Goodbye China, Hello Thailand

Well I made it toBangkokfromBeijing... And I'm now sitting in a dodgy guesthouse (Wally's guesthouse no less) on Koh San road typing up this entry... it's so stinking hot, that I'm actually wearing shorts and jandals, the later for the first time in my life.

At any rate, before I talk about what I've been up to over the last few days... I'll cover the week before then, which has been phenomenal, and brought my trip throughChinato an end.

Goodbye Beijing

So... right, Friday last week was our groups big trip to the wall.. We went to the Simatai region, which is quite a drive (3 hours) fromBeijing... but wow, the view was amazing.. and the wall 70 degrees or steeper in places... it's hard to comprehend the amount of man effort in this ancient structure, considering I first saw it when leaving Xi'an (and that was a long way away) - the only really problem is that when taking pictures, your camera only captures about a third of what you can encompass - really quite humbling.

After that we wall went our forBeijingduck.. as per usual we ended up with too much food, but it was all good.. After that Tony Chen our guide took the younger team (Charlotte, Ed, Scarlet, Myself and Jarrad) out for drinks at the Poachers Inn... much like other bars we've been in, the place starts out sleep and ends up pumping after midnight... I did drink a fair bit, and I did end up dancing on tables with random Chinese girls (and guys, but thats hard to avoid.. well dodgy) .. really fun though, the good thing inChinais that if you stick to beer, it's rarely above 3.5%, and so you have to work pretty hard to get over-shickered.  Geoff (another Intrepid guide, who's been along on our trip doing a annual safety review and Stacey, regional manager for Intrepid in Northern and Central China also popped in.

The day after that I was a little hangover... so we had a late start.. eventually hooked up with Jarrad & Charlotte and headed to the Summer palace (which is far far away... like a 60 Yuan taxi ride... which is a lot inBeijing) .. The summer palace is where the Emperor would holiday in summer to get away from the Forbidden city for a bit - absolutely stunning, the long corridor (look it up on google if you dont know what I'm talking about) is really cool, it just keeps going and going.. and every rafter has a different scene painted on it, which, if your mandarin and chinese history is good, or your reading a guide, tells a story.

After wandering around for a bit.. eating some fried chicken (Fried chicken is staple temple snack... as is pop corn, awful tasting sausages on sticks, very dusty dirty cans of coke and skewers of fresh fruit coated in caramalised sugar) we foolishly decided to get a paddle boat and go around the rather large lake that sits in the middle of the summer palace.  Absoloutely magic for the first half hour... paddled out (which is hard work, as it's built for short chinese... your knees ache with only a few minutes effort) .. ate an orange, watched all the chinese couples out for a romantic time... read the China Daily (which is a little depressing, lots of coverage on the Chlorine truck crash on the shanghai/Beijingexpressway).

At which point Charlotte suggested paddling round the island and heading back (most Chinese man made lakes feature an island in the middle with large marble bridges joining it to the shore).. all good in theory, accept that after a few minutes it rained, then got really windy... suddenly the hard top roof of the paddle boat turned into a sail.. pulling us sideways.. with the chop coming hard on one corner... no amount of paddling could stop us :) ... thankfully the weather died down a bit and normal service was resumed, but most of the Chinese couples had resorted to flagging down a fizz boat which dragged them to shore.

That night we had a wee dinner to say goodbye to everyone.. quite nice, though as it turns out this wasn't the last time I would see Tony.  Popped to a net cafe briefly, and on our way out we met a British couple forLondon... who.. *ahem* though Chairman Mao was still alive... but wait, that’s not all... they thought his Mausoleum was where you went to visit him... it really does defy all belief - and they've never traveled before, dont know any Mandarin, and are going to attempt to make there way south to Xi'an, the 3 gorges and Yangshou... they're so screwed :)

The day after that, on the 3rd, only a few of us stragglers were left (and the tour was over) - so myself, Jarred and Colin (the 3 NZ'rs) decided to visit one last temple, The Lama Temple, after shifting Jarred to his new hotel (he's off on the Tran Mongolian)... At this point I was pretty templed out, but wow... well worth the effort to see just one Buddha... In fact the biggest wooden Buddha in the world, at 55 foot high, and made from just 1 Sandalwood tree - bloody impressive - but we were prohibited from taking pictures (though I'm sure there are some good ones on the net).

