Thursday 10th August, 2006 Sydney
Friday 11th August, 2006 Sydney (12 hr flight) to Shanghai
Saturday 12th August, 2006 Shanghai
Sunday 13th August, 2006 Shanghai
Monday 14th August, 2006 Shanghai (overnight train) to Beijing
Tuesday 15th August, 2006 Beijing
Wednesday 16th August, 2006 Beijing (Great Wall)
Thursday 17th August, 2006 Beijing (overnight train) toXian
Friday 18th August, 2006 Xian
Saturday 19th August, 2006 Xian
Sunday 20th August, 2006 Xian (fly) to Guilin (bus) to Yangshuo
Monday 21st August, 2006 Yangshuo
Tuesday 22nd August, 2006 Yangshou (bus) to Guilin
Wednesday 23rd August, 2006 Guilin (bus) to Guangzhou (hydrofoil) to Hong Kong
Thursday 24th August, 2006 Hong Kong
Friday 25th August, 2006 Hong Kong
Saturday 26th August, 2006 Hong Kong (9 hr flight) to
Sunday 27th August, 2006 Sydney
Thursday 10th August, 2006 Sydney
At three o’clock Angie drives us to Hamilton Station where we cross the road for our usual pre-holiday drink at SJ’s then board the train for Sydney. Arriving at 6pm we book into the Royal Exhibition Hotel in Surry Hills then have dinner across the road at another pub. No smoking in here so we sit at a pavement table for drinks even though it’s a bit chilly. We really should have an early night but we’re having such a good time that we don’t.
Friday 11th August, 2006 Sydney to Shanghai
This morning we wake to a clear blue sky which is always a good start to a holiday. As we’re getting dressed though, we see on the television that there have been attempted terrorist attacks in London on planes heading for the USA. We have no idea if this will affect our flight but we’ll just have to wait till we get to the airport. Crossing Chalmers Street to Central Station we just miss the airport train and spend a chilly fifteen minutes waiting for the next one to come at seven fifteen.
As we arrive at the international airport we see crews from Sydney television networks broadcasting live interviews and probably hoping to find the airport in pandemonium. Bad luck – no panic stricken passengers, no-one having hysterics, everything just as usual. Upstairs we meet Jillian and Eddy at the check-in counter and have a short wait to book in our bags and get our seat tickets. Instead of Qantas we’re flying China Eastern Airways which is a smaller plane so a bit of a disappointment. Obviously security is much stricter today and people flying to the States or the United Kingdom aren’t allowed any hand luggage except for their passports and wallets. Luckily for us, the same doesn’t apply for passengers going to Asia.
After a McDonald’s breakfast and a drink in the outdoor bar, we go through immigration. While we wait to board, we buy duty free grog and perfume then find that our plane has been delayed for two hours probably because of all the extra security. At last we take off with me (selfish) grabbing the only spare seats on the plane – four directly across the aisle from us. After too many drinks last night I can’t face alcohol or airplane food so I try to sleep as much as I can. Mark has two seats next to the window but wants to stay awake so he can sleep tonight in Shanghai. There’s not much for him to do though as China Eastern doesn’t have individual television screens and the movie showing half way down the plane stops and starts every few seconds – a crappy airline.
After ten hours flying we land at Shanghai’s airport at 10.30pm. Soon we’re out in the hot night air and in a taxi speeding towards the massive city of Shanghai that now has a population of almost nineteen million people. We’re driving on the right hand side of the road which always takes a while to get used to. The half hour drive is uneventful until we reach the river where our driver slows down so we can all get a better look at the fantastic city lights. The Pearl Tower is very spectacularly space-agey while buildings on both sides of the river are lit up with multi-coloured lights. After crossing the Huangpu River, which is actually an estuary of the famous Yangtze, we drive along the Bund then turn off after the Peace Hotel to our little street tucked away behind the main shopping area.
The Nanjing Hotel is a moderate hotel making up for its lack of character with its great position. We booked rooms on the internet weeks ago and have all the paperwork but of course we get blank stares when we turn up at the desk. The guy is obviously not impressed and gives us that ‘go away’ look. Nevertheless, we end up with nice rooms and we’re happy.
Even though it’s late we all need to eat so we head out into the street. It has lots of small cafes and open fronted shops with heaps of foot traffic and bicycles – really like it here. Now we head down to Nanjing Street just twenty metres from our hotel. This is supposed to be one of the busiest streets in the world and visited by 1.7 million people every day. As it’s midnight by this time, it’s not too busy but we’ll obviously experience the crowds in the next few days. As we get into the street Mark is approached by a guy who asks ‘do you want to be with girl in spa?’. Mark points to me and says ‘I’ll just ask my wife’ to which the guy does a quick about face and bolts.
Further on a young man standing outside one of the tall buildings coaxes us into a lift to the restaurant on the fifth floor. It looks expensive but we’re all starving and it’s too late to look around. A young waitress shows us to a table against a big window where Mark and Ed order sizzling beef and Jillian and I order pizzas. The beef comes out soon on sizzling hot plates but Jillian and I have to wait ‘a little long time’. When the pizzas finally arrive they’re more like big bread rolls but they fill the spot.
Time for bed at last.
Saturday 12th August, 2006 Shanghai
As usual I sleep okay but Mark is awake at 5.30am. Looking out our window which looks towards the river, we get out first day-time glimpse of Shanghai. The weather looks brilliant and should be a hot one.
After quick showers we decide to go out for a walk before we meet Jillian and Eddy. From our street we walk couple of streets east and come to a local area where people live off narrow laneways and lots of them are going about their morning ablutions outside their doorways. Some are cleaning their teeth, others are having a wash in communal sinks while old men are dozing in easy chairs. This is the China we wanted to see and we’ll come back later today.
At eight o’clock the four of us have breakfast across the road in an interesting local café – very Chinese with dark wooden tables and red paper lanterns. The front is open to the street which is full of activity with people shopping and riding bicycles. I don’t know why but a lot of locals seem to be wearing their pyjamas. Breakfast is spring rolls, wanton soup and pork and seafood steamed dumplings which come out in a stack of bamboo steamers. Ed is so excited this morning and loves it all.
Now it’s time to go and explore. We head first into Nanjing Street which is much busier this morning now that the shops are open. It seems to be Chinese capitalism gone mad and such a contrast to our interesting little street. Shanghai has a colourful history of opium, spices, gambling and prostitution but now most of it is modern and fashionable which basically means it’s lost a lot of its appeal. As we saw this morning though, we only need to venture a couple of streets off the main shopping areas and the old, traditional way of life still exists.
Setting off towards the river we cross a few chaotic intersections where uniformed traffic police wave us across the road. Near the famous old Peace Hotel we drop into a sex shop for a laugh then walk under the wide and busy Zhongshan Road to the river’s edge. This is the Bund area.
The Bund stretches for a mile along Zhongshan Road which itself runs beside the Huangpu River. What makes the Bund so amazing is its fifty-two very un-Chinese buildings. Gothic, Baroque, Art-Deco, Renaissance architectural styles were built here in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century mainly by the British. Actually it’s lucky they survived because by 1946 all the foreigners had been kicked out when Shanghai returned to Chinese rule. But then after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, a new open-door policy meant that government and foreign investment revived Shanghai as the financial centre that it is today.
