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Wednesday April 28th 2010

The guys arrived back from Jiuzhaigou last night in the jeep. It’s great to have it here but it needs a lot of work before we hit the road: the steering and brakes need attention; the seats need to be readjusted (so that four westerners can fit in with any degree of comfort). We need a roof rack for all the gear and a million other less important things such as speakers, seat covers, and camping gear. We’re planning to leave Chengdu this day next week so we’re going to be really busy.

Big surprise for Flinner today, unbeknownst to him Andre (Podge and Flinners school friend who did the last world trip with them) arrived in China to see us off. Sambo helped maintain the surprise by asking Flinn to collect his school friend from the airport. So the lads all headed off to collect ‘Sam’s friend’ with cold beers. Unfortunately the flight was delayed by about an hour and a half and Flinner was gone when Dre arrived and met him coming from the bathroom, the video speaks for itself but he was completely shocked - Very funny!

That night we had a celebration in Shamrock, Leanne and I made a cheesecake for the occasion – very difficult without the right ingredients or utensils but it worked out super tasty in the end.

Monday May 5th 2010

It’s been a crazy week in terms of preparation, ripping the jeep apart and welding it back together but today was the light of the tunnel.

We had lunch with two lads who had just arrived in China having driven from London. It was so nice to actually talk to people who have done the trip and who can give concrete advice. The lads were great and gave us some awesome tips on boarders, as well as contacts which is always really helpful.

It’s so good to know that it can actually be done and that we’re not completely mental. Talking to them has really lifted a huge weight off my shoulders as this week has been really tough in terms of getting things together. It’s such a mammoth task to pack up the apartment and pack the car which will effectively be our house for the next 8 – 10 months.

Wednesday May 7th 2010

Today was a very big very scary day. We left Chengdu at 6.30am to make our way the 2800km to Xiamen for the rugby and so begins Car Crash Diaries.

We were on the motorway and just outside of the city when we started to loose our tarp. Abreast as I am with road safety facts, I know that a person’s life expectancy in their car on the hard shoulder of a motorway is 12 minutes; this then falls to 8 minutes when said person gets out of their car.  I also noted that this statistic is not specific to foreigners in the hard shoulder of a Chinese motorway and does not take into account the ‘novelty’ and additional ‘rubber necking’ that western tourists generate in China. However since we couldn’t continue with the tarp flapping and had no alternative but to fix the tarp, I shut my trap and kept a close eye on my watch! Such a good friend! Luckily we were quick and managed to get back on the motorway alive.

We drove pretty hard for the afternoon and guzzled petrol with our 2 tonne 4 litre engine! We decided to switch drivers every two hours or so and when it was my turn I getting used to the jeep, the steering still needed a lot of respect and with the added weight on the roof it was very temperamental. I wasn’t long in the driver’s seat, only about 10 mins, when I turned off at our exit but at the last minute we realised it was the wrong one so I quickly swerved back into the right lane, unfortunately when steering our jeep nothing should be done quickly, it didn’t respond well and I lost control. The jeep shook as I desperately tried to avoid the metal motorway divider. Colm who was asleep beside me woke with a start as the jeep started to wobble, he grabbed the steering wheel and tugging it to the right, he led us back away from the motorway. Meanwhile I continued to slam on the breaks while screaming at him to ‘Let go of the steering wheel’, as if it was all his fault! Luckily after a 180 spin we stopped about a foot from the barrier. Had we gone through it we would have ended up in a ditch. Scary, very scary! We switched drivers after that and I haven’t driven since!

Chinese motorways are insane. The drivers have absolutely no regard for anyone else on the road and never use mirrors. The horn is central to the driving etiquette and one is supposed to beep when overtaking another vehicle to let them know you’re there (since they don’t use mirrors). Right of way is granted to the vehicle in front, regardless of the lane. In other words if you are in the slow lane on the motorway and decide to change lanes, if there is nobody in front of you, you have right of way. It doesn’t matter about the person in your blind spot, who was supposed to inform you of their existence with their horn.

