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24. May, 2010

Yangshuo – Magnificent Chinese Countryside

Yangshuo – Magnificent Chinese Countryside

Li River

While waitng for the infamous Tibet permits to be authorized, we flew roundtrip from Xian to Gulin in the South of China. We flew on China Eastern airlines and Hainan airlines, a flight of 1:40. From Guilin we took a bus to the very beautiful Yangshuo. It is an area of unmatched natural beauty surrounded by the karst formation mountains and the Li and Yulong rivers.

Typical Scene of Chinese Card playing

Frogs and other sorts of food in market

Yangshuo is one of those towns that has a special charm, due to the combination of its natural beauty, its culture, and ironically because of its tourist buzz. Yes it is a spoiled paradise, but nonetheless a unique paradise. Yes there are hordes of tourists, some westerners, but when in China , most of the tourists are Chinese. The climate was hyper humid and very foggy, and mosquitoes roamed everywhere, nonetheless we were captivated by Yangshuo from the beginning. Contrary to the other parts of China we had been in, English was widely spoken there, a big tourism oriented economy depending from it. We found a especially friendly girl from a tour agency, “Jenny”. Tony told her that since most Chinese had also Western names we also wanted Chinese names. So the next day she had come up with names for us and baptized Tony: “Li Cong Wen”, and myself “Li Hua”. Li is her family name (so basically she adopted us), Cong Wen meaning knowledge, and Hua signifying tree with strong life. She said she had tried to change her name officially to Li Hua herself but the Chinese bureaucracy was too much and in the end couldn’t do it.

Jenny Li and Li Cong Wen

Traditional vendors

We stayed in a very pretty and comfortable small hotel in front of a creek, and from our room we had amazing views of the karst formations that would increase or decrease depending on the mist. The whole town of Yangshuo is a tourist market selling all kinds of Chinese souvenirs, and tours of all sorts. There is quite a nightlife scene and abundant restaurants catering to all tastes. We enjoyed our time walking through the markets and appreciating the amazing scenery that encompasses the town. I like peace so I was easily annoyed by the touts that won’t leave you a minute alone, but Tony loved the attention and haggling with them, even though most of the time he would not buy anything.

Illuminated Yangshuo every night

Cormorant fisher

We went on two tours in the rivers. First we went on a motorized bamboo (nowadays PVC) raft down the mighty Li River. This river was quite brown and the current was strong, but during the ride you appreciate the spectacular karst formations on both sides, and also some of the traditional way of life, such as farmers planting their rice terraces with the aid of their water buffaloes. It is in this part of China where we saw a more traditional way of life. The people wear their cone shaped hats and sell their merchandise from the double basket they carry on their shoulders. We also saw fishermen using cormorant birds to do the fishing for them. The Li river also had its share of touts. I was amazed to see how in a river in rural China, the merchants have set up computers and printers in small isles in the river. They take your picture from a distance and then your boatman without your consent takes you to them and they try to sell you the photo, printed in situ. Many others sell beer and souvenirs. An incredible ride down the Li River we had. We had not realized it, but this activity is illegal according to the Tourism Bureau as this river is quite dangerous. Illegal, legal activities in China – the infrastructure for this tours is very well set, and there are hundreds of rafts with tourists and no sign of the Chinese authorities doing anything about it…

No choice...

In center of Yangshuo

We also took an authentic non motorized bamboo raft through the smaller Yulong river. Very nice shallow river with very clear water. It even has small parts where your raft slides down to lower parts of the river (perfect photo op for the touts to snap your pic). The karst formations there are not so pronounced but it is a very fun and beautiful journey, which I liked even more than the one on the Li river. Again there were many of Chinese tourists on it and they take fun of shooting water at people with some device they sell to you before the ride. It seemed quite a fun activity, but we were not part of it annoyed me when strangers shot water at us, as I have been trying to battle my bronchitis before getting to the altitude of Tibet.

Going down the Li River

The raft

We took advantage of the many massage parlors in town and were delighted to be massaged for 9 hours during the 4 days we were there. We tried all sorts of massage: feet, facial, head neck shoulders, oil body, and traditional Chinese body massage. The latter one is done with your clothes on and it is hard core, at points I felt like a masochist taking it all joyfully, but they were all worth it.

