometimes including nights spent at high camps are interspersed with descents to basecamp for people to recover. Over around 25 thousand feet is what is called the “Death Zone”. As the body just deteriorates at that altitude or above, the strategy is generally to spend as little time as possible there. It seems that climbers head for the highest camp, rest there until maybe 11pm, then make their summit push from there overnight. Whether or not the summit has been reached by around 1pm or 2pm the following day, climbers often plan to turnaround and head to more hospitable altitudes asap. Just like diving at depth, the hypoxia experienced at altitude impairs a climbers ability to think clearly so decision making isn’t always great.  Some of the problems I’ve been reading about are in part due to people just not turning round when they should, leading to running out of air and things just deteriorating from there. As with so many things, it’s never a single factor that causes problems but you just aren’t able to survive long at that altitude. The hypoxia also affects how you feel – I was a bit disappointed that all the climbers I’ve heard/ read about have reported just a feeling of numbness at the top rather than the elation you’d expect. All that effort for numbness. Still, as Ed Viesturs says, getting to the top is only half way…you need to get back down again too.

In any case. It is bloody tough but a lot easier now than it used to be.

Visiting a small museum in the Nepal, I was able to view a series of exhibits about the first attempts* at the summit and the eventual successful Hillary/ Tenzing effort. What makes their achievement all the more impressive is the gear they used – clumpy leather boots that would have been cold when wet, heavy tents and not a scrap of Gore-Tex in sight.

* My favourite account of summit attempts relates to one mad Englishman who planned to crashland a small plane on the lower slopes of the mountain and climb up from there. The idea is totally bonkers and that’s before you hear that he didn’t actually have either flying or climbing experience. Insane and possibly the earliest recorded incidence of what they call ‘summit fever’.

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Talking Rubbish

One aspect of Nepal that made a real impression on me was the sheer volume of rubbish everywhere, particularly in Katmandu. One very holy place, where people brought their dead relatives to be cremated and for their ashes to be transported down the river to eventually find the Ganges, was piled high with old plastic bags. Funerals were happening right in front of piles of plastic and filth that floated down the river along with their relatives’ remains. I thought it strange that this didn’t seem to trouble anyone -I reckon it would take just a few people to clean up the area pretty easily.

The Nepalis, or at least those in Katmandu are apparently not that fussed. Where would the rubbish go for a start? There isn’t any rubbish collection service in town. So different to America anyway, where most districts provide a series of coloured bins for you to separate all your recyclable goods from the rest of your rubbish before they pick them up.

So you live in the US and you think you’ve done your thing by separating out all your trash. Right?

Actually probably not. It turns out that a significant quantity of the “recyclable goods” from the good old US of A are sent to China for sorting. A-ha so China must be at the forefront of recycling? Emphatically not. All my rubbish here goes into a single bin probably destined for a landfill site somewhere. I suspect all the the recyclable stuff sent here for sorting probably has the same fate. I couldn’t tell for sure of course but since my visit to Nepal I have made a real effort not to use plastic bags. It’s not going to change the world but I’m going to try to reduce how much refuse I generate.

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Nepal and the Mystic Himalayas

One update that is seriously overdue relates to last November’s trip to Nepal. What an astonishing country! About the size of North Carolina and with only about 30M inhabitants (Shanghai alone has 20M!), what it lacks in scale it more than makes up in diversity. In only two weeks we visited Katmandu to take in the colours and the chaos, we saw some of the remote villages of the beautiful but chilly Annapurna foothills, then travelled by raft down the Seiti river to the jungles of the Chitwan National park. The country feels a lot bigger because the roads are terrible (with the biggest potholes I’ve ever seen and generally plagued by slow moving cows) – and as a result flying everywhere is by far the most effective way of getting around. Otherwise we travelled mostly by bus.

When I was a student I went travelling with a friend in Peru. We just rocked up in Lima and spent the next couple of months just going where the fancy took us,  heading first south down to Arequipa then up to Cuzco and the Inca Trail, and briefly over to Bolivia. We were most dismissive of anyone who went on an organised bus based trip, referring to them as “cultural bubbles”. We both swore we’d never stoop so low.

The thing we hadn’t fully appreciated at the time is the fact that when you work, the bubble approach is really the only way of getting things packed into a short timeframe. That’s how we ended up on a cultural bubble but one that allowed us to pack a LOT into under two weeks. We managed to experience a surprising amount of the country’s diversity. Actually it wasn’t JUST bus travel. We could count, airplanes, taxis, canoes, rafts, paragliders, elephants, bullock carts and ultralights among our modes of transport while in the country.

We saw so much but here’s a selection of memorable places/ experiences:

I loved the mountains, particularly the trip in a plane to fly along the Himalayas. I was lucky enough to be in the cockpit when we flew past Lukla – probably the most challenging airstrip in the world, and the gateway to Everest for many. More on my newfound fascination with mountains later…

I was utterly charmed by the elephants we met in Chitwan. So very intelligent and so very big! What astonishing creatures. I loved the safari on the elephant’s back – three of us sitting back to back in a sort of platform strapped to the elephant’s back. We soon got used to the rolling gait but it was distinctly odd when our steed broke into a rather bouncy trot.

I loved the Stupas – the temples in Katmandu with their multi-coloured prayer flags and Budda’s all-seeing eyes that look out in the four directions.

I was somehow left saddened after our visit to Kumari in Katmandu. Kumari is a young girl, plucked from a village somewhere to become a living goddess to be worshipped until puberty at which point she returns to her previous life. We only saw this Kumari for a few minutes, she looked bored out of her mind. What a strange and probably lonely life.

I don’t think I could ever get used to all the street vendors who descend on tourists in swarms and attempt to sell all manner of random trinkets. They seem to consider price the only possible objection you might have for not purchasing, so if haggling is a favoured sport, Nepal is your dream destination. I didn’t particularly want what they were selling but the chap, a soft touch by all accounts, ended up with armfuls of brightly coloured hats, small bags and various amulets to guard him against all manner of ills. These will all likely be distributed during birthdays and Christmases for some time to come.

Here are some of our pics from the trip.