Category Archives: Travel

Ho Chi Minh City (or is it Saigon?)

It’s supposed to be HCMC but none of the locals actually use it and prefer Saigon. Ho Chi Minh was a hero of North Vietnam and it wouldn’t surprise me if the persistent use of the name ‘Saigon’ is part of the North-South divide that still clearly exists in Vietnam. Our guide from Cat Tien National Park, Dao, blames it on French colonial ‘divide and conquer’ tactics, obviously the American war wouldn’t have helped either!! Who knows? It’s clearly very different down here compared to the North, the people are far less relaxed and the pace of life and streets seem more akin to China than Hanoi.

show_random($num=4, $tags=’saigon’); ?>

Saigon is huge. I think it has 8 million inhabitants, most have migrated here from the countryside since the war ended in 1975. Virtually all of the buildings on the outskirts have sprouted up since then. It’s thriving and industrialising with break-neck rapidity. Just like China again!

Since our rather less than optimal first morning here we’ve enjoyed it much more. Our temporary home is a tiny and shabby room above the Gon cafe on one of the main backpacker streets. Tiny and shabby it may be but, blimey, not sure if the air is drugged but we sleep so well in there. In truth it’s quiet and the bed is comfortable. The great thing about the Gon cafe is the food is the cheapest and nicest around and the internet is really fast. This place makes the most excellent STRONG (‘oh yeah!’ She says rebounding from the walls) coffee milkshakes. Gon cafe rules!

We’ve really used Saigon as a base to travel out from and so have spent most of our spare time here milling about eating,drinking and sitting at computers. We made a point of visiting the War remnants museum though. Before we entered the museum we wern’t really thinking too much about what we might discover there. Even though we’d seen a fair few people with deformities (usually the legs, feet, arms and hands) from the evil Agent Orange, Vietnam has bounced back and got on with life. Most of you will already know so apologies in advance: Agent orange is the dioxin used to destroy the vegetation cover of the Viet Cong. It was sprayed in huge quantities by the US Air force. It was strange to walk around Cat Tien National Park where the outskirts were less than 30 years old after being totally destroyed in the war. It would make an interesting ecological study to see how much residue from Agent Orange still exists there and how it has affected the recovery of the plant life……..Yawn, OK, I’ll stop it.

Anyway, recovering from the tangent I’ll tell you about the museum. I went in mentally unprepared and so had a tough time of it yet again. The museum is small and dedicates most of it’s space to photo journalism from the American war. This photo journalism helped to fuel protests which eventually resulted in the withdrawal of US troops. One room was dedicated to the work of photographers that died during the war, about 20 of them in all. Looking at some of the appalling images it’s hard not to think ‘what the hell were you doing? Stop exploiting these people for photographs and get stuck in helping!’ This was particularly the case for a photo of a mother desperately fleeing across a surging river, struggling to keep hold of her children. However, as John rightly points out, the photographs raised awareness and saved many lives in the long run. We’ll never know what the actual circumstances were with these photographers as they’re all long dead. The room was a nice tribute to them and they certainly didn’t die in vain.

The second photographic exhibition was much more graphic. Appalling agent orange symptoms usually suffered by children born just after the war to exposed parents. Children who are now about the same age as John and I. There were also some indescribably horrendous images of US brutality to Men, Women and Children. How could they?

The same sick feeling appeared again, just like Hiroshima. Although this time it was different. Hiroshima was utterly horrendous cruelty but it was cruelty inflicted from afar where the perpetraitors couldn’t see the damage they’d done. This was pretty hands on, committed by seemingly ordinary folk in some kind of crazed state. The Vietnam war is so recent though, it’s scary. I wonder what was going on in Iraq. I would like to believe times of changed, I really want to believe that.

Humans are evil and nasty and beautiful and wonderful. We are strange creatures. OK, I’m feeling confused as usual. Maybe I should get another coffee shake!

Right, I’m going to write about our fun trip to the Mekong Delta now. The delta area is huge and takes up the majority of Vietnam South of Saigon. We spent most of our time on boats, as you’d imagine. Six different boats in all. We went to floating markets, through water coconut groves and to a coconut candy factory. Plenty of photo opportunities for John and good clean fun. I got to hold a rather rotund python (who knows what they were feeding it on, hopefully not coconut candy!). Really really love snakes so I was grinning from ear to ear. Yippee. Lots of local culture too, not as interested in that though (I’m so naughty, I ought to be!) They started singing songs though, urgh! I was trying, very unsuccessfully, to take photographs of bees.

