A Travellerspoint blog

Haggling for sex toys and visiting Jumbo and the Pandas

Musings from a couple of weeks in Hong Kong.

I spent just over 2 weeks in Hong Kong, and must admit that I enjoyed it imensely. Not the cheapest place in the world by any stretch of the imagination, but strangely comforting to be back in somewhere which was seemingly familiar, multi cultural, and relaxed. I think i could happily live here for a while, although that would seem something of a cheat.

Despite the inevitable fact that all 10 people i know in Hong Kong have been elsewhere the entire time I've been here (not stupid, these people), It was also good to catch up with a few familiar faces again. Admittedly I didn't know Kevin, Solene or Jude before I started this trip, but it was great to see old friends again. And also to realise that all TPers are alcoholics, but on the whole great people. Despite the whole fuffy/furry thing.

Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, and in all likliness, even if you don't, is to walk along Nathan Road, on the Eastern side, and make it from the Star Ferry to Jordan without being offered at least half a dozen hostel/hotel rooms, fake rolexs, tailored suits, money changed, drugs of all descriptions and in most incidences several curries and offers of Indian food as well. Some you can easily avoid, some are easy to fob off (i'll buy a fake rolex only if it's spelt with 4 "L"s, for example). And don't even thing about looking foreign (i.e. not Black African or from the Indian subcontinent) and trying to enter Chunking mansions around dinner time if you don't want a curry. It's just not worth it. But that's another story.

Stayed in several different places, partly by choice, partly not. The first place in the Mirador, as previously noted, was just strange and also lacked the facilities it advertised. And only 1 of the 3 nights i was supposed to be there, I actually was. And the oter two weren't by choice. A few nights in Causeway Bay on Hong Kong Island followed, until, together with Lun, Ananad and an English girl, Clare, we departed on mass from the Wang Fat hostel, spured by several issues, but mainly the discovery that all 4 of us (plus 2 previous residents) were paying completely different prices for the same dorm room, some a whopping 50% extra. Then ended up in another place in the Mirador, the Cosmic, run by 3 absolutely lovely old ladies, (and most of which was stunningly clean and well equiped, if on the cosy side) but due to the changing size of our group ended up in 3 seperate rooms (and price categories).

Some of the days i spent doing not allot, or just wandering at random. I probably covered every road on the Kowloon peninsula south of the old boundary point (south of the boundary was actually ceeded to the british - and HK Island was fully British as well - whilst the New Territories to the North were only on lease to Britain, despite the fact that the whole colony was returned to the Chinese), and at various times took in the Electronic, Ladies, Fish, Flower, Bird, Night, Jade and Sports markets, as well as the famed Stanley Market on the south end of HK Island, which were dissapointingly small and touristy. Wandered along both coasts of the harbour and into Victoria Pak (Island) and Kowloon Park (guess) and just relaxed.

A long story to remain untold it may be, but I will note in passing that there is definitely something surreal about standing on a market road at 11pm earnestly haggling with the stall owner over the price of a specific vibrator, and trying to counter their prices with getting other stuff chucked in for free. All of which whilst trying to avoid joining the unnamed person wanting said vibrator, collapsed in a heap of laughter on the floor. That's just not good haggling technique.

I just love haggling!

Went Laptop and computer shoping through assorted Computer markets and cities with Jude, although didn't buy in the end and shoe shopping with Clare (it's true that i might need my head examined). Went up the escalators again, just for the heck of it, wandered HKisland on the double decker trams (the only ones in service anywhere in the world), crosed the harbour on some of the other ferry routes and under and over it, including of course, the famous Star Ferry. Which at 2.4 (upper) or 1.7 (lower) dollars a trip, was definitely good value, as was most of HKs stunningly efficient public transport. Sorted out some jabs, went to the botanical gardens, went up to the Hong Kong peak twice (the first was hazy, the second wonderfully clear) using the impressively steep Peak Tram.

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Nikki on the Peak tram. Yes, the angle is correct, and thats not even the steepest part

Watched the sympathy of lights a couple of times, wandered with Kevin and Solene, headed out to Lantau island with Nikki to visit the Giant Tian Tan Buddha (the worlds largest outdoors bronze Buddha - good, but not the first or probably last giant Buddha I will see on this trip) and Po Lin Monastery. Also tried miserably to score some HK Rugby 7s tickets for the 2006 tournament in the spring and to get a space on the free Junk ride around the harbour. Oh well, can't win them all. And tried to get my rabies injection, but failed miserably 3 times because (a) it was too long ago i was bitten, so i must be fine or (b) i don't have the offending dog with me (it's a fecking stray in Romania. Why the hell would i have it in Hong Kong). I couldn't even get a possibly out of them, just a straight f*ck off. And as they were less than pleasant about it on all occassions, if i do happen to succumb to rabies in the near-mid future, please can somebody sue the arse off the Hong Kong Airport and HK Island Travel clinic for negligence in my memory. I even had to pay for a "consultancy" to get my jabs,despite the fact i knew what i needed, and my consultancy involved me telling the doctor what i needed for 90seconds and him muttering "ok". If i could get paid about 25gbp for saying ok and listening for 90seconds, i would be a happy chap indeed!

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At the Jumbo floating restaurant in Aberdeen

Headed down to Stanley, Deep Water Bay and Aberdeen on the south side of HK Island with Jude, to discover that Stanley Market was actually quite small and touristy, and the fort is now a Chinese military base who don't like stupid British people wandering around it. Just about avoided a long trip through the underground sewage farm, went for lunch on the self proclaimed "most luxurious floating restaurant in the world", Jumbo, in Aberdeen harbour. It was fairly luxurious, I admit, and the food was good if different (we had Dim Sum, which included classics such as Deep Fried Pork Pie - oddly damned tasty - and something which turned out to be faggotts), although the location was strage. Aberdeen, in fairness, is not the most delightful view for such a restaurant, with rows of high and used looking tower blocks, plus concrete overpasses to greet dinners. And it was debatable if we were actually floating or whether the main building (boat) was actually permanently attached to the seabed. Had a drink on the fabulously comfy rooftop bar though.

And visited An An and Jia Jia.

Expensive, sure, but neither of us had actually seen a giant panda before, and the opportunity was too good to turn down. Housed in the Ocean Park amusement park, they are both at peak age and may not have too many years left, which will be a shape, but normal. Typically, An An was out in the enclosure, but sleepy and barely moved except to roll over, whilst Jia Jia was animatingly eating bamboo as if it's life depended on it - in fairness, it probably did - but in a cage out of view, and only visable on TV screens. Oh well, at least i've seen a Panda. Took in the aquariums, shark tanks, bird and butterfly enclosures amongst others (all of which seemed depressingly small in size) and a really funny dinosaur enlcosure as well as a long cable car ride between the two sections and a huge long escalator ride back down. They like escalators in this city, it seems. Took in a trip to a very strange pizza hut (i'm not used to a pizza hut menu including things like Norwegian Salmon and truffles) and had a dim sum breakfast including chicken feet (tasty if boney) which certain other people weren't too impressed with.

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I can't help it if they don't move into a useful position to be pictured, can I?!

And of course, spent a night at Happy Valley Races. Happy Valley is a HK institution, and when the Chinese took control back, their first statement to the HK people was to the effect that the horses would keep running. The track is squeezed into HK island, surrounded by tall residentail blocks, but has a great atmosphere, surprisingly cheap beer (including yards of ale) and, best of all, free access aftr a certain time. We got to see the last 4 races, and using my patented greyhound trick of picking a number at random and staying with it all night Each Way, somehow picked a winner and came out a hundred dollars for the good for the night. Can't argue. There was also the odd inevitable night out, wandering around LKF and Kowloon with assorted people, which almost all turned out to be great fun (Lun posseses the great trick of being picked up the most desperate HK girls without having to do anything at all) although a return to our New Years haunt went wrong when we discovered everybody there was at least 50years old, almost ended in a huge punch up after a group of young Brits attempted to steal the only decent girl that Lun found.

