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China, Yunnan Province : Farewell China

Tuesday, 19th August 2008

We can’t believe that our wonderful time in China is now finally coming to an end. What’s harder to believe is that we’ve spent almost 50% of our entire trip so far in China. As you know we decided to prolong our stay here shortly after we arrived and we’ve not regretted it for one minute.

It’s been two-&-half months since we arrived on the Trans-Siberian train in Beijing on the 4th of June and we’ve had a journey that has far exceeded our wildest expectations. Out of the 15-odd provinces and municipalities we’ve visited it’s impossible to choose a favourite, there have been unforgettable experiences everywhere we’ve gone.

We’re still planning on getting to Australia some time in January, but we’ve recently added a new twist to our travel tail. We thought that, since we’re taking so much time off to travel, we should spend at least some of it at home with the folks. As such we decided to make a break from full-time travel and we’ll be flying to South Africa for a 6 week period when we get to Bangkok in about 1 month’s time. Yes, we kind-off break our no-flights trend here, but we’ll be returning to Bangkok to continue our trip when we’ve finished in SA.

We’ll be entering Vietnam tonight on an overnight bus to the border and we’re aiming to spend about two weeks there before moving on to Cambodia, Laos and eventually Thailand from where we’ll fly out.

We’re very sad to leave China, but we’ve probably given it a good go. This is an amazing country, with super friendly, humble and welcoming people. We hope to be able to come back one day to get to all the bits we weren’t able to fit in now.

Farewell China!

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

China, Yunnan Province : Tiger Leaping Gorge

Sunday, 17th August 2008

Saturday morning we got off to a very early start as we had to catch the 08:00 bus to the town of Qiaotao – the start of the Tiger Leaping Gorge walking trail.

About 60 kilometers northwest of Lijiang Old Town lying between Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain is the Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is believed to be the deepest gorge in the world and around 15 km in length. Legend says that in order to escape from a hunter, a tiger jumped across the river at the narrowest point (still 25 metres wide), hence the name.

After a few bus connections we started walking at about 10:45. It took about 1 hour to get from the drop-off point to the high path where we finally started the trek at the Tea Horse Guest House. The path goes through a fairly steep, rural mountainside area and there are only 3 or 4 guest houses along the way, most of which are locals offering modest accommodation. We were very glad that we took enough food and water, because it was only after about 3 hours walk that we found the first stall along the way.

Usually the trail is done over a 2 day period, which is what all the guest houses along the way are there for, but because we didn’t want to overnight we only did 3 quarters of the trail. We did the route in the opposite direction from the norm, which meant that for the first few hours we didn’t see any other hikers -we did pass many locals offering horse rides though.

With accurate weather information hard to come by, we had to guess which day would be best to go as the current season promises some rain at least once a day. In the end we were very lucky with no rain and even a bit of sunshine for an hour or two.

After some of the mountains we’ve climbed in China, the trail was relatively easy going with a few steep and very muddy sections and the views of the gorge were excellent. We finished the walk just before 17:00 and were glad to be able to get on a bus straight away back to Lijiang.

Back in the Old Town at 19:00 we had another lovely dinner at a Tibetan restaurant, one of many excellent restaurants around.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

China, Yunnan Province : Life in Lijiang

Thursday, 14th August 2008

We left the beach and sand of Sanya at 23:55 on Saturday evening to board our first of two overnight hardsleepers. At 08:30 we arrived in Zhanjiang and had to take a local bus to the main train station – about a 30 minutes ride away. It started raining at that stage and we didn’t really have the energy to walk around town, so we just parked off inside the station and waited for our next train in the afternoon. Luckily they had tv screens in the station that showed the Olympics, so the 5 hour wait went by quiet quickly.

The train departed at 14:12 for Kunming and this time it was a much older train with no aircon. We had the upper hardsleepers again and only survived the heat due to the little fan above our heads. But for some unknown reason, they switched off all the fans and closed all the windows during the night. So, after a sweaty and stuffy night, we arrived in Kunming at 09:45 on Monday morning. We had a flyer of the Hump Hostel so we headed straight there from the train station. It is a very nice hostel with a huge lounge/patio area on the 3rd floor that overlooks the main square. We checked in for 1 night and left again the next morning on the 10:00 bus to Lijiang.

