0.5 Days of Summer

26 Aug
Gaudi's Parc Guell

Gaudi’s Parc Guell

I started this summer with the intention of filling my spare time with things like reading for fun and updating this blog. This hasn’t gone to plan, and not because I’ve been procrastinating from procrastination, but because I became employed.

On my first day out of Uni, a mere week after my last post, I had an interview, got the job, and began training the next week. Although definitely very fortunate and exceptionally lucky, this employment hadn’t exactly featured in my summer plans of catching my breath after three years of rather intensive study… I wasn’t ready to enter the real world; to no longer laugh in the face of council tax bills, to go to a shop without flashing the NUS card or to have, and to openly justify, both day pajamas and night pajamas.

So, after an all too brief trip to Barcelona (the beautiful city above) and a very speedy Graduation ceremony (in which I didn’t fall over), both of which fit in the space between interview and first day, I started working full-time in the big smoke. It was quite the transition and extremely overwhelming. I know the shock was at first attached the novelty, but since those first few days I’m not sure it’s quite left me. The resonant shock, however, is also probably due to the fact that little over a month later I’m sitting in a strange house that’s monopolising most of my meager salary. I am living with strangers and appear to have moved into a joke house: you touch it, it falls off wall.

So it’s a case of ‘get with the program’ and a trial by fire in both work, life and living. I commuted for a month. Never again. Until you’ve been stuck for hours by various things on the rails, running out of polite conversation with the person you’re sat next to, you may not appreciate this sentiment. I did, however, morph into the stereotype quite rapidly…its amazing how quickly commuter life embraces you. Before you know it your watching recorded programs on a tablet like the best of them, reading the Metro religiously and getting irritated by those people doing normal, everyday journeys who are, most definitely, in the way. These few weeks did come with one major revelation: what I lack in being perfect armpit height I definitely make up in being able to work my way around people and onto a train. It turns out no-one questions the short girl who just appears in front of them, especially when paired with the nonchalant look I’ve been cultivating. It’s an art form.

I’ve always believed change to be a good thing, but it turns out what I really meant was change in moderation, which kind of negates the idea of change altogether really. I feel like I keep falling into new things – I’m not stepping into them, and I’m not being thrown into them…it is more of a stumble, a clumsy drift into the next step rather than any sort of calculated movement.

And so begins the next step, or the next stumble. I’m going to spend the next few weeks, or possibly months, working out if the job is for me, whether the corporate world is anything like the movies and finding my feet in the big city.

 

Opportunity’s Fool

24 Jun

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of good times and goodbyes, the frantic last minute attempt to do everything, see everyone, to experience the things that had been put off until “next time” over the last three years. That “next time” has become now, as putting it off ’till later becomes never.

I made it to the Lake District, to the beautiful Grasmere, as a post-dissertation treat and to see a good friend who had moved there. Here life was picturesque and perfect for her, I was overjoyed to find that she had forged a happy life there, and am determined to go back to that very lovely part of the country. Below are a selection of photos I took from the visit and of a walk up to Easedarn Tarn.Image

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Not only is University ending for me, but I’m moving 300 miles south. Something I’m even more apprehensive about is that this move is back to the parental nest, a place I inherently love, yet have let go of. To move back is potentially more daunting than the move to University, yet for a very different reason. Studying thrusts so many opportunities into your path, and staying at an institution away from home is a safe expanse to try out this thing called ‘growing up’. However, bringing all this back to rules and rooms I’ve outgrown is asking for trouble. And now experiences aren’t going to be offered on a plate. They’re going to have to be sought and bought, and they’re going to have to play second fiddle to the search for a career and my place in the working world. So what’s next? A holiday to Barcelona, a summer job, potentially(/hopefully) a few interviews and then a very open few months. By the end of 2014 I anticipate I will begin my ‘career’ and I’m hoping to have found my feet, at least to some extent.

Finally, this is a picture I took at my Graduation Ball, the sun setting on an exciting, varied University life. It definitely feels like an end of an era, but I’ve had a really good run here and I’ll miss it terribly.

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How Quickly Time Flies

18 May

This blog began as I stared at an expanse of plan-less time ahead of my gap year. Back then I had high hopes for University and the year that was to precede it. It’s funny how I’ve come full-circle now the end of my degree, and student years, is imminent. I am, yet again, facing life without a clear direction. That’s not to say I don’t have plans or hopes and dreams, but there is nothing to direct me here or there. It’s both terrifying and liberating.

