A Travellerspoint blog

Note to Self: Never take any food stuff across any border...

Leaving Ho Chi Minh to get to Lao should be a relatively straight forward trip via Hue to Savannakhet, in maybe 30hours or so. If you don't have to go via Beijing, anyway. And thus it was that I embarked on a mostly uneventful and entirely routine (by my standards) 5 night journey. Cunning perusals of railway timetables meant that I got 5hours in Hue at a cost of only 50mins in HCMC, which gave me a chance to stretch my legs and get some food which wasn't the same meal served to everybody on every train in Vietnam.

A second night took me up to Ha Noi (cunningly planned so that I didn't have to spend a night there), where i got tickets through to Newport (sorry, Nanning) dead easily, and with time to kill and a bored ticket clerk who seemed to unfathomably like me, managed to haggle the ticket down from 560,000 to 160,000. I'm sure that shouldn't happen.

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A typical view of traffic waiting at Ha Noi traffic lights, and a classic sign...

10 hours or so free wandering around Hanoi and doing some chores, was followed by a 4.5hour trek to the border at Dong Dang in a natty and noisy 2 carriage train. It was at Vietnamese immigration that I had a little trouble. In this case it wasn't suspicious articles which got me in to trouble, but rather bent Vietnamese lacking supplies. I suppose it's my own fault. Not in any hurry, I waited until near the end to go through the immigration control, and then customs. Here bags go through an X-Ray, but you personally don't (this is standard on much of my trip. Basically, if your trying to sneak a gun or something evil and metallic through, keep it in your pocket...).

However, the carrier bag containing two bags of good Vietnamese coffee - bought in Hanoi as a gift, and as supplies, bearing in mind the Yunnan excepted terrible state of coffee i China - caused much sudden interest. If I'd repacked my backpack and put it in as I had planned, I doubt there would have been any trouble. But it seems that the coffee supplies at the border control had run out, and seeing the coffee, an enterprising guard rapidly talked to his fellow officers, and with me now last baring a couple of locals (quickly sent through before me) was succinctly told that I either give up the coffee to them, or they would detain me due to customs violations until the train had left, before profusely apologising for their mistake. As the train only runs twice a week, I would have been stuck in No mans land 25km from the Chinese post (which was also shut for another 8 hours). When the guard came to enquire if the train should leave, with no option baring to walk or rough it out all night and try and hire a taxi/hop a bus the following morning, I gave up. Left them grinning and with some excellent coffee, and me cursing Vietnamese Conn artists and the country in general one last time.

Despite everything, I did get the liquorice back.

I'm not sure that i've ever been so happy to leave somewhere, and it feels very strange. Chinese customs/immigration were straight forward as they always are, although timezones, timetabling and over enthusiastic Chinese staff meant that everybody was awoke barely 90mins after leaving Pingxiang in preparation for Nanning. An hour away. In Nanning, I stunningly managed to get a ticket leaving that night from an scarily empty ticket office (unsurprisingly, the ideal train was fully booked). I then left the station, and using an underpass crossed the road, where I immediately heard a couple of my favourite classic Chinese pop songs, and realised that I really had missed this country allot.

It's good to be back.

I somehow managed to kill 12 hours in Newport without getting too suicidal (it really isn't the most exciting of Chinese cities), and from there it was a simple 2 night 36hour trek back to Shangers, and a well needed shower...

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Newport (Nanning) High Street, and view over the River

It was very odd being back in Shangers. Despite being gone a good 7weeks or so, there were still familiar faces in the Hikers. Helen and Dennis were back again (they'd been there before Christmas as well as New Years), the entrepreneurial Jay was still knocking about, plus a couple of randoms who i recognised from previous trips. Jimmy (who'd climbed Hangshan with us) was also back, as was Paul who had left HCMC the same time as me, and despite flying (twice) had taken only 16hours or so less time (I'd even left Nanning a day before him it later transpired), and paid a good chunk more.

Sometimes surface travel even makes sense.

And the following morning, after a rowdy if not entirely perfectly Irish (we got a bottle of Jamesons and some beers, but don't get conned into drinking Guinness foreign extra. It's not worth it), Ivan the Dane, he of Shanghai, Yangshuo and Guilin, randomly turned up again after 6weeks back in Arhus, Denmark. It's like an old pals act here.

Shanghai's vortex was working yet again.

Spent a couple of days on chores, drinking, catching up, a little bit of strange work stuff (don't ask, the Russians were involved) and randomly being, and then tonight head onwards to Beijing, a full week after leaving HCMC.

When I get there, I'll even be slightly over halfway to Lao.

Posted by Gelli 23:25 Archived in China Comments (0)

A trip inland and Uncle Ho's name place

One of my favourite stories from Vietnam was a random article i read in a newspaper somewhere along the line. In it, a bus driver had been arrested for overloading his bus. He had 120 passengers in it, plus 13 who were tied to the roof and covered in a large tarpaulin to prevent detection by the police. You can at least understand why more and more locals are forgoing the occasionally overloaded local bus system, in favour of the almost equally cheap, but much more comfortable and non stop open tour buses.

At this point I was still not necessarily in the most amazing states of mind, but being alone and going into the unknown helped. My mind wandered, and as we started the approach to Da Lat (about 80km out), but climbing up a whopping great mountain pass, including past a handful of roadies - 2 of them going extremely well indeed - I finally started to relax and try and put some of the chaos of the last week behind me.

I liked Da Lat instantly. An old French hill station, it has long been a place to relax a bit, being high in the mountains, and thus a darn sight cooler than anywhere else around or in South Vietnam. More or less by unspoken agreement, it was left untouched during the war, and rumour is that the large old colonial villa's in the surrounding hills were used by both North and South Vietnam senior military figures as getaways and for planning purposes etc. The other big plus about Da Lat is that it is more off the tourist trail (most people seemingly go via Mui Ne or direct to HCMC), meaning it is much more relaxed than anywhere I've previously been in Vietnam, and an almost entire lack of hawkers harassing you at every turn was just what was needed.

I didn't have time to be able to take a 2 or 3 night trip with the infamous and legendary easy riders, a group of local motorcycle riders who have turned into tour guides of high repute, especially in backpacking circles, but although ity would have been nice, I wasn't desperately gutted. I did the only thing I could (and only thing I really wanted), and hired a bike.

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I spent a day bashing around the local countryside, loving the somewhat lumpy countryside as a way of working out my stresses and efforts of the past few days, and just enjoying being on a bike and free again. On 3 occasions i even turned around at the top, in order to head all the way back down a long hill/mountain, just so I could climb it again. I know you all think I'm nuts, but in fairness, that's rarely been in question.

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Part of the attraction of the area is the basic countryside itself. A couple of lovely lakes/reservoirs, numerous forests, streams, waterfalls, mountains and inclines to enjoy, and a generous spotting of temples, pagodas and small villages to visit. I mostly wandered
at random, although did make an effort to visit a couple of Pagoda's (I just had to visit the Big Buddha at Cu Sy Lam, the Chinese Pagoda, partly because it was half way down the mountain, and partly to compare it with the ream of other Big Buddhas I have seen on this trip in Korea and Japan). I cycled out to the village of Trai Mat, an invigorating ride of about 12km, where i saw the perhaps overly ornate, but wonderful Linh Phouc Pagoda. If you are in Da Lat, try and visit it. I ended by way of a waterfall, surreal hotel and gallery and 3 laps of the lake for good measure, with a chaotic death defying dash through rush hour traffic, which was significantly more fun than it really should have been.

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Thus happily tired, finally relaxed and sweaty as hell, i showered ate and i retired hoping to sleep. That failed yet again. More or less since we left Hangzhou, I've been struggling to sleep. 3 hours has been a rare and extremely fruitful night for me, the majority being a couple of 20minute dozings, and much restless pondering/rolling around. When I used to be a proper insomniac, I had no problem. It was useful, and I managed to use the time very productively. Now whilst traveling, it's plain annoying. I want to sleep but can't, and there's very little I can actually do with the time. Sometimes I wander around the town, but most of the hotels etc are locked at night, so going out means disturbing the sleeping staff (twice, if i come in). I'm not a huge TV person, especially when i can't understand all that much and it's just plain bad; don't have many books or other distractions so invariable I end up sitting or lying in a dark room just thinking and listening to music.

In Ho Chi Minh the next afternoon, it was again sweltering. I've read somewhere (although no idea if it's true or not) that the lowest temperature ever recorded in Ho Chi Minh City in any month (or Saigon as it used to be called - Saigon is now only the central district) was 14degrees Celsius. It wouldn't really surprise me, but it still takes a little comprehension at a time when the UK is partly covered with snow, and home in Sweden is an unseasonably warm minus19 at night.

That afternoon, I did not allot. I barely managed to leave the main tourist area, instead preferring to just veg out with fresh fruit juices/smoothies (I'm really going to miss Vietnam for the fruit shakes/smoothies which are delicious and everywhere) and the occasional cold beer with Paul. The following morning though, in a rare case of me actually achieving anything, I sprang into action. OK, so action may be pushing it a bit much, but by my standards it was impressive. By 10am, I'd trawled the area for accom. (Paul was heading on tour, and I wasn't going to pay 10usd a night solo), found a dorm and moved in, got my washing sorted, made assorted phone calls around the globe, arranged to meet a local based CS that lunchtime, booked a tour for the following day and after confirming that I had delayed my flight for a couple of weeks and with no new developments, booked train tickets back to Ha Noi (whilst discovering that Vietnamese railways isn't entirely integrated, so that the south had no idea that there even were lines North of Ha Noi, let alone any time or price information). And even gone on a bit of a wander. That may not sound allot, but it's more than I normally accomplish in a month working at T-Kartor, as the staff/management can probably attest to. And this time, I'm not even being paid.

I hadn't met up with a locally based CSer since leaving Jeff's in Dongguan in late December, and was keen to get back into the swing of things. I had been gazumped by another CSer (who after that, never showed), but Kelly - an American Pilates teacher and musician -had happily agreed to meet up and spend some time showing me around. We met at the cafe of one of her friends (if you are ever in HCMC and need travel advice/tours etc, instead of any of the main chains who fall over each other to try and grab your custom, I can highly recommend visiting Quan Ngyuen, friendly owner of the #5 cafe on Bui Vien St. And no, I'm not getting a commission on any referrals).

