Lure of Alberta

I don’t know what it is about Alberta (other than having a significant part of my family living there) but I’m kinda hooked on the place and have been since my first trip there (on my own) in 1997 when I was 8 years old.

Just a wee boy back then!

I’ve visited every few years since, my previous trip before this year was in 2006 and still I can’t get the idea of spending a few years really living there out of my head.

Anyway, on this trip other than spending time catching up with family before heading off to Mexico to begin this big trip I still got to catch an FC Edmonton ‘soccer’ game, head to Banff for a quick view of the Rocky Mountains and enjoy spending time in Edmonton, probably one of the world’s most underated cities – after all it still has some attractive architecture, formerly the world’s biggest shopping mall and events such as the Edmonton International Beer Festival (a big plus for me)!

Lake Minnewanka

Canadian Rockies

Edge of the Prairies

Art Gallery of Alberta

Alberta Legislature

FC Edmonton vs Minnesota Stars

Beer Girls

I think I might be back at least in time for a Tim Hortons when I finish my this trip of a lifetime I’ve just embarked on through Central and South America – more to come on that soon!

Boston Creme

Ready, Steady …. Hop!

Watching Michael Palin travel shows as a kid certainly gave me a travel bug I still haven’t managed to shake off, but also introduced me to the world of Monty Python and all the spin offs it produced such as Fawlty Towers with John Cleese and the lesser know Ripping Yarns by Michael Palin and Terry Jones.

Meeting Michael Palin & Terry Jones

To my surprise and delight when I first started writing this blog, I had a quick Google search for “Michael Palin”, mainly to see if he had any new travel shows in the pipeline. It turns out he does, it’s set in Brazil and comes out sometime in 2012, however the best thing I found was in the Ham & High about his attempt at a world record for hopping. The reason it turned out was to commemorate the re-release of Ripping Yarns on DVD. The first episode of the series involved a parody of public boarding school rituals, in this case involving a 30 mile hop – it makes much more sense if you watch it!

Hopping 400m around Hampstead Heath Athletics Track on a Saturday morning seemed like a pretty daft idea but this was a chance to a) meet Michael Palin and b) do something totally random I’ll probably never do again so I was in, and so was Kat. And after all it was only a 20 minute walk up the road.

So on a Saturday morning, instead of enjoying a lie in or nursing a hangover from the night before, Kat and I found ourselves arriving at the venue to find a random collection of people young, old, in fancy dress, sports gear, normal clothes all ready to take part in the hop. We  were all given t-shirts and waited for the arrival of Michael Palin and Terry Jones. It’s kind of strange to see a person you’ve admired for a long time, often they don’t meet your expectations and you come away disappointed however the former Pythons were amusing and friendly in front of the crowd of about 100 people.

After an explanation of the rules (you are only allowed to hop on the same leg, although you are allowed to stop and rest) we were taken through a short warm up where even Palin joined in for most of it, not bad for 68 years old. A few minutes after that, a handful of late entries from a military fitness class and the obligatory press calls had been completed, we were off!

Now I don’t care what you say, but hopping 400m turns out to be a lot harder than some people thought. I think I had only completed the first 150m or so, my right leg feeling the impact of me (quite a large chap) jumping up and down on it and I had to stop for a few seconds. Upon going again it was clear this wasn’t going to be easy, just a few metres further and I stopped again. By the time I’d reached the 3rd bend the leaders were crossing the finishing line, a minor embarrassment but I was at this point ahead of Kat. By this point I was probably doing 10-15 metres in between short breaks when I realised a man dressed in a banana costume had crossed the finishing line.

Spurred on by the slight shame, I continued, thinking not far to go and cheered on by the two Pythons crossed the line in a time of …. um err… actually I never even thought about that. Kat was just a few metres behind me with Michael approaching to give her some words of encouragement but as soon as she saw a video camera, cut short the conversation just feeling the need to finish.

