A Travellerspoint blog

Month 3.5 Highlights

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Next stop: Vietnam!

Posted by Lis.L 01:59 Archived in China Comments (0)

The Illusion of Beauty - China Version

By Lis

While we travel, Toby is often focused on UNESCO world heritage status, religious affiliation to sights, or the best angle to photograph beautiful landmarks. I, on the other hand, get lost in cultural observances and norms. Lately I've been thinking about how a culture defines beauty. I think the first place to do the research is in the media. The face plastered on the billboard will likely be the one presented as Ideal. So right away I thought I had a grasp of what is considered beautiful in China. For women, it is fair skin, large, doe eyes, perfect teeth, and shiny hair. In other words, what most women are not. Isn't that the same all around the world? In times that promote high-fat, convenience food, thin is in. In lean times of hardship, curvy women are valued. If lower-class work has you in the sun, fair skin is better. If lower-class work has you indoors, glowing tans are better.

My thoughts were confirmed by a local guide who took the time to have a heart-to-heart with Toby, myself, and two other Westerners. We realized the desire to be fair skinned is the reason that women ride their motorbikes in the 40 degree heat with a long-sleeved shirt over their outfits. Using umbrellas to provide shade is the norm, and women will avoid the direct sunlight like the plague. Don't get me wrong - I think that the majority of Chinese women are beautiful, but by having such a narrow definition, especially regarding things you can't change without plastic surgery, conveys the wrong message, and immediately excludes all of the golden-skinned minority women in China.

For men, the norms were harder to crack. I observed several groups of men. The upper-class men dressed preppy and some grew their fingernails as a sign of not having to do manual labour (according to one source). The younger men were hipsters, with stylish hairdos that rivaled the women and brand name clothing.

In the Tibetan highlands of Jiuzhaigou, Toby and I met a young lady while out for a walk in a quiet village. She greeted us, and gave us a thumbs up. We couldn't understand her Tibetan, but grasped the meaning behind her gestures and facial expressions. She said I had a nice straight nose (straight finger over her nose with smile) and she had an ugly flat nose (finger pressed her nose down with frown). She said my skin was beautiful and white (pointing to me, then her white shirt and smiling) and hers was ugly and red (pointing to her cheek, her red sweater and frowning). My jaw dropped, and the only response I could come up with was to thank her. In hindsight, I wish I hadn't thanked her, because I was, in effect, confirming her delusion that I was beautiful and she was not. I wish I could have conveyed to her that I thought she was beautiful, asked to take a picture of her, or something.

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I scanned my thousands of photos for a picture of a minority woman, to illustrate their beauty and contrast their features with the pictures above, and am embarrassed to say that I didn't take any. My shyness, or lack of guts, really let me down in this area. So I Googled for pictures and found this one, but the accompanying website was blocked. Perhaps outside of China you can see the true beauty of its people a little more clear.

Posted by Lis.L 19:56 Archived in China Comments (3)

Hong Kong, UK?

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

Toby and I really didn't need another reason to visit Hong Kong, but we sure had a good one. Four of Toby's aunts, two cousins and two spouses still live there, so we were excited to visit them and reconnect with his roots.

We had a fantastic week visiting popular attractions, catching up with a university friend, and spending time with family doing what family does best - eating at some amazing restaurants. It is a completely different experience travelling to a city where you have local connections to show you around and recommend unadvertised hot spots. For a week we felt as though Hong Kong was a second home.

We focused our sightseeing on Kowloon, Repluse Bay, Lantau Island, Victoria Peak, the Piers, and retracing locations from Toby's grandparents' past. Many fond memories were triggered, and new ones were made. We were amazed that one city could have it all - a booming metropolis, sandy beaches, mountains, tropical forests, entertainment, an amazing variety of food, and character to boot. We also did some shopping in the many unique districts.

Hong Kong is noticeably different than mainland China. I remarked to our uni friend that I didn't think Hong Kong and China had anything in common. He laughed, and agreed. Then after further thought he added, "We share the same history."

Hong Kong was under British rule until 1997, and the major differences are quite obvious. The language is Cantonese (with many more English speakers than in Mainland), the currency is Hong Kong Dollars, and the side of the road driven on is the left. Media, including magazines, television shows and advertisements, are more open, with obvious Western influences. The line of products available in stores looked different, as did the stores themselves. Beyond that, the culture feels different. Rules and sanitation are strongly valued and the city runs efficiently without the chaos that accompanies many Chinese cities. There is even a "no spitting in the garbage can - it spreads germs" sign in Metro stations. There was also antibacterial coating on elevator buttons and hand rails. Queues were the norm, and traffic flowed in an orderly fashion without honking.

