Friday, November 30, 2007

China - Chengdu and Emei Shan


After a 20h train ride we arrive in the Sichuan provincial capital of Chengdu, another sprawling Chinese metropolis. The midday heat is intense as we leave the train station and wait for a taxi. Our first attempt to find accommodation is not successful as the hostel is full. We take another taxi to Sam’s Guesthouse, a tour operator that also has accommodation available in apartment style rooms. The staff are very friendly and helpful and they understand a high level of English, which comes as a great relief.

Outside our accommodation there is a market selling all sorts of animal parts for consumption, but also a great little street vendor selling the most mouth watering dumplings. We eat several portions for breakfast each morning. Sichuan is famous for spicy food and everything is hot and spicy, really spicy. I enjoy that from time to time, but after a few days it becomes “sore”. We have to attempt to tell them that we do not want it that hot, which kind of works sometimes.

We take nice strolls around the city and the people’s park. Every evening Nuria goes for the obligatory massage and even tries “cupping”, which looked too painful for me…We hire some dodgy bikes from the guesthouse and explore slightly farther flung areas of the city. This included the Tibetan quarter, which was more run down than the rest of the city. On the Saturday evening we need a bit of a party, and in typical tourist fashion we go to the Irish pub and then another venue. Despite the surprising amount of westerners around we don’t really converse with anyone.

We organise a couple of tours out of Sam’s, which takes a while in the queue, as it is always full of tourists trying to get permits into Tibet. The first trip we go on is to the Giant Panda research centre to see these endangered animals. The reserve is more like a zoo just for pandas but very interesting nevertheless. There were even baby Pandas in incubators on display. When we finish the tour the rain starts, in fact it was a torrential downpour.


The next morning is an early start to get a bus the 150km from Chengdu to Emei Shan, where we are picked up at the side of the road by a local female tour guide. She helps us and shows us a couple of places and we end up with very reasonable accommodation in a nice budget hotel. It is a small village and we check out the shops and take a look around. We get up early again to take a walk around the sacred Buddhist mountain - Mount Emei, which is also a world heritage site. We take a bus up towards the summit to about 2500m, with the intention of climbing the last part and walking down, stopping at some of the 30 monasteries and Pagodas on the way. However, after a short hike up we realise the summit is covered in mist and the visibility is zero…so we didn’t quite make it to the top, but were at around 2900m of the 3099m. Fairly cold and damp in the clouds and the air is noticeably thinner at that altitude. We start the trek down and it is a mass of winding steps and small paths. It is also a Chinese holiday weekend and the

place is totally packed with Chinese tourists making the holy hike. We stop at various interesting temples and places along the way. About half way down we take a short Swiss style cable car ride above the pine forest. After more trekking we along the paths and over bridges and walkways we get to the bus station where we can get a lift back into the village. Pretty spectacular place, but way to busy for my liking.

We stay a second night in Emei Shan and try to recover after the day on the mountain. The next day we stroll around and then get a bus back to Chengdu. Somehow I have damaged my right knee walking down all the steps and am in a lot of pain the whole day. When we make it back to Chengdu I am having severe difficulties walking….Nuria opts to go for the daily massage and persuades me to try acupuncture on my knee. I am so scared of needles and have almost passed out on many occasions at the doctors, so was dreading it. We went to the usual massage parlour…well I hobbled there in great pain. With a manner of hand and feet signals, we managed to explain to them that firstly we wanted a pedicure and that then I required acupuncture for a wrecked knee and Nuria needed another massage. They came at me with the needles and I was shaking, gasping down deep breaths of air to try to calm down….they were laughing and smoking. Anyway, they stuck the needles into various pressure points around the knee and worked at it for more than an hour, burning incense to heat the needles. Afterwards I stood up, put the weight on the knee and walked out of there completely normal. No pain, no limping – I was completely healed. It was nothing short of a miracle and the best €2 I have ever spent.