 

I have LOVED being a student. From the opportunities thrown my way to the discounts, life in the University bubble has been pretty fulfilling, and, as that suggests, it’s been pretty chockablock full. I’ve been to China, arranged a city-wide Carnival, edited sections of an award-winning newspaper, helped form an anthology joining my university to one in Juba, South Sudan, and all of this on top of my degree and some other incredible life experiences. I’ve met some incredible people that make me call my student house home (much to my mum’s upset) and who I will treasure as friends forever.

 

I hand in my final piece of work tomorrow morning, the Dissertation I’ve been crafting for months, and then it is it for my student life. I await the results, become a graduand and then, all going well, a graduate. I know this isn’t a novel experience, and it will be so interesting to see how people move on, away and up from where we are now. But it is, for me now, a very strange experience to be on the brink of both student and, well, unemployed. I’m leaving the place that, for better or worse, currently defines me. 

So, with all this said, I’m going to be posting a lot more. I’ll document finding my niche, exploring the world and working my way into the life I want to lead. I know this blog, as a whole, is a bit random but for the moment I’m just happy to keep espousing (sorry, dissertation brain) my stream-of-consciousness (sorry, English student…or at least I was…where is the line between is and was?) into the void. 

Miles and Miles of No-Man’s Land

11 Mar

I don’t reblog things very often (possibly because I don’t post things that often – although this is soon to change!) but I found this incredibly moving, impassioned and like a window into something I try, and often fail, to fully comprehend.

For someone you love to be in a place you can’t fully reach is hard. It is trying and it is difficult and there seems to be nothing to say to make it right, to show you understand or appreciate something that isn’t really available to be appreciated by yourself, not really, not fully.

But the imagery, and the truth, in this post really touched me, and I wanted to pass it along.

Libba Bray

This is the hardest blog I’ve ever attempted to write.

For the better part of eight months, I have been struggling under the thumb of a rather intense depression. This is a monster I’ve battled many times in my life; it is not new. Yet, this has been a particularly brutal one, and I’m not out of the woods yet.

As a writer, I try to write about everything. But it’s hard to write about depression. For one, there’s the fear that the minute you say, “I’m suffering from depression,” people will look at you funny. That they will nod at you with wincing, constipated face, place a hand on your arm and say, with all good intent, “How are you?” And your pain will war with your desire to be “normal” and not looked at funny by sympathetic people at parties. So you will answer, “Fine, thanks” while you’ll…

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Taking on the Wall – Part Two: The New Wall and Meeting the Sea

27 Feb

It has been an awfully long time since I last posted, and almost six months since I visited China. That fact alone is hard to believe – it seems time doesn’t just fly when you’re having fun, but whilst your stressed, studying and doing some normal day-to-day living too.

But to round off my China trip notes with a couple of photos of the wall and the lesser-known cities of China I had the opportunity to visit along the way. I’ll try not to make this too lengthy, but warning – you may be here a little while… (ALL photos taken by myself, September ’13. Yes, even the blurry ones).

Our initial plan to camp was spoiled by an insane storm. It even took out the power in the restaurant (and surrounding village) in which we were eating, so we all concluded that it probably wasn’t the safest of ideas. That left us with a night in a guesthouse where we ended up playing games and trying to work out exactly what was happening on Chinese TV (where all accessible channels are quite ironically owned by the firm CCTV). The strangest thing about Chinese accommodation to us, as Western visitors, is that what they lack in wall fixtures, cleanliness and loose electrical wires (everywhere), they make up for in slippers and toothbrush sets. I will never fully understand why the room we had missing plastering and lamps hanging off the wall, yet came with slippers. The best part of the room was the little courtyard directly in front of it, washing line and all (which lead to a little bit of panic washing for our mud-splattered clothes of the past few days).DSC00644

The third day found us walking about 6 – 7 hours, ready to camp in the evening on the Great Wall itself after a long day of quite literal ups and downs on very broken and difficult terrain. It was a clear, hot day and the wall kept changing from repaired wall to broken steps and extremely steep inclines.

From on top of the watchtower, note the rocks to climb on the left as the only way up.

From on top of the watchtower, note the rocks to climb on the left as the only way up.

Incredible views, but wobbly legs after that climb!

