Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Motorcycle Madness and a Brief History of Vietnam, Hanoi, 22 February - 7 March 2011

Motorcycle Madness

Hanoi's crazy traffic
The rain was pounding against my visor making it incredibly hard to see the pot holes that litter the highway beneath me. A loud horn blasted in my left ear as a huge lorry slowly overtook me causing me to veer more to the right as the air pressure pushed me. I had no idea why I was on this bike, let alone why I ever thought it would be a good idea to ride it myself. Back at home last year I thought about doing my CBT training and buying a 125cc motorcycle to drive back and forth to work. I never did do this as I couldn't justify the expenditure for just a few months before my departure. I never thought my first time riding a motorbike would be abroad, let alone in the craziness of Hanoi where road laws seem to be non existent, road markings are meaningless and traffic lights are more of a Christmas decoration than traffic control. Motorbikes ride everywhere, if you don't have a motorcycle you are deemed to be unsuccessful or a peasant. However, the craziness surprisingly works, the traffic continues to flow and it seems as though there is more respect for other road users than in the west as they continuously look out for people move to allow them in the traffic. Having said that, its an incestuous rule, bikes look out for bikes, cars look out for cars but they don't look out for each other. There is a pecking order on the roads which need to be obeyed or death will be the result. The order is; Lorries, buses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians. The pedestrians really have to be careful as they are not looked out for at all because there aren't many. Everybody has a bike and they use it all the time no matter where they are going they are on the back of something. Crossing the road is simple when you learn to trust the bikers, find a starting gap and edge your way across the road at a slow and steady pace making sure that you don't hesitate or speed up at any point. This will get you across the road safely.

The night before Raymond, his friend and I were sitting on the roof of the hotel drinking beer whilst looking out over the rooftops of Hanoi. Raymond asked me whether I would like to hire a motorbike to which I replied positively. I did tell him that I wasn't sure whether I would be able to ride one but he told me that he'd teach me and we would get out of the city where it was quieter. After agreeing to this we thought it would be funny to place a table and chairs outside on the roof for the waiter to find in the morning.

So there I was sitting on a motorbike for the first time. It was a semi-automatic which was good news as I wouldn't have to spend time getting used to riding with a clutch. I put the bike into gear and moved off only travelling a few feet before it stalled. This happened time and time again until the owner of the rental place came out and told me to change bikes as that one was dodgy. Having swapped bikes I tried again, this time I pulled of and into the flow of the traffic. I continued on, scared out of my senses, frantically looking around me and disorientated from all of the horns blowing a cacophony of rhythms. It took me a few minutes to realise that I should stop looking behind me and just concern myself with what is happening in front of me. I slowly got the hang of it and began to enjoy the craziness, knowing that you just need to look out in front and go for it whilst everything else moves around you.

Unfortunately the weather was abysmal, it rained almost non stop for hours whilst we drove around the surrounding countryside and rice fields outside Hanoi. We stopped for some food in a small village just east of the city, it was a local place where school children were eating their dinner. We had an excellent fried rice dish before heading off further. As we were steaming along the highway back towards Hanoi I was having fun, the fear had subsided and the freedom of the road took over as I weaved between cars and opened the throttle up. I had no idea how fast I was going or how much fuel I had left as none of the gauges worked. Suddenly the bike sputtered and I experienced loss of power, I pulled over into the hard shoulder and started her up again. The bike pulled out and began to ride OK again but my confidence had been knocked as I didn't want to be in the fast lane and have it cut out again. I took it slowly and things appeared to be going well for a while but within five minutes the engine cut out again. This time it stopped by a xé máy, a mechanic, where Raymond and I stood for a while procrastinating on whether we should consult the mechanic or not. We chose not to and slowly continued back towards Hanoi.

The bridge, courtesy of someone else
SHIT!!! The bus in front of me slams his breaks on and I find myself struggling to keep control as I swerve, narrowly missing a car coming up beside me with his horn blasting continuously. Luckily I managed to squeeze between the car and the parked bus without any collision and opened the throttle up to get myself clear of the scene. The bike seemed to be acting normal again so I continued to head into Hanoi's suburbs weaving effortlessly through the cars and bikes only slowing down for the bridge crossing the river. The hundreds of motorbikes were crammed into one lane with cars and lorries. It was a moment where slow and steady seemed to be the key but my bike didn't like to go slow so I had to constantly struggle weaving between cars and bikes in the narrow lane. The relief I felt emerging the other unscathed was immense, however, we immediately encountered another issue. Where were we? The problem with cities like Hanoi are that there are very few, if any, landmarks that rise above the rooftops so you can't just head towards it. We pulled over and spoke to a man who very nicely took us towards the centre of the city. He hoped onto his bike and stormed off full throttle into the traffic, I struggled to keep up with them and suddenly my battle for dominance was lost as a bus forced its way between me and the others. I tried to look past the bus to find them but I couldn't spot them. I soon had some space to overtake the bus and took the chance but once I was in front, I couldn't see them. I took the first right and luckily saw Raymond there waiting outside the motorbike rental place.

