Eurasia

February - May 2016
A 78-day adventure by Marek
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  • Day 2

    Tai O, Hong Kong

    February 29, 2016 in Hong Kong ⋅ 🌙 15 °C

    Enjoyed seeing a different side of Hong Kong today in the village of Tai O on Lantau Island. The villagers were largely from the Tanka ethnic minority and earned their money through fishing. We went on a £1 boat tour of their fishing village on stilts, before sampling the local delicacy - dried fish. We went for the dried squid, and it was surprisingly good, although it was chewy and left a long lingering taste of the sea in your mouth. We also visited the nearby Po Lin Monastery, which was housed in ornate, but fairly modern buildings and was home to a giant Buddha, set against the rolling hills of Lantau Island.Read more

  • Day 5

    Yangshuo County

    March 3, 2016 in China ⋅ ☁️ 18 °C

    We have spent an amazing 3 days In Yangshuo and Guilin. Our hostel in Yangshuo had really nice staff who showed us where to get the local Guilin noodles for 80p and who helped create a festive atmosphere (through beer pong and shots of rice wine infused with dead snakes) despite it being low season. One of them, Feng, took us to the top of the tallest hill in Yangshuo town where we got an amazing view of sunset over the rolling Karst scenery.

    We also went on a cycling trip along the Yulong river, riding through beautiful farmland and countless Karst hills, followed by a trip on a bamboo raft owned by what we could only describe as the Chinese two Ronnies.

    The following day we scaled Baozhai hill in Xingping which was exhausting but gave us breathtaking vistas over a bend in the Li River.

    On Thursday we travelled to Guilin, a larger city that had been more clearly overrun by Chinese tourists and spent a day exploring the lakes that dotted the city at a more leisurely pace, as we knew that on Friday we would embark on our epic 20 hour hard sleeper train journey to Kunming...
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  • Day 10

    Kunming and the Yuanyang Rice Terraces

    March 8, 2016 in China ⋅ ☀️ 23 °C

    Our 20 hour hard sleeper journey to Kunming was actually fairly pleasant, with comfy beds, unlimited hot water for superior Chinese pot noodle and friendly fellow passengers. On arriving at our hostel we were very surprised (especially as we had barely seen any westerners since leaving Hong Kong) to bump into the older brother of someone in our year at Fortismere - small world! We decided to take it easy after our long journey, so spent the morning wandering round Kunming, visiting a fairly arty cultural center and attempting to visit the Yunnan provincial museum, which had unfortunately been moved to a modern building far from the center of town.

    In the afternoon, we hopped on a couple of buses to visit the bamboo temple, a beautiful Buddhist temple decorated by a madcap 19th century artist who filled it with statutes satirising his contemporaries and around 70 surfing buddhas.

    We had dinner at a Chinese Muslim restaurant where we had delicious spicy noodle and fried bread, which unlike all the other baked goods we'd bought in China wasn't disgustingly sweet brioche.
    It was Saturday night, so we headed to the Kundu night market, a major nightlife area. We walked past the cheesy, huge Chinese clubs and went for a quick drink in Mask, a bar recommended by lonely planet. The place had a cool vibe, but we were pleasantly surprised when a DJ whose music wouldn't be out of place in a cool Shoreditch club came on. We stayed there til 3, despite having a bus at 9am the next morning, encountering American exchange students, the daughters of Brazilian pilots and Chinese techno enthusiasts along the way.

    We groggily caught the bus to Yuanyang, famed for its rice terraces the following morning. The journey took more than 8 hours through rolling, increasingly tropical hills, on a coach that got hijacked by a group of helpful Chinese tourists who were keen for it to stop closer to the terraces and our hostels than it was scheduled to, followed by a minibus crammed with 20 of us, a ride me and David enjoyed from the dashboard. We finally reached Belinda's guesthouse at around 8pm and, with the cook not speaking any English and there not being a menu, ended up massively over ordering, getting a giant pile of pork ribs each, at vast expense (£7). That evening we met 2 English blokes in the hostel, one of whom had been cycling from London to Australia and had visited many of the Central Asian destinations we are heading to, so could provide plenty of good stories and practical info.

    We got up shockingly early for the sunrise over the rice terraces, but as you'll see in my pictures, it was very much worth it. We spent the day exploring the terraces, walking along them admiring the amazing landscape, visiting the villages of the local Hani people, as well as doing a bit of relaxing in the village we were staying in, before heading to another scenic viewpoint to experience a slightly cloudy, but still picturesque sunset. We spent the evening with our 2 English mates, enjoying a simple meal of fried rice while indulging in more Baiju than was wise for people with another early start the next day.

