A Travellerspoint blog

Friends and family far from home

Last days in China - Guangzhou and Hong Kong

sunny 30 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

"So what is your best advice for someone who's going travelling?" Three months into to our trip, you would think that the answer would come easily. The question has been asked by Elizabeth, friend and flatmate of Grant's cousin Abigail, who's about to embark on a long trip around China after having worked in Hong Kong. Unable to mention one single piece of advice, we mention the importance of allowing yourself days off, not trying to do everything, getting recommendations from other travellers... Until the most important advice suddenly dawns on us - of course, there's one thing that makes more of a difference than anything else: "Let everyone know where you are going travelling and ask if they know anyone in these places. Try to meet up with friends and friends of friends wherever you can - nothing beats meeting up with "a local"."

In the last few days, we have been very true to our own advice. Throughout our last days in China and Hong Kong, we have managed to meet many old and new friends which has resulted in many more highlights to add to our trip.

Meeting the Poe-Gorman family in Guangzhou

We knew that we would like Mike and Jean - as they are good friends to our top pal Olga, so anything else would have been surprising. Having taken the overnight train from Guilin, we arrived in Guangzhou early morning and took at taxi to the compound where Mike and Jean  and their two kids, Jacksan and Malena, live. We were met by Jean who took us to their house which was fantastic - spacious and beautiful,  and situated in the quietest and cleanest place we've seen in China. The first thing Jean got us was some tea and home made bread, which was simply delicious. Anybody who's been travelling knows how difficult it can be to find good bread! As if that wasn't enough, we had some home-made dumplings for lunch - easily the best we've had - ever!

After lunch we went into central Guangzhou. It's a truly huge city and due to the heavy rain we only covered a tiny part. It was however obvious that this is a booming city with much more money than other places we've been to in China. Following a recommendation from Jean, we visited a furniture shop selling both antique and new furniture, which is very popular with the expat community in Guangzhou. The owner gave us plenty of time to look around, even though we arrived just after closing time. The shop was full of beautiful antiques - unfortunately the freight of any purchased items would quickly more than double the price so we left emptyhanded, but it was nonetheless a great stop (and maybe one day...).

Back at Jean and Mike's house we got to meet Mike, Jacksan and Malena. Jacksan (who kindly let us sleep in his room) and Malena are both incredibly charming little people, full of energy and and it's impossible not to laugh when you're with them. Mike works for the US state department at the consulate in Guangzhou and Jean works as a banking consultant. We had a really nice evening with the family, great dinner and nice chat and we so enjoyed being in a nice home for a change (as opposed to all the hostels and hotels). It was great hearing about Mike and Jean's experiences as a diplomat family in Honduras and now Guangzhou  - we can only hope we can go and visit them at their next posting too! Before then however, we hope that their travels will bring them to Sweden.

Grant with Jacksan who kindly lent us his room!

Dinner with Jean and Mike

The next morning we were off early to take the train to "Asia's World City" - Hong Kong.

On the train to Hong Kong

Hong Kong

No sooner had the train pulled in at the station than we could feel that this was something very, very different. While Hong Kong might have been returned to China in 1997, it is by no means like China. It's clean, calmer, quieter (but not necessarily calm or quiet), hardly any noises of spitting, and there is such a thing as personal space here.  Another big difference is the people. While the population in the places we'd visited in China is quite homogenous, Hong Kong is a true melting pot. In addition to Chinese and Cantonese, there are Westerners, Indians, Nepalese, Arabs, Africans... Which just makes it such an exciting place.  Hong Kong really feels like its slogan - a world city. Walking the streets of SoHo in Hong Kong island, you can have food from all the corners of the world, and newsagents sell publications from everywhere. And that's perhaps the most important difference - there is still freedom in Hong Kong. No censorship, nothing blocked on google, Facebook works,  and you can buy the Economist and feel like you're in touch with current affairs again.

The Hong Kongers are guaranteed to keep this freedom though the "One country, two systems" arrangement, until 2047, i.e. 50 years after the handover. Who knows what then will happen; it all depends on what direction mainland China is taking. It is obvious that the freedom is pivotal for Hong Kong's wealth and vibrancy. Without freedom, Hong Kong simply wouldn't be Hong Kong. Guess you've realised by now that we like the place. A lot.

Exciting sightseeing around Hong Kong 

This item strangely did not make the cut

Humidity, anyone?

A lot of hills in Hong Kong, luckily the "travellators" (like conveyor belts) do the work for you

As mentioned, Hong Kong would mean a very social few days. However, the first meeting was not even planned. After our arrival and check in our hostel in Tsim Sha Tsui, we did a bit of sight seeing in HK island before heading back for some afternoon tea at the famous Peninsula hotel. 

The Peninsula - it's tea time!

In the queue Helena suddenly recognised Michaela, a former colleague from the Swedish Foreign Ministry. Michaela is posted in Pyongyang but was in Hong Kong over the week-end to visit her colleague Amelie, who works for the consulate general in Hong Kong. Having chatted all the way to our turn, we decided to have tea together. It was  massively interesting to hear about Swedish expat life in Hong Kong AND Pyongyang!