Looking across the river to Pudong with its ultra-modern architecture and down along the Bund with its colonial architecture, it’s an incongruous sight. A statue of Chairman Mao sits near the water and we have our photos taken. We hang around here for a while watching all the activity – lots of Chinese tourists and all sorts of craft out on the river. The temperature and humidity is about the worst that we’ve experienced anywhere and with a mixture of smog and water vapour it’s difficult to see too far into the distance.
Eddie is hassled to buy a watch and he finally gives in after the watch guy stalks us half way down the river. While he’s choosing the one he wants, Jillian and Mark and I visit the Bund Museum. It’s set in a tiny picturesque place but the main attraction is the air-conditioning.
Because of the heat we try to find shade when we can and end up sitting in one of the vine covered shelters eating ice-creams next to local families. From here we cross to a pretty park with ponds and weeping willows to look for the Old City. This is another very local area with washing hanging out from the balconies overhead, fruit carts, men sewing on old hand-run machines and bicycles – love it.
Just next door is the entrance to Yu Gardens Bazaar but first we find a beautiful temple alive with worshippers burning bundles of joss sticks, bringing food offerings, lighting candles and praying before very elaborate images of the Chinese version of Buddha. We all sit out of the sun on the edge of the inner courtyard to watch all the goings on and to soak up the wonderful atmosphere.
From here we make our way into Yu Gardens. These gardens are four hundred years old and probably very beautiful, but disappointingly we can’t see a bloody thing for the thousands of tourists who aren’t here to see the gardens but to shop in the market. Also disappointingly the market looks suspiciously brand new and up-market – even a Starbucks in one of the supposedly ancient buildings. The pond in the middle is the best part but we can’t find anything I’ve picked out in the Lonely Planet and we can’t find anywhere to have a beer and we can’t be bothered buying any of the shit that’s for sale (I swear, it’s like a giant Go-Lo) so we leave.
Out in the street we look for another place in the Lonely Planet but can’t find that either. By now the heat is killing us so we hightail it back to Nanjing Street in a taxi. Here we find Mojo’s Café with outdoor seating under canvas awnings and, at last, cold beers. This is heaven even if we feel sorry for the beggars who we give money to anyway. We stay too long and all get a bit pissy so we decide to have an afternoon nap before meeting again at 5.30pm.
Our plan for tonight is to get to Frenchtown to see the famous Chinese acrobats but first we want to have a drink at the nostalgic old Peace Hotel down on the Bund. Built in the Gothic style, it was first opened as the Cathay Hotel in 1929.The exterior is very beautiful – granite with a copper-sheathed roof now aged to a deep green. As one of the most famous hotels in the world, it’s accommodated the rich and famous like Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw and even Noel Coward who finished writing ‘Private Lives’ right here.
The interior is cool and dimly lit with a very sepia feel – like stepping back in time. After a look around we catch the elevator twelve floors to the bar on the roof. The views are spectacular and the breeze keeps us cool while we order beers for the boys and margaritas for us girls. Night is slowly falling and the city is starting to light up in every direction.
Back down in the street it takes us ages to find a cab driver who understands enough English to get us to Frenchtown. This area is only a fifteen minute ride away but seems much different with lots of tree-lined streets and French architecture. Our driver drops us at the Jin Jiang Hotel which is just across the road from the Lyceum Theatre where the acrobats play every night. Well not tonight actually – what a bummer so we decide to drown our sorrows at a cute little bar called the Clou Bar.
We all sit at the bar and meet the friendly young waitresses. One of them tells Ed his fortune by reading his palm while another teaches us to say ‘wall eye knee’ meaning ‘I love you’ in Chinese. An Australian guy wearing a cap comes in and strikes up a conversation. His name is Michael and lives in Shanghai most of the year and obviously spends a lot of time at the Clou Bar. He’s a crashing bore so we make our escape. After walking along the smelliest street imaginable, we find another night spot called the Music Bar. It’s a dark place lit only with a few red neon lights and playing noisy dance music. It’s also empty so after one drink we decide to go back to the Clou Bar.
Unfortunately Michael is still here sucking up to the young bar girls. His cap is gone by now and he’s not only a bore but an ugly, bald nerd – probably has to live in Asia so he can get a shag. He latches onto me this time and keeps insisting that he show us some other hot night spots – no way mate – think he’s probably a pervert as well.
We finally make our second escape from Michael and get a taxi back to Nanjing Street. Across the street from the hotel we stop for a beer but Jillian and I are dead tired so the boys stay for a drink while we go to bed.
Sunday 13th August, 2006 Shanghai
Ed is sick today. He had an awful night throwing up or on the loo. He wants to sleep for a while longer so Mark, Jillian and I walk down to the Bund at 7.30am. Unbelievably, it is sweltering already.
In Nanjing Street elderly people are out doing tai chi, playing badminton and fan tai chi while couples are ballroom dancing down near the river. On the way back to the hotel we stop at McDonalds as much for the air-conditioning as the food.
Jillian goes up to stay with Ed while Mark and I go for another walk through the hutongs. It is even livelier than yesterday with people washing, chopping vegetables and meat, street barbers and more teeth cleaning. Mark stops in at a tiny barber shop to have his hair washed. There is a strange way of doing this. Mark sits in a chair in front of the mirror while the barber pours shampoo on top of his head from a squeeze bottle then soaps it up before taking him over to the basin to have it washed out. Next is the blow dry and Mark now looks especially poofy.
We cross to another alleyway where a small fruit and vegetable market is set up. While Mark has fun videoing some ladies, I buy grapes and a watermelon. I mime cutting the watermelon to the old man selling it so he brings out a big knife to chop it in half then insists I sit on a little stool in his shop to eat it. This is so much fun until the poor man upturns a flask of boiling water on to his foot. No harm done apparently.
Back at the hotel Ed has emerged but looks decidedly pale and sick. He wants to keep going though so we all set off for the Bund once again. Our plan is to get over to Pudong to visit the Oriental Pearl Tower and take the Bund Tunnel to get there. This very tacky touristy tunnel goes under the river and we find the entrance in a type of underground amusement hall. A glassed-in capsule carries us through the tunnel lit by psychedelic lights with flapping inflatable figures and a loud musical commentary – so bad it’s fun.
We pop out just near the Pearl Tower but it’s still a scorching walk to get there. Outside we buy cold drinks and take photos of the very impressive tower while being serenaded by deafening Britney Spears music. Apparently the Tower’s design is based on a romantic poem about a lute but its shape is definitely space-age. It was built in 1955 and is proudly the tallest tower in Asia and the third tallest in the world.
After buying our tickets we take a glassed-in lift a few floors up then line up for half an hour to get another lift to the observation deck. It’s hard to get to the windows because of all the Chinese tourists but eventually we get to see just how massive this city really is. The smog is so bad though we can’t see where it ends in any direction. More long lines and long waits to get back down so we decide to head back to the hotel instead of going over to the Hyatt. We wander down to the river but the tide is so low that the ferries wouldn’t be running and we can’t find them anyway so we grab a cab instead.
At the hotel Jillian and Ed go for a rest while Mark and I find a taxi to take us to the Yifu Theatre to watch a performance of Chinese opera. Apparently all Chinese opera is called Beijing Opera because that’s where it originated. The theatre is in an old building that’s been renovated inside and very red and ultra-modern. We buy the cheap $5 seats up the back – can’t imagine we’ll be staying for the whole performance. The costumes are spectacular but there doesn’t seem to be too much singing. Most of the time someone walks sideways across the stage in big white clog-looking shoes then there’s a bit of screeching and that’s it. After forty minutes we’ve seen enough – been there, done that, so we leave.