show_random($num=2, $tags=’python’); ?>

Another thing we saw was a hen with a couple of chicks and four adopted ducklings. How cute, so sweet to see! It might be because someone had steamed duck for tea but I’ll pretend I’ve not thought of that! One really sad thing we saw was a gibbon on it’s own in a small bare cage. I’ve never seen an animal look so sad (maybe except Josh the dog when he knows you’re going out and leaving him). John was really upset, the gibbon just looked at you and liked holding your hand. After seeing the really giddy happy gibbons and their aerial acrobatics at the Cuc Phuong sanctuary it was quite a contrast.

show_random($num=4, $tags=’chickenwithducklings’); ?>

One subject of amusement though was our guide ‘Dong’, that’s the name of the currency here. It’s like being called, Euro, dollar or stirling. Interesting……. He likes to make insinuations about things. He said that too much local rice wine made everybody go to bed early, nobody knows what they do in bed but they all end up with 14 children. He also told us the story of the coconut religion. Apparently a coconut monk ate nothing but coconut and drank only coconut milk. He liked to sleep with 9 naked virgins too apparently. He proved his goodness buy not making any of them pregnant. Very impressive, I hope he wasn’t making condoms out of coconut husks though…….ouch! And last but not least our guide annouced the f*ck music we were going to listen to. Ooh! is this going to be reggae……… Ha no. He repeated it about 5 times. ‘F-O-L-K, f*ck music NO! F-O-L-K, f*ck music.’ Everyone laughs and Dong grins like a Cheshire cat.

show_random($num=4, $tags=’mekongdelta’); ?>

Vietnam is great.

Love to all, hope you’re still awake.

Viv xxx

Some videos

I’ve taken a few videos at points over our travels. They now have a home on the web so I will share them with you. Click on the video name to view each video. In chronological order:

Gannets flying – I know you all didn’t get enough of the gannets with the crazy number of pictures, get your gannet fix with this video.

Pylons – Some telephone pylons taken on a train ride down in Dunedin on NZ’s south island.

Cute Japanese toys – My personal favourite, these toys are endearingly cute. We saw them in a toy shop in Hiroshima after having spent the morning learning about the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, it was a good way to cheer ourselves up.

Hanoi rocks

It’s been ages since I last posted on the blog, hopefully this one won’t be too mammoth… You’ll all be pleased to here that the blog is back up and functioning properly again after last week’s sojourn caused by the crap website hosting company suspending our account due to too much traffic and asking $75 a month for a new hosting package! We have now moved hosting company to one less likely to pull the same stunt. Many thanks to Rightee for getting it all back up and running – if anyone bumps into him in the pub please buy the man a pint from me and I’ll stick an IOU in the post!

Once we had eventually got over the food poisoning incident we have really got into Hanoi. The old quarter where we were staying feels more like a town than a city and is great place for random wandering around the narrow streets watching life go by. It’s a very relaxing place to be as the pace of life here is slow, it is also getting very hot so you have to amble everywhere at about half your normal pace. We’ve eaten a lot of baguettes too – the best that I’ve tasted anywhere outside of France – certainly one of the better aspects of colonialism!

show_random($num=4, $tags=’hanoi’); ?>

After a couple of days of recovery in Hanoi we set out on a trip to the beautiful karst waterways of Halong Bay. Now despite complaining about organised trips so much in Australia we were actually looking forward to this one so that we didn’t have to think for ourselves quite so much after having to do far too much of that in China. It turned out to be a very relaxing couple of days floating about the calm sea in a moderately opulent boat (at least compared to cramped one we sailed on in Oz!), strolling round a cave, walking to the top of a small island, kayaking in a little lagoon and having BBQs on the beach. We had a great bunch of people in our group which rounded it all off nicely into a fun and relaxing package.

show_random($num=4, $tags=’halongbay’); ?>

We have also taken a trip out to the Cuc Phuong national park, notable for the amazing number of butterflies there – at times there were clouds of hundreds of them surroundings, a really beautiful sight. While there we also visited the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre who recover primates from the illegal trading, where they are sold for pets, food and Chinese medicine, and rehabilitate them ready for releasing back into the wild. Our particular favourites were the gibbons, who were indeed very funky – it was great to watch those fellas (and lasses!) bounding acrobatically about the enclosure!

show_random($num=4, $tags=’cucphuong’); ?>

Our last couple of days in Hanoi involved watching the entertaining water puppets and an enjoyable half day spent wanding around Hanoi and chatting with our hotel receptionist’s sister so that she could practice her English.

