A Different Type of Christmas

With only a few sleeps until Christmas, this year The Smart Way Round is trying something a little different for our Christmas celebrations. We are staying at home. In fact this will actually be the first Christmas we have spent at home together since we have been a couple.

Over the last five years Christmas has been spent in some far flung land and more often than not we have been separated.  Our first Christmas ‘together’ was spent on different continents! After meeting in Egypt, I had to return to Europe to work over the Christmas and New Year period. Natalie on the other hand lived it up on Zanzibar for Christmas and Malawi for New Years.

Natalie doing what she does best, preparing for a dive in Zanzibar on Christmas Eve

Natalie doing what she does best, preparing for a dive in Zanzibar on Christmas Eve

Our second Christmas together was also spent apart, with Natalie working out in Egypt and Jordan and myself flying back to Australia and landing on Christmas Day.

Natalie was visiting the Pyramids while I was stuck on a plane

Natalie was visiting the Pyramids while I was stuck on a plane

Christmas number three was even more eventful. Having returned to Australia in October (again), this time to submit my visa application to allow us to get married we anxiously awaited news of our approval. With both of is getting more and more frustrated Natalie announced over Skype one day she was booking flights and would land on Christmas Eve, returning home to the UK on New Year’s Day. Little did we know that the same day our visa was approved, so when she landed early Christmas Eve, looking a little worse for wear, we had two things to celebrate that Christmas. That week down the Great Ocean Road in Victoria was one of our favourite trips, and was the perfect break leading up to our wedding.

Surfs up at the famous Bells Beach on the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia

Surfs up at the famous Bells Beach on the Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia

Last Christmas we were already nearly two months into our overland adventure from London to Melbourne and was spent in China. Cruising down the Yangtze was a much needed touch of luxury as we had not seen a comfortable bed or running hot water for the best part of about three to four weeks. While Christmas Day was spent waiting around a train station for most of the day it will live on as one of our best ever.

So this year we are home. No backpacks to lug around (sadly), no exotic destinations to explore, just the two of us at home and together, something we are definitely not used to but extremely looking forward to.

Christmas in Torquay Australia two years ago

Christmas in Torquay Australia two years ago

With this being our last blog of 2014 we want to wish all our followers, supporters and fellow adventure seekers a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year whatever you are doing and wherever you are. Safe travels, enjoy the festive season and we will see you next year for a bigger and better 2015 on The Smart Way Round…

– Dean & Natalie

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Safe Travels for 2015

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Safe Travels for 2015

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6 Amazing Destinations for Christmas this Year

December 1st is officially the start of the Christmas festive period. For many it is a great time to catch up with friends or spend quality time with family. For some, it is time to travel. The weeks around Christmas provide a chance to get away, explore and have a break from normal life.

This year we are doing something a little different, we are spending Christmas at home! Normally around this time of year we have been either on opposite sides of the world, separated by work, or travelling through some far flung land. So this week we are looking at some of our favourite locations where we have spent Christmas.

1. The Holy Lands, Israel and The Palestinian Authority

Why not visit where the stories of the Bible actually took place? Wandering through the ancient cobblestoned alleyways of Jerusalem is an experience you will not forget in a long time. Watching the daily life of three of the world’s biggest religions intermingling also gives you hope that perhaps one day conflict based on different faiths may eventually be a thing of the past.

Looking down over Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Visiting the Holy Lands gives you a different perspective at Christmas

Looking down over Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. Visiting the Holy Lands gives you a different perspective at Christmas

Of course that hope is almost dashed when you take a trip out to Bethlehem to where the Christmas story all took place. Situated in the Palestinian Authority, the journey is one of armed guards, tensions and large barbed wire fences. However, standing in the Church of the Nativity is, much like a visit to Jerusalem, an amazing experience.  Thousands of Christian pilgrims make the journey every year, and even if you are not religious you cannot help but be moved.

The Church of the Nativity in the Palestinian Authority

The Church of the Nativity in the Palestinian Authority

2.Rome and Vatican City, Italy

Thousands of people crowd into St Peters Square in Vatican City every year to celebrate Christmas Mass. The Vatican is an incredible mix of art, religion and politics but should be high on everyone’s travel bucket list. So much of the city of Rome was crafted by the Church over the centuries so a visit to the eternal city is the perfect destination over the festive season.

