22 May 2013

Josi's Top Ten: China

These were our top 10 things in China (in no particular order) – obviously, they are not the top 10 things to do necessarily and perhaps they just came at the right time in our journey for us to appreciate them, but nonetheless, these were our top 10:
  1. Yangshuo stunning scenery with bamboo rafting & cycling
  2. The Great Wall
  3. Wang’s Courtyard – near Pingyao
  4. Labrang Monastery – in Xiahe
  5. Cycling Xian city wall
  6. Meeting & “talking” to Tibetans
  7. Scenery from bus journeys in Gansu province
  8. Chengdu’s Sims Cosy Garden Hostel
  9. Seeing the “true Chinese” culture of the people in Songpan
  10. Sichuan dinner in Shinfang 123 – in Chongqing


21 May 2013

Hong Kong: Spend, spend, spend!

Our 10 hour bus journey from Yangshuo had turned into 14 hours and to add insult to injury we were told that the bus would not, after all, be able to take us all the way to the border – we would now have to take a local bus.  After being detained briefly at a Police Check Point, we continued to the border.  Getting stamped out of Chinese immigration was straightforward, and we then had to walk the no-man’s land (about 200m) to Hong Kong immigration.  This also went smoothly and 10 minutes later we were queuing for metro tickets to downtown Hong Kong.  This, however, was a frustrating process – the ticket machines, for which there was a long queue, took neither cards nor (for small transactions) bills of more than HK$20.  As the cash machine only dispensed HK$100 bills this was a bit of a catch 22, solved only by a quick detour to a conveniently located Starbucks.  You can buy something called an Octopus Card, similar to London’s Oyster Card, but this hardly seemed worth it given our short stay.

We had arranged to spend two nights with friends but our first night was in the fantastic *99 Bonham* Hotel.  This had only been open for 6 months, and, by Hong Kong standards, it was great value for money (but still a treat).  Well worth a look: www.99bonham.com

That evening we took the ferry over the harbour to Kowloon to meet two friends, Nicolette & Jon.  The ferry ride is probably the best value boat journey in the world.  Tickets are only 40p each and the reward is a terrific panorama of Central Hong Kong.  This is a spectacular sight at any time of day, but particularly in the dark.  The view from the restaurant was no less impressive – *Hutong* – is one of the best places to eat in Hong Kong.  Although expensive, the food is delicious and we enjoyed some of our favourite regional Chinese specialities – Mandarin fish in sweet sauce, sticky chicken, pork dumplings and chilli fried green beans. 

17 May 2013

Guilin & Yangshuo: Stunning scenery, boats & bicycles

The final leg of our 20 hour train ride from Chongqing to Guilin took us through the breathtakingly beautiful scenery of Guangxi.  This is arguably China’s most picturesque province, and it is no coincidence that a stretch of the Li River adorns the back of the 20 Yuan note.  This is instantly familiar to even the most unaccomplished of armchair travellers – wall hangings in Chinese restaurants the world over depict its towering limestone “kast” hills, shrouded in mist and rising sentry-like from an otherwise flat landscape of meandering river and paddy fields.

After the subdued look of most of China’s other countryside, it was a refreshing change to see such untamed nature.  Not even the Chinese could extend their rice terraces up the vertical sides of the great limestone towers, which were crowned with lush but inaccessible vegetation.

11 May 2013

Chongqing: Capitalism on steroids

If Chengdu is a mecca for malls, Chongqing is capitalism on steroids.  As we have become accustomed to, the city is in the midst of a construction boom – the skyline is littered with cranes and skyscrapers in various stages of development.  This growth has been relentless since 1997 when Chongqing became one of China’s “Special Economic Zones” with favourable tax and trade concessions. 

9 May 2013

Chengdu: Malls, Cinema & Hot Pot!