We were sad to leave Hanoi as we’d felt really at home there, thanks in no small part to the genuine friendliness of the staff at the Little Hanoi and other Hanoians that we met around the place, but it was time to move and we set off in our first Vietnamese sleeper train down the coast to Hoi An. Hoi An is a beautiful French colanial town with little streets lined with faded yellow buildings giving it a well-aged feel. It is also home to countless tailors where you can get almost any clothing item imaginable for a price which is peanuts compared to that you’d pay in the UK. We made the most of the unique opportunity and picked up beautifully tailored suits, shirts, trousers and skirts – it was a fun experience feeling a little pampered in the tailors’ shops. We really enjoyed having ‘fashion parades’ and seeing ourselves in clothes that are drawn from a limited set of faded, bobbled and generally travel worn items! While we were in Hoi An there was some sort of full moon festival which featured lots of gaudily decorated floats and a parade through town with various other attractions here and there such as a highly impressive martial arts display by kids from the local school.

show_random($num=4, $tags=’hoian’); ?>

I also got up insanely early to beat the tourist rush at the ancient Cham temples of My Son. Compared to the temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia My Son was less than impressive, although admittedly being heavily bombed during the American war would not have helped its case.

show_random($num=4, $tags=’myson’); ?>

From Hoi An it was down to the city formerly known as Saigon and presently known as Ho Chi Minh city. Our arrival there at 5.30am was less than pleasant. Having got virtually no sleep on the train did not get us off to the best start, the taxi drivers unwilling to take us the 3km to our hotel for a reasonable fee did little to lighten our mood further. We balked at the $5 they were unwilling to budge from and chose to walk it as our silent protest against foreigner extortionism. And then the thunder storm started. We arrived almost an hour later wet and extremely tired to find our room not yet ready so we waited in the reception for an hour. On eventually receiving a room (not the double room we had booked, it was a twin) we tried to get some sleep on the promise that we could move later when a double room became available. About an after that was when the hotel renovations started for the day and all thoughts of sleep abandoned. On finding that the promised double room had still not materialised by the promised time and that the workmen had re-started their renovations after being told they had finished for the day we decided that we’d had enough and argued our way out of there, in the end avoiding paying the full room rate they were doggedly demanding. Hoang Linh hotel hotel hang your head in shame and learn something about customer service.

show_random($num=4, $tags=’saigon’); ?>

You’ll be pleased to hear that our time down south has been been considerably better than that initial day. Ho Chi Minh itself is nothing to write home about – on our current limited exploration it seems rather characterless, a lot more industrial and the people not quite so friendly as up north, they’re still very friendly just not to the same degree. We escaped to Cat Tien national park for 3 days out in the wilderness. It was just the two of us and our bouncy guide ‘Tony’ who had some interesting stories from his time spent in the south Vietnamese army during the American war. All the guides here have picked a western name for themselves, Tony’s real name is Dao and we have previously been led by ‘Frank’ and more disconcertingly, ‘Snow White’. We went for some treks through a jungle that actually sounded like you’d expect a jungle to sound. There were also loads of butterflies here again, less in number than Cuc Phong but greater in variety of species. I’ll certainly give them top billing in my list of most beautiful insects when I get round to compiling that and other such arbitrary lists that in reality are never going to come to fruitition so don’t hold hold your breath. Anyway, I digress. A night wildlife spotting on the back of a jeep (saw many deer and not a lot else) and a night spent by a beautiful wetlands lake (which we also spent a morning kayaking around) in the company of crocodiles, monkeys, kingfishers, herons, ducks and other waterfowl rounded off a highly enjoyable time there.

show_random($num=4, $tags=’cattien’); ?>

And I think that just about brings us back up to date again. Expect more regular updates from here now that the blog works again. I’m also working on getting the pictures back again too, in the meantime check out our flickr sites which will be updated with squillions of new photos just as soon as we find a net cafe with a connection that runs faster than congealed porridge. That aside we’re both well and have so far thoroughly enjoyed our time in Vietnam, we’ve still a week or so left here then it’s off to Laos.

Dap biêt!
John

China round up

Well we’ve certainly had some extreme views about this place. Here are our well considered notes after we got over the initial shock.

GOOD

Yes we have quite a few things.

It’s bloody Cheap
yay for that. Beer and food were unbelievably cheap. Full pints were 16p from a shop as were those gorgeous roasted sweet potatoes. In fact, everything was really cheap and not too marked up for foreigners.

Lots of history
The history of China is much more in evidence than it was in Japan. I’m sure that as Chinese development continues some of that may be lost but the Chinese do seem to recognise their history as an asset and are looking after it well on the whole.

The great wall is truly amazing, as are the terracotta warriors. Neither are over restored and so have retained their original charm. The same cannot be said for the forbidden city in Beijing which has been painted a very garish fluorescent red! Some of the back streets in there were interesting though. Pingyao was full of beautiful old Chinese buildings and Xian was dotted with them also.