The whole experience being riding the bike in Hanoi was frightening yet exhilaratingly fun. I was surprised that I managed to survive the day and would most certainly do it again as it is a fantastic way to see areas arranged tours do not take you, although I'm sure my mother wouldn't agree...

A Brief History of Vietnam and its Military History

Vietnam as we now know it, is a very new country made up from the kingdoms of Tonkin (North), Annam (Central) and Cochinchina (South). For its entire existence, the region has been constantly struggling for independence from China, Mongolia, France and latest war with the United States of America. The most recent history is the most important to the make up of Vietnam.

French Indochina

The French Empire were involved in the region for many years prior to their occupation. In the nineteenth century they sent many catholic missionaries to the region to spread Catholicism amongst South East Asia. In 1802, the French helped Nguyen Anh recoup lands lost to the Tay Son which resulted in a unified Vietnam under the rule the Nguyen dynasty. In the 1850s the Emperor of Vietnam became increasingly frustrated with French involvement in the region and believed the growing Catholic community was going to be a political risk. The Emperor began to persecute and expel missionaries. In retribution, Napolean III ordered a full out naval attack on present day Da Nang in 1858 and having won the battle forced the Emperor to accept the French involvement in the region and handed over several regions to the French. Following a series of battles during the later part of the nineteenth century, France gained complete control over the whole of Vietnam in 1887. Cambodia soon after requested to become a protectorate of the French Empire and following the Franco-Siam War Laos became the last country to form French Indochina.

During and After the Second World War

During World War Two the newly formed regime of Vichy France granted Japan's demands for access to the Tonkin region of Indochina. This would allow them better military access to fight against China but was also part of their plan for East Asian domination. On 9 March 1945 Japan took complete control over Indochina until their government's surrender in August of that year.

The period after the Second World War was crucial to the formation of present day South East Asia. After falling victim to the Nazi terror, France needed to reassert themselves in order to regain control over their colonies, including Indochina. During the war the Viet Minh were aided by America to fight against the Japanese and had taken control over the countryside regions in North Vietnam. France were greeted with conflict with the Viet Minh who were against the reassertion of French rule and the Vietnamese Nationalists who wanted an independent country.

First Indochina War

In 1949 the First Indochina War got into full swing with military on both sides fighting for land. The French army were being supported by the United States whereas the Viet Minh were being supported by fellow communists China and the Soviet Union. The fighting continued until 1954's battle of Dien Bien Phu. After the war in June 1954 the Geneva Conference decided to temporarily divide Vietnam along the 17th parallel, Ho Chi Minh's communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam ruled the north and Emporer Bo Dai's Government ruled the southern State of Vietnam with French support. Under the agreement of the ceasefire, democratic elections were to be held and the country would be reunited, with the elected government in charge. This never happened as the south said they did not agree to any elections and they knew Ho Chi Minh would be quite popular amongst the village people and the farmers. Instead of the election to decide the fate of Vietnam's overall governance, the Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem held a referendum in 1955 which ousted the emperor from the throne and put him in charge as president of the Republic of Vietnam. However, the records of this rigged election clearly show that 133% of the registered voters voted in the poll which put an end Bo Dai's reign.

Second Indochina War and the American War

Wreckage from B-52
Fighting never really stopped between the north and south and finally resulted in the Second Indochina War or the Vietnam War. The United States of America were providing artillery and financially support to the Republic of Vietnam in their fight against the Viet Cong (Viet Minh). Despite the immense US support, the south were still struggling against the north which agitated the US and in self-interest joined the war in 1964/5 by sending an influx of troops to stop the spread of evil communism in South East Asia. America became actively involved following the Gulf of Tonkin incident where there navy ships were reportedly attacked but many believe this incident was engineered exaggerated by the US. Over the following years, the US became increasingly under pressure from its citizens who became aware that the war wouldn't be won and were slowly loosing the war, they pulled troops out in 1973. During 1973 the Paris Agreement was drawn up and would hopefully end the war by holding free elections in the south and peaceful reunification. The North Vietnamese disobeyed the agreement and finally seized control of Saigon in 1975 creating the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

During the war with the United States of America and the Republic of Vietnam, an estimated 3 million people lost their lives, 2 million of those were reportedly civilians and another 4 million were left injured and maimed for life. Even babies now in are affected as they are born with deformities due to their parents contamination from Agent Orange.

All of the above is evidenced in Hanoi's Military History Museum in Hanoi where there are endless photographs, some decommissioned aircraft and wreckage from a B52 bomber.