Afternoon tea at the Peninsula

The tea was a real highlight and we're glad we treated ourselves to this rare luxury -  delicious scones and cakes, a live orchestra, a beautiful restaurant... What more could you possibly ask for?

After tea we only had a few hours to get our appetite going for our next meal - dinner with Grant's cousin Abigail and her friends. Lecturing at Hong Kong university, Abigail has been in Hong Kong for about a year and will stay for another year. She clearly likes it here and it is easy to see why. In addition to enjoying the perks of being in Hong Kong, she also manages to spend time with her father's family. Between hard work and a busy social life, she's also managing to study Cantonese and impressed us greatly by ordering in Cantonese at the restaurant!

With us at dinner were boyfriend Robert and friends/flat mates Elizabeth and Bill who also lecture at the university. Just like Abigail, they're Yale graduates and scholars. We had a great evening with them and it is obvious that there are many reasons why Abigail is having a great time here.

Dinner with Abigail, Robert, Bill and Elizabeth at a great Indonesian restaurant

The next morning we took a bus to Aberdeen Harbour. The days are over when the harbour was full of "boat people" living their lives on the boats, but there are still some houseboats and there is plenty going on. We took a tour around the harbour with a nice lady in her sampan which also is her home.  Her husband is a fisherman who's off for months at the time but our friend didn't seem to be lonely. During our half hour tour she pointed to two of her sisters, who also live in the harbour.

She explained that after a big fire around 30 years ago, many of the boat people were moved into apartment complexes by the local government, and pointed to some tall, pink buildings overlooking the harbour.

Our guide and the owner of the boat

The kitsch interior of the sampan

[i]Many of the people previously living on boats, now live in these buildings

A tour around the harbour really shows that it is bustling with life. There are fishing boats, kitchen boats that cook for the fishermen, repair boats, boats that sell fresh water, and plenty of houseboats. We saw lots of lovely dogs and learnt that most boats have one for security. Our guide knew exactly who had the biggest boat, how many people lived in the different boats and who had the best domestic appliances on their boats. We assume that there are very few secrets within the harbour.

Aberdeen Harbour also hosts the yacht club, which makes for a pretty stark contrast to the distinctly simpler houseboats. When we went passed the huge boats in our little one, we could see young men tidying and cleaning the ships. Our guide was a good source of information also here "That boat costs 70 million Hong Kong dollars!", she said, pointing to a beast of a boat. Hopefully the owners have the time to enjoy them.

The Yacht Club in Aberdeen Harbour

One of many boat dogs

The famous floating restaurant "Jumbo"...

...and its less impressive rear

It was very cool to go around the harbour in the boat and fascinating to see that there is still lots going on, although it's not as busy with houseboats as it used to be. Before continuing our sightseeing, we had a quick look at the fish market.

Fish market in Aberdeen Harbour

Next we took a bus to Stanley. On the way there we got a first taste of how beautiful and green Hong Kong is. 

Very happy after sunglasses purchase at Stanley

After getting ourselves some new sunglasses, it was time to head back to central for one of the most anticipated meals of the whole trip  - Dim Sum with the Cheungs! Together with Abigail we met with Abigail's aunt Helen and Helen's husband Roy for the most delicious lunch ever. The beauty with Dim Sum is that you get to taste lots of different things. We went a bit bananas with the ordering and it was all fantastic food. A new high point to add to our trip! 

It was great to meet up with extended family so far away from home. Helen and Roy were happy to tell us about life in Hong Kong and very interested to hear about our trip. Roy surprised us by telling us that his parents used to run three Chinese restaurants in Gothenburg, where Helena went to university, hence he had been there several times. After lunch, Roy, Helen and Abigail took us on a short sightseeing tour around Central which was very interesting - we discovered very cool areas which we otherwise would have missed completely and we got to know more about the history of the place. In SoHo lots of expats were out drinking beer, chatting, watching sports, almost like a Place Lux - only a bit older, wealthier and tropical.

Dim Sum with Roy, Helen and Abigail - simply delicious

Tour around Central

After lunch Helen and Roy dropped us off at the Peak Tram and after waiting in the long queue for a while it was finally our turn. The Peak Tram is a famous Hong Kong landmark and it was a pretty steep ride to the top! Here we unfortunately missed out on the view due to the extremely thick fog.

Waiting for the Peak tram

Not so much of a view but the pictures were interesting...

Our last meeting in Hong Kong was with Grant's university friend Pete Sabine. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Pete studied in Edinburgh and then returned to Hong Kong. In his spare time Pete DJs and after catching up over a few drinks we were keen to join him at the club and hear him play. The theme of the club was funk and while perhaps not our usual type of music, Pete's set was definitely the highlight. It's no exaggeration to say that he really put a lot of energy into the gig! This was our first real "authentic" experience of expat life in Hong Kong and we couldn't help feeling a bit jealous - Hong Kong just feels so cool.

Grant and Pete...

...Pete and Helena...

...and Pete on stage, giving it his all...