There is insurance but it doesn’t work in the same way that ours does. If you have a crash you are expected to sort out compensation on the spot - generally between 10 and 30 euro. If the parties cannot agree the police are called and they then help the parties to agree a price. If this doesn’t happen it goes to court and nobody is really sure about what happens after that!

The motorways themselves are expensive to discourage farmers, carts, less safe vehicles etc from using them. They are pretty quiet; thankfully, the other vehicles are mainly massive trucks and buses. The cars are asses. Everything is a competition; they swerve in and out of lanes and tiny gaps, always being sure to break as soon as they nip-in - just to make a point. They drive up your butt and think nothing of using the hard shoulder as a lane. The buses are clever, they drive fast and bully their way through the trucks and other cars, they don’t take silly chances, but play very close to the line. They trucks are really dangerous and the ones to worry about. Their loads are often so wide that they cant see anything in their mirrors (if they used them). As in most Asian countries, size rules. The trucks are bigger than the rest of us and so don’t give a toss. It was with one of these trucks that we had our afternoon run-in. 

We were in the fast lane overtaking a fuel truck and we have beeped (as required). We are doing about 112km/hr and are just behind his drivers window when he decides to pull into the fast lane. Colm was driving and starts braking and honking the horn, but the truck is completely oblivious. We are moving closer and closer to the metal dividing barrier, Colm is braking as much as the jeep will allow without turning or toppling, the truck is still closing us not slowing a bit, luckily he only clipped the front corner of our bumper but he drove on without even noticing. At this, in a complete adrenalin fuelled fury, we raced up after him beeping and flashing and waved him down. I was petrified and fully aware that had he hit us anywhere else we would have toppled over the barrier and onto the other side of the motorway, or worse ended up in a big petrol bomb. Colm on the other hand was furious. He shouted and screamed at the driver and looked close to punching him for nearly killing us. In the end, after a huge fight, with the driver who tried to deny the whole thing, we anxious to get away, (and off the hard shoulder) we settled for 300RMB or 30 euro, not much considering we nearly died! But the damage to the jeep didn’t seem much, and labour in China is cheap. It wasn’t until after that we learned we had an oil leak as the bumper is attached to the main chassis which had shifted and cracked the engine.

We continued on and despite a few more close calls we arrived at our overnight stop. The hotel was a gorgeous family run place that was spotlessly clean. It was also cheap as chips and had a security guard to watch over the jeep. It was so late that the restaurants in town were closed but the receptionist offered to make us noodles. She showed us to our rooms and then took us to her home on the top floor and whipped up some tasty dinner and cold beers, she wouldn’t let us pay. It was 11.30pm when we were finishing and Megan ran down to get something out of the jeep. When she came back to us she had some news. “You’re not going to believe this, but the police are downstairs. The owner called them and they want to kick us out” WHAT? As it turned out the hotel was not registered to take foreigners and when the owner found out we checked in he called the police in a panic. The police arrived, two police women, a policeman, and a translator – an English student that they had gotten out of bed to help proceedings.

Megan tried her best using every excuse in the book, our long drive, the lateness, the fact that we planned to checkout in six hours, the fact that we couldn’t leave because our drivers had already started drinking, would it be possible to camp? But the police were not to be moved and said camping would be worse, and so exhausted and wanting our beds we requested that they find us a hotel with the same prices that we were paying.

The police wanted all of our passports so that we could be registered properly, however mine was on the top of the jeep under the tarp, in my rucksack, tied-up in 10 meters of rope and there was no way any of us had the energy or the inclination to get it down. So we gave them the four we had, hoped for the best, and never stood together in a group.

In response to our claims that we had been drinking, half a bottle of beer each, the police provided a driver for the jeep and a mini bus for the excess passenger. In a last effort we told them about the truck and that the steering was gone and this man wouldn’t be able to drive our jeep, in its current condition. Without luck we eventually headed of, with our driver (shitting himself), a police minibus and three squad cars as escorts. When we arrived at the new hotel, which was so swanky, the police talked down the price from 389RMB to 100RMB (twice what we were paying in the last place).