The following day is our last in Chengdu, a town we have come to really adore for all the positive experiences here. We head for the large statue of Chairman Mao and the Science and technology museum which is situated behind him. We spend the rest of the day in there like 2 kids in a technology playground. It was such good fun to see the exhibitions and participate in all the rides and shows.

Late that night we stock up on noodles and head for the train station to catch the train to Xi’an. Another epic 18 hour train journey across China.

China - Guilin and Yangshuo

After around 14 hours on the train and 3 at the border we arrive in the southern Chinese city of Nanning. We have no plan but are tired from the journey. I try to enquire about onward tickets to Guilin as we are herded into the waiting lounge. The train we were on is in fact heading to Guilin, but we were unable to buy tickets in Vietnam. There is some confusion until I meet an American that speaks Chinese and after some translation, I am allowed out of the waiting room to go to the ticket desks. I step outside into the humidity to get my first experiences in China. I have less than 30 minutes to get money and onward tickets. After trying several ATM's it becomes clear that they do not accept foreign cards. I have some chinese yen that I changed from Vietnamese Dong on the train...let's hope it's enough. I push through the crowds of sweaty people milling around the train station and head for the ticket office. It's a complete mess, there are people everywhere and about 20 counters. Having no idea what anything means, I join a queue and hope for the best. No one speaks English, so armed with the Lonely Planet Guide opened at the "buying train tickets" section, I point, use some sort of sign language and show a map of Guilin. Success, I get 2 seats for the smae train we just got off, which leaves in errmm, 5 minutes!! I sprint back to the waiting lounge where Nuria is minding the luggage and we make a dash for the train. Another 5 hours and we roll into Guilin in the early evening of Saturday 4th Aug.

We spend a couple of nights there in quite a nice hotel booked for us by the tourist agency in the train station. Of course we were ripped off by local standards, but we were so wrecked that it was of little importance. It was Saturday night so after a brief rest we head out to one of the local discos. It is a bizarre experience consisting of blaring electro-pop music, flashing lights and too many lasers and loads of Chinese teenagers bopping around wasted and drinking beer out of shot glasses. There were two other western faced people there, so we were attracting attention. After they smoked all our cigarettes, we decided to leave.

The next day we spent sightseeing and looking around the shops. Everything is so huge in this city - the buildings, the shops... After a while we stop and I take a few pictures. Noticing that two Chinese guys are also taking pictures, I suggest to Nuria that we should move out of the way. However they motion for us to move back, and it dawns on me that they are actually yaking photographs of us!! We then oblige and let them have their pictures taken with us. Quite a bizarre scene. Anyway, afterwards we head for the highest peak in the city, a pinnacle with a lot of monasteries and museums around it. We climb to the top in the sweltering heat and admire the stunning views. The topography is similar to Halong Bay, but without the water. After wards we go and check out the padogas by the lake and stroll around as the sun fades. The food is nice and cheap and good quality. What is not good quality are the products. Nuria finds a nice pair of shoes for around €2 and eagerly buys them to wear. They don't even make it the 250m back to the hotel before breaking! Chinese quality, which will be the butt of many jokes to come.

The next morning we get up and take the local bus 3 hours to Yangshuo, the classic backpacker hang out. There is a lot to do there, so we let a Chimese dude rip us off for some tours, but manage to get the accomodation at a fairly reasonable price. The first evening is spent looking around the place and going for dinner. We stumble across an underground market selling all sorts of fake designer brands. I make the fatal mistake of asking the price of a T-shirt and am told it is €90. After laughing and saying that i'm completely not interested, she then wants to give me a 'serious' price. €20 and it's mine because I am the lucky customer, she needs my business and blah blah blah. Nuria starts laughing and the woman scoldingly questions 'are you laughing at me?', to which Nuria replies that she is actually laughing at me. I try to leave but the saleswoman blocks my way out and grabs me by the arm pulling me back into the shop - quite the heavy handed sales techniques. I manage to get out of the shop and the price is now down to €5. She screams at me to come back 'where are you going? Come back you crazy guy! €2! Are you crazy or what???' We were shocked at the display and it is the worst I have experienced in Asia to date...

