Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Beijing (Part II)

Saturday we'd planned for a lay-in and a lazy day. As things turned out we had neither. Our lay-in was spoiled by the lack of curtains in the room (stained glass windows are pretty but not effective). Our lazy day turned into a bit of a trial when we decided to follow a lonely planet tip for lunch only to find that the Beijing town planners had had other ideas. The street where the restaurant once stood is not there any more. So hot and tired after searching for a while we resorted to main street Beijing where we cooled off in an aircon mall.

Later that evening we stumbled upon a street food market, we didn't really fancy any of their delights though so headed for some more Peking duck at a posh place to treat ourselves. It was very tasty!

Sunday morning we were up early to visit a flea market we'd heard about which was nice, we could have spent a fortune but with a lack of funds and space in our rucksacks we managed to avoid any frivolous purchases.

To remove ourselves from temptation we caught a bus to the Temple of Heaven as we'd heard it was worth a visit. It is. The park surrounding it was great, full of local people enjoying a sunny Sunday afternoon. Dancing and playing they looked like they were having a lot of fun. We then caught a bus back to the hostel. The pubic transportation in Beijing is pretty dire at the moment, I pity any tourist coming here for the games they will be forced to use shady taxis a lot. We've just about got by with a lot of confusion at times.

We found a tasty Sichaun restaurant for dinner where we ate till we were bursting for a few pounds before an early night.

On Monday we were up early and on another bus this time to the Summer Palace. The summer playground of Emperors and princes in the Ming and Qin dynasties. The palace is more an elaborate series of ornamental gardens and buildings surrounding a lake enlarged to look like the West Lake in Hangzhou. It was hard to tell the similarities though as the polluted haze made it difficult to see from one side to the other. The parks and gardens were nice and the influences from the Forbidden city are obvious. To be honest though we're ready to move on and are both excited to get on the train tomorrow to Moscow.


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Beijing (Part I)

Our last stop in China and our longest. We're in Beijing now until Wednesday next week. Having spent Tuesday night on a train again we arrived here Wednesday morning an hour later than expected. We managed to find the bus to our hostel without too much difficulty although Anna did have to use some of her Chinese skills to ask directions from some friendly Police officers.

We'd decided to use Wednesday to catch up on a few chores, pick up our Trans-Siberian tickets etc. As it turned out both took much less time than expected. The ticket collection was far too simple. We shall see if things are ok next week! So with the chores out of the way and as we were already downtown we had a stroll through a park near Tiananmen Square before walking along the edge of the square itself which is enormous 400,000 sq metres to be precise! Bumped into the American lad we'd been to the Warriors with, he stands out in a crowd here with his ginger locks...

That evening we went to a restaurant recommended by the hostel where they serve authentic Peking Duck for a reasonable price. So we indulged in some fine dining before seriously cheap beers in the hostel.

Thursday morning saw us rise with the early birds, to get to the Forbidden city before the crowds arrived. It would appear the crowds had the same idea as they were there before us... Thankfully we could avoid them as they were herded through the centre of the city leaving us free to explore the side courtyards relatively alone. The Forbidden City is exactly what it says on the tin; a city within a city, off limits to the Public for 500 years and where the ruling classes seldom left. There are 9999.5 (Half a room less than the Jade Emperor's palace) rooms in the palace, needless to say we didn't visit them all, but we did get lost in the city for over 4 hours. We've since found out that the audio tour is narated in English by none other than Roger Moore, if we'd have known that we'd have gladly forked out the extra RMB40 for it!

We continued our exploration of Beijing by leaving the Forbidden City by its North gate and into Beihei Park to see the White Dagoba, before meandering round its huge lake to the Hou Hai bar area for afternoon refreshments. It was fun sitting watching the antics of the rickshaw drivers, sleeping, chatting, playing cards as we supped our beers. They all scattered when a boss like figure arrived complete with his walkie talkie...

So we decided to amble back through the dusty hutongs to the hostel. The hutongs are where daily life unfolds for millions of inhabitants of Beijing, these dusty cramped streets are thriving from dawn till well into the night. Many have no plumbing or power, its hard to imagine living like that in such a large city.

