And Finally … Home Again!

After Berlin we spent a very cozy three days with our friends in Amsterdam.

Our motivation for sightseeing was about zero (plus, we’ve been to Amsterdam a few times before). We were just so happy to be in a home environment (not a hotel!) with home cooked food and friends!  It was also a fitting bookend to the trip, because we’d also visited these friends in Amsterdam right before leaving for Hong Kong two years ago.

I didn’t take many pictures during this visit in Amsterdam, but I do have some from two years ago – so here you go:

Me, two years ago, looking fabulous and not-traveler-scruffy, prior to our trip to Hong Kong.

We did go to a fantastic food hall for lunch, where we bravely tried our first dim sum outside of Asia. And you know what? It wasn’t half bad. (Not as good as in Hong Kong, of course, but it gives us hope we’ll still be able to enjoy Dim Sum on a regular basis!)

Me, now, wearing the same clothes as in every picture for the past 2+ months and badly in need of a haircut! Trying our first dim sum outside of Asia.
Zak enjoying Bitterballen – a dutch speciality of deep fried goodness.

This visit was the first time in over two months we’d talked to people who knew us – in person. During the trip, it was rare we’d even encounter anyone who spoke native English (when we did, it was so great to have a normal-speed conversation!) But since seeing our friend Rachel in Tibet, we hadn’t actually talked to anyone who knew us, other than a few skype calls with family.

It is SO AMAZING just hanging out and talking to people who know us! It’s so relaxing and fun! Wow, who knew friends were so great?! 🙂

But we couldn’t stay in Amsterdam forever. We were getting really tired of wearing the same clothes, and just ready to get back to our own life in London. So it was time for the last leg of our journey: The Eurostar train from Brussels to London.

Oh That’s So Romantic!

This part of the trip is slightly sentimental for us, and not just because it’s the end of this huge adventure from Hong Kong to London. We also began our relationship with a lot of Eurostar journeys. (Also, you might remember we’re both the MOST and LEAST romantic couple ever, according to our various Chinese tour guides…)

We started dating across countries, because Zak lived in London and I lived in Paris. So every two or three weeks, one of us would do the Eurostar journey across the English Channel for a visit. This really accelerated our relationship because instead of just seeing a new love interest for a date or two a week, and getting to know each other slowly over time, we were just thrown into it., an entire weekend at a time. Plus, we had to plan visits several weeks in advance, so there was a sense of “Oh, we’re still going to want to see each other in a few weeks…”

When we tell people we dated back and forth between Paris and London, the typical reaction is “OH that’s so ROMANTIC!” And it was … at first (restaurants! museums! concerts! cafes!). But after a few months of back and forth, it got tiring, and expensive. (Sometimes you just want to hang out with your partner and order a pizza … and how annoying to have to go to a different country for that!) After a year or so, I moved to London. (On the Eurostar, of course. With my stuff following in a moving truck…)

Anyway – we’ve taken the Eurostar a lot, and it’s a special train service for us.

Eurostar: Through the Chunnel

If you’re not familiar with it – the Eurostar is a train that runs in a tunnel under the English Channel (the “chunnel”) to connect England with mainland Europe. It’s SO fantastic for a weekend break, because you can go directly from central London into central Paris, without having to trek out to an airport on each side etc.

In just under two weeks, Eurostar is launching a new service direct from Amsterdam to London – but unfortunately we’re just a little too early to take advantage of that. So we took a Thalys train from Amsterdam to Brussels, then had a 1 hour layover (which is fine, as you need time to go through security and immigration when boarding the Eurostar), and then the Eurostar train from Brussels to London.

There are 3 classes on the Eurostar and we took the middle one, which gave us comfier seats and a light meal service. The meal was probably the tastiest and most refined we’ve had on any of our train journeys – we had salmon and lentils, with the most moist melty chocolate cake, and red wine. (Certainly better than this one.)

Light lunch on the Eurostar back to London.

The train route itself goes from Brussels, Belgium to Lille, France and then onto Calais, France, which is where the Channel Tunnel begins. Going through the tunnel itself takes about 20 minutes, and you’re underwater (although in a tunnel) – so they make an announcement beforehand that you’ll lose mobile phone reception etc. When you emerge on the other side, everyone’s phones start beeping and buzzing as they reconnect, the time hops one hour backwards, and you’re in the UK!

It was a relaxing and uneventful train journey. Zak watched Netflix. I madly crocheted my Trans Siberian Shawl in an attempt to finish it on the trip (didn’t quite make it…) and unintentionally eavesdropped into a very dramatic conversation happening with the couple in front of me. (I’m now convinced that guy is having an affair… but that’s a topic for another post.)

Finally, London!

