22 March 2016

Product review: Tep Wi-Fi device

The timing couldn’t have been better: just a few weeks before my departure for a road trip across the southwestern United States an email arrived from Tep, a company that hires out portable Wi-Fi devices to travellers. Would I be interested in test driving one of their devices in exchange for a review?

The answer, of course, was yes. When travelling in Europe, I can use up to 100 MB of data on my smart phone for £1.99 per day, which is enough to keep up with work while I’m away from home. In the States, however, data on my mobile is prohibitively expensive, leaving me at the mercy of public Wi-Fi networks, with all the accompanying inconveniences and security concerns.

Hiring a Tep isn’t exactly cheap at £6.50 per day plus delivery/pick-up fees, but it’s certainly the most cost effective option for travellers who need to stay connected – and that £6.50 does give you unlimited data usage for up to five devices after all. It’s also far more convenient than purchasing a SIM card on arrival and negotiating another country’s pay-as-you-go mobile data system.

Booking the device online couldn’t be easier and took me just a few minutes. Pick-up at Heathrow Airport (you can also have it posted to you) was also extremely simple. The device itself takes a bit of getting used to but it too is easy to use once you’ve got the hang of the slightly counterintuitive range of menu options available.

The pack you receive from Tep comes with a micro-USB cable, carrying case and universal power adaptor. You can hire an external battery and car charger too, but they cost extra – it makes more sense to buy these items before your trip (neither are expensive) and take them with you to use with the Tep. Given that I was on a roadtrip, a car charger was essential, but I didn’t end up using my external battery at all because the Tep’s battery life is so good.

The coverage was also impressive, though there were plenty of black spots on my nearly 3,000 mile journey from Los Angeles to New Orleans. As you’d expect from a device that relies on the 3G network, coverage is excellent in built-up areas and less good in remote ones. Coverage is better outdoors than indoors too, though placing the device by a window usually did the trick. 

Speeds were almost always fast enough to use Google Maps and make phone calls via Skype, often at the same time. Small enough and light enough to slip into a pocket, the Tep is also a discreet and convenient way of accessing the internet on the move.

The hire cost for this trip was on Tep, but I’d definitely consider using one of the devices again in the future at my own expense. Sometimes it’s nice to get off grid when you’re travelling, but when connectivity is essential, it’s nice to know that good value, easy-to-use services like this one are available.

3 December 2013

Hangzhou's most holy Lingyin Temple

A temple hall at Lingyin, Hangzhou, China

While tourists wait out the downpour in high-ceilinged temple halls, a solitary Tibetan monk makes his way up the complex's series of stone staircases. Bowing low at every step, he prays his way unhurriedly from the entrance of Lingyin Temple to the hall at its highest point. His burgundy robes and ragged apron must be soaked through, but a cheerful smile never leaves his face.

Tibetan Buddhism, explains my guide, a yellow-robed monk who lives at Lingyin, is a different faith to the Buddhism he and his brothers practise at the centuries-old temple, but they welcome pilgrims of all stripes here. As well as Tibetans, Japanese Buddhists visit in large numbers – a 3-metre tall statue commemorates Master Kūkai, a Japanese monk who visited Lingyin in the 9th century. They've had some important modern visitors too – the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was a regular worshipper.

Lingyin is one of the best known Buddhist temples in China and, though many of the buildings and statues you see there today are modern reconstructions, the site itself dates back to the 4th century. A short drive from Hangzhou's busy downtown, it is a remarkably peaceful place, especially considering the fact that it attracts up to 10,000 visitors a day.

To reach the entrance to the temple, I walk past reliefs carved into the face of Feilai Feng, or 'Flying Peak'. There's a path running up the 209-metre hill but it's too wet to climb today so I content myself with watching terrapins bob in the stream that flows at the base of the hill and admiring the most prominent of the carvings, a large – and very jolly – Laughing Buddha.

The Laughing Buddha, one of the dozens of reliefs on Feilai Feng
The Laughing Buddha, one of the dozens of reliefs on Feilai Feng

I'm met by my guide inside the temple complex itself. Walking sedately with him up and down stairs and into and out of halls I feel like a celebrity hanger-on: so picturesque does he look in his monk's robes that every few minutes someone takes a photograph of us. My guide doesn't seem to mind; having lived here for six years, he's presumably used to such things by now.

