A Travellerspoint blog

The Mountain of Madness


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

We always expected travelling in China to be different. Already when we sat with our guidebook on the ferry crossing over, it was obvious that it was difficult to grasp. Where do you start? It is a huge country with great distances and there are no equivalents (not common at least) to the Japanese Shinkhansen or the South American long distance buses. It is therefore even more important to be selective and focus on a couple of areas, in order to avoid moving around too much in our two weeks in the country.

The biggest challenge however, is the immense language barrier. While it's easy enough to find English speakers in places like Shanghai, it gets more difficult further away from the big cities. You have to rely on sign language and the short glossary at the end of the guide book. This is particularly frustrating when you're trying to get information and when you're negotiating the price of something. Suddenly you are a child again, trying to make yourself understood with gestures and random phrases. There is only so far "Nihao" (hello) and "xie, xie" (thank you) can take you. 

So, after some intense Lonely Planet research and even more intense discussion, we agreed to head to Anhui province first. Why Anhui? Principally for Huangshan, generally touted as China's most beautiful mountain and cited by James Cameron as his inspiration for the scenery in Avatar. Anhui is also relatively close to Shanghai so it made for an easy first step into China.  Besides that, Anhui is also regarded as containing some of the most classic Chinese architecture in the Hui villages in the south of the province. These contain houses built by wealthy merchants who were natives of the area but moved away at an early age to make their fortune, sending money home to build beautiful houses for their lonely wives and families. The Hui buildings, together with their setting in lush, pine-covered mountain scenery, have made the Hui villages popular with film directors throughout the years.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was filmed in part in the village of Nan Ping, for example, which we visited.


We boarded an early bus from Shanghai on Saturday 21 April bound for Tunxi.  This is a large town in the south on Anhui and a base for heading up Huangshan and seeing the Hui villages. The bus ride was fairly uneventful - loud Chinese films playing the whole way, incessant horn beeping and lane switching by our driver; all the things one generally expects on a Chinese bus ride.  We were deposited at Tunxi early in the afternoon, and made our way to the Old Street Hostel.  It was a surprisingly nice spot and, at EUR 15 for a double room, a bit of a bargain.  

We headed out to explore Tunxi - the tourist area is be street, Old Street, and it was packed out with Chinese tourists. It was pretty picturesque and we found some excellent dumplings for lunch, and an afternoon coffee.  

Old Street, Tunxi, Saturday - a busy spot

Dumplings for lunch - tasty

Tunxi outside Old Street looks a lot like any other Chinese city

We stumbled upon some locals playing Mahjong

The very friendly staff in the hostel helped us work out our onward train travel plans for getting to Guanxi - our next destination. But in China there is no way to avoid having to go to the station to buy your tickets, and they sell out quickly.  If you don't want to be left with standing room only on a 20 hour train journey, you'd better plan ahead.   We headed to Tunxi station and joined a long queue that evening, waiting to be served by one of only two staff on duty. We finally got to the window with Chinese people swarming on all sides (queuing is not China's strong point) and explained to the ticket lady  in a mixture of sign language and mandarin phrase book words what we wanted.  Miraculously, we managed to get our tickets and even a smile from the ticket lady.

We enjoyed some typical Anhui cuisine of various dumplings and fried pork in the restaurant next to our hostel that night.

Dinner in the restaurant next to our hostel - all dishes were on display and you just noted down anything you wanted. They like their dumplings and pork in Anhui.

The Mountain of Madness - Huangshan

We took a bus from our hostel at 6.30 on Sunday morning with a few of the other guests bound for Huangshan. We were excited about getting our hiking gear on and taking in what is supposed to be China's most stunning mountain. We had arranged to stay a night at the summit in dorm accommodation at one of the hotels up there. It's truly disappointing to say that the trek to one of the highest places in our travels so far turned out to be such a low point...

We had our suspicions from the start. Arriving at around 8am to a huge bus terminal, we were greeted by huge queues of predominantly Chinese tourists for as far as the eye could see. Needless to say, the queuing was not very disciplined and descended into a scrum every time one of the many uniformed guards opened up a barrier to let people through.  This queue was just for the shuttle bus to take us up to the start point of the hike.

Huangshan bus terminal, 8am Sunday. This queue is just to get the shuttle bus to the start of the hike!

Eventually we made it on to a shuttle bus that took us to the start of the trek. It was 10am and getting hot. Before we could start, we had to pay the entrance fee - 230 RMB each (about EUR 30). That may not sound much, but in China that's a lot of money - four night's accommodation, for example - just to climb a mountain. 

At 10h15 we passed the entrance gate to start climbing the East Steps, the quickest route to the summit. We told ourselves that the crowds would surely thin as most people would take the cable car up - the majority surely did but there we're still thousands of people on the steps with us. As mentioned we were in our hiking gear. It turned out we were pretty much the only ones - people were wearing suits, loafers, high heals... It was obvious they weren't in it for the hiking. It was hot, the steps were narrow, steep and relentless.  We were dodging not only Chinese tourists going up and down the steps, but also porters carrying bamboo poles across their backs with incredible loads (a pair of large gas canisters, crates of beer etc) that took up the entire path.  Every now and then one of them would flip and start yelling loudly as they were pushed by tourists trying to get past on the narrow path. It was - in short - not a pleasant experience.

Labouring through the Crowds up the East Steps of Huangshan. Unpleasant

As an aside, it is amazing that even though there is a cable car system on this mountain, human porters are still taking back breaking loads up and down the mountain: a sign of just how cheap human labour is here.

We made it to the top in just over two hours and we greeted by even heavier crowds of Chinese tour groups, led by tour guides with megaphones.  We then managed to get thoroughly lost with out useless map as we tried to find our hotel for the night.  Ironically, this led to our most pleasant experience on the mountain as we wandered off the concrete tourist path, looking for a short cut. We found ourselves on a ridge a few hundred metres above the tourist path on an isolated rock.  It was the furthest we ever got from other people. We heard birds signing for the first time as the sound of nature finally conquered the megaphones.  We decided to have lunch here.

