Yangshuo’s fairtytale peaks and lunar landscape.

Think China! Think Yangshuo! With its famous fairytale karst peaks, one after the other after the other, the landscape is exactly what the mind conjures up when thinking of China. I was just waiting for a man with long braided hair and a long wispy moustache to jump out in front of us and the image would have been complete! The town’s otherworldly landscapes are mesmerising! We spent a good week here, staying in various hotels, and seeing Yangshuo as it is seen best, by bike! Despite the fact that several tours abound, a bit of pedal power gets you off the beaten track, and cheaply allows you to stumble across old bridges, fascinating landscapes, and minority groups in tiny villages that look centuries old. Our Chinese is shocking, but a broad smile and a hearty Ni Hao (hello) brought a smile to many of these people’s faces, as well as more than curious stares (who are these weirdos on bikes, and why do they seem so interested in us and our dot of a village anyway?).

The centre of Yangshuo itself, has become a bit of a foreigners magnet, with all of its bars and western restaurants, but one only needs to duck off into the side streets to find the real Yangshuo, including the more traditional things, and obviously cheaper food. Besides, the countryside is only minutes away by bike. We mostly stayed in town, but we also spent a couple of nights out at the Snow Lion Resort, run by the charismatic Linda and William. It was an oasis of calm and tranquility, and also the place from which we did some exploring even further afield. Heading south west, we cycled towards Liu Gong village. It was a superb ride, albeit extremely rocky, and the views were phenomenal…peaks, villages, ponds, trees, rolling hills, children running and playing, workers in the fields. I had mistakenly understood that it would take an hour to get there. After an hour and a half however, we had to call it quits. It was 6.15pm, and the sun was setting (that was another impressionable sight to behold!). I HATE not reaching my final destination, but cycling back in the pitch black of a countryside we knew little of did not seem to be a viable option. So, we opted for Plan B, which was to hammer home! We made it back in 45 minutes, much to Linda’s surprise. I had a searing pain in my butt to prove it! That night I felt like a baboon! It could well be argued that I looked like one too!

On another day, we took a short bus ride out to Xing Ping Town, from where we did a boat ride along the Li River. Whilst the views were also gorgeous, I would also add that they were perhaps not that different to what we saw by bike, and the latter option seems “less” touristy and “more” real. It was a town also worth visiting, as the crowds mostly do the boat ride and not much else. This means a lot to explore without all the people of Yangshuo. I loved walking in and amongst the tiny alley ways, with traditional wooden houses and simply watching the locals entertain themselves in their day to day activities. Alex and I also partook in a half hour hike up a hill, Mt. Raozhai, very close to the waterfront, and despite us being totally saturated in sweat upon reaching the summit, the panorama, yet again, was awe inspiring.

Closer to the centre of Yangshuo are some touristy must do’s. No trip would be complete without a visit to Moon Hill, a limestone pinnacle with, surprise surprise, a moon shaped hole. It’s only a 7 or 8 kilometre cycle out of town, and we chose a day where the sky was a bright, bright blue! The locals told us it was the best day they had had that year! I should add that due to the hot and humid climate of the area, the skies can vary from a hazy grey, where it’s hard to see even the closest peaks, to the jackpot we scored that day! On the way we passed the Yulong River, complete with bamboo rafts and the locals who managed them, ready to transport people and bikes at will. Moon Hill was definitely worth the half hour hike up, and I have now run out of adjectives to describe the stupendous views! The Banyan Tree reserve close by, however was a real let down. The Chinese not only have a penchant for charging for anything and everything (including things that occur naturally), but they also love turning nature into an Asian style theme park. So, yes, the 1400 year old tree was interesting, mainly due to its age, but the Holy Grail like shrine around it, needless to say, was not! The “theme park” came complete with dressed up monkeys in chains, and feathered friends with extra headpieces! Would we like to have a photo taken with these “caged” animals! No thanks!! Speaking of animals, we did see dog on a few menus here! True!

Another day, we rode along another section of the Yulong River, all the way to Dragon Bridge. At times, when we weaved in and out of the amazing karst topography, we felt like we were on another planet. The moon perhaps! Then all of a sudden, a tiny village would appear, and we would be reminded that we were indeed on Earth.