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Happy Valley Racecourse, and celebrating my winnings with Kevin and Solene

Two weeks or so later, and it's been great fun. And i'll be back as well, but for now it's time to leave again and hit the road. All of the eassorted folks from the last couple of weeks (Andy, Jason, Nikki, Suzanne, Clare, Scott, Lun, Jude, Anand, the Kiwi's and Kevin and Solene amongst others) have left, as people do, to go their own ways (btw, Hi Clare - hope your having fun back home in the wonders of Teddington!) and it's time for me to follow suit.

So, tomorrow, with luck, i go and retrieve my passport from the Vietnamese, hopefully with a shiny new visa sticker (and not a Drugs offence refusal stamp) in it, and then proceed directly (I might even pass go on the way) to.... Shanghai.

Obvious, really, isn't it?!

Posted by Gelli 01:50 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (4)

Finally, a first taste of Portuguese life.

It's kind of odd really. I'm a European, who has spent 12 years running constantly around Europe at strange angles, and who has never been on a airplane in his life, and yet my first taste of Portuguese life is....Macau.

I'm not somebody that counts countries religiously, or tries to keep adding to my list like some kind of game, but I admit that it's long irked me that i somehow haven't yet made it to Portugal. I've been to every other mainland country at least 2 or 3 times (most many, may times), and covered huge tracts of other countries as well. Just never made it to Portugal. So there was no way in hell i was going to turn down the chance of a trip to Macau as I was that close.

Hong Kong has been strange in that it all feels oddly familiar to Britain. And despite never having been to Portugal, Macau also feels oddly familar and comforting. Asia's first European colony (i think) has a very definite Mediterranean feel to it, and parts of this small outpost could just as easily have been in Spain or Italy. Or, i'm assuming, Portugal.

It's also kind of odd that in going from Hong Kong to Macau, you never leave China, yet get both exit and entry stamps on your passport, neither of which are anything to do with the Chinese. Two SAR's - Special Administrative Regions - who essentially haven't changed since reverting to Chinese rule in the late 1990's (after some 400 odd years), and beaurocracy and international relations are a wonderful thing.

Five of us went over. An Australian-Chinese guy, Lun, who happened to be in my hostel joined myself, Jude (my host back in Muroran in Japan, shortly after the Kiki incident) and the wonderful Kevin and Solene. For those who can't be arsed to remember them, they are my trip stalkers who have chased me across Russia, met randomly on several occassions in Japan (including at Jude's house) and know many of the same hosts, and even ended up in Shanghai at the same time a I did. And then again in Hong Kong, slightly more deliberately.

Macau is an interesting dot on the map, and I was instantly captivated by the sudden change in life. I've always loved the semi chaotic look and feel of some of the great Mediterranean cities (Naples is a prime example), and Macau was just like that. Some dodgy looking appartment buildings, with washing hung across the road, old people resting on street corners or chatting across balconies, and the constant background hum of life noise, interspersed with some lovely squares and wonderful old architecture. And of course, casino's. Macau is a gamblers heaven, with 14 large casino's accounting for over half of the cities (or country) income. It has it's own currency, the Pataca, but also freely accepts Hong Kong dollars (at a slightly advanatageous rate to them, naturally) everywhere, and has 24hour jetfoil and helicopter transfres to Hong Kong just to ensure that the gamblers can always arrive (and been kicked out after the have lost everything).

Within 20 minutes or so of arrivng, i had already decided that i'd love to live here for 6 months - a year, i like it that much. Unfortunately, i'd only come for a day trip, so didn't have time to see as much as i'd wanted, but the public transport seemed to make up for that. The bus system is impressive in it's scope, but because Macau is so small, the systmes designers seem to have decided that every bus route should go down every strete in the damned country. Meaning that what you would expect to be a 10minute dash, could turn into a 40minute sightseeing tour, or visit to the Chinese border.

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Sao Paolo Church Ruins, with Myelf, Jude and Lun

Spent most of the time being a wide eyed tourist. The Ruins of Sao Paolo Church are probably Macau's most famous old site (burnt to a inder in 1835, i do believe, excepting the front wall) and we started here, before taking in the Monte Fort - complete with bus stop in the centre of the fort at the top of a large staircase. A tad optimistic, me thinks - the Temple of Kun Lam, Av de Conselheiro Ferreira de Almeida (main drag, with an area of exquisit if restored old houses and government buildings), Guia Lighthouse and Fortress (call me daft, but i would have thought that building the lighthouse near the shore, as opposed to on the mountain 1km inland might have helped not mislead sailors. Then again, if people get shipwrecked, i suppose they have nothing else to do but visit the casinos), the Leal Senado Square in the heart of the city, and a walk through some of the old colonial streets down to Barra Hill on the souternmost tip of the peninsula to look out over the Macau Tower and nearby Taipa and Coloane islands, Macau's other constituent parts.

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We also couldn't resist the opportunity to visit a brand new development near the ferry terminal. We had seen it coming in, and curiosity got the better of us. Eevntually, we think it will be a kind of theme park and shopping complex, but at the moment it isn't complete so includes only a Chinese fortress and Temple, Roman ampitheatre, Street of Dutch style houses, extracts from Stratford upon Avon, New Orleans and Ulm amongst others, a volcano and few extra bits and pieces such as an Egyptian styled conference centre. Most bizarre.

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The Macau Roman Ampitheatre and Dutch houses

I'd love to say that we gambled the night away in Casino's making huge sums of money, but i'm ashamed to say that for different reasons, none of us even entered one. My (semi legitimate) reason being that i didn't want to push my luck after the previous nights gambling successes. Your now wondering what the fr1ggin heck i'm going on about, but as i'm not writting about this in entirely chronological order (timelines? Pah! Who needs them?!), you'll just have to wait.

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The Macau Tower, and Jude with my stalkers Solene and Kevin

Posted by Gelli 01:07 Archived in Macau Comments (0)

Feck me, it's 2006 already. The story of a TP New Year

Who stole November 2005?!! And the story of the most amazingly fabulously spectacular fireworks display that you have even seen.

I really can't believe just how quickly things have gone. I really can't. It's now 2006, and i've been travelling since either the 20th April, or 13th May depending upon how you count it. And allot has happened in that time. It really doesn't feel anywhere near that long. But it's scary to think how quicky it's all gone. And how soon I have to actually return. Admittedly there are a few months left to go, but it's still creeping up on me with alarming speed. There's so much more to see and do, and so little time left to see it in and money to spend doing it. But i'm sure i'll come up with some cunning plan (or dip into the candy smuggling business) to keep me going for a whilst longer.

I suppose that some of you want to know about my New Years Resolutions. Ok, I don't really suppose that at all. And in fairness, they aren't worth it. My main one is not to make anymore stupid New Years Resolutions, which i probably actually broke within seconds because i made the resolution about not making anymore stupid New Years Resolutions. On a more normal note, I have resoloved that this year, finally, I will not get arrested, deported or shot at for the entire year. Actually, i'll take any 2 of the above 3, as I think managing all will be virtually impossible. That might sound relatively straight forward, but I've have been making the same resolution for several years now, and not managed yet, so who knows...

Hong Kong is really wierd. Crazily wierd. Spookily wierd. Everything is just so familiar, but completely different at the same time. Granted that it was British run until 1997, but even so, I was surprised at how familiar and almost comforting (yuk, i know) it seems. Stupid things, like the fact that all the road signs are in the same colours as in the UK and use the same font. Foreign looking people are speaking in English, and it's their first language (in some cases). There are white people, Indian people, coloured people all around, and yet you know that some of them are actually normal residents as opposed to most places I have visited in the last 6 months or so where they are either (a) backpackers (b) English teachers or (c) business people on assignment. And of course, many of the shops are the same. Sure, McDonalds and the Body Shop appear everywhere (except Bosnia-H. Dear god, please keep it that way), but seeing Marks and Spencers and Boots is a bit more random.

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Assorted 20HKD notes. Every bank produces their own notes, meaning that mulitple designs of the same note are in circulation.

I stayed first in the Mirador Mansions, a neighbour to the infinitely more infamous Chunking Mansions on Nathan Road, in Kowloown. I can helpfully inform anybody that books the New Garden Hostel through the hostelworld engine (i.e. most hosel sites) that 99% of it's claims are rubbish (internet is not free, reception is not 24hour, there is a curfew etc), and the pictures are certainly not from any of the bits which i saw. And lets just leave it at that.

