Nihao from 36,000 feet on my way back to Nepal via Tibet.
I won’t beat around the bush and will get straight into my past 4.5 weeks in China as I look out of the windows upon my beautiful Himalayan mountains – daddy is coming home!
Actually before we do start I just need to tell you about two extraordinary things that I have seen from my plane seat:
1) Looking out of the window over Tibet I have just seen snow capped mountains with desert sands at their base
2) Air China is advertising its long haul flights and they actually just showed New York with the caption, ‘New York in September’ as an Air China plane flies over the skyline – surely that is in bad taste?
Saturday March 3rd 2012 and it is time to say goodbye to Australia (for now). Nadia dropped us off at the airport and after saying our farewells we were checked in and full of anticipation for what lie is wait for us. This anticipation built up for 3 more extra hours than planed as we were delayed. That’s what you get for booking with a cheap airline, but for a flight from Melbourne to Beijing for AU$315, I am not complaining.
By the time we had changed at Singapore and landed in Beijing it was 4am on a very cold Sunday morning. Northern China is very cold in the winter and spring was not here yet; it was below zero and I was still in my shorts and flip-flops!
Fortunately, Arancha’s father works within the hotel business so he had kindly arranged a place for us to stay in central Beijing so it was just a case of catching a cab to the place from the airport. A combination of tiredness, a language barrier and a new country saw us ripped off with our very first act on Chinese soil as the cab driver charged us around 60% extra for the journey and must’ve driven off p*ssing himself!
We were really annoyed with ourselves but it was good to receive a reminder so early on that we were back in the sort of environment where everyone is after your money.
Still, we had arrived at our boutique hotel and given that we had 4 nights there for free, it wasn’t all that bad.
The hotel room was fabulous and was easily the nicest room I have ever stayed in and to top it off the manager had had a bottle of champagne and birthday cake waiting for us. I have never eaten chocolate cake or sipped on good champagne at 5am in the morning before but it all went down a treat.
After taking a few minutes to enjoy the amazingly comfy bed and have a shower we ventured downstairs for the equally good breakfast before hitting the streets of China’s capital city.
Given that we were in a communist country I was keen to see what that really meant in 2012 and I am not sure what I expected to see but first impressions were that it was just like any other city.
Still, on closer inspection it doesn’t take long to notice that there is a huge amount of police officers on the streets and thousands of ‘voluntary Government helpers’ who line the streets proudly sporting their red armbands and keep the public order. It felt as though all of those eyes were upon us as we strolled down the vast streets heading towards the centre of the city.
It wasn’t all spies and espionage though and it wasn’t long before we passed a large square full of old but very accomplished ping pong players smashing the ball around with enough force to bruise you and others participating in an early morning tai-chi session.
The thing I noticed most about Beijing in our first few hours was the lack of colour in everything – the streets stretch for miles and are dead straight, the buildings are large and dominate your view and it is all grey. The unbelievable amount of smog and pollution in China also compounds this effect as well as getting on to your chest in no time at all. The same can be said for the people with regards to the lack of colour, their moods seem dour, nobody smiles and they are all dressed in black. We will get on to the Chinese people later but I can tell you now that they haven’t endeared themselves to me in the slightest, apart from the educated twenty-somethings.
After around 2 hours of gentle walking and taking in the fact that we were actually in China we arrived at Tian’anmen Square and sitting directly north of the square was the Forbidden City, the home of the ancient Emperor’s.
We wasted no time at all in entering the city after paying what seems now like a very reasonable entrance fee.
In the ancient past the fee for entering the Forbidden City without being invited was instant death, so a few dollars is ok!
What to say about the Forbidden City? Erm, yes it is impressive and if I hadn’t been to numerous temples in Asia I would probably have been raving about it but it is absolutely massive and overall is was a boring 2 hours spent walking around dozens of buildings that were all identical to one another.
The best part about it was that we immediately got stuck in to the street food, which as far as I am concerned is the best way to start discovering a city and its soul. Pork sausages on a stick doesn’t say much about a soul though does it?
The view of the Forbidden City from atop of the hill at Jing Shan Park was a much more satisfying way to really appreciate the grandiose nature of the place, as well as seeing a tree where one of the Emperor’s hung himself.
By this time it was now late afternoon so we jumped on to the Beijing underground, a deal at 10p per journey – why is the London tube so expensive? – and headed back to the hotel. The Beijing underground is actually far more modern than ours and they have digital screens on the tunnel walls so that advertisements can be beamed in to the carriages probably sending in subliminal messages telling me to behave myself and go with the system.
The only thing I cannot stand about the underground is the manners. Why do the people feel the need to crowd in to the carriage when no one has yet to step off? At first we hated it but after 4 days of rudeness and filth we actually look forward to letting off some steam by ploughing through those who wouldn’t let us off.
That evening we ate locally and ordered via pointing and gesturing (we are really good at that now) and then retired to our safe haven of a room for a beautiful night’s sleep.
The next day we visited the Summer Palace, a vast retreat for the past Imperial Courts to escape from the city during the hot summer days. Next to the entrance was a lovely but somewhat contrived traditional Chinese street straddling a frozen river. Even though this was here purely for the tourists it was still nice to walk by the shops and marvel at how thick the ice was on the river surface, I can’t imagine what it would be like in the dead of winter.
From there we walked to the top of a hill to look out over the lake from a temple and then continued our visit down to the lake itself via numerous other temples and many Chinese tour groups.
We spent a good 2 hours walking through the grounds to the Marco Polo marble bridge, eating street food and staring back at all of the inquisitive Chinese people that gawped open mouthed like we were from another planet.
After the Summer Palace we headed back to Tian’anmen Square as we didn’t really take it in the day before.
Tian’anmen Square is the world’s largest public square and it is said that it can hold 1 million people. All I knew of this place before I visited China was seeing an image when I was at school of a Chinese woman confronting a tank during the Tian’anmen Square protests of 1989 and having always remembered that picture I was happy to finally be in that place.
Like everything we had experienced so far in Beijing and as expected, the square was huge. It was quite an overpowering sensation to be stood in the middle of such an iconic place and be surrounded on all sides by very large grey communist buildings sporting many Chinese flags and the Forbidden City with its big Chairman Mao portrait hanging in front of you at the northern edge.
To add to this very real sense of being in a world that is bent on the control of its people it made me shiver to see the, once again, big statues depicting a ‘we are all one and all equal’ image even though the Government are reaping the benefits of its current economic fortunes and all around the square there were numerous undercover police officers that would drag me off immediately if I so much as shouted ‘Free Tibet!’
And do you know what, after all of what I have just described I really enjoyed standing in the middle of that square for an hour or so watching it all pass me by and imagining just what goes on in those drab and cold buildings that looked down upon me.
To top it all off at 6pm we were then treated to a show of order and discipline as a guard of soldiers then marched out from the gate of the Forbidden City over to Tianamen Square to partake in the daily flag lowering ceremony. The soldiers are drilled to march in a particular way, which consists of having to take strides of 108cm exactly in length and 75 strides per minute. Having tried to mimic it, it hard to do and it made for a great touristy sight.
From here we hit the foodie and lantern filled Ghost Street, one of those ‘must do’ things in Beijing. Our Chinese consists of about 4 words so we were very lucky that the restaurant we chose had pictures and English translations. We were doubly lucky as this menu had a lot of weird stuff on offer such as fried baby turtles and many dishes containing guts and heads! We are both adventurous in our eating as I will prove later on in this post but on this occasion we kept it safe and ordered some standard dishes.
Tuesday was a bit of a bum day and a chance to take it easy whilst still in our luxurious surroundings. I still had some unfinished admin from Australia that needed to be authorised by the Australian Consulate so we wasted some time visiting there. Nothing to say about that except that China’s need for control is just too much and Arancha wasn’t allowed in to the Consulate without queuing up to show her passport and getting authorisation to enter. Fair enough for me but Arancha is Australian and I thought that a consulate to all intents and purposes was that said country’s soil? Surely she can just walk in?