Amongst the places we stayed at in town were Bamboo House Inn and Cafe (there are two of them, and they are run the gorgeous Rosie and her family), and 7th Heaven Cafe & Hostel, also run by Linda and William. Both were fantastic places with fantastic food. The former had excellent coffee (made with an Italian espresso coffee pot to boot!) and a huge and tasty breakfast, whilst the latter (despite its claim to having great Western food), also had great Chinese food! For the first time in ages, I felt like I was able to eat something without having to dodge something from the carnivore club! Alex and I highly recommend both of them! Although we did not actually stay the night, another place noteworthy of a mention is The Giggling Tree in Aishanmen Village, 5 kilometres from Yangshuo. Run by a hospitable Dutch couple, it is set in the countryside and has a mot relaxing feel about it. It’s close to the “action”, yet far enough away from the maddening crowds to make you feel like you are one of the last people on Earth.

Did we really spend 8 days in Yangshuo and its surrounds? Absolutely! With only a one month visa, it was definitely time to hit the road again!

Oh, and definitely my favourite sign yet (along with Wan Kee under the Nike sign) is the Wankelong Shopping Centre, in Yangshuo. Please explain? I think even Pauline Hanson would get that one!

Ombi

NOTE 1: Check this out for some good old Chinese censorship.

NOTE 2: Oops! I’m sorry you just received this same blog without the photos. I hit publish by accident. I hope this version was the more enjoyable!

NEXT: The spectacular Longji Rice Terraces of Guilin, and then heading out west. Was it wild? Read on and find out!

“Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic”Thomas Szasz.

(Photos: 1.- The man with the moustache did jump out infront of us! 2.- Reflections along the Yulong River. 3.- More reflections – spectacular for us, and work as usual for others! 4.- Moon Hill. 5.- Red dragonfly, Yulong River (I took that one!) 6.- Flower in bloom, along the Yulong River. 7.- Alex on top of the world…..well on top of Moon Hill anyway! 8.- The Wankelong Shopping Square! This one’s especially dedicated to all you Aussies out there. C’mon ya gotta luv this one!)

Arriving at “the source”…Welcome to China!

Nothing can really prepare you for it!!!!!! I mean this is the land where 25 million trees are felled annually to make disposable chopsticks ( for the Chinese!!!!!); where it really does rain “acid rain”, seriously the water stings your eyes; where personal space isn’t really personal; where pollution is so bad that the sky is a continual haze; where pedestrian crossings, are merely a “formal tool” for people to scamper across the road ….whenever!!!!!; where signs read…….Wan Kee (OK, that was under a sign under a Nike sign in Hong Kong); where “negotiating” means handing over what is asked, or actually punched into the calculator! ; where all these characters basically mean jack!; where there is “internet police!! Yes, I am serious!! Open up a “no no” website, and the hand of the law comes a knocking at your screen; where people are still tortured for practising their religion of choice. Hop onto a search engine and check out what they have done and continue to do to the Falun Gong! ; and where communism is a joke! I have never seen capitalism so ingrained. It’s like this, heads or tails? Communist when we want…capitalist when we want!

Welcome to China!

Well, here we are in a country with a population of 1.3 billion, or thereabouts. Most of us know that, but nothing could have prepared us for the Macau-Zhuhai border crossing. The short bus ride to the border was easy, just a local ride away, but what (or who!) we saw as we went through passport control was flabbergasting. We were both blown away as we tried to assimilate the amount of people going from one side to the other. I have never seen so many people at a border crossing in my life. The workers in passport control have truly got their work cut out for them here, as if they do not work expediently, they would be working 24/ 7 and it would take us hours to get through. Despite the fact that we were some 30 metres back in one of perhaps 40 lines, we seemed to get through in a little over half an hour. There weren’t many other foreigners around, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the locals were thinking. Covered in backpacks, and looking like stunned mullets must have been an amusing look to them!

