Thursday, 31 March 2011

Yangshuo, Sunshine and Bicycles, 29 - 4 February 2011

Gulp... Another cup of Tsing Tao beer down the gullet of our wincing opponent as Matt executed a precision shot landing the ping pong ball directly inside the cup and sinking to the bottom like a seasoned professional. It is well known that Matt travelled to Oregon a few years ago for an intensive training course with the indigenous people to improve his skill in Beer Pong. I had, however, never played the sport before that evening on the roof top bar above the infamous Monkey Jane's hostel and was pleasantly surprised by my natural skill as we won and arguable became champions of the evening, only succumbing to Monkey Jane herself. The bar was good fun, full of life and was the only place in town for backpackers to party. However, we strategically made the decision not to stay in the hostel as we agreed it was best to stay in a quiet place and drink elsewhere.

Earlier that day we left Guilin on the local bus to Yangshuo which was an absolute joy. The weather was overcast but dry and the bus steamed its way through the city and out into the countryside playing chicken with oncoming vehicles and practically forcing cyclists off the road. Whilst waiting for the bus we met a Vietnamese gentleman who was studying and working in China and he smugly informed us that he visited the rice terraces the day after we did and retrieved his camera to show us photos of the fantastic sun drenched scenery that was beneath him. It's surprising what a difference one day can make!

Nestled amongst karst outcrops and hugging the shore of the Li River, Yangshuo is to all extent a tourist town. The main street, West Street, is full of shops selling tourist memorabilia, restaurants, bars and crammed with Chinese tourists on their Spring Festival holiday. It was a pleasant place and I immediately felt much more relaxed than I had been for many weeks in the busier cities of Chinese. Of course, with every tourist town in the world there comes touts trying to sell you tours, accommodation or trying to coerce you inside their restaurants and bars. A walk down by the river incurs many offers to take you out on a bamboo raft down the river, however, it was so cold when we arrived it would have been hard to agree to any of these.

Our first full day was a special day, it was Sunday and we all know it means dim sum day! However, when we asked they had no idea what we meant and directed us to a bakery. We later discovered that dim sum is a local speciality of the Cantonese regions of Honk Kong and Guangdong province so we abandoned our search and settled for a well deserved normal everyday Chinese meal to celebrate our Beer Pong victory the previous night. Whilst looking through the menu, Matt's obsession for choosing the most obscure item was not repressed and he chose frog but was disappointed when they returned to tell him he couldn't have it so he had to settle with pig intestines. The restaurant was absolutely awful as we were served after many people who came in later than us. Matt's food came out, mine came about ten minutes later after many attempts to get the attention of the waiter and then the rice arrived as we finished the meat dish. Needless to say we never ate there again and we discouraged anyone else from going there too.

Following our rubbish meal we planned to head out on a bicycle ride around the surrounding countryside despite the grey sky above and the cold which forced Matt to buy a genu-ine Gucci hat and a pair of Thinsulate gloves. There is not much you can say about Yanghsuo apart from absolutely beautiful. Cycling around the small country villages that hugged the awe inspiring karst landscape is truly amazing. Many times, Matt and I were speechless as we stopped to take in the fairytale landscape the likes of which neither of us had seen before. I think in this circumstance, pictures say more than words... so here's two....

Cooking Chicka-de-Chinese-de-Chinese-Chicken

Two of our dishes
Considering our horrid meal the previous day we thought we would take matters into our own hands and attend a cooking lesson. We were picked up from our guest house in the morning and taken to the local food market where we were shown different fruits, vegetables and herbs and taught how to prepare them. The sound of the market will haunt me for a long time, chickens clucking and dogs barking followed by the constant sound of meat cleavers powerfully cutting through flesh, bone and coming to rest on chopping boards. The sight of skinned dogs hanging up off hooks with their teeth showing their painful ends as they were taken out of their cramp confinement and beaten to death. With that image singed into our minds, we all hopped in the minibus and headed to the kitchen.

There were a good group of us standing in front of our gas stoves and the ingredients that would make our five different dishes. One notable dish was the local speciality of Beer Fish! I don't know why, but that's the only one I can fully remember. Back in November, whilst Matt and I were in Tallinn, Matt put a song in my head, well not an entire song but the one line that is repeated in The Killers' 'All the Things that I've Done'... “I've got soul but I'm not a soldier. I've got soul but I'm not a soldier...”. Today was no different from the previous ninety days, the lyrics were circling my head, round and round, it broke the surface and became audible infecting the rest of the group. We all cooked along to the sweet sounds of The Killers being hummed around the room.

I always knew that Chinese food wasn't the most healthy food but whilst preparing the dishes the tutor kept saying “Now put in half oil and one salt.”. I'm not sure how much oil and salt went into the dishes but I know it wasn't a healthy amount! Whilst in the preparation stage, the kitchen was filled with frantic foreigners trying to keep up with what the tutor was saying as she didn't stop for breath in between instructions, so fast I can't remember anything I had been taught. I was impressed by the way she was wielding her kitchen knife like a true professional compared to me, on the other side of the spectrum, concerned about cutting my fingertips off with every slice. We all got through it without any blood loss and after each dish was made we all abandoned the kitchen and sampled the results of our toils on the terrace overlooking the river. Although there is very little to go wrong when stir frying, I was surprised by my exceedingly good culinary skills and enjoyed each one of my dishes.

That evening was our last evening in the Charming Inn and we decided not to extend our stay as it was so freaking freezing in the room. Still not overly keen on heading to Monkey Jane's to stay, we were on the look out for another place to stay, and two girls that were in our cookery class invited us to have a look round Showbiz Inn where they were staying. The rooms had air conditioning unit making them luxuriously warm and with its own rooftop bar convinced us that we should hoist our stuff out of the coldness and across the road. Our last night in Charming Inn was terrible, I was in my thermals and physically and violently trembling with the cold. My gut was wrenching for some reason and I expelled the contents of my stomach. I didn't understand why, I didn't drink that evening and I the only thing I ate was what I made at at the cookery course...

Not all bikes are good bikes

Feeling stupid and unhealthy I sent a burst of energy to the muscles in my legs and ordered the small pink bicycle to ascend the hill. In a bid to save money, Matt and I had gone for the cheaper option when it came to hiring bikes and it's true when they say 'you get what you pay for'. These single geared bikes are only good enough for an elderly person who needed to cycle to the corner shop and back but not the 12km round trip through the rolling road to Fúlí. On a mountain bike, the ride wouldn't take long at all but on these, it seemed to be a never ending assault of long steady ascents, burning calves and aural attacks from crazy bus driver's horns. However long the ascents were, we remained determined and remembered that those ascents will become declines on the way back. Fúlí is a bustling market town and the day we were there was even busier as it was the eve of Chinese New Year meaning people were out buying food to prepare a feast for their families. We strolled through the market with our bikes in tow and emerged out on the other side where the dusty roads were progressively turning red with the wrappers of spent firecrackers that were being blown up outside people's homes and shops. Matt and I leisurely cycled through the streets and came out on the riverbank where several buffaloes where munching their way through the grass. After reaching the river we turned back and returned to Yangshuo in preparation for the evenings festivities.

Chinese New Year, mostly known to Chinese as Spring Festival, is the most important holiday and celebration of the year. The beginning of this year's festival started on 3 February and saw the passing of the year of the dog and welcomed in the year of the rabbit. We sat on the rooftop bar eating a hot pot the hostel organised and listened to the barrage of fireworks exploding all around. I later went down to see what was going on and left the rest in the bar as they were complaining about the cold. The streets were empty, everybody was obviously with their families or in restaurants eating. The riverbank was bursting with life, lots of people congregating to set off fireworks which encouraged me to go and find some. A shop on the front was selling a table full of fireworks and I chose the biggest there. With the fireworks in hand I convinced the others to come out a set them off with me. I thought they were going to be awesome but they turned out to be silly little flares that streamed out of the tube. After we finished setting those off, a very excitable, probably drunk on rice wine came down to the bank screaming with a huge reel of firecrackers in his hand. I had never heard such intense noise in my life and that marked the end of the evening.