Also, the Consulate was manned only be Chinese people whereas I thought they should be Aussie’s, just as the Chinese Consulate in Melbourne only employs its own country folk.
After all that I still didn’t get what I needed so it was a waste of time.
From here we went to the north of the city to visit the Beijing 2008 Olympic Stadium AKA The Birds Nest.
I was surprised by just how many Chinese tourists were here to see the stadium but it is understandable as architecturally it is pretty cool. With all things touristy come the hawkers trying to sell the most useless tat imaginable, a serious negative about this country, especially when you are supposed to be at a spiritual place, which we will get to later.
We took the obligatory photos and the ‘jump’ photos and we were on our way.
I am not how it started but at every place we visit we now take a jumping photo of one another. It certainly adds to our own entertainment and we love looking back at them and checking out the people’s faces who are near us in the pictures.
For dinner we went to an area of the city famous for its Hutongs (narrow alleyways), a great place to wander around and see some ‘real’ China and not the official Government façade that seems to greet you at every corner.
Dissecting the Hutongs was a brilliant little street littered with alternative style shops eateries and bars and I think this spot in Beijing is where the Chinese youth can certainly be more liberated and do as they please.
On this street we had one of our best meals so far and then had a drink in the perfect little homely and warm bar as we watched the world go by in the brisk evening outside.
The next morning we were up bright and early and this day would be the day that we visited the monument that everyone knows – The Great Wall of China.
The most visited part of the wall is at a place called Badling and having read up on it, it sounded dreadful – hawkers, thousands of obnoxious Chinese tourists and that section of the wall was completely restored in the 1980’s! What is the point in that?
We also wanted to hike along a good stretch of the wall so that we could really take it in meaning that we had to travel a trying independent route to the wall via a local bus and then a taxi to the more desolate part.
The bus part was easy enough but as we neared the town of Miyun the local taxi drivers beckoned us off saying that this was where we change to carry on to the wall. After a curt 5 minute haggle with a driver who did speak English and was trying very hard to rip us off we knew that we shouldn’t have got off the bus so we said our goodbyes and caught the next bus in to the town centre.
Here we began fresh negotiations with the local drivers only to then find that we were being stalked by the taxi driver from before! Every time we tried to speak to someone he would steam in and essentially tell them that we were his fare and nobody else could take us.
We were getting nowhere fast so we got down to business with this particular driver and agreed on a price that was close to 50% less than his original offer.
Finally we were on our way to the wall and to be fair to the guy he took us the 80km to exactly where we wanted to be and then waited at the other end of the 7km stretch of wall that we would walk before dropping us back at the bus station. All this he did for £20.
Is it worth haggling over the price? Yes, I think it is. I find it amazing that as soon as you enter a country you immediately get in to that currency and trade based upon those local prices. I have had arguments over 20p in India which I have been embarrassed about when I look back on it, but when you are there and you know that the price is the price and that they are taking you for a ride then it gets your back up. After all, business is business.
Plus, in the case of this driver he was making what the average Chinese person make in 2 months hard labour in one day!!
The Great Wall by name and certainly the Great Wall by nature. For both Arancha and I the Wall has now surpassed the wonderous Taj Mahal as the greatest man made thing we have ever been fortunate enough to see.
We both have a fierce passion for mountains, so throw a wall that in parts is restored and in parts is in ruins, intersected with watch towers every 200 metres or so that creeps like a monsterous snake along the highest peaks of the range for as far as you can see in either direction and you have some very special in front of you. Setting foot on this and the hardships of getting to this point were quickly forgotten.
We were so justified in doing it the hard way because we had stretches of the wall completely to ourselves and we only encountered a few people here and there as well as a couple of local school groups.
We walked along a 7km stretch of the wall at Jinshanling and our walk consisted of 18 watchtowers, crumbling ruins as well as some restored sections, that didn’t take away from the authenticity and the walk and the steps that followed the valleys and peaks of the ranges sometimes left us to clamber up at 60 degree angles. All of this was with the mountainous backdrop and the winter snows melting all around us.
I can’t describe it any better than this and I do not feel that I am doing it justice but trust me when I say that it was worth the visit to China alone.
There were other parts of the wall that we wished to visit but they were currently out of bounds so they will have to remain on the list for some future date but I am hopeful that someday we will get to trek along the wall proper and cover a good stretch over a few days hiking.
Oh, and by the way, just clear up an old myth, you cant actually see the Great Wall from space.
We got back to Beijing in the afternoon and after fighting our way through the hoards of people at the railway station we bought our train tickets to move on the next morning via some very skilled pointing at the guidebook. After this we headed back towards the hotel to eat and because it was our last night in the capital we treated ourselves to another Beijing ‘must do’ – Peking Duck.
To be honest it wasn’t all that different from ordering crispy aromatic duck back home but there was a theatre about the way the duck was sliced it front of us and the way it was then prepared and it was really tasty.
A dish that we didn’t order from the menu was ‘changed skin of burnt flesh’ – no idea what that is and I don’t want to know!
So that was Beijing finished and our next port of call was the city of Tai’an, home to China’s most mystical peak Tai Shan.
We took a little longer for breakfast than we should have so it was a mad dash across town via the packed subways with our backpacks on to reach the railway station in time.
We made the train with 15 minutes to spare and were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves on a very plush bullet train speeding to our next destination at over 300 km/h.
We got to our hostel by mid-afternoon and set about exploring the city centre and purchasing our train tickets for the next leg.
It was obvious from the outset that Tai’an doesn’t receive many western visitors and we found it very amusing when we walked out of an alleyway on to the main market street and the normal everyday life of these Chinese people came to a halt as the silence descended and heads turned to watch and follow us as we walked past. This continued down the entire street like some sort of dominoe effect and we nearly caused a scooter pile-up too!
Due to the lack of western visitor nobody in this town could speak a word of English, and why should they? However, this made booking our train tickets a ninety-minute ordeal and the proceedings were not helped by the teller who stunk of hard spirits. We got there in the end and we celebrated by having some very tasty street food, which cost us 30p each!
We had some time on our hands before our evening meal so we bummed out in the room and watched the movie channel, although I had forgotten how bad My Girl 2 was. It is weird but my former flatmate Marchie (a guy) really does look like the girl who stars in the film!! Greenall knows it!!!
Some restaurants in China help you out by having pictures of the dishes so that you know what you are ordering but Tai’an had no such luxuries on offer. Fortunately, there was an English-speaking patron in our restaurant for our evening meal and he very kindly ordered for us. We asked for some dumplings, some sort of spicy beef dish and some fried rice just to keep it simple.
What we received was a big bowl of fried rice, a plate of about 30 dumplings and a plate of cold sliced beef!
We had to laugh as we gorged ourselves dumplings and cold meat.
We were up far too early the next day but we had a mountain to ascend and descend by early afternoon so that we could catch our train mid-afternoon to the medieval town of Pingyao via Beijing.
There we were in the cold and pitch black morning at 5:45am walking towards the entrance of mountain – I don’t know why we punish ourselves like this but we continue to do it.
Tai’Shan is one of the 5 sacred mountains of China and apparently this is the one that matters most. The mountain has been worshipped since 1,100BC and anyone who’s anyone in China has climbed it.
As we have now discovered to our own and our wallets detriment you do not climb the mountains so much as you undertake a full-on stairmaster session.
