Tuesday, December 06, 2016


During my time at university, when spare time was as common as my accent, I would spend hours watching panda videos on YouTube. Pandas sneezing, rolling down hills and throwing themselves off a slide were personal favourites. Every second of footage made my eyes water with cuteness overload. They looked unlike anything I had ever seen, it was almost impossible to believe that they weren't men dressed in suits fooling us all.

For five years I planned a trip to China, I would climb the Great Wall, take a selfie with the Terracotta Warriors and stroll down the bund. But, most importantly, I would spend a day at Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding... and it was more than I could have imagined.

Pandas have fast become a symbol of China. Now we will make no assumptions that animal welfare is China's most pressing concern, pandas are a tourist attraction - and that is most likely the sole reason for their survival. And it worked, because I flew 5,700 miles just to see them.

The amount of science involved in making pandas breed is exhausting. Female pandas are only in heat once a year and are normally only in the mood for a few days. Not to mention they live off bamboo, which makes their milk a terrible nutrient for newborns. Now I'm no expert, but that sounds like bad odds for panda babies.

I am fully aware of the conservationist argument for letting them die off, and maybe if the situation were different I would wholeheartedly agree. Pandas are notoriously silly, and the amount of money spent on keeping them alive could easily be used for more worthwhile conservation projects. I mean, what's the point of keeping a species alive when it clearly has no concept of how to survive in its natural habitat? But seeing the amount of visitors that flock to the research centre every year, it's easy to see how this conservation programme is working as a tourism business. And of course the most obvious reason being that they are so darn cute.

I thus had a picture in my head that the facility would be one enormous science laboratory, solely for the purpose of pumping out baby pandas on a conveyor belt, sending them to panda nursery until they were old enough to continue the cycle.

But as I turned up at the entrance, feeling like a 5 year old at Disneyland, my predispositions seemed to wash away. The park, and I use the word park because it felt a little Jurassic Parkesque the moment I arrived, has everything you could imagine (minus the dinosaurs and electric fences). Two seconds in and there I was, standing 5 metres away from a panda shovelling bamboo into its mouth. Was it worth it? Yes.

The enclosures were large, covered in thick bush allowing privacy from the prying eyes of tourists. An inside area provided air conditioning when the weather got too hot for them and the breeding programme seems to be in full steam, as I arrived to see 16 baby pandas lying together on a bed - until one shoved another off the end – poor guy.

The crowds were intense, mostly Chinese nationals coming to see their country's homage. I showed no mercy, and persistence paid off as I got prime viewing time at every spot.

There was one unpleasant story I overheard of a hot summer day that resulted in copious complaints from tourists who wanted to see the pandas playing outside. It apparently resulted in staff forcing them out and locking the hatch - meaning roasting pandas banging on doors wanting to go back inside. I attended on a cold winter’s day, so I cannot attribute any validity to that story, but it is definitely something to bear in mind when deciding what time of year to visit. Pandas don't like the heat, and certainly shouldn't be outside in it.

There is no denying it though; I was impressed by what I saw. Hats off to China for creating such an incredibly magical place and bringing a species back from the brink of extinction.

I would go back and see the beautiful bears in a heartbeat.


Friday, October 07, 2016

Sintra, Portugal

I had never heard of Sintra, but followed a recommendation from a friend at work, and I was over the moon that I did. The home of monarchs, the town is filled with castles and palaces, all situated among the mountains. Whether you like your castles traditional, gothic, or a little whacky, you will find what you're after here.

The town is busy, and the roads leading into the mountains are more like tiny off road tracks. If you're arriving by car you may want to make sure you're a good driver (and definitely a good parker), I think I would have had a meltdown was I not with my brother.

Cabo da Roca was our first stop. As the westernmost part of Portugal, it took the longest to get to and sadly was sitting in the middle of a cloud when we arrived. It made for some beautiful photographs but we could just about see 5 metres in front of us, so marvelling at the cliffside wasn't an option. The journey however, was definitely an experience (like I said, make sure you're a good driver).

We ended up at the palace of all palaces, The Pena Palace. From a distance it looks like it belongs on a children's TV show, with fiery colour, sharp edges and quirky patterns. The place was heaving with tourists, but that can be forgiven considering how beautiful the spot was. The surrounding gardens are also rather lovely, providing a scenic hike up to the palace and offering different buildings and annexes to explore on your way.

If you enjoy a hike and want to feel like a princess for a day, I can't recommend this place enough.


Sunday, October 02, 2016

What to do in Lisbon

Bright, charismatic, and good looking - yes I'm talking about a city and not Tom Hardy. Lisbon feels old, but modern and fresh at the same time. Like it was built recently but made to look antique. I was travelling with a city scrooge who wanted to spend our entire trip beach hunting, so I didn't see as much of the place as I would of liked. But the best part of 48 hours was spent wandering, shopping, eating and taking an astounding amount of pictures.