Feeling ridiculed from the previous day's bike, we decided that we were going to hire mountain bikes this time and explore more of the area we cycled on the first day but go further as we had more time. So we set off, Matt on his man's bike and me having to settle for a woman's bike. The ride was absolutely stunning as the sun had penetrated the clouds shining on the karst landscape and relieving us from our hat, gloves and jackets. Along the way we joined up with another group who were cycling the same track on Dragon bridge and ate lunch together on a floating restaurant. The sun was absolutely gorgeous and I had high hopes for the new year! As we were cycling through the small villages I was shocked by the small children playing with firecrackers, some couldn't have been older than 4 years old. This wouldn't happen in the West at all.

Matt squeezed in the back.
Our last day in Yangshuo was another beautiful sunny day and a fantastic day to visit the neighbouring town of Xingping which is a quaint village on the other side of the river between Yangshuo and Guilin. After some egg tarts at the bakery with Fen from the hostel, we boarded a cramp bus towards Yangshuo. I'm not entirely sure Matt enjoyed the journey as his length surely presents issues on Asian buses. The scenery around Xingping is breathtaking and is made even more famous by the 20 Yuan note and walking around the river you can see why it is such a national icon. This day trip was our last in Yangshuo as we had booked our sleeper bus tickets to Guangzhou that evening.  It was a shame to leave Yangshuo as it was by far one of the most beautiful places I have visited yet.

Matt and I in Xingping
Streets of Xingping

Next Time, Guangzhou

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Guilin, A city of disappointments and great views

Ethnic Yao village

The weather was abysmal, a light drizzle was steadily oozing from the dark grey sky overhead as our car made its way towards The Lonjii Rice Terraces. Although the rain was falling, our optimism was still strong in the belief that the clouds will part and we would be able to see the promised breathtaking view from the top of the mountain. Matt and I were joined by two other people on our journey, Gabriella, an American working for China Daily in Beijing and Will, an old friend who I did not think I'd see again after randomly bumping into him in Wuhan and was very surprised when I saw him sitting in the bar/building site of the hostel with his trademark Swedish hat on. Before we got to the rice terraces, we had a planned stop at an ethnic village inhabited by the Yao people and were thrust into an unexpected tourist trap. Entering the village via a rope bridge, Matt's love for Indiana Jones once again breached the surface with a barrage of quotes as we acted with compulsion and coerced the bridge into swaying by jumping around. Our guide had told us that the show which was on offer in the town was actually another 50 Yuan, which was a surprise as I thought it was included in the price. The four of us decided that we were not prepared to pay the extra which upset the guide who told us that his boss and the village people wouldn't be happy us not going to see it. As we walked through the deserted paths through the village amongst the chickens, the guide was relentlessly trying to change our minds saying that perhaps they would give us a discounted rate which obviously meant that he would just take a smaller cut from the ticket sales.

We soon rejoined our driver and got back on the road. There was still no sign of sunlight through the thick clouds that were getting closer and closer above us as we ascended up the mountain. It wasn't long before visibility became a severe issue as we couldn't see anything out of the windows, it was as if someone had spray painted the windows in a light grey shade. The driver edged forward in his seat, struggling to see ahead and the side of the road which was accompanied by a drop of several hundred feet. He flicked the headlights on but made it worse as the light bounced off the mist and reflected back into the car and all the time the guide sitting next to him was reassuring us that he had driven for many years and was a very good driver. Unfortunately it failed to reassure me as I had never seen a good driver throughout my previous month in China. To our relief, it only took a few moments for the mist to part slightly, at least enough for the driver to see a few more feet and ease our pent up anxiousness.

Our bamboo rice being prepared and ready to eat
Around two hours after leaving Guilin, we arrived at the end of the road and the beginning of the final climb to the scenic area above the Lonjii Rice Terraces. Our hopes for the clouds to clear were fading more rapidly as time went on but nevertheless we got out of the car and followed our guide through the valley of tourist shops selling the usual tack up the wet and muddy slope towards the village. The path was deserted and there were no other tourist on the climb up. The village on top of the mountain was the conventional working village turned tourist trap selling souvenirs amongst the hotels and restaurants. We stopped in a restaurant for lunch on the way up, of course arranged by the guide but not included in the price of the trip which meant he got another cut from the overpriced food and drink being sold. I personally do not like being ripped off for food just because I'm a foreigner. It reminds me of a local restaurant Karin, June and I went to by the Terracotta Warriors where we were presented a menu that had Mandarin on the left and English on the right, the pages were formatted exactly the same but had one major difference... the price. We alerted the waiter to this inconsistency and he tried to convince us that they were completely different dishes. We certainly not convinced and not hungry enough to give in, so we snapped the menus shut, said thank you and walked out. This was different though, this restaurant sold dishes that were special to that area, Lonjii bamboo rice with fresh fish. The rice is crammed inside bamboo and placed into the fire and served still inside the bamboo. It was absolutely delicious and by far the best rice I have ever eaten in my life. Matt and Gabriella had a couple of other dishes to calm their hunger pangs which they generously offered a taste of, and they were also amazing.

A slightly better view of the day
The smaller terraces in the village
After lunch and an obligatory quarrel over the inconsistencies of Asian bills, we headed on further up through the village. The climb was on steep slippery steps and the drizzle continued to fall. As we got out from the village buildings and into the tree lined paths, I was immediately shocked by the huge icicles hanging from the trees like frozen daggers, the likes of which I hadn't seen since that day on Lake Baikal with Christian. We soon reached the pinnacle of the mountain and all of our hopes for a clear sky evaporated into the clouds making them even thicker. It was such a disappointment but something we silently expected ever since leaving the confines of the hostel. The guide was extremely helpful as he held a photo of the terraces in front of our eyes and taunted us, basically saying “Lets have a look at what you could have seen!”. There was absolutely no reason for us to stay up amid the mist for long as we couldn't see anything, so we headed back down through the village. Fortunately there were smaller terraces in the village that you could see so we didn't go away with nothing and at certain points if you looked through your peripheral vision you could make out the shadows of the main terrace seeping through the clouds.

As our guide and driver didn't make any commission through the ethnic show, they decided to take us to silk factory on the way back to Guilin. We entered the building and suddenly everybody sprung into life, lights were being turned on and the performance got underway. It was quite interesting as I had never seen silk being farmed and processed. Going to things like this is of course an elaborate tourist trap but completely fine if you remain firm and adamant that you are not going to buy anything despite the hard selling. Trying to sell travellers quilts, duvets and pillow cases seems a bit of a waste of time to me but we walked through the process and looked at their goods returning empty handed to the yet again disappointed guide. As we dropped Gabriella off at her hostel, I was shocked that she gave the guide a tip. Matt, Will and I were personally disappointed with the tour and annoyed that they go despite the weather being bad instead of cancelling and rearranging for another day meaning that we were unanimous in the decision not to tip. Once we arrived back at our hostel Matt unsurprisingly urgently needed the toilet but I foiled his trademark attempt at dodging difficult situations including money. He had done this in Oktoberfest when he got a lady to take a photo of us and when she returned with a printed copy, he quickly disappeared off to the toilet. Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, shame on you Matt!!

The Wada Hostel was at that point in the midst of a severe renovation and was a complete building site. The weather was cold and we all huddled around the two fires which emitted the only warmth in the bar. The girls running the place were fun however and we helped them relocate their pool table back inside the bar one evening and the games begun in earnest. I met a group of English travellers who told me they were cast in a film called Robotropolis in Singapore and tried their hardest to ruin continuity by shaving their heads on the second day of shooting and moving things around the set. Sounds like an extremely rubbish film but may be funny to watch when it comes out. The rooms in the hostel were freezing cold but we were relieved and comforted by the electric blankets which held us hostage to the beds making it extremely hard to get out of bed in the morning.