    I am writing this from a train (cheaper and more comfortable than the bus) heading back to Kunming from a town near the rice terraces, which we would have only been able to find thanks to the help of a friendly middle aged Chinese woman with a bit of broken English. The train staff have also, like most people we've met, been very helpful, enlisting other passengers' smartphones to translate their warnings to keep an eye on our bags.

    We are heading to Dali tomorrow morning, towards the mountains on the edge of the Tibetan plateau where we are hoping it won't be too cold/snowy.
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  • Day 17

    Dali & Lijiang

    March 15, 2016 in China ⋅ 🌬 16 °C

    After a relaxing night in Kunming we got up early to catch a train to Dali, a former hippie center (leaving it a legacy of lots of of shops selling ukeles and bongos) and ancient town nestled between the Changshan mountain range and the blue waters of Lake Erhai. We arrived at our hostel in the early evening and quickly set out to explore the old town, which was extremely touristy, with chain shops, hipster coffee bars and a faux historic McDonald's. As our budget doesn't stretch to a big Mac, we sought out a Hui Muslim run restaurant were we devoured a deliciously spicy noodle soup, before heading back to our hostel for an early night.

    The next day we decided to hire bikes to cycle around Lake Erhai, China's second biggest mountain lake. There were few standout sights, but the cycle route around the lake took us through plenty of pleasant fishing villages, before we cycled back up hill past the old town to Dali's three 1000 year old pagodas, which we chose to admire from afar because of their extortionate £12 entrance fee. After that we returned to the hostel, where we played Oh Hell and drank Baiju, before heading out to what turned out to be a fairly lackluster local bar.

    On Thursday morning, nursing some heavy Baiju induced hangovers, we made our way to the foot of the 4000m Changshan mountains, hopping some barbed wire fences to avoid paying another entrance fee. After clambering up deserted forested steps for a couple of hours, we arrived at the Cloudland Path above the trees which afforded great views across town and lake and a break from the relentless flow of Chinese tourists in the old town. Heading along the path we eventually reached the Zhonghe temple, a quiet Buddhist sanctuary with beautiful murals and the otherworldly singing of a female devotee. Me and Theo chose to descend the mountains via chairlift, while Freddie and David went down on foot, resulting in us nearly missing the bus we needed to connect to our train to Lijiang.

    We arrived in Lijiang, a town traditionally associated with the Naxi minority which until recently was matrilineal and spent an hour trying to find our well hidden, super cheap hostel, before heading into the incredibly busy old town (which charges an £8 entry fee in daylight hours) for dinner. We stumbled upon a fairly touristy but fun snack market, where we enjoyed delicacies such as exquisite grilled carp from Lake Erhai and Naxi style aubergine filled with mixed veg. After dinner, we went back to the hostel before heading into town, where we went to Muse, a fancy looking club down an escalator where we were pounced on by a group of Chinese rich kids who gave us ridiculous amounts of Johnnie Walker Black Label watered down with tea. Other partiers included diamond chain wearing Chinese gangsters and glamorous women who seemed like they were paid to be there. We quickly encountered the other foreigners in the club, a group of Ukrainians (featuring a Georgian) who had played a gig at the club earlier and were then given free drinks to keep them there as foreigners were such an attraction. After a ridiculous amount of free drink, the club began to die down and we went back to the Ukrainians' hotel where we spent a pleasant couple of hours chatting around a bonfire, before heading to bed stupidly late.

    After waking up at around midday, we spent our second day in Lijiang arranging our bus ticket to the Tiger Leaping Gorge, before walking to the Museum of Naxi Dongba Culture, where we learnt about Naxi religious beliefs (a mixture of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam) and their intriguing language - the only living one to use hieroglyphics rather than an alphabet. Beside the museum was the Black Dragon park, a green expanse filled with pagodas, temples and clear reflective pools and awash with Chinese tourists, but still fairly enjoyable. Afterwards, to celebrate my birthday we decided to have our first western meal of the trip, but unfortunately the great sounding pizza and burger place in the old town was closed so we had to resort to the world's fanciest Pizza Hut, which served dishes such as Italian tapas and Bacon and Crab Roe pizza. After satisfying our cheese craving, we got an early night, as we knew we had a long day hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge ahead of us....
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  • Day 22