One of the major reasons for our visit to Beijing was to walk the Great Wall which we managed to do on Friday. We joined a group from the hostel in a minibus for the 1 hour drive to Mutianyu, a quiet section of the wall which has been somewhat restored. As we only had 4 hours to enjoy it we caught a chairlift to the wall itself, before walking along it for an hour and a half, past cool guardhouses dotted along its length. The sun was quite strong and before long we were both pink and sweaty from the exertion of walking up and down the inclines as the wall follows the contours of the mountains it sits on top of.

We met some really nice people on the trip and we even bumped into Alan an old friend of mine from Singapore who was there with his wife and daughter... Small World.

An unexpected finish was the metal tobbogan/luge down from the wall, which was a great end to our Wall visit, even if Anna did nearly break a Spanish bloke by ramming him...


Wednesday, May 21, 2008


On Sunday morning we joined the 3 English backpackers we'd met the night before and a Texan lad called either James or Paul, we never did figure his name out. The six of us were led by a Chinese guy called 'Bruce'. Bruce it turns out is an avid fan of the sit-com 'Friends'. So by the time we'd given a few tricky explanations of the meanings of such phrases as 'creepy pretzel vendor', "I'm a little turned on right now" and my personal favorite "He's a randy old goat" we'd arrived at the first stop for the day; Banpo village. Apparently of great archeological value as the first neolithic remains found in China, and as such is very interesting to them. We'd come to see the warriors though and were impatient to 'get down to business' (another of Bruce's translation problems).
Before we managed to get to the Warriors though we had the obligitory stop at somewhere trying to sell us something. This time it was the genuine counterfeit warror factory and outlet. Having taken photos and avoided purchasing a lifesize warrior for the price of a small car we left. Apparently shipping would have been no problem... I wasn't convinced.

The warrior site is immense, the rebuilt models line the first of the three pits that have been excavated so far. Many remain in tatters though awaiting their turn to be put back together. I'd always thought they had been discovered intact. How naive I am... From their reasearch the Chinese equivalents of Indiana Jones have deduced that the warriors were lined up in trenches in battle formation before being covered by huge timbers, fine matting and soil. It would appear the timbers rotted a long time ago and crushed the warriors below.

Its hard to imagine the effort that must have gone into creating such a vast quantity of figures, estimates suggest 10s of thousands were made over a 38 year period! Unfortunately, the Emperor Qin's tomb has not yet been explored for want of funds. Would be interesting to see what he has in there if he needed such an army to protect it...

We finished our tour with a meal fit for a King, between the six of us we still didn't manage to finish it all! Bruce left us at the hostel a more enlightened man, or at least his English has gained some more colloquialisms and we had learnt a lot about ancient Chinese history.

After such a tiring day we decided to have a quick wander around the Muslim quarter to sample some of the tasty snacks. We ended up with Kebab type things followed by an aniseed, soggy crouton filled, mutton soup, which was suprisingly very tasty.

Recharged the next morning, we hired bikes on top of the Xi'an city wall. The wall encircles the city and is over 600 years old. Although parts are newer and it has been recently renovated, it was still a bumpy hour and a half all the 14km round. We both really enjoyed the ride though! We're now a little pink though.

Later on we went in seek of the two famous pagodas of the Little and Big Wild Geese. We failed miserably with the Little Wild Goose one, as it shut before we managed to find it... So we went for food opposite before trying to catch a bus to the Big one. This was easier said than done. We found the correct Chinese characters on the timetable, counted the stops from where we were to where we were going, and boarded the bus. Paid too much for our tickets, counted stops, got off. Wrong place. Boarded a second bus, after checking how many more stops to go. Counted again, got off, wrong stop, reboarded the same bus much to amusement of the other passengers. Eventually got to the right stop. Decided to follow the crowds as there was a light show scheduled. When we got to the square in front of the Pagoda there was some sort of demonstration/rally going on, chanting and candle lights everywhere. So after skirting the crowds as best we could we managed to get a bit closer to the Pagoda, only to here the end of a count down in Chinese and everyone around us stopped still, so we stopped too. We think it was all to do with 3 days of National mourning for the deaths in the recent earthquake, but have no idea why the crowds or the chanting...