Not far from the theatre we find the weirdest ice cream parlour so we have to go in. Everyone is sitting in floral covered swing seats suspended from the ceiling with green tulle wrapped ropes – very kitsch but cute.
Another taxi takes us back to Nanjing Street where we find the loveliest upstairs room for a one hour foot massage for $14AUD. We lay back on comfy lounges while we have our feet soaked in a black liquid in wooden buckets then drink hot green tea and eat slices of watermelon while we have our massage. The atmosphere is wonderful – dark wooden ceiling, floor and furniture, potted bamboo, a fountain and Chinese paper lights.
Next door we just have time to do some internetting in a huge dark room packed with young people manically playing computer games – horrible place. Now it’s time to get back to our room to pack for our overnight train trip to Beijing tonight.
The four of us check out about five o‘clock while a doorman runs to the end of the street to hail down a taxi. In fifteen minutes we pull up at Shanghai’s busy railway station. From the underground carpark we catch an elevator to the area in front of the station. People are everywhere and most are sitting on the ground. We find the busy waiting room for our train and are lucky to get a place to sit. We take turns going to the shop to buy food and drinks for the train while the others mind the backpacks. We all buy loads of beer, chips, biscuits and coke – planning on a fun night.
Finally everyone is moving and we follow the crowd to the top of the stairs leading down to the platforms. We’re not sure of our platform number and I make the fatal mistake of asking a local for directions. I show a man our ticket and he happily points to the stairs so we cram in with the mob of people charging the train. At the bottom of the stairs we stop to show our tickets to one of the uniformed girls parked outside each carriage. She has a quick look and points to the other end of the train. We drag our gear past heaps of carriages till we find the one with the right number. Now this girl waves us away and points to the train on the next platform – oh shit. This is the wrong train and the right train is only a spit away but to get there we have to run all the way back to the stairs, up the stairs, along a corridor and down the next set of stairs. We run like maniacs and must look hilarious covered in heavy backpacks and bags of groceries bouncing from each hand – it’s the Amazing Race!
Tearing down the stairs to the right train, we’re just in time to see it slowly pulling out on its way to Beijing with our four empty berths. After getting over the realization that we’ve actually missed our train we make another dash for the ticket office to see if we can get on the ‘wrong’ train which is also about to leave. Madly asking people in railway uniforms we’re sent to Window 9 where the woman behind the glass waves us off to someone else who then sends us off to the ‘missed the train office’ or, as we prefer to call it, the ‘fuck up office’.
Of course by now even the ‘wrong’ train is on its merry way to Beijing so we’re hoping to get on the last train at 10pm. At the ‘fuck up office’ Jillian stands in line to get a refund on our tickets while Mark and Ed book new tickets. Jillian is having a hard time fighting off all the people trying to muscle their way to the front but it’s all such a joke by now that it’s funny. No luck with tickets for tonight so we’re here in Shanghai for another day.
Outside we sit around having a smoke while we piss ourselves laughing. We all look wrecks after our sprint with the luggage – dripping in sweat with me and Jillian sporting very attractive frizzy hairdos. No choice now but to head back to the Nanjing Hotel and hope we can get our rooms back.
The four of us laugh all the way in the taxi then get new rooms at the hotel before setting out to make the most of another night here in Shanghai. We’d missed out before on the interesting café across from the hotel so now we head for here now to cook skewers of squid, chicken, pork and eggplant over hot coals. From here we wander up Nanjing Street which is extra busy tonight. At an outdoor café we sit under umbrellas and watch the passing parade. Nearby is a fountain where large crowds have gathered to watch the water spouting up to the rhythm of loud classical music. The beers are two for one tonight so we all have too many while I also get a shoeshine. A funny night.
Monday 14th August, 2006 Shanghai (overnight train to Beijing)
After our big drinking session last night and because we haven’t got plans for today we have a lovely sleep-in till 9am. Mark and I have breakfast in a local café – no English menus so they just bring out things on trays so we can point to what we want. Mark has wanton soup and I have noodle soup with mushrooms – mine is disgusting so Mark eats it.
Out in Nanjing Street we catch a ride to one end of the street on a kiddie train – must be getting bored but lots of fun really. Now we decide to go back to the local alleyways where we find a ‘beauty parlour’ to get our hair washed. For next to nothing we have a one hour head massage as well. The young people working in here are very trendy or trying their hardest to be anyway. They’re playing loud modern Chinese music and seem genuinely happy to get some business.
Racing back to the hotel we meet Ed and Jillian and follow them towards the Bund to the Captain’s Guesthouse that they found this morning. It’s a true backpacker place and we wish we’d stayed here last night. On the rooftop café we lay around on cane lounges in the air-conditioning and order beers and pizzas.
After lunch we visit the nearby Pudong Bank right on the Bund. It has the most gorgeous interior – more like a church with marble columns and a frescoed domed ceiling. Ed and Jillian go off to find the fabulous massage place where Mark and I went yesterday while we grab a taxi to take us to the People’s Square and the Shanghai Museum.
As usual our driver has no idea what we’re talking about and drops us at an impressive building but which is definitely not the museum. Mark checks the map so we walk in the right general direction, we think. Along crowded sidewalks, under a highway, then over a highway we finally arrive at the People’s Park. It’s so hot – the sun is absolutely blazing and we can feel our skin burning and wet with sweat. We’re so happy to at last see the museum and make a beeline for the air-conditioning.
The museum was finished in 1996 and, for some reason, built to resemble an ancient, bronze, tripod cooking vessel. Its five floors have exhibits of beautiful jade, ceramics, sculptures, bronzes and paintings but all we can think of by now is to stay in here to have a break from the heat outside.
Once we cool down and have a good look around we walk over to Nanjing Street and get on the kiddie train again to get back down to our own little side street. After an ice cream each from a strange local place we go up to our room for a sleep before packing again for our second attempt at getting the overnight train to Beijing.
Tonight we don’t muck around going to the public lounge but head straight for the posh lounge. We even get great coffees and hot chocolates. And this time we find the right platform and in plenty of time. Our cabin is amazing – first class, darling. We have double bunks, a door, white sheets and pillows, piped music and reading lights. After a quick look at the dining car we have a few drinks in our cabin then have an early night.
Tuesday 15th August, 2006 Beijing
At seven o’clock we pull into the station in China’s capital, Beijing. All looking worse for wear, we put on our packs and grab our bags of leftover food to make our way through the station. We walk upwards along a wide corridor jammed with hundreds of other passengers to the heat and sunshine outside. Before us are hundreds more people, a huge television screen and Beijing’s skyline of modern buildings.
Within seconds, a taxi driver approaches us so we follow him to his van in a crowded small carpark. After realising he’s definitely trying to rip us off we set off on our own to find another taxi. A long line of them are outside the station but every time we try to get in one the driver shoos us away – what the hell? As we keep walking we realize we should be lined up with everyone else and that we’ve actually been cue jumping – sorry about that. Finally we get one and were soon speeding through the streets to our Gecko based hotel called the Home Inn. It’s a tall bright yellow building on the corner of a pretty tree-lined street. Across the road are a couple of open fronted shops selling fruit and vegetables and further along a few cafes and restaurants. I think we’ll like it here.
Inside the hotel, the foyer is busy with people checking in and out so we sit on some lounges to wait for our turn. Mark notices a young Chinese guy reading Gecko feedback forms and thinks he might be the leader for our trip. We’re soon told that our rooms won’t be ready till 10.30am so we have a couple of hours to kill. Leaving our packs in storage we walk down to McDonalds a few streets away. It’s nice to sit in the air-conditioning as the temperature is draining already.
