Monthly Archives: September 2013

Moving on, goodbye China

We are sat in Hong Kong International Airport, waiting for our flight to Hanoi. Leaving HK and China feels like the end of the second leg of our trip. Before we left, a lot of people said that China would be the hardest part of our journey – no longer with the Vodkatrain group, and in a country that isn’t as used to backpackers. Whilst it’s been hard work at times, as you’d expect from such a massive country, it has been a truly amazing experience; from the scorching heat of the Great Wall to walking around Victoria Peak in the aftermath of a typhoon and everything in between.

Typhoony

Some things:
1. Chinese people are (generally) very nice – people were usually helpful and seemed to appreciate the effort we made with the language.
2. Hocking and spitting is a national pastime, wherever you are. No matter the city / street / building / cultural icon / train, people will be spitting.
3. Having a horn on your vehicle means you must use it at all times (even when driving around a cage on a stage).

Crazy drivers everywhere

4. Back home, we look down on pot noodles. In China, they are so common and popular that most public places have a hot tap.
5. Tourist attractions are expensive, but getting around, eating and drinking is not too bad.
6. Chinese food is amazing! All of our meals would have 4 or 5 dishes at least, and would cost about £5 – £6. Unfortunately they haven’t made us sick, just fat.

Food

7. You can get used to the crowds, but try and escape to the country a bit.
8. China is huge – have a good idea of what you want to do when you go, and give yourself more time in less places, not the other way around.
9. Allow a good amount of time for a simple task – our trip to the post office to send some stuff home took a while.
10. When planning 3 days of beaching, island hopping, climbing and sightseeing in Hong Kong, double check that there isn’t a typhoon on the way.

Glorious HK weather

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Yangshuo to Hong Kong – amazing scenery and a typhoon

We’re currently sat in our tiny Hong Kong room, taking shelter from Typhoon Usagi. It is being described as potentially the biggest typhoon to hit the city in over 30 years, so it’s nice to be here for that! Really it isn’t that bad – we’ve had a pretty good day being touristy and are just taking a break from the rain.

Usagi

After leaving Guilin, we travelled down the Li River by bamboo raft (as you do) on the way to Yangshuo. Despite the river being quite busy with other tourists, it was a really nice journey and the scenery is just amazing – the giant karst limestone peaks shoot up on all sides. We even saw the spot that is famous for being on the back of the 20 yuan note.

Bamboo boat

Yangshuo

We arrived at a small town called Xingping, from where we had to catch a bus to Yangshuo. The journey was something of an experience, with the driver determined to pack as many people onto the bus as possible. Without anywhere to put our bags, this was interesting. And when we did arrive at Yangshuo, it was so nice to be able to stretch our legs that I decided the 2.5k walk to the hostel would be infinitely preferable to a taxi. It was, however, so damn hot!

image

Our hostel was amazing, more like a hotel, about 20 minutes outside of the town in a tiny village. Yangshuo itself is a real tourist town, so being outside it was nice. Whilst we didn’t do a huge amount in Yangshuo, we didn’t really need to; the landscape is beautiful wherever you look, and the town and the river make wandering around and chilling out the ideal pastime. We did hire bikes one day, which is a great way to get and see more countryside, as well as to work up a sweat in the 34 degree heat! We also took a cooking class, but Mrs H wants to write more about that…

Cormorant fishing, Yangshuo

We left Yangshuo on Friday, to catch the sleeper bus to Shenzhen on the Hong Kong border. It was, quite simply, the worst journey I’ve ever been on. Considering we’ve spent a lot of nights on trains so far on this trip, I wasn’t prepared for this bus! Instead of seats, there were 3 rows of bunk beds across the bus. It was packed and we were last on, so Law ended at the very back on the ground, on what was essentially one big bed for 5, sharing with three Belgian guys and an Israeli! I was the level up on the side in a bunk designed by a twisted sadist. It was like they knew how tall and wide I was, so made the thing about a foot too small in every way. Too short to stretch out, but with a shelf over my legs so I couldn’t bend my knees; too narrow to lie down without one side either over the edge or against the window.