The next day we decide to hire some bikes and go on a self designed tour. We head off out of teh city along the river and go exploring the surrounding countryside. After several hours it becomes too hot in the midday sun and we have to head back with headaches and tiredness. After some rest we get ready for our next excursion. From the dodgy tour guide (whom we never saw again), we had arranged tickets and transport to the famous 'Light Show'. A man arrived to pick us up in a cyclo and took us there in a trailer on the back of his bike, which took ages but at least we got there. The Light Show was a local show portraying how people had lived in the area several hundred years ago. The stage was the water and the mountainous backdrop was superbly lit up, and about 500 people and even some water buffalo were involved. We had heard great things, but our expectations were way surpassed by the beauty and the emotion behind this show.

The next day we had organised a cycle and rafting tour to go to the Black Budda caves for a mud bath. The tour guide organised us bicycles while he himself followed us on a motorbike. We were joined by two Italian filmakers (who were not making a film that day). We headed off and after about 1h we arrived at the river banks where we boarded a bamboo raft and placed the bikes on the back. We floated downstream with a 'captain' at the helm steering through weirs, which was very relaxing. After persuading the guy to take us for lunch we took a break near the caves and got ready. This was pretty scary as we climbed steeply down into the bowels of the earth banging our heads and limbs in the tight spaces, but at least it was cooler than outside which by this point in the day was like an oven. After quite some time we reached the mud pools and lay down in the cold mud. It was pretty disgusting, but supposedly healthy so we had to just grin and bear it. After trying to wash some of it off we continued with the guide to another part of the cave. After some clambering around we realised that the small chinese people in front of us were trying to squeeze through a hole about 40cm high and 40cm wide. No way we thought...we are never going get through that!! We truned around only to find that the guide had absconded and basically we were left to our own devices. However, it was just a matter of backtracking and finding our way out. We buy some pictures they have taked of us in the mud pools and make our way back to Yangshuo on the mountain bikes.

After the day trip we head into the town and grab a bite to eat with the Italians before making our way back to the hotel. That night we go into the town to experience the nightlife and meet a group of Chinese who are up for a party. Needless to say it gets pretty messy. One of them explains to us that we should consider going to Chengdu to see the pandas, because he is from there and seems very proud of the place. Our plan was to head to Xi'an, but let's see what happens. At this stage we are pretty much open to go anywhere.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Vietnam - Hanoi and Halong Bay

Upon arriving in Hanoi we are very tired from the journey and still slightly shocked by the crash. We take a taxi from the bus station to the old quarter and look for a decent hotel. The rest of the day we look around the markets areas in the small streets surrounding the hotel. The next day we hire a moped and drive to the train station. We try to get tickets to China, but are unsuccessful. Our passports are at the hotel and we need to show the visa to get the tickets. The hotel manager then organises the tickets for us, for a small fee of course. Anyway, at least it is arranged and we can leave on Friday evening, giving us 5 days to explore Hanoi and Halong Bay.

The following day we arrange to go on a 2 day boat cruise in Halog Bay. The minivan pickus up early and we drive 3.5 hrs to Haiphong harbour. The boat ride starts here and the next 4 hours are spent in the bay, seeing the hundreds of small island formations jutting up out of the water. It is a very beautiful place and easy to see why it is listed as a UNESCO heritage site. At lunchtime we stop at some floating houses where people live. There is even a small floating school for the kids. We have lucnch there with lots of local fish, which we see swimming around in nets beforehand. The boat then takes us to the "caves of heaven", a large underground cavern filled with stalagmites and stalagtites and lit up in different colours. It is very impressive. We expected it to be nice and cool in there, but it was not. Outside and inside was seems impossible to escape the oppressive heat in Vietnam. After the caves we sail on to the island of Cat Ba. After disembarking at the harbour, we still have to take a van to the main town, where we will stay the night. It is relaxing there and after dinner we stroll down the promenade. There are people selling all sorts of stuff and they even have cages full of scorpions. It's another early start the next day (getting fed up with these!) and we go back to the pier to take the boat back. The cruise lasts all morning and we stop off to swim for half an hour and refresh ourselves. Back at Haiphong we go for lunch and then take the minivan back to hanoi, an uneventful journey. Halong Bay was beautiful and we really enjoyed the short time there.