As it turned out the hotel didn’t have the forms to register foreigners. Then the policeman (who just arrived at the new hotel) got really thick with them “I know you do because your boss attended my ‘checking-in foreigner’s seminar’ only last month” – God bless Megan and her translation abilities!  Not only did the hotel not have the forms but they didn’t have a copy machine to copy the passports either. So it was decided that the policeman would take the passports back to the station, do the necessary paperwork and return them back to the hotel that night. Meanwhile we still only had four passports, so I’m hiding behind a pillar pretending to be asleep. Luckily we were able to sneak upstairs without the hotel or the police noticing that there were five of us, despite them driving us there! At 1.30am we finally fell into bed.

Thursday 8th May 2010

I woke up this morning to a phone call in Chinese. I had no clue what they said and got a bit anxious in case it was the police but as it turned out it was only a wakeup call which Megan had ordered the night before.

Today, thankfully passed without any major dramas on our part. We did lose our tarp again took a good chunk of time trying to find a place with the materials to put it back together, but that was all. After sorting the tarp we were on the way back to the motorway, driving down a wide road with a bus lane/hard shoulder on our right. There was a silver sedan in front of us and a couple of motorbikes on our inside. A taxi approaching in the opposite direction starts to drift across the road in front of the sedan. Colm was driving and I was in the front seat, and we were looking at him thinking what the hell is he at? I remember thinking that he must be going for a fare in the bus lane, only he didn’t, he just went cruising straight into the sedan, without pausing, swerving or noticing. The whole thing happened in slow motion, the bonnets making contact and crumpling, the crunch, the spray of glass. Thankfully Colm moved into the far side of the road and overtook the whole thing, we didn’t even slow down, we just cruised on past as if it wasn’t a big deal.  The day continued with flipped cars, a truck bursting the barriers and getting buried under a mudslide, but we were safe.

The coolest thing about driving through a country is that you see things that you would never normally see on a bus. You can stop wherever you like. Most of the towns we stopped in were jammed with the nicest people. We couldn’t sit in a restaurant without each of us being presented with a cigarette at least twice (even though only one of us smoked). People were so kind, the people that stopped to help when we got hit by the truck, the guy who hopped on his bike and led us to the bank when we only wanted directions, the woman that made us dinner at 11.30pm and wouldn’t let us pay, the standing ovation we received from the bystanders when we sorted our tarp. Not only that but we also get to see parts of Chinese life that you don’t normally get to see like the butcher below (This is for you Dad!!!):

Friday 8th May 2010

We did over 18hrs driving yesterday and covered over 1300km so we were finally able to take a break, have a lie-in and enjoy ourselves. After day one the lads became used to the jeep, conscious of the other drivers unpredictability, and more comfortable behind the wheel. The days following days passed without a hitch and we even got to do some filming today. Despite our shaky start, I figure that it really can’t get any worse. Eoin and Megan always said Chinese roads would be the worst of all and now that we had them figured out we should be OK.

We arrived at the hostel in Xi’amen at 7pm on Friday night: Let the celebration begin!

They say a picture paints a thousand words so for this weekend I’m going to let the pic’s speak for themselves as it was all a bit mental. The rugby team are called the Chengdu panda’s and our theme for the weekend was the movie 300, so we all dressed up as panda Spartans!

On Friday night there was a pre-tournament event, a kind of getting to know your opposition night, and we had a very tactical game plan – Keep the other teams players out as long as possible! The club itself was good fun, it had a mechanical bull and tonnes of cheap beer. Unfortunately with the bull, the beer, and the panda girls being so focused in our ‘have as much fun as possible’ plan, were all too much for our own players and they were lured into our trap - A twisted warp of tequila, bull riding, swimming, and dancing. Dawn came all too soon and the majority of the pandas, and just a handful of others remained. Mission FAILED!