Relative peace at last - our lunch spot. From here, we could still see the crowds of tourists and hear the megaphones, but we also heard birds for the first time

We did finally find our hotel after several more wrong turns. The Bei Hai hotel is one of four over-priced options at the summit. Our dorm accommodation was better than expected, however - a normal hotel room with three bunk beds crammed into it. We were in separate rooms (male and female dorms) and we both shared with very friendly Chinese people who seemed to find it very exciting with foreigners in their rooms. We had planned to dump our bags and explore the summit further but the combination of crowds and heat put paid to that. Instead we relaxed for a while and then hiked up the nearby peak to take in some views. 

Views from the peak next to our hotel at the summit

The temperature dropped quickly as sunset approached but we found a spot on a miraculously almost empty roof terrace of the next door hotel to watch the sun drop behind the karst cliffs, which was very beautiful.

This guy was not letting anyone get his spot for sunset

Sunset was magnificent

Next morning the hotel was buzzing by 5am as guests got up to watch sunrise. We again hiked up the peak next to the hotel and found a spot for viewing. It was another Uluru moment as clouds left us guessing when exactly the sun had risen. Add to that the fact that we shared the moment with about 100 other tourists at the same viewpoint with little respect for personal space, and you can guess it was nothing to write home about. Nor blog about, for that matter.

Has the sun risen yet? Sounds familiar...

We had a plan. Only so many tourist groups could be staying on the mountain, and day trippers would not arrive for a few hours. It was 6.30 am and we threw our packs on - we would set off for the Western Steps descent and grab our window of opportunity for some peace and quiet.  How naive! As we came over the peak behind our hotel heading for the Western Steps we heard the familiar blare of megaphones. There were a number of them. Each megaphone represented a large tour group: there were hundreds of Chinese tourists clogging the paths. Where had they come from? Had they slept? Do they ever stop to rest (as in somewhere other than in the middle of the path just in front of you)?!

Finding a path on Huangshan without tourists on it is so rare, we had to take a photo while it lasted

As we started on the descent of the Western Steps, we ran into a bottleneck of people so thick that we hardly moved for 20 minutes.  It's not just the frustration of standing still - it's the shouting of the crowds, the barking of the megaphones, the loudspeakers playing the latest Chinese hits and people shouting "hello" to the foreigners (it says something about our fighting spirit that we always said "hello" back). This is nature being beaten down by human traffic.

Just after 7am Monday morning on the Western Steps and already it's mobbed

It was all the more disappointing because the scenery on the Western Steps is some of the most magnificent on the mountain. We took a few shots on the run as we tried to slice through the crowds.

Stunning views from the Western Steps

After two hours of hiking, we came to the cable car station near the top of the Western Steps. We took a snap decision to jump into the cable car and cancel the planned 7km hike to the bottom. The Mountain of Madness had beaten us! Grant politely asked the people in the queue behind us to take the next car. They only had to take one look at his face to realise that he was very serious - for once no Chinese language skills required. We shared our most peaceful moment in 24 hours in the cable car cabin on the way down.  We agreed that our sanity may not have held up if we had continued along the hiking path.

Huangshan had not quite finished with us, though. On returning to the busy bus terminal at the bottom, we tried to find a bus to Xidi, our next destination. Every person we asked had a different sign language answer. We wandered the main street for an hour, becoming increasingly angry at the conflicting information we were getting and the various touts trying to overcharge us to take their taxis.  We finally discovered the Xidi bus left from the bus terminal we had been in at the start, but that tickets were all sold out.  

We were at the end our tether and ready to be ripped off just to get to our destination. We found a taxi driver and arranged a price (through his colleague who spoke some broken English) to go to Xidi. It took a good 40 minutes to get there. On the way, a lady on a three wheeled motor bike pulled out of a side road 20 metres or so right in front of our speeding taxi - our driver swerved and rolled down the window to hurl abuse at the woman. We heard her scream fading into the distance as we drove past. When we looked back we could that she had ended up capsizing in a ditch with her bike overturned on the far side of the road. Our driver sped on.

There was major confusion on arrival. Our driver took us to a parking lot on the edge of a tourist village which had signs saying Yixian, not Xidi. All he said was "money, money". We told him he had agreed to take us to our hotel - he said we had to buy tickets to enter this town. This was all in Mandarin/English/sign language and no one understood anything.  Things got heated on both sides. We stormed out of the taxi, grabbed our bags and went to the tourist office - but no one there spoke English and could not help.  Finally, our driver got his colleague on the phone who spoke some English - it turned out we were in Xidi and the hotel was close but we could not enter the town without tickets. 

Part of the deal was that we paid the driver and he bought the Xidi entry tickets for us -clearly a scam somewhere but we were past caring. We handed him money and he went to get the tickets.  He returned with them and gestured us back to the taxi. We drove 300 metres along the road and stopped. A lady was waiting for us and made clear she was from our hotel. She gestured us to come with her down the narrow alleyway. We asked our driver for our entry tickets but he did not seem to understand - it seemed from the gestures between him and the woman from our hotel that it was understood we had paid. 

It was only once we got to the hotel that we discovered we had indeed been scammed. The driver had bought some kind of discounted ticket with our money, kept the extra money and our tickets to sell to some other tourists! Normally we would have despaired but as mentioned, we were beyond caring. However, we were amazed when we were told (by another guest who spoke English) that the staff in our hotel had called the ticket office and explained the situation,  meaning we didn't have to buy more tickets.  We knew then that we would like it at Pig's Heaven Inn.

Between Huangshan and the pain of the journey to Xidi, China had beaten us down pretty badly. Luckily, we now found ourselves in the beautiful Pig's Heaven Inn in Xidi for two nights. It was the perfect antidote to the Mountain of Madness!

Note: when looking through our photos afterwards, we were amazed by how beautiful the scenery had been, and what luck we had with the weather - the mountain is covered in mist and rain most of the time. It's a shame we couldn't enjoy it while on the mountain. Maybe if we had thought twice, we would have realised that hiking up one China's biggest tourist attractions, wasn't going to be entirely pleasant.

