About nihaoxiongmao

Strategy Consultant, Travel Guide Founder, Passionate Northerner and Fanatic Supporter of Burnley Football Club. 2012 is the year I quit my job and finally bugger off round the world because I watched too many Michael Palin shows as a child. Oh well....should be fun!

Stepping back into film photography …

Back at Christmas I decided I was getting more and more into this photo malarkey and wanted a film camera. Thankfully Katrina duly obliged and got me a Lomography Fisheye camera. It came away with me on my last trip, has been used now and then over the past few months and now I’ve got the photos back….with mixed results.

Upon seeing the results, I’ve learnt a few things:
– They’re really dark unless the flash is used
– Close up really helps, after all that is kinda the point of a Fisheye camera
– Don’t get the wrist strap or your finger in the way, I love the rainbow in the first shot but I’ve kinda ruined it

Southwark
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My little Irish niece
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Prague Pedestrian Crossing
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Prague TV Tower
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Geese in Telford
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Trabant in Budapest
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Budapest Memorial – you wouldn’t believe I took this in daylight!
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While away I got a bit addicted and bought two more film cameras for practically peanuts in Prague. One is a Smena 8 which seemed pretty archaic and temperamental but somehow works (with the exception of the winding on function, causing some blurry London shots). I have to admit I kinda like them

The Shard/Southwark
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Roupell Street
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Bermondsey Street / St Mary Magdalen Churchyard
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The other, a beautiful heavy Zenit E turned out an almost blank film. Back to the drawing board there then. To be continued ….

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Rails behind the Iron Curtain

This is a possible front runner for laziest blog ever. It’s been a while since I got back from a pre-new job trip to Belgrade, Budapest, Prague and Berlin.

To summarise, it was wet, I travelled by train, drank a lot of Pilsener, took pictures – some of which are below and others on 35mm film still to be developed. Enjoy.

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Recipes from the Road

A few weeks ago Katrina posted a list of some of the best food we’d had on our trip through Central and South America and in my last blog I mentioned the amazing Chicken Parmigiana we gorged on in Paraty, Brazil.

I’m not sure how this recipes has become associated with Brazil but we saw it on menus all the time, while the breaded chicken it’s formed of is pretty much the milanesas that form part of cheap set menus throughout Latin America.

Chicken Parmigiana as we had it is effectively a breaded chicken breast smothered in cheese and a tomato sauce, so a really simple first recipe for this blog.

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To make this recipe you will need:

Fresh chicken breasts (1 per person)
2 slices of white bread
50 grams of plain flour
1 egg
150 grams of mature cheddar cheese
1 tin of tomatoes
3 cloves of garlic
A good handful of fresh basil
1-2 fresh chillies
A splash of balsamic vinegar

How to make this recipe

Flatten the chicken breasts with a mallet or rolling pin. Beat up the egg and dip the chicken breasts in it. Make breadcrumbs by putting the bread in a food processor, season well and coat the chicken breasts.

Fry off the chicken breasts on either side until cooked through and the outsides are nice and golden, add any leftover egg and bread to the top of them. Pre heat the grill to finish them off.

To make the sauce, fry off the garlic and chillies in a pan with a little oil. Add the tinned tomatoes and simmer for 10 minutes or so. Add the vinegar and basil towards the end of this process.

Cover the chicken breasts in the the sauce and liberally cover with the cheese. Grill until the cheese has melted and is starting to crisp on top.

Serve with chips and salad.

 
 

And finally….Brazil

After about 8 months of travelling we reached our final country, Brazil. This presented a problem as despite looking very similar in writing, Portuguese is spoken completely differently to Spanish!

Our main reason for visiting Brazil was the lure of Rio de Janeiro and the cheap flight back home however we took in a couple of other places along the way. First a stop in Sao Paulo before stopping in the colonial town of Paraty on the way to Rio.

