Leaving mainland China

China has been more than anything a place of huge contrasts. It isn’t what I expected. The distances between the towns and cities is immense and I have found China to be at once fascinating, bewildering, exhausting, welcoming, inhospitable, beautiful, wild, over populated and almost deserted all in one go.

The high light of China for me has to be walking on The Great Wall. It was as amazing as I expected and a wonderful experience to share with the kids. Lunch at Maggie’s house was lovely, an example of the fantastic welcoming attitude that we met in many places we stayed. The opera at Xian was beautiful, a magical night that I will always remember whenever I think of China. The town of Lijiang was very different; the Naxi people demonstrated to us a tough spirit, determined to maintain their customs despite a massive influx of Han Chinese to the area. Lastly gorgeous Yangshuo, it must be one of the top photography sites of the world with the awesome scenery and friendly people. I loved it there despite the rain!

We have learnt some wonderful history during our time here but felt like we only scraped the surface. There is so much to learn, from the ancient history of the fantastic Imperial dynasties to the more recent history of Chairman Mao, the communists and the Cultural Revolution, The Opium Wars with the British and the old practice of foot binding. The Chinese people can be seemingly overwhelming in their sheer numbers, pushing and shoving, with little regard for antiques, animal life or each other and yet at times I have almost cried as people have been so so kind when I have felt at the end of my tether here.

The food has been central to lots of conversation we have had. In the north of China we found the dishes to be very greasy but the southern food is nothing short of inspired, from the spicy, chilli dishes of Sichuan to the exotic creatures we have seen on the menu in Guilin. Despite the fact that I have never been a lover of Chinese food we never went hungry and have had some great meals out.

On more than one occasion I have thought that I would never return to China. I decided it has been my least favourite destination during our trip with none of the charm of the South East Asian countries we visited like Cambodia or Vietnam. Yet as we leave now for Hong Kong, the city they describe as an amazing fusion of East meets West, I’m not so sure. In hindsight maybe we did too much, many other travellers we met were journeying around either the north or the southwest/south central areas. I can’t really sum up a place like China too well. Simon and Ali have loved it here, like me Maisie is a bit more ambivalent. One thing for sure we will never forget our time here it has been an awesome experience and I will treasure the memory.

Journey to Hong Kong

We have had a fairly quiet day today as once again the weather is rainy. In the end we got up slowly, had breakfast and wandered around buying a few souvenirs. I got a set of Chinese placemats and table runner thing and a few cushion covers for just under a tenner. Probably not all that cheap but I felt happy with them anyway.

As we were leaving in the afternoon a fella chased us up the street. He turned about to be someone Simon went to school and played rugby with and they had a quick 10 minutes chat and catch up. He told us he has been living in Yangshuo for 9 months teaching English. It seems to be a popular occupation for Brits here. It’s strange to see people you know but not entirely unexpected I suppose.

We catch the bus back to Guilin which takes around an hour an a half, not a very comfortable ride but cheap. Luckily it drops us right outside the train station and we find the waiting area for train T40 to Guangzhou. This is fairly close to the border of Hong Kong and we plan to then catch another train across the border in the morning. The journey should take 10 hours and our train is scheduled to leave at 10pm.

We soon realise that the train actually goes right to the border town of Shenzhen and once we get on the train Simon alters our tickets and pays the extra so we can go all the way. We settle down for the night, the couple we are sharing our hard sleeper compartment are quiet and friendly and soon its lights out for everyone.

Cycling

We have our breakfast, it’s so good to have a few more western choices and they have Vegemite. (Not quite as good as Marmite but it does the job). We walk up the road to the bike hire place and select 4 bikes. They actually are all really crap with broken gears and chains and we take ages trying to pick 4 decent ones. Once we get slightly out of town it becomes quite quiet and we don’t want to end up stranded in the middle of nowhere. Also we have heard of other travellers accused of returning the bikes broken and being unable to get their deposits back.