Looking down towards St Peters and Vatican City from the Bridge of Angels in Rome

Looking down towards St Peters and Vatican City from the Bridge of Angels in Rome

You can walk in the footsteps of the early Christians, former Popes and incredible artists all culminating in a tour through the Vatican Museums. The whole Roman Catholic world turns to St Peters over Christmas, and you can be a part of the celebrations.

The incredibly ornate interior of St Peters Basilica

The incredibly ornate interior of St Peters Basilica

3. In Search of Santa, Lapland Finland

One of Natalie’s favourite Christmas’ abroad was up into Lapland. A trip north of the Arctic Circle puts you deep into Reindeer territory and the perfect place to search for Santa. In fact the “Official” home of the big guy in the red suit is the town of Rovaniemi right on the Arctic Circle in Finland. The Santa Claus Village sells everything from local handicrafts and toys to the finest leather ware made from reindeer (you now know what happens to them if Santa is late!).

When in Lapland, reindeer boots are the height of Christmas fashion!

When in Lapland, reindeer boots are the height of Christmas fashion!

A trip to Lapland also gives you the chance to husky dog sledge or perhaps go in search of the magical northern lights! A true winter wonderland.

4. Somewhere Warm

Growing up in Australia meant for me that Christmas was normally at least warm if not hot. A summer  Christmas is a totally different experience than a winter one and could be the perfect change you are looking for. A walk along the beach, BBQ action and a celebratory drink in shorts and flip flops is about as foreign an experience as you could get for many people from the northern hemisphere, but it sure beats shovelling snow right?

Surf is up for Santa, it could be for you too!

Surf is up for Santa, it could be for you too!

5. In a culture that doesn’t celebrate Christmas

Why not immerse yourself in a culture where Christmas is not celebrated? Last year we spent the festive period travelling through China, and while many of the markets surprisingly sold Christmas lights, tinsel and inflatable Santa Claus’, Christmas is not really the done thing. In fact the majority of our Christmas Day was spent sitting around a rather isolated train station in Yichang waiting for our evening train.

Some of the markets in China trying to get festive

Some of the markets in China trying to get festive

Natalie spent Christmas in Egypt a few years ago (sadly for work not for fun) and again is a totally different experience than being back home. Imagine staring out over the pyramids which were already considered ancient 2000 years ago when the Christmas story took place!

Natalie at the step pyramid a few Christmas' ago

Natalie at the step pyramid a few Christmas’ ago

6. Home

For many travellers your home city is their exotic destination for Christmas. So instead of getting bogged down with the mad rush of Christmas shopping or the stress of trying to catch up with everyone you have ever possibly known, get out there and enjoy your hometown. From Christmas Markets to local Christmas Carols events, there is bound to be something amazing in your local area to help get you into the Christmas Spirit! Even for experienced travellers there is no place like home…

Where is the most random or exotic place you have spent Christmas? Drop us a line and share your Christmas travel stories.

– Merry Christmas, Dean

Hometown Tourist: London’s Winter Wonderland

“Sleigh bells ring, are you listening,
In the lane, snow is glistening
A beautiful sight,
We’re happy tonight.
Walking in a winter wonderland.”

– Lyrics from the Christmas Carol ‘Winter Wonderland’ by Felix Bernard (composer) & Richard B. Smith (lyrics)

Christmas is a magical time to be travelling around Europe. As the days get shorter and colder the main squares of many cities turn into stunning festive markets. This is especially the case in Germanic Europe where every village, town and city decks the halls, lights up the town centre and fills it with Christmas Markets.

While many of us dream of jingling around the European Christmas Markets not everyone can make it. Thankfully London has the answer, Winter Wonderland!

Welcome to Winter Wonderland!

Welcome to Winter Wonderland!

Officially opening last Friday night (21st of November), Winter Wonderland recreates the feeling of European Christmas Markets in the middle of Hyde Park and is the perfect place to stoke up the festive spirit.

With carnival rides and games, Winter Wonderland has something for everyone

With carnival rides and games, Winter Wonderland has something for everyone

Winter Wonderland is part amusement park, part traditional Christmas Market and part Oktoberfest celebration, so really there is something for all ages. The grounds were packed on opening night and there was such a fantastic atmosphere in the air. There were various stages scattered throughout the grounds with bands playing to get people in the mood.  There is an ice skating rink for the more adventurous, the only thing missing on friday night was the big guy in the red suit!

