Why you should explore this Unique Alley in Shanghai

Alleys provide great opportunities to walk through something a little more intimately scaled. Sometimes they provide a refuge from the city. But Tianzifang is the opposite of a refuge. It is tucked away off the French Concession in Shanghai and is a maze of alleys and shops that was definitely slightly overwhelming the first time.

Tianzifang is a history-rich old quarter where East meets West. As I looked around I could see products not only designed in China but all over the world for sale in tiny restored buildings that are back-to-back with local residences. While my eyes were feasting on all the things that the merchants sell, my mind was also wandering amidst the traditional vibe of the place. The aesthetics of the establishments are very charming since the shops are still reflective of old Shanghai style.

As I explored the alleyways I ended up being jostled around with other tourists who were also getting lost in the maze for the 20th time. My first visit was very overwhelming and I could hardly take everything in. But this was a great excuse to go and visit again, and the next time I made sure that I arrived before 9am, so as to avoid the crowds that start flooding in after 11am.

Here are some essential Travel Tips for when you visit Tianzifang

  1. When you drop by Tianzifang, keep in mind that there are three main lanes which you can take. These lanes each go from north to south and there are several smaller alleys which intersect with each lane. If you find yourself quite lost because of all the turns that you have taken while being entertained by the various products that are being sold, just look for one of the main lanes and you can easily find where you are supposed to go next.

2. Get there very early to avoid hordes of domestic tourists. Otherwise be prepared for being pushed around when this area gets busier.

3. Avoid going in the holidays when it is very, very crowded.

4. Learn to bargain on the stuff you are going to buy. I was advised that you should pay as little as two thirds of the price asked originally.

5. A camera is necessary when you go to Tianzifang as there will be so much you would love to capture. But be careful as it is not allowed to take pictures in the residential area where the local residents still live.

6. Look out for the old residential buildings called ‘shikumen’, literally ‘stone doors’. These houses have stone door-frames and solid wooden doors.

7. Many original residents still live in the narrow lanes. Please be mindful and respect their privacy.

8. Some shops do not permit you to take photos, even of the exterior. So don’t feel offended when they stop you and chase you away.

9. Besides places of business, there are still some residents living there. Don’t enter residential houses mistakenly.

10. Take toilet-paper as there are only traditional Chinese toilets. Otherwise there are nice public toilets in the mall across the street where the Starbucks is located.

Where is your favourite alleyway to explore?

10 Tips for Dining Solo while Travelling

Views from Table Mountain
Me standing on Table Mountain!

Eating alone isn’t so bad. The thought of eating alone is sometimes terrifying especially for solo travelers. What will people think and how can I eat out without someone to talk to or share a bottle of wine with? Throughout my years of travelling I have learnt a couple of different ways to overcome what for many travelers is the most unpleasant aspect of going it alone.

  1. Chat with the service people. Waiters and waitresses are some of the best sources to find out about the local city you are exploring. And it feels good when someone greets you with a smile the next time you go there, it helps make you feel a bit at home in a foreign country.
  2. A lot of guides include a section on the “Singles Scene” in many cities; you might not be out to meet someone special, but this should offer some options for socialing nonetheless.

 3. Cafe and outdoor dining is some of the most attractive places for single travelers. Sitting alone with a book in a cafe isn’t as unusual as a table for one at a fancy restaurant and its a great place to sit and people watch.

4. Choose a counter seat or a seat at the bar. Here you usually end up talking to the barman or to the other single diners who end up sitting at the counter.

5. Go to a restaurant that has booths, which offer more privacy. This way you can have a booth all to yourself where you can hide with a good book and your hot chocolate.

 

6. You might be tempted to live on fast food, just to avoid awkward restaurant situations. Don’t. In fact, fancy establishments are fantastic places to dine alone. Waiters are happy to help solo diners who smile and say, “I made a special trip just to eat here. What do you recommend?”

7. Bring reading materials. If you start to feel uneasy sitting alone and staring down at your food, you can crack open a book, whip out your Kindle or read a magazine. One hint: The more high-minded your pursuit appears, the more likely folks are either to ignore you, or to become intrigued and maybe say hello. If you sit there studying the local city guide you will be surprised how easily other travellers will come up to you and offer some advice.