Challenging, as ever, but really worth it! I remember feeling a little less worn out at this point too – I remember thinking that maybe the preparations and previous days had started to pay off! That night we camped. Amazing experience and an amazing talking point, but it was also pretty horrific. In the pitch black night, save our headtorches, we trekked up the side of the mountain. Through reeds, tripping over logs and who knows what else. If you wore your headtorch you met all manner of bugs who wanted to fly into it (and your face). We were also laden down with pop-up tents, roll mats and sleeping bags and the rest of our kit and clothes for at least 2 days of trekking. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience. Strange, once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) and bizarre for sure, but not necessarily pleasant. Luckily the group tried to keep spirits high and once settled in one of the watchtowers, after spotting a (potentially rabid) bat whose home we’d quite definitely invaded, we sat round a makeshift headtorch campfire and told stories. Also bonus points, not only did I end up sleeping on the Great Wall, but I went to the toilet on the Great Wall too. That’s a story to tell the Grandkids…

Great Wall Camping

Great Wall Camping

We got up at 5am after a few hours sleep, desperate for a shower and also desperate to see the sunrise. Unfortunately the Gods of mist were not kind that day…

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And then off for another day of trekking – the terrain was pretty strange this time round; across corn-fields, down mountainsides and across a small rural hostel (complete with Western toilets!) before we met the wall again and encountering the Great Wall Marathon. I felt particularly drained at this point, having had little sleep and aching muscles and really spent a good hour or two wondering how I could give up. I started lagging behind – not great for the ‘adventure leader’, but as some members of the group were similarly suffering, one of whom had genuine reason, I persevered. I kept reminding myself why I was there in the first place, raising almost £2000 for charity on my own, let alone the £60000 we raised as a group. After watching these people running up and down the wall for the Marathon too, I definitely realised I had nothing to moan about!

We reached the end, saw the most amazing stone mural and drove for a few hours to a place our guide Chenney called JiJi City. Apart from seemingly hosting a car horn competition whilst we were there, at all hours of the day and night, it was pretty amazing. We ventured in the late afternoon to a temple made entirely of wood with a gigantic statue inside. The temples and monasteries we visited seemed to often have angry-looking deities inside, Unfortunately I can’t remember anymore about their origin than that, if I ever knew it. I love the architecture of these places though, these little round doors really capture my heart.

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As a 90s kid I just walked around singing Mula songs in my head.

As a 90s kid I just walked around singing Mulan songs in my head.

We then ventured to the open city square. This was our first proper encounter of people away from hotels and airports and small villages and if that didn’t seem strange enough for us, after being in the country for almost a week, the people of this city ensured that staring, pointing and laughing at us made it so. Most people were friendly, of course, but I’ve never been in that situation before and it wasn’t easy to get used to! The car situation was crazy too. We’d seen it from the bus, people just driving at each other on the wrong side of the road until the biggest vehicle gave way. We had even seen party-bunting used as road markings and a memorable incident of watching a genuine cow pulling a trailer on a motorway. After dinner we wandered back to the square to see rows and rows of people dancing, moving in exactly the same way. A bit cult-y, we moved on and looked around the streets, again extremely busy and full of cars who didn’t really seem to be following any sort of rule. Then the best thing ever happened. They brought out what were essentially inflatable bumper cars that drove on pavement – which of course we drove in, and then drove off. It was not that fast, but when you’re spending time dodging small children, strange synchronised dancing women, and normal bystanders, it was beyond hilarious.

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Road or pavement, who knows?

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Identical dance routines.

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If you haven’t been on one of these, you don’t know fun!

Needless to say, I definitely slept better than night, and had the much desired shower too!

After this we took on heaven’s ladder – a few miles of walking constantly upwards before reaching a stone staircase. I wrote about it before with fear, and although it wasn’t ungrounded, it didn’t look anything like I imagined. It was tough, and we thought we wouldn’t make it, but with a little help of Chenney’s phone blasting out really incongruous music we made it to the top, albeit screaming ‘She will be loved’ at the top of our voices. Maroon 5 will never be the same for me again. At the top we waited for the rest of the group who, unknown to us, had gone ahead and walked an extra mile. We even had a close shave with a killer hornet wasp (which we read about upon our return), 11 girls running from side to side of a 10m squared tower. Must have looked ridiculous, but all we could do was laugh. That night we drove on again, to a city nearing the end of the wall. Four of us went for a quick walk around at night – it was certainly quieter than the last city and the architecture was like a film set.

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The next day we had our last day of proper wall walking, including a tower and a ladder that has become a bit infamous in my memory. I initially planned not to go up, it was after all a few steel bars and a couple of hundred feet drops either side. It encouraged a sudden fear of heights and falling. I was joined at the bottom by a Chinese family who featured me in their photoshoot for ten minutes, teaching me typical Asian poses, before I realised the only way was up that ladder, and then down another on the other side. The family were so nice and offered to take all my stuff, which a member of my group later took up for me kindly. Eventually, after being quite pathetic, I manned up and climbed it. Was a bit shakey at the top but I conquered it! Unfortunately this was also immortalised on film and my terrified and pitiable state was included in the promo for the trip with Student Adventures. Perhaps this was the smallest mountain to conquer, but it certainly felt like a big one! We then went on to a beautiful monastery and then a ski lift down to the bottom again. It was, as titled by Jess, essentially a wooden park bench on a pole. But we made it (just. In true clumsy fashionmy bag attached to the wooden slats and there was a bit of a scramble to ensure I didn’t go up and round again).