We planned that night to do dinner with the left over people at 6:30, however there was a small (and fantastic!) change of plans when Tony turned up at 5 and invited myself, Colin, Ed and Scarlet out to dinner with his friend (Hugo, Derek, Lorna, and some other girl I forget the name of... adopted western names of course) .. so we hopped a local bus (something that must be seen to be believed, as the attendant struggles to pull the doors shut around the smiling faces of Chinese people squished in everywhere) out to aBeijingsuburb, and had hotpot.... The best hotpot I've had inChina(which isn't saying much, it was my first time in this "style").  Basically it's a big coal boiler they sit on the table, filled with water in a donut shape around the centre chimney... they then dump a bunch of random things into the water to create a stock (crab legs, herbs, spices and vegetables) and let it go.  After this you get piles of thinly sliced rolled beef stuck on a plate, which you pick up and drop in the water briefly... pull it out, then dunk the just cooked meat into a bowl of sesame paste, leak juice, fresh coriander and onion... so good, wash it down with some Beijing finest (Yanjing beer), some raw chinese radish and some cabbage leaves (which you also boil) and you get a fantastic and very social meal.

After the meal was over we went for a short wander to the Black Sun Inn, a cool little pub with free pool and Foosball and cheap beer... all very nice, and it really was the best way to say goodbye to Tony and it was really local (at least for now, as he's heading to New Zealand to study tourism in Christchurch for 6 months in July).

The day after that I flew out (the 4th) – I decided to keep my jacket (which has served me well since I got in Hong Kong, so I think it’ll go well in NZ) – but to ditch my sheets and jersey, so I dumped them in a bag and went wandering the Huantong (not sure if I spelt that right, but basically the narrow alleyways and streets of the original Beijing) for a worth candidate, found a lady sleeping in rags under a piece of Iron down one street and just left it at her feet.

I haven’t talked much about the social climate in China in my entries, but basically it’s a bit of everything – there is absolute dire poverty (just before I left there was an article on the news about some factory workers only being paid 50 to 60 Yuan a month, basically less then $20 NZ dollars) and great wealth (heaps and heaps of flash cars, big apartments and wealthy businessman) – I may be wrong, but from what I’ve heard unemployment here is at about 18%... that’s a lot when your talking more then a billion total population.

Before flying out I stocked up on Buffrin (basically night & day medicine) and Golden Throat (cough lozenges, pretty good) as Pharmacys are dead cheap inChina(though they don’t stock Malaria medication, so if your visiting the south, bring your own).

I grabbed a taxi to the airport, which was a great way to see… smog, which I’m pretty used to now.  The smog inChinais quite different to what I’ve found inBangkok, as it’s very white (which I assume is a mix of all the industrial and chemical processing and coal they burn) –Bangkokseems to mostly be from combustion motors, and is distinctly yellow.  They’ve got some work to do if they want to offer a good impression to travelers arriving in 2008 for the Olympics.

While waiting in theBeijingairport I got a call from Mark, which was cool (though it’s hard hearing anything when you’re in theBeijingairport because Mandarin speaking people are really loud).

Hello Bangkok

After my flight, I got into Bangkok and grabbed the A2 airport bus to the Asia hotel, where I had booked my first night.  The bus trip was interesting, I had a talk to a Sweedish guy who’s just spent 2 weeks in southern china and is finish up with a week in Bangkok before going home.  Another guy, a bit younger, from Vancouver (Canada) who was a primary school teacher and had just been down to Phi Phi (and said that it was still pretty rooted, post Tsunami). And lastly a New Zealander from Queenstown (well a Pom.. on in NZ for the last 5 years) who’s going to move permanently to Phu ket. Finally got into bed around 1am. 