We headed by motorbike over to the Reunification Palace, seen of the South Vietnamese surrender, and famous footage of tanks crashing through the gates and North Vietnamese rushing out onto the balcony waving their flag as the South disintegrated. I'm really starting to enjoy this motorbike/scooter culture. Hanging on the back of one whilst zooming around a city with 3million other scooters all intent on getting there before you is a strangely enjoyable and liberating experience, and an astonishing show of skill (READ: includes a sh1t load of luck) due to a surprisingly small number of accidents. Yes they happen, and lots of them, but in relation to the number of bikes and way they travel around, very few, and even fewer serious ones.

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The Reunification Palace was a strange building. It had once been a lovely building, but at some point in the 60s after an attack, had been rebuilt using excessive amounts of (oddly communist style, when at that point they weren't at all) concrete to create a strange looking semi-dated, semi-space age building. Most of the Palace was either empty or left exactly how it was at the time of surrender, meaning lots of 60's and 70's interior decoration and furniture. And yet the building is still used quite regularly to receive guests and hold conferences, and how (or where) that is done around all of the old stuff remained a mystery. After a trek to the roof past a helicopter, the route led us down into the basement, which had significantly more of interest. The former South Vietnamese HQ, it told a story, and also enabled us to see stuff like all the old Comms gear, maps and stuff as it had been. Not a large place for many people to be, and the presidents bedroom was a hole off the corridor which would have allowed him only limited privacy. There was also a great propaganda film shown, which obviously was twisted to tell a tale from a specific angle, but interesting to see. I'm a big fan of communist/political propaganda materials, and was quite happy.

Leaving, we met up with Kelly's husband, Will, a quarter Chinese, quarter Vietnamese American musician (formerly with SecretAgent8 for any Ska people out there), and for a change of pace, went to the zoo. HCMC zoo is strange, in that certain species are overly represented whilst others don't exist at all, and despite being sectioned, some animals were either very confused as to their place in the hierarchy of Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians Birds etc or had been wrongly placed. Sadly, many of the animals were in depressingly cramped quarters, whilst even at feeding time and with large chunks of meat thrown at them, none of the large cats - most of whom not actually so large - seemed to be even vaguely interested in their proffered free meal. Some of the monkeys had worked out how to escape their cage as well, and amused themselves by running riot and (literally) scaring the cr*p out of little kids.

We went for a great Indian, and then headed back to their spacious flat (via a quick side trip to see a fantastic church, which had a large Chinese Pagoda with a Christian cross on the roof next to the main chapel) to meet with some friends for a night of musical extravaganza. Yet more fantastic surfers.

If you take a tour in South Vietnam, being on a bus with working Air-con is a definite bonus, if not an outright necessity. So it was that I took a day trip to see Tay Ninh and Cu Chi. Tay Ninh is wonderful. It's home to Caodism, a religion that I had previously never heard of, but which I will certainly investigate in further detail now. A brief overview can be seen at http://www.religioustolerance.org/caodaism.htm. Basically, it was formed in the 1920s as an attempt to create a kind of perfect religion, and takes bits from Catholicsm, Busshism, Taoism and Confucianism amongst others with a mix of traditional Vietnamese heritage and beliefs. The result is a strange mix of things, a religion for whom 2 of the 3 saints are Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen, and one in which its Pope and all 7 cardinals are now dead, but oddly haven't been replaced, kind of leaving an odd vacuum at the top.

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Caodism. The Holy See, The All Seeing Eye, Centrepiece of the religion, and midday worshippers

The main church/temple/synagogue/Holy See/whatever is wonderfully colourful and artistic, and on a slight slope (people go higher, the further up the religious ladder they climb). A lovely building, and one which kind of feels familiar and almost comforting, whilst also giving you a strange idea of the bizarre. The service which we got to see included a large number of white robbed people, plus handfuls of worshippers in White, Red and Blue (although a few had turned into orange or other shades), and was characterised by bowing to the all seeing eye, occasional chanting and traditional music being played. There was no sign of any holy book or scriptures. There wasn't even anybody leading the service. Most of the people were elderly. The most amazing features for me, were (a) just how low down the ladder everybody was, with the top few levels being deserted, and the vast majority being at the lowest level and (b) that despite worshippers taking part in the ceremony 4times a day, every day of their lives, it was necessary for 2 or 3 enforcers to patrol the lines of people, and physically move them a few inches (or in cases metres either way) so that they were perfectly aligned, had no knees showing etc. It was most odd to see the force with which these enforcers (i have no other name to give them) moved decrepit looking old ladies who were maybe an inch out of the line the enforcers thought they should be in. But despite all that, it was great to see a minority religion thriving, despite great problems and which barely 20 years ago had been banned and their land/Holy See confiscated by the communist government. If you ever get the chance to visit the home of Caodism, you should take it, for the spectacle alone.

Somewhere between the service and lunch, 5minutes away, we managed to lose a Korean. He's probably now on his way to be the next high priest.

The afternoon was spent in the Cu Chi tunnels. In fairness, it wasn't the most exciting of excursions, and the tunnels - despite a couple of crawling sections - were even reproductions for tourists instead of originals which people aren't allowed into. The grounds had a fair splattering of exhibits, and our enthusiastic guides did their best, but it seemed very much a put up show, as opposed to having any real life and history behind lit, like the ones we had seen in the DMZ. Probably the point of most interest to the majority were the shooting ranges, where for 1USD a bullet, you couple fire any number of assault weapons, including the venerable AK-47.

A sweltering journey back was followed by a decent evening with a group of about 12 including Paul, Anna and Tania and the first Geordie's I've met in ages, and another Welsh feck up in the rugby. And with that, there was just time for me to spend a pleasant if hot morning walking randomly around the city, taking in chunks of the old architecture, Notre Dam cathedral and hoards of zooming motorcycles amongst others.

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Viet Nam has been a strange one to me. The food, after an average start proved wonderful in places (Da Lat had some of the best vegetarian food I've had outside of Hue in my life. I didn't even eat meat once, which tells a story), and several places were nice enough that i'd be very happy to return at the very least. Some bits I was annoyed that i hadn't been able to get to (Halong Bay, Mue Ni, Dien Bien Phu and the Mekong), whilst Da Lat and HCMC definitely needed a chunk more time than I could give them, and leaves me kind of wanting to return to do it justice as soon as possible.

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Yet despite all that (and even ignoring personal problems), Viet Nam is one of the few countries and territories that I have ever been to (and I guess there's roughly 80 or so of them) that I wouldn't be overly disappointed never to return to. Chunks of it were too touristy and fake to me, and I fast tired of the sheer amount of efforts and concentration needed to avoid being constantly conned/ripped off or pick pocketed. In the end I was delighted to finally leave and without having lost anything and not been ripped off too badly, too often. And to me, you should never be leaving anywhere with such a feeling and perspective. It's just not good, but unfortunately that's how i felt. How/if this feeling changes in the future, and whether I return or not, only time will tell.

But for now, I have a train to catch. I'm going to Lao, which I have also been looking forward to greatly, and have had numerous great reports/stories about. But in my own typical and entirely illogical style, it's not quite that simple. I have to go via Beijing, which for a surface traveller means about a 10 day detour.

See you there

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Posted by Gelli 00:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

The bit where it went wrong

I've decided to just gloss over the next few days. Please don't ask for details, as you wont get them. I also don't need an outpouring of standard comments (please don't be offended) to be added. The only reason I decided to add any of this is so there isn't a hole in my future story, and to show that despite all the great things about travelling, real life has to go on, and consequences met.

This won't be a pretty entry, so you may as well gloss over it, collect 200 as you pass go, and read the next one.

Although Nha Trang probably isn't all that bad, it was undoubtedly the worse few days of my life in many years, which obviously would lead me to be not desperately objective.

In fairness, the beach isn't at all bad. We caught back up with Paul (and Chevy). The weather was excellent, with the first serious heat and sustained heat we had experienced since leaving Shangers. Had some fantastic seafood. The Island boat tour is very good (and would be even better if you could swim, and thus take full advantage), and the place is probably one of many people's favourites. Nha Trang is basically very touristy, and to me it's a really depressing version type of Club Med place. Large numbers of mostly drunk and loud stupid young white people, all of whom generally end up in the same couple of places which are basically beachside meat markets. I know many people love those type of resorts and holidays, but it's just not me under any circumstances.

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The floating bar, and local kids in a small ring boat, on the boat trip around the Islands

It's also somewhere which attracts local opportunists. As well as meeting a number of people near the beach at night who were very definitely out to steal/conn everything from stupid drunk white people, Tania just about survived an bag snatching, ending up on her backside being dragged down the road by a motorcycle who's passenger had made an attempted grab her bag as they whizzed past.

I know i'm probably being significantly over harsh, and many people like those places, but I have a mitigating circumstance.

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In the course of 3 emails (the contents etc of which are known to only a few of those also involved, and it will be kept that way - Please don't anybody go asking for any details. You won't get them), my life in Europe utterly utterly collapsed. Words can't really explain how I was, although I was deep into the zombified "Holy sh1t this is by far the scariest thing that has ever happened" stage, if not deeper.

As a way of quantifying just how scared and screwed up I was (and I am aware that casual readers will have no idea of the significance of this) I booked the first flight I could get back to Europe. It was for 3 days time, and I was gutted that i couldn't get anything sooner. Oddly I didn't even have the kind of demented energy I often have in such situations (where i'm told it's not possible, especially with Travel) and didn't even bother to argue with the agent or look for myself as I normally would.

Whilst I waited for news of anything, I made the mistake of trying to be as sociable as possible, which was obviously wrong.

Sometimes I really am stupid and need to be whacked a few times for some sense to penetrate, although in mitigation, I wasn't exactly thinking straight anyway. There was no way in hell I was going to manage it, and it just ended up with my moroseness and zombie type condition affecting everybody else's holiday. I am a private person and keep all things to myself as far as possible, often going to extremes. I always have. I suppose it's my defence mechanism. I don't care if people pay any attention, or care in the slightest what's wrong, providing they accept that I am having a problem and leave me to it, more or less. But it mean't that nobody knew what the hell was going on, except there was this morose and grim t0sser seemingly hell bend on driving evrybody else down to his level of depression for no apparent reason. Not surprsingly, it wasn't a good situation, and things weren't pretty. And on top of everything else, I managed to kill all the good times from the past few weeks and almost certainly any chance of longer term friendships with agroup of people who's company I ghad really enjoyed. They got increasingly annoyed with me, and I was getting frustrated with them getting annoyed at me. I finally realised that and before things could escalate on that front as well, I gave up and did what I normally do when I need to think or am having a bad time. And what i should have done to begin with.