Night bus to Hong Kong

When we got to Shenzhen and left China to cross over to Hong Kong I did feel pretty wrecked, but whilst our room in the infamous Chunking Mansions is tiny, the bed is amazing! So, we will sit here while the typhoon does its thing, safe in the knowledge that we won’t run out of supplies thanks the ground floor of this place being like Mos Eisley space port – you can buy anything.

Chungking Mansion

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Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces

One of the highlights of our trip so far has definitely been the few days we spent walking in the mountain rice terraces of Longji, three hours outside of Guilin. As you know, Samwise is not really one for cities (often not venturing beyond the Tamar) so it was great to great back into the countryside again!

We took a bus to the village of Dazahi from where it was a 45 minute walk up to our hostel. We left our big bags in Guilin, but if we had been feeling lazy there were some old ladies, who looked about 70, who were desperate to carry our bags up the hills for us. We couldn’t face the shame (and are too tight to pay) so carried them ourselves.

The views of the rice terraces are incredible. The area spans 70sq km and is dotted with little villages, many of which can only be reached on foot.

Longji Rice Terraces

On the first day we had some amazing rain and thunder storms, but that made it look all the more dramatic. The fields are flooded every March which makes them look like dragon scales, hence the name, and the rice is harvested in October. It seems like it could look completely different whatever time of year you went.

Rice terraces at sunrise

On our second day we got up to watch the sunrise from a viewing platform 30 minutes climb from our hostel with the great Chinglish name, ’Music from Paradise’. This was a bit misty, but beautiful and definitely worth the 5.30am start.

Sunrise at Dazhai

It was so nice being out of the city, away from the car horns and pollution, that we were very chilled out by the time we left.

Chinese Gladiator

The journey back however soon brought us back to reality though, being crammed into the sweaty bus with the driver flying down the mountain, overtaking on blind bends and beeping all the way!

Once back in Guilin, we headed out again and finally were approached by someone trying to pull off the famous Chinese tea house scam! I thought it would never happen. A friendly chap with excellent English started chatting, following us around the lake. He seemed very nice but we could tell something was up – first he tried to soft sell us massages, then tickets to the acrobatics show that night (and we happened to pass the theatre at that point), before bringing our the big gun as we tried to ditch him: “My family’s tea house is just over here, and they are about to start a ceremony. Do you want come?”

No thanks, we said, “we’ve just had some tea”. And then we dipped into a supermarket and left via the back!

Guilin pagodas at night

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Pandas in the mist

We arrived in Chengdu after a 17 hour train journey from Xian. We chose to go with ‘hard sleeper’ which is really cheap but means 90 people to one train carriage in three tier bunk beds. The Chinese ladies near us were very friendly, but spent the whole time munching on food, including chicken feet at one point. We didn’t get much sleep so spent our first few hours in Chengdu napping!

Hard sleeper train

The next day we got up really early to do the trip I was most excited about in China – the pandas! The rainy mist made the bamboo paths of the Chengdu Panda Research base even more atmospheric.

The pandas really were super cute. We practically had the park to ourselves at 7.45 in the morning, and got there in time to see them being fed. We also saw baby pandas which was awesome.

Chengdu pandas

Baby pandas

I now really need to find myself some panda merchandise…

Which is surprisingly hard to find. Obviously there are shops all over Chengdu selling panda tat, but we couldn’t find a panda t-shirt anywhere! Cuddly toys, caps, prints and postcards were all over the place, but the closest thing to a novelty panda t-shirt we could find was a fluffy black and white gilet with a panda ear hood. It’s far too hot for that kind of thing! In the future, a good start up business would be screen printing panda t-shirts in Chengdu.