Our patience for long bus journeys was wearing thin, and the thought of a 16 hour schlep from Foz do Iguacu to Sao Paulo wasn’t attractive so for the first time we booked a one way flight to Sao Paulo. The sun had not even come up as the flight took off, and having spent the night in a tent in the back garden of a hostel to save money we were already wondering if it was such a good idea.

The famed traffic jams of Brazil’s economic capital didn’t help the grogginess as the bus into the city centre crawled along the highway into the centre, I still chuckled upon seeing it was named after Ayrton Senna as we struggled to get over 15 mph at any moment. Several hours after landing we reached our bed for the night, soaked to the skin due to the torrential rain. Despite just 24 hours in the city, a nap was in order!

Fully refreshed and ready to explore we went to check out the city which although not full of sights and attractions is an interesting place to get a feel for modern Brazil. Busy, bustling and fueled by immigrant labour Sao Paulo has a very cosmopolitan feel about it. Our highlight was the Liberdade district, historically the hub of the huge Japanese population in Brazil and now home to many other Asian migrants. A huge Japanese torii or arch marks the entrance to the neighbourhood while street lamps and signs point to a world many miles from Brazil.

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Missing Asia a little bit myself we sought out some amazing food, possibly the best Katsu curry I’ve ever tasted and perused the shops and supermarkets, picking up some pork steamed buns we hadn’t seen since Panama. Perfect to cook in the apartment we had booked in our next destination.

That destination was Paraty, a small colonial town by the sea of which we’d heard many good things. Upon our visit we had found it was a national holiday weekend and every hotel and hostel in the town was booked, thankfully we booked the last two available bus tickets the night before and arranged accommodation through Airbnb.

Paraty was supposed to be our relaxing coastal town where we could relax on the beach, top up our tans and chill out before heading home. Unfortunately the torrential rain that was hitting Sao Paulo was also hitting Paraty and the next 5 days were pretty much a washout.

Even so I’m glad we visited Paraty, the old town is incredibly quaint and attractive to wander around without feeling too overcrowded as most of the tourists are domestic. Despite its colonial past the nature of the town felt very different to many colonial towns we’d visited on the other side of the continent in terms of the architecture, the food, sounds and atmosphere of the place.

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And then we come to the drinks where Brazil is the home of the caipirinha, a concoction of cachaça (a sugar cane spirit similar to white rum), lime and a lot of sugar. Drinking these from street stalls in the town square in the evening when the rain had calmed will bring a smile to anyone’s face.

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Despite the washout, we’d still loved Paraty and made the most of the time to chill out, read, eat (I’ll post my recipe for an incredible chicken parmigiana we had in Paraty on here later), sup cocktails and on our last day we bit the bullet and took a boat trip off the coast on another grey, wet day.

Incredibly we had an awesome trip despite the weather getting to know some Paulistas who were keen on a party whatever the weather! We must have been so out of touch with music while travelling as this was how we were introduced to the infamous Gangnam Style, and I’ll never forget it!

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With a touch a sadness but a lot of excitement we boarded our final bus (hooray!) and headed for Rio.

We were told the weather in Rio is usually pretty similar to Paraty and we could expect more rain so we couldn’t be more surprised to arrive in glorious sunshine! We booked a ticket on the last Corcovado train of the day for the Cristo Redentor statue that watches over the city.

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This left us time to explore the area around our hostel for a few hours as the queues on earlier trains died down but by the time we returned to the station the fog was rolling in. The statue as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog is amazing up close and the view from the top of the mountain is breathtaking, especially when you can see through the breaks in the cloud!

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Thankfully that wasn’t our only chance to take in the views of Rio and does give me the opportunity to bombard by blog with photos of such an amazing city. Just a couple of days later we were heading up Sugar Loaf mountain on the 100 year old cable car to check out the view from there.

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Sugar Loaf mountain is perhaps the most striking of the peaks surrounding Rio for its viewpoint over the beaches as it juts out over the Atlantic. From here you can check out the Botofago area and watch the planes coming in and out of the nearby domestic airport. We took a slightly different flight from the helipad halfway up the mountain.