...and Helena and Grant

Sunday was our last day and we decided to go to the beach. Yes, that's right, Hong Kong has lots of beautiful beaches and the water is clean enough to swim in. We opted for South Bay on Hong Kong island. The water wand oil, the shark net reassuring, and it cured the light hangovers we had acquired -  we're not used to late, boozey nights anymore!

Enjoying Hong Kong beach life

Last but not least in Hong Kong, on our last evening we went down to the waterfront to see the the daily light show. It was very smart and does the impressive Hong Kong skyline justice (wish we could say the same about the music, but it sounded more like a very old video game).

Hong Kong light show

To conclude, Hong Kong is an awesome place and we were particularly lucky to have friends who could show us around and give us a "real" feel for the place. As mentioned many times before, that makes a big difference. We are very excited that we soon will have even more family in Hong Kong, and will hopefully be back to visit Jo and Iain in no time!

Posted by Grantandhelena 22:25 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (2)

Gone fishing... in Yangshuo

Yangshuo, Guangxi Province, China

sunny 34 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Our next destination was one of China's biggest tourist spots: Yangshuo, renowned for its dramatic limestone peaks and Li River setting. The journey to Yangshuo from Dazhai was surprisingly easy and we found ourselves in Yangshuo by mid afternoon on Sunday.  The scenery is indeed dramatic, but the most striking thing about arriving here was the crowds - tourism is big business down here.  Luckily we were staying a couple of kilometres out of town in a hostel in the countryside, run by a friendly, Kung Fu loving, Aussie expat.

Once we were settled in, we checked out Yangshuo's West Street tourist area. We were there during the 1 May, which is a public holiday in so-called communist China and consequently West Street was packed with tourists, ready to spend RMBs. The tourists were overwhelmingly Chinese but with many westerners as well. Luckily these are not the megaphone-following type tourists we have seen elsewhere, but well-heeled Chinese couples and families enjoying the town. The shops here are full of local art, souvenirs, pirate DVDs and all the usual stuff you expect in a backpacker town. It is also the first place we have been in China where there is such a concentration of western food on offer: pizzas, steaks, KFC, McDonalds, coffee shops etc. The guidebook will tell you that some backpackers find Yangshuo to not be authentic because it has become too westernised (it certainly doesn't bother us!). But the interesting thing is that it is mostly Chinese tourists cramming into the pizza joints, shovelling down Big Macs and sipping on cappuccinos! For the swelling Chinese middle class, Yangshuo is a tourist playground where they can sample exotic European food while doing all the other usual tourist sights of the area. Yangshuo doesn't need foreign tourists; it's got more than enough domestic tourists, thank you very much.

The contrast between old and new China and the division between rich and poor was very visible in Yangshuo. On the one hand you have the wealthy middle and upper class, spending money and cruising in their Porsches, and on the other hand the country side around Yangshuo is full of farmers working hard on the land - all manual labour. We would see them out on the fields when we left out hostel early morning, and they would still be out there working when we got back at night. They did not seem to have the chance to enjoy workers' day on 1 May, for them it is hard work, every day, all year around. Considering that 80 per cent of China's population are farmers, that's quite astonishing. We hear a lot about the new China and how it is going to conquer the world, but travelling here has made us realise that it still has a long way to go before it is anyway near so-called Western standards.

Yangshuo's West Street - tourist central and a place to enjoy a taste of home while buying dodgy souvenirs

Scenery around Yangshuo is stunning

The centre of Yangshuo is very lively at night

Life for most Yangshuo residents is tough - farmers in the rice paddies toil all day, feet soaked in water and mud, in unbearable heat

While Yangshuo is crowded, it is a pleasant place to spend some time. Seeing the newly wealthy Chinese on holiday is an interesting activity in itself. They like to show off their wealth, driving large Chinese or imported European cars, and spending lots in the shops and restaurants here. There is also a trend among the nouveau riche to grow a single fingernail long as a demonstration that they do not have to perform manual labour.  This behaviour may seem a bit crass to visitors from Europe, but then it is hard to think of any country in the world where people today are living so immeasurably better than the previous generation.  These guys have every reason to enjoy their money.

We saw the spending power of China's middle class very clearly when we went to Yangshuo's sound & light show on Monday night, which is directed by film maker Zhang Yimou of Beijing Olympics ceremony fame.  The large seating area was packed with Chinese families paying EUR 30 per ticket; that is a serious amount of money in China, where you can easily eat dinner for under EUR 5. The show itself was phenomenal. The karst peaks behind the river were illuminated while a cast of 500 boatmen, singers and dancers entertained the crowd on and beside the water.  There may have been another hundred lighting people and other technicians operating the set. The scale is hard to comprehend. This was China making the most of its principal resource: people!  

The show lasts an hour and is on every night at three different times. That must make it fairly repetitive for the performers but very lucrative for the people behind the show!

Some shots from the sound and light show in Yangshuo - a phenomenal demonstration of people power

During the day on Monday we did the number one tourist attraction in Yangshuo - hiring bikes to ride through the countryside.  A couple of things were against us in this venture - a useless map and humid heat approaching 40 degrees.  After a few wrong turns and some tense riding we finally made it out of Yangshuo alive - as mentioned , traffic in China is just mad, on a country road.  We were rewarded with great scenery, but the day was so hot that it wasn't long before we were stopping for lunch in the shade.  

