Culture Shock and The Realities of Study Abroad

It’s been exactly four months since I flew home from Shanghai to London. At the time, I couldn’t wait to come home. Not that I didn’t love Shanghai, but I’d been living there for almost a year and felt like I’d done all that I wanted to do, and that it was time for the next adventure. Yet, now that enough time has passed for me to forget the day-to-day reality of my study abroad experience, and instead focus on the grander, more exciting moments – I’m pining terribly for Shanghai. I miss the steamed buns, the ridiculously cheap transport, the way you could go to one of the fanciest cocktail bars in town and still buy a drink for around £5. I miss the tree-lined boulevards of the French Concession, speeding in and out of traffic on a scooter, having hundreds of types of tea to peruse at Tea City. I miss the people that I met, especially Bianca who became one of my closest friends. She is still in Shanghai, having the time of her life without me. Quite selfish in my opinion.

When drinks are so cheap, it’s only right that you get the entire tasting platter
My partner in crime and I

I’ve always had a tendency to be extremely nostalgic. I find it a challenge to be present, and would rather romanticize the past or the future as a means to escape existing in the now. This can be a problem while traveling, as before I’ve finished enjoying the trip I’m on, I’m hyper-conscious of time running out, and already on to planning the next one. While I’m sat here wishing I was back in Shanghai, and looking through rose-tinted glasses, I have to remind myself that it wasn’t perfect. While the challenges definitely helped me grow, it was not smooth sailing, and I had periods where I felt very disheartened. Some of this I’ve already talked about on this blog – managing missed flights, losing bank cards, filing insurance claims, cracking my head open and ending up in hospital.

It would seem that perhaps I’m in the re-entry phase of culture shock whereupon you crave to return to the country you were placed in. I remember being in a pre-departure talk before studying abroad, and the speaker was trying to explain the phenomenon to us. One sure fire sign, is when the things that excited you in the beginning, what is termed ‘the honeymoon period’ start to really frustrate you. Things that seemed quirky, like the food, or the way that the traffic seems to have a logic of its own, becomes aggravating. Everyday tasks that should be easy like doing your laundry, buying food or hopping in a taxi now seem insurmountable, especially for students with no previous language experience of the host country they find themselves in. I was lucky enough to have Chinese friends who could help me use Chinese apps to order a taxi, accompany me to the phone shop to help me buy a sim card, and ring the bank to cancel my lost card and order in a new one. While I’m so grateful for their kindness, this dependency can make you feel quite powerless in a way.

Image source: Global Graduates

I was never overtly aware of culture shock, but could feel it subconsciously permeating through a lot of what I did. I knew it was there, for example, when I was dreaming about home every night. There are so many differences between Chinese and British culture that it would be difficult to cover them all, but one thing that really bothered me in particular was the total excess of bureaucracy in China. Everything seems to be done completely by the book, with no room for manoeuvrability, even if it’s something as simple as trying to substitute an ingredient in a meal at a restaurant – which made it even more difficult being a vegetarian in Shanghai. I’ll explore differences in censorship, and educational systems in more detailed posts as they require more in-depth explanation, but just in general, the West as a whole and Asia are so different. Graphic artist Yang Liu has produced posters, which now make up her book East meets West, which illustrate some of these polar differences. Some of the images might seem slightly reductive or an oversimplification but I personally found them to be pretty accurate at explaining the differences in a succinct, simple manner (West is blue, East is red).

For me, culture shock was anything debilitating, it was more the occasional onset of low moods, which could’ve been due to a multitude of things. I still don’t really know what culture shock is or how it can be measured, I suppose it’s different for every person. Even now, I find it hard to believe that I was in China for a good part of the year. Perhaps one of the reasons that culture shock was minimised in Shanghai as opposed to the rest of China is that it the most westernised city and a lot of the time you could be forgiven for thinking you were walking down a street in, say, New York. This definitely isn’t the case in other cities like Suzhou where traditional Chinese gardens and architecture mirror the idea of China that most people hold in their mind. Shanghai is the largest city in China (and the world, by population) but to tell the truth, I’ve felt more claustrophobic in Oxford Street, although perhaps my experience was different because our university and dormitory is in the French Concession, which is one of the quieter areas.

There is no cure for culture shock, although distracting yourself with a full schedule seems to help. Making friends with local people who can help to immerse you more into the culture so that it isn’t so alien to you is always helpful. Something I found to relieve the stress was to make a list of what I wanted to achieve from my year abroad, and all of the things that I loved about my host country to look back on when you’re missing home. It’s quite a good idea to keep a journal in general, to help put things into perspective during your time there and after you arrive home.

While now I could write extensively about the things I miss about Shanghai, I could probably write just as much about the things I don’t miss, and looking back on journal entries helps remind me of that. It might just turn out to be the best year of your life, but expecting that adds an immense amount of pressure, especially when you’re first settling in and struggling to adjust. A semester or a year is a long time, and you probably won’t love every minute of it. It made it a lot easier that another girl on the course was also British. When we were feeling homesick, Rachel and I used to have Brit days where we’d go to Mr Harry’s (a British restaurant) and watch something like the British Bake Off. There’s not much that a roast dinner and cup of English breakfast tea can’t fix!

Mr Harry’s

Ich Bin Ein Berliner

“Ich bin ein Berliner.” That’s what JFK proclaimed standing in front of the Rathaus Schöneberg in 1963, just 22 months after East Germany had erected the Berlin Wall. It was to express the United States’ support for West Germany and to underline that as people who stand for unity and democracy, we are all Berliners. Berlin during the Cold War is one of the main interests that I pursued during my third stay in Berlin. I learned extensively about the Weimar Republic and the Nazi rule in history lessons, but never reached as far to cover the topic of the aftermath of World War II in Germany. Whether it’s tracing your fingers across chewing gum studded remnants of the wall, or walking across the Tranenpalast (the border crossing where families used to say goodbye to each other), it’s still difficult to fully grasp the extent of division which was apparent in Berlin. For those who are not very familiar with German history, here’s a brief (albeit an oversimplification) summary of events: after WWII, the victorious allies carved Germany up between them. The West was divided up and allocated to France, the US and the UK, and the East went to the Soviet Union.

Meat Mural by Marcus Haas

As so many people from the East relocated to the West, the GDR (German Democratic Republic – the official name for East Germany) put up a wall to prevent people from moving. This started as a simple structure, but eventually morphed into the extensive wall that we tend to think of when we envision the Berlin Wall. Obtaining a permit to enter the West became increasingly more difficult until it was near impossible. Countless families were torn apart, and people went to desperate attempts to cross the wall. Tunnels were dug, hot air balloons were crafted, planes were hijacked. Those who were manning the wall were told to shoot anyone they saw attempting to escape on sight. At least 140 people were killed or died at the Wall in connection with the East German border regime between 1961 and 1989. It is more difficult in speculating how many people died at the hands of the GDR regime, as many ‘accidents’ conveniently occurred and there were no records kept of suicide statistics.

