India: monuments, desert and children’s smiles

India: monuments, desert and children’s smiles

Hi guys,

As you all know, we have recently arrived in Europe from India, and decided, for personal reasons, to stop our adventure. We are obviously sad, but at the same time very optimistic that this project is not over. We will now start looking for other young adventurers to continue TOY in South America, so if you know of anyone who would be interested, please contact us at toy@the-other-you.org.

Since our van was in the middle of the ocean, on its way to Chile via the Pacific, we had to rent a car in India to continue with the project. Hertz and its Indian partner Orix have supported the TOY initiative in India and gave us a great deal to get a suitable car. Thanks to them we could reach isolated places in the country, give school resources to children in a school and an orphanage, and finally distribute footballs and frisbees to children in the streets. Here comes a glimpse into our Indian adventures.

 

  1. Agra, the city of world heritage sites

While the Taj Mahal is the most renowned attraction in Agra, don’t make it your only stop. Agra is known to be the city with most world heritage sites in the world, namely: the Taj, the Red Fort and the ancient town of Fatehpur Sikri. We loved all of them, but one of our favourite places was Itimad-ud-Daulah, a tomb built completely from marble, and with stunning inlay work. Besides all the splendid monuments and ancient sites, the city of Agra itself didn’t offer much to see.

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  1. Jaipur: buying school resources

Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, and probably our favourite city in the region, was our second stop in the trip. Just like Agra, it has many monuments worth visiting, of which we especially recommend Hawa Mahal, and the magnificent Amber Fort (visit them early in the morning to avoid the tourist masses).

Jaipur’s bazaars are famous, and we chose one of them to buy all the school resources to give to children around India. After about an hour of hard negotiations, we agreed to come back with our car, to collect: 500 notebooks, 400 pencils, 80 rubbers, 800 crayons, 800 wax pencils, 20 large packs of white paper, 16 footballs, 4 pumps and 40 frisbees… no more space for our backpacks in the trunk!

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  1. Pushkar and Udaipur, the lake towns

Pushkar is known for its sacred lake and the rituals that take place in it every evening, but we preferred Udaipur’s vibe, and its beautiful city palace overlooking the lake.

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  1. Ana gets ill at Jodhpur and Jaisalmer

The day that we left Udaipur, barely one week after arriving in India, Ana got very ill, so we had to stop in the next town, Jodhpur, to rest and recover. Jodhpur is one of the prettiest cities in Rajasthan, and even if we didn’t leave the hotel much, we enjoyed the views of the ‘blue city’ from the rooftop.

When we thought that Ana was getting better, we continued our trip to the desert city of Jaisalmer. This turned out to be a bad idea, as we didn’t even spend a full night there, when Ana got worse. From Jaisalmer, Ludo had to drive 12h to get Ana to the nearest international hospital, in Delhi. The drive ended up being quite an adventure… When we were getting close to Delhi, we started facing many roadblocks with fallen trees across the roads and stopping the traffic. It appears that one Indian caste, the Jat, was protesting against the national government and decided to block all access to the capital! We tried everything but after finding the army on the third try we decided to go for the nearest decent hospital in… Jaipur!

Ana’s illness, which lasted over a week, made our time in India much shorter, so we had to forget visiting, to be able to distribute the school supplies.

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  1. First donation in a school near Alwar

We found this primary school by chance, while driving from Jaipur to Alwar. The school was very small, and only had 4 tables and 10 chairs for all the children and teachers, so all the kids were either playing or sitting on the floor. We stopped the car in front, and walked inside to ask the principal whether he would be interested in receiving school supplies from us. He happily accepted, so we collected notebooks, pens, crayons, footballs and other supplies for the 130 kids in the school. We had never seen children so happy with their new notebooks and pencils, but the stars of the day were the colourful TOY balloons, as you can see on the photos!

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  1. Welfare Home for Children (Delhi)

One of our followers was adopted from India when he was a kid, and he shared with us his wish to see us visit his orphanage, in the outskirts of Delhi. We went there on an afternoon, a few days before leaving India, and agreed to come back the next day to deliver the school resources. We were very happy to find out that the institution was planning to open a local school, so our supplies would make a stock not only for the kids in the orphanage, but also for all the children coming to the new school. Once more, the children loved playing with the TOY balloons!

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  1. Playing with the children in Delhi’s slums

In contrast with the countryside, poverty in Delhi is more shocking. You can see children playing everywhere outside the slums where they live, with rocks, sticks, or anything they can find. In our last days in the capital we decided to spend some afternoons playing with them, and offering them the last footballs and frisbees.

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Saying bye to 7 months of TOY

Now that the TOY adventure is on a halt, we’d like to say THANK YOU to all of you who have followed it, supported us and given us help and advice.

In the past seven months, we have travelled through 19 countries, and reached over a thousand children. These results are way beyond our expectations, and we could not have made it without all of you. Now the van is travelling to Chile, and we strongly believe that The Other You is not over.

Ludo and Ana

 

 

Last toy donation in Thailand and a short break

Last toy donation in Thailand and a short break

Hi guys,

Our trip through Asia is almost over, and so we have been extremely busy with preparations to ship the van, to organise the visits of the following countries, and to rent a car in India. Here’s what we have been up to on the past couple of weeks:

  • We spent a lot of time in Bangkok, getting ready our van to be shipped to South America. Since we couldn’t cross Myanmar by car, we thought this would be the most practical solution. The van will hopefully ship today, thanks to the support of Rui Tavares and Carlos Suarez from Victoria Seguros, and the Dachser team in Portugal and Thailand.
  • We stayed in the Kanchanaburi province in Thailand, where we visited an elephant sanctuary and where we did our last and biggest toy donation in Asia, in a refugee camp near the Burmese border. More on these below.
  • We left the van in Bangkok to be revised by customs and shipped, and spent a little over two weeks on holidays in Myanmar and Nepal.
  • We just arrived in India, where a car was ready for us, thanks to the help of our great contributor Hertz and its Indian partner Orix. Here we plan to finally continue our project, focusing on providing school resources to unprivileged children in schools and institutions.
  • In the coming days, we will launch a small fundraising campaign, to help us cover the shipping cost of the van, and continue our trip in South America.

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Saying bye to the van (warehouse in Bangkok)

 

Kanchanaburi, Thailand 

 

1. Elephant sanctuary

One of the most common attractions in Thailand are elephant refuge centres or sanctuaries. We wanted to visit one but we were a bit scared, as we knew that in most of them, the elephants are not well treated. We almost gave up, until we found a website which suggests a few centres that you can trust. Here you can also learn what are the dangers that elephants face in Thailand, and for example, the reasons why you should never ride an elephant:

http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thailand/sukhothai-province/sukhothai/travel-tips-and-articles/how-to-interact-ethically-with-elephants-in-thailand.

We went to Elephants World, in the banks of the river Kwai, but left with mixed feelings: we felt that the elephants are still used as an attraction, for the hundreds of tourists who visit the place daily. Nonetheless, it is still a much better place for the elephants, most of which were previously mistreated and overworked.

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2. Tham Hin refugee camp

With the van being shipped to South America from Bangkok, we wanted to do a very large last donation of the hundred or so remaining toys still stocked in the van. We had heard about refugee camps settled close to the border with Myanmar and started digging online to find out more about them. The Tham Hin camp is located two hours drive from Kanchanaburi and is the home of nearly 10,000 Burmese refugees, most of them ethnic Karen (Kayin).

The drive to find the camp was quite unique, on bumpy dirt roads surrounded by a dense and exotic jungle. It took us four hours, and help from a Buddhist monk, various villagers and three kids on a motorbike to find the camp, before we finally made it to the entrance and were stopped by a military checkpoint. Without any official authorisation it is obviously impossible to enter the camp. But the military seemed to be willing to help and asked us to wait. We waited for about one hour until suddenly some big pick-up ‘buses’, filled with young children, started arriving. We got very lucky: the children were coming back from a school nearby and our new military friends stopped the buses before they entered the camp and gathered the kids close to our van… The following pictures speak for themselves. Both for the children and for us this donation was a wonderful surprise and will remain as one of the most special moments of our journey so far.

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3. Unexpected toy donation

In Kanchanaburi, we stayed at the LPK Apartment, a nice hotel run by an adorable family. Without telling us anything, the son looked up our website, and the day after they surprised us with a very generous toy and school supplies donation! We filled one box, which will be our first batch of toys in South America!

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What not to miss in Bangkok, Myanmar and Nepal

 

1. Bangkok

  • I am coffee serves amazing sandwiches, and has a nice atmosphere, so we spent many hours working there.
  • We went many times to Mont Café (at MBK shopping centre) to enjoy its delicious and well-known coconut crust toasts and milks.
  • Kinokuniya library (at the Siam Paragon) is Ana’s favourite library in Asia, a rare find offering many editions of thousands of great books.
  • Our two favourite tourist visits were the Wat Pho stupas and the Jim Thompson House.

2. Myanmar

  • Inle lake is a wonderful place where we did one of the most enjoyable boat tours in South East Asia, through floating villages and pagodas. If you want to relax after a day of cycling, we recommend eating at the Bamboo Hut, near the lake. They probably have the best fried noodles in Asia!
  • Mandalay is not the most beautiful of cities, but we recommend exploring its surrounding villages: Mingun, Sagaing and Inwa. The Hsinbyume Paya (white pagoda) in Mingun is one of the most stunning in the country. Our favourite traditional Burmese restaurant is Aye Myit Tar, which has an incredibly delicious ‘cooked pork’. Offering quality food for a cheap price, it is understandably full both of travellers and of local families!
  • Bagan is a magical place with thousands of stone pagodas, in a wild desert surrounding, best discovered by electric bike. If you’re tired of curry and noodles, La Pizza, in Nyaung U, makes the best wood-fired pizza we had in Asia.
  • The scenery in Hpa-An, especially stunning around the dirt road that leads you to the Saddam Cave, reminded us of some of the most picturesque landscapes in Vietnam and China.