Hong Kong was one of our favourite cities to visit so far and we will definitely be back!

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Posted by Lis.L 19:47 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Month 2 Highlights

Part 1 by Toby, Part 2 by Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

Part 1
Suzhou is known for its canals and gardens. We spent a lot of our time on the canals since both of our hostels were situated along a canal. We also visited a few gardens, which were all nice. My favourite area was Tiger Hill, which had a leaning pagoda and some nice paths to walk on. Suzhou was not the most interesting place to spend a week (could be done in two days), but it was pleasant enough. We also took a day trip to a small town called Tongli, which is really close to Suzhou. Although it was a nice town, it was not really that different from Suzhou. The most interesting thing in Tongli is probably the Chinese Sex Culture Museum.

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After picking up or new visas from the PSB, we took the first bus out of Suzhou and went to Hangzhou. The reason to visit Hangzhou is to spend time on the West Lake, which is surrounded by tea-growing hills on three sides and the city on the fourth. We didn't see the city, but we drove through it in a taxi from the 'central' bus station, which was a 45 minute drive to our hostel. Our hostel was located in one of the tea hills, and we had nice views of a tea plantation from our window. West Lake was very beautiful. It is surrounded by parks, pagodas, walking paths and a hill that we climbed. The only negative was the heat and humidity, which caused instant sweat when stepping outside.

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Next we went to a place called Tunxi. Our primary reason was to visit Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain). However, we decided to stay an extra night and first visit some old villages with unique architecture. They were Xidi and Hongcun. You may recognize them from the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - the first fight scene was filmed there. It also delayed our climb from a Saturday (crazy busy) to a Sunday (mildly mad). We planned to climb, spend the night on the mountain, and descend on Monday.

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We got up early on Sunday (5:00 a.m.) and Lis was feeling feverish with a headache and swollen throat. So we took the cable car up and started to walk around. After three hours of walking, Lis was fading fast with a fever and chills so we checked in to our hotel where she slept for the afternoon while I explored on my own. I did the most challenging part, which is comprised of paths winding around peaks that go down the mountain and then back up on the other side (it reminded me of a Dr. Seuss book). The views were amazing and the vistas are claimed to be the inspiration for Pandora in Avatar (about 7 other sites also claim this). It was a really amazing trek and I was sad Lis was not experiencing it with me. I picked up Lis at 5:00 from her room (unisex dorms meant we had separate rooms) and we watched the sunset together through a thick mist. We met again at 4:15 a.m. to see the sunrise. There was a peak behind our hotel, which was supposed to be perfect for viewing the sunrise, but when we climbed to the summit, it was gated off. So, we descended, unable to tell climbers that it was closed (we were the first to reach it). When we did tell one man, he said, "I know. There's another place. Follow me." So, we climbed again. My left knee was hurting from over exerting myself the day before, and Lis was weak from not eating much in the last 24 hours. We got to the place and saw some red skies, but another peak blocked the actual sun (or so we thought). Thank goodness we stayed for a while, because all of a sudden: Here Comes The Sun! We took the cable car down as well, and didn't get the whole mountain experience we were hoping for, but it was still very beautiful. Lis says that I hurt myself because she wasn't there to slow me down :) We took the rest of that day to rest and recover, and left the next for Lu Shan.

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Lu Shan - In case you hadn't guessed, shan means mountain. It's different from Huang Shan, because there is a large village near the top of the mountain, which was where we stayed. Also, the emphasis isn't so much on climbing as on exploring. We walked along a relatively flat path (not as flat as my knee would have liked) to see views of the mountain (not as stunning as Huang Shan), lakes, geological features, temples, pavilions, waterfalls, bridges and a dam. It was nice, but again, busier than we had hoped. Although it was cooler up there, we still managed to work up a sweat.

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Part 2
When we left Lushan, we took a morning bus to get to the base of the mountain and to a nearby city. On that bus we met a Chinese-American family traveling from Los Angeles. They asked where we had been and where we were going. The mom said, "How can you do that? We find it difficult to travel in China and we speak Chinese!" That felt good - a little pat on the back for us! Anyway, on this bus the driver came around and handed out little plastic bags. For our garbage? I wondered. No, barf bags, claimed Toby. Very funny Toby..... but correct! The puking started once we began driving around the tight curves. In the row of 4 in front of us, 3 were puking. When we got off for a bathroom break, we saw other baggies full, and one person who missed the bag and hit the seat. Even the American lady puked. Grossness. When we got back on the bus, the little girl in our row had puked, so she threw her barf bag out the window. I pity the driver who was following us.

