Thursday, 22 June 2017

Cruising from Chongquing to Yichang Vegan Style

I was about a quarter of the way through Peter Hessler's excellent book River Town when I decided that I needed to see the Yangtze River for myself. It took me about eight years to make it happen but during our travels in China Nick and I finally made it. We decided to book a three night cruise with Victoria Cruises because it seemed like the best way to see not only the Three Gorges but to really get a feel for the river. We arrived in Chongqing by sleeper train from Xi'an at around 5am and immediately made our way across the city by bus from the train station to the port. The cruise was scheduled to start boarding at 5pm so we left our luggage at the port so that we could explore the humid bustling port side city in comfort. Finding the left luggage office was a total mission filled with people insisting that they were in fact the official left luggage spot for the cruise (yeah, no.) and many detours around the construction happening literally everywhere. After about an hour of wandering in circles we found it and were more than happy to leave our bags with two official looking ladies and a cat.

After 11 years of vegan travel I've learnt not to trust people 100% when they say that providing vegan food will be no problem so our plan for the day was to eat, explore, and then find and purchase snacks for the journey. I always pack snacks for flights, day trips, and tours but I was especially focussed on my snack game this time. When the place you're going is a floating hotel with no access to shops you need to be extra prepared.

We ate lunch at a vegetarian restaurant on the top floor of a mall thanks to Happy Cow, it was nothing to write home about but it was the one of very few options and the only one that was easy to get to so it was totally fine. There was a huge language barrier and no interest in seeing my allergy cards but we ended up with vegetables, rice, and tofu which is really all I need to be happy. Thankfully our snack buying plan was a total success because Chongqing has a massive Walmart! Walmart is a place that would usually be on my boycott list but there were no other options in the city and just look at the bean products aisle. Imagine if Western supermarkets had a bean products aisle. Now not everything here is just made of beans, a surprising amount of fish makes its way into these bean products but thankfully our Hong King sim card from China Mobile meant that we could use Google Translate which is a total lifesaver in these situations.

We came away with a huge bag of snacks to take on our cruise including breakfast staples like Frosties (which are still vegan in Asia - no vitamin D3!) and bananas as well as Lay's crisps and a whole lotta bean curd products.

One flavour of Lay's that I'd never seen before and will hopefully never eat again is Lime! Now I thought that these sounded like a good idea like how lime in beer is delicious but nope, these were terrible! I'd still recommend that you try them because the faces you will pull whilst eating them will amuse everyone around you but I will warn you that they are sugary and they taste like those lemon cream biscuits. I ate this bag in three sittings which just goes to prove that they were the worst!

The bean curd snacks were all great though which just proves that you can't go wrong with tofu. My very favourites were these little five spice tofu bites that I struggled not to inhale in one sitting. I was glad that I had the foresight to grab more than one!

These chewy soy bean snacks were great too and they come individually wrapped which makes them perfect for taking on day trips / keeping in your handbag.

These were Nick's favourite, they were a little saucy, soft, chewy and also individually wrapped making them another great on the go option. 

Lastly we grabbed a couple of packs of these simple tofu strips which again were five spice flavoured. Most of these had a spicy and super spicy counterparts which I obviously avoided.

These were probably my least favourite but they were still pretty good and our whole bag of snacks totalled around £10 which is a ridiculous bargain. We also grabbed two 5L bottles of water because we suspected that bottled water would be expensive on board - correct! After spending the day wandering around the city marvelling at just how freaking enormous and busy Chinese cities are we headed back to the port for our 5pm boarding time. After a lot more walking around trying to find the right pier we ended up waiting around for ages. I don't think that the boat even arrived until 6pm. We met a woman on the dock who'd been told to arrive at 4pm. I'm not sure whether the cruise was doing that annoying thing that I can be guilty of where they assumed everyone would be late and told them a time way before they really needed to be there but as someone who is always on time it was definitely a little bit of an annoying start.

It was all okay once we'd boarded though as the ship was ridiculously nice and the views back towards the city were fantastic.