With the organisation of a battalion leader Emily had us all up and out of the hostel by 7.15AM! The tournament was on an island, which was a 25min drive, a 20min boat and a 20minute walk from our hostel. Unfortunately the sea air and boat movements did nothing for our players and things look pretty bad when two of them started to puke over the side.

The mantra for the weekend was…. Verse ‘Pandas what is your profession’ Refrain ‘Drinking’!!!!! In reality, nature took over and the pandas reverted to their natural instincts……..

They rugby kicked off to an embarrassing start when we lost the first game 19-0! In fairness though it was to be expected since every team member was either drunk or vomiting through their hangover. The second game wasn’t much better with another stinging loss, however as soon as 12 o’clock hit the lads perked up and started kicking ass!

There were glorious tackles,

fantastic line-outs, (Yes that is a furious wedgey that Patches is getting, check out the black undies)

savage kicks,

and magnificent tries.

Due to the mornings poor performance we ended up going in to the bowl, rather than the cup, (the bowl being for the winning runner up). We went on to win the bowl.

On Saturday night there was a buffet dinner and beach party organised in one of the fancier hotels. Everyone arrived and ate and drank their fill and then the boat races and forfeits started. The boat races are drinking games. Two teams play against each other. 10 players from each team sit along a table facing one another. Each payer is then given a pint of beer. He or she has to down their beer as quickly as possible. Only when their empty cup is placed upside down on their head can their team-mate start their drink. It goes down through the lines and the last team to finish wins.

Each team was also given six forfeits. These are fines, in the form of shots, given to offenders. Three are to be given to their own team members and three to a player on any other team. Eoin and Megan were given one from Chengdu for leaving. Podge was given one from another team for the total disregard of his own body when making tackles. Another was given to the entire Chengdu Panda group for their effort in dressing up and the promotion of fun times!

The party the extended on to the beach where it was a long night!

Sunday 9th May

This morning I am flying to Beijing in order to organise the visas for Kazakhstan. I really don’t want to leave Xi’amen a day early as the weekend is continuing today with more beach rugby and a get-together in one of the bars. My flight is at 12 so I have to leave the hostel at 9ish, nobody is awake and I’m a bit sad to be going! Cathy, Caoimhe and Leanne will arrive into Beijing late tonight so I’ll be able to get all the gossip from them.

Monday 10th May

We got up this morning voiceless after the weekend and went straight to the Kazakhstan embassy for nine o’clock to find that they have a national holiday and are closed! Drat! Will have to go back on Wed, when they open again.

I’ve just got off the phone to the guys and it turns out Colm is really sick, he has somehow managed to contract or develop cellulites is his leg. He has had it before but it can be really serious if it isn't treated properly - amputation serious. I'm really worried because they have to leave Xi’amen and drive the 1400km to Shanghai in time for Dre's flight on Thurs. Luckily he has the medication with him, I just hope he  rests and looks after himself.

Latest update from Shanghai is that Colm is deteriorating; they went to the hospital this afternoon, and were told that the oral drugs aren't effective enough as the infection is too strong. He was prescribed a course of IV's for a week. Thankfully they didn't need to keep him in but he needs to go to a hospital everyday for IV treatment. 

Wednesday 11th May

The guys should have arrived in Shanghai this morning. I'm still worried about Col he didn't sound good last night but it was late and he needed to sleep! At the hospital yesterday there was a doctor who seemed to know what he was talking about and he changed Col's prescription to another type of IV. He has also extended the prescription for a week from today.

Wed 12th May

We are waiting in the embassy line to apply for our Kazakhstan visas. Now as a patient person I don't really mind standing here for last two hours, in sweltering heat, being skipped by sneaky Chinese folk! I don't mind that I flew early Sunday morning (missing the party and the final day of the rugby) to be here for Monday morning, only for the embassy declare a holiday and close! I'm not even angry that the computers here are down and nobody has been processed yet. I'm not mad at all, BUT Cathy is Raging! Haha good thing they sent me instead of Flinner!