Whilst in Macau we had flicked through our Lonely Planet China book, which we had bought in Hong Kong, and wondered where to go. It is an enormous country covering a massive 9.5 million square kilometres. To do only a small part would take weeks and the entire country, months upon months. With no definite itinerary, we decided loosely on some of the south-western areas, as we would eventually make our way to Vietnam from here. For our first night, we decided to book something on-line (again, what did we ever do before the internet?) and got a rather good deal at the Zhuhai Bihai (three star supposedly) Hotel, just eight or so kilometres from the border. Did we catch a taxi? No! We took the challenge, and “public transported” it. Again, we were overwhelmed by all the people…….I mean, after what we’d seen at the border crossing, we shouldn’t have been so surprised…they had to be and go somewhere! We realised after asking a few people the way to the hotel, that this was going to be much harder than Hong Kong or Macau, and that people here seemed to speak so much less English. But, we are always willing to give it a go, and we always try and learn a few words of the local lingo. Having been spoilt with all the English speakers in Macau and Hong Kong, however, we felt a little like lambs to the slaughter. Needless to say, we did eventually make it to the hotel. It’s amazing how far some confidence, a smile and lots of hand signals can get you. Italians are renowned for the use of their hands when they talk, and I was so happy that I had had some decent training in this. I cannot tell you how useful it has been in China!

There is not all that much to do in Zhuhai, or perhaps, more to the point, there is not much that we did in Zhuhai. We spent a couple of nights there and just took it easy. We slept, we ate, and we strolled around a little. Our hotel was right on the sea, and actually away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, so it was both peaceful and tranquil. It is said that it is one cleanest and greenest metropolises in China. We did see some lovely temples, local fishermen, and people just living their lives…..as you do. It was great to be in a place with absolutely no other tourists and no real tourist attractions. It was nice to see the Chinese living as the Chinese live!

Where to go to next? The next logical stop was Guangzhou, or Canton, as it is known by most foreigners. We did some reading and research, and despite its claim to have some of China’s best food, it’s also supposed to be China’s “thief capital”. It’s also a big city, and we had spent a lot of time in these recently. The minuses outweighed the plusses, so we ditched that idea. We decided, instead, on another city, heading out west, called Zhaoqing. Again, very few tourists here, if any at all, but that was part of the beauty. Once again, we ended up in a rather big hotel, as there did not seem to be any other options here. Whilst the centre of town did not provide anything anything astronomical, the surrounding countryside was rather spectacular.

We took a local bus out to Dinghu Shan (Mt Dinghu). Despite being only 18 kilometres away, it seemed so far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city so close by. Here we truly relaxed as we walked among the lush vegetation, temples, pagodas (a pagoda is the general term in the English language for a tiered tower with multiple eaves common in China, Japan, Korea, Nepal, Vietnam, and other Asian countries), springs, waterfalls and pools. There seemed so few foreigners, despite it being packed with Chinese tourists. Alex and I were also stunned at how so few people walk. Soooooo many tour groups and so many mini buses transporting people. Sadly, we have both noticed that people all over the world are getting larger, especially in countries where this has been uncommon in the past. This, from what we can observe, has been due to the increase of international fast food chains, as well as an increasingly more sedentary lifestyle. The path of least resistance is making people unhealthier!

One of the highlights of the Mt Dinghu Reserve was without a doubt the Qingyun Temple, a huge Buddhist complex of over 100 buildings. It seemed to go both on and up forever! The 500 gilded Buddhist arhats (saints) were spectacular, as was the rice pot capable of feeding 1000 people. We spent a considerable amount of time here, most possibly because the energy was so serene. The Baoding Garden was also a highlight, with its Nine Dragon Vessel, the world’s largest ding, a Chinese ceremonial pot with two handles and three or four legs. Besides all of this, various lakes, little islands and breathtaking views were presented at every turn.

Places with little tourism and tourists have their positives, but along with that some negatives too. Chinese people speak far less English than I thought they would, and let me tell you, reading Chinese characters to the untrained eye is like looking at scribble! So, communication takes both a lot of guts as well as sign language; no time to feel foolish or embarrassed, or you will truly get nowhere! Wandering around, observing and people watching in this town was as entertaining for us as it was for the locals. Once again, however, we were very disappointed in the food. It just seems so bland and tasteless, not to mention the copious amount of oil used.