Having originally planned only a one night stop here before heading to Guilin via Chongqing, we immediately knew this would not be the case when we checked into the fantastic *Sim’s Cosy Garden Hostel*.  The hostel alone is worth staying on an extra night for, and as we began to explore the city we realised that it too has plenty to offer.  Having had something of a cultural overload recently we unashamedly decided to catch up on some eating and shopping therapy.  First stop was the enormous Wanda Plaza Mall, and more specifically the Haagan-Daaz and Zara outlets!  Bloated on commercialism, we bought tickets for the 9pm showing of Iron Man 3 at the 3D IMAX and then headed downtown for some sight-seeing.


Chengdu city is not big on sites and the principal monument is the ubiquitous large statue of Mao.  From his pedestal sandwiched between lanes of traffic, he reaches his arm out beseechingly.  But these days no-one pays any attention.  His appeal is superseded by that of the boutique shopping arcade, the facades of which reflect his corpulent figure – Cartier, Bulgari, Louis Vuitton and Tiffany’s to name but a few.

7 May 2013

Songpan: Daily life

The bus journey to Songpan was a welcome antidote to the drabness of Langmusi.  Climbing to nearly 4,000m this road, crossing the border between Gansu and Sichuan, passed through some of the most spectacular scenery we had seen in China so far.  Reminiscent of Mongolia, it stood out in China for one overwhelming reason – the lack of people.


Green steppe and hills stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions, except to the southwest where it terminated in snow-capped peaks.  Only gers (here square sided instead of round, as in Mongolia) and herds of yak dotted the landscape.  In places the galvanised fence which flanked the road on both sides had been pulled down, presumably by nomadic herdsmen who have crossed these plains for millennia. 

6 May 2013

Langmusi: A True Disappointment

The Lonely Planet Guidebook describes Langmusi as “an Amdo Tibetan village nestled among steep grassy meadows…a delightful place surrounded by countless red and white monastery buildings, flapping prayer flags and the mesmerising sound of monks chanting at twilight.”  This may have been true a few years ago, but now nothing could be further from the truth.  The grass meadows are rapidly giving way to a massive building project, and the mesmerising chant of monks, if it even exists, is drowned out many times over by the din of construction.  A toxic looking river clogged with litter writhes its way painfully through a network of concrete channels – so tamed into submission that it more resembles some tired circus animal.



4 May 2013

Xiahe: A glimpse of Tibet

Arriving by bus in Xiahe (there is no railway between here & Lanzhou) it was immediately apparent that we had crossed some invisible boundary into an altogether different part of China.  Gone were the Disney-like tourist villages and the coach loads of bewildered pensioners.  In their place was a dusty and weather beaten looking town fringed by brown hills and with a distinct chill in the air.  We loved it immediately. 

At an altitude of nearly 3,000m this is the North Eastern tip of the vast Tibetan Plateau.  It is also where secular Eastern China collides head on with the Buddhism of the West.  Or, put another way, it is a melting pot of Han Chinese (China’s largest ethnic group forming 92% of the nation), Tibetans and a smattering of Hui Chinese.  This ethnic mix is immediately apparent from just taking a walk down the street, where it sometimes felt more like Bolivia or Peru than China.  Tibetan women with long black plaited hair and trilby hats wear woollen shawls tied at the waist with colourful sashes or leather belts.  

1 May 2013

Xi'an: More than Terracotta Warriors

Xian is more than just Terracotta Warriors. With a much more lively and cosmopolitan feel than Beijing, it has at its centre the colourful and bustling Muslim Quarter.  This is the place to eat, teaming with barbecued street food.  Most popular are lamb kebabs (delicious with local flatbread), skewered squid, dried persimmons (a type of date), and, bizarrely enough, all manner of pork products.  Most stalls gave an option of take away or sit down in a small restaurant behind the grill.  Eating in on one occasion, we saw a small kitten (not more than a week old) hurrying nervously from the kitchen.  Thinking at first that one of the starters was escaping, we watched as it took refuge under our table.  It then immediately vomited on the floor and moved on.  Fortunately the cats verdict on the establishment was much harsher than our own, and we enjoyed a delicious meal of lamb kebabs, flatbread, and noodles with satay and chilli sauce.  Total cost 25 Yuan (~£2.50).