A Travellerspoint blog

Top 10 Apps for Solo Travellers in China

Or how to avoid being happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time.

Truth be told, when I'm travelling with other people, I kindof like getting lost. It's fun, sparks great adventures, and makes me feel like an explorer.

Throw me on my own, though, and that's a whole different story. As a female solo traveller, my smartphone becomes my lifeline. While I don't like to travel with my nose in my phone, in those instances it becomes a translation platform between myself and the unknown, from me to the outside world and back again. It enables me to communicate, record, organise and orientate myself all at the same time - NEVER to see. I make a conscious effort to avoid ever using it as a looking glass, but rather as a tool to help me deal with what I experience first hand.

To this date, the most extreme case of such desperate need for a smartphone was China, where I truly found myself happy, free, confused and lonely at the same time - despite feeling a solid 20.

So, without further ado, here are the 10 lifesaving apps you need for that China trip you're planning - and hey, if they don't save your life, they'll at least save you from boredom on that 30-hour train ride.

1. Pleco

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If you have to download 1 single app for your trip, make it this one. To call it incredibly useful would be an understatement. Not content with simply being a Chinese - English dictionary, it can also act as a pronunciation guide, language-learning tool, word-finder and even lets you look up words with your camera: ideal for street signs or restaurant menus (this last one requires wi-fi)! My favourite feature by far, though, is the "full-screen handwriting" option, which allows you to hand-draw characters into the dictionary's search bar. This is convenient for 2 reasons: 1) You can use it offline, to copy words that you see written but may not necessarily know the pronunciation of. 2) If, like me, you find pronunciation extremely hard to grasp, just hand your phone to your interlocutor, and they can draw it in themselves!

Free on iPhone and Android. You have to pay for most add-on features, but in my opinion it is very much worth it.

2. CityMaps2Go

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This is my favourite Map app when I'm travelling. You can download city maps with or without Wiki Plus data so you can access them offline anywhere in the world. Now you can set destinations and draw up itineraries without roaming charges! Also, you can avoid the tell-tale tourist red dot that is staring at a map with a confused look on your face. Walk around staring at your phone, looking blasé, and tadaaa! you look like a local. Which is always a plus. (Hey, it worked for me, people in Hong Kong were asking me for directions! When in fact I was so lost I couldn't even find the bloody Peak.)

Free on iPhone and Android.

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3. Ctrip

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You know that feeling when you suddenly decide that you MUST IMPERATIVELY go and visit that far away town, but it's a 35-hour train ride away and you don't have the time to spare? That's what Ctrip is for. It will help you find that stupidly cheap flight alternative, at the last minute, and book it with no second thoughts. I hesitate to tell you the embarrassing story of my love affair with Ctrip... Let's just say I had a little too good a time in Beijing, and... didn't manage to wake up on time to go see the Great Wall. Not once. But one simply does not go to China and miss out on the great wall. A week later, some 2000 km away in Chengdu, I decide I will not stand for it and be made a fool. I book my £70 flight and hop! 2 hours later, I find myself back in Beijing.

Ctrip is free on iPhone, iPad and Android.

4. Instagram

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It's the only social media site that actually works pretty much all the time in China. When everything else is blocked, it's nice to have something to fall back on for letting your friends and family know you're okay and eating unidentified street food with #nofilter. And, you know, to check that everything is still dull and boring at home because you're #totallynothomesick. Right.
Also because, let's be honest, sometimes things do look better with filters, especially when it's a blurry phone snap.

Free on iPhone and Android.
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5. VPN

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Ahhh, VPNs. What would we do without them, lost in China without access to our precious Facebook... and, you know, Youtube, Skype, etc. For those of you still untouched by the magic of VPNs, they effectively trick the world into thinking you are in a different country than that indicated by your connection, making it a very convenient life hack. Because if your phone thinks you're not in mainland China, you can Skype your mum... and, yes, check Facebook. If you must.
I personally use VPN Fire, which is only for iOS, but there's also an array of options for Android. Prices vary; they're usually free to download and you then get a subscription.

6. Hostelworld

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Because I can assure you that nothing you arrange in advance will go as planned in China. Only last-minute plans will generally work out, and, while I believe that's for the best, it's good to come prepared. My advice to you: have a rough itinerary in mind, at least a week ahead of time, book your hostels for approximate dates, and keep their phone numbers saved. Then you can tweak your bookings. Because losing a 2-pound deposit is better than roaming the streets at night looking for a spare dorm bed. Trust me, I've done both.