Michael encourages a Hopper at the finish (Taken by Kat)

As every following hopper approached the finish the crowd grew louder with cheers of encouragement, some were struggling however crossing the line was an achievement. As the last person crossed the line, having completed the course in fancy dress there was some relief. The winners received medals to congratulate them and their winning legs from Palin and Jones.

Sadly the solo hop, nor the following relay competition were able to beat the Guinness Word Records but maybe we should consider including hopping as a late addition to the London Olympics this year? There might be some sore limbs afterwards, I think I’ve developed a funny little limp – Ministry of Silly Walks anyone?

You can see a video of the hop and an interview with Michael Palin and Terry Jones here.

Best things about travelling: Street Food

Food, glorious food goes the song from the famous musical. I’m a bit of a foodie, I love cooking as well as trying out all sorts of tasty treats. Some strange ones too – anyone for still beating snake heart?!

One of my favourite things about travelling is trying new and interesting culinary delights. Some people may think this is a problem, typically being a budget traveller and all but it really isn’t. I still believe some of the best food I’ve ever eaten has come from street vendors so I thought I’d go through some of my favourites!

Istanbul – Fish Sandwich – Balik Ekmet

Great costumes!

The Galata Bridge in Istanbul is a lively place with hoards of fisherman on the bridge itself trying their luck for the catch of the day, boats busily crossing the Bosphorus taking people between the European an Asian sides of the city along with other people mingling, shopping and going about their business. My favourite thing about this area is the food. Stall vendors shout “Balik Ekmet”, effectively meaning fish inside bread. Fresh fish is quickly grilled and served up with fresh onions inside a crispy but soft baguette. It’s tasty, cheap and served up in one the most atmospheric places you will find.

China – Virtually Everything!

Prince Philip, in his uniquely brilliant way once famous said:

“If it has four legs and is not a chair, wings but is not an aeroplane and swims and is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.”

He’s actually making a good point, the vast variety of food consumed in China is immense. My best experience comes from taking part in the Study China programme a few years ago. Upon leaving the hotel and heading to class where we were to learn Mandarin, we would cross a street set up with tens of food stalls. By lunchtime the street would be full of life, the scent of so many different foods almost a pungent attack on the senses. Over a couple of weeks I attempted to try as much of this as possible as well as other street food in other parts of Shanghai.

I quickly found myself eating grilled goat, jiaozi dumplings (fantastic parcels filled with meat and soup – watch out for the spray when taking a bite!), Uighur kebabs, sushi, fried noodles and other items which I have not idea what they were to this day!

All of this food is incredibly cheap, intensely tasty and exciting to try. Of course there are some pitfalls along the way, ‘Stinky Tofu‘ and ‘thousand year old egg‘ are not for the faint hearted!

Vietnam – Bia Hoi

Ok so this isn’t strictly street food but it’s one of my favourite things ever from a street vendor. Bia Hoi is Vietnam’s contribution to the world of brewing, it’s a freshly brewed lager and distributed daily to outlets all over the cities. The brew itself only lasts around 24 hours and has clean, refreshing taste that can vary from day to day and brew to brew.

I think I'd had a few at this point.....

A glass will vary in size and price but typically costs around 15 pence (that’s about 25 cents to those who work in American). After a hot and humid day in Vietnam, this is just about the best way to relax and watch the world go by.

Calcutta – Jhall Muri (Bhel Puri) 

There’s a tonne of good food in India (ok I admit some of it might give you a bit of Delhi belly) but my favourite was found late at night down a tiny little back street street in Calcutta courtesy of a friend.

Learn while you eat!

Jhall Muri, more typically know as Bhel Puri is a kind of puffed rice snack with vegetables and a tamarind sauce. There’s various spices thrown in along with some chutneys giving it a pleasantly spicy flavour. Typically it’s served up in a paper cone, though in my case an old accountancy textbook! Just a bit weird as I was working as an accountant at the time.