Posted by Grantandhelena 15:26 Archived in China Comments (3)

First port of call in (new) China

Two days in Shanghai

overcast 24 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Our first stop in China was Shanghai. Shanghai is the largest city by population in China (more than 23 million!). It is the Chinese business and financial centre and has historically been a link between east and west (and nicknamed "Paris of the East"). The similarities with the Shanghai featured in the Tintin adventure "Blue Lotus" would turn out to be limited. Unsurprisingly, a lot has happened since 1936!

Ready to discover Shanghai!

Our hostel turned out to be fantastic, felt more like a nice hotel and the staff was extremely helpful. Even better, it was less than half the price of anywhere we had stayed in Japan. It turned out they sold tickets to an acrobat show, one of the things we wanted to do in Shanghai and we decided to go the first evening.

The theatre at Shanghai Centre was full of tourists, all excited to see some Chinese acrobatics, reputed to be the best in the world. Before the show started, the PA system announced that out of respect for the intellectual property rights of the artists, photography was not allowed. We hadn't realised China had become such a keen defender of IP rights. Maybe it's a new policy; if so, the street vendors outside selling pirate DVDs and mobile phones didn't get the memo! We decided to take our chances and take a few snaps.

The show was very impressive. The somewhat dated deco and music couldn't hide the fact that the artist were massively talented. Some of them were barely more than children - we can only imagine how hard they must be working.

The highlight was definitely the acrobatics, but photos below will show that we got to see lots of different types of talents.

The acrobatics was cool, see this guy flying through the air?

These girls were the very definition of supple

In addition to acrobatics, there was this woman who could balance a lot of glasses on her face...

...but that wasn't enough, she could balance AND play the clarinet at the same time...

...and as if that wasn't enough - she could also climb ladders, without dropping a single glass....

...this guy who slowly but steadily won the crowd over by his way of handling a big jar...

...and a little comedy act where they pretended to throw daggers at a member of the audience

We are afraid we did not get a photo of the most impressive performer - a young guy of about 16 years old who did a solo gymnastics routine. At a couple of points he went into the splits and then raised himself back into a standing position using only his legs, sliding on the back of his heels à la Michael Jackson Moonwalker. There was an audible gasp from the crowd each time - it was astounding.

Being true to our mission to try local food, we ordered "cold, salty chicken" at a restaurant in the French Concession after the show. When thew as served, the vegetarian motto "don't eat anything with a face" seemed to get a whole new, intensified meaning.... Tasty? Let's just say that we won't order it again anytime soon....

Don't eat anything with a face? Ordering cold, salty chicken in Shanghai

The next day, we first went to the bus station to get tickets for our trip to Tunxi in the Anhui province the next day. It was a it confusing but we managed to find the right desk in the end.

The confusing scene at Shanghai bus station - luckily we found the right desk in the end

After that it was time to discover the Bund, one of the Shanghai landmarks. The Bund, back in the day a British settlement,  has a number of historical buildings. With our guidebook in hand, we saw the Astor Hotel, Russian and British consulates, the Shanghai club etc.

Outside the Astor Hotel

The Waibaidu Bridge

On the Bund, with the impressive Pudong skyline in the background

We also noted that the Bund is a popular spot for wedding photos, as we saw lots of newlyweds posing for photos during our walk.

It was also our first experience of people trying to scam us. Three young women started chatting to us, were every friendly and then suggested that we all go for tea together. This is a textbook example of a scam (you end up paying trough your nose for the tea) so we kindly said no thank you and continued our sightseeing. 

We also went to the Old Town which was very pretty and full of people. It was also home to H&M and Helena decided it was time to go shopping.

Old Town in Shanghai

Old Street - also known as Fang Bang Road!

Despite having visited the Bund and the Old Town in Shanghai, the most memorable spot for us was Pudong, which is situated east of the Huang Pu River, just across from the Bund. It is THE financial centre of China and it has grown rapidly since the 1990's. The skyline is simply amazing and it was the first thing we noticed when we arrived with the ferry from Kobe. We decided to go for a drink at the Park Hyatt at night - the bar is located on the 91st floor. Sadly the best seats were reserved for hotel guests, and we ended up above cloud level (!) but we could still catch some of the view of the neighbouring buildings and enjoy our drinks.

Shanghai World Financial Centre - also home of the Park Hyatt where we had a drink

The Park Hyatt is in the building on the right, above the clouds

More of the beautiful skyscrapers in Pudong

The drink marked the end of our first stop in China - after a couple of days in Shanghai it was time to move on. 

Impressions of Shanghai? It's not a bad city but we were glad to have a day to see the Bund and Pudong and then move on. Also, for all the talk of Shanghai being a vision of China's future, it is a long way from the standard of any Japanese cities we visited. Traffic is crazy and disorganised, many buildings (apart from Pudong and the Bund) are in bad condition and there is a constant haze of pollution. However, we would later meet a middle aged New York couple who were completely amazed by Shanghai, half jokingly saying that it made New York look like Hicksville, clearly impressed with what they had seen. Everyone should see it and make up their own mind.

The Shanghai skyline may look ultra-modern, but at ground level the city is firmly in the developing world

Posted by Grantandhelena 18:02 Archived in China Comments (2)

The slow boat to China

Kobe to Shanghai by ferry

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

With our Japan rail passes expired after two weeks of traveling to the far corners of Japan, we were headed for China. We could have flown across from any number of Japanese cities, but taking a plane would be a bit dull when there are ferries making the crossing to Shanghai.  We booked on to a Chinese ferry leaving Kobe on Tuesday 17 April, the Xin Jian Zhen, as it suited our timing best. By the time we booked, the first class cabins had unfortunately sold out so we were left with two second class berths in a four person "western style cabin" - meaning bunk beds rather than Japanese-style floor sleeping space.

We turned up early on Tuesday morning to find Kobe ferry terminal deserted. After an hour or so of patiently waiting, the Xin Jian Zhen check in desk finally opened. We paid our cash and got our tickets, but had to pass a brief medical check before being allowed to board: a crew member flashed some kind of infra red thermometer at our foreheads and declared us fit to sail.

