A Travellerspoint blog

China (Yangshuo)

Having a blast riding fast past the karst

semi-overcast 20 °C

After 22 hours on a train and an overnight stop at the industrial and subsequently touristically (???) deficient town of Liuzhou, we boarded a bus to Yangshuo. Finding the correct bus is always difficult, but more so in industrial towns with no tourism infrastructure and very little English. The written Chinese language is comprised of approximately 8000 characters. Apparently, the average person throughout their lifetime will know 6000 characters and reading a newspaper requires knowledge of about 3000 characters. A few decades ago the Chinese adopted a kind of phonetic writing system to help with foreign communications but it never really caught on and is rarely used or understood among the Chinese people. Luckily for us, we found that many of the Chinese symbols actually look like things. We stood in front of the bus timetable in Liuzhou (with more than a hundred destinations listed in Chinese) with our piece of paper with Yangshuo written on it in Chinese and tried to work out the timetable:
Glenn: The Chinese for Yangshuo looks like the letter B, then a ladder, then a box, then some drawers.
Bec: Right, so we're looking for B ladder box drawers.
Glenn: Yep.
Five minutes of looking later.........
Bec: There it is
Glenn: Nope, that's B ladder CAGE drawers.
Bec: Hmmm, yeah, I think you're right.
Five more minutes of looking later........
Bec: We could always go to tree antenna tree tree and then catch another bus to B ladder box drawers.
Glenn: Good idea. No wait, there it is. That's definitely B ladder box drawers.

We eventually arrived in Yangshuo (aka B ladder box drawers, aka southern China's answer to Khao San Road) and made the grave error of checking into a guesthouse above what turned out to be Yangshuo's karaoke strip. We woke (a loosely applied term when kept awake all night by dreadful Asian renditions of such already dreadful songs as Everything I do I do For You by Brian Adams and Whitney's I Will Always Love You) the next morning to the most amazing vista of karst scenery.

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Karst scenes in Yangshuo

We hired bikes and rode out through rice fields, across bridges and through orange groves and small villages.

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Cycling in Yangshuo

The weather wasn't brilliant, but all the same we decided to catch a local bus up to Xindi and then hike 24km along the river down to XingPing and then take a bamboo raft back to Yangshuo the following day. There's huge business for the locals in bamboo rafts and almost everyone owns one and hopes to make money ferrying tourists around the local area. One local woman even bought herself a ticket on our bus to Xingdi in the hope that she'd convince us before we got there to take a bamboo raft to somewhere else with her. The scenery was amazing, though somewhat foggy, and walking through 24km of mud was well worth the effort.

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Bamboo boats

The Longji Rice Terrace was a great day trip from Yangshuo and a fine example of agricultural engineering and creativity. Along the way we stopped at a not-very-authentic local village and met some ladies with incredibly long hair performing some local dances.

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Longji rice terraces

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A local at Longji

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Long hair at Longji

Yangshuo really is southern China's answer to Bangkok's Khao San Road. With dozens of bars, great food, endless outdoor activities and enough neon to outshine an 80s theme party, Yangshuo (or Yangers to expats who've been there longer than a week) is a blackhole for the weary backpacker. Backpackers have been known to arrive but never leave and we spent about ten days there just generally hanging around and doing not much at all really.

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Neon in Yangshuo

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Getting some exercise in Yangshuo

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Local chef in Yangshuo

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These baby bum-pants are all the rage in China, though we can't quite work out how they're supposed to help!!

We met a Chinese kid called Jo who is ten years old and likes to practice his English on tourists. At first we were a bit suspicious of him (almost everyone wants something from tourists in China) but we soon found he genuinely just wanted to have a conversation in English. Each night he'd find us in whatever restaurant we were in, sit and have a chat, then move on to find his other tourist friends.

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Kids at play

When the time came to leave, we decided to take a sleeper bus to Guangzhou and then fly to Bangkok. Having taken countless trains across China we thought the bus might be a neat experience. WRONG!!!! The bus had short bunk beds in three rows along the length of the bus and we lurched and swayed along through eight hours of Chinese roadworks before being turfed off the bus, tired and nauseated, on the side of the road somewhere in the middle of Guangzhou at 5am. We spent three hours trying to find a Metro station that didn't exist (Guangzhou wins our award for worst signage but most heplful random local of our travels) and eventually made our way to a hostel on the river for the day. Glenn trawled another motorcycle market and Bec caught up on some sleep before taking a late flight to Bangkok to start the Thailand leg of our trip home.

