This list was probably the most fun to create. None of the entries seem to have anything in common but they’re simply united in the fact that I remember them all vividly. They’re the little things that you’re not expecting; they make your trip yours and different from the simple sightseeing that you have in common with everyone else who has visited a city.
There’s a few other experiences (attending Wimbledon, going to the Top of Europe, sleeping on a junk in Ha Long Bay, I could go on…) that could easily make this list. But they’re on other lists, and I needed some assistance in chopping this one down.
Next: Favourite wining and dining experiences
10. Meeting ‘the farmer’, Xi’an
“You might want to buy a book, if the farmer’s there he’ll sign it,” said our guide on the way to the Terracotta Warriors.
Hang on a minute, I thought. No, surely not. “THE farmer?”
“Yes, THE farmer,” she replied.
And yep, we did, we met the farmer. I don’t even know his name, and neither did the Chinese government when Bill Clinton asked to meet him back in 1998. Now known as “Mr Yang”, he no longer tends to his crops but signs his name a hundred times a day, fresh from calligraphy classes he was forced to take after the Clinton shenanigans.
9. Drinking 26 steins at Oktoberfest, Munich
Australians are big beer drinkers. We are; we’re one of only five countries in the world who drink more than one hundred litres of beer per capita, per year. (The Czechs top the list at 160 litres.) In just over two weeks I drank more than a quarter of my yearly countrymen’s (and women’s) intake and I definitely felt it. In between sips I ate pork and chicken, danced on chairs, faffed about in my dirndl and generally had a fine time.
8. Getting naked in public, Tallinn
I can’t say that this is something I particularly chose to do; I had no idea that in some countries (read: Eastern Europe and Asia) the protocol for saunas and spas was birthday suits only. I wouldn’t say that I’m a prude, but I did hesitate in the changing rooms. Why do they call it a changing room anyway? I wasn’t changing into anything. I was just taking everything off.
It was enjoyable though, and I did meet the very lovely Katia during all of this. The whole time I was talking to her I was concentrating on staring at her in the face. Now was not the time for wandering eyes. Katia also made me a little newspaper hat (so my hair wouldn’t burn) and whacked me about with tree branches. Memorable? You betcha. It also gave me enough confidence to do it all again in Japan and Korea’s onsens. (No, funnily enough I didn’t take a picture here.)
7. Staying in a ryokan, Nikko
Ryokans are at the top of the experiences list for most people when visiting Japan. They’re usually open for Japanese people only, due to owners not speaking English, so I was very fortunate to find one in Nikko, not far from Tokyo. Deciding that I was only going to speak Japanese for the day, I called the owners and they picked me up from the station, taking me to my traditional room decorated with tatami mats, Japanese artwork and shoji screens. A traditional dinner was served to me in my room, with me dining in a silk robe and slippers with socks on. When I woke up, the screens were moved, treating me to a view of a beautiful Japanese garden. All for $50.
6. Being pampered, Marrakech
I love a good pamper once in a while, particularly when the pampering lady (or boy) doesn’t spend the whole time telling me that I need to take better care of my skin. So, for once, here the language barrier is a good thing. Paul and I were scrubbed from head to toe, doused in countless different oils and finished off by taking a dip in a plunge pool. I must say I’m quite the fan.
5. Learning how to bargain, Beijing
On my very first day in China, at Beijing’s famous Silk Street, my travel buddy Zoe taught me a very important skill, one I would use throughout the continent and beyond; bargaining. It was something that didn’t come naturally at first and this needed plenty of practice. Obviously, I’d take any excuse to do more shopping. I’ve liked Silk Street so much that I’ve returned twice and shopping in China has always always remained top of the shopping tree.
4. Being pelted by tomatoes during La Tomatina, Bunol
I’d heard a lot of horror stories about La Tomatina. Frozen tomatoes being thrown were just the tip of the iceberg. As we descended into the packed streets, I had visions of being squeezed to the point my feet weren’t going to touch the ground anymore. But none of this happened. As it turned out, I wasn’t very good at being a tomato assassin. Perhaps not surprisingly. I spent most of the time pulling up my pants, heavy from tomato juice, and fruitlessly cleaning out my sunglasses. But it was a hell of a lot of fun.
3. Paragliding, Interlaken
I’ve never jumped out of a plane. I won’t even consider bungee jumping. Canyoning looks fun but when it comes down to the crunch, it’s probably something I’ll say “thanks but no thanks” to. Paragliding I considered. And without any reasons as to why I shouldn’t do it, except for the distinct possibility of tripping when attempting to run down a hill, off I went. I was treated to breathtaking views of Interlaken, its two lakes and the surrounding snow-capped peaks. After I relaxed, that is.
2. Stepping over the North Korean border, Pannmunjon
I was so, so excited when a friend told me she’d visited North Korea on a daytrip from Seoul on her last holiday. I became a bit obsessed, building my trip to Korea around that daytrip. I arranged my tour through the US Army, and a real live GI Joe was our guide. We were told to wear collared shirts, long pants (no shorts or skirts) and proper shoes. Why? We needed to look nice for the North Koreans, as we were representing South Korea in front of them. And we needed proper shoes just in case war broke out and we needed to run. I felt like telling them that it wasn’t proper shoes that magically gave me the ability to run.
The day was fascinating, from showing up at the base at ‘0700 hours’ (their words not mine), viewing the North Korean ‘Propaganda Village’ complete with the world’s tallest flagpole, and of course stepping over the border in one of the buildings which straddle the 38th Parallel. None of this was staged at all. The fact that it is open for tourists at all (sometimes it’s not, it was closed for a while last year when the North Koreans started doing some scary things again) is nothing short of incredible.
1. Dancing in the street during Las Fallas, Valencia
Las Fallas was my first dose of Spanish festivals, and you really don’t get much better than this. Best of all, I didn’t even mean to be there, I just happened to pass through Valencia as the fiesta was in its opening days. I danced in the street with complete strangers, learnt the words to the fiesta songs, controversially went along to a bullfight, watched fireworks in the middle of the day and admired all of the massive ‘fallas’ in the streets. It single-handedly made me fall in love with Spain.