In the end I’m the only one who ends up with a mountain bike and we set off along the road. Cycling is definitely one of the best ways to get around Yangshuo, it’s very flat and it gives us the opportunity to look at our surroundings. The paddy fields stretch for miles and framing Yangshuo are the amazing tree covered limestone peaks. It is said by the Chinese people that Yangshuo is the most beautiful place in the world. The world of course being China!

We cycle for an hour or so eventually reaching a small village. It’s interesting seeing the market stalls and we stop and buy some water and a large fruit that looks like a giant pear but tastes like a grapefruit. We carry on for a while and Simon stops and takes some photographs of Water buffalo lying in the river with just their heads out. It’s really hot now and the kids are exhausted, cycling on their ancient bikes is very hard work and I swap bikes with Ali. As we reach the village again we decide to get a “van taxi” back and pile in with the bikes for the most uncomfortable, jolting ride home ever.

We have a shower and spend the afternoon doing some maths with the kids. Ali restrings his guitar and we sort out some laundry. In the evening we go out for food and see a restaurant advertising fajitas. As we haven’t had any Mexican food for ages we decide to go for that. Big mistake! The strips of chicken and beef came accompanied with sweet pancakes, Thousand Island dressing and squirty cream. Horrible and at 20 quid also very expensive. What a waste of money, none of us ate much.

I have enjoyed it here but can’t wait to get to Hong Kong now. There are loads of mosquito’s here and we have been bitten a lot. We stopped taking our malaria tablets a week ago which is good but have had to buy some extra repellent. The weather has also been very unpredictable which has made it hard when packing our rucksacks.

Off to bed now, we are thinking of catching a local bus to Xingping tomorrow, a local beauty spot where the mountain scenery is described as breathtaking. Will see what the weathers doing first though. Really can’t face getting soaked again.

Yangshuo

We get up fairly early and taking advantage of a few dry hours repack quickly and head off in a taxi for nearby Yangshuo .As we arrive (of course) it starts to rain but by now our expectations of the weather in southern China are so low that we take it on the chin and gamely plod along the road to our guesthouse. The Water Buffalo Guesthouse and Bar is a good choice and we’re so pleased to see an excellent menu.

We have some food and then head off out for a walk. We are staying on West Street and it reminds me of Th Khao San Road in Bangkok. Full of tourist shops selling all sorts of souvenirs from wooden carvings, to stamps proclaiming to “make your name more Chinese”. There are also loads of bars and restaurants and we soon get settled in a fantastic spot over looking the lake and the stunning limestone scenery that is all around. It’s like being in a film and we have a lovely afternoon sat drinking Tsingtao beer and chatting to the kids. There is a man on a raft on the lake using cormorants to fish with. Simon said it was a tourist gimmick but it looked cool anyway!

It’s very easy to while the afternoon away here as there is so much to see and by 8pm we’re feeling hungry and order dinner. As in other restaurants in the south of China we find the menu is quite exotic with choices of braised turtle, roasted dog and bamboo rat. We’re a bit scared to try any of those though and have duck, twice roasted pork and lemon chicken with fried mixed vegetables.

On the way back we telephone the kids Grandfather Blobby Bob and wish him a Happy Birthday for yesterday. Maisie has a good chat but Ali is busy in the bar next door half way up the climbing wall. The Chinese fella’s all have their shirts off, showing of their muscles. Grrrrrr! one of the most interesting sights in China!

Off to bed now we are going to hire bikes tomorrow and do some cycling.

Rain

We were going to move on today to the nearby backpacker village of Yangshuo but have decided to stay put as it is still raining constantly. This hostel is comfortable, with friendly and helpful staff and a reasonable collection of film to slob out in front of.

Computer and internet access has been a real pain in China, the connections are unbelievably slow and every hostel we have stayed in only has a few terminals. Added to this is the fact that our laptop remains critically if not terminally sick. The result being that uploading photographs to the website is a painstaking process that I would never have the patience to complete. After investigating this Simon thinks there is a small problem with the hard drive (This means nothing to me) and is going to try and sort it out with Dell. He admits that Dell are notoriously crap at customer service but then they have never come up against him before and he is the most persistent person I have ever met!

