Time out

Greetings from Yangshou!

We are just at the end of a relaxing few days in Yangshou where we have had a home-stay with a Chinese family who have made us feel very welcome. We’ve even learnt a bit more Chinese and helped out cooking our evening meal which was a very amusing experience with much hilarity caused by our inital ineptitude and the novelty of having a man in the kitchen.

Yangshou itself is set in magnificent limestone karst scenery, it’s quite a sight to see these gigantic near-vertical rocks sprouting from the ground all around you. We spent a day cycling around the the foothills of the karsts on little tracks weaving their way around rice paddy fields where the farmers were planting rice and ploughing the paddy fields with water buffalo. We even managed to climb a karst with a large hole at the top called Moon Hill which was an achievement more for running the hawker gauntlet at the bottom than for climbing the 1000 or so steps to the top. Later in the day the heavens opened which coincided with us having just set out on a clay track and the clay clogged up the wheels on out bikes so we had to carry them back to the road and pull the clay off with our hands and then cycle through lots of puddles to get the bikes clean again, with the side effect of making us even muddier – we arrived back plastered in the stuff!

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Other than that we’ve spent a few days chilling out, a little more than intended actually as a day of rain yesterday prevented us from embarking on another bike ride and boat trip down the river.

We’re now feeling that our batteries have had a bit of a quick charge and that we’ve renewed impetus for tackling Vietnam where, all things being well, we should be arriving on Saturday.

I’m afraid the pictures are still not fixed, we’re still working on getting them back, in the meantime you can still view all the latest pictures on our flickr sites – click on the links to the right. Viv has uploaded a few and I have uploaded lots, with even more to come!

And finally congratulations to Dan and Fran on their recent engagement.

Down South

Hello from South China!

We’ve seen a good improvement in our experience of China since the last post. I’m sure you’ll all be glad to hear that and as Kat points out, at least we’re not at work. Fair enough.

We had a delivery of 11th hour train tickets on Wednesday and so boarded our two night sleeper train. You might think we’re mad for getting on yet another sleeper train after the earlier write up. The only other choice is flying and we’re trying to be good and not using the planes.

It turned out that luck was on our side and we were sleeping next to three Chinese versions of John’s aunt Ros. They fed us all sorts of things and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Most of it was pretty healthy. It’s the only period in my life when i’ve eaten two entire cucumbers in 24 hours. We had lots of fun talking to and being mothered by these women, who turned out to be physics lecturers from a Xian University! We were really upset when we woke on Friday morning to find that they had already gone. It would have been nice to say goodbye.

I think this is a good time to snitch on John. HE’S EATEN AND ENJOYED CUCUMBER. OK it was cooked in a stir fry but he ate it alright. I saw it with my own eyes.

When we arrived in Nanning on Friday morning it was a bit different. The locals are not used to travellers/tourists and so were not trying to sell us anything. The average level of English was zero. It was more fun that way. The place did seem a little miserable at first as a few people in a row didn’t really want to play the improvised communication game and just shook their heads. After we handed in our Vienamese visa application we actually managed to get some train tickets booked (yes, hooray the first time!) This was largely thanks to John’s impressive copying of Chinese characters which we presented to the train station staff.

We couldn’t believe our luck. Things had gone smoothly for a change. (This is by Chinese standards, it still actually took us 7 hours to sort everthing). We were happy though so earned the right to get leathered in our hotel room. Happy days, one of the best nights we’ve had in ages!

Today we arrived in Yangshuo. On the way we met more women who gave us food. Very tastly corn on the cob this time. We’ve not really had much of a chance to explore Yangshao yet as we’re a bit tired from the 7 hour journey and the previous evening’s merryment. The Kaarst landscape is absolutely stunning though and we can’t wait to hit the hills.
We’re staying with a Chinese family here. They’re very nice, if a little shy at the moment. We all ate around the family table this evening (lovely!!) and we’ve already had a Chinese language lesson. Our memories are abysmal so we need to practice a fair bit. show_random($num=4, $tags=’yangshuo’); ?>

Tomorrow we’re going out on bikes and having a cooking lesson.