Bland food I can cope with, but there are some other things that I just cannot deal with. Ah yes, the national pastime of spitting….anytime, anywhere, anyhow and by anyone! Age, gender, age and class is not a limitation! And, it’s not the casual quietly spitting to the side number, it’s the…..gather all the phlegm from the deepest, darkest, hidden corners of your lungs, and whilst making a noise louder than an erupting volcano, hurl it out! And to match, it is also as visually graphic as it sounds! Where the missile hits is unimportant; near your feet, close to food, inside shops. Gross, gross, gross!!!!!!!!! OK, I promise, this is the only time I will sound like a princess! I also want to burn (pun intended?) all those No-Smoking signs, as from what I can gather, they act as mere decoration. Once again, despite being placed in several places, such as shopping centres, restaurants, bus terminals and the buses themselves, they seem to have little or no effect. Whilst one can usually make a choice as to where he or she goes and/or enters, it’s a fraction harder when you are on the likes of a mini-bus. We have tried exaggerated coughs, using our fans, and sign language feigning that we feel like we are having a stroke, and while they occasionally, butt out, we mostly get odd stares and laughs. If only they knew how low our amusement actually rated! (May I just add, ironically, that someone just walked past me, and hurled a greenie out the door! Gross, gross, and more gross!)

Back to the disposable chopsticks issue here in China. I repeat, 25 million trees are felled annually to create them, and everyone uses them! When you go out to eat, “wash and wear” chopsticks are rarely offered. Luckily, Alex and I have our own, a gift from Yuko and Yuji in Japan. I feel that using the chopsticks that we have is part of being a responsible traveller, and not further adding to China’s constantly growing number of environmental issues. So, please, if you are a traveller or tourist, be aware of this and try and do your part! Our good friend Annie Whitlocke in Melbourne who has business relations with China gave us a spot of advice, which was to bring our own anyway, as hygiene may not be up to Aussie scratch. Unfortunately, you are right on that one Annie!

Due to its sheer size and that our next destination would be Vietnam (it’s all about place and timing), Alex and I decided fairly early on that Beijing and Shanghai were not meant to be on this trip, and that we would do some (and I do repeat some) of the south west of the country. And even then, it would be hard to do in a month, as besides distances there is so much to actually see. Our next destination was Yangshuo. Close to our last destination? Take a close look at the map….rarely is anything close in China! It was possibly a 6 or 8 hour bus ride from Zhaoquing, and as we approached this small town, we knew that we would be enchanted by it.

Ombi

NOTE: Many of you would be familiar with our use of Wikipedia to help explain and add meanings and/ or links to many of the things we see and do. Unfortunately, it is one of the many websites that is not able to be accesssed in China, due to censorship. Thus our reason for not being able to use it. I am sorry if the links we have used and/ or added are not up to our usual standard. In addition, I would like to add that despite the fact that we can open up Blogger from the back end and create a new entry here in China, it CANNOT actually be opened up and read in China. Again, the Chinese government has deemed it a “no, no” site. Nothing like having an opinion ! I repeat, capitalism has many faults, but communism is NOT the answer! Controlling what people can and cannot do is not the solution! Each individual should have the choice to see and feel, and accept or reject! This is our will…..our free will!

“There’s so much pollution in the air now that if it weren’t for our lungs there’d be no place to put it all” – Robert Orbin.

(Photos: 1.- What can I say? Please explain! 2.- Crossing the border. 3.- Fishermen at work, Zhuhai. 4.- Fishing boats, Zhuhai. 5.- On the streets of Zhaoqing, it’s life as usual for most. 6.-Pagoda and bridge, Ding Lake, Mt Dinghu Reserve. 7.- Scenic view, taken from Qingyun Temple, Mt Dinghu Reserve. 8.- Supposedly Mt Dinghu Reserve is a great area for breathing anions! 9.- No spitting please! 10.- On the local bus, Zhaoqing. 11.- The unusual topography of Yangshuo.)

Macau……..where’s that!