How he suffers!

Not only did we indulge ourselves in pleasures but also in cultural Chinese activities. We took a class of Tai Chi in the local park. We really enjoyed it, as it is a balance between stretching, exercising and relaxation. We might even take it up in the future.

We took a course in Chinese cooking, not only did we make delicious food but we had fun while doing it. First we went to the market to see the local ingredients. I did not enjoy that so much as in that part of China they still eat dogs and you can see them being butchered in this market. It was a very raw and crude market making me want to become vegetarian again. I told the teacher I would not make the chicken dish, and asked her to teach me a tofu recipe instead. The Chinese eat all sorts of animals, as the teacher said: anything that moves we eat. She even admitted they eat rats. I did not see them in the market, but saw plenty of other live creatures including different types of live worms and frogs. As well there is an extensive quantity of rare and delicious vegetables in China and I was delighted at trying many recipes. It would be easy to become a veggie in China.


Tai Chi!

After the market, we went to the rooftop kitchen and were each assigned a cooking station. We prepared 3 dishes: Kung Pao Chicken, Beer Fish (the specialty of Yangshuo) and Pork Dumplings. I also made Tofu with mushrooms. We chopped all our ingredients, in different shapes according to Chinese traditions, then our meats and then we cooked, step by step. We (group of 6 students) then our creations. All were pretty tasty, except for the fish which was quite bony, as Chinese love to eat bony dishes.

Our dumplings before boiling

Our finished dishes

Definitely not taking Dr. Li's cure!

Adding to the fact that I have always been interested in Alternative Medicine, I was still feeling sick and needed to get back in form before hitting the Tibetan plateau so it was the perfect opportunity decided to visit a “reputed” Chinese doctor, Dr. Lily – Li. Well…in 2 minutes she diagnosed that I had problems sleeping and and lack of appetite. She came to that conclusion after looking at my fingernails and taking my pulse and of course after my answers to her 2 questions about how I was sleeping and how was my appetite. Yes I was sleeping badly after so many trains and hard Chinese beds and my appetite was suffering because I was taking antibiotics and I was getting tired of Chinese cuisine… So 40 Yuan (5 Euros) for her 2 minute diagnosis and 450 (55 Euros) Yuan for her secret mix remedy (after I refused to get acupuncture from her)… Needless to say I did not purchase the remedy either, just a few more days and my Western antibiotics would heal me.

Unfortunately we had no time left in Yangshuo, but if we did we would have taken Mandarin lessons, chess lessons and a bike tour through the magical scenery. There is so much to do there that it would be very enjoyable to return. Now we had to get back to Xi’an and see our luck with our Tibet tour.

21. May, 2010

Terracotta Panda-monium in Xi’an

Terracotta Panda-monium in Xi’an

Hard Sleeper Train from Beijing to Xi'an

Booking train tickets in China is complicated. You have to go to the station in person, and queue at the single Foreigners desk to get any route information and tickets. From experience, the queue is always 20 people deep, but anyway so are the 20 other Chinese only desks. We had previously got information on trains to Xi’an but by the time we decided our preferred day, the tickets were sold out, so we had to buy 3rd class sleeper seats on a slightly earlier train. Our first experience on a Chinese train (to Beijing) was left us less than impressed. So when we boarded the Xi’an train, we saw that our seats were in an open carriage with 48 beds divided into groups of 6, no cabins / doors, and no other foreigners. Ninfa took a while to become accustomed to our situation, but the Chinese were nice and helped us make space for our bags and get settled. Boarding a train in China is funny. When we went to the Great Wall, we were arriving at the platform 10 minutes before departure. All the Chinese were running along the platform to board as quickly as possible. When the platform attendant checked our ticket, she pointed to the clock and said “Hurry Up”. I couldn’t understand the rush, but then again, perhaps punctuality is not my forte.

Warm beer!

Dinner Time - the food was good!

Three Hondurans in China?! Almost - the closest so far.

