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Although we sent out more than a dozen requests, we never found a Couchsurfing host in Amsterdam. Searching for a hostel showed that staying there can be very expensive depending on the time of week you go: a hostel with beds for €15 on Wednesday typically increases to €30 on Thursday and €60 on Friday; we left on Saturday. Eventually I found a hotel with cheap twin rooms – €18.50 per person per night – on Hostelbookers.

The hotel – HEM Hotel Amsterdam – was somewhat outside the city centre and we had to take a fairly long tram ride – a fairly long, very crowded tram ride with our bags – to get there. The room was small and basic and hot; the door didn’t close flush to the doorframe and the window was difficult to open and close; it was at least private and, at the price, we couldn’t really complain.

On the first morning – having had a couple of drinks in the hotel bar the night before, not drunk enough water and slept in a very hot bed – I had a terrible hangover and dry-retched several times. Habiba looked after me and then left me to sleep it off and went to explore the city.

Later, we went out together and walked through the Red Light district in the light rain. It was pretty interesting (you can decide for yourself whether I mean that as a euphemism) to see the women in their little window booths. Many of them did sexy dances and poses; others just stood there looking bored; others were on their phones; sometimes they’d knock on the window to attract your attention. They were all at least pretty good-looking – they could easily be models. Later, we browsed a sex shop; Habiba got annoyed when I said I was bored.

The next day, we determined to do some sightseeing, maybe take in a museum or two. I suggested that we walk through the Vondelpark; Habiba was against it. The tram we took broke down close by the park, so I won out in the end. And the park was very pleasant.

Aside from being very expensive, many of the museums had very long queues outside them, so we chickened out of going to a museum that day and resolved to get up earlier. We went to a pancake restaurant and had large, savoury pancakes for lunch; Habiba’s was very tasty – it had cheese and bacon; mine was fairly bland – mushrooms and bell peppers. I should have got a sweet one.

We did end up going to the Anne Frank House. (As Anne Frank was German, her name should actually be pronounced ‘Anna’.) This was a fascinating experience. There is a clearly defined course that you take through the building that housed Otto Frank’s business (which he sold to his non-Jewish employees) and through the secret rooms where the Franks and another family hid out. A neighbouring museum part holds Anne’s diaries and rewritten pages. There are stops along the way where everyone bunches up to watch a two or three minute video – many including testimonies from survivors such as Otto Frank – the only member of his family to survive.

We also bit the bullet and queued up for the Van Gogh Museum. We enjoyed trying to pronounce it authentically – not ‘van goff’ like the British or ‘van go’ like the Americans, but more like ‘fon khokh’. Habiba enjoyed listening to and talking about the Dutch accent with its up-and-down lilt and its frequent gutturals; she reckoned it sounded very friendly, which is not a bad description.

The museum held a good selection of Van Gogh’s art and the descriptions included for most pieces gave some good contextual information and analysis of technique. The Van Gogh section of the museum also contained occasional works by other artists for comparison. For instance, there was still life of a vase of flowers and a very similar painting by another artist – I forget who – as well as the actual vase that Van Gogh painted. Up stairs there was a selection of works in various styles from the same era. In another section that you entered from the basement, there was a large exhibition of Symbolist works – many of which were strikingly beautiful.

In the main square, Dam Square, a little fun fair was set up – practically while we watched. When complete, we went on the haunted house mini-rollercoaster. We also paid a visit to the Condomerie – a shop full of prophylactics both sensible and less so. We bought a couple of things. Nothing too silly – certainly no animal- or Big Ben- shaped rubber johnnies.

Besides sex, the other thing Amsterdam is well known for these days is marijuana. That kind of thing doesn’t interest me at all – inhaling the fumes of a narcotic plant doesn’t seem like a terribly intelligent idea. However, I agreed to try some cannabis confectionery. We went into a very smoky ‘coffee shop’ and Habiba bought a pot muffin for about €7. We ate it walking around; she ate most of it – I had about a quarter or a third of it. It didn’t seem to have any effect at first, but later Habiba reported that she was feeling high. I didn’t notice any effect on myself.

We looked at tulip bulbs in the Floating Market. At one point, we past a building that had a big inscription reading, ‘HOMO SAPIENS NON URINAT IN VENTUM’ – ‘A wise man does not piss in the wind’. We took photos of the triple-triangular Homo Monument and of the sex worker statue, Belle. We learnt that the coat of arms of the city contains a shield that bears three Xs arranged in a vertical row; this triple X can be found all over Amsterdam.