Pandas

The following day, we made our way out of the city to Qingcheng Shan – the mountain birthplace of Taoism (allegedly). There are loads of famous Buddhist mountains around Sichuan province, and we had read Qingcheng was one of the quieter, less touristy hikes. The fast train and bus took us around an hour to get there, and after paying the entrance fee (every attraction in China costs money), we set off up the mountain.

Walking in chengdu

After about 50 steps, we began to question why we hadn’t just taken the cable car to the top like everyone else – the muggy closeness of the heat was intense. But we persevered, and were rewarded with amazing temples, tree covered mountains appearing in and out of the mist and at times it felt like we were the only people there. We made it to the top temple in around two hours, climbing to the highest temple for the amazing panorama view.

Taoist temple

Using our excellent Chinese menu reading skills, we managed to order some dumplings and noodles, before cheating slightly and taking the cable car back down – it did help to see our walking route from this view though, putting into context the epic trek!

For our final day in Chengdu, we were both quite tired, and the previous days exploits had taught us a valuable lesson: Sam’s clothes are not up to the heat! So we went shopping in town for some cheap outdoor gear, before getting ourselves to the airport for our flight to Guilin (we couldn’t face another hard sleeper so soon). After being impressed at making our way there with little time to spare, the flight was delayed for two hours! We did eventually get going though, getting to the incredibly hot Guilin just after midnight.

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The Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an

Our first bit of ’independent’ travel was fairly straightforward, as we made our way to the hectic Beijing West Railway Station (the largest in Asia apparently). My excellent Mandarin speaking served us well, as I asked a member of staff “I where go now”, pointing at my ticket, and she replied in English “back outside and upstairs”.

This train was similar to the Vodkatrain ones, with 4 of us in a cabin. Our two Chinese neighbours went straight to sleep, and we both had a pretty good journey to Xi’an.

It’s a very important city in Chinese history, home of the country’s first Emperor, the guy who had the Great Wall built, as well the famous Terracotta Army, which we were there to see. He was described to us as “very good” for his accomplishments, but also “very crazy”, for his mercury drinking, slave killing, giant tomb building madness.

Xi’an is also one of the few cities in China that still has its old city walls intact, which makes it fairly easy and pleasant to navigate around. Our hostel was quite central, and when we were able to drag ourselves away from by far the comfiest bed in China, we headed off for a tour of the Terracotta Army.

There are around 8000 figures, standing about 2 metres tall and they are split between 3 main areas, all surrounding the Emperor’s Tomb. They were discovered in the 70s by peasant farmers digging a well, who drilled down to discover the only intact figure, a kneeling archer. The others were later uncovered by archaeologists, who have had to piece them together ever since. The guide suggested it would be another 30 or 40 years before the main pit was done.

The Kneeling Archer

They are incredible to see, especially given that they are over 2000 years old now. We had a guide who was full of useful information, and she also took quite a shine to Law – at the end of the day she snuck up to her and gave her a small statue of one of the figures, and didn’t say anything about it or give one to anyone else. Saved us buying one though.

Terracotta Warriors

We explored the rest of Xi’an, wandering through the Muslim Quarter, and bartering with people in the markets. We ate some spicy jelly like thing that I still have no idea what it actually was, and I haggled myself a Guangzhou Evergrande football kit for about £8. We went to see the Wild Big Goose Pagoda, a temple built and used by the monk whose travels were written up as ’Journey to the West’, which of course introduced the world to Monkey! There is a music, light and water fountain show every night which is as weird as it sounds.

Xian fountain and light show

We also walked all around the ancient city walls, which are around 13km long and was a very rewarding and tiring experience. It did take us just out (or above) the city though, which was very nice. China has been a very enjoyable and interesting country so far, but the sheer number of people, cars, and insane moped drivers who drive anywhere they like gets a bit intense! It’s like the main street in Falmouth in August!

Xian city walls

From Xi’an we booked our onward travel to Chengdu, to see yet another Chinese icon, the pandas.

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