    Tiger Leaping Gorge & Shangri-la

    March 20, 2016 in China ⋅ 🌫 10 °C

    After 2 days in touristy Lijiang we hopped on the first of many early bus journeys, on this occasion for the 2 hour trip to Qiaotou, the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge hike. After leaving our rucksacks at Janes' Guesthouse, we began the trek. After walking for a few kilometres up a road, we got to the start of the High Trail of the gorge and the first of our magnificent views of the gorge, carved by the Yellow River and named for the mythical Tiger that leapt across the rapids. The trail quickly became incredibly steep, more suited to the yaks dotting the hillside, with the hard slog only interrupted by the occasional old lady who sold anything from water to snickers to ganja. We got over the first major hill and reached the first village, which was slightly blighted by the sight and sound of a giant dam building project nearby. We pressed on, eventually reaching the 28 bends which the guidebook had labelled the most challenging part of the trek. The steep winding bends were unrelenting, but the view at the top - the highest point in the gorge, was amazing. After contemplating the stunning mountain scenery, while enjoying the solitude - we only encountered 5 other walkers during our whole trip to the gorge - we made our way down further into the gorge, where we stopped at the Halfway Hostel in Bending for the night. After eating a delicious Naxi vegetable sandwich, we did a bit of stargazing on the roof terrace, surely one of the only places in China not blighted by light pollution before heading to sleep, knowing we had a trek to the bottom of the gorge ahead of us in the morning.

    We got up fairly early and carried on walking, until after a fairly tricky descent we reached Tina's Guesthouse, the hostel closest to the bottom of the gorge, from where we took about an hour to reach the Tiger Leaping Stone. After admiring the rapids for a while, we chambered up the sides of the gorge, with the help of a couple of rickety and vertigo inducing ladders, ready to catch our bus from Tina's to Shangri-la. I was exhausted by this point so slept for most of the 3 hour bus journey, but the landscape was clearly becoming more arid and mountainous and the police presence more palpable as we headed into the historic Kham province of Tibet. We arrived into town in the early evening, with it noticeably colder here at 3200m than in the gorge, purchased our bus ticket to Xiangcheng for the day after next and then got a taxi to our hostel. On our arrival, we were surprised to learn that the police had imposed an 11pm curfew on foreigners, apparently due to a number of assaults. Trying to make the most of our curtailed evening, we headed into the refreshingly quiet wooden old town, which had largely been destroyed by a fire in 2014. We quickly arrived at the town square, where locals in Tibetan dress and cowboy hats were doing mass public dancing to Tibetan folk songs. After watching for a while, we went on a search for a restaurant, and were quickly asked by an intriguing Tibetan family who we had heard speaking English among themselves if we needed any help, so we asked for a restaurant recommendation. They directed us down a dark alley, at the end of which was a street largely under construction except for one second floor restaurant. We were warmly welcomed by the owner Dashi up into the cosy wood panelled dining area where he made us feel at home warming up the stove and chatting, telling us the curfew was an attempt to portray Tibetans as rough and dissuade independent tourism in the region and suggesting a cycle route for the next day. He and his wife then cooked us an amazing dinner, including a pasta dish made of barley flour, yak cheese and honey and a huge pile of Yak Momo (Tibetan dumplings). After a hundreds of cups of tea, we strolled back to the hostel, tired from the incredible amount of exercise we'd done in the gorge.

    We woke up late and headed to the nearest bike rental place, where we paid £2 each for bike that turned out to be pretty sketchy - Theo was stuck in 1st gear all day. We cycled out of town uphill, which was fairly tricky due to the altitude and then emerged onto an arid plateau dominated by a dried up lake which was barren aside from the occasional grazing yak. We cycled around the pristine but almost deserted lake road, stopping to climb a hill covered in prayer flags. We had no map so were unsure whether to attempt a loop of the whole lake or head back. In the end we went for the loop, a decision rewarded by our eventual arrival at a bit of the lake that hadn't dried up, which was inhabited by beautiful swallows and cranes. We were fairly exhausted by this point and still had to cycle up the hilly motorway into town. David and Theo were too exhausted, but to avoid spending too long among the trucks on the main road me and Freddie decided to take a dirt track down from the motorway towards the gleaming Songzanpilan tMonastery. We couldn't get many good photos of the monastery as it is bad luck to photograph Buddhas and the light wasn't great as it was already around 6pm, but it was extremely beautiful, particularly one hall which contained an especially serene looking giant silver Buddha. Having covered nearly 50km by this point, we were grateful that the ride back into town was mostly downhill, but it was made a bit more difficult by Freddie having a puncture. We eventually made it back into town and were glad to be able to return to Dashi's for some more delicious Tibetan food and interesting conversation, before heading back to the hostel for an early night in preparation for our super early bus ride to Tibet...
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  • Day 26