We begin in the hall of the Hall of the Heavenly Kings, with its four massive statues dedicated to the winds and 800-year-old Skanda Buddha, the oldest in the complex. Higher up the hillside an enormous Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism in India, nearly fills a temple hall all of its own. A few flights further is a small gallery of beautiful artefacts associated with the various strands of Buddhism, including a statue of the Buddha carved from one huge piece of South African rose quartz.

The interior walls of one of the smaller halls are completely covered by intricate frescos telling the story of Ji Gong, a 12th-century monk who devoted himself to the poor and needy yet refused to obey monastic codes. As my guide leads me from panel to panel, recounting how this naughty Buddhist Francis of Assisi got so drunk that he was expelled from Lingyin, a crowd gathers around us, eager to hear these tales too. 'Was he real, this monk?' I ask. 'Oh, he was real,' replies my guide. 'I'm not sure about the exact truth of all these stories, but he certainly lived'. He certainly did.

Outside each hall stands a large brazier filled with hot coals. The air is thick with smoke from the bundles of burning incense wafted by tourists and pilgrims as they bow in prayer. I ask my guide why some people bow in four different directions and some just facing the hall in question. He smiles again. 'Some people don't know what to do,' he says, 'so they make it up.'

Visitors pray using incense prayer sticks lit in one of Lingyin's many braziers
Visitors pray using incense prayer sticks lit in one of Lingyin's many braziers 

Very little of Lingyin is original – much was rebuilt in the 1950s after the havoc of the civil war. Fortunately, this hardly takes away from the atmosphere. The presence of my guide and his 120 brother monks, as well as the idyllic mountain forest setting, have kept Lingyin from becoming Disneyfied, despite its evident newness.

On my way out I spot an old man sweeping leaves in front of one of the temple halls. For the first time during my visit to Lingyin, there's no one else to be seen – it's as if all the other tourists have been spirited away. As I turn to walk back down the stairs the sound of his broom on the wet ground hangs in the air.

28 October 2013

Top 5 things to do in Hangzhou, China

You probably haven't heard of Hangzhou, but it's one of China's most popular tourist destinations and it's only an hour by train from Shanghai. Here are five excellent things to see and do there.

West Lake
Hangzhou's biggest draw is an enormous weeping willow-fringed lake with the power to make you forget you're in a city of 6 million people. Take a boat ride across to Fairy Island, where you can wander pretty pathways, admire the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon and then hop over to the Sun Causeway, from where it's a short walk to the Leifeng Pagoda. 

View of West Lake and downtown Hangzhou from the Leifeng Pagoda

There are fantastic views over the lake and city from this five-storey tower, whose original dates back to 977 AD (though the recreation was opened in 2002). Hire a bike to cycle round the edge of the lake (a distance of around 15km), buy tickets to see Impression West Lake, a dance spectacular that takes place on a platform 3cm below the surface of the water, and drop by the downtown lakeside area at dusk to watch groups of locals ballroom dancing under the trees.

Lingyin Temple

One of the halls at Lingyin Temple, Hangzhou

One of the most important Buddhist temples in southern China, Lingyin Temple stands on the side of a wooded hill a short drive from downtown Hangzhou. To reach its numerous pagodas and halls, parts of which are 800 years old, you walk past the foot of another hill, known as the Flying Peak (Fei Lai Feng), home to dozens of ancient carvings of figures from Buddhist mythology. 

A carving of the Laughing Buddha on Flying Peak, near Lingyin Temple, Hangzhou
A carving of the Laughing Buddha on Flying Peak,
near Lingyin Temple, Hangzhou

Once in the temple complex itself, look out for the Skanda Buddha in the Hall of the Heavenly Kings – while much of Lingyin has been destroyed and rebuilt over the years, mostly as recently as the 1950s, this statue is an original from the Southern Song Dynasty (960-1279). Other highlights include an enormous statue of the Gautema Buddha, the founder of Buddhism in India, and a statue of the Buddha carved from one huge piece of rose quartz, which you'll find in the complex's small gallery.

