Sun 12 Sep 2010 - Fri 22 Oct 2010
Macau had two distinct personalities: the glitz and glam of the casinos and the old-world charm of the Portuguese historical buildings. We ventured into four of the top casinos: Casino Lisboa, Grand Lisboa, Wynn and MGM grand. At all but one we felt completely out of place with the high-rollers and over the top luxury. We couldn't even afford to eat at their noodle bars. But at the Grand Lisboa we hung out on one of the floors, had some noodles and dumplings while watching the girlie show, and even gambled a bit. On my lucky slot machine I played $20 and when I was down to my last $3 I won $25 and cashed out. When I tell you that this was HK dollars you will know that my winnings were about $3 Canadian and you will laugh at me. Oh well, it was fun! We also went up the Macau tower, where we watched bungee jumping from the top and saw nice city views. During the day time we followed the UNESCO list of World Heritage buildings and took too long so the best ones were closed once we got there. Too bad. The biggest downside about Macau is the lack of hostels, so we booked the cheapest hotel we could find in the city centre and got the dingiest, ugliest room we have ever seen. I called it a cockroach hotel on Facebook but I think the fact that it didn't have cockroaches is the only positive thing I can say about it. In our elevator we shared some very awkward time with two transvestite prostitutes and just chalked it up to another experience for the list. They were much prettier than me.
Back into mainland, we stayed in Guangzhou, or Canton which wasn't remarkably different, except for the language. We navigated through the city and checked another two things off of our list: Toby found some jamming space to rent to play drums for a while, and I bought new shoes. My tried-and-true hikers were coming apart at the seams (literally) and we splurged on some really good ones vs. the Chinese brands that say The North Face but truly aren't, so what are they? One kind of cool experience here is that at one of the restaurants we tried we were with a group of new western parents who were picking up their adopted Chinese babies for the first time. Love was totally in the air that night.
Next we took the fast train to Wuhan. The train itself was a sight for Toby who monitored the speed (up to 350 km per hour) and kept reminding me that a 12 hour ride was only taking us 3.5. Wuhan was simply a research stop for us as we looked up Yangtze River cruises, but we also had a really nice gab session with other travellers at the hostel. We ate lotus seeds and drank beer and solved the world's problems.
We are glad we decided to splurge on our cruise: it also gave us some insight as to why our parents love cruising so much. They take care of everything. For three days we were comfortable, well-fed, entertained (!) and mesmerized by the scenery. We saw the Three Gorges Dam on day one (I am so mature... my joke of the day was “Will we see the whole dam project?”) complete with 5 step lock that took 4 hours to complete, a narrow stream on a small boat on day two, and Ghost City on day three. Truth be told, we had more fun with the staff than the other passengers; they were certainly older than our very YOUNG parents and not used to Chinese anything. We did meet two nice Slovenian guys and an Indonesian family who gave us travel advice. The highlight of the cruise was perhaps playing majong with the Slovenian men with a circle of Chinese men around us giving us advice in Chinese. Who got majong first? Me, that's who, and slamming those tiles down and having them cheer for me was exhilarating.
The Yangtze has certainly changed since the dam was finished, and it's a shame we didn't do this trip 3 years ago. We had no idea that so many villages, towns, temples, etc. are now under water as the dam caused the water to rise on one side by 70 metres. We watched a Pilot Guides video that showed the Ghost town, for example, three years ago and now the ENTIRE town is gone, with only the temples at the top. Our ship docked above where the original city was. The stream we visited is famous for the traditional way the trackers move the boats upstream by pulling them along the shore while naked. We didn't see any strong currents, but the fully-clothed men did give us a demo of how it used to be. The cruise was still enjoyable and we're glad we did it!
The cruise dropped us off in Chongqing, where we visited the old town (read: tourist street), the Three Gorges Museum (boring but free) and took a day trip to another Buddha carving site called Dazu. We also experienced Chongqing hot pot, in which the broth used to cook the food is so densely packed with chillies that it was a dark red colour. They also use these weird seeds that have a very strong taste and make your mouth numb. Rumour is that rural dentists use it as an anesthetic! Although the extreme spiciness was hyped a lot, Toby said it was not that hot and he didn't even require a drink. Last night was Mid Autumn festival and our hostel hosts threw a party with moon-cake making (and eating) and KTV - the Chinese karaoke. Avril and Britney were popular choices.