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Floating village in Inle lake

3. Nepal

  • Although partly destroyed by the earthquake, you can’t miss the ‘top three’ Durbar Squares in Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur (the last being our favourite). The entry price is not cheap, but you will be helping the reconstruction efforts, which is great.
  • We had dinner four times in the Rosemary Kitchen in Kathmandu. We recommend the rosemary chicken and mushroom raviolis, and both the cheesecake and tiramisu are incredible. We liked to hang out at Gaia, over two cups of its ‘Ginger Warmer’, the perfect winter drink (made of hot lemon juice, honey and ginger).
  • Trekking is a must do in Nepal, we didn’t have the time to do a long one, but we are looking forward to coming back to do the Everest Base Camp.

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Himalaya scenery from Chisapani

 

As always, thank you so much for reading us, and please follow us on our Facebook page, where we post all of our updates. We have some news coming soon, but for now, here’s a photo of us with our newly arrived balloons, courtesy of Jennes Lee from Vietnam (we received two thousand!).

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Ana and Ludo

 

Disclaimer: all the touristy stuff + restaurants, etc. are at our own expense (just to reassure you that all your donations are TOY-exclusive!)

From Bangkok to Hanoi: North of Thailand and backpacking in Vietnam

From Bangkok to Hanoi: North of Thailand and backpacking in Vietnam

Hi guys,

We hope you’ve had the best Christmas possible, and that this new year will be full of happiness, love and exciting projects. We have recently come back to Thailand, and to our little van that was waiting for us at the airport… we missed it so much!

But let’s start by the beginning… We arrived in Thailand for the first time from Cambodia around a month ago, and spent here fifteen days, visiting the north of the country. Our visa waiver ended at the end of December, so we decided to spend the Christmas holidays in Vietnam. We took a flight there because it is very hard to come into the country with a car. So this is why we had to leave our adored van at the Bangkok airport, and for the first time do some backpacking. We took two bags: one for clothes, one for toys.

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North of Thailand

 

  1. The culture: Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet

These three cities host some of the most impressive ruins in Thailand. Ayutthaya has in our opinion the most spectacular temples, but they are all surrounded by the new city, which spoils a bit their enchantment. On the contrary, the old city of Sukhothai is located far away from the new town, and has the most magical surroundings: forests and plains. Kamphaeng Phet is lesser known but it still has very impressive remains. Except for its main temple, which is surrounded by a road, the other temples are hidden amongst a forest of white stunning trees. You’ll find very few tourists in these three sites, and you’ll enjoy discovering them as if you were walking in a park. We loved their relaxed atmosphere.

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  1. The cities: Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a big but very tranquil city that can be visited in a couple of days. We really enjoyed walking around the old town, stopping in the many beautiful temples and shopping in the markets. The Sunday market is great and it has good food, but can get very crowded.

  1. The countryside: Pai and Mae Hong Son

What we loved the most about our trip to Pai and Mae Hong Son was the road that took us there and back to Chiang Mai. The road is known for its enormous amount of curves (1864 between Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son), and the views are breathtaking. We didn’t fall under the charm of Pai, as we found the town to be too touristy, but we really loved Mae Hong Son, it is a beautiful and very relaxing town.

  1. School resources and our first Thai donation

In Chiang Mai, we spent a few days in Welcome More, a very nice hotel with an even nicer owner, Aye. She helped us during all of our stay to find places to visit, and on our last day, she took us to a shop on the outskirts of the city, where she bought a big pack of school resources (notebooks, pencils, erasers, etc.) for the kids that we would visit in Thailand.

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A few days later, we had the opportunity to deliver the first batch of school resources. On the beautiful road between Mae Hong Son and Chiang Mai, we found a small school hidden in a village a few hundred meters outside the main road. We spoke to their teacher, a young woman who was very happy to receive us. We packed the toys while the children were playing on the courtyard, and brought them together with a few packs of notebooks and other school supplies.

We had a great time with the children, who loved their new toys, and spent quite a bit of time playing with them until they had to go back to class… The Frisbee was the star of all the presents; the kids loved playing with it (and Ludo too!).

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  1. The food
  • Rush Lush Café Studio (Ayutthaya): we had both an amazing breakfast (really good English muffin) and lunch (also great Sukhothai noodles) here. The place looks really cool, and is full of books and movies!
  • The Hideout (Chiang Mai): this café has the best French toast that we had ever tasted (we came back to Chiang Mai after visiting Mae Hong Son just to have it again) and amazing smoothies.
  • Woo café (Chiang Mai): it’s a trendy restaurant, with really good food – be careful, it can be really spicy!
  1. ‘Fun’ facts

One thing that really surprised us when visiting Thailand was to see the cult of personality imposed by the king. There are photos of him everywhere: in the smallest shops in hidden villages, on the highway, in big resorts and in Bangkok’s malls… and even on the internet! When we spent a few days working in Bangkok we managed to see the new Star Wars film in the cinema. Just before the film, some music started playing, and everyone suddenly stood up “to pay respect to the king” (as we read on the screen, which subsequently showed pictures of him at different times of his life). Thailand is one of the most developed countries in South East Asia, so this was really a shock for us!

 

Christmas in Vietnam

 

  1. The culture: Hue

Hue was the ancient capital of the Nguyen dynasty, and the Hue Citadel, or Forbidden City, was for us the cultural highlight of Vietnam. We spent about three hours walking around its extensive grounds, of which we loved most the west side, with its stunning temples, palaces and the most beautiful mosaics we had seen. Hue is also know for its royal tombs, constructed by the emperors in preparation for their own deaths, the Thien Mu pagoda, overhanging the Perfume river, and Ho Quyen Arena, which was used in ancient times for fights between elephants and tigers. If you don’t have much time, choose to visit the citadel (a must-do in Vietnam), then the pagoda, and maybe one of the tombs.

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  1. The cities: Hoi An and Hanoi

Hoi An was one of our favourite towns in the world tour, and second in South East Asia, after Luang Prabang. All over the city, you can enjoy the splendid architecture, which showcases a mix of indigenous, Japanese, Chinese and later colonial European influences. You can walk around the city during the day, and visit some of the heritage sites (ancient houses, temples, the stunning Japanese bridge, etc.), and stop to buy some beautiful handicrafts in the art Craft Manufacturing Shop. But the city becomes even more beautiful at night, when the lanterns that it is famous for are lit. If you have enough time, you should get a bicycle, to visit the countryside, and stop at the beach.

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Hanoi is a great city to visit, even if its cultural sites aren’t the most impressive. The Hoa Lo prison is worth a look, as well as the Military History Museum, which hosts many war vehicles. You’ll discover the importance of “uncle Ho” (Ho Chi Minh) in his mausoleum and complex, and in the Thang Lo citadel. The Temple of Literature is probably one of the most well preserved monuments in the city. But what you’ll really love about the city is its buzzing old quarter around the Hoan Kiem Lake, full of old temples, shops, art and especially street food (for which Hanoi is very famous). Look out for ancient, but half-destroyed, houses above the traffic and electricity cables. If you have some extra time, go see the famous Water Puppet Show, or relax at the Hanoi Social Club, a really cool café. At night get a drink at the stylish Tadioto bar, where we spent New Years Eve.

  1. The countryside and seaside: Ninh Binh and Halong Bay

Ninh Binh is quite an ugly town located about 100km south of Hanoi. So as soon as you get there, rent a motorbike and start exploring its surroundings. Tam Coc, also known as the inland Halong Bay offers a very nice but ‘prefabricated’ river tour to see the spectacular limestone mountains and water caves. To be honest, we enjoyed more our motorcycle tour around Trang An’s mountains and villages.

We had low expectations about Halong Bay, as most people told us it is ‘too touristy’ to be worth a visit. And while it is indeed more touristic that Ninh Binh, Halong Bay’s landscape of limestone mountains remains much more impressive. In fact, even compared to similar sights in China (Guilin and Zhangjiajie), this was our favourite. Our recommendation would be to take a small overnight cruise, as it will drive you away from the masses of day tourist, plus a small boat ensures that the visits won’t be crowded. We chose AClass cruises, which was quite decent and reasonably priced.

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  1. Bringing some Christmas joy to kids in Vietnam

This year it was for both of us the first time that we spent Christmas away from our families, so we decided to do something special, a TOY donation! We were lucky: our host in Hue worked in the city hall, and helped us to find a school. Since it was our first TOY donation without a van, we had to put all the pre-packed toys in one of our backpacks and take a motorbike to find the school.

We drove around for about half an hour without finding the school, until we found someone who offered to take us there. She climbed up on a motorcycle and we followed her up to the school. We arrived just in time, half an hour before the school finished. One of the teachers in the school spoke a little bit of English, so it was easy to explain to her our project, and when we went to the class to give the toys, she told the kids about our adventure. Christmas is obviously not celebrated in Vietnam, but it’s never a bad moment to receive presents! We played with the children until the school bell rang and they ran to their bicycles to go home. It was really a wonderful Christmas day!

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Only a few days later, another hotel manager, this time in Ninh Binh, helped us prepare our next toy donation. At the beginning she planned to do it in her home village, but since it was too far, and one of the boys in the hotel knew of a place where we could go in Ninh Binh, the plans changed. The place was the Social Protection Centre of the city, which hosts both orphaned children and old people.

We went there early in the morning, accompanied by the boy from the hotel, and were received by the director of the Centre. She told us that all the children were at school in the town, but that we could go give the presents there, as they all studied together. The school was in a tiny village in Trang An, and there too we were very well received by the principal and two other teachers. Our ‘guide’ told them all about our project, and one of the teachers left to gather all the children in a room, while we waited. The kids were all very young, and adorable. At the beginning, they only came to open the presents one by one, but soon they all surrounded the table full of packages and got the toys that they liked. As always, we played with them for a while, until we had to go catch a bus back to Hanoi.

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One of the nicest surprises of our trip was actually on Christmas day, just after we had done our toy donation. We went to eat at a restaurant called Cocodo, and by chance met his French-Vietnamese owner, who happened to own a balloon factory, and offered us to make balloons with our logo for the kids! We can’t wait to receive them, so we can put up some photos.