Former Residence of Hu Xueyan

The garden at the Former Residence of Hu Xueyan, Hangzhou
The garden at the Former Residence of Hu Xueyan, Hangzhou

Hu Xueyan, the prominent Qing Dynasty merchant who founded the well known Chinese medicine company Hu Qing Yu Tang, built a grand and sprawling residence on Yuanbao Street between 1872 and 1875. You can visit the complex today. Hidden from the busy thoroughfare behind a high boundary wall, it's a warren of courtyards, public reception rooms and residential quarters inhabited by Hu, his wife and concubines and their children and staff. 

Detail of an interior at the Former Residence of Hu Xueyan
Detail of an interior at the Former Residence of Hu Xueyan 

There's plenty to see, including quirky details borne of Hu's interactions with foreign merchants: the blue stained glass windows, European style wood carvings and elaborate internal communication system are particularly striking. Hu's quarters, among them a charming garden to which his wife and concubines had no access, are a highlight.

Jade Emperor Hill and Eight Diagram Field
There are some fantastic walks available in the countryside all around West Lake, but for something a little different – and tourist free – head to Yuhuang (Jade Emperor) Hill. Climb the 1,260 steps up through whispering bamboo forest to the summit (make sure to start early in the day and take plenty of water if you're there in the summertime), where you'll find Fuxing Taoist Temple.

Prayer candles at Fuxing Taoist Temple on Jade Emperor Hill, Hangzhou
Prayer candles at Fuxing Taoist Temple on
Jade Emperor Hill, Hangzhou

It was mostly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution but has been rebuilt since – there's still a charming ramshackle quality about the place. Admire the views over West Lake on one side and the city and the Qiantang River on the other but don't miss the intricately carved ceiling panels in the main temple hall. Then head back down the hill to Zilai Cave, which is delightfully cool even on the hottest day. Lighting is limited so take a torch with you – there are numerous altars in the cave worth having a look at. Once you've emerged blinking into the sunlight, be guided by the click of mahjong tiles and grab an outside table at the tea house overlooking Eight Diagram Field. 

Eight Diagram Field from Jade Emperor Hill, Hangzhou
Eight Diagram Field from Jade Emperor Hill, Hangzhou

This agro-historical curiosity dates back to the Southern Song Dynasty, when Emperor Gaozong ordered crops to be planted in the form of the traditional eight-sided digram used to explain the universe in Taoism.

Song Town
Hangzhou was at its most influential around 800 years ago when the rulers of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) made the city their capital. And what better way to celebrate that era of political power, mercantile dominance and accompanying cultural flourishing than with a theme park? 

Map of Song Town, Hangzhou
Map of Song Town, Hangzhou

At Song Town you can ride roller coasters, buy Song era tat and watch slapstick historical reenactments, all surrounded by faux Song architecture. The finale of an afternoon at Song Town is a show in its gigantic auditorium. The Legend of Romance was showing the night of my visit: featuring acrobatics, live horses, elaborate fight scenes, waterfalls, aerial work and choruses of scantily clad dancing girls, the show that curiously calls itself “one of the three best shows in the world” tells the legend of Xuxian and Bainiangzi, who supposedly met and fell in love on a visit to West Lake. It's a spectacle to make you oooh and aaah that also offers fascinating insights into cultural tastes in contemporary China.

Scene from The Legend of Romance at Song Town, Hangzhou
Scene from The Legend of Romance at Song Town, Hangzhou 

8 October 2013

West Lake Story

Temples, tourists and tandems – a first taste of Hangzhou's famous West Lake 

There were no cabs to be found. Bus after bus pulled up where I waited along with thousands of other tourists, but their drivers just scoffed when Cecily, my guide, told them where we wanted to go. I began to fear that we would have to walk, or else hire one of the tandems so popular with the rest of this enormous crowd, if we hoped to arrive before the start of the show we had tickets for. Walking was a no-no – we were exhausted from an afternoon ticking off the sights of West Lake – and given the number of unskilled cyclists on the road, not to mention the terrifying Chinese drivers, a tandem felt like a bad idea too.