Now Macau, where is that? Well, if you thought that Hong Kong was small, welcome to Macau (also spelt Macao). Lying 65 kilometres west of Hong Kong, it has a population of 480,000 and is just 28 square kilometres in area. It is a tiny country steeped in history, and due to its having been colonised by the Portuguese in 1557 and subsequently being governed by them until very recently, it has an interesting and colourful past as well as cultural mix. In 1999 however, it finally passed from Portuguese hands back to Chinese ones, and like Hong Kong, was made an SAR (Special Administrative Region). Although its two official languages are Cantonese (technically a Chinese dialect) and Portuguese, not many people speak the latter. Whilst 95% of the residents are Chinese, the remaining 5% are made up of Portuguese and Macanese (people with mixed Portuguese, Chinese and/or African blood). With a fusion like this, which manages to seep into many facets of the Macanese lifestyle, the total sum of this little spot really does amount to more than its infamous casinos and gambling!

This is the Macau where we spent four very worthwhile days. We caught a ferry across from Hong Kong to Macau, and it took a little over an hour. Although no visa is required (nor for Hong Kong) for Australians, we still had to go through the formalities of passport control, and before we knew it, we were making our way towards our accommodation. We had pre-arranged this one, a gorgeous place called Pousada de Mong Ha, which is actually the educational hotel of the Institute for Tourism Studies in Macao. Situated on Mong Ha Hill, and on the site of what were once military barracks, this beautiful hotel is a refuge of peace and tranquility. It is far enough from the casinos that you do not feel like you are in Las Vegas, but close enough that it really is only a short bus ride or half an hour walk to either the UNESCO historical centre or the very places where you can either make or lose millions! As soon as we set foot inside, we knew that we would love it. Included was a fabulous buffet breakfast, excellent coffee, a tiny gym (which I used a couple of times) and a business centre with internet. The attention to detail was superb, from the slippers to the toothbrush and toothpaste. The staff were friendly and helpful and the service was impeccable. Why am I going on about this? Because it is one of Macau’s hidden gems, and a bargain considering what it offers. It is basically a place where students do their hospitality training, yet if I was not told, I would never have guessed! You have to give credit where credit is due, and this place deserves every bit of credit that I am giving it.

Dragging ourselves away from the gorgeous room we stayed in and the sumptuous buffet breakfast was difficult, but manageable. Like Hong Kong, Macau is not the cheapest of places, but out of the main tourist areas, it is not impossible to find reasonably priced food and goods. Like any place on earth, you have to know where to shop! This task is always a little more difficult when it’s not your abode! So, off we went, exploring this two faced little so and so! Ex- Portuguese colony (with all the trimmings that come with it) versus the self-styled Las Vegas of the East!

To some, the above comparison may sound excessive, but after checking out “the strip” and the only days old (end of August 2007) “The Venetian” (an exact replica of it’s big brother in Las Vegas), we realised how very true this is. Rather than skyscrapers and offices, the construction here is all about Las Vegas-type casinos…….we saw several “familiar faces”, such as the Sands. Remember that unlike China and Hong Kong, gambling and casinos are legal here. It’s a monstrous market. Guess who just plugged the hole? Alex and I popped in to see a couple of places briefly, but alack and alas, the interest was minus 100! I am afraid that this just doesn’t float our proverbial boat. That aside, the cigarette smoke was more than we could bear. Like their Chinese and Hong Kong counterparts, the people of Macau like to smoke, and like to smoke a lot! Gag, gag! Despite both Hong Kong’s and Macau’s very obvious campaigns to curb smoking in public places (both countries had signs everywhere), the whole concept seemed to vaporise every time you walked into a casino. Would I be suggesting a link between money and smoking? Never! Maybe the people who smoke in these places are immune to the plethora of diseases that could be potentially be inflicted upon themselves and others. Ah yes, the money god is looking over them here!

I must say, we were flabbergasted by our trip to The Venetian, on the Cotai strip, which joins Macau to the small island of Taipa. Before I go on, I just read the following: “HONG KONG (AFP) — The world’s largest casino resort, the Venetian Macao, welcomed its one millionth visitor Friday just 17 days after opening, its operators said.” How is that, almost Australia’s entire population. This resort type casino is virtually a mini-Venice, with canals, gondolas, bridges and the whole shebang. The opulence was definitely OTT+ (that’s over the top plus). All Alex and I could do was walk around as if in a daze. I had never seen anything like it in my life. Well, that’s a lie, we had been to Venice recently! Click on the Cotai strip link above…..there are more to come!

