The Oathbreaker’s Shadow & The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

I can’t really believe that next week THE OATHBREAKER’S SHADOW makes its US debut. Hello America! Flux have done an absolutely amazing job with the package – I love how atmospheric and intriguing it looks. They must be doing something right because The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is a Junior Library Guild Winter 2015 pick (yay!) and has had some awesome reviews stateside:

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The Oathbreaker’s Shadow is easy to dive into and will keep readers engaged… An excellent choice for those looking for a compelling and detailed fantasy novel.” – School Library Journal

“Middle-school readers looking to get lost in another world will enjoy this adventure-packed read.” – Booklist

“An intriguing start to McCulloch’s planned series” – Publisher’s Weekly

The Oathbreaker’s Shadow has always been inspired by my travels. It feels like so long ago now, but at the end of last year, L & I had the chance to visit the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, which I knew would just be full of inspiration for future books – but also would take me right back to all the research I did for Oathbreaker. In fact, I spent a lot of time looking at windows and doorways that could easily work on the front of my book cover!

Granada is one of those perfect city break destinations. Easily accessible from London, full of amazing sights, beautiful hotels, delicious food – and one of the cheapest cities we’ve visited by a mile. As it was partly to celebrate L’s 30th birthday, we splurged to stay in the Alhambra Palace hotel at the very top of the hill. It had the most glorious views and a balcony overlooking the city – not too shabby whatsoever.

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But let’s just take a moment to talk about tapas. Granada is one of the few Spanish cities that still offers free tapas with a drink, and we indulged. We wandered up and down the twisting side streets, stopping for a drink and to eat little plates of wonder. But it was only when we squeezed ourselves into the absolutely packed Restaurante Oliver that we understood the true meaning of tapas. I also fell deeply in love with ‘tinto de verano’ – the on tap red wine and lemonade combination. Take me back there right now!

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Tinto de Verano at Restaurante Olivier & One of the tapas streets

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Iberico ham, a must.

It wasn’t just about tapas, of course. We also strolled around the Albaicin – the old Arab quarter. The Albaicin feels like stepping back in time, to a different era. Market stalls pack the streets, tea houses offer up amazing Arab delights, and – of course – it offers incredible views of the Alhambra itself.

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A market stall in the Albaicin & Me inexpertly pouring tea

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Delicious mint tea

Now onto the Alhambra itself. I don’t think I really knew what to expect when I visited, but it certainly wasn’t the sprawling complex we entered. We had pre-booked our tour slot a few months in advance (this is worth looking into so you don’t worry about not getting in – it’s very easy to do and tickets are picked up from local ATMs). We were then able to walk leisurely around the Generalife – a beautiful palace/villa with stunning grounds.

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A stunning pool inside the Nasrid Palace

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The Generalife and the Court of the Lions and Fountain

The visit to the Nasrid Palaces was the final item on our agenda. And it was everything I could have dreamed of and more. Walking through the highly decorative Moorish Palace, there were delights around every corner. The highlight was the wonderfully evocative Court of the Lions and Fountains. The sheer level of detail of the carvings on the walls made you appreciate just how much work went into building these luscious palaces. I encourage anyone to go and visit if you have the opportunity.

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These windows would fit right in on the cover of my book

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Incredible detail

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The walls of the Nasrid palaces are covered in script and mosaic

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More highly Oathbreaker-y windows

The perfect place to inspire more novels… and to remind me of upcoming ones!

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Gong Hei Fat Choi! and my first recipe

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The McCullochs take Beijing

Happy Chinese New Year everyone! Happy Year of the Horse (my dad’s year) and what a very special one it will be indeed.

It’s been almost four years since my trip to China with my family. It still remains one of the best trips I’ve ever done – not least because I was able to visit Shanghai (where my grandparents were from). What an amazing city – I’d love to go back there one day.