Once on board, we went straight to the restaurant car for some relief from the claustrophobia – we were in the top bunks, which are about 50cm below the roof, so it’s a tight squeeze. The food in the restaurant was good and we stayed there almost until lights out. We also met, for the first of a few times in Xi’an, a group of Dutch tourists who were in high spirits. What we couldn’t believe is that one of them was wearing a Honduras shirt (initially we thought he was Honduran), and they were all drinking Jameson! By lights outs, we were all in high spirits and slept well until Xi’an. What we didn’t plan for was Ninfa picking up bronchitis because of all the coughing and sneezing in our carriage.

So on our first day in Xi’an, Ninfa stayed in to recuperate, and I went to see the Bell Tower and Drum Tower. In medieval China, the Bell Tower would herald the sunrise to the wall-guards and town citizens. The Drum Tower would announce nightfall. Each tower contains huge ceremonious bells and drums, and I was able to watch an interesting short concert in both.

Xi'an Bell Tower

Xi'an's Drum Tower

Terracotta Army

Xi’an is famous primarily for the Terracotta Army which guarded the tomb of the emperor Qin Shi Huang who was the first to unite China under one single empire, standardising writing, language and measurements during his violent reign 2,200 years ago. As it turned out, we didn’t get to see the Terracotta Army as planned, but due to our Tibet travel arrangements, we were going to be spending another day in Xi’an after our trip to Yangshuo in Southern China. The main hall contains countless rows of warriors all facing the same direction and all individually designed to the minutest details of facial features and dress. It’s an impressive sight. The other halls contain current excavations as well as fragments of other soldiers who have not yet been reassembled by the archaeologists. I had opted to hire a guide to illuminate the history to us during our visit, rather than taking the recorded audio-guide. Bad move! She was less informative than the plaques in place in front of the exhibits. I had previously attended an exhibition in the British Museum in London a few years ago, and to be honest, I found that a more enlightening experience. Other than a few soldiers cased in glass, it is difficult to get close enough to see the detail on the pieces. On the other hand, the main hall is a sight to behold, and well worth the trip.

Terracotta Army

Restaurants in Xi'an's Muslim Quarter

Running Repairs from one of Xi'an's many street seamstresses

Another thing that Xi’an is famous for is its Muslim Quarter. It is home to the oldest mosque in China, and a web of pedestrian alleys lined by merchants selling anything from Quotations from Mao, to “100%” silk scarves to fake watches and SIM cards. It’s an entertaining stroll, speaking with the vendors, haggling for stuff I didn’t want (they always ended up accepting my offer of less than 20% of their original price!), and soaking up the atmosphere. It’s so difficult to find anyone who speaks English in China, that I’m thankful for the social interactions with street-sellers, if only to get to know the Chinese a little better. And for all their coughing and spitting, they’re friendly, and always meet a smile with a smile, or giggle and say hello. And despite what we read about Xi’an, we felt absolutely no threat of petty crime. But the mosque, I almost forgot. We had our fill of glorious mosques in the middle east, so I wasn’t expecting much from the Great Mosque in Xi’an, but it is unique in the mix of Islamic decoration and Chinese style, and is a little oasis of calm filled with birdsong, yet right in the heart of the buzzing Muslim Quarter. I really liked the aquamarine bamboo tiling on the rooves which added to the tranquil setting.

The Great Mosque in Xi'an

Can we stay here?

Chinese Masks

Another feature of Xi’an is its gateway to Tibet. It’s notoriously difficult to get to Tibet in China, and you must go as part of an organised tour – another example of the Chinese government’s obsession with control – but Xi’an has daily trains to Lhasa. We had made contact with Corsen, a hostel manager and tour guide in Xi’an who had assured us he would get us train tickets and a competitively priced itinerary around Lhasa and on to Nepal. His list price was 6,000 Yuan per person for a two-person tour, totalling around 1,400€. He offered us 4,800Y per person, and after a good 20 minutes of haggling, we agreed on 4,000Y pp (or €940 in total for a 6-day tour). It was still way too high and, as much as I liked Corsen who’s a nice guy, I resented having to pay so much to a Chinese travel agent who charges exorbitant rates to visit Tibet, while the Tibetans themselves cannot even compete in the market and earn that money themselves. And also, we expect Tibet to be very cheap once we get there. It’s a government-sponsored scam, and it hurts to have to play the game.