Back in Hanoi and back to the stress and smog of the city... We hire a moped again to get around. Nuria has got used to the traffic by now. She drives very well here and is very keen to zip around the streets. I drive sometimes, but it's easier to sit on the back and give directions. We get up early (again) and make our way to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, as it is only open in the morning. The whole complex consists of a museum, the presidential palace, houses and the mausoleum. The place is packed with Vietnamese people who come to pay their respects to "Uncle Ho". It is quite eerie as we walk through the chamber and observe his embalmed body in a glass tomb, guarded by soldiers dressed in white. Even though Ho died in 1969, his legend and his idealology lives on very strong in Vietnam. It is very interesting to learn about the history of Vietnam from within the country.

We are now on our last day in Vietnam (Fri 3rd Aug). After only 15 days here it seems too short, but we have seen and experienced a lot. The visa is running out and the train to China only leaves on Fridays or Tuesdays. Tonight we take the night train to Nanning in southern China, leaving Vietnam behind at the Friendship Pass.

Vietnam - Hue

We arrive in Hue after a very scenic bus ride along the coast from Hoi An. After a relaxing evening we get up very early to go and see the sights around this unique and very cultural city on the Perfume River. Our first stop is the citadel and the Imperial city and Forbidden Purple City within its walls. The buildings are stunning and we walk around discovering it in the heat and humidity of the early morning. Our next stop is the Royal Mausoleums of the 19th century Emperors Tu Duc, Gia Long and Minh Mang. An impressive array of buildings, lakes, gardens, sculptures, statues, tombs and temples. Another quick bus ride and we hop off at some old well kept gardens and then have lunch. Our last stop is the Thien Mu Padoga where we observe monks chanting and feel like we are trespassing in a holy place. The last part of the trip takes us back to Hue on a dragon boat along the Perfume River. This name is certainly not apt for the state of the river nowadays.

That night, although tired from all the sight seeing we manage to make it for a night out on the town, visiting some of Hue's bars and clubs (one called the DMZ). The next day is a late start and we hire a moped to get around the city like the locals. The traffic is hectic but it's all good fun if you just keep honking the horn and drive agressively. We visit the citadel at night and it is even more stunning than during the day, as it is lit up beautifully. On the way back we run out of petrol for the moped and the only petrol station we have seen was on the other side of the city. We look around desperately and wonder what we should do. A Vietnamese guy selling stuff on the pavement beside us starts laughing and we look around. He produces a litre of gasoline from under his table and asks if we would like to purchase it. We look at each other in disbelief as he saves us from pushing the moped across town. Incredible good luck!

On our final day in Hue we visit the Dong Ba market, a hectic place full of any type of food and junk you could possibly want to buy. The smells are intense at every turn and the locals heckle for your business. Afterwards we drive to the other end of the city to pay a quick visit to the Ho Chi Minh museum. It seemed fitting to do that here as he went to school here in his early days. It's a small museum, but very interesting.

