A Home Away From Home

Day 172 (29th of August, 2016) – Kraków, Poland

Just a few more days where I have to copy and paste every “s” and “w” key before I can get to a repair shop in Shanghai…

I woke up after a brief sleep-in and instantly realised that today had to be a lazy day. There comes a point when you’ve been travelling for so long that you need to resign to your body’s messages of exhaustion. I spent the morning finalising last week’s blog before heading out to a café nearby to make some calls and do some reading.

“Krakowska Manufaktura Czekolady” is the Max Brenner of Krak City. In fact, it beats out Max Brenner in my books.

I bought a cup of their finest melted chocolate.

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After a few hours of chocolate indulgence, I moved on to manage my way through TripAdvisor’s top “To-Do’s” which I hadn’t yet seen.

The first was “Lost Souls Alley”, a haunted house which is apparently among the scariest in Europe. Arriving was an eery experience in itself.

The front desk was in a dark, creaky wooden room. As soon as I stepped through the door, someone put their hand on me from behind and I jumped. Thank God they didn’t speak English, otherwise I probably would’ve been kicked out for my foul language.

I tried to organise that I go through the haunted house, but I needed a minimum of two people in my group. Feeling down after having been reminded of my friendlessness, I decided to leave and scout for someone at a pub crawl tonight to do it with me. In the meantime, I moved on to the next top thing to do in Krakow. This was one that I was really excited for – the Pinball Museum.

For about AU$15, you were allowed unlimited play on 50 different retro pinball machines as well as beer and access to a jukebox. Nothing sounded more like me.

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To my great disappointment, it was closed. I couldn’t believe my bad luck. I opened up TripAdvisor again to look at what was rated highly nearby. A craft beer bar topped the list. I’m not overly familiar with the craft beer scene and it sounded like something that I might be interested in, and I figured that a quiet venue would be a good place for some more reading. After getting there, it too was closed. I was beginning to realise that this city really shuts down on Mondays.

Someone who spotted me outside the bar pointed me in the direction of a nearby dive bar which was apparently just as good. I followed her instructions and on the way captured a few views which make this city so impressive.

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The bar was pretty good and I got through a lot of my book.

Experiences like this are really beginning to shape my view of what I consider to be a “good time”. I think that a year away from the social scene of university has really benefited me in being able to discern what I most enjoy outside of the pressures and constructs of university and college life in Sydney. I’ve quickly come to realise that I have to be honest with myself about when I genuinely feel like staying out late or having a drink, which is less often than most other people my age. But if I accept that fact and give an honest “yes” or “no” to an invitation, then I always have a good time.

Often, my indecisiveness at whether I’m “in the mood to go out” can be frustrating for others. This week, for example, I copped the brunt of the hostel reception when I cancelled my pub crawl booking twice until I finally felt like taking the booking up, which happened to be tonight. Tonight was a night when I was feeling up to the socialising of an event like this. My primary goal at the crawl was to find a friend who would go to Lost Souls Alley with me. The night ended up unfolding differently to how I anticipated, though.

Joining me on the crawl was Ecem (pronounced “Ajem”). She’s 25 and from Istanbul, Turkey. I met her a few days ago in the hostel, and we had a good conversation. A lot of the places which are high up on my travel list (the majority of Europe, for example), she has visited extensively and had a lot of advice for me. Similarly, she was interested in visiting North Asia which I have a lot of experience in. She actually had a pretty interesting story of how she ended up in Kraków. She won a Turkish Airlines Instagram competition and received a free return flight to a random destination, which ended up being Warsaw.

Ecem’s career was particularly interesting. She studied sociology (which is one of the first things that got us talking after she saw my book – apparently Daniel Kahneman is a bit of a disciple in her field), and now works in marketing. After a long-standing gig at an Istanbul ad agency, she’s recently been given a job at Nike organising advertising campaigns. I’ve never seen someone more passionate about their job. I’d like to think that I won’t settle down in a career until I feel the same way regardless of how long that process takes. Ecem has attended the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for the last few years, meaning that her and Dad have probably brushed shoulders without even knowing.

Just as I was about to pop that golden question (“Will you go to the Lost Souls Alley with me?”), she fired back with a much more enticing offer.

“I’m going to Zakopane tomorrow, do you want to join?”

I accepted and we left the pub crawl (which turned out to be a “club crawl”, to the dismay of both of us) to draw up plans for the following day.

Zakopane is a very popular winter resort and summer getaway town in the Tatra mountains at the southern tip of Poland on the border of Slovakia. Most people go hiking or mountaineering in Zakopane, but since we only had one day, Ecem and I decided to explore as much of the town centre as we could.

We organised to leave for the bus station at 8am and called it a night.

