When it comes to travel on a shoestring – my favorite style – the amount of money you spend or save on accommodation becomes a serious matter. There was a time when travelling to China was very, very cheap, and accommodation options where everywhere. Unfortunately, with China experiencing the economic boom, things have changed quite a lot. On the other hand, the development of Chinese tourism has also created a wide range of opportunities for all kinds of travellers, making it quite easy and affordable to find budget accommodation in comfortable, clean beds. Where?
Simple: at YHA, the first wonder of Chinese Budget accommodation!
Everywhere and anywhere in China, my first option is to look for the YGA symbol, which means Youth Hostelling International. This international franchise is widely spread all around the major tourist destinations of China, and at times also a bit out of the beaten track. Generally, this kind of hostels are the Chinese equivalent of the Southeast Asian guesthouses, are full of travelers, good vibes and dispense good travel information. Besides, they are generally very cheap to stay in, they provide free wi-fi connectivity, restaurant facilities, self-service kitchen areas, luggage storage options and, very important if you cannot speak any Mandarin Chinese, can help you book your onward train or flight tickets. You will pay a little surcharge, but believe me, it is worth to save time and effort.
Most likely if you are looking for the cheapest option, you will end up staying in a dormitory: have no fear, as YHA dormitories are usually big, equipped with your own locker, sparkling clean, spacious and comfortable. They are also great places to meet other travelers. Dorms usually come in different sizes, and are generally equipped with several rows of bunk beds able to accommodate 4, 6, 8, and even up to 10 or 12 people. Dorms are also very cheap, as they start from 20 to 40/50 yuan per bed. So far, I only found the higher end of the spectrum (50 yuan) in Shenzen, Beijing and Shanghai.
One of the best services provided is definitely the onward-travel hostel booking service: each hostel will have many cards advertising other hostels in the next “tourist towns”. Just glance trough and pick the one you like most, tell the receptionist and he/she will make a call to reserve your bed at your next destination. Generally, you will have to pay half of the fee to the hostel you are reserving from and once you get to your destination, you will pay the difference. It works like Hostelworld, but over the phone, and most times free train or bus station pick-ups are guaranteed.
We just finished up a long, slow, six month wander New Zealand. I have to say, it’s been one of the pleasantest places we’ve had the privilege to travel. It definitely falls near the top of our “easy to travel” countries list.
Even if you’re a very new traveler, or have special needs, you’re going to find NZ a pleasure.
This is also a country made to be driven.
If you head to NZ and don’t hire a car and hit the roads, you’ll have missed some of the best the country has to offer. The cities (small by international standards) are wonderful, but it’s the countryside and the small towns that hold the real charm and the real adventure.
Lots and lots of people come to New Zealand every year to see the country by camper van or RV. My parents did, ten years ago, and their raving about their adventures here were a large part of why we decided to stay for so long. While the famous “free camping” that New Zealand has been known for, has been ratcheted down on somewhat in the last couple of years, due to abuse and misuse of public properties, there are still some free and very good low cost options. The catch: most tourists never find them.
If you google “camper vanning New Zealand” or some such, what will come up is a long list of camper van and RV hire sites. Everything from the more than a little dodgy “Wicked” vans to the very efficiently marketed “Jucy” fleet, to the big “Kea” RVs (which is what we would have needed for our family of six with big kids.)
Knowing that the best way to see this country is by camping, it’s really tempting to hire a van. We know lots of people who have, with varying degrees of happiness with the service and results. It doesn’t seem like it will be *that much* more expensive than staying in a hotel, perhaps it will even be cheaper if you are used to staying in nice places and you’re only coming for a couple of weeks.
A few myths to be debunked:
Interested in how to get around much of that? There are options for the patient and the creative thinkers out there I wrote a very long explanation of how to make it happen without spending an arm and a leg and getting the “local” intel as the cherry on top!
Picture credits: Flickr/Travel Aficionado
It’s been in the air for a while, buzzing among the Southeast Asian traveler’s enclave, and making the day of many resolute overlanders. We all knew that the Golden land of Myanmar was changing. After the liberation of Aung San Suu Kyi, punk rockers storming the streets of Yangon, and everyone turning their backpacks to the country, something HAD to change, hadn’t it? And it has: now, the Thai-Myanmar borders are open to overland international traffic and travel, as reported by Mizzima.