On our second day in Guilin we visited the next superlative item on a tour of China and that was the magnificence of the tallest copper pagoda in the world. It was actually very unremarkable and China's need for superiority make me laugh as the always need to make some the 'est in the world, e.g. the tallest 'copper' pagoda 'in the middle of a lake' 'in a city called Guilin' in the world. After our visit to this engineering 'masterpiece', we headed for Seven Stars Park which, among other reasons, is an excellent scenic platform to observe Guilin's truly spectacular unique karst landscape. We exited the park and headed back to the hostel as Will was leaving on a train that evening to his next destination before going to India. On our way back we stopped by an Irish bar for a farewell drink.

Next time, Yangshuo, Sunshine and Bicycles.
Camel Hill... Can you see it?

Hazy view of Guilin... Much better by the naked eye!

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Goodbye Hong Kong and hello again China

It was morning already and I was not ready to get up as I had pretty much no sleep the night before. Before I left I thought the most likely dietary complaint I would face would be diarrhoea so I stocked up on anti-diarrhoeal tablets and pushed aside the laxatives that were also recommended. To cut a long story short and save you all from details that you need not know, I wish I had bought them as I may have got some sleep!

In a tired state, Matt and I checked out of Hong Kong Hostel and headed for Shenzhen where we hoped we would get onward tickets to Guilin that evening. I retraced my routes on the MTR back to the border crossing we went through the normal routine, however, Matt got pulled aside again as they had to have a closer look at his passport because it has so many stamps in it from his work travels. They put him inside a small glass room for five minutes and proceeded to check through his passport. Suddenly they returned it to him and sent him merrily on his way into China.

Shenzhen, not my favourite place and during the final build up to Spring Festival the last place you want to be is a train station as it is utterly crammed full of people heading home for the holiday. As it is the main border crossing hub between China and Hong Kong, the station is huge and finding the right ticket office was an unpleasant ordeal as touts are trying to sell you tickets to places on every corner. Our initial plan was to head into the Yunan province and make our way back towards Guangzhou where Matt could easily get to Hong Kong for his flight home. However, we had to concede to the fact it was Spring Festival and it would be a lot more difficult to travel around, so we decided that we should bjust head to Guilin and make our way back to Guangzhou via Yangshuo and Xingping. After pushing our way through the crowds of people camping out for their trains, we found the ticket office and went in to ask for tickets to Guilin. My hopeful attitude was soon dashed as there were no tickets available for that day, nor the next or the one after that. So we decided that the only way we could get out is to get on a sleeper bus.

As we walked out of the ticket office towards the bus station we were interrupted by what looked like a police officer who asked where we wanted to go and said that he would take us there. We thought this was nice of him and we naively followed him through a shop and into a ticket booking office where they wanted 450 Yuan (£45) per person for the sleeper bus to Guilin. Absolutely ridiculous price and we promptly walked out. The officer followed us and as we disappeared up the escalator he signalled he would lower it to 400 Yuan which was still no good. We walked across the complex to another ticket office with an encore of 'Guilin', 'Beijing' and any city imaginable trying to get us to buy tickets. The lady at the ticket office said she didn't have tickets and frantically waved her hand in the direction we needed to go to. After heading in that direction and asking some girls in a ferry ticketing office, we found another smaller bus station and the ticket office we needed and tickets were half the price. Unfortunately the night bus was not available but there was one the morning after which meant that I had to spend yet another night in Shenzhen! No matter, with the tickets in our hands and the knowledge that we would be out of there very soon, we got on the metro and headed to the one and only youth hostel in the city. Matt was not impressed with the hostel as the common area was just full of people plugged into their laptops with little concern about anyone else in the room.

I must admit that my first impression of Shenzhen on my previous visit may have been marred by my prior travel issues and failure to see Hangzhou as Matt and I jumped on the metro and headed to another part of town that I had not been before and I quite liked it. This was the real China-China Shenzhen as it was full of street sellers trying their hardest to survive and a mass of shops selling copy (not fake!) clothes everywhere. On my previous visit to the city I went to the 'posh' end of town where the shops were genuine Vesace, Armani and Calvin Klein and the richness made me feel quite ill thinking about the rest of poor China. This was Matt's first experience of China-China, he had seen Hong Kong China and China Town before but it's nothing like China-China. We walked around for a while and Matt needed something to eat so he saw a restaurant on the corner that were selling noodle soup, he pointed to a lady's bowl and said “I'll have that.”. I'm sure a day hasn't gone by where he did not regret that decision he made. The extremely hot soup he had ordered burnt his lips to smithereens and turned his stomach into a boiling pot. I classed myself as lucky because I didn't have anything as I was still recovering from my issues the night before. Back at the hostel, I prepared my own pot noodle (better than the Pot Noodle we get at home!) that I bought from the supermarket across the road and we sat back and watched few episodes of Family Guy before heading to bed.

Having finally got some decent rest in the most comfortable bed I have had in China, it was time to leave for the bus station to get our morning bus to Guilin which we were told would take only ten hours. When I boarded the bus I was relieved to see that we were on a sleeper bus which are far more comfortable than a seated bus as you are laying down and have room to move your legs. As Matt is well over six foot, he could hardly fit into his bed and his legs hung off the side of the upper bunk. It was a funny sight to me, let alone what our Chinese companions must have thought about this giant on their bus. The bus seemed to have taken hours to get out of Shenzhen but it seems as though Shenzhen and neighbouring Guangzhou actually merge into each other making a super city as such. After finally leaving the outskirts of Guangzhou we hit some countryside and the further we travelled west, the more surreal the landscape got. Suddenly huge rocks jetted vertically up, out of the earth and then I knew we had hit vicinity of Guilin. Towards the end of the journey, a Chinese girl who was in the bed opposite Matt wanted his attention, she didn't speak a word of English and bombarded Matt with foreign words that meant nothing. He asked me to help but I swept it off my shoulder and basically told him to deal with it. I'm not sure how it happened but Matt ended up giving his 'new girlfriend' his mobile number and within a couple of minutes the girl had text him. It's a strange thing that Chinese people do sometimes, if you don't understand them speaking, they will grab a pen and paper and write it down in Chinese characters. It doesn't seem to dawn on them that if I can't speak it, I certainly can't read it. However, Matt was happy with his new girlfriend and the obscure texts she sent him which could have meant anything as they appeared as boxes on his phone anyway. As the journey passed the ten hour mark we soon realised that they must have meant 10pm not ten hours, so we had another two hours to go until we pulled up into the wet Guilin bus station, wherever that was...

Next Time, Guilin, another superlative and what's that.... can't quite see through the haze....

Friday, 18 March 2011

Macau and a Day of Gambling

On our last day in Hong Kong, Matt and I picked his passport up with his Chinese Visa enclosed and headed to the ferry terminal to board a catamaran bound for Macau, which would be the seventh country of my journey. The last time I was on a catamaran with Matt was when we headed across the Baltic from Tallinn to Helsinki, this time it's warmer.

Macau is another Special Administrative Region of China and was handed back to China from the Portuguese in 1999 under a similar agreement that Hong Kong has where the region will have a high government autonomy except for foreign affairs and defence for fifty years. The country is well known for as a gambling haven for the rich Chinese who head there and take advantage of it's numerous casinos which are legal whereas they're not in China or Hong Kong. It has been hailed as the Las Vegas of Asia and reportedly makes more money. Unfortunately the rain had come and it was completely overcast all day long but being in Macau gave me respite from all the noise and business of Hong Kong and China. There was nothing on the roads and nobody walking around, I think they were all shacked up in the casinos either working or gambling. Matt and I spent the day there walking around the dead streets and in and out of casinos trying to find excitement. The casinos were not exciting whatsoever, the tables were all the same, rich Chinese men gathered around with the look of addiction in their eyes, idly throwing more and more chips at the croupier. Matt found a slot machine where he places his first bet and immediately doubled his money. Matt being Matt he cashed it in straight away.