I b*ggered off and I walked. Like a zombie with my headphones in. I've no idea where or how far I walked in the next couple of days, whether I ate or not, or what I did. Frankly i'm amazed that nobody pickpocketed me or even stole all my clothes, as there is no way i would have noticed. The fact that I didn't get hit by a car or motorbike is solely down to the skill and practice of Vietnamese at avoiding people. The only thing I did apart from walk was make phone calls, and I spent a chunk more on calls that I probably will on everything else inclusive in my entire time in Vietnam, and then some.

Late on the third day, against all odds, I amazingly got the news that the really really scary one was over with a supremely unlikely happy ending. I turned from a morose zombie to a gibbering wreck on the spot. I had so burried myself expecting the worse and preparing myself that I lost it when It turned out to be good. Euphoric wasn't the word. Things were not solved, but the worse case scenario was out, and that was all that mattered.

By then, I had no idea what to do, how to react (everything else was still going on, and news there wasn't as good) and had managed to completely alienate everybody I was with. Yay. Go me. I figure that in those really dark situations you find out allot about yourself and those around you, and i'm not entirely sure i liked any of the realisations that I came to. And that one will run and run in my head for a long time.

After more phone calls and some confirmations, I decided to delay the flight by 3 days, awaiting developments and further news. And returned to being a gibbering walking wreck.

It was time to go alone and just be.

Even before i had got to NT, and everything had happened, I had realised that I was breaking my own rules and it was bound to implode. Helene and i had been traveling together too long without any time apart at all, and especially after Paul had flown out, I had realised that I needed a couple of days away before any tensions got to the point of us killing each other. This is no reflection on any of us, rather just a way of life. Spending 24/7 with people is unnatural and gets to everybody at some point. For myself (a solo traveller by nature), 6 weeks in constant company of the same people was too much and I just needed a couple of days doing something different.

It was a natural parting of ways. Richard was hanging around for his PADI, Paul had been in NT too long and left for Mui Ne alone, Chevy was enjoying NT too much to leave and the girls were sticking to their original plan of heading to Mui Ne and a beach hut. The previous few days had obviously taken their toll on everybody (for which I can only continually apologise), and the dynamic was kaput. I was obviously affecting everybody else, and ignoring all other factors, I needed to be alone and this was utterly reciprocated as everybody else needed to be away from me!

Much though I had wanted to go to Mue Ni and rent a bungalow on the beach for a day or two (i've never been anywhere where thats been possible before, excepting Sidmouth which is a bit different), I was running out of time in Vietnam anyway - my extended visa and other commitments (assuming I got that far) meaning that I had to leave Vietnam, by the 19th.

And with me really wanting to visit Da Lat, the decision was made. It was a no brainer and the first easy thing i'd had to do all week.

And no. You can't have any details, I'm sorry. This is between those it's already between and nobody else.

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School kids in Nha Trang, delighted to see assorted strange white people!

Posted by Gelli 00:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Up, up and Hue? And onwards to the shopping paradise

If you ignore the sheer volume of overly persistant Cyclo (and to a point, motorcyle) riders desperately trying to get your business - to the point that some will happily follow you for a couple of hours trying to sell their transport to you every 20 seconds or so - Hue (pronounced kind of like Hway, as in 'Hway the Lads') is a nice little place.

The former Imperial capital, it has a kind of neglected and slowly decaying feel which is actually very pleasant. The Forbidden Purple City is central to that. Vast, yet half in ruins and most of it open and seemingly unexplored, making wandering lovely and never knowing what you would come across next. Including 2 elephants, something i've never seen previously except in Zoos or on TV. The sun was out, the weather warm, and life was just good. I was starting to feel at home in Vietnam. Hue Imperial city has fairly recently been added to the UNESCO heritage list, and as such there is a sign that some restoration is occuring. But whilst this is obviously a good thing, I can't help feeling that being actually restored to its former glory would actually mean the Palace losing some of it's draw.

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If for no other reason, come to Hue because of Tinh Tam. I admit that the idea of me championing the cause of a vegetarian restaurant may take a bit of getting used to (can somebody slap Jim - and probably many others - around the face with a wet cod to release him from the shock?). but gawd damned it, that is one amazing restaurant. The place may not look much, but the food is equisit, and it's the sort of place I may very well waste my entire holiday allowance - and then some - and make the entire 40ish day round trip from Sweden to, just for a couple of meals.

We spent an extra night in Hue to take in the more or less obligatory DMZ tour. The girls had continued through to Hoi An instead of stopping over in Hue, meaning there was just two of us to arouse bleary eyed at 5.30am to crawl on the bus.

The tour itself wasn't desperately noteworthy, but had to be done, and wasn't bad at all. We stopped at the Ben Hoi river, the former boundary between North and South and saw the monument (scarily, despite the war being over for 30years, it took them until 18months ago to finally put a monument up), and also the change from forests to clear fields - with many bomb craters - which occurs for 10km either side of the river. Then onwards to a small village on the Northern side to a small museum, and a trip into the tunnels. Every village in the area essentially moved underground, and so a huge warren of tunnels exists. The Americans never discovered this (they were mostly bombing this area by air, as oppoosed to being on foot) and there surprsingly few casualties in them.

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The tunnels are kind of scary, just for their scope. In our one, 17people had been born (16, including one of our guides, are still alive), although the "maternity" room was barely 2 x 1metre in size. And that was one of the big rooms. Family rooms, were maybe half that, and yet whole families lived in these tiny cubby holes in the sides of the tunnels for many years. Wow. The "meeting room" - a kind of wider and taller passageway - had been designed for 70people, but even our group of 20 or so struggled to fit in.

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We then headed out towards the Lao border, down a long valley which had been one of the most strategically important during the war, past the sites of numerous old bases, a stop off in a small minority village, and finally to the former Tacon American base. None of us were impressed at all to discover the inevitable hawkers selling dogtags etc, which they had found with metal detectors and dug up off dead bodies to sell, although i'm sure there is a market for them. Tacon was the site of the 1968 battle which completely rocked the Americans and South Vietnamese and was the diversion used before the stunning Tet offensive (arguably the turning point in the war and its most important battle) took place 2 weeks later on. The feeling and energy of the place was just strange. It felt and looked so quiet and peaceful, and yet there was something there, and obviously everybody knew it's history - and not exactly ancient history at that - which also played a part. Wierd is the only way I can really describe it. Headed back to Hue, notable only for a couple of breakdowns (astonishingly my first, i think, on this trip) and a prolonged stop due to a water leak which was fixed using the hithertunto unknown proceedure to me, of using a blow torch to fix the rubber piping. Strangely, it even worked.

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That evening, amazingly, Sweden won the Hockey beating undeafed arch rivals Finland in the final, although they celebrated Silver happily anyway. Annoyingly, despite a crowd of Hockey fans (something you don't really expect to find in Vietnam), the TV cunningly decided - it must have been a standard programing thing, and it wasn't just our TV which went - to switch from the final towards the end of the second period to Leece v Juventus.

We were not amused.

Reduced to following the remainder of the game on a text webcast in Finnish was not something which any of us especially wanted, although (especially withoutr a single Finnish speaker present) it did have some kind of bizare enjoyment value. Joy for the Swedes victory was slightly tempered by the Manure somewhat destroying Wigan in the Carling Cup, and then the Welsh being demolished by the Irish in the 6 nations, in the only game i've so far managed to see, and in all likelyhood will all season. Grrrr. But even thats of no relevance after hearing of Scotlands Calcutta Cup triumph!

That night Helene came down with a really bad tooth problem. I had had a few twinges in my wisdom teeth before Christmas and am still praying that I will survive this trip without tooth incident, but she had a recurrence of a known issue with her's, and it wasn't pretty. Travelling is such a whizz of events, excitment, meetings, images and sensory input and delight that you sometimes forget that normal everyday things occur as well, and bring things back down from some where near La-La land (Dipsy Land??) to the ground.

It's odd, and perhaps it's because i'm getting old(er), but incidents like this and the Shanghai birthday always seem to end up with me feeling like some old grandad looking after people. The fact that it always happens and I keep trying to help suggests that I probably enjoy it, at least subconsciously. That is in no way a criticsm of anything/body, just a very strange personal feeling I get, and one i'm still trying to work out (a) why; and (b) if its a good thing. Answers and words of wisdom on a postcard, please, or as I have no postal address right now, perhaps on an email.

Thus it was that a constant supply of cold drinks (in lieu of ice packs) had to be found, and when the pharmacist openend the following morning, I had the delights of wandering around town trying to explain what the heck was wrong and what was needed using both my words of Vietnamese, neither of which were "tooth" or "pain". Astonishingly, it even worked (second try) and I hit the jackpot, finding useful antibiotics, complete with English description. But from there it was a case of rest, wait and hope. And then get on the bus.

And with that, we headed to Hoi An. Another random place, like Kyoto, which i've stopped in not solely because it is an anagram of it's capital cities name.

Hoi An is basically a clothes shoppers paradise. A small town near the coast, south of the city of Da Nang, Hoi An has something like 300 tailors (and shoe) shops, all doing dirt cheap and high quality tailor made clothing. For a female or somebody with a credit card, it's a dangerous place, but when an entire wardrobe can be had for a few hundred dollars (cost for the same in Europe, maybe 10000), you can see why. Everything is custom amde to fit, with your exact specifications. If you want extra pink spots on it, you can. And if you don't know what you want, they have hoardes of catalogues and magazines to browse through until you find something you do. Or just take something you already have and it will be copied. The post office in Hoi An quite possibly has the greatest average cost per item posted of any in the world, as everybody spends loads and then posts it home.