Here is what I would recommend...

Jerónimos Monastery | For the architect in all of us
This building is astounding. So much so that the photographs I have taken don't do any justice to the amount of detail that has been carved onto the outside. The crowds were minimal, which meant we could have a look around without feeling like herded cattle, and the sunshine made the whole building sparkle

The fountain in front of Jerónimos Monastery |
With a light summer breeze, you can stand downwind from the fountain and cool yourself down in the mist. The gardens are picturesque, meaning you can sit down, cool off and just stare at the Monastery

Flea market at LX Factory |
If you're into second hand bargains, this place is a dream. It's only small, taking up the length of one street but it's filled to the brim with clothes, jewellery, ornaments and paintings. The weather was scorching when we went and the street provided zero shade - meaning I had little motivation to rummage and left without making a purchase. On a cooler day it would have been perfect.
It's open from 10am - 4pm every Sunday.

Doca de Santo Amaro |
This was my favourite spot in the city. You can look out to the 25 de Abril Bridge, and see Christ the King in the distance. At night, the bridge lights up, and you can grab dinner at one of the restaurants lining the dock.

25 de Abril Bridge | Love at first sight
I think it is fair to say I became obsessed during my brief stop in Lisbon. This bridge was stunning, from every angle, and at every time of day. I probably have hundreds of photos (and a film of us crossing over it), but I will spare you the torture and just share my favourites. It really it beautiful though, and considering it was built three decades before I was born, it has definitely stood the test of time.

Christ the King | Am I in Rio?
Standing at 25m, the monument sits pretty high above the city. Knowing it would be better from a distance we held no plans to go up to where he stood, but after taking a wrong turn we inevitably ended up there. You don't quite realise how big he is until you're sat at his feet looking up at him, you can take an elevator to the top if you don't mind heights - but if not, the site he is sat on offers the best views of the bridge (which one could argue was even more stunning).

Live music at Teatro Nacional D. Maria II |  
I have no idea if this is a regular occurrence, but we heard music and went looking, only to stumble across the strangest band I have ever seen. What looked like the most random bunch of people at band practice, turned into a really great performance by some incredibly talented musicians.

Find all the street art |
There is graffiti everywhere in Lisbon, some of it is questionable, but most of it is impressive.

Go looking for Dinosaurs | Praia dos Lagosteiros
If you fancy heading out of the city, we stumbled across an incredible spot due to a sign we saw with pictures of dinosaurs. The cliffs are steep, so maybe take a buddy and watch where you put your feet. I may go as far as to say this was the best spot in the world (or at least close to).

There is so much to do, what would you recommend? 

Friday, July 29, 2016

London West End | Kinky Boots

I spent a vast majority of this week entering into a lottery for tickets to see Kinky Boots in the West End. Every day my hopes would rise and then be drastically dashed when my notification beeped and I read the message ‘better luck next time.’

On a desperate whim I signed my mum up in hopes of increasing our chances and a few hours later we were sat in the front row of the Adelphi Theatre enjoying the greatest show on earth.

Based on the 2005 film, inspired by true events, the production tells the story of Charlie Price and the shoe factory he inherits from his father. Charlie joins forces with drag queen, Lola, to produce a line of kinky boots for men who want to wear heels – all in a bid to save the factory.

My mum was a huge fan of the film and I loved it too, but I didn’t expect the production to be quite as good as it was.

The music had me shimmying in my seat, holding back the desire to jump on stage and join in. Each cast member played their role perfectly and every single one of them had a hell of a voice. Not to mention, I fell utterly in love with Lola, played by the insanely talented Matt Henry. 

For the first time, I sat through a three-hour production without concern for numb bums and itchy feet. The evening went by in a flash and at the end I would have happily sat back down and watched the whole thing again. 

The feel good music, impressive dance moves and sparkly outfits had my head spinning - and let’s take a moment to talk about the drag queens. They took sassy to a whole new level and every wink, nod and smile in my direction made me feel like part of the performance.

If I haven’t sold the show enough, you should know I left with achy cheeks after three hours of smiling non-stop.
So ladies, gentlemen and those who are yet to make up your mind… I strongly recommend you head to the Adelphi Theatre for a night of pure bliss.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Guide Dogs UK

Just before Christmas I got in touch with Guide Dogs UK to find out if they had any volunteering opportunities. My motivations were simple, great for my karma and hopefully cuddle lots of cute puppies in the process.

