China an Overview
Well the time has finally come to leave China and move on to the next leg of our little adventure. I guess it is time to take stock of what we have done, where we have been and run through the highlights and lowlights of the time spent in China. Overall our time in China has been fantastic and I would highly recommend this as a tourist destination for any of you. So in summary we spent –
You need to speak Chinese – rubbish…almost every Chinese person you meet will try and help you as much as they can. If you have a smile and a nice attitude you will never go wrong. A translator app on your phone and a dictionary style app like Pleco will get you through every drama.
Don’t eat the street food – rubbish…this is the tastiest, cheapest and best food to eat in China. It is clean, and turned over so frequently that most of the time it will be made in front of you. There is tourist food with snakes, bugs and scorpions etc but these are mostly for show and photographs. The every day stuff is fine.
China is dangerous – rubbish…be aware of your surroundings, as you always should be in any country, and you will feel and be safer than you would on any Australian street.
We have been discussing our best and worst bits and came up with very little on the negative side with the overall impression being ridiculously positive. The other thing we tried to do was to develop a must see itinerary for those seeking to travel here. China however is like Australia and the distances and travel times make seeing everything impossible unless you have unlimited time (there are still things that we missed out on and want to see).
The other thing that stumped us was that some of the must sees (Terracotta Warriors and 3 Gorges Cruise etc.) were some of the least impressive things that we have been to…but how can you really come here and not see them…so despite being so-so I guess they remain must sees. They were ok and it is nice to say that we have been but there is so much better to see in China and if time were limited (which it almost always will be) there are much better places to go.
The other thing was that Jill and I liked different things. She has turned into a mountain goat while here, relishing the stair climbs (that are everywhere)…while I have gone the other way cursing stairs at every opportunity. Obviously there are some things that were awesome for both of us. The Great Wall of China is an absolute must and the best spot is the Mutianyu section (about 60kms outside of Beijing). The other thing that must be done is getting into some of the provinces. Each minority of China is quite different and these differences should be experienced. So here it is…
Traditional Must Sees
The Great Wall of China
The summer palace
Gate of heavenly peace
The terracotta Warriors
3 gorges dam
Most of these are easy to achieve from Beijing with limited travel times and this could be done in a two week stint if you push a little bit. The warriors is a quick pop across to Xian where the Muslim quarter is a must. Xian is a walled city but Jill’s suggestions are that Pingyao and Datong are better examples and from Datong you can also see the hanging monastery and Yúngāng Caves… head down and out through Shanghai and all of this within the two week journey.
Tibet is a whole other issue. There seems to be a global interest in Tibet given the Dalai Lama scenario but having been there we would never return. The Everest leg was nice and something we will no doubt brag about down the track but way too difficult to be worth the 2 hour photo shoot that we got. Especially given that a lot of the time it is clouded over and you don’t get a nice view (we were blessed with perfect weather). The food was terrible but the road between Lhasa and Shigatse was the highlight but it is a tough schlepp and should not be taken lightly.
Lesser known gems
These are the things that do not immediately come to mind when you think of China but having been there and experienced them they are VERY high on both of our lists. We would do almost all of these before the last 3 on the earlier list…but they are less famous.
Guilin to Yangshou river rafting
Jiuzhaigou – Jiuzhai national park with blue lakes and waterfalls everywhere
Harbin – ice festival
Kunming – Stone forest
Kashgar – livestock market
Chengdu – panda breeding centre + giant Buddha at Leshan
This list of places will probably not make an initial itinerary however were really nice spots to either kick back or enjoy a lesser paced time getting to know the real China or seeing sights in a less hectic manner. Nice if you have heaps of time but sadly will be missed by most.
Dali – walled city
Dandong – North Korean border
Shanhaiguan – wall meets ocean + first mountain pass
Mountains – Wutaishan, Mianshan, Taishan,
Xiahe – monastery (more Tibetan than Tibet)
Anshun – biggest waterfall in China
Hohhot – Inner Mongolia
Hangzhou – west lake
Shangri-la – mini Tibet
After this there were a bunch of cities that we stayed in that we found to be totally charming and full of the local Chinese culture and lifestyle but not necessarily likely to get a tourist visit. We would go back to them as we had a really good time eating, drinking and mingling with the locals. Places like Xining where we relaxed after the Tibet ordeal, or Yinchuan where they had 20 quai massages and free street theatre, or Guangzhou where we lazed eating super cheap food in a street that turned into restaurantville after dark.
Beijing…Welcome to China
The flight to Beijing was delayed by 2 hrs which meant our driver had left but we made a call, waited an hour and were scooped and found ourselves in yet another excellent hostel (with a slab of concrete for a bed). We headed to the hostel bar for a local ale (Beijing Beer) which was so nice that we had many. We met a German tourist who was leaving the next day and we all decided that after about 10 pints that it was time to walk 40 minutes to the night markets. We still don’t know if we found the night markets but we found a night time strip of street vendors that had every kind of animal on a stick being BBQed.
Jill started us off with BBQ squid on a stick, which was quickly followed by a plate of pot stickers and a bowl of pork balls in Chilli…and then Richard and our new German mate got started. Things that followed included: Crabs, bugs, snake, and scorpions. Needless to say Richard and Stefan did the freaky eats and Jill just shook her head. After a few of these we decided that the pot stickers and a meat on a stick thing was actually pretty tasty. All of this came for about $2.50 a plate (or stick). Back to the hostel for more Beijing beer.
The morning saw a slow start and a trip to the Temple of Heaven. This was to be a cruisey kind of day that ended up starting our walk at 10:45 and finishing 7 hours later a little tired and emotional. This first challenge was to work out the Beijing Metro which proved remarkably easier than we expected. The temple was awesome but a little sideline saw us lost within a massive park that needed about 7kms walking to get us back to where we wanted to be.
So…after a huge couple of days of hiking (the volcano and the temple of heaven) we decided a nice quiet day at the zoo was on the menu. So we hopped on the Beijing metro and about 25 stops, 3 train changes and a short walk we were at the zoo. At this point I really must stress how simple the Beijing rail system is. A train comes every 2 mins, the maps are simple, english and Chinese characters and announcements for a sum total of 2 yuan (about 30-40 cents per trip) no matter how far you go.
The zoo cost 40 Yuan ($7-8) per person and we headed in…we turned left to avoid the Panda rush upon entry only to find that we walked about 45 mins without seeing a single animal other than enclosures under repair, closed paths and concrete moulds of the animals that were meant to be there. We did find the water fowl exhibit which had 2 sad looking ducks and some blow in crows who were poaching the food that was laid out for the real animals. After many derogatory comments from me and complaints about attending “Piss weak world” we came across the penguin enclosure (which required an additional 10 yuan ($2)). Upon entry we saw no penguins but a bank of goldfish, the comments escalated. Then all of a sudden OMG penguins.
From this point on the zoo got good. There were some logical issues whereby if you enter the exhibit labelled African animals you actually find yourself in the reptile and amphibian house. Once you actually find the animals and ignore the signage it is pretty damn awesome. I saw a bunch of animals that you only get to see on TV documentaries along with the obligatory zoo style ones that we have in OZ like the giraffes and rhinos, tigers and elephants etc. And of course there were the giant Pandas. Claudia would have killed us if we did not post our Panda pics.
From here there was a boat ride to the Summer Palace so we jumped on the boat. A 50 minute ride up the Beijing canal and Lock system (which I never even knew existed) and we arrived at the Summer Palace. We were a little tired after the zoo hike and found ourselves at the extreme end of the Summer Palace grounds (a 720 acre property on the outskirts of Beijing). After walking for about 3kms around the lake towards the palace and still being about the same distance away we decided that we would come back on a day when we were fresher.
We stopped at a restaurant for a late lunch and a few points were solidified:
1. I should never be allowed to order if I am hungry.
2. I am only allowed to order 2 meals initially.
3. I have been banned from ordering any more than one dish with Chilli in any seating.
After 6 dishes were delivered to the 2 of us (3 of which were Brad and Mike Chilli specials) we set the above rules in place. One of the meals was Chilli donkey and garlic. It was pretty good. This was washed down with a new local ale ( Yanjing Beer) which was pretty good and ranked a solid 6/10. At this point I need to make a comment about the percentage of alcohol changing between different bottle sizes. If you buy the 500ml bottle it is 8% but if you buy the 600ml bottle of the same it is 3.6% and if you buy the one with Chinese and not English characters it is different again.
The Great Wall
I must say this beauty is named appropriately.
We started our morning at about 7am with an included breakfast followed by a bus ride to the wall. There were 3 options available as a tour from Beijing and we chose the Mutianyu section that is possibly the most famous and the one where most of the Great Wall photos are taken from. Upon arrival you are greeted with paying a further 80 yuan to take the chairlift to the wall otherwise you have a 40 minute and 2000 step hike just to get to the wall. We paid the extra 80 and thank god that we did.
As you get to the wall the Mutianyu section is about 8kms long which seems perfectly reasonable on the face of it. You enter from the chairlift at gate 6 and can either:
1. Go right to gate 1 which is the end of the renovated section and has the original wall in its un-renovated state
2. Go to the left and wander the relatively flat beautifully renovated sections through until gate 23
We went right. I am perfectly comfortable at this point in reiterating a point from an earlier post. You need to be fit to do this. The trip to the right was best suited for mountain goats as it reached almost vertical sections and we found ourselves stopping every 20-25 meters as our lungs, thighs and calves were burning. Gate 6 to 5 goes down to a valley and then 5 to 1 starts climbing up the other side of the mountain until it reaches the next summit. Despite this an hour later we had made it from gate 6 to gate 1 and started the wander across the top of the mountain range on the old section which was level and a welcome change.
We returned to gate 6 which took less time as the return was mainly down the steps and we mused at the people doing the bit that we had just finished. People seemed to be dying in the 5-4 section and they (like us an hour earlier) had no clue that each section got progressively steeper. Upon reaching gate 6 we thought we would do the wander left. While still a steep walk it was on a paved level surface which undulated and was comparatively serene. We ambled a few gates before returning to gate 6 for our return down the mountain and the included lunch.
The return had 2 options…you could do the chair lift or you could take the toboggan ride down the mountain.
The toboggan was incredible, The only detracting point was that you had to slow down due to a wowser in front who rode the brakes all the way down. You get on and push the brake forward for speed and pull back to slow. We had a group in front and we waited as long as was reasonable, without holding up the whole line too much, so that I had a good section of free track in front of me. I jumped on and pushed the handle forward. Chewing up track rapidly I was having a ball and the laughter from the sled behind me indicated that Jill was too.
Then it ended. Some idiot had let their 8 year old daughter (or there abouts) ride alone and she sat on the brakes. At the speed
I was going I had to slam on the brakes so as not to into the person in front of me. Now is probably a great time to mention that OH&S in China is not what it is in Australia and you would never get away with such a thing back home. Anyway I slammed on the brakes and stopped before rear ending the person in front and immediately became concerned as to whether Jill would see the sudden stop in time to avoid rear ending me. She did. Needless to say there was a queue of about 20 stuck behind the 8 year old and we all stopped dead hoping to put some track between us so that we could move again.
It freed up after a pause but alas we caught her quickly enough and we got on the brakes hard again. Jill did not notice as quickly this time and I got off the toboggan with her boot prints on my back. No major damage done. A quick meal at a local joint which saw us both stuffed with food and 1.2 litres of beer with change from $20. I found the local bakery option the night before on the walk back from Ghost street and am now addicted. We stopped and grabbed 2 custard tarts, 4 chocolate and 4 vanilla biscuits and something that resembles a vanilla slice (but not too sweet) for about a buck.
Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City
Well we have had a few interesting days wandering the streets of Beijing. The first item of note was that we sat next to a grotty Brit backpacker on the bus to the Great Wall and Jill picked up a cold so has been incredibly snotty and required a day of doing nothing but sitting in her room and feeling sorry for herself while going through tissues at a rate that will destroy small forests and increase global warming markedly.
We had a huge day in the heart of Beijing where we started by catching the train to Tiananmen Square and did the walk north through the square and into Zhongshan park and then into the forbidden city. After that we headed to Jingshan Park which is a hill that offers the best views of all of Beijing on a clear day. All of this is a straight line from Tiananmen Square. All of this was excellent and the hike while long was worth every minute of it. The only detractor was when we reached Jingshan Park and found ourselves at the bottom of the hill and had to climb the stairs to the lookout. After our Great Wall hike our bodies were immediately reminded of the trauma that we had been inflicting upon them.
As mentioned above the view on a clear day was that of all of Beijing. This was not a clear day and we were lucky to see 200 meters. Jill took a photograph directly of the sun at 4pm that looked more like an orange moon. There was a huge highrise in the distance that you could hardly tell existed. From here we travelled down the hill and decided to walk home which took us on an impromptu tour of the Hutongs (narrow alleys with traditional courtyard residences). The next day was Jills recovery day.
Today we walked from our accommodation back to Tiananmen Square via a local dumpling house (our terminology as we are getting good at playing charades with restaurant staff) where we had a great breakfast for under $10. When we arrived we attended the National Museum and were pleasantly surprised to find it was free upon presentation of a foreign passport. This was a very nationalistic view of China and was in line with the message that the Government wished to portray. That said I got myself into a zone of lunacy that only my sister Karin can relate to (following a Canberra Zoo visit). In such a zone Karin found herself in tears of laughter however my musings were met with Uh Huh from my bride.
Tomorrow we will be having another crack at the Summer Palace when we are a bit fresher and we will be catching a train closer to the actual palace rather than the boat which dropped us at the extreme end of the complex.
We have hit some tech snags in China with facebook, wikipedia, skype etc not functioning. The last couple of blog posts and photos were e-mailed to shorty in Canada who posted on our behalf. This one seems to be working. There is no picking what will work on any given day. We are enjoying the comments on the blog so keep them coming we are not posting them for all to see.
The Summer Palace and Broken Promises
When we left Australia we were limited to what we could take with us as we had to be able to carry it with us. As such we each had a luxury item. Jill took her hair straightening iron and I took an espresso coffee machine and ground coffee. To accommodate such items other things had to be forgone. We both chose to travel with limited footwear with a pair of boots each, some Jesus sandals, thongs for the showers and I had an extra pair of runners (not that I was planning to run). Upon departure we were joking with friends about the German backpackers wearing their Jesus sandals and socks and made a pledge that if it was cold enough to need socks then we could wear proper shoes. This went out the window last night as both Jill and I departed the backpackers in Jesus sandals and socks. Needless to say that we looked quite the fashionable couple.
Today we had our second crack at the Summer Palace or officially in China Garden of Nurtured Harmony, which is a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palatial buildings in Beijing. The Summer Palace is mainly dominated by Longevity Hill and the Kunming Lake. This time we took the train directly to the Palace and were left with a short walk to the entrance and the hike up the hill (with the obligatory stairs) to the palace. From that point on it was all down hill which made the journey that much more reasonable. It was still a long walk but the effort required was considerably less. That said we got to the bottom and Jill said that she wanted a boat ride. So after wandering the grounds we headed to the paddle boat hire joint and got a boat that required us to pedal for the next hour.
