Friday, July 27, 2007

Over the moon in Yangshuo ...

After a madcap 8-day dash through China we arrived in Yangshuo, Guangxi Province where we planned to stay put for a few days and relax a little ...

The view (right) from the top of Moon Hill will do more to describe the amazing scenery of this region than I could ever hope to put into words. The huge limestone karsts jutting out from the otherwise flat landscape cover hundreds of square kilometers ... simply otherworldly. You can check out all the photos here.

As beautiful as the surrounding landscape is, Yangshuo itself came as something of an initial dissapointment. Somehow what was once a sleepy backpacker hangout has become the Benidorm of SW China - complete with the Chinese version of Europop booming out from every bar along the main street to lure in the growing numbers of domestic tourists.

Thankfully though it's still very much Chinese and over the course of a few days its charms grew on us - full of quirky and entertaining locals, plus traditional massages that would teach Robert Mugabe's hit squad a thing or two about torture techniques.

We spent the week here mountain biking, trekking, bamboo rafting and taking boat trips up and down the river. But thanks to the 37 degree heat every day, we mostly spent our time evenings enjoying ice-cold Tsing Tao beer in Lulu's airconditioned bar.

I have only one piece of advice if you ever come here. Never, ever play the drinking dice game with Lulu ...

If enough people are interested I'll post the rules (or what I could recall the following morning) here for you - just add a comment to let me know.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Hunting (the) Giant Panda ...

We'd picked a good time to visit Chengdu as one of the Panda's had twins the week beforehand.

This is always something of a national event in China - but we had no idea until we arrived. The baby Panda we saw was in an incubator, meaning no photogrpahy was allowed - however if you imagine a slightly balding mole you'll have the general idea.

You have to arrive early in the morning to catch the Panda's awake. Once they've had their morning feed of freshly cut bamboo, they just sleep the rest of the day. Just after his feed this chap had a sudden burst of energy and seemed to delight in entertaining the watching crowd.

Chengdu was probably the nicest of the cities we visited in China, with it's palm lined streets and the tackiest building of the trip so far ...

Catch all the photos by clicking here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Going potty in Xian ...

Predicatable I know, but it was the best title I could think of ...

Maybe if it hadn't rained non-stop for the 3 days we were there ... we'd have found the time to scale Xian's city walls. Impressive as they are, what's contained within is just another example of China's rush to build high-rise apartment blocks, and glitzy shopping malls no-one seems to be able to afford to shop in.

Slightly different accomadation experience here - we stayed in a "hostel" we'd pre-booked over the internet from Pingyao. It actually turned out to be more like a homestay with Todd and his girlfriend Mei on the 5th floor of a brand new apartment block. Not exactly what we'd had in mind, but they made us very welcome. Good job too, as the rain kept us confined to barracks - almost to the point of cabin fever.

Of course we couldn't come to Xian without making the obligatory trip out to see the Terracotta Warriors - every bit as impressive as they promised. If anyone is coming here - there is absolutely no need to take a 30 quid tour to get there, we just took the local bus from the train station for 40p to make the 1 hour journey.

On the way out a perfect example of Chinglish ... well, I sort of know what they mean ...

Mel has covered the Chinglish phenomenon more comprehensively on her blog here.

Lastly - in China almost everyone has an "English" name they use with foreigners for ease of pronunciation. In Xian we had the pleasure of meeting a Chinese guy from Hainan (off their South coast) who'd picked the name Pigeon. We didn't really like to say so, but surely if you have the opportunity to choose a name for yourself ...

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Pocari Sweat ..

So, first there was Cak-Bum.

Now I can bring you the delightful Pocari Sweat - straight from Japan.

The reference to sweat is absolutely intended - it's an isotonic drink designed to replace what you lose during exercise. Having tasted it I'm convinced they chose the right name.

I can't imagine something called Pocari Sweat would sell well back home, but the Japanese must love it as they sell it from vending machines on virtually every street corner.

Now my photos have re-emerged from behind the bamboo firewall, here's another uniqely Japanese item. Melon Kit-kat.

Mel bought these as emergency rations for our ill-fated trip to Mount Fuji. At least if we had been attacked by a bear, they might have been just enough to repel the attack ...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Baby Pingyao?

We took the sleeper train to the Ming dynasty walled city of Pingyao - so remarkably preserved you don't really even need to imagine what it would have been like hundreds of years ago.

Temples and impressive buildings aside (for photo's click here) there wasn't a whole heap else to do in Pingyao - architecture aside, the most interesting aspect of this stop was getting our train tickets out of there ...

Although China is moving toward capitalism at relentless pace, the railways remain state owned and highly planned. The impact of this for travel is that tickets (particularly "soft sleeper") can be very hard to come by indeed. Tickets only go on sale 3 days in advance, by which time many have already been pre-allocated to party officials, state enterprises and people with connections in high places. The remaining tickets are allocated somewhat arbitrarily to various stations en-route - with Pingyao having no of allocation whatsoever.