After a lot of trouble trying to get bus or train tickets out of Hue, we manage to secure places on a sleeper bus heading to Hanoi that night. The journey should take about 12 hours. Of course the bus is delayed as every journey in Asia so far and we get away about 4 hours later than scheduled. The bus is an actual "sleeping bus" with beds for about 40 people. They are designed for local people though, and I don't really fit into the bed, making for an uncomfortable night's sleep. As I lie awake listening to music, I see Nuria is fast asleep. It's about 2am and I wish I could fall asleep too... Suddenly there is a huge thud as the bus impacts with something, then another one almost immediately afterwards. I sit up and know something bad is happening. The bus veers left and then right and Nuria sits upright and we grab on to each other. After carreering down the road and swerving all over the place, the bus comes to rest about 100m after the initial impact. The driver was incredibly lucky to maintain control over the vehicle. We are at the back of the bus and look out the window to see two dead water buffalo lying in the road bwhind us. People start to descend from the bus onto the dark road outside. The front of the bus is wrecked and the bumper is hanging off. There is a hole in one side and some of the lights are missing. As we wait for the police to come, we walk back to where the buffalo are lying. It is complete carnage, so we don't stay to look at it for long. At least they died instantly and did not suffer too much. The police arrive and tell the driver he is not to continue the journey, so we pull in to spend the night. After a while the police leave and the driver starts the engine and drives on with one light. After an epic journey we eventually arrive in Hanoi around 15h, only 9 hours later than scheduled.

Vietnam - Hoi An

The bus journey from Vientiane to Da Nang was incredibly long but not as uncomfortable as expected. After hanging around the bus station, we left a few hours later than expected. Arriving a the border around 4am we had to wait until it opened around 7.30am. After more waiting and standing in line for a while we left Laos and got stopped again about 1km further down the road at the Vietnamese checkpoint. It was fairly chaotic there and after filling out various forms we handed our passports over to be checked by immigration. There was some problem scanning Nuria's passport and she was escorted to a room behind the building. Of course I didn't know what was happening and just had to wait. After some intense questioning, it became clear that they knew a lot about Barcelona FC and the tone became more amicable and she was allowed to go. Shortly afterwards though our bags were removed from the bus and thoroughly searched. Eventually we were allowed to enter Vietnam more than 6 hours after arriving at the border. The journey continued and we arrived in Da Nang in the early evening. The place was totally non touristic and we stayed in one of the dirtiest hotels yet. The city didn't appeal to us much, but was a good insight into life in Vietnam. The next morning we visited the museum with the most Cham artefacts on display from that era. After walking around the city all afternoon it was time to depart for a nicer location: Hoi An, a small town about 1h south and near the beach.

We checked into a nice hotel near the old town and spent a few days relaxing. Hoi An is famous for it's tailors and getting good quality clothes made as a fraction of European prices. I got measured up for a suit and shirts, picked the material I wanted and came back to collect the clothes about 6 hours later. A perfect fit! Nuria got shoes made to order, another bargain. The next day I signed up to do the last diving of this trip. A day tour out to the beautiful Cham islands where I completed 2 dives of over 1h each. We had lunch on a lovely white sand beach and chilled out in hammocks between dives. Nuria spent the day at a traditional handicraft village and then shopping and cycling around the town. We also spent an afternoon on the beautiful beach of Cua Dai. The heat was intense and there was no respite by jumping in the water, which must have been over 30 degrees. A really nice place and only half an hour away by bicycle. The final morning was spent lazing about as the whole town was experiencing a power cut. No air con, no fans, no ATM's, no internet...nothing. We left after lunch and took a bus 3 hours north to Hue, near the former demilitarised zone that divided north and south Vietnam during the American war.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Laos - Vang Vieng to Vientiane

After a couple of days in Luang Prabang we caught a minibus heading south to Vang Vieng. The journey took around 7 hours as we snaked our way through the mountains and jungles of northern Laos. There were several stops en route to take in the scenery, eat at the village market stalls, and also so that the driver could deliver vegetables to some of his friends.