8. If you don’t want to endure yet another meal alone, use room service. It’s often no more expensive than local restaurants and you can watch a movie while enjoying your dinner.

9. Eat well. Just because you’re alone and on the run doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take time for sit-down meals. Enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee or a decadent dessert in one of the beautiful cafe’s of the city.

10. Seek out an ex-pat bar where you can hang out and speak your native tongue with some fellow expatriates and travelers. Here you will always be able to find a fellow solo traveller to share a meal with.

Do you have any other tips you would like to add?

Practical Travel safety tips for Women traveling alone

Every year, thousands of women, young and old, travel to on their own and come home safe and sound. You can, too, by using the same good judgment you use at home. Begin with caution and figure out as you travel what feels right to you. Create conditions that are likely to turn out in your favor, and you’ll have a safer, smoother, more enjoyable trip.

Here are some tips for safe and pleasant travels that I have picked up through the years:

  1. Use street smarts.  Be self-reliant and well prepared, so that you don’t need to depend on someone unless you want to. Always carry cash, a map, a guidebook, and a phrase book with you. Walk purposefully with your head up, look like you know where you’re going. If you get lost in an unfriendly neighborhood, be savvy about whom you ask for help; seek out another woman or a family, or go into a store or restaurant to ask for directions or to study your map. When you use cash machines, withdraw cash during the day on a busy street, not at night when it’s dark with too few people around.
  1. Be proactive about public transportation.  Before you leave a city, consider visiting the train or bus station you’re going to leave from, so you’ll know where it is, how long it takes to reach it, if it feels safe, and what services it has. If you’re leaving late at night, cafes, including busy Internet cafes with long hours, are a safe and productive place to wait. When taking the train, avoid sleeping in empty compartments. You’re safer sharing a compartment with a family.
  1. Research prices.  Know how long it takes and how much it costs to get from the airport to your hotel or to the city center. Solo travelers are more likely to be “taken for a ride,” so ask the taxi driver how much it will cost before you leave. If it’s considerably different from what you know to be true, take a different cab.
  2. Follow your insticts.  Be your own best counsel; if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Without a companion to watch your back, you are more vulnerable to criminals and scam artists, so you have to have your wits about you.
  1. Learn how to deal with foreign men.  In small towns, men are often more likely to speak English than women. If you never talk to men, you could miss out on a chance to learn about the country. So, by all means, talk to men. Just choose the man and choose the setting. Be aware that sometimes, when you smile and look a man in the eyes, it’s often considered an invitation. Wear dark sunglasses and you can stare all you want. Dress modestly to minimize attention from men. Take your cue from what the local women wear. Try to stay with a group when exploring, and avoid walking alone at night, particularly in unlit areas with few people around. Don’t be overly polite if you’re bothered by someone; it’s important to create boundaries to protect yourself. Use facial expressions, body language, and a loud firm voice to fend off any unwanted attention. If a man comes too close, say “no” firmly and loudly in the local language. That’s usually all it takes.
  1. Stay visible.  Keep to open and public places, especially at night. While returning to your hotel or hostel at night walk briskly and make sure you aren’t being followed. If you feel like you’re being followed or hassled, trust your instincts. Don’t worry about overreacting or seeming foolish. Start screaming and acting crazy if the situation warrants it. Or head to the nearest hotel ask the hotelier to call you a cab to take you to your own hotel, hostel, or B&B.
  1. Lie a little.  Not only can you invent your own persona or history, but you can also make your life easier with little white lies. When asking directions, don’t let on that you are alone: “Can you direct me to the museum? I have to meet a friend.” Wear a real or fake wedding ring. While travelling through Bali I had honeymoon henna on my hands which stopped people from harassing me everywhere. Remember, there’s no need to tell people that you’re traveling alone, or whether you’re actually married or single. Lie unhesitatingly. You’re traveling with your husband. He’s waiting for you at the hotel.
  1. Avoid appearing like a tourist.  Ditch the “I Love NY” t-shirt and dress like the locals so that you can blend in. Don’t draw attention to yourself by wearing flashy clothes or jewelry, you don’t want to stand out in a strange country. Don’t walk around with your face in a guidebook. Study your map or book while sitting at a cafe or restaurant not out on the street
  1. Stay in contact.  Leave a copy of your itinerary with a friend or family member at home, and stay in touch regularly via phone or e-mail. This way at least someone knows where you are or should be and can send out a search party if they havent heard from you in a while.10. Go with the flow. Unless you’re fluent in the language, accept the fact that you won’t always know what’s going on.
  2. Just in case, carry pepper spray. And don’t be scared to use it!!