Something from London – The Ribman!

There’s something pretty dull about when you’re back in your home country and the typical office lunch in Pret a Manger, I’m really not a fan. When I’m working I really need a break from the office midway through the day for something different. Well I’m pretty lucky because around the corner from my office I have Eat St. Wednesday through Friday a host of different vendors serving anything from Indian style burger wraps to Vietnamese Banh Mi and Mexican Burritos descend in the middle of a building site between King’s Cross and St Pancras stations.

The best of these has to be “The Ribman”. Serving up soft, succulent pork ribs pulled off the bone and put in a roll or a wrap it is simply amazing. To top it off, it is served with barbecue sauce Texans would be jealous of as well as his own special “Holy Fuck” sauce. It pretty much does as it says on the tin, packed with the hottest Scotch Bonnet and Naga chillies it really does make you say “Holy Fuck that’s hot!” 

Good feed!

For any Londoners, I strongly recommend a visit. Thursday is rib day! It’s one thing I’m going to miss when I go travelling.

The above is by no means an exclusive list of the best street food, just some of my favourites, leave a comment with your best suggestions. I’ll keep you posted with the best street food I come across in Cuba, Canada, Central & South America!

Being a tourist at home

When talking about travelling and various places I’ve lived with other people, it often comes up how little we visit many attractions right on our doorstep. I know people who have lived in Paris and not been up the Eiffel Tower as well as someone living in New York who never went to Central Park.

I’ve lived in London for about 18 months now and I think like many people I’ve probably become accustomed to certain areas (Camden market, eating in Soho and lazing on Parliament Hill on sunny days). This past weekend, knowing I’m only going to be here for a couple more months until my big trip I decided to head to a different part of London – Greenwich.

There’s a bit of a North / South divide in London. Once people move to London, they often stay in a similar area or at least on one side of the river for quite a while, perhaps part of the reason I hadn’t been to the area before.

Greenwich is known around the world for its association with Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) with the world’s time zones set from this spot. The system originates from the Royal Observatory located on the top of the hill in Greenwich Park. The area also has history in the British Kings & Queens with Henry VIII and Elizabeth I both born here. The original palace since destroyed was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren and went on to form the Royal Naval College and much of the surrounding maritime association of the area.

Not a bad view!

Located right on the Thames opposite the financial district of Canary Wharf provides Greenwich with some impressive architecture and scenery. From the observatory on the top of Greenwich Park tourists crowd to snap the perfect image of the London skyline. I think I did quite well myself!

This weekend really was the perfect time to break out of winter mode, with unseasonably high temperatures in the mid-teens (Celsius that is) and the perfect excuse to enjoy an ice cream milkshake or ginger beer float in the sunshine. There’s something great about being able to go somewhere new so close to home and made me realise how important it is to do the little things ahead of a trip so far away coming up in just a few weeks time now.

Expertly taken and edited by Katrina Mackey (well I did steal her photo)!

I find that many parts of London get a little bit homogenised with big brands coming into areas were previously considered to be cool or upcoming. Camden has certainly been fighting these trends, Pret a Manger & All Saints just don’t feel like they should be around Camden, though thankfully the market has banned chains despite many stalls selling similar items. Greenwich still has cool independent and shops markets with varied eclectic things for sale unlike other places that feel big but undifferentiated, although that’s not to say some chains have been creeping in. My little bargain was a set of antique shot glasses for all of £2.

On that note about something new, watch this space. Next weekend I will be taking part in a world record attempt for the world’s biggest hop. Fans of Michael Palin may remember the TV series Ripping Yarns, if not then watch the episode “Tomkinson’s School Days” because next weekend in Hampstead they are relaunching the DVD with a ridiculous PR stunt, fingers crossed I can tell Mr Palin himself about how it’s his fault I need to set off around the world ….

Travel Photography and an Oscar win!