Karst limestone formations
These things are truly amazing. Have a click on our picture links to see for yourselves. One of my old University lecturers, the very eccentric Jan Bloomendal, used to go on about them all of the time. It always made me want to visit China to see for myself, I was not disappointed. The scenery at the bottom of the karsts was lovely too, rice paddies with water buffalo. As it was spring so everyone was out planting.

Off the backpacker trail
Although there were quite a few tourists it gave us a bit more of a challenge. The same can be said for Japan too where there were less tourists still.

Dare I say it? Food
Aside from that evil noodle soup in Nanning it was gorgeous. My favourite things being chilli beef pittas and roasted sweet potatoes. The standard was usually very high. We did get a little sick of it by the end of the three weeks as it’s universally oily. That said, i think we’ll struggle to find any Chinese restaurants in the UK the are up to scratch now. It’s nothing like the stuff in China.

Well then. That wasn’t to bad was it? Here goes on the not so good stuff…..

BAD

Pollution
It’s overwhelming in North East China, by far the worst place being the port of Tianjin. I remain absolutely and utterly appalled. Severe Smog in Beijing, water courses absolutely filthy. I found many of the streets to be repulsive and smelly too although John doesn’t feel quite so strongly about that one. The price of development eh? I wonder how modern China compares to Victorian England. I think it’s industrialised at a much faster pace but would welcome comments from anyone who knows more about this.

Overcrowding
Partly might be a reason why there’s so much rubbish all over the place, however, it is socially acceptable to litter. Lots of people’s jobs seem to happen outside. We cannot believe how much welding goes on in the streets of China, you have to be careful where you’re looking sometimes or you might get blinded. Activities on the streets are quite interesting in themselves, the only problem is that if there is a pavement there’s no room to walk on it. The roads are crazy with a whole range of vehicles with very little regard for traffic law, it was usually difficult to enjoy a stroll as you needed your concentration to avoid being flattened. China works to the tune of endless car horns too.

The overcrowding was probably the thing that got to us the most in the first week or so. There is simply no escape! It gets on top of you after a while and is perpetuated by the lack of polite co-operation between individals. There are scrums rather than queues and a lot of people just concentrate on looking after number 1. Getting across the road is a nightmare, nobody gives way and zebra crossings are completely meaningless. This is in contrast to Japan’s society from which we sailed. The two nations people couldn’t be more different if they tried.

Persistant Hawkers
I do feel sorry for them as many are very poor. We did buy things from some but there are just too many of them, you get absolutely mobbed. I’ve been told that this was common across Asia but the ones in Vietnam just ask and if you say no and smile they let you be on your way. Not so in China, smiling is not really as helpful there for some reason. Most of the people trying to sell us things simply would not take no for an answer, some of them followed you for quite a while too. It’s a bit stressful for me and irritating for John (we react in slightly different ways). There were some breaks from it but in the touristy areas it’s pretty unbearable. The strange thing is it acually makes us less likely to buy things, especially in shops where you get hassled. It ends up that you daren’t even look at the goods for fear of attracting unwelcome attention.

John tells me that the Hawker intensity in China is similar to India and isn’t quite as bad in the other parts of Asia he’s visited. Phew.

Getting around
This is related to the overcrowding. The long distance train tickets are so sought after that most of the tickets are bought by touts. Getting them on the black market can be a little bit nerve wracking as you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. That means you feel trapped in a crazy overcrowded city with no certain means of escape. It does something funny to your brain sometimes.

Spitting
It had to be in here. It’s not really the spitting it’self that’s really discusting it’s the all too audible means of summonsing it. Absolutley revolting. Not so bad outside on the street it’s really when you have to share the same sleeping quarters as a person with this filthy habit that it gets to you. Apparently the city of Beijing is having a crackdown on it in time for the olympics. GOOD!

Right, that’s that off my chest. Here’s one or two quirky things.
Toilets
Not good enough to make the good category. It would perhaps be a little strange if I said one of the countries best features were it’s toilets anyway! Apart from the first one, which was utterly disgusting, they’ve not been all that bad. We were lucky that there were not too many insects about, that always makes toilets worse. In New Zealand there were a couple on the government campsites that were unusable due to insects buzzing around inside the hole in the ground loos. Dont fancy any of that lot near my bare backside thankyou! (apols for disturbing mental images…) Anyway, i’ve seen far worse toilets at British music festivals.

People
Chinese people like being out on the street (well, we didn’t check to see if all the houses were full too actually), apart from the welding, street chess and cards are popular. Cooking outside is another fave.