By using common sense, making good decisions, and above all else, having confidence in yourself and your ability to travel on your own, you’ll be rewarded with rich experiences — and great stories to tell your friends.

Do you have any travel safety tips to add?

Tips for the solo traveller I had to learn the hard way

Green Point, Cape Town
Exploring Green Point, Cape Town

It is getting more and more popular for people to travel alone. A lot of us realize that we cant wait till we actually have a travel partner otherwise we might never get to travel. Traveling solo is quite daunting and here are a couple of tips that I had to learn the hard way.

  1. Green Point, Cape Town
    Green Point, Cape Town

    Plan in advance
    Do some advance reading about the country and city you plan to explore. Do some planning of what you want to see and where you would like to go. You don’t need a detailed plan but you should know, for the first night at least, where you’re going to stay so definitely book your hostel before you leave. Believe me its not fun arriving in a strange city at night and then having to search for accommodation.

  1. Pack light
    Pack light so that you can manage your luggage by yourself with ease. One carry-on, a suitcase or backpack, should be enough whether you’re out for one week or three. Remember you are the one who has to carry all that stuff with you so only pack the essentials.
  1. Try to arrive during the day
    Plan to arrive during daylight so you’re not trying to find your way through an unfamiliar city in the dark. It is not fun and it doesn’t feel very safe if you are a woman on your own. At least in daylight you can see what the area looks like and get a feel for the city.

 

  1. Green Point, Cape Town
    Green Point, Cape Town

    Talk to strangers
    Connect with other travelers. The common rooms and lounges of hostels are great places meet short-term friends as well as pick up excellent travel advice. Yes, talking to strangers is recommended here and it took me a while before I felt comfortable doing this. Smile and start a conversation. Be curious and ask open-ended questions and follow-up questions. This way you learn about what to do and where to go or not to go in this strange city.

  1. Meet the locals
    Connect with locals, this is the best way to learn about the new country culture. Many cities now have a free local walking tour which is a great way to get to know the local area. Markets are my favourite place to meet and talk to the locals. Here I don’t only get to experience the local culture but also to taste the cuisine of the area.

 

  1. Green Point, Cape Town
    Green Point, Cape Town

    Watch the world around you
    Take the time to observe how people interact, and how things work. While sitting at a sidewalk cafe, on a park bench, or just killing time you can learn how to use public transit, whether to pay your bill at your table or at the counter, how to tip or how to hail a cab and much more. This has saved me from either asking questions in a language I don’t speak or feeling stupid and sticking out as a dumb tourist.

  1. Go out and enjoy yourself
    Go out in the evenings and enjoy dining by yourself. Go to pubs and bars and grab a seat at the bar or counter. Go to concerts and the theatre. It’s all possible solo, although it does feel a bit strange so always take a book with or some postcards to write.
  1. Sign up for courses
    If you’re in one place for a while, connect with others by taking language or cooking classes. Whatever interests you. This is a great way to dive into the culture and meet new people.

 

9. Go on organised day trips
Break up long trips with organized day trips. You’ll enjoy the company and a chance to let someone else take care of all the details. Especially if it is hard to reach places like the top of the Andes mountains.

10. Always have the essentials

Carry the essentials with you when you head out for the day. Have the name of the place you’re staying on a piece of paper in the local language or the hostels business card. Have a copy of your emergency contacts and your documents on you as you might need them. And make sure you have a mini first aid kit with you in the form of headache tablets, plasters, Imodium and antiseptic cream. You never know when you might need it.