I will take this opportunity to comment on China the country and the things that I am not too keen on:
1) Industrialisation – there are hardly any towns or cities left with that old world charm that you imagine when you picture China. Most places are grey and packed full of industry and if you want to look out over a river to catch a glimpse of the other side forget it – the levels of pollution and smog are scary and if China doesn’t learn the our lessons soon then it is will be too late
2) Litter – what to say? Why drop your rubbish when there is a bin within reach of you? There is a serious lack of education or just plain ignorance when it comes to all things environmental. I don’t want to see a coke can in the street and I certainly don’t want to see it when I am ‘climbing’ the mountains and see the fresh melt-water rivers clogged up by them
3) Toilets – similar to India the majority of the public toilets are squatters, which I suppose are a good work out for the thighs. It isn’t the squatting that is the problem it is the smell and the state that they are left in, especially in the rural areas. One thing that I do find bizarre about the toilets here compared to India is that in China they are open plan!! I stood there having a wee whilst some guy squatted next to me having a poo whilst playing a game on his mobile phone! Surely in this day and age they can fence each squatter off? Oh, and do you know what? When there is a door they don’t lock it anyway, so I walked into one crapper and was faced with a guy looking at me whilst the poo was hanging from his bum. Ha ha, how gross!
There is no hope when you see the toilet training of the kids. All babies wear a crotch less baby grow so whenever the child needs to go it is held up by the parents or if old enough squats down wherever it may be standing. From one point of view this is good because I could not see the people disposing their nappies in the correct manner if they used them, but when a father watches his little girl squat and p*ss right outside of a public toilet then what hope is there?
4) Rural China – from a natural point of view China is home to some of the most diverse and exciting landscapes that I could ever hope to explore and trek within, however, because of sheer greed and ignorance this wilderness have been completely destroyed.
Tai’Shan was one of 5 mountains that we have climbed so far and each one is covered in concrete! There are concrete roads for the buses to travel half way up, concrete roads to the cableways that ferry the Chinese tourists to the top so that they can buy tacky gold medals that declare they have conquered the mountain, the cableways themselves are an eyesore and once you actually reach the summit you can gently amble along the numerous concrete walkways that criss-cross the peaks.
I spoke to one American woman who said that this was a good thing as it gave more people the opportunity to visit such places meaning that she had completely missed my point. My view is the complete opposite, the whole idea of scaling a mountain is so that you have that sense of accomplishment and can sit in solitude at the summit and look out on the beauty of it all without some Chinese person hocking up in the background. Mountains are not there for everybody, they are supposed to be difficult – or perhaps I am wrong?
Not only have they poured concrete all over their own natural wonders, we were horrified to be travelling through western China to see the building works of a new high speed railway stretching over miles and miles that will allow the masses to raid and ruin Tibet.
So I now fear that once this railway is complete the country that we both revere and have wanted to visit for so long may soon be destroyed forever.
One final point on this rant is the price you are charged to set one foot upon these mountains. The prices are too high, £40 to get passed the gate and then if you are to take the cableway, maybe another £15. For two backpackers each day out can become very expensive when you also take into account the costs of travelling there.
I want to live in a world where I am free to tread wherever I choose but I guess those days are long gone!
I think I should just reiterate that I have had a good time in China (the above reads very negatively) but I am disappointed in the pedestrianisation of these natural wonders even though at times we were forced to utilise them!! (hypocrite alert)
Anyway, back to Tai’Shan.
I really enjoyed the ascent to the summit, the landscape continually changed around us, we got to walk through quaint villages along the route and it was generally a good walk. I can’t say that I was loving the 6,666 steps to the peak but at least they were wide enough to walk up diagonally, which does help a lot.
The peak wasn’t all that impressive largely due to the mist that afforded us a view of just white and grey but we had a good look around and took in the various temples and a ledge where foolish fanatics would leap to their deaths in the hope that they would awake in nirvana.
Time was getting on by this point so it pains me to say that we jumped on the cableway to the halfway station and then caught the bus down to the base. I guess it is a good job that the Chinese have covered these mountains in concrete!
We were then on our way to the train station via our hostel to collect our luggage to head over to Pingyao.
The journey was a pain as we first had to take the bullet train back to Beijing, negotiate the underground at evening rush hour before walking 1km to the biggest train station, in the west of Beijing, that I have ever seen.
From there it was our first overnight sleep train to Pingyao.
This was the first sleeper train I had been on since India in late 2010 and it was nice to be back on them, falling asleep to the swaying of the train as it sped along to its destination.
The majority of our sleeper trains have been in the hard sleeper class – 3 beds on each wall, 6 beds in one compartment of an open carriage. These are no frills sleeping conditions but they are good enough when all you are going to do is go to sleep and get up the next morning in your next city.
On two occasions, when our journey has been a long one meaning that we would be sitting around as well as sleeping we have upgraded and taken a soft sleeper – a private room that contains only 4 beds and is much more plush and respectable.
One great thing about the trains here is that the conductors take your ticket from you on entry so that they can then come and wake you up 30 mins before you arrive at your destination – unlike India where it is up to you so you are awake 1 hour early to ensure that you do not end up 300kms away from where you thought you were!
It is 6am and we arrive in Pingyao. We hadn’t had time to book any accommodation but luckily for us the guesthouse we were planning on going to were at the station cleaning up all of the western tourists wondering off the train with nowhere to go – all 3 of us!
If we had read the reviews of the Harmony Guesthouse before we booked in we probably wouldn’t have stayed there. The owners are pure business people, no more, no less. They own the guesthouse, a bar, a café and two tourist shops all within the walls of the city and their English is impeccable.
This town is a Chinese tourist hotspot so they are absolutely raking it in.
It didn’t take long to work out that everything that they offered, that we could easily get on the street was marked up and they continually hassled us about trips etc where they could cash in even more.
One good example was when we used the guesthouse to get our train tickets for us and the level of commission added on to the ticket price was far too much. The wife got very moody when we questioned her ‘honour’ and told us she would just take the tickets back then as they had not taken any commission. As we continued the ‘debate’ she let slip that there was a commission so we used this to our advantage to at least get a free cab ride to the station out of them. Needless to say, we didn’t use any more of their services.
The guesthouse itself was more than adequate and we had a cool little room that was comfortable and warm but when you are a paying guest you don’t expect to have to sit on a hard wooden stool whilst the owners’ family take up the sofa space!
This is now going to lead me on to the Chinese people. I feel like I am giving China a hard time but it is my blog and it is my duty to tell you how I see and feel it.
I have found the Chinese people very hard work. Part of the blame lies with myself as I cannot speak Mandarin, which would definitely help me understand their nature more but this aside they are miserable, rude and obnoxious.
Very rarely have I seen a Chinese person smile apart from when they are ripping me off and even then they are still shouting at me, and they continually shout at each other too. At least in India you can have a laugh as you try to score one over the other.
There also seems to be a complete lack of respect and lack of awareness for anyone other than themselves – the pushing and shoving of each other on the subways and the way it is all done without an, “excuse me” is testament to this.
Apart from the south of China we haven’t seen any homeless or physically or mentally disabled people as we have walked around – where are they? What have they done to the offspring that didn’t meet their expectations?
I also really do not like the way that they treat animals and we saw a few examples of sh*tty conditions in the street markets and I have been disturbed by the amount of fur that I have seen for sale including wolf and leopard pelts and worst of all some furs that I really hope are fake tiger!!
However, that is a worldwide issue not just here.
But, the thing that I cannot abide above all other things is the spitting. The sound I will forever associate China with is the deep nasally sniffing up of the snot before the disgusting hocking sound as they cough it back up before letting it fly wherever they are, both men and women – be it on the street, in a museum, in a vomit bag on a plane or next to our beds on the train floor – absolutely f*cking disgusting!!
On the good side, the twenty-somethings of my generation are enlightened, good natured, very happy and smiley and have been really helpful when required. Hopefully it is just an old generational thing and as China continues towards its economic riches and worldwide dealings then I am sure these youngsters will set all of this right.
Having now completed a few more days travel since writing the above I can revise my opinion somewhat based upon geographical location. To the north and the east of the country the people are wretched, but to the south and the west they are much more pleasant – but is this only because Hong Kong is to the south and Tibet is to the west meaning that the people in these parts aren’t all Han Chinese – the ‘true’ breed?