Day 173 (30th of August, 2016) – Kraków, Poland

The bus to Zakopane took longer than we anticipated at two and a half hours. The journey was made bearable by some interesting conversation about Turkey. We spoke a lot about the coup, and it was very fascinating (and sad, actually) hearing about the fear that was felt throughout the country at that time and the lasting effect that it has had on the economy.

A lot of people I have spoken to in Australia can’t quite grasp the popularity of Turkey as a tourist destination. A lot of Aussies visit there, but perhaps proportionally less than tourists of other countries. Here’s some statistics:

Turkey is the sixth most visited country in the world with 40 million annual visitors. The only countries which receive more annual visitors than Turkey are France, the USA, Spain, China and Italy. Turkey beats out some big names. Examples of countries which receive less tourists than Turkey are the entirety of the UK, Germany, Australia and Canada, all of which are giants in the tourism industry. Istanbul in particular is traditionally known as being a safe haven which bridges Europe to the Middle East and Western Asia. It is the tenth most visited city in the world. The rankings for most visited cities I found to be particularly interesting:

  1. London
  2. Bangkok
  3. Paris
  4. Dubai
  5. Istanbul
  6. New York
  7. Singapore
  8. Kuala Lumpur
  9. Seoul
  10. Hong Kong

Yes, that’s right, Istanbul receives more tourists than NYC! There are a lot of cities which surprise me for not even making the top ten like Tokyo, Rome, LA and Sydney. The list goes to show how much being a transport hub can cause an influx of tourists. Out of all the cities in the list, Istanbul also attracts the most diverse visitor base. Half of its international visitors came from 33 different countries. This is good, because it protects against tourism slowdowns caused by an economic downswing in a single foreign country.

Although this year’s numbers haven’t been measured yet, most people expect a substantial drop for one of the world’s most popular destinations. That is very, very sad. If streets started emptying out in Sydney out of fears for safety, I would be very disheartened about the city that I love so much. I felt really sorry for Ecem. At the same time, she’s a global citizen and the type that would move to wherever there is opportunity, so it won’t have the biggest impact on her future. She says that it currently feels very safe in Turkey and that she has no concerns, which is good. The only danger is the volatility of the political climate.

As we drove in to the Zakopane region, I began to realise just how beautiful this area is. The bus dodged its way through meadows and mountains, and the nearby houses all had an inverted “V” facade. We booked a return ticket back to Kraków for 6:30pm before embarking on a walk to the main street of the town.

The main street in Zakopane is Krupówki Street, and it shows all the characteristics of a cozy ski village. Without snow its a whole other experience.

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We crossed bridges over streams as we made our way through the rows of souvenir and food stalls.

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The local cuisine here is dominated by “Highlander Sheep Cheese”. It is called “Oscypek” in Polish, and it is exclusively made in this Tatra Mountains region. The food, which comes in all shapes and sizes, is made from the milk of Polish mountain sheep and is only produced from May through to September. I originally thought it was bread. I had to try one before I thought any different!

I also really enjoyed seeing the churches which looked very suitable for an icy winter climate.

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The weather was a beautifully crisp 14 – a good break from the surprising heat of Kraków. As we approached the end of Krupówki, we began to spy the mountains overhead.

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We jumped on a funicular to reach the top of Gubałówka Hill.

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Gubałówka offers a commanding view over both Zakopane and the surrounding Tatra Mountain Range.

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Ecem might have just snapped some of the best shots of myself on this trip.

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On the top of Gubałówka Hill you could walk along a plateau which was home to many shops and restaurants.

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There was also tobogganing, which we were both sure to try.

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The clip-clop of horses was one of the only sounds you could hear on the top of the hill.

There were a few other animals too.

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Even if you just dipped marginally off track, you were confronted with some of the most calming natural scenery.

Spotting a church in the forest was the first mark of a community outside of commerce atop the mountain.

This was perhaps the bit I enjoyed the most – finding hidden houses and lodges.

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These were a precursor to what we were about to see back in the village.

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We made our way back into the town but steered towards Kościeliska, the oldest street in the area. This street has remained genuinely untouched – it hasn’t been commercialised like so many other “old towns”. A wooden church marks the beginning of the row of old houses.

It took 20 minutes to stroll down the street. Along the way, we admired the unique Polish style mountain lodges.

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Along the way, we found a museum which explained the history of this architectural movement.

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It was Stanisław Witkiewicz who developed so called “Zakopane Style” architecture still popular in the Polish mountains. He was actually buried in the cemetery attached to the wooden church we had passed. The museum complex itself was his own home, and he actually volunteered for it to serve as a junior division for the Nazis during their occupation of Poland. The silver lining of this is that the building was never destroyed.