Green Point, Cape Town
Green Point, Cape Town

The last 5 tips…….

  1. Store important items in one place
    Always keep your most important items in the same place and have a simple check. For me it’s passport, wallet, camera and phone. Those are the items I check every now and again just to make sure I haven’t lost anything along the way. The easiest way to do this is by having a travel bag with different pockets of sections so that you always know where your things are.
  1. Get in your photos
    Learn to take your own photo or how to ask people to please take a photo of you. This way you wont end up with a load of photos of places and not be able to prove you were actually there.
  1. Green Point, Cape Town
    Green Point, Cape Town

    Save on phone charges
    Consider getting your cell phone unlocked so that you can buy a SIM card for your phone in each country as you travel. This will save you lots of money. Also, load Skype onto your phone so that you can connect with friends and family for free when you have access to the Internet. While traveling there are loads of places that offer free wifi so you will be able to stay in contact with everyone without having to pay roaming charges.

  1. Take advantage of other useful apps
    Download useful apps to your phone such as a GPS, a translator, a currency converter and some travel guides. Its easier carrying your travel guide in your phone than having a heavy book to carry around. A weather app is also very useful and a great help when trying to plan your next travel day.
  1. Trust your instincts
    Be aware of your surroundings and listen to your gut. If something doesn’t seem or feel right, leave, immediately. You are alone and cant afford to get into trouble so avoid it at all cost.
Green Point, Cape Town
Green Point, Cape Town

I hope these tips help you while on your next adventure!

10 Things that Traveling has Taught me

Boarding our speed train from Chongqing to Chengdu
Boarding our speed train from Chongqing to Chengdu, China

As soon as you leave your comfort zone and step out to see the world, you meet new people, get acquainted with different cultures, taste new cuisines and simply breathe in the unfamiliar surroundings!

While traveling is a big adventure it can also be frustrating and challenging at some times. I learned countless lessons by going through adventures and misadventures, tears and laughter while exploring the world. I know I still have so much to discover and so many things to learn.

But so far traveling has definitely enriched my life and taught me so much, not only about the world around me but also about myself.

Here are some lessons that sometimes I had to learn the hard way.

Chong Kneas floating village
Chong Kneas floating village in Cambodia

1. Appreciation and Understanding

Traveling around the world and seeing people in all sorts of circumstances makes me appreciate my freedom and life more and more. I don’t think you can truly appreciate what you have until you travel somewhere and are faced with poverty, or to a place where people don’t have the same freedoms we are blessed with back home. That is where I consider myself lucky, and I don’t think I would have ever come to this realization without traveling so far and wide.

I have learned to accept others for who they are and have created bonds with people outside my own culture. This has taught me to respect their beliefs and customs although I don’t always understand them. Sometimes I think as a society we have very closed minds to other cultures and I believe travel teaches you to understand and appreciate other cultures and what they stand for.

2. Relax, don’t get so worked up

It used to be if things didn’t go according to plan or didn’t work the way they were supposed to I would get upset and would then in return get angry and all worked up.

However, while traveling I quickly learned that there is only so much you can control. Most of it is out of my hands and because of language or culture differences things get done differently everywhere else, and sometimes not at all. 

It took me some time, but I have adapted to the mentality of “look on the brightside” when things start going wrong and believe me patience is a virtue.

3. Slow down and look around you

The Beautiful Streets of Santiago
The Beautiful Streets of Santiago, Chile

Traveling has definitely taught me to slow down and notice everything around me, rather that rushing through life and not appreciating the world.  Go for a stroll trough the park and enjoy the journey, its not all about the destination. Sit down and enjoy your coffee and make time to relax with a good book. Leave home earlier than needed so that you can enjoy your travels and not rush around and so end up missing things around you.

4. Talk to strangers

I have learnt to mingle with people and actually talk to strangers. Although I am a reserved person – I don’t speak much when I am around unfamiliar people, and especially when confronted with a group of people. I now pretty much interact with people on my travels and will even initiate conversations with random fellow travelers. I believe if you don’t interact with your fellow travelers and the locals of your destination, you barely experience a place.

porters who carry resources up the mountain on foot
Porters who carry resources up the Yellow mountain in China on foot

5. Pack conservatively

When you have to carry your life on your back like a turtle, you quickly learn to the difference between what would be nice to have and what you can’t live without. 