Free on iPhone and Android.
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7. Dropbox

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Realistically, there's a somewhat sizable chance that your phone will end up either at the bottom of a river or in the bottom of someone else's pocket. Why take the chance to lose all your photos? With Dropbox, the photos you take on your phone can get backed up automatically the moment you hit a wi-fi spot.

Free on iOS and Android; you can upgrade if you need more memory space.
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8. Evernote

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My favourite travelling app in general, it does everything a specialised 'travel journal app' tries to do, and it does it better. You can use it as a trip planner, travel journal, records thoughts, notes and impressions but also sounds, attach pictures, documents and reminders, all of which can be organised in a fully customisable manner. And to make things even better, they all get automatically backed up online whenever possible, synchronised with your other devices, and your notebooks can be shared if you so desire.

Free on iPhone, iPad and Android.
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9. WeChat

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WeChat is THE single most used chatting app in China. It pretty much does the same thing as any other chatting app: texting, emoticons, voice messages, photos, video calls and so on. Why bother with this one, then? Because it's your best chance at staying in touch with locals, who often won't have facebook. It's a good way of staying in contact with people you meet locally, arranging meetups while in town and keeping in touch afterwards. Besides, it's free, so why not?

Available on iPhone and Android.

10. Triposo

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If, really, you *must* download a travel guide app, Triposo's your guy. It includes a travel encyclopedia, destination planner, practical information, local clock, weather forecast, currency convertor, map and phrasebook. It lets you save 'favourite' destinations and build a travel log by Checking In wherever you go (for which you can add pictures and comments). And best of all, most of these features are available offline, meaning you can keep informed at all times.

Triposo's China Travel Guide is free on iOS and Android.

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So here we go! Even though it didn't make it on the list, I feel a special mention should go to Viber, which is a handy way of staying in touch with family (I mean, it even works on Blackberry!). Also, a final word of caution: you might want to invest in an extra battery pack! Those long train rides will kill your battery.

What are YOUR favourite travel apps?

Posted by Hachiko 07:30 Archived in China Tagged technology china ipad iphone android apps smartphone travel_advice travel_apps china_apps app_recommendations Comments (0)

Strolling along the riverside

A historic walk around the Thames and Bankside

This walk, as introduced to me by a university Professor, is made up of two legs - City of London and Bankside - and can take anything from a couple of hours to a full day, depending on how many sites and monuments you choose to visit. I recommend allocating it at least a half day to make the most of it.

1) Start at Saint Paul's cathedral (tube: St Paul's, the cathedral is just behind it).

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For a long time, St Paul's was the highest point in the city; nowadays buildings in the area (on both banks of the river) are required by law to be lower than the cathedral's iconic dome, so as to preserve the setting. Under special circumstances, permission can be granted to bypass that protected view law.
The present cathedral, at least the 4th to have stood on this site, was built in the late 17th-early 18th century, after its predecessor was destroyed in the Great Fire of London - and was the first one built after the Church of England detached itself from the jurisdiction of the Pope.

Open mon-sat. 8.30-4.30, last entry at 4pm. I'd recommend getting there around 9.30-10 am to make the most of your day. Admission is £16, £7 for children. Don't forget to visit the crypt and go up to the dome before you leave!
St Paul's website has a great section about exploring the Cathedral.

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St Paul's towering over the cityscape through the ages. From left to right: in the 18th century (by Italian painter Antonio Joli), in the 19th century (Edward Angelo Goodall), early 20th century (Frederick Edward Joseph Goff), during the Blitz ('St Paul's Survives', photograph by Herbert Mason, 29th December 1940) and in the 21st century (photo by me).

2) Admire City of London Boys' School if you want, or take a stroll along the riverside...

From the Cathedral's south entrance, walk towards the river (which you should be able to see - if not, follow the signs that say 'Millennium Bridge'). Just before you get onto the bridge, you will see a red brick building on your right - this is the City of London School for Boys, a private school known for having taught the likes of Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) and Skandar Keynes (Narnia). Little known fact, under its north wing lies a Roman bath house complex - atop of which now lies the school swimming pool.
Before you cross over to the south bank, go down the steps immediately right of the bridge - the riverbank outside the school is a nice place to stop and take pictures.

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3) Millennium Bridge

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The London Millennium Footbridge is a steel pedestrian walkway opened in 2000, linking the City to Bankside over the Thames. It is perfectly aligned with St Paul's, which makes for some breathtaking sights, and at night is lined with magnificent blue lights. Fun fact: it is, also, the very same bridge that gets destroyed by Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. As you reach the end of the bridge, don't forget to look back and enjoy the view.