Check in and high tech medical check

Boarding our ship in Kobe and departing

On boarding we were met by a stern-looking Chinese crew member.  There were no bows and no smiles. We had left Japan.  The crew member took us to our cabin: it had eight bunks but only four people including us staying in it, meaning it was pretty spacious. We lucked out: we got the bunks next to the window, and our cabin mates were an older Chinese couple who seemed to spend most of the journey sleeping quietly. Their ability to basically sleep the entire time was remarkable and suited us just fine.  In many of the other cabins, TVs were blaring the entire time and passengers chatted loudly - ours was an oasis of calm.  Shared toilets and showers were just around the corner and were pretty decent.

Just under the window of our cabin was on old TV playing a 20 year old safety video on a loop at an annoyingly loud volume. We quickly switched it off, but had the chance to take in a few of the bizarre Chinglish messages before doing so: "Please! Take care not to slip on the deck... Especially on the raining day!"; "Please! Take care of your children... If you have any".  

A tour around the boat revealed lots of these slightly ambiguous notices, which we of course did our best to follow.

Good passengers follow instructions

The boat was actually quite small and a ten minute tour showed us all the facilities. 

The grand staircase - the heart of the vessel

There was a restaurant, open for 90 minutes at set times each day for breakfast, lunch and dinner. A queue formed just before each meal time as people rushed to get the best food.  Breakfast was included in the ticket price, and other Chinese meals could be bought at a reasonable price. Breakfast was not the best: hot rice soup (over-boiled rice floating in its starchy water, without any seasoning), two types of bland dumplings, and (easily the best part) a small plate of stir fried noodles. This was washed down with a cup of coffee OR orange juice, as we learnt when we greedily tried to take both. The highlight of our dining in the boat was a box of instant spaghetti carbonara we had picked up in Japan - sounds hard to believe but it was ingenious (especially loved the built-in colander system) and very tasty.

Restaurant with strict meal times and loud TV blaring at all times - better be quick if you want something decent! This was our packed lunch

There was the information desk, which kept a wall map showing where the boat was at key times of the day.

Keeping tabs on progress at the Information Desk - you can see on the map the dotted line of the scenic route the boat took through the Japanese islands

There was a duty free shop, selling reasonably priced items such as EUR 20 pearl necklaces. This was open strictly four hours per day.

See anything you fancy? The well stocked Duty Free Shop

The cafe at the front of the ship had a great view. This was also only open four hours per day, at the same time as the shop. What to do if one wants to have a coffee and shop?!

Not the best cafe ambiance we've experienced...

...but the view was pretty good

Further below was the mahjong room, and the "gymnasium". We walked along to this room, excitedly wondering what sort of exercise machines we might find there. Strangely, the gymnasium was full of ten computers lining the walls - only one in use - and a lone table tennis table. Not the exercise we had in mind, but a couple of Chinese guys were working up a sweat on the table when we popped our heads in.

The strangely named "gymnasium"

Otherwise, the boat was full of open seating areas with tables and chairs or benches where passengers sat around playing cards, smoking, chatting or watching Chinese films. There we also vending machines for drinks and noodles, not that we needed them having stocked up with bags of snacks on the mainland before boarding.

Our fellow passengers were almost entirely Chinese. There was a small group of Japanese who kept to themselves, but the sounds of the ship were overwhelmingly mandarin. Groups of card pairs gathered in all corners of the ship, mandarin TV shows and films blared from TV sets. Needless to say, we stood out. A group of students stood and watched us, giggling and one girl emerged, telling us that she had lost a bet and therefore should talk to us. We were of course happy to so. When we complimented her on her English, the group of students, who now had closed in around us, exploded with laughter, finding this particularly funny.

There was one other westerner on the ship - an older English guy who shall remain nameless. He caught sight of us already at check-in and seemed like a friendly chap. On the boat, he kept appearing wherever we were, even if it only had been five minutes since our last chat and "see you later", no matter if it was a walk on deck, an afternoon tea, a sunset viewing.  This was only the first day onboard but it was already obvious that there no limits to his "chatting and laughing loudly at his own jokes" capabilities (jokes we sometimes struggled to understand). He found us again (we'd lost count for which time by now) when we were quietly sat reading our books - enjoying some down time.  He took up his collected works of Jane Austen and declared "This is my Kindle!" and laughed out loudly. We were hoping that he would open it and perhaps read for a bit. It probably doesn't surprise anyone that he didn't.  Instead he ignored our efforts to read and kept asking us questions and telling us about funny TV programmes he had seen. 

We had both seen this boat trip as a relaxing break and a chance to do nothing besides reading our books and planning our China trip. Adamant to keep it this way, a game of cat and mouse began. If we saw him on the starboard deck, we would make sure to go the port deck. When time for breakfast, we went to the restaurant just before closing time. Realising he hadn't discovered the ship's cafeteria, we went there. Unfortunately, that only provided temporary refuge as it only was open four hours per day. We could of course have hidden in our cabin (and we were eternally grateful that we weren't sharing with him) but that's not very inspiring when on a boat. This by no means meant that we didn't keep bumping in to him - this was a relatively small ship and he did have a tendency to appear everywhere, but it at least helped us to get what we wanted - a nice, relaxing time.

We we incredibly lucky with the sailing conditions. It was brilliant weather the whole way. For the first day we just cruised through the narrow passage of islands south of Honshu and then through the narrow passage between Honshu and Kyushu. When asking a fellow passenger where we were, she replied, in what almost felt like poetry: "This is the second bridge - you need to pass four bridges to get to China." The views were spectacular, and we had a beautiful sunset on the first evening. People pay good money to take cruises along this route, and we felt very lucky to see it.

Views of islands south of Honshu and sunset on first evening

By the time we awoke on the Wednesday, we were only just leaving Kyushu behind and it was still visible at breakfast. For the rest of the day we we cruising through the sea between Japan and China with nothing at all visible on the horizon. We passed the odd ship and our route took us south of Cheju Island (Korea) but we never saw it. The sea was "calm as a millpond", as Grant's mum would say, and there was hardly any wind. We sat on deck enjoying the sun for as long as we could stand the heat. It was the easiest ferry crossing either of us could remember.