On the up side we got the best possible view of the joint from the water, on the down side we pedalled one of those boats around a lake. Jill took a photo of a very unimpressed husband as he bobbed up and down on the water. I am not sure if any of you have tried to pedal these boats but the effort of the pedalling does not translate to forward momentum but rather the tide just drifts you into the middle. Once in the middle we got some good photos and then tried to pedal back to the dock. After what seemed like an eternity of getting nowhere and watching others being towed back to shore by the motorised versions (the ones that Jill thought would be no fun) the wind shifted and we started to drift in the right direction and our pedalling was no longer in vain.
I am writing this in the bar at the hostel during happy hour which has half price local tap beer (actually the place and time most of these have been written). We are off for a short walk soon to go to one of the best places in town to get Peking Duck. We tried a local place last night which saw us randomly pointing at pictures on a menu. We ended up with a duck thing and a fish thing with some Chinese Broccoli with garlic and a mystery meat of some sort. The garlic was possibly exactly what my ailing bride required, and when combined with the trip to the fruit store that we took, hopefully she will be on the mend soon enough.
Two days later and we have made 3 separate and equally unsuccessful trips to find the Peking Duck place. There was a trip to the Lama Temple and another venture to the night markets so that we could get some photographs. Jill has successfully managed to pass her cooties on to me and I am struggling with a runny nose and a throat tickle. Which is aversely affecting my sleep but otherwise is just an annoyance.
We have hit all of the major tourist attractions in Beijing and now have a couple of days to experience the city and discover random treasures and sights before we jump on our train to Xian which is the home of the terracotta warriors among other things.
Just came across an amazing old dude who was staying at our backpackers. He was wearing lycra and pushing a bicycle that had saddle bags with patches from almost everywhere on the planet. He told me that he had just ridden his bicycle from Turkey to Beijing a feat that I thought was fairly impressive but in further conversation he claimed that in 2004 he arrived in Sydney and headed south and circumnavigated Australia finishing up in Darwin via Perth and Alice springs. His comment was that Australia was a beautiful place but that the flies in the desert were “a lot”. I had to laugh.
So our last couple of days in Beijing were spent nursing our cooties and wandering the streets in search of Hong Kong Sevens Rugby tickets. A successful trip even if it did cost us cash and about 7 hrs of walking. We found a family sedan that seems perfect for the growing Mellis Clan. It has 4 doors, great fuel economy and seems perfect for Scotty and his growing tribe (see photo).
We had our first lucky dip meal failure of the trip when we lobbed at a joint and pointed at random dishes. Alas we were met with a chilli Prawn dish that had more Habanero chillies than prawns and our sides to be put into the steaming broth ended up as seaweed that was the texture of polystyrene foam and iceberg lettuce. On the up side, Jill has been steadily acquiring an ever increasing tolerance for chilli.
We had an overnight sleeper car on the train from Beijing to Xian (a first for me). Managing the local regional train network proved almost as easy as the city metro however seemed much more daunting due to the sheer volume of people. The train ride was 13hrs overnight and we left at 8pm arriving at 9am. We got off the train and were waiting for our lift from the hostel, when I was set upon by the only (partially) English speaking drunk man at the train station. Clutching his beer and rambling incoherently, I instantly became his friend.
We checked in and immediately headed for the Muslim Quarter of Xian for a meal. This is one part of the world that everyone should see at least once. It was a 100% assault on every one of your senses with so much crammed into such a relatively small space that you were in total awe of what was going on. We watched cooks pressing noodles using what looked like a set of bellows with a mincer on the end pushing the noodles into a boiling vat (we plan to go back so I will try and post a video). The meat on a stick men were everywhere and the pure cacophony of actions was astounding.
We found deli’s, bakeries, restaurants and shops full of items that we had no idea what they were. After our lucky dip menu excursions and our willingness to try lots of different things, this place took it to another level. There was a fight (physical with many punches thrown), hawkers, touts…this place had it all going on.
We settled on a venue for lunch in the Muslim quarter and Jill made her first major blunder of the trip when she ordered beer with her meal. We ordered a couple of different versions of a beef soup sort of thing with some chilli squid on sticks. Shortly following this we hit our first CRITICAL INCIDENT of our trip and I have determined that we need some form of codeword to emphasise the criticality of an incident.
About 40mins after my meal I found myself in need of the amenities. Upon conveying this need, Jill at this point decided to stop on the side of the road and discuss the manner and type of facilities that would be available rather than actually take any step towards a venue of relief. I entered into a Zen-like state of concentration while trying to maintain an Olympic pace back to the Hostel. While on my power walk, I was set upon by a Turkish hawker who walked next to me for an extended period offering to sell me every item available. I tried to maintain focus and pace while I was offered sex with prostitutes and tried to deflect by pointing to Jill, who was in the meantime wandering aimlessly 20 meters behind me and was holding the key to get into the hostel for hostage, while every element of my being was screaming.
We got there and the world was good again. We have booked our trip to the terracotta warriors for Friday (it is Wednesday today) and will spend the day tomorrow trekking about Xian. We have 5 days here than on to ChongQing where we will take a 4 night cruise of the Yangtze River and the three gorges.
Xian has a bunch of stuff worthy of checking out and as tourists we are obliged to do so. It is quite strange really that in both Brisbane and Canberra where we lived for extended periods we never really hit any of the tourist things but are now doing everything that exists. This started with the major attractions but has spilled down to the the little ones now too. Possibly best highlighted by our trip to the ‘Giant wild goose pagoda’ a fairly impressive structure south of the city walls. Essentially this was yet another monument that Jill decided that we needed to climb so we schlepped it up endless flights of stairs.
Having seen the ‘giant wild goose pagoda’, we started heading towards the ‘Small wild goose pagoda’ only to find that it was buried amid a heap of buildings (3 storeys) and could not be seen without fair expense or obscene amounts of effort. From the ‘small wild goose pagoda’ we tried to see the ‘barely bloody there wild goose pagoda’, then moved on to the ‘really more of a pigeon than a goose pagoda’ and finally stopped at the ‘this thing is still an egg pagoda’.
The walk back from the various pagodas was fascinating. We got hopelessly lost in the back streets of Xian and found ourselves wandering the streets in the local market and commerce districts. They tend to group their services in blocks here so we wandered past 10-15 shops specialising in a particular thing before moving on to the next thing. There does not seem to be much of a pattern to how these things are grouped but it was kinda cool the way it all works out. Ten shops selling crabs is followed by ten selling bicycles, followed by fish tanks, followed by pet stores and so on.
And then we happened upon the fabric district which was a series of massive markets of material which were accompanied by curtain makers and then tailors once again all in blocks. As we popped out of this area we found ourselves back at the city walls. Three days later we hired a tandem bicycle and did the bike ride all around the city walls which is about a 90 minute ride on a cobblestone wall, which for two people who have never really been cyclists, had an adverse effect on our dainty little backsides and we are a touch tender. Jill was behind be on the tandem bicycle and she swears that she pedalled the whole way but the giggles at various times throughout the trip suggested that she was amused by my efforts while she was given a ride (I cannot prove this, and she denies it but all the other people who had the girls on the back that we passed saw the guy pedalling and the women doing everything else but. One woman was eating ice cream while old mate in the front worked his ring out going up a hill).
Minor attractions aside, the main reason for coming to Xian is its proximity to the Terracotta warriors which we did on the Friday 1 November. They are about a 90 minute bus ride out of Xian and with an English speaking guide it is a fascinating trip. The site is split into three main pits and they started us off at the worst of the three, then the middle one, then at pit 1 which is the main one and is impressive by anybody’s reckoning. An interesting part to the story (that was unknown to me) is the fact that physicians at the time believed that mercury had curative properties and were dosing the emperor on a daily basis. It truly is amazing what can be achieved when an insane megalomaniac subjugates his people and enforces personal whims. Needless to say he thought that creating the warriors was a good idea and he died fairly young.
There is a mound of dirt around the corner from the warriors that they believe to be the tomb of the emperor due to the heightened mercury levels that have leeched into the soil and the feng shui associated with the area. According to the guide, the technology does not currently exist to access and excavate the tomb and everyone believes that it will be in pristine condition when it is finally accessed (not expected to occur for another 50 or so years). Having seen both Indiana Jones and Lara Croft I am sure that we could do it today but they apparently wish to preserve it rather than being chased by large boulders. Perhaps the Chinese are not as adept with a whip as Harrison Ford.
Today we went hunting to the Bell and drum towers along with the city god temple and the great mosque. These were all items highlighted in the centre of our tourist map as major attractions. Granted the bell and drum towers were pretty good but in the centre of town they were dwarfed and eclipsed by shopping malls on all sides. On the up side it saved me having to climb yet another attraction. The city god temple (believe it or not) was the name of one of the big shopping centres. And the great mosque was buried in the midst of the bazaar stalls in the Muslim quarter. We had actually already walked past it three times without noticing its existence.
The highlight of the day was the visit to the bird market. What started as a market for pet birds and their accessories has exploded into any item you could possibly imagine. The extension to other pets such as reptiles, fish, turtles and squirrels was fairly obvious as was the usual phone, food and clothing stalls. I must admit that the street dentist threw me. There was a chair set up on the side of the market and a table full of dentures in front as he got to work on some lady seated in the chair.
Well we took another overnight sleeper carriage from Xian to Chongqing which again was very good. The reason for coming to Chongqing was that this is the departure point for a 4 day cruise down the Yangtze River through the 3 gorges and other generally good looking things. We had planned to do a side trip to Chengdu to check out the Pandas but our extension in Beijing kinda threw a spanner in the works on the timings.
As it turns out we have about 5 days here in Chongqing which on the face of it seems about 3 and a half days too long. The main tourist attraction is the Szechwan Hotpot. Which you can find almost everywhere so is not a real challenge. The main challenge is to be able to order and eat one without irrevocably destroying your colon. Now many of you would be aware that I am not shy of chilli and with Mike, Brad, and the occasional Scotty (sometimes fuelled by and other times quenched by beer) however this trip is pushing even my limits at times. I think mum’s mate from Sydney is the only bloke I have met who would do this comfortably.
On our first night in Chongqing we took an evening stroll along the Yangtze River to find a meal and then further again to let the meal settle and see what else was to be seen. We walked along the River bank, for about 8 Kms, and admired the obscene amounts of lights that get lit as they have a full time light show on ALL of the city buildings. Chongqing is a river city at the junction of the Yangtze and the Jialing rivers built amidst the mountains, as such it is steep, very steep. Now we have recovered from our stair traumas and are getting fitter each day with the walking etc…but steep is a whole other challenge. On the up side we have learned to walk to (or close to) exhaustion and pay the $2-3 cab fare back.
On our hike up the mountains (or city streets – depends on your perspective) this morning we had the best dumplings that I have ever had. Now, both fried and steamed dumplings have been a breakfast staple and we have had many including some great variations but today’s were sublime. On our walk yesterday evening, our side of the River was really dull and the other side looked really good. So we took the cable car from one side to the other. As it turned out our side is the cool side.
There is a zoo here so I will go and get a panda and tiger fix in (probably tomorrow). They sell a type of hoodie meets vest thing here that looks like a panda and we are wracking our brains to think of somebody who would appreciate such a thing. Dylan and Sky (Sao) come to mind but they are both too little and the others are all too big. The other challenge would then be to traverse the china postal service to send anything back home.
The next day came and went and we did in fact hit the zoo. It was incredible. Initially we were a touch disappointed when we got to the panda exhibit as the first exhibit was of an empty pen with a sign saying that this was Ling Ling’s pen and he moved in 2003. The second was a similar story but Yum Cha or Dim Sum or something had moved in 2007. The third pen had a panda up a tree. You could get a photo of the white blur of a panda’s ass (which we got) up a tree. We decided to see the rest of the zoo and come back later. The rest of the zoo was sensational with a minor issue of pen sizes for some bears (the only blight on an excellent zoo).
There was a tiger that took exception to a bird in his enclosure and was stalking it like prey and pouncing (unsuccessfully). His other 3 mates were in their own enclosures but were much less animated. The lion had a roaring session (not while we were watching but it could be heard throughout the park) that sent Chinese people racing for the enclosure. The orang-utans were old but were still way cool. And there was a horny pig getting his rocks off in the petting zoo. All of this was in addition to the regular zoo fare of elephants, zebras, camels, ostriches, monkeys, birds etc.
4 hours later and we gave the pandas another crack. The blur had left the tree and was munching on some bamboo but was mostly obstructed. An old couple came past with a guide they had hired who said that they would get better pictures from the other six upstairs…other six…upstairs…what the…I became a stalker waiting for them to leave so I could follow them to this mythical place that was…upstairs.
I didn’t have to wait too long and around a corner we went…then there were stairs to a gift shop…then another corner…and then the mystical stairs of which he spoke. Upon arriving atop the stairs six (count em six) open pens with platforms covered in fresh cut bamboo each housing seemingly famished great pandas munching away. All in clear plain sight, no camera impediments, no throngs of tourists just happy pandas having a feed. Claudia Naug would have been in utter bliss as we stood for about 30 mins watching, photographing and videoing them.
A final point on the zoo. It costs 30 yuan in peak season and 20 for us as it was off season. So based upon today’s exchange rate we got hours of entertainment for $3.46 each. These costs blow out considerably when you add the 4 yuan each, each way on the train. Jill had a 15 yuan ice cream and I had an 8 yuan mystery meat on a stick. All this adds up to the fact that 2 people had a 25km train journey to a zoo, paid entrance, got fed and got home for $13.66.
Cruising the Yangtze
My assessment of Chongqing was about spot on in terms of the time required. We did a free walking tour of the city with the hostel staff which was interesting enough apart from the 15kms that it involved (remembering that Chongqing is build on a mountain so there were many hills and stairs). The museum was free and was all about the relocation of the towns, relics, artefacts etc when the dams etc were made. We had the Hotpot that evening which was definitely an experience however not as traumatic on the chilli front as advertised.
The cruise was put together by Jill’s favourite travel agent Wonder Wang. In all honesty this was the blokes name. She took the first call and had it followed up by e-mail confirmations. Need less to say I had numerous comments and each time he rang or e-mailed these comments and commentary grew. The cruise started off well enough with a 9pm departure and an overnight trundle down the river to Fengdu the site of the ghost city. This was the most obscene, tourism, money making venture ever put on the planet. The original Buddhist and Taoist temples were smashed during the cultural revolution during the 1960’s with just 3 bridges and a partial temple left. So…they fully rebuilt…what they thought…should have been there (whether it belonged or not).
As such there was a series of 20-30 year old buildings, with full gift shops incorporated into their design (something that is always present in temples). Another had a kitchen with a bakery built into it, this room immediately followed a story by the tour guide of offerings of crackers to the gods for prosperity, longevity and some other thing. These crackers were then (surprisingly) for sale in the bakery. As it was the ghost city…in 1999 they added a bunch of statues to depict the theme. Grotesque looking things that did not mean anything other than it was an artist’s impression of blah. In addition the names of the landmarks include: ghost torturing pass, last glance home tower, no way out bridge and the river of blood.
The actual story and mythology of the journey to the underworld incorporated with the ruins was very interesting and would have been enough. The purely commercial rebuild was obscene. We were there in off season so there was about 25% of the people that would be there in peak times. Despite this we were like cattle being shunted from one tourist pen (temple) to the next. It was only a 3 hour trip but it could not end soon enough for either of us. A further example was the construction of 2 new exhibits that will be opened in the future. One was a recreation of a pagoda and the other was a 5 storey, Besser block head of a Taoist statue that had been painted yellow. These were partially constructed and were perched up a hill and will no doubt be vital photo opportunities for future generations.