Next time, Temple of Literature, traditional performing arts, Ho Chi Minh

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Goodbye China Hello Vietnam - Hanoi - 22 February - 7 March 2011

We've all got friends that annoy us that we enjoy spending time with but are happy to leave them every once in a while. That is exactly what China is to me, I absolutely adore the country, its people, its food,its landscape and its deep seeded history but certain cultural traits got too much for me making me want to leave. On the morning of 22 February, I did just that. Alex and I dragged ourselves out of the hostel and traipsed over to the bus station to get our 8am bus to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Excitement built as we sat on the bus that winged its way towards the border crossing. The beautiful attendant whisked her way down the aisle checking people's tickets and gave her instructions in Chines, Vietnamese and then English. We arrived at Friendship Pass a few hours later and transferred to a golf buggy which drove full speed into the Chinese control point, I walk in and this time have my departure card ready in my hand, fighting to the front a slam my bags onto the conveyor-belt f the x-ray machine and hand my passport over to the official who had no problems stamping me out of the country. I couldn't believe that I had been in China for two months, coming out of Mongolia into Christmas in Beijing seemed such a long time. My journey bisecting the Chinese land in a zigzag shape, only touched the surface of the vast country. Coming from Beijing and the great wall, to Chengdu and the Pandas, down the Yangtse to modern Shanghai before heading into the ex-British Hong Kong, back into the beautiful karst landscape of Guilin and Yangshuo to the ascent of the world's tallest tower in Guangzhou. My trip has been truly remarkable and I will most definitely head back into China one day to visit Yunan province and up to Tibet.

For the eighth time on my trip I was in no man's land. I look round to see what has happened to Alex, it seemed as though he had lost his departure card and had to go fill one out which meant he as at the back of the queue. So I exit the control building into the sunshine. The checkpoint is the grandest I have seen on my trip and I believe it's the communist solidarity coming out. We were soon back in the buggy rolling our way down the hill and into Vietnam's check point. The checkpoint was in utter disarray, people piled upon a booth where three officials sit behind glass checking passports. You throw your passport through a window on the left hand side, they don't look at you, they pass the passport along to the second man who stamps the passport and the third man struggles to give the passports back to their owners through the window on the right. I eventually retrieve my passport, waltz past the health check and back on the buggy. The buggy made it's way out of the controlled area and headed towards a group of buses waiting to take people to Hanoi. Alex and I got onto a bus and to our amazement discovered the three English guys and the Dutch kid who took the earlier bus. We felt successful, we got up thirty minutes later but had arrived at the same time! The bus filled up and moved off.

I was finally in Vietnam and immediately noticed the difference. The architecture has a colonial feel to it, the roads are less maintained and the people seem poorer but more relaxed about it. The bus stopped at a road side café for people to get something to eat and go to the toilet. The English people we met purchased a bottle of vodka, so instead of eating we started drinking. A few hours of drinking on the bus later, we pulled into the busy streets of Hanoi and the sheer amount of motorcycles truly shocked me. As I stepped off the bus, I was immediately collared by a motorcycle driver repeatedly saying 'motobike, motorbike?' and proceeded to grab my arm in insistence. I turned around to face him, stared into his eyes and politely but firmly told him to let go of my arm and that I did not require a motorcycle. He got the hint and moved onto his next target.

After finding a cash machine to withdraw a few million Vietnamese Dong, we secured two taxis between the eight of us. They were small cars similar to the size of a Daewoo Matiz if not smaller. We all climbed into the taxis with our bags on our laps whilst the driver forced all of the doors closed. The taxi pulled off and I got my first experience of day to day driving in Vietnam. Thousands of motorcycles swarmed the streets in a seemingly disorderly fashion, weaving in and out of each other. Our taxi driver was an absolute maniac, he never touched the break and forced his way through the crowded streets. The very few times he applied his breaks to come to a stop, we pulled up beside this extremely stunning young Vietnamese lady dressed in a red dress on a yellow Vespa. She was absolutely gorgeous and made all four of us flirt outrageously with her from the confines of our chariot. Vietnam was immediately a very attractive country!

As we pulled up outside the Cathedral, got out and paid the taxi driver who was extremely reluctant on giving us our change. This would be the beginning of many many Vietnamese people trying to get money out of me. We managed to get it off him and headed towards the Central Backpackers Hostel which was only a two minute walk down the road. The hostel was chosen purely on the merit that it gave away free beer. How could you turn down somewhere that had an offer like that? The owner of the hostel was coerced by the group to give us all a bottle of beer to start with as it turned out that it was only free beer between 7-8pm.

Bia Hoi is a beautiful tradition of the Vietnamese people. Every evening people flock to the Bia Hoi establishments after work, sit down on the small plastic chairs that are similar size to those in primary schools and enjoy a few glasses of freshly brewed beer. As travelling is about experiencing different cultural practices, we forced ourselves to take part in this ritual and head to a local Bia Hoi place. The bar/restaurant is on the corner of two busy streets and the shutters open out onto the pavements. The beer is cheap ranging from 5,000-10,000 VND (15-30p) and is extremely refreshing after a long, hot day on the bus from Nanning.

Our second night was a great night although very messy. It was Snake Night! Our group took a trip to the snake village where we tasted the delights of snakes. The night started off with the untimely death of a few snakes. The sadistic events saw one person use a knife to make a vertical incision of around four inches long in the area of the snake's heart. After the snake was sliced open, the 'snake man' squeezed the it like a tube of toothpaste to expose the heart when another volunteer finish it off by biting and swallowing the still beating heart whole. I did neither of those but did enjoy eating and drinking its remains afterwards. We drank snake's bile and gin, snake's blood and whisky and snake rice wine. To eat we had, snake's intestine, snake's skin, crushed snake's spine on crackers and snake's meat. Eating the skin was like chewing on your leather wallet and was my least favourite dish, whereas my most favourite dish was the intestines.