When I first started travelling, I never really cared about photography. I thought it distracted me from what I was actually seeing and doing. And I still think I had a point. However, now I kind of wish I’d taken more pictures (with a better camera) of some of the incredible things.

I’ve since bought a couple of decent cameras including an SLR and one for more extreme environments, partly due to my newly found passion for photography but also partly to recall the event in future years. It’s also stirred a bit of competition with my girlfriend to see who can take the best photos! You can see her best ones here.

One of my first attempts at taking cool (and slightly pretentious) pictures has just been featured by STA Travel to coincide with the upcoming Oscars. You see can it as well as the other fantastic winning entries on their website!

My Winning Entry!

A little about the photo: I took this on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul where an incredible number of fisherman set themselves up for the day. It’s surprising how much they catch given the murkiness in the water with ferries coming and going every minute of so. Just a stones throw away you can buy the best value meal in the city, a freshly grilled fish served in a baguette with crunchy onions.

As I go along I’ll try to show as many pictures as possible on here as well as on my Flickr account.

5 UK Destinations to Escape London 2012

Before I leave Britain for a little while, I thought it would be good to say something about the place. Where better to start than the Olympics, something that has been in the papers every day for what seems like forever now.

It’s a big project, anyone who goes to Stratford (not the Shakespeare one, the former ghetto one in East London) can see that. Thousands of acres of contaminated land has been turned into a giant construction playground that is bearing fruit. It’s phenomenal what they’ve built there and even more astounding when you consider 5.5m people will visit with many from outside the UK.

There’s just one big problem, London may be a big city but the parts of it that will be used for the games are actually quite small. It’s the Olympic Park for much of the sporting action while most of the visitors and some other events are held in Central London which really isn’t very big, you can walk across much of it in less than an hour. That means London is going to be bursting at the seams with people, lots and lots of hot sweaty congested people. If you don’t like the traffic normally, the special Olympics lanes won’t help; and if you don’t like the Tube to commute, it really won’t be fun; and if you hate queues, well you get the picture.

So for many people, why not get out of London? Or if you’re a tourist here for the games, see another part of a wonderful country? I’ve listed my top 5 places to visit.

5. Nottingham

Often when I’ve met local people on my travels in some more random parts of the world and I’ve told them I’m from England, after the excitement of them recalling David Beckham and their love of football, the next name to be said is ‘Robin Hood’. It’s party because of this and partly because I went to University in the city that I’ve listed Nottingham here.

Nottingham proudly claims to be the home of Robin Hood and despite Doncaster’s claims that it is the home of Robin Hood, I’d rather send a visitor here. No offence Doncaster.

Nottingham is a small city with 2 big universities. This has helped provide it with a bit of a cosmopolitan feel to it with plenty of bars, restaurants and clubs to keep your typical visitor happy. I particularly like World Service, Warsaw Diner, Cucamara’s and Rock City.

Not many cities have their own deer!

With visitor attractions such as the castle, Wollaton Hall, caves and a good shopping centre there is enough to keep you occupied for a decent day out as well as a couple of good hotels in Hart’s and The Lace Market Hotel for a decent night’s sleep or otherwise.

4. Gower Peninsula

I never thought I’d be suggesting the Gower as one of the best places outside London to visit, I had it in my head that Swansea and the surrounding area was a bit of a dump. How wrong I was when I went there to visit a friend last year.

Just 30 minutes drive out of Swansea you will find spectacular coastal scenery, empty beaches, rolling hills, rocky cliffs and even some good surf spots. Prices around here are very cheap in comparison to London so if you get out here, hire a car and explore. I especially enjoyed Rhossili.

How about this all to yourself?

For the night owls and party animals, head to Mumbles for the ‘Mumbles Mile’, a stretch of pubs by the sea for a pint in each one.

3. Manchester.

Manchester is one of those cities with a soul, it’s gritty, northern and cool – if you don’t believe me then go pick a fight with one of the Gallaghers (either the musically talented but squabbling brothers or the fictional characters of the TV series Shameless).