On Tuesday morning we went back to the Muslim quarter to pick up a single mini-warrior souvenir and some postcards before checking out of the hostel and heading for the station and Beijing.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Shanghai to Xi'an

The next morning we had breakfast in the park before stocking up on supplies at a local supermarket, which was more confusing than you'd think. Do these pot noddles come with a fork? Are they spicy? Really spicy? Neither of us knew but picked at random a purple and a red coloured box each. Luckily only one was mildly spicy...the other nearly blew our heads offAnyway, we managed to catch the train to Xi'an without any issues, arriving an hour or two before departure normally means that's the case. We have noticed a lot of the trains actually depart early!

We had the four berth compartment to ourselves for the evening so in between stops we ventured to the dining car. Lulled into a false sense of security after our previous good fortune on the train from HK to Shanghai. Sadly our experience wasn't as pleasant, although it was a lot more amusing. Especially for everyone around us.

We at first must have seemed reluctant as we hovered trying to figure out protocol. We eventually managed to find some seats opposite a non-plussed young man who smoked continually as he and we ate. Once our seats were secured we attempted to gain the serving girl's attention. Unluckily for us she spoke no English and after much mirth from the pistolled guard and his friend scurried off to find someone who did.

Our saviour then proceeded to question us; BEEF? CHICKEN? RICE?. We ordered one of each beef and chicken, and two rices, and being a bit bolder now asked for 2 beers. One beer arrived, I can only asume he misunderstood us, or drank the other. The food was good when it arrived and we scoffed it down, watched carefully by our now entourage of merry makers.

After an hour or so we'd had enough of the stares and the smokey atmosphere so headed back to the relative sanctity of the compartment. We managed to drift off to sleep while chatting, before being joined by two bewildered looking Chinese people staring at me as I awoke.

The girl who joined us left before we woke the next morning. The guy, however we determined though pidgin chat was going to Xi'an as well. A few more attempts at conversation left us feeling awkward for the next 6 or 7 hours before finally departing the train.

Our second over 20 hour train journey completed we arrived quite tired at the BackPax hostel in Xi'an. BackPax can only be described as a little odd. Its very well decorated and the staff are very friendly, but it still feels a bit like the luxury spa it once was. We've got a bath in our room next to the bed...

We did meet some nice sane English people in the bar, having had our plans to visit the Muslim Quarter washed out by a suprise thunderstorm. Off to see the Terracotta Army in the morning so early start.


Shanghai II

We arrived back in Shanghai on Thursday morning after some good fortune at Hangzhou meant we caught a much earlier train than expected. Having checked back into the Mingtown Etour (in the same room as before), we went to a proper local place for soup dumplings again. They've become a bit of an obsession.
Later that evening we headed to the "Captain's Hostel" for rooftop beers overlooking the Shanghai skyline at dusk. Another stroke of luck meant it was "Happy Hours". While quaffing our two for one big beers we got chatting to an American couple from Miami, and ended up going for dinner at a local restaurant, where the food was good and cheap.

We finished off the evening with a stroll back to the hostel having had a very successful day,


China and Blogger

Apologies for not replying to any comments but we can't see them at the moment. We can't actually view the page as a whole as China had blocked all access to .blogspot.com websites here. We can still post new items as www.blogger.com hasn't been blocked yet. I read it's something to do with the Olympics.


Thursday, May 15, 2008


We spent Tuesday and Wednesday in Hangzhou to the South West of Shanghai. We stayed at the sister hostel of the one we stayed in Shanghai and have to say it was really nice. We even had on demand TV and free wifi in the room as well as an en-suite. Not bad for less than 15 quid a night!.The hostel was in walking distance from 'West Lake' the main attraction in Hangzhou.

Once we'd sorted our accommodation we took a stroll along the tree lined paths fringing the lake. We watched the sunset and took loads of photos before seeking out somewhere to eat for over an hour before resorting to the place next door to the hostel. Typical! The food was good though.

Wednesday morning we were up at stupid o'clock thanks to the local Bin men. So we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast before borrowing a couple of tatty bikes from the hostel. We'd envisaged a nice peaceful peddle round the lake and across the large traffic-free causeway in the lake's centre. Sadly, since the Lonely planet was last updated all but one of the three causeways have become pedestrian only. Thanks to the tour groups I suspect, as the causeways were already crowded by the time we got there at 9.00am!