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Bed sheets at the New Garden Hostel...

Spent a couple of days mostly wandering around HK island and Kowloon at random. Bounced around on the Star Ferry across the harbour, and on trams along Hong Kong Island, both of which were dirt cheap (about 14pence each). On the 30th, I hooked up with Jase007, of TP, and took a trip up the escalator entirely by accident. We didnt know that it was the worlds longest covered escalator when we started, just that we wanted to cross the road. To say it's the longest is a bit of a cheat as it isn't one contnuous one, but 28 or so flights of escalator later (including, oddly, one downhill stretch) and we arrive at a wall half way up the mountain. By that point we were expecting to see a wisened old grey haired man answering questions about the world truth, or at the very least, a crowd of people who had sone the same as us and were now wondering how the fr1gging hell they were going to get back down again. About two thirds of the way up is the self proclaimed last bar until heaven, which gives you some idea of it's scope. Went for a couple of drinks on Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong islands man drinking area, where we managed to order the only things not on happy hour discount, and then collected NikkiDutch (also TP, and who i'd met in Beijing as well).

I will say this now as a warning to anybody else entertaining the idea of meeting up with people they come aross online, espeially on travel websites. Meeting TPers can be bad for your health. With the possible exception of Lil J, all have been alcoholics, and with New Year coming up, things were kind of going to go downhill. And from there on in, it kind of became a mad 2 day bender.

Don't anybody say I didn't warn you if TP meetings ends up giving you cirossis of the liver.

End of public service anouncement.

I won't go in to much detail of the following 2 nights activities, mainly because none of us can really remember everything all that clearly. There was something about furry and fluffy, an entirely unintentional visit to a brothel (i think we were trying to find a toilet), a tall bald guy we picked up for no apparent reason, an astonishing discovery that you can get a draught pint of Tuborg Jul ol (Danish Christmas beer) in Hong Kong, which i've never seen outside of Denmark before, a long taxi ride for no apparent reason around Kowloon peninsula in which the automatic doors caused a slight issue, wall climbing to go to the toilet in a bush, a pint which was drummed off the table into my lap, a night spent in the wrong hostel due to 12 flights of stairs plus a band who we managed to get doing request songs, some of which i seem to remember were a tad on the bizare and unlikely side...

By the following night, New Years Eve, we had gained an American friend Andy, and things just went downhill.

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Spending New Years with these people (Jason and random local, Nikki and Andy) is not neccessarrily good for your health...

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New Years Eve is always a strange night for me. They generally are a let down anyway, massively overhyped and normally involving huge entrance fees, plus in my case the sad memory of the death of my best friend Marc, back in 97, which doesn't always exactly lead to a great sense of mind. So i'm generally in a strange mood anyway.

Every day of the year at 8pm, Hong Kong harbour has a laser light show. Kind of fun, kind of cheesy, I admit, but assorted lasers and spotlights, plus 28 buildings changing colour whilst dancing to music (if your on the walk of stars in Kowloon, at least) is probably worth seeing at least once. And they promised a little extra on NYE. So out we sat and watched the show, with the added extra this time of a few fireworks. Enough to make it different, but not enough to be totally 'wow'. Afterall, a firework is a firework, and only the very best displays (such as those you always see on TV as happening in Hong Kong at New Years) are memorable.

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8pm fireworks weren't too bad

After the show was over, the crowd disperse until it was just us lot left drinking on the pavements. Took a quick walk through the strange one way walking system to kill some time, and returned to the front to join the thronging masses. It was somewhat surreal to spend New Years eve sitting on the dock in Hong Kong, with 500,000 or so others, eating Crackers and cheese, drinking 7-11 vodka/brandy and mixers whilst waiting for the fireworks show that you always see on TV and is the most spectacular one going, possibly baring Sydney. It really was oddly great fun.

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The assembled masses await the big moment...

And topped off perfectly at midnight, with a HK island sky scraper light count down to 0 (with utter silence for #4, as that number signifies death in China) followed by.......
Zip.

Nada.

Ingenting.

Absolutely nothing.

Yup. Just that.

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The Midnight sky on the turn of the New Year, Hong Kong

And about 15seconds into 2006, a single red rocket launched on the far bank, went up, puff into 3 sparkles, and that was it.

Welcome to 2006.

But the thing is, it could not heve been any better. It was literally perfect.

From there, it started to get messy again. At various points, we seemed to gain a number of green glowing light sticks, followed by 2 green glowing light balls (one of which just had to be worn as a hat, to the delight and laugher of every HK person we subsequently passed that night). Why Ialways end up wearing silly hats on any kind of occassion, and always to the delight of the locals is beyond me. Which might actually be no bad thing. We then also aquired some beers and a kiwi girl, a german girl, then more unlikely a group of 25 or so goths and some Policemen amongst others, before ending up back in the previous nights haunt for several interesting hours of draught Newcastle brown ale (something else hard to find outside it's home area), probable dancing and sheer drunken idiocy, some more strange masks and hats and some clacky hammers. And probably more furry and fluffy. I really can't remember. I do recall that Andy and I spent the night (or, rather, morning) sleeping first in a corridor and then in a stairwell, due to the previously mentioned lack of professed 24hour access and no curfew.

If anybody would have told me on New Years 2005 that a year later i would be celebrating by drinking vodka on HK harbour front with half a million Chinese people, whilst eating Crackers and Cheese and waiting for absolutely nothing whilst wearing a large glowing green ball on my head, i'm not entirely sure what i'd have said although knowing how these things work out, I wouldn't have not believed him.

And just to top it all off in perfect manner, we arranged to meet to go to an Irish bar for a big fry up brunch on the 1st only to discover that the pub was shut. It really was the perfect finale to an amazing, if slightly different New Years celebrations!

And now, me thinks, it could be time to dry out for a day or two.

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There's always one that has to spoil the festive fun by not paying the electric bill...

Posted by Gelli 23:19 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (1)

Of motorcycles, massage and the luckiest CSer around

Twenty three hours to Guangzhou isn't really all that long, and the train was a good half empty. I took the opportunity to do some things sadly lacking. Sleep, and reading being amongst them. Admittedly the former was slightly harder, due to the fact that Chinese trains have music constantly pipped in to them between about 6am and 9p (lights out at 10), meaning that if you are on the top bunk (luckily, this time i wasn't) you get woken at 6am.

I hopped a bus straight to Dongguan, a city of some maybe 8million, in the huge Guangzhou - Shenzhen - Hong Kong corridor, and turned up at one of the biggest and most impressive bus stations I have ever seen. I was staying with a Quebecois, Jeff, a fascinating English teacher who had wandered around a chunk, and spent time in Serbia and Libya amongst others. Thats really travelling to teach English to enjoy it, as opposed to people running away from something or just out to make a quick pile of cash to clear the debts as many seem to be.

Possibly the luckiest CSer i have ever met, Jeff shares an appartmet with a almost constantly changing group of Chinese girls (9 at current count), who look after him. One, a lovely girl called Joan (or mama) plays the role of tribal elder, and the rest come and go. All are former students of his from Hunnan province, who have come to the Special Economic Areas and big cities of the Canton area, in order to find jobs. And there are any number of them scattered around area, working their own network.

A friend of Jeffs, Isaac, picked me up to head into town and hook up with Jeff for dinner. Oddly enough, I had never been on a motocycle before. Back of a tandem and snowmobiles, sure, but never a motorbike. And I must admit, that being driven around on the back of a bike, in a large sprawling yet obscure Chinese city by a huge friendly Ghananian, was not how I expected my first trip to occur. There was something somewhat comic about the whole scenario, and the picure of us certainly seemed to be very amusing to any number of Chinese drivers/pedestrians and fellow motorcyclists, who gaped, pointed and laughed in equal amounts. Another stupid first for me, ticked off on the trip. And the fact that we ended up eating Pizza (made with actual cheese. Anybody who has travelled or lived in China/Japan/Korea will understand the novelty here) in a Morroccan restaurant in China owned by a German didn't even seem particularly strange.