  1. Food
  • Nu Eatery (Hoi An): our favourite restaurant in Vietnam, they have amazing fresh spring rolls, and an overall tasty menu, for a very cheap price.
  • Phi Banh Mi (Hoi An): its famous sixty-cent sandwiches are so good, that you will want to repeat (we did).
  • Les Jardins de la Carambole (Hue): we recommend this restaurant more for the ambience than for the food (which is still pretty good). We celebrated there our Christmas dinner, and had a lovely time.
  • Chookie’s (Ninh Binh): they make amazing burgers!
  • Street food (Hanoi): our favourite place was Banh Mi 25, which has delicious sandwiches – we went there every day for five days! But street food in Hanoi is generally great: another favourite for us was the Bun Cha.
  • Hanoi Social Club: as we already said, it’s a great place to spend some time working or reading a book. The food is great, but what made us return was its thick and delicious hot chocolate, which reminded Ana of the hot chocolate back home in Spain.
  • Giang Café (Hanoi): this crowded and dirty café created one of Hanoi’s most famous coffee specialities, the egg coffee. It sounds weird, but it is actually great, and we came back both for the egg and coffee and the egg and chocolate.
  • Red Bean: another restaurant for big occasions (New Years Dinner in our case), its Chef’s menu, and particularly the foie gras mi-cuit, was great.
  1. ‘Fun’ facts

Vietnam is the first country that we visited without our van, and we learned fast: take a flight if you can! The flights In Vietnam are most times cheaper, faster, cleaner and more comfortable than the bus or train. If you need to get a bus, we would recommend going to the local bus station, rather than taking the tourist bus. They are dirty and old but the tourist buses weren’t much better and they are more expensive and slower.

We had seen the pointy Chinese style hats everywhere in South East Asia, but the nicest ones that we saw were in Vietnam, as women use a wide lace to tie them (check the Hoi An photo).

Ana and Ludo

 

Disclaimer: all the touristy stuff + restaurants, etc. are at our own expense (just to reassure you that all your donations are TOY-exclusive!)

Cambodia with two extra helpers

Cambodia with two extra helpers

Hi guys,

First of all, Merry Christmas!! We hope you are all having great holidays full of love, happiness, and why not, presents! We are currently in Vietnam and we couldn’t resist, so for one day TOY became Father Christmas, bringing toys to a group of children in a village outside of Hue. Here’s a photo, but you’ll know more on our next newsletter.

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Now, with a big delay, here’s our newsletter about Cambodia. We spent there almost three weeks, most of the time with Ana’s parents, who came to visit from Lisbon, and it was awesome! Also, partly thanks to the help of Ana’s parents, Cambodia is the country where we have done the most donations!

 

Everything starts in Phnom Penh…

We arrived in Phnom Penh just in time to clean the van, do some work and pick up Ana’s exhausted parents from the airport. Even after leaving the country, it still felt like we would go back to Cambodia, simply because we left quite a few times the city (Phnom Penh) and always returned!

Phnom Penh is a messy city, full of tuk tuks and street vendors. It may not be the most beautiful city in South East Asia, but after spending quite a bit of time there, and enjoying its attractions, cafés and restaurants, we learned to like it! Here are some of our favourite things in the city:

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Attractions: the National Museum of Cambodia is so informal that it doesn’t look like a museum, the building is beautiful and the art gives you a taste of what you will later see in Angkor; the Royal Palace, with all its magnificent temples, and the Tuol Sleng museum (S21), which was a school before it became one of the most brutal detention centres of the Pol Pot regime. The Central Market is the place to buy anything you can think of: food, clothes, sunglasses, watches… and the art deco building where it’s placed is very impressive.

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Cafés (to chill or work): when we need to work, we love going to nice cafés and spend the afternoon there. But it is usually very hard to find cool cafés with nice food and drinks and a great atmosphere. Here are two:

  • Tini Café: our favourite. It’s tiny (as the name suggests), really stylish, it has many cool books piled on the tables and a nice little terrace. It also has amazing coffee and a menu consisting of street food that they buy in vendors near the café (which we found pretty awesome).
  • Brown Coffee: the Cambodian Starbucks, as expensive as its American counterpart, but it has amazing burgers and cool locations everywhere.

Restaurants: the food scene wasn’t as amazing as we would have hoped, but we still had some great experiences:

  • Friends (&co.): Friends International is a NGO with restaurants across SE Asia, who help street children get out of poverty, by training them. We went to a few of their restaurants – Makphet in Vientiane, Friends and Romdeng in Phnom Penh and Sandan in Shanoukville. They have different menus, but similar style of food and service that we always enjoyed. If you go, try their desserts, they are usually good.
  • Piccola Italia da Luigi: if you miss European food (which happened to us after almost four months of travel), this is a great place to have a good pizza, and excellent tiramisu. Go there on a weekend, and enjoy the cool vibe of the restaurants and bars on its street.
  • Chinese House: one of the most beautiful restaurants that we had ever visited, it’s situated in one of the last remaining ‘Chinese houses’ in Phnom Penh. Very expensive for Cambodian standards (and for our pockets), but the food is great. The dessert, at least the chocolate degustation, was very disappointing though.

 

First trip: north loop

When you think about Cambodia, you think of Angkor, and this is why our first trip out of the capital was focused on visiting these iconic temples. It was also our first ‘family trip’ in our little three-seat van, which wasn’t as comfortable as we would have liked! It took us about a day and a half of driving to arrive to Siem Reap, and in the way we stopped somewhere very special…

Since they arrived, Ana’s parents insisted that they couldn’t wait to help us with a donation, and the moment came in the afternoon, at about 100 kilometres from Siem Reap. We decided to leave the big road, to explore a bit the countryside, and maybe find a place to do a toy donation. Hidden on a side road of a particularly charming village, we found a school. The school was closed, but in the courtyard we found about two dozen kids playing, while their mothers and grandmothers chatted in the shadow of a palm hut. They didn’t understand much English, so we came back to the van and prepared some packs of toys to give them. It was incredible: the children were extremely happy and surprised about the toys, and it turned out to be one of the most beautiful donations to date. Ana’s parents bought chupa-chups from their own little tent-shop for all the kids (which obviously added to the general excitement!).

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We drove up to Siem Reap that same day, and after an evening resting in a nice hotel, we were ready for a full day of temple visits.

Tickets: you can buy one-day ($20), three-day ($40) and seven-day tickets ($60), and the park opens from 5am to 6pm. We took the one-day ticket, and spent the full day on the temples, from sunrise to almost sunset. In a day you have the time to see all the main temples, and depending on your pace (and strength!) some more secluded ones.

Main temples

  • Angkor Wat is the biggest of the three, and a great place to start the day, having breakfast while enjoying the sunrise behind the temple. Tip: we asked our hotel to prepare a breakfast box, as we left before 5am!
  • Angkor Thom is Ana’s favourite temple, and it has the most impressive sculptures, which shape the walls and columns of the temple. Be warned: it is also the most crowded temple that we visited!
  • Ta Prohm, also known as the jungle temple, due to the gigantic trees growing from its walls. Its jungle surrounding makes it the most magical of the three.

Other temples

There are hundreds of temples in Angkor Wat, and though most of them aren’t as impressive as the main three, we highly recommend choosing a few of them to visit. Most of them are empty and lost in the middle of the jungle, and instead of the clicking of cameras, you hear sounds of animals when you visit them. Our two recommendations are Ta Nei, because it’s beautiful and very close to Ta Prohm (an easy choice if you don’t have much time). Phnom Bok is further away, and you’ll have to climb 600 stairs to get to it, but the views and the temple itself, with two imposing trees growing from the walls, are worth it.

Get around: the distances between temples can be very long (5 km or more), so it’s worth it to book a tuk tuk for the day (around $20), that would take you anywhere you want. Otherwise you can get tuk tuks on the way, but you’ll have to haggle a lot or it may cost you much more!

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The road back to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap is long, and not always in the best condition, so we decided to break it in two, and stop for one night in Battambang. We only spent half a day in this town, but had time to enjoy its tranquil vibe and the beautiful colonial architecture (especially in streets 1.5, 2, 2.5).

Not too far from Phnom Penh, in the little town of Kampong Chhnang, where we stopped for a quick lunch break on the road, we landed by chance in front of an orphanage. We were welcome by the principal who spoke French, which helped a lot. The Kampong Chhnang orphanage is a public institution with about 30 children. All the children go to a school nearby and learn English at the orphanage. Most of them still have living parents but ended up in this institution either because of poverty or family issues. As always, we brought the toys, in this case to the library of the orphanage, and soon the children gathered in groups to play, or to read their new English books. We spoke with a few of the older ones, who told us about themselves and their future prospects: most of them planned on going to university in Phnom Penh.

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Second trip: island escape at Koh Rong

After the stress of the first four days and two toy donations, an island holiday was the best way to regain our strength. We drove up to Sihanoukville, in the south of Cambodia, and took a ferry there to go to Koh Rong, where we spent two amazing days chilling in its beautiful white sand beaches.

Two recommendations: there are fast and slow ferries (both around $20 two ways). They are usually late and pretty unreliable schedule-wise. The most important is to book in advance your return (on arrival you can go to the counter and tell them which boat you want to take on your way back). And even if you book in advance, boats are generally overbooked, so you should be the first on the line to get in. Otherwise they might not let you in, and there are only three boats per day! Our second recommendation is to get you hotel in advance, and choose it depending on the beaches that are close to it, as those are the ones you will end up using.

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Back to work in Phnom Penh

We went back to Phnom Penh, as it was time for Ana’s parents to go back home. Understandably, we had a bit of accumulated work, so we spent there a few days to catch up. During those days, we also visited an orphanage in a little village, 30 km away from the city. It took us a while to find it (two days): after going to a completely wrong location the first day, we managed to find the Peaceful Children’s Home on the second day. This institution is great for children, its located in the countryside and its grounds cover about 5 sq. km, including various houses, the school, and fields. When we arrived, a few children who were playing in a courtyard ran to call their teacher, who spoke French. He said that they had been waiting for our visit the day before, so they thought we wouldn’t come.