The Ladder of Doom

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The angry deities I mentioned before were huge in this monastery

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The final day of trekking saw us go to the Shanhaiguan Great Wall museum and then on to Old Dragon’s Head, where the wall enters the sea. It was a relief to know we couldn’t physically walk any more East on the wall, but it was also disappointing. I would love to do it all over again, and would do so in a hearbeat (perhaps minus the uphill night climb to camping). We finished the time off here visiting another small temple on a pier, and then going on a speedboat ride around the harbour. That afternoon we drove on again before ending up at the beach. I never thought I’d see a beach in China – and I really don’t know why that sounded like an oxymoron. We’d traversed jungle, cities and now the seaside. It was simply an incredible place to see.

Great Wall Museum and some tired trekkers

Great Wall Museum and some tired trekkers

Old Dragon's Head

Old Dragon’s Head

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Utilising my normal pose at the very eastern end of the Wall

Utilising my normal pose at the very eastern end of the Wall

From here we travelled back to Beijing for a few days of sightseeing, and then onto Shanghai (though not without difficulty!) to that amazing city and a few surrounding ‘smaller cities’ of over 15 million people. The vast scale of this nation is beyond my comprehension, even now. I’ll probably pop up a picture intensive blog about those two cities, but for now I think I’ll leave it here, May be 5 months late, but I do miss these few weeks of tough challenge, great company and beautiful views. It was an incredible experience with (some very literal) ups and downs. But even with the limited downs included, would I have changed a minute of it? Definitely not, not for all the tea in China, that’s for sure.

Taking on the Great Wall – Part One: The Wild Wall

4 Oct

I’m back from the greatest few weeks of my life to date. I absolutely loved China – everything about it, good or bad, seemed a world away from the culture I’m used to and it was a great break from life as I knew it. However, having said that, China wasn’t as far from life as we in the West know it too – it was vibrantly modern in parts and enviously simplistic in others. It definitely also managed to retain a distinct charm that was almost tangible, especially in the temples and on some of the older and less touristy streets.

Without detailing absolutely everything as I’m prone to do, I’d really like to share some of the stories and images that make up my memories of the few weeks I spent in this amazing country and as it was my reason for going, I shall start with the Great Wall.

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The Great Wall at Jinshanling, taken by myself. Sep ’13

They say that you can see it from space, and although logic says this can’t be true (you can’t, after all, see the M1 from space and its much, much wider) there is something so majestic about the structure that the illogical part of you doesn’t want to deny it. We were there as novices and had, between us, raised over £60,000 for two incredible charities (Breast Cancer Campaign and The Make-a-Wish Foundation) in the process of getting there. With images like the one I took above in our minds, we set out from London for a twenty odd hour journey to Beijing (with a short layover in Dubai). The 21 strong group had different expectations, I’m sure, but after our first (very sleepy) night in a Beijing hotel and our first Chinese-style breakfast and lunch, we set out on our very first trek and encountered the wall.

The Great Wall in stealth mode - taken by myself, Sep '13.

The Great Wall in stealth mode – taken by myself, Sep ’13.

What this picture shows is the Wall, without walls. What most of the glossy photos don’t show is that the vast majority of the wall has fallen into disrepair and although the government do frequently restore sections, the wall is estimated to be over 5000 miles long and, as such, there are obviously areas that become neglected. This was the ‘wild’ wall. Completely overgrown, broken stones and deserted, this was our scenery and our path for a good two days. In the above picture you can also see just how far up the mountainsides the wall is – the village below is where we had begun our trek (and where I had established just how unfit I truly was). At least to me this justifies why parts of the wall are less restored – it is definitely not easy to do that trek once, let alone every day with tools in hand.

For the time on the sections of the wall like this I didn’t see another human that wasn’t with our group. It was an insular beginning and more physically tough than I could have ever imagined, but the views were just so stunning that at every new peak and after every tough climb I almost forgot the aches and the scratches and just went “wow”, over and over again. We trekked and climbed for hours, trees and branches became both best friends, saving us from falling and steadying our climbs and descents, and also our attackers – bare arms don’t do too well when you’re surrounded by jungle and your attention is drawn to the uneven stones that masquerade as the floor of the Wall. Something else I learnt on this first day is that going down a mountainside is treacherous; the strain affects very different muscles to going uphill.