Enjoying the scenery around Yangshuo on our bikes and trying not to think about the humidity

Look Mum - no hands!

Enjoying lunch in the shade by the Li River

We hear the duck is good at this place

After the exertion of effectively cycling in a sauna on Monday, we took things very easy on Tuesday. We spent the day in Yangshuo doing a bit of shopping and managed to find a very professional-looking massage centre, where we enjoyed a 90 minute head-to-toe Chinese massage. Yes, even us backpackers had a few knots in our backs - surely not stress-induced! - which the two local masseurs ironed out while we sipped very tasty ginger tea. The upper spinal chord massage was verging on being deeply unpleasant, but the rest of the  body massage and the 40 minute foot massage was just what the doctor ordered. We felt like we were walking out of there on new feet once they had finished!

On Tuesday evening we finally went out on the Li River to watch a local fisherman at work, using a fairly unconventional style. As the sun set, fishermen on the Li River set out in the shallows of the fast-flowing river on flat reed boats with lights on the front (traditionally a lantern; these days a high-powered electric light).  They use packs of trained cormorants to fish for them, serting their birds in the water to swim and dive around the boat.  The fishermen stand on their boat, watching the birds by the lantern light and calling to them like a shepherd to his sheepdogs. 

Clever cormorants and their fisherman master on the Li River

These cormorants are impressive birds - they seem as comfortable swimming and diving through the murky waters of the river as they are flying over the top of it. There also seems to be discipline within the pack of cormorants and obedience to the fisherman as he calls to them. The big question, of course, is how to stop the cormorants eating the fish they catch.  An age-old agreement between man and bird? Well not quite, as it turns out. Each cormorant has a length of string tied around its neck, sufficiently tightly that decent-sized fish cannot pass down its gullet. They can eat any small fish through the string noose, but large ones will sit in the top of their throats - the fisherman then simply hooks the cormorant back into the boat, empties the bird's mouth of the fish, and sends it back out to work. That's a pretty easy way of fishing for the fishermen here!

When a cormorant gets a decent-sized fish, he'll have to share it with the master, whether he likes it or not

After watching the cormorants getting their dinner, we had worked up a hunger ourselves. We hit a really good vegetarian restaurant, Pure Lotus, for our final dinner in Yangshuo: it's particularly good to have vegetarian food in China, as it is nice to know exactly where you stand with your food once in a while.

Helena enjoying vegetarian dinner - no flapping ducks, croaking toads or snakes in sight

We really enjoyed Yangshuo. The scenery feels like you imagine China to look, especially where we were staying, slightly outside town. Even though it is such a touristy place, we really enjoyed our few days here both for the beautiful countryside and for the creature comforts. We left on Wednesday afternoon to catch another sleeper train to Guangzhou in the far south of the country, slowly making our way towards Hong Kong.

Posted by Grantandhelena 02:56 Archived in China Comments (2)

Hiking the Dragon's Backbone

The Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces

overcast 20 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Arriving in Guilin on Friday morning after a long overnight train ride, we somehow managed to find out that we needed to take a local bus to another bus station and get on a bus to Longsheng. We feel kind of savvy when it comes to Chinese public transport now, or at least we're doing everything we tcan to avoid touts and this time it worked out pretty well. To start with anyway. The bus dropped us off in Heping as well, just like we wanted. Our hostel had said that once in Heping, we should "walk for 3 minutes, buy tickets at the ticket office and then get the local bus to Dazhai where we will pick you up". Simple. Of course, the ticket office was nowhere to be seen and none of the touts or taxi drivers seemed to understand what we were asking for - they were far more interested in selling their own services. Grant stayed with the bags and Helena went into town to find the ticket office, with no luck. Then finally, as so often in China, an English speaking Chinese person magically appeared and pointed us in the right direction. After a five minute walk down a nondescript side road, we found the ticket office.

We wanted to make sure the  hostel knew we were coming so they could "pick us up" and the people in the ticket office kindly called them. They passed us the phone and we were then told that the hostel was situated a 40 minute walk from Dazhai. The information sent to us about "pick us up" was a mistake. We couldn't believe it. If we had known, we would have left some of our luggage in Guilin but instead we were in the middle of nowhere with very heavy backpacks containing all our gear.

There was nothing to do but to wait for the bus. When it arrived it was full to the brim with people. As if by magic the passengers somehow managed to find space for us and our big bags, passing them between themselves on the bus. 

Busy bus

We then had around 40 minutes on the bus which was just a fantastic experience, driving through some amazing scenery on the winding road beside the river. The driver did the classic "honk the horn before the sharp corners and hope for the best". Traffic is simply insane here - the rules are : "there are no rules". The official statistics says that more than a 100, 000 die from traffic related injuries each year in China, i.e. someone every five minutes. This, however, is widely assumed to be an underestimation. The WHO mentions numbers like 250,000 or more. This is why we take the train when we can. Luckily we didn't meet any other vehicles where it could have been nasty on our way up the mountain road to Dazhai.

