As I mentioned, walking to the border and crossing on the Chinese side was easy, and it looked like the Vietnamese side was going to be too! Wrong! Armed with our passport and Vietnamese visa, which we had obtained in Hong Kong, it was supposed to be a “stamp and walk through”. In theory! In practice, the visa had been issued for a month from the 16th September to the 16th October. We had been told that we would be granted a month from the date of entry. Wrong again! We would only be granted the days that were left from the date stamped on it. Now, I am no genius at maths, but we arrived on the 8th of October, which meant that we would have to leave Vietnam by the 16th of October. That was so not going to happen! Alex was the one to pick up this “discrepancy”, once the visa on our passport had been stamped. We could not believe it! We tried to negotiate, and tell them that there had been a mistake. Several minutes later we were discussing our plight with several others, some of whom spoke English. The bottom line is that they stuffed up in Hong Kong, and that you do not get a month from the date of entry, but rather, a month from the date that is placed on your visa. No use arguing! An error had been made, and we had to rectify it! Despite their friendliness, we were being told that they could organise an “overnight” visa for us for USD$50.00, which we knew was exorbitant. The solution? Make our way down to Hanoi and organise it ourselves!
So close, yet so far! In Shangri-la (or Zhongdian, as it is more commonly known to the Chinese), I felt that I could smell, hear and almost touch Tibet! Another four hours north from Lijiang, Shangri-la had a totally different feel to it than the rest of China. The faces were different, the architecture different, and even the signs now included being written in Tibetan, as well as Chinese (in addition to the occasional English). I closed my eyes and conjured up every image of Tibet that I could. Coupled with what I was seeing, feeling and breathing, it really was the very closest I would get to the magical land, which now so very close, was yet so very far! Unfortunately, despite the fact that Tibet is a “part of China” one still needs to get a “special permit” to go there. Politics is a dirty word, and in respect to Tibet it has been unscrupulously filthy! It would be worth your while to do a little background reading here on Tibet.
We were fortunate to end up in a cosy place called Harmony Guesthouse. The common area, which included a restaurant, came complete with an open fireplace (it really was quite cold at night in this neck of the woods), where we spent many a night indulging in a magnificent buffet dinner and copious cups of tea. The owner, Joey, did not speak much English, but he sure made up for it with his hospitality and warm personality. I must add that this place afforded us some of China’s best food, which I have already mentioned has generally totally failed to excite us! We met a great girl from Spain there, called Mariona, who often joined us for our nighttime extravaganzas.
Effectively, Shangri-la is a Tibetan town. Its Tibetan name is Gyeltang, or Gyalthang, and people mainly come here to visit its famous monastery, as well as to get a taste of Tibet if they cannot make it to the real thing. In this case, we were no exception! Ganden Sumtseling Gompa is a 300 year old Tibetan monastery complex with around 300 monks. It is huge and the area surrounding it physically spectacular. Perched up on a hill, several kilometres from the city centre, the view from the top is gorgeous. Add tinkling bells and fluttering prayer flags; it really felt like I would expect Tibet to feel like. Despite the busloads of tourists, there was something so very peaceful about this place. We took several hours, walking in, out and around the several temples and monks’ quarters. We later took a scenic route back to the centre, passing several open fields, people working, children playing, and animals in the fields.
Closer to town, we did several other walks, which took us through other monasteries and pagodas, again with advantageous viewpoints. We also walked around the countryside, and saw several people at work in the fields. As most tourists do not venture out of the immediate centre, we were quite a novelty amongst the workers. It’s always wonderful to see people as they really live their lives, outside of the tourist hustle and bustle.
We checked out the weather forecast, and as far as doing the trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge went , it was (finally!) looking good. Located roughly halfway between Lijiang and Shangri-la, it would be our next destination. We had not hiked in a while, so we were really looking forward to it. The starting point for the walk was from Qiaotou. Although only a couple of hours away, it was almost 2.00pm by the time we got ourselves organised, onto a bus, and there. It’s quite a small town, and its only claim to fame , really, is that it’s the place from where the hike starts.