Enter the national pastime of getting round arbitrary rules. We soon discovered that guesthouses along the way are the best people to get the tickets you need - by emailing ahead to get round the 3-day rule. In this case it meant them calling someone at a station 90 minutes before Pingyao to buy a sleeper ticket from there.

On the day of travel the helper catches the train at the earlier station, exchanging the ticket for the bunk token. The guesthouse provides a photocopy of the ticket, which you swap with the helper on the platform as they alight .. presumably to catch a bus home. Ridiculously inefficient, but it works.

As I finish writing this from our hotel in Vietnam, at last I've stepped from behind the bamboo firewall and been able to get at my photos - the remaining Japan photos from Tokyo, Hemeji Castle and of course, Mount Fuji are all live now (including some rather better ones of the mountain than my blind guess for the post!)

While we stayed in Pingyao our friends Anna & Dave had a baby boy - so a big congratulations to the Vickers family. Although we still haven't heard whether or not they decided to go with our suggested name of Pingyao - come on guy's, you know it would be great ...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Climbing the Great Wall ...

We took a day trip to a section of wall about 3 hours drive North of Beijing to escape the worst of the crowds, allowing the opportunity for me to climb the 10km section of wall between Jinshanling and Simitai.

The day brought some light drizzle and mist, which, combined with the increased elavation it made for a thankfully cooler (but still 29 degrees) day for the climb. The weather definitely didn't do anything for the photo's, but it certainly made the experience more atmospheric.

We may have escaped most of the tourists, but this had a downside as we subjected to the most organised and persistent display of hawking (books, t-shirts, postcards) that I've experienced anywhere. The ratio of hawkers was about 1:1, which necessitated the golden bullet approach - they each targeted a single person constantly for about 2-3km (1 hour) up and down steep sections of the wall.

Despite the cooler weather it was so humid I must still have lost of couple of litres of fluid on the climb - still there was nothing too technically difficult, but the gradient was fairly relentless, and it required use of hands in quite a few places where the wall had partially collapsed.

Not only is the wall a great feat of engineering, but it's in some of the most rugged terrain that just getting to it would surely have put most potential invaders off.

Ironically the history books say it was so easy to bribe the guards stationed there, that the walls only real success was as a transport route. I for one wouldn't have managed nearly so well had I been portering 50 kilo's of rice ...

The hawkers aside, this was a really great way to see the wall - and an absolute breeze compared to our recent experience on Mt. Fuji ... You can see all the photos from the day here.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Well, it's just not cricket ...

In fact it's Grasshopper. Or rather 3 of them.

It all started with a superb meal in one of Beijing's Peking Duck restaurants. Then somehow, after a few late afternoon beers, we found ourselves at the famous night market daring each other to eat the more exotic skewers. After some negotiation we decided that my challenge was scorpions, and Mel would eat grasshoppers.

The technique is quite simple. Close your eyes. Imagine a nice salty beer snack. Pop the critter in your mouth whole. Then chew. Oh, and make sure you don't get a leg or tail stuck up your nose in the process. Actually they were suprisingly inoffensive.

We tried lots of new food during our week in Beijing - from the pretty tame water lilies, to the rather more exotic chicken heart skewers and duck tongue soup (finished with whole duck tongues).

Even after surviving these experiences, the sight of a small girl walking down the street eating a deep fried starfish 10 inches in diameter still managed to turn the stomach a little - and we definitely draw the line at dog ...

Friday, July 13, 2007

I just had to take a photo of this ...

I found this whilst cycling past a bar in Beijing one morning - a clear & direct advertising message if ever I saw one !

Have a good weekend - whatever you're drinking.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Taking the heat in the Hutong ...

Welcome to the China - where (unlike the rest of Asia) a massage really does appear to be a massage - yet a good proportion of barber shops seem to be engaging openly in prostitution.

Contemplating a whole new meaning to the expression "cut & blow", but with little personal risk of inadvertedly being drawn into the sex trade, I set off in the 40 degree heat to inspect our new locale for our week in Beijing, the historic Banchang Hutong.

Hutongs are areas of low rise traditional housing, originally established during times of Mongol rule. Each Hutong, or street, is lined with entrances to a maze of alleyways and courtyards containing individual residences. Even today many of these houses have no running water or sanitation, relying instead on a network of public toilet/shower blocks found every 100 metres or so.

In the area around our hotel (thankfully with running water) I found a heady mix of old and new Beijing - locals playing cards and board games in the street, hole in the wall skewer BBQ's - mixed in with a new wave of cool bars and eateries catering to the afterwork crowd and tourists in equal measure.