On to the other face of Macau, the one that I thought was gorgeous! Welcome to a land of fortresses, outstanding museums, , churches, temples and food with a Portuguese flair! Now, we’re talking.

Hard to believe, but only a ten minute walk away from The Venetian was Taipa Village. It is a small and traditional village, and a window to the island’s past (which is perhaps why it was a fraction more than disconcerting to see The Venetian looming not very far in front of us). Easy enough to walk in a short time, we visited everything from traditional sweet stores to churches and temples. Only a stone’s throw away, along the waterfront, we visited the gracious Taipa House Museum, which was a collection of five villas, clearly showing how the Macanese middle class lived in the early 20th century.

Most of our time was actually spent on the Macau Peninsula, and after a few days of lots of walking and taking a look at the map, we were amazed at how much we had actually walked. Macau is packed with important cultural and historical sights, many of which have been named World Heritage sights by UNESCO. The Historic Centre of Macau is outstanding and brimming with such sites. There seemed to be something interesting around every corner. The list is endless, so I have tried to pick some of the highlights. Senado Square, with its pastel coloured buildings, is Macau’s urban centre and has been for centuries. It is still the place of choice for celebrations today, and is always full of people. As you can imagine, great for people watching. The Ruins of St Paul these days…is actually only a facade, literally! This church, originally built between 1602 and 1640, was destroyed by fire in 1835. It was fascinating to stroll through an area, which is totally open, and imagine what must have once been. Their are view points from which you can see the surrounding city. The Na Tcha Temple close by, was tiny but traditional. Interesting is its proximity to the church, presenting a dialectic of Western and Chinese ideals. It is one of Macau’s best examples of multicultural identity and religious freedom. Again, I had to wonder where we had gone wrong.

We also visited several notable museums, having obtained a number of free passes from the Posada Mong Ha, where we were staying. Noteworthy was the Macao Museum of Art which included a temporary exhibition called “Edictus Ridiculum” by a Russian called. Konstantin Bessmertny. In this exhibition he chooses to confront the absurdity of the world (glad to know that I am not the only one who thinks like him!) by translating its disharmony, awkwardness and ambiguity into oil paintings and even 3-D creations, calling it “Casino Republic”. It certainly left me thinking, about a lot of things. The Macao Museum was a great museum in as far as giving you a historical account of what went on and where. A grand introduction to a tiny country. It’s located in the Mount Fortress, which was built by the Jesuits in the early 17th century, and for a long time was the capital’s principal military defence structure. Another UNESCO sight and yet another panoramic vista. A visit to a small but interesting exhibition on Tea in the Qing Dynasty proved to be fascinating. For hundreds of years, tea drinking has remained popular and fashionable in China, with history, cups, teapots and information on tea-drinking ceremonies to prove it. The Handover Gifts Museum was also engaging. In 1999, when Macao was formally handed back to China, it was congratulated by being given a multitude of gifts, mainly from the various provinces of China. The gifts were all designed with the nation’s various artistic regional styles and represent the best wishes of the ethnic groups towards Macao’s prosperous future. With one piece more imposing and striking than the next, including vast amounts of precious and semi-precious materials and metals, I could not help but perceive the symbolic meaning behind them all – the thriving prosperity of the motherland.
Another enchanting museum, surprisingly, and farther away from the city centre , was the Macau Maritime Museum, situated on the tip of Macau’s peninsula, and which is virtually located where the first Portuguese landed. What I was expecting and what I found are two totally different stories. It was a fabulous exhibition, outlining everything from the Portuguese boats which came in all those hundreds of years ago, to the fishing boats and styles of the people who fish today. It’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised! The museum also illustrates the importance of the sea to people throughout Southern China, all the way to Southeast Asia, Japan and Australia. That’s what I like about the sea….it has never been merely a tool for trade and adventure, but the source of legend upon legend!