Not really the most exciting on entrants, this one, is it? You could just say that i'm wasting space.

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A small corner of the Kenyuan Garden, Dongguan

Got the most fantastic head and upper body massage that evening, which managed to more or less force my cold straight out of my system (these guys are good. And cheap), and the following morning went to wandrearound the Keyuan Garden, on of Guangdong provinces 4 famous gardens from the Qing Dynasty. A surprisingly quiet and relaxed oasis in the middle of the noise and chaos of Dongguan. Had some Chinese tea, and then i bought hotpot lunch for Jeff, Joan and 4 of the other girls at the little sheep restauarant (come on, it had to be) for a grand total of about 120RMB. Yup, a huge lunch for 7 people for about 8gbp. Great stuff.

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Jeff and some of his girls at lunch

And with that I embarked on a 3hour bus trip, across the border at Shenzhen for both departure and arrival without any incident, and down through the New Territories to Kowloon.

Feck me, i've made it to Hong Kong.

And still not been on a plane.

Posted by Gelli 22:37 Archived in China Comments (0)

Jul and similar type stuff. Including the delay of the torch

It wasn't too cold, and wasn't white (seemingly unlike the UK and Sweden etc. I always seem to miss the best winters or summers by being somewhere else), there were people with guns wandering around, and we did not much more than eat. Jen, I, and two other surfers, the Chinese Canadian duo of Nat and Mel had moved into another appartment for Xmas period, closer to the city.

Christmas (or Christmas Eve, depending on which part of the world you are in and it's respective celebration time) is one of those things that is great when you are a kid, and again when you have kids, but can lack a tad for those years in the middle. But being in a non celebration country which is pretending to celebrate anyway is an interesting twist. But it consisted almost entirely of food. And stupid hats. A lovely green tinselly type effect was added underneath a goldilocks style red Xmas hat I seem to have ended up wearing, to the constant amusement of most Chinese and white peple alike. Ah, what the heck. It's Christmas. Except it wasn't. I hadn't heard Slade at all, and anybody that has even been in the UK for december/Christmas, will know how much you are used tpo hearing it, and why getting to Christmas without it is a strange occurence.
A huge Hotpot type brunch was followed barely 3 hours later by another trip to the ducky place for a huge Roast duck Xmas Eve dinner.

I've said it before, I know.

Mmmmmmm. Duck.

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Carving Beijing Duck

The gap in the middle i used to be vaguely touristy, and visited the Yong He Gong Llama Temple. Which strangely managed to stay surrene and quiet despite being squashed up next to one of the ring roads and an industrial plant. And surprisingly colourful and looked after. Including some somewhat plump looking lama's who look to have beer bellies, although that seems more unlikely.

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Yong He Gong Llama Temple

And after a huge duck dinner, we randomly came across sick-Nikki's (NikkiDutch, a TPer) hostel, talked or way inside and woke her up sufficiently confused that she was convinvced that I was Chinese trying to feed her more food. I blame the stupid Christmas hat, but that can't really be the answer. And of course, the only way to continue after 2 huge meals (after the inevitable crawling taxi journey. Where the heck is everybody going at 11pm on a Friday evening?!) was obviously more food. I had the constant feeling of being fattened for the kill. Cake, cookies and fruit. Plus the odd beverage. I somehow got talked into heading to a club/bar type place by Jen to cleberate the arrival of Christmas with a load of people, (Phil, no show) which essentially mean't i got to go clubbling in a stupid Christmas hat, and then - Grrrrr. Annoying Chinese - climb up 12 floors on our return because the lift had shut off at midnight.

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Smile, kind of. It's now Christmas. Both the stupid hat, the reasoning behind Jen's yellow tongue and Louisa's happy state are probably best left un-inquired about

I can say without question that i got up the earliest on a Chistmas morning since back when we were little kids annoying the parents by trying to greet Santa at 4am. And that waking up at 8am on Christmas Morning, barely 2 hours after getting in to go and stand in the freezing for an hour waiting for a bus which didn't turn up wasn't neccessarilly my idea of fun. Ah heck.

The original plan was for a load of us to go up to Simatai on the 24th and spend the night up on the wall, waking up to watch the sunrise at Xmas over the unrestored wall. Which sounded a damned cool thing to do at Christmas, I must admit. By the time we actually left, it was down to 3 of us going for a day trip to Simatai, but even that didn't work.

The bus was supposed to take us out to Simatai, the old unrestored but accessible section of the Great Wall of China. But as it didn't turn up, it didn't. Or might have done, just without going via our bus stop. Who knows. Instead we ended up in Tiananmen where we hoped a regular tourist bus to the Badaling Great Wall section. The most touristy part, sure, but with changing plans and time running out, it more or less had to happen.

But I wasn't going to miss both the wall and the DMZ within 2 weeks of each other. No way. It was't too bad, in fairness. We had enough time there, scorned the cable car, ignored the famed starbucks, which thankfully isn't actually on the wall itself as originally planned, but rather is in the tourist village at the bottom, and together with a guy from Derby we picked up along the way, turned left on to the wall instead of right like 98% of all other people, and had a good old chunk pretty much to ourselves.

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We pondered the point of building the wall as they had. It isn't actually one wall at all, but rather lots of individual defensive walls taked together. It's long. So long that they are still finding new chunks. Some as long as 1400km. And under no circumstances is the daft idea that you can see it from space true, nor has it ever been. I can't believe - and haven't for years - that so many people believe such utter garbage. Just think about it, if you want to know why. Around Badaling, bits of wall seemed to dissappear in all directions, including a number of cutoffs, toilet breaks (!) and what semed to end up as a circular wall. Hmmm. And much of it was fr1ggin steep. I really wouldn't have wanted to be carrying much up and down some of these inclines at all, let alone have to run up and down in military formation.

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The wall gets a bit steep in places...

We amused ourselves happily for about 3 hours, playing with the hawkers (one guy wanted to see a plaque to say we'd been there. He started on 85, I started on 6. He came down to 10, but refused to go lower, whilst another I tried to sell my stupid Christmas hat to for 500usd, and then utterly confused her by switching currencies back and fore as normaly happens to you, but had no sale in the end. Fate mean't i had to keep wearing the hat) and wandering along the wall to its accessible limit, which was great because you could then see the unrestored section snaking off into the distance.

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Some of the unrestored section near Badaling

Headed back into Beijing, collected a few people including a semi recovered Nikki and lost Stewart, and went for a wonderfully traditional Christmas dinner of Muslim food.... Erm.... Ok, so it wasn't pork, salmon or turkey (delete as appropriate for your own tradition), but it was damned tasty. Fantastic skewers of meet and chicken, and bowls of wonderfully tasty and spicy meet and veg.

Even the non Chinese food in China is amazing. I have to return here for the long haul if it's the last thing I do.

And then Boxing day, an almost alive again Nikki and I headed to the Forbidden City. In some places, there are certain things you just have to see, and in Beijing, that's it. Hugely disspointingly, the audio guide which so many people had recomended (Ian in Brasov being the first, i believe) because of the voice of Roger Moore, was actually read out by some Chinese woman instead. It turned out to be very funny in places, but also somewhat odd... The scene was set before even endering the city, where a group of Chinese soldiers were on manouevers in the outer courtyard. On a basketball course. Some of their moves were very fancy, but look like they had been stolen from John Travolta, whilst the random guys who went in and out of their command post out of uniform whilst drinking beers added to the spectacle.

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The Forbidden City is kind of big. 9000 rooms, allegedly, although we sure as heck didn't see that many, or even work out where they could all be, unless there were several underground levels as well which they didn't admit to. The city consists of a number of palaces, temples, throne rooms and the like, all with names like "Palace of heavenly beauty" and "Room of incomparable tranquility". Plus a 9 dragon wall, amazing but strangely out of place rock garden at the rear, and of course, starbucks.