Berlin Wall memorial at Potsdamer Platz

You can see traces of the wall, the barbed wire and the lampposts across the city. One of the most popular sections that are still standing is the East Side Gallery which was decorated by artists from all over the world who turned the grim, grey wall into the largest open air collection of murals in the world. The art is beautiful and definitely worth a look, although it can get pretty overcrowded at times. I went the last time I came to Berlin on an InterRail trip, but aside from walking past it and admiring it, I didn’t spent too much time there this year. Perhaps a more insightful primer is the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer which extends for 1.4km in one of the areas most affected by the construction of the wall. It’s an outdoor, free exhibition and memorial which includes original remnants of the wall, with engaging information throughout, to read, to watch and to listen to, including sections such as the lives of those who manned the wall and escape methods used. The grounds and open-air exhibition is open daily from 8am-10pm. The Visitor Centre, which has a viewing platform, is open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm.

Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer

Another free exhibition is at Checkpoint Charlie, named as such as it was the main gateway for foreigners and diplomats between the two Berlins, and the border between the American and Soviet sections. This outdoor open-air exhibit provides more of an overview on Cold War history in general. This is also a museum located here, Museum Checkpoint Charlie (also known as the Wall Museum) which you can pay to enter. The Checkpoint itself is more of a tourist trap, with people paying €3 euros for a photo with dressed up American soldiers (unless you flirt your way to a series of free photos. €3? Ha. Don’t make me laugh).

For more of an insight into the policing of East Germany, the Stasimuseum which charts the methods of the Secret Police in their former headquarters, was fascinating. The Stasi watched everyone’s every move, and had informants in every corner. If they wanted to keep an eye on you, as well as bugging your house and phone with cameras, they’d also recruit someone from your family, your workplace, your friendship group, etc. If you said anything to ‘undermine’ the party or their intentions, or acted in a way that they deemed wrong, then you were liable to be arrested, or have an ‘accident’. They refrained from physical torture as they didn’t want any visible evidence of their regime when they sold political prisoners to West Germany. Instead, they relied on psychological warfare and destabilization, driving people to psychosis and suicide. As they had studied you incessantly, they knew everything – your hopes, your dreams, your fears and this enabled them to personalize their torture to ensure they broke you. The culture of denunciation reminded me starkly of the Mao era in China.

The Stasi Museum

There are free guided tours in English at 3pm Thursday-Sunday. Our tour guide was amazing. Although she fully conveyed the horrors that the Stasi conducted, she also humanized them. She told us to bear in mind that post-War, many people didn’t see the Soviets as the ‘bad guys’ as they’d helped liberate the Germans from Hitler. Therefore, a lot of people who worked for the Stasi genuinely thought they were doing what was best for the people of East Germany, protecting them from capitalists and ensuring that a war never occurred on German soil again. You see a range of material that they used for watching people. Something I found particularly interesting was a clunky bird house with a clearly visible camera on the front. As our guide explained, there’s no need to invest in specialist equipment when you can put up a seemingly ‘obvious’ camera. If people know they’re being watched, they behave.

Bird house camera

I didn’t get time to go to the Stasi Prison (officially called the Gedenkstatte Berlin-Hohenschonhausen) but I’ve heard that it’s also very insightful and chilling – the tours are often led by former inmates and reveal the abuse they used to endure. The DDR Museum is also apparently a great one to go to, is very interactive and informative on communism and life in East Germany. Again, sadly I didn’t have enough time for this. I think I’d need a solid fortnight to work my way through all the museums that I’d like to go to in Berlin! Something that is particularly fitting for reflections on the Cold War is the Brandenburg Gate. Once a symbol of the Cold War as it separated East and West Germany during the years of the Wall, the Brandenburg Gate is now a symbol of the unification of Germany, a patriotic symbol, which seems adept with Liberty riding a chariot atop the structure.

The Brandenburg Gate

I was staying in Friedrichstrain which was formerly East Berlin. I’d definitely recommend the area – and the hostel I stayed in, Industriepalast. It was less than a five-minute walk to the S-Bahn and Underground stations, just over a five-minute walk to the East Side Gallery, and the area is full of amazing places to eat. Perhaps the most advantageous is that it is the main district for nightlife, with Suicide Circus, Berghain, RAW and many others within its confines. Bursting at the seams with street art and cheap food (it even has a vegan supermarket!), what more could you want?

Zum Schmutzigen Hobby

If you want more of an introduction to the history of East vs West Berlin before your trip, but don’t fancy reading up on it, I’d definitely recommend watching The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin! They are both two of my favourite films and critically acclaimed in their own right. The former is about a Stasi officer who becomes enwrapped in the lives of a couple he’s spying on, and the latter is about a boy who does what he can to prevent his mother from finding out that the GDR has fallen after she wakes up from a long coma.

Happy Planning!

How To Do Tokyo On A Budget: Things To See & Do

Contrary to popular opinion, there are plenty of cheap (and even free) things to do in Tokyo, so a trip there doesn’t have to burn a hole in your wallet. As I explored in Part 1, I had to manage survival in Tokyo on a budget of less than £20 a day, so found myself being more selective about what I did and where I ate. I was pleasantly surprised with the number of cheap attractions on offer.

IMPERIAL PALACE

The Imperial Palace is the official residence of the current emperor, Akihito. I didn’t realise this, but much like the United Kingdom, Japan is a constitutional monarchy, so the emperor doesn’t have any substantial political power. While you can’t go inside the residency, the palace grounds are free to walk around, and there is a park, bridges, and moats to admire. Free tours are run by the Imperial Household Agency most Tuesdays through to Saturdays (some exceptions July-Aug or public holidays) at 10:30am or 1pm and last around 75 minutes. On Sundays (weather dependent), from 10am-3pm, you can rent bicycles for free to take for a 3km lap around the Imperial Palace. The palace was built on the site of the old Edo Castle and within the beautiful East Gardens where you can see remnants of the original castle fortifications which still stand.

PARKS

Despite being a bustling, futuristic metropolis, like London, Tokyo has a number of beautiful parks to explore with a camera or relax with a picnic. Shinjuku Gyoen (this one charges a small admission fee), Kasai Rinkai, Showa Kinen – the list is endless. My two favourites, however, were Yoyogi and Ueno. Yoyogi park is perfect for people watching and is where you will find cliques like the Harajuku girls on a Sunday.