Its midday now and we have done nothing more than eat breakfast, we decide to go for a walk and amble aimlessly around in the wet for an hour before heading to the sushi bar for lunch. We buy the kids a DVD each and some new schoolbooks and pens. When we get back they spend over an hour writing a story of their choice. Not surprisingly they both choose an action theme but the stories are quite good. I worry that Ali’s handwriting is actually worse now than before we left and Maisie’s spelling certainly hasn’t improved but it isn’t through lack of trying on our part. We have found teaching them both satisfying and at times infuriatingly difficult and I hope their natural ability will be enough to ensure they maintain their high levels of achievement that we saw before the trip. If not private tuition here they come.

Its nearly 10pm now and we skipped dinner as we ate sushi late and spent the afternoon watching DVD’s and eating ice cream, chocolate, macadamia nuts and sweets. Simon and the kids have just come up to the room complaining of hunger. The only option open now is KFC so Simon and Ali go off to get that. Another healthy option meal.

Longsheng Rice Terraces

Guilin in the south central province of Guangxi is reputed to be one of the most beautiful places in the whole of China. Today we are heading slightly further north to the town of Longsheng to see the rice terraces and to visit the minority village of the Red Yao people.

The day starts ok and we are up by 7. We get on a tour bus at 8 and things unfortunately deteriorate slightly from that point, as first I then Simon both bang our heads really hard on the roof of the bus. We have a row and it starts to rain in a big way.

Two hours later, tensions have improved slightly and we arrive at The Red Yao minority village. I have read that in this mountainous province of China there used to be more tribes but eventually they have been integrated into the majority Chinese Han society. The Red Yao are also known as the Long Hair Yao and we learn that the women do not cut their hair. We watch them perform some singing and dancing and taste their tea. It’s a bit like weak gravy with rice crispies floating in it.

Their voices are very high and sweet and they are dressed in black and pink traditional dress. The guide explains that their hair is tied in different ways dependent on whether they are married. have children etc. They also stretch their ears with weights which is quite a sight to see!

Back on the bus, we journey for around another hour and eventually reach the base of the mountains where the rice terraces start. This is what we have really come to see. The Longji Terraces were first cultivated in the 13th century Yuan dynasty. The tribes of mountain people who have lived here for many generations ask the mountains for food and have created the terraces over hundreds of years in almost every available spot.

I spend some time reading some local information and although it takes a while to decipher the “Chinglish” there are some wonderful descriptions in there of the terraces in all seasons – At the start of spring the terraces are full of water, reflecting the skylight as layers of silver ribbons folded together. Then greasy green seedlings, the breeze rolls green waves. Summer, the colour is spilled, golden stairs and golden storeys. In deep winter silver and plain clothing implants terraces and villages into a fairy world of ice and jade statues.

How beautiful, I don’t think anything I can write can do the terraces justice and as we start to climb up the steps the glimpses that we get behind the rolling mists are nothing short of spectacular. We climb and climb and get steadily more and more soaked! In retrospect we must have been mad to even attempt to get to the top but despite the now torrential rain we figure we have paid our money and we’re here now so might as well get on with it! We buy 4 umbrellas and long rain macs. My transition into a Chinese tourist is almost complete as we gamely follow “Nick” our guide up and up with the rest of our tour group.

At last we are there and by this point the mist is so thick we can hardly see each other let alone the rice terraces. We dance around in the rain a bit, get a woman to take a few photos of us and start the long swim back down. (We actually did see a fish on the path!) In reality it is like making our way back down through a fast flowing stream as the water pours down the mountains and over the paths.