What hope does the common person have when you read some of the translated signs that are dotted around everywhere that you go?
• ‘A waterfall is the name given to water falling down in a vertical manner’ Really?
• At Dragon Rock – ‘here the rocks are round like a dragon, which is charmingly naïve’ – condescending gits
• ‘Don’t go barebacked in public places’ – ok, good advice!!
• Best of all – ‘friend, this is a natural oxygen bar with a rich content of negative ion’ – just write ‘No smoking’ you pompous tw*ts!
I will stress again that I am glad that I came to China, honestly, but I am aware that I am giving off a bad vibe. It comes down to the people, for every good experience I have with a Chinese person there are 10 bad ones either side of it. The country itself has been fascinating, the food great at times (although they use far too much cooking oil) and my mind boggles over the fact that a small town here can have over 4 million people in it. The country is so huge that it has mountains to plains, jungles to deserts and skiing to beaches – next time I will avoid the cities and hopefully spend my time on the western Tibetan influenced side and in the Laos and Burmese influenced southern jungles.
Basically, I should just go to Tibet and Burma (now Myanmar).
So back to my time in China!
Overall Pingyoa was nice. It is one of the last remaining medieval towns in China and the old town is all set within the huge stone walls that surround it on all sides. We had a good 2 days exploring the alleyways and hidden gems in the town as well as relaxing in the massage parlours – the respectable ones!
We both had a back massage in one establishment, decided that we enjoyed the pampering so immediately went into another one and Arancha had a foot massage whilst I had a foot scrub.
I am glad that I do not have to scrub somebody’s feet for 30 mins for £4.50!
Our next city was Xi’an, home of the Army of Terracotta Warriors. By chance we checked into a brilliant youth hostel and it has been the best place that we have stayed by a country mile, except for being spoilt in Beijing of course.
The general pattern of our China travels has been sleeper trains to save on wasted travel time as well as save on accommodation costs, arrive early in the new city and then get straight into the sightseeing.
After a much needed western breakfast that was better than most meals that I have bought in England or Australia we headed back in to the city centre to get the bus out to the site of the Terracotta Warriors.
I am sure that you are all aware of the Warriors and it has always been an ambition to go to see them.
The army have been standing guard over China’s first unifier for over 2,000 years and were only discovered by chance when some farmers were digging for a well and fell into a vault. It still amazes me that sites such as these and the Valley of the Kings in Egypt are lost over time.
I have to be honest and say that overall it was a disappointment. There are 3 pits which you can view from up high and the best way to view them is in reverse order beginning with the tiny Pit 3 that houses mainly shattered figures, Pit 2 which is massive but only allows you to view to still covered chambers that house the thousands of warriors and horses and finally Pit 1 which was impressive – a huge covered dome displaying hundreds of soldiers and horses in differing combat positions.
What I didn’t realise is that no one figure was unearthed in a whole state. Over the millennia every single statue was subject to flood and fire damage and then figures that you do see have been painstakingly pieced together from hundreds of pieces by the archaeologists – now that is impressive.
It is phenomenal when you see the model of the area that the army covers – it is massive. There are literally thousands and thousands of warriors and horses to accompany the leader in to the afterlife to continue his battles, and each warrior has an individual facial and bodily features.
Once back in Xi’an city centre we bought what we thought was a beef and potato stir fry to each with some bread and Arancha nearly spewed when she bit in to the potato to realise that it was seared beef fat! Yuk. Very funny though.
By now we had learnt our lessons and now wrote the details of our train journeys out in Chinese characters which makes life so much easier and it seems that our Chinese writing is legible. With the tickets bought we relaxed in our very welcoming hostel and had an early night in preparation for mountain number 2.
Up very early again we set off for Hua Shan, one of the Taoist 5 sacred mountains.
We joined the other Chinese tourists on the bus to the mountain and the only point worth noting about this journey was some old dear who choked on her drink and spat it out all over the people in front – 2 of which we are myself and Arancha. Funnily we were both ill in the subsequent days following our ‘exposure’!
I am not going to get into the mountains and the concrete as I have covered this, so once we actually got to the top via the cableway because the steps up were closed due to ice we had a great day.
Hua Shan has 5 separate peaks that you can walk to and surrounding all of this are knife-blade ridges and twisted pine trees clinging to the ledges that drop off to the ground 2,000 metres below.
The mountain also has some challenging ‘ladders’ that are carved into the rock and ascend vertically up and are inverted at points. I recklessly climbed up one of them using the chains hanging from the side for support and could’ve easily slipped on the ice and fallen to serious injury if I hadn’t been hanging on so tightly. It was fun though once I had stopped shaking.
We spent 4 hours climbing to the N, E, S and W peaks and thoroughly enjoyed our day and the magnificent views of the distant peaks and temples teetering on the edge of the cliffs.
That night we boarded yet another train and during the pushing and shoving I nearly came to blows with a man who believe it or not was smaller than me! He forced his way through the middle of us and we both pushed him in unison, which saw him stumble over the luggage in front. He spun around and came for me but I was tired and moody and was in no mood for his crap. Anyway, after probably calling me all the racist names he could think of and drawing far too much attention to us he carried on through the crowds and we boarded our train.
We arrived early in Xinxiang City in the province of Henan and were then faced with a hellish morning journey of 2 local buses and a minibus up to the village of Guoliangcun.
Guoliangcun is a village that perches high up in the Wanxian Mountains and was sheltered from the outside world for centuries until one day in the 1970’s a group of 6 men decided that they could no longer face the perilous descent down to the surrounding villages via the ‘Sky Ladder’ and set about drilling and hammering a road down through and along the cliff side that took 6 years to complete.
The inhabitants had originally moved up here to escape the warring fractions down below and live in peace.
This village is also a TV village and various Chinese tv series’ and films have been set here and it also touts itself as a ski resort – we saw the ski run and it was little more than a 200 metre long slope that wouldn’t trouble a toddler.
Unfortunately for Arancha she began to feel unwell as soon as we had found ourselves a horribly basic and cold room and for the rest of the day she hid away in her sleeping blanket under the duvet, fully clothed only to get up to throw up! Poor little AJ.
There wasn’t anything I could do for her so it was left to me to explore the area. I am sorry to say that I had a really good afternoon walking around taking in the village, the surrounding mountains, exploring a treacherous cave that I was the only person in and got very scared, as well as taking a walk on the opposite side of the valley to look out over this man made road on the opposite cliff face that has to be seen to be believed. Some of the road actually goes into the mountainside and little windows have been carved out of the rock to naturally light the way. In recent times they have built small walls on the sides but until then it was a 2,000 metre drop down if you misjudged a bend.
At the point where the two cliffs come to a head there was a huge waterfall that must’ve been completely frozen in the winter because now all that was left was a curious naturally formed ice and snow pyramid that looked like some giant snow volcano.
The evening was a cold and miserable one but at least Arancha was on the mend and come morning she was back!
We took a walk along the actual road itself and marvelled at the thing whilst looking out over the deathly drops below either through the carved windows or over the very shallow safety walls.
It was then time to leave – we never linger too long in one place but I did wish that we had some ore time to explore the surrounding area and really get out in to the wild landscape.
Getting a lift down to the village below proved far more difficult than we imagined. We the help of some Chinese kids on a tour of the village who had a translator (why did we not get one?) we had the choice of either paying £10 to the village below and then catching a bus to the next town, or paying £14 to be taken an extra 80km to that town where it was a short bus ride back to Xinxiang.
It was a no brainer but the way the taxi driver and his mate were smiling they thought they had done a right deal. Still, I guess they had when you consider that for 2 hours work they had earned a month’s average salary and we had images of them skipping down the street of the big city once they have dropped us off treating themselves to clothes and desserts, dabbing a splodge of cream on other’s nose and laughing all to some 1980’s American music like one of those old movies.