The cruise continued and we sailed through the three gorges which were pure and unadulterated and magnificent. The first was the Qutang gorge which is a spectacular 8km stretch…about 2 hours later the Wu gorge appeared along with the Goddess Peak. Atop this peak was a temple thing that Jill delighted in prattling on about how she would never get me to walk the stairs to reach this. Needless to say that the zoom on our phone cameras could not even capture this thing it was so high up ( you could barely make out the staircase). After lunch we did a Sampan sail around one of the Yangtze River tributaries (Shennong Stream). While on a warm, dry day this might have been great but on a cold, wet and windy day we were seeking the hot shower upon our return.
That night we passed through the series of 5 locks to lower us the required 175 meters. An impressive piece of engineering no matter how many times you watch it. When this is combined with the electricity generating turbines the dam really is an impressive piece of kit supplying about 4% of China’s energy needs. Such projects are vital as solar is not an option, as we have seen the sun 3 times in the last 4 weeks. From here we entered the last of the gorges the Xiling gorge a 76km stretch which once again was lovely.
Our three gorges experience was done on a 5 star boat and was terrible. It was a tour group mentality, made for the aged, at the pace of the weakest link, it was entirely formulaic, there were 15 minute photo opportunities before being shuffled off to the next, and the whole experience was generally miserable. The food was a western interpretation of Asian and an Asian interpretation of Western in a buffet format, that did not work on any front.
This was a bit of a warts and all post. The natural elements were spectacular and were fully worth it, the technological aspects of the dam and locks were also great. The bolt on tourist stops were atrocious both in their composition and execution. Jill has long waxed lyrical of my intolerance for such things, however every time I searched for her during an organised excursion she was hiding in the corner playing candy crush on her phone in an attempt to boycott the herd mentality. Overall we cruised the Yangtze River for over 600kms and saw some incredible natural beauty.
Cruise over…we were dropped in Yichang, a city with little to it, so we battled our way through the dodgy taxi services only to find that there were no legitimate taxis anywhere near where we got dropped off. We got in a dodgy van and headed for the train station which was about 40 mins away. This was achieved after getting out of the first dodgy van and threatening to walk about 5 times to the ultimate driver of another dodgy van until a price was agreed and settled on. After this the trip was uneventful.
The lovely staff on the boat had written 2 notes for Jill in both Chinese and English. They were “please take me to the train station” and “can I have two train tickets to Wuhan”. Believe it or not the train ticket went off without a hitch, we got lucky and the girl behind the counter spoke English too. It was a fast train going almost 300 Kms in about 2 hours (including about six stops to pick up others). We got to Wuhan at taxi change over time and had to wait about 90 mins for a cab to take us about 2 km at a cost of about $1.40. It was dark, the city was strange, we had no idea how dodgy it was, nothing was in English and Jill’s google maps was not working…we decided to wait for the cab.
Wuhan is a huge town – actually a combination of three cities but today we headed off to the “Yellow Crane Tower” and the surrouding parklands. The entire area is impressive and offers some beautiful views over a city that is relatively not polluted by China standards. Jill swore that she had seen blue sky and was pointing furiously at the sky. The nett result of this is that she has adjusted her mental concept of what blue is and a pale smog grey will suffice now.
The first thing you hit is the 8 meter statue of Yue Fei (a 12th century general) and a horse that was pretty cool. Then a few archways to the left you come across the “millennium lucky bell” which for a small fee you can ring by ploughing a huge suspended log, wrapped in velvet, into it. A bit further along we hit the main attraction which was the “yellow crane tower” a big thing on the top of a hill waiting to be climbed. Now having done this a few times, I started to count the number of stairs that I climbed as we entered the bottom of the hill. By the time we had left the park (and climbed the tower) I had done 910 stairs, this was in addition to the hills and slopes we walked up and the extra 320 stairs and 2 km walk to get there in the first place.
The tower provided the best view of the city and was worth the climb. The trip back saw us wandering through some of the prettiest parklands I have ever been in, this included koi ponds and a really funky waterfall into a stream (remembering we are in the middle of town) running into the pond. The whole thing was really peaceful and upon exiting we were greeted with a taxi that had run over a moped. The ambulance took away the moped rider and the bike and the cab stayed in the middle of the road for the next 20-30 mins until the police came. This in essence screwed up traffic and had everybody honking more than they normally do.
The next morning we hopped an early morning flight to Guilin. Upon arrival I immediately fell in love with the joint. The drive from the airport showed a bunch of natural rock outcrops/hills/mountain things (karsts) that dotted the entire area (titled by me as lumps). We checked into the best backpackers that we have hit so far (Wada), rolled across the road for a feed and on the recommendation of the staff we had the local specialty of Guilin mifen (rice noodles with some other stuff added). Two big bowls cost us 7 yuan throw in 10 dumplings for 5 yuan and we were both stuffed for about $2. This was followed by a walk around the local area to acclimatise and Friday night is all you can eat BBQ night at the hostel for 40 yuan a head. This got considerably more expensive as the BBQ needed to be washed down by copious quantities of Tsingtao. But at 12 yuan for a 600 ml bottle it wasn’t that bad.
Day 2 in Guilin saw us in a van and headed to the Longji rice terraces otherwise known as the “dragon’s backbone” about 2 and a half hours out of town, on the most bone jarring road imaginable. Jill and I were in the back seat of a hiace style van directly above the axle and by the end of the day, kidneys were bruised and fillings were dislodged. Ignoring the drive the rice terraces were spectacular. Basically over the last 2000 years the locals have been cutting terraces into the sides of the mountains for the purposes of crop cultivation. Needless to say you can create quite a few terraces in 2000 years.
Day 3 saw us extending our stay by another day as this place is so good. The next leg was sorted to head to Yangshuo which is about 2-3 hrs downstream from here. On the advice from the fantastic girls at the hostel they reckon the way they would get there would be on “bamboo raft”. We are not really sure what this means but at this stage we will be taking a journey on a Chinese River on a bamboo raft of some sort. On the hostel front…they have a policy that if you drink 12 beers then you get a free wada shirt…we now have a pink one and a white one.
Day 3 also saw us doing the local wander around town. Most of the tourist things are a close walk and overall it is not too strenuous as the place is flat. Today saw us visit the twin pagodas, get some good shots of the lumps (karsts), check out the elephant trunk hill and generally just wander around while I got food from almost every street stall I could find.
Now if you remember an earlier post about my ordering food when I am hungry…the rules now apply to Jill too. While I was grazing on street food Jill was not, so when we stopped she had free reign over the meal. We had the largest and the most expensive meal that we have had since hitting China. The first dish was the nobbly bits of a pig, followed by the rest of the pig in round 2, and then the duck turned up, the whole duck, on the up side Jill has worked out the sign language for doggie bag. Below was what was left after we had eaten for about an hour.
Guilin to Yangshou
Well today was possibly the best day that we have had since we left Australia. We left Guilin this morning to do the 73 Kms down the road to Yangshuo but rather than doing the road trip we did the leisurely bamboo raft ride down the LiJiang River. Now these were not really bamboo rafts, they were eight 4 inch poly pipes strapped together with two park benches on them, all powered by a whipper snipper with the chord replaced by a propeller.
That said, we slowly and quietly trundled down the River past all of the lumps (karsts). Now my main issue in Guilin was that you could not really get any good photo angles on the lumps without people or buildings getting in the way…problem solved. This was about 3-4 hours of ever changing landscapes, on the River, with no obstructions. Wow. At the end of the day we had over 100 photos of lumpy landscapes and had had an awesome time.
On arrival in Yangshuo we checked into the flashiest hostel we have come across. We are paying about $24 a night for both of us to stay in a hostel room that is on a par with and often better than a $200+ a night room in Australia. I certainly had worse rooms while travelling with the AFP and it is better than most novotels. The room directly looks out onto lumps and has an observation deck with almost 360 degree views of the town. We checked in, went for a noodle feed (about $5 worth) and then went to join the next leg of our journey from Guilin.
The next leg involved seeing some of the traditional farming and fishing etc (staged but who really cared) and an actual bamboo raft ride. About 15 km outside Yangshuo is a village where they have a 600 year old bridge and fishermen using cormorant birds to fish for them. Basically they tie the cormorant’s throat shut and send it hunting for big (ish) fish that the birds cannot swallow as their throats are tied. The dude then plucks the fish from the bird’s throat and sends the cormorant off again. Not the way that they still do it but a fascinating watch nonetheless. This was followed by a real bamboo raft pushed along by an old dude with a stick and a feed the water buffalo session. Possibly the most amusing part of the whole day was the sheer terror of a Chinese woman who was trying to feed the world’s tamest water buffalo. She screamed, she squealed, she ran, she cringed… It was almost as if my sister Karin was to hand feed a spider. The poor buffalo just wanted a handful of corn husks.
Now it must be said that Yangshuo is a soulless, plastic, tourist town in the midst of great natural beauty. Everything evil that tourism brings is here, knock-off shops, staged markets, touts, KFC, McDonalds, neon, laser light shows…the lot. Despite this it is clean, neat surrounded by lumps…and you can ignore the other stuff. There is a strip of bars and restaurants claiming to be from every country of the world which are charging obscene prices for everything. The German bar is charging 168 yuan for pigs knuckle and sauerkraut (bear in mind that we had noodles and dumplings for two for 12 yuan). The beers are about 40 yuan each while our ones at the hostel are between 7 and 12.
We wandered the streets for a meal that night and found a great feed in a back alley (as we usually do). On our return journey the bride was in need of the amenities. I have been practicing my Chinese but no matter how many times I told her to ask for directions, she would not believe me that the Chinese word for toilet was “Shi Thou Se”.
Yangshou back to Guilin
We were planning to do the bike ride around the Yangshuo region to check out the lumps up close and personal. Given our affinity for bicycles and our not yet battle hardened bottoms, it was not something we were looking forward to but it really is the best way to see the area. In a series of classic avoidance techniques we (both) dragged the chain on getting out of the room, went for coffee while we posted the rafting post (including mucking around with the pictures), discussed whether we should ride the bikes to breakfast or walk etc.
After walking to and from breakfast (another $7 feast) we bit the bullet and headed to reception to book and pay for our bikes. At this point the girl asked what type of bikes we would like, we inspected the menu…and there it was…the electric bike. About 20 yuan a day more ($3.50-3.80) expensive, same sights but less of that pesky pedalling. Now we had seen these in other cities, you do the first few pedals to get momentum and then relax until you hit a hill or something then you need to give it a helping hand.
We went down to collect our bikes and was told to follow the dude. About 700 meters later after zigzagging the backstreets we hit a dodgy alley and he headed on down it, opened the shed and there they were…fully electric mopeds…charged and no peddling required at all. Now anybody who has spent any time in Asia is aware of the chaos that is the streets and traffic…and China is no exception. A little more ordered than some and less than others. A land where pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds, motorbikes, trucks, busses, wheelbarrows and food carts all try to occupy the same space simultaneously…and we were now motorised.
Our first 5 mins or so were frantic as we tried to head away from the busy areas to get a feel for our hogs. This achieved, we felt brave enough and headed back through town and then generally downstream following the river as best we could. Being a small town we were on the open road in no time and were happily feeling the wind in our hair (no helmet laws here). Cruising the back roads of China amid the lumps…not bad at all. A bit more comfortable on the hogs and we opened them up…I got mine up to 44 kph.
Yangshuo is a renowned destination for “adventure tourists” with many caves, hikes, rock climbing and lump mountain biking. We rode past them all, except we weren’t sweating…it was another great day. We headed back to Guilin for a night (BBQ night again) so that we can jump over to Guangzhou for our next leg into New Delhi, India. We took the bus back which was much cheaper but nowhere near as fun or scenic as the bamboo raft to get there.
We are in China for about another week and it has been fantastic…and we will be heading back a couple of more times…but we are both getting ready for a change. The constant honking of horns grates on your nerves after a while, and the urge to throttle the guy who is heavy on the horn is growing with each passing day. Jill is also starting to pine for real chocolate. China has an odd version that even in pre-packaged items like a snickers bar is very different.
We have moved onto Guangzhou now and spent the first day hitting the Chen Clan Academy, Nanyue King Mausoleum, and the catholic cathedral. Day two hit the zoo followed by the Sun Yat Sen Memorial. Couple of days of ticking the tourist boxes really. The zoo was good but the panda exhibit was as much of a fizzer as Beijing, nowhere near the excellent quality of Chongqing. I did however get fairly close to a panda, but had to watch out for his killer moves (and I smiled for those having a dig). Lots of tigers and lions etc.
The really sad part was the behaviour exhibition hall this was bears walking tightropes, monkeys on bicycles, macaws playing basketball, and a tiger jumping through hoops. This is a throwback to a time long since passed, and rightfully so. We were hoping that these were old animals that grew up performing and were finishing their lives doing what they know. It would be appalling to think that this was still going on today. On the up side they looked well fed and happy enough, but it was disconcerting to watch.
Guangzhou was mainly spent doing the tourist visit thing and noshing on at various food stalls. There was a 3 lane road around the corner from our hostel which at night turns into an arcade of alfresco dining, while still trying to masquerade as a road. We found a clay pot specialist that is so cheap that it is ridiculous. One night I had a noodle and dumpling soup followed by a clay pot of pork, rice and veg, while Jill had 2 bowls of noodle and dumpling soup (it is really good) all washed down with 2 x 600ml bottles of Pearl River Lager and when the bill came we had to fork out a total of 45 yuan ($8.06).
My wife has taken to muttering to herself. She spends large portions of her time with her face buried in a computer screen asking herself bizarre questions. Now being a good husband, on occasion when she articulates the question rather than muttering it, I offer answers to her queries. Now she seems to think that I am not contributing to the planning phases by offering such advice and I on the other hand believe I am providing the answers to vital questions that she clearly needs help with. By way of example this afternoon she was staring at a map of Chennai and asked where is the airport…I promptly responded that it was the place where all the planes land. Apparently this was not helpful to her majesty.
Our last day before leaving China saw a huge cold snap. Temperatures plummeted, it was wet, windy and cold. We hid out in our hostel and made preparations for that which was to follow. We did our last street food hit (back to our clay pot man) who likes us so much he is now giving us the locals discount. He must be. We paid 25 yuan for 3 mains and a beer. On a little side note…we ran into a Sri Lankan couple while in Guilin and were talking about my love for the street food. Their answer to me was…and I quote…”we are from Sri Lanka… we have many germs in our stomachs…we did not even eat the Indian street food”.
I may need to rethink my dietary approaches.
MAJOR BREAK IN HERE AS WE WERE IN INDIA
Kunming and Chinese New Year
Having left India we landed in Kunming in China’s south for Chinese New Year. The first thing we noticed was the cleanliness, the streets are 3-4 lanes wide, they are fully paved to the edge where they meet with a footpath, there is no litter and people are not urinating in the streets. I put us in a black list taxi that took us directly where we needed to be with no fuss and for the agreed upon price.