Shanghai sunset

Shanghai sunset

In honour of Chinese New Year, I made spring rolls and steamed some char sui pork buns (pork buns not from scratch, mind!). I thought I’d share the spring roll recipe for anyone wanting to make their own… it’s very easy and I thoroughly recommend giving it a go yourself! That way you can stuff them with as much delicious filling as you want (clearly the way forward). This is my first stab at a recipe posting, so any comments/tips would be greatly appreciated. My food photography also greatly needs work – probably need to move on from the iPhone – but I can promise that the finished product gets a big thumbs up 🙂

Homemade spring rolls and not-so-homemade char sui boa for Chinese New Year!

Homemade spring rolls and not-so-homemade char sui boa for Chinese New Year!

Recipe after the jump…

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Some say Ngwe Saung… I say paradise

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I’m writing this from a swanky airport lounge in Doha; somehow Tania’s misadventures at the beginning of the holiday turning into an unexpected boon as we wile away 6 hours in relative comfort (or at least, with free food and unlimited Nespresso!) It’s a welcome place to reflect on what’s been a great break, and one that’s come to an end far too quickly. Don’t they always, though?

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Our last few nights in Burma were spent in Ngwe Saung, a sleepy but beautiful beachside resort for wealthy Yangonites (and the site of the sailing event at the much-advertised SEA games later this month). We arrived to the most perfect sunset yet, and raced to the sea to take photos before our bags had even been unloaded from the car. There are some moments you just can’t miss.

We had chosen Ngwe Saung after some last minute trouble near Ngapali Beach put us off, but it is a laborious 6 hour drive from Yangon. Still, the sea was blissfully warm, the seafood fresh and delicious, and we wished we had more than just two nights.

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Myanmar, Burma, has been a dream. It’s a world away still from Western life – no McDonalds or Starbucks, no sign of Western celebrity culture (except for one young girl in Bagan who was singing Justin Bieber – there is no escape!), men eschewing trousers for longyis, women painting their faces in pale patterns of thanaka and – probably most striking of all – everywhere pockets of monks going about their daily business… Some collecting alms, yes, but some playing on their iPads, straddling motorbikes through town or sitting in teashops. It’s hard to think of another place in the world where men and women of faith are so ubiquitous – except for at the Vatican, I’ve rarely seen a Catholic priest or nun mingling casually with the public.

Yet unlike in other places of extreme culture shock (in Dehli or Nairobi), I never felt uncomfortable in Burma, and rarely hassled. As always, making an effort to fit in with local customs helped, but the people were so friendly despite any fumbles we might have made along the way.

If I had basic tips to offer for travel in Burma, it’s:

1) Bring toilet paper and hand sanitiser with you everywhere, but if there’s a basket for the paper, use it!

2) Try local style of dress (longyis for men and women) at least once – they’re lightweight and comfortable and it’s much easier to chat with locals that way!

3) Follow all the trusted advice, but know that Burma is a country that is rapidly changing – they exchanged a rumpled and folded up US note of Lofty’s without question, ATMs were everywhere and basically all the Lonely Planet’s advice was out of date… But still worth bringing for the history.

4) Try to go with at least some idea of the context of the country’s history and people. The events are so recent – in the last 20 years and still ongoing, especially if you listen to the Moustache Brothers – and the scars are fresh just beneath the surface.

5) Don’t be put off by said aforementioned events – go! And independent travel is possible and even easy in most places.

Normal life and the run up to Christmas awaits… But what a journey it’s been. Goodbye Burma! I wonder what changes will have been wrought, next time I see you…

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Inle Lake, stilts and cool water

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Drifting across the inky black water in an oversized canoe, it’s all too easy to feel the real world is oh so far away. Inle Lake in Shan province is a world of its own, a community built on stilts and floating gardens, where kids get picked up from school in long paddle boats and traders sell their wares while simultaneously bailing water from their canoe.

We’ve got a stunning view of life on Inle lake from the Golden Island cottages, a slice of luxury on this otherwise budget trip. The best moments come from just observing the people – once out on a boat ourselves, I found Inle lost some of its charms.