The area of Harajuku itself is also worth an explore, with quirky fashion street Takeshita nearby which then juxtaposes with the boulevard lanes of Ometasando lined with designer stores (window shopping is entirely free!) The Louis Vuitton building also has a gallery at the top called Escape. Even if you don’t fancy the current exhibition being shown there, you can get a great view on the city!

Ueno was conveniently located right next to my hostel so I had ample opportunity to explore it. It is free to go into, and is also one of Tokyo’s oldest parks (it was established in 1873). It has a beautiful pond, spacious grounds, a large collection of museums and a shrine (although the latter two vary in admission procedures).

MUSEUMS & GALLERIES

A lot of museums and galleries are free, or at least have good student discounts. In the park just mentioned, Ueno, there are a whole host of choices: The National Science Museum, The Museum of Western Art, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Art (TMMA) and the Tokyo National Museum (TNM). I went to the latter two, and with a student card, I paid ¥410 for the TNM, and was granted free entrance to the TMMA. You could easily spend a day in Ueno combining these two, the TNM alone takes a while to get around as it has five exhibition halls.

I also checked out the Mori Art Museum which was hosting the Charming Journey exhibition by N.S Harsha which explored post-colonial India, philosophy and the effect globalization has on human rights and trade. What was on at the National Art Centre didn’t appeal to me (and I was still bitter about just missing the Yayoi Kusama exhibition), but usually they have pretty good stuff. You have to pay for admission, but prices are reasonable. At the moment, both galleries are hosting Contemporary Art from South East Asia 1980s to Now and it’s ¥800 for a student ticket to both, or 500 for a student to ticket to one (around £3).

Mizuma is an art gallery which doesn’t charge any admission, is a good size, and also has branches in China and Singapore. When I was there it was exhibiting Lust by Matsukage.

SHRINES & Temples

Most shrines and temples are free to visit. Meji Shrine is free and is located next to Yoyogi park, so it’s ideal to combine the two. It’s dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken who used to frequent an iris garden in the location that it is built.

Nezu Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in Tokyo. Even if you don’t believe the legend that says that it was created around 2,000 years ago, it is proven to be dating from at least 1705, which is still quite impressive.

Yasakuni Shrine is dedicated to those who served for their country, but is also deemed quite controversial as it enshrines even those who were found guilty of being war criminals. It also has a museum next to it, Yushu-Kan, about Japanese military history which some find to be a nationalistic and a skewed representation.

Ueno Shrine is inside Ueno Park, and you need to pay to enter inside the walls, although you can walk around the grounds for free. It retains its structure from the Edo period so is well worth a visit.

Akagi-jinga might be particularly interesting to those who are into architecture, as it remodelled to make it look more contemporary and now has a glass box for its main shrine building.

The oldest buddhist temple Senso-Ji and it’s charming grounds are free, although you can pay ¥100 to discover your fortune.

VIEWING PLATFORMS

Along with Escape, there are plenty of other places to get a great view of the city on the cheap. You can, for example, access the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which is made up of two towers. Both towers have observatories at the top that are open from 9am-11pm, making it perfect for tagging on the end of a long day of sightseeing.

Paying for entrance to the Mori Art Museum grants you access to the exhibition and a viewing platform. You can pay also a little extra to go up to the sky deck on nice days which provides you with an open air view, unrestricted by windows.

In part three we’ll be looking at cheap places to eat. Bear in mind though, these suggestions are just the beginning! Tokyo has so much on offer, and there were other cheap attractions that I didn’t get round to. For example, rather than paying to go to a sumo match you can go to see a morning training session in a stable. There are around 45 stables in Tokyo, and the training sessions usually commence early and last for a few hours. You can read more about that here. Something else I wish I had time for was the Tsukiji fish market which holds a famous tuna auction you can attend for free, before treating yourself to a fresh sushi breakfast. Again, it starts early (about 5am) and only a limited number of people can fit inside the auction area. You can read more about that here.

A City with Seoul

While out at dinner with Yun Jin Lee, a lovely South Korean girl who I’d met that evening through a friend, I asked her: which three words would you use to describe South Korean culture and its people? She thought about it and replied, ‘competition, education, and appearance.’ I could definitely see this in the capital I had been exploring, Seoul. There is a huge onus put on education. From schooldays, children work hard, starting as early as 7am, and attending after school cramming sessions that can drag on well into the night. Parents can fuel the competition, hoping for their children to secure a place among the few top-tier universities in what’s been dubbed as an ‘education arms race’ as it will dictate their perceived success in society.

EWHA Women’s University Campus

The emphasis on education is not all bad news, as it is also what transformed South Korea from a war torn country into a leading economy. There are reminders of its past all over the city. For example, statues of comfort women (women forced to work as prostitutes for the Japanese) can be found around the city to commemorate them. You can also visit the Seodaemun Prison which was used by both the Korean government (to suppress uprisings) and the Japanese during the Japanese-Korean Wars.

A statue of a comfort woman
Seodaemun Prison

With South Korea being the plastic surgery capital of the world, it’s no wonder the other key word was appearance. It’s so common, that an operation is often a high-school graduation gift. No wonder then, that the shopping districts (Insadong and Myeongdong were my favourite) overflow with shops specialising in face masks and skin care. The make-up and skin care products are phenomenal and a must buy while you’re in the city. A personal favourite purchase was a face mask that bubbles. If you want to take pampering to the next level, then you can drop into a jjimjilbang (a Korean bath house/spa.) Alongside the multiple indoor & outdoor pools, saunas, cedar baths, and beauty treatments, they have cinemas, game rooms, restaurants and chill out/meditation areas. They are open 24 hours a day and you can even stay there overnight. Dragon Hill is a very good one.

Myeongdong
Insadong
An assortment of face masks, make up removers, face wash, hand cream, a blackhead clearing kit and hair masks

I briefly mentioned in a previous blog post how my trip to Seoul culminated in me missing my flight. Despite this, I think Seoul may just be my favourite city in Asia so far. I know that’s a big claim, but it really blew me away. South Korea seems to be massively underrated, but it has a fascinating history and culture. The food is also unreal. While it’s largely meat-based and famous for its BBQs, it is possible to still thoroughly enjoy it (being a temporary pescatarian definitely helped!) Since being back in the UK, Korean food is actually one of the few Asian cuisines I’ve been hugely craving rather than being sick of the sight of it. I have a long list of London based Korean restaurants I need to attend.

