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.

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.


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

Gyeongbokgung Palace

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

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.


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)


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 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 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.


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

For Debauchery..


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

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..


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..


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


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


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


Time Difference

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

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

thumb_img_1955_1024thumb_img_1956_1024 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…


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).

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


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.

Production of MacBain (a cross between Macbeth and the story of Kurt Cobain) during the Experimental Shakespeare Festival
Schedule for the RAW festival
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.

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.


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.

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.

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:


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.


For a City Escape:


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.


For History Buffs:


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.


Study Abroad in Shanghai: Intercultural Communications at STA

So, much to my disbelief, I’ve been in Shanghai for almost three months now. I was planning to do a series on my experiences studying at Shanghai Theatre Academy sooner, but for the past month I have been left laptop-less after a liquid damage mishap (shout out to Exeter Uni’s insurance policy Aviva for granting me a replacement). When I was preparing for my year abroad, there was a shocking lack of information provided concerning details such as course content, the academic calendar, accommodation, etc which was very frustrating. This was exacerbated by the fact that I was the first student from Exeter to undertake a year abroad at STA and therefore had no-one to share their experiences with me. So, this series will aim to cover these aspects along with other things that you’ll want to take into account when deciding on taking a year abroad such as culture shock and the social life in the city. This first post is dedicated to the details of the course itself.

I am on the Intercultural Communications MA programme. It is usually a two-year programme, with the first year consisting of classes and the second year dedicated to writing the thesis. There are 12 people on my course, but it seems to be expanding yearly as it’s relatively new (last year’s intake was six students). We’re made up of eight different nationalities, but the language of instruction for the course is English. As it is the only course at STA that is taught in English, there’s not really a range of modules to choose from. I remember browsing the modules on STA’s website and thinking I’d be able to take classes in subjects such as TV-hosting and directing. Nope. They’re all taught in Chinese. So unless you’re bilingual, you’ll be restricted to the modules specific to the ICS course. As a student on a year abroad, I am only here for one year before returning to Exeter to complete my fourth year. There is one other undergraduate (who is a student on a year abroad from the University of Leeds) and the rest of the participants are graduate students. If you are also an undergraduate, don’t be intimidated by the fact that it is an MA, the classes aren’t too challenging. They are pretty relaxed, and aside from weekly reading there isn’t much of a workload.

This term my schedule has consisted of the following modules:
Chinese Language: Three compulsory (and two optional) classes a week 8:30am-11:40am. Assessment is through a mid-term exam and a final exam. I sat the mid-term exam last week and we went through it in class beforehand, and then spent about thirty minutes working on it. It was all directly from what we’d been learning, so nothing to stress about.
Modern Chinese Performing Arts in Global Perspectives: We have eight classes in total, held weekly on Thursdays 1:30pm-4:30pm. Assessment consists of three thought-pieces reflecting on readings that have been set, a group oral presentation and a final paper of around 2500 words (or creative project) with a presentation to discuss your findings.
Intercultural Theatre: Eight classes held fortnightly on Tuesdays 1:30pm-4:30pm. Assessment consists of one final paper around 2500 words in length (or a creative project) and an informal presentation/discussion about your research.
Chinese History and Culture: Eight classes held fortnightly Tuesdays 1:30pm-4:30pm. Assessment consists of a museum report, a critical commentary on one piece of reading and a final paper to be a minimum of 800 words.
Optional Chinese Opera Acting: Three classes held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 1:30pm-3pm.

Here, we have two academic terms as opposed to the usual three that we have back in the UK. This semester started in the first week of September and will finish in the week before Christmas. Usually, semesters in China run into mid-January, but they make an exception for our course as all participants are foreign students, and many will want to spend Christmas with their families. The second semester begins in the last week of February and runs until the first week of July. We are yet to be informed of our classes next term, but last year’s students took the mandatory Chinese language classes, Cultural Creative IndustriesFilms and Contemporary Chinese Society and Politics, and had the option to take traditional Chinese Culture & Taiqiquan, Chinese Opera Acting and Chinese Culture.