We're still waiting and nobody has moved anywhere but we have to check out of our hostel at 12 in order to move rooms. So, rather than pay for a late checkout we split up and Leanne and Caoimhe went back to move us all.

Despite my upbeat attitude from earlier, the girls leaving was a catalyst, I got really angry! Background; We arrived at the embassy this morning before 9am - their opening time, and waited. At half eleven nobody had moved anywhere and an embassy official came out with queuing poles and re-arranged the entire queue. The door is on the right and there is a fence running adjacent to it, alongside the outside of the building. At nine the queue formed along the fence from the door back. But the skippers mentioned earlier stood at the door and spilled out onto the road. So your-manno, AKA power-tripper, comes out and instead of telling the skippers to move off he moves the entire queue back, so the skippers get to the top alongside the fence. He goes along the queue telling us all individually to move back. At this point Cathy is about to explode! 

At 12 o'clock he comes back out and calls us to the front, scolding us because foreigners don't queue! We're fairly annoyed at this comment considering he saw and spoke to us in the queue 30mins ago! In we go and I have the four applications and visas for myself and the others while Cathy has the three for the girls in her hands. The power-tripper comes over and starts riffling through the pile in my hand tut- tutting! He asks how many and I reply 4- Same story
 with Cathy, and he goes off and brings us back new forms, since the ones we got off their website weren’t to his liking. We're right at the top of the inside queue writing frantically to fill on the new forms, while he's letting the people behind us in. When we are ready he counts the forms again and asks where the other people are, I reply Shanghai and he turns to his mate and they laugh in my face, "they need here" Grrrr!. IT didn’t say that on the website buddy! At this stage I point to the three lads sitting across from me, each holding 15 passports and applications and he tells me that all the people in the waiting room are with him - unlikely! At this point Cathy has steam coming out her ears as we've already sent the girls back and it's noon. So we decided that she'd stay in the queue and I'd get back to the hostel  (which is 30mins away) and tell the girls to get back before they close at 1.30pm. 

When I got back to the hostel I arrived and found the girls waiting on their lunch. They left immediately and no sooner had the door closed than the waitress arrived with a tuna salad, fried rice, sweet sour chicken and two cups of tea - happy days!

When the girls got back to the hostel they were fuming! They arrived back at the embassy at 12.55, within plenty of time and the power-tripper looks at them with a massive smile and shaking his head says 'sorry not today, maybe tomorrow'. I'd say Cathy could have punched him, she was waiting at the top of the queue with him the whole time and he knew the girls were on their way!

Thursday 13th May

Angry but undefeated the girls got up early and went back to the embassy this morning! After a two hour queue they got to the desk and were told that Irish people need a letter of invitation (LOI)*. There is a list outside the embassy with countries which are exempted from this rule and Ireland is one if them. After explaining this to the guy at the desk he replied 'the rules changed, [pause] last month'. At this point Cathy is inches away from climbing over the desk and using his head to stamp her passport! All the more so because power-tripper is back there whispering in his ear! 

* A letter from a Kazakhstan Travel agency inviting you to Kazakhstan, which is pre-authorised by the foreign ministry. It costs about $50 and takes two weeks to process.

Convinced that the rules changed the second they got to the desk they managed to talk him out of the LOI and agreed on a doctors letter, and a letter from their employer stating their travel plans and the fact that they would be returning to work - as opposed to living out the rest of their days in Kazakhstan with Borat!!! He also gave them assurances that when they arrived tomorrow they wouldn’t have to queue.  

Bulling they got back to the hostel and decided Kazakhstan could stick their visas! Instead, they started filling out applications for Kyrgyzstan which has re-opened after the recent turmoil.