The Grand Lisboa, Hotel & Casino... Ugly..
Later on we went into the Grand Lisboa which is the grandest, some would say ugliest, casino on the island we were stunned by the amount of ladies that wander the floor just purely looking hot. They have their route and stick to it, back and forth all day, every day. Matt and I were looking for a roulette table as they're always fun and we managed to find just one, out of all the casinos we went in. We tried to place a bet with 10 Macanese Patacas but were told we could only place bets in Hong Kong Dollars. What is that all about? They won't even accept their own currency, it's useless. We placed the bets with HK$s and I laid my one and only chip on ODD hoping the 50/50 chance would fall my way but was told that the minimum I would have to bet was $20, I'm not a gambler, I don't really care too much for it so I stuck it on a single number and surprise surprise I lost it. I wasn't happy with that as the odds were obviously stacked well against me and I wanted a greater chance on winning some money so I found a slot machine, one which I really didn't understand, stuck $10 in it, pushed a few buttons and astonishingly walked away $200!!

Happy with the win and feeling that we had exhausted Macau's casinos, we walked out of the casino and made our way back to the ferry terminal to get back to Hong Kong. On the way back Matt and I picked up a couple of Macanese Egg Tarts which are absolutely amazingly delicious, here my love affair with Egg tarts was reborn more powerful than I could have imagined.

When we arrived back in Hong Kong, we met up with Raymond who also had his gambling head on and had discovered on the internet that there was a poker club near by and wanted to check it out. We went along with him as back up only, not to gamble, although Raymond is adamant that poker isn't gambling. Just around the corner from our hostel we found the unlikely looking building that hosted the club. Nevertheless, we continued as per the instructions and entered the building where we were struck by the intense smell of marijuana. We got into the lift for the 12th floor and we got out into a small landing with two only one locked door. Raymond checked the address was correct before he rung the door bell. A young well dressed Cantonese man cautiously answered the door, exiting and being careful to close the door behind him. The man spoke with English accent and was confused as to how we had found his establishment. He asked with a clear sense of concern in his voice how Raymond had discovered his place. Raymond answered his question but it did not seem relieve his concern, but he lightened up and invited us in to have a look. The place had a small bar with seating along the glass wall which overlooked Causeway Bay, the room ended with a stage with musical instruments and a small concealed room joined where the game was in progress. Raymond went in and observed for a while before brokered a deal with the owner and we all walked out for Raymond to get money from the ATM. Raymond decided not to in the end, which I think was the right move as he could have ended up losing a lot of money. On the other hand, he could have made a lot of money. Who knows...

Next time: Goodbye Hong Kong and hello again China.

Hong Kong, Part Two, Every Buddha Needs Dim Sum

After we dumped Matt's bag across the road in another apartment owned by the hostel, we headed out for some real Cantonese food. During one of my many wanderings around Causeway Bay, I found a street that seemed to have a few local restaurants down it and I wanted try it out so we headed down there and it was a fantastic meal, not only for the food but for the beautiful Carlsberg and Erdinger girls that were serving us beer. The only problem with Hong Kong is the cost of living. The prices are like European prices and that came as a huge shock after being in China and Mongolia where prices are lower. Cantonese is by far my favourite style of Chinese food. We finished our fantastic meal said goodbye to our beer girls and headed back to the hostel the long way round. When we arrived at the hotel Raymond was waiting for us. He had to tell me how fantastic Yellow Mountain was and how he had time to visit Hangzhou too! If only I didn't loose those three days in Xi'an! But then again I would have been alone on the cruise with all those Chinese tourists, which would not have been fun!!

Raymond, Me, Matt up on Victoria Peak
On our first full day together, we headed up to the Chinese visa office so that Matt and Raymond could both procure visas. We were all fearing the whole process would be a nightmare but it was surprisingly simple, fill in a form, hand it in with your passport and that's it. We exited the office back into the sunshine and headed towards the Bank of China where we heard you could go up to an observation platform where you can look out over Hong Kong. We visually navigated our way to the Bank of China and entered through the protesters that were beginning to gather for some unknown but probably well justified reason. We got our passes from the reception desk and headed up to the furthest point, which was only about three quarters of the way up but it was high enough to get a great view of Victoria Harbour and the surrounding buildings. Once we were down on ground level we had to feed our addiction for heights so we got on the Victoria Peak Tram which transported us up the extremely steep slope to the top of Victoria Peak which overlooks the whole of Hong Kong, Victoria Harbour and Kowloon.

Who wants a Happy Ending?
Later that evening we had to go and get something to eat. Matt, Raymond and I were joined by a German man in his 40's known to us as 'The Liability' for reasons I'll explain and headed out to find a restaurant. We headed to the Times Square Shopping Mall to check out there selection of restaurants but none of them were in our price range. Whilst looking we noticed that one of the menus named their desserts 'Happy Endings' which of course is a euphemism for a special type of massage. Matt, Raymond and I chuckled childishly at this and had to explain what it meant to the German man. For the rest of the evening he was asking random girls on the street whether they would give us happy endings. Hence 'The Liability'. We found a nice restaurant down the same street as the Carlsberg girls and ate a rather delicious meal. To our surprise The Liability did not eat a thing and only had a Coca Cola, he said that he only eats McDonald's as his stomach can't handle foreign food. Even though he didn't eat, he demanded that he pay for everything, we tried not to let him but he was quite adamant. What a nice man.

Look closely for the Cock Eye Club
After our meal, we decided that we should go and find somewhere to have a drink, which sounds easier than it actually was. We walked for a long while to try and find a bar. We met an American man in his 20's who was also looking for a bar so he joined us. We soon found the street where there were lots of bars and strip clubs with old unattractive ladies tried their hardest to coerce men into their joints. The price of beer is even more expensive than UK prices and I wasn't prepared to pay 60 Honk Kong Dollars (Nearly £6) for a bottle of beer! During our search for a bar, The Liability had obviously exhausted himself by asking so many girls for happy endings and left us for his Big Mac meal. We did find a bar, an English bar, that had happy hour from 8-10pm and 12-2am, so we bought enough drinks to survive the two hour interval and sat on the street placing bets on whether certain men would go into the questionable strip clubs next door. The American man was an engineer who worked for a company who sends him out to Shanghai every now and again to work. He told us that he had never left the US before coming to China understandably had suffered from extreme culture shock. Hong Kong is a fantastic place and would be even more amazing if you only had the money to enjoy it to the fullest. Once the second happy hour arrived we had a couple more drinks and left for home but before we did, we thought it would be fun to check out the strip club next door as they had been trying to get us in there all night. We walked in and were confronted with four girls standing in a row on stage in front of an empty room. The girls had their arms wrapped around them and obviously were suffering from the chilly evening air. We left following the footsteps of The Liability and headed for a early morning McDonald's to soak up the beer.

Dim Sum... What Sundays were made for!
Good Morning! It was Sunday morning and that only means one thing, Dim Sum day, Matt and I have a Sunday tradition back at home of going to the Baby Buddha restaurant in Norwich to indulge in delicious Dim Sum. As we were the home of Dim Sum and it was Sunday, there was nothing else we could do but enjoy some authentic dim sum delights. We asked Sam, the hostel owner, where we could go and even though he was disappointed we didn't invite him, he directed us across the road to the shopping/restaurant centre across the road. Raymond and the The Liability joined us and we headed off to find the recommended restaurant. We were having difficulties finding it and so we asked a security guard who was happy to show us the way despite German Liability repeating a badly pronounced Cantonese phrase he had learnt to everybody he met. Inside the restaurant it was incredibly busy, it's Sunday and everybody brings their family to dine at a dim sum restaurant which meant we had to wait a while before we got a table. We didn't have to wait long and were shown into an adjoining room which was away from the other people. It was cold and quiet and thankfully The Liability kicked up a fuss and we were moved into the thrust of the main room. Dim sum is a type of Cantonese cuisine which is a selection of usually steamed dishes like dumplings and spring rolls. We ordered several dishes which all come with a usual quantity of 3 or 4 and shared them between us, except The Liability who just watched us eat and said he enjoys the experience, just not the food. Feeling stuffed, The Liability and Raymond wanted to go to an experimental art exhibition so we all went along to find it. The sun was blazing and it was wonderful by the families and friends who had laid blankets out on the street to share their Sunday together eating, drinking and talking. This is something that is similar to China, the communal society where people come together in public and share food and stories. To cut a long story short, the exhibition had ended so we headed across to Kowloon on the ferry.