Posted by TDL 18:51 Archived in China Comments (1)

China (Chengdu)

How much can a panda bear?

sunny 20 °C

Leaving Xi'an, we again took the overnight train to our next destination: Chengdu. With the combined purposes of broadening our train travelling experiences and alleviating our budget, we decided to take a hard sleeper class bed to Chengdu rather than the soft sleeper class bed. From this we added more weight to our theory that one in six people snore and that this class of ticket should be renamed 'concrete-class' as, like we've found with the rest of China, the beds were as hard as concrete.

Further to, or as a result of Bec's enormous childhood collection of bears, we arrived in Chengdu with the sole purpose of seeing some panda bears. Again, we wasted no time in getting ourselves on a bus and out to the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Station just outside of Chengdu. We took a day trip from our guesthouse which got us there before the tour bus hoards arrived and we spent a blissful hour watching the gorgeous and comical pandas go about their morning feeding activities.

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The poorer cousin to the black and white Giant Panda is the Red Panda. More like a fox or a cat, the Red Panda is not believed to be as endangered as its Giant Panda cousins, or as photogenic. A photo with a Giant Panda costs 1000 yuan (about AUD$250), while a photo with a Red Panda costs 100 yuan (about AUD$25). Alternatively, have your pic taken for free with the cardboard cut-out in front of the Red Panda enclosure!! Many of the Giant Pandas are sponsored by individuals and corporations. Most of them are named things like ZuZu or Ring Rong, except for the pair sponsored by Microsoft who are named Microsoft and Unlimited Potential. How much can a panda bear?

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A whole new yardstick by which cruel names are measured..................

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The Red Panda

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As close as Bec could get

Chengdu has other charms and we spent a week there just hanging around and enjoying the warmer weather. We sent another box of purchases home and did a bit more market shopping and temple-seeing.

Glenn went mountain bike riding through the peach blossom trees on the outskirts of town with an Irish guy he met on a riding forum.

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Riding through the peach blossom fields

We took a day trip out to Leshan to check out the Giant Buddha, supposedly the world's largest seated Buddha. He was quite spectacular, though making our way through the crowds down the mountainside staircase made us glad we weren't travelling in summer.

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Leshan Giant Buddha

One thing we didn't do a lot of in Chengdu was eat. Sichuan food is incredibly hot and even though we thought we'd broken ourselves in in terms of spicy food, Chengdu was mega spicy and we found ourselves eating boring old fried rice or nothing at all!!

We're constantly amazed by the many modes of transport in China. The streets of Chengdu are one huge loading bay and it's not uncommon to see a man pushing two fridges up the road on his bike.

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Chinese transport

Posted by TDL 20:45 Archived in China Comments (0)

China (Xi'an)

'That's obviously clay, now go away'

sunny 10 °C

We took another overnight sleeper train (again, better than some of the places we've stayed in) from Beijing to Xi'an and wasted no time in getting ourselves out to see the Terracotta Army. After the usual enforced lunch stop, we arrived at the site of the Terracotta Army which until 35 years ago was farmland. The story goes that the landowner and his men were digging a well when they discovered a large terracotta head which lead to the continuing excavation of what is so far more than 1000 life-size warriors. The landowner was paid 10 yuan for his land back in the 70s and he now spends his days sitting behind a sign that says 'No Photo' at the tourist information centre. Despite all this, we found the Terracotta Army experience to be a little....... underwhelming. Housed in huge sheds covering three massive dig pits, the army is in various stages of cracked and shattered excavated disarray. Give it another 35 years of excavation and rehab, the army will be truly spectacular. One of us, who shall hereby remain nameless (but not the one who thought that all wheat grew to shoulder height), was pleasantly surprised to find that the warriors were actually life-size rather than knee-height.

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Terracotta Army

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At the big pit

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Looking over the big pit

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"Sod this. I've been standing here for thousands of years. Wake me up when something happens."