Doesn’t that sound better? It seems that not all of China is the same. It is still pretty busy down here but doesn’t seem as bad. Someone even let us cross the road yesterday! To be honest some of our new found optimism may stem from us slowing down the travelling a little, to some extent we may be getting used to the Chinese way but I think the best of China is definately away from the main cities and tourist traps. Seems obvious doesn’t it?

Yum and Yuk

Yum

The food in China is divine. It always made me ill in Britain so I never touched it. Here it’s incredible and also extremely cheap. The good thing about that is you’re free to try things without worrying about wasting your money. Only once have I not liked something we’ve tried. We thought we were buying fried potatoes and it turned out to be yakky bean curd. I bloody hate bean curd it’s just revolting, why anyone would want to eat it is beyond me!

On the other hand we chose not to try any of the more unusual kebabs on sale in the streets of Beijing. The choice included Cicadas, scorpions and sparrows. show_random($num=4, $tags=’Donghuamen’); ?>

Yuk

I have never seen pollution and land laid to waste on the scale we’ve seen in North East China. It’s like something out of a horror movie. The smog in Beijing is unbelievable, it’s difficult to appreciate anything when you can’t see it properly. I’ve no idea how the plants manage to survive with so little sunlight.

Although we’ve met some nice people here we’ve struggled with some people’s habits. There’s quite a lot of spitting going on in public and i’ve already mentioned the toilets. To be frank, the part of China we’ve seen so far is nothing short of filthy.

So then, what have we been up to since we arrived in Beijing?
Tiananmen Square is quite interesting but not stunning. We had a good stroll around the forbidden palace which was vaguely interesting but a bit over restored. I’ve been a bit off colour from our anti malarials so not really in the best mood to appreciate these things. We had a pleasant and really interesting walk around the back streets (Hutongs). Daily life all seems to take place out on the streets, watching people sell their produce and get on with things is quite fascinating. I say ‘get on with things’ but something that amused us was the number of people just hanging around watching everyone else. Children seem to be fascinated by us and like saying hello, giggling and running away. Beijing’s OK but despite its interesting culture and beautiful buildings we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, noisy vehicles and general chaos. It’s impossible to relax there and there is nowhere clean enough or suitable to sit outside. show_random($num=4, $tags=’Beijing’); ?>

The piece of the great wall we visited was amazing, a real once in a lifetime experience. We walked for 7 miles on a fairly quiet section, it was steep in places but a good challenge. There were no buildings, industry or anything unsightly. I can’t really describe how walking along a 2000 year old structure surrounded by hills with blossoming trees makes you feel. Awesome! show_random($num=4, $tags=’GreatWallofChina’); ?>

Next was our first sleeper train experience. Not much sleeping to be done on the way to Pingyao. It was pretty packed and some of the people around us were revolting. I’m not sure how much phlegm it’s humanly possible for one person to have in their body but it and about half a toilet roll were out and all over the floor by the morning. Openly farting and belching seemed to be an OK thing to do too.

Feeling very tired we practically fell off the train at 7.30. We were hassled to within an inch of our lives for taxis and other things. One taxi driver followed us for about two thirds of our 20 minute walk to the guest house. Pester power clearly works on some people but we will never give in! NEVER!

Pingyao is beautiful, although still pretty dirty/dusty. It’s one of the few intact walled towns in China, our guesthouse was a traditional Chinese building arranged around a courtyard. Absolutely gorgeous. With Pingyao being such a haven for hawkers it’s not really somewhere to relax so we didn’t want to stay too long. Unfortunately as the train tickets are such a nightmare to get hold of we had to get them on the black market. We didn’t know until the last minute whether we had them and when we did get them they were just faxed copies. Life is so chaotic in China that it does leave you feeling pretty homesick and overwhelmed. There have been times when we’ve both thought we might go mad and times when we’ve just wanted to come home. show_random($num=4, $tags=’Pingyao’); ?>

Somehow the ticket copies got us on the train and out. It wasn’t so bad this time, we were surrounded by younger people who do seem to have much better manners. show_random($num=4, $tags=’xian’); ?> We’re currently in Xian being held hostage by the train ticket black market yet again. Xian is as crazy as everywhere else and we just want to get down to the countryside to chill (maybe, I hope we’re not expecting too much..) show_random($num=4, $tags=’terracottawarriors’); ?>

Maybe we will be on our way south today. Maybe not.