The hostel was neat clean and slotted us into a bed straight away. This allowed us to sleep off the fact that we had been awake for 44 of the previous 48 hrs (mostly due to the Kolkata hovel). A few hours nap, up for lunch, down for a nap, up for dinner, sleep overnight…the world is good again.
Hit the few tourist things that there was to do in Kunming, lake, pagodas, mosque etc…got photos. The most had conversation was us revelling in how clean China was and the inevitable response of…REALLY…from every westerner that we met. For all of the dirt in China, the spitting, the smog, the fires, the fossil fuels being burnt every 15 feet…it is spotless compared to India.
Our gastronomic enterprises were not deep fried or curried and surprisingly the chilli content was higher. There truly is something to be said for simple food well executed. A dumpling, some noodles with simple sauce, steamed vegetables with a touch of chilli or sauce. We are loving this break from the curries. There is a local delicacy called across the bridge noodles. This is a huge bowl of steaming broth and a range of raw ingredients that you quickly dump in the bowl in whatever proportions you wish, to cook. A few minutes on and tuck in. It is a great meal but a little bland. It benefits greatly from a dollop (or two) of the chilli that is on every Chinese table.
For those who have not experienced Chinese New year in China then suffice to say it is feral. It goes for weeks and up to a month in some places. We picked a small (ish) town so got the abridged version, but by all accounts Beijing and Shanghai are crazy. The fireworks start very early and finish very late every day. The daytime ones are generally set off by mischievous chefs who run out of the kitchen, stand around like giggling schoolgirls and let off massive bangs…scaring the life out of the waitresses…and then running back to the kitchens giggling madly.
We hooked up with a Brit and a Canadian who speak Chinese and along with a Melbourne girl we all headed out for Chinese New Year’s Eve. Having linguists meant we were not limited in our choice of venue and away we went. After a quite few drinks we left the hostel at 8pm in search of a meal…found a joint and ordered up a storm. We ate, drank, sang, got adopted by the staff…the owner heard we were there and came from his other restaurant to join us…armed with Baijiu (triple distilled rice wine). Anyway…well after 2 am we left after having had fantastic night.
MAJOR BREAK IN HERE AS WE WERE IN INDIA
Wasn’t sure what to think about this one before we came. We had run into a number of people who had been to Shanghai or had lived here and they almost all hated it, claiming it to be one of the worst Chinese cities. Granted it is the largest city in China with a population greater than all of Australia. And it is the worlds largest shipping port and therefore has all the banking, finance and infrastructure that goes with that.
Admittedly it is not very Chinese…there are a few traditional temples but in reality it has been a cosmopolitan trade hub for over a century and has evolved with this. You can find every brand name on the planet here (and their much cheaper namesakes…(ok knockoffs). The main city part is basically a series of shopping malls which can very easily be avoided for those like me who really don’t care.
It is a true mega city and is spectacular. The city is spotlessly clean, the footpaths are unthinkably wide, the roads are huge, the traffic is calm, the metro is cheap and regular, the busses are cheaper and more frequent, the river is a feature and the architecture is different everywhere you look. The whole place is a model of efficiency and a plan beautifully executed.
Shanghai has a HOHO bus (hop-on, hop-off) to buzz us around to the various sights which we happily used over a 2 day period. Seeing the Oriental Pearl Tower (Dongfang Mingzhu), walking along the Bund (waterfront), Jade Buddha Temple, Jing’An Temple, cruising the Huangpu River in the early evening and checking out the city from the 88th floor of the Jin Mao Tower.
The key selling point for me was the food…this place is a foodies paradise. Having been a major trade hub for so long, Shanghai has embraced every possible food style and delivers it flawlessly, cheaply and everywhere. The one that has sunk Jill (and would in all honesty put my mother away too) is the custard tart shops…the little yellow bundles of goodness that cap off a Yum Cha meal perfectly. They are everywhere…I mean everywhere…selling the warm tarts for 4 for 12 yuan (less than $2).
Our first meal in town was Japanese…tepanyaki… Perfect…beef, chicken, prawn, mussels, rice, veg, crab soup with drinks… In Australia a minimum $60 a head banquet plus drinks…here $30 the lot. Capped off with some egg tarts $2. Next was Yum Cha lunch the next day $20 (I always over order and it was in the heart of the tourist strip so prices were ramped up) with a dinner of beef, veg + rice, a BBQ plate (duck and suckling pig), prawn balls with chilli…about $26 including beers…capped off with egg tarts $2. Steamed and fried dumplings for brunch $3.20, and dinner was a huge bowl of Asian chilli beef and noodle soup for me and a fried rice/risotto style dish for Jill $7. Oh and some more egg tarts $2.
Basically we had a different meal each time, had 6 huge meals including beers and dessert over a 3 day period all for under $100…which is less than what the first meal would have cost us back at home. And we ate like pigs…and enjoyed every mouthful. Did I mention the egg tarts.
Hangzhou is the tiny (size of Sydney) tourist destination by the lake about 200 Kms from Shanghai. We hopped a metro for 70 cents each to the train station caught the BMU train (fast train) for the 200 km journey including the five stops along the way. Imagine our surprise when an hour later we were in a cab on our way to the hostel having arrived the 200km. This thing travels alongside the 4-5 lane (each way) freeway leaving cars doing 100km plus as if they are not even moving. Slow down and stop for a couple of minutes at the station (5 times) then off again…the entire journey done in an hour. I spent the entire journey staring out the window wondering how it is that Australia’s roads, trains, public transport could be in such a pitiful state when this sort of technology and efficient service delivery exists.
The train stations are on the outskirts of each city and are serviced by a metro system that will drop you within 2 kilometres of any point in the city…almost any city…at negligible cost. I guess a stable government, a long term plan for the future of your nation and non-privatised essential infrastructure can really work. But in Australia we have privatised all of our essential services meaning that such improvements will never occur unless it is economically profitable…and with a small population alas these things will never be seen.
Hangzhou is a city around a lake much like Sydney is around its harbour. The city sizes are comparable however every man and his dog from Shanghai flocks here each weekend swelling the population by about 120% extra. Like Shanghai, every brand name is available and our walk from the hostel to the restaurants took us past the Aston Martin, Audi, Ferrari, Maserati, and Porsche dealerships.
With such a huge population there is a need for leisure activity and China does public parks like nowhere else I have seen. Massive expanses of clean open usable space, highlighted by bridges, water, pagodas, dancing squares, music and singing spots. I must admit that while I am generally loving China there are a few points that are really not doing it for me.
1. The main issue is that all Chinese learned to whisper in a helicopter and have never heard of an inside voice. They do not seem to grasp the fact that you can speak softer if the person is a metre away in a confined space as opposed to 20 metres away in a crowd. The same tone and volume is used in every circumstance so at times blood emanates from your eardrums within the confined space of a metro cabin etc.
2. The other issue I have is Chinese singing and traditional music. I have heard these on numerous occasions and in a variety of settings but I have to say that these are nothing more or less than cat strangling to my ears. The high pitched whine of both the instrument or the voice just never seems to stop and is once again one of those things that will bring a trickle of blood from your poor unsuspecting eardrums.
We got ourselves off the tourist track to try and experience what China proper was like to do this we hit Fuzhou. We thought that getting away from the public view places may reveal another side to our adventure and show that the public façade was different to the reality outside of the main cities. In fact it is just like everywhere else in China but with less English and less to see. The infrastructure that has been built in the big towns is the same as that which exists in the smaller (1.2 million) places. The rural communities obviously are quite different but China’s growth and development has spread far and wide and is not contained to the industrial or tourist hubs.
The main roads are 3-5 lanes wide, the smaller side roads are 1-3 lanes wide and they are all beautifully asphalted, curbed and guttered. The footpaths are unthinkably wide (but need to be shared with many more electric bicycles and motorcycles than in the bigger towns). There is the same fascination with brand names that exists everywhere in China and it is quite funny to see a small street vendor selling 5 dumplings for a buck wearing Dolce and Gabbana jackets. Obviously there is a healthy knock off market here as the prices for the legit stuff here is the same as it is back home.
Xiamen and Fuzhou are much like all other Chinese cities. However we stayed in old town within Xiamen which offers a taste of what life used to be like many years ago. There are no big roads once you step inside. There is a labyrinth of alleys, houses, markets, etc. The owners of the hostel were commenting that there is a push for old town to be demolished. The Chinese have a fixation on everything new and the cultural preference is to destroy the old and replace it with the new wide crisp clean roads that exist almost everywhere throughout China.
Having spent a couple of days in old town there is a certain manic charm to the way things used to be. To get to our hostel we got off the (2 lane) bus only freeway and stepped onto the (4 lane in each direction) road directly underneath the freeway and headed up a tiny set of stairs into old town. The stairs were choked with people cleaning fish, cooking food, selling wares and just generally trying to traverse the narrow alleys.
Fifty metres further down the main road we came across the main wet market entrance which began the chaos that was to follow. The first section was the seafood which had tubs of live seafood of every variety laying all over the road as vendors squatted by their boxes trying to sell the items. I have decided that I like the concept of having turtles as pets…so seeing them as meat was a tad disconcerting.
The funniest bit was watching the live prawns leaping out of their boxes onto the ground and the women chasing them around with chopsticks to put them back in the water. There were eels the thickness of a mans arm, sharks, stingrays, shellfish, molluscs, crabs….you name it. Further on was the fruit, then the mystery meat puzzle, and the caged live animals like ducks,chickens, quails, rabbits etc. then the random items that every market tends to have.
Jill had an assignment to do as part of her masters so we needed to stay put for about a week to allow her to get it done. Xiamen was the chosen destination as there is heaps of food options for me and she can settle in to a comfortable place to do her readings and the assignment.
We did head over to Gulangyu Island for a day and cruised around eating street food and seeing the tourist sites but this is about the only touristy thing in Xiamen. I found the Taiwan food street (a pedestrian road choked with food stalls selling just about anything) and discovered the peppered steak sizzler. Steak, egg, pasta all smothered in a spicy pepper sauce served on a sizzling platter. All good.
The highlight of the island was having the special Kopi Luwak which is the coffee beans that have been ingested and excreted by the Asian Palm Civet. This is then processed into the finished coffee product which is, quite frankly, ordinary. The greatest bit about all of this was the local menu descriptor as photographed above.
This is the longest that we had spent in any one town since Beijing. Alas there was not enough going on here to keep me occupied for such a length of time and reading and editing Jill’s assignment on clinical governance was not as thrilling as it sounds.
That said we have now officially been gone from Australia for six full months now and on reflection we have had some amazing experiences both good and bad along the way. The funds look like they will last through until at least the end of this year, however consideration is being given to what next?
The Stone Forest
After Jill finally got the assignment finished we got back on the road and returned to Kunming (the site of our Chinese New Year escapades). We tried a different hostel which was ok without being startling and made plans to hit the stone forest (Shilin) which is a 350 sq/km area of limestone rock formations. This place was spectacular but was also the most expensive day that we have had since arriving in China. The site is 120 kms from Kunming so by the time you pay for the cab to the bus staton, the bus to the site, the entrance fee and the electric shuttle bus fee and then the return journey, the numbers got very big quite quickly (by China standards).
That said, the park was brilliant with stone and rock formations as far as the eye can see and you basically had free reign to explore as you saw fit. There was the electric busses that followed a loop but you could get off at any time and explore away. We got the bus initially but ended up walking the whole way so that we could check out all the sights.
Leaving Kunming we hopped a flight to LiJiang and set up camp in the heart of old town. Having spent a week in the Xiamen old town I had an idea of what to expect…boy was I wrong. The two were poles apart. Xiamen had authentic alleys where people lived and worked as the would have 200 years ago and was dirt cheap. LiJiang was the pretty tourist area with nothing but shops, bars and restaurants charging a premium on any item you even paused to look at.
LiJiang is without a doubt the most expensive town we have been in within China. By way of example, a 650 ml beer normally costs between 10 and 20 RMB…in Xiamen we were getting it for under 3…but in LiJiang they were trying to charge over 50 RMB. This extended to the food and coffees as well as the touristy junk that we did not get. On arrival we stopped for a coffee on the way to the hostel and paid 68 RMB ($11-14) for Jill’s latte and 45 ($7-9) for my long black.
As an extra bit of excitement while we were in old town the building across the alley from where we were staying caught fire and had flames leaping about 20 meters into the air. Old town is essentially all made of wood and a fire is needless to say devastating. All hell broke loose as every man and his dog donned their fire fighting equipment and got to work in putting out the blaze. The chefs from the restaurants were running away from the blaze carrying the gas bottles, the smoke was billowing and we were prepped for a rapid departure should it be needed.
About three hours later all was calm and the fire was out. It was actually a very efficient exercise and in a wooden tinderbox part of town it was beautifully contained to just the one building. The next town that we are to hit (Shangri-La) had a similar incident and 2/3 of the place went up displacing over 3000 people.
LiJiang is the launching point for places such as the Tiger Leaping Gorge, Dali and Shangri-la. Jill had been wanting to go to tiger leaping gorge since the first moment she read about it. My response was along the lines of the nomenclature is false advertising…and that if I did not physically see a tiger leaping across the gorge then it was a waste of our time and money and I would be disappointed.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Anyway as a good husband we went to tiger leaping gorge…you guessed it…no tiger…no leaping…but there was a pretty spectacular gorge. And a shed load of walking down and then back up a 1600 meter vertical drop to the water level. My calves burned on the way down and my thighs on the way up. Until I gave up and paid to ride a horse the last 3-500 meters of the vertical climb section…Jill walked the whole way and found me waiting for her at the top with a cold drink.
The first thing to mention was the drive to the gorge. It was alongside a super steep vertical drop in a bus that barely fit on the road…with sections of the road that had crumbled away under earlier avalanches. At one point Jill claims that she saw a car in the water below that had obviously missed a turn. All of this while our bus driver was chatting away on his mobile phone and belatedly jerking into corners.
The next bit was the trail…1600 meters down…on a track that would trouble most goats. Upon reaching the bottom you see the rock that the alleged tiger leapt to. To get there we paid an extra 10 yuan each to wander across a rope bridge made out of balsa wood. We then stood on the rock amongst the rapids as they raged past us…then braved the bridge back to the trail upwards.
As we huffed and puffed our way up the path there was a ladder that cut out a big chunk of the zigging and zagging as we climbed. This was a vertical ladder with rungs at double the normal height…that was quite frankly terrifying…that we both climbed. Thankfully you were facing the cliff so did not see how bad it could have ended.
All things considered a great (but exhausting) day.
After tiger leaping gorge and the 1600 meter each way climb and descent we found ourselves 2 days later in agony. Thighs and calves were burning and shaking. Walking up stairs or squatting to get something from our bag was murderous. Jill has decided that she wishes to head to Tibet to hit the northern base camp of Mount Everest….just to say she did. Everyone who goes here gets altitude sickness it is just a question of how badly. Altitude sickness strikes randomly with no rhyme or reason. 20 year old marathon runners can be debilitated while 70 year olds may only have a mild headache. We headed up the mountains to test the altitude and specifically how I held up at altitude.