We arrived into London St. Pancras, and then it was time for the least fun train journey of our entire trip: the Tube (subway) across London.

As we walked through St. Pancras, it felt surreal. All the pale, frowning Londoners were rushing through the station getting on with their days. I was in a huge Siberian parka, carrying snow boots, in the same clothes I’ve been wearing for over 2 months, with shaggy hair in much need of a haircut. I felt like an alien.

I could see a change in Zak almost immediately. It’s like he snapped back into “London Zak”, walking super fast and dodging around people, on a mission to make his train.

We were back.

(Side Rant: WHY they do not put escalators in St. Pancras is beyond me. It’s a major Tube-Train exchange station and you have tons of people multiple times per day pouring off the Eurostar going to the Tube … so why do you need to haul your bags up and down stairs?!  Every railway station in China has escalators… Anyway…)

On the Southwestern Train in London.

We noticed little differences along the journey. The name of our local train company has changed (probably a rebranding to distance themselves from the poor-service-scandals of previous years). There’s a new money changing machine at the station (perfect to exchange our leftover Rubles and Yuan). There’s wifi in the Tube. Twickenham train station is under construction and now you have to walk a huge loop around to exit (ugh). Several pubs closed only to be replaced with new ones (will they fare any better?). Two hipster barbershops opened within one block of each other (each staffed with young, bearded barbers wearing flat caps and braces/suspenders)

We were back home.

Twickenham is a little bit different. But we’re a little bit different too.

Arriving at our flat was … overwhelming.

All of our belongings are in boxes – so we’ve got a huge unpacking effort ahead of us. And our belongings from Hong Kong will arrive later this week.

Top priorities: A quick trip to the grocery store for essentials, and making the bed so we have somewhere to sleep. And then the unpacking begins…

And of course, a real English Fry-Up for our first morning back…

A light breakfast to prepare us for a day of unpacking…

We’re a bit overwhelmed at the moment, I can’t think of another word for it, but we are home. I’ll definitely do an update to our packing list post, to share what we actually used (or didn’t!) But also – I feel like I WILL have a lot of thoughts or reflections about the trip to share. I’m just too tired to have perspective at the moment, and there are boxes to unpack…

Berlin: East and West

Time is flying by – Berlin is our penultimate stop before getting back to London after this crazy trip!

We’ve wanted to take a weekend trip to Berlin for years … and we were happy to be there. ..But speaking for myself, I’m getting so tired at this late stage of our trip that I’m finding it hard to motivate to sightsee! So I was playing some mental games with myself trying to psych myself up for visiting a new city.

Also – it felt really cold! It was around freezing (0c / 32F) but because of the damp weather, Berlin felt much colder to me than most of Siberia. Yes, it’s the humidity in the air, but also the lack of sunshine. Even in -20 temperatures in Siberia, there was clear blue sky and bright sun bouncing off the snow. Berlin is more European, with a gentle gray layer of clouds across the sky most of the time. So it’s dreary, and damp, and oh man, I was FREEZING! But when are we going to be in Berlin next?! Have to make the most of it. Onwards! Continue reading “Berlin: East and West”

Warsaw Old Town (+ the train to Berlin!)

After an all-day bus ride from Vilnius, we arrived in Warsaw. We’d both been here before on business trips and hadn’t seen much beyond conference rooms and generic hotels. I have to be honest that our impression of Warsaw was not great, so we only planned one day stopover. We decided to stay in the center of the Old Town to see the ‘most scenic’ (and most touristy!) part of the city.

Unlike all the other cities on this European part of our trip, Poland doesn’t use the Euro. We didn’t want to take out local currency (called “Zloty”) for only 24 hours, so we challenged ourselves to only pay by card. It wasn’t a challenge at all. Every place took cards, some even used the ‘touch only’ feature (which doesn’t always work with international cards) so you don’t even need a PIN or to sign. Too easy! Let the eating + drinking begin!

Continue reading “Warsaw Old Town (+ the train to Berlin!)”

Rediscovering Vilnius (with heaping spoonfuls of sour cream!)

We’re a bit behind on our blogging at this point in the trip. The travel’s starting to wear us down. Our energy is lagging. We spend more and more time relaxing in the hotel, and intersperse our sightseeing with more frequent cafe and pub stops. I think we’re getting ready to be home! (Or at least, ready to stop carrying our suitcases everywhere!) BUT, onwards! The trip isn’t finished quite yet … and we have some interesting cities to visit still in Europe…

From Tallinn, our next stop was Vilnius, but there wasn’t a train available. So for the first time since Hong Kong, we have to take a <gasp!> BUS to our next destination. (Actually you can take a series of three connecting train from Tallinn to Riga, but then you have to take a bus from Riga to Vilnius. So we decided to save time and energy and just take the bus the entire way.)