Enjoying glorious weather on a flat sea on Wednesday 18 April

On Wednesday night we enjoyed the ship's other facility - the "Karaoke and Dancing Room". Following the general design standards of the ship, this was a room devoid of any atmosphere, but it did have well priced Chinese beer and an incredibly well stocked karaoke machine. The song list was like a phone book. A pair of Chinese guys had taken over the machine for the night and were singing some Chinese hits we obviously didn't recognise. The volume was painfully loud and these guys seemed to enjoy shouting.  Grant managed to squeeze in a couple of Beatles numbers, though - amongst which Back in the USSR (Communist connection - get it?) - which those in the crowd of five people who were actually awake seemed to appreciate.

The Karaoke and Dancing Room - party central on the ship. Poor bar staff having to listen to this lot all night

Grant gets his chance on the mic. The crowd loved it, kind of.

We awoke on Thursday morning to discover that the sea outside the window had turned brown and everything was covered in mist. We soon discovered that the brown sea was in fact the Huang Pu River, the mist was smog, and we were approaching Shanghai, several hours ahead of schedule.  We had a quick breakfast in the restaurant, got packed up and prepared to arrive. We cruised up the river as part of a flotilla of boats carrying all sorts of materials to the far corners of China.

Heavy traffic coming into Shanghai

We docked at 10am, four hours ahead of schedule.  

Helena on deck where we docked, in the heart of Shanghai

Et voilà, Shanghai!

We breezed through passport control and customs and were ushered out of the terminal - at least three stern-looking Chinese security people standing in every corner of the ferry terminal.

Out on the street, we hailed a taxi and tried to make clear to the driver where our hostel was. We held on for our lives as he introduced us to Shanghai traffic - in a word, "mental" (and no seatbelts). He took us to the wrong place first - a five star hotel somewhere. We obviously look more sophisticated than we are! With help from the hotel concierge we got our driver steered the right way and found the hostel. He knocked a lot off the meter price because of the misunderstanding, which was extremely decent of him. We stepped out of the taxi and into the Mingtown Hostel, just behind the Bund. We had finally arrived.

Posted by Grantandhelena 00:18 Archived in China Comments (1)

Last days in Japan

Hiroshima, Miyajima and Kobe

sunny 22 °C
View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.


Hiroshima was always going to be on our Japan itinerary for all the obvious reasons. After we had checked in at Hana Hostel (one of the best we've stayed in in Japan) we headed out to the sights.

 Hiroshima has numerous monuments, museums and sights commemorating the atomic bombing. We walked the full length of the Peace Boulevard through Hiroshima to the Atomic Bomb Dome. The dome used to be the Industrial Promotion Hall and on 6 August 1945, the atomic bomb exploded almost directly above it. Everyone inside the building was killed, but the  building itself was one of the few in the area that was left standing after the explosion. For many years it was discussed what to do with it and as one destroyed building after the other was torn down, it was felt that this should be saved, as a memorial.

The A Bomb Dome

The area around the A Bomb Dome was completely destroyed and is today the Peace Memorial Park (and world heritage site). On the way to the museum, we passed the Children's Peace Monument. There was also a display full of origami cranes sent from children all over the world. It was the young girl Sadako from Hiroshima, who when sick of leukemia, decided to fold 1000 cranes believing that it would help her get well. She died before she could finish, and her class mates finished it in her place.

Children's Peace Monument

Paper cranes made by children all over the world 

Peace Memorial Park with the flame of peace, that will only be extinguished once the last nuclear weapon earth has been destroyed

The Peace Memorial Museum was very good and quite overwhelming. It gave a very substantial and comprehensive presentation of events before, during and after the bombing. It covered historical, political and technological aspects, as well as providing gruesome testimonials from during and after the bombing, including photos of victims with horrible burns and melted skins. One story we both had noticed was that of a mother who after the bombing kept going to the bus stop waiting for her daughter to come home. Her daughter never came, but the mother kept going anyway, day after day.

Models of what the epicentre looked like before and after the bombing

Hiroshima was a military centre before the bombing but has now become a strong advocate for peace and nuclear disarmament. The museum showcased an impressive number of Hiroshima conferences and declarations on peace. There were also copies of the letters that the successive mayors of Hiroshima have sent to the ambassadors of countries that have conducted nuclear tests, the mayor always hoping that this will be the last letter of its kind they will ever send. It is impossible to imagine anyone visiting Hiroshima and not leaving fiercely opposed to nuclear weapons.

Copies of letters the Mayor of Hiroshima has sent to ambassadors after their respective countries have conducted nuclear tests

Hiroshima is a surprisingly nice city. It's big but much easier to get around than Tokyo or Osaka and the rivers and greenery makes it a very pleasant place. It's amazing that out of such complete devastation such a pleasant and vibrant city has risen.

Miyajima - one of the three most beautiful places in Japan?

Miyajima is a small island (UNESCO world heritage site...) less than an hour from Hiroshima. It's known for its beauty (somewhere listed as one of the three most beautiful places in Japan) and is one of Japan's biggest tourist attractions. We had been told that we had to go there so off we went, aware that it was Sunday and most likely busy.

Our first and main stop was the Misen, the highest mountain of the island. We decided to walk up rather than taking the ropeway. The ferry and the main town of the island might have been very busy, but the trek up the forest path was surprisingly calm. And steep. When we reached the summit after about 45 minutes we were quite beat! Mind you, the estimated climb time was 90 minutes so we felt pretty pleased with ourselves. Truth be told, we were sick of the crowds and keen to get back to Hiroshima to do some shopping so that spurred us along!

Miyajima is full of deer which are tame

On the way up

The view from the top of the coastline and the dotted island was just amazing and we could definitely see why this place is known for its beauty.

Views from the summit of Misen

On the way down, we had quick look at the temples. In one of them is a flame that has been burning continually since it was lit 1200 years ago.  The flame was used to lit the Flame of Peace in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park.

A very old fire

Once down (and here we took the rope way), we headed to the ferry. First we stopped to have a look at the famous vermilion torii of Itsukushima-jinja. At high tide, which it kind of was when we passed it, it looks like it is floating in the water. It was a running "snap". We had shopping to do.  You may have guessed that temple fatigue has become a problem.

The torii of Itsukushima-jinja

After lunch (and our last noodle soup in Japan!) we took the ferry and train back to Hiroshima, after a very pleasant day at Miyajima.