Loads of Stalls selling Christmas Decorations

Loads of Stalls selling Christmas Decorations

Row upon row of stalls lead into the heart of Winter Wonderland all selling a variety of handicrafts, Christmas ornaments and food. Hand crafted Christmas decorations, scented Christmas candles and huge drums of Haribo confectionary (typical of German Christmas Markets) can all be found.

Self service Haribo confectionary, yum!

Self service Haribo confectionary, yum!

However, we cannot fail to mention the traditional food and drink! Just like the German markets, nearly everywhere you looked there were stalls selling Glühwein or mulled wine. ‘Glow Wine’ (a very rough translation) is a mixture of red wine and spices including cinnamon, cloves and aniseed, with the potential option of adding a shot of spirits. It is the perfect drink to warm you up and get you into the festive spirit! To complement the traditional German wine, there are enormous bratwurst stalls as well as pretzel stalls, hog roast vans and burger vans. I introduced Natalie to her new favourite German treat, schmalzkuchen, small deep-fried balls of dough covered in icing sugar, whats not to love?!

Hmmm, deep fried badness!

Hmmm, deep fried badness!

For those of you visiting London over the next six weeks and whose adventures don’t take you to the continent, Winter Wonderland is the perfect place to experience both Germanic and British Christmas traditions in one spot. We certainly will be revisiting it a number of times over the festive period, I just have to find where I hid my red suit from last Christmas (sadly the beard is already starting to show some signs of grey so I don’t have to worry about that!) …

Glühwein time! (Check out Natalie's gloves)

Glühwein time! (Check out Natalie’s gloves)

– Dean

*Winter Wonderland is open daily from 10am until 10pm (except Christmas Day when it is closed) until January 4th. Located in Hyde Park, the closest Tube stations are Hyde Park Corner or Green Park.

Chapter Three: Beijing to Yichang (including you can take the girl out of the posh, but you can’t take the posh out of the girl…..living it up on the Yangtze River)

We left Beijing with a twinge of sadness. As you have read, we loved the city and all it had to offer. The next couple of days were a whirlwind of old town walls, trains and temples!

We decided to try the ‘hard sleepers’ on the next two trains. We opted for the middle (of three story high bunks) bed within the 38 bed bunkhouse on the train – imagine rows and rows of bunks and you are not far wrong! We had read mixed reviews about these sections and so far had avoided them. However we were so pleasantly surprised with the first journey to Pingyao, that we booked the next train in this style too! With our valuables as a second pillow, we felt perfectly safe and slept like babies (on a good night!).

Now I should say booking trains in China is in itself not for the feint hearted. As the Lonely Planet says, the booking system is the “Achilles heel” of the whole train network. You need to buy your ticket at the station or ticket booth, the further in advance, the better (we have met some travellers who have been ‘stuck’ for a few days as their desired train was full). The early bird definitely does catch the worm. Needless to say the ladies at these ticket booths rarely speak English and it is a cash only system for westerners. The odd hostel can do it for you, for a charge, but not many. We had taken to looking up trains, deciding what we wanted and then asking the hostel to write us a note in mandarin detailing our request. We then headed to the ticket booth and thrust this at the ticket seller and hoped for the best. We have got this far so it obviously works!

We made it into Pingyao and checked into our dodgy little hostel for the day and set off to explore. Now the atmosphere here was odd. In the summer it may be more bustling, but it was like a ghost town in winter! The main reason we had come was to walk the town walls – famed for being one of the most intact old city walls in all of China. Quite a statement. We were impressed with what we found, and set about walking the 6km route all the way around them. It took a while with photo stops to look over the roof tops, but it was an enjoyable walk. Our ticket also granted us access to the Confusion Temple and other sites in the city – all worth a wander with the relative sanctuary of being by ourselves.

We finished our stay in Pingyao with a walk round at night. It was beautifully lit up with red lanterns everywhere. It was just stunning – needless to say a few hundred pictures were taken during our short stay! It had been well worth the pit stop. It was time for our back-to-back night train to keep on moving. Next stop Xi’an.

Xi’an surprised us. Both in size, style and sophistication. As we walked the 3km from the station to our hotel (seemed like a good idea at the time and we hadn’t discovered the 10p bus at that point!) we quickly learnt it was a big city! We checked in, and caught the first public bus out to the Terracotta Warriors.