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All of the girls, plus Yvonne and Richard, two friends the Danish girls had met in Halong Bay spent a chunk on clothes, and more or less had to be prised away from the town. Along with virtually everybody else we met, including the now familiar group of people on the same Bus ticket as we were who were doing the same trip at about the same time. I'll probably regret it later on, but I didn't actually buy anything. I don't need much stuff, and have all that I need. And things like suits and shirts are for people who have serious real jobs that require dressing up, not traveling cartographers...

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We even finally braved a bottle of snake wine, allegedly a huge aphrodisiac with great healing powers. It had an interesting taste to it, and was approximately drinkable, although I probably won't be experimenting much more in the near future. How the dickens they manage to get the cobras inside the bottles and positioned as they are, gawd only knows. Now that is one i would like to find out.

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I don't want to turn this into a boring "we did that, we saw this entry" like almost all of mine have been, so at this moment I head of in a completely irrelevant direction and will break the news to an almost certainly sniggering audience that Kiki has managed to track down another of my email addresses (luckily, still not a desperately important one). Thats not the news however, the details emparted to me was that their marriage is seriously on the rocks. For those of you that don't know the story, shame on you. I don't write this b*llsh1t for my own enjoyment you know*. Apparently, Christian has had a change of heart and a couple of sudden realisations have hit him...

Undoubtedly, there will be more on this as the story unfolds

  • ok, ok. Actually, I know it's really just for me. Yes, I admit it.

The town itself is lovely anyway. Another UNESCO site, it's a wonderful mixture of old French colonial architecture and local twists, with a great laid back feel, a river front, beach just a few km away, and a relative lack of all the types of hawkers that have blighted Vietnam so far. And the local food was excellent. Fresh Fruit shakes and juices are a feature (and a great one) in Vietnam and Hoi An was no exception. Cau Lau, a local kind of semi soupy noodle dish, and a dirt cheap one, is also glorious, and fried wanton is tasty beyond description. White Rose, a prawn concotion isn't too bad either, and the local beer was about 3000 (1.5yuan or SEK, urm, about 6pence at a guess) a go.

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When I said that I might use all my holidays in the future just to visit Tinh Tam, I might have lied. I would have to also spend a few days stocking up on Cau Lau and Fried Wanton in Hoi An.

And whilst we are on the subject of food, I would like to highly recomend taking Cooking Classes in Hoi An. We did, and they were great. We paid (i think) 6usd a head and got to choose 5 dishes - we could pick what we wanted, regardless of price - and then spent a great 3 hours learning how to make them. We chose Stuffed Squid, Country pancakes, Fish in banana leaf, Sweet and Sour Crab and Fresh Spring Rolls. And of course, we got to eat our creations as we went along, and not a single one of us actually got poisoned.

The electricity failed a couple of times, but as we were cooking on gas (and BBQ) that was of no problem and we cooked by candle light. The crab - we named him Boris - was stabbed at the begining and then continued to struggle and wave its legs in the air (with a huge carving knife sticking out of its belly) for the next hour or so, before valiantly giving up the fight after a few more twists of the knife.

He was very tasty.

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The interesting thing about the class was how ludicrously simple all of these wonderful delicacies actually were to make. In no way am i trying to say that chefs etc are not talented (completely the opposite). I'm just saying that even if you had given me just the required ingredients for one of those dishes, it would have probably taken me 100 attempts before I even got close to producing anything that looked or tasted anywhere near so good. It's amazing how simple some very complex looking things can be when you just know how. This isn't a promise by any means, but if any of you happen to drop by and I have time to source stuff, I'll happily try and recreate the wonders of Hoi An food for you. Assuming you sign a disclaimer absolving me of any responsibility in case of death or seious poisoning, of course.

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And to end our time in Hoi An (and to prevent further damage to credit cards in clothing stores) we took a trip to My Son. If the americans et al hadn't bomed the sh1t out of it in the war, the site would almost certainly be even better known. Sadly, large chunks of the complex were destroyed, but even so - whilst admittedly on a much smaller scale - My Son is still worthy as being Vietnams equivalent to Angkor Wat. An assortment of temples, ruins, statues and artefacts (plus bomb craters) dotted around a lovely green site up in the hills, and also site of some traditional dancing, music and singing, which was, how shall we say, curious - but not uninteresting - to say the least. Although the fact that the show ended when the CD player broke down was kind of ironic to a traditional music show...

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Posted by Gelli 20:49 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Introducing Uncle Ho, snake wine and chili vodka

Including meet the revolutionaries, the world of Vietnamese conn people and an unexpected burst of violence.

Sleeper buses in China are interesting. They vary slightly, but essentially they are 3 rows of bunk beds (with a very cozy 5 in a bed section at the back) all facing the direction of travel. But passing through huge gorges, and then over mountain passes at breakneck speed when you are facing the way you are going (as opposed to on a train, where you are generally at a 90degree angle), on a top bunk and without much to hang on to can be an interesting experience. At one point I was literally hanging on for life to prevent being catapulted onto the floor or the next bunk, as we hurtled around sharp bends on a mountain pass. On two separate occasions, we passed lorries which had ended up on their sides, and at one point as I leant out of the window to spit (horrible habit, but it is China where everybody does, and on a bus, you don’t have many options to remove mozzies from your mouth), made the mistake of looking down to discover that the back wheel that I was above, was actually half over the edge and I was staring straight down into nothingness.

We rolled into Hekou, the border, at about, and made the proper acquaintance of Anne and Tania, two Danish (sorry, with the cartoon issue still causing trouble, Germans) who had been the only other foreigners on the bus. I went in search of a restaurant and we headed to breakfast for much needed coffee, notable for our ability to select from their extensive list of coffee’s one which would have made Irish coffee seem alcohol-free, and also for somehow ending up with enough food to feed most of Guanxi, and possibly Yunnan as well.

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Hekou modern art

The border crossing to Lao Cai, across a bridge over the river was strangely easy. There was a moment of much exclamation and Chinese being thrown at the Danes which was a bit worrying until we finally realised that it was the fact that they had Vietnamese visa’s but didn’t actually need them (apparently, since 1 Jan, Finns and Danes can enter without. Don’t know why). And 20mins later, we were in Vietnam and being comprehensively ambushed by huge numbers of taxi, bus and motorcycle riders wanting to give us lifts, and assorted folks trying to sell stuff. We brushed them off, walked across the river (bridge, not Jesus), got some cash and bargained our way onto a bus to Sa Pa.

If I ever come back, it will be on my bicycle. The ride from Lao Cai to Sa Pa was fantastic. 35km long, of which the last 31 or so were up the side of a mountain, along a lovely twisty road which regularly advertised 1 in 10 gradients, and with great views down the valley. In good weather – and this was – it would be a brilliant climb. It was the perfect introduction to Vietnam.

The first impressions of Sa Pa were excellent. The sun was out, it was hot enough for my toes and legs to make their first lasting appearance since Japan, and the town is wonderfully situated in the mountains, with peaks and terraced hillsides all around, locals wearing traditional costumes, and lots of old French colonial architecture.

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One of our chief Chinese irritants had proved not to have disappeared in Vietnam. On several occasions when we had entered a café or restaurant, we had noticed that the music being played was suddenly replaced by western music. This in itself would be tolerable to a point if they didn’t all seem to go directly to the Backstreet Boys. And in our first Vietnamese place, this was no different, except that the CD was just 2 songs long and on repeat.

Shudder.

We also had our first introduction on what would fast become a major irritant, in the astonishing number of people coming up and pestering you to buy things from them (in Sa Pa, this mostly took the form of older ladies selling blankets, and guys trying to sell motorbike tours), which are impossible to ignore, and not always easy to brush off. Some just do not understand the concept of “no”. Dinner included Wild Boar amongst others but was nothing to write home about, disapointingly due to the fact that Vietnamese food had been very highly touted.

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Sa Pa is a great place, and one which I would highly recommend as a base for trekking etc, but you need to get lucky with the weather. We hadn't realised on our first day just how changeable the weather was, but day 2 saw a constant and ever changing bank of clouds running right through the town and obscuring any kind of view. There wasn’t any point walking to any of the local villages, hiring bikes to head out or going up a mountain, so after a day wandering at random and practicing haggling skills in the markets, we left the girls to persevere, and headed to Ha Noi. The trip down the mountain was fun, with visibility in places being about 30cm (no joke), and the driver relying entirely on memory, luck and occasional white pillars by the road sign to prevent us all rolling down the side of the mountain. On one occasion, all 5 Vietnamese in the bus looked at each other shrugging and laughing whilst trying work out where the hell the road was. We got conned with our Night train tickets as well, having been told that no hard sleeper was available, we paid the extra 20,000 for soft sleeper (including a meal amongst other stuff), to discover at the station that our reservation was for hard sleeper after all. B*stards. But not really feasible to return up the mountain to retrieve our 70ish pence each conn…

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The ever changing cloud line in Sa Pa

We got conned arriving in Ha Noi as well, in what is fast becoming an unwelcome theme. Admittedly 04.20am arrivals aren’t ideal, but all Vietnamese night trains seem to arrive at silly hours of the morning, probably for market/employment reasons. We avoided the hordes of touts, and got a metered taxi to the hotel (where we got to watch Death wish 279? instead of trying to sleep). Which turned out to be a big mistake, as the metre flew round at speeds not seen since the taxi driver left the crashed motorcycles in a hurry in Kunming, and probably cost us close to 4 times the real cost.

B*gger.

Vietnam was stunningly depressing. The realisation that for the first time since, probably, Moscow, I’m properly back on the tourist trail hit me very hard. The sheer number of white people and tourists around, plus native English speakers is scary and depressing. No local language knowledge seems necessary, and you don’t have to play charades to undertake a simple transaction. And many of the menu’s are not even in Vietnamese, only English and French. It’s just sad, and a reminder to me how much I like the adventure and feeling of being somewhere a bit different and which you have to work at.

The fact that everybody without exception is always out to conn/scam you is also a bit wearisome. I am naturally very paranoid, and am always taking precautions and looking around normally, but here I’m having to be even more vigilant, and the 100% concentration required everywhere means you don’t ever really relax, which on a holiday or travel in particular, you really want/need to do.