    Tibetan Sichuan

    March 24, 2016 in China ⋅ ⛅ 1 °C

    We hopped on the first of many early buses in Shangri-la on the way to Xiangcheng. The bus journey took us over amazing mountain passes above 4000m, along narrow winding dirt roads lined with snow and ice and through increasingly Tibetan villages. After an 8 hour journey made bearable by getting some sleep and the amazing scenery we arrived into a valley lined with beautiful Tibetan style brick houses, where after a police search of the bus and everyone's luggage, ostensibly for drugs but we were later told probably for weapons in a town that had heavily resisted the 1950s Chinese invasion of Tibet, we arrived in Xiangcheng at around 3pm. We quickly found the crumbling hotel where we were to spend the night, then wandered through town up to the fairly low key Tibetan monastery, getting plenty of hellos as well as curious stares from schoolkids and cowboy hat wearing Tibetans along the way, giving us the impression that foreigners were a fairly unusual sight. After a bog standard meal of noodle soup we went to bed, knowing we had another early start (6am) to catch the bus to Litang.

    After an even more dramatic bus journey over passes approaching 5000m, we arrived at chilly Litang, which at 4000m is one of the highest inhabited settlements in the world. The town was one of the most beautiful I've ever visited, surrounded by majestic grey towering mountains and bleak but stunning plains dotted with yaks. After searching for a hostel, we phoned one from the guidebook which turned out to be an excellent choice, charging just £2 a night but welcoming us with delicious Yak Butter Tea and essentially providing us with a free personal chauffeur, useful in the snowy weather. All it was missing was WiFi, because the Internet for the whole town had been cut off by the government for the past month for unclear political reasons, an idea that was reinforced by a heavy police presence and vast convoys of army trucks that trundled through the town. After finishing our Yak Butter tea and seeing our attractive Tibetan style but unheated room, we got a lift to the town's monastery, the most important in the whole of the historic Kham province of Tibet. The monastery felt particularly real and untouristy, filled with monks chanting and going about their daily lives, including plenty of child monks playing in the street all of whom were very friendly. Particularly fascinating was a hall devoted to the current Dalai Lama, bete noir of the government due to his political leadership of Tibet. Descending from the monastery we arrived in the charming old part of town, with dirt tracks with mountain views running between Tibetan homes. In the old town we tried to visit the home of the 7th Dalai Lama, and while the guardian initially seemed reluctant, an old lady who seemingly spent her day circling the house spinning her handheld Buddhist prayer wheel persuaded her to let us in. The creaky wooden house from the 18th century felt truly old and unreconstructed and was filled with simple shrines to previous Dalai Lamas. After strolling back to our hostel through some wintry sunshine we got another lift out into the sublime mountain framed grasslands, where we enjoyed the local hot springs, essentially big baths housed in grungy cubicles, which did feel therapeutic, especially combined with short blasts outside in freezing temperatures admiring mountain vistas. After the hot springs, we returned to town where I ate a delicious potato pancake, before heading back to the fairly icy hostel to sleep in long johns under an electric blanket before yet another early start.

    Bleary eyed after 3 days with inadequate sleep, we got a final lift from our hostel chauffeur to the town bus station, where we caught the bus to Kangding, the largest city in the region. Yet again we traversed amazing mountain passes, glimpsing the 7500m Gongga Shan, before a steep descent to the city of Kangding, which was picturesquely stretched along a steep river valley. Arriving at our hostel after finally getting up a very steep hill felt like a bit of a return to civilisation as it had western toilets and hot showers, and had facilities such as laundry which we seriously needed. After doing some washing, we walked along the side of the valley to visit the town's two temples, where we saw some attractive Buddhist art and an impressive hillside stretch of prayer wheels. Hungry after a long day travelling, we went back into town and ate at a Tibetan restaurant, enjoying a delicious 'Yak Burger' which was actually a yak stew topped with bread, along with some Yak Momo. The next day, we had a much needed lie in and spent the early afternoon doing admin like buying bus tickets, before attempting to visit the local Tibetan museum, which unfortunately was closed unexpectedly. We returned to the hostel and decided to climb Julian Shan behind it. The hostel teamed us up with a friendly German hippie who enjoyed picking up litter - a mammoth task in China. After getting a bit lost and clambering over terraces of what seemed like mini Christmas trees, we finally got on the proper path up the side of the valley through a forest, reaching the grasslands which had magnificent mountain views and were filled with grazing yaks. After enjoying a bottle of £1 Chengdu red wine that tasted like grape juice, we descended from the grasslands, bidding farewell to our German friend and going to unwind at the hostel after a tough hike. Me and Theo indulged in some French fries, before heading out for a dinner of some standard Muslim food, after we failed to find a Tibetan place recommended in the guide. We then attempted to enjoy the local nightlife as it was Saturday night, but the options were somewhat lacking so we gave up and went to bed before our final mammoth bus journey for a while - to Emei Shan.....
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  • Day 31