Which brings me to this’mornin – I got up about 9, took advantage of my free breakfast (loads of fresh fruit, such a change from China where you end up being quite paranoid about eating certain things) and then checked out.. The Asia hotel is pretty good, I managed to get a ride to the TAT (Thailand authorized travel, associated with STA) and book a train ride to Chiang Mai on the 8th, a Hill tribe trek for a few days after that (I wasn’t that interested in this, but it’s the only way to get accommodation so close to the water festival – which I’m looking forward too, happening from the 13th to the 15th) and then went to Kho San road where I met Ed & Scarlet (who have been on the China trip with me) and we went guest house hunting – end result was a 120 baht/night room for myself at Wallys Inn – I think that’s about 4 or 5 dollars a night NZ, they grabbed a double bed down stairs with own bathroom (I’ve got shared facilities)… it’s dodgy, but it’s cheap and I’ve got a pretty good sense of humor after some of the accommodation in China – one of my bed legs has fallen off at some point and they’ve replaced it with a folded up Tin Can.. I’ll have to be careful of that, thank god for my Tetanus shot!  I spose the fun thing is that I know I can afford somewhere nicer, but it’s really unnecessary, I doubt I could ever sleep in this heat without some alcohol! 

Lunch consisted of a Thai green curry, sticky rice and a beer… they frost the glasses here, so good when your dying in the heat.  After that we all jumped in a Tuk Tuk, for a race to the Canal ferry… climbed up the golden mount (but didn’t bother going in, my interest in temples being completely depleted) and then took the Canal ferry down the river – this is good fun, and cheap (15 baht return.. don’t throw your ticket away, nowhere does it actually say “return”) – and eases the brain a little, as you actually see quite a bit of green (the pink and red Boganvillias are in full force at the moment, it’s really quite beautiful – you would love it Mum, baring the pollution and annoying sales people). After that we got another Tuk Tuk back to Koh San road, this guy had a gruntier machine, cornering in busy traffic was brilliant – I daren’t think what happens if you crash, it cost 50 baht for the ride.. not sure if that’s good or bad.

After that it gets a bit boring, I bought a couple of T-shirts (140 baht each, greedy beggars!), a pair of Jandals (70 baht) and some anti-perspirant (109 baht!), had a cold shower (no hot water here... but who needs it?) ... and kitted myself out for the weather.

Tonight is some more food and beer.

I’m really looking forward to Chiang Mai… and taking the train there should be fun. It’s been compared to the Guilin/Yangshou area of China in the south, which I adored - so it should be all good – though I’m still having trouble shaking off my “China” mindset… I really loved China, especially the North…I must go back at some point for a further explore.

Take care one and all, and I’ll keep you posted.

 - Alex

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Xi'an... dont fall off the wall

Hi Guys,

Well I'm in Xi'an, at a "Redwoods Network" internet cafe - which
isn't far from the hotel, it's actually pretty good (not too
smokey, which is a miracle).

Last night through to this morning I was travelling on the hard
sleeper train (basically groups of 6 bunks (3 high per side)
facing each other, and no real seats or doors.  It's not a
bad way to travel, you generally just end up drinking a little..
playing some cards and doing bugger all else (once it's dark you
don't see alot, and the trips are generally always at night).

However this'morning there was some fantastic sites as we
headed into the city, cooling towers, coal burners, chemical
plants... All with classic chinese-soviet chiq... ignoring the
rather "the worlds going to shit" aspect, it's truely imposing to
see the rolling expanse of never ending factories and power lines
scoring the landscape with the odd local farmers terraced plot in
between.

Xi'an is a pretty amazing place, smoggy and thrumbing (like every
city we've visited) but with it's own character - it has the most
impressive city wall that I've seen in China, the thing is huge
and in good condition... we hired bikes and travelleed on top of
it today, about 14 kilometres (apparently) - it's amazing how
wide it is....

Tonight me and a few of the other people in the group are going
to head out to the Muslim quarter to explore the markets (the
Muslim quarter is quite confined, with a number of big mosques
and ...somehow they squeeze 25,000 people into it).  It
should be a good opportunity to find some spicy lamb and do some
haggling for crappy tat.

Tomorrow we're off to see the Terracotta warriors and then that
evening we're on another train and heading off again...

I'm feeling pretty good now, just a bit of a cough/sore throat..
but otherwise not so bad, still haven't got my appetite back -
but then that's not necessarily a tragedy ;o)

It's hard to believe that my trip through China is almost at an
end - other then a couple of days in Datong and Pingyao, we're
going to hit Beijing and that's pretty much it... A month is no
where near long enough!

...but at the same time I dont think I would want more at this
point - not without a break at least, China can be quite
challenging, especially if you're not used to smoggy frenetic
cities... it's well deserving of a culture shock rating :) as a
country goes.

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The week from hell

The week from hell.