We ended up in a city called Nanchang, and took another bus to Changsha. Neither are tourist destinations, so we got to see real transit in China. Real = a nasty on-board toilet that we didn't see/use but could smell, and nasty men who spit and smoke on the bus. To top it all off, our bus was 2.5 hours late. Changsha had some Chairman Mao sights, but nothing for us except a bed in a hostel and a grocery store for some late night ramen noodles.

We left the next morning for Zhangjiajie, the "real" Avatar inspiration. We went first to the city, which was not very tourist friendly, and got info and a booking in the national park for two nights. Toby tried Mao family-style pork and said it was mostly fat. I tried the spiciest tofu I have ever had in my life and nearly spat it back up. It was really good! Hunan province is known for spicy food.

We went back to the bus station to go to the park with only a map in our hands. We were called over in Chinese to a bus with only Chinese writing on it and we matched the characters to know it was right. However, instead of taking the "tourist" bus to the park, we took the local bus, which made many stops where farmers got on with their crops and it was standing room only. Then we got a flat tire so we were herded to the next bus. Overall it was one of those experiences that you don't plan for, but make life interesting!

The national park was GORGEOUS! What a rare sight for Western tourists, as they don't tend to come this far. We were so happy to be staying for two nights to really explore the walking trails and see the peaks. The first day was the best, in hindsight. We took a cable car to a peak and did a circuit around the peak. We had some rain on all three days, but even that wasn't enough to ruin the day. The only frustrating part was that some of the trails weren't marked well, and some were lines rather than loops, so you end up walking back on the same path.

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On our third day we woke up to find a millipede in our room, which had spent the night with us! This day was really foggy, so we just quickly walked the path to a village. On the way we ran into some monkeys. We have seen wild monkeys several times now, and we are becoming increasingly frustrated by the fact that some tourists feed them and spoil them for others. What I mean is, the feeding tourist gets a good photo and a funny story, but the next tourist to walk by without food gets harassed or frightened by the increasingly brave monkeys. This pack of monkeys blocked our way and when we psyched ourselves up to walk by them, one lunged at me and grunted at me. It was scary because we were alone on the path. Even though there are signs everywhere not to feed our taunt them, some people still do. I really wish wild animals would be left wild, to watch from a distance. The other side of the coin is that other people tie up the wild animals to keep for photo-ops. This really breaks my heart to see a monkey/peacock/camel/etc. without space to walk and just BE wild. It's not natural. But people love those photos so they will continue to offer them.

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Dehang - At the bus station we met three Israelis also heading that way. The five of us were the only ones on the bus entering the village, just as the mass of Chinese tourists left the village - I guess they visit in day trips only. The bus lady made the "sleep" signal (two hands under your tilted head) and we said "yes!" so she took us to an inn that we had heard of and had a good reputation. I seriously think the five of us were the only tourists in the entire village staying the night. It was so quaint and lovely there. We stayed for two nights. We also ate at this inn and had great local, fresh, vegetarian food. We spent our time walking around the trails around the village, to waterfalls, through rice terraces, farms, and along rivers, taking in the scenery of the surrounding karst mountain peaks. All was well.... until..... we took a shower. The inn had one shared washroom. It was in the basement. It looked like a scene from a horror movie. There was the shower head, a squat toilet, a faucet that went into a bucket, and a chair. It was lit by bare light bulbs. When we went to use the washroom late on the second night we noticed a shadow of a creature... a spider/grasshopper hybrid it seemed. It was huge. That sparked, "I wonder if there is anything in our room?" so just for kicks we lit every nook and corner with our flashlight.... and found the largest spider I have ever seen, resting 3 feet above my bed!!!! It had eyes that looked at us! With the wood paneling and dim light, we wouldn't have noticed it. I got the creepy crawlies, and even Toby was too freaked out, so we called the innkeeper and she killed it for us (she hit it, it fell ON HER SHIRT and she threw it in the river. We had just witnessed her kill a chicken, so we knew she was up for the task). Needless to say we had a terrible sleep that night and got the heck out of town the next morning!