The two previous times that we went up the mountains I was ill but they were both in India and at least one of these was food related. So how I would react was a little unknown and the Tibet trip would be expensive so we did not wish to waste the money if we would be crook the whole time. So to test this we headed up the heights. The northern base camp of Everest is at 5150 meters (16,900 feet) which is obviously considerably higher than anywhere else I have been. There is a southern base camp on the other side in Nepal. For context Mount Kosciuszko the highest Australian point is at 2228 meters (7,310 feet). Darjeeling was 2045 meters and Shimla was at 2200 meters. Shangri-La took us up to 3200 meters (10,498 feet). Got here…not an issue for either of us…it was the dodgy Indian curries that got me…not the elevation.
Shangri-La was renamed in 2001, from Zhongdian, after the fictional land of Shangri-La in the James Hilton novel Lost Horizon, in an effort to promote tourism. The town had a massive fire in January this year which destroyed about 2/3 of old town…where we were staying. Looking at the buildings it is no surprise as everything is wood and one stray spark will start the inferno. This is being rebuilt as we speak but the place is fairly well decimated at the moment.
There is a fantastic monastery right next to the square that is stunning. It has a fully functioning Tibetan prayer wheel that is about 30 meters high and is in glimmering gold. Every evening at 7 pm the locals dance around the square in traditional gear and co-opt anyone who stands still for too long. After a while there are hundreds of people prancing around in a circle trying to copy the choreographed moves of the locals. Quite a sight to see. a bit further down the road is the main monastery of the area which is both huge and hugely impressive.
After Shangri-La we did an 8 hour bus ride to Dali which is one of the major tourist destinations of Yunnan province. Thankfully we did it in a faster time because I had a small screaming child behind me…accompanied by his grandmother who shrieked more than the child…and beside me I had the bus-sick woman who vomited at least 6 times and continually spat into the bucket in the aisle between us. A charming ride. It was minus 3 degrees when we got on the bus in Shangri-La and was 28 degrees when we got off in Dali. We were rugged up and sweating like pigs.
Dali was an absolute pleasure…good accommodation…great food…well priced…lots to see. We arrived just in time for the Bai Festival (one of the 32 Chinese ethnic groups) which meant the place was packed and totally nutty with bedlam aplenty. On Easter Sunday we walked to the 3 pagodas just down the road (3.1 kms) from us…to take a quick photo. Upon arrival we found it was an entire complex and not just the 3 pagodas. So we paid and entered what was about a 3 km long complex of temples, pagodas and funky parks and buildings. Added to this distance was in excess of 2000 stairs (which of course we walked them all…and I counted) and then walked back.
Feeling tired and thirsty we popped into old town for a cold drink and a meal…after this we found the fish feet person. For the uninitiated there are fish tanks where you put your feet and little fish feast upon all the manky bits. Bec Ballinger and Jill were planning to get this done in Hong Kong but missed out…Tickles like hell but was kinda fun. The next day Jill signed us up for a Chinese cooking class. We met the lady outside the bad monkey bar at 10am and then proceeded to wander the markets as she explained certain items to us.
We did the slow wander up the hill to her house where she set us up for our cooking class. We made a dried tofu salad, fish flavoured eggplant and Gongbao chicken. Myself and the Israeli guy also doing the course tripled the amount of chilli in the chicken dish. We spent a really nice five hours cooking and learning how the various ingredients combine together to make the dishes. Believe it or not the Tofu dish was the nicest of the lot.
We are well and truly off the beaten path now…English is virtually non existent and every little action is becoming more and more challenging. We checked into the best hotel that we have stayed in since leaving Australia when we arrived in Guiyang. Sadly it also had the worst wifi since we left too.
While the hotel was lovely there are a few elements that make it uniquely Chinese and a little odd to say the least. There does not seem to be any service elevator so guests share the elevator with staff going about their business. As we have noticed throughout China if you wait…you lose…so people push and shove to get onto buses, taxis, trains etc. that is just China and you get used to it…but when a cleaner races a guest to the lift and pushes door close so that the guest has to wait for the next lift well that is another story. And this goes for the laundry dudes filling the lifts while you stand waiting to use them, and the restaurant staff taking food to the kitchens etc. The service staff however do allow guests first use.
The hotel was right next to an amazing food street which we spent most of our time eating at. Great food, dirt cheap…the only trouble was getting access to coffee and ordering in a town with little or no English. The town is also home to one of the largest statues of Mao Zedong across the road from yet another stunning park and square (something China does like nowhere else).
We spent a day hiking around the 1000 acre park in the middle of town which was essentially a massive forested hilly area. Having schlepped it up most of the mountain Jill decided we could catch the cable car back (why we didn’t catch it up was apparently my fault)…so we started on a journey of stairs up the mountain. Half way up we met some locals who said there was nothing at the top. I stopped…Jill kept going…20 minutes later she returned regaling me of the beauty that was the mobile telecommunications repeater tower.
Next we headed for the town of Anshun which has even less English but is the launching point for the Longgong Dragon Caves and the Huangguoshu Waterfall which is the tallest in China. We looked at the caves and they are quite expensive and as tackily commercialised as a thing could be… so after some thought we decided to boycott the caves. We aimed to hit the waterfall and headed for the bus station…after much walking we failed. So we got our return train ticket to Guiyang extended by a day, hopped a local bus and headed for the inner city sights.
We made it to the lake and the Confucius temple…now most of you would know that I am an avid studier of the writings of Confucius and as such I sought to educate my wife by advising her of some of his better known teachings. This did not go well. I think things went wrong when I advised her that “Confucius say…man who go to bed with itchy bum…wake up with smelly finger”.
The next day came and we took another crack at getting to the falls… Success. About 5 bus rides, well over $100 in park fees etc, much gesturing and no food or drink…we made it to the falls. It must be said that our lack of Chinese is really proving to be a detriment as we get into the back blocks of China.
The area is actually a series of waterfalls with the Doupotang falls being the first that we hit and the Huangguoshu being the biggest. The area is similar to Guilin and Yangshou and is full of karsts (lumps for those who have been following). The falls were stunning…a great little walk that could be (and was) done that took you behind the falls into caves that had the wall of water cascading past you…very cool.
Similar to the stone forest near Kunming, there had been a bunch of drug affected geologists who were given naming privileges in the area. As such there were very grandiose names given to rock formations such as the “Stone of Evolutionary Spirit” and the “Nine Dragon Rock”…none of these things could be seen within the rock formations without the use of mind altering hallucinogens. But anyway that was their names.
The journey to get to the waterfall was monumental…but the effort was well worth it. On the positive side…after hiking down several kilometres worth of stairs to get to the base of the waterfall and traverse in behind it in the caves with the water curtain…you find yourself at the bottom of a large mountain with the daunting task of hiking back up all of those stairs. But no…the Chinese have built a pair of extraordinarily long escalators which for about $6 will save you the pain of the climb…each escalator ride goes for about three minutes (time your next ride at a shopping centre for some perspective)…we paid.
As there is a public holiday in early May in China we were killing a bit of time so as not to be in Chengdu (the global home of the Pandas) during the peak holiday time. So we headed back and had another couple of nights in Guiyang. Our hotel while odd, backed directly onto a shopping mall with the most amazing indoor aquarium in one of its central openings. About three storeys high and full of eels, rays, gropers, turtles etc.
Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province in southwestern China. What it is most known for nowadays is that it is the global home of the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base…the launching point for the world’s largest (Leshan Giant) Buddha…and the home of Sichuan (or Szechuan) cooking. All of these things you would probably have seen on documentaries of lifestyle type programs on the box.
We arrived on a national holiday weekend so the place was nutty and we hid from the crowds for the first couple of days. Planning the next legs of the journey which seems like it will take us into Kyrgyzstan for my birthday in downtown Bishkek. Added to this Jill downloaded the bits that she needed for her next assignment.
Sichuan province is the home of about 80% of the 1500 pandas that are alive today. It is also where they established a breeding research base about 10 km from the middle of town… which is awesome. It costs about $10 to spend a day there, but the early mornings are the best time as they are up and about and active. For about $120…($140 on weekends) you can volunteer providing keeper duties (shovelling $hit and lugging bamboo…I presume) and be shown through some of the studies…and get a certificate. For double the price…you can do it for two days. For under $350 (2000 yuan) you can have your photo taken cuddling a baby panda. In any case your $10 buys you great views of lots of adult and baby pandas doing panda-esque activities.
Sichuan (or Szechuan) cooking is possibly the hottest food on the planet. The use of spices and rear splitting chillies puts shame to the hottest of Indian vindaloo’s. The real issue is that everything on the menu is like this…so there is absolutely no respite from the chilli onslaught.
Our first night we hit a joint around the corner and pointed at the pictures of what seemed like three fairly innocuous dishes. The first we both agreed was a photo of crab claws…what arrived was the skull of a small mammal… drenched in chilli and oozing chilli oil…Jill laughed and left it to me…I ate it…and we took the photo back to the hostel to ask the guys there to name that animal…it was a rabbit…much happier now.
The next was a mushroom dish that had large red and green chillies and seeds throughout… Jill managed three mouthfuls of this while I ate bugs’s skull…before she quickly began downing her amber ale. After splitting the skull apart and eating the meaty bits I moved to the mushrooms which were milder than the skull…then our main came which was a pork and mushroom deal…OMG…this one had a bite to it…
Safe to say that not one of Jill’s side of the family would survive here…some of my lot would be ok…but even the kamikazes will find this joint on the challenging side. The key issue is that there is no respite and the cumulative effect is debilitating. In addition to the chilli there is a special Sichuan pepper which adds another numbing dimension. We did another cooking course…where we learned to use the murderous items from the night before. So upon our return (whenever that may be) we are equipped to replicate some of these gems…any volunteers?
I hate to admit this but I am actually developing a taste for eating tofu… Tofu for me was always tree hugging, hippie, vego freak, meat substitution, rubbish to be mocked mercilessly…along with the people who eat it (cos they don’t get enough protein so are too weak to lift their arms in objection to the mocking). It actually tastes ok when done right…don’t get me wrong… big slabs of cow is still king…but maybe the mocking will be reserved to the stuff like tofurkey or faken.
The Leshan Giant Buddha is a 71 metre tall Buddha carved into a cliff face and is the tallest Buddha in the world. Wiki tells me that construction started in 713 and finished 90 years later. A Chinese monk named Haitong hoped that the Buddha would calm the turbulent waters that plagued the shipping vessels traveling down the river. As it happened the carved away stone removed from the cliff face got dumped in the river below…changing the currents…making the water safe for passing ships.
The Buddha was pretty darn big and the hike from the top to the bottom and back up again was not too onerous. It was however made amusing by a hoard of Chinese women attempting to do it in the ridiculous high heeled stripper shoes that they all tend to wear. This is a common theme of hikes within China…Chinese women attend in short skirts and 4 inch+ high heels and climb mountains etc.
After leaving Chengdu we made our way on an 11 hr bus ride to Jiuzhaigou (nine villages valley) which is the home of the Jiuzhai national park. Jiuzhaigou Valley is on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau and is another documentary special joint that will be instantly recognisable. It is known for multi-level waterfalls, colorful lakes, and snow-capped peaks. But the standout features are the crystal clear lakes with the fallen trees within that are 100% visible due to the clarity of the water.
On our drive here in the bus we climbed up over the 3500 metre mark…so much so that snow was falling. This is not something we had expected and were dressed much more for the 30 degree days of Chengdu than we were for snow falling at altitude. Thankfully the town was down at around the 2000 metre mark so there was no snow by the time we arrived.
The place actually has wild pandas (not that you would ever see one) and the Sichuan golden monkeys. this place is stunning. there will not be a heap of text on this post as essentially we hiked around this national park taking a bucket load of photos that will never do this place justice. Neither our phone cameras nor our photographic abilities will be good enough to truly represent his place. But we eagerly took our happy snaps and I hope you enjoy them.
The park is huge and there are about 15-20 crystal clear lakes and too many waterfalls to count. The water cascades over just about everything and at every turn there is a phenomenal sight. They have built a wooden boardwalk style thing so as not to disrupt the nature from us trampling hordes. So much so that the blurb identifies that there is over 70 kilometres of boardwalk that was built through the park. We did not walk the whole 70 but there was at least 15-20 kilometres hiked by us.
Did I mention that we were both losing weight…I think this sort of walking around the various sights may be helping…but what would I know.
Alas these photos will never truly do this place justice. The full spectrum of colours was on display and the different shades of green, blue and brown in the waters was something to behold. If you are compiling a bucket list then I would seriously consider putting this place high upon the list.
Well this was our post Everest malaise…we intended to get massages and pamper ourselves…in reality we both fell in a heap. Our hostel was run by the nicest Tibetan guy you will ever meet (Westin) and had great wifi, big screen tv, a hard drive full of movies and tv series, and we almost had the whole place to ourselves the entire time we were there.
Westin told us that a group of Tibetans get together every couple of months to celebrate and remember their heritage and that this was on the next day…Jill and I and (Rob the British cyclist who was there) were all invited. So we went along to a Tibetan picnic in the park. A great group of guys, too much food and way too much booze for the 11 of us that got together.
After the picnic day we both checked out…I watched tv for three days straight on a comfy leather recliner while Jill read the kindle and watched tv intermittently. I discovered that the plain Chinese steamed buns are unsweetened (unlike all the bread you can buy) so grabbed some of them and sat on my recliner squeezing vegemite onto them and grazing. In one of my rare excursions off the recliner I found the “eggy thing” shop (a sort of pancake with egg, crispy thing, bean sauce, chilli, and lettuce…called phonetically gem bean).
We did nothing for days…could not even be arsed enough to walk the 120 metres to the massage place to get $8 massages. Every now and then I would venture the 70 metres to the restaurant and bring back food…but that was about it. If you remember the last post…the journey to Tibet and Mount Everest was quite tiring… And we needed some well earned down time.
An amusing sideline was our foray into Chinese hostel management. Westin had to go home for 24 hours (up in the mountains) for a family religious festival…but had guests arriving and nobody to deal with things…so we volunteered. An Italian girl was due to arrive at 1 am so we agreed to let her in and show her the ropes etc… At about 11am a Chinese couple arrived wanting a room for two nights…but spoke no English…Westin was up the mountain and out of range…the cleaning lady was nowhere to be seen… And Jill and I were left to play charades and fumble our way through checking in some drop-ins…getting them rooms etc…it all worked, the Italian girl arrived and was checked in and the following afternoon Westin returned and we handed back the running of the place to him.
Having done nothing for about 3-4 days it was time to move again. Jill (with the help of Westin) booked us bus tickets to head towards Xiahe which is the site of the Labrang Monastery which is the second largest monastery in the world.
This bus ride took us through the grasslands meadow belt of China and was in fact what I thought Tibet would be like. Green rolling hills, expanses of sparse grasslands dotted with stupa’s and inhabited by horses, cows, sheep and even the odd yak or two. The scenery was stunning…the ride was murder. Throughout the 7-8 hr bus ride there was not a 100 metre stretch that was not pot holed, pitted or rutted. Add to this the last 50km on rough dirt track and we were back in Tibet doing the base camp trek once again.
Add to this the fact that we did not fit into the bus seats as they were so close together…the seats had metal poking through them and into us…we had the world’s worst bus driver who talked on his phone most of the journey and sat on his horn constantly for the whole ride…and his female bus conductor who learned to whisper in a helicopter who would not stop talking the entire time. I put in ear plugs and prayed for the nightmare to be over…and after a mere 8 hours (or 480 ear piercing and rear punishing minutes) later my pain ended.
