Archive for category Travel

When size really does matter

I’ve been struggling a bit to think about things I will NOT miss from Shanghai. The key one for me is the fact that everything is made for smaller people. I never thought of myself as a total heifer until I moved here.  It was bad enough in Italy, where clothes were generally a bit short, but here when I walk into a shop there is often a “we don’t have anything THAT big” accompanied, more often than not, with a look of horror. At least in the US I get to shop on the middle to small end of the clothing rails. As for shoes, not a hope. (I have some serious shoe shopping time to make up for…)

The size challenge extends beyond clothing. It seems like everything is ‘petite’. For example my kitchen. I have to do the washing up with splayed legs (sooo attractive) to avoid hunching over to reach the things in the bottom of the sink, and ever worse,  the cooker hood over the hob is set at midget height. You’d think I would learn to avoid it, but so far I am still banging my head on it  EVERY TIME I use the hob. I can’t tell you how much I will not miss that thing.



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Chinglish – the language of…. utter confusion

Another thing I will miss terribly when I leave China is the Chinglish. Although there was a somewhat successful campaign to banish Chinglish from public signage for the Expo a few years back (it is growing back) it is still rife in menus and private buildings. When deployed in a menu it can be more than offputting  – for example it took me months to work out that “saliva chicken” or “slobber salad” actually meant that the dishes were “mouthwatering”). Who knows what culinary treats I missed out on because the description was, well revolting?


When used elsewhere, it is more often than not, simply hilarious. A travelator/ moving walkway will forevermore be a “rubber carpet of autowalk useage”. I like that much more.

Exhibit A.


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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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Up close and personal with Shanghai traffic – and loving it

Since I passed my driving licence a few months ago – I’ve been driving a Chang Jiang around town quite frequently. It’s essentially a Chinese copy of a Russian copy of a second world war BMW, complete with sidecar. It looks like the bike Steve McQueen drove in the Great Escape.

It’s not terribly reliable and it has rather a lot of foibles but I’m absolutely loving it. It has a greater range than the scooter and you can get an extra person on it. So sometimes I give people tours of the city. I’m turning into a real cheerleader for Shanghai as a result.

So many people come here, hang out in Nanjing Lu (like Oxford Street in London) or in Pudong and think they have seen the city. They have only seen one side of it. There’s SO much more. For a start there’s some astonishing art deco architecture, including the only art-deco ex- abbatoire that I have ever heard of, there’s the old town with its tiny streets and chaotic markets, and there are the hidden villas of the former French concession that reveal secrets about its gangster past. Also, Shanghai was an open port for many years, so received a disproportionate number of incoming migrants for years, for example during the Russian revolution and in the run up to the second world war. I think that’s some of what makes it such a unique city in China.

The sidecar is a fantastic way of getting around – you do have to obey more of the rules of the road than on an electric scooter, but parking is still easier than for cars and you can squeeze down some lanes too small for cars. I also think that you actually notice more on a bike – I think cars are just so familiar that it is hard not to just filter everything out. On a bike you are a little more up close and personal with the traffic (Ok that’s not always a good thing here) but it does make everything much more immediate. I’m enjoying showing people aspects of a Shanghai they didn’t know existed, and I’m learning so much myself too.  Here are some of the chap’s colleagues who have joined me.



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The summer fair – more British than a bulldog in a bowler hat at the cricket

Apart from the weather, there are many things that I love about being in England, many of which are simple pleasures that you take for granted when you live there. It’s not that absence makes the heart grow fonder, it’s more that you see things with fresh eyes after a time away.  I was recently taken to see a bluebell wood in darkest Cambridgeshire and it’s the sort of place that would make you want to write poetry. If you are that way inclined of course. Which I am not in case you thought I might go a bit Vogon on you all. In any case, it gave me the sort of smile that I usually get from vehicles with really rather large growly engines.