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Next stop was Fenghuang, a city with an old-town city centre along a river. Unfortunately, most of my memories of this town are negative because we had the most unhelpful staff at our hostel. I don't get angry with many people, but I wanted to shake her. Our conversations went like this: Do you have a bar here? (pointing at sign that said "bar") No. Okay, where can we eat? Eat. (shrug) Do you serve food here? No. But you have a menu on the wall. It says dinner, 10 yuan. No dinner. Okay. How can we get to Guilin? (shrug) Can you call the bus station for us? No. Can you call the train station for us? No, go to the ticket office. Where is it? Down the street. What is it called? Train ticket booking. Is the sign in English? No. THEN HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO FIND IT?? And guess what, it was in English. We have been so spoiled by the most helpful hostel staff ever that this chick was like a splash of cold water. We did end up finding places to eat, first at a local Chinese restaurant with yummy spicy tofu, then at a Western cafe with views of the river, then at a live music bar with a Chinese cover band that was way into Guns n' Roses. The only adjustment needed in Fenghuang was that they display their menu in cages in front of the restaurant - live fish, chicken, duck, rabbit, pheasant, hedgehog, mussels, you name it.

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Our overly optimistic "we can get to Guilin - look, it's right there on the map, so easy!" travel day did not go as planned. We took the earliest bus out of Fenghuang to Huaiha, where we had no idea what to do next so we taxi'd it around to bus/train stations to find something heading south. We got a bus to Jingzhou, where we just had to take out our phrasebook and everyone ran for the one person they knew spoke English. She was so lovely and helpful, and it gave us hope! She led us to a bus to Tongdao, and then politely asked how the heck we arrived in Jingzhou. Our bus to Tongdao took terrible back roads that were under construction, so we were late arriving. We got in at 6:30 and the bus station closed at 6. We were the talk of the town - backpackers, here! We relied on a girl with limited English to give us the low-down, "You stay here tonight." NOOOOOO...... so we quickly decided to make a major splurge, and hire a private taxi to take us the remaining three hours to Guilin. The driver was so unprepared for this, so we waited while he grabbed a friend for the ride and some gas money from his boss, and we were off. $75 CDN later, we arrived in Guilin.

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The city of Guilin appeared to be like Vegas when we arrived at night - lit up, flashy, huge karst peaks in the background. But by day it was dingy and not well taken care of. We spent day one touring the parks, peaks and "attractions" (This peak looks like an elephant! Pay us money to look at it!) and were very underwhelmed. I think that we have truly seen some of the best spots in China and so if you're not up to par, we notice. Day two was a day trip to the Longli Rice Terraces - winding slopes of mountain side with layers of rice crops. It was really nice to spend the day at the rice terraces, and very quiet treks were just what we needed. In Guilin we tried bamboo rice (rice cooked in bamboo), local noodles (so good and cheap) and a vegetarian restaurant in a Buddhist temple.

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Next stop was Yangshuo. To get here we took a bamboo raft for 6 along the Li River, to see the Karst Mountains sloping into the river (and water buffalo!). We decided to stay outside of the city, in what felt like a retreat. We really loved our hostel. It had a huge patio with great views, great menu, and a super friendly staff member who hooked us up with everything. (When we'd come in we'd hear her say, "Toby! How was your day?") The first day we went to a folk show which was cool because it was on the river. The next day was Toby's birthday so he got to choose what we did - and he chose bike riding. If you know me at all, you know I am not a cyclist. But with a little bit of coaxing and a minor hissy-fit, I did it. I even (against my will and better judgment) cycled through the city. And I did not die, nor kill anyone else. So it was a success. We biked to a water cave where you can go in a mud pool and sit in hot springs. Yangshuo is MUCH nicer than Guilin we wish we stayed here another day instead of Guilin. It might be our favourite spot so far.

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Posted by Lis.L 01:15 Archived in China Comments (0)

Month 1 Highlights

By Lis


View World Tour 2010-2012 on Lis.L's travel map.