The key attraction however, was the people onboard the bus. People were extremely friendly and chatty. Having moved her daypack to let a passenger off, Helena put it down on some plastic bags. A woman quietly moved the bag to the side and Helena then saw that the plastic bag was moving - there was a hen in there. The people on the bus just laughed when Helena smiled apologetically (for the record: the hen survived the bus journey).

On another occasion one of the passengers called out and the bus stopped. He disembarked but the bus didn't leave. It turned out that he wanted to get some meat and the whole bus could watch him choosing his pieces of meat from a butcher with a stand next to the road, paying and then getting back on the bus.  No complaints as no-one seemed to be in any particular rush. This was more fun than we had had in a long time!

Time to get some meat

We arrived in Dazhai and were immediately approached by women wanting to take us to their accommodation and/or carry our bags. The women, belonging to the local Yao minority, were about half our size but there is no doubt about their capability when it comes to carrying heavy loads. We turned to the ticket office/entrance where the official  was on the phone. She suddenly passed us the phone and it turned out to be the girl from our hostel. She was very apologetic about the confusion over the e-mail and said that they would pay for a guide to take us to the hostel in Tiantouzhai, further up the mountain.  She also mentioned the possibility to get a porter for about 30 RMB but by now we were on adrenalin and our bags didn't feel too heavy, so we decided to take them ourselves. 

No lack of Yao women where the road ends offering to carry your bag

We were very happy to have a guide as there were a number of small paths to choose from with hardly any signposting. After about half an hour of heaving all our luggage up mountain steps we arrived at our hostel "Dragon's Den", located in what is the most beautiful spot we have seen in China so far - the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces.

The amazing view from the Dragon's Den - but no sign of Duncan Bannatyne and his BBC pals

The Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces rise up to around 900 metres and it's simply amazing to see. The terraces were built around 500 years ago following a need for more food and use every possible inch of the side of the mountain to cultivate rice. They have gotten their name from the fact that the terraces look like a dragon's scales and the range looks like the backbone of the dragon (supposedly). The peak season for tourists is in early June when the paddies are full of water. When we were there they had only just started to fill up (the farmers use well water,  hence not solely relying on the rain season to start). It's an impressive and beautiful example of human engineering.

Terraces all the way up from the river to the top of mountain

We decided to stay for two nights at the hostel and do a day hike the following day, not being so keen on carrying all of our stuff on to another hostel. After the initial confusion, our hostel turned out to be great with nice rooms and very friendly staff (who even gave us a discount for the second night). At night we couldn't hear anything but the sound of crickets, frogs and distant thunder and in the morning, a cockerel crowing. So much nicer than noisy traffic.

The recommended and, allegedly, most scenic hike, was to go the village Ping'An. However, as the estimated time for getting there was 3-4 hours, meaning a 6-8 hour return, we weren't sure. We were told that some of the other guests had gone half way to Ping'An the same day and we went to talk to them. One of them, a Chinese guy called Sun Shu explained that they'd gotten lost and ended up on a longer route. Now, however, he knew the quickest route to Ping'An - well, at least half of it.  He suggested that we walk together the next day. When we asked if he was sure he wanted to do it again he simply smiled and said "Well, I failed to reach the final destination". We thought it was a great idea to walk together and we agreed on a semi early start the next morning.

The following day turned out to be one of the best on the trip so far. The scenery along the Dragon's Backbone was simply stunning. It was very quiet, we only saw the occasional farmer and some horses and goats, and a couple of other hikers and of course plenty of Yao women.  We still haven't figured out where all the men were. Sun Shu said that they were "probably working in the fields" but we only saw a handful doing that. It remains a mystery... 

While quite steep at times, the hike wasn't too hard. The humidity made for quite a sweat but all in all it was very pleasant conditions.

Hard work for farmers

We came across these lovely goats on the trail

Halfway to Ping'An we passed through the village Zhongliu

Lost? Just follow Sun Shu

It was also great to spend the day with Sun Shu. Not only did he know the way and could ask people for directions when he didn't (without him we would probably still be out there somewhere), it was also very interesting and fun to get to chat to Sun Shu, only a few years younger than us, and learn about China and Chinese life today for people our age. We probably learnt more about the "real" China during that day than we we ever had before. Sun Shu was very much like us, with very similar views and values - he had even quit his job to go travelling for a couple of months. 

Also we finally understood what people around us were saying and asking and had different things we saw explained to us. A whole new world had openend up! Thanks to Sun Shu's guidance and Chinese skills we got to Ping'An in 2.5 hours. We can't stress enough that it wouldn't have been possible if we had walked on our own! 

At the viewpoint Nine Dragons and Five Tigers, overlooking Ping'An and rice terraces looking like - nine dragons and five tigers

More views

We had a nice lunch in Ping'An, we opted for noodles with egg rather than snake or frog, which the restaurants also served. We weren't tempted by the snake wine either...

Some snake wine with that, Sir?

At least, the food here is fresh...

Sun Shu kept emphasising that people in China eat everything and noting that we took great interest in this, he told us about different local "delicacies" around China, many of which we hope never to taste!