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Ever since seeing the Idiot Abroad episode in Rio where Karl comes to see ‘the Jesus thing’ I have wanted to go in a helicopter over the city. With some birthday money from Katrina’s parents towards the cost of the flight we took off from Sugar Loaf Mountain, along the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, over the lagoon in the middle of the city and around the Cristo Redentor or ‘Jesus Thing’. I’m lost for words to describe it, but it was incredible and put our flight over the Nazca Lines a few months previously to shame.

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After Rio’s views from above we can get to the sights on the ground and for us that was on the beach. We couldn’t have been more keen to get some sun on our backs at the beach and after all Rio is famous for them. Walking down Copacabana one gets the idea how on days off most of the city comes here packed close together to relax, drink caipirinhas, show off their football skills on beach volleyball courts and generally just be cool. I’ve pretty much decided I have to live there at some point in my life!

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We spent quite a few afternoons chilling out on Ipanema beach and like to think we found the right spot. Different social scenes choose different parts of the beach, many on Copacabana will consider themselves more working class while there are sectors for the cultural crowd, gay community and very pretty girls on Ipanema, I like to think we found the latter. If you love cities with a cafe culture for people watching, well Rio tops that by a long way! Even the vendors on the beach all have their own fun character selling everything from iced tea (mate) to bikinis and inflatable balls.

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Ipanema is also where to congregate to watch one of the great South American sunsets as beachgoers congregate on the rocky headland at the end of the strip to watch the sun go down and even applaud as the last sliver disappears on the horizon.

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On our last day on the beach the sea was incredibly rough, leaving it open to only the strongest/bravest/most stupid swimmers. While cooling off I had the awkward British moment of handing a Brazilian girl her bikini top back after she was knocked over by a wave while moments later a rescue helicopter was summoned to fish out some kids who had been caught by the current.

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One other place in Rio I need to talk about in this blog is the Escadaria Selaron. These stairs are named after a Chilean artist who started decorating them over a period of about 20 years as a labour of love to the city of Rio. The steps constantly changed over time with new tiles sent from all over the world as the work gained popularity while much of the work was funded through sales of one his favourite paintings. Sadly in January 2013, the creator Jorge Selaron was found dead on these steps and it is not entirely clear it was from natural causes. I hope his work will be taken on by somebody else as the Escadaria Selaron really is a great place to visit in Rio.

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So we’ve done the sights and the beaches. Next is the nightlife. We felt we were missing out while we were there despite it not being carnival time as Rio felt a bit quiet at night. To put a stop to this we headed to the Friday night street party in the Lapa District (quite close to the Escadaria Selaron). Around midnight the streets are filled with caipirinha vendors making the biggest, best, strongest and cheapest cocktails you are likely to find in any city – ours were about £1 each for something the size of a pint.

The bars, music, dancers and drink spill onto the streets and gave a great taste of what the city must be like during carnival, a real shame I’m not there as a write my blog!

Shortly after that night and another afternoon on the beach it was time to head to the airport and home with mixed feelings. Great to end to the trip on a high and take some rest from travelling (sounds crazy I know but it is true) but really sad to end what will go down as one of the best experiences of my life.

The (very long) Road to Rio: Part 3 – Paraguay & Iguazu Falls

I last left this blog with us leaving Buenos Aires and heading towards Iguazu Falls on our way to Rio.

First up, a 6 hours bus north to Concordia, a small town close to the border with Uruguay (whom I will always associate with this clip from the Simpsons). I’ve mentioned a few times about our bad luck with Sundays (withdrawing cash and sorting out buses), needless to say we arrived on a Sunday afternoon with no onward service into Uruguay until the following day.