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PArt of the Roock Garden near the rear, and Nikki outside Starbucks in the Forbidden City

Yup, in the central attraction of the biggest communist country on the plane, and a place so closed in it's history that even the high and mighty of the Chinese gentry and nobility were not allowed access, capitalism has reared it's ugly head. We half expected to run into some of the other old standards - KFC, Macky D's, Bennetton, Body Shop and Kwik Fit - but at this stage, only Starbucks are allowed in. Good grief. It was amazing to walk around, although you did get theimpression that there was an awful lot more there that was not being shown off, and after the first half dozen palaces, you start to flag a little. The incorporated Jewellery museum was interesting as well, although conspicuosly lacked anything even vaguely resembling jewellery. Hmmmm.

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I was supposed to leave that very evening, but it's here that the story of the torch comes in to play. After I'd had a beer with Nikki, I headed to the station. Cleverly, I had realised that rush hour traffic mean't that I wouldn't get there in time by surface, so i took the subway and then a little motorised scooter taxi to the station. Plenty of time. It was then that I hit the metal detectors. All major Chinese stations seem to have metal detectors which all bags must go through before you are allowed into the buildings, and Beijing West is no exception. Nothing ever happens, and I haven't seen anybody get even vaguely stopped before. Or since. Unfortunately, however, Mine did. The same stuff that had gone through Beijing Main and Shanghai without incident was now being pulled up. Sufice to say, this was a rare enough occurence that it confused them a tad, even mnore so that I was a non Chinese speaking foreigner. Rats. Story cut short, but after about 20mins of playing, they discovered that what they were objecting too was actually my torch. I might have to change it actually, as It caused some curiosity by the gun wielding cops searching for bombs when i tried to leave my bag in Tobolsk that time.

With time rapidly running out, they finally let me go. I stuffed my cr*p back into the bag, stuff dangling everywhere and ran. Got to the departure hall with 3 mins to spare. To discover that thy cose the platform 3mins before departure. And thus, i got to stand and watch my train in the station for 3minutes. Then another 10 as it was delayed, and I still wasn't allowed on. And then got to watch it slowly roll out without me.

Yay. I knew they had to make up for letting me into the country so easily at some point.

I somehow managed to change my ticket without problem, although the nights late departure was full, so i had to wait until the following day. The wonderful Jenifer yet again answered a sheepish phone call and said I could crash at hers, saving me roughing it on boxing day. With time to spare, I then arranged to hook up with Stewart and take a wander. We went up to the Donganmen street market, now removed from it's traditional rabbit warren home to become a bright and cheery row of touristy stalls on a main road. But there was still lots of interesting foods to try.

Things like snake held little interest, as i had tried them before, and whilst the beef and chicken etc stuff looked and smelt fantastic, it's boring stuff. So i indulged first in sheep's testicles (surprisingly large, kind of a cross between soft Chicken
and pork tastes, and somewhat watery), followed by Starfish (tasy, crab like, but you are still pulling the little spikes out of your mouth and teeth a week later) and the inevitable centipede. On a stick. I have come across any number of contenders for wosrt (or most boring) job in the world on this trip, but the guy who has to put the skewers through the legnth of the centipede is well up there! Centipede was disapointing, in that whilst there wasn't a huge amount of meat (no sh*t, i hear you say), it wasn't the most amazing tase wise. The ends were ok, but the middles were a bit strange. It was quite funny watching them cook it though, and seeing all of the legs suddenly unfurl in the hot fat. And with that, a bottle of rice wine, some beer and the boxing day premiership games, It was time to leave. Again.

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Sheeps testicles and Starfish, waiting to be cooked and eaten (by me) in the Donganmen Night Market

I never did meet up with Phil.

Happy Christmas and God Jul everyone.

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Tiananmen Square at Night

Posted by Gelli 19:09 Archived in China Comments (0)

Mmmmm. Duck.

I have no idea how it happened, or even why, but entering China was the easiest crossing I have done in years. Even a simple crossing from Derbyshire to Worcestershire (Wuss-ter-shire for all of our North American friends who continually pronounce the sauce incorrectly) is harder, although admittedly a bit of that is due to the lack of a mutual border and the need to get around Birmingham. Ah well.

I got to Incheon and on to the boat without incident. My expectations for licourice induced problems came to naught, and it was then just the matter of a 24hour crossing, which after the first 2 was about 20hours of nothingness and boredom. The start interesting only because the ferry went through a lock, which is the first time I have ever done so on an international ship before. It was almost like being in Panama...

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The Ferry entering the lock to leave the port of Incheon

The approach to Tianjin - actually, Tanggu, 50km away, but they sure as heck weren't going to tell us that beforehand - was notable only for the huge number of cargo ships all seemingly fine, but lacking anything resembling movement or people, which were anchored out to sea on the approach. It felt kind of like passing through a graveyard as we inched through literally hundreds of these moored ships, of which I can only guess were moored just outside Chinese territorial waters, for reasons unknown, but probably were actually quite exciting.

Entering China took me all of 19seconds.

No trouble, fuss, bag check or anything. The problem came outside when i discovered that there was nothing even vaguely resembling a ATM or Exchange office. The other 3 foreigners on the boat (we had studiously all ignored each other on the boat, only to club together on disembarkation) and I stood around like lemons for a while until we were shepherded onto a bus. We asked for Tanggu station, but that flew past, and then so did Tianjin, a city of 10million or so, which we had then expected to arrive at. Thus with limitde options, we just sat there pondering where the fr1ggin heck we would end up. It turned out to be Beijing, but not somewhere helpful. Oh no. An obscure University campus miles from anywhere. Groan. And so, in what must have been a strange sight of pilgramage to all locals, 50 Koreans and 4 white folk all with large rucksacks, proceeded down the road for a few kilometres in hunt of the metro. And in a stunning break with tradition, actually found it.

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Outside the Forbidden City at night

It was when I got off the metro and got hold of money that things started to go slightly skewiff. Jeff, my host, had just moved house that very day and at short notice was unable to put me up. Which left me at 8pm somewhere in Beijing without anywhere to stay. Long story cut short, but the wonderful Jennifer took a phone call from a sheepish Welsh guy around 9pm that night, agreed to put me up that night, talked to a taxi driver on the phone to get me where i had to go, and I proceeded on the utterly inevitable taxi journey across the city which led me to a statue of the chairman in a University campus barely 300m from my original starting point...

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The statue of the Chairman, in daylight hours. Dissapointingly, he is nowhere near as frequent in his appearances as was Lenin

The following day it happened. I actually had to do something vaguely work related. The big boss and a couple of colleagues were in town, and I, not exactly one to turn down free food and beer at the best of times, agreed to meet them. I can truly say now (especially to Kate, Jen and Clare who I seem to remember salivating over the sheer thought of Crispy duck in Thame that one time) that Beijing duck is truly fantastic. S*d bird flu, that duck is damned good. Much duck and a good few beers later (including Sten, and that really scared me. He sounded like a raving Alcoholic. Sven and David seem to be getting through to him at long last!), followed by a trek to, the, erm, not exactly traditionally Chinese Belgian bar and I was suddenly hit with the full whammy. I had to be at their hotel the following morning at 8am to go to a meeting. Shudder. 8am is not a good hour on work days, let alone on holiday.

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The girl is the wonderful Jen, my saviour regarding accomodation. The cheery looking man next to him is my boss, Sten, the evil guy who occassionally makes me do some real work, and forced me out of bed at a ridiculous hour on the friday morning

Some of you will be stunned to learn that not only did i make it (Beijing rush hour traffic and all), but I was actually early. The rest of you will just think that i'm lying through my teeth. By the time we'd left the meeting I seem to have been talked into doing more stuff the following week, although I'm not entirely sure how that happened. Oh well. After another free dinner (Mmmm. Ribs) with the guys, I headed off. Confused a taxi driver so much that he forgot to charge me, and then spent a few hours in a leaving party for one of Jen's friends, before taking in the Sanlituan bar district for a couple of hours, depressingly western, and barely a local in sight. I didn't come to China to be surrounded by Westerners, and Brits. If it was Brits I was looking for, I would have gone to Sydney. Boats allowing, of course.