The teaching style is different. Three hour classes were definitely something I needed to adjust to. We do have a 5-10 minute break halfway through, but as someone with a short attention span, it took a while to get used to concentrating for longer than an hour at a time. All of my classes are essentially in a seminar format which I prefer infinitely to lecture-style teaching. The only issue with this format is that the quality of the class discussion is dependent on how many students do the reading, and as some of the teachers are so relaxed, it’s easy to become complacent. The flexibility of the course can be a merit though, as you can mould the course to your needs. The final paper (or creative project in some classes) has very large parameters and you’re given freedom and encouragement to seek out a topic that interests you, as long as it’s somewhat related to the class.

There is also the opportunity to gain academic credits in other projects. For example, I was among a group of STA students that decided to creatively collaborate and submit a film to the 48 hour film festival which was held in Shanghai a few weeks ago. Provided we contributed equally to the project and wrote a short reflective report on the experience, we were awarded academic credit. To complete the year, you need to have a certain amount of credits. However, the study abroad team advised me that I needed to take a minimum of seven modules, and not to worry about credits. So, perhaps the film project won’t contribute to my overall mark, but it was still an exciting experience to have.

ICS students who took part in the 48 Hour Film Festival


48 Hours in Budapest

There is no doubt that the majority of eastern European countries are cheaper than the rest of the continent. Budapest is a prime example of this, consistently ranking among the most affordable holiday destinations, not just in Europe, but worldwide. History, culture, and striking scenery – Budapest has it all. Even better, the nightlife is amazing, but won’t set you back like other European destinations.


Where to stay
Carpe Noctem Original. 
Perhaps my favourite hostel that I’ve stayed in to date. It is especially catered to solo-travelers and doesn’t permit larger groups so was perfect for me. It had a great social ambience which didn’t feel forced as it sometimes can in other hostels. The staff were always on hand to give you advice for navigating the city by day, and then join you on bar crawls by night. Prices start at £10.50 for a standard 8 people mixed dorm in low season, £26 for the same in high season. Book in advance as it fills up quickly.

Carpe Noctem <3

Time difference

Getting around
Before the unification of 1873, Budapest was actually three separate cities: Buda, Óbuda and Pest. Óbuda was located where the current third district is, with Buda and Pest lying either side of the river. You can always tell whether you’re in Buda or Pest because the former is hilly whereas the latter is extremely flat. Therefore, you can explore most of Pest by foot, or hop on the extensive metro or tram network if you’d prefer.

To easily access the higher points in Buda, we bought tickets for the Hop-on-Hop-off bus. Granted –  they are a little pricey, but they are valid for two days and you can use them as a form of public transport. It will help familiarize you with the layout of the city and come in handy when you’re dreading the ascent to Castle Hill.

Getting there
Direct flights using Wizz Air or RyanAir. Cheapest to fly from London. Typically around ~£150 return in high season and ~£90 return in low season. Flying time 2 hours 20 minutes.

Hungarian Forints

Day 1
Arrive early and spend your first day doing the majority of the sightseeing. Catch the Hop-on-Hop-off bus from Andrassy Ut. This shopping area is worth a stroll down, it’s the longest street in Budapest, and bares a striking resemblance to Champs Elysees – one of the reasons why the city is so often dubbed the ‘Paris of the East’. Get off at Gellért Hill (a UNESCO world heritage site) where you will find the Liberty statue and the Citadella for amazing panoramic views of the city. Hop back on and then get off a little further down at Castle Hill to wander around. Check out the Hungarian National GalleryBuda Castle, Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion all ideally located near each other. You can walk down from here and walk across Chain Bridge which will take you back across to Pest.

Road leading up to the Liberty Statue
View from the Citadella
Fisherman’s Bastion
Hungarian National Gallery

I’ve visited in both summer and winter, and I’d highly recommend going in the latter. Summer definitely has its perks: the weather, the musical festival Sziget, the parks. However, not only is it the low season in winter and therefore cheaper, I also found that it gave the city more of a magical atmosphere. Plus, you can take advantage of the markets. Definitely on parr with other top European Christmas markets, with an array of gifts, and better yet, food to feast on.