Lazy Panda having breakfast

Anyway, Corsen agreed to allow us recruit another two people on the tour with us, which would lower our price further. In the end, he found another two people, and offered us a further discount reducing our price to 3,400Y per person. After a morning negotiation, and another subsequent evening negotiation less than 12 hours before our planned departure, I told Corsen that we weren’t paying more than 2,800Y per person, otherwise we weren’t going. We ended up agreeing on 2,850Y pp, or a total of €670 for both excluding train. This was thanks to a lot of research and e-mailling Ninfa had done with other travellers, and we were on a high thanks to our successful teamwork in saving €460. One thing I have noticed in Xi’an is that either Chinese people are terrible negotiators, or that everything is so cheap here that you would be paying too much if it was free.

Lazy Panda sleeping off breakfast

Red Panda ... a little lazy too?

Another trip we made from Xi’an was to a Panda Rescue centre on the city outskirts. I really wanted to see pandas in China, but unfortunately this experience was very much like a zoo. Granted that if the pandas weren’t in this centre, they would already be dead, it still failed to be as uplifting an experience as I had hoped. Nonetheless, seeing a panda slouched back with his legs spread out before him, munching on a carrot without a care in the world, will remain a fond memory.

We arrived in Xi’an on 12 May in the morning, and left to Yangshuo on the morning of the 14th of May (read about that in our next post). We returned on the night of the 17th and left again on the morning of 19 May to Lhasa. We stayed in a hotel that Corsen organised us for the first two nights, and then in the NanTang hostel for the last two nights, which we highly recommend – king-size bed, in a happening side-street that really comes to life in the evening, but with (as everywhere in China) frustratingly slow internet.

19. May, 2010

Beijing – Amazing Race

Beijing – Amazing Race

Tian'anmen Square

We finally arrived in Beijing! It was very hot, a drastic change from the cold weather we had been in since Moscow. We got out of the train station and were completely disoriented, the amount of people in Beijing streets was enormous. It was hard to walk around outside of the train station with so many people, and especially people who push and shove by nature, no courtesy to be expected. I did not think it would be so hard to communicate in the capital of a world power, but it was, almost zero english. I thought at least the young people would speak a little, but no, it was very hard to find people who spoke a few words. I also expected to find a huge tourist information office in Beijing’s train station where we would get our bearings of the city, none of that either. Every time we asked anyone for “tourist info” they would try to sell us a tour somewhere.

They wanted pictures with us and Mao of course!

Night market...impossible to get Tony on his own!

We try not to rely on guidebooks for three main reasons: a lot of the information is inaccurate, probably because it was researched years ago; much of the information is very subjective because of diverse reasons and according to who wrote it; and mainly because if it’s in a guidebook it means it’s a very touristy place lacking authenticity. As well as that guidebooks are expensive and weigh a lot. Anyhow, I try to research different sources before arrival, ask other travelers, and mostly rely on the local tourist info offices and especially seek the advice of the local people. We did finally find a tourist info office and it was as useless as not having a guidebook, the info in our hotel was also not so reliable as they only wanted to recommend the places they got commission from. We had no choice but to buy a guidebook. We went to many bookstores that sold English books and Western guides from all over the world, except the China one of course. Western guidebooks on China are banned, probably not only because they want to sell their own publications but because of the Western opinion on the Tibet issue. We definitely did not want to buy a Chinese produced biased guidebook, so we kept visiting all the bookshops in Beijing hoping to find one. We got lucky when an Irish guy heard us asking the salesman for a Western guidebook. He told us that his hotel sold LP guidebooks on China, so on we went to his hotel and we finally got it…an illegal copy of LP China. It is exactly the same as the original one, if it were not for some pages where the photocopy is a bit blurry and half the price, we would have never known it was a fake. Welcome to China!