Autumn weather arrived in Chengdu, which had a good feel to it and several attractions. First, we checked out the tea houses in the parks, where the locals have their ears cleaned while they sip. They claim it's relaxing; we bought the tea but not the cleaning! We were approached by a man in the park, and while that type of sentence rarely ends well, it really did for us. He was a free-lance tour guide and has a passion for REAL opera, not the stuff tourists go to. He offered us a backstage pass at a local opera taking place that afternoon. Typical for us we hesitated, but decided that we always watch travel shows where they have a local guide and wonder how to get one of our own, so we decided to go for it. It was great. We met all the actors backstage and watched them put on their makeup. We watched the musicians tune up, and then settled in the front row to watch the classical performance. No one in the audience was under 70 or foreign. It felt like a privilege to be there. The opera itself was really interesting; the two lead actors were the best and sang like nobody's business. Our guide whispered the plot to us during breaks. It was interesting to me, with my (limited) theatre background, that the actors broke character to accept tips during a well-performed number.
Also in Chengdu we spent a morning in the Panda Breeding Research Centre, which was one big "Awwwww" from start to finish. It was set up like a zoo in parts, and had other larger enclosures for red pandas and teenage pandas. We went early enough to see some pandas frolic before falling asleep for the rest of the day. We also wandered around the city to visit temples, squares and a mosque. We passed on rabbit head, the local specialty, and instead ate at an amazing vegetarian restaurant twice. Our hostel hosted a dumpling party, so we got to see how to make them ourselves, then stuffed ourselves silly.
We took a short flight to Jiuzhaigou, a national park with higher elevation and therefore lower temperatures. We spent two days visiting the many lakes in this park. The folk story is that a goddess dropped her mirror and it broke in 114 pieces. Each lake was a different shade of shocking turquoise, and even though we were warned that it would be crowed over the national holiday, we found quite a bit of solitude. We were able to do some bird watching, as there were so many species we have never seen before. They also had Tibetan prayer wheels, prayer flags and stupas, as the locals are ethnically (though not politically) Tibetan. We ate yummy bread cooked on the street, and Japanese food at our hostel.
We booked a night at a Tibetan homestay for the following day, which left us feeling disappointed because it didn't meet expectations. Our expectations were that we would hang out with this family, help with their daily life, they would show us around their village and make us traditional meals. What ended up happening was that we were left in the home with Grandma and baby and we wandered the village ourselves and even walked their dog to occupy us (and ease our guilt that he was tied up all day). Meals were simple, and we ate alone in front of the tv. Interaction with other family members was minimal. We went to bed early, only to hear other guests arrive and chat. Why didn't they tell us to wait up? It was a very expensive, and the beautiful scenery with horses and yaks wandering just didn't make up for it.
We took a bus to Songpan, a dusty town that was half cowboy ranch and half Muslim quarter - the wild, wild, west meets Islam. There was a tight knit group of people who catered to foreign tourists, and we had no idea how tight! We found beds, meals, and horse treks in about three minutes. We also renewed our visa in a few hours for the last time. We eagerly signed up for the three day horse trek that would take us to Ice Mountain and back. The morning of our departure we awoke to rain. We stood in the rain while they set up the horses and before we left we were soaked. They gave us rain ponchos to wear on the horses that left our lower legs exposed. After a few hours of riding in the rain, we were miserable and wet. Then we had to take a turn walking down the steepest hills. The path was mud and we literally slid down while collecting mud on our pants and shoes. My horse had an attitude and wanted to be in the front, but also wanted to be able to stop and eat without another horse passing him. Toby's horse had an attitude and kicked other horses - and riders. The guides dealt with this by telling them something in Tibetan. We arrived at camp at around 4 and they set up a big tent out of a tarp and made a fire underneath. We sat on the ground and coughed up the smoke. They made good food! There's the one positive! But I said right away, do you think we can go home early? After a night in a small tent, in pouring rain, freezing from cold, with only a yak-wool blanket that had a bad smell to warm me, I woke up with a migraine. Toby. I need to go back. Now. We communicated this to the guides with gestures and sad faces and perhaps not surprisingly 6 out of the other 8 riders also wanted to go back. We had a nice group of 4 Israelis, 2 Belgian, 1 French and 1 Aussie. The French guy and the Aussie stuck it out for the rest of the ride and rest of us had a nice sunny day to ride home. While my butt and back were sore from the day before (more likely from sitting on the ground than riding on the horse) I was able to enjoy some - brief - parts. Not the part where the children lit a firecracker and my horse shot off like a light. Not the part where my horse tussled with another horse and I was almost thrown. And not the part where we dangled over the steep cliffs, trusting our lives to animals who probably hadn't had a day of rest in their short lives. Here's the happy moment from the trip: Toby's horse and my horse were happily walking side by side, a baby horse (sans saddle, pack or reigns) skipped in between and we rode in silence for about 15 minutes. This is the image I hope to remember.
