Monday, 29 November 2010

China Part III – Beijing birthday

The Great Wall
Arriving in the capital Beijing we had contacted a local via Couch Surfing so headed to his flat to decamp for a couple of days. It was pretty interesting staying with a young professional and to hear his thoughts on the Chinese government, history, issues with Tibet and the world in general. I think Tom left a good impression on him after one evening I headed to bed whilst they philosophised about life and other things.

Tom in the Forbidden City

Quite a grey day but by this point we'd come to accept it was the norm rather than the exception

On our first day we strolled around the huge Forbidden City (forbidden to ordinary people in the time of the emperor) and saw the crowds in Tiananmen Square. For Tom’s birthday we hiked a quiet part of the Great Wall which was so impressive and as Mao said, “You’re not a man until you’ve climbed the great wall” , so it seemed a fitting way for Tom to celebrate his birthday. Along the back alleys (hutongs) of Beijing we hunted down a well-known locals’ place for a celebratory Peking Duck dinner - we devoured a whole duck between us which apart from the fact a duck sacrificed its life for our greedy gain, if we’re honest it was delicious!

Security in Tiananmen Sq is tight...

We noticed that Mao is still somewhat a revered figure to some Chinese (especially the older generation)
A gate in Tiananmen Square

Street scene in Beijing

The Olympic park in the Chinese capital

Our day at the Great Wall was incredible (if not a little chilly!)

Monday, 8 November 2010

China Part II – Huang Shan and Tai Shan

Huang Shan aka Yellow Mountain isn’t one of China’s sacred peaks but certainly looks the part.

Shrouded in mist until you’re a couple of hours into the walk, it appears and its immediately clear just how this one mountain alone inspired a whole new type of Chinese watercolour painting.

Aside from the Chinese tour groups with leader and megaphone slightly tainting the peaceful atmosphere we climbed it with a group of Swedish students from Shanghai and towards the end of the day definitely found the best secluded spot to enjoy the views from.

Along with the Swedes we visited a Huizhou-style village, typically known for their white walls and dark tiled roofs.

Tom and I continued up the east coast, destination Beijing. We had a pit-stop in a town near the sacred Tai Shan mountain and spent an afternoon wandering around the ancient scholar Confucius’ home-town of Qufu.

Intricate carvings
The local barber shop

Thursday, 4 November 2010

China Part I - Yangshuo to Shanghai

Marx and Lenin having a good old chat in the park, Shanghai
We arrived in China after a short train journey from Hong Kong and everything felt very, very different. I think it was the first time on our trip that it was literally impossible to know what to do or where to go. For example, after crossing the border we had to go to a bus station to take an overnight bus to our first destination, Yangshuo. So imagine the scene – we were waved through the border gate by a Chinese man in Communist-looking uniform with a large gun. We both had large, heavy backpacks on our backs and a rucksack each on our front. Nothing is in English. All signs are in indecipherable Chinese script. Nobody speaks English; at all. No amount of broken Spanish, French, Italian or German that has helped us thus far will work. In fact even body language doesn’t seem to work – pointing and motioning results in blank stares or nervous laughter. We had absolutely no idea where to go in a large, noisy and manically busy city. And everybody was staring at us. Welcome to China - I have to say that we were loving it!

To cut a long story short we ended up finding the bus and travelled overnight to our first stop, Yangshuo. Yangshuo is quite touristy for China, although the vast majority of tourists are Chinese but it is also set in a beautiful setting, surrounded by karsts (giant granite spires) often shrouded in mist and its a very picturesque town. We hired bikes and explored the area, strolled around the town and took a two day trip to a place called the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces, several hours away its a stunning area where rice terraces have been sculpted into the land by the locals over hundreds of years (thus resulting in what looks like a dragon’s spine).

Yangshuo by day...

...and Yangshuo at night (the view from our terrace)

Some views at the Dragon's Backbone rice terraces
The sign on our 'hotel' at the rice terraces. The family we stayed with were unbelievably welcoming and kind
Very impressed with our first stop in China we boarded a 24hr train for Shanghai.

Elizabeth in the subway, Shanghai

Shanghai is exactly how you would imagine – daunting sky scrapers, its hot, its busy, its China (but somehow not the China that Elizabeth’s Granny would have known being born here in 1913...)

Shanghai - lots of neon and skyscrapers

We found a park to have a moment’s peace in and sat people-watching next to a large statue of Marx and Lenin. Parks typically are where the older locals hang out and exercise (if you can call it that). Apart from the traditional Tai Chi there are people also walking backwards around the park and screaming at full volume (apparently it's called therapeutic screaming).