As in Hong Kong, Macau also has a multitude of different temples. My favourite one was the A-Ma temple, at the tip of the peninsula. It was possible standing when the Portuguese arrived. With quite a lot of open space, it consists of prayer halls, pavilions and courtyards built into the boulder-strewn hillside and connected by winding paths through moon-like entrances and tiny gardens. I felt like Alice in Wonderland! Again, a very peaceful energy prevailed. It is said that Macau’s name is derived from this temple. This temple was dedicated to the seafarers’ goddess, A-Ma, and so this area was called A-Ma-Gau (or Place of A-Ma). Supposedly over time, the name morphed into Macau. There’s a bit of trivia for you!

There were also several parks in Macau to keep one out of mischief. We walked through several. It’s always lovely to see the locals doing their thing; chatting, playing chess or mahjong, sleeping under the trees.

They say that good things come in small packages! They also say that all good things must come to an end! Our time in Macau was short, but sweet. So, with Hong Kong and Macau under our belts, it was time to move on. On the day we left Macau, we did not actually know exactly where we were going until an hour or so before we left. With the border only kilometres away, we were not terribly worried however. China here we come!

Ombi

Television has proved that people will look at anything rather than each other.” – Ann Landers (1918 – 2002).

(Photos: 1.- Casino Lisboa. 2.- Historical centre of Macau. 3.- Venice in Macau! And as you can see, there are more to come! 4.- Temple offerings. 5.- Temple on Taipa Island. 6.- The Ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral. 7.- Inside the Macao Museum, 3D image. 8.- Inside one of Macau’s many temples. 9.- A-Ma temple. 10.- Mid-afternoon nap.)

Life beyond the skyscrapers of Hong Kong.

Towards the end of our stay in Hong Kong (which at two and a half weeks, was longer than we had originally anticipated) we visited Lantau Island, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that there really is life beyond the skyscrapers, neon lights, consumerism, commercialism and shopping that we had been forced upon us almost continuously. What a relief! Alex and I were determined not to leave HK, until we had seen “another side” to it. As most of the action and commotion are centralised around all of the above (skyscrapers, neon lights, consumerism and shopping), it can sometimes be hard to get away! Like any fast paced city, time seems to go so much more quickly, and before you know it, the day has passed, whilst you are left wondering, “What did I do?”

Back to Lantau. It is Hong Kong’s largest island in both size and height. It can be reached by either ferry or metro (which in this case goes underground). As we had not used the metro thus far, we decided to give it a go, as we had heard so much about its efficiency. We ended up getting a day pass and then, once on Lantau, an all day bus pass for the island as well. With this combination we had a wonderful day and saw some refreshing sights. Only 88,000 people live on Lantau, compared with 2.5 million on Hong Kong. The Island also boasts a Disney Land. Needless to say, that is one attraction we decided to skip! On arriving to the island, we immediately boarded a bus for Ngong Ping, a plateau 500 metres above sea level in the western part of the island. This is home of the Po Lin (Precious Lotus)Monastery, an enormous monastery and temple complex that that contains the huge and impressive Tian Tan Buddha statue, which with a height of 26 metres and a weight of 202 tonnes happens to be the world’s largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha statue. When you first catch sight of it, the view is outstanding! Upon arrival , it was raining quite heavily and the skies were hazy. This actually added to the mystery and made the grand statue appear even more awe inspiring. Well worth the 206 steps to get to its base, we were afforded with even more breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. The monastery close by was equally spectacular, with its several temples, rooms, praying areas and huge pots burning varying sizes of joss sticks, which are sticks of incense of the kind burned before a Chinese image, idol, or shrine. Again, quite a serene and magical atmosphere. I personally find a tranquility and calmness in the temples of the east, that I have not found in any of the other places of worship I have seen and visited across the globe.

Close by the monastery was the Wisdom Path, an outdoor replica of the centuries- old “Heart Sutra”, one of the world’s best known prayers, revered by Confucians, Buddhists and Taoists alike . The sutra is displayed on wooden pillars placed in form of figure 8 to symbolise idea of immeasurable splendour and infinity. Set amongst lots of trees and in a very quiet spot, it was a very spiritual place indeed. For the first time in ages, we both took some time out to meditate. What a wonderful feeling it is to feel so alive!