Another very British activity I recently participated in was a summer fair. It was so over the top, almost caricature British it wouldn’t have been out of place in an episode of Midsommer Murders. Except of course nobody was killed – argh you know what I mean. Anyway, it really was everything that makes a traditional English summer fair; the soggy grass that consumed stiletto heels and caused chair legs to slowly sink, a human fruitmachine (where three people whirl around and choose a random piece of fruit out of three buckets) a Pimm’s tent, a tat filled bric-a-brac stall, a stand with slightly wonky WI cakes and another with straggly plants. It even had a Queen impersonator (THE Queen not the band….) doing a walkabout and someone I think might have been the local mayor wearing a Union Jack suit. “Oh God I bet there was also a chubby drum majorette group or a dog show…” commented a friend when I mentioned the fair “there’s always one of those” he added somewhat unimpressed. Actually it was a dog agility relay but it was great.

My unimpressed friend was not alone. Anyone else I told about this “charming fair” rolled their eyes. I do know why. This is the sort of thing you see every year on every soggy village green in the country (at least they didn’t call it a fayre). It’s just that it is so different from anything I have experienced recently (dragon festivals or 4th July parties anyone?) that I am seeing it with fresh eyes.

The other possible explanation is rather more alarming – I’m slightly worried that it might be a symptom of me turning a tiny bit American. Before I know it I’ll be calling anything over 30 years old “quaint”. And I’ve been thinking about getting my teeth straightened. Please help save me from myself.

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Just like pulling teeth

One of my 2012 New Year’s resolutions was to get my teeth fixed. The slight challenge to making progress on this was the fact that I have no intention whatsoever of letting a Chinese dentist do anything at all. I am sure that China has most excellent dentists but when we are talking about major (my definition) dental work, then I want to be able to understand what is going on.

Well that’s not quite true. I had arranged to have my badly behaved and directionally challenged wisdom teeth extracted at a surgery near the house in Pennsylvania.  The denstist came with many recommendations and seem to know what he was doing. And I liked him. Finally they had actual rooms in his surgery – the last place I went to in the US lined everyone up in a big rooms with office dividers – so it felt more like somewhere you’d get a pedicure. NOT somewhere I was going to have teeth out.

So last Monday was T-Day. I’ve been nervous about this day since the day I found my pesky wisdom teeth growing (very late – only a few years ago. I’m still waiting for the wisdom too). I showed up shaky with adrenaline but just about holding it together. I was arranged on the seat by a nurse/ assistant who gave me a really attractive bib to catch the inevitable drool. She also decided to take it upon herself to talk me through the procedure. She started with “…he’ll give you injections so you won’t feel anything, you’ll just feel a slight pulling. And then you will hear a pop when he cuts the ligaments…” “Can I stop you right there…” I interrupted. “ I don’t want to know about that.” Undaunted she carried on “the ligaments are tough so when he cuts them…”. At this point I really wished she was speaking Mandarin.

I tried twice more to interrupt then just asked her to stop talking. I think she was mildly offended and left. My previously tenuous grasp on normal behaviour was gone though, so when the other, actually nicer nurse/ assistant came and asked me a simple question (“hello, how are you?” probably) I just burst into rather undignified tears (also due to lack of waterproof mascara I suspect I rapidly resembled a refugee from Kiss).  She took pity on me and just said “I think we’ll use the nitrous rig”. When the dentist came and I tried to  apologise for overreacting and attempted to explain that my rational side knew that it was an easy routine job, but the less rational, terrified-of-medical-things side was currently beating the crap out of my rational side. He was very kind. He said that actually it wasn’t a particularly irrational reaction…he was about to pull things out of my head after all…

Strangely that did calm me down. The nitrous oxide helped a treat too, so while certainly not anything I want to repeat in a hurry the whole extraction thing was OK. He offered just to do one but I refused point blank – they had to both go NOW. He did a great job actually and had given me so much anaesthetic I couldn’t feel most of my face for hours, let alone the teeth. He didn’t even have to put his knee on my chest for leverage, which was one of my memories from a previous extraction. The other memory was enormous pliers. I have no idea if that’s what this chap used because I kept my (rather smudged) eyes firmly shut for the duration.