The journey to Lijiang was 9 hours on a a sleeper bus. After our previous sleeper bus experience, we were not too impressed but this bus turned out to be much more comfortable and the time actually went really quickly.

It was just before 19:00 Tuesday evening when we arrived in Lijiang and as we already booked Mama Naxi’s  Guesthouse in the Old Town, we just gave them a call from the  station and they arranged a pick-up. The hostel is run by a little lady and we arrived in the middle of dinner – which is a very busy, noisy affair (but a good bargain at only 10 Yuan per person) with all the staff running around, including Mama herself. Needless to say, there was complete chaos and confusion when we wanted to check in and after some shouting and arm waiving from Mama, we realised there was no double room left in the main guesthouse. One of the girls then took us to another one of the Mama houses and we got a big double room in a much quieter environment.

Lijiang is about 2000m above sea level and this cause for a very mild temperature – even at this time of the year. It is a pleasant, cool haven after our previous steamy destinations and it actually feels strange not having to apply sunblock all over before heading out!

Wednesday morning we started exploring the Old Town and soon realised that it is quiet a challenge without a map, but we found our way around just fine in the end. The Old Town is a maize of cobbled stone paths and canals with dozens of shops selling all kinds of colourful trinkets. It is a beautiful little town with loads of character and we’ve spent the last 2 days just wondering the streets, enjoying the local delights in cozy cafes and sipping ginger tea while watching life go by in Lijiang’s alleys.

We’re planning on spending another few nights here in Lijiang and if the weather permits we’ll be attempting a day-trek to the famed Tiger Leaping Gorge – about 2 hours further north. Either way, we’re but too happy to be spending some quality time in such a laid-back, wonderful little place.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

China, Hainan Province : So long Sanya

Saturday, 9th August 2008

The weather was not that great for the last 3 days in Sanya. It was overcast and threatening to rain most of the time, but we still managed to get 2 full days on the beach (as well as a decent sun tan). Apparently a tropical storm hit the South coast of China earlier this week and is only moving Northwards by this weekend.

We discovered the best little dumpling restaurant (that’s if you can call a few plastic tables and chairs outside, a restaurant) just next to our hostel, so needless to say, we had loads of dumplings over the last 3 days – awesome! Yesterday we went to the beach for a few hours and the rest of day was spent relaxing, taking an afternoon nap and watching the Olympics opening ceremony in our room (yes, hostel rooms in China all have TV’s!).

Check-out was at noon today, so we left our bags at the hostel and headed straight for the beach. We found a very nice spot under some palm trees and parked off there for most of the day. Late afternoon we bought drinks at a supermarket and sat in a park watching some of the Olympic gymnastics on a big screen with lots of other locals.

Back at the hostel we managed to take a quick shower and we’re about to go to the train station to get the 23:55 train. This is the first of two 12-hour journeys ahead of us – both on hard sleepers – and we should arrive in Kunming on Monday morning.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

China, Hainan Province : Once Around

Friday, 8th August 2008

‘Around the world in 80 days’ has proven to be a tough act to follow, it’s taken us 135 days!

Although we’re still about 360km short of the magical 40,075km mark – equivalent to the circumference of the earth – we thought it would be ok to post this early.

Stats update:

We’ve now traveled 39,717km and visited 25 countries in 135 days. Of that we’ve spent a total of 27 days and 15 hours on some form of transportation and have taken 23 overnight trips. We’ve taken 77 trains, 68 buses and 10 ferries, and have stayed in 31 youth hostels, 19 hotels, 5 guest houses and 4 different private accommodations.

We’ll be spending another 2-odd weeks in China before starting with South East Asia on about the 20th of August when we plan to enter Vietnam.

China, Hainan Province : Sun, sea & Sanya

Wednesday, 6th August 2008

Luckily we didn’t have to spent too much time in the chaotic waiting hall before we boarded our overnight train at 21:25 in Guangzhou – not too optimistic about the journey ahead. We were pleasantly surprised with a very quiet coach and not even a single snorer. We actually managed to get a good few hours sleep and woke up as the entire train was being loaded onto a ferry for the crossing to Hainan island.

