2017: A Year of Mostly Ups and Just a Few Downs
When I completed my 2016 in review post last year, I had plenty of cause for optimism about 2017.
I’d just started dating Adventures Around Asia and was preparing to make the big move to Beijing to see where our relationship would take us.
We had planned a trip to Sumatra as a kind of ‘test run’ for our burgeoning relationship and I had plans for 2017 to be one filled with travel.
While there were some rather drastic drawbacks during the year (including a broken arm and getting scammed by a Chinese dentist), there were also some huge wins.
My work with Shadows of Africa reached new heights, I got to spend time with my brother and my awesome nephew when they moved to Beijing, I traveled, I hiked the Kumano Kodo, and plenty more.
2017 was definitely a year that I’ll look back upon with great fondness.
Adventures in Sumatra
The year started off with Richelle and I headed to Sumatra for the Chinese New Year vacation. While my location independent lifestyle means I can travel whenever I like, Richelle’s job in Beijing only afforded her two weeks in which to explore Indonesia’s largest island.
Even with all of the day-long, bumpy bus rides through mountainous jungle, we still managed to cram a lot into our time in Sumatra.
We spent a magical few days exploring the quiet beauty of Lake Toba, trekked for orangutans in Bukit Lawang, and finished it all off with some well-earned beach and scuba time on Pulau Weh. Thanks to the fantastic Rubiah Tirta Divers for making our four dives possible!
We fell just a little bit in love with Sumatra’s rugged beauty and off the beaten path charm. While we were far from the only tourists exploring the island (apparently the Chinese love Sumatra too), we were definitely away from the worst of the crowds that tend to spoil southeast Asia during the Chinese New Year.
A Broken Arm and the Benefits of Socialism
Sadly, our time in Indonesia wasn’t without our hiccups.
I somehow managed to break my arm when I took a rather dramatic tumble from the top of our dive boat onto the deck below. While it didn’t feel like I’d broken it at the time, I was soon going to regret traveling without travel insurance.
With no hospital on the island, we had to fly back to China with my arm in a makeshift sling. The doctors in China confirmed that not only was it broken – it was such a bad break that I’d need surgery within two weeks to avoid permanent damage.
The price? The princely sum of 30,000rmb (almost $6,000 AUD).
Thankfully for me, Australia’s glorious socialism came to the rescue. A quick call home informed me that I could get the surgery in Australia for free, so all I needed to do was pay for an expensive last minute flight back to Australian soil.
Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital took great care of me (especially the lovely nursing team), but my time there was a blur of hunger (three days nil by mouth will do that), morphine delirium, and shuffling down to the emergency room after hours to steal their WiFi.
Still, I did get this gnarly scar for my efforts.
The Big Beijing Move
With my arm still in a sling, it was time to bid farewell to my life in Nanjing. It felt surreal to be back in my tiny Nanjing apartment after six months on the road, but I managed to pack my life into large hessian sacks and get them to the post office with the help of my former Chinese teacher. Thanks, Mia!
It was then time to bid farewell to all of the amazing friends I’d made across two stints in China’s southern capital. While I was definitely excited to be moving to Beijing, it was hard to say goodbye to a city that had given so much to me over the years.
My move to Beijing was a big one for me. With Richelle and I only dating for a few months, it was obviously a lot of pressure to put on a new relationship. Still, it beat having to commute five hours to see one another.
The move was somewhat softened by the fact that my brother, Dominik, his partner, and my adorable nephew, Elliot would also be moving to Beijing.
Between snowstorms, jittery landlords, a screaming toddler, and the inevitable Chinese bureaucracy, we managed to find not one, but two apartments.
We spent a whole fortnight in our first apartment before the landlord decided she didn’t like foreigners (through no fault of ours), so it was off to the sleepy little Chegongzhuang neighbourhood for us!
I Love Lingshui (and Richelle)
I’d barely been in Beijing a month when Richelle and I were invited on a press trip to Lingshui in Hainan.
Over the course of a week we engaged in cultural activities, stayed in some gorgeous hotels, and ate far more banquet dinners than is healthy for a boy trying to lose a little weight.
It was a somewhat frustrating press trip experience for us, as the Lingshui Tourism Board couldn’t seem to decide if it was a press trip (for Richelle and I), a competition (for an unlucky Dutch pair who had expected to relax), or a video and photo opp (for all of us).
The breakneck speed with which we explored and the regimented schedule meant it was hard to fully enjoy the many charms of Lingshui, but it was not without its perks.
Hopeless romantic that I am, I may have dropped the “L” word for the first time while Richelle and I were enjoying our private plunge pool at the stunning Narada Perfume Bay.
Hot on the heels of my rather hasty confession of love, Richelle’s landlord decided to evict everybody a little ahead of their original lease expiration.
This meant that Richelle and I became roommates a little earlier than expected, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t secretly pleased by the news.
Ever since Richelle and I spent a week hanging out in Beijing together last year, I’d been more than a little taken with her.
And while we’ve been together just over 14 months at the time of writing this, I’ve known for quite some time that she’s the girl I want to spend my life with.