We brought the toys to a low table in the courtyard, outside one of the classes. This time, one present stood out: a white board in which you can draw and then delete the traces. We spend quite a bit of time writing our names and doing drawings, and showed the kids how to play ‘Pictionary’. We also played with some puzzles, and a kitchen set.

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Third trip: Crab in Kep

A few days before leaving Cambodia, after some days working in Phnom Penh, we decided to go on one last weekend trip: to visit the seaside fishing village of Kep. We spent there two amazing (and relaxing) days, and loved it!

Kep is very small, it lacks a clear centre, and there is not much to do. But if what you want is to relax, it’s a great escape from the capital. There is a small beach, a bit crowded on weekends, but very clean, and a nice seafront promenade that takes you from the beach to our favourite place: the crab market! In the market you can choose to buy fresh seafood to take home, or stop and eat in one of the many restaurants adjacent to it. We spent a long time chilling in one of the best-looking restaurants, Holy Crab, that does great juices (we recommend the passion fruit one). Its terrace is the best place to see the sunset and the boats of fishermen unloading the crab. For the crab, we recommend So Kheang, it has better prices and we like the simplicity of the crab with kampot pepper sauce (both crab and sauce are delicious).

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… And everything ends in Phnom Penh!

On the way back from Kep, since it was still early, we decided to stop on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in another orphanage that we had contacted. The place was a big contrast to our last donation near Phnom Penh. Dirty small streets lead to the entrance of the building of People Improvement Organisation’s orphanage, where around seventy children live. While this institution was probably the poorest that we had visited, the children were the warmest, and welcomed us with open arms in their home. While Ludo went to get the toys in the van, a group of girls combed and did Ana’s hair (see the result on the photo below). When Ludo came back with the presents, chaos ensued for a couple of minutes. But after some initial small fighting and jealousies, as it usually happens, the children calmed down and started forming groups to play. Some played with puzzles, others painted on colouring books, others played with dolls, etc. They also loved taking photos, and even helped us select the best ones. We stayed until nightfall and were sad to say goodbye to these amazing children.

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And last, but not least, Ana’s parents brought to Cambodia someone very important: Aito, Ana’s teddy bear since she was a baby, very famous amongst Ana’s friends and family! He is probably the reason that we think toys are so important to children… and grown ups apparently. So basically, one of the reasons why project TOY exists! 🙂

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A note on visiting orphanages in SE Asia

When doing charity work in South East Asia, you have to be conscious of a sad phenomenon: while there are less and less orphans, the number of orphanages keeps growing to profit from individual’s will to help the kids. Therefore, it is very important to choose well the institutions that you work with, to be sure that they are not making a profit from the children, as well as to ensure that your contribution will be positive for the children’s lives. Most institutionalised children suffer from affective disorders, and having strangers come and leave their lives doesn’t help for their development. Of course, not everything is black and white, and many orphanages are doing an exceptional work, while families can be sometimes the ones abusing the children.

A good alternative is to support organisations that help keep the families together. There is a great communication campaign at the moment in Cambodia, led by the organisation Friends International. They explain it better than we do: http://thinkchildsafe.org/when-i-travel/. They give great tips on how to be “child friendly” while travelling, at home and even while volunteering.

Ana and Ludo

 

Disclaimer: all the touristy stuff + restaurants, etc. are at our own expense (just to reassure you that all your donations are TOY-exclusive!)

Our Jungle Book in Laos

Our Jungle Book in Laos

Hi guys,

The time we spent in Laos flew by, and we are back to work, writing all the amazing things about this beautiful, relaxed country. Arriving in Laos felt like holidays for the first time, but don’t worry we haven’t spent much time relaxing! We are sad to leave the country after just 12 days but something great is waiting for us in Phnom Penh: Ana’s parents are coming to see us tomorrow!

 

THE EXPERIMENT

Back in Laos, we started an experiment that has been very positive so far. Basically, being as busy as we are, the hours of light in a day are priceless for us: when it’s dark we can’t visit schools or orphanages, we shouldn’t drive (too dangerous), and we can’t do tourism. So what we wanted is to be up and running from 5:30, when the sun is raising. But waking up at 5 is not easy, we tried to do it but end up snoozing our alarm, sometimes for hours. Therefore our experiment was born: when we entered Laos we put all our watches two hours in advance, it was 7pm at Laos, so 9pm for us. And it worked! We wake up at 7 (5 local time), we have late lunches and dinners (Spanish time), everything closes “later”, we can visit cities or parks without any tourists around us… If you are travelling, we definitely recommend doing this; choose the time that suits you best!

Now, to our Laos highlights.

 

NORTH OF LAOS

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The north of Laos (north of Vientiane, and especially north of Luang Prabang) is the area in Laos that has the most beautiful landscapes, and the people are really friendly and welcoming, we loved it! The forests are greener and thicker, there are lots of small mountains, and the little villages on the verge of the road, with their wooden houses on stilts, are enchanting. It is the best place to go trekking, and home to the Bokeo Nature Reserve, where you can try the ‘Gibbon experience’ (which we would have loved to try but it was a bit over our budget). Here are some things that we did do, and loved:

Luang Prabang: one of our favourite cities since the beginning of the trip, it is charming, relaxing, and it has great places to eat! The old city centre is surrounded by the Mekong, on one side, and the Nam Kham on the other, and there are many beautiful terraces to chill and enjoy the view. Here are some things you should definitely do in Luang Prabang.

  • Attend the alms giving ceremony, which takes place every day at sunrise, and consists of monks collecting offerings (rice, sweets, etc.). The city has temples in every corner and our favourite was the Wat Xieng Thongm in front of the Mekong.
  • Visit the palace museum, with its spectacular throne room, and climb early in the morning the Phou Si Mountain, which has great views to the city.
  • Try the refreshing – and very cheap – fruit shakes at the night market (the shakes are there all day)… we drank at least 5 shakes per day! Also at the night market, but only at night, we had the best sweets in Laos: they are like mini-pancakes, made of rice and coconut, and served on a leaf basket.

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Where to eat:

  • The Apsara: our favourite in Laos, this restaurant has an amazing Mekong Panin fish with tamarind sauce, and we still crave its delicious tapioca dessert, with mango, coconut cream, palm sugar and sesame praline.
  • Busari: one of the best terraces on the riverside, complemented with good and beautifully presented food (the curry was delicious) and excellent Lao coffee.

Kuang Si Waterfall: in Luang Prabang, you’ll notice hundreds of tuk-tuk offering to take you to this waterfall, only thirty kilometres south of the city. This gave us a hint that we should arrive before the crowd, and so we did: we arrived at sunrise, and had an amazing time, for over two hours, alone in the park. It feels like you are entering the Jungle Book, where you can swim in sparkling waterfalls or walk up to the last and highest one.

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Vang Vieng and Vientiane: the cities are nothing special, and only worth it for their surroundings, or as a stop on the road. Near Vang Vieng, you can practice many activities such as kayaking, “tubing”, visiting caves and trekking. We tried “tubing” (sliding in the river on a floating tube) in the Elephant caves, which was really fun, even though we were completely unprepared and came out with all our clothes soaked. In Vientiane, you can spend half a day walking around the city, and move on.

Where to eat:

  • Makphet: it has good Lao food, a cute terrace and supports a great cause. All the waiters are former street children who are taught waiting and cooking.

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ON THE ROAD

As soon as we crossed the border to Laos, we were shocked by the poverty of the country, and especially by the enormous amount of children, most of them very young, working with their parents. Sometimes even without their parents: for example we saw a little girl of around 11 working alone in a gas station. Most of those children don’t even go to school, which made us decide to try something new: usually we only give toys in orphanages, poor schools and other institutions, but this time we also did some donations on the road, to groups of kids that were working. Both the kids and the parents were very surprised to see us coming with packs full of toys, but after we “explained” (mostly by signs) what we were doing, they were all very happy, and the children’s reaction showed us that it was worth it!

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SOUTH OF LAOS

In the south, the landscapes are more flat and less “jungly” (which actually helped the driving part), but still stunning. We spent here less time than in the north, but had time to see some incredible things:

Bolaven Plateau: home to breath-taking waterfalls (Tad Lo was our favourite), it is the “coffee capital” of the country.

Wat Phou Temple: the Lao equivalent of Angkor Wat, it is smaller but both the temple and its surroundings are splendid. And in comparison to the world-famous Angkor temple, you won’t see many tourists here!

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Si Phan Don: the 4000 islands is a magical place, an archipelago in the Mekong river, very close to the border with Cambodia. There is no way to enter the main two islands (Don Det and Don Khon) with your car, so we parked ours and crossed in a tiny boat. Both islands are very beautiful, especially when you leave the tourist areas, and we spent a day and a half cycling around, swimming in the river and relaxing in the sun. At night, we did a two-hour boat trip crossing hundreds of little islands, until sunset, which was definitely a highlight of our short stay there.

Where to eat (and hire the boat trip, and sleep):

  • Crazy Gecko: it has a very nice terrace on the river, which was built (together with the guest house next door) by the owner, who works there with his adorable wife. We went for breakfast and dinner (the lentil curry was amazing), rented our bikes and even hired our boat trip there (the owner took us through a really beautiful route with no tourists in sight). The guesthouse is also nice: it has three rooms with enormous terraces and a great view to the river.

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Surprise visit to the Kaeng School

In a little village called Kaeng we found a small secondary school, where Ludo asked whether they knew a place with younger children where we could give toys. One of the teachers there offered to take us to a primary school nearby, so we followed her motorbike through small dirt roads for a while, until we got there. The school was tiny, it only had four classrooms and a playground in front. When we arrived, the children were on a break, and welcomed us with smiles and cries, but soon they went to class, and we spoke to the teachers in the school to explain our project. We decided that we would give toys in one of the classrooms, with the younger children, who would later share the toys with the rest of the school. As always, we went to the van to prepare a few packages, and we also brought with us one of the big teddy bears.