Friday 13th May

As much as I Love embassies I decided I'd had my weekly fill especially since I couldn't do anything until the others arrived from Shanghai. So while the girls went to the Kyrgyzstan embassy I headed to the Summer Palace. Feeling adventurous I went the subway - only three different lines!

After our audio tour experience in Jodhpur I went straight to the audio desk and rigged-up headed off to explore the palace grounds. The audio tour used GPS so as soon as you pass a point it starts off the speail. The map was crap so I had no indication when it would start or stop for that matter. As soon as you pass outside of the GPS spot it stops mid-sentence. Whenever I wanted to know what I was looking at it would stay silent, or it would say 'in front of you is the great lake' when it was actually a building! It kept giving me frights because it would be silent for so long I’d forget I had it and then out of nowhere it would start up in my ear! I'd say I looked hilarious jumping around the palace!

The palace itself was cool but I felt like a bit of a pleb on my own in all the photos especially because the Chinese travel in such big groups! 

Saturday 14th May

We got up early this morning to do a spot of sightseeing - it's a week tomorrow and we've seen nothing! It's all on me though because the others have been here before!

 First stop was Tiananmen Square. The square was huge and absolutely crammed with Chinese tour groups. The tour groups are hilarious, the whole tour are given matching hats and or t-shirts so the guide can recognise them and he or she in turn carries a flag the same colour as the hats. The whole group then follow the flag all over the city like little ducklings!

The weather in Beijing has been so beautiful this week which has shown us another quirky Chinese-ism. Like most Asians they hate to get a tan and cover up in the sun. In China though they take it to a new level and use rain umbrellas. It's funny because you never see them in the rain, only when the sun shines and all the women have them!

After the square we went off to the Forbidden City. Being Saturday it was crammed with Chinese domestic tourists in tour groups, feeling claustrophobic we aborted that mission and went instead to find a tea ceremony. The tea shop was a real tourist trap selling tea at €8 a pop but we wanted to fill the afternoon with something touristy. As we were waiting to order a shadow show started. It was like a puppet show only in front of the puppets was a lit screen which meant we could only see the shadows. The show was pretty crap which was funny because it was the exact same one that the girls did the first time they came to Beijing. For the last three years they have been raving about it being their highlight of China! Haha. When the show ended we still hadn't ordered so we just snuck out! Above the tea shop is a theatre where we bought tickets for a show featuring Chinese acrobats and a changing face/mask show. We grabbed a savage lunch of Peking (an ancient word for Beijing) Duck, so tasty, and then headed back to the theatre.

Instead of an acrobat and mask show we got a talent show, with the most random mix of performances. The acrobats were amazing but it was just two girls on for 10mins, followed up by a singer who sang a traditional song that lasted 40 MINS! It was awful and we kept thinking she was finishing - slowing down, holding notes etc and then she'd launch off again, when she did eventually finish her one song we cheered so loud that the whole theatre looked at us! 

The everlasting singer was followed up by a tea pouring dance which was cool. There were about eight people with traditional tea pots which look a bit like oil cans and have really long spouts, about a meter, and then they pour the tea behind their backs and over their heads etc. 

The tea pourers were followed up by a kind of Chinese beat box duo, who barked, chirped, boomed and whistled at us for half an hour, very random, and then the show ended with a 10 min face changing. 

In hindsight we should have been wary of the sign at the ticket booth 'performances may change without notice, and the management claim no responsibility'. We enjoyed the afternoon though; one of the perks of the show was unlimited free tea. 

Continuing in our tourist themed evening after dinner we headed to see the Olympic Village at night.

Sunday 15th May

Col and the guys are arriving tonight, I'm pretty anxious to see him.
They arrived into the city late so we decided to meet at Tiananmen Square which was close to our hostel. When we were arranging it we I said the Forbidden City side. So there I was at 11.30pm waiting on him and at 11.45  I called Megan to see what the story was. Turned out he'd only just left and would be with me in 10 mins. 12.30 still no sign of Colm so I call Megan back and she thinks he's gone to the other end (it's huge, the biggest square in the world) so I head to the other end and I'm searching for him shouting his name, still no sign.