Our time living together in Beijing has been a lot of fun.
We’ve encouraged one another to greater heights with our work, we’ve eaten a lot of delicious food, we’ve led Beijing brewery tours for Lost Plate Tours, explored hidden corners of the city, hiked the Wild Great Wall more times than I can count, and laughed each and every day.
We also had the pleasure of living with my brother, Dom, his partner, Bronte, and my always entertaining nephew, Elliot (aka Etty aka Egg aka Christopher Eggleston aka The Ettimal).
Sharing an apartment that one could generously call ‘cozy’ with three adults and a baby wasn’t always easy, but I’ll definitely remember our tiny little Beijing abode with more fondness than frustration now that we’ve moved out.
A South Korea Return
My first visa run of 2017 saw me making a quick jaunt across to South Korea.
With flights to Seoul being the cheapest option, I opted to spend two nights and one jam-packed day exploring the South Korean capital.
It definitely felt like a homecoming to be back in the country that kick-started my love of travel and taught me so much about myself, and I spent a full day visiting palaces, eating gimbap triangles, and reminiscing about my first travel love.
Nanjing with the Boys
Not long after my return to China, I heralded the siren song of beers with the boys back in Nanjing.
With Richelle only ever having made a day trip to my former stomping grounds, it seemed a good time to kill two birds with one stone: show her around the city and put an end to the ceaseless nagging from Racist Rory, Cerebral Hoggsy, Dutchy, Greggles, Kiwi Mike, and the rest of the reprobates I called friends during my time there.
After a boozy Saturday with the lads, we spent a more sedate Sunday exploring Purple Mountain, the original Ming Tomb, and the Mausoleum of Dr. San Yat Sen.
As somebody who has blogged before about things to do in Nanjing, it was fun to actually finally do some of them.
It was also good to recharge my social batteries, as Beijing is a hell of a lot harder to make friends in than Nanjing was. In fact, writing this post after leaving Beijing, I can count on one hand the friends I made in the city. Sheesh!
My next visa run saw me making a run down to Macau. Far from just being a “Chinese Vegas”, I was charmed and pleasantly surprised by just how many things to do in Macau I managed to find.
Hot on the heels of my return from Macau, it was time to play host and tour guide to not one but two sets of parents.
My mother and father, youngest brother, and foster sister, Sherry made their way across to China to introduce Sherry to her native land and do a wee bit of tourism, so Richelle and I took advantage of her newfound freedom to show them around local landmarks such as the Summer Palace and Forbidden City.
While a lot of this felt a little ‘old hat’ to us jaded Beijing ‘locals’, it’s always fun to see local landmarks through fresh eyes.
A highlight of my family’s visit was undoubtedly the chance to check off another section of the Great Wall of China, as we headed to New Shuicheng for a day of boat rides, hiking, and exploration.
The day after my family left to continue their journey to Dalian and Shanghai, Richelle’s parents breezed into town for our scheduled exploration of Beijing, Xi’an, and Yunnan.
It was a bit nerve-wracking meeting John and Nicole, but I like to think we hit it off over the course of our two week journey. Having failed to make a good impression on two sets of parents in the past, it was nice to not botch this one!
Our time in Beijing felt a little bit like a replay of my parents’ visit, as we again paid a visit to the Forbidden City, wandered the hutongs, and headed out to the Great Wall.
Our Great Wall trip was beyond epic, however, as we tackled the wild Jiankou to Mutianyu stretch of wall and put our legs and cardio to the test. What a hike!
Exploring Yunnan and Xi’an
After Beijing, it was off to China’s first capital, Xi’an for a bit of exploration.
While the Terra Cotta Warriors are the most well-known attraction in this picturesque city, I actually loved the city itself. From the bustling Muslim Market to the city wall to the cute art district we called home for our time there, it was plain to see why Xi’an belongs on any China bucket list worth its salt.
After Xi’an, it was off to another corner of China I’ve been dying to explore: Yunnan.
A land of towering mountains, canal cities, and unbreakable calm, it was easy to see how it landscapes might have inspired the Kung Fu Panda movies. Yunnan is just breathtaking, and the food is stellar to boot.
The highlights of our time there? Hiking Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, shopping in Xizhou and Lijiang, and exploring the criminally underrated Blue Moon Lake.
A Death in the Family
The family visits and exploration were tinged with more than a little sadness, however.
Midway through my trip with Richelle’s family (and midway through my parent’s solo trip to Shanghai), we received word that my terminally ill foster brother, Ben had lost his long struggle.
While we’d always known that “Spongebob” wasn’t going to be with us forever, it came as a nasty surprise to have him pass away in the three weeks my family had taken away. We’d all hoped the little dude would see one more Christmas with us, but his struggle was finally over.
It was difficult to be so far away from my family for all of this.
While my parents were frantically trying to cut short their trip and fly home to make arrangements, I was in Yunnan.
When the funeral came and went, I had to have my brother-in-law read my eulogy. My Chinese visa wouldn’t allow me to attend without forcing me to apply for an all new visa.