On Kowloon, we had a look around the university's photography exhibition in the Performing Arts Centre. There were some really good photos there and I tried again to get a tour round the complex but was denied for the second time. We left there and continued the hunt for cheap electronics and a tailor for Matt. The hunt was intervened by another McDonald's for The Liability and once we got the smell for it, we couldn't resist having on ourselves. The hunt unexpectedly ended with me buying a netbook. It was cheap but probably not much cheaper than I would have got it in Europe. The Liability announced his departure whilst I was paying as his flight was leaving in the evening and he needed to get back to the hostel to sort things out. By no means is it necessary for a traveller to have a netbook as it's more of a hindrance to carry around, I didn't need one but I thought it was a good idea if I were going to get a job and it's good for writing and organising photos etc.

Hong Kong Island by Night
As we were on the right side of the harbour to see the Symphony of the Lights, we thought we should hang around and see it. We walked down the Avenue of the Stars and felt like stars ourselves as we had several Chinese tourists wanting our photo. The plan was to find a place where we could sit and have a beer or two but the price was clearly too expensive so we walked to the nearest 7-Eleven and bought a few cans of beer for practically nothing, returned to the promenade and cracked them open whilst waiting. The performance itself was disappointing, it seemed as though it was a classic case of 'Quality over Quantity' gone wrong. The coordination between the skyscrapers of Hong Kong is impressive but the lights just seem to flash a lot and repeat themselves along to a cheesy soundtrack. It may be because I was young and impressionable but I'm sure I saw a better laser show years back in Flamingo Park Amusement Park which went along with Surfing in the USA. Go and see it if you're there!

Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car
The next day Matt and I headed to tick off the next item on my superlative tour list and see the Tian Tan Buddha. The Tian Tan Buddha is the World's Largest Outdoor Bronze Seated Buddha Statue and sits on top of a mountain on Lantau Island. The statue and monastery can be reached by foot but we chose to use the Ngong Ping 360 cable car which takes you on an awesome ride above the mountain from the metro station. The views from the cable car are absolutely stunning and you can even see the new airport which was built on reclaimed land and replaced the legendary Kai Tak in 1998 which was well known for extraordinarily dramatic and dangerous landings. Matt had already been Honk Kong last July and had done all of the tourist things but didn't mind doing them again as it gave him the chance to take more photographs. It's great to have him with me as I class him as my official photographer, he says he may not be a good one but he's mine! 

I'm sure this Buddha could do with some dim sum
Once we reached the end of the cable car ride, we walked through the numerous tourist traps and shops selling tacky souvenirs and got to the inevitable 206 steps which take you up to the Tian Tan Buddha. We took a deep breath in preparation for the climb and took the first set of steps in our stride, each step thereafter got more and more difficult and I took comfort in the fact that at least it wasn't summer! Matt had done this in the summer heat and said it was unbearable. It was worth it once we got to the top but it was a shame that the sun didn't come out to brighten up the surroundings. After walking around the Buddha and back down the steps, which were much easier on the way down, we stopped at the restaurant and got a little food and a drink before heading to the cable car station. On our way back to the Ngong Ping 360 station, we took a right turn and headed off the tourist route. Not sure where we were going, we followed the road and found a temple where there were no tourists, just one solitary female Buddhist going through the prayer routine. It was the best temple I have seen so far as it was what I like to call 'a working temple' which is not just for tourists. We covertly watched and listened for a while in silence and then left her in peace.

Next Time: Macau, The Land of the Casinos

Hong Kong, Part One, Arrival and Reunion with an Old Friend

I was never so happy to leave a place as I was Shenzhen. I stayed there for four nights and couldn't wait to move on. The hostel I was staying in was pleasant, in a nice place in outskirts of the city but nothing was happening, nobody in the hostel was that sociable and I only met two people, a Chinese student who was in the city for an interview and a Spaniard who was also looking for a job. Whilst talking with the Chinese man in the dormitory, he brought up the question of Taiwan and asked me what I thought of it and if I thought it was part of China or not. I told him what I thought, that Taiwan is its own country, that mad him mad and he raised his voice and forcefully stated that it was. 

Hong Kong and Kowloon Peninsula in the distance
On the morning of 18 January, I leisurely got up, had a noodle breakfast and headed into Hong Kong. Crossing the border from Shenzhen is extremely easy and cheap. The Shenzhen metro takes you directly to the border crossing where you get off the train and go through the usual immigration routine. The queue was long and took forever to process. As soon as I stepped into Hong Kong I felt a wave of excitement pass through me and felt as though I had arrived back in the west for some respite. I excitedly jumped onto their MTR system and headed for Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island. This is the sixth country of my journey. As soon as I stepped out of Causeway Bay station, I was struck by a strong sense of Reverse Culture Shock. I was immediately shocked by the distinct differences between Honk Kong and mainland China. For instance, they drive on the correct side of the road, the streets are immaculate and most importantly people do not spit! I would like to think it is the influence the British Empire had on the peninsula.

Hong Kong from Kowloon in 1843

The British Empire gained control of Hong Kong Island after the First Opium War (1839-42) against the Qing Dynasty. The war came about after the Emperor of China banned the trade of Opium as more and more citizens were becoming addicted to the drug and he ordered all opium to be destroyed, including opium owned by the British. The British Empire believed the ban was unfair as it broke free trade with China which meant a loss of money, so they simply declared war. The outlying islands and New Territories were gained after the conclusion of the Second Opium War under an agreement which loaned them to the British for 99 years.  

Handover Ceremony 30/6/97 - 1/7/97
As per the agreement Great Britain returned the outlying islands and New Territories back to China in July 1997. In addition to that, Hong Kong island was also returned to them under the condition that China allowed the region to run their own government and economy for at least fifty years. China calls it 'One Country, Two Systems' and has classified Hong Kong as a 'Special Administrative Region'. Seeing how Hong Kong's social and political stances remain quite different to China, I really cannot believe that the region can ever fully reintegrate back into China. The freedom people have and their standard of living is far greater than that on the mainland. I believe sincere changes to the political/economic systems and citizens' freedom of speech will have to be made in the People's Republic to bring them in line with Hong Kong before anybody in Hong Kong would allow the merger to happen.

Hong Kong By Night
After checking into the hostel and meeting the charmless but oddly friendly owner Sam, I headed out to look at the cheap electronic malls which Hong Kong has been synonymous with for many years. Since I had suffered the devastating death of my compact digital camera whilst smashing icicles on the shore of Lake Baikal, I was looking forward to buying myself a new one for a very affordable price. However, after looking round several electronic centres that resemble multi story rabbit runs that are extremely difficult to navigate as bright lights, loud noises and a forest of people disorientate you, I discovered that since the dramatic fall of the Pound the prices of electronics are near enough the same as European prices. I was thoroughly disappointed as my dreams of cheap electronics were shot down and buried. On my walk back to the hostel I failed to notice that night had fallen as the bright lights of Hong Kong fill the pavements and roads making night time unnoticeable unless you look upwards towards the sky. That is the magic of Hong Kong, being able to walk around the bustling streets at 10pm and believe it's midday.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Shanghai to Shenzhen, Enter Capitalism, 12-18 January 2011


Raymond and I left Wuhan on the fast train to Shanghai at 8:35am. The total distance of 827 was covered in a little over 5 hours and we arrived just after 2pm. Shanghai was a city that I wasn't too bothered whether I visit or not but as Raymond was heading there I thought that it might be fun to go along too. The Shanghai underground infrastructure was one of the best I've seen and we easily found our hostel which was in a great location near the banking district.