At least it’s cheap and the foods good.

Final thoughts on Japan

In short we were a little dissapointed with Japan. I’m sure it was once a beautiful country but it is now scarred by unsympathetic and relentless urbanisation that makes green spaces are rare commodity. In the big cities there is rarely interesting modern architecture to draw the eye and give the place a bit of personality. The only respite from the cities’ uglyness is the temples, many of which are beautiful, and there are a lot of them. But therein lies the problem, unless you are a templeaholic they become rather samey quite quickly and you can be left scratching your head for what else to do that may hold your interest.

We were also a little let down by the food, a couple of notable exceptions aside, we found it to be pretty bland and textureless – not to our tastes at all.

On the up side Japan’s star attraction is the people, they are the most genuinely friendly, polite and altruistically helpful nation of people that I have ever met. Almost everyone we met went out of their way to help us out from the old man in Hiroshima who showed helped us find the way to our accommodation (even though he didn’t know the way himself!) to the guide in the Kobe earthquake museum who was just stunningly warm and friendly and gave us a personal tour through the museum.

The public transport too is wonderful – the trains run promptly and regularly and go to all sorts of out of way places and they are also incredibly rapid. They’re not even particularly expensive, certainly comparable to the UK.

Bear in mind that these comments are based on having seen only a little of Japan, funds dicatated that we could neither travel more widely in the time or travel for longer so we base our judgements on limited experience. I am told that the far north and south are far less developed and that all things flora and fauna are given more space in which to thrive, this we would have liked to have seen.

Abandon Ship!

‘The Captain has instructed that we must abandon ship’. Not really what you want to hear on any ferry. We were passed our life jackets and lead to the life boats. Both John and I were surprisingly calm. I was worried about us being split up, worried about a capsized ferry being on BBC news back home and scaring our friends and families. Emergency calm mode was engaged though so we just did what we were told. When we got to the life boat deck we were instructed on how to behave in an emergency and sent back to our bunks. Just a drill! Certainly made us pay attention to the emergency procedures. We were fairly speechless for an hour or so afterwards.

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We had left the rather drab Kobe and our cot shaped bunkbeds on Friday morning for a boring two days on a ferry. It turned out to be a fairly interesting experience. There were three other westerners on the boat, everyone else was Chinese.

Here’s quote from breakfast:

John to Adrian the Canadian- ‘Have you ever seen an egg with a green yolk before?’

Breakfast also had lovely lentil porridge (my favourite, nice and salty). It was grim. The bright side was that we had a long sleep on the second morning as breakfast wasn’t worth getting up for.

In the evening we listened to Chinese Karaoke. Very entertaining. What wasn’t entertaining was the music piped all through the ship’s corridors. It sounded like a demented Japanese version of a bad eurovision entry. It was blasting out of the speakers whenever the restaurant was open and at 7.30 in the morning to get you up. No earplugs can defend anyone against such a din.

The other main feature of the ferry was sharing a room with a guy that sounded like he had some chronic phlegm related illness. The illness was a very good timekeeper and clocked in for work at 6am every morning. Impressive!

On Sunday morning we were really looking forward to dry land. It was going to be a challenging day……

Welcome to China

We made it, and at no time had to evacuate the ship. We counted our blessings and sailed through immigration. One of our new friends did have a little trouble as the border guard had never heard of Finland. He somehow convinced him that it was a valid country and rejoined the rest of us. We decided that safety in numbers was a good option so a gang containing two of Sheffield’s finest ;), two Canadians and a Finn were at large in North East China.