Hi guys, well I'm in Suzhou today - arrived about 5 hours ago,
since my last update I've been up to a few things.. however it's
all been tainted by sickness :(

So lets see... first of all I visited Putuoshan island, which is
very small ... picturesque, and though renowned for it's seafood
I didn't really enjoy it much (expensive, tasteless).. I've had
better luck with the farmed fish from further inland.

On Putuoshan I got really sick - had a temperature, which turned
into a fever - didn't break till my last day on the island. At
this point I started counting how many days I'd gone without
sleep (2).

Putuoshan Island did provide some priceless moments, such as
monks with cellphones... angry monks getting anoyed with our
copious luggage, old lady tourists pushing monks out of the
way... the insanity of people pushing and shoving to get to their
allocated seats.

After the island we headed to Shanghai - sickness and lack of
sleep still reigning supreme... I felt exhausted all the time -
getting sick when your on the move far far away from home really
is the pits - and going into a chinese dispensary just makes it
worse... buying unknown drugs with sign language *cough cough -
points at throat, screw up eyes*

That night, despite my sickness I managed to get enough beers
into me for a "second win" (a very bad idea in retrospect ;o) and
went out to bar/club called "windows" that's a bit of a student
hangout, partly to see desmond (my roomy) off - as he's leaving
us in shanghai to stay with his sister for a couple of weeks.

With the cheapest drinks in all of shanghai I suspect (50 Yuan
cover charge, then 5 yuan beers/10 yuan spirits) - most beers in
Shanghai top out at around 25 to 35 yuan, all a bit painfull on
the travellers wallet... we didn't leave till around 1:30am, then
got a taxi back to the hotel (we'd taken the MTR there, but the
trains shut down around midnight) - we stopped in at a bbq kebab
place and had a bit of a nibble before crashing.

Desmond got up way to early the next day, and I still hadn't
managed to get any sleep (3 days) so I was feeling like absoloute
death... wandered round Shanghai with a couple of my fellow
travellers, but was pretty much just a sheep - my throat started
to get really sore that day (and still hasn't got any better).

Today we also met the 3 new additions to our intrepid group for
the rest of the trip, and older couple from Aussie (Ian &
Judith) and a old'ish lady (Also from aussie) called
Daniella.  Ian is a doctor, which is a good thing :)

That night I went and saw a movie, in an effort to not expend
much energy... the only english movie on though was "National
Treasure" ... it wasn't good, but it was mindless.  I got a
mountain dew at the theatre only to discover that in China it
tastes a lot like green tea.

(Incidentally, almost every bottled drink in China is sickly
sweet, it's fairly rare to actually find a natural juice drink
that hasn't got half a tonne of added sugar).

That night I also got no sleep... the day after that we visited
The shanghai museum and some rock gardens, which wasn't too bad -
though I was pretty much a zombie for the entire experience.

I sat in a bath for an hour and finally managed to get about 6
hours sleep when I went to bed... I still felt exhausted, but at
least my constant headache is subsiding...

Then we left Shanghai, and travelled by Bus to Zhouzhang - quite
a quaint little village, where we stayed in a traditional chinese
guesthouse... which was awesome, my room had an adjoining study
full of 100+ year old furniture, which was pretty funky - though
the old buildings are fairly cold, without the air conditioning
cranked right up the room just ends up like a giant fridge.

And that leads us to today... where we took an hours ride on a
boat from Zhouzhang to Tong Li, and from there we drove to
Suzhou.. I've almst lost my voice, however I'm now armed with a
fresh supply of drugs including some anti biotics that Ian helped
me pick out - drugs are cheap and handed out without prescription
in China, I think it cost me 9 Yuan for a course of 24
amoxycillin pills.  Ian is unsure it'll help me (what I have
is probably viral) but he recons it can't hurt to try, in case I
have some kind of secondary infection to clear up.

At any rate, I'm feeling a bit better now then I was a week ago -
but it hasn't been particularly fun, which is a real shame -
there was a lot I could've seen and done in shanghai if I'd had
the energy.

Tomorrow night we're doing another overnight train trip, ending
up in Xi'an, the furthest west I'll end up travelling in China,
which should be interesting.  The train trips are always a
bit of fun, if a little chaotic to get on/off.

Ciao!

 - Alex

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Hangzhou!