Afterwards we find the Merry Mart which is an odd looking building with a massive communist style statue out front – two people dressed as workers looking forward with eyes fixed on a potentially bright future. I buy a red (very Chinese) umbrella to keep the sun off then bargain with a watch seller in the street. Mark and I buy six watches including a very tacky one with Chairman Mao waving at us or maybe giving us the finger. Jillian and Ed go off on their own while Mark and I stop for a drink at a small shop then walk back to the hotel. It’s still only 9.30am but our room is ready so we check in for a much needed shower. We try to ring Jillian and Ed to tell them to come back early but we can’t get through again.
Half an hour later they knock on our door and we’re soon off in a taxi headed for the Summer Palace. Our driver is a happy man who wants to learn some English words as well as teaching us some Chinese on the fifty minute trip to the other side of the city. Despite having a population of fifteen million it doesn’t seem as exciting as Shanghai. The roads are wide and modern and the city spread out and flat – looks boring and I’m losing interest fast.
At the Summer Palace we’re dropped off outside the gate which is busy with hoards of Chinese tourists. It’s sweltering waiting in line for our tickets so we’re glad to get inside which is a bit cooler under big shady trees. Jillian and I rent audio guides each which are supposed to start up every time we enter a different area. Sounds good but the information is too involved and boring anyway so I don’t bother much with mine. Jillian and Ed go off on their own and we plan to meet back at the main gate in a few hours. Mark and I walk over to Lake Kumjing then around the water’s edge. Lots of paddle boats are for hire down here and it looks nice out on the water.
The Summer Palace was first built during the Jin Dynasty between 1115 and 1234 AD but since then it’s burnt down and rebuilt. It’s a pretty maze of classical gardens, pavilions, bridges, towers and corridors. We try to keep in the shade as much as possible and finally buy a fan to keep cool. At one of the stalls I buy some bracelets and a lovely bigger fan as a souvenir while Mark goes off to buy some ice creams. We pay to climb up to the big pagoda then wander along tranquil winding paths overhung by dense trees and willows.
Some areas are over crowded but in a quieter section we find a pretty two storey tea house and stop for a rest. On the top floor we find a table and chairs on a verandah overlooking the lake where we order a beer for Mark and green tea and biscuits for me. The tea is thick with big green leaves so its fun to drink.
At two o’clock we meet Eddie and Jillian outside and find a taxi to take us back to our hotel. Instead of fifty minutes it takes an hour and instead of 60 Yuan it costs 158 Yuan. We’re sure he’s been driving us around in circles and Jillian is ready to strangle him by the time we get back.
We get dropped off opposite the hotel and buy pork skewers from a hole-in-the-wall place before finding the Happy Bar for beers and food. The Happy Bar is a true Western place which we sometimes really need when we’re somewhere so different – think we’ll be back tonight.
Back near our hotel we meet a friendly rickshaw rider who wants to take us on a one hour hutong tour for 100 Yuan – excellent. We pedal off down our shady street and in no time we’re in the midst of old China. He takes us to lots of different hutongs which are neighbourhoods of traditional courtyard residences joined by narrow alleyways. The oldest looking ones are the most interesting but our driver tells us ‘gone – Olympics’. Sadly the ones that are staying (‘this one good’ with a thumbs up) have been spruced up – the buildings all painted grey and the alleys paved. The wonderful old atmosphere has gone but this is what the Chinese government wants the tourists to see – apparently all is bright and beautiful in China.
Still, we see wonderful things – people sitting on chairs and old beds in the alleys, local shops and old men playing board games. We stop a few times to visit a traditional house, an interesting courtyard hotel and a carving museum. Mark also barters for a terracotta warrior that we don’t even want and I buy some postcards from a girl in the street.
Meanwhile we keep telling our driver that we have to go back to our hotel but he keeps laughing and taking us to one more place after another. As we get near our hotel he goes on and on about how he took us for one and a half hours and so we’ll have to pay him more. Not only that but he didn’t mean 100 Yuan for both of us but for each person. Our lovely friendly driver has turned into a monster and Mark chucks 150 Yuan at him and says ‘rack off’.
Back in our room we have a cool shower then a short rest until we meet the Gecko group at 6pm in the foyer. The young Chinese guy that Mark had seen this morning does turn out to be our leader – his name is something unpronounceable in Chinese so he calls himself Keith (great choice, what the?). He takes us all to the dining room where we introduce ourselves. Besides us and Eddie and Jillian, there’s Jess and Kerry (Australian sisters who’ve been living in England), Mary and Gary (honeymooners from England), Brad (Australian), Kristy (an Australian girl who’s been working in England) and Trish and Bec (also Australians and who’ve also been working in England and who also happen to be lesbians).
After a banquet dinner and after Keith gives us the trip rundown, Mark, Jillian, Ed and I race off to the Happy Bar for beers and to talk about our group. They all seem really nice so it should be a good trip. The Happy Bar has karaoke and after a few drinks we’re all up singing our hearts out. Tommy and Cindy are the sweet young people who work behind the bar and we promise to come back tomorrow night.
Before going to bed we all buy fruit from one of the stalls across the road. Keith has told us we need to buy lunch for tomorrow as we’re off to the Great Wall first thing in the morning.
Wednesday 16th August, 2006 Beijing (Great Wall)
Up at 5.30am to have breakfast in the downstairs dining room. The food is very Chinese and most of it unrecognizable so Mark and I just have tea and toast. At six o’clock we set off in a comfortable minivan for the 110 kilometres to the Great Wall. Apparently the van is often used for officials so we have a siren and a loud speaker so we can abuse the other drivers – hilarious.
Leaving Beijing behind we head towards the mountains through ugly forgettable towns and light industrial areas all seen through a film of thick smog. Our driver is talking on his mobile at the top of his voice and really giving someone an earful or maybe this is just the Chinese way of communicating.
Two hours later as hills line the horizon, we start winding our way upwards, making hair-raising overtaking moves on blind bends and rises – yes, this is still Asia. The sun is out by now but a haze still seems to prevail wherever we go in China. Despite this, the scenery is much prettier here with open cultivated fields and the occasional small town.
After another hour, we reach Simatai. Lonely Planet describes this section of the Great Wall as ‘not for the faint hearted’. Because this is a harder climb than some sections and because it’s three hours from Beijing as well, we shouldn’t see many people here at all. From the village where we leave the van, we can see part of the two thousand year old Wall high up above us and stretching far into the distance on both sides. No surprise that it’s one of the wonders of the world – apparently it can even be seen from outer space.
After a drink and a visit to the squat loo we all set off through the village. Crossing a small stream we start up a steep path that finally leads to hundreds of stone steps to the top. Of course, I’m the slowest but Mark is in no hurry anyway or so he says.
The others stop for a rest now and again but no sooner do we catch up with them they’re off again with me dragging along behind. A few local ladies are walking with us fanning away the perspiration which gives us some relief from the awful heat.
Finally we reach the Wall where we have unlimited views of the wall but I’m sorry to see that the direction we’re heading is all uphill. Watchtowers are placed about every half a kilometre and we plan to walk to Tower 8 – six more to go. In most parts the Wall is wide enough to not worry about falling off but the stairs are often dangerous. At each tower we stop for a drink and to cool down in the shade. Here the ladies fan us madly and my lady even insists on carrying my backpack.