Having arrived in Xiahe we slept and headed to the monastery early the next day. We did the 3 kilometre Kora around the outside of the monastery, followed by a zig zagging through the middle. The standout feature is that almost the whole distance around the monastery is covered in Tibetan prayer wheels. With hundreds of locals doing the lap around the joint spinning the wheels as they went. We had the opportunity to climb one of the temples and get a birds eye view over the entire complex.
In its peak the Labrang monastery housed about 4000 monks but for political reasons this has been limited to 1500 monks. The town of Xiahe only has a population of 70,000 and it is impossible to walk 100 metres without either seeing about a dozen monks or hearing car horns. This place is the worst place we have been to with respect to inappropriate use of the car horn.
The streets are wide, the population is low but the car horn noises are incessant. At all times of day and night the car horn blows…if you look around to see for what reason you will see a car on the road and a pedestrian on the footpath. The Asian use of the horn to notify of passing is annoying but in places like Beijing with the whispering assassin electric bikes it can be understood. In a small town with wide roads and no traffic…this is infuriating as it is 100% unnecessary.
Having left the minority areas we got back into China proper. Lanzhou is in Gansu province in the north west of China and is the province with the westernmost point of the Great Wall. We are getting close to having seen the majority of China and now have the northern strip and we plan on (generally) following the Great Wall to where it meets the ocean.
We have been in tiny cities for over a month now and I have really not been enjoying them. The prices for everything have been high, the services available have been poor and the English has been virtually nonexistent. We got into Lanzhou and found a night market around the corner where we could have 2 main meals with rice and the equivalent of 8 stubbies for under $15. There is still minorities and very little English but the food is great and cheap.
We headed to the museum and spent time checking out the Silk Road exhibition which was truly fascinating. Some very cool maps of the olden trade routes, and a great way to get your head around the spread of cultures and civilisation. Then off on the cable car up the mountain for some aerial shots and a look at the pagodas etc. the cable car sets off from the banks of the (very inappropriately named) yellow river… it is interesting to see what passes for a beach in China.
Jiayuguan is the westernmost fort of the Great Wall of China and is at the end of a torturous 8 hr train ride from Lanzhou. But the key attractions are the Jiayuguan Fort, the Overhanging Wall, and the First Beacon which are all a simple 1 yuan (18 cent)bus ride from town and a taxi. The place had been renovated to within an inch of its life and was obscenely fake. This is a typically Chinese phenomena whereby a renovation puts in things that were never there or leaves out bits that were meant to be there…our first exposure to this was on the three gorges tour but it is a common theme throughout China.
The absolute kicker to the fakeness was the installation of a jousting field into the fort and a concrete camel caravan running alongside the renovated wall of the overhanging section. There were sections where the old part of the wall could be seen and it was really interesting. The fort and wall is adjacent to the Gobi Desert so you could photograph from the newly renovated wall across the Gobi desert which in itself is pretty cool. Alas on the other side of the wall was the hire of camel rides (actual camels…not the concrete versions) and quad bikes…so you could belt around the desert making obscene amounts of noise and tearing up the natural environment.
If you can ignore the added bits the place is quite stunning…the original wall was fascinating, the renovation had it been done authentically would have been great the only real detractor was the out of context additions which are clearly just grabs for the tourist dollar. Whilst walking around you could see the construction going on to build additional elements such as pagodas and temples etc. I am glad we came when we did as I have a fear that in 5-10 years time this place will more closely resemble a theme park.
On a positive note…as part of the admission fee there is the Great Wall Museum which is fantastic. It does not have the usual nationalistic rhetoric but rather has the facts of the great wall, its construction, make up, fortifications etc. The museum was the best part. The next best thing was the photographs lining the path towards the Fort. There was a strip of about 100 metres that contained historical and current photographs of the same sections of the great wall. Some of these had been renovated, some had remained untouched. Some of the renovations had been done in line with what was originally there while others included the “additions” such as were found in the Fort.
Some of the photos and artists drawings dated right back to the 1800s while others were just the more recent (2004 to 2007) history photos. But any way you look at it these photos of what it once was, were without a doubt the highlight of an enjoyable if not a little contrived day.
After one of the worst stays at one of the (supposedly) better hotels we left on a 3 am train to Dunhuang. A zombie day to get over the lack of sleep and then off exploring. Dunhung is an oasis city at a crossroads of the silk road. No surprise to most of you but the first thing we found of note was the dumpling shop…closely followed by the location of the night market…then the food snack street. One of the first things that strikes you about Dunhuang is just how pleasant a city it is. It is not overly large (about 200,000) but is extremely liveable.
All of the good bits of larger cities are here but without the annoyances that some of the other places have…the beeping is almost non-existent and the likelihood of being run over on the footpath by ninja motorbikes is also greatly reduced. The weather is warm (mid 30’s), the streets are wide as are the footpaths, the place is clean and the people are friendly. There is actually not much to the town but it is a really pleasant place to kick back and do stuff. The big thing for Jill was the sheer size of the walk symbols when you cross the road.
We headed to the night market for a meal on the first night and had a Chinese casserole and the next afternoon returned for the Chinese Hamburger (slowly braised pork, chilli and capsicum chopped fine and put in a roll) with an ale or two in the sunshine. Dunhuang was a major hub of the silk route and was the most westerly frontier military garrison in China. We found a pair of Melbourne paramedics (Jude and Astrid) who are trying to cycle from Melbourne to Glasgow (in bite sized chunks) as the money allows. So we joined them for a trip to the flash 5 star hotel on the edge of the Gobi desert, overlooking Mount Qilian for a massively overpriced (but relatively pleasant) sunset meal overlooking the dunes.
The main things to do in Dunhuang are the Mogao Caves, the desert and the crescent moon lake (and of course the camel safaris through the desert). Having learned from my last camel experience I refused outright to willingly place myself on the back of another of these dirty, smelly and uncomfortable beasts. The caves on the other hand were no problem at all and after avoiding the crush of Chinese tourism weekends we set off to the Mogoa Caves/grottoes on the Monday morning. A cruise through the very interesting museum and a wander through about 15 (of the 925) caves with our English guide and we were done.
The caves had been subjected (externally at least) to a Chinese renovation which meant that the outside of the caves and grottoes essentially looked like a relatively modern (if ugly) stucco apartment block. As Chinese tourists come to see statues…all of the previously destroyed or stolen statues that would have inhabited the caves had been replaced with more modern and stylised versions of themselves. The paintings on the walls for the better part were original. The 35.5 metre Buddha remained but the housing around it had been severely modernised. The before and after pictures in the museums give a really fine indication of just how bastardised the current version of Chinese historical sites actually are. Having done the caves we were left with the crescent moon pool and sand dunes but rain, wind, weather and a general post Tibet malaise stopped us.
Instead along with our newfound biking buddies we ate and drank and enjoyed pleasant company and a comfortable city. Our big boon for the city was the discovery of deep fried oyster mushrooms that were coated in chilli after the battering and frying…this is without a doubt the best ever beer snack ever made. Not one day passed after its discovery did we not indulge, which is possibly a good thing as some of the other menu options left a little to be desired.
After leaving the desert of Dunhuang on an overnight train we landed in Yinchuan having slept very little and checked into a cheapie hotel (which was about five times better than our supposed 4 star number a few towns back). On the way in we spotted the wet market directly opposite and food stalls aplenty along the way…we were clearly in the right part of town.
The place is close to the Ningxia section of the Great Wall and is yet another of our stops along the Great Wall of China. In addition to the wall, there are mosques, drum towers, monasteries, pagodas and the normal Chinese parks and gardens etc. The real reason for the stop was to break the journey as we head to Hohhot in Inner Mongolia to get our visas to go to Mongolia proper.
We basically did not see any westerners the whole time here but the place was great. On our first night we headed out for a meal and on our walk back we came across about 1000 locals dancing in the park and guys giving shoulder massages in the park near the drum tower…a 20 minute massage for $3.40…bring it on…walking about 100 metres further we came across a free Chinese acrobatic show with all the flipping, jumping, human towers and pyramids that you would expect from a highly priced show. Watch this with a gelato from across the road and a good evening was had by all. Two days later and our Acrobatic show was replaced with free Chinese opera and all the squawking and discordant noise your ears could handle.
The next day we were off…we had been fairly sedentary post Tibet…but apparently we needed to get moving and make up for our lazy days in one hit. So it started…a wander to the bell and drum towers, past the old gate, to the monastery and pagoda…up the pagoda…because all things with stairs must be climbed (the gospel according to Jill). The pagoda was 11 tiers high but each tier was about 2 storeys high…so we basically climbed the stairs of a 18-22 storey building…both ways…but the staircase was only one person wide, dodgy wood and the head height meant that you sconned yourself at every turn if you were not careful.
Having emerged from the pagoda we found the rain had started…so we embarked on an 8 kilometre walk in the rain to get to the museum. Needless to say I did not know that it was that far or I would have boycotted or at least got a bus or a taxi. Walking past the parks and squares was quite nice (if a little long) but the museum at the other end was worth the hike. I had never really gotten into museums etc before this trip but I am a convert…the information, displays, exhibits and histories are fascinating.
Sanity (Richard) prevailed and we caught a bus back most of the way to our hotel. A fantastic lucky dip meal down the road next to the park…followed by another $3.40 massage (for me) and home to bed. We found possibly the best coffee shop in all of China… it is called ego coffee and has good coffee at (relatively) reasonable prices and has an awesome menu…we have slotted into a morning ritual of bao zi (pronounced bowser…which are steamed bready meat buns…dipped in chilli and vinegar) and followed by our coffee at ego. Sadly we get 20 bao zi for 12 yuan ($2) and 2 coffees for 58 yuan ($10). In fact the food that we have encountered the entire time we have been in Yinchuan has been incredible. The pick had to be the Duck Pancakes…which we have always loved…but there was a mushroom and chilli salad, that was too heavy on the coriander for my tastes, but Jill just simply inhaled while I picked around the evil weed that is coriander.
Bao zi and Jiao zi (bowser and jowzer) are our staple breakfast foods since arriving in China…the bao zi is the bready one and the Jiao zi is the dumpling (pastaish) one…every now and then you can find these both done on a sizzling plate with beaten (scrambled) egg poured in between them…these are awesome. The bao zi in Shanghai are filled with soup so add a whole new level of difficulty to the uninitiated (as Jill found out when I bit into one sending a stream of hot soup shooting across the table and onto her…she was very happy). Each area has their own versions of both of these…but so far they have all been excellent… and are cheap. Add to this the occasional Gem Bean (Phonetic) which is an eggy thing.
We have actually found our feet when it comes to most of the foods in China…however ordering still poses the various “lucky dip” problems that it did in the beginning. Jill downloaded a child’s game that gives you the name and symbols of various meats so we can sometimes make sense of those. Add to this the rice and noodle symbols and we at least wont starve…nirvana is still a picture menu… Street food is king…it is cheap as chips and awesome tasting…we have progressed from our early meat on a stick forays to being educated pointers…Alas the key issue with china and its provinces…is that the yummy local delicacy may never be seen again which sadly has happened more than once.
The next day we found ourselves (after our breakfast ritual) riding the short bus…we hopped bus #1 and followed it to the end…then got back on and followed it to the other end…then we got on #3 and did pretty much the same thing…after arriving at the largest while elephant of a shopping centre on the planet we decided that we were feeling like special school kids…no more licking of bus windows and off we got…a cold beer and a coffee then back for a cheapie dinner. The last day was spent wiling away our time in the coffee shop as we waited for our 8pm departure on a 10 hr overnight train to Hohhot.
Hohhot – Inner Mongolia
The original plan for Hohhot was to look around while we got our visas to go to Mongolia proper…then head in to Ulaanbaatar. Upon arrival this proved to be incredibly cost prohibitive with the visa and transport options adding up to a ridiculous amount. We would have had to get a train to the border (8hrs), hire a private jeep to cross the border then 10-11 hours on local train or busses on the other side to get to the capital.
Wiki travel tells us that “Mongolian buses are notorious for being late and on some routes for not even arriving on the scheduled day”. Otherwise the flight would have been $700 each plus the visa costs. We both have the trans-Siberian railway on our bucket lists (Beijing to Moscow) which goes through and stops in Mongolia several times so we decided to skip it. We tried to arrange the trans-Siberian train on this trip but not having Russian visas we would have had to use a broker and the bill got over $10,000 very quickly.
Having decided that Mongolia was out we had time to kill and plans to make. The hostel we stayed at had organised private tours of the desert, grasslands, Great Wall etc…but they were all very expensive. The Great Wall in this section is really just a mud heap, the desert involved camels which was an immediate no vote from me, and the grassland was just too dear.
So we stayed in town and checked out the local sights. Firstly, this part of China is very different to the rest and is a little more like our Indian experiences. The street is often used as a toilet here and the sights and smells in certain areas of town reflect this. The development that is in the heart of town has not spread to the inner ring so the drainage, toilets, footpaths and the normal Chinese efficiency did not exist. There was a lot of construction underway to remedy this but alas we were not there yet.
The local busses were their usual cheap and efficient selves with a ride costing 1 yuan each and busses coming regularly enough that only peak times had the sardine squash. Our first ride took us to the museum which was in a complex of four of the largest buildings I had ever seen. The museum was built to resemble the Mongolian steppes so in a way was quite similar to Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra with the building and mountain merging into one.
It was spectacularly huge with one of the greatest dinosaur exhibits…bear in mind that this part of China is dinosaur alley with lots of fossils etc located in the Gobi desert nearby. We normally don’t take photos in museums, as they tend to be dioramas, but here we found ourselves snapping away. Add to this the local culture exhibits and possibly most impressive of all was the China space program exhibit (with actual space suits and capsules) as well as the mock ups and back stories behind the evolution of the space program and its participants.
After this we were off to the usual, temple and mosque run and of course our adventures in food land. My first find was the breakfast bao zi shop, then the supermarket where Jill found a semi reasonable muesli, and then GOLD…an imported food shop…with NZ tasty cheese, smoked oysters, pate, prosciutto…there is a god. The next night we hit the restaurant strip after a long day’s hiking in the heat and settled in for some cool ales.
While drinking our refreshing beverages we watched the next table be delivered an entire leg of lamb on a spit…I went over and asked what it was and to point to it on the menu…being Chinese they immediately offered me some and the deal was done…we had to order this. The menu said it was 48 yuan ($8.23) so we ordered this, some mushrooms and some tofu and a mystery menu item that I randomly pointed at.
Our lamb came and it was spectacular…alas we later found out it was 48 yuan per half kilo…so our leg was almost 4 times more expensive than we thought…but it was good. The mushrooms and tofu were fine but the mystery item I pointed at turned out being a toasted jam sandwich…don’t ask. This was now our most expensive meal in China at 304 yuan ($52.12) but we had a huge leg of lamb, 6 beers (600ml each) and some small nibbly bits.
Back to the hostel the next day for beers with the others and to watch the World Cup game between Germany and France washed down with many more ales and some pizza from the joint across the road…which actually wasn’t too bad. We met up with the guys we had met on our first day who had disappeared on the overpriced grassland tour and having chatted with them upon their return…we made the right choice as they claim that the tours were not worth the expense.