Ecem and I occupied whole rows of the bus and dozed off on the way back to Kraków. I snapped some pictures of the city’s beauty at night before heading to bed for my final night in Europe until I return in December.

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Best of all, everyone had checked out of my room. I got the 12-person dorm all to myself. It made for a very peaceful sleep.

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Day 174 (31st of August, 2016) – In Transit

While in Zakopane, Ecem and I figured out that we had coincidentally booked flights which departed within five minutes of each other from Warsaw. To make the coincidence even more unlikely, the train tickets which we had booked online from Kraków to Warsaw were for the same carriage on the same train.

We embarked together early in the morning from the hostel to the station. The train was a bore, but I got through it by writing the blog and continuing my book.

We eventually navigated the local city trains to get to Warsaw Chopin Airport. The check-in was smooth and easy. I couldn’t believe my luck when I booked the cheapest flight available and it happened to be on Emirates, and I was already feeling the benefits.

Inside security, Ecem and I ate lunch and discussed travel plans for the future. While looking at each others’ immigration stamps, I noticed just how different she looked in her passport photo. She then showed me all of her ID cards from over the years. I have never seen someone change their look so much in such a short amount of time…

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We said our farewells and parted ways. It wasn’t without her insistence of a selfie, though.

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The first leg of the flight was to Dubai. I spent most of the flight asleep, but I awoke before landing to see the route which we had taken. This is what happens to your flight path when you have to dodge dangerous airspace!

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We touched down just before 11pm, and I spent my time at Dubai airport making maximum use of the meal voucher given to me by Emirates. While walking through the terminal, I found it interesting how the symbol for first aid in the UAE is a crescent moon rather than a red cross.

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It then hit me that the red cross is a religious symbol at its roots, and I guess this is no different. It would seem only logical to pick a secular, global symbol for something so important.

Day 175 (1st of September, 2016) – Shanghai, China

My next flight to Shanghai didn’t depart until 2:45am. I also spent most of this flight sleeping, but when I was awake I met a girl who was returning home to Shanghai and offered to show me around the city.

Just being on the plane had me feeling like I was back in China. I noticed lots of small idiosyncrasies which reminded me of my experience in Xuzhou. Most of the passengers standing up out of their seats and chatting; collecting food from the steward and hostesses area freely; standing up as soon as the wheels touch the ground instead of waiting for the seatbelt sign to switch off. All very familiar sights. I smile at it now, though. Every culture has its good and bad parts, including our own. I wish we all stood up and socialised more on flights.

It was 4pm by the time we landed in Shanghai. I raced through the airport to avoid the inevitably long queues at passport control. In the baggage claim area, I was able to buy a SIM card which ticks off all my needs (normally it takes me a little longer to find this, so I was thrilled that I got it straight away).

I instantly felt like I was back into normal life. That’s funny in retrospect. In a country so foreign and different, I felt at home. I get this feeling in Shanghai a lot. It really does feel like a second home for me. I love, love, love its vibe.

There’s no city in the world where I smile at crowded metros. But Shanghai is an exception. The hustle and bustle is exhilarating. I saved my money by not catching the Maglev and instead wedging myself in this pile of sweat.

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On an average day, 8.41 million people ride this metro. 8,410,000 individuals. That’s twice the population of Sydney. Unbelievable. On its busiest ever day, the Shanghai metro carried 11.299 million people through its 14 lines to its 364 stations. In 2015, the metro’s ridership was 3.068 BILLION.

What I love about Shanghai is how its numbers are too mind-boggling to be properly processed. I know I will never fathom the sheer size of those figures, but that’s what I love about it.

My first stop was Paul and Soph Grosmann’s apartment. The Grosmann’s have been extraordinarily generous to me during my stay in China. They offered to hold onto a big suitcase for me while I embarked on my adventure through Europe. While I was picking it up, I got a chance to meet their newborn second child – Matilda Grosmann. She was adorable, and I love the name. I also met Soph’s parents who had just come back from a nice visit to Hangzhou, a city which I’m considering visiting with Dan (and where the G20 is currently being held).

My stay was brief. I was eager to haul this 40kg worth of luggage to my new room at the Shanghai International Studies University Guesthouse.

I will skip to walking through the door of my room. I’m too excited to delay it any longer.

This moment, ladies and gentleman, was the happiest I have been on this gap year.

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Would you look at that. I have my very own hotel room. The university dormitory here is literally a hotel.

There’s room cleaning!

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And a sterilised toilet! Sterilised!!

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But I haven’t even reached the best part. My Lord, my heart melted when I saw this view. Anyone who knows me well knows of my love for beautiful cityscapes. My computer is full of multi-gigabyte collections of pictures of the world’s most futuristic and alien cities.