At Tower 5 we stop at the top to have a birthday cake for Mary and Trish that Keith had carried all the way in a cardboard box. A baking sun beats down on us all and I’m thankful for my little red umbrella. After passing around the cake and singing Happy Birthday we set off again onwards and upwards.
Although the rest of us are melting, the Chinese ladies seem to be unaware of the heat and the climb – I think they do this every day. By now I’m not only having my pack carried and being fanned, but two ladies gently take an elbow each and guide me up the long stairway to the next tower – feel about a hundred. At long last we reach the last tower where the ladies are paid for their fanning and I buy a Great Wall book that I don’t want and Mark and Ed buy ‘I Climbed the Great Wall’ t-shirts. Now we head down a small track till we reach the chair lift that will take us almost to the village – great views and good to sit down.
The bus ride back to Beijing is quick mainly because I sleep most of the way. By the time we get there we’re starving so Jillian, Ed and Mark and I walk down to a café in our hotel street for beers, fried rice and chili beef. Sitting outside under umbrellas we have a lovely time watching the locals cycling past, some in their pyjamas – must get to the bottom of this.
Back at the Home Inn, Mark and I have a shower and a rest while Jillian and Ed go off on a hutong tour. At 6.30pm we meet the others outside then jump in taxis to take us to the Red Theatre to see ‘The Legend of Kung Fu’. The theatre is very modern and very red with a full house which happens every night.
‘The Legend of Kung Fu’ is about a young boy who dreams of becoming a Kung Fu master but has to overcome lots of temptations before he finally reaches enlightenment. The show is a mixture of jaw dropping acrobatics, ballet and martial arts. Some scenes are dream-like and some like the red fires of hell. The whole thing is spectacular and beautiful.
Later at the Happy Bar we’re too tired to stay long after a huge day.
Thursday 17th August, 2006 Beijing (overnight train) to Xian
Today we’re sightseeing in Beijing then catching the overnight train late this afternoon for Xian. Mark and I have breakfast in a local café near our hotel. We have mushroom soup and deep fried bread made in a wok-style cooker on the street. Because we’re leaving today we have to book out of our room and store our bags before meeting Keith and the others for our tour of the Forbidden City.
Arriving in taxis, we meet our guide called Minnie. She‘s a sweet girl who shows us around the Forbidden City. This has the Chinese name Gu Gong and is the very centre of Beijing. Its 9,999 buildings are dramatically surrounded by a deep moat and a high stone wall. Yellow is the dominant colour being the symbol of the royal family. It’s all very spectacular but just a monument really with not much atmosphere mainly because all the best bits are covered in scaffolding in preparation for the dreaded Olympics. We do visit the pretty garden area but the rest is big and boring.
Outside is the main entrance with a huge portrait of Chairman Mao watching over it all like Big Brother himself. China’s National five star red flag is flying from rows of tall masts and across the road is Tian’anman Square. This is the biggest central square in the world and is the actual entrance to the Forbidden City. It is also where, in 1989, the Tiananmen Square Massacre took place. Demonstrations led by students and intellectuals faced army tanks and infantry that were sent to crush the protest. Estimates of civilian deaths is 2,000–3,000.
Not really wanting to be in this place we go underground to get the subway into the city. Most of us are over shops and all of us want to find Pizza Hut which we find after a determined effort. After stuffing ourselves, Jillian, Ed, Mark and I get a taxi back to our hotel. Mark and I need to do some emailing so we try at the big hotel next door. For some reason hotmail doesn’t work so we give up on the idea.
With an hour to kill we wander around to a massage place that Jillian saw yesterday. We’re taken to a cool downstairs room with lots of massage beds but we‘re the only customers. A young girl and guy come in, turn on the tele and proceed to give us the lamest massages ever while watching an obvious Chinese soap opera. We both only get one side of our bodies done because they can’t see the tv from the other side.
Racing back to the hotel to pack, we soon meet the others to catch taxis to the station. After a short wait in the VIP lounge we all board the 4.50pm train for the overnight trip to Xian. We have hard sleepers this time with Mark and I sharing a cabin with a young Japanese couple and a Dutch guy called Roi. Roi is with a group who’ve traveled from Russia and on their way to Hong Kong. He’s a big friendly guy and we like him a lot.
Later we head for the dining car with Jillian and Ed. This is at the other end of the train which means a long and interesting walk through the packed carriages from our cabin. Our waitress is a uniformed horror we call Helga who hates us with a passion. We have a great time drinking and smoking – everyone is smoking, in fact, even Helga and the cooks.
Back in our cabin I take a sleeping pill and sit around with Mark and Roi and another Dutch guy having a chat. That’s the last thing I remember.
Friday 18th August, 2006 Xian
During the early hours, I wake up to realise that I can’t remember getting into bed. I can’t remember anything except for being woken by a little Chinese girl trying to get into my bed sometime in the night. I think she thought I was her mother and then ran away when she saw I wasn’t. I followed her down the carriage but she kept shooing me away.
When Mark wakes up he asks if I remember what happened. Apparently I was rambling on about Americans and American politics – saying to the Dutch man ’what’s the answer? – then my eyes rolled back and I passed out – very attractive. I don’t think Bacardi and sleeping pills mix – apparently made a total fool of myself. Roi is not making eye contact.
At 7.10am we pull into Xian railway station. According to the Lonely Planet, Xian is known as the eternal city and one of China’s six ‘ancient’ cities. It’s said to have good feng shui because it’s surrounded by water and hills but which we can’t see because of the pea soup air that’s even worse here.
From the station we all get taxis to the YMCA passing people doing their early morning tai chi and dancing in a big park. We pass through one of the gates in the old city wall where we’ll be going sometime this morning with the group.
After checking into our rooms (featureless but clean) we walk down to a Chinese fast food place with Jillian and Ed. Nothing breakfasty here so we end up with spicy chicken drumsticks, prawn things and spring rolls – cholesterol hell – hideous.
At 9.30am we all meet in the foyer then follow Keith through the modern but not unpleasant streets, past the Drum Tower then down to the City Wall. This was built by the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty in the fourteenth century and stands a magnificent twelve meters high, fourteen meters across the top and fourteen kilometers around.
At the top of the stairs we all pile into electric carts to take us to a small stone building where we hire a push bike each. For some reason unknown to me, the ‘thing to do’ in Xian is to cycle around the whole City Wall – ‘but why?’
Everyone takes off at a life and death pace with me (and so, poor Mark) straggling behind. Jillian and Ed, God love them, wait for us to catch up then the four of us stop at a little shady place for a soft drink before we take off again. I push on for another hundred metres but it’s so hot and the ground is so rough that I can’t be bothered and turn back. I’m sure Mark is relieved to get rid of me and he flies off to chase the others while I have a leisurely ride back.
Here I sit in the shade for a drink and to soak in the surroundings. The top of the wall is lined with flags and red Chinese lanterns and I quite enjoy my ‘alone’ time. What a bore to ride around the whole bloody thing – all same, same and in air grey and ugly with smog. Mark arrives back first after riding full pelt the whole way. After the others get back we walk down into the main shopping area then split up. Jillian, Ed, Mark and I head for McDonalds where we fill up on drinks, burgers and air-con – so hot out there now.
Back at the hotel, Mark and I try to do some emailing in a three storey internet place. In the tatty foyer we’re pointed to the next floor, where we’re pointed to the next floor where we’re told to go back to the foyer to buy an internet card – for fuck sake! We go back to our room instead.