Finally we arrive safely at the bottom and back onto the bus, 3 hours later and we are dropped outside the hostel. I’m convinced I have trenchfoot by this point and can’t wait for a shower and some coffee. Despite the rain, lack of photo opportunities, head injuries and arguments we’ve had a good day and I’m glad we went. So glad we’re not going tomorrow though, there is something to be said for lazing in bed until late, doing jack shit all day and warmth and dryness. Bring it on.

Elephant Trunk Hill

Oh no, I can’t believe it; we wake up to the sound of torrential rain. What a nightmare. It seems like crappy weather is following us around China. We have breakfast in bed and spend the morning checking a few emails and generally catching up on stuff on the internet. By midday the rain has stopped and we set off along the Li River for Xiangbi Shan Park. (Elephant Trunk Hill Park) It’s lovely in there, with lots of cute and picturesque bridges over the river and some gorgeous flowers in the gardens.

As expected the kids aren’t too impressed, but that all changes when we reach the giant water bubbles. Perfect, we didn’t have a go in Happy Valley in Beijing due to the combination of cost and long queues but there isn’t anyone waiting and its only Y20 each. What a laugh, this has to be one of the more bizarre things we have seen in China and the kids love it. Scarily though when they are pulled in from the water they both said they were starting to have trouble breathing in their bubbles. I guess the health and safety law in England wouldn’t allow these! Probably for good reason!

We walk all along the river, I see a sign saying the river is called The Peach Blossom River which is really pretty but actually although fairly scenic it’s not as wonderful as all that. There are some great little floating restaurants though, the crabsticks here are whole small crabs speared onto skewers and barbequed rather than the pink and white rubbery things we get in England.

We have seen and experienced some strange and interesting sights whilst in China. One thing we have noticed is that babies don’t seem to wear nappies. Instead their trousers are split from bum to crutch with all their bits on display and ready to pee wherever the mood takes them! So strange! Next is the Chinese obsession with photography, many of the Chinese people we have met have asked us if they can take our photograph. On occasion we have felt like tourist attractions ourselves and it is a bit hard to understand why they are so interested in us when after all, wherever we have been in China we have seen quite a few other Westerners. (We’re not that rare!)

It seems that the prostitution rates are high here. Simon has been approached by pimps touting for business much more frequently in China than in the other Asian countries we have visited. It also turns out that the “wrong number” telephone calls we have received in our hotel rooms are in fact sex workers and this is very common here.

We climbed Elephant Trunk Hill and had our photo taken in the curve of the trunk. In the afternoon we did some science revision with the kids. We have almost covered the entire science curriculum for the year now which is good.

In the evening we go out for dinner and have some great food. The food in the south has undoubtedly been more to our tastes than in the Northern provinces. Much less greasy and more vegetables available. The kids are so good and will more or less give anything a go although they draw the line at duck heads on sticks.
Off to bed now, we are going on a trip tomorrow joining a Chinese tour group. God help us.

Guilin

We all slept well and waking up naturally at 7.45 was definitely preferable to the alarm. By the time we have had a wash and Simon, Ali and Maisie have had their noodles for breakfast we only have another hour or so to go. It has actually been a restful enough way to travel and I feel quite refreshed and ready to see Guilin. The train arrives just ahead of time at 11.50 and we get a taxi to The Backstreet Hostel. It turns out to be a really good choice. Fairly quiet and in a great location close to the river and lots of shops, bars and restaurants.

The kids are busy checking out the DVD collection and we get talking to an English girl called Tracey. Her parents were both born in Hong Kong and she explains that she has been on a trip around China. Despite her Chinese heritage she has found China very difficult to travel through and has cut her time in China short to spend more time in Australia. She gives us some good advice on places to visit and the area in which to stay whilst in Hong Kong.

Its 7pm and I’m sat on the bed writing this. The kids wanted to watch a film but I felt that they have spent too much time recently watching DVD’s and so Ali is practising his guitar instead and Maisie is writing a story. We spent an hour doing maths this afternoon. Maisie and I concentrated on rounding up numbers and how to use a calculator. I’m not sure what Simon and Ali did but it seemed to end in the usual row anyway. We went out for some food and despite the surly service the duck, fried broad beans and rice was very good. On the way back we saw a sushi bar. I’m sure we’ll try that over the next few days.