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I had really been looking forward to Vietnam, as it had appealed to me allot more than the rest of SEA, which appears to be utterly overrun by the tourist trail, and backpackers all “doing” SEA. Thailand in particular I had limited intention of visiting, reasoning that if I really want to see hoards of drunk, sexed up 18year old Brits living it up in their first taste of ‘travel’, I could just as easily go to Sydney. But only a couple of days in, I’m wondering if my ideas of Vietnam have been sorely misplaced. Kevin and Solene, my wonderful stalkers, lasted a month here - indeed only leaving the day we arrived - but hadn’t seemed impressed at all and were delighted to leave. Liz (her of the tea bag delivery in Tokyo) and her friend had left after only 3 days, whilst Dave and Casey (my hosts in Zushi/Kamakura in Japan) had also not been overly impressed and happy to leave, with the exception that they had loved the food.

I already miss China, and I miss it allot.

And with that, the first order of business on the first working day we were in Ha Noi was for all 3 of us to apply for new Chinese visa’s.

Ha Noi did grow on me though. The visa process meant we were there a week, and couldn't even do any of the trips and tours, such as out to Halong Bay as we had hoped) because we didn't have passports. But the old city in Ha Noi - once you have got used to the fact that there are scooters/motorcycles everywhere (on pavements, in shops, on bars, in hotel receptions, in bathrooms etc) – is actually very nice. A lovely array of higgledy piggeldy old French architecture and other ideas, a couple of picturesque lakes, some great street markets and little things which you come across which surprise you.

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Went to a few temples (Ngoc Son is over crowded, but Tran Quoc, a bit out of the centre was stunning), and a couple of museums and galleries (at least one kind of Vietnamese art has me hooked – they take a piece of lacquered black wood, carve in out and then paint the bits that have been carved out to leave a proper painting, which looked amazing). All musuems in Ha Noi have an obvious propaganda twist to their exhibits, and whilst the Revolutionary Museum (worth a tour) is probably fair enough, you don't expect it so much in the Womens Museum. But it was no different. Pictures and exhibits showing the poor female peasants galantly fighting the evil American (and French) oppressors were much in evidence. Took in an evening show of Water Puppets (literally, puppetters in the water behind a screen, with puppets swimming in the pool in front of them, fireworks and all) and ran into - stupid celeb alert - the 2000? Danish winner of the Eurovision song contest...

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Ngoc Son

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Tran Quoc temple

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The water puppet show

We went and paid our respects to Uncle Ho, former leader of the North Vietnamese and communuist founder Ho Chi Minh. Uncle Ho died in 1969, before his dream of reunification came true, and despite his explict request that he wanted to be cremated in a small family ceremony, is today lying peacefully in a mausoleum in the middle of Ha Noi, receiving guests by their thousand. As with Lenin in Moscow, it felt very strange, although in fairness, the queue for Uncle Ho went down much quicker, with only a short period of waiting. You also got to walk much closer to him than Lenin, although he does look significantly more fake and Madame Tussauds like - if less orange - than his Russian counterpart. Thus it was that i'd now seen 2 of the 3 great dictators in their death, with only Chairman Mao (I will rectify my failure to see him before) to go.

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The Ho Chi Minh museum is probably my single favourite thing in Ha Noi. It was absolutely wonderful. It wasn't so much that it was a museum about him, it was more the fact that so much of it was entirely random and of no obvious connection to anything. It had a Picasso. It had giant sized tables with giant sized fruit on it. And a room made of cloth. It was just brilliant. Don't you dare miss it.

In Hanoi, everybody is out to conn you. And it justs get wearing. People are always trying to sell stuff to you, give you motorcycle or cyclo rides, overcharge you, add your bill up wrongly or worse. One (lovely) fish restaurant charging 70,000 each (we thought we would splash out) charged 70,000 per top up as well, which didn't go down well. At least 2 of the girsl had attempted bag snatchings or people feeling them up. I had 3 pickpocket attempts. Unfortunately for one Vietnamese guy, 2 happened within about 15minutes of the first one, and with me not in a great mood by them, I didn't bother to try and disentangle his hand from my pocket and just hit him. I really have no idea if he or I was the most surprised (probably me), but he left my bits where they were and we went our seperate ways.

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We didn't bother with the snake wine at this juncture (large bottles of alcohol with cobras and assorted snakes (and sometimes, scorpions) inside the bottles, but i fell in love with one large bottle. 300usd was over the top for 5 litres, but i will be trying the stuff on my way south, for sure. And I got to see some of the olympics with Chevy (he of the mad beer fish night in Yangshuo). Not a great British showing, perhaps (both curling teams had collapsed after strong starts), but the Swedes were starting to look good, and with the Americans and Canuks both managing to crash out of the hockey early on were starting to dream of hockey gold. It might not sound a big deal, but to the Swedes - and with me being essentially an adopted Swede - it is. We have to be able to beat the Swiss, don't we?

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Depressingly, somehow the girls had worked out when my birthday was. This is a closely guarded secret, and it is rare that anybody outside of my family knows the exact date or realises in time. It's the way I like it. But in this case, it worked out surprisingly well. Lets just say that if you had told me last year that i would be spending my 27th birthday in Vietnam, having a revolutionary picnic under a statue of Papa Lenin, the chances of my believing you would not have been high. It was also at this point that the now fast becoming infamous Chili Vodka was first perfected. Helene is a vodka person, and with vodka so cheap in this country, we had started carrying a bottle around. We had been experimenting with different mixes, but by accident had stumbled across a drink worthy of the gods. Half vodka, half apple juice (orange is nothing compared to apple) and with an assortment of whole and chopped chillis mixed in. It's divine. And if every third person you happen to meet in Vietnam is extoling it's virtue's, thank (or blame) Helene for bringing it to the masses.

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Topped it off an evening jaunt trip to a famous jazz bar, although it turned out to be elevator jazz as opposed to anything more exotic, although It had started with the most ludicrous breakfast. I had tried to fulfil my bacon craving with a bacon and egg sandwich, only to be brough a roll and plate of scrambled eggs, and when i complained, to recieve the same again.

Gawd damned it, i just wanted some bacon!

And finally with passports back and visa's in hand, which annoyingly had meant we couldn't go on an overnight trip to Halong Bay (a stunning UNESCO site to the East of Haiphong, which Anna and Tania had visited and agreed it was lovely) which required passports, it was time to finally leave Ha Noi. We had been there too long and were itching to see some of the country. Paul gave in, and booked a flight to Nha Trang, further south, in what he hoped was to be the final hunt in our long search for the promised land. So we headed onto the bus for the overnight trip to Hue.

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One of my favourite shops in a long while. the baby food and spirit store.

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Erm...

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They haven't quite got the right idea here...

Posted by Gelli 06:14 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Which idiot went and moved the promised land?!

And so to Yunnan. Kunming, city of eternal spring (apparently) and bin lorries (garbage trucks) and road sweepers which constantly play "Happy Birthday".

Hmmmm.

Kunming felt positively un-Chinese, it was odd. The sun was out and it was finally beginning to warm up a bit. Was this finally the promised land? Was the search over? Perhaps.

After a 40min walk to the hostel (Honestly. These people have been traveling with me long enough to realise that I like walking, and so if I say lets walk – bags and all – and they agree, they deserve all that’s coming to them), and a faintly ludicrous and heavily drawn out check in procedure (you are given a form to fill out, and then the clerk immediately goes and refills the same form with the same information, just so it’s in her own handwriting), we took advantage of the Camellia Hotel’s great breakfast buffet. I don’t often give specific recommendations to places, but if you do happen to be in Kunming – as I know many of you are on a regular basis – the hotel breakfast buffet is great value. Just don’t let them see you smuggle food out…

We then took care of the crappy yet necessary admin stuff (applying for 2 Vietnamese visas, and a Chinese visa extension. And no, not each) and with that, could settle down to being tourists. The Golden Temple Park on the outskirts (former site of world Horticultural show 1999 or some such, and including a death slide) was fairly interesting in a temple way, and a pleasant-ish way to spend a couple of hours. We got utterly lost in the flower garden trying to get out of any exit (there turned out to just be one, with lots of promising looking dead ends), amazed by the size of some of incense sticks burning, and tried to avoid – some did – being conned by the priests who read your palm, and which should probably have included a comment that they foresaw an imminent loss of some money…

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We think this sign actually says "Western Food"

Back in town, whilst Paul went to sleep, we wandered around the old Muslim areas of the city and markets. One of the things I am a real sucker for is street food, and I can happily confirm that Kunming has a great selection, ranging from Pineapples on sticks, to some wonderful fried and spiced tofu balls, with about everything you could possibly list in between. Yunnan coffee (and indeed tea, which is strong but exquisite) is fabulous, especially in a country which isn’t a big coffee drinker, and of course topping up of caffeine levels had to occur. The street market area was great as well, if mainly for the array of utterly bizarre shop combinations. I don’t remember all of them, but do recall that the shop selling kids shoes and assault rifles was my favourite!

Cuihu Park with it’s lakes was lovely, and the University area to the north of it was a heck of allot more attractive than most I have seen (Gipsy Lane, it wasn’t), and also had a small area of really bohemian style shops and restaurants. Central Kunming was very odd. It’s obviously changing extremely rapidly, with chunks of it being pulled down and rebuilt, but it leaves an interesting picture. You get to wander down some dodgy looking decrepit back alleyways, seeing real life in progress, before reemerging in the centre of a major pedestrianised shopping arcade. Which is probably best described (perhaps) as a cross between Rotterdam and Bristol. For those of you that have never been to either (or Kunming), tough.

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Mmmmm. Purple sticky rice

That evening we gained an American friend, and headed to try some of the local Dai food. Being SW China, the indigenous people are Dai’s instead of Han Chinese, and the proximity of the Burmese, Lao and Vietnamese borders has also had an influence on the local cuisine. I know I’m talking allot about food these days, but god damned it this is good stuff. Purple sticky rice in Pineapple (i.e. in a hollowed out pineapple) could have kept me in Kunming alone for months. And then I saw the price of room rental, and very nearly did. Some evenings happen entirely by accident, and this was one of them. On our way back for a few quiet drinks, we happened to come across somewhere with jars of local spirits in the window. Discovering that they were 4RMB each, we decided to try 4. We didn’t expect to receive 4 half pint glasses. They were, urm, potent, and shall we say, interestingly flavoured… Being 4 at least semi-alcoholic travelers, we couldn’t really leave them, and there was no way in hell that we could down them (a tiny sip of any was enough to scare us), so we ended up staying. And invented a card game to help. We originally agree to go after we’d passed 1/3 of the way down each glass, but somehow managed to get through all of them in the following couple of hours. How the heck we managed that, I have no idea, and never will have.

