Temples, Tamsui, and Taipei 101. Taipei part 2.

Today I was visiting one of the previous holders of tallest building in the world, the Taipei 101 tower! I was super excited as I love the design and could add it to my list after visiting the Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur.

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I am getting a little ahead of myself though, as first up I was going to get a little culture, a little nature, and some amazing food. Taipei is huge, especially when you include the surrounding areas, but luckily the rail system is amazing. Today I planned to head North stopping off at some interesting sights along the way.

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My first stop was Yuanshan and the Taipei Confucius temple. Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who began the way of life or religion ‘Confucianism’. It’s a cute temple with lots of cool architecture, it also has a plaque inscribed by Chiang Kai-Shek which translates as ‘Education without discrimination’.

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Next up on the tour is something you’d never expect in a City, Mangroves! I took the same metro line to Hongshulin, and after a little education on the mangroves I wandered along raised wooden walkways looking for snakes and crabs. It is pretty cool that there are mangroves just a short journey from the centre of a huge City like Taipei.

The weather wasn’t great but I didn’t mind, I had my waterproof jacket and decided to walk along the water front to Tamsui, my next stop. Tamsui is famous for its Old Street, full of restaurants and shops but it was also the site of a Spanish colony. This was built in 1629 but in 1641 the Dutch expelled them from the island and took over the fort.

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It soon went to the Chinese and became a major port, but recently it has become a big tourist destination thanks to all the amazing food and waterfront views. On a clear day you can see an old volcano on the opposite side of the river too!

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I made it to the town and instantly fell in love with the seaside vines, architecture and especially this little side alley and staircase with amazing realistic artwork painted all over the walls and floor. It was a really pretty little area and even with the rain coming down I loved taking pics of it all.

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I walked along the waterfront and up to the old Spanish fort of Santo Domingo. This is just an okay tourist location. Some interesting history of the area but I wasn’t blown away by it.

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I followed the path up past the Oxford College and back down to the main street. I was starving and it was lunch time, so I did what any normal person would do, bought a whole cheesy egg cake and munched down! It’s one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tried wobbling about in its box.

I didn’t quite finish it all in the end, popping it in my bag for later, it was time to jump back on the metro to Jiantan. I had read you could do a little hike in some hills here in the middle of the City which really appealed to me. So I found the little path near the station and up I went.

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t was a nice walk through the trees and if it weren’t for the clouds it would’ve been an amazing view from up there. Luckily the walk coincided with another sight…The Grand Hotel. It’s one of tallest Chinese classical buildings in the world at 285 feet high. It’s pretty impressive, and several notable people such as Eisenhower, Nixon, Mandela, and Yoshida.

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My aim from here was to get to Elephant mountain on the East side of the City. Using google maps I organised a route to take that would go past a couple of points of interest, first up was the 823 artillery park memorial, dedicated to the conflict between Taiwan and China in 1958. There were a couple of military planes and guns and a memorial statue, and some weird bird that I got a little video of.

I saw there was some kind of arch of Yuanshan scenic area but that would have taken me back up into the hills I believe. SO it was onwards to the National Revolutionary Martyrs’ shrine. The building houses 390,000 spirit tablets of people killed in the various wars that the Taiwanese have been involved in. I was lucky enough to arrive there during the changing of the guard which was a great experience. I also loved the architecture with another wide avenue and interesting buildings surrounding it.

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Eventually I made it to Dazhi station and took the underground over to Xiangshan station. I was really looking forward to this as I wandered past a little ecological park for tree frogs, unfortunately I couldn’t see any. At the end of Xiangshan park is the trail up Elephant mountain. I wasn’t too concerned about the hike up and bought a pPcari sweat to keep me going. However it’s actually pretty difficult going up all the steps in the heat and you climb it quite quickly. I had to take a rest about halfway up before getting some amazing views….The reason you climb the mountain is to get a great picture or image of the Taipei 101 tower. At one point there are two rocks which you can climb up to get a really great shot.

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I really enjoyed this and finished walking to the top, amazed at the nature you can find in the middle of this massive place. After seeing the tower from afar it was now time to climb it! I walked over rather than took the underground and planned to go up for sunset. The problem was the enormous cloud coverage. So instead I opted for a night time view.

