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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A brief Highland fling

Given David’s fondness for a wee dram, it was  surprising he had never visited Scotland.  I’d been briefly but only to Edinburgh and Perth.  Arriving in the UK in early May, before our house/animal sitting began in earnest, it seemed the ideal time to rectify matters.   We flew into Edinburgh and, after a day and night exploring this beautiful city, picked up a rental car and headed for the highlands.   We drove north to Inverness through breath-taking countryside, visiting spectacular Balmoral Castle and driving through several ski fields on the way.



Friends who’d visited waxed lyrical about Scotland’s beauty but nothing quite prepared us for the magnificence of the highlands – the remoteness, the vastness and the sheer and spectacular beauty were overwhelming.  From Inverness we headed up the coast visiting the privately owned and treasure filled Dunrobin Castle with its immaculately manicured formal gardens.  We were lucky enough to be in time for the magnificent falconry display.


On we drove, through magnificent country to the north coast where we were awed by the beauty of this rugged coastline.  The white sandy beaches and crystal clear water were not what we expected in this part of the world!  Durness, near the north west point of the aptly named Cape Wrath was a stunning spot- we strolled on the beach soaking up the late afternoon sunlight without realising it was in fact 9pm…the long evenings were wonderful.


Slowly and carefully we tackled the narrow and winding coastal roads, constantly stopping to admire the startling views.  After several days of blue sky Scotland decided to show us her true colours; the rain came as did the wind and suddenly the landscape and lochs changed from blue and green to gloomy grey.  The temperature plummeted and as the rain became torrential we decided to stop.  We found a wonderful hotel at Shieldag on the edge of Loch Torridon, booked a room overlooking the loch and hunkered down in front of the fire with the Sunday Paper and a bottle of red.  The Loch looked both magnificent and menacing as the wind whipped up the waves.  The weather abated enough the next day for us to drive the tortuous single track Bealach na Ba to Applecross.  Rising to 626m with hairpin bends it was heart in mouth stuff, especially with swirling mist!


Our visit to the Isle of Skye was particularly memorable mainly for the weather – horizontal rain and biting winds - but they did accentuate this island’s raw beauty.  What else should one do on a miserable Scottish day but visit the Talisker distillery?  Later that evening in the picturesque town of Portree, with the weather still ghastly, it seemed the only thing to do was to find a nice bar and enjoy more of this delicious peaty single malt.  It’s not hard to find a nice pub here and the whiskeys speak for themselves.


 From Skye we took the ferry across to Mallaig and drove through to Fort William enjoying a wonderful leisurely drive around beautiful Loch Leven and visiting the scenic Glencoe valley and town,  site of the 1692 massacre of Clan McDonald.


One of the highlights was spending a night in picturesque Inverary.  The first room we were given at the Argyll Hotel looked nothing like it did on the website so we complained (nicely) and were immediately upgraded to a huge room with a four poster bed and deep bath – bliss.  The buildings in Inverary are painted white with black accent – even shop signs conform.   Nearby, set in beautiful grounds with a seriously impressive stable complex is the privately owned Inverary Castle, home to the Duke and Duchess of Argyll.




Our time was running out so we reluctantly headed for Glasgow via Loch Lomond planning to do a cruise.  Once again the weather intervened and with the loch looking particularly gloomy we instead headed to Stirling and visited the magnificent castle.  Then it was on through the beautiful border country to Jedburgh to stay with David’s cousin Biddy and husband Bob.  They were wonderful hosts and we had a fantastic night with them.  Next day we were up early to get the car back to Edinburgh for our flight back to London.  It was a whirlwind trip but the magic of Scotland made its mark.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A sojourn in Shanghai

We knew our feet would itch again and after six months in New Zealand they certainly needed scratching.  Lots of places to go and dozens of countries on the “to do” list… but, as we’d never had a summer in the UK, (when Bandit was in the Mediterranean we spent winters here) it beckoned the most.  We went via Shanghai which satisfied our eastern urge (for now) but it almost came to a shuddering halt.  We were still recovering from our hair raising taxi ride to our hotel when things began to go pear shaped.


Being communist, China is predictably wrapped up in red tape.   As we were staying less than 72 hours we didn’t need a visa and simply had to present our onward tickets and proof of accommodation to immigration.  After close scrutiny of documents and multiple questions the official stamped our passports and off we headed.  Now – who ever looks at their stamp?  Not us.  We just grabbed our passports and headed off…big mistake.  On arrival at the hotel they checked our passports and pointed out the stamp only gave us 24 hours.  The hotel therefore couldn’t let us stay any longer.   Grr!!  I won’t bore you with the long winded story but needless to say – we spent hours trying to sort it out, visiting various offices and running into brick walls.   The only upside was we saw a lot of Shanghai!  It seemed the only solution was returning to immigration at the airport which was miles away and we certainly didn’t want to spend our precious time in Shanghai doing that especially given it was not our fault.  Eventually, after a bit of pressure, the hotel relented and let us stay the extra night.  Phew.


Passport issued dealt with (we thought) we headed out and walked our feet off exploring the fascinating backstreets, the bustling markets, the popular areas along the river and the peaceful parks full of locals doing Tai Chi.  One day we took a bus to the ancient water town of Zhujiajiao – an astonishing place.  The hotel staff, who spoke good English, gave us directions and fortunately, wrote the name down in Mandarin.  That was a bonus as bus destinations are not in English!  None of the drivers or passengers spoke English and it took some wild gesticulating on our part to confirm the destination.


Zhujiajiao was lovely and we were pleased we arrived early – before the hoards of tourists descended by air conditioned shuttle bus.  While they were ushered to expensive waterfront restaurants and enjoyed private gondola trips, we did the local water taxi thing (at half the price) and bought our lunch from a street stall.  We had some interesting experiences and didn’t always know what we were eating but it always tasted delicious.    We went to the same restaurant each night as the food was exceptional – shared plates piled high with Shanghai noodles and vegetables.  We avoided meat. Food was ridiculously cheap and amazingly healthy.  Interestingly, we did not see one fat or even overweight Chinese person.


Shanghai has a sleek metro system and after a few days we felt brave enough to try it.  After a successful trial run we decided to use it to get to the airport, switching to a high speed bullet train for the final leg.  It was pretty exhilarating to reach 300km although a little bizarre to be sitting in such a high tech train as we passed through poverty stricken slums. 


We allowed plenty of time for check-in, half anticipating a problem and sure enough there was.  “You have overstayed” came the brusque comment from immigration.  “Well no, we gave your colleague all the correct documentation and he stamped it incorrectly.”  A glare.  Hmm…seems one doesn’t argue with Chinese immigration.  We were marched to a couple of hard chairs and told to wait.  Various officials approached us and no amount of explaining that it was in fact “their” mistake seemed to change the situation.  When the woman beside us was fined the equivalent of $2000 for overstaying we began to get a little anxious.  An hour later a red faced official emerged with our passports to tell us we were free to go saying, in halting English “our mistake”.  Lesson learned – always check passport stamp BEFORE you leave immigration. Things did get better – the Virgin plane was virtually empty so we had four seats each to stretch out in – bliss!  Will leave you with some interesting translations.