When we entered the class, the children welcomed us with smiles of surprise and even some distrust. We were in a tiny village, far away from any tourist places, and they had never had any occidental visitors. The classroom was very simple, only a few rugs on the floor and a wooden blackboard, so we put the presents on the floor in front of the children. Only a couple of kids were brave enough to come forward to open the packages, and as soon as the first presents emerged, others came as well. Ana spent a while playing Lego with some kids, and Ludo giving toys to some of the girls, who were much more shy. When we had to go, all the children left the classroom, and came to say bye to us, and before leaving, we saw that some of them had already started sharing the toys with kids from the other classes!

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To be continued…

Ana and Ludo

 

Disclaimer: all the touristy stuff + restaurants, etc. are at our own expense (just to reassure you that all your donations are TOY-exclusive!)

From north to south: crossing China in 20 days

From north to south: crossing China in 20 days

Hi guys,

We have just entered Laos, the weather is suddenly much warmer, and (of course) we got our first mosquito bites! Welcome to South East Asia!

After crossing Russia, Mongolia and China, our average driving hours have increased, to 300 km per day! This is a lot of driving, and we hope here in the south we’ll manage to take things easier but luckily for you, driving turns out to be the best moment to write our newsletters. So here come the highlights from the north to the south of China, in 20 days!

 

Entering China by car (and other tips and facts about China)

Crossing the Chinese border by car is not (at all) as simple as it was in Russia or Mongolia, in fact it is almost impossible if you want to do it by yourself. We had to hire an agency to do all the paperwork required by Chinese authorities: temporary Chinese plate and driving licenses, communication of the itinerary to the military, traffic control and government, and probably many other things that we don’t even know about (and that no one will tell you if you try to ask). Together with the paperwork, you are required to drive in China with a guide, who waits for you at the border and spends the rest of the trip with you. When we arrived at the border, our guide Yingchu was already waiting for us, with bad news: the car has to stay at the border for 24h for some papers to be processed. The joys of border crossing!

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At least those 24h were valuable for us to learn some things about China, and to prepare our trip. Yingchu was very helpful, and gave us many useful tips. Here are some, together with other things that we found out by ourselves along the way:

  • Highway tolls are charged per kilometre, which varies depending on the province, and is very expensive, more than in many countries in Europe! If you want to avoid them, you can use the national roads, which are usually in a good condition, but your trip will take you twice as long.
  • Contrary to what we had heard, people generally drive safely in China, and in fact most of the time their mistake is that they drive too slowly, and on the left lane (which means you end up overtaking cars in a zigzag fashion).
  • Food and accommodation are usually quite cheap in China, which made us believe that we’d manage to keep a low budget during our trip… but surprise: the cost of tourist attractions is extremely high, except in Beijing, where it is a bit more reasonable.
  • Internet doesn’t work well in most places in China, and if you need to use Google, Facebook and other similar sites, you need to download a VPN, to avoid restrictions. Fun fact: we spent the first half an hour in China complaining about the terrible Internet of our hotel… not realising that the sites we were trying to open were blocked! And a tip: for the phone we downloaded the app Betternet, which worked well and is free.
  • In China, most people drink hot water, either alone or with tea, and you can find it pretty much anywhere. It comes very handy when you buy pot noodles, or if you want to make tea on the go.
  • In restaurants you can usually find varied food, but if you want to buy a snack for the road, you’ll have some trouble: it is impossible to find sandwiches or bread in the supermarkets, that only sell Chinese products, and a very tiny selection of foreign food (basically Chips Ahoy and Oreo). Even Lays have only strange flavours: cucumber, smoked pork bbq, beef burger… Expect to find instead a wide selection of noodles, and of chicken feet. Ludo didn’t seem to appreciate it so much…

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The best welcome in Beijing

After a few toy distributions in Mongolia and Russia, we knew that it was time to refill our van with new toys, especially before entering South East Asia. Our guide, Yingchu, had a friend in Beijing whose daughter attends a local primary school, and who loved our project. Together with his daughter and the school principal, they organised the most amazing toy donation we could have imagined.

We arrived in their school after lunch, and were welcomed by the principal and a group of girls in school uniforms, who walked us to the school hall. Inside, a little girl dressed in traditional clothes started playing a beautiful song with a Chinese instrument.

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After this magical beginning, we visited all the classrooms, and in each one the children had prepared something special for us: a kung fu performance, songs, dance, etc. Finally we entered a big room, and soon all the kids of the school (over two hundred) came to join us. Here, with the help of a microphone and Yingchu as a translator, we explained our project to the kids; we talked about what we had done so far and where their toys are going. Some of the children asked us questions at the end, but most of them just wanted to say bonjour, hola or hello!

We thought this great evening was over, but they had prepared some other surprises for us: a class of Chinese brush writing, a demonstration of some traditional toys, and a Chinese sweets degustation. Obviously we couldn’t collect toys from two hundred children, and when we headed back to our van, about twenty of them followed us carrying bags full of toys. They gave us so many toys, that they don’t fit in our boxes, and our bed has been covered by toys since then!

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Hidden highlights of Beijing

The first thing we noticed when we entered Beijing was the enormous number of electric scooters. They are everywhere, in the big avenues and small hutongs, and come behind you without making a sound. Soon we found out that this wasn’t as eco-friendly as we thought when we arrived: most of the electricity in China is generated from coal! We still loved the city, and even extended our stay by a few days. There are many ‘must do’ visits in Beijing (the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Lama Temple, the Temple of Heaven…) but here we’ll talk about some lesser-known things that we really loved:

Beijing Opera: we went to a performance in the HuGuang Guild Hall, and we had a great time. For a reasonable price you get your own table in front of the stage, with tea and some typical snacks. The opera is completely different from anything you would have seen before, so whether you like it or not it’s an experience you’ll never forget!

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Acrobatics: if you enjoy watching the impossible come to life in front of you, you will love Chinese acrobatics. We saw twelve girls riding one single bike, a boy doing acrobatics on top of chairs twenty meters above our heads and eight motorbikes running inside a small iron sphere, among many other incredible things.

Muxiyuan Fabric Market: if, like Ana, you like making your own clothes and home décor, this is the place to go. Although finding good quality fabrics in such a gigantic space is not easy, you’ll be very happy when you do, as prices are much lower than in Europe.

798 Art Zone: home to the coolest art galleries in Beijing, as well as beautiful yet overpriced shops and boutiques, it’s a great place to spend a relaxed afternoon.

Wudaoying hutong: probably the trendiest hutong in Beijing, very close to the Lama Temple. It has the coolest and most beautiful boutiques (including some Chinese designers), teahouses and restaurants.

And, of course, the food:

Yoghurt and sweets: our favourite ‘street food’ is the yoghurt, which in China is eaten with a straw (easy while walking around). Don’t pick the ones with the glass container, as you’ll have to eat (drink) them on the spot and give the container back. We also loved the pastries: even tough you’re never too sure of what you’re buying, trying them and finding it out is fun and most of the times very tasty!

Peking roast duck: it’s an unmissable dish in Beijing, brought to us from imperial times. We loved its thin and crisp skin, sliced by the chef in front of you. Siji Minfu (near the Forbidden City) has an excellent and reasonably priced peking duck, but you’ll have to wait about thirty minutes to get a table.

Black sesame kitchen: our favourite restaurant in China (and top three in the world tour so far), its food and concept are amazing. Located in a small, dark hutong, when you enter the beautiful courtyard, you join a table of 8 people in a room with a totally open kitchen. The concept: meeting new people while you eat with them, and seeing your food cooked by three chefs in front of you (there’s even a mirror in the ceiling so you can see inside the pans). The food: ten delicious Chinese dishes, including an amazing and surprising dessert: black sesame ice cream with caramelised sweet potato fries (the dessert alone is worth a visit to Beijing!).

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China, from north to south

Great Wall: we visited the Great Wall at a place very close to Beijing (Badaling), and we have to admit that we were a bit underwhelmed. The views from there were nice, but it was crowded (being so close to Beijing makes it a favourite for tourists), and perfectly restored. We’d recommend visiting instead other more authentic and less visited parts of the wall.

Hanging Temple (in the Hengshan mountain): on our way to the Yungang grottoes in Datong, we stopped in this amazing 1500-year-old temple, which is solely supported by wooden pillars inserted in the mountain.

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 Yungang Grottoes: one of our favourite sights in China, we went there with no expectations, and were amazed by the number, dimensions and beauty of all the Buddha, stupas and other sculptures in the grottoes. Most of the more than 40 grottos are dated from the 5th to the 6th centuries and their state of conservation is impressive.

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Pingyao, Fenghuang and other ancient villages: during our journey, we were lucky to cross some very beautiful ancient villages. From the majestic mansions of Pingyao, to the charming riverside village of Fenghuang, to Miao villages in the south, we loved all of them! The drawback? Most of them charge an entry fee, and they are a bit too touristy for our liking. Fun fact: in Fenghuang, we played catch the mouse to escape the many city checkpoints, and managed to visit it for free!

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Terracotta Warriors: no matter how many photos you have seen before, the warriors are still an imposing sight. You cannot but think about the enormous power of an emperor who, at age 13, started to build this incredible army. But what really surprised us was to see the work in progress of the archaeologists who are restoring the army on the site.

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Xi’an: most people visit Xi’an to see the neighbouring Terracotta Warriors, but this city has some interesting sights of its own. Some of our favourites are: the pretty Wild Goose Pagoda, the History Museum, which showcases a selection of pottery and sculptures from different Chinese dynasties, and the night market at the Muslim Quarter, where you can try some of the city’s traditional dishes: we loved the Chinese burger (tip: go to the stand with the longest queue), the sweets and the nuts.

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 Zhangjiajie Scenic Area: it’s recognised as China’s first national park, but it only became famous amongst foreign tourists when its landscape was used as the inspiration for Avatar’s Pandora planet. We were lucky to go there on low season to enjoy the breath-taking vertical rocky mountains. But beware: beauty has its price, in this case over 45 euros per person- train, elevator and cable car not included!