After lunch we started our walk back to Tiantouzhai. On the way back we met these two Yao ladies, who gladly posed for some photos for a few RMB. They told Sun Shu that they were not allowed to be in the village Ping'An, as it would mean competition for the local Zhuong women when it comes to posing for photos! Instead they lingered very close by... The Yao women traditionally only cut their hair once, when they're 18. They usually have three bundles of hair on their head: their own hair, the hair they cut off when they were 18, and a second bundle made up from the hair they drop everyday (which they collect). We were able to confirm this when they posed for our camera!

Two Yao women with their incredibly long hair. It came as no surprise to hear that a Yao woman is in the Guinness book of records for the world's longest hair!

Quick rest on the way back

When we got back we were very happy, and reinvigorated rather than tired from the walk. The hostel staff thought we were nuts for doing the Ping'An loop in one day and we started to wonder if they were talking about the same walk. This was by far our best experience in China so far, and unsurprisingly it took place in the countryside. No megaphones or tour groups in sight - just tranquility and amazing scenery. Adding to the great experience was the fact that  we had some amazing food at the vegetarian restaurant in Tiantouzhai, so good we went back two nights in row.

The next morning we headed back to Dazhai. Before leaving, we said goodbye to Sun Shu and said that we hope his travels one day will bring him to Europe.

Sun Shu - our new friend

We also got a photo  of this Tiantouzhai inhabitant who claimed he was a 100 years old and enjoys a bit of banter and photo posing with tourists.

The oldest inhabitant of Tiantouzhai? We want what he's smoking...

Despite going downhill, the packs felt heavier going back but luckily the walk wasn't too long. Down in Dazhai we were met by bigger crowds of tourists. The Chinese tour groups were disembarking. We realised that the 35 minute steep walk up to "our" village probably was too much for most of them and hence had protected us from the crowds, giving us the best couple of days in China so far. Back in Dazhai, we took a minibus to Guilin, where we would catch another bus to Yangshuo. 

Posted by Grantandhelena 02:34 Archived in China Comments (1)

China by train and an afternoon in Jiangxi

Anhui to Guangxi by train

sunny 25 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

We had a long journey to make to get from Anhui province to Guangxi, our next destination. It was going to take two train rides and over 24 hours to get between the provinces, with an afternoon to kill in the middle in Jiangxi. 

We boarded our first train at 7.30 am on Thursday 26 April from Xidi, heading for YingTan. YingTan is not a tourist destination: our Lonely Planet guidebook had nothing at all to say about this place. When you google it, you discover that it is a city of just over 1 million people, whose major attribute is to be a rail hub. It didn't sound great but because of train connections we were stuck with YingTan whether we liked it or not.

The train to YingTan took five hours and was fairly unpleasant. It was "hard seat" class only, meaning the lowest class on Chinese railways. The guidebook warned us that travelling in this class would "test our sanity", and it was not lying. The train carriage looked like it hadn't been cleaned since it rolled off the production line thirty years earlier. Although the carriage was only half full, there was a thick human smell in the air. This smell varied only when one of our neighbours began noisily eating instant noodles, or when a smoker lit up. That's right - you can smoke in the space between the carriages on trains, but often people wandered into the main part of the carriage with their lit cigarettes in hand.

Our fellow passengers made no secret of the fact they were checking us out. There were long stares, frustrated attempts to communicate and then more long stares. Personal space is not a big thing in China so a few passengers felt free to sit themselves down next to us, gather around us, and peer over our shoulders at our books and the iPad. One guy slid in beside Grant, checked out his book for a while, picked his nose, had a loud phone conversation and then moved on to sit elsewhere.  Given all this, we did not really want to start snapping photos so we're afraid there are no pictures to share - you'll just have to use your imagination!

As for the view, the scenery was not so interesting and in any case was mostly obscured by the curtain our neighbours insisted on keeping drawn. Then there was the noise - a constant stream of loud Chinese hits was piped over the speakers for the entire journey. Even that racket was topped when a mobile phone rang - Chinese people seem to have to shout into their mobiles at all times, and there were plenty of phone "conversations" going on.

The noise did stop a couple of times when one of the female train conductors came into the carriage and hit a switch that cut the piped music. However, she then began a long sales pitch for some wares that she was selling. If you ever want proof that China is a firmly capitalist country these days, take a train ride: Here was an official employee of the state railway, in her uniform, doing a sales pitch for some socks she had brought along in a basket. At one point she gave the end of one of the socks to a passenger to hold while she stretched it and brushed it - presumably to demonstrate the weave quality. 

China Rail official selling her socks off

There were no takers for the socks, but an hour later the ticket inspector / hawker was back. The music was again cut. This time her basket held miniature massage gizmos. She again launched into a lengthy sale spitch then caught Grant's eye as he politely acknowledged her presentation. Next thing, she had the massage tool clamped to Grant's shoulder, demonstrating to the carriage the quality of the product. Despite the professional pitch and clear quality of the product, we decided not to buy.

So it was with relief that we stepped off the train in YingTan. However, we now stood in the featureless main square of a Chinese provincial city with eight hours to kill. Chinese cities are not generally places to hang around and YingTan appeared to be no exception. Luckily, just next to the city is Longhu Shan (Dragon and Tiger Mountain), a centre of Taoism, which our guidebook rated as one of THE things to see in Jiangxi province. It turned out to be well worth the trip.