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Adding the final touches to some clay lookalike warriors

We bought a couple of imposing, knee-height warriors to guard our front door on the assurance of our salesman that they were metal rather than clay.

Xi'an's old city is contained within its historical wall and we spent a day walking the 14km along the top of the city wall. It took 5 hours or so to walk but we enjoyed a new perspective on the city from ten metres above the hustle and bustle of the city.

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Atop Xi'an's city wall

Xi'an's Big Goose Pagoda was lovely by night and set a nice scene for the city's sound, water and light show.
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Big Goose Pagoda by night

The Belltower was also nice, though somewhat disappointing in its lack of sizeable bell.
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Not the original bell tower bell

Posted by TDL 01:58 Archived in China Comments (0)

China (Beijing)

Beijing Bling!! (Warning, picture overkill!!)

sunny 15 °C

After shopping up a storm under the Shanghai sky, it was time to move on for some Beijing Bling. We took a very flash overnight train (more flash than most of the hostels and guesthouses we've stayed in of late) from Shanghai to Beijing. Boarding a train in China is rather like boarding a plane: xray your stuff, get herded into a waiting lounge and then wait until the train police open the gates to the platform, at which point the idea is to run like hell to the train or get out of the way while the rest of China runs like hell to the train (a seemingly pointless persuit seeing as everyone has an allocated seat or bed).

On arriving in Beijing we were greeted with the capital's concession to Olympic security: xray machines in metro stations. It seems to be perfectly acceptable to carry pocket knives and kitchen knives on the train, but deodorant spray cans are serious contraband and we found ourselves unpacking Glenn's bag in order to surrender our security threat. We checked into our guesthouse in a traditional Chinese Hutong and then set out to check out Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City. Again, the security presence is well felt and we queued for quite some time before security deemed us safe to trod on Tian'anmen Square. The place was an absolute madhouse with Chinese tourists keen to have their photo taken under Mao's picture and, grand as it was, Tian'anmen Square felt rather sterile and not the kind of place for weekend picnics and kite flying.

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Mao overlooks Tian'anmen Square

Possibly our biggest Chinese highlight thus far has been our visit to the Great Wall of China. We were determined not to simply take a bus out to the closest section, see it, touch it and leave. Instead we took a three hour bus trip out to the Jinshanling section and hiked 10km to the Simatai section. It was excellent. Knee-knackering but excellent. Many parts of the wall were crumbled and some sections were virtually vertical. We saw probably 20 other hikers on our section of the wall and we were accompanied periodically by several ageing Chinese hawkers selling anything from water to t-shirts to beer. The air was clear and the wall was visible for miles, though unfortunately the Chinese government are at present building an expressway very close to the wall which is sure to destroy the mystery and tranquility of that section of the wall. On reaching Simatai, we took a zip-line (Bec: A Chinese zipline? Hell no!! I've seen Chinese safety standards!! Glenn: It's either that or walk another 40 minutes to the bottom. Bec: Alright, but you're going first.) across a ravine to a restaurant in the nearby village. In all, an excellent experience.

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On the Great Wall

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The old-world Great Wall under the new-world flight path

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'Look mum, no hands!!' Bec defies death on a Chinese zip-line

The next day we took our painful selves (OK, Bec's painful self) to the Olympic Stadium and the Water Cube. Again, cue Chinese security. The Stadium is certainly an engineering masterpiece and we were able to have a run around inside the Stadium.

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The Birdsnest

And so the shopping continued. Bec bought two more pairs of boots and a jacket (and was decidedly smug with herself and her bargaining abilities) and Glenn continued with the bike-bit-buying mission, this time being asked to supply cheap goods rather than buy them.

The joy of travelling in Beijing so soon post-Olympics is that Beijing is immaculate. The metro is super clean and self-explanatory, public toilets are everywhere, English menus abound and all the major attractions are still gleaming from their pre-Olympic make-overs.

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Beijing bling

The traffic is mental, though we found it to be more manageable than Shanghai. China's road rules seem to be more 'guidelines' than rules and bike and scooter riders are a law unto themselves. The whole thing seems to work though and we've not witnessed any accidents as yet (this is probably attributed to a law which dictates that foreigners cannot drive in China).

