Noreen and the Wonder Donkey in Beijing's Dongyue Temple
After a jet-lagged night I slept in for my 10 am rendezvous with Noreen, fellow VSO volunteer now working in Gansu, on our first morning back in China. Dongyue Temple was the perfect place to sit and chat, in the shade of the cyprus trees. It was also reassuring to discover, thanks to the ticket inspector's handy gadget, that I haven't developed a fever, these days taken to be indicative of swine flu. I was allowed to enter.

After a couple of hours of catching up and hatching a travel plan, Noreen stroked the Wonder Donkey for good health and fortune, and we left.
Lesley and Edie standing in line for tickets at Beijing Central railway station
We've decided to head over to visit the eastern end of the Great Wall, at Shanhaiguan (literally translated as 'mountain sea pass'), where it apparently snakes into the sea. I'm not sure if buckets and spades will be in order but we're looking forward to exploring a new area. It's three years since our visit to the Great Wall at Jiayuguan, in the sparsely populated desert of North-west Gansu. As Beijingers head to the seaside for the weekend I think we're in for an altogether different experience.

With Noreen and Edie there for moral support, ticket-buying was a doddle. We opted for the male vendor in the end, after an off-putting first and second interaction with a woman who refused to make eye contact as she barked the train information out over her personal, loud, tannoy. In our experience of bus and railway stations, the men are more patient and friendly. Today was no exception. We leave Beijing on the 14:08 express train the day after tomorrow. Any earlier and it would be standing room only - not a pretty sight.

Ali and Freda paid a visit to a local deli this afternoon, purchasing ingredients to cook an Italian meal at Howard and Lin's flat. Although we all climbed into bed at a fairly normal hour, it was a strange night - Freda talking in her sleep ("No mummy, it's too embarassing to do it here.") and some kind of explosion that shook the building at 2:30 in the morning. That's slightly alarming when one's on the 25th floor.

Time to brave the heat and head out for some breakfast ingredients. With the heavy smog and lack of direct sunshine it's apparently cooler these days. I'm already missing the fresh air of Scotland and the clear skies of Yunnan.
The view from Howard and Xia Lin's flat.
We are all back in China after an uneventful flight, staying with Howard and Xia Lin, whose driver kindly picked us up at the airport. No quarantine, no throat and ear inspections, no luggage hiccups. Amazing really. We're all struggling to stay awake, keeping busy with showers, emails and snacks! When we're fully awake Ali and I will make a plan for the next few days and the rest of the holiday. Scotland already seems like another world away - peace and freedom to wander (fairly) unscrutinised.
Granny Annie, Edie and Freda enjoying a carton of chips by the shores of the Beauly Firth. The Kessock Bridge, pictured in the background, offers a shortcut to the Black Isle and the Northern Highlands of Scotland.

A trip to the UK wouldn't be complete without a portion of chips by the seaside. That was our excuse anywhere. The gulls circled, hoping for some scraps, but there was no chance of that as our takeaway was scoffed in record-breaking time. Edie went scrambling on the boulders, fell over and saved her chin but returned home with an enormous graze on her tummy and rib area. Our theory is that she's going through a growth spurt and losing track of her weight, size and limb-length. She's currently sleeping in the car. Much safer there.

Not for Freda and Edie! They are at their happiest when pottering in the garden as Lucy munches on juicy, green grass, her reward after a riding session. We are coming to the end of our one-month holiday in Scotland, which means filling our time with playing, pinics and packing. There's a bonus prize for anyone who can guess 5 of the non-essential, 'luxury' items we are taking back to Simao with us. If you're reading this Paul, your pickle's packed!