This left us needing a hotel for the night. To save lugging our bags around town I left Katrina at the bus station with them and set off around the 3 ‘budget hotels’ nearby. Finding the first one full, the second trying to charge a rate close to $100 and the third claiming to be full I was concerned. Doubting the last hotel was really full with all the keys hanging behind the reception I sent Katrina back to try again. She was told to come back with her bags as they had rooms, no problem. The lady who had turned me away beforehand didn’t seem pleased to have me back and promptly gave us a room with a broken bed. Cheers luv.

Cheered up by another incredible Argentinian steak and bottle of wine I didn’t moan too much and early the following morning we nipped into Uruguay for a day. Despite the lack of time I wanted to tick another country off my list. We passed the time by wandering around the city of Salto and topping up our tans at one of the nearby water parks fed by hot springs.

In the evening we quickly headed back to Concordia to catch the last overnight bus of our trip to Posadas, I couldn’t have been more delighted having hated pretty much every such journey like that since arriving in South America. Buses and tall people with short attention spans just don’t go together.

Arriving tired we didn’t do much in Posadas. After taking a nap in a hostel owned by an incredibly sprightly and welcoming old lady we ventured into the sapping heat of the day. We hadn’t experienced temperatures this hot since the jungle. Sadly virtually every area of interest in the town appeared to be closed for restoration…..so we watched the new James Bond movie instead.

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Just over the river from Posadas is the town of Encarnación in Paraguay. I knew very little about Paraguay, in fact I probably still do considering the brief amount of time we spent there. However, it felt like we were back in the likes of Ecuador, Peru or maybe somewhere in Central America. It felt less developed, less sterile and full of life. And all importantly for a backpacker whose budget had been stretched over recent weeks, it was cheap again thanks to run down buses, local cafes serving bargain set meals as well as reduced price accommodation. Huzzah!

Close by to Encarnación are sets UNESCO of Jesuit ruins in and around the town of Trinidad. I had never even heard of such sites, believing the Jesuits to be rather primitive. In fact they build impressive settlements such as these before being forced to leave by the Spanish colonisers who did not appreciate their presence and success.

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Left behind are impressive stone structures and sculptures in place of cities where up to 400 families including foreigners and indigenous people would have lived. On the day we visited in 40 degree heat, we had the place entirely to ourselves! Not something you’ll ever have at other sites like Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat!

We headed east from Encarnación to Ciudad de Este, a city which formerly held a gruesome reputation for violence during Paraguay’s former dictatorship, but now a trading hub with Brazil. The city is compared to a giant shopping mall where many Brazilians and Argentinians come to access cheaper goods, many arrange annual coach trips for their neighbours to all visit and buy electronics and clothing with lower taxes.

We stopped here to check it out, only to find prices no cheaper than at home along with the risk of purchasing counterfeit items. Probably best to exercise some caution. Nearby however is a bit of a geeky tourist destination, the Itaipu Dam.

Prior to the completion of the Three Gorges Dam in China, this was the largest Hydroelectric facility in the world and still the 2nd largest today. Split across the border with Brazil and Paraguay, power production is shared between the two nations. Brazil may take 90% of the output but pay Paraguay good rates for the production they do not need. Almost 80% of the entire electricity requirement for all of Paraguay comes from the dam compared to around 20% in Brazil.

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Prior to completion, a set of waterfalls even more impressive than the nearby Iguazu was destroyed to make way for the reservoir required behind the dam. That hasn’t stopped the tourists coming, over 500,000 visited in 2012, a ridiculously impressive number!

But we honestly hadn’t come through this part of the world to see a dam. We’d come this way to visit Iguazu Falls. Having not seen Niagara myself I was rather excited for this. Eleanor Roosevelt did allegedly say upon seeing the falls “Oh, poor Niagara”. So no pressure then.

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You can probably tell from the pictures but they’re amazing! You can choose to see the falls from the Argentinian or Brazilian sides. Popular opinion from many backpackers appeared to favour Argentina, so for a 3rd time we entered a country I had mixed feelings about. That said, I think it was the right decision!