Have dinner at Drum Cafe, a trendy eatery which serves traditional Hungarian food. Portions are large and it is ridiculously cheap. Head back to the hostel to pre-drink with everyone else and then head to Morrisons 2 (not the supermarket, but a bar with six dance floors and a heated garden). You’ll pay an entry price of around £5. This entitles you to free drinks all night: actual ones, too, not ‘free drinks’ in the sense of a dodgy bar crawl where most spirits and anything half decent is off limits. This is the perfect time to try pálinka, the national spirit of Hungary. It’s a fruit brandy available in flavours like cherry, apricot and plum.

Christmas Market
Enjoying our mulled wine

Day 2
Soothe your hangover with a trip to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths. Since you’ve spent so little on your trip so far, you can even afford to indulge in a spa treatment.
This is ideally located within the park, which is adjacent to Heroes Square. This area also contains the Hungarian National Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts (although MOFA is currently being renovated until the end of 2017). Unless you have a burning desire to explore either, then I suggest skipping both and heading straight to the House of Terror for an alternative insight into Budapest. The museum is a memorial to those who were detained, tortured and killed in the building during the communist and fascist regimes which terrorized Budapest in the 20th century.

Also not to be missed are St Stephen’s Basilica, and the Shoes on the Danube Bank.  The latter is a poignant sculpture created by Can Togay and Gyula Pauer to honor the memory of the people (mainly Budapest Jews) that were ordered to take off their shoes before being shot by Arrow Cross militiamen during WWII. End your cultural day with a stroll along the river, where you can admire the Hungarian Parliament Building (which was actually modeled on Westminster’s Houses of Parliament).

Heroes Square
St Stephen’s Basilica
The Shoes along the Danube
The Hungarian Parliament Building

For your second night out, head to the seventh district (the former Jewish Quarter) and begin with dinner at The Hummus Bar for a quick and healthy bite. You’re now perfectly located in the home to an array of quirky ruined bars, housed in abandoned buildings, where the average price for a glass of wine is 91p. Some of the best include SzimplaInstant and Aker’t. Depending on the days that you’re there, the hostels arrange an array of activities, including a boat party. I’m not a huge fan of the boat parties as I feel like they are kind of overpriced and not long enough to get a party vibe going. However, it is undeniably a beautiful way to see Budapest, especially the Hungarian Parliament building, lit up.


Ruin Bars are the best
Ruin Bars are the best
The view of the Hungarian Parliament from a boat party
The view of the Hungarian Parliament from a boat party

Together Week Ibiza Review: Are Package Holidays Ever Worthwhile?


As Together Week have just released their early bird Ibiza packages for next year, I thought it was time to do a review of the experience I had with them in June earlier this year (2016). While it seems a little too good to be true, rest assure it’s not a scam. When we first saw a package for five nights in Ibiza for £199, we were convinced it was a hoax and spent days googling different reviews to try to put our minds at rest. It’s completely trustworthy. The organization was pioneered in 2011 and they also run similar packages to Majorca and Barcelona.

It is good value for money, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that you’ll pay the £239* and that’ll be your trip paid for. Aside from all of the add-ons (with entry to the clubs averaging around €30-40), the transport to various clubs is also going to cost you. Together Week provide shuttle buses to the venues, but these aren’t free. The drink prices in clubs are also ridiculous. As if the entry prices weren’t enough, we couldn’t help but laugh when we were charged €18 for a tiny bottle of water. The water from the tap comes from the sea, so there’s no escaping succumbing to the ludicrous prices unless you manage to sneak in your own bottle. It’s worth a try, the worst they can do is confiscate it and then you’ve only lost €1. Alcoholic drinks are even more extortionate so your best bet is to make sure you pre-drink A LOT before you go out.

* Looking at their website, the prices for 2017 seem to have risen in comparison to previous years, no idea why. This is also the cheapest package, prices vary throughout the season.