Whilst waiting I went to  food court at the basement of the tower and feasted on kimchi ramen, once done I was ready to go! It costs around £15 to go to the top, which is quite a lot but compared to a lot of places around the world it’s not too bad. I queued up before taking the lift up to the top, and the views were unreal. I love being so high in a City and being able to see everything for miles. I was glad I went after sunset too as I saw the City come alive with all the lights.

After a while walking around and learning a bit more about the construction of the tower, it was the tallest building in the world from 2004 until the Burj Khalifa was built in Dubai. In 2011 it won an award for being the tallest green structure in the world, and it has amazing features to withstand earthquakes and tropical storms.

It’s design is based around the traditional Asian pagodas, along with a stalk of bamboo and Chinese money boxes stacked on top of one another. It’s truly an architectural marvel.

 

After such a big day of exploring I was ready for a beer, so after a quick change back in the hotel I walked over to the gay area behind the red house near Ximen station. I was surprised at how many bars and people were there. I enjoyed a few beers in one of the main bars in the square, then headed to a club called Commander D. It was fun but as one of the only Westerners there it was hard to get away from a lot of unwanted attention.

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I was soon back in my little underground bunker bed, hoping for a really fun day out tomorrow.

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Hanging in Hanoi for 48 hours.

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and gateway for a lot of people into the amazing country. Not only is it the entry point for Halong Bay but it’s also a great place to explore for a few days. After my last visit I couldn’t wait to explore again, see some new places and check out some new sights.

Arriving at Hanoi airport, it’s easy to get a taxi into the City and I had planned ahead by downloading Grab. It’s the Asian version of Uber and you can either pay in cash or through an account. Last time I visited Hanoi with friends the hotel was erm… cockroach friendly, so I had booked a nice one called the Light Hotel in the old quarter.

I had 48 hours before flying on to Hong Kong, so what can you do in that time??

Vietnamese Food

Is there anything better? It definitely ranks up there with my fave foods, so what better way to start the day than with some Phó the clear noodle broth that everyone in Vietnam eats.

Fancy an on the go lunch? Banh Mi is sold everywhere, French influence is found in the baguette and pate but the rest is solid Vietnamese…filled with fresh herbs, vegetables and pork.

Wash it down with Vietnamese coffee and finish it off with a French pastry, the influence from being a former colony is still strong in the food. Dinner could be fresh whole fish, BBQ or one of the egg pancake dishes like Banh Xeo where you wrap meat skewers up.with peanut sauce and crunchy salad leaves.

Stuck for dessert? Some Vietnamese cakes could go down a treat, with their blend of European and Asian flavours, or try some fresh and tasty Asian fruits!

Ho Chi Minh

The former leader’s presence here is impossible to miss, with his mausoleum dominating one area of the City along with the huge museum dedicated to his life and legacy.

The area around the Mausoleum is nice to walk around, with some gardens and the famous downed B52 plane hidden in a small lake nearby.

The museum is interesting if you enjoy learning a little about a country while you’re there, and really interesting if you’re a history buff. Especially with the information on Vietnam’s communist era.

There is also the big lake nearby which is nice to stroll around, or cross the central road running through it and check out a temple, war memorial and grab a drink or an ice cream.

Old quarter

The famous old quarter is full to the brim with coffee shops, hole in the wall restaurants and street eateries.

Unfortunately it’s also full of the same souvenir and tour shops. Its definitely a worthwhile visit to wander around and now and again you’ll find a little slice of the real old quarter.

On this visit I only spent time there in the day, but the nightlife is cheap and fun. It really starts when the curfew hits and you’re snuck from bar to bar.

The other cool thing can be found on street walking the length of Phung Hung St you pass life-like paintings of Vietnamese and Hanoi life. It’s super instagrammable and you can have a lot of fun posing at each place.

Hoan Kiem Lake

Found within the old quarter, the area around the lake is great to take a stroll first thing in the morning and, as the sun goes down you’ll catch all the locals exercising and enjoying romantic walks. It’s the small temple in the middle of the lake that most people come to see, crossing a lovely red bridge it’s a peaceful sanctuary in a very busy City.