So why should you go to South Korea (or officially, the Republic of Korea, ROK for short) and Seoul in particular? To be honest, if I’d had more time to spare I wouldn’t have limited myself to just Seoul. I would’ve headed out to spend time in the countryside, or gone out to the book village which caught my eye while perusing my guidebook. The good thing about Seoul though, is that it is a good introduction to ROK and a good base from which to start exploring the rest of the country. If you don’t have time to do the latter, you’ll still come away feeling satisfied. You need at least four days in Seoul. I spent five nights and I barely scratched the surface, so I’d recommend a solid week to get through all the main attractions.

THE BASICS

Currency: South Korean Won
Language: Korean
Time Zone: UTC +8
Visa: Not needed (for UK passport holders)

Gyeongbokgung Palace
PALACES & OTHER FOCUSES OF TRADITIONAL KOREAN CULTURE

There are five grand palaces in Seoul which were built in the Joseon dynasty, but we only had time to go to one. We chose Gyeongbokgung, which is the biggest and oldest one. It is a huge complex with museums and a daily changing of the guards ceremony at 10am and 2pm in front of Gwanghwamun (the main gate). It is open Wednesday-Monday whereas most other palaces close on Mondays so this is something to bear in mind when constructing your schedule. The other palaces are: Deoksugung, Changdeokgung (a world heritage site which requires you to join a guided tour), Changgyeonggung (this one has a secret garden) and Gyeonghuigung.

Changing of the Guards ceremony at Gyeongbokgung
Gwanghwamun Gate

Seoul also has an abundance of hanoks (traditional Korean houses). The most popular collection of these in Bukchon Hanok Village which has around 900.

A couple dressed in traditional Korean attire
ARTS AND ARCHITECTURE

Seoul has some beautiful art and architecture. There are tons of galleries and museums, but with limited times and funds we had to be very selective. There are lots of free galleries though, like the ones that are dotted around in Insadong and an abundance of street art.
There is stunning architecture all over the city. Cheonggyecheon, for example, is a man-made river that was installed to bring a natural space into the city and is now a hub of life. The City Hall is also a sight to behold.

Seoul City Hall

There is also a section of Seoul called Mullae-dong or Mullae arts village, which is in a district that is mainly dedicated to steel production. The inhabitants wanted to make it look more aesthetically pleasing and it has since been transformed, with art murals dotted throughout the streets.

FOOD & DRINK

While nightlife in Japan can feel slightly seedy, and China a bit uptight, ROK (or Seoul, at least) seems to strike the perfect balance. Soju (a clear liquor, similar to vodka) is very popular to drink. Don’t underestimate it, with strengths of up to 53%, it’s lethal. I thought I’d be fine. A few hours later and I’m speaking Mandarin to a poor taxi driver and wondering why he’s refusing to take me to my university dorms (which are in Shanghai.) Sounds like too much? Korean beer is pretty good and how can you resist when some are endorsed by K-popstars. Girls Generation have actually outsold Spice Girls (85.10M vs 85M.) GIVE K-POP A CHANCE.

The food is very diverse, with only one certainty – kimchee will be served with everything you order. Kimchee is basically a collection of mini side dishes such as pickled vegetables. This isn’t restricted to just Korean food, I went to an Italian restaurant in the Mullae arts village and the spaghetti still came with kimchee!

Other foods to try:

Yachae Jook (Vegetable porridge which tastes A LOT nicer than it sounds.)

Yachaejeon (The vegetable pancake pictured in the left hand side of the image)

Odeng (fish cakes)

Tteokbokki (Rice cakes in a spicy red sauce)

Melona ice pops (Just a personal fave)

Street food is also very popular, with a very good (if little on the pricey side) selection in Myeongdong

*Special shout out to Abby for making my time in Seoul even better. I met this little ray of sunshine on my first night at the hostel I was staying at as a further testament to the perks of solo travel! We subsequently spent most of our trip together, and then met up in Hong Kong and Shanghai. See you in Utrecht!*

How To: Do Tokyo on a Budget

It’s no secret that Tokyo is a particularly expensive city. The fourth most expensive in the world to be exact. Tell someone that you’re planning to visit Tokyo (or Japan in general) and the first thing they’ll warn you of is that prices are extortionate. However, I was recently in a rather tricky situation in which I was forced to be on a strict budget. Basically, my card had been swallowed by the ATM in my student dormitory, again. This is something which will most likely happen to you if you move to China from the UK. The ATMs here eject your cash first and only produce your card upon prompting (whereas in England both are ejected automatically). If you don’t manually eject it, wave goodbye to your card. Luckily, people come to empty the machine every few days and you can retrieve your card from them. Not so luckily, I was departing for Tokyo the next morning, so I had no choice but to go with the cash I had on me and take my chances, then pick my card up when I returned to Shanghai.

Now, those of you who may know me are probably well-aware that my travels don’t always go smoothly. During my last two trips (to Hong Kong and Seoul), one involved me ending up in hospital after cracking my head open and needing stitches, and the other one culminated in a missed flight (sorry dad, I’ve learnt my lesson ok.) Safe to say, without my bank card in either of these situations, I would’ve been screwed. So it probably wasn’t the best risk to take to travel sans a safety net, but I had spent too much on my flight and thought probability wise, things can’t get much worse than they already have been. I had about £200 on me to see me through five nights, including accommodation, so how did I manage? The article will be split into two parts, with us firstly looking at accommodation and transport.

the basics

Currency: Japanese Yen
Language: Japanese
Time Zone: UTC +9
Visa: Not needed (for UK passport holders)

ACCOMODATION

Pick a time of year that’s low-season. I visited in late May, after the rush of Golden Week and before the summer holidays. This mean I missed the height of cherry blossom season, but beggars can’t be choosers. Consequently, my overall experience (and especially my hostel) was more affordable – in Tokyo terms. I paid around £13 a night for a basic six bed dormitory in Hotel Graphy Nezu which turned out to be one of the best hostels that I’ve ever stayed in. The facilities were luxurious for a hostel. It had two common rooms, a cafe, terrace, living room with books & a large screen TV, a beautiful kitchen, clean rooms, powerful showers and A BATH

Living in a student dorm, long gone are the days when I could take a bath on a whim, and so I spent every evening in the bath trying to make the most of it. It was like a budget version of an Onsen. They also have fancy hair and body wash which most hostels scrimp on (if they provide it at all.) So while it was more expensive than I’m accustomed to paying for a hostel, I had no qualms about coughing up the cash. It’s admittedly out of the way of the centre, but only a 5-min walk from a metro station and in an area that deserves to be explored in its own right (next to Ueno Park with the National Museum, shrines and other galleries.) After paying for this, I worked out that I had around ¥3,000/£20 I could spend a day.

Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
Image courtesy of Hotel Graphy
TRANSPORT & GETTING AROUND

Transport is notoriously expensive in Japan. First and foremost, never take taxis. Even the metro is expensive, so you can imagine the taxi prices. Also, from Tokyo Narita International Airport, rather than taking the sky train into the city, I just took the cheapest option which was the Keisei line. This cost around ¥1,000. **Disclaimer** the £200 I had for my budget in Tokyo does NOT include the flights. The round trip from Shanghai was ridiculously expensive, I paid £420 for mine. I’d been looking at flights since last autumn and waiting to pounce on a cheaper option, but one never came. 

The only way to get it cheaper would be to go on the flights that arrive/leave at ridiculous times in the morning, but then you’d still have to pay to taxi from the airport to Tokyo which would cost you what you’ve saved anyway. I suspect they do it on purpose because either the Chinese government don’t want people going to Japan, or the Japanese government want to make it inaccessible. A girl that I’d met had paid LESS for her round trip from LONDON (she went via Hong Kong). So if you have the choice, don’t fly from China.

Schoolgirls on the metro in Tokyo

During my stay in Tokyo, I walked to my destinations as much as possible. If you’re on a tighter schedule this might not be as possible, but as I had four full days (not inc. Friday evening or Wednesday morning), I essentially dedicated each day to exploring a 1-3 neighbourhoods on foot. On the handy Lonely Planet Guide Travel App that I swear by, they split Tokyo into 11 districts:

1) Shibuya & Shimo-Kitazawa
2) Ginza & Tsukiji
3) Harajuku & Aoyama
4) Ueno, Yanesen & Komagome
5) Marunouchi & Nihombashi
6) Ebisu, Meouro & Around
7) Asakusa & Sumida River
8) Shinjuku & NW Tokyo
9) West Tokyo
10) Akihabara, Kagurazaka & Korakuen
11) Odaiba & Tokyo Bay
12) Roppongi, Akasaka & Around
 Obviously walking may not be physically possible for everyone, but if you can do so, then I would definitely recommend it. I’ve stumbled on many interesting and beautiful sights through walking most places. Then, at the end of the day, I’d usually buy a single ticket on the metro back to my hostel (single tickets are about ¥200-¥300.)

On my last full day in Tokyo, I thought I’d treat myself and buy a 24-hour metro pass and use it as much as possible. It wasn’t until after purchasing it that I realized a lot of the central essential stations were actually on the Toei Line rather than the Tokyo Metro Line. In London, if you buy a (admittedly expensive) day pass for the underground, it is all inclusive, even for the DLR. Can’t Tokyo just make it more simple and have them all under one ticket? Anyway, this could also be a frugal option, but unless you plan to use the metro more than twice a day, then I don’t think it’s worth it. Also, bear in mind that the metro closes around 11pm. If you want to go out at night and are on a budget, then your best bet is to stay out until public transport opens again at 5am.

In Part Two and Three we’ll be looking at cheap things to do and places to eat. In the meantime you can start planning your trip by checking out flights here, Hotel Graphy’s website here, or more hostel options here.

Happy Planning!

Under the Radar: Laos


Laos is often used as a stopover between Thailand and Vietnam. The majority of the travellers that I met whilst there confessed that they were merely there for visa purposes for one of the adjoining countries and didn’t particularly have much admiration for it. Contrary to popular opinion, we loved Laos! I thought it was an amazing country in its own right, and definitely deserving more than stop over status. However, it is enchanting in more subtle ways and doesn’t have the WOW factor that other Asian countries might have so it’s easy to see why it goes under appreciated.

THE BASICS

Currency: Lao Kip
Language: Lao
Time Zone: UTC +7
Visa: Purchase on arrival (for U.K. passport holders)

For Debauchery..

VANG VIENG

As a seasoned backpackers haunt, Vang Vieng is arguably the place in Laos that needs the least advertisement. We met several travellers who headed straight for Vang Vieng and neglected anything else that Laos could offer. This is because it is party central. While it is definitely not as wild as it used to be, it is still a hedonistic escape. It became infamous when in 2011, there was a record number of 27 tourists who died mostly due to drowning or colliding with rocks. This was caused by the phenomenon of tubing: an activity where you float down the river in a rubber tube and are pulled in to various bars by ropes. The combination of excessive drugs, alcohol and tubing was often fatal. With my complete lack of coordination, I found it hard enough to go tubing sober, let alone wasted. The currents are deceivingly strong, there are rocks everywhere and there is no one to supervise you or intervene if anything goes wrong. After the chaos, many of the bars on the river were shut down, but there are still a few that live on, albeit more chill. With conditions improved, it remains a huge tourist pasttime, especially as the river is coupled with the beautiful scenery of the karst formations.

Games in a bar on the tubing course

TUBING TOP TIPS
1) Don’t take any valuables with you. There’s nowhere to put them and people always ended up losing cameras or other precious things.
2) Make sure you are aware of the time. Going around the whole course takes at least a couple of hours and you need to return the tubes back by a certain time to get your deposit back. Tubing in the dark also isn’t fun (not to mention, dangerous), which we discovered after we spending too long at the bar!
3) Try to stick together as much as possible! Tie your tubes together or something. Make sure no-one is left to find their way back alone.
4) Take clothes in a waterproof bag. It is disrespectful to wear swimwear with nothing else in public and annoys locals for cultural and religious reasons.

Other than tubing, Vang Vieng offers many options for outdoors activities. You can go caving, swim in the lagoons or ride in a hot air balloon (we never got to do this, but apparently it’s among one of the cheapest places to do it, so I wish we had). If you are going simply for the party side of things, there is a main ‘strip’ type thing in town which contains the main bars. They rotate happy hours, so you can if you like whisky then you can drink for free. If you hate whisky, try a whisky & pineapple and you’ll be surprised by how much it tastes like juice! We spent around five days here, but you could make the most of it within three.

It’s super cheap, but be wary of being ripped off when you’re drunk. One night I was buying a sandwich and gave the vendor a large bill and he didn’t give me my change. He probably thought I was a typical drunk western girl who wouldn’t notice (which to be fair, usually I am), and when I demanded it, he ended up coming at me with a chair. Luckily the situation was diffused quickly, but safe to say, I didn’t get my change.

The Blue Lagoon

For a UNESCO world heritage town..

LUANG PRABANG

We never made it to Luang Prabang as we were on a tight schedule, but I feel that I’d be doing it a disservice if I didn’t include it here. The city has the status of a UNESCO world heritage site (there are two in total in Laos, the other is Vat Phou, a ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex in the south). It looks stunning. It is home to the Royal Palace museum and gorgeous waterfalls, with temples at every turn. It seems the perfect place to retreat and detox after losing sense of time in Vang Vieng.