While they enjoy their rightful place in China's line-up of tourist attractions - the Hutongs are in rapid decline, making way for the faceless tower blocks which accompany Beijing's rush to modernise - before the city becomes the focus of the worlds attention during next years Olympic Games.

With it's rickshaw tours of historic buildings and new ecomony of cool bars and restaurants, perhaps Banchang will stand a better chance of survival than most. One thing's for sure, even for those that escape the bulldozer - things are changing fast.

We found the best way of getting around Beijing was to escape the traffic jams by doing as the locals do. Taking to 2 wheels we explored the city by bike, hitting some of the city's must see sights like the Forbidden City and Tianammen Square. You can catch all the photos by clicking here.

Most remarkable of all was some of the food - but I think I'll leave that for another post ...

Friday, July 06, 2007

Ryokan rules ...

For the Zen temple capital of Japan, Kyoto looked suprisingly like any other high-rise city upon arrival at it's super-modern train station.

It was only as our taxi ferried us into a nearby district of traditional 2/3 storey houses that we started to appreciate Kyoto's unique charms.

We'd chosen a Ryokan (traditional guesthouse) for this part of our stay in Japan - and they have some unusual differences to western hotels, most notably;

  • Room size is chosen based a quantity of tatami mats. Like the base of the futon beds you can buy in the UK, these are a standard size and define the size of the raised floor of your room.

    • You always take your shoes off at the door, where you call out to the owner who swaps them for a charming pair of Ryokan slippers. I never found a pair that fitted my western size 10's.

    • Slippers are just for getting from reception to your room. You're not allowed to wear them past the room entrance, just bare or stocking feet on the mats.

    • When you go to the toilets (usually shared) you swap to Bathroom slippers in order not to cross contaminate different floor areas. Have I mentioned the Japanese are sticklers for order yet?

    • Probably the biggest difference though is that there's no bed in your room. Come bedtime, you move the table & get a mattress, sheets and quilt from a cupboard to make your own bed on the floor.

    • It's good manners to have at least 1 meal a day in your Ryokan. Evening meal in your room, breakfasts in a big tatami mat room. You always sit on the floor to eat (on top of your legs), and every meal consists almost solely of fish and soy delicacies.

    • Bathing is in large communal rooms (sex separated) as consists of a shower, followed by a few minutes reclining in the sento - what we'd know of as a hot tub. Absolute bliss after a day pounding the pavements in 30 degree heat.

    • Apparently there's loads more to a Ryokan stay if you're Japanese - this is just the minimum to get by as a Westerner without causing offence!

    The Ryokan's we stayed in were all scrupulously clean, welcoming & just as stylish as everything else over here. They are also fantastic value and a great way to appreciate Japanese culture - a highly recommended part of any stay.

    Our second suprise on arriving in Kyoto was unexpectedly running into Ed in our guesthouse foyer as we checked in. Although we were slightly disabled from the previous evenings "bear baiting" we still managed to join him in a local Karaoke bar, where the owner fairly insisted we must sample his Japanese whisky and smoked Octopus well into the night as we celebrated our return from Mount Fuji ...

    We awoke the next morning to discover our legs in consdierably worse state, in fact hardly working at all. No stranger to the effects of half marathons, 3 peaks challenges etc - I was quite unprepared for just what 1.5km of continuous descent can do to your legs ... 400 yards to the local laundrette and internet cafe ws as far as we made it that day. We looked like bloody idiots hobbling around.

    Thankfully in Japan even the humble laundrette can throw up a few suprises ... why bother putting detergent in the machine? Hell it's supposed to be automatic, it'll take care of that itself. And it won't keep you waiting around either - just 30 minutes for a 7kg load, was suprisingly quick. And it went by the name of Jabu Jabu Land.

    As with most other things, the Japanese just seem to find novel but straightforward ways of doing it better. Like taxi doors that open at the flick of a switch from the driver. And don't get me started on the toilets again.

    With just a week in Kyoto and tens of UNESCO World Heritage listed sights to see, we picked our sightseeing carefully to avoid getting templed-out. The notable highlights were the magnificent Golden Pavillion (above), Toji Temples 5-storey pagoda & the Philosophers Walk - perfect for a spot of contemplation.

    We finished our week in Kyoto with a visit to our local Yakitori bar - these local eateries are easily spotted by the red lanterns hanging outside, and serve up BBQ skewers of everything from chicken to pig intestine. This one also served up the somewhat ironically named "light alcohol" - a potent homemade alco-pop, and ice-cold bottles of my favourite Yebisu.

    We may have barely scratched the surface of Kyoto's temple circuit - but that even acheived our very own state of Zen ... and all for less than 2 quid a pint ...

    I was a bit more organised on the Kyoto photos, so they should all be available to view now. In the event this isn't a nice snap of a golden looking pavillion - can someone email me - cheers. Mel's finally finished our official trip map too - you can get at it here, or as a link on the sidebar.