This afternoon Keith had tried to talk us all into going to a dumpling banquet – expensive and we’ve all had enough of dumplings so most of us decide to go to the Muslim quarter. At 6.30pm we meet the girls in the lobby and walk to the Muslim area past the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower which are both lit up by strings of lights and look very spectacular. All the streets are alive with people and markets but the Muslim quarter is by far the best.
We walk through a food and souvenir market which we’ll come back to later before finding the interesting tree-lined streets of tuktuks, cafes and restaurants. A lot of food is being cooked on the street and Mark and Ed stop to buy meat on skewers. We like the look of a busy café and are shown upstairs to a big round table.
After an okay meal and good fun we split up. Mark and I spend an hour in the market and buy a couple of calligraphy paintings and two marble paper weights. On the way back to the hotel we buy five lovely fans and ten silk pillow cases – have lots of fun with the young salesgirl.
Saturday 19th August, 2006 Xian
This morning we’re off to see the Terracotta Warriors not far from the city. We have a quick breakfast at the horrible fast food place again because nothing else is open – getting fatter by the minute in China. At 7.30am we all meet in the lobby then board a mini bus for the one hour drive to the Warriors. Keith entertains us with conundrums that are very ‘sexy’ and we also meet Sandy, our Chinese guide. She’s a pretty sweet girl who explains the story of the Warriors in easy to understand English. She tells us that the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses are one of the most important archeological excavations of the 20th century. The Chinese are obviously very proud of this major tourist attraction.
Again the scenery is fugly but gets a bit greener and rural as we get closer to the site. Also again the sky is a fugly thick haze except that Keith tells us that it isn’t smog, just the time of year – yeah, right. From the huge carpark we have a fifteen minute walk to get to the main gate. We all follow Sandy into the massive building that houses Pit 1. There are three pits in all but this is the biggest. Here Sandy tells us more about its history.
Upon ascending the throne at the age of 13 (in 246 BC), Qin Shi Huang, later the first Emperor of all China, began work for his mausoleum which took 11 years to finish. Terracotta replicas of his whole army of men and horses were made to be buried with him. They lay buried for two centuries until a group of peasants found the site while digging for a well in 1974. Altogether over 7,000 pottery soldiers, horses, chariots, and weapons have been unearthed from the three pits. Only one warrior was found in tact and since then most have been restored to their former grandeur.
After visiting Pits 2 and 3 and a quick look in the museum, we watch a 360° film re-enacting the history. It’s been an amazing experience and almost too much to actually take in.
Heading back to the bus we’re all followed by hawkers selling warriors of all sizes. Mark and I buy a box of miniature warriors for a dollar – very cute.
At this stage I must comment on Keith. He’s a friendly guy with lots of enthusiasm but the problem is he’s Chinese. He sticks to the itinerary like his life depends on it and won’t budge to do anything different even if the rest of us want to. Mary has read about another place we could visit on the way back to Xian but Keith obviously doesn’t want to go there. Even though we all vote to stop he tells us that ‘someone’ (meaning him) doesn’t want to so we charge on to Xian where there’s nothing planned for the rest of the day. A definite cultural thing that is gradually pissing us all off.
By the time we get to the hotel, Jillian has a bad headache and just wants to lie down. Ed had noticed a hotel on the way in with a ‘buffet lunch’ sign so the three of us walk back down the busy street to the Hotel Royal Garden. It’s an up-market place with a big fancy dining room and hardly anyone here. For $8 AUD we get a fantastic buffet lunch with free beer. We stuff ourselves till we’re sick and Mark and Ed compare fat bellies. Before we leave the boys use the loo and Ed is so impressed that he takes photos – he’s a scream.
After a big lunch and a big day we sleep till 8pm then meet some of the crew in the foyer for our ‘big drinking night’ (Keith) at karaoke. Bec, Trish. Kristy, Kerry, Jess, Jillian, Ed and me and Mark follow Keith across the street to a every tacky and glitzy karaoke place. There’s a lot of them around here and we love the one next door called ‘The Half Past Eight and Friend Changing Club’. After catching a lift to the third floor we’re met by a lady in a blue satin evening gown. She takes us to a small supermarket-type place where we choose our booze. Young men in suits follow us around and only they are allowed to carry the shopping baskets and put the beer in them after we choose what we want. All very important and official.
Now we’re shown to our own karaoke room off a wide dark hallway leading off into other private karaoke rooms. The room is very plush but smells of body odour – not ours. For the next four hours we all sing daggy songs and have a ball.
Back at the hotel at 1pm Mark and I go back to Jillian and Ed’s room with more alcohol and blow smoke out the window. A late night.
Sunday 20th August, 2006 Xian (fly) to Guilin (bus) to Yangshuo
This morning we sleep till 10am. It’s raining. Mark goes to the bakery for cheese buns and croissants. I make tea but forget and use tap water. Jillian and Ed go off shopping then stop at McDonalds where a crazy man is exposing himself. They run away and think they’re being followed. Meanwhile Mark and I pack and check out at twelve o’clock.
Our aim this morning is to find the orphanage that Julie and Steve visited last year on their Intrepid trip. The four of us get a taxi to where we think the orphanage is but after an hour we give up. Mark doesn’t feel good about it anyway so he doesn’t want to keep looking.
Instead we get a taxi to the Royal Garden Hotel for another buffet lunch. At 2.30pm we meet the Gecko group and get a bus to the airport one hour away. We have two new people – James and Vicky who’ve been on another Gecko tour and are joining us for the rest of our tour. I try to make friends with Vicky but she’s in mourning for her old group and doesn’t want to know us so fuck her.
We fly out at 5.10pm for a one hour forty minute flight to Guilin. Arriving at Guilin at 7.10pm we have a forty five minute wait for our bus to arrive. Keith gives us a few more conundrums to solve as we sit on the steps outside the terminal. At last the bus arrives and we’re on our way to Yangshou.
After An hour drive in the dark we arrive in Yangshou at 9.30pm. Yangshuo is a small town in Guangxi Province surrounded by towering karst peaks and bordered on one side by the Li River even though we can’t see any of that at the moment. Chinese Street and West Street are the two main roads that run away from the water and form the central part of the town. The western area is on West Street and the pedestrian-only Xian Qian Street which runs between Chinese and West Street.
Our hotel, the Emperor Hotel, had good rooms in a great position in Xian Qian Street which is lined with cafes, bars and shops and busy with travellers even at this time of night – we love it here. We shower in fifteen minutes then walk to Monkey Janes rooftop café only a couple of minutes away for another of Keith’s ‘big drinking nights’.
Monkey Janes is a travellers’ favourite and we can see why. It sits on a rooftop in the middle of town with a great atmosphere. At a long candlelit table we order burritos and beers and have one of our best nights yet. Looking out into the distance it takes a while to work out the limestone karsts that surround the town and a huge one looming up right behind us – so close we could almost touch it. We can’t wait to see it in the morning.
Bed at 1am.
Monday 21st August, 2006 Yangshuo
After a good sleep we’re really looking forward to haning out here for the next few days. This morning we’re all going for a cycling trip through the karst scenery of the countryside out of town. Breakfast first and it’s lovely – sitting in the sunshine at a table almost on the street in the hotel cafe with Jillian and Ed.
Under a glorious clear blue sky – no smog here – we all walk to the end of West Street and get a good idea of the town on the way – so much to see and buy here – fantastic!