Manchester is home to the best football teams in the country with United and City currently fighting it out for the Premier League, a whole host of musicians from the Smiths to Oasis to Elbow to up and coming artists like Ren Harvieu. Be sure to catch a gig there.

Despite being down on it’s luck a few times in recent years with the collapse of industry and events such as the IRA attack, the city has always re-invented itself with areas such as the Lowry and Media City in Salford or the trendy bars and shops of the Northern Quarter.

It’s well worth a weekend and to top it off you can stay in Europe’s tallest hotel, the Hilton on Deansgate.

2. Cotswolds.

There’s a reason many of the richest and most well known people in Britain have made the Cotswolds their home. Think Jeremy Clarkson, Kate Moss, Liz Hurley and a whole host of bankers, lawyers and directors. It’s because the Cotswolds offers some of the most attractive countryside in England while only being an hour or two’s drive or train journey from London.

With all this upmarket gentrification (thank you GCSE Geography) the area is full of gorgeous country cottages, gastro pubs, boutique hotels and luxury shops for you (or your significant other) to make a dent on the credit card while at the same time enjoying a bit of peace and pampering.

My personal favourites are the Lords of the Manor Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter for a bed and/or a cream tea, the Horse And Groom in Oddington for dinner/drinks and Stow on the Wold for a bit of retail therapy. If you’ve got the kids with you they’ll love the maze and other attractions in Bourton-on-the-Water.

To tie in with the Olympic theme, the Cotswolds has actually been home to the ‘Olimpicks’, their own quintessential sporting event for the past 400 years!

1. Glasgow

My winner and top recommendation for anyone visiting somewhere outside of London during the Olympics, or just needing somewhere to get away to is Glasgow.

Glasgow has never had the best of reputations, many simply recognise it as being run down or dangerous and although like most cities it has it’s dodgy areas they could not be more wrong. Glaswegians are just about the friendliest people in the UK and the most likely to get chatting to total strangers at the bar, in the street or when queuing at a shopping till.

The city itself may not have a castle like Edinburgh as its postcard image but it is littered with attractive architecture throughout the city, partly thanks to previous residents such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh whose famously designed tea rooms exist to this day. Other gems include the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Botanic Gardens, SECC Armadillo, Necropolis or the more modern Riverside Museum designed by Zaha Hadid.

The River Clyde, you can see the stunning SECC on the left

To get around many of the places to see in the city, visitors will need some energy or just a place to chill out afterwards and the city doesn’t disappoint. With trendy but homely bars such as McPhabbs, Brewdog and The Blind Pig there are plenty of places for a refreshing pint. Gourmet’s will love the city’s restaurant scene with highly acclaimed chefs serving local produce at Stravaigin or the Ubiquitous Chip in addition to Italian places galore such as Sarti or La Fiorentina.

And if that isn’t enough to persuade you to go, you are only an hour from the scenic Loch Lomond or the much visited Clyde Coast.

Anyone actually heading to Glasgow should check out WhickApp, an iPhone travel application I made with @andrewsmatt.

As good as London is, it’s very different from the rest of the United Kingdom and this summer should be the perfect opportunity to experience it.

Do you agree or disagree with my selections? Would love to hear other people’s thoughts on where they’d sent people to visit?

What I’m trying to achieve …

I’ve wanted to take a big trip for a very long time, since before University, then after University, then after my first job. Now I’ve got a good bit of experience working in two very different companies I feel confident in getting myself a job on my return (or maybe even while I’m away). My current employer has also kindly left a potential opening for me to return to depending on workload, very much appreciated.

Despite this I still want this gap year / trip to be stay relevant and give me something to stand out and help me get a job either on my return or while I’m abroad. That’s partly why I’m writing this blog (if I can entertain the readers and say something insightful, then hopefully it bodes well for getting employed.) I’ve got a few things in mind that I want to do while I’m away that I think will be good for the CV as well as my enjoyment.