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4) Tate Modern

As you step off the bridge, you will see the Tate Modern in front of you, on the right. Famous for its exhibitions and permanent collections in modern art, the Tate is always full of fun, intriguing pieces. Do go in - admission to the permanent galleries is free - but if you want to reach Borough market in time for lunch, I do recommend that you come back after the walk.

For opening times and current exhibitions, visit the Tate website.

5) Shakespeare's Globe

Turn right after exiting the Tate (or left coming off Millennium Bridge). Barely will you have walked a few steps that you will find yourself in front of Shakespeare's Globe theatre. Built in traditional Elizabethan style, the modern Globe is a reconstruction of Shakespeare's playhouse, where most of his plays debuted - the original having been demolished in 1644. Interestingly, after the Great Fire of London, thatch roofs were banned by law - the Globe was the first building to ask for an exemption, provided they compensated with extra security precautions.
Today the Globe is used for regular performances, mostly - although not only - of Shakespeare's works. Yearly theatre season ends in autumn, as the shows are open-air - the venue is surprisingly intimate, despite its capacity, and tickets start at £5. However, there are tours running every day, all year round: for £13.50 (£8 children), you can be guided around the venue and downstairs exhibition. I do recommend the tour, as it is the only way to get into the Globe theatre off-season, yet again I suggest you come back in the afternoon as your visit will likely take over an hour, and tours run until 5 pm. Click here to take a virtual tour!

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6) The Rose Theatre

To reach the Rose from Shakespeare's Globe, take the first right and turn left when you hit Park street. On the second left is Rose Alley, where you'll find the building hosting the remains of the Elizabethan Rose theatre, open for visit every Saturday (from 10 to 5).

The Rose theatre was one of the first purpose-build theatres to open in London, in 1587, and the first to be erected on Bankside. A typical Elizabethan playhouse, it would have looked a lot like the Globe, circular and open-air, but on a smaller scale. Some of Marlowe and Shakespeare's first plays debuted there, and it enjoyed a few years of popularity before it was eclipsed by competition from the bigger Globe, newly opened further down the road.
The building's remains were unexpectedly discovered during construction of the building that now stands on top of it - to make up for the 'lost' ground floor, contractors were able to obtain exemption from the height restrictions and build an extra floor. The site itself was partially excavated by archaeologists in 1989. Unfortunately, the foundations of the theatre are very fragile, and, due to lack of funding for adequate maintenance, they have now been reburied, encased in a protective layer of concrete until an alternative display solution is found.
However the original layout of the theatre is highlighted on the ground, and during your visit it is possible to view a short film about its history and excavation. The venue is currently used for a variety of events including workshops, plays (on the tiny stage!), talks and concerts, and hosts a giftshop - profits go to the Rose Theatre Trust. Do try and donate!

7) Original site of the Globe theatre, Winchester Palace and the curiosities of Clink street

Retrace your steps out of Rose Alley and onto Park street. Cross the road, and to your left you'll find a plaque marking the original site of the Globe theatre, built in 1599 by Shakespeare's playing company. The foundations are marked in white on the floor, and a panel gives further information about the site. Shakespeare's playhouse burnt down in 1613 following a production accident with a canon. It was subsequently reconstructed and finally demolished in 1644.

Keep walking down Park street past the Globe site and take the second left onto Bank End. Cross the road and turn at the first right into Clink street. Do take time to appreciate the possibly-once-shady historic streets of Bankside. Three tall medieval walls still stand on Clink street, on the right hand side. They are all that remains of 12th-century Winchester Palace, recycled into warehouses in the 17th century and destroyed in a fire 200 years later.

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8) The Golden Hinde and Southwark cathedral

Emerging on the other end of Clink street, you will find yourself face to face with the Golden Hinde, replica of the ship Francis Drake used for his journey around the world. This replica ship happens to also have sailed around the globe (pun intended...sorry), and no offers guided tours and a variety of special events. Tours are £7 for adults and £5 for children, and are expected to last an hour.

Turn left past the pirate ship to enjoy a complex of Victorian warehouses and a few coffeeshops. The Clink Prison museum is open nearby for those interested, and charges £6 for admission. The gothic Southwark cathedral, a 2 min. walk away, is also worth a visit, if only for its beautiful interior and Voldemort-esque artistic choices.

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9) Lunch at Borough Market and a pint at the George Inn

Continue walking straight down from the Golden Hinde II to find your way to Borough Market, great wonder of British civilisation, where you will find anything and everything you need for a marvelous lunch. Prices can be a bit steep but you do pay for quality ingredients, and as such you really get your money's worth.
A few roads down, hidden in a secluded part of Borough High Street, is a pub that's not to miss: the George Inn. Established in medieval times at that location, the current facade of the building dates back to 1677, when it was reconstructed following a fire. Yes, in the olden days there were a lot of fires.