Waking up with a hangover is never fun, trying to eat breakfast with a hangover is difficult, packing your bags and walking across the old town to another hostel is unbearable. Nevertheless, I did it and I survived. The night before was a complete mess. After leaving the snake village we went on for more drinking in a couple of bars. I remember being quite drunk and walking home with my wallet in my socks as I heard a few people got mugged the night before. It's lucky I did as a motorcycle pulled up beside me and a girl hopped off the back, headed towards me and began to molester me by touching me all over asking whether I wanted 'boom boom'. I said no and kept walking quite safe in the knowledge that all of my valuables were in my socks and away from her hands. Having made it back in one piece I sat on the step outside my hostel and ate a bag of crisps with the rats running around my feet. A few hours later we were woken up by the cleaner gagging as she struggled to clean the floor where Thomas had just thrown up from his top bunk all over Alex's belongings. Poor lady, I did feel sorry for her. I thought this was a good time to leave as the others were heading to Ha Long Bay and I was off to meet up with Raymond once again who had just spent two weeks motorcycling around the north-west with another Dutch guy we met in Chongqing.

Next Time, Vietnam's military history, Temple of Literature and a scary motorcycle experience

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Claustaphobic Trip to Nanning, 16-21 February 2011

My head begins to pound in frustration as my uncomfortable situation squashed up against the window is exacerbated by the man sitting opposite me forcing his feet into my space, the man beside me had already slumped on the table that only reaches out as far as my left leg. I didn't think this journey would be as bad as it was, it even felt worse than my journey from Ulan Bator to Beijing. The temperature was constantly changing from hot to cold forcing me to remove my fleece. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get to sleep. I gave up trying in the end and sat there reading the last chapters of Dan Brown's 'Lost Symbol' but was being interrupted people interested in my e-reader. The e-reader is a fantastic device that allows you to carry an unlimited amount of books with you but as it's technology, and fairly uncommon, it does attract attention by inquisitive passers by.

Early that day my patience with Chinese customs and etiquette disappeared and everything seemed to bug me. As I made my way to the station I found myself snapping harshly at street sellers and inconsiderate people that just got in my way. They didn't really deserve it but China is a country that requires utmost patience and the ability to black out the constant spitting and shitting on the pavement. The rain was falling from the sky and all I wanted to do was get on the train and go to sleep and I knew that it wasn't going to be easy on a seat only train. I got to the station early in hope that I could change my ticket to a sleeping ticket but I was unfortunately denied this last minute reprieve. I accepted my fate and headed to McDonalds to drown my sorrows with a cheese burger, fries and an ice cream. I know it's a disgusting western thing to do but sometimes you need your western comfort food and believe me... I certainly needed it that day. I sat in the familiar plastic seats of the restaurant reading my book and listening to music to improve my spirits. I think I was just tired, although people state that I'm on holiday and that means that I can't get stressed out or tired, I can tell you it's not true. Constant travelling, finding hostels, budgeting, planning your next journey, thinking about visas etc, it takes its toll and I was in dire need for some rest.

I returned to the station and found the departure lounge for my train and eventually found an empty seat amongst the crowds of people sitting, standing, laying and squatting on or near the chairs. I sat there, retrieved my Zen from my bag and scrolled to some soothing jazz to relax my trepidation of the next 13 hour journey. Suddenly a lady came through with a megaphone and barked some orders which provoked everyone around me to stand up and quickly move. The LED sign that previously stated my train number and platform was cleared and a man noticed my confusion and moved his hands around to explain our platform had changed. I was still apprehensive as I wasn't sure whether that man was going on the same train as me so I spoke to an attendant who forced me upon a young Chinese man and asked him to take me with him. After the compulsory sprint across the train station onto the platform to the waiting train, I found my carriage and got in the 'queue' to wait for the attendants to open the doors. It was like Tesco at Christmas that had limited turkeys, they struggled to keep a track on who was entering the train as people were climbing over each other to get aboard. I lethargically found my seat, got comfortable and prayed to god no body was sitting next to me. Obviously those prayers didn't come true as I was soon joined by three other people. The train made no sense to me, why would you put all of the chairs facing one another, if they all faced front, people would actually get leg room and wouldn't be forced into playing a thirteen hour footsy battle for territory.

The train moved off on time and the man opposite spread his Chinese newspaper out across the table leaving no room for anybody else to put a drink on it. I plugged myself back into my MP3 player and began to read. Not long into the journey the man tired of his newspaper and fell asleep on top of it, I was jealous that Asians have the ability to sleep anywhere, anyhow, no matter how uncomfortable it is I can guarantee by 10pm most of them are asleep. I was tired, yet unable to sleep. I was squashed up against the window with no escape possible as the man sitting next to me slipped silently into a comatose state. Tragedy struck when my MP3 payer froze, I began to swear aloud and extreme panic set in as I was frightened that I would have to sit on the train for another 12 hours without any music to drown out the drum of the train tracks. I frantically searched for something that I could stick into the reset hole on the bottom of the device, nothing. “This never happens, why is it happening now?” The question was going round in my head. “Think Andy, think!”. I forced myself to take an emergency inventory of all the items I had on me within easy reach that could be turned into a small pointy object. “Can I get the pins from my sewing kit from my bag?”. The answer was no as it was right at the bottom and I couldn't get out anyway. “Eureka!”, I thought as I pulled out my memory stick containing personal information from my secret under-clothing money belt. On the stick it had a small, malleable key ring that I could bend straight. I placed the newly formed key ring into the whole and heard the light click from the button and to my relief the device restarted and music began to flow into the earphones that I kept inside my ears.