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Local firewaters

Dali railway station isn’t actually in Dali at all, a fact that we only realised in a taxyi at 5.30am when we left the station and immediately got on to the highway out of town into the pitch black countryside.

Oh well, you live and learn, mostly.

On the plus point, and although not the most salubrious of accomodations I have stayed in, the 15RMB we paid each for the room (about 1.07gbp) were the cheapest I have ever paid for accomodation in my life.

Dali was lovely. I had kind of expected it to be another version of Yangshuo – pretty and well sited, but very touristy and set up as a kind of backpacker heaven, but whilst parts of that were true, it really wasn’t. It was several times larger, and though it did have a few obviously touristy/backpacker bits, most of the town seemed authentic and normal Chinese by far out numbered white travelers, and those who’s jobs seemed to be to solely get business from the said travelers.

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Shoppers in Dali

It’s a great place to just wander. The walled city is large enough, and contains enough curios, back alleyways and traditional houses etc that you can easily kill a day or so doing nothing else. From one of the gatehouses, you can see the lake, only a couple of km away inviting you to its shores and water, whilst from almost everywhere you could see the fantastic mountain ranges just behind the town. Not desperately tall, but pushing 3000m, they are the tail end of the Himalayan range.

The weather was wonderful, if slightly chilly when the sun went down behind the mountains, and perhaps it almost was the promised land at long last. Together with the most amazing African American woman in her 40s, plus a German engineer, we had a Dai banquet. A once a week (admittedly tourist aimed) extravaganza of a long succession of stunning Dai dishes. Dai cooking is thus far definitely at the peak of my culinary rankings from this trip. The town by night is almost even more bewitching than during day. They have worked out the lighting to perfection, with a full moon and clear sky, and it just felt right wandering around with all the locals doing not allot. Although one close encounter with a firework, let off by an overly enthusiastic local which shot unexpectedly into a shop, whacking the assistant in the shoulder before embedding itself in a glass display case reminded us that we are still in China… Although completely different, it reminded my allot of Hvar, Mostar and Sarajevo at night from the beginning of my trip. And due mostly to it’s name, and our Shanghai – wherever trip being themed by stairs and monkeys, we ended up in the Bad Monkey.

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Dali by night

It was at this point that my body started to object. I’d barely managed to sleep in about 5 days, and despite a long night out, a couple of walks designed to try and tire me out and hot and cold showers, I wasn’t good. My gut was also starting to react in a big way (perhaps Dai food isn’t quite as amazing as all that…), and all I wanted to do (please excuse live altering information here) was to sleep and sh1t. I couldn’t do either, then couldn’t even keep water down, and then promptly went from not being able to sh1t to having to live on the toilet. Lets just say I didn’t have a good or productive couple of days. Apparently though, there are several really cool places near Dali, plus obviously mountains to climb and a lake to enjoy, which I will have to return to take advantage of.

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Kunming by night

Returned to Kunming by bus, along a 350km double land highway including several long tunnels and bridges, but which was almost entirely empty for the entire way, took a peak at the Chinese interpretation of Valentine’s Day (very westernized, and strange), collected our assorted visa’s – although mine included a crazy taxi ride involving a head on collision by two motorcyclists directly in front of us, and the hugely annoyed taxi driver who jumped out yelling and threw one of the motorcycles across the road (into another taxi, who’s driver and passenger were, shall we say, vocal in their unamusement), before shooting off at the speed of light, which seemingly so riled him, that he forgot to charge me – got some tickets and got the sleeper bus south to Hekou.

I’m going to Vietnam.

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Modern Art on the river front near the border in Hekou

Posted by Gelli 01:43 Archived in China Comments (0)

C-Cha-Cha. C-Cha-Cha. Oooh. Oooh

Travels into Yunnan in search of the promised land. And more stairs.

It's strange to be travelling with people again. I hadn't really realised it, but on this trip I haven't actually travelled with anybody at all. Sure, i've met people on the way, in hostels and other random places, bumped into several people on multiple occassions, and arranged to meet a few on the way. But In over 8months, I hadn't actually travelled with somebody(ies) I had met along the way until leaving Shangers, and it's suddenly very strange, and despite being a solo traveller by trade, i'm realising how much I do periodically miss traveling with other people.

Our intrepid quintet of mountaineers, however, became a trio quite quickly. James, who's idea it had been to begin with had developed a personal interest in Shanghai in the time waiting to be able to leave, and thus decided to cut short the road trip to return to Shanghai. Kyoko is lovely, and best of luck to the both of them. A day later, Jimmy headed off to Nanjing. Originally he'd planned to come a little further, but with a new job starting in only a few days, he decided to stay closer to Shanghai to avoid being caught out trying to return.

Huangzhou is somewhere which in summer i guess would be absolutely gorgeous. A large lake, parks, woods and low rolling hills with temples and pagodas in them make it a place that you want to be outside enjoying, whereas a fairly damp, chilly, windy winter day is not ideal, and it didn't leave a huge mark on me. I hope to return though, and give it a fair chance.

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And so it was that we headed south, aiming for the promised land. That almost went horribly wrong, with the taxi driver cunningly taking us to teh wrong railway station, leaving us with one huge mad scramble and second taxi ride to Huangzhou East. If the station had been any busier, or we'd have been literally 2seconds later, we'd have been goners, but for some reason, our luck was still holding and we got away with it. Just.

Chinese trains are classified. Z are non stop, T are the top level express trains. Chinese train tickets are also very hard to acquire for trains which don't originate in the town you are departing from. Most Chinese agents and ticket staff don't even bother to look up space availability on trains which originate elsewhere, even if requested. And thus it was that we spent 37 hours on an A train to Guilin. The journey actually only takes about 23hours, but being an A classified train means its a slow one. Which doesn't actually mean more station stops. Just that it stops randomly and frequently in the middle of nowhere for other trains to pass. The fact that this would be entirely unneccessary if the train wasn't scheduled to stop in the middle of nowhere anyway, seems to have eluded them. At one point in the middle of the night, i played rock/scissor/paper for 20minutes with a random and bored white guy on a train which had stopped next to ours for no apparent reason, whilst on a seperate occassion three trains behind ours all stopped alongside us, whilst yet another train went past. That cost us over 80 (timetabled) minutes, and explains why we took so damned long.

Our 37hour trip worked out at a hair-raising average speed of just under 27mp/h.

I love train journeys.

We were heading for the promised land. I've never had a warm/sunny winter before, and was looking for a month or so of warm weather and sun to enjoy, just for variety. Unfortunately, the promised land didn't turn out to be quite as promised.

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Elephant Hill

Guilin was still wet, and not especially warm. But not unpleasant. Guilin and the surrounding area of Guanxi province is charecterised by limestone Karst scenery. Basically, tall pillars of rock randomly dotted around. It doesn't sound especially amazing when put like that, but is actually really cool. We wandered around the Elephant Hill Park (literally, a Karst peak which resembles an Elephant drinking in the river) up the stairs to the top, and after collecting a friendly local (christened Simon, in honour of our Huanshan helper, as we know that they all will be from now on) the Princes City, a kind of smaller, less impressive and more expensive version of Beijing's forbidden city. And containing the inevitable limestone Karst pillar with a building on top. Up the equally inevitable long and steep stairway.

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River ferries and view of Princes City peak from below

Stairs are fast becoming a fixed point and overriding theme of this leg of the trip.

Guilin's other curiosity is that without exception, all restaurants have (a) all crockery and cuttlery shrink wrapped in plastic - due to some bizarre local law - which you have to pay to use (yup, you pay to use chopsticks and a bowl) and (b) that all meat and fish is displayed live outside, and you pick and choose what you want killed to eat. Well over half of it looks in a pretty poor way to begin with, whilst another segment contains animals that you can't even work out what they are (some voley things, some large brown things amongst others). Which is worrying when you ponder items offered on the menu, as you know that it sure as hell isn't a chicken or a pig...

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Guilin suburbs set out amongst the Karst peaks

We headed to Yangshuo, an hour by minibus. Getting minibuses is never straight forward in China. If the bus is not filled to about 120% of capacity, the driver trawls the streets at random looking for more passengers, and refuses to actually depart for the destination until he has satisfactoraly overfilled the bus. This can take time,and does take an inordinate amount of shouting, weaving and horn beeping, although in fairness this is standard to all Chinese driving. The delay mean't that we got to see the entirity of an absolutely fabulously bogus Hong Kong police/kung fu movie, which unfortunately i never knew the name of.

Yangshuo is a self confessed backpacker haven, and it shows. A small town on the river surrounded by some of the more dramatic karsts in the area, it has been turned into a white person's haven. In most places, menu's and signs are in English only, the food being served is often Western or westernised, and the entire town seems to contain entirely of hostels, cheap hotels, restaurants and gift shops selling every piece of unimaginable tourist kitch possible. But despite all that, it's not a bad place - it's picturesque, fairly relaxed and cheap. Our accomodation was 20yuan a night each, or about gbp1.40. I figure in the height of summer, it could be a hideous place, and overly full of white people, but off season it wasn't quite so bad.

We hired some bikes, gained another Simon as a guide, and later on two more travellers, and headed out into the countryside. Which is really lovely. Opportunities to do many things, including mud bathing, white water rafting and pot-holing (all simultaneously if you really wanted and fell out of the boat at the wrong moment), but we stuck to cycling and climbing. Moon Hill was only 841 steps (yes, i counted) and nothing at all like Huanshan had been, but still fulfilled our daily stair requirement quite happily. I told you that stairs were becoming quite a feature. And the view from the top over the local area and karsts was fantastic. The sun was even out. And I was back on a bike with some open road to play on, which was absolutely fabulous in itself.

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The view from Moon Hill

I've said it before, but if your reading this rubbish anyway, then you are stupid enough to put up with my constant repetitions, so i'll say it again anyway. I really miss my bike.