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You can either end your walk here and make something else of your afternoon, or - I would recommend - go back to the riverbank and take a tour of the Globe, and then visit the Tate Modern. Hopefully, by the time you come back out it'll be night time, and you can enjoy the millenium bridge in its full lit-up blue splendour.

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Photography by me unless otherwise stated.

Posted by Hachiko 08:20 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged churches buildings london walk shakespeare tour sightseeing medieval thames walking_tour tate city_of_london london_bridge borough_market globe st_paul victorian tate_modern st_paul's_cathedral sightseeing_tour millenium_bridge globe_theatre elizabethan historic_walk rose_theatre Comments (0)

Where to stay in Jerusalem?

The Ultimate Travel Guide to Jerusalem #2: choosing accommodation

Regardless of how long you plan to stay in Jerusalem, I recommend you choose accommodation in the Old City. Why? Three reasons:

1) The hostels are cheaper
2) You will find yourself at the (multi)cultural heart of the city
3) Most of the sites you're here to visit are in or around the Old City anyway, so it will save you some time and money
4) Hostels in the Old City are often packed with students and other interesting individuals
5) The best hostel in all of Jerusalem is in the Old City.

(Another reason why I tend to avoid taking up residence in the modern part - although I hate to admit it - is because the New City is completely dead on Shabbat. An absolute ghost town. Streets empty, shops closed, complete silence. And I've seen too many horror movies to find this comfortable. Don't let that scare you though, I'm just being unreasonable.)

On this note, here are my top 3 recommendations for hostels in Jerusalem:

1) The Citadel Hostel

My favourite by a mile, I try to book the Citadel hostel every time I'm there, and only look at other options when it's fully booked. Unsurprisingly, everyone I've ever taken there now does the same. Why, you ask? The roof, of course! The Citadel lets you sleep on a mattress on their rooftop! For under half the price of any other hostel in town, you can wake up to an incredible view of the Old City. Of course, you do get woken up by the morning prayers/sunrise/church bells, but where else in the world are you going to get woken up by all three of those? It is absolutely worth it. Besides, the cool breeze at night means that you don't lie awake, tossing and turning, sweaty and sticky, as is usually the case in Israel, so you get a better night's sleep anyway. That said, if sleeping out in the open isn't your thing, the dorm rooms are also quite comfortable.
This hostel also offers lockers for a small fee, which I find is a must, to avoid walking around with your valuables (see previous post). If you want to move around for a couple of days, but don't want to drag around your suitcase, they let you leave it in the luggage room downstairs, for free - it is unlocked but I never found this to be a problem as you can keep the locker during that time. I left them my luggage when i went on a two-night trip to Petra, and came back to find everything exactly where I'd left it.
Facilities (shared kitchen, bathrooms, washing machines, 1 computer and free wifi) aren't perfect but they are adequate - hygiene isn't ideal but it isn't any worse than in most other youth hostels.
The staff is usually friendly and helpful, and will answer any questions you may have, the location is ideal and the decor is very "bedouin grotto" (see picture). So, really, what's not to like?

Oh, and, pro tip for the road? You can print things out by emailing them to the reception. Make sure you ask the guy with the american accent, as he'll let you do it for free! (The others will charge you).

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More info here.

2) The Jaffa Gate Hostel

Located - surprise surprise - right opposite the Jaffa Gate, down a little alleyway, the Jaffa Gate hostel is if slightly more expensive, your best option for private rooms. These have a hygienic en suite bathroom, locks on the doors; the hostel also has free wifi and a roof terrace (but it has nothing on the Citadel's, admittedly). Where the Citadel is buzzing with travellers, crowded with visitors coming and going, the Jaffa Gate hostel is nice and quiet.

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More info here.

3) The Petra Hostel

Should the two previous hostels be fully booked, the Petra hostel offers a decent alternative. Located right next to the Jaffa Gate, it offers fairly comfortable, hygienic rooms with air conditioning and en suite bathroom - both for private and dorm rooms. While there are locks on all the doors, do keep in mind that the staff has a copy of all the keys. Unfortunately, this hostel has no wifi (you can have access to a computer for a small fee), and the rooms are located upstairs, which may be problematic depending on your luggage. On the plus side, the reception area is large and allows for visitors.

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More info here.

So, that's it. My top three hostel recommendations for Jerusalem. If you'd rather stay in the New City, I've heard the Abraham Hostel is very good.

Oh, and one last piece of advice: Avoid the New Swedish Hostel. Like the plague.

The photos in this article were all taken from the HostelWorld website.