Another place that I really wanted to visit in Laos is the Plain of Jars, an ancient historical site containing mysterious giant stone jars of unknown origin in Phonsavan. This is why I’d advice anyone to spend at least a week in Laos rather than the few days that it is usually allotted! It has so much to offer, I will definitely be making a trip back here when I get the chance.

For History & Culture..

VIENTIANE

Pha That Luang

Vientiane is the capital city, but one of the more sparse capitals that I’ve visited. It is a very calm, tranquil city, yet still full of temples, night markets and some cute bars. It’s great if you’re getting fed up of overwhelming cities like Hong Kong and Bangkok. People sometimes complain that there isn’t a lot to do, but there is. There’s not a huge checklist of tourist attractions to run through, but it provides access to Laotian culture and history. COPE Visitor Centre should be number one on your list. COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise and they provide most of the artificial limbs, wheelchairs and walking aids in Laos.


It’s free to enter the exhibit which will teach you about the issues in Laos surrounding undetonated ordnance. Between 1964-1973, more than 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos. This is more than was dropped in Europe during WWII and has earned Laos the titled of the most bombed country per capita in history. 30% of them have yet to explode, and civilians are still dying or becoming seriously injured from encountering them.

The Lao National Museum is located in Vientiane and Pha That Luang is one of the best temples to go to see. If you can handle a trip to the outskirts of the city then the Buddha Park is fascinating. The sculpture park was established in 1958 and contains over 200 statues from Hindu and Buddhist tradition. Tuk tuks are extremely cheap, so just barter for a good price with one who will take you there, wait for you while you look around and then take you back. You can see pretty much everything here in 2-3 days.

Rosie enjoying the Tuk Tuk
Buddha Park

**SOMETHING TO BE AWARE OF IF GOING ON TO VIETNAM**

If you are a UK passport holder, then you are allowed into the country for up to 14 days without pre-purchasing a visa. We were wrongly advised by our hostel and told that we needed one, and subsequently wasted a lot of money. Don’t make the same mistake!

Happy Planning!

Essential China: Everything You Need to Know

One of the best things about studying in Shanghai is the easy access it gives you to the rest of China. China is so well-connected, and a great jumping off point for going further afield and exploring Asia. Obviously, it’s huge, but the transport network ensures that you can get to anywhere in the country in a few hours. This series, ‘Essential China’ will focus on the how to travel around China and places to add to your itinerary. We will cover places such as Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Taiwan, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Suzhou and Nanjing.

Panda in Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

So, why should you go to China? More importantly, why wouldn’t you? As the fourth biggest country in the world, it is diverse. No matter what kind of traveler you are, China has something to offer you. It has one of the most interesting histories on Earth, is brimming with natural beauty, is famous for its unique food, and is rapidly changing and developing all the time. It has the second most UNESCO world heritage sites in the world (34),  surpassed only by Italy. China is both massively underrated and misunderstood. It often gets such a bad press in foreign media that people subconsciously dismiss it or harbour negative conceptions about it.

Street food in Suzhou
East Nanjing Road, Shanghai

Go to a hostel in Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Japan or Vietnam, and you’re bound to be surrounded by foreigners. China, not so much. Perhaps it’s because getting a visa is more difficult, or that it’s not perceived to be as affordable as other Asian countries. People that I’ve spoken to, just don’t seem to be that interested in China, or if they are, they think that a few days in Beijing and/or Shanghai will suffice. It won’t. If you neglect China, you are missing out big time.

View of Qinianmen from the Temple of Heaven, Beijing

THE BASICS

Getting there
Fly direct from London to Shanghai in roughly 11 hours or from London to Beijing in around 10.

Currency
¥ (RMB/CNY)

Time Difference
+7

Language
The official language of the country is Mandarin, but each province has its own dialect. Even Shanghai has its own dialect: Shanghainese. China is divided into 34 areas. The dialects spoken in them can vary as much as from English to Dutch, but the standard script of the written language remains the same. Due to its pictorial language, China is one of very few places where you can speak the language but also be illiterate.

The art of calligraphy in Chengdu
Tea City, Shanghai

Visa
You will definitely need a visa, unless you are planning on just visiting Hong Kong/Macau. Don’t let this put you off though, the process is simple and quick! Depending on whether you are simply traveling, studying or planning to work here, your visa will differ. All information regarding the process including step-by-step guidelines can be found here. Remember that if you’re planning to go to autonomous regions like Tibet, you’ll need to get a separate visa. Due to the political situation there, foreigners aren’t permitted to travel there solo and must go with a tour group which can be expensive. The best offer I’ve found is here.

Map of China. Image credit: Travel China Guide

Getting around
Something that I’ve found, is that there are many people traveling around China with tour companies. This is so unnecessary. Granted, China is more difficult for the average traveler, but if anything, this ensures that it’s more of an adventure. Do it alone. I believe in you. If you want to attempt to explore the entire country, it may be necessary for you to occasionally take internal flights between your destinations. However, the train network is also huge and continually expanding and developing. There are bullet trains connecting most major cities, for example, you can get from Shanghai to Beijing in less than five hours.

If you’re not in a rush and you wish to save money, you could also opt for the sleeper trains. They have four different types of accommodation: hard seats, soft seats, hard sleeper and soft sleeper which vary in price. By western standards, they are very inexpensive. I’ve taken the sleeper train from Xi’an to Chengdu in winter and it was not uncomfortable in the slightest. There are four beds in each room (two bunk beds). Most cities have efficient metro networks and pretty much everywhere has buses.

Hectic subway scenes in Shanghai
Soft sleeper bed from Xi’an – Chengdu

Political Situation
China is run by the CPC (Communist Party of China). It’s not quite a communist country, they adhere to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ In the past thirty years, there has been an unprecedented amount of rapid development and privatisation leading to China emerging as one of the global economic superpowers. As the focus has arguably been on economic development rather than social, censorship still plays a role in keeping the peace. Therefore, you will need to download a VPN if you wish to use your phone/laptop to access most social media in China (whatsapp, youtube, facebook, snapchat, gmail, Instagram, skype, BBC news, etc). There are many free options but the best ones are constantly changing, so do some research closer to the time of your trip.

Resources for before you go
If you’re planning to spend a prolonged amount of time there, or if you’re just simply interested in getting to know the culture more, then I’d highly recommend having a look at the following resources. Many are books/films that I’ve studied in my Chinese culture and history classes over the course of my year at STA, and others are simply things I’ve found interesting. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just an introduction. If you want any more, then feel free to ask!