Spent a couple of days doing not a great deal, except doing some wandering around. Much of it was trawling through some of the numerous markets, looking at all kinds of assorted cr*p, trying not to buy stuff I don't need (until I get a house to decorate, anyway), and practicing my bargaining skills. I picked up a decent knock off coat with removable fleece for probably a twentieth of what i'd have paid in the UK, and some socks (all sheep, of course) to replace the ones lost in the Seoul incident. Also realised that i'm now shorter on underwear than I had been when i left. What was this guy in Seoul up to?! The DVD stores are amazing, just for the sheer variety of stuff they had (most of which has barely hit cinemas) and also just how funny some of the covers are. Somewhere along the way of copying a film, they seem to manage to mix up parts of the cover (some correct, some relating to up to 4 other films, in sometimes 3 different langages), and also to install the wrong subtitles. Some of them seem to be for other films, and some are just random peoples conversations... Note must also be made of Paul's Steak and Eggs restaurant, unsurprisingly an expat haunt, where I had the best damned Fried breakfast I have probably had since my last trip to Greasy Lil's. And the (very) few of you who know what the heck i'm talking about there will understand just how long ago that was!

And so i trekked down to Shanghai to go to another holiday meeting. The best part of 3 days was spent indulging in the most amazing food and culinary delights, either arranged by the wonderful people i had got to meet - thank you DIST Shanghai - with a long feeling of dread (i had no idea what i was going there for, but it scared me) but turned out surprisingly well, or by Elysee who anybody who has ever one on to the TT and uttered the word Shanghai will know all about. Everybody lives for their stomaches in this place, and that works just fine with me.

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View from the Bund across to Pudong in Shanghai

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You know that for the Shanghai metro to have to have introduced such a sign, they must have had some serious trouble in the past...

I had a little scare wandering in to the hostel bar the first night straight into a Swedish language film, which took me a while to accept that i wasn't halucinating and it was actually being shown, and also caught King Kong on a stupendously fake DVD, complete with random people standing up, popcorn throwing, and the recorders hand coming over the camera to hide the light for a while) which turned out to be an OK film, but not really 3 hours worth. And i met a lovely Welsh girl, Helene. I know that i mention such occureences regularly, but i meet other Welsh folks so damned rarely in my travels that they are major events for me. If you don't like it, tough. Didin't have time for too much touristy stuff, but took a few wanders and saw enough to realise that I must return to have a proper look.

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Shanghai Old City

Trekked back to Beijing for yet another meeting, and this one really was scary. I had to talk and remember some of that w*rk stuff. I had no idea what the heck i/we were doing when i was actually still working, let alone several alcohol fuddled months later, and they expectde me to be professional, articulate and knowledgeable. These folks must be mad! And was topped off by a looooong sloooooow journey through Friday Rush hour traffic with the taxi driver getting utterly lost, a still bemusing concept to me. And finally, at about 10pm on Fri the 23rd, I was done. And somehow it was time for Christmas.

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Posted by Gelli 22:07 Archived in China Comments (0)

Hmmmmm...

No DMZ, but a funny wet smell

I'd love to say that my time in Seoul has been amazingly brilliant and wonderful and that everything went perfectly according to plan. So I will. My time in Seoul has been amazingly brilliant and wonderful and that everything went perfectly according to plan. By now of course, you know that i'm lying. In fairness, I have nothing bad to say about Seoul at all. It's just been a few days of good old sh1t happens.

And so, I failed miserably to contact a friend of a friend who was going to show me around and let me crash at his place, and instead had several conversations with a female Korean recorded message. By that point it was of course too late to try and score some free accomodation elsewhere, so lacking options, I checked into a hostel. Mostly empty, but with friendly owners and cheap so it was no big deal. However, said friendly owner then cunningly forgot to book me on to the DMZ / Panmunjon trip as he was supposed to (for Sunday), and by the time I had realised this and tried to sort my own for the Monday, I discovered that, equally cunningly, the DMZ is closed on Mondays to tourists, and the Panmunjeon tour had been booked out by a japanese tour group. Groan. And of course, despite a good 2 dozen companies advertising tours, they are all actually sending people on the same bus anyway, so they all fell through. Rats. And then, lack of conmmunication between the scheduling people and the companies own websote timetabling meant that I discovered that the boat I had planned to catch Wed only ran on Tuesdays. So in order to get to Beijing on time, I would have to leave Tuesday. Which meant that I didn't get to the DMZ area at all, which was the one thing I really wanted to, and is probably the only must see/do around Seoul.

Feck.

I'm going to have to return here, just for that.

And then, to top things off, some b*stard decided that they couldn't make it as far as the toilet one night, and I awoke to discover that all my clothes and bag had been liberally covered in a fluid which smelt suspiciously like urine during the night. Grrrr. In a way, I was lucky that my clothes were on top, as it meant that much of my bag survived, and there was no permanent damage to things less easily cleaned, like books, camera and journal. A couple of books got soggy, but not too bad to be destroyed, and my MP3 player was swimming in urine. It still stinks. Arse. I don't know who did it, but with an extremely short list of possibles to begin with, there was really only ever one suspect. Feckin hell.

I should probably stop swearing, but whilst i've no problem with things going wrong and sh1t happening (although i'm happy that it didn't in a literal sense this time), stuff like that does annoy me a tad. And then, after doing all my washing and leaving stuff to dry all day, I came back to discover that another friendly person - or possibly the same one, I don't know - had decided that it would be funny to steal one of each of my pairs of socks. Not to be seen again.

As some of you are aware, I have a history with socks anyway. I was (am?) notorious at work for my socks, particularly due to the fact that I wander around in scoked feet, which are normally odd socks and have numerous holes in. There was even a sweepstake as to the number of holes I would appeart with running at one point. And 4 seperate people bought me socks for Christmas. Before I left, I went out and got a couple as well, so that I actually had some pairs of socks I could wear and almost be normal. And now, I don't. As well as the obvious loss of numbers, I don't have any even vaguely matching anymore, so will have to go and buy some. And some long johns, as it's starting to get damned cold. But long johns don't exist in this country. A coat would probably make sense as well. Me thinks I need to do some shopping when i get to China.

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Cheongyeonggung Palace

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Gyeongbukgong Royal Palace

Seoul itself is a vast city of concrete blocks, but is not without charms and sights. Some lovely palaces to traipse around, great markets to browse in and cheap stalls to haggle at, street food to be tried (most of it amazing), interesting people to be watched, and the inevitable hills to be climbed in the icy cold weather. And of course, relevant from a sports point of view due to Olympic and World Cup events in the recent-ish past. I quite like it, although obviously my lack of luck and inability to get to the DMZ have tempered my opinion a tad.

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An Arty shot of me using the floor/ceiling mirrors, and the view East from the Seoul Tower

Randomly, you cannot buy deodorant or long johns in Korea, and I really need to get hold of both.

As so, it's time to move on from Korea. It's an interesting country, and i've loved my time here. Met some great people. Seen some great stuff. had a few ups and downs. But of course i'll be back, even if just to get to the damned DMZ! But to be brutaly honest, all of that is irrelevant compared to the fact that my, urm, fiance got married withour telling me.

Kiki, have you any idea how much that hurts me?!

See you all in the next port of call.

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The Korean sign

Posted by Gelli 02:56 Archived in South Korea Comments (5)

The world of pretty toilets, and a postscript to the wedding

All we need now is a Harry Redknapp induced twist...

I had planned to just pass through Daejon, but that never happened. It was getting dark and cold, still covered in snow, and the alleged nearby bus station turned out to be a 45min slide away. At least if i break any bones in the ice here, i'm back in insurance coverage.

And so I undertook the not inconsiderble challenge of trying to work out which of the 300 motels in a half km radius from the bus station was not actually a love motel, so I could spend the night somewhere cheap and without too many optional extras. It didn't work.