Overall the Chinese were a joyless lot and didn’t smile very much. We didn’t feel treated differently though, they weren’t particularly nice to each other either. John thinks that quite a few of them might just be miserable. He’s perhaps right. There were a few notable exceptions to this although the overwhelming majority of the friendly people we met were women and children rather than men. We’ve counted 3 nice men we met. I’ve also mentioned that the basic manners are different to Europe. That takes some getting used to.

The last comment on China is that although we were not enjoying ourselves for much of the time we were there we do feel very rewarded for the trip. It was a massive learning experience and a great challenge for us. It’s what travellings all about and is much different to being on holiday. We’re exploring and and looking forward to finding out more about the world in Vietnam although maybe we’ll give that noodle soup a miss!

The runs caught up with us

It was bound to happen sooner or later. It’s just a shame it chose the day we had a 9 hour land crossing from China to Vietnam. Maybe we said too many nice things about Chinese food and some balance needed to be restored.

The cheap noodle soup we ate at lunch time sat awkwardly in our bellies soon after we ate it. We just put up with it and enjoyed our last night in China with the insane doorman of the hotel restaurant. He was so pleased when we understood his English that he was laughing like some kind of mental case for a good 2 minutes after every sentence. When we told him in Chinese that the food was lovely he was nearly giggling himself into an early grave. We all counted to 20 together in Chinese, can you imagine the state of him after that? A very very fun way to spend our last evening in China. Nice to go out on a high. Or so we thought…..

Neither of us slept. The cheap noodle soup was expanding to unearthly proportions inside our bellies. By 4am some workmen we battering the living daylights out of something or other hanging off a crane outside our window. John was disappearing at ever increasing frequencies in the direction of the loo. Oh dear.

We got up at 6.30, I was feeling tired but OK. John said the thought he’d be alright. We boarded the train for the border. After only half an hour John was draped over the table feeling terrible. We discussed getting a hotel at the border and staying around but he started to feel much better once he got off into the fresh air.

Apart from John being repeatedly asked if he had a gun at Vietnamese customs the crossing was slow but OK. We found no transport once we arrived in Vietnam and so reluctantly accepted a taxi ride. It was a scam. We were deposited at a petrol station in the middle of nowhere where a minibus to Hanoi conveniently appeared demanding six times the local rate as a fare. I was getting very ill indeed by this point and we had no choice. The next 3 and a half hours were the kind that get atheists like me praying to anyone who might exist or listen. My insides were angry at the noodle soup and they didn’t care whether they ejected it upwards or downwards. The more I resisted the more ill I became and the more every bump in the road required upmost determination to cope with.

The hostel staff at Hanoi were like angels. They let us straight into the room and drove John around town on the back of a motorbike looking for remedies. I was as ill as ever and spent the night and the whole of the following day without even leaving our room. John still wasn’t all that well himself and really pulled all the stops out for me. Thank you. Today we are finally both fully recovered – just. We’ve been in Hanoi for 3 days.

We’ve not yet tried the local speciality food of Hanoi – Noodle Soup.

Other last stories from China.

The only notable thing really was our journey from Yangshuo to Nanning. We said our goodbyes to Wei (father person) and his family. Wei’s niece came to help us flag down the bus. We estimate her to be between 16 and 19, she works like a slave cooking and cleaning. She was working when we got up, she was working when we went to bed. Every day. She somehow seems really happy and is always cheery and giggly, we really warmed to her. Wei, although not an unpleasant man in any way, never lifted a finger to help his wife (also lovely) or niece. I know this is not Britain but China with totally different cultural values but I couldn’t help lose a little respect for him. I’m going away to do more exciting things and kept thinking about Wei’s niece doing the same boring thing forever. Waiting for the bus I had an uncontrollable urge to take her with us and save her from a life of endless domestic chores. I’m confused, she would hate me to do that and seems to be happy. Not sure what to think.

show_random($num=2, $tags=’nanning’); ?>

The antics on the bus soon distracted us from our sad thoughts. People were being kicked off the bus only to be picked up again minutes later. The driver and conductor were arguing furiously. Later the driver was stopped and fined for having too many people on board. Ahh! The penny drops. Some people had to get off. They were picked up less than 100 metres away, barely out of eye shot of the police. Amusing.

John will write a post about Vietnam soon, we’re liking it so far. Next up will be the China round up.

Take care everyone.

Love Viv xx

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!

show_random($num=4, $tags=’yangshuo’); ?>

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.

show_random($num=4, $tags=’blogjapchiferry’); ?>

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.

show_random($num=2, $tags=’tianjin’); ?>

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.