In all seriousness, losing my sight has always been a big fear. I remember heading for my annual eye test and finding out that my eyes had deteriorated (as they had done every year for the previous five years). I asked if I was going to lose my sight completely and the optician said: ‘you’ve got a long way to go yet’. Granted, I had asked in jest, but it did get me thinking. 

My great grandmother went blind at 50 and struggled to cope. I would often hear stories about her, chatting away to herself unaware that she had locked my mum out of the house. She sounded brave and wonderful, but it was clear that losing her sight meant losing her freedom too. 

One person in the UK goes blind every minute, which is a terrifying thought. So as much as I love the idea of cuddling cute puppies, I’m more in love with the idea of giving non-sighted people their independence back. Giving them a dog isn’t just giving them a new family member, but a life companion to aid them in their daily lives. 

When I was a child, guide dogs used to upset me, simply because they were working and I was never allowed to pet them. As I grew older there was something so impressive about seeing one work. Stopping at the roadside, signalling that it was safe to walk and carefully manoeuvring their owner around obstacles. 

Even now, it still blows my mind how clever they are. 

So when I sat across the table in the pub from Tina (a full-time community fundraiser for Guide Dogs UK) I asked how. How on earth did they train the dogs to do what they do? 

The answer was simple, a huge amount of hard-work by dedicated volunteers and an even larger amount of money. 

It costs £50,000 to breed, raise, train and care for a Guide Dog throughout its entire life. It’s not just a case of teaching a dog the basics and handing it over, they’re responsible for vet bills after dog attacks (which sadly happen often considering guide dogs are chosen for being docile). They undertake annual checks on the dog to make sure it is being cared for, as well as relocate the dog if needed when it reaches retirement. It’s a hard graft. 

Second mind-blowing fact. Guide Dogs UK are not government funded, meaning 100% of the money used to run the charity comes from donations made by you and me. 

A few weeks ago I spent a day helping out at a Flag Day fundraiser (see photo below of the beautiful Flora, who I had the pleasure of babysitting). I spoke to some very lovely humans about all the great work Guide Dogs are doing, and all of them nodded in agreement. The sad truth is however, none of us will truly understand the value of their work until we’re on the receiving end. 

So I will continue to marvel at the wonders of dogs who lead the blind, while cheekily placing a link at the bottom. If you have a few pennies to spare, it’s a pretty worthy cause.


Sunday, July 17, 2016

Switch House | Through the eyes of a philistine

I attended the press viewing of the new Tate Modern last month.
When the director, Nick Serota, said in his speech that the project was not just an extension but ‘a new Tate Modern’ he hit the nail on the head.
Filled with live performances aimed solely to make you uncomfortable, abstract pieces that make you question whether the artist was a child, and live parrots in a desert scene… it was a drastic change from the Tate Modern I visited a few years back.
Walking into the brown Lego building (I have no other words to describe the exterior, unless I go for hideous, but I’m trying not to begin with too much negativity), you have to appreciate the architecture on the inside. Some of the original structure of the engine turbine rooms’ remains, and the big open spaces, with marble winding staircases is enough to make anybody think they’re inside a palace.
Level 10 is undeniably the best thing Switch House has to offer. A full 360 degree view of the London skyline with a balcony that goes all the way around the top floor. Overlooking all the best buildings in the city, it offers one of the best views I’ve seen in a while (and it’s free)!
You can’t argue with the message, aiming to show pieces from around the world, because of course art is global. They’re also showing more exhibitions than ever before displaying the work of female artists – another noteworthy cause.
But when standing in a half empty room, staring up in the air to see what appears to be stuffed material in the shape of a hanging body, I have to ask myself ‘is that really art?’
Live performers walk around at various intervals, pushing into your personal space and repeatedly asking you to move. I missed the message at the start, but I imagine it was something powerful and the uncomfortableness was completely intentional.
I can appreciate beautiful photography, or hand-painted canvas’ that leave your mind wandering over what it could be, I even took a moment to stare at the big oak tree that comprised 77 different types of tree branch from around China. But even I have to draw the line over 10 planks of wood placed on top of each other, with litter filling the spaces.
With cages laid out as beds, live performers lying against the wall, Lego spilled all over the floor and two attendees holding each end of a bunting all morning (I hope they were paid well), I left with my head spinning.
My heart was split over enjoying the space and being completely disenchanted with the pieces on display… I suppose I’ve had that feeling in most of the art museums I have been to.
If you’re interested in abstract art and the ‘find the meaning’ craziness of art museums, you should definitely check it out. But beware, it gets weird… 
The lobby dividing the new Switch House from the existing gallery

The view from the 10th floor

Live performers doing strange things

One of the many pieces of "art"

Staircase leading from the turbine hall to the first floor

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