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My first impression of China was overwhelming. The port air was incredibly polluted and the area looked like a war zone. Old collapsing buildings were covered in dust and soot. On our bus ride to the train station the canals were filled with rubbish and an oily sheen gleamed in what little sun made it through the smog. A great opportunity for John to take photos you might think. Believe it or not he didn’t, he was in emergency calm mode again. The first bit of China we saw was truly surreal. We made it to the train station thanks to a few kind Chinese people helping us. One even paid us on the bus as we didn’t have any change yet.

I don’t know how we made it to the train station but when we did we were persistently hassled by a woman that can only be described as a ‘taxi driver pimp’. She wanted all five of us, each with a huge backpack to travel in a single saloon car. We shook her off eventually but it involved running away Monty Python style.

After gaining our train tickets, again with help from a willing member of the Chinese public, it was time for our first outing to a Chinese public toilet. Lydia (canadian gang member) and I decided we’d let the boys go first. While they were away we attracted a huge crowd of onlookers, all we were doing was standing chatting. John came back with tales of a scrum at the urinals. Lovely.

A description of the ladies loos is not suitable for this blog. It’s safe to say that emergency calm mode was engaged once more. If anyone is curious enough please email me separately and I’ll tell you!

After creating another impressive crowd of onlookers while attempting to order food, we caught the train and made it to our youth hostel room.

A toast to China with 16p bottles of beer! All’s well that ends well.

Kyoto and beyond

Greetings all, it’s been a little while since our last post so I thought I’d do a quick update on what we’ve been up to.

We’ve spent most of our time in Kyoto. Like most cities in Japan it is nothing much to look at save for the odd temple or shrine cropping up here and there and even those after a while become rather samey. We went round Nijo castle in Kyoto which was pretty interesting and had some pleasant zen gardens and also did a lot of random street wandering which we’ve found to be a good way of discovering parts of towns that you may not otherwise have ventured into.

The best shrine that we have visited is defintely Fushiminari shrine just outside Kyoto in a forest. The shrine is actually lots of mini-shrines with loads of stone carved foxes at each one. The path to all these shrines has ‘gates’ along its entire length, there must be thousands up there. We did this walk in the rain which really added to the atmosphere at it got pretty misty up there.

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Back at the hostel we had a really fun night in with the other backpackers staying there and got very drunk on cheap Japanese beer. This was a mistake as our 48 hour hangovers would testify. Apparently the cheaper beer is brewed with chemicals instead of hops resulting in horrendous hangovers, we’ll not be making that mistake again!

We took a day trip out to Arashiyama too where we got attacked by monkeys who we later fed and went for a pleasant wander around back streets and bamboo groves. Arashiyama is one of the more attractive places we have visited. It also heralded the first day of spring, nice balmy temperatures and a cooling spring breeze, beats the bitter cold we’ve mostly endured for the last couple of weeks.

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We found Kyoto to be quite dissapointing, it’s attractions are really not that varied and revolve largely on temples which as I’ve mentioned get to be somewhat tedious after a while.

After a bit of confusion as to how many days there were in March resulting in cancelled and then re-booked accomodation and train tickets we now find ourselves in Kobe, scene of the massive 1995 earthquake that devastated the city. This may have been a good opportunity to bring some striking architecture and personality to the city, unfortunately it seems an opportunity missed by the town planners and Kobe is as grey and bland as every other Japanese city that we’ve visited.

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Our accomodation here is the certainly the dingiest that we have yet stayed in. Our bunk beds are like cots, the lighting is dim, the room cold, the corridors institutional, the staff un-smiling and the toilets smelly. The hot water and electricty is turned off between 9am and 5pm and there are only 2 showers serving the entire building. It is crap. On the up side it is cheap (for Japan) and clean for the most part. Unfortunately as far as cheap accomodation goes in Kobe it’s Hobson’s choice (been trying to get that phrase into the blog for a while!) and the ‘Kobe guesthouse’ was our only option. We’re not here much longer anyway as it’s off on the slow boat to China tomorrow. We should arrive in Tianjin at 3pm on Sunday, a mere 50 hours after we set sail from Kobe, we’re stocked up on sea-sickness pills and green tea flovoured kit-kats!

Sayonara Japan!