A Travellerspoint blog

February 2006

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)

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