Hainan is a relatively large island in the south of China -roughly the same size as Taiwan. It is well known under rich Chinese travellers as a tropical island get-away. The train pulled into Sanya station at 12:40 on Tuesday afternoon and we decided to take a local bus to the main beach stretch where we wanted to stay. The 2-3 km ride ended up taking more than 35 minutes going all over town and it took us a while to find the hostel (again due to the Lonely Planet’s marvelous maps).

The Blue Sky Youth Hostel comes highly recommended by the Lonely Planet and we got a very nice sea view double room. It was around 15:00 that we went for a walk on the beach and Jan even took a quick dip! The beach was absolutely packed – we saw a few foreigners but the majority were Chinese holidaymakers.

To our surprise Sanya is a major beach holiday destination  for Russian tourists too. We were even more surprised to see around 80% of the shops, restaurants and hotels advertising, and some even writing their names, in Russian. Inspite of this we have still not managed to get rid of our left-over Russian currency – no bank in China will exchange Rubles.

We found a nice and relatively affordable cafe on the beachfront after spending some time looking around. Again we were very surprised to still see loads of people on the beach and in the water as this was already after 19:00 and starting to get dark. As we’ve experience before Chinese people have not inhibitions and seeing families walking around all dressed in matching two-piece Hawaiian safari suits is the norm here. As it is a Chinese culture-thing to have white skin (and the girls go to great lengths to accomplish that), it is very strange to see some of them actually sunbathing.

Today must have been the laziest day of the entire trip so far with us only getting out of our pajamas at 14:00 – and this was only because we had no food with us. The weather was dreadfull with non-stop rain, so we spent the day surfing the net in the comfort of our room on our new computer, after getting the necessary provisions for the rest of the day at the local supermarket.

We are currently contemplating changes to our current itinerary… more news to follow…

PS: Happy birthday Mom! We hope you had a great day on Tuesday!

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

China, Guangdong Province : Guangzhou stopover

Monday, 4th August 2008

We left Hong Kong on Sunday around 11:00 and caught the Metro all the way back to Shenzhen on the Chinese border. At the Chinese passport control point, we got held back because they did not believe it was Jan on the photo (it must be his long hair). They even called another official to investigate and he only let us through when an alarm went off somewhere and he had to run. A few steps further we got stopped again and they searched our hand luggage (which was just a plastic bag with the new camera and computer boxes). They discovered some bananas and apples in this bag and took us to a little room. Very seriously they filled in different forms and we expected to be charged with some kind of fine for smuggling fresh fruit into China. But after dramatically discarding the fruit in a big blue plastic bin, we were sent away again. Of course no one could speak any English so we just smiled and walked away at this stage.

It was fairly easy to get on a train to Guangzhou in order to get connections to the rest of the country. The high speed train only took 1 hour and was very luxurious compared to other Chinese trains. In Guangzhou we went straight to the ticket hall to try our luck with train tickets for the same day (near impossible in China!). We had planned to go to Sichuan Province, however all the tickets for the 30 hour train journey were sold out for the next 3 days. After spending more than 2 hours at the train station trying different routes (having to queue up every time we wanted to ask a further question), we decided to do something completely different and bought tickets for the island Province of Hainan. This still meant we had to spend the night in Guangzhou, so we took the Metro to a small river-based island in the city and checked into a hostel, The Guangdong Youth Hostel, for the night. The hostel is actually a hotel with a communal lounge area with computers and a TV and after the dodgy, dirty accommodation in Hong Kong, it was very refreshing and felt like a 5 star haven to us.

We spent a while relaxing and recovering from the Chinese heat before we found a very nice little restaurant on the waterfront for dinner.

This morning we managed to fill another 10kg box with goodies we bought as well as stuff we don’t need anymore and posted it to Australia. The women at the counter very kindly charged us for every piece of tape that was used to close the box as well as the time it took her to check the contents (a full hour of unpacking and looking at everything in the box!).