I know why these guys were happy because on our descent they stopped some old guy walking along with a fresh pheasant that he had just caught and killed and they paid him £1 for it. If you have just made £14 and you got a fresh pheasant for that amount you are going to be happy aren’t you?
At the train station waiting for our lift to Shanghai and a few days of easy living with Arancha’s father I had the honour of sitting next to a young Chinese soldier who was taking a month’s break from the army to just get away. He could speak a certain amount of English and it was really interesting talking to him about life here. He openly admitted that he wasn’t happy in the army but he didn’t really have many other options open to him and when you consider that the average annual salary in the provinces is £1,000 per year and he was earning £400 per month you can see why he stays where he is.
He did tell me of his dreams to travel and work abroad one day and I really hope that he manages it because a guy who was a gentle and polite as he was and in all honesty probably gay does not belong in the army, any more than a long haired wimp like me does.
We boarded our train and tonight we were in soft sleeper – luxury! The guy that we shared our cabin with was one of the businessman taking full advantage of China’s economic upturn and was doing pretty well for himself. His spoke fluent English and he was able to give us an entirely different perspective of life in China.
This guy was driven to success by the fact that he was sponsored by his entire home village when he was younger and they all clubbed together to send him off to university. It is something that only one kid per year in these villages is lucky enough to do – sh*t like that humbles you immediately and makes you appreciate what you are doing as you travel around the world doing nothing!
I also asked him about the 1 child per family policy in China. He said the policy works just as it policies work all over the world – the hard working ‘middle’ people are the ones who are punished. The very poor will keep having kids as they have no way to pay the fines, the super rich will have kids as a fine is nothing to them and it is the average person who suffers as they can’t risk having to pay a year’s salary as a fine!!!
He did tell us though that the policy will be abolished in the near future because the population demographic of China is now heavily weighted towards the elderly so the country will need more young people to support the on-going costs of supporting the elderly and taking up the jobs.
We were now arriving into Shanghai and 5 days of luxurious living were upon us.
From the station we caught a cab over to Arancha’s father’s place – by the way his name is Andre – to drop our bags off and have a shower.
Andre’s wife greeted us; Sunny and she showed us around before leaving us to sort ourselves out.
Andre is a Frenchman so it goes without saying that he chose to live in the French Concession area of Shanghai! His 3-bedroom city apartment had great views out over the French Concession and the financial city district over the other side of the river.
Once showered and feeling a little fresher we ventured out to get a feel of the ‘Paris of the East’. We found out over our 5 days there that Shanghai is a very liveable city – it is a very cosmopolitan place and there are an awful lot of westerners living amongst its 23 million inhabitants, probably attributed to the colonial past.
The problem with being in a westernised city is that there are clothing stores, and the problem with clothing stores is that Arancha cannot walk by without having a look inside. Put shortly, by the end of our first afternoon Arancha had an even heavier backpack!
It was then time to meet the big man in person! Andre is a very successful man and is very widely respected in his field throughout the whole of Asia so when he walked into his apartment, looked me up and down and raised his eyebrows I was sort of expecting it!
Not really!! Everything was all good and I got on very well with Arancha’s father during my time in Shanghai.
That night we were taken out to Shanghai’s number one restaurant – a restaurant of fine Chinese food and famous for its dumplings. It is great going out for dinner with somebody who is known, ie. you are treated very well; somebody who is used to entertaining, ie. there is no need to look at the menu because they will order copious amounts of food of every variety; and it is even better when the multi-millionaire owner and his family come to the restaurant especially because the staff phoned to tell them Andre and his family were there, join you at the table and then order even more of the finest foods for you to taste.
After worrying about our budgets and eating in so-so establishments it was bloody great to be feasting on truffle dumplings and the most succulent crab dumplings – all of which are hand made and must have 18 twists in the pastry joint or they are thrown out!
Once our feast was completed Andre took us to a nearby bar so that we could get a feel for the ex-pat Shanghai nightlife (and also view the high class hookers) before we carried on the drinking back at the apartment.
The food and drink must’ve gone to our heads because we awoke very late the next morning / afternoon! No sooner were we ready and we were out and about on a walking tour of the French Concession. Andre has a real appreciation for architecture and history so it was a pleasure to have our very own tour guide take us around and fill us in on all of the details of this area of the city, which in the colonial times was home to all of the adventurers, revolutionaries, gangsters, prostitutes and writers. You can easily recognise the French Concession because the entire area is lined with a particular tree that the French had imported back in the day.
We walked for over 5 hours around the Concession, ate at a great noodle bar, took in the amazing laneways and had a thoroughly good afternoon before heading back home for some very nice wine.
For the Saturday evening we went to a fine Italian restaurant and not only does Andre seem to know everybody in the city he also speaks their language, so we were introduced to the owner, Dominico and he welcomed us to his restaurant with some very strong aperitifs. Like every night in Shanghai, the food was great and the wine was great as was the company and the interesting people we met at each of these places along the way.
Sunny and Arancha were feeling a little jaded after dinner so they retired for the evening whilst Andre and I went to the busiest pub (well it was St Patrick’s Day) to watch the Wales vs France Six Nations match.
Sunday lunch was a real treat for the taste buds!!! We were invited to a traditional Sichuan restaurant for lunch by one of Sunny’s associates and his family. Sichuan is a western Chinese province and famed for its spicy foods and we love our spicy food.
I didn’t actually know that we were meeting these people and that the restaurant would be as posh as it was ie. we had our very own dining room. If I had known I would’ve shaved, not worn my mucky trainers and definitely changed my ‘fashionable’ t-shirt that I paid good money for with the little holes all over it. I have no idea what they must’ve thought of me and I was very embarrassed when I was given the ‘honoured guest’ chair – I just wanted to cover myself up!
I think I made up for my scruffy appearance by getting stuck into every dish that was on offer bar one and hopefully dispelling the some of the truth that many English people only like to eat well done meat and two veg.
On the menu amongst some of the ‘normal’ dishes that were put in front of me were:
• Shavings of pig scalp – not bad but the gristle was very chewy
• Sea cucumber – rank
• Chicken feet – not too bad but not much to munch on
• Tripe – really good because it has been cooked in lots of spice
• Duck tongues – loved them and had 5 including the attaching tendons
The only thing that I couldn’t stomach were the fish heads and their eyes.
To walk off the ample lunch and praying that my stomach would not reject these new treats along the way we took a stroll along The Bund – the colonial English part of the city and the ‘Wall Street’ of Shanghai. The Bund is situated by the river and has great views over the huge skyscrapers littering the other side as well as great opportunities to people watch.
From here we walked over to the People’s Square to view one of the most bizarre sights that I have observed in China.
Just on a side, every city in China has ‘People’s’ something or other – The People’s Park, The People’s Square, even the currency, the Renminbi is translated at The People’s Money.
Is this just part of the propaganda of communism?
The People’s Square was a hive of feverish activity, full of the elder generation standing around with notebooks and posters, chatting to one another as well as scanning over the numerous other posters pinned up on huge noticeboards.
I was shocked to find out that this was all a massive matrimony agency and these people were proud parents either touting their own children or looking over the advertisements for suitable partners. Once two sets of parents think that they have found a suitable match and broker will step in and broker the deal to get the kids together! This is a totally different twist on the arranged marriage but I suppose viewing the vital statistics and educational achievements of a potential partner for your offspring is far better than arranging a marriage based on nothing more than ‘they are from a good family’ and it is ‘honourable’ as seen in other religions.
I think it is mental – what’s wrong with finding your own partner, no matter what their background may be? My life, my choice!
On the way back to the Concession we walked down a laneway that dealt specifically in animals. I have never seen so many baby turtles in such small tubs – there were literally thousands of them and they were all headed for the cooking pot!