Beijing – The first night, right after sending an email Toby and I just put our heads down for a little rest... and slept from 5:30 pm to 11:30 pm. Our roommates came in without knowing we were here! They were nice girls from Switzerland and Romania. We stayed up until 2 and got up at 7 am. It was overcast and rainy, so we ended up walking around Tiananmen Square in our rain coats with thousands of Chinese tourists. We found a lovely pedestrian area and bought some tea. We had lunch at a famous Peking duck restaurant... well, more accurately at its fast-food section. Then we went back to the hostel for.... another 7 hour nap! Boy, we couldn't avoid this jet-lag! Luckily Beijing is very safe so we went out again after it was dark. Our hostel was in this hutong area (narrow, winding streets) and we walked some more until settling on a small restaurant for dinner. Toby had beef noodle soup and I had veggie noodles. With two cokes it cost us $4. I think we'll be able to stay on budget!
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On Sunday we went on a tour of the Great Wall of China. We went with our hostel, which treks along a more abandoned section of the wall. Not much of it has been restored, which means it is too challenging for your average tourist, and therefore we were the only group there. It was fantastic in terms of authenticity, but as nature would have it, the recent rain meant that we couldn't see too far ahead and those lovely photographs of the wall snaking along the mountains were just unobtainable. So.... we extended our stay in Beijing another day so that we can go to the touristy/better-to-photograph section later. DSC_5113.jpg
On Monday we saw the big sights in Beijing: The Forbidden City, several parks and the Temple of Heaven. On Tuesday we took the subway to the Summer Palace and then went to a street market. Both days were 12 hours of walking and we were just beat. The best temples seem to be on the top of a hill, which means lots of stairs. The positive side is that snacks and drinks were cheap so we indulged whenever we feel the need. The negative side is that the humidity was quite heavy and there were crowds wherever we go. The subway was the busiest we have ever been on, and you literally push your way through.
On Wednesday we went on our second tour of the Great Wall, as well as visiting the Ming Tombs. The tour was disappointing for several reasons. First, we were with a group of Korean students (teacher`s college students) who didn't start to talk to us until the very end. They weren't very confident with their English, but were sure to take a picture with us! Second, although it was just the Koreans and us, the time-line was so fixed that we waited at the bus for 40 minutes after lunch even though we were all ready to go to the next thing. Third, they took us to several places to get our business - jade factory (we did buy a small trinket of jade but then reminded ourselves that we can’t do that any more), craft store, Chinese medicine spa, and a tea house. Finally, the last reason we didn’t like our tour was because it clearly stated "Badaling Wall" but we were taken to another section that wasn’t as picturesque. This tour guide was the only one so far that asked for tips (generally people don’t tip in China) and he was the only one that didn’t deserve it. But he hopped out of the van before we had a chance to tell him why he wasn’t getting a tip.

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We took a 6 hour bus to Datong on Thursday and got a basic hotel room for two nights. The city was nothing to write home about! On Friday we took a tour to nearby sites - a hanging (as in, hanging off the side of a mountain) temple and Yungang grottoes with large carvings of Buddhas inside. Both were remarkable to see and a real shame to have to endure the dingy city to get here.

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On Saturday we took a 7 hour train to Pingyao, which is a cute, well preserved town. Well, I should say it WAS because once the powers-that-be realized it was such a tourist draw they converted everything to a hotel or a restaurant and souvenir stalls line the street. It was a nice mellow hang-out for us to relax in for a few days. One day we got on the wrong tour which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as they went to places that we thought were too expensive, but as we were sharing a car with another Canadian couple the cost was shared. We visited a large 88-courtyard castle (Wang Family Courtyard) and an ancient fortress with underground tunnels.

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Next, we went to see the Terracotta warriors in Xi'an, which were built for the tomb of the first emperor of China so that he would have an army in the afterlife. There were over 8000 statues that were discovered in the 1970s by a farmer drilling a well (we saw him too). Interestingly, each statue has a unique face based on an actual person who had to be killed so that they could join the emperor in death. It was good to see, but, just like every where in China, it was packed with Chinese tourists. Xi'an was also interesting because it had a large Muslim population and we got to see the Chinese Muslims go to mosque during a call to prayer. We also went to Walmart in Xi'an! No, it's nothing like the Walmarts we have in Canada :)

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The next day we decided to check out Hua Shan, which is a mountain near Xi'an. It is one of the five sacred Taoist mountains of China. To save some time (and effort) we took the cable car up to one of the peaks. We hiked to two of the other peaks, which were actually very tiring, but rewarding as there were great views and some temples along the way.