After a proper Western burger for lunch, we visited the Qing Ping Market in Guangzhou – the most famous and bizarre in China, full of strange foods, animals, and animal parts for sale. There is a saying: “the Cantonese will eat anything with four legs, except the table”. The market is full of all kinds of strange Chinese herbs and everything you can imagine is sold in a dried form – from dozens of different kinds of mushrooms, to seahorses, snakes, tongues (we couldn’t figure out from what animal though) and worms. Then there is also the live animal section. The Lonely Planet warned that the likes of dogs and cats are on sale for human consumption, but we did not see any of this (only in pet shops). We only found live scorpions, water turtles, frogs and snakes in plastic buckets on the streets.

We had to hang around the hostel for the rest of the day as our overnight train to Hainan Island only leaves at 21:25. We are not really looking forward to this hard-sleeper journey, but we are planning on just relaxing on a beach in the town of Sanya for the next few days.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

Hong Kong : Hong Kong

Saturday, 2nd August 2008

Having been reminded of our tight budget recently, we aimed for the ‘cheaper’ part of Hong Kong and started looking for a place to stay in Kowloon as soon as we arrived around 14:00 on Wednesday afternoon. We soon realised that our money definitely would not go very far in this place.

Pushing our way through countless touts offering rooms, fake watches and tailor-made suits we systematically checked out five different ‘youth hostels’ in one apartment block, but they were not quite what you’d expect from a youth hostel with seriously small rooms, hordes of people everywhere and cockroaches scurrying around. We had passed by another hostel further down the road a bit earlier, because at that stage it looked a bit dodgy, but now all of a sudden seemed like a real possibility. We checked into a small, yet clean-ish room for way more than what we were used to paying in China.

The first afternoon and most of the next day we spent prospecting the shopping streets of Kowloon. With our budget concerns temporarily gone by the way-side (again!) we were looking for a mini laptop computer for the trip and methodically collected data on specifications and prices for some of the latest models around. We would frequent internet cafes to check up on reviews of some of the ones we had shortlisted and by the 2nd evening we had made our shiny new purchase.

On Thursday we made our way onto the main Hong Kong island with the primary aim of getting a new Vietnam visa. Because of our extended stay in China (the first two months of our double-entry visa for China was up, which is why we had to get out of China and into Hong Kong) we forfeited our Vietnam visa which Marizanne spent days working on back in London. We headed to the Vietnam consulate and withing 50 minutes walked out with brand new visas.

On Friday we went up the well-known tram which leads up to the top of the hill overlooking Hong Kong island and Kowloon. The day had been hit-and-miss weather wise, but we were lucky to get a bit of sunshine when we got up there and enjoyed a drink at a coffee shop with wonderful views of the city.

We walked around many parts of town and had drinks in Soho after taking a very short ride on ‘the world’s longest covered escalator’. Seems that whenever something new is built in this part of the world, it needs to break some kind of record.

Fishing around many electronics and camera shops we worked our way down to the waterfront and took the refreshingly cheap ferry back to Kowloon. We enjoyed the sound & light show on the waterfront, where they light up dozens of high-rise buildings with lazers and spotlights, and we had many great meals around town.

Saturday was a lazy day that we spent familiarising ourselves with the luxury of having 24-7 mobile computing at our fingertips. On our last night in the tax-free zone we took one last dive into the indulgence pool and bought Marizanne her own digital SLR, something that was long overdue.

Hong Kong is a great mix of cultures (sometimes a scary mix) with seriously rich and desperately poor living side-by-side. One can walk past designer shops, turn a corner and be in the middle of dodgeville. We enjoyed our short trip here very much, but are looking forward to return to the real China.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

China, Guangdong Province : Massive Mission Hills

Wednesday, 30th July 2008

The luxury sleeper bus for which we had bought tickets a few days before ended up not being all that luxurious. The bus left Yangshuo at 21:45 on Monday night, and we were cramped into seriously small births, that were impossible to lay down op properly. Each bunk was wedged underneath the one in front and there were no space to move at all.

What made things worse was that the road to  Guangzhou & Shenzhen are in a really bad state and we were driving through and around crater sized potholes throughout the night.