One reason that we chose the Victoria Jenna over the other boats we could have taken was because all of the rooms have balconies. Call me paranoid but boats sink and I like to know that I have a bit of a chance of escaping! It was also made in 2009 which made it a safer bet than a lot of the other boats sailing the river. Escape route aside the room itself was way nicer than I thought it would be and we were glad that we didn't drop any cash on a room upgrade. After a few nights of trains and hostels I was pretty excited to get to spend a few days in a floating hotel!

The tour took us past Shibaozhai, through the Three Gorges, and lastly to the Three Gorges Dam. The price included two shore excursions both of which we took; the first took us to the wooden pagoda at Shibaozhai and for the second we sailed down the Goddess Stream, a tributary of the main river, on a small boat. The pagoda at Shibaozhai was interesting but I was mostly into checking out the little town we walked past to get there, there seemed to be a real sense of community with groups of older people hanging out dancing and playing games.

The boat trip down the Goddess Stream was my favourite of the two excursions we took, partly because it was beautiful but mainly because the guide was hilarious. She was a young woman from a village way up in the mountains who'd taught herself English by watching Desperate Housewives. Her family were originally from lower down in the valley but they had to move during the relocations for the dam project - it was interesting to get to talk to someone from there about how people felt about relocating. To get to work she walks two hours each way down and then back up the mountain which seems pretty extreme to me but that's just life there. There were a couple of other excursions that cost extra that we skipped, getting to see Qutang Gorge, Wu Gorge, and Xiling Gorge and to get a feel of the river were our main reasons for taking the cruise and the other two shore excursions were already bonuses. The weather was misty and a little rainy for most of our journey but honestly that's exactly what I was expecting, it made the journey very atmospheric and I think it gave us more of a true sense of the place. I mainly spent time sitting on our balcony looking out at views like this and just marvelling at the scale of everything.

One place everyone on the boat was excited about seeing was the exact gorge portrayed on the 10 yuan note, we went through it in a serious rainstorm so I didn't get my decent camera out - my iPhone picture will have to do! By the end of the storm it was just me and two dudes I hadn't met before left on deck, we were sharing one umbrella and trying to hide behind some deck chairs but eventually even we had to call it!

Food wise Victoria Cruises nailed it for almost every single meal. We spoke with the cruise director when we arrived and once we'd explained our dietary requirements he assigned us a member of the dining room team who would greet us when we arrived for every meal and take us on a tour of the vegan options. He also explained that they never use meat stocks in the soups and that they label the vegetarian options. This only went wrong once when a member of staff kept pointing out things that were clearly covered in mayonnaise but we were able to reiterate our dietary requirements to her and after a consultation with the chef things went smoothly from there.

Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day, I always wake up starving and I always want to eat a decent and preferably carb heavy meal. Toast was off the menu because almost all sliced bread in Asia contains milk, egg, and sometimes even honey but thankfully they had some fantastic steamed Chinese bread that was totally vegan. We were served tea at the table and there was a fruit station where you could make your own fruit salad.

Breakfasts were similar each day with some variation of steamed buns, some stir fried vegetables, potatoes which sometimes contained chilli, fruit, and cereals. By day two they were bringing us hot soya milk which Nick used for cereal. 

Lunch and dinner were also served buffet style and there were always plenty of delicious options to choose from. My favourites were the minestrone soup, garlicky green beans, steamed buns, and fried noodles. There was always steamed white rice available as well as a salad bar and the type of buns changed almost every day - the pumpkin ones were particularly good.

The only time I was unimpressed with the food was on our last night, the meal was served family style at the tables and we'd been assigned a table with us (two vegans), a vegetarian, and two meat eaters. We were the smallest table in the dining room but we were served the same amount of meat as the other tables! They literally brought over a whole dead duck, platters heaped with ribs, whole fish and more. The two meat eaters were barely able to make a dent and the vegan options were definitely lacking. I understand that the kitchen probably had a lot going on that night cooking up a huge and elaborate meal but the amount of food waste our table produced was pretty gross and given that the two meat eating guests preferred vegetable dishes it wasn't a great meal for anyone. Overall Victoria Cruises provided good vegan food but I would have liked them to take our table into consideration a little more when planning the final dinner. 