    Emei Shan & Leshan

    March 29, 2016 in China ⋅ 🌬 0 °C

    After an early start in Kangding and a marathon 8h bus journey, mostly following a beautiful river valley, but luckily for our backs aong a motorway we arrived in the late afternoon in Emei, where we had booked a room at the town's only hostel, with a bizarre Teddy Bear theme. Tired after our week of exhausting journeys, we relaxed playing cards in the hostel and planning our hike up Emei Shan - one of Chinese Buddhism's four holy mountains, before heading out to our first dinner in Sichuan proper, which featured incredibly spicy pickled pepper pork and delicious tomato tofu.

    The next morning, we were woken up by the sound of hammering rain, apparently a common occurrence in this part of Sichuan. Undeterred, we put on our waterproof trousers and jackets, left our rucksacks at the hostel and headed to the mountain bus station, where we paid the extortionate mountain entrance fee. As we only had a day and a half to scale the 3200m mountain we cheated a little bit, getting a bus to Leidongping two hours down from the summit. We followed the trail of Chinese tourists to the walking path, along which we soon encountered one of the mountain's packs of very confident monkeys, which were lapping up the attention and more importantly food provided by the visitors to the mountain. After watching the playful monkeys for a while we pressed on up the path, which quickly became quiet and shrouded in mist and light rain as the Chinese tourists turned off towards the cable car. Passing a number of small temples along the way, some touristy and some simple and real-feeling, we eventually reached the golden summit, which was topped by a magnificent gold statue of the mountain's protector goddess that periodically drifted in and out of the mist. After exploring the atmospheric misty summit and having a much needed snake, we began our descent. Once we'd got past the main summit trail, it seemed like we were the only ones on the bamboo lined, sometimes ice covered mountain path. After destroying our calves climbing down what felt like a million steps, passing more ethereal fog shrouded temples along the way, we arrived at the Yuxian Temple (1700m) where we chose to spend the night. Included in the room price was a delicious and hefty vegetarian meal of rice with marinated bak choy and cabbage. After savouring our first vegetarian meal of the trip, we returned to our cosy but austere wooden room, where I fell asleep before 8pm, the earliest I'd done so for at least 10 years.

    We woke up at 9ish the next morning and quickly continued down the mountain, briefly interrupted by a particularly aggressive group of monkeys that attacked Theo and stole food from his bag, as we had a lot planned for the day. The contrast with the previous day was stark, with most of the fog receding leaving sweeping views of the surrounding area and glorious rugged mountain scenery. After descending through lush green bamboo forest we reached the Wannian Bus depot at around lunchtime, from where we got the bus to Emei, collected our luggage and then made our way to Leshan on yet another bus. As it was getting late in the afternoon, we hopped in a taxi to the Giant Buddha itself, where we dropped our rucksacks at a left luggage, before ascending through the Buddha complex past historic fountains and statutes of Buddha's companions, before arriving at the top of the magnificent 70m Buddha, the largest in the world, carved into the cliff edge overlooking a river. After contemplating his head, which was still painted despite being over 1000 years old, we chambered down the stairs behind him past ancient Buddhist rock carvings, before reaching a riverside viewing area where we were able to gaze up at him. To give an idea of his scale, his toenails were bigger than a person. After enjoying the majestic Buddha from below, we left the park area and headed to Chengdu, where we arrived late, exhausted and excited to see pandas the next day..
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  • Day 34