Last day in Japan

We were to take the ferry from Kobe on the Tuesday and had plenty of time to get there from Hiroshima, given that it only was two hours with the Shinkhansen. We therefore decided to stop in Imbe, known for nothing but pottery. We arrived in a very small and, by all accounts, dull town. We had a look in a number of pottery shops. The Imbe pottery is beautiful with very earthy, dark tones. It was soon clear, however, that the prices were way above our budget.

In one nice pottery shop, the owner offered us to have a look at the kiln used to make pottery - quite an impressive device!

Beautifully set out pottery shops but with prices way above our backpacker budget

Trying to find lunch, everything turned out to be closed. Luckily, the always reliable FamilyMart was open, so we got some sandwiches there before getting back on the train.

When in Kobe...

Apart from catching the ferry to Shanghai, we had only one thing planned in Kobe - tasting the Kobe beef. We asked at our hostel for a recommendation and were told to go to Mouriya. It was supposed to be a good place but, said the girl in the reception, very expensive. We decided to interpret that as "reassuringly" expensive. 

After having found Mouriya, which turned to be a Russian cryllic spelling - not sure why - we were seated and shown the menu. Of course the prices outside the restaurant turned out to be prices, not for Kobe beef, but for something that was "almost as good". Having come this far though, we decided that it was worth paying the extra for the real thing, thinking that the food better be good.

We had been allocated seats around the cooking area and next we were allocated our own chef! We were delighted when it turned out that he spoke some English. He started by frying slices of garlic and while they were frying, carefully organising our plates, putting salt, pepper and wasabi on them.

The fun has begun! The cooking started with garlic

Plates with Wasabi, pepper and salt

While he was cooking, we got our hors d'oeuvres (a tuna and avocado mix), and starter (soup). Next, our pieces of meat were presented to us - one sirloin and one rib steak. We  couldn't but approve and indicate to the chef how we wanted them prepared (rare! He seemed to approve).

Our Kobe beef

Our assumption that this would be the first time we'd eat with a knife and fork in Japan turned out to be wrong. Instead the chef chopped up the beef in pieces and we could continue eating with chopsticks. Depending on what type and part of the beef it was, he gave us advice on what seasoning to use: "This is good with salt - just a little piece of salt", "Try this with wasabi!", "This one with garlic and a little salt!". Our favourite by far was to eat the meat with the crispy garlic.  He also cooked some potato, a Japanese root vegetable which reminded us of turnip, bamboo shoots and aubergine. These were also given to us a few at the time, with advice on what sauce to use with the respective vegetables. 

There was a "the world is small moment" at the restaurant too. There were three men having dinner there at the same time and it turned out they were here on business. A French, Spanish and American guy, they were all living in Qatar, working for the Qatar Public Museums. When hearing we were from Brussels and that Grant was doing competition law, the Spanish guy mentioned that the only person he knew in Brussels was a competition lawyer. That guy turned out to be in Grant's cycling group. What are the chances?

It was a really excellent meal and much more of an experience than we had expected. By far the most expensive meal we've had in Japan but again, when in Kobe...

After dinner, we headed to the supermarket to stock up on supplies for our 50 hours cruise to Shanghai.  New adventures beckoned...

Lastly, our hostel in Kobe gave us the answer to a question that has been haunting us ever since we arrived in Japan...

Posted by Grantandhelena 00:01 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

The Real Japan


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

"If you want to see the real Japan, go to Shimabara." This is what our friend Remi Tissa said when he learnt that we were going to Japan. Remi spent two years teaching English in Shimabara and has become an unofficial ambassador for the town. Of course, we couldn't resist seeing the "real" Japan, even less so when it meant being looked after by Remi's good friends, of which there are many in Shimabara. In fact, we discovered that the Remi Tissa fan club is very much alive and well down here.

 Shimabara is situated on the Kyushu peninsula, in the Nagasaki prefecture. According to Japanese standards, it's "countryside", being a small town of "only" 50 000. It is most known for its volcano, which last erupted in 1991. It has also been the sight of the Shimabara Rebellion,  and an early base for Christianity (as well as severe persecution of Christians in the 1600s). And of course wherever there are volcanoes, there are hot springs.

In order to get to Shimabara from Kyoto we had to change trains in Osaka and Fukuoka and finally get on a small private train in Isahaya. At around 17h on Wednesday we arrived, very curious about what this town had to offer.

It's fair to say that the Shimabara-Tetsudo line train is not the slickest of Japan's railway stock...

Home in Shimabara - the local youth hostel where we were almost the only guests

What we found in Shimabara was the most fantastically warm welcome we could have imagined. Remi's old friends looked after us so well for the two days we were there, and made sure we saw all the local sights as well as eating the best local food. It was an experience we will never forget.

Hiro, our personal tour guide

Remi had put us in touch with Hiro, a former senior student of his and a local guide. When we arrived to our hostel, an envelope full of local information awaited us together with a handwritten note from Hiro welcoming us and offering his guiding services for the next two days.  Hiro means "wide knowledge" in Japanese, and over the next two days Hiro would certainly live up to his name!

At 10 am on Thursday morning, Hiro was waiting with his car at our hostel for a whistlestop tour of the local sites. Hiro is a retired bus mechanic with a brilliant knowledge of the history and geology of the Shimabara peninsula. He was born in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, where his father managed a mine, but returned to the Shimabara peninsula at a young age.  He has lived here ever since, but did take a three month round-the-world cruise when he retired a few years back.  Hiro took up English late in life and was full of praise for his old language teacher, Remi.

Hiro and Grant - we were so lucky to have Hiro as our personal tour guide for two days. His generosity and hospitality were overwhelming

Unzen volcano area

The first place Hiro took us on Thursday was the Unzen volcano area. Shimabara sits at the foot of an active volcano, Mount Unzen, which last erupted in 1991.  Luckily the death toll was low in 1991 due to there being plenty of pre-warning, though some scientists and journalists were tragically killed.  In 1792, the previous major eruption of the volcano provoked a simultaneous tsunami and thousands lost their lives.  