I was at peace for a while longer and managed to slip out of my confinement past the sleeping people and went for a walk up and down the train. Everybody was asleep. Some piled up on top of each other, some sleeping in the aisle, some were smoking in between carriages. I managed to stumble upon the restaurant car which was empty apart from a couple of workers lazing around drinking tea. I felt as though I found refuge and made myself at home in the centre of the carriage, sent my mum a text message and got back to the book. I only sat in there for ten minutes before I got kicked out by the workers and so, I dejectedly returned to my cramped and uncomfortable seat. It was nearing 3am and my anxiety was at an al time high although my energy levels were so low my body couldn't sustain it much longer so I slowly began to drift off to sleep.

I intermittently woke up when my neighbours moved positions causing a whole reorganisation of leg and arm positions. The last time I briefly became conscious I noticed sunlight was coming through the window which must have relaxed me completely as the next time I was woken up by the man next to me saying that we were almost in Nanning. Thank god for that, I was so relieved that the journey was coming to an end.

The train pulled into Nanning and I alighted the carriage entering the last Chinese railway station on my journey. The weather was dull and the clouds threatened heavy rain so I quickly followed the directions to Lotus Land Hostel and checked in. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get straight into my bed as it wasn't ready, so I waited in the most homely comfortable hostel common area I have ever been in. As soon as I got word that my bed was ready I bolted up the stairs and crashed for the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon.

Nanning is a booming comparatively small city near the Vietnamese border. It is a common stopover for a lot of travellers as you can get your Vietnamese visa there and a short train/bus journey across the border into Hanoi. After my sleep I made sure I got my passport sent off immediately to the Vietnam Consulate so I could get out of China. Lotus Land Hostel provide a fantastic visa service where you just handover your passport, a photo and the fee, and they fill out all the paperwork for you and sort it out for you. As I chose the cheaper three day service and it fell on the weekend, I would have to wait until the Monday for the return of my passport. This didn't bother me as I knew I needed a rest before hitting Hanoi.

I walked around Nanning and didn't discover much of any interest, it was an industrial city and by our hostel a row of shops shaped metal into various objects. The sound was intrusive, the constant tapping of hammers began at 7am and continued throughout the day with little rest. I shared my dorm with two Italians, Claudio and Marco. They were both on extremely epic journeys themselves. Claudio was taking his 125cc scooter from Italy around the world and Marco was taking his 600cc on a similar trek. They were both in China without their bikes as the People's Republic does not allow any foreigner to drive a motorised vehicle without a CITS guide which costs a lot of money. This limits the freedom of travel for foreigners and means you cannot just head into places where they don't want you snooping like Tibet. I leaned this whilst reading 'Tuk Tuk to the Road' where Jo and Ants had to fork out for a guide to travel with them for the entire route through the country. This was an expensive bureaucratic nightmare for them but they had no choice but to comply. So Claudio and Marco left their bikes in Laos with a trustworthy coach-surfer. Also in my hostel I met Alex, a 24 year old guy who was on the same journey as me but was fortunate enough to have gone from London by Eurostar. I'm still a bit disappointed that I cheated on the first leg of my journey and caught a flight to Tallinn. I take solace in the fact that I have travelled Europe by land already and my long bus journeys to Warsaw and Munich should make up for it. I will one day fly to Warsaw and travel by bus or train to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to complete my overland voyage.

Claudio and Marco dangerously introduced me to the wonders of Dicos. Dicos is a fast food restaurant chain that spreads throughout China selling anything from chicken burgers to curry. The chicken burgers were amazing and at 5 Yuan (50p) you really couldn't complain and the chicken curry was a fantastic choice also. I think over the next few days in Nanning, I visited the restaurant everyday and maybe more than once! I became addicted to the place, it's convenience and it's price. Nanning also has a great food street where you can buy anything from dog's leg to alligator tail. We ate down there several times, although not the aforementioned dishes, just dumplings and the like.

The Chinese people are very sociable people and this is a big difference between their culture and ours. My favourite place to visit in Chinese towns and cities are not the main attractions or museums but the public parks. Chinese people congregate in parks and take part in one of the many activities that go on whether it's playing chess, cards, dancing, playing musical instruments, singing, story telling, playing Jiánzi, exercising or general lazing around. The parks epitomise Chinese culture and just to sit and absorb the atmosphere and the social aspect of their society. I have noticed that they don't need to know people beforehand, they can just talk with anyone without the fear of rejection, the sharing that goes on between strangers in the parks or on trains makes me envious. If somebody started talking and sharing food and drink on the 7am Norwich to London service, you would find them strange. Hardly anyone in Europe wants to be social to strangers, you have your friends and don't need to find anyone else so you plug yourself into your MP3 player and go about ignoring everybody around you. For me, the next time you're sitting on the train and there is somebody sitting next to you, offer them a sweet and a smile. I have been touched by the generosity shown to me by people on the trains, sharing their food and drink with me and everyone around talks to one another as though they've know each other for years.