Recovery has so far been OK too. A soft diet was recommended so I lived on smoothies and red wine for several days. I’ve been taking plenty of arnica too so that may have contributed to the fact there was very little swelling – actually just enough to look like I’ve had some cheek filler and actually quite fetching.

Things could definitely be worse. I could have grown four wisdom teeth not two for a start…

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British weather

I’ve just spent a little time back in the UK. I know the Brits are much maligned for talking about the weather, but that’s because there’s so bloody much of it.  I was rained on for just over two solid weeks.  To add insult to *ahem* wetness, there’s hosepipe ban on in most of the country. Yes really.

I just found out what caused this biblical quantity of rain. I met up with my friend Charlie and he pointed out the enormous water storage device he had installed days before the heavens opened and never closed. That would do it…thanks Charlie.

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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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First impressions of Hong Kong

As I mentioned the other day, I was recently in Hong Kong. It was my first visit (not counting various transits through the airport) so I thought I’d share some first impressions.

The first thing you notice is that it’s growing. You notice this first as you land at the airport as it is on reclaimed land. Over the years I have heard many stories about the old airport, where on final approach you could make eye contact with the old ladies hanging their washing outside their high rise apartments. I’d like to have experienced that. Maybe just once. It’s certainly not just the airport that’s on new land-  along many bits of the shoreline you can see how building work is expanding the space available.  For example, the Royal Yacht Club was once on an island but now forms part of a large peninsula. I wonder when they will stop.

That said, there’s still a lot of water. In fact the Bay completely dominates the city. And just like other cities dominated by water, it is fairly laid back. People work long hours, but the vibe of the place is a lot closer to Sydney than New York. Maybe it’s also the weather – maybe you need some real cold to generate real uptightness.

One area that was particularly laid back was Lamma Island. We took a ferry from downtown and 20 minutes later we were on the island – which was a world away – full of organic veg and people on bicycles. I bet the Birkenstock index is through the roof there too. Actually I love the fact that it’s a major international city with seven or so million people packed in, mostly vertically, but take a ferry for 20 minutes, or take a short drive out of town and it gets jungle-y really quickly, complete with monkeys and a completely different atmosphere.

I’ve heard it is slowly diminishing but you really can still and feel the English influence. It’s mostly in little things – buildings have a ground floor, there are many places to have afternoon tea and people queue (that’s probably the weirdest part – people wait for others to get off a train before piling on and the queue for Starbucks was an actual, organised LINE!). Most people speak English – even the taxi drivers – hallelujah! People drive on the left in right hand drive cars and the plugs are the three point UK ones. However one thing that stands out in its distinct un-Englishness is the public transport system which seems to be extremely efficient.

One thing I didn’t experience is the local favourite pastime which appears to be shopping. Everyone seems to go mad for it. There are many, many, many shops – an interesting mixture of European, Asian, Austrialian and US brands. Even Marks and Spencers! I didn’t check if they carried anything larger than a SMALL not least of all because I was at least twice the size of anyone I saw shopping and it’s never good to feel like a heffalump. It’s so much easier to shop in the US where heffalumps are far more common 😉

All that shopping stimulates the appetite though, which explains the second favourite pastime of locals – which is eating. There are soooo many places to eat and the ones I tries were really rather good. We managed to sample a real cross section from a mad Chinese diner where we had breakfast to a really rather chi-chi international restaurant where we had one of the most beautifully presented meals I’ve ever had.

So now I understand why everybody goes to Hong Kong to shop, but actually it’s a great city to just hang out it. It’s not as packed with “must see” locations as for example, London, but it’s still a great place. I’m sure I’ll be back.





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