Our last excursion took us to the Three Gorges Dam site which was pretty epic - at first it was very hard to see as there was a lot of fog (enough to stop us being able to travel through the locks or in the ship lift which was a bit of a shame) but as we were getting ready to leave the mist cleared and we were able to get more a sense of the sheer size of this project. Photos don't do it justice, this thing is humungous. 

Once we were done with the final cruise activities we ended up in Yichang early in the morning and spent the day dozing at a hostel, cooking, drinking bubble teas, and exploring a mall before catching a super late night train to Zhangjiajie to continue our adventures. More of that next time - Yangshuo was one of my favourite spots in China so keep your eyes peeled, it's gonna be a good 'un. Overall I'd say that I enjoyed this new way of travel way more than I expected - as a little break from self guided travel cruising was pretty damned relaxing and I would definitely consider another cruise especially if I was contemplating heading somewhere that you really can't see any other way. How about you? Have you ever taken a cruise? If you have what were the vegan options like? If not would you consider it or would it just not be your travel style?

Monday, 19 June 2017

An Aussie Birthday Extravaganza

It was my 34th birthday last week and my first ever birthday in the Southern Hemisphere. I was working on my actual birthday but as I'm always up for having a birthday week I started celebrating early by planning an epic day out with Susan from Kittens Gone Lentil. Me and Nick started the day at Petrie station and travelled into Brisbane to meet Susan near her place. We even got to pop to her house to meet Dim Sim, her gorgeous black cat who I've known online for many years!

We had our sights set on eating copious amounts of dim sum / yum cha so we drove south to Gold Coast to eat at Easy House, somewhere I'd been reading about and dreaming of eating at for a while. Easy House certainly didn't disappoint, the food was freaking amazing and I've eaten dim sum in both NYC and Hong Kong so you can trust me. You can order from the menu but the lovely people working there also bring around trays of dim sum so that you can choose what you want to eat that way. So fun!

Monday, 12 June 2017

Adventures in and around Melbourne

I've written a couple of posts about eating vegan in Melbourne, check them out here and here, but what should you be doing in-between meals? There are a whole bunch of great non-food related things to do in and around Australia's second city and here are a few of my favourites.

• Go on the Official Neighbours Tour

You might not really be from the UK if you've never seen an episode of Neighbours. Many hours of my childhood, teenage years, and early twenties were spent watching the goings on at Lassiter's and Harold's, and for a while I seriously wanted Susan Kennedy to be my mum. With this deep love for the show a Neighbours tour was a must!

Unsurprisingly all but one person who'd been dragged along by a friend was British and everyone was enthusiastic about the tour. You get to visit Ramsay Street and check out the studio lot where a bunch of the other location sets are which was so fun. Many photos were taken! Our guide was both knowledgeable and hilarious and we learnt a whole lot of stuff about how the show is filmed including how they always make it look sunny in Erinsborough when the reality of Melbourne is a little different.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Vegan Adventures in Xi'an

After spending seven nights in Beijing Nick and I took the train to Pingyao, spent a couple of days exploring the ancient walled town, and then travelled onwards by train to Xi'an. I'd say that one night in Pingyao would have been enough, it's got enough to keep you occupied for a full day's worth of sightseeing but after that there's very little else to keep you amused. The area is very touristy during the day - the roads are crammed full of Chinese tour groups, but at night the roads are quieter and, in my opinion, more of a real reflection of what the town is like. Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi province, was on my mist visit list because it's the home of the famous Terracotta Warriors but after reading Alys from The Wild Life's posts about the amazing food in Xi'an I was almost more excited about getting some serious eating done. The city is pretty stunning, surrounded by an enormous city wall (apparently the biggest in the world) and with bell and drum towers that are beautifully lit at night it's a joy to explore. 

On our first day in the city we decided to head out to see the Terracotta Warriors which was surprisingly easy but the site is large and 20km from the city so be prepared for a long day.