At half one I get a call from Col to say meet me at KFC so off I head, only when I get there there's no sign of him. Then I remember that he didn't say which KFC. I only know one but maybe there are more. So I went off in search of more KFC's. To the right of the square is a walking street like Grafton Street or something but it was all fenced off, they must do it every night for security. I know there is a Mc Donalds at the bottom of the road and figure that there might be a KFC too. In the cloak of darkness I tried to climb through a gap in the temporary fences, but got spotted by the security guards who started shouting at me. Distracted by their shouts I tripped and fell into the fences, which, as chance would have it, were only leaning against one another. My impact was too much for the leaning tower and I somehow managed to knock down the entire fence. At this point security is getting really annoyed and starts running towards me, still shouting in Chinese. Luckily there were on the far side of the street and I had time to untangle myself from the fences and run away - Stealth!

Having failed to find another KFC I went back to my original where I found Colm. Wohoo! Classic line from Col "did you think I was in KFC when I called?" hey better late than never, even if it was three hours!

PS Colm maintains that we had planned to meet at the south end and that he was on time!

Monday 16th May - Back to the embassy

Back to the Kazakhstan embassy, same story in the queue, with everyone trying to sneak in at the top, and hanging around the door. Experienced as I am, I have everyone hanging onto the fence for fear of getting pushed back again. When power-tripper arrived Megan went up to him and asked 'where do I [a foreigner] stand?' his reply was ' 'at the back'.

After an hour power-tripper arrived out with a crumpled piece of paper with five names on it and stabs it into the top of the fence without saying anything. It looks like a list of visas that are ready for collection or something, but within about 30 seconds there are 35 Chinese names on it. Another hour passes and power-tripper arrives out, takes the list down and announces that only one to ten on the list, except foreigners, are getting processed, everyone else go home. He then transferred the top ten names onto another list skipping the western names.

Another hour later power-tripper arrives out and tells all the foreigners to go home. At this stage there are only six of us left and one of the lads Sam arrived at 7am and was 5th on the original list. Megan the legend that she is goes straight up to power-tripper and tells him that we are all with Sam and he is no.5 on the list. At this stage he relents and allows the six of us straight into the waiting room. Next we are called into the inner chamber, the Holy Grail of Kazakhstan the application process. Inside the each of us is called individually to the counter and our applications are scrutinised. The guy at the counter, Mr Kazak, moves from person to person, and noticing that the four of us have the same schedule he then calls the four of us up for a second chat. Surprisingly the rules have changed and we can't possibly apply for visas without a print out of health insurance and a copy of our bank statement showing "oh at least 3000 (no currency mentioned)". 

Having come this far, there is no way that we are leaving without giving in our applications. Flinner AKA Bad Cop, starts getting really annoyed and rightly so. A very nervous Mr Kazak takes Flinner and the rest of us out of the Holy Grail and back into the waiting room. He then escorts Flinner into a secret room. Nobody knows what happened in that room. All we know is that 15mins later the two of them arrive out, looking very satisfied, and we are all taken back into the Holy Grail where we go through our forms again. The arrangement is that we can apply for our visas today but must return with the said documents in order to get our passports back. We get the applications in and are delighted if a little embarrassed that Sam our friend who we piggy backed on in the queue was still in there. We got his number though and were texting him for the afternoon. 

After our successful mission we had a lot of errands to run such as getting documents translated into English and Russian, buying things such as head torches, in-car cameras, clothes and other bits and bobs in preparation for hitting the road. The picture of below of Colm (with the camera attached to his head) trying to simulate in-car movement – much to the delight of all the Chinese on-lookers.