People! Rejoice because the country that back in the 1980s wouldn’t let you in for more than 6 days, now has lifted travel restrictions on its eastern land borders. Regardless, the western side bordering with India and Bangladesh still remains locked, and pretty dangerous. Well, please be happy with this first accomplishment, and postpone your overland dreams of shaving off the bulk of Central Asia and China for the next decade, cool?
But my question is: how good will the opening of these land borders be for the country?
I am certainly not wishing that Myanmar stepped back into the darkness of its autocratic military regime, but at the same time, I am afraid that its face might change forever and ever. Something that was still quite magical will be lost, buried under a mound of foreign dollars.
In 2012, the country has already received 1 million tourists. 1 million! An awful lot for a place like Myanmar, which doesn’t have the infrastructures needed to support such an amount of arrivals. I’ve heard many horror stories of travelers who have been forced to sleep on guesthouses’ floors, and paying full price (a lapidary 20 $ minimum per person per night, quite a big sum for SE Asia today) as the demand for accommodation amply surpassed the supply. The Burmese are also starting to become a bit greedier, it seems. My experience goes back to year 2009, and I must say, I had a splendid time, and had basically the country all to myself. When I flew in – as it was impossible to enter by land back then-, my group of 4 whiteys was the only drops of clear skin inside of the airplane’s dark, bottled humanity. Now, the numbers have definitely changed: everyone I meet in Malaysia is bound -or he’s returning – from Myanmar. So much that it makes me feel like as of now, it’s Malaysia the place that nobody dares to visit!
The point of this post is to suggest to the new visitors to go to Myanmar with a respectful attitude, and an open mind. I would not like it if in five years I’ll meet people telling me how Myanmar be a new version of touristy Thailand. I’m crossing my fingers, but the responsibility is not on me. It’s on all those who decide to visit. Please, I am begging you, take care of Myanmar, until we can.
We loved Samalona Island…
It’s a tiny speck of an island off of the coast of the bigger island of Sulawesi, in central Indonesia. If you find yourself in Makassar, it’s well worth a few days of your time, or even a few hours if that’s all you’ve got, to retreat to this little isle and put the brakes on the wheels of life for a bit. If you’re searching the web for links to lodging or transportation to the island you won’t find much. The families on the island support themselves, in part, by hosting travelers, but no one has thought to create a website yet!
You will love Samalona if…
Samalona might NOT be for you if
Even if you don’t want to stay overnight, you can visit Samalona Island for the day, enjoy the beach, take a snorkel and be back to “civilization” by evening.
Presumably you’ll be staying in a hotel in Makassar. Hop a little blue bus to “Fort Rotterdam” and then cross the street. I’ll be shocked if the boatmen don’t find you before your feet touch the sidewalk, but if they don’t, walk back onto the little “beach” behind the line of street food vendors and you’ll find several little wooden boats that make the trip back and forth.
Lodging on Samalona Island is in the home of one of the families that lives there. There did appear to be two purpose built “rooms” for guests, but those were not open when we were there (and we were the only ones there.) The families all talked about the folks who had stayed in their homes over the years, and this seems to be the standard arrangement.
Because there are six of us, we were given an entire three bedroom house. We did not have access to the kitchen, but we didn’t need it as three ample meals plus coffee and fruit were provided. We were not hungry!
Some things to know about life on Samalona Island:
We heartily recommend Samalona Island
It was three of the best days we spent in Indonesia. The island is a respite from the insanity of the cities and we found it a “recharge” for our souls.
“You really have to want to do this, don’t you, Dear?”
Ann’s words have echoed in my mind as her sweet, octogenarian face has pleasantly haunted my afternoon walks. We wandered slowly through the natural bridge outside of Waitomo, NZ, with her and her husband, Ross. I quietly got the kids’ attention and encouraged them to walk more slowly behind him, and not press forward as he did his aged best to step over tree roots and up the rocky stairs to the high meadow where we laughed together about the crazy idea of standing in the presence of 3 million year old oysters. Tony gave him a leg up over the fences. He laughed, good-naturedly, when the boys leapt out from behind blackberry bushes with a roar, as he had undoubtedly done forty years before I took my first breath.