The park in Nanning was no different, it was full with people socialising from dawn well into dusk. One evening on our way back from the food street a large group of around fifty people were participating in a group dance. It was akin to 'Saturday Night' by Whigfield but much much more technical. The temptation to join in was too much for Marco and I so we hopped in line and tried to follow their moves. I had no chance of keeping up with their flailing legs but Marco seemed to have got the hang of it for a while but then we reverted back into 1970's dance moves which made the surrounding Chinese laugh and move away from us as though we had avian flu. At the end of the song we bided farewell to our fellow dancers feeling happy with ourselves headed back to the hostel for some beers.

Monday morning soon arrived and with it, the possibility of my last day in China as my visa was supposed to arrive that evening at 6pm. Alex was feeling a little depressed as everyone was moving on, me, the Italians and three English guys we had met, and he had to stay in Nanning as he had been pick pocketed and was waiting for a replacement credit card to arrive. I felt bad for him as his Vietnamese visa was running down already and there was no telling when it would arrive. We all went out for a walk around town stopping to grab some food and headed back to the hostel, Alex had already accepted the chances of getting his card were slim at best and I was wondering whether my visa was going to turn up on time. We got back into the hostel and the lady behind reception told me that I had post. Excellent, my visa had come through but the envelope wasn't for me, it was for Alex. He opened the letter to reveal his credit card enclosed. I haven't seen anyone this happy for a very long time. On a high we all celebrated, but now at 5pm I was still wondering whether my post was ever going to arrive. We sat there talking and surfing the internet which was incredibly slow, if not non existent, that day. We wondered whether it had to do with the failed protest attempts and Hu Jintao's pledge for tighter controls on the internet or maybe the massive solar flares. I received a tap on my shoulder and the friendly girl from the reception desk handed me my passport, complete with visa! I looked at my watch and it read 5.59pm, 1 minute early! Can't complain about that service. My mood was elevated to a totally new high and Alex and I left immediately to buy our bus tickets to Hanoi.

The ticket office was about two hundred metres down the road and I don't think our feet touched the pavement as our excitement lifted us. Buying the tickets was simple, we couldn't get the 7.30am bus but the 8am service still had tickets left. Still happy we headed back to the hostel with smiles from ear to ear. WHACK! What the hell was that? A sharp pain shocked through my body starting from the right side of my jaw. A lady street cleaner stood there rather embarrassed as her broom handle made contact with my face. The shock of the situation soon lifted and I was left with a Chinese man laughing in my face at my misfortune. I did not like this and exploded into a verbal attack on the man, only to drag myself away with the thought that I needed to get out of the country and not inside a Chinese police cell. A nice end to my Chinese leg I thought!

Next time, Exiting the People's Republic of China to Vietnam.

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Monday, 11 April 2011

Guangzhou, the Dramatic End of Chinese Superlatives, 6 – 15 February 2011- Part Two

Marlie and I were taking most of the weight...
I hear the rustling of Josh getting up and ready, waking Marlie up and although it was just after 6am I knew it was time for me to get up too. I got my shorts on and was marshalled out of the hostel by Josh, our leader on our expedition to Lotus Hill and the final item on my Superlative Tour of China. Josh had a strict timetable that he was adamant on keeping as we had to navigate the metro, walk to the ferry port and jump on a boat for a trip down the river. Matt and Marija were not with us, but Josh, Marlie and I were joined by Frenchie, I don't remember his name but I just remember him continually talking about his friend and this 'bitch' he hated and how she was ruining his life and wanted to know what to do. Things didn't exactly go to plan, we got to the port with plenty of time to spare but were informed by a very helpful lady that there was no longer a boat going to our destination, it seems Trip Advisor cannot always be trusted. However, the very helpful lady gave Josh some instructions on an alternative route which involved us riding the metro out to the extremities of the suburbs of Guangers and then hopping on a bus to Lotus Hill. It took a long time to get there but we got there and boy was it worth it!

The 'one' is pretty tall
Elephant Rock, man over nature!
Lotus Hill is home to the biggest 'one' in the world, the Tallest Bronze Goddess of Mercy in the World measuring a staggering 40.88m high and weighing 120 tonnes, this statue towers above the surroundings glimmering for miles around. The surrounding area is that of an abandoned quarry that the Chinese are proud to peg as 'Man's triumph over nature' and have turned it into a beautiful park accentuating the carved rocks with Mandarin engravings. As we wondered around the park we became aware that we were the only people wearing shorts and t-shirts, we weren't shocked at all as it was overcast, slightly chilly and a slight dibble descended from above. At the bottom of the steps leading to the bronze goddess a continuous plume of smoke hung at the summit. Once we were at the top hundreds of people were worshipping by lighting incense and burning cardboard tokens of sacrifice causing the thick black smoke. After circumnavigating around the massive Buddha, we emerged through the smoke and walked back down the hill through the peaceful cherry blossom garden and were stopped in our tracks by a swimming pool filled with rancid black water.