My days in Shanghai have little to talk about, it's a pleasant enough city but to me it didn't grab me as anything special. Perhaps it's because I went there straight after the Yangtze where I saw some really amazing landscapes. The streets of the French Concession were nice to walk down as there's some different colonial architecture and the streets are lined with trees which gives it a more peaceful feel compared to the commercial centre where you cannot walk ten yards before being sold something or offered some kind of service.

It is also the place where haggling is required. We came out of the World Financial Centre and were pestered by a lady selling the extremely strong laser pens and we just looked at them for a second and continued to walk past her. She shouted '150 Yuan', to which we replied 'No'. 'OK, OK, 130 Yuan' she corrected as we continued to walk. '110... 100... 80... 60... 40...' She continued to lower her price with each step we took to guarantee a sale. I was interested in how far she was willing to go but Raymond had had enough and turned around and said firmly, 'We... don't... fucking... want... one, thank you!'. She got the hint and walked away in the opposite direction. I was in dire need for another pair of jeans as I lost mine in Chengdu after the extremely messy night of whisky, so we headed to the black market which was based in one of the metro stations. I found a pair of jeans and tried them on. I asked the lady for the price and she replied, '570 Yuan', which is a ridiculous price for a pair of copy Diesel jeans as you could buy a real pair in the UK for £57! I countered her offer with '70 Yuan'. She did not like this and began shouting at me saying that I was 'taking the piss' and she 'couldn't earn a living with that'. So I removed the jeans, put my trousers back on and walked out whilst she continued to utter profanities under her breath. As we turned the corner, she ran up behind me and said, 'OK, let's talk about the price', so we went back into her shop where we battled it out for five minutes. I got them for 100 Yuan in the end, still over priced but I take pride that I only raised my offer by 30 Yuan, she lowered hers by 470 Yuan.

Shanghai is a city that boasts more superlatives than most other cities of China. The first is the Shanghai World Financial Centre which is China's tallest building and hosts Park Hyatt which is the world's highest hotel accommodation starting on 87 floor, however the tallest hotel dedicated building is of course in Dubai. Whilst next door the Jin Mao building holds Cloud 9, the highest bar in the world. How do you get to these places? Well, simply take a flight into Shanghai's Pudong Airport and hop on the Maglev, the fastest magnetic levitation train which reaches commercial speeds of 431km/h. Having listed these things, it's quite obvious to me that Shanghai has been used by the People's Republic as a site where they can show off how powerful they are. The city was also host to the last World Expo, however, the expositions which unfortunately taken away just before I got there!

Even though the technology used to build these technological feats have come from elsewhere in the world, such as the Maglev was engineered by the British and Germans. Nevertheless, travelling at that intense speed was an experience indeed. Nevertheless, travelling at this immense speed was a fantastic experience. You cannot feel the speed at all but looking out of the window onto the road beside the track and the buildings fly past with the blink of an eye. The track is 30km long and the journey takes only 7 minutes 20 seconds. Although The Shanghai Maglev train was the first 'high speed' maglev train to operate, the first maglev train service was opened in Birmingham and was in service from 1984 – 2003 transporting people from the airport to the rail station and Berlin's M-Bahn but these were both slow speed trains. On our trip I also got a glimpse of the East China Sea, the first sea I've seen since the Baltic and the beginning of my journey across the world so I felt a slight joy envelop as I realised that I had travelled Eurasia and finally reached the East coast.


After two days in Shanghai, I decided that I needed to leave and head south to Hangzhou, which is apparently one of the most beautiful cities in China. So I hopped aboard the 8pm service to Hangzhou at which was yet another high speed train, this one reaching the speed of 351km/h and only took 45 minutes to cover the distance in between. I barely had time to sit down before we got there. After disembarking the train, I walked through those annoying people offering accommodation and taxis straight to the ticket office to book my onward ticket to Shenzhen three days later. I queued up and reached the front of the queue where I presented the lady behind the glass with the piece of paper with the train number, date, time and Chinese characters for hard sleeper. She tapped away on her keyboard and the customer's display showed me something rather disappointing, there were no tickets available. Not for this train nor any train that day. I asked whether there were tickets a day earlier, which there were not and I ended up getting a ticket for the next day which meant I only had one night in Hangzhou and had no chance of seeing anything as the train left early afternoon. Unfortunately I had no choice but to take this train as my visa was expiring soon and I needed to be near Hong Kong so that I could exit the country. This was my first experience of the difficulties of travelling over Chinese New Year!

I walked disappointed out of the ticket hall and immediately had Travis' 'Why Does it Always Rain on Me' blast out in my head as I was bombarded with a torrential downpour. Believe it or not, this was the first rain I had seen since I was driving to Stansted Airport on 14 November. I walked out of the Railway Station and headed around the corner to find a taxi as it's quicker to get them away from the station as you don't have to queue. As I walked east of the station I heard a commotion across the road and I saw two Chinese men in a brawl with police trying to pull them apart. This is the first thing like this I have seen on my trip and it surprised me, I thought I'd see it in Russia not China. I continued to walk on and found a street where taxis seemed to be driving down. I stood there in the rain and flagged down a taxi, I showed him the address for the hostel and he passed it back to me and said 'no, sorry!' and continued driving. I continued round the corner and saw many taxis but couldn't get any as they were already occupied. Not feeling defeated I continued to wave my hand as I walked and one pulled over, I showed him the address and I dumped my bag on the back seat and jumped in the front next to the driver. The drive to the hostel was long and I didn't know if the driver was taking me round the block to increase his fare but we pulled up in a green quiet part of the city around twenty minutes later and I walked up the long steep driveway towards the hostel.

As I opened the door to the hostel a dog leapt upon me a growled, I think he may have bit my wrist but the hostel owner shouted at it which made it cower back to its corner and sleep. I lifted the cuff of my jacket to check if the dog had punctured the skin on my wrist and made my day even worse but it hadn't even left a mark, so there was no rabies this time. The hostel was empty and the only thing I could do was check the internet for hostels in Shenzhen, but the internet connection was worse than what we used to get with a 56k dial up modem and I gave up. I came to the conclusion that I would find a place to stay once I arrived in Shenzhen. However, when I checked out in the morning I noticed, as if by some kind of miracle, a poster of the one and only hostel in Shenzhen. I let out a huge sigh of relief as I asked the boy behind reception to write down the address for me, although I was concerned about his handwriting and whether it could be understood.

My trip to the train station was fun as usual. I had to take two buses to the station, the first bus took around thirty minutes to circumnavigate the centre and dropped my off at its last stop, where I needed to transfer to another bus which would take me directly to the station. I followed the directions that I was given and crossed the road to the bus stop for my second bus but I couldn't find it, I was on the verge of giving up and approached a taxi driver and asked him to take me to the station but he just pointed over to the other side of the road and said 'Bus there.'. I was surprised by this and thought that he would rather take me and earn more money but he was a very nice man and helped me find the bus stop I needed. I hopped aboard the bus and got to the train station. Unfortunately I arrived with over one and a half hours to kill before my train arrived as people warned me that the traffic in Hangzhou is unpredictable and the journey could have taken me two hours but today I was lucky enough that I did it in under an hour.

With plenty of time to spare I grabbed some supplies from the shop and headed through the security checks to the departure lounge. There I managed to secure a seat and relax whilst trying to write my blog with a pen and paper. A twenty four year old man came to sit next to me and began to talk with me. He was working in Hangzhou for a clothing company and he told me that he worked six days a week from 9am – 10pm. I enquired whether he had a girlfriend but he told me that he couldn't get one until he earned enough money to buy a house. This surprised me, if people in the UK waited to have enough money to buy a house before we got a girlfriend or wife then none of us would get married until we were 75!! We continued to talk about life for a while as our train to Shenzhen was running by Chinese time and was predictably late.