Shanghai park

I had another classic Chinese experience in Shanghai when I was trying to get some more anti-malarial tablets. I went to the hospital pharmacy (having given up trying to explain to the chemists) armed with an old box of the pills and the Chinese translation written down on a piece of paper. Every time I reached the front of the queue they pointed me to a different counter, followed by more queuing and more pointing. After this happened several times I was sent to what looked like the grumpy old lady in charge:

Me: Do you have this [pointing and holding up box and translation].
The boss: No [nodding her head].
Me: Yes? [nodding] or no? [shaking my head]
The boss: No [nodding her head again].
Me: No? [shaking head]
The boss: No! [nodding her head and shaking her hand in a non-descript manner]

Again we Couch Surfed, this time with a German couple working at the Expo. We spent Elizabeth’s birthday wandering around the Expo which was incredible....

The entrance to the British pavilion at the expo

The inside of the British pavilion- each tube is filled with a different type of seeds
Outside the pavilion
The Chinese pavilion (in true Chinese style it dwarfed all the others)

Monday, 1 November 2010

A light introduction to China - Hong Kong and Macau

One of the world's best skylines

An unidentifiable tail
Breakfast of delicious dim sum and jasmine tea

We were both really excited about our time in Hong Kong, which came around sooner than expected thanks to the palaver of getting hold of Chinese visas. We made a beeline for Kowloon on the tip of the peninsula and checked in to quite possibly the smallest bedroom known to man but ironically one of our most expensive – it was about 2m x 2.5m (including the bathroom).

Our days began with dim sum and jasmine tea at a fantastic restaurant just around the corner from the hotel. We took the well-loved, rickety Star Ferry over the South China Sea to Hong Kong island, a journey all of about 5 minutes, and explored the shops, restaurants and sights. We were very quickly hit with the prospect of returning to working in a busy city and so escaped to the top of Victoria Peak on the Peak tram to get a view across the island. It felt good to be in Hong Kong after so much time in South East Asia. On the one hand it’s a return to a less chaotic and smoother running city but at the same time feels very Chinese and exciting, especially as a preview of things to come in mainland China. It’s also nice to be in a place where an adequate meal in a restaurant is not considered to be a small pile of rice and a couple of shreds of beef.

It took considerable time to sort out our Chinese and Indian visas in HK so we had just shy of a week to explore the place. For our last few nights before heading to China we ‘upgraded’ from our small box room and went to stay with Ben, a Danish guy working in Hong Kong, who had very kindly agreed to host us as “Couch Surfers”. We stayed in his apartment on Lamma Island which is a relaxed, bohemian place with beaches and nice cafes and feels a million miles away from the bustle of HK island rather than just a thirty minute ferry journey.

Macau, a former Portuguese colony, is reported to be the Las Vegas of the East and as we had had such a good time in the real Las Vegas at the start of our trip (incredibly 11 months ago now) and since it’s just a one hour ferry ride from HK we decided to check it out. We spent the morning and afternoon sightseeing around the island (unlike Vegas it’s got a lot of historical sights, a park and a museum). We also took full advantage of the free sugary-almond biscuits (a nod to the Portuguese) on offer along the backstreets. A definite highlight for me was going to the street that was used to film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (opening scene where ‘Shorty’ the young Chinese boy drives them through the city to the airport after he jumps out of a window). Also going off a friend’s recommendation we hunted down what is according to someone in the know one of the best tea shops in Asia.

A slice of colonial Europe in Asia

As it got dark we noticed some restaurants with fish tanks stocked with some rather odd delicacies - live turtles desperately trying to escape before meeting their doomed fate, huge slug-like sea cucumbers and other things beyond description. The town turned neon so we hit the casinos and had a great time watching the Chinese manically gambling, shouting, throwing tantrums and celebrating crazily. We took a stroll around the Wynn hotel’s immaculate high-roller casino and noted how our trip has changed as our very first hotel was the 5* Wynn in Vegas! We kept being given free “tea” only it’s actually tea and coffee mixed together (the more caffeine the better I guess) and a slice of cake. Lots of guys wear red jackets (red being a lucky colour for the Chinese) and every fifteen minutes a stage would burst into life with western dancers and a crowd of gawping Chinese. We left on the late ferry back to Hong Kong exhausted and having had a really great day!

 A cannon positioned directly towards the biggest casino...

 Macau by night