Books: The Rape of Nanking, China: A Modern History, China in Ten Words, Factory Girls: Voices From The Heart of Modern China, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, The Art of War, The Peony Pavilion
Films: Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, To Live
Ted Talks: Behind the Great Firewall of China; Are China and the US doomed to conflict; Learn to Read Chinese With Ease; Understanding the Rise of China

The Great Wall of China

Is It Possible To Be A Vegetarian In Shanghai?

Gods gift to vegetarians in the form of steamed buns

In a country where food is so ingrained into the culture, it’s no wonder that a common greeting in China is 吃饭了吗? (Chi fan le ma?) which literally translates to ‘have you eaten?’ but is used as more of a ‘what’s up?’. There is a huge social emphasis placed on food. People usually eat communally and when ordering food, it is commonplace to order various dishes which are set on the table and shared by everyone. I prefer this style of eating, rather than the usual western way of ordering just one dish for yourself as I am so indecisive, and there’s nothing worse than food envy when the orders arrive for you to discover you’ve made an awful mistake. One thing that does make this more difficult though, is being a vegetarian. Meat is a central part of the Chinese diet and it can feel awkward at times, restricting other people who may feel as if they need to take your dietary requirements into consideration and pick a certain restaurant or order based on this.

The kind of meat dishes they offer here could intimidate even the most adventurous carnivore. We’re talking frogs, eels, duck blood, cow tongue, chicken feet and sometimes they have live animals in a restaurant ready for your choosing. Side note: no, it’s not common for Chinese people to eat dogs. That is a myth. Yes, there is an annual festival in Yulin, but the other provinces criticise it, just like the international community does. The festival itself only actually began in 2009, and is not representative of Chinese culture at all. I also don’t really understand why people are so horrified at the prospect of people eating dogs, but not other animals? Just because we’ve decided to domesticate some, their lives are now worth more than other more commonly eaten animals like cows, pigs, etc? Excuse me while my eyes roll into the back of my head.

Communal style eating

I became a vegetarian – or technically, a pescetarian as I still ate fish – when I was about thirteen years old. It admittedly took me a long time to eventually transition to become a ‘full’ vegetarian, which I only really managed a year ago after doing so on and off. This is why coming to Shanghai about six months after that transition was so testing, and eventually (six weeks in) led me to decide to allow myself to eat fish if I felt I needed to for the duration of my stay. When I leave China this summer, it won’t be an issue to revert back, but it’s just been too much of a struggle while I’m here.

To get an idea of how ingrained meat is into Chinese culture, there goes a saying in China which roughly translates to: If it has four legs and it’s not a table, we eat it. If it has wings and is not an airplane, we eat it. My teacher demonstrated the extent of this when she relayed an incident when her friend had told her about a new animal, and her first response was: can we eat it? In some guidebooks, on the section in which they give advice for vegetarians, they (in jest) suggest to just give up. Of course, it’s not impossible to sustain a vegetarian diet here, especially in the larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing where there is a multitude of restaurants to choose from. However, it isn’t simply a lack of vegetarian dishes that are available, but the understanding of the lifestyle itself.

It’s not even a simple case of language barriers. Even whilst out for dinner with Chinese friends, there have been occasions where they have had to stress several times to the waiter that there can’t be any meat in a certain dish and are met with a confused look. My friend took me for soup dumplings and even when I could see there was pork in the broth, she insisted it was fine as it wasn’t inside the actual dumplings. I’ve found this quite common when I have told street food sellers that I’m a vegetarian and ask if their product has any meat. They try to reassure me with the reply, 一点 (yi dian) which means ‘only a little’ as if this would make it acceptable for a veggie to consume. Imagine my despair when my Chinese friend told me that most of the time dim sum contains meat, or when we were dividing up a moon-cake for the mid-Autumn festival and SURPRISE SURPRISE I can’t have any because it contains meat.

It’s okay guys, I won’t eat any. I’ll just take a photo of how pretty it looks so that I can try to extract some joy from this cultural experience that you’re all sharing without me.

This issue can sometimes make it an issue to order even the most basic vegetable dishes. This is because they are often cooked in the same animal stock or fat as other dishes. It’s also not uncommon to use meat to garnish dishes of vegetables. I have found that pork is the most common meat to randomly pop up in dishes that I have ordered. For this reason, I personally find it easier to stick to a vegetarian diet most of the time, but to consume fish if there are no other viable options in a restaurant. I feel horrifically guilty about it, but I’ve come to the conclusion that for now this is the best way for me. Don’t judge me, alas, I am weak.

If you are new to Shanghai or China, then navigating as a veggie can be tough. Memorise or write down this phrase so that you can show waiters or food sellers when you are ordering:

‘I don’t eat meat’
‘I am a vegetarian’

To get 100% vegetarian food, your best bet is to go to an eatery in a Buddhist temple. Some of my favourite vegetarian restaurants in Shanghai include:
Godly (which has been around since 1922)
Pure and Whole
Vegetarian Lifestyle (the Luwan branch)

Of course, there aren’t even a fraction of the amount of vegetarian restaurants that exist in London. I really took it for granted just how easy it is back home to sustain this kind of lifestyle and is one of the things that I’m actually looking forward to going back home to. For now though, the answer is tofu (who knew it could come in so many different forms?!) and too many steamed buns.

Campus Life at Shanghai Theatre Academy

Following on from my post about ICS at Shanghai Theatre Academy which primarily addressed course-content concerns, I thought I’d share more about campus life and life as a study-abroad student in Shanghai in general. Although most of these sections will be expanded on in full-length articles of their own, for now it should serve as a useful tool to run through the basics of accommodation, social life, and food…

thumb_img_1955_1024

ACCOMODATION

I live in the Shanghai Theatre Academy student dormitory, which is conveniently located on campus. The school has two campus’ and my course is based at the Huashan Road campus, which is the smaller of the two. The Chinese Opera course is based at Lianhua Road campus (which is about an hour away from Huashan Rd) so if you opt to take that selective, you will have the opportunity to have classes at both campus’. The two minutes walk to class really does soften the blow of 8.30am starts. All foreign students are based on the 17th and 18th floor. I share my room with one other girl, and we have an en-suite bathroom. A single room isn’t a thing in Chinese universities, so wave goodbye to privacy. Compared to the domestic students though, we’re lucky – they share a room with up to five others and have to use communal toilets and showers (the latter which isn’t even located in the dormitory building).