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Beijing bike parking

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A store selling police equipment. Maybe a set for the Triton or the Barina?

Our food experience continued in Beijing with a plate of traditional roast duck and our first introduction to a Chinese hotpot (huge and hot, obviously). Beijing's night food market is an impressive display of star fish, grasshoppers, seahorses and over-priced noodles all for the eating.

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Duck carving

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Star fish and sea horses feature on the market menu

And again, time to move on......

Posted by TDL 22:12 Archived in China Comments (0)

China (Shanghai)

An eel meal.

overcast 10 °C

After two nights in transit (overnight train in upright seats from Ljubljana to Zurich, overnight flight from Zurich to Shanghai) we arrived in Shanghai very stinky and almost comatose from lack of sleep and serious head colds.

We took the MAGLEV (one of the fastest trains in the world which operates by magnetic levitation) from the airport to the outskirts of the city at a very tidy 431km/hour. The cars on the parallel freeway looked like they were going backwards and the whole trip took only eight minutes. After a bit of confusion at the metro station over trains not running, we eventually made it to our hostel and got into beds we didn't get out of again for two days.

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The Maglev's speedo at 430km/hour

We'd been really looking forward to getting back to Asia. We love the food, the smells and generally just the feel of Asian countries and we weren't disappointed when we finally woke up to look out our window and find a woman cooking noodles on a street stall. We woke up to the smell of her cooking every morning for six days.

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Mmmmm, street stir-fry

On eventually leaving our hostel, we wandered along the Bund (Shanghai's riverside) and watched the hundreds of barges and cruise boats go by and then strolled through the neon madness that is Shanghai's Nanjing Road. We fobbed off countless entrepeneurs keen to sell us knock-off watches and skate shoes, determined to do our own bargaining in Shanghai's clothing markets.

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Ad boats on the Bund

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Neon on Nanjing

Our shopping mission started out with a research trip to a few big-name department stores to find that the prices were all very western and that the best bargains would be found in local markets. Glenn made an absolute killing at the Shanghai Motorcycle Market where he bought gloves, knee guards, elbow guards and body armor for well below retail cost in Australia. Bec wasn't quite so successful in her boot-buying mission coming away with only three pairs. We sent our first carton of Chinese acquisitions home three days after arriving in China.

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Shanghai Motorcycle Market

Shanghai seems to have a bit of a reputation for being Beijing's poor cousin in terms of tourist attractions. This may be true, but we still enjoyed the very kitch (and again very neon) Bund Tourist Tunnel and an eye-popping performance by a group of Chinese acrobats.

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More neon inside the Bund Tourist Tunnel

The food in Shanghai was excellent, though we seem to have lost some of our ability to eat with chopsticks. We often eat from street stalls so that we can point and order, rather than play the food lottery in restaurants with no English menus. Not all plans are foolproof, however. We went to a restaurant next door to the hostel which had a vague kind of English menu. We pointed at beef and chicken and then said 'noodles'. The waitress looked confused for a minute before holding her hands far apart to indicate something long. Yep, excellent, noodles thanks. Not so. What actually arrived was a big eel, chopped into bits (with the exception of its head which sat proudly staring at us through seared eyes atop the plate) and stirfried to death in oyster sauce and it took us about half an hour to pick the bones out of it with our chopsticks. Entertainment ++ for the locals. Naturally we were wondering how much our eel speciality was going to cost us.The whole meal cost us 55 yuan ($12) for three mains and a beer so we were thinking that we got the food poisoning fish (the fish sit in tubs of water out the front of the restaurants, this particular eel shared its water with a bunch of cane toads about to become Braised Bullfrog) rather than the super-expensive tourist fish and set about drinking copious quantities of preventative beer in keeping with the theory that alcohol on the skin kills bacteria, thus alcohol in the stomach will do likewise. We were naturally very grateful that we got a plate of eel and not a plate of stirfried snake or braised bullfrog.

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Toads, fish and squid await their stir-frying in plastic tubs in front of restaurants

After a week in Shanghai, it was time to head for Beijing...........

Posted by TDL 23:10 Archived in China Comments (0)

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