Longhu Shan, Jiangxi Province

We deposited our bags and quickly found a bus to Longhu Shan - already this was proving easier than any other outing in China so far.  We were at the main gate in 20 minutes, paid our entry and hopped on the "tourist train" that,  would take us into the Longhu Shan area. 

The Longhu Shan tourist train was a lot better than the train we took to Jiangxi

The train took us past the sandstone mountain -  which was reminiscent of Uluru in terms of scale and the sheer angle of the sides - and the winding Luxi river next to it. We emerged into rice paddy fields and got out at Shangqing village. This place was a typical tourist village but luckily it was very quiet when we arrived.

Shangqing village and statute of a Taoist type there

On the other side of the village we visited the Residence of the Celestial Masters, a huge Taoist temple complex. Taoism and bhuddism are closely linked and you can see that in the buildings and statues. Although we are still not recovered fully from the temple overload of Japan, we liked this spot. A few photos below.

Residence of the Celestial Masters

After the temples, we headed back to see the mountain itself. Every sight in China has to have a wacky name in order to attract tourists, and this was no exception: we kicked off at Elephant Trunk Hill, so-called because this corner of the mountain apparently looks like an elephant trunk. Judge for yourself.

Elephant Trunk Hill

We had a bit of time left so we decided to check out the mountain walkway. This turned out to be really amazing. Steps led up from a parking lot straight up the 90 degree cliff face of the mountain. About 100 metres or so up began a 3 km walkway bolted to the sheer face of the mountain. This is a great example of Chinese engineering and commitment to tourism: they have simply blasted a walkway into a cliff face 100 metres above the ground. It took us a good 45 minutes to walk the whole thing, taking in the views and only seeing a handful of over people up there. The walk was pretty nerve wracking in places and the designer had added to the fear factor by using glass panels instead of wooden boards in places.  But the views of the mountain and the area were stunning.

The Longhu Shan walkway - 100 metres up, 3 km long. Don't look down!!

We made it back to Yin Tan as it was getting dark and discovered one redeeming feature of the place: McDonalds. Neither of us is a big fan at home, but it is hard to describe the excitement of seeing the golden arches in the middle of China. We walked into the cool, quiet and impeccably clean restaurant with our bags. We set up camp and enjoyed burgers, fries and McFlurrys. Not only was this the cleanest restaurant we had seen in the last week -it was the cleanest place we had seen in China so far, full stop. 

A welcome beacon to weary travellers

Refreshed, we climbed on board our night train to Guilin at 20h30. We had managed to get "soft sleeper" tickets - a first class berth. It's not the height of luxury but it is infinitely better than the cattle class seats we had on the last train. We shared a four man cabin with a polite Chinese couple and their baby. We both breathed a sigh of relief as we stepped into our carriage - a crying baby is ten times better than a noisy Chinese mobile phone conversation. It was lucky we packed the ear plugs in the end though as the dad turned out to be  the loudest snorer in the world, while the baby slept the whole night without a squeak.

Our luxurious "soft sleeper" berth - ear plugs were a blessing on this journey

We pulled into Guilin at half ten the next morning, ready to hit the rice terraces of northern Guangxi. As it turned out, our journey was far from over, but that is for another blog instalment...

Posted by Grantandhelena 08:05 Archived in China Comments (3)

Chasing the Hidden Dragon

Relaxing in Anhui's old villages

rain 20 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

We had chosen to go Xidi since it seemed to be the perfect spot to chill out for a couple of days (little did we know just how badly we would need it after Mt Huangshan and the wearing taxi shenanigans on the way to Xidi). Xidi and the surrounding villages are known to be beautiful and have been used as settings for many Chinese films, not least "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (more on that later).  But the main pull was the boutique hotel  "Pig's Heaven Inn", which had received amazing reviews.

We were not disappointed. Pig's Heaven Inn is located in a 400 year old restored building, a building in Huizhou style, which Anhui, and Xidi in particular, is famous for. The original owners of the Huizhou style houses were successful merchants who left the area to work elsewhere but sent their profits back home, profits which funded the construction of these buildings (sadly it seems that the merchants had little chance to enjoy these buildings themselves, they were rarely home).


After having enjoyed our best meal in China at our hotel,  we went for a wander to see some of Xidi's beautiful buildings. Today Xidi is a UNESCO world heritage site and it is easy to see why - it is a truly beautiful and amazingly unspoilt place. Nor was it as busy with tourists as you would expect. The bulk of the visitors seemed to be art students who found inspiration in what they saw in Xidi.

A few examples of the Huingzhou architecture in Xidi

We really enjoyed looking around the impressive buildings. They are excellent examples of beautiful woodwork. They also tend to follow the same outline, whitewashed walls, horse-head gables, dark tiles, and high narrow windows. When you enter the building, you enter a courtyard with a rectangular opening in the roof, allowing for light to get in, which often gets reflected in the well underneath the opening.