It is quite interesting to see how our idea of value has changed during our time away…we always knew that Australia was expensive however the last 10 months has crystallised just how obscene the prices in Australia have gotten. Of course you can have fine dining here and pay through the nose for it…but within a 5 minute walk you can have a huge meal for two, with beverages, for under $20 and more often than not under $15. A single beer can be bought at the local store for between 50 cents and a dollar…everywhere…this will be hiked through the roof to about $2-4 in a restaurant and most main meals will cost about $2-8 depending on the venue.
Long story short is that we will suffer a huge culture shock when we finally decide to return…
We left Hohhot on what turned out to be a nightmare journey…for me at least. It started with a swelteringly hot, jam packed bus ride to the railway station, which was under renovation. This meant that every departing passenger was wedged into a single waiting room, which would normally handle 2 trains worth of people but was forced to constantly rotate 4 trains worth of people along with the early birds for the next 2-4 trains. All of this in high humidity and no air flow.
The trains are 5 seats wide with three on one side and two on the other. We had seats 14 and 15 which ended up on opposite sides of the train, facing in opposite directions. Jill got the side with 2 on the window while I got the side with three. The first thing that came to our attention was that once the seats were all full there was an additional 30-50 people standing in the aisles as the train had clearly been oversold.
As the ones on my side were friends they decided to share…turning our 3 seats into four and at one point five. Jill on the other hand…happily sat reading her book with herself and the very civilised little Chinese man next to her. The normal Chinese transit rules applied…with the yelling into the phone, smoking in the aisles of the no smoking train, staff selling crap to supplement their incomes (and the spruiking that goes with it), the constant Hrrrccht ptooi, however this trip had the discordant music and singing of a child old enough to be stopped…but wasn’t.
Jill had done her research and found that the hostel in Datong was charging more than the five star hotels…for no apparent reason… So we boycotted, paid half of what the “supposedly” cheap hostel was asking and stayed in a magnificent 4 star hotel (Garden Hotel) where excellent service was the aim and was delivered beautifully. This place was great, fruit platters each day, turndown service with chocolates, super clean, bathtub, full toiletries, and staff that could not be politer or more accommodating if they tried.
Datong is a city under reconstruction that is walking the line between old, new, renovated and original in an interesting manner. It is in an area rich in coal and is morphing its primary industries from mining to tourism and commerce. In winter the temperatures here get to minus 30 and in summer it gets to about 35 ( which it was while we walked the city walls). It was originally 4 walled cities in close proximity (one for the people, one for business, one for government and one for the military) but the old town section is the one being renovated and the wall is currently 3/4 finished but in the new China way. Some of the streets are done (the outer grid) but the middle sections remain untouched.
The main streets are wide, clean and lined with newly manufactured, old looking, Chinese buildings. The pedestrian street is identical but without the traffic…but the inner part of the grids are the original town that once was. There are ratty little hovels, narrow alleys dodgy food stalls and street vans and all the best bits that China has to offer. Alas this is being systematically replaced by the new China.
That said…this town is doing the new China in a semi-authentic manner. They are looking at old photos and are rebuilding with at least a semblance of what once was. LiJiang was a town that had undergone this form of transformation and it was obscene in its newness and blatant commerciality of what was there. At the moment…Datong is walking the line relatively well. There are examples of crassness but overall they are trying to do things relatively authentically.
The inclusion of imitation medieval weaponry such as trebuchets will do little to aid authenticity but by the same token they have included other things such as the sculpture museum within one of the open courtyards which seems like fun. On one of the walls was possibly the greatest sculpture I have ever seen. It was a 70-100 metre long dragon snaking its way along the wall. As you got closer you found that the entire sculpture was made from Chinese bowls, cups, plates and spoons. This was an amazing sight and quite frankly unexpected.
The sculpture museum was not open yet but as we turned the corner we could see down into one of the courtyards and see some of the likely additions to the museum. In reality…we both saw the same sculpture and laughed outright. Obviously this was done by a person with a sense of humour…but the sculpture of a 10 metre obese naked person clinging from the wall broke us both up. To get a sense of scale as to just how big this thing was… Jill headed to the other side of the wall and stood above the hands…if you blow it up and zoom you can get a fair idea of just what we were confronted with. I know that this comment will hurt me later but…Jill’s the one in the hat.
The city walls were originally made of mud/clay…and in parts, remnants of this still remain…but what has been built over the top of the original wall is a magnificent (if fake) city wall. It is fake…but it is also really impressive. The new wall is the width of a 3 lane road and is 14 metres tall with towers and pagodas dotted along is length. From atop the wall you get great views over the renovated and un-renovated sections of the inner city. You can look down on the temples and pagodas and the renovation that is well underway. We hiked this wall for about 2 hrs in an attempt to do a lap before we found that the final section was not complete and we had to backtrack about a kilometre to the closest gate and set of stairs down.
Having hiked for about 2.5 hrs in 35 degree heat with no shade we found the first shop and inhaled about 1.5 litres of fluid each…before setting off on the next leg of the exploration. The journey to the next point of interest (the Huayan Monastery) saw us passing the local Chinese car yards which just needed to be photographed. One of these little beauties will set you back between $5-7,000. They even have the police pursuit version.
The Huayan Monastery was original but had recently been given a “facelift”. While not entirely authentic it has been the subject of a really nice renovation and is a beautiful place to kick back. The other key highlight in town was the Nine Dragon Screen which is a 600-year-old screen made of glazed tiles showing nine dragons which is apparently the oldest glazed screen in China. The town actually has a 3 and 5 dragon screens too.
Now we get to the real reason that we came to Datong…many years ago we saw a documentary which showed Xuánkōng Sì (the Hanging Temple/Monastery) which is built into the side of a cliff face near Mount Heng which is about 60 km outside Datong. My darling bride… immediately upon seeing this…and long before we thought of such a trip..decided this was a bucket list item for her… and therefore a must do for us. The guide told us that the temple dates back to about the 4th century which quite frankly is astounding when you see this rickety building dangling off a sheer rock face.
The Hanging monastery is shaped to resemble a dragon with an open mouth and has about 40 rooms linked by mid-air walkways. The monastery has been adopted now by 3 religions (Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism). It appears to be perched on skinny stilts but they assured us that the beams buried deep into the cliff were bearing the load. So much so that the tour guide suggested that we shake the (seemingly) supporting pillars…we did not try this.
Having seen some of the modern building techniques in China…I would not get into a modern Chinese building that is attached to a cliff face. Needless to say I was reasonably reticent to trust one that had been stuck up there 1600 years ago. The hand rails were at a bit over knee height and the paths were about one and a half persons wide. So if you wanted to try an overtaking manoeuvre one of you was hanging over the side looking at the sheer drop. Not sure exactly how high up you are when you do the climb to the temple, but you are certainly high enough to die if you fell off and those with vertigo should not even think of trying this. I am not particularly afraid of heights but there were times up the mountain when I was a little concerned for my future longevity.
After the hanging monastery we headed to the Yungang Grottoes which are a series of over 250 caves 16 km west of Datong. Wiki tells me that there “are over 50,000 carved images and statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas within these grottoes, ranging from 4 centimeters to 7 meters tall”. The guide was telling us that the biggest Buddha was about 17 metres and that there were a few others around the 13-15 metre mark…so I think wiki has some typos. The entrance to the caves has been China-fied and the kilometre walk to the first cave is filled with brand new buildings, statues, pagodas and a bronze tree.
The region is rich in coal and until recently had a town at the base of the caves and a coal mine about 500 metres away on the other side of a small lake/pond thing. Interestingly the government thought that the town folk were causing too much dirt and were destroying the caves…so they moved the whole town away and built temples and the new China exhibitions that you see everywhere else. A year after displacing an entire town…they found that the dirt continued so they shut down the coal mine…go figure.
The Yúngāng Grottoes are a UNESCO World heritage listed site and date back around 1500 years. Unlike the Dunhuang grottoes (apart from the tourist entrance route) the place has not undergone a trashy renovation attempt and are quite original. This is of course with the exception of caves five and six. The entrances to which have had wooden temple structures built. The caves 9-14 were blocked off as they too had such structures being built in front of them. From here high atop the mountain you could see sections of the great wall. Once again as you head west the wall is really more of a mud pile than a major defensive platform…but each section was built using the local materials available.
Cave 20 is the iconic image which is seen everywhere…it had the front of the cave knocked away by either the weight of the rock or an earthquake and the Buddha is clearly visible from all around. The caves are not as awesome as the Ellora and Ajunta caves in India but they are far better than the ones in Dunhuang. Either way they are an excellent attraction and well worth a visit.
The final thing that needs to be mentioned in Datong is the finest restaurant that we have hit since landing in China. This is a VERY big call as we have had some absolutely spectacular meals along the way but this place was a cut above. It is written up on Tripadvisor as Feeling Restaurant but we are not really sure what this is in Chinese. It was a five star restaurant with five star food, service, ambience and décor but at a 2 star price. We went for dinner after the caves and hanging temple and basically went back for every other meal until we left…it was that good.
It was essentially a dumpling house…and the dumplings were good…very good. But it had a wider menu and over the period we had sampled about 10 different dishes and they were all superb. The place is made of wood and stone and has intricate carvings in every nook and cranny in every room. The rooms are themed and the first night we ate in the Dragon Room and the next day it was the Phoenix Room. This theming relates to the carvings and sculptures that adorn the room…fantastic.
As for the food…the dumplings pictured above were rolled to the thickness of tissue paper on the top and were filled with all the normal dumpling things like pork and prawns etc. But the thinness of the outer layer without any loss of structural integrity was impressive. The standout dish for us was the abalone mushrooms (right hand side)…these were sliced thin and marinated…wow..so simple but amazing. As I mentioned we sampled about 10 different dishes and they were all of highest quality as was the service. We ate 3 meals here having between 3-4 dishes plus 3 beers and not one of the bills reached $20.
Yet again another horror transit…our bus broke down so they put 9 of us (+luggage) and a driver into a 9 seater van for the 4 hr ride up the mountains. This was at least manageable as one of the group was about 6-7 so could be managed. Inexplicably we stopped on the top of one of the mountains, in the rain, behind a large bus and were told we would be switching busses for the last bit…ok…the big bus wasn’t ours though…all of a sudden a little 7 seater pulled up and we were all expected to pile in… somehow.
The Chinese raced to the bus and took their seats while Jill and I attempted to put our luggage behind the back seat. A small day bag might have fitted but our backpacks and their suitcase were not going to fit. My bag and their bag made it in and Jill’s bag was to join us in the cabin…somehow. As we moved around to the door we saw that all seats were taken…where do we fit…this one Chinese woman suggested that Jill and I cram into the back seat with the two existing people already there…a few “what the f…is this” from me and the world slightly rearranged with Jill and one of the smaller Chinese women in the back with the other two.
Jill’s bag at my feet and me on the crash seat. As we descended the hill I heard Jill squeal and turned to find the back door had flown open and she was clutching on to my backpack…while her day bag somersaulted and skidded down the mountain. Now is probably a good time to mention that our day bags contain all of our electronics and vital items…Jill’s had the laptop, kindle, telephone and her glasses in it…as it skidded and tumbled down the concrete at 30-40 km/hr.
About 5 minutes later my bag was randomly being transferred to the car that happened to be behind us…another few “what the f…” from me, the it was on my lap inside the cabin with Jill’s bag… Jill had checked that the laptop still worked and was not relinquishing the day bag from her grasp. Half an hour later we were delivered at the location where we checked into a relatively ordinary place and hid from the cold and the rain.
The room had 6 foot doorway entrances…I found this out as my head ploughed into the door frame…followed by some fairly predictable words given the transit we had endured. Right next door to our hotel was a place where they were singing Chinese opera on the street and blasting it over speakers for the whole neighbourhood to enjoy. This was going strong when we arrived and continued until 11 pm…and started again at 9am.
The next morning we woke to find the rain had stopped…as had my case of the darks with the world…and we could actually see that this place was stunning. Blue skies, gorgeous tree filled green mountains. Mount Wutai is one of the 4 sacred Chinese Buddhist holy mountains (the others being Mt Emei, Mt Putuo and Mt Jiuhua). Wutaishan is actually the name for the area of 5 peaks with plateaus on each peak. Jill tells me that this place is snowed in about 7 months of the year and the owner reckons winter is about minus 30 centigrade…so we were lucky with our timing.
It is an area of great natural beauty but being of religious significance it has also been overrun by the building of over 360 temples during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 ad). Thankfully only 47 of these still exist but the place is still thick with temples, caves, pagodas, monks etc…based on the construction going on…the 600 temples that one was, are being replaced as we speak…modern China.
We hit the pavement and started walking up the hill past the temples etc that we had seen from the sardine can…through the mist of the rain… and the red mist over my eyes the previous night. This place is beautiful. Jill went off with her camera, as she does, loving the green hills with temples everywhere you look. Throw in the odd stupa and she was in her element. After going up the hill we headed back down and found the lake with the waterfall and koi and I was happy. Add to this the fact that by the time we got back the opera had packed up and left from outside our room and all was good with the world again.
The temple that Jill REALLY wanted to see was the one that involved climbing over 1000 stairs to the top of the mountain. We did this…but via the chair lift…not the stairs. Just as well cos it was pretty lame once you got there and you would feel robbed if you had hiked the stairs. Effort vs Reward.
That evening we had a great night with no bleeding eardrums from the squealing opera singers, a food recommendation from the owner and generally some peace and quiet. The next day after a haircut and breakfast (totalling less than $5 for both) I headed back to the lake and sat in the shade and breeze feeding steamed bun to the koi. I have decided I really like fish. While I sat by the lake feeding fish Jill climbed the hill next to the lake to see yet another temple.
The final thing that needs mentioning for this place was the pooch in the hostel. This dog looked deformed with a depressed brow and protruding skull cap…but was 100% self sufficient. They had attached pull handles on the doors so the dog could take itself in and out of everywhere it wanted. It had learned to open a normal door and it basically had free run of the place. It was a well natured mutt but with a very odd look about it.
We bussed it out in a much more civilised manner (despite the fact that my seat was broken and kept slowly reclining to the point of being horizontal if I or the bloke behind me would let it). But that was the only real issue the rest went the way it should with no dramas. We got off in Taiyuan only to find that the entire city is being renovated…and I mean the entire city. We decided that the wide streets, metros, parks, gardens etc are on a schedule and are rolled out in one big hit…and it was the turn of Taiyuan when we were there. We stopped to break the journey to Pingyao and to check out the Museum which was supposed to be pretty good.
The museum was OK but without being startling and the city as a rule might have been OK but the construction at present has made the place quite poor. The one bit that saved the place was the night food market. It was made especially for the tourist and was priced accordingly…but the range of food was startling and we wandered the streets munching on a range of the fare on offer at the stalls.
Oh my god…real China…not the new fake version. Lets not be silly here…there are still lots of new shiny and plastic things…but the place has some real about it. The city walls are weathered, with bricks missing, the walls are not gun barrel straight but curve with the natural landscape, the buildings are old and while the street surface is newly repaved the rest of the place is relatively like it once may have been. Some of the buildings have been renovated but most have not. The renovated buildings now contain the trinket shops, bars and restaurants but just a street back and the world gets very real.