Posted by Hachiko 12:22 Archived in Israel Tagged accomodation hostel israel jerusalem ultimate_travel_guide_to_jerusa Comments (0)

Things You Should Know Before Travelling to Jerusalem

The Ultimate Travel Guide To Jerusalem #1: Introduction

I’m always surprised to find that people are afraid to travel to Jerusalem, that they think it ‘unsafe’. Most people I encounter seem to have this fear competing fiercely with their curiosity about the historical and cultural patchwork that is the heart of the Holy Land, leaving them on the fence and undecided about whether to visit. Yet in my travels, I have never felt safer than in the midst of this city that I keep returning to, like a moth to a flame. Yes, it is a Middle Eastern city, in a country at war, but if you take the right precautions and stay aware of your surroundings, there is honestly nothing to fear.

Somehow, over the past 3 years, I seem to have developed Jerusalemitis. No matter how hard I try, how strictly I plan and budget and travels, I always end up ignoring The Plan and going back, sometimes staying for weeks at a time. In that peculiar gem of a city, I feel at home. People who get over the obligatory Race to See ALL the Sites usually do. Unfortunately, most people don’t stay that long. They visit the landmarks, take pictures, send a postcard, and move on. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good start – but there’s so much more to Jerusalem than this.

So, without further ado, I present to you the Ultimate Jerusalem Travel Guide, in two versions (and two shiny new blog posts): the 4-day Hurried Traveller Itinerary, and the one-week-plus Checklist for Chilled People.

But first...

Preliminary note - things you should know before travelling to Jerusalem:

  • Cultural Background:

The city of Jerusalem is officially divided into two: West Jerusalem, on the Israeli side of the border, and East Jerusalem, on the Palestinian side. Both have a very different feel to them, yet they are, arguably, two sides of the same, multicultural city. At the heart of it is the Old City, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, key religious centre for Jews, Muslims and Christians: the Temple Mount and its Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock with the al-Aqsa Mosque, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - but not only. The Old City is divided into 4 quarters - the Armenian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter, the Christian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter, each home to their own treasures.

  • Getting there:

From Ben Gurion airport and most cities, you have four options:
- Trains: probably the fastest way around the country, and fairly cheap, but not the most convenient. From the airport you would need to change at Tel Aviv HaHagana station and get on the right train.
- Buses: Egged buses are also cheap, but you will need to recognize the station (stay awake!), and if you are going straight from the airport you will also need to change buses. It is probably the most cost-effective way if you're travelling light. Remember to tell the driver to open the trunk as you get off to get your suitcase back!
- Private taxis: I don't recommend travelling between cities in Israel by private taxi. It costs a fortune and there are other, cheaper ways that are just as easy. The only advantage is that they will drop you off at your exact destination. If you insist on travelling by private taxi, it'll cost you around 200-300 shekels from the airport.
- "Sherut", or shared taxis. They look like yellow minivans and are the easiest way to travel from city to city. Verify with the driver that he is going to Jerusalem, and then you can pay on board.
Finally, don't plan to arrive on shabbat! Public transport (excluding taxis) close from early friday afternoon until saturday at sundown, so it'll be a nightmare for you to get anywhere then.

  • Safety precautions:

To be completely honest with you, Jerusalem is as safe or unsafe as any other city, and these precautions you should take anywhere. Try not to walk around the city with your passport and other important documents - my friend got her wallet stolen a few summers back and it was hell getting her a new passport. Look out for hostels with lockers available to rent to that effect. I don't recommend women walk around the Old City souk or some parts of East Jerusalem alone, as some men can get touchy and generally offensive. Avoid the old graveyard outside the Mamilla (near the Jaffa Gate). All in all the rest of the city is pretty safe, even at night.

  • This is a country at war. It may be hard to forget when you’re preparing your trip, but it’s often uncannily easy to forget once you get there. Try to stay aware of political sensitivity in both East and West Jerusalem to avoid offending anyone. Stay out of trouble, kids.
  • What to Wear in Jerusalem:

While guys can wear pretty much whatever they want in Jerusalem, it’s a bit trickier for girls. The rest of the country may be very open-minded, but as the heart of religious beliefs Jerusalem is more traditional in its conventions. In the Old City especially – girls are recommended to wear skirts that are knee-length or longer, if anything to avoid nasty comments in the souk. When visiting religious monuments (which you most likely will), you’ll be required to cover your shoulders: a handy solution is to carry a scarf in your bag. For nights out in the modern part of the city, the dress code needn’t be as strict, but bear in mind that in Israel going out is a casual affair: if you want to fit in, don’t dress up.
Finally, remember that the weather gets absolutely boiling in the summer, so take all the precautions you need!