At the bike-hire place, bicycles are lined up and everyone is eagerly grabbing one. Everyone except for me, that is – I know I won’t be able to keep up but then I notice a beautiful red electric motorbike – a definite gift from above. I know Mark would much rather cycle but then he’d probably spend half the time waiting for me to catch up so he’s fine. I jump on the back and off we all go. A short distance across town we thread our way through a market then we’re out in the lush green countryside. For an hour we ride along good roads without too much traffic, stopping now and again in small villages or to take photos of rice paddies and water buffalo. At one spot local women are selling garlands of fresh flowers and conical hats so we buy both.
Finally turning off onto a bumpy track we bounce our way down to the river. It’s so peaceful here with only the sound of our little bike whirring away every few seconds. The sun is scorching as usual and for once the sky is clear and bright. The river looks very appealing but Keith isn’t happy about us going for a swim – mustn’t be a part of the itinerary.
Village people are down by the water and a mob of kids greet us with a whining ‘you want water gun?’ – cute at first but then we want to slap them. They’re hiring out long blue plastic tubes that you use to suck up water then fire at your friends. Mark and I get one and Mark has a great time drenching an old man in a boat on the river. The reason we’re here is to board bamboo rafts for a ride a kilometre or so downstream. Each raft has seats, an umbrella and a boatman who pushes us along with a long bamboo pole. The bicycles are loaded onto the back of the rafts while Keith rides our bike down to the pickup place.
‘Oh the serenity!’, as Ed says – picture postcard material with a glorious blue sky, limestone karsts, the tranquil river and emerald green rice fields. The mountains are piled up around us like pointed cones amongst flat verdant land. Ladies on their own bamboo rafts float up to us selling cold beer and coke from battered old eskies. Mark buys a beer for himself and one for our oarsman who gives it back to the lady and pockets the cash – just another way to make some extra money.
Twice we have to go over small weirs which is a lot of fun especially watching the others. We finally pull into the shore where the bikes are unloaded and we set off again for an hour ride through the countryside.
Now it’s time for lunch so we stop at an open air café with a tall bamboo roof at the base of Moon Hill. At the top of the hill is a great lump of rock with a round hole in its center. Looking at it from different angles it resembles either a new moon or a full moon, hence its name. You can climb up to it but luckily we’re going caving instead.
At three o’clock we all ride to Buddha Cave and stop on the way to look at Moon Hill from another angle. Ed has decided to ride back to Yangshou – caving is no novelty for a miner.
Inside the cave we’re fitted with plastic sandals and hard hats then follow a young guy who is to be our guide. He’s so annoying whistling the same tune over and over. There doesn’t seem to be any conservation rules with people touching the stalagmites and stalactites and even people smoking. The cave is good but we’ve seen much better in Thailand and Laos. At one point we have to climb down a ladder through a narrow gap and I give up. Jillian, Trish, Jess and Kerry don’t want to go on either so we decide to wait for the others to come back. They’re gone for ages and we think we can hear rats so we move back further towards the entrance. Trish is having a panic attack about the rat sounds so Jillian has to walk her out of the cave. When Mark and the rest finally come back Bec runs off to console Trish while the crew goes off in another direction to get down to the mud baths at the far bottom of the cave. I’d love to go but scared of getting claustrophobia so I take off for the entrance. After another hour they arrive back all wet from swimming in the mud baths. Mark loved the baths but there were so many people down there and more trying to get back up the ladders that they spent most of the time waiting around.
Mark, Jillian, Trish, Bec and me decide not to wait for the others but ride back to town now. We walk back through the village houses to pick up our bikes then take off for the one hour ride back. I’m so glad I didn’t get a bicycle – Mark and I can really enjoy the scenery along the way. People are working in the fields with a beautiful backdrop of the limestone hills. As we come closer to town I’m glad again that I’m not on a bicycle – very busy but the girls all handle it well.
By the time we have showers and meet Ed in the café on the street, the others are just getting back. Ed has made friends with a little Chinese boy. He’s very smart and very entertaining. After dinner, the four of us and Trish, Bec and Kristy meet Keith in the lobby. Tonight we’re going on a boat to watch the strange Chinese tradition of cormorant fishing. We follow him through the market and down to the river where a small motor boat is waiting. We head upstream for a while then stop while an old man on a bamboo raft pulls up alongside. He has three cormorants on board and uses a strong light to attract the fish to the surface of the water. The birds dive in, catch the fish then disgorge them into a cane basket on the raft. They can’t swallow the fish because of rings around the base of their necks. Apparently they get to eat when the fisherman has enough for himself and his family.
On a pebble beach on the far shore we all get off to get a better look at the birds and we each get to have one perched on our arms. Now it’s back to Yangshou and we take the fish with us to be cooked at a local restaurant. After a big day I don’t stay long but Mark stays up late playing pool with Brad and Keith.
Tuesday 22nd August, 2006 Yangshou (bus) to Guilin (overnight train) to Guangzhou
After a sleep in we meet Jillian and Ed at 8.30am then walk to Monkey Janes for breakfast. Now in the daylight we see the amazing views that we couldn’t see on our first night here. The sky is a bit misty today and the humidity high even this early. The sun soon burns off the mist and we have another gorgeous day in this lovely place.
For the rest of the morning we shop in the market to barter for two scarves, two painted boxes, four Chinese dressing gowns and two Chinese figurines. Lunch is in a lovely cool café where the tiniest old lady with a beaming toothless smile comes in with a basket of trinkets for sale. She’s irresistible so I buy a few bits and pieces we don’t even want – she must make a fortune with that face. Afterwards we shop for CD’s and name chops then have a massage for 35 Yuan in a cool dark room off the main street. Our feet are soaked in a wooden bucket filled with rose water followed by an excellent massage.
Now it‘s 1pm and time for our calligraphy lesson. We meet Ed in a small room in an alley near Monkey Janes – Jillian has gone to have her hair washed. The teacher is a nice man and very patient. We’re the only students and Ed is the naughty one – smoking in class. We‘re taught the letters first then whole words – go top to bottom, left to right, inside to outside.
Afterwards Mark picks up the name chops and goes to the bank while I buy two paintings (40 Y), a calligraphy mural (80 Y) and a bronze dragon (210Y). After packing and showers in Jillian and Ed’s room, we all have beers and order burritos in the café on the street. The burritos take forever and we have to eat them on the way to the bus at 5pm.
From Yangshou we drive back to Guilin and see the wonderful scenery that we’d missed out on in the dark two nights ago. We’re dropped at the busy train station where we have an interesting loo experience. A long stainless steel trough runs through all the cubicles which means if you’re downstream you get to eyeball everyone else’s toilet experience and if you’re upstream, they get to ogle your’s – don’t know which is worse.
On the train we’re squeezed into three cubicles with six bunks in each, three on either side. Jillian and Bec bravely take the top bunks (scarily high up) while Trish and I are in the middle with Ed and Mark on the bottom. We all spend hours in the dining car ordering food and beer before retiring for the long night’s journey to Guangzhou.
Wednesday 23rd August, 2006 Guangzhou (ferry) to Hong Kong
Guangzhou has a population of 6 million and is the third most populous city in China. Once known as Canton, Guangzhou is a busy port on the Pearl River located about 120km north-west of Hong Kong. It’s here where we stop about eight o’clock and transfer to a bus for a half hour drive to the ferry wharf.