Arriving ‘fresh and rejuvenated’ in Shenzhen at 09:20 the next morning we took the first taxi we could find to the Mission Hills golf resort. It’s the world’s biggest, with 12 championship golf courses, each one designed by a different celebrity golfer. Jan didn’t want to loose out on the chance to play here, and so after much research and decision making the Nick Faldo course was chosen as the one to go for.

Having arrived at around 10:30 we had lots of time to relax and get ready for the 14:00 tee-off time we had booked a few days prior. The place is so massive that it took about 30 minutes with two shuttle buses to get from our hotel to the course. After signing in and getting rental clubs organised we found out that Marizanne would not be allowed on the course unless she was playing as well.

As a consolation Marizanne checked into the resort’s spa for a mid-afternoon full-body ‘Hawaii Lomi-lomi’ massage. She admits that it was much more enjoyable than riding around on a golf cart for 4 hours would have been. Jan actually carded a tidy 83 after not having played at all for months, so he was extremely happy with the afternoon’s performance.

We treated ourselves to a lovely dinner in one of the many restaurants and then went back to enjoy what was easily the biggest hotel room that we’ve had during our entire trip. A nice extra was the fact that we had breakfast included in the price, and we made sure we got maximum mileage out of it.

Having spent huge amount of money already we decided against taking any of the hotel’s transfer options, but instead Jan ventured outside the confines of the massive resort to flag down a taxi, go pick up Marizanne and the luggage and then head to the Hong Kong border at Shenzhen.

This whole outing was of course way over our budget, so we’ll be living on dry noodles and water for a few weeks now.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.

China, Guangxi Province : Yangshuo Vol 2

Monday, 28th July 2008

After our exhausting cycle day yesterday, we took it very easy on Saturday. We came down for a late breakfast and then spent 3 hours on the internet at the hostel.

Around 14:00 we ventured into town again, but regretted it almost straight away – it was 35 degrees again and we were still a bit fragile after Friday’s near heatstroke experience. We headed into a little airconditioned cafe on the main street where we had a light lunch while surfing the internet for free – a lot of restaurants and bars offer free internet in Yangshuo to try and get business. After a bit of retail therapy we felt strong enough again to bargain for bus tickets to Shenzhen (on the Hong Kong border).

We befriended the owner of a little travel agency in a quiet street, and after the obligatory bit of small talk, he offered us a very good rate for the sleeper bus tickets – a unique Chinese bus with bunk beds instead of seats. Also, we decided to splash a bit and treated ourselves with tickets for hotair balooning.

On Sunday morning the company picked us up at 05:30 and dropped us on a dirt road outside town from where the balooons took of. It wasn’t long before we were in the basket and ready for lift off. As we went higher and higher, the sun started rising and the scenery was just breathtaking. We reached 1000m and you could see karst hills streching as far as the eye can see – absolutely amazing. For a first time experience, we definately chose one of the most beautiful spots in the world to go hotair balooning!

There was not alot of wind but we still managed to drift away and landed on the other side of the mountain from where we took off. We had to wait for the help team to come and assist with moving the baloon to safer grounds and then we had to venture back to the road. As we landed in some field, this meant we had to climb under fences and walk through the river to a nearby little school building from where we were picked up again and brought back to town.

Back at the hostel we had a very nice breakfast (actually included in our room rate – very unusual in China) and then went back to bed for a few hours. At around 14:00 we hired a scooter in town and went exploring – this time in much more comfort (and a softer seat) than the bicycles. We rode for about 20km north of Yangshuo and stopped at a very small village, Yangdi, on the river. After a tough 15 minutes bartering, we managed to get a good price for a bamboo rafting ride downstream to the next town, Xingping – scooter and all! From Xingping we had to really go full throttle to make it back to Yangshuo to return the scooter before 19:00.

We ended a beautiful day with some local delicasies (but still no dog or snake meat) on the balcony of a little cafe on the main street.

Monday is our last day in this blissfull part of the country before we take the bus to Shenzhen at 21:00.

If you can’t see the slideshow above click here.