At night everything is lit up beautifully and it’s a great place to come before heading into the winding alleyways of the old quarter.

Hanoi Train Street

I didn’t know this existed last time I came, but I wish I had! Found just on the outskirts of the old quarter, it’s cool to walk along the tracks in the daytime.

The fun part of this street is when the train comes through, usually in the evenings or more frequently on the weekend. You arrive early, pick one of the tiny bars and sit on the typical plastic stools drinking a nice cold beer or cocktail, chat to the locals and wait.

Then when it’s nearly time, you edge right up to the walls of the street and watch as the train comes down…filling the street as it zooms past. It was really fun to do and our bar got us to put coins with our names on the tracks. If we found then flattened it’s supposed to be good luck, and I found mine!

The Rest

There are a few other things you can do whilst in Hanoi, Hoa Lo prison is interesting to find out a bit about how the French treated the Vietnamese. Thang Long, the Imperial City doesn’t quite live up to its name but was pleasant to walk around, I liked the bunkers the most. There are even a couple more lakes to wander around that aren’t far away. Of course the aforementioned Halong Bay is an amazing place to visit. Hanoi is also a great start off point to explore the North such as Sapa.

The real essence of Hanoi though is immersing yourself in the culture, food and people, and enjoying the neverending sea of motorbikes that somehow part around you as you cross the road.

A day on the lake in Inle, Myanmar.

So we were up super early today to explore the lake by boat. I think it was around 4am we were getting ready, the tour was through the amazing hostel I was at…the Song of Travel.

Ready for sunrise we set off down the river towards the lake, it was so calm and peaceful as we passed through the town. Once we entered the lake it wasn’t long before we spotted the traditional fisherman. Unfortunately they are posing for the money, as fishing techniques have moved on, but it was cool to see them.

Next up was breakfast! Sat on our little 5 man boat we tucked in as the sun rose, unfortunately it was really cloudy so the sunrise wasn’t the best. Though it was cool when the shafts of light started peaking down through over the mountains.

We were soon off again, the lake was beautiful and we could spot fishermen paddling with their one leg, so they had both hands free. Pretty ingenious!

Our first stop was at a traditional silver smith, where we were shown how they make silver and watched them make extremely detailed pieces of jewelry. It was interesting but I enjoyed the cats that were hanging about more than the shop at the end.

After this we travelled past some incredible floating gardens, with loads of tomatoes growing in all different colours. Then stopped at a ‘floating market’ that was actually all on land apart from a couple of boats trying to sell us souvenirs.

I enjoyed walked around and checking out the various produce and no one is very pushy in Myanmar which made the whole experience more relaxing.

As we left we also spotted a lady wearing traditional brass neck coils, the traditional clothing of the Kayan tribe. It was a good spot and she smiled and waved at us as we sped by.

Our next stop was the Shwe Inn Thein pagoda, this was near the small village of Indein and the journey there along these small waterways was amazing.

The little village we stopped by was cute and the old ruined Pagoda were amazing, you have to pay a fee to take photos, I thought I was templed out but wish I had done it now. You can rent longyi, the traditional cloth worn in Myanmar there too. I enjoyed hanging out by the bridge while some of the others wandered around.

We went Speeding back through the little waterways towards the lake again, our next stop was to learn about lotus and cotton production. This was really interesting and we learnt a lot! A few people on the your bought some clothes from here too.

I was excited for our next stop, lunch! We were brought to a stilted village on the water and led into a room where we had some snacks and tea.

This feast they made for us was so tasty, I couldn’t have the fish but all the sides and salads tasted so fresh. I loved the green tomatoes grown on the lake. The food was soon devoured and we lay out for a rest, I even fell asleep for a moment.

Then the women who had cooked for us had us paddling them around the village in little wooden canoes. They were giggling at us trying to row the whole way, finally before we left this little guy posed for us.

I even saw a snake pop his head up out of the water as we rowed the little boats around! Our final stop was to see traditional cigars being made, I’m not much of a fan of cigars but I enjoyed trying the flavoured ones, especially banana and I liked that they made them with 100% natural ingredients.

We ended the trip going through big water plants and at the same bridge we had been on the day before. We didn’t stay long here and started the journey back to the hostel. This was one of my favourite parts as I enjoyed the views across the lake.