The second day on the wall brought new challenges. I discovered that I seem to have a penchant for voicing everything I’m feeling when I’m either scared or tired, emotions which dominated my trek experience, particularly on this day. Looking back I feel very guilty for the amount of moaning I must have unleashed to those around me. The group were always so supportive and such lovely, amusing and genuine people – I was very fortunate to have them alongside me and to have shared this experience with them. We were forewarned by our guides that this was going to be an especially tough day and I was even pulled aside to double check that I wanted to do it, which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Then again, neither did the rather ominous statement of “once we go up, we don’t come down again” that was uttered more often than perhaps necessary. As a short human being, with not particularly long limbs, there were parts of the trek that we’re really quite difficult – there is only so far my legs can physically stretch and some steps were a few inches too big to comfortably climb.  The second day showed this to particular effect and when I was halfway up the mountain on the way to the wall I was quite frequently cursing myself for being my stubborn self, encouraged by their doubt to prove them (and myself) wrong, and deciding to climb. However, as with the day before, after the difficulty came the absolute beauty. This was, most definitely, the best thing I have ever seen.

View from the Jiankou Section of the Great Wall - taken by myself, Sep '13

View from the Jiankou Section of the Great Wall – taken by myself, Sep ’13

And this, this was how good I felt…

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Jiankou Section

I was on top of the world – I’d never done anything quite like it and who knows when I will again. The struggle, the bruises…all of it for that view and that intense feeling of success…I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. This second day epitomised the whole trek – tough (very tough) but oh so totally worth every minute of it.

Later on in the same trek – my memory of this day goes on forever, as I’m sure it felt at the time too – we started encountering people and the wall, once ruggedly beautiful and wall-less became ‘new’ and restored. We had left the jungled areas of the first two days and entered a very shiny and popular section of the wall known as Mutianyu. It is still very empty compared to sections such as Badaling and Shanghaiguan, but nethertheless compared to the wall we had trekked it was very different and very busy! This ‘new’ wall had its own challenges too – steps, hundreds and thousands of them. They also weren’t uniform in appearance or size; there wasn’t a way you could get into a regular rhythm and instead you had to be careful of steps being a lot lower or higher than the one before. It also seemed a lot steeper than before, but it was the wall I had anticipated and the views were certainly no less beautiful.

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And, at the end of this stretch, was something equally beautiful…a cable car! After the long climb to the wall and the trek along it covering numerous vertical and horizontal miles it was a pleasant feeling to not have to trek down! We met some interesting men from Sudan in the cable car, enjoying the wall like us (although we definitely had to explain our sweat-ridden and trek-equipped states as many take the cars up and down and few trek the whole day like we did). This was also our first experience of shopping in China, dozens of stallholders thrusting t-shirts and chopsticks into our faces, screaming a rather unbelievable “One Dollar!” at us. I resisted (mostly…) and we continued on to dinner and a planned night of camping on the wall itself.

 

Trekking the Great Wall of China

14 Aug

Seeing as this is going to be one of the most challenging and amazing things I have ever done in my life, so far, I am really keen to blog about my trip to China and my seven-day extreme hike across the Great Wall of China.

We’re set to encounter the ‘wild’ wall; broken stones and a rather intimidating stretch (that looks almost 180 degrees) known as ‘Heaven’s Ladder’.

Heaven’s Ladder in the mist. Image from Mark B. Griffith’s Flickr.

As a trekking novice this has all been an eye-opening experience, and I’m not even on the wall itself yet! I can help but feel wholly unprepared, both physically and mentally, for the trip and the trek itself. I have little over two weeks to ready myself, my kit (and my visa!) for this epic adventure. 

After the Great Wall I’m also going to be spending a little time in Beijing and Shanghai, using both domestic airlines and the High-Speed rail network, and I really want to blog about that so keep your eyes peeled (not literally) for that in a month or so’s time!

Ahead of my trek, however, I have begun a series of pages of information for the trek, preparations and, hopefully, reviews of places and kit which I will do after proper testing and use ‘in the field’, so to speak. You can find these pages here, or at the top of this page. I hope these will be of use to somebody as I have had a real hard time finding any information tailored to a novice at trekking, and especially any information not secretly trying to sell me something.

Alongside this I will be more active on this blog, updating my reading list and making everythign a little more open 🙂

Goodbye, Zhai jian!

The Jiankou section of the wall, another shot of Heaven’s formiddable ladder. Image from GreatWallForum.com.