  • Travelling around Jerusalem:

Walking is the best way to discover the city, and my favourite by far - try to travel light (comfy shoes, minimal handbag for women) and watch out for the sun. Note that the Old City is pedestrian-only.
The second easiest way to get around the city is via the brand new tramway line. Relatively cheap, the Light Rail goes along Jaffa road - one of the main commercial streets in the New City - and runs from 5.30 to midnight sunday to thursday.
There is a network of buses covering most the city. These don't run on shabbat. The best way to navigate your way around buses is to ask around - a lot of people speak english and will be happy to help.
Finally, cabs - the only means of transport that operates on friday afternoons and saturdays. When travelling by cab in Israel, the driver will most likely give you a price before you get on: always ask them to switch on the meter instead. Don't try to bargain until you get a clear idea of the prices (no point in paying more than what you would be charged by the meter). Keep in mind there is an extra charge on shabbat!

  • Passport Stamping:

If, for any reason, you don't want your passport stamped when getting into the country, you can explain it to the border control officers at the airport, and they will stamp a separate piece of paper instead. However, be aware that a) if you intend to visit the West Bank on your trip, you may get held back and questioned more thoroughly on your way back into Jerusalem if there is no stamp in your passport; and b) if you cross any land borders (for instance if you want to go to neighbouring Jordan and visit Petra), you will get a stamp on your way out of the country. Day trips to Petra and the West Bank from Jerusalem will be covered in detail in future articles.

Posted by Hachiko 10:48 Archived in Israel Tagged churches synagogues culture religion history mosques israel jerusalem ultimate_travel_guide_to_jerusa travel_advice Comments (0)

Zookeeper for a Day

- Awesome Not-so-spontaneous Shit to do in London series, part 1

One great thing about London is that, if you know where to look, with a bit of planning (and, admittedly, a bit of money to spare), you get to do a range of incredible things that’ll stay with you for life. Say, for instance, that you fancy hand-feeding tigers. Or having a cuddle with a penguin. Or even, if you’re a bit weird like me, feeding live bugs to baby meerkats (Hakuna matata, people). Well, your endless search for a zoo crazy enough to let you do that is over. London’s the place to be, baby.

The London Zoo runs a programme called Keeper for a Day. It’s all in the name, really. You buy your space online (see at the end of this post for details), book a date, and off you are for 7 hours of intense animal fun. I was lucky enough to book a session with only one other person, during one of those (typically British) understaffed days which the very experienced Head Zookeeper was running.

I’m told what species you get to entertain depends on the season and requirements for the day, but here’s a not-so-little sneak peak at what I got up to:

• Mucking Out the Zebra Cage

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Well, since you’re going to be zoo-keeping for the entire day, might as well start off getting down and dirty. Although, really, cleaning out poo and old hay from an empty zebra enclosure is really not all that bad. In fact, some might argue it’s even fun. You get to meet the people you’ll be sharing your day with – nothing screams ‘bonding time!’ more than getting stuck together in a cold, wet enclosure without a clue as to what to do – and you get to take fun cringey shots to send to family and friends. “Is that shit you’re shovelling?!” Yes Dad, yes it is. Don’t believe me? It doesn’t matter, because by the time you’re free to reflect on what on earth you’re actually doing, it’s time to move on to the Giraffes!

• Giraffes

At least once in every person’s life should there be that jubilatory moment where you encounter a “Restricted Area – No Visitors Allowed” sign, and a man in uniform lifts up the chain to let you through. You feel like a badass. How much more awesome could this get?, you think. Well. Your day just started. You’re about to feed giraffes.

Now, what, exactly, does a giraffe feeding consist of? It’s all beautifully simple, really. You hand them long, leafy branches. Excited about the prospect of breakfast, they’re already waiting for you by the time you make it up the steps and onto the bridge. Steps? Bridge? Heh, giraffes are tall. Since you’re standing on a bridge, you get to see eye to droopy eye with them.

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They’ll wrap their mysteriously strong, muscly purple tongue around the branch. And pull. And chew. And chew again. It’s fascinating to watch. Unfortunately you’re not allowed to touch them, because they can get a bit too eager and you don’t want them anywhere near your fingers. Still, an incredible experience.

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• Backstage in the kitchens

Ever wondered what a pig’s kitchen looked like? It’s surprisingly clean:

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There are several kitchens at the zoo, all designed to cater for different species. This one caters to monkeys, hippos, camels and pigs, amongst others. Fruits, vegetables, spices, knives, cutting boards, individual menus… To be completely honest, better equipped than most student kitchens. Probably cleaner, too.