Then just as despair was setting in an old man on a mobility scooter asked us if we wanted a ride. It sounded like a joke, but after some haggling over the price, we ducked under the jerry-rigged umbrella sheltering the scooter from the non-existent rain, squeezed onto the back seat and off we went.

West Lake is the reason why Hangzhou, an otherwise unremarkable city of 6 million people an hour by train from Shanghai, is one of the most visited spots in China. It attracts 3 million tourists a year, almost all of them Chinese. I was there at the invitation of the city's tourist board, my task to tell the world about this beautiful place.

A sightseeing boat cruises past Leifeng Pagoda
I arrived in Hangzhou on day two of the Mid-Autumn Festival, a three-day public holiday and massive thanksgiving and harvest celebration. I had been warned that Hangzhou was a popular tourist spot – nothing could have prepared me for how busy it was that weekend.

As I walked from our hotel to the shore of the lake, dozens of families and groups of friends cut across my path on hired tandems and triplet bikes. As I bought tickets for a sightseeing cruise of West Lake, women behind me in the queue thrust fistfuls of money past me towards the ticket window. As we cruised serenely across the lake towards Fairy Island, parents carrying small children in their arms squeezed into ever smaller gaps on the port and starboard side walkways.

West Lake was formed around 2000 years ago when silt build up on the Qiantang River created sandbanks and a lagoon. Over the following centuries, dredging projects, complex irrigation systems and the construction of dykes and causeways saw the lake evolve into the shallow 6.5 sq km body of water we see now. It's been a popular tourist attraction since the 12th century, when the Southern Song Dynasty made Hangzhou its capital in 1127: pilgrims, merchants, politicians and poets took boating trips and visited the area's many temples back then with exactly the same enthusiasm as visitors today.

On Fairy Island, at the very centre of the lake, I wandered busy paths, stopping to admire fields of lotus plants (sadly not in flower until summertime) and the Broken Bridge, said to be the place where Xuxian and Bainianzi, the protagonists of one of China's favourite romantic legends, met and fell in love. Prettiest of all was the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, an area of the lake where where three small pagodas form a triangle in the water. The peaceful scene they form appears on China's 1RMB notes.

Clearly visible in the background, standing resplendent on a hill overlooking the lake and Fairy Island, was the next stop on my West Lake tour, the Leifeng Pagoda. Another boat ride and a few minutes' walk later and I was there. The pagoda dates back to 975 AD but collapsed in 1924 after falling into disrepair. It wasn't until the turn of the 21st century that the local government decided to rebuild it, opening the new tower in 2002. What may have been lost in ancient mystique has been gained in convenience – lifts and excellent lighting make exploring the tower an easy and pleasant experience. The best bits are at bottom and top: in the basement the carefully conserved base of the original tower is on display, while the views over West Lake, Hangzhou and the surroundings area from level five are truly magnificent.

View over the countryside surrounding
Hangzhou from Leifeng Pagoda
Back at ground level, and following a thrilling 20-minute mobility scoot along the Su Causeway, the lake was the star once more as the lights went down for Impression West Lake. This outdoor spectacular with a cast of dozens was co-directed by Zhang Yimou, director of the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony and films including Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Taking place on a stage built 3cm below the surface of the lake in a natural theatre formed by hundreds of weeping willows, it marked a beautiful end to the day. 

A scene from Impression West Lake

My only regret? After the show I had to make my own way home – my mobility scooter knight in shining armour was nowhere to be found. 

24 January 2013

Exciting news

I'm delighted to announce that the good people at Forbes Travel Guide have made me one of their London correspondents. I'll be writing lots of wee pieces about the best things to see and do in the Big Smoke, as well as telling you about lovely bars and restaurants, cool shops, romantic places, art galleries, kids' activities....you get the idea. 

You can find my profile here (including a picture of me taken on a very early morning walk during a trip to the Tasman Peninsula last year) and my first story for the website hereIt's about London's best attractions, but I won't say anymore than that – you'll just have to click on the link. 

Oh okay, I'll give you one teeny tiny picture clue...