Ann was hand washing for the two of them in a little tub out the back of her camper van, using water that Ross was bringing, one bucket at a time from the bridge. He’d lower the bucket the twenty or so feet to the surface with a long rope and then haul it up, mostly full, hand over hand before delivering it to his white haired wife. By the time she was done rinsing he was there to help her wring out his trousers, one on each end, twisting hard, and hang the clothes from a line he’s strung under the awning.
She commiserated with me over hand washing for six, producing meals for an army on two burners in a three foot square space, and the difficulties of adventuring with children. She’d raised a tribe too, in her day, and they’d camped the length and breadth of their island home. Perhaps she’s a premonition of myself.
You have to really want to do this.
I’ve been thinking about that statement, and the layers of meaning it embodies.
Truth be told, living this way is a lot of work. Staying home is far and away easier. But the best things in life are always the things that require the most from us, that we have to work our rear-ends off to achieve. The things we are proudest of mean so much to us because they’ve cost us the most.
Marriage is like that.
Raising kids is like that.
Traveling is like that.
All three together is the perfect storm of all that and two bags of chips.
There was so much encouragement in Ann’s face as we talked and washed and shared “mama” stories. The older I get the more I appreciate the stories of old women. I think because I’m just beginning to understand the many-layered thing that a woman’s life is, stretched thin over the better part of a century. Perhaps it’s because I can see myself in their eyes more clearly than I could at twenty, or thirty.
You have to really want to do this.
So many people give up. They give up on the thing they really, really want to do. There are so many reasons: It gets too hard. It costs too much. It hurts too badly. It isn’t what we signed up for. Someone else fails us. We fail ourselves. It’s inconvenient. It’s easier to stay home, in some capacity. We feel that we don’t deserve it, aren’t “worth” it. It’s a fight.
I’ve been thinking lots about the things I really want to do. The big things and the small things. The hard things and the harder things. The things that seem mundane, like staying married until I’m in my eighties, raising kids who are productive citizens and learning to write. The things that seem like pipe dreams too: seeing Antarctica, changing the world, and successfully handing my parents’ legacy to my grandkids. I really, really want to do these things.
For tonight, the things I really want to do included cooking 3 kilos of meat, enough potatoes, cheesy cauliflower & salad for an army, making a double batch of ginger cookies in a 16″ square camper oven and two gas burners, and making my husband laugh until he was squirming to get away from me, which is an accomplishment. I want to sit and sip my tea, munch my still warm ginger treat and thank the gods that be for friends who love me enough to mail me the exact type of tea that keeps me from killing the children who I want so desperately to strangle sometimes when we all are living in 126 square feet. And I’m willing to live in 126 square feet of rolling space because I really, really want, quite desperately, to make their childhood epic and not to miss a moment of it.
What do you really want to do?
Twenty two kilometers is a good hike. It’s not a full day’s walk, by any means, but it’s a solid start at a leisurely pace. After a month in Paraparaumu it seemed the perfect way to honor the Kapiti Coast and thank her for the gift of rest, recuperation, and peaceful joy. To walk is to pay careful homage, one footstep at a time, to a landscape, and to give the world back the very thing she gave us: life.
It was at my first break that I realized there was a problem. I felt a slight pinch along the outside of both of my big toes. By lunch my toes were tender with each step.
About an hour before I got to Pukerua Bay I seriously considered calling my husband and asking him to pick me up. But then, my determination won out over common sense and in my characteristic, bull headed manner, I decided to finish the task at hand and do what I’d set out to do. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that there is always a point in any adventure that you just want to quit. It hurts. Your heart fails. You question your own ability. It seems as if it’s not worth it to follow through. I’ve also learned that those difficulties can be pushed through, passed over, and the hardships borne, and the victory of accomplishing the hard thing is always worth the passing pain. So, I kept walking.