My desk area

STA is in a great location, very central and based in Jing’an, the closest metro station is Jing’an Temple. We are on the edge of the French Concession, which is a particularly beautiful part of Shanghai, and usually quite expensive to live in. The area is instantly recognizable by its streets, which are lined with trees forming beautiful arches. As a 1-year exchange student, I pay ¥440 a month for my room, which is roughly the equivalent to around £51. However, if you are accepted on to the full 2-year M.A. programme as a scholarship student, your living expenses are covered by the university (as well as your course fees, and a monthly stipend).

thumb_img_3905_1024
Inspired by the City Garden art installation to make my room more floral

SOCIAL AND CAMPUS LIFE

Shanghai has an excellent nightlife scene. From upscale clubs, to student pubs, to dingy dive bars, it really does have it all. It also has an amazing museum and art scene which I’m currently trying to work my way through. Unfortunately, the university doesn’t really have societies or sports teams which are a huge part of uni life in Exeter/the UK. However, our campus is still vibrant. There is always something going on. When I first arrived, there was an experimental Shakespeare festival, and since then there has been a RAW festival, an international arts festival and countless other productions. There is a gym on campus that is free for everyone to use, but it is very basic so many students opt for a paid membership to gyms nearby.

thumb_img_4246_1024
Production of MacBain (a cross between Macbeth and the story of Kurt Cobain) during the Experimental Shakespeare Festival
thumb_img_1954_1024
Schedule for the RAW festival
thumb_img_5349_1024
Another day, another theatre festival on campus

The course that I’m on is actually the only one in STA that is taught in English and is only made up of around 10 people (the year before us there were only six students on the course), so there’s not really a huge international students’ scene. It is great having such artistic peers, for example, we gathered a cast and crew together and entered into a 48-hour film festival back in Autumn. There are an abundance of opportunities to get involved in the arts, with many of my friends regularly participating in full-scale shows, to improvisation nights and comedy gigs.

thumb_img_5300_1024
The participants in the 48-hour film festival from Intercultural Communication Studies

I wanted to branch out of the university bubble and did this via the app MeetUp which informs you about a range of things occurring in the city. Through this, I was able to find free yoga classes, meditation, and a creative writing group. Something that I’m also involved in is the Shanghai branch of LadyFest (a community based organization created to open up dialogue about gender equality). Although well-known for their annual arts and music festival in celebration of International Women’s Day, they also run a plethora of other events. For example, I took part in the Dating Monologues event, in which people could submit anonymous stories of their experiences of dating in Shanghai which would be read by other speakers/actors.

FOOD

Shanghai, and China for that matter, is famous for its food. It’s undeniably a heaven for foodies, with the streets filled with delicious, fresh (and cheap) food made right in front of you, which is especially amazing for coming home from a night out. However, it is slightly more tricky for vegetarians, and I don’t know how vegans cope. I will be expanding on this in another article, but let’s just say it’s a tricky terrain to navigate. We do have a kitchen in the dorms, but it’s tiny and not very well equipped. When I first arrived, I probably ate out almost every night for the first week or two. I was just so shocked by how cheap the food is. In a noodle restaurant opposite us, you can buy a large bowl of noodles with soup, veggies and tofu (think Wagamama, but better) all for less than £1.

thumb_img_3654_1024
Veggie Noodles
Fresh steamed buns for breakfast
Fresh steamed buns for breakfast

There is a canteen on campus, for which you’ll need to buy a meal card, and a western-style cafe. It’s actually very common for students to order in food nightly as it is so cheap. 24/7 Delivery service is readily available. McDonalds even deliver straight to your door at all hours through their app. If you want to order western-style food with apps like Sherpas, then you’ll have to pay more, but if you’re happy to eat like a local then living expenses are very low. Being located in the French Concession means you’re extremely close by to amazing bakeries, cafes and restaurants.

IMG_4522
Sweet treats at Sunflour Café
Head to WIYF for the best craft ice-creams in the area


For more information, go to Shanghai Theatre Academy’s website.

Under the Radar: Mexico

As my step-mum is from Mexico, I’ve been lucky enough to spend many summer and winter holidays there. Mexico is one of the most eclectic places I’ve ever visited. While most people travel there for its beaches (and for good reason), it has a far more diverse landscape than most people realize. It is also home to jungles, volcanoes, deserts, mountains, lagoons, colonial towns and ancient ruins. Here are three places in Mexico that I think are vastly underrated…

For Beach Vibes:

PUERTO ESCONDIDO

While most flock to Cancun to sample the nightlife that Mexico has to offer, if you prefer less tourists and more chilled out vibes, then Puerto Escondido is the place for you. Literally translating to ‘hidden port’, it is definitely something of an underrated, hidden gem. Long appreciated by backpackers, and dubbed a ‘surfers paradise’, it’s time that it received the universal recognition it deserves.

We visited here last December and could not have come at a better time. Spending NYE here was charming. It wasn’t too party oriented, but there were definitely places to have a good time. Among my favourites was the cute bar and live music venue located along Zicatela: Casa Babylon. It’s an ideal spot to recover during the day – it even has an array of books available for free via an exchange system. Alternatively, you can head down there when it comes alive at night with live music, dancing and cheap cocktails.

IMG_6366
IMG_6355

For a City Escape:

PUEBLA CITY

The city of Puebla is the capital of the state of the same name and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s one of the five most important Spanish colonial cities in Mexico and boasts a myriad of baroque, renaissance and classical architecture. One of the most notable examples of its architecture is The Cathedral of Puebla, which is one of the largest in Mexico.

While you’re here, be sure to check out the Amparo museum. It’s easy to see everything in a couple of hours, and it seamlessly incorporates technology to keep you engaged. Not only does it have an impressive collection of pre-Hispanic artefacts, but it also has wonderful contemporary exhibitions. Bonus points for the roof top terrace with views over the city.

IMG_6436
thumb_img_6189_1024
thumb_img_6224_1024
IMG_6180

For History Buffs:

CHOLULA

A quaint, colourful town only a short taxi ride from Puebla (so, it’s very convenient to combine the two in one trip). This Mesoamerican site is home to the Great Pyramid of Cholula: Tlachihualtepetl. While little of the structure remains, and it resembles more of a hill (due to the mud bricks which have resulted in an entirely buried structure), it is in fact the largest pyramid in the world. Yep, although it doesn’t look like it, it is in fact bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt (in terms of volume, not height). Not just that, it’s also the largest monument built on Earth so far. Ever. Which is interesting considering that archaeologists weren’t aware of its existence until the early 1900s.

Climb the ascent to find the church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedies sanctuary which was built by the Spaniards atop of the complex and is perfect for enjoying a panoramic view of the town. Then, wander around the colourful, bustling markets for traditional food and handmade garments.

thumb_img_6198_1024
IMG_6438
IMG_6440
thumb_img_6208_1024