    Chengdu & Wuhan

    April 1, 2016 in China ⋅ ☀️ 35 °C

    After an early first night in Chengdu following our long day descending Emei Shan and visiting the Grand Buddha, we woke up and quickly hopped in a Taxi towards the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base. I was initially skeptical about how much I'd enjoy the base, but any doubts vanished when we saw the first of the pandas, lazily sitting and munching on huge piles of bamboo. We spent a few hours looking at all the different Giant Panda enclosures, with the highlight being the adolescent Panda enclosure, where 3 pandas kept us and other tourists captivated by their playfighting and stealing food from each others mouths. The Panda Base seemed to provide a good environment for the pandas, with lots of space, evidenced by the rapidly growing Panda numbers in the park. The park also featured the less impressive Red Pandas, which looked similar to foxes and are also known as firefoxe, but lacked the cuteness factor of the Giant Pandas. After tearing ourselves away from the Pandas, we felt like relaxing so we caught a bus to the People's Park, an attractive green space in the town centre filled with old people dancing and famous for its teahouses. We ended up picking the 19th century He Ming Teahouse, where we enjoyed sipping Oolong and sweet Chrysanthemum tea on a riverside patio, surrounded by locals playing cards, scoffing seeds and getting their ears cleaned with alarming looking instruments. Just before we were about to leave for dinmer we were accosted by a friendly but slightly overbearing Chinese man who used to work for Diageo keen to practise his English, who told us some interesting tidbits about Chengdu and Chinese culture in general. Eventually we were able to escape to dinner, which had to be Sichuan food. I had succulent and very spicy Guizhou chicken, and we all agreed it was one of the best meals of the holiday, however it was somewhat soured as we had to have a row with the restaurant as it turned out the prices on the English menu were lower than the actual ones, so in the end we walked out after only paying the English menu price. After the stress of the restaurant, we decided to go out for the evening, ending up in a club full of foreigners, a shock to the system after a week in which we'd seen about 5.

    Feeling a little worse for wear, we had to get up fairly early for our 9 hour cross country high speed train journey to Wuhan, which took up most of the day. We arrived in Wuhan in the evening, checked into a hostel and headed out for what turned out to be a delicious meal of local cuisine, including delicious salty river fish and a melt in the mouth spicy aubergine dish, before getting some sleep ahead of another day dominated by travel.

    I woke up earlier than the others on Friday, keen to see a bit of Wuhan before our lunchtime train to Shanghai. I walked down the pleasant tree lined streets near our hostel, eventually arriving at a street famous for its breakfast dishes, where I purchased delicious hot and dry noodles, which were spicy with a lovely texture and plenty of peanut paste. After a filling breakfast, I visited the town's Taoist temple, which was fascinating with statues of Gods dedicated to wealth and good luck, a weird luxury hotel complex and locals doing Tai Chi. After that, I hurried back to the hostel in order to catch our train to Shanghai...
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  • Day 40

    Shanghai

    April 7, 2016 in China ⋅ 🌧 17 °C

    We arrived on our high speed train from Wuhan into Shanghai at 7ish on Friday night, after frantically phoning around to find a hostel as everywhere seemed to be booked up for the weekend. Luckily we found somewhere, so after buying a very good value 72 hour metro card for around £4.50 we set off for the hostel, which luckily was fairly centrally located. After ordering 96 dumplings between us for dinner, we tried to make a night out of it, buying Baiju (rice wine) and mixing it with Fanta and Sprite as recommended by our hosts in Yangshuo, but we couldn't totally get rid of the horrible taste, and heading to a club recommended online. It was essentially a fancy cocktail bar, so we quickly moved on to another club which was in a cool former air raid shelter, but sadly was fairly empty, so gave up and caught a taxi home.

    The next morning, nursing hangovers and looking for lunch, we travelled to the French Concession in search of a famous Shanghai restaurant, but sadly it was closed. Fortunately across the street was a Muslim restaurant where I enjoyed some delicious Mongolian beef fried rice, which gave us the boost needed to further explore the French Concession - visiting Tianzifang, a touristy but fun maze of souvenir shops in traditional Shanghai alleys, which you could imagine were in the past filled with opium dens and gangsters. After buying a few souvenirs we hopped on the metro towards Shanghai's iconic riverside, known as the Bund, which was lined with stunning art deco buildings and a huge riverfront promenade. We strolled along the promenade as the sun went down, enjoying views of the Bund itself and of the financial district of Pudong, dotted with skyscrapers (including the world's second tallest), with the bright lights juxtaposed with a giant communist monument to the revolution at the end of the promenade. After soaking up the atmosphere for a while we went in search of dinner, via the 5 star Fairmont Hotel, which was a beautiful art deco building with a 1930s interior which we explored as far as we could. We eventually found Yang's Dumplings, a famous Shanghai chain which specialised in delicious fried dumplings, the best dumplings of many we've had in China. After dinner we returned to the hostel, before heading out to a club recommended to us in Hong Kong known as the mansion. It is notoriously hard to find, so we got a taxi driver to drop us off in the general area and bumped into some fellow partygoers, students in Shanghai who included a Tajik and a Kazakh. We eventually found our way to the club, through a little hatch in a wall and ended up having a great evening of socialising and dancing, leading to us only getting back to the hostel by about 5am.