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Yangshuo: this is China how you had always imagined and seen in movies. Take a quiet boat trip and enjoy the beautiful mountain surroundings – which rival those of Zhangjiajie.

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Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces: we saw rice terraces all over the south of China, but these ones were the most spectacular. The surrounding villages are populated by colourful ethnic groups, and offer one our favourite dishes in China: steamed rice cooked inside a bamboo stick.

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The best way to say good-bye

After our amazing toy collection in Beijing, we were looking forward to also give some toys. We knew about the problem of the so called ‘left-behind children’ in China: children whose parent or parents move away from home hundreds of kilometres, usually to work in cities. According to china.org.cn, there are 61 million left-behind children in China, half of which have seen both of their parents leave, and most of which live with their grandparents, although some of them even live on their own. In the countryside of the south of China, this phenomenon is very common, so we thought it would be the best place to find a school to support.

With the help of our guide Yingchu, we found a school in a small village in the Guizhou province. The Qiaosang Primary School had no idea about our visit when we went in and asked to speak to the principal. We explained our project and asked some questions about his school. Most of the kids in the school, as we had imagined, were ‘left-behind children’ who slept in the school during the week, and spent the weekend with their grandparents.

A couple of hours later we were back in the school, with our hands full of presents. A class of about thirty children of 4 to 6 years old was waiting for us when we came in with all the toys and a big teddy bear. The children were literally screaming of joy, which called the attention of the rest of the kids in the school. It was also lunchtime, so kids were coming in and out with bowls full of rice and meat. Soon the class was overcrowded with children of all ages screaming, playing and eating. In this big mess, we were surprised to see that none of the children were fighting for the toys or left behind: they played together with them, and then put them back happily in a common playground table… we had never seen such a genuine sharing spirit before!

As always, we played with the kids, and smiled when they tried to speak to us in Chinese. The principal then called us outside, and invited us to have lunch in the canteen with him and other school employees. Everyone – from the cook to the principal – was sitting around a hot stove full of boiling meat and vegetables, and eating together. Another great sharing moment for us, and the best way to say goodbye to China!

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Ludo with Yingchu on the way to the school

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Ana and Ludo

 

 

Disclaimer: all the touristy stuff + restaurants, etc. are at our own expense (just to reassure you that all your donations are TOY-exclusive!)

Our Mongolian adventures

Our Mongolian adventures

Hi guys,

After spending three amazing weeks in Mongolia, we have just crossed the border into China. Our van, however, is stuck in customs for the day (lots of paperwork to get a car into China…), which makes this the perfect time to write all about our Mongolian experience!

Our first few days in Mongolia weren’t the most exciting: we stayed in Ulaanbaatar and worked a lot. We had to write our Russian newsletter, to organise toy collections and distributions, obtain our Chinese visa, organise a horse-riding trip and last, but not least, clean an enormous amount of toys! Here’s how our hotel room looked like:

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Our stay in Ulaanbaatar was very long – way too long considering we didn’t like the city all that much – and it got further extended when Ludo, after our horse riding tour, got quite sick for a couple of days (he’s feeling great now, so don’t worry!). This led to an unpleasant visit to a hospital, and a few more days of working from bed. On the bright side, we still managed to do some really cool stuff:

Erdene Zuu monastery (in the ancient capital of Mongolia, Kharkhorin): the monastery is beautiful; it has about seven temples still standing, and a myriad of Buddhist figures and paintings. But for us the highlight was to experience our first Buddhist ceremony in one of those temples. We were amazed by the chants of the monks, the people bringing offerings and the smell of food coming from inside.

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Horse riding trip: it was so amazing that it deserves its own section!

Gobi desert: we visited the famous Flaming Cliffs, in the South Gobi area, and the impressive valley of Yoliin Am, with its lunar landscape and beautiful snow capped mountains. A word of advice: if you want to visit the Gobi desert, hire a four-wheel drive (our van struggled quite a bit on the bumpy dirt roads…)!

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Giving and collecting toys

During our first days in Mongolia, we met two people who helped us a lot in the following weeks, and made our experience so much better: Nara and Baggy. Thanks to them we organised two toy donations and a toy collection, we enjoyed the most amazing horse riding trip, we found a hospital for Ludo and sorted our car insurance. But most importantly, we made two new friends!

Our first toy donation was a bit different to what we had done so far… A local politician from the Khentii province in the middle of a seven-day tour through a few villages to visit institutions and kindergartens and see how he could help them. He invited us to join him in a little village called Modot, to give toys in the town’s kindergarten.

When we arrived, a few cars were already waiting for us. We took the toys and went inside the building together with the politician, our friend Baggy, an assistant of the politician, a photographer and a cameraman. Quite a spectacle. Before giving the toys, speeches were given, even from us, and recorded by the cameraman. There were about twenty kids in the room, who seemed very bored from the speeches… but everything changed when we started distributing big packages full of toys! The children loved the toys, and quickly started playing together. We taught a few of them how to use a little bowling game, and played with them. Before leaving, we visited the building, which dated from the soviet era and was quite deteriorated, especially, according to them, the heating system, too old to stand the incredibly cold winters in Mongolia. They also showed us two small gers that are used as a kindergarten.

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13Ludo and Baggy in the ger/kindergarten

The day we gave the toys in Modot, the politician said that he would help us with a toy collection, and so he did. He manages a university in the centre of Ulaanbaatar, and asked some of the students to volunteer to collect toys for us. A week later, we had an appointment in the university to collect the toys. Unfortunately, Ludo was a bit busy that day… at the hospital. So Ana had to go alone. They videotaped an interview with her, and also the actual toy collection, so that they could show it in the university. Ana came back to the hotel with two bags full of toys, and three massive teddy bears that almost don’t fit in the van!

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15Crossing the Chinese border

 

Discovering Mongolia on the back of a horse

One of our dreams in the world tour was to do a horse-riding trip in Mongolia. Horses are extremely important in the country, and although in some places they have been replaced by motorcycles, they are still widely used in the countryside. Pictures of horses even appear on Mongolian notes! But the majority of tours are very expensive, and most of the tour companies were closed, so we turned to our friend Nara to organise something for us. What he did was amazing: four days riding horses across the countryside, sleeping with different nomadic families along the way.

We rented five horses from the first nomadic family: one for the guide, one for Nara – who decided to join us in our adventure –, two for us and one for the baggage. Before the start of the trip we slept in a ger for the first time, which helped us familiarise with the life of the nomads and learn some things about Mongolian horses. Here’s what we learned:

  • There are more horses than people in Mongolia (over three million).
  • Mongolians use the same word for “riding” a horse and “falling” of a horse.
  • All Mongolian horses are semi-wild, so they can do unexpected things.
  • You should always approach and mount the horses from their left side.
  • All horses kick with any leg and in any direction, and they all bite.
  • They are incredibly strong and resistant, and are able to spend a few days without eating and a long time without drinking. They can run hundreds of kilometres in a day.
  • No one feeds the horses; they have to find their own food. In winter it becomes harder, and instead of water, they eat the snow.

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The first day, we travelled for over eight hours, only stopping to eat and to let the horses drink. The landscapes were amazing; we were completely lost from civilisation. In total we spent seven hours on the horse, much, much more than any of us had ever experienced! We arrived at the next ger when the night was pitch black, and had to find it by doing light signs, as our guide didn’t know exactly where it was located. When we arrived, it was like arriving in paradise, we immediately fell on the floor – we could barely walk! – and were extremely grateful for the hot soup and tea that they served us.

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The next morning, we woke up to a really cold and windy day. Before getting the horses, we went with the nomads to see how they milk the mares. The work is extremely hard, as the horses are wild, and they have to catch and attach over 100 of them and milk them one by one, before they let them free again. Nara told us that they do this every three hours! The horrible wind wasn’t helping, in fact, it didn’t help us much either. Nara gave us some warm traditional clothes (deel) to ride, and at the beginning it worked out, it felt great to gallop really fast against the strong wind. But after our lunch pause, Ana became so cold, that when she got on the horse she couldn’t move her hands or feet.

Thankfully, there was a little town close by and one hour later we were warming up with a tea inside a ger. What to do now? Nara had the answer: “there’s a small kindergarten close by, we can visit it and see if they would like to receive some toys”. And there we went. The kindergarten was really nice, the building was new, it had opened just the week before, but all the shelves were almost empty, the children had nothing to play with! The principal told us that she asked some of the parents to bring some toys, but that they still didn’t have enough for so many children. Most of the children came from very poor nomadic families and couldn’t bring any toys. So it was decided: we would come back the next day to give toys to their youngest class.

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Nara had called his wife to meet us and bring some warm clothes for us, so we used her car to drive back to our van where we selected all the toys for the following day. And so, our third day of the trip started with an unexpected toy donation! We arrived early at the school, and went to the class of the two-year-olds. At the beginning they were a bit scared of us – they never see any foreigners – but, when they opened the presents, they were really happy to play with us. Before we left, the principal had a surprise for us: a book about the history of kindergartens in the country, a figure of a boy with a horse, and the most special, a sort of good-luck ritual. We went to the van where they poured milk in a bowl that we held on top of a long blue ribbon, and we both drank from it.

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It was still cold, but with our new warm clothes we felt ready to start riding again. The third and fourth days, then, we spent most of the time riding, leaving the Mongolian steppe and arriving to a mountain and forest area. We crossed the forest with the horses, quite an epic ride, and even saw a wolf in the end of our last day! Our trip finished at the top of a mountain, the place where Genghis Khan became a king hundreds of years ago, before conquering one of the biggest empires in history!

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28Following Nara into the woods

29The trip ends on the mountain where Genghis Khan was declared king – we did it!

