China from the perspective of the saddle
27.03.2009 - 10.04.2009 30 °C
We arrived in Beijing at night by plane. We really did not know what to expect. I guess one of the reasons we choose China on this trip was to catch it before tourists over exploit it. Lets face it...our tip so far has been amazing but we have struggled to get off that gringo trail. China would turn out to be something else though. We did expect a lot more white faces around than there actually is. Mainland China is NOT that easy to get around and that Chinese language is a nightmare for a non native. It would cause us much hassle but a lot of laughs too! The culture is so different from anything else. We loved that difference. Some things are hard to embrace though! That bloody hocking is so disgusting- and it is everywhere. What is the story with that! It was a complete nightmare trying to find restaurants when there is no English menus. You have absolutely no way of knowing what it is and even when you get picture they can be so misleading. And when you manage to get the English menu it is heartbreaking when it is literally full of dog intestines, chicken feet (what IS the story with all those feet), ducks head, turtle soup. It is just not possible to eat. So often after trying in vain for ages to find a place to eat we ended up in McDonalds more times than ever before. Broken spirits.
Travelling though South America we did at times feel unsafe and we had some mad experiences. But cycling through China has got to be the most dangerous thing we have done so far. We didn’t know where the picture of the Chinese people as timid creatures comes from because put them on a bike, moped or car and they are absolute mentalers. Never has (Karolina) been shitting herself as much. Thing is as scary as it is it is the best way of exploring the country and really getting a feel for it. In Beijing we went around the city's hutongs (it is long and narrow lanes of the main streets which are part of the ancient city and it is full of people- cycling, walking, working and going about their lives. It is an absolutely brilliant way of experiencing the Chinese atmosphere).
Our hostel in Beijing (Downtown backpackers Beijing) turned out to be the best hostel in our whole trip so far! The staff was so helpful it was ridiculous- they could not do enough for us! Def recommend it.... It was in a beautiful Hutong full of restaurants, bars, cafes and gorgeous little boutiques (can the fab clothes PLEASE stop following us!!!!).
Visiting Tianamen square and the forbidden city are of course musts when visitng Beijing. We are happy to have been and seen these historical places and it felt bizarre to stand in the places of such political history has taken place. However, visiting the Forbidden city was a bit of a disappointment. Despite some beautiful buildings it was hard to look past all those tourists (although most of them were Chinese). We were complete idiots too. We got involved in a scam with two “English students” who wanted to practice their English. M did not like it but heart of gold K thought they were so nice. Anyway, we ended up paying extortionate prices for tea. We were lucky though as we heard stories in the hostel of people who paid hundreds. Our bill did not hit €30. Still, we are dumbasses for falling for the scam as we saw on our return to the (excellent) hostel that they had warnings about this kind of thing everywhere.
To finish off our days sightseeing K decided to go nuts in the shops (looking only, I promise). Martin decided to have a massage and due to a mixture of language difficulties and interest to try Chinese methods had Martin have glasses with fire inside put on his back that somehow killed the oxygen and sucked the hot glasses to his back. Not until he came home later (feeling quite good actually) and took of his top did he notice that his back was full of huge round purple rings all over. It looked horrendous and so freaky that our German roommates took pictures of it as well. These marks would stay on his back for weeks- luckily he did not have to go to a beach in the near future!!!
Unfortunately the jet lag would not leave us alone. We ended up turning our days upside down and going to bed when we were supposed to get up in the morning. We would return from bars early in the morning and it was impossible to turn the days around. We decided to go on a trip to the great wall and were picked up at 5 in the morning that was mental as this was the time we normally went to bed at. The trip was amazing. We went from Simitai and walked 10K along the wall. We were so happy when went to the part of the wall that is outside of Beijing as it is a whole lot less touristy and its is the longest preserved part. And what was incredibly cool was that it was snowing despite it being spring (we were told that the previous week Beijing had 30 degrees). It was fantastic to experience it in the snow. It took us hours to walk the circle and it was so beautiful. We got company from Mongolian ladies for most of the way that acted as unofficial guides and when they left us we did not have the heart to deny them a tip. We are too soft!
Although Tienanmen Square did disappoint a place that did impress us however was the Lama temple and we would definitely recommend it... That experience held all those things one would expect from a Chinese temple. It had beautiful temples and statues, it was spiritual and it was a lot less touristy and we could observe Chinese people practicing their faith in peace and quiet. We returned to the Forbidden city again as the previous time it was closed. It was nice but the temple was a lot more interesting but still a must see. We hit the silk market that evening was there were excellent rip offs to be had. Needless to say we indulged ourselves with some tasty bargains. This particular night was rounded off with some boozing in the smallest bar in Beijing – 12sqm bar. The date was March 30th. One more day of hot pots and cycling was left before we went to Guilin.
Guilin was an ok city. Very big and fast paced with ugly enough buildings. There was however nice restaurants and one in particular was Rosemarys Café. There was a pretty good book exchange there and the Café itself had a very good vibe with both Chinese and ex-pat clientell. Well worth the effort. The best thing about Guilin though was its vicinity to Yangshuo!