For something like a little more than one Aussie dollar each, we left the bulk of our luggage at the Gorged Tiger Cafe, run by a super helpful and friendly Australian lass called Margo. Not only did she tell us how and when to do the walk, she even told us how we could “avoid the authorities” and slip away without paying the fairly high entrance fee…..which we did! I have already mentioned that the Chinese love charging high prices to “get into places”, which often includes roads that pass through or enter villages and natural places of beauty. Armed with our small backpacks, Alex and I were away in a flash, and needless to say we did “avoid the authorities”.
It was a beautiful, refreshing and breathtaking walk, but we knew that we would have to move on, as the expiry date on our Chinese visa was coming to a close. We made it back to Margo at The Gorged Tiger in Qiaotou, via mini-bus, which took around 45 minutes on a narrow, mountain-hugging road that I imagine would be horrendous in rainy weather. A couple of showers later (that’s us, not the gorge!), and we were waving goodbye to and thanking Margo, as we hopped on to another mini-bus, this time back to Lijiang from where we would organise a bus to Kunming later that night, and then make our way towards the Vietnamese border.
A couple of hours later we were in Lijiang, where we decided on an overnight sleeper bus to Kunming. Overnight means arriving at a reasonable hour like 6.00am, right? Wrong! I had never been on a sleeper bus before, whereby you lie down in a totally horizontal position. I assumed (oh, woe to those of us who assume!) that it would be reasonably comfortable. Well, for a smaller Chinese person, or a waif-like foreigner, perhaps. But, for two normal size foreigners, it was about getting into the foetal position. I tried to hit memory recall……Geez, it was only almost 40 years ago that I’d done it for 9 months! Personal space? What is that? I tried to ignore all of the “smells”, and that was not an easy task. Then there was the guy playing games on his mobile phone at midnight….with the volume right up! Alex and I seemed to be the only two who, apart from being foreigners, were also pissed off! Coincidence? Let me remind you about personal space in China……there is none!
So, off to Yuanyang we went, arriving late afternoon. The bus was bearable, whilst the road was rather nasty, making the ride a tad uncomfortable. When we arrived, and saw a town which was quite dirty with litter and whose vegetables and fruit were sold from and on the floor on the main road running through the centre of town (read, straight from the dust and bitumen to you!), we felt disheartened and lacking the desire necessary to see the rice fields. Most of the budget options did not exactly hit China’s 100 most cleanest (are you kind of getting the idea as to what accommodation was like in this town?) either, so in this case we opted for a cleaner and more expensive hotel. The Hilton, we do not need, but if it isn’t clean, we simply will not stay in it. We may choose to cut corners in other areas, but never in cleanliness. We argued that we had already seen some spectacular rice terraces in China, and that we did not have to do it again (read…….cannot be bothered, time to move on!).
“There are two kinds of light – the glow that illuminates, and the glare that obscures” – James Thurber (1894 – 1961).
(Photos: 1.- View of Shangri-la and surrounds, taken from Ganden Sumtseling Gompa Monastery. 2.- One of the temples in the centre of Shangri-la. 3.- Harmony Guesthouse, Shangri-la. L to R: Mariona, Alex, various guests and Joey. 4.- One of the temples, Ganden Sumtseling Gompa monastery. 5.- What’s your beef? (or a plethora of other animals), Shangri-la. 6.- Alex asking the locals the way to Tiger Leaping Gorge, at the beginning of the walk. 7.- Walkin’ the gorge! 8.- Spectacular flowers, impressive mountains, and a tiny butterfly, Tiger Leaping Gorge. 9.- Tibetan prayer flags in China – Shangri-la. One senses that the Chinese are very keen to “keep” any and all things Tibetan! 10.- Indigenous woman in Yuanyang. 11.- Indigenous child in Yuanyang. 12.- “Inside job”; catching a bus from Yuanyang to Hekou with the locals. 13.- One of the locals, in the bus from Yuanyang to Hekou. 14.- Show me where you’re from Julia, and I’ll show you where I’m from, Tiger leaping Gorge trail.)