The ferry is huge with the top floor almost empty. Ed finds a private room where we can smoke so Mark goes off to talk to the girls downstairs. For the next couple of hours, we head out into the South China Sea and finally pull into Kowloon about midday. Here we board another bus to take us to our guesthouse in Kowloon called Booth Lodge. Mark and I aren’t too impressed with this place mainly because it seems to be too far from the harbour and all the action. We decide to look around for somewhere closer for tomorrow night. But the biggest downside is that the Lodge is run by the Salvation Army which means NO ALCOHOL!
After unpacking, the four of us catch a double decker bus – modern and pristine – to downtown near Victoria Harbour. We find the Chungking Mansions which is an old backpacker institution and where we hope to book rooms for tomorrow. The ground floor is crowded with shops and cafes and people of all nationalities. It’s fantastically interesting but we have to line up for the tiny dodgy lift and the rooms in most of the guesthouses are cramped and also dodgy and the whole thing feels like a fire trap – we’ll look elsewhere.
Now we’re ready for a drink and run into Paddy Murphy’s Bar – a downstairs, dimly lit Irish Bar – cool from the humidity outside and just what we need. Later we look for more accommodation but it’s either extortionately expensive or more fire traps – forget it! Instead we look for somewhere to drink and end up in a fancy Japanese bar with the most gorgeous toilets we’ve ever seen.
We come back to Paddy’s for dinner and drinks with the girls because this is our last night with Gecko and Kristy is leaving later on a flight back to London. A shame to split up after all getting on so well.
Thursday 24th August, 2006 Hong Kong
Today Mark and I decide to check out Hong Kong Island. Another very modern double decker bus takes us down to the Harbour which we cross on one of the famous old Star Ferries. Here we find a bus to take us to the bottom of Victoria Peak where we catch the Peak Tram to the top. After looking at the views we have an expensive lunch in a beautiful old-style restaurant while the rain pours down outside our window.
Back down the hill on the tram we catch a taxi to the main shopping area. We wander around the markets in Hong Kong and ride the longest escalator in the world (a fib – really a series of escalators).
Hong Kong is a world away from the China we’ve seen for the last two weeks. Even though it was a British colony for almost a hundred years, it’s now owned and governed by China so I looked up why it’s so different.
Hong Kong became a crown colony in 1843 and was leased by Britain for 99 years, from1 July 1898 to 30 June 1997. In 1984 Britain and China signed an agreement called the Sino-British Joint Declaration for Hong Kong to become the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of “One Country Two Systems” policy that the socialist economic system in mainland China would not be practised in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong’s previous capitalist system and life-style would remain unchanged for at least 50 years, or until 2047. Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy in all matters except diplomatic affairs and national defence. So now we know.
To get back to Kowloon we find the underground train system and are surprised again how modern it all is compared to China. We get off just near our hotel and head back to the room for a rest. At six o’clock we meet Bec, Trish, Ed and Jillian in the foyer then all have dinner together in a nearby restaurant. We’ve heard about the nightly light show on at Victoria Harbour so we catch a bus down to the water. It’s raining again and apparently we’ve missed the show which was on at seven o’clock but we have lots of fun with the girls. They’re leaving in the morning so they have an early night while the four of us wander around Kowloon till we find Ned Kelly’s Bar. The room is packed but we get seats right in front of the jazz band who play Waltzing Matilda for us Aussies. Get very drunk – a taxi home in the rain.
25th August, 2006 Hong Kong
The weather looks better today so Mark and I plan to go back over to Hong Kong Island and get around to the Stanley Market. After breakfast on the balcony outside the dining room, we catch the train over to Hong Kong then a bus for the almost one hour trip to the other side of the island. As usual the bus is big and comfortable and we have great views from our top deck front seats. We cross the hilly interior then drive around the coast road at Repulse Bay to finally get off at Stanley. The sun is out by now and we find a lovely place overlooking the water to have a drink. Lunch is in a cute Italian café on the boardwalk then we wander around the market for an hour before getting a bus back to Hong Kong.
Back at the Lodge Mark and I ask to see someone in the Salvation Army office on the ground floor about donating money to one of their children’s charities. They don’t really have what we want but we ask them about some mentally disabled teenagers we’ve seen the last couple of days getting into a van outside. She tells us to check out Caritas which is in the building next door.
Caritas is a charitable organisation founded by the Catholic Diocese in July 1953. It started with relief and rehabilitation services to the poor after the Second World War and it’s now funded by the Hong Kong government and donations. Over the last few months we’ve put away $200AUD with Julie, Steve, Jillian and Ed to give to a children’s charity in memory of Mark’s mum, Margaret, who died in March. Margaret loved children so we call it The Maggie May Children’s Fund. We have a good feeling about Caritas the minute we meet Carmen, the lady who runs it. She’s a warm young woman who arranges to show us around tomorrow.
Tonight the four of us head back down to the harbour to watch the light show. It starts on time at seven o’clock and it’s all a bit daggy but the weather is warm and clear so it’s all quite wonderful. The harbour looks beautiful with all the buildings on both sides turning different colours in time to the music.
When Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese at midnight on the 1st July 1997 the last governor, Chris Patten, sailed out of Victoria Harbour on the royal yacht. It must have been an emotional sight.
Afterwards we try to get into the Hotel but the boys are wearing thongs so they won’t let us into the bar. Only thing left is to go back to the Ned Kelly bar for another night of music and too many drinks.
Saturday 26th August, 2006 Hong Kong (9 hr flight) to Sydney
Our last day in Hong Kong. Today is the best weather we’ve seen since we got here and we’re all happy to see the sunshine. This morning we meet Carmel at Caritas. She shows us around the bedrooms and the print shop where they make cards and pamphlets to help keep the place going then takes us to the dance class. About ten mentally handicapped young people are energetically learning rap dancing by a young local guy. He takes it all seriously and so do the class. They’re having a ball and obviously love showing off for us. After a few dances we take photos and Mark presents Carmel with the money and a certificate that Steve made up with Margaret’s photo on the front. A great experience for us and Margaret would be so proud.
Now we all head off across the main road to a quieter area. We find a gem market set up in an old shed where Mark and I buy fabulous souvenirs for a great bargain compared to the prices at the Stanley Market. Nearby we look into a Chinese temple then find a McDonalds at the bottom of a modern building. McDonalds is always a good find in Asia – guaranteed air-conditioning! While we’re eating, a crazy man runs up to us and screams ‘give me money!’ – scares the life out of us but then he just as quickly runs away.
Now we find a wonderful fruit and vegetable market near small open fronted shops selling live chickens and dead chickens and all parts of chickens. Rows of pig’s heads and pig’s trotters are hanging from hooks on the pavement and seafood shops have beautiful coloured fish for sale. We can even buy dried lizards. This area is next to the Temple Street market and a lot of the stalls are just opening. Jillian and I buy some cheap watches then we all spend an hour in a camera shop. Jillian and Ed buy a video camera and a mobile phone for Tam while Mark and I buy a video camera and an MP4 player each for Lauren and Angie.
At the Lodge Mark and I pack and store our bags in Ed and Jillian’s room then we find a posh hotel nearby for drinks and snacks before catching a taxi out to the airport on Lantau Island. The airport is very impressive and we evn find a bar where we can smoke.
At ten o’clock we board and fly out of Hong Kong for the ten hour trip home.
Sunday 27th August, 2006 Sydney
Land at 8am in Sydney and spend ages getting through customs. Then we wait ages for the idiot Happy Cabby to get his act together before giving up and hiring a car for the four of us to get home.
Cost (per person)
Gecko trip $990
Internal flight $175
Money $1 AUD = 6.13 Y