Our friend Manuel

Wangfujing District

Our first impression of Beijing was that it was very modern and expensive, it kind of felt like USA: 3 Starbucks, 3 McDonald’s, and 3 KFC per block. Seemed like capitalism was in full bloom and socialism nowhere to be seen. That was because our hotel was in the Wangfujing area, we did not know it then, but it is a very exclusive part of Beijing, therefore all the modernization, and lack of socialism on display. After spending some time in modern Beijing, we ventured into the heart of traditional Beijing, the real China, which is full of hutongs: old traditional neighborhoods in between narrow alleyways, a sort of maze that encompasses single-story, same-design, small houses with common courtyards. Sadly many of them are being destroyed to build massive buildings. In the hutongs we explored with all our senses the traditional way of life in Beijing, our favorite part of our Beijing visit. We took a pedicab through the hutongs and lakes of central Beijing, also savoured authentic cuisine, much tastier and for a tenth of the price than the “street markets” in Wangfujing area, which obviously caters for tourists only. We of course had Beijing Duck at the very famous Quan Ju De, where presumably Mao enjoyed his meals. They bring the duck to your table and start cutting artistically its different parts and instruct you how to eat them. Last they bring the duck bone soup. We also enjoyed plenty of noodles, steamed buns, dumplings, strange vegetables (veggie’s paradise), soups, rice, etc. and Tony had his try at scorpions and silkworms.

Pedicab to hutongs

On a Sunday (bad choice of a day) we visited the the world’s largest and most infamous square, Tian’anmen. It has not much beauty of its own as other famous squares do, but its splendor is that it holds up to (and has had) a million people, for occasions such as Mao’s death. Maybe there were not a million that day, but to us it sure seemed like it. From there you can see the wall of the Forbidden City with the big photo of Mao on it. In China we have run several times into Chinese people who want to take their photo with us, we of course reciprocrate and do the same. Although most people in Beijing don’t have a clue about English, they are willing to give it a try and help you, and they always smile and giggle a lot. Oh and the Chinese love scandals, you see and hear a lot of yelling constantly.

Roofs of the Forbidden City

Forbidden City

After the snapshots and clearing security (in Beijing every metro station has a security check) we made our way into the majestic Forbidden City. And indeed a city it is. We spent half a day admiring it and it felt like we had seen nothing yet. You could probably be there for a week and not see it all. It was the home of 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties, along with their many concubines, and the political and ceremonial headquarters of China for almost 500 years, until 1912 with the abdication of Puyi, the last Emperor of China. It is composed of an outer and inner court containing 980 buildings in an area of 720,000 m2. The main attractions are its halls, temples, and its garden. Its construction was started in 1406 and it took 15 years and more than one million workers to complete it. One of its highlights is the Hall of Supreme Harmony which was used for ceremonial occasions. Unfortunately you cannot visit the inside of the halls and can only get a peak at them from behind the overcrowded windows. There is no doubt that the Forbidden City is a magnificent site in itself, but we have to admit it is not as well preserved as the important palaces and castles of Europe, especially the interiors, as it would be nice to go in and have a look at what their life was like in the day. However apparently there are efforts being made to restore it to its glory era, before 1912. Personally what impressed me the most is the architecture of the roofs.

Forbidden City

Entry to Forbidden City

As far as the obligatory visit to the Great Wall of China went, we knew that the Badaling section of the wall was going to be loaded with tourists as it is the most accessible, but we were too lazy to make the extra effort to go to a less visited area, so on we went in the modern fast train to Badaling. Oh boy it was crowded, even on a weekday it was mobbed with tourists, 99% local internal tourism. Well, we wanted to see the Great Wall and we did. Badaling is suppposed to be an easy climb as it has been restored, but it was quite steep and the steps are quite high as well. I’m glad we decided to take the cable car to the highest guard tower and take it from there. It is quite a sight to appreciate with your own eyes how the wall snakes through the territory. The different sections of the “Long Fortress” – literal translation from its Chinese name were built by different rulers in different periods of time. It is said that all the sections together add up to 8,851.8 km. Its purpose was to defend the territory from invasions, although it failed to keep out Chinggis Khan, but what it did achieve was to communicate different parts of the territory enabling transportation of goods and people.