We finished the day with some amazing food, including tea leaf salad, and a few beers at a bar in the center of town. The next day it rained from morning till I got my night bus to Yangon, but the staff kept us we fed with evening snacks. The hostel and their staff were incredible and I would recommend everyone to stay there.

The inside scoop on Inle Lake, Myanmar.

So the bus was actually pretty nice, I managed to sleep almost the whole way and although it was annoying arriving at 4am, I decided to walk as there was no rush to check in. It wasn’t far and the only scary part was a big dog pack that I took a detour to avoid.

I arrived at the Song of Travel hostel. £8 a night and great reviews had led me to this place, plus the façade looks like a giant boom box. There was someone at reception who checked me in and let me use the ground floor bathroom and gave me a bed to lie down in till I did check in later.

I opted to pay 2000 kyat for a pancake breakfast when I woke up after a quick nap, and booked onto a boat tour around Inle for the next day. At breakfast I met a German guy who was doing a bike trip round the lake, I had thought about doing this so we agreed to meet in a couple of hours and then head out.

We managed to find another guy, Andy from Sheffield to bike with us, and after choosing from the free bikes provided by the hostel we were on our way. Stopping off at the local market, I got some deep fried tofu and a little bottle of garlic chilli sauce and a drink.

We went North first, past a cute little lake to a monastery, it wasn’t that great after seeing the ones in Mandalay and I’d probably give it a miss next time. So we were now headed South towards Inle lake, it’s a pretty easy bike ride, with just one hill that nearly killed me. Bearing in mind the last time I properly rode a bike was 3 years ago in Vietnam (that was all flat too) I didn’t do too badly, but not long after we got to the top of the hill we had a steep climb up to a pagoda with great views of the lake.

At this point the clouds above us suddenly opened up and it began to pour down. So we did the only sensible thing and waited it out with our snacks.

It soon cleared up, and we were back on our way, having a pretty good conversation as we rode on. Andy mapped our way and we found ourselves in the Tofu village. Where for 5000 kyat. (£2.50) we got a full tour of this guys traditional village.

It was pretty cool and the guy literally fed us the whole way around as we saw different ways to make tofu and some tasty Myanmar snacks. Finally we were back at his house to eat some fried tofu with a great chilli dip.

At that point the rain came back 10x worse and we had to wait a while before we could get the boat across the river. So we spent our time eating, and chatting with this guy about Myanmar life and Buddhism. It was really interesting, but the rain eventually stopped and we were on our way again. We put our bikes in the long wooden boat and settled in as we sped through small waterways, motor chugging away behind us.

Unfortunately it was still raining a little so the views of the lake were a bit obscured, but we saw fishermen paddling in their tradition manner, using their foot to steer so their arms are free to catch. We made it to the other side of the lake and walked our bikes along a wooden bridge to dry land.

Who knew Myanmar would have its own wineries?! Not me, but as we cycled back to the hostel it was there, up a steep hill and with views for the grapevines that spoke of Italy or France more than Southeast Asia.

For 5000 kyat you got a 4 wine tasting, 2 white and 2 red. They were all drinkable but even my unrefined palate could tell they weren’t top class. However, it was a fun thing to do and the views including a great sunset made it well worth the visit.

It was a short ride back to the hostel, where after relaxing for a little while we met up on the rooftop, with the addition of Julia from Belgium. After a couple of beers we headed out for some great food at a Myanmar/Dim Sum place nearby. Julia and I were up early to take a boat tour of the lake and I was soon tucked up ready for more adventures.

Exploring the ancient Cities of Myanmar.

Today I was up super early, I got everything ready the night before including a shower so I could get up 15 minutes before Min Min was picking me up. This was still 4:30am but I was excited enough to not feel too tired, Min Min was waiting for me outside and off we went towards U Bein Bridge, the longest wooden bridge in the world. It’s located south of Mandalay and is a popular spot for sunrise and sunset.

On the way we stopped at a pagoda where the monks were washing the face of Buddha, people arrived to pray and attach gold leaf to the body of the Buddha. It was a nice little start to the day.