Guilin is supposedly like Yangshuo, but it has a larger commercial centre, so we decided to skip it. Can’t do everything, says the woman who’s going to die trying! Only an hour away from Yangshuo, however, we had to pass through it to get to our final destination of PingAn, another couple of hours away. The road was windy, but spectacular, as we we made our way over and across breathtaking landscapes, rice paddies and minority groups, mainly women. In the area, is a small village, Zhonglu, notable for its long haired women from the Yao tribe, who supposedly hold the Guinness Book of World Records…..for the longest hair in the world. Whilst we passed this place on our way to the terraces, we had no desire to stop or do a tour here at a later point. These people are humans and not animals, and should be treated as such. I know this makes me sound “old” (which in light of the fact that I turn 40 on October 14th, may not be too far from the truth!), but “in the olden days”, when I first started travelling nearly 20 years ago, visiting hill tribes was much more of a cultural experience. Nowadays, it is more like an outing to visit “the freaks”, complete with the recipients having a digital camera thrust 2 millimetres from their faces (yes, 2 millimetres, not centimetres. This IS the era not only of digital cameras, but a macro zoom as well!). No thanks!
Some two hours after leaving Guilin, we arrived in the 600 year old Zhuang village of PingAn. But certainly not before someone jumped on the bus and sold us our tickets! As I mentioned before, everything costs in China, with nature being no exemption! Set perched up high above the rice terraces, there are no cars, narrow walkways, and the way to reach it is……foot power! The Dragon’s Backbone Rice Terraces is an engineering spectacle, that reaches all the way up a string of 800 metre peaks. You can have one of the villagers carry your bags up, or alternatively, you too can physically be carried up in a type of rickshaw with no wheels. As you would expect, we walked it! Twenty minutes of constant uphill climbing, complete with backpacks had us both oohing and aahing over the views, whilst sweating like beasts. It REALLY is good to be alive! Our bodies are our temples, and I never underestimate how incredible it is to be and feel so fit and healthy, especially in times like this. The vista was truly amazing, bags and all!
We spent a beyond peaceful two days in PingAn, sleeping in, making new friends, exploring the countryside, marvelling at the rice terraces, and taking in the majesty and the beauty of our surrounds. All of the houses and hotels up here, are traditionally built from wood, and look as if they have been superimposed, precariously perched on the steep and rolling hills. The advantage of “steep” however, definitely includes less tourists. Definitely not a hike for the feeble or faint hearted. The two main terraces are “Seven Stars Accompanying Moon” and ” Nine Dragons and Five Tigers”. They look as spectacular and exotic as they sound. Sitting down at the top of these peaks and viewing these marvels simply left me speechless. Yes, these moments are rare!
Our next destination would be Dali, heading way out west. In order to get there, we had to take an overnight train ride to Kunming followed by another five hours or so up north by bus. Kunming was only a “drive through”, as we are both over the big city thing at the moment, but we were still stunned and overwhelmed by all the people at the Kunming train station. I have to keep reminding myself what a lot of people 1.3 million actually are! The overnight train was….bearable…..just! With six bunk beds to a cabin it was not too bad, and we were on the bottom, so nothing really to complain about, well….I have seen cleaner sheets in my life, and the cacophony and symphony of sounds were exasperating! Yeh, those guys and gals were hocking up those greenies like no tomorrow! I knew I had not brought my ear plugs with me in vain! Then, of course it was “no smoking” in the cabins! So, just take yourself one little guess where that smoke gets redistributed when people are chuffing at either end of the carriages? Nothing like recycled air via the air -conditioners! I am not going to hold back here. It’s a vile and repulsive habit, and I will ONLY tolerate if and when it does not effect and involve me!