No trip to Lantau would be complete without a visit to Tai-O fishing village, which some call the “Venice of the east” due to all of its criss-crossing canals. Whilst I would not necessarily agree with this comparison, I will say that it truly is a delightful and traditional place, and it gave an interesting insight as to what Hong Kong may have looked like before it became neon-land. Many of the houses are on stilts, which further added to its old-time feel. Quaint and picturesque are two other adjectives that spring to mind. Having said this many houses are also made of collapsing corrugated iron, and in a state of disrepair. There are pockets that look like time stood still! The village is still inhabited by the Tanka people, who are descendants of Hong Kong’s first settlers. It’s also famous for its shrimp paste, which can be seen and bought everywhere…you can usually smell it before you can see it. It’s the kind of place where you stroll, relax, observe the fishermen in their traditional costumes….ad ask yourself if you are really in Hong Kong.

We had not had a chance to see the New Territories, so on the way back from Lantau, we used our all day metro pass to stop at a few places. It was getting late, so we only had time to jump out of the metro station and take a quick look-see, which of course, did it no real justice. From the little we saw….more people, more restaurants, more buildings, more shopping malls and more skyscrapers…..well, this is exactly what HK is known for! I believe, however, that the territory has some spectacular national parks. That’s for the next trip!

Whilst in HK we also visited some excellent museums. I thought that the Hong Kong Museum of History was exceptional, and a great place to start, in order to get a feel for Hong Kong’s varied and sometimes turbulent history. Everything was clearly displayed in an interesting fashion, making it one of the better museums I have seen on this entire trip. The HK Space Museum was also worth a visit. Although not HK or Asia specific, it really makes you realise that it truly is one big whopping universe that we live in! And there are millions more! That is something gargantuan to wrap your head around!

Last but not least, we visited the area called Stanley on the south eastern peninsula of Hong Kong Island. It is a seaside village, mainly known for its (mainly) tourist market. It also has some pretty views of the surrounding countryside as well as some of the interesting temples which seem to be dotted all over Hong Kong. I was also able to “replace” a pair of shorts that were days off tearing in the rear (wear and tear takes on a new meaning after almost a year of constant use!), and two singlet tops that were not far behind. Finally! I did have to compromise on the shorts though – they are Tommy Hilfiger rip-offs, but fit perfectly. You all know my stance on gear with labels, I ain’t giving anyone free advertising, so that means I will have to sit down and pick the label off. I must say, finding replacement singlet tops was also a hard task. No, I do not want sequins, pearls, tacky sayings, designer names or Hello Kitty! (What is it with that cat in Asia, she looks set to take over Mickey Mouse!)

So, after almost 3 weeks and equipped with both a Vietnamese and a Chinese visa, we were ready to move on. I want to add that part of the reason of our extended stay in Hong Kong was due to the fact that we were able to find a business centre where we were able to use free internet to our heart’s content, and for hours on end. In this way we were able to update our blog (as you would have realised, we were running a little behind). Surprisingly, internet cafes are both difficult to find and/or expensive in Hong Kong. I tried to find out why and this is my conclusion: Most people here have their own computers as they are so cheap. Most tourists only come for a few days shopping and then leave, so do not have the time nor the need to use them. Backpackers spend little time here…….so why have internet cafes for them?

Macao (or Macau) – to go or not to go, that was the question! We ummed and aahed as we had heard that it was no more than a gambling mecca. We have Jo and Richard to thank for our final decision to go take a peek at this tiny Chinese SAR (Special Administrative Region). So, where and what is this place? Coming up on our next blog.

Ombi

“I think that somehow, we learn who we really are and then live with that decision.” – Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 – 1962).

(Photos: 1.- Nature. 2.- The deities surrounding Lantau Island’s big Buddha. 3.- Offerings in front of Po Lin Monastery, Lantau Island. 4.- The Wisdom Path, Lantau Island. 5.- Tai-O fishing village, Lantau Island. 6.- Stanley, Hong Kong Island. 7.- Fine dining and laundry a la Ombi & Alex, in our shoe box suite, Hong Kong. 8.- Wan Kee! For once Nike, we actually agree with you!, Mong Kok shopping area.)