Pingyao has many tourist buildings, temples and sights contained within the city walls and have sensibly made the decision to include them all in a one off entry price which is valid for three days. You can (mostly) walk the 6.5 kilometre lap around the city walls but get stuck at one section due to renovation and have to backtrack to the south gate. This added quite a bit extra onto our hike in the sun but amazingly a cold beer fixed all of this once we stopped. Part of the town is commercialised and hugely overpriced while two doors down you will find a place that is authentic and very cheap.
For all the plastic China that is here…Pingyao is one of the most authentic Chinese towns that we have come across. There has been renovation (as there must be) and some of it has been in keeping with that which once was..while other bits has been to the taste of the Chinese tourist. We have been told that every Chinese town reinvents itself every 8-10 years so everything will change. The preservation of the historical elements will hopefully be done in keeping with the original…otherwise China runs the risk of turning itself into a Disney style theme park within a generation.
We went to some temples etc around the city and hit some restaurants along the way before heading off on an organised tour run by the hostel to the Mianshan Mountain area. This too is an area that is incredibly real and authentic…immediately followed by the now ubiquitous Chinese sideshow. An hour or so drive out of town you reach one of the most naturally stunning areas that has simultaneously had added to it trashy statues and theme park style attractions. Stunning natural waterfalls and pools in the river have had statues of dogs squirting water from their mouths…large ponds have inflatable boats etc for kids to crash into each other while being overlooked by two large shiny dragons that have inexplicably been perched atop the waterfall.
The Mianshan Mountain area contains dozens of Buddhist and Taoist temples, many built more than 1,000 years ago… alas they sit atop steep staircases. So to visit and admire the sights you will walk a lot and climb some serious stairs. Intermittently there are chair lifts, elevators and cable cars to help you out but if you want to see things there is no way to avoid the climbing and hiking. I used the services of these aids every chance I got paying a small price to avoid obscene exertion…my wife on the other hand…wanted to walk the stairs. The main instance involved me sitting in a cable car and waving while Jill and others in the group did a 40 minute stair climb up a mountain (about 2000 stairs).
Having climbed to the top of some of these peaks and walking along the ridge between peaks (the whole area stretches for about 12 kilometres) you often find yourselves high on the mountain with temples perched ever further up with ridiculous stair climbs still to do. Stairs bolted to the sides of cliffs, poking out of walls above rivers with chains to hang onto so as to avoid falling in. Needless to say Jill has become the stair queen while I chant what is quickly turning into my regular theme “I f$*#en hate stairs”.
Mianshan is stunningly beautiful but offensively themeparked. The old temples are lovely but you really have to work the stairs to get to them, the nature is fantastic but has been partially spoilt by the Chinese need to make things new and shiny. Concrete water buffalos, frogs, rabbits, deer, dragons and crocodiles were all part of what you will find while traversing a pretty mountain stream cascading over natural waterfalls.
Leaving Pingyao we had a long but relatively uneventful transit to Qingdao. This was a nice change after a few nightmare transits lately. It was a 6am departure to the train, a couple of hour train journey on another overpacked train, taxi transfer to the airport, a flight to the home of Chinese beer, a bus ride and hike to our accommodation arriving about 12 hours later. Apart from an over zealous security woman at the airport the trip was calm. No baggage dramas, one minor incident of the woman next to me vomiting all over the floor of the train but it was as we were leaving so no real damage done.
We arrived at our accommodation at after 6 pm in 32 degree heat…the hostel was atop a hill at the old observatory which had been converted to a hostel. The roof was the restaurant and we found out it was pasta party night. This meant for $10 a head you could have all the pasta, salads, cold dishes…and beer…that you could eat and drink. Hot, sweaty, and tired we dumped our gear and headed to the roof. We settled into a couch, enjoyed the breeze atop the hill, sipped a refreshing ale (or two) and was fed a credible Chinese attempt at a bolognese pasta.
Qingdao was voted one of China’s most liveable cities in 2012…in 2014 I think that the smog and pollution may actually outdo Beijing. It is a coastal town so the sea breezes may effect the smog levels but on our arrival from atop the hill you could certainly not see the bay and could barely make out high rise buildings within close proximity. We actually spent 4 nights here and got a vaguely smoggy day on one of the days where you could see a grey looking bay…as opposed to the extremely smoggy days where you could see nothing.
We went on our usual hike around town…on a 37 degree day…with 90+% humidity. Stopped at the train station at noon to get our tickets out of town and slowly melted into the floor of the railway station. As we passed the church we came across a bunch of Chinese brides being photographed in western wedding garb. They were everywhere. We stood in one spot in the square and started counting…by the time we left the number was over 30… on a 37 degree smoggy day. Based on this trek around town it became clear that the usual efficiency of Chinese cities did not exist here in Qingdao. The pieces were there but they did not connect together like they normally do in other Chinese cities.
While hiking around Jill took photos of high-rises from street level and was unable to get a view of anything above the 5th floor. After this we hopped the bus and went to “beer street”…in beer street is the Tsing Tao beer museum and a street full of restaurants with large beer kegs everywhere you look. We went through the museum and then settled into a bar across the street for a sip and a bite to eat.
We hooked up with Molly the Chicago nanny who is training to be a nurse who was struggling her way through ordering from a Chinese menu so she joined us. Hours later after not being able to get a cab home, she came back to the hostel and waited for her nannying boss to come and pick her up. While we waited we sat on the roof of the hostel having beers until her boss arrived and also joined us on the roof for beer.
While it was pasta night on arrival…there was a different food option each night of the week…we skipped paella night and ate dumplings at one of the local restaurants instead…after our beer museum day we found it was burger night and our last night was rib night. Quite frankly $10 a head for all you can eat and drink was just too good to turn down…the fact that the food was of pretty good quality just made for easy decision making.
Qingdao was an hot, humid, obscenely polluted city that was shrouded in smog and mist almost the whole time we were there. We headed down to the pier at noon and had about 20 meters visibility…so much so that you could not see the water until you were almost on top of it. We were told by locals that this time of year is particularly bad but that at other times the sky is crystal clear…I will have to take their word for this…as our experience was that of a dirty, polluted city whose infrastructure was not coping with the population.
Ok…so the number one reason for coming to Jinan was the money…Chinese currency has images of famous places on each of the notes. Our introduction to this was when we were in Guilin rafting down the Li river past the lumps. The guide pointed out that the picture on the 20 yuan note was the lumps over our shoulder. Pretty cool really. Then we got to Tibet and found that the Potala palace was the image on the 50 yuan note. A bit of research revealed the following:
1 RNB – Xihu lake – Hangzhou – been there
5 RNB – Mt Taishan – Jinan – here now
10 RNB – 3 gorges – been there
20 RNB – karsts (lumps) – Guilin – been there
50 RNB – Potala palace – Lhasa – been there
100 RNB – great hall of the people – Beijing – been there
It was the only one we had missed…so we really had to come. When we were in Shangrila we were having dinner on our last night and a lonely Chinese lad turned up and was sitting by himself so we asked him to join us. He described his name for us as “batman inside me like a clown”… after laughing possibly more than I should have we decided that the translator was playing tricks…as it turns out his name was Heath…and it was a Heath Ledger reference that turned out really funny. Anyway there had been the odd email traffic since then and we had stayed in touch.
Heath had moved from Beijing to Jinan and just had to meet up with us again and host us while we were in town. Which he did…and did brilliantly. After a catch up and a beer in the room we headed out to see the sights around town. The first stop was the Baotu Springs. Jinan is famous for its artesian springs and there are apparently 72 of them in and around the city. We then hit the big park and square followed by the food street to eat snake and some other goodies. Then on to Black Tiger Spring, the Five Dragon Pool and a bunch of other springs etc.
The one thing that Heath did that earned himself god-like status was ordered us a local delicacy…that we had already had before in Beijing. It is without doubt Jill’s favourite dish on tour but it was the victim of “Chinglish” on the menu and was only known as Beijing heaving. We had asked and described it to many others along our journey but to no avail…then randomly this dish popped up on our table. For those that care it is called… phonetically “jing jiang ro si” which means Beijing sauce meat shredded. Heath wrote this in Chinese for us and it may well be ordered again…many times.
It was then Monday and Heath went off to work but we arranged to meet near the food street for dinner. The one thing that has not got a mention is the town…it is in a basin and in summer the breeze does not get in and the humidity cannot escape…it is known as one of the five furnaces of China. We arrived on a 37 degree day with 70+% humidity. It was swelteringly hot and the forecast was for the mercury to get above 40 degrees in the days to come. Talking to Heath he told us that in winter the wind comes from the other way and gets stuck in the basin, swirling and making the place bitterly cold.
We had a lazy start to the day before heading off to the 1000 Buddha mountain. We of course started the journey nearing noon which meant we were climbing the mountain between 1 and 2 pm in the 40 degree heat. Buddhas seen we headed back down the mountain by way of the luge. As it was quiet…there was nobody on the luge but us…Jill hopped on while I took a photo then off she went. I walked back to the luge, got on, waited a while then took off.
Assuming a level of safety standards…I figured that there was no way to crash…it would just scare you with the extreme speeds…surely the luge can’t fly off the tracks. Assuming these things…I put the throttle to full go…on the fifth corner as I flew off the luge and over the edge of the track…I revised my assumptions. Got back on went full tilt to get speed up again but started using the brakes coming into corners. Turned corner 9 and had to slam on the brakes as I had somehow caught up to Jill…even with my crash.
So anyway…miss daisy and I then hopped a bus to get home for a shower. Couldn’t get the right bus and ended up walking about 3-4 Kms home. The next day we headed up to Mt Taishan (this is actually redundant as Shan means mountain but my brain needs them both for some reason). Taishan was about 38 degrees with 80+% humidity and involved climbing 3000 stairs to get to the half way point where you could get a cable car to the top. It is one of the holy sacred mountains…at about the 1500 stair mark I came to the fairly self evident conclusion… that it was not holy to me.
I stopped, sweated and inhaled water while my wife kept going…she truly should be committed. She claims to have wanted to bail at the 2000-2500 step mark but is too bloody minded to give it up. So she kept going to the cable car. It was a misty day and there was no view so she did not take the cable car to the top…but she can honestly say that she did the long haul of a hike. Having walked the 3000 stairs she then walked back 1500 where she found me relaxing under a tree. At that point we wandered the remaining 1500 stairs back to the bottom together. Jill did over 6000 and I did over 3000 stairs.
My water intake for the day exceeded 8 litres and Jill’s was even higher still…add to this the beers and soft drinks as the night went on and our fluid intake for the day was something like 15 litres each. Our clothes were soaked with perspiration and we stank. The one hour train ride back to Jinan was uncomfortable and overly aromatic. The shower on our return was as welcome as it was critically needed.
We had a catch up with Heath at the food street for dinner (I wanted more snake and Jill wanted the Beijing heaving) and we all watched the fountain show. Each night at 8pm the square in the middle of town puts on a fountain show… with music, lights and squirting water etc. All choreographed and timed to the music…just like in Vegas. It goes for 30 mins and is pretty spectacular. The place is packed each night and with good reason.
The reason for the trip to Dandong was twofold…firstly it is the site of the easternmost point of the Great Wall of China and secondly it is the border between China and North Korea. As we are unable to visit North Korea we figured we would turn up an peer across the Yalu River towards the North Korean town of Sinuiju. The Yalu Jiang Duan Qiao (bridge) goes halfway across the river…right beside the “friendship” bridge. The bridge was bombed and shot up during the Korean War and the remainder was disassembled by the Koreans.
We arrived late in the afternoon after a 6 hr bus ride from Dalian. We had limited time in town and we knew we were off to see the Great Wall the next day so we headed out in the light rain to see the bridge. Within an hour the light rain turned into a torrential monsoon. We have been incredibly lucky this trip and have basically had perfect (ish) weather for almost 10 months now. We had one downpour as we hiked up the Taal volcano in the Philippines and we had the evening in Dandong.
We got back to the hotel and not one part of either of us was dry. Our waterproof gear was no match for the downpour…waterproof boots are useless against torrents of water running down your legs and filling them up. Umbrellas once turned inside out by wind do little to protect you…and the rain blowing sideways, by said wind, finds the bits that may normally escape falling rain. The real issue came the next morning when I tried to take a photograph only to find my phone was waterlogged and the images were more smoggy than a Qingdao day.
The next morning the rain had stopped and we headed to the bus station to get ourselves to the Hushan Great Wall section (Tiger Mountain Great Wall) which is 25 km northeast of Dandong. This section travels parallel to river along the North Korean border and from the wall you look across to North Korea. The border here is a 3 foot high, 3 strand barbed wire fence across about a 3 metre wide creek. You could throw a rock and hit the other side. The North Korean guardhouses are visible in the distance. While it would have been possible to run over and hop the fence… there were warnings against this…and quite frankly the North Koreans are not renowned for their sense of humour…so we looked…and moved on.
The wall, as the name suggests, was yet another damn mountain. Jill being a reborn mountain goat revelled in the stairs while I chanted my (now regular) mantra of “I f#€%en hate stairs. Within the last month we have climbed about 7 different mountains and quite frankly I am over it. We should both be a lot skinnier than we are with this many stairs. And these stairs were the steepest we have come across thus far.
The wall was nice, with the mountain goat hike up one side and the (believe it or not) even steeper descent on the other side to a small museum. Then the hike around the bottom of the mountain back to the starting point. A bus back to Dandong and then we spent the afternoon checking out the bridges in the daylight, without the rain.
There is a North Korean restaurant in town where the waitresses are dressed like flight attendants, a rock music backed opera singer show and ordinary food. We thought about it purely for the experience but came to the decision that life is too short to knowingly and willing go to a restaurant where you will be served bad food. the picture below shows the right bank of the river being the developed China and the left bank being flat rural North Korea.
We did dalian in two blocks with a side trip to Dandong in between.
Dalian was the site of the 16th international beer festival that Jill found advertised way back in March. She made the bookings for travel and accommodation at the intercity hotel back in April. This was all going swimmingly until she tried to amend the booking to factor in our trip to Dandong. At this point the hotel realised that we were booked in for under 200 yuan a night, when the going (extortionate) rate for this week was well over triple that…they then advised us that they were overbooked and could not and would not accommodate us.
Jill (rightfully) went off. The hotel refused to honour the booking that was made over 3 months ago and relet our room for the massively inflated gouging rate and would not honour an existing booking. Needless to say complaints were lodged with the tourist bureau but this vent is to make it fairly public that this particular Chinese hotel is money grubbing and has zero business ethics. Thankfully the booking was made through booking.com who copped an earful from Jill who refused to accept less or pay more. They were very accommodating and eventually found us something but they had to pick up the cost difference due to the immoral actions of the intercity hotel.
Dalian was one of those cities that through various wars was under the rule of a number of different nations. As such it has some nice Russian style architecture but has little else to it apart from the parks and squares. Which are ok without being startling or all that different from most Chinese public spaces. It is a city of over 6 million people and is a major port and industrial centre. The one real standout to Dalian has been the food streets. Our introduction to this was in the heart of town where we came across a series of alleys winding between buildings and malls that stretched for about 3 kilometres.