On the way out of the complex we childishly purchased some of those firecrackers, the type that you throw on the ground to provoke an explosion. Our main purpose was to fend off the touts trying to get us on their motorbikes or in their taxis. We threw them at their feet as soon as they approached us which shocked them but unfortunately didn't stop them pestering us. I wanted to save a few so we could bombard Matt and Marija in the evening time with them so I placed them in my pocket, however, just as we exited the metro station on the hunt for food my pocket unexpectedly exploded making everyone within a five metre radius jump out their skin.

Later that evening we returned to our adolescent place in the park with our cans of cheap beer and we were joined by Judy, a forty something lady from Devon who took it upon herself to cycle around the world. Her stories were truly inspirational. She told us how she cycled through Europe, Russia, Central Asia into China. It made me feel as though I should do something like this and after a long think I decided that I was going to cycle down the coast of Vietnam. From Ha Long City to Ho Chi Minh City.

Playing Jianzi in the park
On our last morning together Josh decided that he wanted to be more integrated in Chinese culture and thus bought a Jiánzi, a type of shuttle cock that is used in Asia mainly to kick between groups of people. The Chinese absolutely love this game and you could spend hours in any park watching in amazement as all types of people, young and old, kick the Jiánzi from one person to another. The do flip forwards to hit it with the soles of their feet and no matter what they do, they make it seem effortless. So we set out with ours and found it to be extremely difficult and hard work. The shop keeper joined in with us and tried his hardest to teach us to no avail. We later went to Remim Park and set up a circle of five. We became the entertainment of the park with people staring at us whilst walking past and laughing at our incompetence. We were soon joined by Kevin, a young Cantonese man who took it upon himself to teach us the ways of the game and through his patient coaching we improved greatly. As the afternoon went on, we were joined by Hannes, a Swiss who was staying in the same room as us in the hostel.

Us all after Dim Sum
The sun was falling and we planned to head up the Canton Tower again, but this time to the very top. Even though it was expensive, we thought we should do this as we may never get another chance to again. With this in mind, we finished our game and dragged Kevin to a bar for a beer before grabbing some food in preparation of the 'Sexual' Tower. After forcing Kevin to let us pay for his drink we set off in search of food and with Kevin as our guide we followed him into a Dim Sum restaurant for dinner. Of course Matt and I were extremely excited about this despite it being on a Saturday, very unorthodox if you ask me! The meal was absolutely superb and was worthy being our last meal together. We never made it up the tower that night as Kevin kidnapped us and took us on a tour round the district of the restaurant. Although it was a nice area, it wasn't exactly what we had planned and disappointingly found our way to a bar for some drinks before heading back to the hostel.

I didn't need to look outside the window to notice that the weather outside had taken a turn for the worse as I could hear the rain was beating heavily against the window. It obviously knew that it was a sad day for me as not only my new American friends were leaving, Matt was also flying back to the UK. We all reluctantly got up and headed to Starbucks for breakfast, my first Starbucks for years but it was rather pleasurable sitting there in the comfy chairs watching the rain pour down outside with no sign of stopping. It was time, we had to accept that the weather wasn't going to improve and we headed towards the metro station to say goodbye to Josh, Marlie and Marija with a rendition of 'There's nobody, nobody but you' blasting out as they descended out of sight down the escalator. Matt and I were alone again and only a few hours later, I took Matt to the train station to get his train into Hong Kong. After nearly 4 weeks I was travelling solo once again.

Jumping for joy after Jiánzi
Next time, The end of the Chinese Railroad, Nanning and onto Vietnam.

Guangzhou, the Dramatic End of Chinese Superlatives, 6 – 15 February 2011- Part One of Two

Legs bent awkwardly, back hurting and a slight bout of claustrophobia set in as Matt and I were squeezed in the back of the bus sharing the bed with a Chinese family, mother, father and two children. I had never shared a bed with a Chinese family before, but there's a first time for everything. I know they should only have one but the rule doesn't really seem to apply to everyone and there are now a lot of exceptions to the rule. It is a hot topic at the moment as families are struggling to cope as the 'one' child has to potentially look after six elderly people when their grandparents and parents grow old. It's not like the UK where we are over reliant on Adult Social Services to deal with our dependants, the family have to take care of their own and with people living older and longer there will be a problem. Looking at the rear of the bus, it was quite obvious that it wasn't meant for five beds at the back but they had put planks over the isles to create two more spaces. Matt was in the isle position which was good for his leg room, however, everytime the bus stopped, he would slide down the isle. I had hardly any sleep whatsoever, but thankful that it was a moderately short journey to Guangzhou.

We arrived in Guangers at around 4.30am at a deathly quiet bus station somewhere in the suburbs. The city was dead quiet at that time and we walked out to find a taxi driver, not hard as they all congregate outside the station waiting for fares. We asked one driver how much to take us and he said 100 Yuan and refused to put the meter on, so we left him and moved to the next one. Unfortunately the drivers are all in on it and tell each other what they offered so they know not to undercut. Unlucky for them, we're not stupid and we walked away as you can always find a taxi further out and we did, he said 50 Yuan which was half what the others wanted so we dumped our bags in the boot and headed to Back My Home Hotel, in the Northern suburbs of Guangers.