And here, for your amusement, is 'the loo with the view&... on Twitpic

2 November 2012

Long time no post (and the Affordable Art Fair)

When I started this blog I said I'd try to post once a week. You may have noticed that it's been a little longer than seven days since my last post (it's been seven months), but I'm going to be better from now on. I almost finished that sentence with 'I promise', but given my previous record, I think that's unwise. Let's just say I'll do my best.

So, what to write about in this monumental comeback post? In the last couple of months I've visited Margate, Oslo, Cornwall, Johannesburg and the Loire Valley, so it's tempting to start straight in on one of those exciting places, but I'm going to resist and write about the Affordable Art Fair instead because it's only on for a few days and Margate, Oslo, Cornwall, Johannesburg and the Loire Valley aren't going anywhere. (That said, though, there are incarnations of the Affordable Art Fair all over the world – if you miss this one in Hampstead, which finishes on 4 November, you could always catch the next one, which takes place in Seattle next week.)

The Affordable Art Fair has been running since 1999, but Wednesday evening was my first ever visit. I think I've unconsciously avoided it in the past because I knew I'd just feel bad about being surrounded by lots of lovely art that I could nearly, but not quite, afford. And it turns out I was right – that's exactly how I felt on Wednesday. 

That's not to say I didn't enjoy myself however. There's masses of fantastic stuff to see, including of course plenty that's genuinely affordable, my own personal lack of resources notwithstanding (prices range from £40 to £4,000 and while there's not too much on offer right at the bottom of that scale, if you're in the market for a small framed print or photograph and are willing to spend up to a couple of hundred quid, there's lots to tempt you). 

It would foolish of me to try to draw any conclusions about the state of the affordable art market from a couple of hours spent in the company of 100 exhibiting contemporary galleries, but I did notice a couple of themes appearing as I wandered. 

The first is maps. There are loads of them, some straight up prints, some paintings and some more ambitious pieces, like this one in porcelain, which I love. 

  Lost Rivers: London 2/20 by Loraine Rutt (Byard Art, Cambridge)

It seemed to me that London was more featured than anywhere else, but I suspect that's just because lots of the galleries exhibiting assume that London art collectors are more interested in their own surroundings than other places. If so, they're probably right – typical bloody Londoners, eh?

Also well represented were paintings of birds, cut-outs of butterflies and life-size sculptures of dogs, like this one (please forgive the fact that the photograph is slightly out of focus – a woman with a glass of red wine was hoving into me as I was taking it).  

Seated Hound by Clare Trenchard (Will's Art Warehouse, London)
In fact, there were so many sculptures of dogs that I felt like I spent the entire evening doing double takes. The point at which I strolled past the stall where an actual dog lay curled up its basket, oblivious to the action around it – and not for sale presumably – was when things got really confusing.

This is just a guess, but I'd put the popularity of these motifs at this particular level of the art market down to the fact that they're comprehensible enough not to be threatening to amateur collectors. Not everyone spending relatively modest sums at this sort of fair will be new to the art collecting game of course, but I'd hazard that lots of them are. The art world can be an intimidating place – I'd suggest that figurative pieces on familiar themes such as these may embolden people to begin collecting. And good for them, because once you've started down this path, there's no knowing where it may take you.

7 February 2012

Wild ponies couldn't drag me away

Last summer I spent a few days in north Devon. It's a wonderful place, and this is what I did there...

Children and dogs are splashing in the clear waters of the pool at Watersmeet as I cross the bridge over the two rivers that join at this tranquil north Devon spot. It's taken me over an hour of hard walking in the hot August sun to get down into the wooded Lyn Valley from my campsite perched on the hill above Lynton and Lynmouth and I'm glad of the opportunity to fill my water bottle at the National Trust tearoom at Watersmeet House. Families are already lunching in the garden outside the 19th-century property, but I resist the delicious-looking cream teas and push onwards, following the East Lyn upstream.

After only a few minutes, silence reigns, the sociable chatter of Watersmeet a distant memory. The water here moves slowly and the handful of walkers I meet coming in the opposite direction speak in hushed tones suitable to their surroundings. I make good progress on the well maintained riverside path.