Located about 120 kilometres southeast of Kunming, we passed through Shilin, which is home to a massive collection of limestone pillars. The area consists of rocks and boulders which have been created via the erosion of wind and rain, some reaching up to a height of 30 metres. In true Chinese style, they have levied a fee to enter, which of course is disproportionate and illogical. So, if you are a tourist or a wealthy Chinese person, please enter, if not, talk to the hand! Don’t you just love communism! Such a fair and just system! We got a fairly good, albeit brief, look from the train! Soon enough we were at the Kunming train station, where we met an Aussie called Katrina, and the three of us walked to the bus station where we negotiated a bus to Dali! China’s bus stations seem to vary a lot. In some the destinations have a set price and in others you need to bargain. Here it was all about bargaining, and bargain we did! If the air-con was our god in Japan, it is definitely the calculator in China! I no speaka the Chinese, you no speaka the English, but we both understanda the numbers. And on the 7th day, he (or she!) created the calculator!
It was not such a long ride, well almost 6 hours, but after all night on a train, we were keen to get to our destination. We arrived in Dali at around 6.00pm, and although not entirely exhausted we were not up to hours of searching for a place to stay (which, incidentally, is wearing very thin after almost 14 months!). We managed to find a quiet and cheap place run by a Chinese family, The Bai Family Inn. Again, it was sign language and calculators, but our hosts went out of their way to make us feel welcome and at home. The hotel seemed to be set within the walls of an old temple, the rooms were spacious and the beds , rather comfortable. A word on Chinese beds; Whilst usually exceptionally clean, they are as hard as a rock! It’s the way they like them, I suppose. But usually this can be “fixed”, by placing any extra doonas, blankets or whatever you can find underneath! It’s called being resourceful!
We had a relaxing couple of days in Dali, and found a great place to eat at. A tiny hole in the wall, it offered 10 vegetarian wontons for about 50 cents AUD. Now if that was not cause for excitement, the sign that went along with it was, “No MSG“! What a bonus! The Chinese love their MSG (wei chin) and use it like the Italians use olive oil. The difference (and a big one at that!) is that the latter is good for you! We visited some surrounding temples, walked around the old city walls, and hung out at a few places drinking some fabulous Yunnan coffee (the state in which Dali lies). I want to make a special mention here. The “Lost Angel Cafe” is run by a young Beijing couple called Jessie and Dio. Helpful, friendly, and honest , they are wonderful people. If you go to Dali, be sure to drop by and say hello. The coffee is great coffee, and the internet is free.
Dali lies on the western edge of Lake Erhai, and at an altitude of 1900 metres. Its backdrop is the imposing 4000 metre high Jade Green Mountains. There are supposedly some great hikes around both the lake and the mountains, but we just took it easy, and the most strenuous thing we did in the area was a day trip to Xizhou which is renowned for its well-preserved Bai architecture (the Bai are one of 56 ethnic groups officially recognised by The People’s Republic of China), where we just strolled around, chatted to the locals and observed the architecture . We were the only tourists around, and so we got lots of stares, but it was fun. Throw in a few Chinese words, and the people love it. It’s always an ice-breaker and shows that you actually care and are interested in other people’s lives and cultures. I should mention that being so high up, the climate around here was by far cooler than what we had experienced thus far, and we found ourselves wearing long pants, polar fleeces and even rain jackets for the first time in ages.
Heading even further north, we also decided to visit Lijiang. We would be arriving just before the Chinese Golden Week (which is from the 1st to the 6th of October), and had been warned that not only do prices rise astronomically, but that the likes of Lijiang become a veritable Disneyland. Hard call! But, we decided to go, as it would be the closest that we would get to Tibet…on this trip, anyway! Or, so we thought! We ended up at a place called the Old Town Carnation Hotel, set in an old Naxi home, and run by a gorgeous Chinese lay called Li Shu Ju. She was so gentle and helpful, and nothing was too much or a bother. We have been so fortunate on this trip, predominantly finding terrific places to stay, with marvellous people who run them. It was quite cold here too, and it rained a lot. So much actually, that we wondered if we were going to be able to do one of China’s 10 “must do’s “, a trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge. We would have to wait and see!