    Waking up very late and feeling a little worse for wear, we attempted to make the most of our afternoon, heading to the Shanghai Museum, which took us a while to find despite it being shaped like a massive gold Chinese traditional cooking pot. The ground floor of the museum featured the Bronze collection, which had Chinese bronzes dating back 5000 years, with a pot decorated with Yaks a particular highlight. Also on ground level was the sculpture gallery, which had a number of beautiful pieces, including an amazing stone carved with 1000 tiny buddhas and a statue of the Buddhist female icon Guanyin, depicted strikingly similarly to the Virgin Mary. We moved on upstairs to the ceramics gallery, which had some attractive Tang dynasty multicolored pottery figurines of camels and dancing ladies, but was otherwise less impressive than most Chinese porcelain we see in the West. Adjacent was the painting and calligraphy galleries, which featured interesting information on the development of the Chinese script and beautiful paintings, often vertical landscapes, which reminded us of the mist shrouded mountain scenery of Emei Shan. Pressing on, we visited the Jade gallery which was fairly dull, followed by the coin gallery which mostly consisted of hundreds of traditional Chinese coins which were just identikit round coins with square holes, although there were some interesting silk road coins. The final gallery focused on Ethnic Minority Crafts and was particularly interesting, featuring ethnic minority dress from across the country and other artefacts including Uighur knives and creepy Tibetan opera masks. Tired out and overly cultured, we lowered the tone a bit by having dinner at the McDonald's near the hostel before getting an early night.

    Still tired from our weekend exploits, we woke up late on our last day in Shanghai and made our way once more to the French Concession, where we searched for and eventually found the Shanghai Propaganda Art Center, a museum located in an apartment block basement, apparently due to its somewhat sensitive subject matter. The museum turned out to be a treasure trove of amazing original posters. It took us on a chronological journey starting with art nouveau style posters of femme fatale 'Shanghai girls' from the hedonistic Republican period, followed by early 1940s and 50s socialist realist propaganda extolling the virtues of the simplified alphabet an industrialisation, with it often being the same artists behind decadent adverts in the 1930s and communist propaganda in the 1940s. The posters helped tell the story of China under Mao, often criticising the US and supporting North Korea, while purges were reflected by different editions of posters having different politicians removed. While the poster as propaganda declined after Mao, there were still a number extolling the wonders of Chinese technology. What made the museum more amazing was the fact that later Chinese leaders ordered all propaganda posters destroyed, so they are generally very rare. We were so impressed by the museum (and felt we needed something to remember it by as photography was forbidden) that we each bought ourselves a print of a poster a souvenir. After a fun afternoon in the museum, we returned to the hostel to collect our bags before our train journey that evening to Hangzhou....
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  • Day 47

    Hangzhou, Suzhou & Nanjing

    April 14, 2016 in China ⋅ 🌙 19 °C

    After a zippy high speed train journey, we arrived in Hangzhou, known as one of China's most beautiful cities, in the early evening. We caught the metro to our hostel and then quickly headed out for dinner near the town's famous West Lake. We ended up having a lovely local meal, with the highlight being a whole duck, cold but cured with delicious salt and spices, before heading back to the hostel and eventually to sleep.

    The next day we woke up late, so had to hurry to the 'Citizen Service Centre' where we needed to set up our smartcard to use the city's Boris bike scheme, the most extensive in the world. Soon we were off, cycling in the direction of West Lake. At our first stop we took in sweeping views of the lake, surrounded by pagodas and containing two islands connected to the mainland by causeways. Further round the lake, we arrived at the first island, where we visited the serene ruins of the first Qing emperor's summer palace, situated in a hillside park overlooking the lake. The park also contained the tomb of a famous Tang dynasty poet who became a recluse on the island, giving us an insight into the lake's literary and artistic influences. Leaving the park, we strolled down the weeping willow lined causeway, before hopping back on our bikes. We leisurely cycled round the lake, eventually reaching the next causeway, which was clogged with people but still incredibly scenic. Our final stop round the lake was in some beautiful gardens, filled with carp ponds and stunning blossoming trees. Tearing ourselves away from the bucolic beauty of the gardens, we cycled round the rest of the lake and back into town. Once we'd had a rest after our day of cycling, we met up with Zhu Ruoxi, a student friend of one of Mum and Dad's colleagues, who very generously treated us to a divine dinner, where we were joined by a couple of her friends. We feasted on melt in your mouth pork belly; sour and spicy prawns; sticky date cakes and best of all succulent Hunan style fish heads. After bidding fairwell to Zhu Ruoxi, we went out, ending up in a club full of super rich Chinese where we were given a table and free bottles of Hennesey cognac, which didn't bode well for getting up early the next morning to go to Suzhou.