Some evenings are memorable for events, some for individuals. This was definitely one of later. A group of 8 of us (we randomly picked up a couple of old Shangers friends amongst others) headed out for dinner to sample the local speciality, beer fish. With a Chinese speaker in our ranks, we decided against the overpriced tourist restaurants, and instead headed to a small local looking place. Amongst others, we tried both the beer-fish and beer-duck (literally, fish - or duck - marinated in beer). How they are actually supposed to taste I don't know, as we ended up with, basically, two large plates of small bones. The fish plate also contained scales. But no meat was to be found anywhere. The meal would have been a complete farce, had it not been for the resence of a specific Chinese man and his extended family at the next table.

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Out at dinner on the beer fish night

Towards the end of our meal, and fortified by some consumed Baijou, he decided to befriend us. He spoke no English, but it mattered not a jot. We received biscuits, cigarettes, fruits of assorted kinds, spirits, mints and more as gifts. We offered leftovers, beer, cigarettes, and, well, us. Games we're played. Rice wine and beer was drunk. Singing was cringe worthy (and the title here reflects one of our favourites, which has been turned into a cult track to be sung at every opportunity, along with another more soppy but brilliant Chinese classic, approximately translated as "Mouse loves Rice"). Pictures were taken in abundance and much hilarity was had all around. We left the restaurant entirely unconcerned by the pathetic meal, and having had one of the best times of recent months. And all because of a drunk Chinese man, and his amazing family.

Although I will divulge that i ended up being given a free taxi ride and being dropped off randomly in the middle of a field, being waddled after by large cow (i believe, although it could have been somthing else making moo-ing noises) and also walked alone over a not inconsiderable Karst in the pitch black, i will leave the story there. Events, memories, pictures and impressions from the remainder of the evening are best left as such, well out of public consumption, and deep in the depths of a few fuddled memories. Unless of course, somebody somehow becomes famous...

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Karst landscape near Yangshuo. But not from THAT night

We bounced back via Guilin and, due to an inability to get through train tickets, we overnighted in Nanning, a major regional centre, which feels entirely un-Chinese. More relaxed, less hassle, and less noise. I'm in no way suggesting that it was orderly and traquil in the way that a Swiss city might be, but it was a definite and noticeable change from all other Chinese cities I have previously visited. It's notable mainly for it's insanely long ticket queues at the station, for excessively priced Vietnamese visa's, no white people at all and for being entirely nondescript and irrelevant. With the exception, and a worthy one at that, that a section of the city centre is pedestrianised, entirely out of all look and feel of the rest of the city (and indeed, China), which looks and feels suspiciously like Newport. Thats Gwent as opposed to the Isle of Wight or Salop. And some of the side streets have seemingly been stolen from Romsey.

Despite that, we didn't stick around.

Got the train towards Kunming, and thus, we arrived in Yunnan.

Posted by Gelli 23:42 Archived in China Comments (0)

The attack of the killer monkeys and a possesed MP3 player

I am a pacifist by nature. And I could never possibly condone or suggest animal cruelty. But sometimes, it's just neccessary.

We had a cunning plan.

For anybody that knows me, you know just how bad that is likely to be.

The intrepid quintet left Huangzhou at lunchtime, heading for Huanshan. Only the bare essentials were being carried. A 1 man tent, a welsh flag, and two pairs of speakers plus some "interesting" chili sticks amongst our meagre loads. The rest of the stuff was to remain at base camp, or possibly liberated by enterprising locals. That would be a surprise to await us on our triumphant return to Huangzhou, the city we had used as a half way point, simply due to our inability to get a cheap ticket direct to the mountain.

The supremely amazing cunning plan that we had concocted involved climbing the mountain at night in the pitch black, wandering the peak circuit, putting up the tent and all squeezing in, extremely cozily for a few hours whilst playing cards, listening to music and trying to not die of exposure or hypothermia. Rising to see the alledegly stunning sun-rise over the peak, and then returning down the longer and more craggy face in the daylight. In summary, 5 stupid white people were going to climb an unknown mountain (only 1800 odd mteres, admittedly) without a guide in the pitch black.

It didn't quite workout that way. Admittedly, that could have been partly due to the fact that they lock the mountain at night, so the only people that can stay on it, are those with prebooked accomodation on its hillside.

So a friendly local, Simon, with the most amazing accent (a cross between any English accent you could possibly name, and many you wouldn't) kind of talked us out of it, helped us select accomodation (i'm sure he was rewarded for it, although a bit of bagaining and the fact that it obviously wasn't very busy mean't we were in no way conned) encouraged us to eat at his restaurant (LP recomended, and the mortal enemy of the Lets Go recomended restaurant across the road, and Rough Guide recomended one a couple of hundred metres away) and generally didn't try and climb the mountain at night. So we stayed, ate, set off some fireworks, and prepared ourselves for a god awful 5am start to try and climb up high enough to see sunrise.

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Jimmy and Helene setting off rockets for New Year

That would have worked better if the wonderful Simon had actually known what he was talking about, and told us the correct time that the mountain opened in the morning, instead of us standing in a car park with a number of overly keen Chinese walkers and tour groups for about 2hours in the cold dark morning.

Huanshan is a mythical-ish and revered Chinese mountain, which countless Chinese (and there are countless of them) pay pilgrimages to. The mountain, predictably, has not been entirely left to it's natural glory, and sevral hotels, shops and shelters, plus restaurants and even a Bank of China with an ATM, amongst others, have been built on it's slopes.

As have stairs.

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Portage of goods to be sold at vastly imflated prices to weary climbers on the mountain

The climb itself was surprisingly pleasant. In most instances, the stairs had natural breaks between flights to break the monotony, the weather was perfect mountain climbing weather, and the sky clear enough to get some great views. Until the first peak (i.e. where all the cheating b*stards who go up in cable car alight for the peak circuit), the path was relatively empty, so climbing at your own pace was perfectly possible. And despite us all being utterly unfit, we were all approximately ok, although Paul was clearly suffering by about step 8.

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Paul looking happy to have made it a quarter of the way up

The entire route up the East face is made out of stairs. And up we climbed. Stairs can be painful to climb, and overly repetitive on the muscles, but in general they were easy to listen to some music, watch the scenery, get into a rhythm and just go. On a climb like that, you have to go at your own pace, or it will be supremely painful. With my perverse love of mountains and walking, I put my MP3 player on and set off like a mountain goat. I don't make a particularly good mountain goat though.

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At was after about 3 minutes that I realised that my MP3 player had a sense of humour. When you have an MP3 player with about 7000 songs on it, and hit random play all, you expect to get a random selection. Not one with a warped sense of appropriate humour. And so it was that after starting with The Top of the Morning, I proceeded to get Stairway to Heaven (which came up a stunning 3 times on the next 3 hours), Big Mountain, China Girl, Journey, Misty Mountain Top, Chinese Way, Road to Nowhere, China Crisis, Alone, Steps, Jump to the Top and Black Mountain Side amongst many others, each seemingly more apt and perfectly picked that the last. I have no idea how it occured, and in fairness, i'm not even sure that I want to.

Stunningly, Paul didn't collapse and die on the way up.

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Although the monkeys almost got him.

Even before we had left Shanghai, James (who's basic idea it was, and who was unanimously nominated to be glorious leader) had been talking about monkey attacks, and was carrying a nifty looking if somewhat daft collapsible kevlar walking stick to be used in just such an event. And after the first 45minutes, we did indeed pass through a large family of not inconsiderably sized monkeys living on the mountain. It was an encounter with a second family another half hour or so up the mountain that things got more interesting. Details remain sketchy. All i know is that Helene and I passed without incident, although some of them were barely 50cm away. A few minutes later, Jimmy ambled past. And then about 20minutes later at one of our customary regroupings, Paul and James appear talking animatedly about monkey attacks, life flashing before eyes and Paul was now carrying a recently purchased wooden monkey stick, and brandishing it with intent.

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Only a few more steps to go...

As we rounded the corner to the first main peak, a stunning sight appeared in front of our eyes. Literally thousands of frickin Chinese, all looking extremely fresh and like they had just got off a cable car (which, in fairness, most had), and swarming all over the place. Call me picky, but if i've just expended 3 hours and climbed 10,000 steps (rough guess) climbing a tranquil mountain, the last thing I want to encounter on the top is a huge hoard of people, looking fresh and enjoying themselves in restaurants.

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It really is somewhat surreal to be so far up a mountain, and be surrounded by hoardes of people. The next couple of hours we spent circling the summit, along with a good 100,000 Chinese people. Parts of it were hugely steep, most of it was relatively straight forward. There were further hotels and restaurants, and even porters carrying people. It wasn't quite as spiritual as I would have hoped, but the climb in itself had definitely been worth it.

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Happily on top of Huanshan

After a while with uncountable Chinese tour groups blocking the way (until a monkey stick was used on occassions), a couple of cross country jaunts by the two most stupid of us to try and speed past the people, and with the weather suddenly coming in very quickly, we knew it was time to vamoose. And so the intrepid quintet, basking in their glorious achievement of climbing the holy mountain, being attacked by monkeys and not hitting too many Chinese with the monkey stick headed down for a well earned meal, beer, and bus back to Huanghzou.

Posted by Gelli 02:27 Archived in China Comments (0)

Welcome to the Year of the Dog

And so it was Chinese New Year.

This is a long boring entry. Feel free to skip it if you want. You won't miss much. Especially as i still can't get any photos online.

For several days, the sheer number of fireworks going off randomly in the street suggested that it was going to be a louder and more colourful New Year than Hong Kong for Jan New Year had been. And so it proved. In good traditional style, a group of us clubbed together, bought a huge pile of fireworks (sadly without finding the requisit 1.5metre long big f*ck off rocket which we desperately wanted) and went on to the Bund to play.

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Paul, Michael, Ivan, Kyoko, Jimmy, Phillipe (back) and James playing with fireworks on the Bund

Despite the sheer amount of fireworks the country produces, Chinese fireworks are not always reknowned for their reliability, which added an interesting twist, as you never know which one that you are lighting will blow up your face or take off an arm. And with the entire Chinese nation, who are, quite frankly, more or less psycotic with regard to fireworks, just walking down the street is potentially a supremely hazardous experience. We were the modicum of decorum, praticsed (mostly) firework safety and all was good. Unfortuantely, bck near the hostel a group of stupid young Americans had decided to whack back all their booze before playing with fireworks and a couple of big bangs later, a couple of our group were
extremely lucky to escape with eyes intact.

And that kind of killed that.