Daejon seems much the same as Busan and Daegu but not as much so. Admitedly I didn't stick around all that long, but there didn't seem any point. I did stick around long enough to somehow whack my second toe on something (which I never worked out what as there was nothing to hit, turning it into a lovely red colour and making it twice the size, but without any of the surrounding toes geting touched, and I don't know how that worked). Instead, I headed out to Gongju, yet another extremely similar sounding "G" place which is yet another former capital. This time, one of the Baekje Dynasty, who were the rulers back in the late 5th to early 6th centuries, or so I would guess. I trawlled around yet another fort, this one cunningly built on the side of a hill and virtually deserted, meaning that it was a tad slippery with all the ice. Before anybody says anything or the sweepstakers start to pay out, I know i'm asking for trouble sliding along an icy castle wall, about 20metres up, and with only a semi frozen river below. Took a quick wander around the rest of the town, although the museum (and one of the main reasons for visting) was predictably closed.

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Images of Gongju fortress

So I gave in, and got the bus back to Daejon. Although not quite how i intended. My suspicion was admittedly aroused by the number of buses heading back, compared to the number of those heading out, but i probably didn't pay enough attention and ask the right questions using my not entirely fluent Korean. And so it was, that whilst we did arrive back at a Daejon bus station, it sure as heck wasn't the same one I had left. It was on the opposite side of town. Waaaaaay away. And of course I had wanted to get a bus from the one I had originally left, to get to my days destination of Ansan. B*gger. After a little pondering, i did what any stupid Brit would do and cheated. I found a train station, and caught a train along the rest of the KTX new line to Yongsan in Seoul, instead of trying to get a bus across the city of Daejon. I just figured that it would be easier!

And so, entirely inadvertantly and annoraky that i keep up to date or even know such things, I added the entire dedicated high speed South Korean system to my completion of the Shinkansen in Japan. Why am I so damned sad sometimes? In Yongsan i managed to get on the subway with no problem, and an hour later found myself in Ansan, a satellite city of 600,000k or so, south west of Seoul, where I met up with yet another great CSer, again as the first guest, and from somewhere a bit unusual (Prince Edward Island), Jeff. The man has a great spelling of a great name.

I planned to use Ansan mostly as a base for the city of Suwon, East of Ansan and another satelite city to Seoul, but a tad more important and with a history which began before the inception of concrete tower blocks.

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Ansan at night, typical of the almost overbearing neon bombardment in all Korean cities

Suwon is known, allegedly, as the city of pretty toilets. And if that isn't a great reason to visit a city, I don't know what is. Unfortunately I couldn't find the published toilet guide book to religiously visit them all (i'm not sure how the rules would work though. On a pub crawl, it's relatively easy to have a pint at each stop off, but if you are forced to have a cr*p at each toilet on a toilet crawl - and there are 34 of them - you could be going for some time, or else need to have condsumed large quantities of laxatives before you start), but I still randomly came across a good half dozen or so. And whilst a toilet is normally just a toilet (when it's not a hole) the buildings were generally at least vaguely impressive - although I ask myself why they bothered - and toilets extremely well looked after. Expect pics of toilets to follow.

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Yup, it's one of the pretty toilets

I probably should be continuing with allsorts of wonderous stories of my latest mishap. But I won't. I've decided to keep that a tightly guarded story, known only to myself, the tree, taxis, hospital staff and 22000 Korean witnesses.

Suwon itself is also home to the Hwasong fortress, an impressive and still relatively intact (well, except the inside of the walls, obviously) 6km long structure built during the Jeongju reign in the late 18th century. The walls are great to walk around, with the possible exception of the Northern side which goes over a whopping great hill which is fine exceept the icy journey down can be a tad quicker that you were expecting... It was also one of the first to be built using western designs and technologies, so includes several innovations. It is also home to a relatively impressive looking - although currently being rebuilt - summer palace, used by the ruling factions as a stop over on there way South or on tours of the region. As with so many mouments, fortresses and temples in Korea, it's history is intrinsinctly linked with the Japanese. Virtually all buildings of note were destroyed (often by fire, sometimes by attack) by the invading Japanese, in at least one of the periods of Korean occupation by the Japanese. And often in several of them. It means that despite the rebuilding there is very little of substance in Korea which is truly original in it's complete form. Odd parts or buildings survived most attacks/fires, but they are essentially tokens rather core, which is somewhat depressing.

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Looking off the highest point of the Suwon fortress, and one fo the smaller gatehouses

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Typical Korean architecture, numerous identical and numbered white concrete tower blocks, in Suwon

And thus, before I regale you about Seoul (which I can't yet because I haven't actually got there properly), it is with great happiness that i should finish such a pathetic and mind numbing entry by entertaining you with what I hope to be the final installment of the story of my beloved (ahem) Kiki and I. I am sure there will be a twist to come, but at this moment I can't work out what it could be. If i could work Alain Perrin, Veli Zajec, Rupert Lowe and Sir Clive into this palava I would, but i can't. And I won't try. But astonishingly, somebody has done a deed for which I could never repay.

Just last night I discovered that the wonderful girl had got her wish, and it is with huge congratulations and a in no way heavy heart that I must wish Kiki and her new husband, Christian, a wonderful and long lasting marriage. I don't think I know the poor chap, so cannot comiserate him personally, and have no interest in further details (or if the ring did fit his finger), but admit that I am vaguely curious as to the circumstances surrounding their meeting, and the time frame involved until marriage. But not nearly enough to ask. Sincere-ish Best wishes to you both, and Christian, when you realise what has happened, I know some people who for a small fee can arrange you with false papers so you can flee the country and take on a new identity.

I'm now half expecting to be asked to become a godfather in 9 months time.

Posted by Gelli 00:46 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Of lots of wooden blocks and a recent drugs offence

The road north, and to the sides, from Busan with winter rapidly arriving

And so it was that I was back in Korea. I'd only managed 3 days on my previous pass through, although that was essentially down to the fact that I wasn't supposed to be there and never expected to be in Korea at that time.

But now I was, and it was time to look around.

I spent a good few days wandering around the Busan area, sometimes in the company of my host, Marie (who put me up last time, and astonishingly, was more than happy for me to return - I should point out that it's her fault I got arrested and strip searched, but I won't), and sometimes not. Several bowls of Dong-dong ju were consumed, along with soju and not unextensive amounts of Korean BBQ. God damned it, i love the food here, despite some of it being slightly on the warm side. Got to see human nature at it's finest (a healthy dose of real life is a good slap in the face and leveller every now and again), trekked around Beomosa, a large and wonderfully decorated temple complex in the hills above Busan, and including the inevitable mountain climb. My first Korean temple, and a pleasant surprise and break form the Japanese varieties, simply because they are so colourfully decorated.

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Beomosa Temple, and one of the guardians

Those Koreans didn't mess around. The Geumjongsan fortress above Beomosa is admittedly not fully intact anymore - most of it is completely gone - but it wasn't done as a stop gap measure. Built on top of a mountain, the walls were a stunning 17km long, and with a height of up to 12metres, thats a feck of allot of people needed to carry a feck of allot of stone up dirt tracks to build the fortress. Which is really put into perspective when you realise that the whole thing - complete with all the other buildings within it - took less than 2 years to build. Admittedly there probably wasn't a large union presence, and health and seafty regs were possibly not the strictest, but thats still impressively quick work! Took atrek around Yongsan Park, and was propositioned by two (extremely stunning) Russian prostitutes near a tuperware stall. Why me?

Somehow found our way back to the Dragon bar we'd been at last time, where muggins got the pleasure of leading Marie and her bf, and her cool Korean language exchange friend Yoon to - who all living in the city - despite only having been there once before. Surely it should be the locals and residents who show the guest the way? Oh well. I wandered around Haeundae in the East of the city, notable mainly for it's beach which on sunny summer days gets a staggering 750,000 odd people into a short stretch of barely over a km, and maybe 50m deep. Thats allot of people fighting for not allot of sand. And of course, to the Chinese consulate where I gave them my application and passport and then prayed very hard indeed.