We also learnt that there is a special meaning to the furnishing. The tables would be laid out differently depending on whether the master of the house was in residence our not. On the mantlepiece, there would be a clock, vase and a mirror, which symbolises peace and harmony in the house.

But then there is more than architecture that makes Xidi a beautiful village. It's setting in the midst of rolling hills is fantastic.

The beautiful setting of Xidi

Chinese students taking turns to be photographed with the foreign giant. By now we have lost count of how many times people have asked us to pose with them!

On the way back to our hotel, it was easy to guess what people were likely to have for dinner. On almost every house there were parts of pig hanging.

A meal in Xidi is likely to include pork


Nan Ping

The next day we had planned to do absolutely nothing but relax. This plan was assisted by the fact that it rained the entire day. We went out only to stretch our legs and get some money from the ATM. The ATM however, didn't accept our cards. After realising that there were no other options, we went to Yixian, the next town, as we would need cash to pay for our hotel. Having gotten that far, however, we thought that we might as well continue on to Nan Ping, another famous village and the setting for several Chinese films, such as Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou's Ju Dou.  We got on the bus, which cost us 2 RMB each, the equivalent of 25 euro cent. A fair price, we thought! The locals on the bus were very interested in us and keen to engage in some friendly banter - unfortunately, as always, we were restricted to smiles and shrugs!

On the local bus to Nan Ping

When we arrived in Nan Ping we were met by no less than four people working in the visitor centre, charging us the 43 RMB entry to the village. It remained a mystery to us what these guys were doing all day, but they could at least tell us when the bus back to Yixian would leave.

Nan Ping was another beautiful village and we could see why it had been chosen as a location to shoot films set in mediaeval China.

Recognise this from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Sure you do!


Nice place
Just like Xidi, Nan Ping was also full of art students

Another example of a village in a beautiful setting

We were back outside the visitor centre in good time before the bus would depart. The visitor centre was just as quiet as it had been when we arrived and a couple of the four officials in there sat sleeping. 

A wise Chinese proverb Grant spotted in the "Tourism Toilet" in Nan Ping

The bus was late and after a while we asked one of the tourist info people that was still awake if the bus would collect us here, the place where we had been dropped off. No, was her casual answer, and she pointed us to the big road about one kilometre away. Cursing the fact that none of the four people whose job descriptions surely mentioned something about looking after visitors could have told us that before, we took off, hoping to reach the main road before it was too late. Grant spotted the bus, kicked off his flip flops and ran for his life, doing everything he could to catch the driver's eye. We were ready to admit defeat when the bus drove past a frantically waving Grant, but suddenly it started to slow down and reverse back. Grant had been seen and we were saved.

Back in Yixian, it transpired that the last bus for Xidi had left. Unsurprisingly the taxi drivers hadn't. One guy offered us a surprisingly good price and we accepted. Following the guy to his vehicles, Grant joked: "I hope it isn't one of those tiny three wheelers". The guy stopped outside his vehicle - a tiny three wheeler. We could only climb in and hold on...

First experience of a Chinese three wheeler - luckily it's top speed was only about 50 km/h

Relieved, we got back in one piece, ready to further enjoy our home from home in Xidi.

Pig's Heaven Inn

There were two women looking after us at the hotel. They spoke no English and our Chinese hadn't advanced, but we still managed to make ourselves sufficiently understood. As regards our meals, we only had to indicate a time, but the content of the meal itself came as a surprise. For each meal we were brought a number of small dishes and we never had the same thing twice. What a highlight!

Some of the food we were served at Pig's Heaven Inn

One of the best things about travelling is the people you meet and the interesting conversations you have. In the soon to be three months we have been travelling, we have met so many great people and learnt so much. It never becomes boring. 

This hotel was no exception. When we arrived, we met a nice couple from Beijing. As they both had studied and lived in the US, they spoke excellent English. The man is one of many Chinese who have returned home to profit from the new open market (in his case, in the area of private jets). His partner's field couldn't be more different - she was working as a Feng Shui consultant! They helped us a lot with clearing up things after the ticket scam our taxi driver pulled on us.

The next day a friendly couple from New York, Mark and Maria, arrived. We were all very amused when it turned out this hotel, which was luxury for us, was their least comfortable accommodation on their tour (although they also found the food to be the best they had had in China). How nice that we could meet somewhere in the middle! They had chosen the hotel as it had been recommended in an article in New York Times featuring Xidi and the surrounding villages. They used local guides wherever they went in China, something which we clearly could see the benefits of, having arrived in Xidi "the hard way". The couple reassured us that they had been "roughing it" when they were our age.

We had a long nice chat with Mark and Maria, who had retired from family business in New York - a shop in lower Manhattan selling speciality foods (such as herring)! We later realised that it is quite famous and we look forward to visiting it next time we're in New York.

Our stay in Xidi and the Pig's Heaven Inn turned out to be everything we had hoped for and it was two relaxed travellers who got the bus back to Tunxi on the Wednesday. 

A few photos of our beautiful, quiet hotel in Xidi

In Tunxi, we spent one night back at the same hostel as before, and the next morning it was time to get moving again. We we leaving Anhui and heading out southwest.

Posted by Grantandhelena 05:28 Archived in China Comments (1)

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