Days later, I was still paying the price. My feet were in bad shape. I had matching 2×1 cm blisters on the outside of my big toes. My pinkie toe on my left foot was swollen like a sausage. The tips of my toes were so sore that I could barely stand to wear socks… this was fully two days after my walk. Three weeks later and I’ve got blood blisters, black, beneath four of my toenails, pushing up in such a way that I’m worried about losing the nails.
Tony asked me the next day, after I teared up from banging my toes into a cabbage that was rolling around on the floor of the camper, “So, was it worth it?”
Of course it was worth it! I had a fantastic day. It was a walk, and an adventure that will live in my mind forever. The blisters will pass, the toenails will regrow if I lose them. The memories will last forever.
Here’s the thing: Anything worth doing, hurts. Several times a week I get emails from folks who express envy, or their desire to do some of the things that we get to do, traveling as a lifestyle.
The reality is, most people aren’t willing to push through the hard spots. They call in their safety net the moment it gets tough. They aren’t willing to do without or give up the things they would have to in order to get the postcard moment they want from my world. Dreams come with a cost. If you want to live epically, if you want to do the big things that you dream of, that will pull you out of your status quo and into something bigger and more authentically “you,” it’s going to cost you. If you’re feeling the angst of midlife and asking, “Wasn’t there supposed to be more than this?” The answer is yes… but it won’t be comfortable. The status quo is easy because it is comfortable, it doesn’t hurt that much. If you want your dreams, you can have them, but you’ll have to work, you’ll have to push, and you’ll have to learn how to suffer.
That’s what I spent the second half of my walk thinking about. It was worth every step.
You can read the whole story here
What are you doing (have you done) that hurts, but is worth it?
I know it’s pretty last minute, but so is life, at times
If you are in or around Toronto this weekend, you may be interested in checking out Sonchy’s Silk Road Adventure Central Asian Film Event.
Michael Soncina is trying to get some attention on a very adventurous part of the world to travel by organizing this festival. His aim is “to showcase the Central Asian region to a wide audience with the hope of increasing tourism to the area and its projects“. Having traveled and loved the region myself, I can only recommend this event to all those Vagabonding readers who happen to be in and around Toronto this weekend.
The main festival event will be the screening of a series of movies, whose titles are definitely intriguing:
Buzkashii! • The Light Thief • Desert of Forbidden Art • Buddhas of Mes Aynak • Boxing Girls of Kabul • Lonely Planet’s ‘Globe Trekkers’ Silk Road Series • Buzkashi Boys
“Buzkashi”, for all those who are unfamiliar with the term, is a sort of polo played using a headless goat’s carcass as “ball”… and that’s where you will start loving Central Asia!! be there, or start saving up for your own Central Asian adventure!
Let’s face it: It’s summer and you’re broke. If you’ve somehow managed to make it to Europe and have some money for food and shelter, you might not have cash for much else. Trust me, I’ve been there. Everyone knows activities in places like London, for example, is pricey. But it’s important to know that there are several fun and interesting things to see and do that are completely free.
With that in mind, this is the first in a series focusing on free sights and activities in some of Europe’s best cities.
Taking the London example, here’s just a short list of free activities that give you a good taste of that amazing city:
-The National Gallery is free, although that may surprise many. Yes, one of the world’s great art museums—hosting works by world-renown masters—does not charge for entry.
-Piccadilly Circus, the gateway to the West End, is a colorful sea of people—especially when the sun goes down and the neon lights wash over the surroundings. Great people watching.
-The Changing of the Guard at the palace is always a sight to behold. The military pomp has been tradition for centuries, epitomizing military precision.
-Regent’s Park includes the city zoo and a wildlife garden. An oasis of leafy tranquility in the heart of the metropolis.
-There’s also St. James’s Park, ringed by some of London’s biggest landmarks (Buckingham Palace and Whitehall) featuring gorgeous greens and a soothing lake when the Tube and the crowds drive you mad.
-Speaking of great urban parks, no list would be complete without mention of Hyde Park. Lots of open air festivals and concerts are held here, especially in summer. Amble on over and enjoy.
-The Tate Modern (free except for certain special exhibitions) hosts a dazzling array of modern art, if you’re into that sort of thing.
-The rightfully revered British Museum is another world-class treasure trove of history that deserves your time. It’s a jaw-droppingly thorough survey of human civilization.