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Inside the Dragon bar

With my passport taking 5 days to process, i headed north. First to Daegu, Korea's 3rd largest city and home to the obligatory huge numbers of near identical concrete tower blocks, as is the Korean way. Stayed with a lovely CS American girl (i know, I know. I can't believe that i wrote that either. This is happening way too often. I'm not supposed to like Americans, but some of these people are making it damned hard on me. I probably need a few slaps around the face with a wet cod to help restore me) called Erin http://www.erindoeskorea.blogspot.com, who introduced to me the delights of the weekly foreign bar - I had seen a total of one other foreigner until that moment, and suddenly there was hoardes of them. No idea where the feck they came from. And slightly worryingly the doorway to the bar had singles bar writen in English on it. Although that was upstairs and we went downstairs, i'm sure Kiki would kill me... - one of the best burgers I have ever eaten and some fantastic gimbap (approximately Korean sushi, but without the raw fish) and mandu (dumpling type thingy-majigs) from the old lady across the road.

I spent a day trawling the streets at random and peering into the markets (I love markets like this where you can buy anything at all, and with all the sounds and smells), and also through the numerous oddly specific areas, similar to Istanbul - Motorcycle street, kniting alley, medicene road and Rice Cake Street to name but a few. Took a trip out to Haeinsa, a temple complex West of Daegu, up in the forest covered mountains and wonderfully untouristed (until the bus loads of kids showed up at the end). Yet more lovely decorated temples, hills to climb, and also home to the UNESCO listed Tripitaka Koreana - a set of about 82000 wood blocks, on which have been carved the entire Buddhist scriptures and teachings, and essentially constitute the worlds first book.

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The Tripitaka Koreana and shots of the Haeinsa temple complex

Kevin didn't put the tent up, and had actually left it in Busan, and hence it didn't rain.

And I was also taken to do something so unusual and unlike me that it has to be noted. I was taken to the cinema. So, accompanied by Erin and another CSer/Engrish teacher, Ryan, we went to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I am aware that may not sound like a major event, but I belive that the last thing I saw at the cinema was probably Titanic, in my first year at Uni, and before that quite possibly Who Framed Roger Rabbit for Andrew Gordon's 9th (maybe?) birthday waaaaaaay back when. I'm not a cinema goer. But it was actually damned good. I've not read the books, and only seen 1 and a bit of the previous films, but as a stand alone bit of entertainment, it was a great film. Admittedly the one that Ryan and I would really like to see would be Harry Poter and the Jehovah's Witness, but that might be a stretch too far. I really must get around to reading the books.

Cunningly leaving Erin to be horribly sick for the weekend (and inadvertantly stealing her LP guide), I spent a couple of days in Gyeongju, the former capital and a major Korean drawcard about an hour to the West. Wandered around the wonderful Bulguska temple complex, home to the finest Silla dynasty temple in existence, and climbed the mountain up to the Seoguram Buddha (of Sakyamini) grotto, yet another place where Korean workers must have had a distinct lack of fun in transporting such a huge lump of rock up a tiny track to the top of a mountain. No, I have no idea what the difference between Silla and non Silla temples is, as they all look the same to me. The only difference I can come up with being the inclusion of the word "Silla".

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The Bulguksa complex

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Seoguram Buddha building from the outside, and the temple at the base of the climb

Woke up to a covering of snow and ice which proved to me that winter is really here. I suppose that it is december, so thats no big surprise, but I now have to figure out how to survive the cold when i'm not really kitted out for it, and without spending lots of money. Gyeongju city is kind of odd because it contains a large number of Tumuli, large grass burial mounds of Silla kings and nobles, doted randomly around the place, which helps give the city an unusual feel to it. To the south, the area is litered with so many burial mounds, temples, stone Buddhas and Pagodas that they are still being found on a regular basis by people just wandering around and going even just a few metres off the path, which makes an interesting wander south past Wolseong Park which led to my imagination predictably going into overdrive about what else could possibly be waiting to be uncovered there. I won't bore you with the results, but I did pay a trip to a bookies after one idea hit me...

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Silla Dynasty burial mounds in Gyeongju city

With trepidation, I returned to Busan, where for the sheer heck of it I stayed at Emily's instead of Maries, took in a night of trivia (or a quiz for those who don't speak North American, which was the first one I had done since leaving the UK, and gave me any number of strange flashbacks and memories from my Oxford days. Who else remembers little Dave??) and then headed to the Chinese embassy to collect my visa. So convinced was I that i would have my application rejected due to a "recent drugs offence", and so prepared was I to argue my case, that I was completely at a loss when I left the consulate all of 90seconds after entering, complete with the requested double entry visa. I'm now convinced that i'm being set up for when I actually enter, and they are just toying with me.

And thus, bemused but with passport in hand, I headed from Busan for probably the final time this trip, dropping into Daegu to return one stolen LP and gain a lovely cough from Erin, and via the high speed KTX to Daejon. Which i really should write about now, but really can not be arsed doing, so It will have to wait.

And if Riz Ree happens to be reading this, I hope Simon has you back on his leash.

Posted by Gelli 23:59 Archived in South Korea Comments (3)

This isn't even a real entry as it involves no traveling

Please, please, no more Sherbert dip requests....

It is with great joy that it appears that so many of you seem to actually be reading this damned thing. It actually even makes it feel vaguelly worthwhile, despite the fact that I was only ever really doing it for myself. But still.

Such has been the overwhelming response to a couple of recent issues, that i figured I should be lazy and answer a couple of recurring questions here instead of individually by email.

1. For those interested in the current status of Kiki, the Japanese girl who tried to marry me, here goes. Although I don't remember it, it appears that I thought something was up from the first time I met her, as I seem to have given her an email address that i only use for random signups, and as such don't check with any frequency. And so it was that 3 weeks or so after the episode in Sapporo, I checked the account, to discover that I had been receiving an average of about 8 mails a day from her, mostly consisting of variants of "I really miss you", "Where are you" and "when are you coming back. I need to reschedule the wedding" as well as a more or less constant updates about what has been going on in her life. It peaked at 31 emails about 3 days after I ran, and even now i'm still getting 5 or 6, despite reporting her email address as spam...

As far as I know, she doesn't have any of my normal email addresses, or this blog address so hasn't yet traced me any other way, especially now that my Japanese phone number is dead (whoever ends up with THAT number, could be in for a fun time...). I will warn you all now that in such an instance and she finds me here, I will instantly leave all trace of my Gelli being and disappear. I might return under a new guise, possibly called Beverley from Australia or some such, but I probably won't actually tell you all in case one of you is an informer.

On a side issue, if anybody (male) - who i know or otherwise, but the later would be preferable - happens to have an urgent desire to get married, and would consider a not unattractive and actually quite intelligent 28yr old Japanese girl, with a strangely psycotic and unhinged streak, please let me know and i will arrange an inroduction.

2. I know that you all think that you are the only one to come up with it, but whilst the first quip about Sherbert Dip was mildly amusing, the following 70 odd requests (plus a few from people wanting other sweets, but not having the foresight to ask for Sherbert dip) got a bit boring. Lack of useful variety to make it interesting, I must admit.

But for the record, No, I will not be bringing anybody tubes of sherbet, as strangely enough, the idea of carrying around tubes of white powder isn't overly attractive or clever to somebody with my record for getting stopped at customs/immigration etc. And yes, that does also rule out bags of sugar, salt and flour amongst many others. Any other requests from people missing stuff, and in places that I might be going, i will quite happily entertain, but only if substance is deemed inoffensive enough by me.

3. For the rest of you who emailed to ask what the feck liquorice actually is, it's a kind of sweet eaten in the UK and North America (and others), and in the form I had it in which caused a problem - the 2 bags of bassets allsorts were ok - was pick and mix black sweets. I'm trying to get hold of a pic of the offending stuff to post here, but until then, this might (unlikely) be of some use http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquorice

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Some of the offending candy...

And that's about it.

Pathetic I know.

It includes nothing of interest, and no word of my travels and further exploits. Tough.

I will regale you all with tales from the start of my second Korean odyssey very soon, but until then, i'll leave you with the word that I am happily in Daegu at the moment, enjoying the wonders of South Korea and awaiting the pleasure of the Chinese consulate in Busan almost certainly currently declining my visa application due to a previous recent narcotic offence...

Hope all good, and Happy Thansksgiving/Advent/Lucia/End of term/finish of the RouteMasters or whatever else anybody is currently using as an excuse to celebrate with large quantities of alcoholic beverages.

Posted by Gelli 21:13 Archived in South Korea Comments (2)

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