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It features complex menus (sometimes meal-specific) for each species – determined, I’m told, by trial and error – as well as an “animal enrichment board”, which suggests interactive activities for the animals and keeps a record of their individual preferences.

Who knew hippos liked to cross-dress?

Who knew hippos liked to cross-dress?

After a short guided tour, we were able to lend a hand by cutting up a meal – a delicate blend of bananas (with skin, obviously), apples, oranges, carrots etc. into a bucket. Then we grabbed some coconuts and were on our way out.

• Coconuts for the pigs

Bearded pigs – a mysterious appellation for pigs with moustaches to compete with Colonel Mustard’s – are, as it turns out, coconut-lovers. As their enclosure was next to the kitchen, we decided to treat them on our way to Penguin Beach.

Pigs are very clever creatures. They have the strength to pierce open whole coconuts with their teeth. But, why bother? Instead, most of them opted for the lazy way, rolling them down the hill of their enclosure until they smacked the wall and smashed open.

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Can I just point out that throwing coconuts at pigs without hitting them on the head is much trickier than it sounds?

• Penguin Beach!

Officially, our next task was to wash the banks of the penguin pool. But let me let you in on a little secret.
Cleaning the poolside is just an excuse. A legitimate excuse for you to go in and play with young penguins. Because they’re “zoologically interesting”. By which I mean the cutest thing ever to have walked this earth. And if you ever harm a penguin I will personally escort you to the gates of Hell.

That said, the actual cleaning proves to be more complicated than I’d anticipated. It's easy work, but penguins are curious, attention-seeking little things, and wouldn’t let us get on with it.

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Before I knew it, it was Meet the Penguins time!! We sat down in the sand and waited for the younger ones to come to us - as it is, young penguins are more playful and less vigilant than their more aggressive adult counterparts, and will come to you naturally. That said, they are attention-seeking, gregarious little thugs, constantly looking for a fight and picking on you. Seriously. Penguins have issues. They remind me of a certain boy I used to have a thing with, but that's a story for another time.

And so we got a short introduction to penguinology. The penguins at the zoo are all Rockhopper penguins, and much prefer the sun to snowy, cold weathers (Madagascar, anyone?). It's impossible to tell males from females simply by looking at them, so each penguin has an identity tag on its fin. The main cause of death in penguins, especially in the wild, is... dun dun dunnnn... Malaria. Who'd have thought, huh?

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Penguins are supposed to be monogamous - monogamy amongst penguins is otherwise known as the Great Penguin Soap-opera. They're every bit as dramatic as humans, cheating and domestic rows aplenty. This is very well demonstrated when two young ones start fighting each other for our attention. Penguins act all tough, but, really, scratch them on the neck and they go all silly. See for yourself:

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Also, penguins make a loud bonding noise to attract mates that sounds rather a lot like a boat horn. I learnt that the hard way when one of them tried to bond with me. And then proceeded to trying to peak up my shirt for the rest of the encounter.

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• Llama llama duck.

I asked them if they could leave me in the penguin enclosure and come back for me when they closed, but they wouldn't let me.

Instead, they dragged me to lunch and then straight into the llama and alpaca enclosure. I'll admit it, I was warned. Our head zookeeper did clearly say "Perry the llama hates me with a passion, he sees me as a rival". But nothing could have prepared me for the llama cold war of doom that I was about to witness. As soon as we got within a 3m perimeter of the enclosure, Perry the big white llama suddenly perked up, and looked him straight in the eye through the crowd. "It's a challenge", that look said. "I dare you to come any closer". So, we did. How else were they going to get fed?

We were each given a bucket of fruit and vegetables cut into little cubes. The moment we got into the enclosure, we suddenly became the most popular llama attraction in London:

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The task mainly consisted of receiving all that llama love while placing the food on several nearby stones so that the alpacas, most of them being really shy, did manage to get some food before the llamas ate it all.

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Perry, after an interminable stare-off with our favourite zookeeper, eventually opted for food over his llama dignity, and we were on our way to the tiger enclosure.

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A deadly stare-off

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• Did you just say ‘tigers’? Why, yes, I did.

We approached the tiger enclosure with the excitement of kids on Christmas morning, trying very hard to look responsible. As we reached the crowded glass window, we took a right turn and ended up in front of a green, solid-looking set of metal doors. "Now, we wait", we were told.
Wait for what?

Suddenly, a matter-of-factly man in blue overalls and a ponytail appeared, and hurriedly let us into a small, stone-floored room with a cage lining the walls. We were, in a very matter-of-factly way, briefed about security precautions ("Don't cross the yellow line, or you'll lose fingers. Feed them with the tongs, keep your fingers away, and if you must fall, fall backwards. Or you'll lose fingers"). It was all very 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'.