Of course, the best parts of travel, meeting the people and sampling the culture, are always free—but having a list of other free stuff to do certainly helps.
Whoever idealized the serene night scene of Berber tents surrounding an oasis, fires flickering, a reflection of the stars above, the quiet hum of insects and maybe a bedouin bathing by moonlight had obviously NOT actually spent a night at an oasis; especially on a festival night.
If there is one thing that an oasis night is not, under any circumstances, it is quiet. There is really no way to describe the cacophony of sounds that paint the darkness: donkeys braying, dogs barking, cats calling, camels roaring (they don’t exactly roar, but they are certainly making their best attempt.) Add to that the clip clop of horse hooves, followed closely by the squeak of the wheels of the cart it is pulling, the low level drone of Arabic, whispers, conversations, laughter, shouting and singing and it is a symphony that echoes out onto the desert and disappears into the darkness.
The drumming started just at bed time. BOM-bah-bah-bah-BOM-bah-bah-bah-BOM-BOM-BOM-bah-bah-bah…. The constant beat of skin drums beaten with smooth sticks by men in ankle length, hot pink robes and green vests topped by red hats hung with long black tassles, reminiscent of a horse’s tail, attached at the center. The high, shrill trilling of the Bedouin women accompanying their beat: “HIEEEELA-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-LA!” BOM-bah-bah-bah-BOM-bah-bah-bah…. There was no sense in putting in earplugs and trying to sleep. The only thing to do was lay awake in the deep dark and frosty cold of the desert night and enjoy the symphony, trying to burn it into my sound memory for the deep dark and frosty cold of my ancient days, sixty years from now.
Then, sometime after midnight, as suddenly as if a switch had been thrown: quiet. No more drums, no more people sounds, only the lonely donkey’s cry or dog’s bark. We emerged from the tent to make a run to the bathroom, our breath hanging in the frosty air. Desert nights, especially in winter, hover around the freezing point. It was impossible to rush (as my chilly self wanted to do) across the sand to the bath house. We had to stand, heads held aloft and look at the stars. It is hard to believe that these are the same stars that watch over us in the pine forests of northern New England, but they are, the stars of the northern hemisphere: Ursa Major and Minor, the Pleiades and Orion, standing like an arab warrior over the ocean of sand. The moon was no where to be seen, hidden among the date palms at the edge of the horizon, perhaps, but the stars more than made up for its light. The desert stars alone were worth the trip.
Between drumming and the dawn prayers came three or so hours of twilight sleep. Douz has at least four mosques, each of which seems to pride itself on the accuracy of timing their morning prayers, and they certainly do not agree. The first wail arose at five thirty, sharp, and it was nearly half an hour before the last song faded into the semi-darkness. The sound of the muezzin is an effective alarm clock and reminds even we infidels that Allah is, indeed, Akbar. Emerging from our green tents, blowing on our frozen fingers, starting the fires that will result in coffee and tea we greeted Christmas Day on the edge of the Grand Erg Oriental, while Gramps hummed the inevitable under his breath: “Midnight at the Oasis” by Maria Maldaur (1973).
Visit this link to hear a version of the song by Renee Olstead.
A good traveler knows that it isn’t the number of places you’ve been that counts, it’s the number of meaningful experiences. Just like the saying, “it’s not the number of breaths you take that matters, it’s the number of moments that take your breath away.” Same with traveling. Miles mean little, so do stamps in your passport. That stuff is ancillary to the true story: the adventures themselves (be they emotional, fun, or just plain interesting) and the souls you were lucky enough to encounter along the way.
For example, a friend asked me today, “So how many places have you been to?” I get asked question a lot. My answer is always, “I don’t know. Never counted. But you know what? I’ve got a scar from Scotland, some friends from Florence and a parking bill from Budapest.”
All true, and all linked to great travel memories. All the best travelers use this sort of yardstick to measure their experiences abroad. The key is perspective: think qualitatively, not quantitatively.
Having said that, I think it’s safe to assume the Hungarian police have given up expecting me to pay that stupid fine they left on my windshield. To this day I’m not quite sure what it says on that thing, but it looks cool in a frame. As for the scar from Scotland, that’s another story altogether.