We drove out of the City and into the countryside, arriving at U Bridge at around 6am. It was so quiet and only 2 other tourists around, unfortunately it was also really cloudy so I wouldn’t get a good sunrise. I still loved walking along the bridge and taking with the locals, I even found a little chameleon friend.

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Once I had walked to one side and back it was on to the next part of the tour, the ancient Cities. We stopped at a huge broken pagoda, destroyed by an earthquake, I had the freedom to explore the whole place, and I had it all to myself. After about 20 minutes or so I was ready for breakfast, with Min Min waiting just across the road from me.

Breakfast was a traditional Myanmar dish consisting of thick cold noodles with egg and a chilli, garlic peanut sauce. It was delicious and came with a banana plant soup. I ate it so fast the lady serving in the little covered shack was asking if I needed more! Even the little side dish of bean sprouts with a slice of lime tasted really good.

Once breakfast was finished it was back on the bike to continue onwards. We now headed to Innwa, one of the ancient Cities of Myanmar. The bike journey was so cool, passing by old temples, banana tree groves and rice paddies. We passed the old ancient walls of the City and really went off road.

The main place to see is a huge stone temple that you can explore, with a white and gold pagoda adjacent to it. I really enjoyed this place, it was a beautiful building and again I wandered around without seeing anyone else.

After I had been on my little adventure around the area, we continued to an old tower that had also been damaged by earthquakes, we didn’t linger here as you’re not able to climb it so no exploring!

The next stop was a small partly damaged pagoda with some cool Buddhas and great views of people working in the rice fields. This place was so peaceful, with villagers going about their morning duties and the scent of incense filling the air.

Our last stop in the Southern area of Mandalay was an old wooden monastery. I believe it’s used to teach children, but I couldn’t see anyone around, just a few squirrels and some dogs guarding the steps up, so I didn’t dare to climb them.

Next on the agenda was Sagaing hill, to get there we drove back up towards Mandalay before crossing the river over the …. bridge. Min Min stopped for me to take some pictures of the Irrawaddy river up close, then we started to ascend the hill.

Again I had to get off at the steepest part but it was definitely worth it as we reached the top and I took a short uphill walk to reach Soon U Ponya Shin pagoda, I hadn’t done any research on this so it was a great bonus. The bright blue curve of the temple along with all the Buddha inside was amazing. Plus the view of you walked a little further up over the whole river delta was spectacular.

We drove back down and stopped at one more pagoda, a controversial one that the government had painted gold against the community wishes. This one was good but I was a bit pagoda’d out at that point. We continued our drive and stopped for tea at a little teahouse while we waited to go to the next temple.

This next one was really cool, mainly because we got to watch the monks there chant and ring their bells before queueing up for food from one of the nearby villages. There was a lot of ceremony involved and it felt great to be able to watch it. They eat lunch at 11:30 and that’s their last meal for the day.

It was a long drive back into Mandalay but interesting to watch day to day life and the locals would always wave and smile when they saw me going past as a westerner.

Arriving back in Mandalay Min Min wanted to show me one last point of interest, Shwe In Bin monastery. I’m so glad he did as it was a beautiful wooden building with lots of intricate design. Monks walked peacefully about and I probably spent more time there than in some of the others places due to its beauty.

I was soon back at the hostel and ready to relax after being out for over 8 hours it cost me 20000 kyat for the whole day with Min Min, including food and drinks, he was so great and explained a lot about Myanmar life. I chilled out till the early evening coolness and had a wander around the hostel area. I don’t know if I was just in the wrong place but it felt like there wasn’t really much in the way of shops/restaurants or bars in Mandalay.

That evening I walked up the night market which wasn’t great, before finding a little restaurant on the street called Shan Ma Ma. It was similar to the night before, you ordered your main dish then got some sides and soup to go along with it. After explaining I only ate vegetables I was soon tucking into we great food again.

Suddenly the whole street went dark and I realised it was a power cut. My second of the holiday. Luckily the restaurant had a back up generator so I finished my meal with a beer before walking back some very dark streets and I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Made it to Mandalay

I was awake early and spent breakfast making last minute plans for Mandalay. Don Mueang airport in Bangkok doesn’t have public transport access with BTS etc but you can get the metro half way and continue on bus.