    Feeling incredibly grim, we dragged ourselves out of bed on Wednesday morning and after a lengthy journey stuck in traffic, arrived at the bus station, where we got the bus to Suzhou, the Venice of China, famous for its canals and gardens. We arrived at around 2pm and rushed into town, keen to visit the local museum and one of the most highly rated gardens before they closed. First we headed to the Suzhou museum, which contained some fascinating Buddhist artefacts recovered from local pagodas and some beautiful local pottery. But the main highlight was the building itself, designed by IM Pei as a modernist take on a Suzhou garden, complete with indoor water features, ordered geometric designs and a futuristic yet tranquil pond filled central courtyard. After marvelling at the modern architecture, we visited one of its inspirations, the Lion's Grove Garden, built in the 1360s by a Buddhist month. Appropriately, it felt extremely zen, with mesmerising rock formations, carefully manicured plants and ornate wooden pavilions creating a very relaxed atmosphere. After strolling around the garden for an hour or so, punctuated with plenty of breaks overlooking the placid central lake, the garden closed and we wandered down the attractive, albeit clearly reconstructed, canal lined streets in search of dinner. We eventually found a pleasant canal side restaurant where we enjoyed a simple twilight meal, before making our way to the train station for our nighttime high speed train to Nanjing. We arrived late in Nanjing and took the metro at our hostel, which bizarrely had a ludicrously expensive Belgian craft beer bar attached but was conveniently located in the touristy Confucius Temple area, a shopping district on the site of a giant former temple - very Chinese.

    We woke up slightly later than planned (as usual) and, with only a day in Nanjing (China's former capital and site of the WW2 rape of Nanking), hurried to our first sight of the day, the Jiming Temple. The temple was not as impressive as the Tibetan temples we had seen, but still featured some attractive Buddhist architecture and an ornate pagoda, as well as a constant flow of worshippers which added to its authentic feel. Round the back of the temple was one of the city's iconic landmarks, the intact Ming city walls, the longest in the country not to have been significantly rebuilt. Our walk along the wall in the spring sunshine, with the pristine Xuanwu lake on one side and the modern city foregrounded by trees on the other, proved particularly enjoyable, with the stone walls dotted with Ming dynasty cannons evoking a long lost China. After meandering along the wall for around an hour, we climbed down the ramparts to catch the bus up the nearby hill to Sun Yat Sen's mausoleum, passing the Ming Xiaoling Tombs which due to lack of time and money we had to skip. Sun Yat Sen's mausoleum was thronged with visitors, understandable as after Mao he is considered the father of the nation, due to his founding of the Republic of China, although the government's promotion of his legacy is somewhat confusing as he was part of the KMT, the communists' civil war rivals. Perched on a hill, up steep steps designed to evoke the nearby Ming emperor's tomb, the mausoleum loomed above us. Forcing our way through the crowds, with a few photos taken of us along the way, we clambered up the steps to the entrance of the mausoleum, where even the sheer numbers of people couldn't detract from the reverential atmosphere. Entering the tomb, we saw the simple yet striking white statue of Sun Yat Sen, below a beautiful ceiling carved with the rather attractive blue and white Republic of China flag. After walking round the statue in silence we left the mausoleum, to sweeping views of the forested mountain below, which we contemplated for a while before descending the steps and returning to the city center. With some time to kill before dinner, we relaxed in the park housing the ruins of a former Ming palace, along with old people playing cards and practicing their ballroom dancing. We then enjoyed a meal of Bibimbap after our preferred restaurant, a local favourite situated in a luxury shopping mall, had an hour wait for a table and then made our way to the train station for our hard seat night train to Beijing. It proved to be as uncomfortable as it sounds, with most of us only getting a few hours sleep on our 10 hour journey, crammed into clusters of 3 seats opposite each other, with the train totally full due to it being a national holiday weekend...
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