Vang Vieng is a small town consisting of only a few streets beside the river. The main attraction here is to float down the river in the inner tube of a tyre. Sounds simple enough. However, there are around 10 "bars" on the way down the river, each one with different swings and jumps. The whole event is basically a pub crawl, the difference being you float from one bar to the next instead of walking. We run into the Canadians and the Dutch from
the slow boat and 9 of us sign up to go the next day. In the morning we take a tuk-tuk a few km's out of town to the start. There are aerial runways and swings and people launching themselves into the murky water at every
available opportunity. Lao kids wait along the banks of the river and hold out long bamboo poles, so that people can grab on and then they pull them to shore. The organisers request about 30 cents per jump, or it's free if you buy a beer Lao or whiskey shot. After the first few stops it was obvious that this was going to be messy, as there were around 200 people on the river. Alcohol, jumping and a fast flowing river...the safety issues were
evident. There was a great party about half way down, so we ended up staying there longer than expected. On the last jump of the day I slipped off awkwardly and flopped into the water, losing my wrist watch in the muddy river. Anyway, we lost track of time and this meant that we
actually ended up floating down the river in the dark. After some uncertainrty we clambered out before arriving in Vang Vieng and got a lift back in a tuk tuk. Needless to say it was an early night.
The next day was spent recovering and relaxing and organising our escape. The bus ride to our next stop, the capital Vientiane, was about 3 hours. Hovever we decided it would be more adventurous to kayak most of the way. There was a tour group going the following day, so we arranged to go with them. The tuk tuk delivered us and the kayaks to the Namlik river, the starting point. Our bags and the driver would meet us at the other end and leave us at the fountain in the centre of Vientiane. It was a strenuous trip, paddling downstream and hurtling through a few class 4 rapids. The stop for lunch was fantastic, with the local guids providing a full on barbecue on the banks of the river. Afterwards a few jumps itnto the river to cool off and it was time to paddle again. We arrived in Vientiane around 17h, completely exhausted and aching all over. It was worth it though and the day had been a real adventure.
Vientiane is slightly dull and for a capital city there is not much happening. After a day and a half looking around we decide to move on. Our next stop is Vietnam, so we arrange tickets to Da Nang on a local bus. There are no luxury busses for this journey, so it will be 24h the hard way. No false impressions about how this journey will be...

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Thailand - Laos

We arranged to get picked up by minibus around lunchtime to leave Chiang Mai and travel 6 hours to the town of Chiang Khong on the Thai - Laos border. A pretty uneventful place, but we were stuck there for the night as we had to cross the river to the Laos side the following morning. On one side of the river the Thai authorities gave us our exit stamp. Then we clambered into a rickety old boat and crossed the river in about 5 minutes. There is no bridge, but if they get one it will make the crossing less interesting. Once at Huay Xoi on the Laos side of the river we go through the border formalities again and end up waiting around for a while. We have tickets for the slow boat to Luang Prabang in northern Laos, a two day boat journey along the scenic Mekong River. The transfer to the boat is interesting as they manage to pile about 9 of us with backpacks into the back of a pick up truck. The boat is supposed to leave at 11h and we are half an hour early. It is actually 12h by the time they eventually set sail, and everyone is sweltered in the heat. There are about 80 people on board with one toilet and a noisy engine. The boat meanders along the river at a very leisurely pace and the journey is uneventful. At aroud 18.30h we arrive at the village of Pak Beng, our resting place for the night which consists of guest houses and restaurants. We check into a clean hotel for about 2 Euros and head off for dinner with some of the people we met on the boat. The locals try to sell evryone opium and grass and are fairly annoying about it. They also tell us that it is another 9-10 hours to Luang Prabang. The tour company where we got the tickets told us 4 hours, so we are hoping for a good average of the two. We head out for dinner with some people from the boat. Without warning all the electricity goes off at 22h. We thought it was just temporary, but they actually shut down the generators at that time every night. The fan in the room obviously wouldn't work, so it was an uncomfortably hot night. For 2 Euros for a double room, it wasn't bad though.

The next morning they pack the boat with over 100 people. Just when you think it can't be possible to get more people on, they squeeze on an extra few. The boat leave around 10h and we again cruise gently down the Mekong. We arrive in Luang Prabang around 6.5 hours later, so everyone was happy. We check into a nice guest house and go out to the night market and then for dinner. The next day is spent wandering around the town to the Grand palace and various temples and Buddha statues. It's hotter than ever and the heat saps our energy very quickly, making for a lazy afternoon and evening.

There's not much happening here and the excursions are similar to Chiang Mai. We'll hang around for a few days and then travel down to Viang Vieng, the tubing hub of Laos.