In Yangshou we got bikes (albeit the worst ones ever) and went cycling around the country side. We got lost on numerous occasions ending up cycling through tiny ancient villages, watching farmers going about their lives and just taking in the unbelievably beautiful scenery. So as dangerous as it might be it is by far the best way to enjoy the country.
All this mad stuff is what we loved. If you can accept and embrace all that mad stuff (although killing and skinning dogs in markets in broad daylight like Martin witnessed can never be accepted- full stop) and take in the culture, the beautiful scenery and Chinese people it is a mind blowing experience. Way above anything we would have expected. We quickly realised how little time we really had and we really really hope we will be able to come back one day to see more!
In Yangshou we decided to stay at a hostel that fittingly was called the Culture house. It was run by a man and his family and in addition to offering daily fabulous meals (thank God- it saved us from trying to find a eatable meal) it also offered cultural experiences such as calligraphy and Tai Chi. Karolina tried the latter and although she can appreciate it the slow moving pace and the fact it took over two hours made it quite a sleepy experience.
Yangshou is a small city with a beautiful countryside on its doorstep. The Karst cliff scenery was class. The best way to explore it was by bike and we spent hours cycling around the countryside. Despite a (useless) map we got totally lost but the beauty was definitely the experience of cycling through small villages without a clue where we were and having no way of finding out either as no one spoke English. It was so beautiful that we cancelled our plans to move on to the southwest. We decided that we wanted to explore this place thoroughly instead of rushing around and not really getting a feeling for the place! We visited Moon Hill, which is a whole in a mountain that we had to climb to reach with amazing views. Unfortunately we listened to a cute old lady selling post cards and went up higher up on the mountain. Due to a lot of rain it was a very muddy and slippy climb that was very dangerous. It was nice but definitely not worth the risk of falling! Martin was made pose for pictures with starstruck school girls, totally understandable on their part (not)!
We went to see Cormorant fishing on the recommendation of Big Six Mick, which is an ancient way of fishing with birds. These birds are tied to a fisherman’s bamboo boat. The birds have huge beaks and dive like mad and catch fish. The birds are tied around their necks so any attempt to swallow fails and the fisherman empties the birds catch into a basket. It sounds cruel and it is but we had to have faith in the fact that these birds get to eat some of their catch and it really was fascinating to see this spectacle as we cruised beside the fisherman on a boat at nighttime. It must be said too that the birds looked very healthy, it was in their interest to keep them that way!
Another amazing experience was cruising down the Li River on a bamboo raft. The karst peaks we were surrounded by while travelling up the Li river were nothing short of breathtaking. It was an hour long round trip that took in the main highlights of the Li River. The wonders we witnessed are reflected on the back of the RMB20 note. Greg and Sofie (Canada/France) accompanied us on this trip. After a false start where a lady threw us off the bus as the bus had reached it's legal limit and then preceded to tell us to wait outside the terminal for illegal pickup we set off around 11.
In Xingping we were joined by Rose from China and Chris from the UK. Although they initially seemed like an odd couple we were soon won over by Roses quick wit and Chris’s sarcasm. It turns out Chris is an author and he invited us to meet them at a cafe to give me his signed book. We ended up spending an afternoon at a cafe with them and had an enjoyable time with a lot of interesting conversations.
Bill Clinton had visited the "fishing village" near Xingping. So for an extra RMB40 we decided what is good enough for bill is good enough for us. However, the village itself was cute but disappointing but again we had another 1 hour round trip through this amazing landscape. Well worth it. Bill must have felt the same.
Karolina came ill meaning Martin had to entertain himself once again (remember Brazil!!). By foot the length and breath of Yangshuo was explored. In the farmers market M saw caged chickens, ducks, rabbits and dogs It was horrible and best forgotten. The night was complete after we watched the “Boy in Striped Pyjamas” (the book we read in Peru) with Sofie and Greg.
We left Yangshou with a tear in our eyes- we had had so much fun and felt we got a chance to experience the cultural aspect of China for real. We opted to take the train to Hong kong and this would prove to be very very different.
We had heard about Chinese trains but did not really know what to expect. Whatever it was there was no way we would have expected this: queing in line with A LOT of pushing Chinese people. They might be small but do they know how to use their elbows or what. Martin despite his size had no chance. We had opted for a 2nd class sleeping cabin which sleeps six. When we entered the cabin we could not believe the size of it- the beds were so tiny- in both width and length and they were three stories high. You need to be an acrobat to get to the top bunk- luckily Martin got the lowest one and Karolina the middle. We did not even dare to think about how we would have climbed to the top one....so phew. We of course shared the cabin and the whole carriage with Chinese people and no one could speak any English at all. This did not stop them from chatting to us and it was a bizarre, fun and different experience to hang out with these Chinese people in what felt like a tiny dolls house! We enjoyed it so much that we were kind of upset we never got to do more train rides in China....
We had a short stay in HK. We split up and window shopped for about 2 hours. K of course saw the best deals ever.
We headed over to kwan Lai fong for beers. Got very drunk on happy hour pint,shots and cocktails. New Zealand here we come….