From here Arancha went for a massage with Sunny whilst myself and Andre joined up with some of the western community for a drink. I sat there with Andre, Dominico, Paul, an American who has married a Chinese woman but sends her home to her family every few days because she does his head in, and Dominico’s partner in the restaurant, Nizzi, an English bird who lives out here.
I love it when you ask an English person where they are from and they say London. When you delve a little deeper they say that they actually live just outside of London. Delve even more deeper and it turns out they are from Staffordshire – quite a way from London!
Yes I do say that I am from London (I think living there for 10 years qualifies) but I always start with the fact that I am originally from Leicester. I do not exactly sound like a cockney do I?
That night we ate French – it was great – full stop.
It was now Monday – Sunny was on her way to France for 3 weeks of wine tasting and Andre was back in the office.
We began our day by visiting the copy market – a huge indoor market that specialises in taking every designer product and producing exact copies of it at a decent price that can haggled down to a ridiculously low price.
I do not shop often but I was in need of a few bits so I left the market with new t-shirts, underwear, combat trousers, trainers and sunglasses – I think that I got a little carried away.
I exited in complete shock though – Arancha had left empty handed!!
As we had planned to leave the next evening we then had to painfully queue up with the Chinese in a queue that was not a queue to buy our train tickets. You can imagine our dismay when after an hour of queuing, pushing and shoving we had written down the Chinese character for hard seat not hard sleeper for an overnight train journey. Hard sleeper is ok but nothing compared to soft sleeper, however, a hard seat is the worst of the worst, cattle class!
We were over it already so decided that we would go back in the morning to alter the tickets.
Tonight’s genre of food was to be Indian and once again the owner was happy to see Andre and we were treated to more delicious food.
A night cap at Nolita, the Italian restaurant completed the evening and we were now ‘faces’ in the western circuit as we said hello to the various people that we had met over the past few days.
Our last day in Shanghai began at the train ticket office. Yes, we thought, no queue, this will be easy. Well, nothing is easy in China and I don’t know why we try to argue with the Chinese when they can’t understand us but we did anyway as the stupid woman told us that we couldn’t alter our tickets here. For some reason we would only be able to alter our tickets at the actual train station – on the other side of town.
This is something about communism and China that is also crazy – every one has their job and that job is all that they can do. For example, this office can sell train tickets but it is not authorised to do anything else.
A more extreme example is at a tourist site. One ticket booth takes payment of the ticket, the booth down the way checks the ticket and then the person at the gate lets you in – everyone has their job when one person could do it all!
I suppose it is good because people are working but what an inefficient process.
We got to the train station and we changed our ticket meaning that luckily for us we would have a bed to sleep away our next monotonous journey.
For our last afternoon we went to the Pudong area of Shanghai, the business district and took a lift up to the 88th floor of the Jinmao Tower for fabulous views out over the sprawling metropolis that is Shanghai.
For our last supper we found ourselves back in Nolita – we were ‘faces’ there after all, and then that was that we were on our way to the train station.
Shanghai had been a great 5 days and thank you Andre and Sunny for making me feel very welcome and paying for everything no matter how many times I kept offering to buy at least a drink!!
To continue our high standard of living, we may have bought second-class sleeper tickets but we were the only travellers in our carriage so we had the best sleep on our way to mountain number 4.
It is 9am on Wednesday 21st March (only 8 sorry months until I am 33!) and we had arrived in the city of Huang Shan, home to one of China’s most famous mountains of the same name.
Only that this city wasn’t the home to Huang Shan, it was still 2 hours away by bus and this city was only recently renamed to boost tourism.
Another shocking example of the Chinese selling out will be given later – a little like East Midlands Airport being renamed Nottingham Airport to boost tourism from the Americans wanting to visit Robin Hood, even though the airport lies in Leicestershire and has a Derbyshire postcode!
When we finally did arrive at Huang Shan our first task was to find a somewhere to leave our big bag whist we trekked to the top of the mountain, stayed over and then returned the next day.
From out of nowhere, was it bean curd, was it a crane, no it was Mr Hu-perman!! The tiny, little Mr Hu pulled up in his car and took us under his wing – speaking fluent English and obviously hoping to make a few quid out of us.
He took us back to his place, fixed us up with a good breakfast, let us store our bags and had arranged us a room on the top of the mountain, all within 10 minutes of arriving. Looks like he did make his few quid!
We were hoping that Huang Shan hadn’t suffered the fate of the other Chinese mountains but alas it was the worst bar one (still to come). We waited for 10 minutes in the airport style departure lounge for our tourist bus to take us a few hundred metres up to the point at which you could jump on to the cableway (a much easier way to get to the top and hang yet another shit gold medal around your neck) or start the 7.5km and 2 hour climb up the steps.
The climb was actually one of the best we have done and the views of the twisty bonsai-looking trees clinging to the pointy rocks gave us a real ‘China’ feeling.
Our route was also littered with dozens of porters struggling to carry up their back breaking loads, which were so heavy that when they were walking along a flat their whole bodies would move with the swinging load that they somehow managed to carry on each end of a bamboo plank over their shoulders. Apparently it takes them 6 hours to reach the top, they are paid by the kilogram and average 150 Yuan for one load – about £12.
Not a bad salary in China’s provinces but for how long can a body take that sort of punishment and why can’t they just utilise the cableway??
We made it to the summit in good time and had a good walk around at the top before heading over to our place for the night. If it was the porters that brought everything up then I do not know how long it took for this grotesque complex of hotels and shops to be built within the summit area of this fine mountain.
The reason for such tourism at Huang Shan and the need for hotels is because of the natural phenomena known as the ‘Ocean of Clouds’ that occurs with every sunrise – a sort of optical illusion of the clouds appearing to roll in like ocean waves over the mountain peaks as the sun rises.
The hotel where we were staying had rooms ranging between $300 - $1,500 per night!
Good old Mr Hu had sorted us out a dorm bed in the staff quarters behind the actual hotel, which although had 3 bunk beds in it was so narrow that you could practically stretch out an touch the opposing walls and just squeeze through the beds to the very stinky toilet. On our own this would’ve been fine but we were sharing with an Israeli couple who thankfully were very quiet and live in a Kibbutz when they are back home. Apparently I let a massive one rip the next morning in my sleep so not sure what they would’ve thought of that in such close confines?
The thing is, the room only cost us $25 each – a bargain based on the alternative prices above.
Our evening was ok but we had nothing to do apart from play on the i-pads in the hotel bar and leave photos of myself on the Huang Shan photo album that would be displayed in the hotel lobby when the i-pads were not in use.
The room and the boredom didn’t matter as we were there to see the ‘Ocean of Clouds’. The alarm rang at 5:30am and I did not want to get out of my staff bed for the cold, but then I remembered the ‘Ocean of Clouds’.
We were up, dressed and walking up to the vantage point for sunrise at 6:04am and at precisely 6:04am we saw………………..I will keep pressing the full stop key because we saw nothing! It was rainy, misty and we could hardly see each other.
All we could do was laugh and take photos of ourselves, mainly of me acting like a mental retard because we found it so funny to be up at this time on a mountain in the middle of China and to see absolutely nothing and watch the Chinese still pose for pictures with the phantom sunrise.
By 10:30am we were at the bottom of the mountain and ready to get out of here.
We had some lunch at Mr Hu’s – he may have put us in the staff quarters but he did save us a lot of money and we were grateful to him, and then we got back on the bus back to the Huang Shan city.
We had already decided on our next destination and it was going to be a b*tch to get to – a 10pm sleeper train out of Huang Shan, change on to another train the following morning at 6:30am and then after a 3hour rain ride take a bus for 4 hours to the city of Zhangjiajie. This next place had better be worth it!