We also had to stop off at the hospital so that Col could get his fix. As we were in Beijing we were able to go the SOS International Hospital. It was super expensive but we got to chat to an Australian doctor who was able to give us decent advice. She took Col off the IV’s as she said that the Chinese were a bit IV happy when compared to their Western counterparts and put him on a course of antibiotics. It’s great to have the freedom of not going to the hospital everyday, especially as we are planning on going on a trip out of the city this week.

Wednesday 19th May

While we were in Chengdu one of our friends, Bruce, offered us his house in Beijing for a couple of nights. The house is located about an hour and a half outside the city at the foot of the Great Wall. Not only that but Bruce arranged for his friend Mr Sa, a living legend, to drive us out there. Bruce had told us all about Mr Sa in Chengdu so we were really excited to meet him. He collected us (The Irish girls and Podge) from the Carrefour where we did a massive shop for the weekend. We were in for a real treat after spending a fortune on wine and cheese. Asia isn't really a cheese kinda place. I can't remember the last time I had a decent wine with a cheese board, not since home anyway. So we are all very excited.

Leaving Beijing Mr Sa was playing it very safe pretending not to speak much English but Colm talked the English into him and by the end of it they were best mates, jabbering away. It was great to have him show us around the house which he helped to build, he was so proud of it.

The house is amazing. It is beautifully designed and decorated in a modern style - open plan kitchen cum dining, with a living room behind. All the doors are glass giving beautiful views of the garden and mountains, where the Great Wall is nestled. The doors all open out onto the garden which had a really rustic feel with stone walls, modern furniture and a well fire in the patio. Inside the style is East meets West. The main design is western such as the island in the kitchen, big cream couches and the chrome fittings in the bathrooms but there are also key pieces of antique Chinese furniture such as the kitchen cabinets, bathroom cabinets and bedroom lockers. The master bedroom is split level and the top floor has a Chinese wedding bed. (Similar to a four poster bed only it is boxed in so that you can only get in and out by one side.)

It was so nice to have our own space again and really have time to hang out together. The girls are leaving Beijing for Kyrgystan on Monday and we won't see them for a month or so until we get to Uzbekistan. So this weekend is time for some quality slacker time.

Thursday 20th May

We woke up this morning to the most beautiful weather and spent the day sun bathing in the garden, enjoying the sunshine and watching the wall. Floot arrived late and brought more cheese, loads of beer, gin and ginger ale so we sat up late having great banter. Flinner told a great story about playing with binoculars with his brothers and sisters as kids. The game was to run as fast as you could towards the wall looking through the binoculars, the object being to get the closest to the wall without chickening out. They then changed the game a bit by switching the binoculars around so that the wall looked really far away. Flinners little sister, who had just worked up the courage to join in missed the rule change. Her Dad happened to look out the window as she took off, and he just sees his baby girl sprinting flat-out straight into the wall, without even slowing.

Friday 21st May

Another beautiful day in Beijing! We managed to drag ourselves away from the house today and headed on an adventure in search of the Great Wall. It’s only up the road but we wanted to see if we could get a shot of it with the jeep. It was so hot all day that we waited until the sun went down, and instead of going to the main entrance we header further north so that we could find a quieter place and avoid the entrance fee. We couldn’t get the jeep close to the Wall as it is perched on the top of really steep hills but we did manage to climb up and when we arrived we had the whole thing to ourselves.

Invisible Man


Poppin’ a Sprawl on the Wall

Saturday 22nd May

We checked out at 12 and headed back to the city to get organised for hitting the road. We had a few things to do on the way, such as do a shop for camping gear – folding chairs, plastic cups, hot water flask etc. We also had to drop into the garage to have a few things looked at. Mr Sa hooked us up with a friend of his who was an answer to our prayers. He owns his own mechanic shop and he actually had the same jeep himself. He was able to tell us all the things we need to watch out for. Any problem we explained he knew exactly what we were talking about and was able to show Col how to fix it for when we get on the road.

We moved hostels when we got back to the city for a bit of a change of scene. We were on the same side of the city as Ed (the friend Eoin and Megan are staying with) so we headed out with all of his friends for the night.

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