Look at what is outside my window.

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In the bottom right of the first picture, you can see Line 8 of the Shanghai metro. The network is so large that some lines need to be built above the ground, like this one. In the far left of the second picture, you can see the Pearl Tower, Shanghai Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Centre. The tallest of the three is the Shanghai Tower, the most faded one in the picture. It stands at 632m tall. That’s more than double the height of Centrepoint Tower in Sydney, which is 305m tall.

I literally jogged to a local restaurant to fill up on noodles so that I could quickly get back to my room and continue admiring the view. I won’t get enough of it, even after two months.

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Day 176 (2nd of September, 2016) – Shanghai, China

I woke up feeling like I was on top of the world. I looked out of my window, and I literally was.

Nothing can describe how happy I am being in this city. It is the first time on my gap year where the prospect of returning to Sydney and going to university has looked bleak. I could do with this life for a while longer. I would love to live here for a few years after graduating from university.

The first job of the day was to go and register at the university. I met an American while waiting in line, and after engaging in conversation with him and a few people in his circle, I quickly realised that my Chinese was well above the average for this university course. Looks like I’ll be having some fun this term!

My mood was summed up by the photo that was printed on my student ID card.

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I’m not on a scholarship at this university, so I rushed off to the bank after realising that I owed the university my tuition and accommodation fees. Since it was a large sum of money, I went out of my way to find a Bank of Nanjing which doesn’t impose ATM or foreign exchange fees on Westpac customers. Unfortunately, my ATM withdrawal limit wasn’t large enough and I had to convince the hotel to let me stay with a delayed payment. It was afternoon by the time all of the registration issues were sorted through. In the midst of it all, I also took a call from my Chinese friend Todd who wanted to wish me well in Shanghai.

After the registration, I marched to the nearest police station to register my residence in China. All foreigners who aren’t staying at hotels need to do this. Upon arriving, I was told that my university accommodation is actually an officially listed hotel, and that I didn’t need to check in.

I rerouted my destination to the nearby Carrefour (conveniently in walking distance from my room, as are a number of Wal-Marts) to stock up on supplies. I grabbed a Korean lunch at the metro station on the way.

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At the Carrefour, I decided to split my shopping into two trips due to the amount of things I needed. I completely overestimated how much I could carry and was burdened by snapping plastic bags and a sweat-soaked shirt on the way back to the hotel.

It reminded me of this article: http://www.betootaadvocate.com/headlines/local-machine-smashes-entire-load-of-groceries-in-one-hit/

I headed back out to the Carrefour to finish off the shopping. By the end, I had my mini-bar fully stocked.

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While at the Carrefour, I came up with an idea. I’m going to implement a new segment to this blog. I will review one obscure treat per week. This week, it’s the lemon Dove chocolate.

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At ¥7 (AU$1.39), this expensive chocolate bar had some serious explaining to do. It was a slow start. The texture of the chocolate was not as thick and grainy as I would like my white chocolate to be. But the punch of flavour proved not to be in its initial hit, but rather in its aftershock. The lemon came a few seconds after the chocolate went down, and it hit the perfect level of sour – not too much, not too little. Inadequate richness was balanced out by the tang, but overall, it didn’t leave me overly amazed. Good, but nothing special.

7/10

Let me show you the hotel itself. It’s quite an impressive place. The lobby is expansive and gives any other four star hotel a run for its money.

Included in the lobby is a bar (which offers room service), a hair salon, a convenience store and even some fish.

The building is 18 stories high. I’m on the 17th floor.

I’m just hoping that somewhere inside that building are some good people that I’ll grow close to. I’m sure that the novelty of a hotel will fade over time and lose some of its character, so I’m looking to meet some people to make it an entertaining and exciting place to live.

When it reached evening, I decided to head to the centre of Shanghai near People’s Square.

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In Hong Kong Plaza there is an Apple Store, and I figured that it was as good a time as ever to get my computer repaired. The repairs cost about AU$350. This was particularly annoying since I am planning on buying a Macbook Pro when the new generation gets released at the end of the year. I justified the price in my mind by thinking that I could sell my existing computer for just slightly more than the cost to repair it, and no one would buy it unless it was fully functioning. I didn’t really have a choice if I was going to keep up the blog anyway.

I’m currently sitting in the Apple Store as I finish writing this blog for the day. I’ll have to cut the blog off here for this week, since my computer won’t be returned to me until late on Sunday. I’ll include Day 177 and Day 178 in next week’s blog for a special “extended edition”!

All the best. I hope that everyone has a bit more peace of mind now that I’m safe in a city which I’m familiar with.

Missing everyone, and happy Father’s Day to all the Dads for Sunday.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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