We were so lucky with our accommodation. We had booked our package for three people, but they gave us a four person room. Two practically adjoining rooms, with four beds, and a balcony (we paid about £20 extra for the balcony). Considering the price, it was definitely worth it. The hotel was decent, and there was a breakfast buffet included in the price. There was also a small pool, and bar/restaurant. It was annoying that they didn’t let you take any of your own drinks/food to the pool, obviously to encourage you to use their facilities, but prices weren’t too bad. Next year, I plan to stay somewhere like Jet Apartments or Ushuaia, but it was comforting to be able to relax by the pool during the day before heading back out again at night. I imagine at the more party oriented places, chill time is a laughable concept!



Arrived and checked in, after accidentally being taken to the wrong hotel from the airport. Settled into our room.

They have a ‘Welcome Party’ by the pool which we decided to admire from our balcony as it didn’t look very busy. At around 1am we paid an additional €40 to join them to go to Space Sundays.


During the day we attended the Holi colour paint party wich was included with the package. Make sure you bring clothes with you that you don’t mind potentially ruining! It was staged in an abandoned zoo (the place that is usually home to Zoo Project).


There was the option to go to with the group to Sankeys for an additional price, but instead we went to the strip in San Antonio which was conveniently located a five minute walk from the hotel. I noticed this drew more of a younger crowd than the club scene in Ibiza and had more of a Magaluf feel to it. My favourite bars were definitely the 80s/90s bar and Soul City.


We skipped the Pool Party at Jet Apartments (which I regret now) to head to the beach and check out the cute stalls and bars along the harbour.

Tuesday night is Together at Amnesia (tickets included with the package) and we got to see Rudimental, Gorgon City and Wilkinson. Probably my favourite night of the week, despite the stress beforehand. Basically, there was a large group of us who were waiting at the allocated time to depart to Amnesia and the promoters had already left. Thankfully, we still managed to get in, but other people weren’t so lucky as they only had a limited amount of wristbands when we finally caught up with them at the door.



There was a Boat Party during the day-time but we decided to skip this as there was a lengthy delay in the boat arriving and it would’ve meant us missing the Ibiza Rocks event we’d planned to go to later that evening. We spoke with the promoters before making this decision, to check that we wouldn’t miss out on too much but compared to other boat parties, it did seem somewhat lacking. It was my first time in Ibiza, so I’m not the best of judges, but others said that in comparison to those ran by the likes of Ibiza Rocks, that it was kind of lacklustre. For example, they didn’t provide any activities alongside, such as the usual banana boat rides

We could’ve gone to Pacha (price included in package) but instead we decided to head to Ibiza Rocks to watch Fuse OD and Lethal Bizzle.



Ocean Beach Club Party – we skipped this to go and hang out at Ushuaia early in preparation for the DJ set later on.

Sunset Strip was included for Thursday evening but as mentioned, we decided to purchase the add on to go to Ushuaia instead.


Checked out and spent the last few hours by the pool before flying home in the evening. Would definitely recommend getting a later flight home so you don’t have to stress about an early departure when you’re out on Thursday night. Maybe have a drink on the plane home to soothe your post-holiday blues. Or just refuse to except that it’s over, and continue your self delusion by heading back out the minute you land back home (convenient, since you fly back on a Friday).


Overall, it was a great week, but you do have to be very organized. I suppose we could’ve taken more advantage of the free events on offer, but a lot of the time we simply weren’t aware that a daytime event had already started and by then, it was too late to join. Make sure you double-check all of the event times and departure schedules of shuttle buses as they can be subject to change. The promoters can be a little flaky and won’t take responsibility for those who lag behind or misunderstand instructions.

The atmosphere was pretty good, but it wasn’t as sociable as I expected it to be. Even if we were taken somewhere as a group, on arrival everyone went their separate ways. The promoters definitely could’ve done more to encourage more of a group mentality. While the opening parties were still amazing, next time I’d definitely opt to go later in the season when it’s in full flow and there are better acts.

If you’re interested, head to Together Week’s Website to secure your tickets here

Bring on Ibiza 2017!