Peking Duck in Peking

Our highlight while visiting the Great Wall had nothing to do with the majestic wall in itself, but with the Amazing Race. The Amazing Race is my favorite show in TV since it started about 8 years ago. I introduced Tony to it and he has been hooked since. It’s about teams of two traveling the world and fulfilling challenges along the way. At the end each leg of the race (an episode) the last team to arrive at the pit stop is eliminated. The winner of the last leg takes a million dollars. The original version is from USA, but as well there are versions from Asia and Latin America, and some similar programs in Europe. Unfortunately we can’t apply to participate because we would both need to have the same nationality. Anyway this trip is our own amazing race, as repeatedly we are trying to get to places in a hurry and break the cultural barriers. Naturally during our trip we download every episode. The night previous to visiting the Great Wall we were watching one of the episodes in the USA version and it was in China. Just as we were going down the wall to the exit, Tony screamed: “Waoh… it’s the Amazing Race!” We couldn’t believe it, The Great Wall was the pit stop for a leg in the Asia version, the whole crew was working and the presenter was there ready to welcome the first team that was coming in. We waited of course to see the first team check into the pit stop. Although we could tell it wasn’t all as spontaneous as it looks once edited into TV, it was really cool to see our favorite show live! This is the second time we had en encounter of this kind in our RTW, as we saw Charlie Boorman, a very famous travel writer and actor, with his full entourage arriving into Wadi Rum at the same time as us. Just before leaving for our trip I was reading his first book on his travels around the world. We wouldn’t go as far as to ask autographs from anyone but it was still cool to see them live.

The Great Wall of China

I climbed the Great Wall!

So far we have been to two of the greatest and most populous capitals of the world: Beijing in China and Moscow in Russia. Both are very far from Western culture and standards, but inevitably globalization is here to stay. Although Chinese women do not dress to kill as the Russians do, both love Western fashion. I would have liked to see more traditional dresses, but not even in the countryside did we see much. Hopefully we will be able to reach more distant places that preserve better old costumes and traditions. So far in the trip, the place where we have seen a more intact culture and less influence from the West is the Middle East. China is very different from the Middle East, it seems that in China women are treated as equals, they do all the jobs men do, from taxi drivers to construction workers.

The Beijing metro is not as impressive or extensive as the Moscow metro, but it is still the cheapest and best way to get around, especially with the additional lines built for the Olympic Games. Even in weekends and not in rush hours, the metro is always congested, making it even hard to breathe. You better learn to shove and push or you won’t get in.

Eat a scorpion, and win a star!

Silkworms ... crunchy shell, soft centre! Just like me.

Cultural differences between China and the Western world are so enormous that we would have to study much to understand them. I know in business this is important, as many deals don’t get closed with China because barriers are created with the lack of comprehension we have on their way of thinking. One thing we will never comprehend is the lack of hygiene. People fart in mid-conversation (and I saw worse), constantly sneeze, cough and spit at will, not even covering their mouths, it seems the loudest and biggest the better. It’s a never-ending chain, they all are sick because they keep spreading it this way, no wonder there have been widespread epidemics causing pandemonium. I’m not saying that some people don’t do it, but spitting in public is illegal in Ireland. This was a law passed to stop the spread of tuberculosis. In China, tuberculosis is still very present. Adding this factor to the contamination, wind and dust in Beijing, it came as no surprise that we both came down with a strong cold and chest infection, forcing me stay in bed for two days. It’s not easy to get Western medicine (in English writing) here, so thankfully we were prepared; what we did add to our diet was plenty of Chinese teas. Soon we had adopted the face mask to avoid anymore contamination. Another cultural difference that I still don’t get is their toilet system, they are very dirty in every sense. If they have adopted so much of the West, they should adopt Western toilets ASAP. I thought the Middle East would be the worst in toilets, but so far China wins the prize.

Not alone in the Great Wall...

We are team number 1!

Beijing is a metropolis and in 5 days we experienced only a tiny bit of it. At least two weeks are needed to discover more of its culture. We enjoyed our first glimpse of China in Beijing and as well we got to see our friend Manuel, a colleague of mine from Brussels who had just been transferred two days ago to Beijing. Once again it was time to board our next train, this time a 13 hour overnight journey to Xi’an. When we booked our tickets the only class available was “hard sleeper”, until we actually got on the train, we were unaware that this was equivalent to Russian third class…and even worse… as the Chinese stack three beds (Russians only 2) on top of the other, so in total about 60 people in an open compartment, and the two of us were the only foreigners. We both got a third bunker bed, the space is so limited that the only position is laying fully on it. What a journey awaited us…

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