We arrived at Hangzhou the day before yesterday (Monday the 14th) after having flown from Wuhan (2 flights, plus some bus rides) and having got up at 5am! All pretty tiring, this being the 3rd domestic flight I’ve taken since arriving in China – no crashes so far, so it’s pretty positive *ugh*

Hangzhou is beautiful, it’s a very picturesque city surrounding a large lake with a number of man made islands in the middle – it’s definitely the most beautiful city I have visited since arriving in the mainland - it seems since about 1999 the entire city has been undergoing a massive rebuilding program to make it a prime destination for internal chinese tourists, it really is a great place.

Since arriving I have:

  • Popped into the tea village, the tea here in Guangzhou is apparently the best in china – it nice, but I don’t think I’ve developed my taste buds enough to pick it from some of other stuff I’ve had.  Grabbed a small tin of the “A grade” which I’ll attempt to get home through customs – or maybe I’ll mail it off from shanghai.  Apparently counterfeit tea is quite common round here as well – which is a funny idea
  • Attended a tragic “silk factory” tour, which included a very very bad fashion show, a brief look at the printing and unraveling machines they use on the silk worm cocoons and then another maze of a shop which forces you to pass every single item in the shop before exiting.  Another government run operation.
  • Been out to a pub that was laying down some old school Chinese hip hop, if you ever wondered what happened to all the old drum machines in the 80’s… well you probably haven’t, but they’ve been exported here… however it really does rock, in a sorta kriss kross kinda way. 5 Yuan beers were a pleasant bonus, and Tony (our Chinese guide) introduced us to a Chinese dice based drinking game which was pretty fun. After finishing up there we grabbed Tibetan kebabs (made by Tibetans!) from just outside, which were phenomenal. The food is all just so good here, especially if you like chili – which I do – though everything is dodgy (a word we’ve taught Tony) – really the only rules are don’t drink cold water, don’t eat anything uncooked/cold (and if it’s fruit, always peel it… ) – I’m enjoying it, but some of my fellow travelers have been a bit off colour since there arrival.
  • Visited the leaning temple/pagoda – what an amazing site, the 200 odd bronze statues depicting people who can never obtain the status of Buddah are fascinating – this is a huge spot for Chinese tourists, and there was soooo much incense being burnt by them, got some very cool pictures.  In fact all of china is full of Chinese tourists, seeing any other ethnicity is beyond rare. Chinese tour groups are easy to spot and provide wonderful entertainment, because they all get issued the same baseball cap and their leaders walk around with telescopic poles with a flag on top and are constantly yelling through a megaphone– it’s very funny to watch.
  • Visited the Luhe bell, which I got to strike 3 times.. strangely satisifying.
  • Been on a hour cruise around the lake in a boat… sun was shining, feet hanging over the side.. all very pleasant.  It looks deep, but apparently the maximum depth is only about 3 meters!


At any rate - today I did a walk around the lake by myself for a looksie, and too clear my head ;o) ..(no sun today, which is a bit of a shame) and then wandered through the botanical gardens.. pretty quiet, tomorrow we’re heading on our way to Ptuoshan (probably spelt that wrong) island, which is apparently quite stunning and after that we’re hitting shanghai – where me and a few fellow travelers including Geoff (another intrepid guide, who’s doing the annual safety review) are going to hit a hardcore Chinese disco :P

Traffic here is hilarious – you develop some really bad habits, basically there’s an order to things, based on size.. Trucks and busses can do anything it appears (run red lights for instance) – pedestrian crossings mean nothing – there are just horn noises all the time, as it’s used to warn people/cyclists of oncoming traffic… crossing the road is a true mission, especially at night, you see close shaves all the time. Oh, and road markings are merely a suggestion – a 2 lane road will often have 3 trucks or 4 cars abreast squeezing down it.   On the flip side, where there are lights they have a counter on them so you can see how long it will be till red goes green / green goes red - pretty cool.

At any rate, on the “me” side of things – I’m definitely forming a love/hate relationship with China, it’s such a huge and beautiful place – yet there is so much to drag you down as well, I’ve already been accosted by small children begging, the smog is so thick you think the clipping plane is wound down really low and I keep getting a sore throat every time we stay in a city for a couple of days…thank god for the amazing food and the good company to keep my spirits up.

Hope you guys are all doing well.

Cheers,

- Alex

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