It was only 1pm and with 9 hours to kill we decided to book into a hotel next to the station so that we could relax in comfort and rest before our mammoth journey over the coming night and day. Trying to get the room was like sitting through a comedy sketch. Nobody spoke English and I don’t speak Mandarin so I was invited behind the hotel reception desk to have a conversation with the receptionist via a translator on the computer and by the time we had finished I had a 3 people standing around me as well as various people coming in off the street to watch this seemingly momentous event.
Still a little fatigued we boarded our evening train and it was to be our worst yet. Not only were we in separate parts of the train but Arancha had to contend with a Chinese dog of a man who would continuously roll over gob on the floor (I could hear her shouting at him but to no avail) whilst I had a group of 5 Chinese friends in my part of the train that were playing on their phones with the volume at full blast and were still on them when I fell asleep well past midnight. One of them tried to speak to me in Madarin and passed me his phone with a question of ‘where are you from?’ on it. I was tired and moody so I replied ‘England’ and then turned off my nightlight and turned my back to them to try and get to sleep.
The rest of the journey went to plan although catching the bus was hard work but rewarding at the same time.
Hard work because every man just stared and stared at Arancha as though she was naked and rewarding because I saw a woman walk by in her pyjamas with a half full catheter bag hanging out for all to see and by the colour of it she was dehydrated to the point of death.
By late afternoon we had arrived in Zhangjiajie, gateway to Wulingyuan – the area of China that was the inspiration for the landscapes in the movie Avatar.
It took us another 2 public buses and a taxi to reach the front gate to the Wulingyuan National Park and it was here that we were to experience to worst of Chinese tourism. The natural element of the park was beautiful with thousands of karst peaks rising up into the sky covered in spindly trees and hanging vines and you could really see how this landscape had been incorporated in to the film. The majesty of the environment was second only to Tiger Leaping Gorge, which we would visit later on in the trip.
However, we timed it all very badly by arriving on a Saturday and these are the reasons why what should otherwise have been quite a spiritual experience in such a place was instead a painful 4 hours:
• The extortionate price to get in to the park by Chinese standards
• The fact that you couldn’t even try to sell your ticket that is valid for 2 days because they take a digital thumbprint from you at the turnstile!
• The need to take a cable car to the top as the bus driver has taken us to the wrong entrance
• The queue for the cable car was like queuing for a ride at Alton Towers during the school holidays
• Every part of the park was covered in Chinese tour groups – shouting and spitting
• How can you enjoy a place that really requires you to just sit and take it all in when each tour guide has his microphone and speaker turned up to full blast so that he can be heard above the other tour groups?
• Not only was there the obligatory cable car to the top there was also a tram that ferried tourists in to the very heart of the park!! This is taking it too far
• Stupid Chinese tourists feeding wild monkeys junk food and the crying when the monkey had the cheek to come and take the entire bag from their hands
• The park thinking it is ok to take these wild monkeys and put them in a cage that only has a concrete floor to entertain the Chinese tourists waiting to take the tram back to the bus
We had now been in China for 3 weeks so we knew what to expect meaning that we could separate ourselves somewhat from the commotion and enjoy our day but the experience just wasn’t what it should have been.
We were only in this part of China to visit Wulingyuan so the next day was wasted hanging around the train station for our late afternoon ride out. We were now further south so it was very pleasurable sitting out in the 24-degree heat all afternoon.
This journey was to take us to the border of China and the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong and because we were going to be on the train for a good few hours we upgraded to soft sleeper. For the first few hours we had the cabin to ourselves and we able to stretch out and watch some of the countryside pass us by for the first time as we usually travelled at night.
A very helpful ABC (American Born Chinese) lady assisted us in ordering at the restaurant carriage and after a satisfactory meal we went to sleep impatiently awaiting some civilisation in Hong Kong.
The conductor woke us 30 minutes before we were due to arrive at the city of Guangzhou where we would need to pass through immigration and board another train to travel on to Hong Kong. I will not go in to much detail but for that entire 30 minutes I had the bathroom under siege after fighting off the conductor who told me it was out of bounds as I haemorrhaged from both ends, which leaves you with some clearing up to do when there is only one toilet and no sink!!! I won’t tell you which end I had to try and mop up through my cold sweats and dizziness!
It took me a couple of hours to feel somewhat normal again but at least that 30-minute episode was to be the only such incident that morning.
By mid-morning we were pulling in to Hung Hom in the centre of Hong Kong and in my passport there was a stamp giving me leave to remain in Hong Kong for 6 months if I so wished. Even though Hong Kong is now technically China part of the deal in handing it back in 1997 was that the region must maintain the English legal system for the next 50 years, meaning that as far as immigration is concerned it’s all good for us!
Hong Kong is actually made up of 234 islands and over 70% of the area is mountains and tropical forests. The main sights are on the northern shores of Hong Kong Island (the infamous skyscraper skyline) and the southern peninsula of Kowloon, which is where we chose to stay.
Kowloon is a much more livelier and eclectic area of Hong Kong, an amalgamation of the west meets east and very cool place to spend a couple of days exploring the streets and alleyways. Kowloon has everything that we required: shops for Arancha, a huge screen akin to Piccadilly Circus that showed football highlights for me and restaurants for the both of us.
What’s more, English was widely spoken or least understood and nobody was spitting.
We found ourselves a very quaint room, which I had to barter very hard to get a discount on and suffer the moody wrath of the landlord who just about threw the key at me when we agreed on the price.
The location of our hotel was great, only a 10 minute stroll down to the harbour side to look out over the water to that well known skyline with junk boats passing in between.
We took a gentle walk down the ‘Avenue of the Stars’, which pays homage to China’s film industry in the same way as America does in Hollywood with stars and cement handprints along the walkway. It’s cheesy but I had my photo taken with the statue of Bruce Lee and with my hands in the prints of a poor man’s Mr Miyagi, Jackie Chan.
It wasn’t long before the lure of the shops was too much for Arancha to ignore but I was pleasantly surprised to see her return to me in HMV (it’s still alive in Hong Kong people) with some new footwear for me! Cheers homie, you’re the best!!
Sorry to interrupt:
Bing bong – this is your captain speaking, “Look out of your right hand window and you will see us flying over Mt Everest!”
We are on the right hand side and we just saw the highest point of the planet. We will be in that region and at the base of that bad boy in about 2 weeks time – I can’t wait.
That evening in Hong Kong we went back to the harbour front to join every other tourist in town to watch the light and laser show that occurs at 8pm every night over the city skyline. The Lonely Planet describes it as something not to miss and I suppose you could describe it as that just for the laugh you get from the cheesy music and blatant advertising that accompanies the very lame and outdated effects.
After the show we walked around in an aimless fashion just taking in what Hong Kong had to offer.
The majority of Day 2 in Hong Kong was spent on Hong Kong Island. We took the Star Ferry across the harbour and then an open top tour bus around the heritage and metropolis routes before boarding the tram up to the summit of Victoria Peak for 360-degree views over the city and the surrounding islands.
Part of the reason for coming to Hong Kong was to extend our Chinese visa rights by an extra 30 days so that afternoon we arranged our passage back in China. Our options were a 3 hours plane flight or a 24 hour train journey – simple choice really and not all that more expensive to fly.
Job done and we finished our trip to Honkers by eating in the restaurants that surround the street markets and participated in some excellent people watching.
Our 4pm flight took us back in to China proper and we landed at Kunming airport in the early evening. Hong Kong has been a breath of fresh air and we both like it enough to consider it as a possible place to live and work in the future but now we were back in the land of the gob and we were already over it!
Kunming itself seemed like a decent city but we didn’t really explore the place and instead took refuge in our hostel, which was the second best hostel we had stayed in after the one in Xi’an.
It seemed like all of the westerners that we knew must be somewhere in China had congregated in the Hump Hostel and this must’ve been the reason for the complimentary ear plugs and condoms on the bedside table.
We were only in Kunming as a base to arrange the final few legs of our Chinese tour and we used our time well enough to book our journey in to and out of the next and one of the top 3 places that we visited – Tiger Leaping Gorge.