As one of the most visited spots in Myanmar (and probably on every tourists’ itinerary!), Inle is something of a floating shopping mall, and our boat driver took us from lotus silk shop to cigar shop to boat-making shop to umbrella making shop to basket-weaving shop… You get the picture. Some of it is very interesting, but it gets less so when you realize that the same (lovely) silver knot bracelets they’re selling as ‘local’ are the same you bought to promote your book with. Hmm. Also, we’d done most of our souvenir shopping in Yangon, which is still the place to get the best quality and prices, it seems.

Still, once I’d firmly conveyed the words ‘no thank you’, there were many delights to be found. The village of Inthein was gorgeous, with its ancient ruined stupas and over 1000 new ones. The Jumping Cat monastery (can’t quite recall the Burmese name!) was also very cool, and different to anything else we’ve seen.

We stopped at a market (not the right day for the floating market, unfortunately) and while we weren’t tempted by any of the goods, we WERE tempted by the hot fresh doughnuts being cooked up by the entrance. At only 7p a pop, they were an awesome mid-morning snack! Plus, there was delicious Shan noodle soup, simple and comforting.

Retreating from the balcony of our little cottage-on-stilts to avoid the mosquitos, the sky opened out to a blanket of thousands of stars. Out here, there’s very little electricity or light pollution to mar the sky, and for that sight, it might be worth visiting all the lotus silk shops in the world.

(Pictures to come – Inle internet too slow!)

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Temples, temples and more temples… Bagan, Myanmar

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The Road to Mandalay isn’t a road at all… It’s the Ayeyarwaddy river. (Line stolen from a Myanmar infomercial we watched on repeat!) In total, we spent 9.5 hours on the Ayeyarwaddy, travelling from Mandalay to Bagan. We sailed on the Malikha 2, which was actually quite relaxing, and I managed to fit in all my required reading for the holiday.

Bagan is probably the most anticipated part of this trip for me, the most photogenic collection of temples anywhere in the world. More than 2,000 temples dot the plain, which is lush and green after the summer rains. We stopped off for sunset photographs straight away on a lonely stupa (see previous blog photos!), avoiding the overcrowded Shwesandaw Paya. What a magical way to start!

We lucked out with an English-speaking taxi driver, so we wasted no time signing him up for a day trip. We picked Mt Popa, known as the ‘Mt Olympus of Burma’, and once I heard it was he home of ancient Burmese alchemists, I couldn’t resist! About an hour’s drive from Bagan, Mt Popa springs up out of the ground, an extinct volcano topped by a glittering gold pagoda and said to be the spiritual home of the ‘nats’, or Buddhist spirits. The volcano itself is also overrun by macaques – the pesky monkeys – some of which tried to steal Lofty’s lychee juice in quite a violent manner! A local fended the monkey off with a well placed slingshot.

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Our taxi driver then gave us a tour of some of the major Bagan highlights, including the stunning Ananda Pagoda. He, of course, found us another amazing abandoned pagoda for sunset – you just can’t beat it.

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As if sunsets weren’t enough, we got up this morning for sunrise! Adam and Tania sprung for the hot air balloon, while Lofty and I climbed the aforementioned Shwesandaw pagoda, which was still extremely busy, even at 5am! Still, it’s popular for a reason… The view was absolutely amazing.

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For the rest of the day, we rented bicycles and cycled the temples ourselves. Luckily, it wasn’t too hot, although the bikes were far from in the best nick. We had to stop for repairs, but luckily the locals are used to rescuing flat-tire ridden tourists. It was amazing just being able to cycle around at our own pace, finding hidden temples away from hawkers and other tourists. Some of it felt very Indiana Jones!

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The subject of food is never far from my mind, and so far, we’re still not disappointed. The vegetarian food in particular has been amazing, and we indulged in amazing guacamole and poppadoms at Be Kind to Animals the Moon restaurant in Old Bagan.

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