The main reason for visiting Guilin is for the awesome scenery. We have seen lots of pictures of the huge karst limestone cliffs and they look amazing. After our week of racing through China I feel like we need a bit of relaxation time before we head off to Hong Kong in a weeks time.

10pm -just got in from sushi bar. It was excellent and very cheap our bill came to Y120
(8 quid). We stopped off on the way back at a shop and bought some beer and a bottle of red wine. The lady in the shop was explaining China’s one child policy to us. In the countryside it is ok to have 2 kids providing the first is a girl. Although many people have more they don’t register them which means they don’t get an education. In the cities if you have more than one child you have to pay the government for the privilege. She explained the cost to her family for her second child is the equivalent of 20,000 pounds.

It is completely different again here in Guilin. We are staying very close to the market area and the pedestrianised road makes a welcome change from the huge highways that run through the centres of most Chinese cities. The streets are lined with trees and Guilin certainly is a prettier place than the northern cities we visited.

Sat in bed drinking wine, we want to make some plans for the next few days but not rushing anything, feeling tired after travelling and looking forward to spending a night in a bed. We put the aircon on; we’ve gone from air con to electric blanket and back to aircon in 3 days. I guess that just emphasises the huge diversity that is China and I hardly feel we have scratched the surface.

Kunming and going….

As planned we caught the sleeper bus last night at 6pm to Kunming. These buses are unlike any others we have travelled on elsewhere and an experience I’m not in a hurry to repeat. The first impression of the bus was quite good. Brand new and clean and tidy I guess our expectations for the journey were quite high.

The beds were low down and so so narrow. Luckily we were on the bottom all next to one another. Although we have got used to close proximity living in Asia and feel perfectly comfortable with it, the fact that many Chinese men in particular, smoke constantly and think nothing of spitting on the floor made me glad to be in between Simon and the window.

The endless films and karaoke also are a problem for some travellers we have spoken to but I like it and the noise didn’t bother me. In the end the night, although pretty uncomfortable passed uneventfully and we arrived at 4.30am but stayed on the bus until around 6am. We stopped off a hotel and grabbed a coffee, whilst Simon went to the train station to get our tickets to Guilin. At 100 quid for 4 soft sleeper tickets they aren’t cheap but as we will be leaving at 5.30 this afternoon for our longest journey yet of 22 hours we decided the extra expense was worth it.

We checked into Cloudland Hostel and basically crashed out for the day. I spent most of it asleep and Simon and the kids watch a few films. We send a few emails and update the website. (Our daily jobs) Our warm clothes are all fairly grubby and stink of cigarette smoke. For 2 previous nicotine lovers we have become a bit intolerant of fags in China but I think this is because so many people smoke and everywhere.

It’s now 8pm and we have been on the train for just over 2 hours. We have passed some of the most amazing scenery on the way. The most interesting thing we see are the so called “Stone forests” of Shilin. As far as the eye can see, the land is covered with stone “stalagmites”, a massive collection of grey limestone pillars eroded by the wind and rain. It is very green with red sandstone earth, miles of flat rice paddy fields and imposing mountain ranges. Really so beautiful, in a dramatic, wild and windswept way.

We have a long talk on the way and discuss our trip so far. Between the four of us we remember everywhere we have stayed and have a great time remembering the highlights. Simon says his favourite place was Khao Sok National Park in Thailand. The kids agree on the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia and I’m torn between Varanasi in India and Siem Reap in Cambodia. We all loved Langkawi and will treasure the memory of our time spent there.

Well we have had a few beers now, we started on Tsingtao but then found giant Budweisers for Y8. (Around 50 pence) hehe! Gotta find some way of passing the 22 hour journey and a few Buds seems as a good as any