The trip to the gorge involved and overnight sleeper train to the tourist town of Li Jiang, the best one that we have been in to date, and then a bus for 4 hours to the village of Qiaotou where we could dump our main bags to take only a daypack for the 2 day trek.
We would be moving on to the city of Chengdu from TLG and were once again faced with an easy choice – fly for 1 hour or take a 33-hour train for only £20 less. Flights were booked and we ready for the off.
From the village of Qiaotou we embarked upon our trek via the high pass of Tiger Leaping Gorge. TLG is one of the deepest gorges in the world at 1,000 metres deep and from the narrow high pass, which teetered at times on the cliff edge and we had to let the odd mule or twenty pass by, we were treated to a panorama of the gushing waters crashing down through the gorge right up to the snow capped peaks of the mountains 3,900 metres above it.
The first 2.5 hours was a very strenuous climb to the 2,100 metre high point but the views of the 5 jagged peaks in front of us was worth every bead of sweat on what was a very hot and sunny day. From the high point it we walked for another 3 hours to reach the Halfway Guesthouse, a beautiful place to spend the evening sitting on the veranda enjoying the surroundings with the many other trekkers and in particular a couple from Doncaster and a couple from New York (he was Indian and she was German) who we dined with in the evening.
I don’t’ really want to talk about my time in the toilet but I will never forget the visit to the loo the next morning. It is a very rare thing to squat in an open sided loo with the view that I had – it mad you almost forget the rank smell, but not quite.
We completed the high pass walk by 10am that morning passing by an impressive waterfall that we had to jump from one boulder to the other over and were then left with the steep descent down to the base of the actual gorge itself.
The route down was a seriously steep one and if you were brave enough you could descend part of the way on a vertical steel ladder that made you feel very dizzy when you looked over the edge of it. We chose the safer option via the carved stone steps but did take the ladder on the way back up.
On the way down Arancha managed to get into a dance off with a piece of wood that got tangled between her legs and she looked like she was impersonating MC Hammer as she continuously tripped. I was told off for laughing at her even though I only started once I knew she wasn’t going to topple off the edge of the cliff.
Once at the bottom you really got to see the ferocity and power of the waters smashing through the gorge. If you fell in you were a goner.
As we started to long and arduous climb out of the gorge Arancha was able to get her own back on me for laughing at her as I smashed my head on a log that was hidden by another in front that we had to duck under. I hit it hard enough to hear my neck crack 3 times and it took a few seconds to feel normal again.
With what she had just seen I am not sure how Arancha managed to do exactly the same thing and then again as she turned around to get her bearings.
Because we had completed the gorge trek quicker than we intended we took the impulsive decision to call a taxi to rush us back to Qiaotou so that instead of spending 2 nights in Li Jiang we could collect our bags and catch a bus up to the village of Shangri La, 2 hours further north and sitting pretty at 3,500 metres.
The city was re-named as Shangri La a few years ago to boost tourism but apparently there is proof that this city was the location of the town used in the 1930’s novel that made the name Shangri La conjure up wistful images of a long forgotten utopia, plus it was the nearest that we were going to get to experiencing Tibet on this particular trip.
The drive took us up through the mountains and on to a landscape that very much resembled the Tibetan Plateau with snow capped peaks dotted around in the distance – my perfect world. The journey was nice enough apart from an old woman that kept leaning out of the window in front of me and gobbing out long strings of saliva. On one occasion she misjudged in and some of the saliva ran down the inside of the window but she chose to ignore it and my eyes couldn’t. I seemed to stare at that spit for too long a time.
As soon as we arrived in Shangri La we knew that we had made the right decision to make this whistle stop one night visit. The old town was Tibetan in look and feel and it was amazing how calm we felt within 10 minutes of arriving – we didn’t feel like we were in China any longer.
We found a good little hostel and then spent the remainder of the day wandering around the streets, temples and stupas. The town square was where it was all happening – during the daytime you could select various skewered meats including Yak and vegetables that would then be barbequed in front of you and during the evening it became a huge open air dance floor for the locals to strut their stuff to traditional Tibetan music.
In the evening we went to a Tibetan restaurant and we both ordered a Yak burger. We were starving but knew we would be ok when we saw the size of the burger bun as the food was brought out. How disappointed were we when we lifted the top of the bun off to see a burger so small that it could easily slide in to a tea cup when laid out flat.
We drowned our sorrows in the local bar that strangely up here in the middle of nowhere is owned by a Londoner!
The following morning we went to visit the Ganden Sumtseling Gumpa, a three hundred year old Tibetan monastery that houses nearly 600 monks. Unfortunately the place was undergoing some major construction but it still did not take too much away from the feeling of being somewhere very peaceful and relaxing. I am not sure how relaxing it will when the newly planned Starbucks is opened at the entrance gates to the monastery grounds – the Chinese hey!!!
It was then time to leave our wonderful Shangri La and take the 4 hour bus trip down the mountains to Li Jiang.
It was early evening by the time we arrived but we still had some time to book in to a hostel within the walls of the old town and take a stroll around the most touristy of tourist towns, even so, Li Jiang was a very pretty town.
For our evening meal we decided to go to the noisiest restaurant courtesy of the owner who multi tasked his night away by singing on his own karaoke machine whilst taking care of bill payments at the same time.
We ordered a traditional Li Jiang meal, a meat hotpot where you cook your own meat along with the meat that is already simmering away in it. The only problem was that the meat that was in the pot seemed to be every sh*t piece of the chicken that you would normally throw out.
We found ourselves at the airport at 6:30am the next morning to fly on to our final destination Chengdu. We were only really going to Chengdu for one reason and that was to visit the Giant Panda breeding centre.
We got the Chengdu mid-morning and got to grips with the city by visiting another Buddhist monastery and The People’s Square.
As far as Chinese cities go, Chengdu was one of the best, very clean and tidy.
The trip to the Giant Panda breeding centre was well worth it to see such an endangered species. Considering that the panda is so notoriously associated with images of China I was not impressed to see the outside of the facility, which was very drab and dilapidated and was in dire need of a makeover. Surely the Chinese government is funding this place?
However, the inside was much better and the pandas seemed to have more than enough space to live in.
There were 5 different enclosures, each one containing pandas of varying ages. The baby ones were very funny as they clumsily climbed up and fell down the wooden climbing apparatus.
Once you managed to fight your way through the crowds it was also really good to watch a group of 8 adult giant pandas sit together to enjoy their bamboo breakfast.
With the giant pandas ticked off the list we were left with a choice – waste the next 4 days in Chengdu, take a long bus trip to visit another place only to have to take that long bus trip back, or get the hell out of China.
In truth we were well and truly over the country, I am not sure if you could’ve guessed that by reading this blog post?
We phoned the airline and they kindly brought out flight to Kathmandu forward by 3 days free of charge. We were well happy and enjoyed our last day and a half in China by relaxing in the gardens of the hostel and enjoying a visit to the local park, which was a thrum of activity being a 3 day Chinese holiday.
The park was bizarre – it had a public dancing arena, a karaoke corner, a fairground containing rides that looked like they had been in operation since the 1950’s and a man who stood in front of me at the toilet sink and washed his manky false teeth.
So that was that and China was done.
I won’t beat around the bush, China was not what I thought it would be. I had visions of old world settings, temples on high desolate peaks and evidence of the ancient Emperors of the past all around me. In reality the Chinese have built over all of this in its quest for industry and riches. Putting The Great Wall, Tiger Leaping Gorge Shangri La and the Giant Pandas aside, China is a country of very big but very average looking cities and as I have mentioned they have somewhat ruined the majesty of their natural wonders.
I for one will not be going coming back to China and as for the people – well the less said the better!!!
Bring on Nepal and bring on Mount Everest!
Lamby , over and out.