Shimabara is far from unique; a large number of the peaks you can see from the town are volcanoes and there are plenty of people in Japan living in similar situations. When we asked Hiro why people continue to live next to an active volcano, he laughed and said he has answered that questions from foreigners many times. Simply, this is home and Japan is a place where space is tight. Hard to argue with that!

Living next to a volcano may be hazardous - the shell of the old elementary school in Shimabara, burned out by the lava flow in 1991 and left standing as an eery monument.  Thankfully, this entire area had been evacuated months before the lava eruption so none of the students were harmed.

We visited the burned out shell of the old elementary school to see the devastating effects of molten lava on everything in its path - this building was at the edge of the flow but was burned to a shell. Thankfully the entire area had been evacuated in the middle of 1991 and the eruption finally took place in October, when all residents were safely out of harm's way.  The eruption had been building for the best part of a year; we saw incredible photos of students and teachers happily playing baseball in the school yard in May 1991 (just before evacuation) under towering ash clouds that cut out most of the sunlight. Hardcore!!

Since 1991, Shimabara has two new features.  First, right next to the burned-out elementary school stands a high tech observation building from which scientists monitor the volcano full time.  They can predict with great accuracy when eruptions will occur, as the events of 1991 showed. All the same, the second floor of the building is a "volcano-proof" bunker where scientists could shelter if stranded. Apparently it would only take 3 minutes from eruption for lava to reach the level of the observation building, so that bunker must be reassuring for those working there! 

The second new feature is a "forbidden zone" right in front of the observatory, which follows the path of the 1991 lava flow. Because this is the path a future lava eruption would follow, all building and farming in this fenced-off zone is now forbidden. It cuts a wide path through the countryside on the south side of Shimabara. 

The volcano observation centre sits right next to the burned-out elementary school and overlooks the "forbidden zone"

View of the "forbidden zone" from the observation centre

Explanation of the path of eruption in 1991

Two things about all this are remarkable: firstly, the very significant resources that are deployed around the clock to ensure the safety of citizens from volcanic activity; and secondly the accuracy of predictions about how an eventual eruption would occur.  The vast majority of the area around the volcano is deemed entirely safe; only the "forbidden zone" is off limits.  It is this that allows normal life in Shimabara to continue as normal even as it nestles under an active volcano.

Hiro took us in his car up the winding road to a rope way (cable car) which took us to the peak next to the volcano, Myoken-Dake (1333m). From here we could see at close quarters the "lava dome" left from the last eruption on top of Unzen. Every eruption here will change not only the shape of the volcano itself, but also the surrounding countryside.  The setting lava flows will produce new hills and mountains in the area, as well as extending the shoreline further out to sea.  Prior to the 1792 eruption, Shimabara's shore sat a good 150 metres further back than it does today, somewhere in the middle of the town's shopping arcade.  Where will it be in another two hundred year's time?

Views at the top of the mountain of the lava dome and the surrounding area - Japan's oldest golf course is up here as well as lots of onsen (hot springs)

On the steps to the peak of Myoken Dake from the rope way, we met a group of local octogenarians out for a hike. They were extremely cheerful and especially excited to see two foreigners up the mountain. They asked if they could have photos with us, and then began paying us compliments and wishing us health and happiness in various different ways, which Hiro patiently translated.  Perhaps the final enthusiastic wish from the leader of the group was a bit too racy as it provoked hoots of scandalised laughter from the rest of the elderly hikers and Hiro politely said he could not translate the message!

This elderly hiking group revealed to us the secret of Japanese longevity - hiking up mountains and engaging in smutty banter!

Hot springs and the bloody history of Shimabara peninsula

Living under a volcano isn't all bad - the same forces that are producing molten lava are also heating the water under the ground, meaning this area is full of natural hot springs. Next stop on the tour at the foot of the mountain on the opposite side from Shimabara was the "jigoku" or boiling mineral hot springs.  The Japanese word literally means "hells" - bubbling sulphurous natural wells in the ground.  Today they are a tourist attraction and are used to boil eggs, which we sampled. Very tasty (and not black, like the ones in Hakone). In days of old, the use of the jigoku was far more gruesome: a number of Christian martyrs we boiled alive in them during the period of persecution.

The jigoku produce very nice hard boiled eggs. It is bizarre to see the earth bubbling and hissing everywhere you look here

We also sampled the foot spa in the coastal town of Obama, on the other side of the mountain. The hot water used here comes from under the sea - a sea so warm through geothermal activity it was used by the navy in days of old to remove barnacles from the underside of their ships - and is channeled into a 125 metre public foot spa that looks out over the sea.  It's a seriously civilised asset for the residents here. There is even a designated zone at the end of the foot spa where household pets can wash - great place to be a dog! 

Enjoying the foot spa in Obama, with views over the sea

In case you are wondering, the US President has not yet been to his namesake's foot spa, as far as Hiro is aware, but we think it should be on Barrack's list of places to visit...

Hiro took us for lunch in Obama to sample some of the excellent local speciality - champon - noodles with mixed seafood, meat and vegetables.

Champon for lunch

Last tourist stop of the day was the ruins of a former castle on the outskirts of Shimabara where around 30,000 Christians lost their lives in a botched rebellion in the 1600s, which led to a siege of the castle lasting several months.  While the views it across the peninsula are beautiful, the dreadful history of this area for Christians, persecuted by buddhists, is hard to fathom.

Stunning view across the water from the peninsula at the spot where a castle formerly stood. It is hard to believe the scale of the atrocities that took place here in the 1600s

Home for tea

For the last stop of the day, Hiro was kind enough to invite us to his house where we were treated to coffee, homemade Japanese cakes and hand-picked local strawberries.  Hiro's wife, Matue,  had spent the morning picking strawberries at a local farm and had filled half her kitchen with them. Here in Japan they are a winter fruit - large and very sweet - and we enjoyed doing our bit to help eat them.  Matue even gave us a big box of strawberries and homemade cakes to take away with us!!

Enjoying coffee, cakes and endless strawberries chez Hiro

Day two: more sights of Shimabara

Hiro took us out in his car for a second day of sight seeing in Shimabara on Friday. We kicked off with Shimabara's famous Samurai houses and the town's natural springs where residents can fill up anytime with some of the country's finest natural spring water.