The taxi pulled up outside the hotel just before 5am and we woke the night attendant up to check in. She was a young girl who had obviously been in a deep sleep before we arrived as her eyes struggled with the light like a new born baby seeing It for the first time. The girl didn't speak a word of English and it was a bit of a chore checking in but we were soon in our windowless room with two really comfortable double beds and we were set for a couple hours sleep before heading out for Sunday Dim Sum!

As we sincerely missed our Dim Sum the week before, we were not prepared to miss it again, especially in Guangers also known as Canton, so we headed out in search for a restaurant. Unfortunately we had no idea where we were in comparison to anything in Guangzhou, we walked outside into the scorching Cantonese sunshine to find a metro station but after ten minutes we resigned to the fact we had no idea which way to walk so we returned back to the hotel and luckily an English speaker had turned up and told us how to get into the city. It seemed as though we had to take a taxi to the nearest metro station and then get that into town. We followed the directions and within 30 minutes found a Dim Sum restaurant in a shopping centre where we ate some really brilliant dishes and I would say it was the best Dim Sum I had tasted.

We stayed for only stayed for one and a half nights in the hotel before heading closer into town to the Riverside International Youth Hostel which was just a ferry ride away from the main hub of Guangzhou. There's not much to Guangzhou itself, it's great for shopping but the main pedestrian area was a 'Scooby Doo Street' where the shops are repeated over and over, sports shop, jeans shops, tea shop, sports shop, jeans shop, tea shop...

The Riverside Hostel was very much like the hostel in Shenzhen, full of people of their laptops and not talking so Matt and I went out to find an alternative venue to have some fun. We walked down the street where the hostel was on commonly known as 'Bar Street' but found the bars to be empty, closed or plain rubbish. On our search we bumped into three American people also looking for some place to have a drink, so we joined forces and headed back to our hostel to take advantage of the exceedingly cheap beer. The Americans, Josh, Marija and Marlie were in China teaching English and were on their Spring Festival holiday and unbeknown to us, this was going to be the beginning of something special. We finished our drinks and headed to one of the bars in an attempt to liven things up. I was shocked by the price of beer, they were asking for nearly £3 for a small bottle of beer. The bar was hilarious with a pianist on stage miming along to all kinds of music and a girl pulling people up to dance with her. During the evening it seemed that Matt and Marija had hit it off and Josh, Marlie and I decided to leave them to it. By that point I was a little inebriated and decided to walk around the block in search for a 7-Eleven and buy some snacks. I found one and fell through the doors, chose a packet of crisps and for some reason I ended up with a loaf of bread too.

As Matt and Marija had hit it off so well the night before, they invited us to their hostel and to spend the day with them exploring the wonders of Guangzhou in the sunshine. We went round all the sights of Guangers, stopping for a beer in a bar where I met Jenny, the Chinese waitress who I played pool with and miraculously became my new wife. The highlight of the day was surely the next item on my Superlative Tour of China, that being The Tallest Tower in the World. The Canton Tower is 1968ft (600m) and was officially opened for the Guangzhou Asian Games 2010 and at the same time took the title away from the CN Tower which held it since 1976. The Canton tower won't be the tallest for long as the Tokyo Sky Tree is due to be completed in December and will top the ranks at 2080ft (634m). The superlative nature of China seems to be merely a showcase of how mighty and powerful the People's Republic of China is. It still makes me feel angry when I see the communist party spending so much money on building ridiculous towers that have no real meaningful purpose when most of their country is still extremely poor. Named after the city's previous name, the tower twists its way into the sky high above the riverbank of Guangzhou, in the daytime the sun bounces off the steel like colour and at night changeable lights makes sure nobody forgets the structure. The five of us visited the tower that evening and decided to ascend the newly named 'Sexual Tower', however, it was extremely expensive to get to the top of the tower and so we decided to just go two thirds up which was still a hell of a long way up. The view over Guangzhou reminded me of being in an aircraft on its final approach to land and seeing small lights on cars travelling silently around in the darkness. We finished the night off with a few drinks in the park near the other's hostel.

The following day, Matt and I moved across the river to Guangzhou Youth Hostel on Shamian Island. Shamian Island is just like stepping back into Europe as it was formally divided between the French and United Kingdom by the Qing Dynasty and the leafy streets are flanked by colonial architecture made it feel like strolling through Barcelona. Moving to the island was a relief I hadn't felt since Hong Kong as the streets were quiet and clean, with parks and restaurants to chill out in. Despite being over the other side of the river, we decided that we should go back to our previous hostel to grab some beers and play some pool. However, instead of playing pool that evening in February 2011 saw the First Annual Sugarcane Games take place on the southern bank of the Pearl River. The first teams to take the challenge were United Kingdom and The United States of America. It was a historic moment, a moment that none of us will forget as some may have bruises, some broken bones and others incredibly dizziness. 

Next time, Guangzhou Part Two, The Tallest One in the World