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Next stop was Luoyang to see the Longmen Grottoes and the Shaolin Temple. The Longmen Grottoes were similar to the Buddhist grottoes we saw in Datong, but they were spread over a larger area and they were not as well preserved as the Datong grottoes. However, it was still interesting to see. The Shaolin Temple was cool, but not as cool as it sounds because all the tourists (including us) took the zen out of it. We saw a kungfu demonstration that was awesome. Toby especially liked the monkey style. The temple itself was okay. It seems like if you've seem one Chinese temple, you've seen them all. There was an interesting area outside of the temples that is full of pagodas that act as tombs for monks. This day was really rainy, so we were soaked several times and our ride back way delayed because of flooding. Our driver dropped us off at a hotel far from our hostel with our non-English speaking guide who called a friend to pick us up - all the taxis were busy in the rain.

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Qufu – This is the birthplace of Confucius. To get here, we had to first take a train from Luoyang to Zhengzhou (2 hours), and then another train at 11:33 pm to Yanzhou (5 hours), and then a bus to Qufu bus station (30 minutes), and then a taxi to our hostel. Unfortunately, we couldn't get a sleeper for the night train and it was BRUTAL! It was hot, sticky, smoky, and we had the "brilliant" idea of purchasing 4 seats that face each other, so that we would have more room, but we didn't realize that they sold standing-room-only seats. The aisles were packed with people eying our empty seats. To avoid looking like the rich westerners that took two seats while others stood, we offered our seats to people. Needless to say, we got no sleep and will opt for busses whenever possible.
Qufu was one of my favourite places because it was so mellow and quaint and a relaxing break from the chaos of big cities. We visited the Confucius Temple, Confucius Mansions and Confucius Forest. Did I mention that it is the birthplace of Confucius? Funny story from this town; they had horse-drawn carriages to take tourists to the sights, and one day while Toby and I were walking along the road a Chinese family stopped their carriage to get out and take a picture with us! Once finished they got back in the carriage and waved goodbye!

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Next we went to Tai'an, the city at the base of Tai Shan Mountain, the most sacred mountain in Taoism. I mentioned before in our blog that it wasn't quite what we expected, because the city itself was huge (I guess we were picturing a little more like The Sound of Music) and the mountain is such a tourist draw that there were vendors, restaurants etc. all the way up to the summit. For this mountain we took a bus to the half-way mark, then climbed steps to the summit, explored the summit (like a little town up there!) took the cable car back to half-way and walked the rest of the way down to our hostel. It was a long day on the mountain. People who walk the whole way often do it over night to avoid the heat and to catch the sunrise.

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Next step was Qingdao, the German town (not according to the German travellers we met there :) with churches, cathedrals, German architecture and naturally, a brewery! It is a popular weekend getaway because it has beaches, but not the clean and sandy ones we were hoping for. Here we went on a Tsingtao brewery tour, visited a German mansion, and a church bell tower. In the bell tower I just had time to say, "Does it chime on the half hour?" plug my ears and BONG.

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Next we flew to Shanghai, a hip metropolis that appealed to us because it is so clean, has a good feel to it and lovely modern architecture to look at. We did a lot of touring via metro and walking. We explored the old areas, a garden, a park, the business district with an 88 story observation deck and caught an acrobat show. We could have stayed a lot longer, but with Expo currently going on the prices were inflated out of our budget (no, we didn't go to Expo, which is one of our regrets).

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Our travel day on Aug. 4th was a nightmare. We got bad advice at the hostel that trains run from Shanghai to Suzhou every 30 minutes so just go over and get a ticket (Like the GO train in Toronto, we imagined). When we got to the train station, we learned that trains were sold out until 9 at night. Right that instant it started to pour! We had our full packs on, already sweating from 38 degree heat, and we had to find our way to the long-distance bus terminal in the rain. We got soaked, especially our shoes and socks. We got a bus, no problem, and then sat in our wet clothes for an hour. Once in Suzhou, we knew our hostel was away from roads that taxis could use, so we got a taxi to a nearby park and walked the rest. Pretty soon we were lost. We had to stop several people to ask for help and it took us an hour to find our hostel. The hostel was in a restored ancient building and was rustic (i.e. no a/c in common areas!) Even though the staff helped us immensely with our visa situation, we had to change hostels to one with a restaurant/lounge area with a/c as we had to stay in Suzhou for a week while we waited for our visa extension.

Even with bad travel days like the 4th, we are still eager to keep travelling, but have discovered that our "30 year old" tastes require frequent taxis, air conditioning and private rooms. As long as we can still keep within our budget (so far so good) we'll adjust our priorities and keep going. There is so much to see in China and we are eager to pick up our visas on the 11th and start round 2!

Posted by Lis.L 03:10 Archived in China Comments (2)

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