    Tuesday, July 03, 2007

    Konnichiwa Fuji-san ...

    Our trip to Mt. Fuji it well worthy of a post in it's own right - our intention was to attempt a night-time summit of the 3770m crater rim in time for the 4.30am sunrise. Little went according to plan.

    Arriving at Kawaguchi-ko by train, we deposited our main luggage and transferred to the bus for the 1hr journey up the mountainside to 5th station (2300m) and the start of our climb - our plan being to ascend that afternoon to 7th station (2700m) where we'd grab a hot meal & sleep in a mountain hut for a few hours before starting out for the summit at midnight.

    After a lung-busting 400m climb in the thin mountain air, we reached 7th station. It was shut. Not only that but we'd also hit the knee-deep snow line, and the descending climbers we met had taken 12 hours (rather than the prescribed 7) to make the round trip in daylight. Plan B was always to make the ascent before nightfall, and then decend to 5th station in darkness. With the added complication of snow we decided it was too risky - clearly what we needed now was a Plan C.

    So after a quick snack high above the clouds at 7th we decided a quick return to 5th would have cheated us of adventure. On the basis of a few badly-remembered details from the Lonely Planet, we decided to hike the Yoshiguchi trail to the foot of the mountain. We would later come to realise it was 1500m descent and over 17km back to town. And unfortunately not our town.

    The trail was pretty well marked and we marched quickly through the dense cloud forest. We'd been walking for a total of 5 hours, and were starting to tire when nightfall came at 7.30pm - our legs we're starting to feel the strain of the relentless downhill. Shortly afterwards we reached the first information sign - and with it the brutal realisation that the recommended time for the remainder of the trail was just over 4.5 hours.

    The best outcome for us now was looking like a night sleeping in the train station - the worst being eaten by the local bear population. The only signs of civilisation were the occasional derelict mountain hut, and a series of increasingly erie shrines - all lovely by day I'm sure, but at this point the evening took on a slightly spooky feel as we were regularly startled by noises from the undergrowth. By this stage my joking comments of "let's persevere together" were failing to raise Mel's spirits. To put it mildly.

    Eventually we arrived in pitch black darkness at a rather larger shrine, and a large graveyard. We could see nothing bar the slightly paler black sky above us when we killed the headtorches, but we stopped for a final rest and refuel before the final stretch - the signs indicated a further 150 minutes to go. Here we joined a tarmac trail - surely the first signs we were getting close to civilisation? so we followed it eagerly through the dense forest.

    We were about 15 minutes out of the graveyard, when something strange happened - a car came up the tarmac road towards us. Blinded by the headlights, we couldn't be sure be as it passed us but just maybe there was a taxi sign on the roof - perhaps dropping off a climber at the trail? a late night extra marital affair? Yakuza drug deal? we didn't really know, but dared to hope it would come back our way (we'd seen no other), and taxi or not, we agreed to try hitching a lift.

    30 minutes later and our hopes of a timely rescue by a passing motorist we evaporating fast. Hearing some a loud noises from the undergrowth to our right, I turned my head expecting the usual nothing. Instead my torch illuminated two pairs of eyes - someway back from the trail but most definitely looking in our direction.

    I quickly calculated from the distance between the eyes, and their height off the ground that I either had a squirrel sat on the bridge of my nose, or a couple of large mammals were checking us out. I squeezed Mel's hand and a quick surge of adrenaline quickened our pace as we marched forwards not daring to look back.

    First we heard it roar. Then we looked round and saw it rushing towards us, closing the distance at a speed of over 25 miles per hour. We couldn't possibly outrun it. Thankfully it was a taxi - with it's for hire light on. We stood in the middle of the road so it had to stop. I doubt the taxi driver has ever had two more grateful passengers.

    I guess we'll never know what was out there, our guidebook suggests deer or bear as the most likely candidates. The post-mortem on our little adventure revealed that we'd left the trail in favour of tarmac at the shrine. But this chance mistake (and a heap of luck) had got us a comfy ride back to town, just in time to rescue our luggage from the station and check in to a comfortable Ryokan (Japenese-style guest house) 20 minutes before curfew.

    The wonderful hot tub at the guesthouse just about ensured Mel was still speaking to me the next morning ...

    Another footnote;
    I've discovered a few more things I can't do while in China ... like update my reading list (can't access the code to link to reviews/images) ... or transfer video files due to pitiful bandwidth. Not to mention riding a bike, but that's got nothing to do with censorship ... although it will do if the authorities ever see me in short trousers ...

    What I have added this week is something that I'm sure will be of interest to a lot of you - scroll down the sidebar and I've added league table for local beers. The only criteria for entry being I have to have drunk the beer in it's country of origin. In the course of my very extensive research I suspect I've probably drunk and forgotten a few more - but I guess that's what happens when you're dedicated to your work ...