Samurai houses including early domestic drinking water system

Helena getting into samurai ways

One of Shimabara's  public water springs

We finished up with a trip to Shimabara castle at the heart of the town. There we enjoyed some very interesting exhibits on local history, including the Christian persecutions. We especially enjoyed the samurai outfit exhibits, and the chance to try some samurai gear on.

Of all the ancient Japanese warriors, the Scottish samurais were the most feared...

Mighty Shimabara castle

Hiro took us out for another excellent lunch, this time to a local fishermen's cooperative, where we enjoyed among other things whole deep fried fish which are eaten in their entirety - heads, bones and all! Delicious.

Lunch at the local fisherman's cooperative on Friday

Our guided tour finished here and we parted with Hiro, so grateful to him for his brilliant and generous guiding. We could never have discovered so much of the area, nor eaten so well, without him.

That afternoon, we relaxed, wandered the town and prepared to move out the next day for Hiroshima.  It was fun to check out the town and see what a novelty we were to the local residents.

Relaxing in Shimabara on Friday, we bumped into more friendly locals such as the guys at the Shimeiso villa who plied us with free green tea, and Junichi Shimizu who runs a local cafe we stopped into - conversation was limited to sign language at Shimeiso villa, but we enjoyed a long chat with Junichi

Enjoying Shimabara by night

While the days were dedicated to sightseeing, we experienced Shimabara's nightlife in the evening, a fantastic experience thanks to Remi's friends. On the Thursday night, Yuko, an old friend of Remi, picked us up at our hostel and took us into town for some dinner. There we were joined by her friend Erika, who had moved back to Shimabara after several years in London and Tokyo, Yuko's husband Yutaka and their cute six year old, Ibuki (who in a most impressive way endured a long dinner with adults speaking nothing but English! We must have done something right however, as he gave us two of his origami books. We look forward to practicing our skills on the long ferry ride to Shanghai!).

The izikaya (local restaurant) is run by friends of Yuko. She'd confirmed with us before hand that we liked sushi so we were expecting a sushi dinner. That would, however, turn out to only be one of many delicious dishes Yuko would order. 

The excitement was there from the very beginning. To start with, we had small bowls of fish. We asked what it was and were told "It's blowfish (also known as poison fish or fugu in Japanese)". We were very excited. Blowfish is, as you may know, a highly poisonous fish and it can, if not filleted in the correct way, be lethal. There are several deaths reported each year caused by eating incorrectly prepared blowfish. For this reason, only chefs with a special "blowfish license" are allowed to serve it. Luckily, Yuko's friend is one of those people. So why, you may wonder, eat it if it involves so much risk? The simple answer is that it is so delicious, a fact we can now confirm having eaten it.

Blowfish - delicious, and deadly if not properly prepared

After the blowfish it was time for delicious sushi, noodles, various types of skewered meat, noodles, deep fried cheese and asparagus sticks, grilled vegetables, mushrooms, clam and cabbage soup and, of course, beer and sake. Just as we would think, "this is it, there couldn't possibly be anymore" - no, the doors would open and the friendly staff would come in with more trays with food that Yuko had ordered via the intercom on the wall. This is by far the best meal we've had in Japan and we really enjoyed chatting to Yuko, Yutaka and Erika and getting the chance to ask all our stupid questions about Japan. 

An exceptionally good dinner with Yuko, Yutaka, Ibuki and Erika

After dinner, it was bedtime for Ibuki so he and Yutaka headed home while we went with Yuko and Erika for another drink in one of the local bars. It wasn't, however, the bar Remi has said that we had to go to as it was closed that evening. Instead, we headed to Shin's bar with Erika on the Friday.

Shin's bar is one of the coolest we've been to and Shin himself, is a very cool and nice guy. We really enjoyed sitting at the bar and chatting to him. He runs this bar at night but during the day he designs and maintains gardens. It started as a small project but he now has more than 200 clients. Where he gets the time and energy to do all this work and be a dad we don't know. He also manages somehow to find time to go fishing. Apparently though, his wife doesn't allow him to go fishing every week-end. He showed us the sign Hiro had showed us earlier in the day when talking about his wife, which seems to be universal sign Japanese men use to show when their wifes are angry: the two index fingers pointing up on each side of the head, like a bull. 

When Shin heard Helena was Swedish, he immediately mentioned Haglöfs as he is a big fan of their fishing equipment. Apparently there is only something like three shops selling Haglöfs in Japan, so a friend in Tokyo sends him gear. We of course showed him our jackets and daypack and had a long discussion about the beauty of Haglöfs. If they ever wanted a cool face for a Japan campaign, Shin is definitely their man.

Shin making excellent cocktails behind the bar

Enjoying the ambiance of Shin's bar, Neon

Shin is a fan of American soul and it was playing throughout the night on his turntables. When he heard we'd been to Brazil he popped on The girl from Ipanema. The wall behind the bar was full of hundreds of albums.

After a while the bar filled up and in addition to Japanese guys, several English teachers showed up, originally from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. They did seem a bit surprised that we were there as it isn't the obvious stop for tourists. These were the successors of Remi, though clearly there is no replacing him in the eyes of Shin and his other mates here!

After quite a few beers and Shim's cocktails and much later than we had expected, it was time to head back to the hostel. Erika and Shin didn't let us pay for any drinks, despite us insisting. We said goodbye to Shin, hoping he would take us up on the offer to come and design our garden one day (whenever we end up having one, that is). We also said goodbye to Erika with whom we had spent two excellent nights out. She said she would try to come to Sweden one day and we can only hope she does, so we get the chance to return the excellent hospitality we enjoyed in Shimabara.

Behind Shin's bar, one of the best we've been to!

Early next morning, we caught the ferry to Kumamoto, where we would take the train up to Hiroshima. 

We really had an excellent, unforgettable time in Shimabara for which we owe Hiro, Matue, Yuko, Yutaka, Ibuki, Erika and Shin a huge thank you. And of course, it wouldn't have been possible without Remi.  

Waving goodbye to Shimabara, where we spent a couple of excellent days, from the ferry taking us to Kumamoto

Posted by Grantandhelena 08:14 Archived in Japan Comments (4)

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