 

The life of a nomadic family

Nomads in Mongolia live very differently from us, in very harsh conditions, but they are still extremely welcoming. Here are some things we learnt about them, during the five nights that we spent in gers:

  • Whole families sleep in a single ger, not allowing for much privacy, although when a couple gets married, they buy a new one. Grandparents usually take care of their grandchildren, either because the parents are working in the field all day, or because they live far away in the city.
  • They move the ger to a different place every month or two, and young families often move every two weeks! This offers a richer soil for their cattle and horses, and avoids depletion. In winter, however, they tend to stay in one place, so it is for them a time to rest.
  • Winter is also the best time to enjoy fermented mare milk, an alcoholic beer-like drink that they love. Fun fact: in the first ger that we visited, the grandfather was thought to have spent all night looking for some horses who got lost, but the next day we found out that he had drunk too much mare milk at some neighbouring ger and had to stay there… the grandmother wasn’t happy!
  • Gers are quite environmentally friendly: they get their light from solar panels, and heat the central stove with dry manure… nothing is lost! In winter, however, they use coal, as it lasts longer during cold nights.
  • A yurt is made from sheepskin and cotton on the outside. In winter, temperatures drop to -30 or even -40 degrees, so they add new layers of wool. The deel (traditional clothes) are also much warmer in winter.
  • Even if small, gers have different areas: on the right for the family, on the left for the guests, and the door always looks to the south.
  • Most nomadic families organise themselves in cooperatives, which help them sell their products better, although some big families still work alone.
  • Some rules when entering a ger: never step on the door frame, put your right foot first, and sit down as soon as you come in, on the left side. If they offer you food, you should at least try it, even if you don’t manage to finish it.
  • Visitors sleep on the floor, as there are usually only one or two small beds, but the family puts some blankets on the floor to make it more comfortable. At night it gets quite cold, so you should always bring warm clothes and a sleeping bag.
  • Our favourite part of the day was the morning: the grandmother wakes up early and lights the stove, to start preparing breakfast. So you always wake up warm and smelling of the delicious tea!
  • We spent a lot of time playing with the children, with a few toys that we brought for them. Most of the younger kids were scared of the toys at the beginning, thinking that they were real animals!

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What to eat in Mongolia

Mongolian traditional food consists of a few main ingredients: meat (usually mutton), flour, and dairy products. When you visit a ger, the first thing that they give you, at any time of the day, is Mongolian tea, made with milk and a pinch of salt. In the ger they usually eat only twice a day, breakfast and dinner. As our friend Nara told us one day, “Mongolians eat like wolves and run like horses”. And it’s true; they eat everything with their hands, and share the food from a large plate, that they put in the middle of the table or even on the floor! These are the typical plates that they cook (warning: Mongolian food is only suitable for real carnivores, or dairy fanatics!):

  • Soups: with mutton meat, pasta slivers and dumplings. We had them both for breakfast and for dinner!
  • Cooked mutton: we had it one day for breakfast (see picture below).
  • Buuz: steamed mutton meat dumplings, sometimes with onion.
  • Khuushuur: other kind of mutton dumplings, deep-fried in mutton fat. Believe it or not, they are delicious!
  • Khorkhog: often cooked in special occasions, the meat gets cooked with hot stones. After eating, holding the hot stones in your hands is supposed to be good for blood circulation.
  • Dairy products include organic butter (which tastes more like milk than butter, but is delicious), dried curds and yogurt. We ate a type of yogurt made with cream and berries, Ludo’s favourite!

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We hope this gave you a taste of Mongolia, and that you will discover this incredible country one day! We’ll now spend three weeks in China, and will tell you about it in our next newsletter.

Ana and Ludo

 

A long way to lake Baikal

A long way to lake Baikal

Hi guys,

We have recently arrived in Mongolia, and are now spending a few days in its capital to take care of some work, organise a collection and donation of toys, and prepare a small horse riding escapade… but we will tell you all about that in our next newsletter. Now we have finally found some time to write about the three weeks or so that we spent crossing Russia.

Part 1: A few facts about Russia…

  • The roads in Russia aren’t as bad as some people say, except when they’re worse…

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  • This means that we spent a lot of time driving, in a country that is already massive (the biggest in the world).
  • Most of the houses in the countryside are made of wood, and most of them are falling apart. Still, they keep constructing them in wood, as it is much cheaper.
  • There are beautiful churches everywhere, even when the rest of the town is falling apart. In Moscow alone, there are more than 600 churches plus 200 in construction!
  • No one speaks English! This is a well-known fact, but still didn’t fail to shock us. In some places, they can’t even understand basic words, like hello or thank you.
  • If you are spending more than a couple of days in Russia, learning to read the Cyrillic alphabet will make your life much easier. It can be learnt in a few hours, as it shares many letters with our alphabet.
  • The weight of the Second World War is still very present here. There are monuments in even the smallest cities dedicated to the soldiers, and we even saw a banner in one school saying ‘1941-1945: Thank you for your victory!’
  • In Russia there’s an unwritten rule on driving: ‘if your car can do it, do it’. This means you’ll see people driving over railways, muddy roadside and all sorts of fields to avoid being stuck in traffic, amongst other things.
  • Police controls are very frequent, but we never had to worry, as there are many better candidates to be stopped before us!
  • Environment doesn’t seem to be yet a concern for Russians: you can see piles of trash everywhere, even in National Parks and in beautiful areas such as the lake Baikal.

 

Part 2: A very important day for the TOY project

On the 11 of September, exactly one month after our departure from Mondoñedo, we spent an incredible day giving toys in two institutions in two very secluded little villages, one hour away from the town of Vladimir. It all started with the help of a group of people that we met in our hostel. We were lucky to meet Natalia, a Russian woman who spent over ten years in Italy, and who was very keen to help us. We had a hard time communicating with locals in Russia, as no one speaks English, so the fact that this woman spoke Italian was a lifesaver.

Natalia’s initial idea was to take us to a hospital, where we could give presents. But the plans kept changing and in the end of the morning we left Vladimir with her and drove up to the town of Kameshkovo, where we were happily surprised to find a group of five or six people waiting for us. Among them there were: a young political volunteer, a driver, a man from the town and our ‘translator’, an old woman who taught English in the local school. Such a quaint group deserves a picture (in this case, in front of the local WWII monument):

3From left to right: Ludo, the translator, the man from the town, Ana, the ‘politician’, the driver and Natalia

The principal of the institution welcomed our little group and us into her office. She explained to us that her kindergarten, which welcomes underprivileged kids from all the surrounding villages, has been struggling to get subsidies that cover their needs. We also find out that some of the kids in the institution came with their families from Ukraine as refugees. We were then taken to a big room, where forty children welcomed us with a traditional Russian song. We explained our project, with help of our translator, and a few children came forth to ask us questions: “how are the kindergartens in Spain?”, “can I get a robot?”, “do you really sleep in your car?”. The time comes to give the toys, and we play a bit with the children until it’s time to leave.

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Before heading off to the second school, we stopped in a small residential area, where a little boy was waiting for us with a big book in his hands. It turned out to be the son of the political volunteer, who wanted to offer us a book about the impact of WWII on her town.

The second institution was a lot smaller. We were quickly directed to a small empty room and sat down. Suddenly the teacher put some music, and all the children started marching (literally) into the room. The cutest entrance you can imagine. Before explaining the project we also had some fun dancing with them to the sound of children’s songs. Just like before, the children were very happy to meet people from distant countries, and they loved their toys. This institution had even less means than the previous one, and we were delighted to see so many smiles. We felt incredibly grateful to have met Natalia, and all the people who made this day possible.

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Part 3: What to see in Russia

Saint Petersburg: take time to get lost in the city’s streets and canals, and to visit all the museums, cathedrals and sights. The Hermitage deserves its reputation as the top attraction in St. Petersburg. We would recommend you to go there more than once, to have time to see all the magnificent rooms, with their splendid ceilings, and the world-renown works of art. Take a break in one of the city’s many cafes, such as the Singer café on Nevsky Prospekt, and enjoy some brilliant Russian literature, that you can buy in the English library downstairs.

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Pushkin: only half an hour away from St. Petersburg, this little town deserves a detour, to see the magnificent Catherine Palace. The Romanov’s really knew how to live!

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Veliky Novgorod: located on the road between St. Petersburg and Moscow, this historical city, where the modern Russian state originated, is well worth a visit. It is the home of the oldest church in Russia, the cathedral of St. Sophia, in the Kremlin.

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Moscow: very different from the ‘museum town’ of St. Petersburg, the capital is a vibrant city, there is always something going on. Visit the attractions, cafes and restaurants during the day, and in the evening, head to the Bolshoi, to see the opera or ballet. We managed to get tickets to see Carmen for €25 from a ticket tout ten minutes before the show. Try to use the metro, known as ‘ the palace of the people’.

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Suzdal: this charming little town, part of Moscow’s ‘Golden Ring’, was one of our favourite stops in the trip. We lost count of the myriad of stunning churches, in all colours, materials and shapes, in between green pastures and enchanting rivers. It is the perfect place to wander around aimlessly and stop for a picnic next to the river.

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Baikal: the oldest and deepest lake in the world is also a great holiday destination. Depending on how many days you have, you can visit some of its islands, or just travel around its shore.

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Altai: Altai has the most stunning landscapes that we have seen in Russia. The Chuysky trakt, a 966 km road that crosses the Altai region, is recognised as one of the most beautiful drives in the world. The beautiful part starts in Mayma and finishes in Kosh-Agach, an end-of-the-world town near the frontier with Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. So if you have some extra time, this is definitely worth the 2000 km detour (you will have to go back and forth).

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Our best food moments:

We have to admit that until we reached the Baikal area, we weren’t very lucky with our choice of restaurants – or maybe we didn’t try enough. We even thought that Russia didn’t have much to offer food wise… But we still discovered two great places for breakfast:

  • Elysseff Emporium (St Petersburg): entering this little shop/café is like traveling back to the roaring twenties. We loved its extravagant decoration, its French pastries (especially the palmiers and éclairs) and the tea. They offer a wide variety of food – from caviar to jam to a selection of meats – but the prices are higher than in most shops.
  • Café Pushkin (Moscow): we were a bit afraid that this restaurant would be overrated, but we went anyway for breakfast, and we weren’t disappointed. The food is really good, well cooked, and they have a good selection of Russian and European dishes. The decoration is also beautiful – if you go you should ask to see all the different halls. We would have come back for lunch but, again, the prices are quite high. Incidentally it is quite close to the Moscow branch of the Elyssef Emporium.