Dad had taken me to see some of the warriors on tour in London back in the 80’s. No doubt the historical significance was a bit lost on me then, and if I’m honest I still couldn’t get my head round the age of these warriors. I can only describe the sight of them (in Pit 1 at least!) as truly amazing. Each one has a different face and lined up in rows they are quite magnificent. What I hadn’t realised was there are still excavating. This was going on in front of our very eyes which was interesting to see. Between us we got some great pictures – something that you are begging to see is a bit of a theme of our trip – photography! It would be fair to say that the Warriors appealed to the history nerd in Dean. Not only how randomly they had been discovered in 1974 but also how they had remained underground for over 2000 years. This was a big thing he had wanted to see and I must admit it is hard not to be impressed. We had read various reviews about what way to view them, and found that visiting the ‘pits’ in the reverse order worked well for us as we finished with Pit 1, the largest of the three and the image you have in your mind when you think of them. An army of warriors in various states of repair lined up in rank and file to guard the Emperor. Quite a sight!

Back to Xi’an and something struck me about this city. I deemed it the ‘Paris of China’ when I walked past the row of Maserati’s and Bentley’s parked along the main street. With Expensive Swiss watch shops and swanky clothes stores it was only when we were up on the old city walls at dusk starring down the Champs Elysees of Xi’an, towards the Bell Tower which was all lit up that this came to me. Have you been to Xi’an? Do you agree or disagree? There was clearly a lot of money in this city (as well as poverty) and the friendly people walked about with style and sophistication in the main. We were once again the focus of intrigue and photo requests. I have never been anywhere where I had been this much of a curiosity! Maybe it was our matching wooly hats!!

We had a great couple of days there going into the Drum and Bell Towers, and cycling around the old city walls. Our top tip is to go up there in the late afternoon then you can hire bikes for when the city is lit up as well as when darkness falls and all the red lanterns are turned on. It was fabulous.

As Christmas approached it was time to move on and try and sort out our Christmas trip. We took an overnight train to Chongqing with the sole aim of getting on a cruise boat down the Yangtze. We were open to offers…. Although secretly we both had a bit of luxury in mind!! We arrived at a hostel with a good travel desk and set them on the case. This was on the 22nd. They quickly came back with the options – we either left on luxury 5*+ cruise that night or we literally missed the boat (and Christmas) until the 27th. Working out the comparisons with a Chinese boat, we decided it represented far better value to ‘posh it up’ for a few days. Hostels in China had been great, but we were at the end of a three weeks stretch without hot hot water and we were in need of a good scrub. We paid our money (a bargain price) and killed the afternoon in Chongqing. It was a bustling city with a mass of building activity going on. From what we saw we weren’t sorry to be leaving later that night! I bought a “cute” (according to the boat staff!) Santa head band and armed with our stuff we walked down and boarded the boat.

This was the start of an amazing four days / three nights – wow. The Chinese dragons danced as we got on board and we were met with the glistening atrium on the Century Emerald, complete with Christmas decorations galore. I had died and gone to heaven compared to the last few weeks’ accommodation. Now the older I get the more I seem to aspire to this type of accommodation!! I blame Dean…. I mean I have been lucky enough to stay in many a posh hotel with him, so it is what I’m quickly becoming accustomed to!! We went up to our room, complete with River View balcony and lounge area and made ourselves at home. We put up our Christmas decorations and put our £5 secret Santa pressies for each other under our Russian tree and ‘de-backpackered’.

The next few days for us involved several cocktails and watching the Yangtze go by. We had three included visits along the way which we made the most of including the ShiBao Zhai Pagoda (which clung to the rock for dear life), Shennong Stream where we switched to a smaller more accessible dragon boat and the Three Gorges Dam which was interesting, sad and fascinating all at the same time. Out of 200 people on board, we were seated with one South African and six Australians – together we had such a laugh. We could not have asked for a nicer group of people to spend Christmas with – culminating in the boys and girls each singing Karaoke like locals on Christmas Eve! The weather was typically cloudy and misty for this time of year. That didn’t matter. I wanted to be on the Yangtze for Christmas and it was everything and more than we wanted. Backpacking is amazing, and I wouldn’t do trips like this any other way. Sometimes, just occasionally, you appreciate a little holiday from it, and this just totally recharged our batteries and made us raring to go again.

At the end of the cruise, we said our fond farewells and took our night train from Yichang to Chengdu, sharing a cabin with a Buddhist monk no less – what a way to spend Christmas, but it was time to look towards the Great Pandas….. More in the next chapter!

– Natalie

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