We fought with the horse guy to get a partial refund and finally did. With the time and money we took a day trip to Huang Long. We walked the paths along the pools of water (the picture will explain better than I can) and once again avoided the hoards of tourists, who prefer cable cars. It was a nice day, and when a light snow started to fall it felt really peaceful. We ate our packed lunches at the foot of an abandoned temple while the other tourists rushed by on the other side.
We had an 8 hour bus ride back to Chengdu, which took us right through the heart of the sight of the 2008 earthquake. We were surprised to see tourist signs, pointing to damages for photo-ops, including Rock in House, Collapsed Bridge, and Flooded Village. There was also a sign directing visitors to the epicentre of the earthquake, which we were too far to see. They are still rebuilding roads now, which is why the journey was so long. In Chengdu, the National Holiday was in full swing. Prices were up and crowds were unavoidable. So for the first time on our trip, Toby and I spent two days without leaving our hostel - minus a hotpot excursion. We were in a very nice hostel that had great space to chill in, and served great food. They even lent us DVDs to watch in our room. We felt rested and rejuvenated after those two days, and on the last day of the holiday we visited the Leshan Giant Buddha. Our guess that tourists would be on their way back home was correct, and the queues were non-existent in the morning when we arrived.
We took a very cheap flight to Lijiang, which has a charming old town in the heart of the city. Unfortunately, we had unseasonable rain for the first two days, so after a bit of exploring (and eating – good food here!) we ended up relaxing at the hostel. We felt guilty since we had just taken two days of relaxing, but it wasn't worth getting soaked for. On the third day we took a bus to the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. After a late start in the day, and a mis-start due to missing signs, we were going full speed ahead, which happened to be uphill for the first 5 hours! We had plans to meet with two friends at a certain guest-house, so we had a tight timeline. I found the trek very challenging. There was a worn path, which was flat at first, then muddy from the previous day's rain, then rocky bends taking us up to the summit of a mountain. At the peak we rested and took some gorgeous pictures of the gorge and snow-capped mountains surrounding it. We were tired and hot, having shed all of our warm layers down to a t-shirt and shorts. For the descent, we had a random dog follow us for two hours and take turns leading the way. We had nothing to feed him, so we’re not sure why he stayed. We nicknamed him Tiger, and he waited while we took pictures or rested, and changed paths if we chose a different one than him. He took us right to the door of the Halfway Guesthouse, where we admired the view, chatted with friends, and rested our weary bones.
The next day was a shorter, easier but more dangerous hike. We teetered on the edge of cliffs, and crossed waterfalls with a deadly drop. We ended our walk at another guesthouse along the road, and got a ride back to Lijiang. We spent another day exploring the old town and found that the place really grew on us. We enjoyed strolling down the cobble-stone streets, and sitting at restaurants watching time go by.
The next stop was supposed to be Lugu Lake. Our 6:50 am bus ticket was booked, but we waited by the side of the road for an hour and a half without pickup. Several phone calls later, a rep from our hostel and the bus company met us to take us to a substitute bus. The substitute was cheaper, dirtier, and not direct – but no one told us until we boarded at 9:15. Fortunately, the bus stopped at another station closer to our hostel, so we got off and demanded our money back. Our hostel took care of that, and let us chill there while we waited for a later bus to Dali.
Dali also had an old town, but it just wasn't as nice as Lijiang's. Our hostel arranged day trips, so on the second day we took a cable car up a nearby mountain to trek the 12 km along its path. It was a nice walk, but nothing spectacular. The next day, we visited the three pagodas, which are iconic to Dali. Besides the pagodas, there was a large monastery and temple complex on the same grounds and a delicious vegetarian restaurant. The pagodas, which are around 1200 years old, were definitely the most interesting part of the day. After that, we had some pancakes and milkshakes in the old town before heading back to the hostel.
The next morning, we headed to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. We opted for the non-deluxe bus, which happened to be one of the nicer buses we've taken in China. The driver even enforced the no smoking rule! After an easy five hours through beautiful mountains and farmland on a newly paved road, we arrived in Kunming. Our hostel had a great rooftop patio, so we just relaxed up there when we weren't exploring the city. We found our way to Stone Forest and applied for our next visa.
Our last stop in China was the beautiful Yuanyang Rice Terraces near the border of China and Vietnam. The rice terraces sprawled out beautifully around villages and we had a great day exploring many of them. These terraces were similar to the ones we saw near Guilin, but this time they were filled with water, so they looked like mirrors reflecting the sunlight. Either way, they are amazing.
Next stop: Vietnam!