On our last full day in the city, we took a ferry from the Central Station just across the IJ (‘ij’ is a single letter, so it’s entirely in capitals – a ride of about two minutes, and a free one. There was a big ‘I amsterdam’ sign – less crowded than the one on Museumplein. We also saw a couple of Egyptian geese with a gaggle of shelducklings making their way through the water. Also nearby was the brand new EYE Film Institute building.

When we checked out, we found that the bill had already been charged to my credit card – which was fine, I suppose. Then we made the long tram journey back to Central Station and caught the next train to Brussels.

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In the hostel I was staying at in Qingdao, I was sharing a room with about four other people two nights ago. Around midnight people started going to bed. I was on the internet on my bed, having spoken, briefly, to Charlie and watched some Prison Break. I prepared for bed, too. There was one Chinese guy in the bed next to mine, who seemed to spend most of his time in the room on his computer, conveniently placed on the table right next to his bed. He stayed up for maybe an hour or so, tapping away on an instant messenger program, his keystrokes amplified by the table. The previous night – my sick night – he’d been clicking away till the earliy hours on his phone. Even when he finally packed it in, his noise production continued – sniffing and blowing his nose, scratching loudly. Fucker.

Then, a bit later in the night, I heard a woman’s voice somewhere out in the corridor desperately saying things like, ‘No!’ and ‘Get out!’ I couldn’t hear any other voice. After a few moments worrying about what to do I got up and went into the corridor. The door to one of the twin rooms opposite was open a few inches and a man was standing inside. I knocked and asked what was going on. The door closed and the one-sided argument continued – the woman begging her boyfriend – I assume – to leave, the man not saying anything. I went down and told the two old Chinese men on duty and one of them followed me up and knocked on the door. I’m not sure what happened – I went to bed – but I think they probably just stopped the argument so the person knocking would go away.

My main task the next day was to travel to Beijing on the train. As I checked out of the hostel, I had one of the women at reception write down what I wanted in Chinese so I could show it to someone at the train station. As I was queueing up for a ticket, I noticed that one of the counters showed ‘English language counter’ on the display above it, so I didn’t need my translation. There was only standing room available for that day, so that’s what I plumped for. The ticket was 275 yuan, about £26 pounds or so.

For the first hour and a half of the five and half hour journey I was able to sit, but then a young woman needed her/my seat. She got off shortly after at the very next stop. However, by this time, the train seemed completely full, so I stood or occasionally crouched in the end of the carriage. I did a fair amount of reading on the trip. Fortunately, Marked Cards is a lot better than its immediate predecessor, Card Sharks.

Before I left Qingdao, I’d had word from Charlie that she’d be prepared to meet me off the train. Just before I left, I e-mailed her the details of my train. Unfortunately, she was busy all day and wasn’t able to read my e-mail or meet me. I’d printed out details for a hostel in Beijing that Habiba had stayed at when she was here a few months ago. I followed the directions on my printout and took the subway to Wangfujing Station (noting with a hint of pleasure and surprise the English accent of the English translations on the line four announcements). There, however, the directions seemed to break down.

I wandered round for a long while, my backpack weighing heavily on me and my less than perfect spine. I decided I couldn’t find the Tian An Men Sunrise Hostel, and so checked into the Eastern Morning Sun Hostel instead.

This isn’t really a hostel as we would understand it. It’s a cheap (in multiple senses of the word) hotel located on the 4th basement level of its building. On the pro side, I got a room to myself and cheaply – about £10. On the con side, the place is quite grim. My room is a fairly clean white box with a bed, desk, TV and chair in it, but it smells subtly but pervasively of old cigarette smoke. It made me think I was going to sleep in an ashtray.

The communal toilets smell of piss – some I’ve been to in China just smell of sewage, so that wasn’t too bad. They don’t provide toilet paper, though – not even one shared roll outside, which is the general practice here. The showers were like something out of Prison Break. The shower room was done out in dirty, broken blue and white tiles, half of the stall weren’t functional, there was no door, there were no shower curtains (although there were rails and some loops to indicate that such things must’ve existed in the past). The water was hot and consistent, though, and I had the place to myself.

The place also has no laundry facility. When I approached one of the staff with my bag of dirty clothes, she showed me a plastic bowl. For this reason, if nothing else, I’m going to check out today.

I’m currently at a nearby Starbucks, where I’ve had a sandwich for breakfast. Can’t get on the internet here, though – it’s only for residents of China. I think I’ve figured out where that hostel is, though. I think I was simply facing the wrong way when I tried to follow the directions. My coffee’s nearly finished, so I’m off to take a look.

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