The train finally arrived and I boarded my carriage and met the people I was going to be spending the next 15 or so hours with. I was travelling in the hard sleeper which meant there were 6 bunks to each open compartment but there were only four of us in ours. One younger Chinese boy who was in bed for the entire journey and barely spoke and two men who spent the whole afternoon and evening talking with me. One of them could speak English but the other couldn't. The one that could speak English was a manager of a glue factory and absolutely obsessed with money and price of housing as he kept asking me about prices in the UK and how people can afford it. The non-English speaker was a manager of a PVC factory and heavy gambler, during the journey he recited all the football teams in the Premier League more than once. He told me through a translator that he gambles everyday and actually wins a lot of money from it. The journey was fun and we shared the bits and pieces of food that we each brought with us and retired to bed when the lights got turned out just before 10pm.

The night on the train was not pleasant at all. I was in the last compartment of the carriage and my bed was the other side of the wall to the toilet and throughout the night all I heard was people going into the toilet and spitting. It was absolutely disgusting and I tried to close the door but people would just come through and leave it open. I had to turn the volume up on my MP3 player to replace the revolting and gut retching noise with the soothing sounds of Chopin. I did manage to get some sleep and we arrived in Shenzhen just one hour later than expected. I left the train and said goodbye to the men I had been speaking with all night, before they departed they gave me one piece of advice and that was taxi drivers in Shenzhen are the worst and most corrupt in China.


With the advice still warm in my mind, I went to the taxi rank and jumped in a taxi, gave him the piece of paper with the address on and we zoomed out from under the train station into the clean streets of Shenzhen. I tried to access Wi-Fi before I left the train station to find out the location of the hostel but unfortunately I couldn't so I was in the taxi drivers hands. The drive seemed to be a long one and the meter was ticking up rapidly as the kilometres passed by. I thought he was taking me for a ride so I made a note of his details just in case, but we turned up to the hostel after 20 minutes and the cost was high but not too bad. It seemed as though I was located a long way out of Shenzhen.

Shenzhen is a new city that was created thirty years ago from what used to be a small fishing village. The Chinese government created an area around the city called the Special Economic Zone with a goal to boost the local economy which will spread throughout the region and out into China. The companies in Shenzhen work closely with Hong Kong and have invested billions of $s to develop the area. Citizens of Hong Kong and Shezhen may cross the border for work with a SEZ permit.  China's tallest building and the second tallest building is currently under construction in Shenzhen.

I did not find Shenzhen a pleasant city but maybe I wasn't in the right frame of mind having had to prematurely leave Hangzhou. The city is orientated around money, high rise banks are being erected everywhere, designer shops and expensive cars litter the street. I found nothing that endeared me to the city, the only thing I found was a park in the centre of the city. Where people congregate to play cards, sing, dance and relax around the lake that sits in the middle. Having found nothing else that attracted me, I wondered around the park soaking up the only culture in the city and sat by the lake for a while. Whilst sitting by the lake I was joined by a young Chinese man who I had noticed was following me. He began talking to me and so I removed my earphones. He asked me where I was from and what was I doing there. I answered both of these questions and fired them back at him, he was training to become personnel in the financial sector, which everyone is in this region. He then said that I was strong and started to feel my arms and I though I had attracted yet another nut case! Luckily enough he left once I started to become difficult in our conversation. On my walk back through the park to exit I walked through the small closed off garden area and walked in on a lady giving an elderly man a 'special' massage. I did not want to see that and to this day it haunts me!!!

Next time: Hong Kong

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Yangtze River Cruise, Chongqing to Wuhan, 9-11 January 2011

The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world that stretches a massive 3,915 miles from Tibet into the Sea of China. The Yangtze acts as a major artery to China, slicing the country in half and has been used throughout history for many purposes, trading, transportation, irrigation, sanitation and a natural border separating warring factions.

Raymond had come to Chongqing for the same reason as me and wanted to get on a cruise down the Yangtze and so he decided that he would like to join me on the cruise and bought the same ticket. Before the trip we decided that we should buy some food to sustain us throughout the journey as recommended. I also was in dire need to find some deodorant as my can was running dangerously low and I knew that I may not be able to shower on the boat. We climbed the endless amount of steps through the small streets of Chongqing towards the centre of town past the small food shops and a stand where a elderly man performed fire cupping on his patients. The only thing I have had problems getting hold of in China is deodorant, you can't find it anywhere and I was advised that Wallmart might have some. So we checked the store out and the only thing available was a roll on which cost 48 Yuan (£4.80)!! I had no option but to fork out and pay the cost to get some. My question is, do Chinese people just let themselves smell?

On the way back we found a outlet selling Banana Bread which is a sweet bread made with bananas. It was so cheap we both bought a bag full each and ate most of them by the time we returned to the hostel and shared the rest of them amongst the people around. Upon our return, the girl in the hostel had invited us to drink traditional Chinese tea before we left. I cannot remember how many cups of tea I drank but it was a pleasant way to say goodbye to Chongqing.

A man entered through the door and announced that he was our driver, so we collected our bags and headed downstairs to the street. We clambered our way through the mountain of boxes that the numerous distribution warehouses fill the streets everyday ready for lorries to collect them and pack them onto a cargo freighter for their journey down the Yangtze. We climbed aboard our minibus and were joined by Steve, an English man who was teaching English in Tiajin. The minibus pulled away from the hostel and we were all hopeful that the next four hour trip to our boat would be a comfortable one, however, two minutes down the road we pulled up beside a coach and were asked to get out.

There were several hawkers selling things such as maps of the river and off bits and pieces that nobody really needs. We dumped our bags in the hold and jumped aboard to find some seats towards the back of the bus. The next four hours passed by relatively quickly despite the man sitting over my right shoulder continuously cleared his throat and coughed over me. The tour that we were on was the Chinese one as it was cheaper than the international ones. This meant the bus was completely full of Chinese people and we were the only foreigners.

We arrived at our boat after dark and followed the others onto our magnificent vessel that was waiting to take us downstream and our home for the next three days. We were greeted by our young Chinese guide who spoke limited English but enough to organise us. We were shown to our third class cabin on the bottom deck and met our cabin mates. There were six people in our cabin, us, a Chinese man in his forties and a young couple, who were not boyfriend and girlfriend but friends from university on vacation. The cabin was small with a television and an ensuite bathroom the type where you just have enough space to shower over the squat toilet.

The three of us immediately decided that we needed to check out the restaurant and or bar, so we made our way up to the stairs and found the poorly decorated and dull room where it looked like food may be served. It was served and the meal was really quite impressive. After that we chose to explore the rest of the boat which really did not take long. There was a small shop selling vastly over priced goods and the top deck which was a viewing platform which you needed to pay extra for, however, we climbed the dark stairs with a small LED light in our hands, the whole deck was pitch black which was great as it provided a silent and creepy feel to our surroundings. The boat sailed through the cliffs that flanked either side and were only lit by the search lights which extruded from the deck. The silence was abruptly broken by the fog horn which sent out a excruciating blast out into the distance which would not have been an issue if we hadn't been standing directly in front of it!!