Continue reading “Rediscovering Vilnius (with heaping spoonfuls of sour cream!)”

Tallinn, Estonia: OMG, It’s So Cute!

And just like that, we enter the European Union!

After our four days in St. Petersburg, we took an 8-hour train ride across the Russian border into Estonia.

St. Petersburg train station, 6:30AM. Waiting for our train across the border to Tallinn. Leaving Russia, entering The European Union!

I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Tallinn from friends, and we were really looking forward to visiting this city. We’ve previously visited Riga, Latvia and Vilnius, Lithuania, and were curious to complete our visit of the Baltics and see how Tallinn compared.

The last time we felt like we’d stepped back in time on this trip, was in ancient Pingyao, China. If you remember, we loved Pingyao, but it was in desperate need to ‘coziness’. Somewhere to sit in a warm cafe or pub and soak up the historic atmosphere. Well, Tallinn has Cozy in spades! It was cuteness overload. It’s like entering a perfectly preserved medieval fairytale.

Continue reading “Tallinn, Estonia: OMG, It’s So Cute!”

Art and Culture in St. Petersburg

We arrived in St. Petersburg at 8:30AM.  Oh how thrilled we were to:

1) be finished with our long train journeys for the trip, and
2) spend time in a city filled with art, culture and food! (And a lovely historic hotel with fluffy bathrobes, a hot shower and comfy bed!)

St. Petersburg is gorgeous. Still below freezing, and strangely enough felt colder than many previous cities we’d visited because of the humidity. Yes it was -30c in Mongolia, but -12c in St. Petersburg felt much colder – the damp cold would seep through your jacket into your bones.

St Petersburg is on the coast, so the humidity in the air makes it feel a lot colder than it is!

But wow, wow, wow.

Continue reading “Art and Culture in St. Petersburg”

Yekaterinburg and Our Final Trans-Siberian Train

After 48 hours on the train across Siberia, we arrived for a quick 24 hour stopover in Yekaterinburg, just past the halfway point of our trip across Siberia.

If your following along with the route of our journey, we’re now at Yekaterinburg indicated by the star. Halfway across Siberia and almost back to Europe!

In Yekaterinburg it was snowing. A lot.

We haven’t had above-freezing temperatures in well over a month. But most of the trip so far has been really dry, so this is the first time we encountered real snowfall.

Snow in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

Zak was very excited. I was like – “yeah, it’s snow.” It really just felt like New Hampshire after a snowstorm – fluffy snow everywhere, slushy boots, watching where you walk so you don’t slip, stepping over snowbanks…

Continue reading “Yekaterinburg and Our Final Trans-Siberian Train”

First Class on the Trans-Siberian Train

48 hours on the train across Russia from Irkutsk in Siberia, to Yekaterinburg right on the border of Asia and Europe.

We’d been looking forward to this leg of the journey – our longest train ride. (So far we’d done 33 hours from Hong Kong to Xining, and 22 hours from Xining to Lhasa Tibet, but this would be the longest!)

Prior to leaving Hong Kong, we’d seen Murder on the Orient Express at the movie theater, and I think we were both secretly hoping that our Trans-Siberian train would also have white-gloved waiters shaking up cold martinis before dinner…

Continue reading “First Class on the Trans-Siberian Train”

Irkutsk: Cuteness and Dog Sledding in Siberia

A quick 8-hour train ride around Lake Baikal, and we arrived in Irkutsk.

We fell in love with this little city (one of the largest cities in Siberia, population just over 500,000)! It was a total surprise. We were expecting a backwater, boring town in the middle of nowhere … instead we got gorgeous scenery, lots of sunshine and show, super cute wooden houses with elaborate wooden edging, good restaurants and nature just a few minutes drive away.

 

Irkutsk, Russia indicated by the star. Still very much in Asia, but it feels like Europe!

Continue reading “Irkutsk: Cuteness and Dog Sledding in Siberia”

Amanda’s Natural Health Kit for Travel

You might know I’m kind of into herbs and natural health 🙂
I always travel with a standard first aid kit, but I also like to bring a selection of natural health items and remedies. They’re useful if we get sick, but I prefer to use them in advance to support our immune systems and to keep us in balance as we travel.
I don’t usually bring quite this much – but this is a 10 week trip in extremely dry cold weather in winter, so I assumed we’ll be exposed to lots of new germs and probably get at least one cold along the way. Plus at least one upset stomach.
I set aside all the items I’d like to bring, and then packed what I could fit into one gallon-sized Ziploc bag. So it IS a lot that I brought, but I like having it and I imagine I’ll be using these things regularly, so for me it’s worth the space. Some of the items I would not have brought, except I already had them in Hong Kong — so brought them along to finish up (like the bottle of Elderberry tincture!) I’ll be curious to see what we use and what I throw out en route to save space. Will update this post with the results when we’re back in London!