Rassolnik (Irkutsk): we spent less than two days in Irkutsk, and came here twice. The food is incredibly good, and they use really high quality ingredients. Our favourites were the Rassolnik (Russian traditional soup), the duck, and most dishes from their ‘farm menu’. Their creamy sunflower seed ice cream is the best we’ve ever had – we are considering going back to Irkutsk just to eat it again.

Tengis (Ulan-Ude): here we had the chance to try the lake Baikal’s fish – they have delicious omul tartar – and our first Mongolian specialties, including a very hearty mutton soup (only advisable to real carnivores!). On the downside, the restaurant doesn’t offer a very consistent quality, and the dessert menu is lacking.

 

P.S. Finally some news from Poland!

Remember the orphanage that we visited in Poland, where all the kids were gone to the river and so we couldn’t give them the presents ourselves? It took a while, but finally they have sent us a picture!

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Crossing Europe in 3 weeks

Crossing Europe in 3 weeks

Hi guys,

It’s been already three weeks since our departure, and as we are saying goodbye to Europe and hello to Russia, we’d love to tell you about how our adventure is going so far.

PART 1: We did a lot (and we mean A LOT) of driving!

With a big deadline to enter Russia at the beginning of September, we didn’t have much time to visit Europe. From a little town in Spain to Saint Petersburg, we have crossed just over 7000 km in three weeks (that means an average of 320 km per day!).

We crossed nine countries and just entered our country number ten, but more on this later. Apart from doing a lot of driving, we also worked on last minute things- such as preparing our entry in China (not easy!).

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PART 2: Our first orphanages – the real start of the TOY adventure!

With all the driving and all the work, plus the fact that there are no orphanages in most of Western Europe, our first real TOY experience took place in a small town just outside Bratislava. We didn’t get a chance to speak to the orphanage in advance, as we found it only a couple of days before. So when we first got there, around 6pm, the situation was quite funny. There was a man speaking to a family and a couple of kids outside of the building, so we went to ask him whether he worked there or if he knew the person in charge. From his puzzled face we realised that he spoke no English and, as it turned out, he only spoke a little bit of German. But neither Ana’s German nor his helped to make any intelligible conversation. It took a while (and lots of laughing from the family at the door), to make him understand that we wanted to give toys to the children. He then had the brilliant idea to call a friend of his who spoke some English, so that he could be a “phone translator”. Half an hour after, it was decided: we would come back the morning after, and bring toys to around twenty children of different ages (he didn’t seem too sure on the figure).

We have to admit that we were a bit nervous in the morning of our first toy distribution. We had chosen a few toys for the small children, and for the oldest, some books in English (they had told us that they were trying to learn the language). We went in, and they put us in a big room. We put all the toys on a table, and also a nice breakfast (croissants and pain au chocolat) that we bought just before arriving. A few minutes later all the children started coming in and sat in the sofas around the room. Thankfully today we were graced by the presence of the orphanage’s psychologist, who spoke English and could translate everything we said. Ludo stood up (Ana almost went to hide behind a chair) and started explaining the TOY project to children, where the toys came from, and where we were going next. Soon all the kids were around the table, excitedly opening the presents, while the oldest went directly for the croissants. It was a great success, the children loved their toys, and most importantly, they had a morning completely different to their normal days. They all went outside to see the van and gave us a warm goodbye.

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After Slovakia we arrived in Poland, and although we didn’t have any contacts over there, we were very keen to do a toy distribution. Did you know that there are more than 700 orphanages in Poland? While we were in Warsaw we found a polish website, with a directory of hundreds of orphanages. We chose two in the north, close to Lithuania. When we arrived on the first one it was already dark. A bunch of teenagers were speaking outside, so Ludo left the van to speak to them. The orphanage was a very small house, and only seven children lived there, all from 15 to 17 years old. Ludo joked with them, saying that they were probably a bit too old to play with toys, and we decided to try our luck in the second orphanage. It was already too late, so we found a place to sleep, and went there the morning after. Ludo went in first, to try to find out whether they were interested in us distributing toys among the children. They were very receptive and explained that, because of summer break, only four young children were staying there at the time, so we agreed to come back thirty minutes later with the toys. We packed four individual presents, plus a set of little cars for them to share. But when we arrived, we got some bad news: the children were playing in the river and wouldn’t come back before the afternoon. We were very sad not to meet them personally, but also in a big hurry so we had to leave the presents there, and wait to see the photos that they would take. We are still waiting for those photos, so for now, we only have this photo of Ludo just after leaving the toys.

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 PART 3: Planning to do an Europe trip? Here are some recommendations!

  1. Tapas in San Sebastián: The Basque country is known for it’s amazing food, and when we went to San Sebastián we realised why! We would recommend you to go to the old town and move from bar to bar to eat the best tapas of each one. We especially loved the “croquetas de jamón” of Casa Tiburcio.
  1. Old town and lake of Annecy: the old town is especially nice at night time, and for the day, we recommend you to visit the little town of Talloire, along Annecy’s beautiful lake.
  1. Eating Swiss cheese at the lake Walensee near the border with Austria: we suspect that this is not the only place to eat great cheese in Switzerland… but we still loved it!
  1. Relaxing in the Tyrol (Austria): from Innsbruck to Salzburg, passing through the National Park Hohe Tauern, you’ll be living in the world of ‘The Sound of Music’. Particularly impressive were the Krimmler Wasserfälle (highest waterfall in Europe), the Eisriesenwelt (largest ice cave in the world) and the Großlockner road, all of them in the national park.
  1. Vienna’s architecture and Museums Quartier: we had never seen a city with so many perfectly beautiful buildings, all in pale colours and in the same style (and so clean!). We really liked the Leopold Museum, for its impressive Schiele and Klimt collection.
  1. Bratislava’s old town and the Slovak countryside: after visiting the charming old town of Bratislava, if you feel like escaping the tourists, you can drive up to the enchanting town of Čičmany, with its cute wooden houses.
  1. Breath-taking Krakow: our favourite city so far! It’s very hard to recommend something specific here, as we loved every corner of the city. But if we have to, then we would go for the Wawel castle courtyard and its royal cathedral.
  1. Warsaw’s old town: it is difficult to believe that fifty years ago, only 15% of the city was still standing. The old town is probably one of the most beautiful we saw, thanks to the tremendous reconstruction works.
  1. Trakai: we found this little town just outside Vilnius to be much more pretty than the capital. Its castle in the water is magnificent, plus the town is located in the biggest lake area in Lithuania.
  1. Coast of Latvia: from Cape Kolka, between the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga, to Riga, the Latvian coast is full of treasures. Our favourite? The bay of Kaltene is magical, with all its bird species- including swans- and rocks coming out of the water (there’s a reason why we chose it as our main photo!).
  1. Art Nouveau in Riga: we loved the old town, but what we will never forget are the hundreds of surprising Art Nouveau buildings all around the city.
  1. Tallinn: our favourite capital of the Baltics, we really enjoyed its vibrant life, cafes and restaurants, spread all over its vast old town. You’ll find beautiful churches and buildings everywhere.

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Our best food moments:

  1. Rataskaevu 16 (Tallinn): this restaurant is a must-go if you are in the city. The food is delicious (you can’t go wrong with anything), the service amazing, and all for a very good value!
  1. Naked bite (Vilnius): small menu but incredible food! At lunch, the prices of the dishes are around five euros (quite unbelievable considering their high quality).

Thanks for reading us, and we’ll be back in a few weeks!

Ana and Ludo

 

Disclaimer: all the touristy stuff + restaurants, etc. are at our own expense (just to reassure you that all your donations are TOY-exclusive!)

Getting ready for departure

Getting ready for departure

Hi guys,

As we are driving away on our first day of the world tour, we finally found some time to write our first newsletter, to explain what we have been up to on the past few weeks.

11 June 2015: Project TOY is alive!
Thanks to all of you who contributed to the TOY campaign we managed to reach over €17,000, which made this project a reality.

25 June 2015: Purchase of the van
Thanks to Hertz we managed to get an amazing and almost brand new van for a great price.

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26 June 2015: First TOY collection in Mary Queen of Ireland School N.S.
More than a hundred toys and books for our first ever toy collection, thanks to the generosity of the kids of this school. It wasn’t an easy job to fit everything in Ludo’s little Polo to carry them to Paris!
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4 July 2015: TOY collection in the school of Poigny-la-Forêt
Ludo’s primary school was the second one in our journey. We’d like to thank all the children for all the toys, books and puzzles that we collected, as we couldn’t meet them because of the school being closed for summer.
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July 2015: Getting a Russian visa (Portugal vs. France)
It took Ana only one appointment and ten minutes to get her visa application processed and she got her visa three days later. For Ludo, the story was quite different… not only the Russian visa centre in Paris didn’t have any appointment hours available, but it was also a tiny bit more picky, requiring Ludo to submit twice the amount of documents. This resulted in four days and almost ten hours of waiting for Ludo to finally get his visa processed.

15 July – 10 August 2015: Our van is getting ready
With the help of and ex-formula 1 mechanic, we started working to transform a regular Ford Transit into a cosy mobile home with plenty of storage for toys and supplies. Here images really speak more than words, so look at the following ones to see the transformation of our van.
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1: What we started with
2: Isolation (walls and roof)
3: Wooden style floor
4: Window
5: Painting the inside (after putting back the wooden panels on the walls)
6: Fixing the roof rack on top of the van with the help of a small crane
7: Securing the boxes full of toys
8: Bed support made by Ludo
9: Wooden boxes also made and painted by us
10: Our new home!

7 – 8 August 2015: Cleaning, fixing and packing the toys
With the help of Ana’s parents we managed to get all the toys ready in only two days.
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11 AUG 2015: First day of the TOY adventure
We left from the beautiful little town of Mondoñedo in the northwest of Spain, and we look forward to arrive in the town of San Sebastián for one last Spanish meal.
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We’ll be back in two weeks!

Ana and Ludo