 Here are my best packing tips:

  1. Buy an e-reader if you can’t travel without books
  2. Make sure you have a great guide book so that you can find your way around the city without having to struggle in a country where you don’t speak the language.
  3. Sort your clothes in clear plastic bags so that you don’t leave your bag a mess when searching for something.

6. Become a chameleon and Adapt

When you travel you are constantly adapting to your surroundings, you have to try new things that you usually wouldn’t try at home. I had to eat food I usually wouldn’t eat and dressed in clothes I wouldn’t usually wear at home. I had to learn to be ready for anything as sometimes things didn’t go according to plan and I had to be able to change my plans at the drop of a hat. I also lived and worked in different countries, each where they do things in a different way and I had to adapt to a different lifestyle and work style every year.

Being able to adapt to any situation is a key skill that you learn when you travel. You will learn to welcome change and embrace it as a part of your new life.

7. Try Anything Once

Food Market of Phnom Pehn
Dont know if I want to try this….

When you travel you tend to not hold back and you are willing to give anything a go, well almost anything. You tell yourself that you may not be in this situation again so you better try it now. Whether you are trying a new food or doing an activity like hot-air-ballooning, it is important to always give it a go. Don’t be the one who wishes you did it years later. Be the one that gave everything a try.

My motto is if I don’t try something I will never know what it is like and there is no time like the present to do it. Be a risk taker, but within reason and live life to the fullest.  You will be amazed at how many more adventures you will be by simply saying yes more than no. Give it a go and try it at least once.

8. You really do make lifelong friends while traveling

Yes, it’s true that traveling long-term often means having to say a lot of goodbyes. Frequently. But it also allows you to meet a ton of amazing people who love traveling just as much as you do. Occasionally, you’ll form bonds so strong that things like distance and time won’t matter. With technology today, maintaining international friendships is easy and sending postcards to each other from all the new amazing places we are exploring is one of the things that I love doing. My postcard collection is growing and this way I get to see places I might never great to explore myself.  And having friends all over the world is never a bad thing.

Watching the Sunset over the Old City
Watching the Sunset over the Old City of Jerusalem

9. The world is big, and I will never see it all

With each new country I visit, I become acutely aware of how many there are left for me to see. The world is a big, amazing place, and I will likely never run out of places that I want to explore. It’s like Socrates said: “The more you know, the more you realize you know nothing.” This is true of travel, too — the more you see, the more you realize you’ve seen nothing.

10. Travel WILL change your life

Lastly, I’ve learned that travel — no matter how, where, or how often you do it — truly can change your life. Maybe travel will inspire a huge change, like convincing you to quit your job or move abroad. Maybe it will just inspire a little change, like opening your mind up to new foods and cultures. But I have no doubt that travel IS life-changing.

 

What has traveling taught you?

Judith and I making snow angels right in front of Saint Isaac's Cathedral
Judith and I making snow angels right in front of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg, Russia

5 Reasons to Travel while you’re Young

The faces of Bayon at Angkor Wat
The faces of Bayon at Angkor Wat

1: When you’re still young and you don’t have too many serious commitments, its important to take your opportunities when you can.

2: Broaden your horizons. Try new food, learn a different language and explore other cultures. You will carry these experiences with you for the rest of your life.

Drifting effortlessly in the hot air balloon over the spectaculat landscape of Cappadocia
Drifting effortlessly in the hot air balloon over the spectacular landscape of Cappadocia

3: Meet new people. You never know who you could encounter along the way, which makes it that much more exciting. Take the chance and expand your social and networking circles.

Thailand, floating market
Thailand, floating market

4: Become independant. There is nothing quite like travelling to teach you independance beacause you’re away from home, out of your comfort zone and having to fend for yourself.

5: Live a little. Explore, have fun and enjoy it. It’s important not to take yourself too seriously but rather to enjoy the experience and learn from it.

London, Leicester Square
London, Leicester Square