Herbal Teas

 I use herbal teas a lot to support wellness. At home I have a big stash of loose individual herbs which I blend depending on what I need that day. Of course that’s not practical for travel. So I tried to reduce the tea selection to teas I already owned and that would be multi-purpose for a variety of issues we might face while traveling. The beauty of these teas is that we can drink any of them anytime … so we don’t need to save them for the specific ailment. They all taste nice too. I brought a full box of Sleepytime and Belly Tamer, the rest I only brought a few bags each.
  • Sleepytime Tea – Relaxing blend for evenings but also just to keep me chilled out on long journeys.
  • Belly Tamer Tea – Peppermint/Ginger/Fennel, for stomach upsets.
  • Throat Coat – for dry or sore throats
  • Breathe Ease – for chest colds
  • Moon Time – for PMS
  • Teeccino – roasted herbal coffee substitute. Yeah, it’s not the same as coffee. But I get really wired if I have more than 1 cup of coffee per day, and decaf doesn’t seem to exist in Asia, so I brought these…

Supplements / Herbs:

 ESSENTIALS:
  • Probiotics!! I always travel with probiotics, and it’s the one supplement I insist that Zak takes before any travel as well. We start several days before travel and take one daily the entire trip. Builds up your gut biome with good bacteria to help you deal with different food, water etc. This is the only medication we brought a 60 day supply each of. We each brought a different kind of probiotic, and we’re alternating, to diversify the bacteria we’re getting.
  • Activated Charcoal – This is my key food poisoning remedy. Brought a lot of these.
  • Triphala – an Ayurvedic blend which tones your digestive system, to use after food poisoning or diarrhoea to reset your digestive system. Love this! Works very well.

Things I only brought because I already had them, and thought they might be useful. Repackaged in individual labelled Ziploc bags to save space.

  • Milk Thistle – liver support to process any toxins, especially helpful if you’ve had too much to drink or think you might have a night of heavy drinking ahead (vodka train, anyone??)
  • Turmeric – general anti-inflammatory
  • Multi-vitamin – brought about 20 of these, to take every couple days.
  • Vitamin D – only brought a few of these, to take once a week or so.
  • Digestive Enzyme – only brought a few of these, only use them when eating something I think will be hard to digest, like a lot of milk/cheese or heavy meat etc.
  • Biocidin – natural antibiotic drops – only to use with food poisoning or bad chest colds etc.

Essential Oils

  • Lavender – ESSENTIAL – This is always with me, everyday. Good for relaxing, disinfecting, baths in hotels, headaches.
  • Peppermint – for headaches, digestion
  • Anti-infective Blend – DoTerra OnGuard. To use in crowded spaces, and throughout trip to boost immunity and eliminate germs.
  • Breathing Blend – DoTerra Breathe – in case we get a cold, feel stuffy
  • Digestive Blend – DoTerra DigestZen – stomach problems
  • Clary Sage diluted in a roller ball – for menstrual cramps
  • Small muscle rub blend – DoTerra Deep Blue, only brought 1ml of this, don’t think we’ll use it. Just in case.
  • Small bottle of almond oil
  • Small spray bottle – currently filled with OnGuard and water as a disinfectant spray to use on my scarf and face mask in crowded places.

Miscellaneous

  • Manuka Honey – A client gave me a jar of amazing Manuka honey shortly before we left Hong Kong and I couldn’t bear to throw it out, so I brought it along! We’re adding it to our tea.
  • Digestive Bitters – ESSENTIAL – I’m using Neals Yard Remedies Dandelion and Burdock – I’ve always got a bottle of this with me, everyday. (I decant it into a small 10ml bottle to take in my handbag). Good for upset stomachs but I try to take it before meals to boost my digestion before eating, when I think the meal might be heavy or possibly dodgy.
  • Elderberry Tincture – LOVE LOVE LOVE this! I made a batch in Hong Kong and brought the rest of the bottle with me. It’s hugely supportive for your immune system and tastes delicious. We’ll take a spoonful a day until it’s gone.
  • Magnesium Spray – the theory is it helps you sleep. I got a brand new bottle before I left HK, so I decanted some into a small spray bottle and brought it along. Not totally convinced it works yet…
To save space for travel, I took most of the pills out of bottles and put them in labeled ziploc bags.  The herbal teas are also in small ziploc bags by flavour. The essential oils all fit into a small zippered pouch. Will update this post later with what we used, and what got tossed out to save space halfway through the trip…