The East Lyn River
Another hour of walking through the densely wooded valley brings me to the scattering of whitewashed houses that make up the tiny village of Brendon, whose ancient pub, The Rockford Inn, is a favourite with walkers. I eat my sandwiches on a bench overlooking a small tumbling waterfall, but do not linger in this peaceful, isolated spot. It may be a warm day, but down in the valley the air is damp and cool and it's not long before the sweat on my back turns cold in this sunless place.

My decision to make north Devon the destination for this late summer break was a largely pragmatic one. Only an hour's drive from the Wiltshire town where some friends were getting married last weekend, Exmoor National Park boasts an enviable diversity of landscape for walking. Between rolling heather moorland, rich woodland and the park's extraordinary coastline, there are enough options to keep even the most fickle walker occupied. It's also a place where no one will judge you for eating a cream tea every day.

I am still short of breath from the fiendishly steep hike up out of the Brendon Valley when I am stopped in my tracks by the sight of a herd of Exmoor ponies. I caught a glimpse of these punky-maned, semi-feral horses on the drive in, but seeing them close up – so close I can smell them in fact – is a thrilling, visceral experience. This unique breed has lived on Exmoor longer than people have, and although the animals you see here are all either privately owned or the property of the National Park Authority, they roam free as they have always done.

As I take the path across the fields, walking straight towards the iridescent blue of the late summer sea, the ponies keep their deep black eyes on me. The herd is calm and still and several foals are sprawled lazily on the tightly cropped grass, but I get the sense that were I to step off the path towards them, the whole lot would be away in a thunder of tiny hooves.

Gorse and heather on Exmoor
Further on – I'm walking across the moor proper now – the heather and gorse are in flower, their nectar attracting what seems like hundreds of thousands of black flying insects. Their buzzing is loud in my ears and I have to cover my face with my sleeve to stop them flying into my mouth and nose. Exmoor's many bird species don't share my pickiness and feast on this insect bounty, swooping and diving low over the flowers.

A vertiginous, zig-zagging descent on a narrow paved road through the moorland brings me to Foreland Point, Devon's most northerly point. Lynmouth Foreland Lighthouse has been automated since 1994, but the turn of the century lighthouse keepers' cottage which perches perilously on the cliffside next to it is a working holiday home (run by the National Trust). The sun is shining in a cloudless sky as I clamber up onto the coastal path above the lighthouse, but this remote spot must feel brutally exposed in winter.

The walk up to this point has been tiring in places, but never particularly challenging. Here is where that changes, as for the next quarter of an hour I pick my way along the treacherously narrow footpath that runs around Foreland Point. Loose scree bounces down towards the Bristol Channel with each step and the wind buffets me as I go, the rich scent of the heather rising through the air. It is completely exhilarating and when I regain the safety of the main route of the South West Coast Path I find my legs are shaking and my heart pumping hard.

Walking the other direction around Foreland Point, I only
saw this sign after having done the tricky bit
The remainder of the walk is a fairly gentle 4km ramble around Lynmouth Bay and down into the pretty village of Lynmouth. This patch of coastline is so ruggedly beautiful – reminiscent of the cliffs of Sardinia – that it's hard not to dawdle through the heather and gorse, especially when I spot another herd of ponies cropping the grass on a worryingly steep bit of bluff. I could stay here and gaze all day, but it's late afternoon and the call of the cream tea is too much to resist.

Lynmouth Bay, with Lynmouth in the distance (spot the ponies)
I drag my weary frame into Lynmouth, gorge myself on scones and fall asleep in the sunshine on the village's tiny grey-pebbled beach. 

Travel details

North Devon & Exmoor official visitor information: www.northdevon.com

Where to stay
Channel View Camping and Caravan Park (Manor Farm, Lynton; 01598 753349) is a 20-minute walk up a steep hill from Lynton, but the views of the bay and the peace and quiet are worth the climb. 

Where to eat
The Oak Room (Lee Road, Lynton; 01598 753838) serves classy Spanish-inspired food, including some excellent fish dishes and original desserts, in an elegant setting. 

Where to drink
The Rising Sun (Harbourside, Lynmouth; 01598 753223) dates back to the 14th century and has a good range of ales and ciders on tap.