Lijiang is truly very picturesque. With its maze of cobble stoned streets, old wooden buildings and canals at every turn, it one of Yunnan province’s most visited sites. It has often been referred to as the “Venice of the east”! (Having said that, there are several other places on Earth that have made similar canals, oops, I meant claims!) Its popularity has grown and continues to rise, and I was blown away by the number of “flag brigades” overtaking even the smallest of cobblestoned streets! Not only do the Chinese LOVE to travel in groups, and big ones at that, their guides come complete with “traditional minority costumes”……give me a bucket! Like many other countries, the Chinese minority groups are shunned and down trodden, unless and until they can be used to make money! Not even going to go there! If you want to hear more about our experiences on this, it’ll be over a coffee or two back in Oz!
Having said all of this, venture out, in and around Lijiang, either very early or very late in the day, and you will be duly rewarded with some breathtaking sights. Without the masses and Disneyland style enterprises it’s a gem of a place! Sadly, some of the “natural” things to see around Lijiang are so expensive that I found it akin to extortion, and bluntly refused to either pay or visit. Again, I wondered how the poorer, local people do it. Quite bluntly, they do not! It has been rather interesting to watch China grapple with it’s identity. Communist? Socialist? Capitalist? I am not sure that they know really? And to be truthful, neither do I? China’s like a little kid who has its cake and wants to eat it too!
Unfortunately, it rained a little too much for our liking, and whilst we got out just before the real Golden Week mayhem was about to begin, we were not altogether convinced that the trek we wanted to do would be dry or safe enough. Would we have to miss out? We were running out of time as we had to leave China by the 9th October (or so we thought….. more on that later). What should we do? It seemed like such a pity to miss out on something which was meant to be so unique and spectacular. So, we decided to buy ourselves a little time, and head even further up north, to a place called Shangri-la (or Zhongdian). This town is home to remote temples, rugged mountain scenery and the start of the Tibetan world. So……. it appeared that we were going to get much closer to Tibet than we ever thought we would! The last frontier!
NOTE::”Ganja? Marijuana? Hash? Hashish?”. The question we heard so often was coming from the mouths of the locals, predominantly women from one of the several Chinese minority groups. Where did we hear this? Anywhere there were tourists really! How very, very, very sad! So, this is their impression of us…….that we are pot smoking, drug takers! By the amount of times we were asked, it was pretty obvious that both they were selling, and that tourists were buying! Whilst I am not about to pass any judgement on drug taking, I will say this: Be a responsible tourist! If you do drugs, then do them at home, and if you do it overseas BYO! Buying from locals goes far beyond giving us a bad reputation, it makes these people rely on making a living from trading illegally. Think about the impact that your “cheap drug fix” will have on all those involved in the transaction!
“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in all the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual.” – John Steinbeck, “East of Eden”.
(Photos: 1.-The long haired women of the Zhuang tribe, walking through the rice fields of Longsheng. 2.- The rice fields of Longsheng. 3.- Drying corn and chillies, PingAn. 4.- Locals going to work, Kunming train station. 5.- One of the many faces of the people of Dali. 6.- Pagoda and a typical street in the centre of Dali. 7.- Another one of the many faces of Dali. 8.- In the streets of Xizhou. 9.- A typical Lijiang house, with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background. 10.- Lijiang and one of its many canals. 11.- Tibetan prayer flags fluttering above the town of Shangri-la, taken on a short hike. 12.- That’s me signing off for this blog….until next time.)
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?).
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.
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!
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!
“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!)
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.
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.)
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!
Siginagi, Georgia. Hi and welcome to veryitchyfeet.com. We are Ombi and Alex an Australian/ Ecuadorian couple who have, between us, visited some 90 countries and speak three languages; English, Italian and Spanish. We are intrepid travellers at heart. Follow us as we passionately share 30 years of travel know-how, adventures, exploration and detours with you. We want to motivate you to experience this amazingly diverse world we live in and show you how to do it!