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First thing we saw on our way in... very reassuring

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We were told that when people meet the tigers, some of them get very emotional and cry. As the first tiger walked in, I immediately understood why. They were the most graceful, majestic creatures I had ever encountered.
When the male and the female were both in, they let a grid slide into place between them, keeping them apart, as, they explained, their normally peaceful relationship gets tense whenever food is at stake. (Understandable - whoever claims not to get cranky when hungry is a liar.) They started impatiently pacing up and down their cage in a circle, the way I do when my boyfriend is cooking for me.
We were given a pair of metal tongs each, and were passed pieces of raw meat to feed the tiger one after the other - first the male, then the female.

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Once happily full, the tigers lied down for a rest, and we - gasp - were allowed to cross the yellow line to take pictures, while being told anecdotes about switching female tigers with the Whipsnade zoo so that it could get pregnant. Unlike London zoo's peaceful individual, the Whipsnade female is very playful and kept mock-attacking the male here, who got annoyed and bit a hole through her tongue. Several stitches later, the female got sent back and the couple reunited. That said, the tiger keeper also pointed out that unlike lions, who form genuine 'couples', tigers must be considered as two individuals cohabiting.

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• Spider monkeys like popcorn

Following this highlight of excitement, we were headed to give the Spider Monkeys a little surprise snack - popcorn!

Spider monkeys, so-called because they use their tail as a 5th limb, are extremely friendly, curious little creatures. Sadly we weren't let into the enclosure, but instead got to feed them by hand through the railings. Gloves had to be worn as a precaution, not so much for us as for them, as human bacteria and diseases can easily be passed on to monkeys. IT was very fun, but it's disconcerting how human they look. See for yourself:

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• Compare the meerkat .com

After all this emotion, we deserved a moment of rest. Right? Wrong. We arrived to the meerkat enclosure, feeling jolly and expecting another penguin-like petting session. Boy, were we ever wrong.

Before we knew what was going on, we saw ourselves being handed a plastic bag, containing an old box of eggs and... live bugs. That's right, a big bag full of creepy-crawlies. What, have you not seen the Lion King? What else are meerkats supposed to eat?
My partner in crime for the day categorically refused to do it. After a long moment's hesitation, I decided to do it, for posterity's sake. Hey, it makes for a good story.

I took a deep breath, and plunged my hand into the fuzzy bag of horror. Not going to lie, I had to fight the urge to take my hand straight out and run away. I grabbed a handful of beetles, and threw them into the pen where the meerkats were looking up expectantly. Well, I tried. But they were hanging on for dear life and I had to violently shake them off. Again and again, I repeated the process, a crowd of visitors forming around me to cheer on a baby meerkat too slow to catch its food on time. To tell the truth, it was actually a really really fun experience. And, well, hakuna matata.

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• I like to move it move it...

Finally, we had time for one more surprise before our day reached to a close. Lemurs!

Once inside the enclosure, everything was a tornado of grey fur and zebra stripes.
We had fruit and salad for them - naturally, they were only interested in the fruits, but it was the salad they needed to be fed.
The trick was to lure them in with a piece of grape, and then feed them a handful of salad before they realized the trickery and left in search of better treats.

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Review:
I think by this time there isn't much more I can do to convice you of how AWESOME an experience this was. Not only did we get to meet and interact with the zoo's animal population - and visitors - throughout the entire day, but we were personally introduced to every member of staff we happened to walk by - even got to meet some important peeps! We got to ask questions and find out some fun bits of trivia about all the animals we passed by on the day, even those we weren't working with, as well as a fairly detailed introduction to current issues in animal care and conservation for those we did encounter. Altogether I can honestly say I'm very satisfied with how the day went, and happy to know that the cost of the program goes towards their conservation projects.

Included in the price: an unforgettable experience + a t-shirt + a bag + a certificate + breakfast, lunch and snacks. When you're done with the day's work, you can wander about the zoo for free until closing time, which is nice, and you get 20% discount entrance for any spectators you might want to bring along.

That said, you might want to have a bleach bath when you’re done.

Info: London Zoo – Keeper for a Day programme. (Similar program also running in Whipsnade Zoo). Book here. Cost: £280, advance booking required. This one’s expensive, but worth every penny, believe me. In fact, I’m considering going back for another taste of penguinery. Don't hesitate to comment if you have any questions!

Posted by Hachiko 07:00 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged animals london penguin monkey elephant zoo tiger activities pig giraffe lemur meerkat Comments (1)

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