We ended up mostly on the road around the lake, which in parts was ok, in others positively dangerous. At one point Anna nearly got taken out by a tour bus that was trying to park in the cycle lane. A few other heart stopping moments meant we felt another trip to Dairy Queen was well justified.

In hindsight we had a lot of fun riding round the whole lake and would recommend it as a good way to see the sights. At the time it wasn't as relaxing as we'd imagined.

In the afternoon we took to the streets on foot this time. Heading to Wushan Square in search of food we stumbled accidentally on a tourist street. Very organised fun. There was a food section towards the end showcasing local snacks and street foods. Once we'd found a table to share with a bemused young Chinese couple I set off in hunter-gatherer role. I managed to secure us some tasty glutinous rice in a pineapple, some deep fried pasty looking things, spring rolls, and meat on sticks. Not bad I think you'd agree all for the princely sum of two pounds fifty.

The couple across the table were far more adventurous in their choices. Boiled duck head as well as a wing of some poor and now flightless bird. Both were an evil browny-red colour. Much to my amusement the girl took one bite of the duck head and spat it out making her boyfriend eat the rest. From his gestures I understood she'd found it a touch too spicy.

After a lazy afternoon we headed out for nice dinner and a couple of cheeky beers before an early night, ready for our return trip to Shanghai in the morning.



On Monday we caught the fast 'D' type train to Suzhou to see some of it's UNESCO World Heritage gardens. We expected there to be some sort of tourist info at the station, but were disappointed. Luckily we'd done our homework and the main Pagoda was easy to spot in the distance. So we chanced our hand and headed in its direction.

After a pretty unpleasant hike across the building site outside the station and in the road at times, we paid the entrance fee and had a quick wander round the Pagoda's grounds and associated temple. We must have been feeling energetic, despite the day before's treks round Shanghai, as we managed to climb to the fifth floor before turning around.

From our vantage point, and with a little bit of memorising of the map the previous night we figured out the way to the Humble Administrator's gardens. As we walked the streets to them it was obvious from the attention we received they don't get many independent travellers. Anna's blond hair continues to get plenty of stares from men and women alike.

We nearly missed the gardens due to some money confusion, thinking at first we hadn't enough to get in, then finding we had. I'm glad we did. Although I'd have preferred not to have had to share it with the megaphone led, matching capped hoards of tour groups. But as we're learning they're an integral part of the experience when travelling in China.

Having taken far too many pictures of bridges and flowers we wandered back to the station to catch our return train to Shanghai. I think the saying that Suzhou is heaven on earth is a great coup for the spin doctors of the place as it never felt like it to us. Maybe it'll be better when they finish it.


Monday, May 12, 2008


We arrived slightly disheveled in Shanghai an hour or so later than expected. We'd managed to sleep ok on the train despite the rocking and noise. We followed the scrum into the station and through immigration. We emerged into a larger scrum that engulfed the entire concourse outside the station. I'd expected crowds but these need to be seen to be believed.

We struggled through encumbered with our packs trying to find the ticket office to book our onward journey to Xi'an on Friday. We gave up when we discovered the queues at the advanced ticket booths. Disheartened, we headed for the hostel. Easier said than done. Chinese queuing is non-existent, and being the polite Brits we are it took a while even to secure underground tickets!

After a relatively short trip on the underground we found the Mingtown Etour Hostel quite easily. It's a pleasant oasis from the crowds of the city. The beer's cheap too!

Monday morning, we took an early morning stroll to 'The Bund', a river side park overlooking the Central business district, which is full of futuristic skyscrapers and weird looking buildings... On the way there we were bombarded by requests to come look at watches, shoes, DVDs and bags. Once on the Bund this list expanded to include; kites, heel rollers, squishy pigs and more kites.

Bored of all the attention we hit the back streets for a bit before trying to hide in one of the millions of local tour groups. Unfortunately we didn't have a colour coded cap, so we were again easily spotted on Nanjing Road (Shanghai's equivalent of Oxford St.)

After a brief respite in the hostel we again ventured out for dinner on one of the nearby 'Food Streets'. We'd found a couple of recommended places and picked one at random. We were escorted to a mezzanine table overlooking a wedding party below.