Ben came into my family back in 2009. While you’d usually see somebody grow as time passed, Ben only shrank. His condition meant he was always going to die young and it was heartbreaking to see him lose first his ability to walk and then his ability to use his hands, communicate, and eat.
He’s in a better place now (and we had a somber Christmas vigil to make sure he didn’t spend the holiday alone), but damned if I don’t miss him racing around the house on that damned trike of his.
An Anniversary Cricket Tournament in Sanya
October saw Richelle and I preparing to celebrate one year together.
Early on in our relationship, we’d determined that birthdays and anniversaries would be an opportunity for us to give the gifts of experiences. Where Richelle treated me to a Beijing walking tour for my birthday in 2016, I’d taken her for a romantic Great Wall Picnic for her birthday in April.
However, with our anniversary coinciding with the huge Chinese National Week holiday, we decided to postpone the affair and instead combine our anniversary escape with the annual Sanya Sixes Cricket Tournament.
While the cricket wasn’t of the quality to warrant a mention, Richelle and I definitely enjoyed some time on the beach.
We sampled delicious Russian food, slept late, soaked in the sun, and just enjoyed a holiday in which we didn’t feel obliged to write about anything. It was bliss!
Leaving Beijing and Getting Shafted by a Dentist
November was a fun but exhausting month for us.
With my visa set to expire and Richelle finally finished with her work commitments in China, it was time to bid farewell to the country.
We packed our lives into boxes, bid farewell to our friends and family, and prepared for the next step in our nomadic existences.
Oh, and I was tricked into a $1,500 root canal that I didn’t need by a dodgy Chinese dentist.
Seriously, fuck you, Joinway Dental. You’re the worst.
Hiking the Kumano Kodo
Despite the hit to my wallet, I was beyond excited for the opportunity to hike the Kumano Kodo Iseji route. In conjunction with the Mie Prefecture Tourism Board, we spent two amazing, challenging, life-changing weeks exploring the Kumano Kodo and the stunning prefecture that it calls home.
It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, but also one of the most unforgettable.
We hiked 170kms through rain and shine. We tackled mountains, wandered through bucolic farming villages, soaked in onsen, slept on tatami floored ryokan, ate fresh sashimi, and loved every minute of it.
Seriously, if you like any of the above, you should be planning for the Kumano Kodo already.
After our time off the beaten path was done, it was time for Richelle and I to play tourist in some of Japan’s more famous cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
With our handy JR Rail Passes in hand, we embarked on two weeks exploring cities and landmarks we’d daydreamed about since we’d got our first passports.
In one week we took a romantic birthday cruise (thanks, babe!), went shopping in Akihabara, people-watched in Harajuku and Shinjuku, drank sparkling sake on Golden Gai, ate yakitori on “Piss Alley”, and found ourselves overwhelmed by the crowds on more than one occasion.
After two weeks having an entire pilgrimage to ourselves, Tokyo was definitely a tough adjustment!
Then, it was off to Kyoto for geisha spotting and temple hopping. Based out of the gorgeous Hakuto, we fell more than a little bit in love with Kyoto’s quiet charm.
And while some of its more popular tourist attractions were definitely as crowded as we’d dreaded, having Fushimi Inari to ourselves at dawn and spotting geisha in Kamishichiken definitely made up for the jostling we received at other spots.
Oh yeah, and we loved Nara as well!
While people rave about the deer, I was more into the shrines and temples that dot the city. It was definitely a fun visit.
Our last stop was Osaka. While the city itself wasn’t as enchanting as Tokyo or Kyoto, we did enjoy a day trip to see Himeji Castle and take one of the best food tours we’ve ever taken.
Seriously, Inside Osaka Tours was amazing! Yuki was not only super personable and knew the city backwards, he also got us off the beaten path to eat some amazing food.
We even tried chicken sashimi and fugu (pufferfish) and lived to tell the tale!
Another Aussie Christmas
After all of our adventures, it felt damned good to return to my sleepy little mountain village in rural Australia.
Christmas with my family has always been amazing, and it was made all the better by being able to share that with Richelle.
Backyard BBQs, afternoon cricket or softball, more gifts and food than you can shake a cat at, and we finished it all off with three nights at the always fun Green Valley Farm.
What About 2018?
What a year it has been!
2017 saw me fall in love, revisit old favorites, explore new vistas, and endure some pretty painful arm surgery.
2018 is already shaping up to be a pretty spectacular year as well.
Richelle and I are off to Vegas with my Mum in February before visiting her folks in California and attending a wedding in Atlanta. We’ll then take some time to explore her backyard (Seattle).
Then, we’re off to Tanzania for an undisclosed amount of time to treat Richelle to her first safari and continue my work with Shadows of Africa.
Beyond that? Who knows!
Maybe Eastern Europe for TBEX Europe.
Maybe some time living in Bali to do the digital nomad thing.
Maybe undertaking another epic pilgrimage in Spain.
Whatever happens, I’m excited for what lies ahead.
What were your highlights and lowlights from 2017?