The first of these is to learn a language! I get incredibly irritated when I can’t speak another language, then I realise I didn’t make the most of the opportunities for French or German at school and my ability to speak these languages (albeit moderately) has died away a little. This is why I hope to take Spanish lessons in Central America and immerse myself in a language dominant across almost an entire continent. I know languages are desirable to employers but it would make me feel pretty good if I’m speaking like a local in a Madrid meeting!

Next up in volunteering. I’ve always been quite fortunate and somewhat spoilt so I want to try and do something that will help people less well off than myself. I’m looking for the right project, somewhere I can really offer something rather than just show up look silly and leave a few weeks later. Watch this space. I’d like to think that by doing something a bit out of my comfort zone I’m going to learn new skills, many people will know I’m not exactly the most practical person.

Point 3. Business. It might be a bit of a bus man’s holiday but I’m fascinated by different ways of doing business. I intend to write about this from time to time and see how economies I’m less aware of are developing. I’ve heard so many things about the entrepreneurship in countries like Chile and Costa Rica I’d like to see that and share it. You never know, I might find a job there or it could be useful in the future. It’s good to know about these things 😉

From here the ideas get a little less relevant to helping me get a job, it’s more about life experience and having a bit of fun. I’m in love with Scuba Diving thanks to my Mum making me try it on a holiday to Greece. Since then I’ve got my PADI Advanced Open Water Qualification and have dived in Egypt. Vietnam, Dominican Republic, Malaysia, Indonesia & Cape Verde. I intend doing an awful lot more of this, including diving the world’s best dive site at the Blue Hole in Belize. It’s also time for my girlfriend, Kat, to learn how to dive. I’d love to be able to work with this passion so I might keep my eye out for somewhere to get to the level of Divemaster. Anyone with tips about good places for this or looking to train people up, give me a shout!

I’ve got a bit of a thirst for trying new activities and sports. I’ve learnt fencing (awesome) and snowboarding (painful) in the past year, now I’ve got surfing in El Salvador in my mind too.

Photography has been another new addiction of mine over the past year or so, it used to be something I thought was a bit poncy but now I’m finding myself spending a lot of time on Flickr but I’ll post some of the better ones on here.

Apart from that, I’m here to make the rest of you incredibly jealous 😛

So here we go …

The first blog post is always a fun place to start, all those things I had in mind to say and now I come to write them …… oh bugger.

The reason I’m doing this is 2012 is the year I say ‘Sod it’ and bugger off around the world. As a kid I watched an unhealthy amount of Michael Palin and Alan Whicker travel programmes which has given me an unstoppable desire to travel the globe. It’s plauged me through University where I filled up an entire passport in 3 years in places like Malaysia (great place to go to study, or not actually get down to the studying in my case), all around Europe, China (courtesy of the British Government – see, South Africa and many, many other places.

I’ve spent the last two and a half years working away as an accountant for BAE Systems and latterly as a Strategy Consultant for a firm nobody has ever heard of when you tell them ( They have kindly let me escape in a few weeks time to travel the length of Central and South America from Cancun in Mexico down to Santiago in Chile. Between now and then I have to squeeze in trips to Cuba and Ireland as well as a hop to Canada on my way to Latin America.

Hopefully I’ll fill these spaces with a range on interesting and insightful bits and pieces of commentary and photography that will keep you all interested or at the very least jealous.

I hope during my time away I’ll learn Spanish, volunteer with some worthwhile causes, spend a large amount of time being a beach bum as well as scuba diving and get a whole heap of life experience.

As I go along I’m sure more will become clear ….

In the meantime you can follow me on Twitter (@nihaoxiongmao), check out my Flickr or LinkedIn pages etc. and get in touch however you like.

Much love on this Happy Valentine’s Day. x