Later that evening the boat moored and we arrived at our first destination, The Zhang Fei Temple. Part of the booking process we were offered to purchase all or just some of the entrance tickets. We chose to go for all of them as you never know whether you will see something magnificent. Our guide escorted us off the boat, walking us through an endless strip of tourist trap stalls selling all the same goods and handing us to another guide that worked at the temple. Raymond and I soon became aware that we may have made a mistake as the temple wasn't anything special and we couldn't understand anything anyway as the tour was all in China. Enter James, a thirty something year old man from Shenzhen who took it upon himself to be our translator. He spoke in a rather camp voice and his limited English made him stutter as he struggled to find the next word. A friendly man, but from his translation, the temple did not excite or interest me in the least. The temple was created to honour a famous general during the three kingdoms period in Chinese history nearly 2000 years ago. Many folk stories have been created about this general and the stories surrounding him have made this shrine a popular destination for Chinese tourists. The temple we saw was actually a recreation of the original shrine which was submerged when the creation of the Three Gorges Damn caused the waters of the Yangtze River to rise. The monuments were saved and relocated to the new temple which was recreated exactly the same as the lost one. Thankfully the tour didn't last long and we returned to the boat ready for a good night's sleep.

The following morning we were woken up incredibly early so that we could be at the White Emperor Town for 7am. We left the boat and walked through the compulsory tourist traps and boarded a bus that took us to the 'great' historical site. The town sat on top of a hill on an island which meant we had to cross a long stone bridge and ascend steps that didn't seem to end, it was too early for so much physical exercise. Once at the top the tour guide got out her megaphone and began squawking on about something. Raymond and I had enough of this and decided that we would leave the group behind and explore the place on our own. We reverted back to naughty school children climbing things and going places we shouldn't. It was a pleasant retreat and I'm sure if you lived up there you'd have a comfortable life but it wasn't anything I would recommend. On the way back down we were confronted by a group of tourist trappers selling wooden combs and other useless things. I couldn't imagine anyone buying these things but once we got on the bus the Chinese tourist enjoyed showing us all the things they had bought.

Back on the boat we met up with Steve who had decided not to bother going, we tried to convince him that the place was full of naked ladies and it was a tribute to the female species. However, when he told us he was only wondering because his parents were going to do the cruise and he wanted to recommend places for them to go, we couldn't continue our lie and told him that it was a pointless place to visit if you're not Chinese.

As a group we headed up to the top deck with some breakfast snacks and watch the first magnificent gorge of the Yangtze River. Once we arrived on the top deck Raymond was in a quandary, the apple he had bought the day before had deteriorated. Around half of the apple had disappeared and we thought it was due to some kind of Chinese rotting disease which we don't have in the west. As his apple was not edible, he returned to the cabin to retrieve his packet of crisps. Several minutes later he rejoined us with an empty packet of crisps in his hands. Raymond recalled his story of how he discovered the empty packet and how he had interrogated the young Chinese man in our room who was adamant that he had nothing to do with it. Playing detectives, we examined the depleted packet and noticed that there were small pairs incisions around the packet and we concluded that the culprit behind the mysterious disappearance of food was a mouse, or a number of mice. We later discussed this with our guide and upon revealing that we had a mouse in our cabin, she simply replied “Everyone's got mice in their cabins.”. We no longer felt special.

Sitting on the deck in plastic chairs watching the impressive landscape pass by was a fantastic experience, despite the cold blast of January air making us recoil inside the room on the top deck for protection. The damns, however, are apparently less impressive since the flooding of the Yangtze.

Steve, Raymond and me
In the afternoon we arrived at the Darling River where we left the boat, including Steve this time, and boarded another smaller boat which would take us down through the Lesser Three Gorges. The sun was out and the Chinese guide was doing her thing inside so the three of us went outside onto the front of the boat and witnessed the extraordinary scenery passing by. I personally enjoyed seeing this part of the river more than the Yangtze as it was far more peaceful. Maybe it was in large part due to the warm sunshine which suddenly appeared. Around one hour later we moored again where we transferred to yet a smaller wooden boat which took us up the stream a little bit. Whilst heading upstream the local guide talked about the local area and sang a few folk songs which was enjoyable. All the time James was there to translate for us. The local guide then handed out a keyring to each of us which we just knew meant a money transfer was expected. The Chinese tourists easily handed over their money but us westerners decided to hand the keyring back. This turned out to be quite an insult and the Chinese tourists told us that we should give him money, which thoroughly annoyed us. Just because we are Europeans they expect us to be rich and give everyone of them money. The fact remains, however, that this boat trip was included in the price of the cruise so they are already getting money. If they need more money then they need to up the price of the cruise instead of trying to extort more out of us once we are on the cruise. We stuck to our guns and stubbornly refused to pay. The rest of the day saw us pass the two final gorges and our last night on the boat.

Another day and another early wake up call. During the night we had moored at the Jiuwan Stream where we were going to get on a dragon boat and row along to the rhythmic drums and the horrible sound of the guide talking through her megaphone. We arrived at a side stream where we got off and walked around a while ending in another tourist trap and a traditional operatic performance by the locals. The performance was prematurely ended as we got back onto the boats and headed back to the cruise ship. The journey back was much more pleasant as the guide wasn't talking.

The next few hours were taken up by having our last meal aboard and watching the boat approach it's final destination, Taipingxi, where the boat moored and we disembarked. There were several buses waiting for us, some which were heading directly to Yichang and the others to the Three Gorges Dam. As Steve wasn't going to the damn, we said goodbye to him and boarded the other bus.

The Three Gorges Damn, my next stop on my superlative tour of China, is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. Construction began in 1994 but it the idea actually originated from Sun Yat-Sen in 1919 and it remained a popular idea ever since. The main structure of the damn was completed in 2008 but work on additional generators inside the dam is still continuing and is expected to be totally completed by 2012. Although the dam's major popularity, it was also controversial as the water upstream raised by 172 metres which led to a displacement of over 1 million people and many cultural and historic sites were submerged. The damn is also built near six active seismic fault lines and despite the engineers claims that it can withstand a high magnitude earthquake, if it does rupture, it will be one of the worst disasters in the man made history as a huge torrent of water will flood the downstream part of the Yangtze and will kill thousands if not millions of people within a few minutes. At the moment, however, the dam is helping to restrain floods which have killed many people and destroyed housing in the past. The dam has also made the upstream section 'the world's largest toilet' and an expansion in sanitation works was a compulsory action.

Our cabin mates
Visiting the dam, you can immediately see the immense size of it and the huge engineering feat of the shipping lanes is truly impressive. It certainly is another example of China's need to get one over nature. The tour around the site was another story, being part of the Chinese group had again proved annoying so Raymond and I went off to explore by ourselves again. This marked the end of the river cruise but before I got back on the bus I had a rather uncomfortable experience in the toilet which I feel I need to share with you all. Whilst standing at the urinal a Chinese man who had slicked back hair and a leather jacket stood next to me and started speaking with me. Nothing like, “Nice day today.” but “In the movies...” he pointed down towards my midriff and moved his hands apart as to show length and then pointed at himself and reduced the gap between his hands. He repeated this several times and I chose to leave the toilet and got back on the bus as soon as possible.

The bus took us to Yichang, a journey of two hours where our tour would officially end. Whilst on the journey we became friendly with two children, the young boy spoke minimal English but we had fun playing hide and seek and making funny faces at each other. His sister, however, turned out to be excellent at English and she was only 12 years old. She told us that they were from Tibet and were on holiday for a few weeks. We finished off the journey by flirting with drivers outside the window mainly me acting like a woman and waving at male drivers which made the kids laugh. The bus pulled into Yichang where we purchased onward bus tickets to Wuhan where we were hoping to get a night train to Shanghai. However, when we arrived in Wuhan several hours later, we weren't able to get a train until the following morning at 8.30am. Our next decision was whether we were going to spend the night in the train station or go to the hostel and stay a very brief night in a bed. The decision was easy and we arrived at the hostel 30 minutes later where we were greeted by Steve who had checked in around 4 hours before us.

I was also reunited with Will, the Scottish man I had previously met in Moscow. It was good to catch up with him after all this time and see that he had survived the Russian winter, which he was severely suffering from the in Moscow despite it only being -17 degrees! I suppose he did have an excuse, he flew from Egypt the day before.

Next time: Shanghai, Hangzhou and Shenzhen