I decided I’d stick with a taxi as I wouldn’t have to worry about time and it wasn’t too expensive, 340 Baht in the end.

The airport itself has quite a few restaurants and shops etc and it wasn’t long until I was boarded and ready for the next adventure.

As we were descending into Mandalay the clouds dispersed and I got my first glimpse of Myanmar. I couldn’t wait to start exploring, once I was through immigration (I ordered my E-Visa a few weeks back and had my printed confirmation letter, just make sure you go through the official government site) I jumped in a shared taxi for 5000 kyat or £2.50 and an hour and a half later I was at my hotel.

Downtown@mandalay was a pleasant surprise, I was in an 8 bed dormitory with air con. The showers were excellent, breakfast was great and the staff were very helpful. When I arrived a local was outside with a motorbike and offered to take me around. I realised the only way to get around Mandalay was by bike/tuktuk or taxi so once I was checked in I dropped my bags off and met Min Min. Min Min agreed to take me to Mandalay palace for 3000 kyat.

I jumped on the back and we sped off, following the walls and moat of the palace ground to the entrance. Here I paid 10000 kyat for the entrance fee, this includes 5 more places you can visit. Min Min said he would wait for me while I walked to the palace past the walls.

The palace itself is a model of the ancient Mandalay palace, it’s pretty nice to wander around and there’s a small museum with some artefacts inside. The highlight has got to the the tower, you can climb up to the top and it affords you views of the whole palace grounds and surrounding area.

I walked back along the road to the palace walls where Min Min was waiting for me. I asked to see the nearby pagodas and off we went, with no price agreed it made me a little nervous. The first monastery we arrived at was Shwenandaw monastery, the building is amazing and completely made of teak wood.

I wandered around admiring the carvings before we went to our next stop, the …. Pagoda which was a 15 second drive up from. Shwenandaw. This huge pagoda was very pretty with big golden arch ways, the inside is pretty plain with a Buddha and some tall columns to hold the roof up.

Our next stop was one I had been really excited about before my trip. Kuthodaw pagoda is famous for having the largest book in the world. Each page is carved in stone and held inside a small stone temple.

It’s so pretty to wander about between the little white buildings and the actual pagoda is a huge golden topped building. They even have a mini model of the site so to can really appreciate the scale of the place.

The next pagoda wasn’t as impressive, a golden stupa and a Buddha to pray to. I did enjoy the view that you got over the Kuthodaw pagoda though.

Finally it was time to head up Mandalay hill, I had read that the sunset from up here was out of this world and I couldn’t wait to check it out. You can walk to the top but after showing me the entrance to the hill, Min Min sped off up the road to drive us.

Unfortunately he didn’t bank on having a big westerner on the bike, I had to get off a couple of times and walk the steepest parts. Min Min even asked me how much I weighed! We arrived at the top with my ego slightly dented.

At the top you have to walk up a couple of flights of stairs, the first level has lovely windows looking out over Mandalay and the Irrawaddy river. This was a spot I definitely would visit all the time if I lived there. The tiling around the windows was beautiful, and it seemed very peaceful.

The next lot of steps takes you to the pagoda at the top, this has an incredible viewpoint, you can see the the whole of Mandalay up to the mountains in the distance.

It’s truly a stunning experience up there, I felt bad that Min Min was waiting for me but I could’ve spent so much longer enjoying the views. 3 Burmese men in their early 20s came over to chat so they could improve their English. I really enjoyed this moment as I got to know a bit more about Myanmar life.

Once I was done Min Min drove me back into the main City and asked if I was hungry. I hadn’t thought about it but realised I could eat and eat and eat. So he took me to a very local restaurant down a small alleyway.

Here we sat with many locals and the Burmese ladies working there started bringing all this amazing food out. You got your main curry dish, then about 4 or 5 side dishes and rice. It was all so tasty, I’ve been vegetarian for a few months now and unfortunately they brought out pork. I didn’t have the heart to say no so I ate a couple of pieces before filling up on rice and vegetables.

I was pretty tired at this point, especially when Min Min said he would take me out the next day from 5am! So he dropped me back at the hostel where I was soon sound asleep.