The Chinese it seems avoid expense by having all-in-one weddings, ceremony and reception are rolled into one in a restaurant. I'd experienced one Chinese wedding before when my friend Cher Ming got married a year ago, so I was slightly prepared for the spectacle unfolding below us, but not completely!

There were bouts of groom singing to bride, bride singing to groom, (both almost inaudible over their guests constant chatter), multiple changes of outfit for the bride after each portion of the ceremony/comedy. Then there was the tack; pouring of dayglow liquid into a tube that spelled 'Our Love', followed by popping balloons with glitter in, concluded with a display of joined candles that when lit spelled 'Love' the fuse then continued on to fire off some indoor fireworks better suited to a Queen concert...

All in all a smoke filled, entertaining evening for us. The food was pretty good too!

Sunday morning we enjoyed the breakfast buffet at the hostel before heading out to follow a walking tour of the French Concession, which meandered half way round the south west of Shanghai.

We walked for what seemed like 50km but was probably closer to 10km! Following back streets and byways we managed to avoid most of the 'looky looky' people. By mid afternoon we were pretty tired so decided to seek out the famous soup dumplings in what can only be described as 'Tourist hell'. (We didn't realise the restaurant we were seeking was there until it was too late and we were sucked in). The dumplings were pretty good though.


Friday, May 9, 2008

Hong Kong

We arrived at Hong Kong airport around 9pm on Sunday and caught the airport express train to Kowloon. It's strange to think the next time we get on a plane we'll be in Europe. Anna's brother's friend Steve had agreed to put us up for a few days.

Unfortunately we had a bit of confusion with the taxi driver on the way to his place. Understandable when later we found there are several hotels/apartment blocks all named similiarly, each containing variations on Harbour/View/Front/Suite & Hotel. Eventually we found Steve's apartment/suite and were made to feel at home..

The following morning we decided to start with the typical tourist sights and caught the famous 'Star Ferry' to Hong Kong Island. We wandered around the Central district for a while before grabbing a bite in a wanton noodle shop. Biggest wantons I've ever seen, they were huge and cheap!

Later that afternoon we took the funicular railway up to Victoria Peak to check out the view, which was good if a little hazy. We followed this up with a trip to Mong Kok to see the street markets in particular Temple Street Night Market. It was a touch difficult to check out what was on offer while trying to avoid the 'you wan' copy watch/handbag' brigade which constantly harass you. We had a cantonese dinner on the street before being washed out by the shower that had threatened all day.

On Tuesday, we did a walking tour around the west of Central which was interesting, especially seeing the dried geckos and frogs on offer alongside other more indistinguishable fare. After a nice dim sum lunch we rode the express bus to the south end of HK Island to Stanley, which could literaly be anywhere on the south coast of England. Only nicer.

On Wednesday we ventured a bit further afield to Lantau Island to see the 'Big Buddah' and he was definitley big.. No question about it. Nice rides on the cable cars both ways as we were too lazy to walk up... Then last night we followed Steve's advice to have a night at the races. As it turned out it was a great recommendation and one we would pass on to anyone visiting HK. Wednesday nights at Happy Valley are great value for money (less than a quid each to get in). The atmosphere was great. We even won a bit of cash, which paid for a couple of beers and a slap up dinner!

We're on the train now heading to Shanghai only another 20 hours to go...


Saturday, May 3, 2008

Leaving at last!

We've said most of our goodbyes now. Yesterday was my last working day for the next six months. The past couple of weeks have been a massive blur of preparations and last minute errands. We're both a bit sad to be leaving but at the same time are ridiculously excited to finally be on our way. An odd situation to be in. The last few days have been more than a little surreal, but I'll elaborate on those on another occasion....

Our first flight of the trip, tomorrow, will take us to Hong Kong; our gateway to China. We'll be staying with a friend of Anna's brother. (The first of many friends, relatives and half acquaintances we'll be imposing on during our trip. We hope we won't impose too much!)

We're planning on one last Roti-Prata before Chris (my oldest friend here and ex-house/team mate) picks us up to take us to the airport around 1pm. We're both sitting here trying to remember what we've forgotten to print/buy/pack/send back getting steadily more excited!

Hong Kong here we come!