At about 23.30, most of the hostel headed out on to the Bund to watch the show, which was stupendous. There was no official fireworks whatsoever. Instead, on every building, plus all of the streets and some of the river barges, individuals were just letting off fireworks in all directions. The sheer amount of fireworks used was staggering. Not a clear point in the sky, and by midnight, all was in a haze of colour and firework smoke. And it just never stopped.

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Pudong area of Shanghai, seen across the Bund at night

We spent much of the next day engrosed at at the Longhua temple, watching as most of the population of Shanghai and their visitors came to be blessed for the New Year. To steal a thought from my stalker, Kevin, it was almost like being in a National Geographic documentary. It was just a 'wow' moment. Incence sticks by the thousands being waved in all directions, the groups covered in incence sticks and money, offerings thrown at the gods, but which had missed or bounced off to be collected later. The wonderful Golden tree by the outside Pagoda was literally barely standing unfder the ever increasing weight of peoples hopes and dreams, which had been attached to the tree, or just thrown up into it. Wow.

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The tree outside Longhua temple where locals throw their wishes and prayers, to be answered in the New Year.

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Longhua Temple, and the buring incense, where Shanghaiese celebrate New Year and pray for a prosperous New Year

But I was getting restless. And although I spent a couple of days then wandering aimlessly, I was mostly plotting our escape. And trying to get to the damned cricket fighting, which seemed to have been cancelled for New Year and because it was too cold. I bet even the crickets are unionised. On the last evening, one of the girls, Kate, turned 19, and with another guy turning 20 the next night, celebrations had to occur. Periodically, in hostels, you do end up with a group which just comes together in a large scale for no apparent reason. And so, a good 30 or so of us went out on the birthday celebration, and I was the oldest. 2 or 3 others were mid 20's, the oldest of the rest was 21. I felt supremely old. And they were all happily intoxicated. I felt like some kind of grandpa. And ended up playing the role as well.

Long story cut short, but Kate was perhaps overly intoxicated before we went out, and in the club ended up loosing her wallet, her ability to stand and her camera. And then her credit card. Women! Stunningly, through a longwinded process during which and i ended up becoming good friends with George, the owner, I actually managed to recover everything (except Kate's ability to stand, although we utilised a really tall Canukistani to help on that one). Which made me feel more like an old grandpa fart, as i was seemingly appointed guardian of the entire group. Great. Next time, remind me never to go out with a group of kids, especially when they are mostly blottoed (i like that word) and you sure as heck aren't. Having said that, George is a damned good bloke, and whilst a meat market it may be, it's cheap, spirits are normally bought by the bottle, and it's good fun. If anybody is looking for cheap booze, sports, dancing etc in Shanghai, I can recomend Windows on Nanjing Lu.

I'm amazed that i ever said that.

And It really is time to leave.

The days were starting to drag, and whilst Shanghai is a great place to hang out, a couple of weeks (especially being unplanned) had led me to just want to leave. For anywhere. I like Shangers, and am sure i'll miss it, but i'm a wanderer at heart and being stuck for so long somewhere just makes me antsy.

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And with that, James, Jimmy, Paul, a supremely hung over Helene and I departed on what was billed as a detox trip, but in truth knowing nothing except that stairs, monkeys and a trip to the unknown probably awaited the intrepid quintet.

Posted by Gelli 01:36 Archived in China Comments (0)

No crickets and F*ck varrying levels of carbonated water...

One day back in Shanghai, I got talking to a recently arrived Englishman, Mike, who was recounting his recent winter crossing of Russia and Mongolia. 4 of them had been couped in a train for 4 days straight, and had come up with the f*ck list. Some of which was recounted, and much of it made my hugely nostalgic for Russia. Such as fuck varying levels of carbonated water. If you've never been to Russia,it means nothing. If you've been, you know exactly what is means. In brief for the uninitiated, opening a bottle of water is an event which could be a non entity, or the equivalent of being savagely attacked by a demonic jetspray. You just never knew what. Apparently the entire f*ck list will be online at some point, and i will be sure to add a link to it then for the enjoyment of other former Russian travellers, although it will likely pass most others by completely.

I had come back to Shanghai for maybe 3 or 4 days to be a tourist, as i'd not managed to see anything much on my first trip through before Christmas. 3 or 4 days has since turned into an unspecified open ended period of time (i'm still here) due to assorted circumstances.

Somehow on nearing Shanghai station, I twisted very slightly moving out of someones way and felt a twinge in my back. It rapidly got worse, and 2hours later I was lying utterly prone on my bed in the hostel, and wouldn't manage to move again for about 48hours. The most I managed was a couple of trips to the toilet (about 6metres), which took over 4hours each to physically accomplish. I was not in a good way. A couple of weeks later, and i'm still moving more gingerly than i should be, and feeling it, although I am at least moving around. The other big issue is Chinese New Year. Basically, unless I wanted to go to Beijing (nobody goes home there), I wasn't going anywhere. Trains and buses are waaay over booked due to people trying to go home for the New Years celebrations, so I was stuck in Shanghai anyway. And I wasn't the only one. Many desperate attempts were made to leave by an assortment of people. Some even succeeded. Most didn't and are also stuck here, meaning that they are a motley assortment of long termers knocking around and we're making the most of it, and it's certainly not been unenjoyable.

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The Shanghai to Pudong Maglev train

Despite being mostly lazy, a couple of evil (unconnected) nights due to food poisoning - and i haven't been the only one - and the back problem, I have actually managed to see a chunk of stuff. Have wandered the Bund and main drag, Nanjing Road, regularly. I've been up the stupendous Jinmao tower, one of the worlds tallest skyscrapers to take in the view, whiskey in the piano bar, and stare down the stunning Star Wars style hole through the middle of the building which is not for the faint hearted or vertigo sufferers (i.e. me). I entertained the geeky transport idiot in me with a return trip to Pudong airport, in order to try out the maglev train. At 430kmh, the fastest train in the world, and being a non flyer, the fastest I have personally ever been. It was the most fantastic acceleration, meaning about 2minutes into the journey, we had hit top speed, although the journey was surprisingly bumpy.

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Looking down inside the Jinmao tower

Took a wander around the museum of communist propaganda (i can never say or type that word with going into a burst of "Duel"), the gallery of modern art (very cool) and museum of planning and construction, which basically showcases what Shanghai will be like by the time they host Expo2010. And these guys are not messing around. Most cities in China resemble building sites, but Shanghai seems to be taking its transformation to extremes, both in scale and time frame. The metro, for example is being extended to the tune of over 270 new stations on a dozen or so new lines. All within 5 years. Plus a new container port. On an island. Connected to the mainland by bridge. A 46km long one. The worlds tallest building, the Shanghai World Trade Centre, is due to for completion next year (although it won't be the tallest for long) and a few other biggies will also go up. Come back to Shanghai in 5 years time, and it will be virtually unrecognisable.

I've wandered around the Jade Buddha Temple (i like it) and the Jingan Temple (less impressive but fine), had a price of Guiness which made me wish I was back paying Swedish prices, and a foot massage and just wandered. More than anything else, Shanghai is a place designed just to wander. Very few must see's and do's exist, but i could happily spend 6 months here just walking at random, and never get bored, or even see some of the same things/places twice. People watching is imense, street markets and pockets of real Shanghai are everywhere, whilst the state of constant flux and construction means that things change rapidly and are often expectedly unexpected. The exception to wandering is the metro. Clean, quick, efficient, and rapidly expanding. With a but.

But.

But, due to the moronic nature of the Chinese psyche in certain aspects, the average station stop turns into a free for all as people barge on to trains without even vaguely considering the concept of letting them off first. People falling over are common. Trampling is not uncommon. Fist fights are expected. And without exception, some poor buggers trying to get off get trapped in the train as it speeds off. Carrying a golf club or iron bar is a very desirable option. Now when I try to get off, it's a case of elbows out and take no prisoners. It's very un-British, and i've sent any number of people to the floor which is regretable, but unavoidable. Otherwise, you don't get off, simple as that. It's sheer chaos.

The hostel is now mostly overrun by English guys and Scandinavian girls. Two groups of people i don't run into all that often. It's very strange. I've caught up with Helene (from the previous time around) and kind of relived my youth by sitting in a park on a sunday, drinking dodgy red wine from the bottle whilst watching a group of OAPs happily ballroom dance in the freezing cold, Lun (for some reason, we seem to end up drinking the odd beer and ending up in strange places when we meet. This time I ended up in a random part of town, having lost my phone and being locked out of an appartment in the p1ssing rain at about 5am) and Reevesie (Vladivostock, who ended up forced to fly out when the boat wasn't there, and has spent 3 months circumnavigating the globe on a ship teaching English. What a fantastic job), and came across a load of new faces, as you do. More on some of them to come in future installments.

The other interesting thing is the astonishing number of travellers I have met who fallen for scams down the Nanjing Road. Sure, you get people trying to sell you watches, bags, DVDs, drugs, women et al, but the vast majority of guys seem to have fallen for a coffee shop scam. Some local girls get talking to them, and aftyer a while suggest going for coffee. After a couple of coffees, and normally, whiskey (or even karaoke), plus a few bits which appear unordered,they then get hit with a whopping bill and told to pay up. 100euros, 100gbp, 100usd are common amounts, and a couple of Americans have been done for 800usd. Idiots. And yet, probably 75% of the males i've met in the hostel have been hit for it, and I can't comprehend why or how they managed to fall for it. Oh well.

All that is left really here is trying to avoid loosing an arm to Chinese fireworks, seeing the acrobats, Martinis in a poncey hotel and trying to see the damned cricket fighting. In no way am I proponent of animal cruelty and fighting, but I admit to being really annoyed that attempts to catch cricket fighting have so far come to naught. We've found the crickets, can even buy them (some of them are not small), but haven't manged to see them in action as yet. The mind boggles, but sometimes, you just have to suspend belief and experience local life.

Early next week, with luck, I will finally leave on the next part of the trek. Whilst not exactly how I envisonaged leaving, I've been conned (admittedly it didn't take long) into teaming up with another long termer, James (who's left twice, got stuck and come back), into taking a road trip, climbing a mountain and attempting to cross China entirely on local buses. It should be really great.

But first, It's Chinese New Year.

Posted by Gelli 03:05 Archived in China Comments (0)

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