After paying a hefty entrance fee, we entered the park and set off to see as much of the massive area as possible. The falls aren’t in one place, they form an arc that probably goes on for a couple of miles allowing the budding photographer copious angles from which to get the perfect shot.

Despite a cute little train ride to take tourists to a 3 different stops, there’s a lot of walking involved. On a hot day like ours, it’s thirsty work, with the spray from the falls a massive refreshment at various points.

The highlight of the visit, is the walk to the “Devil’s Throat”, the biggest and loudest part of the waterfall. Gangways lead you from the station across calm running water where huge catfish occasionally come for a gulp at the surface of the water. All the while a load rumbling noise grows and grows until you reach the end, where plumes of spray spiral up to the viewing area.

Having rushed to reach here ahead of the many other tourists behind us, we were mesmorised by the scale of this wonder. Across the other sides is Brazil, below is simply white water with no sight of the bottom while a rainbow is forming out of the surge. I spent ages with the camera and probably messed it up with my Instagram attempt below.

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After all this we were waterfall-ed out. We passed on time to see the Brazil side the following day, partly due to sleep (I admit) and partly due to the Brazilian struggle with ATMs (don’t ask).

Shortly after that we were on an early morning flight to Sao Paulo, nearing our return home :(

Basil Pao Photography Exhibition

A very short notice more than anything else. With some spare time on my hands and while  in London yesterday I went along to the Royal Geographic Society to check out a photography exhibition by Basil Pao.

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For those not familiar with the name, he’s a photographer and friend of Michael Palin who has accompanied him on all his big journeys, hence my interest.

It’s just a small exhibition with around 40 or so photographs, including aerial shots of waterfalls, stunning portraits of people in tribal attire as well shots of Palin on his travels. I actually found it quite good for new ideas and learning about my own photography.

It’s on at the RGS in London (Kensington) and free to visit until the 25th January 2013. I really recommend it.

Argentina: A Note of Caution

I was going to bring a couple of slightly negative things about Argentina into last post but thought I’d save them for a separate post which might be helpful for visitors.

Bus Station Scam

The first of these is a long running Buenos Aires scam, commonly found near the main Retiro bus station, typically situated in a rather downtrodden area.

Backpackers are often targeted by people who will squirt a foul smelling liquid on them and their belongings. This is rumoured to include sewage, vinegar, chemicals, rotten eggs and other nasty delights. Once hit, people will offer to clean you and your bags and while distracted these will be stolen.

This happened to us but we ignored some shouting outside the bus station only to notice the foul smell inside. This was probably for the best. Though sitting next to Katrina’s hair for the next 6 hours wasn’t pleasant.

Since this happened to us, I’ve heard stories of tourists being mugged and even a rumour of a French tourist being killed. I’m not sure it’s true but given the police aren’t prepared to stop this scam in the area I don’t recommend fighting back.

If it happens to you, just keep walking and clean up later.

Where are you from?

This is more of an irritation to British tourists in Argentina. The Falkland Islands or to the locals, Las Malvinas.

These islands have become a bigger issue in the last year or so due to the 30th anniversary of the conflict and the desire of President Cristina to distract attention away from some of the national economic problems.

Personally, it’s an issue for the islands residents, not centralised governments of whom one has little in common while another is located thousands of miles away. Oh well.

Many curious Argentinians, like most Latin American people, will ask where you are from. Upon saying “Inglaterra” or “Reino Unido” we would be met with the response of “Las Malvinas son de Argentina”. Despite a friendly smile back trying to deflect the issue the conversation would end or be elaborated on the issue.

This happened more than we expected and was a little unfortunate. In the end, we discovered it pretty useful to say we were Scottish. Seemingly Scotland isn’t associated with the conflict!

So there we are, that’s my little warning done. I’ll finish with some nicer stuff about Argentina and Iguazu Falls later.

Happy travels!