Agnes and myself are off to asia via St. Petersburg, Moscow before catching the transmongolian and arriving in Beijing on August 27th 2006. That's as far as the exact planning is at right now. Afterwards it'll be travel in China for a few weeks, down to South Korea and then back to China and hopefully reach Tibet. From there cross into Nepal, then India and then Southeast Asia, after that ..... ?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Goa post #3 - Kunming, Dali and TLG

Kunming wasn't a bad old spot really - it was a first for a lot of things, I suppose. First time to see a blue sky in China - I ain't kidding. First time to get decent coffee on the mainland, in Salvadors cafe. First time to go out and see the real country side in western, rural China. The large student population, which includes a lot of foreigners, gives it a fairly cosmopolitan feel, hence the cafes. The all year round pleasant climate and the ban on heavy vehicles from the city centre also make it one of Chinas preferred places to live. It is, however, even more consumer crazy than any other city we had been in, with small, but extremely vocal girls (sometimes horrendously equipped with a bullhorn!) outside every shop, which all appeared to sell the same lurid pink and green ladies clothes. To top it all they have a Walmart!

Lowpoint was seeing from my comfortable cafe beanbag some locals scavanging in the rubbish thrown on the street. Highpoint was sampling the scrumptious crossing-the-bridge noodles in the brothers Jiang establishment. Originally, devised by a clever lady years ago as a way of keeping her beloved's lunch warm when he made it over the bridge to work. Delicious whatever the reason.

Dali was a one night stopover on our way to hike in the Tiger Leaping Gorge. It was written up in the RG as a tourist town full of ex-pats smoking wacky-backy, but it proved to be a charming and welcoming place despite this. With plenty of food options and watering holes - we ended up in the Bamboo Cafe for the local Bai fare and then stumbled over to the Bad Monkey for cocktails and weird photos. Lots of running water in the old town, which is flowing fiercly through channels on most streets, with large metre long openings which dropped down another few feet - not funny if you are drunk or spaced out! What was most interesting was the abundance of fresh vegetables displayed in abundance outside even the most humblest eateries. We were in the sticks now alright!

The bus journey from Dali to Qiaotou was fascinating, as it was harvest time and we saw people everywhere in the fields on either side of the narrow road. They, in there hundreds, toiled by hand and sometimes with oxen to reap the crop and carry it to the road, where tiny tractor-trailer hybrids would pile it high and higher transport it away. All this roadside activity made our progress slow and may have contributed to some of the local passengers gushing their breakfasts into the plastic bags provided.

When we reached Qiaotou, a decent looking gent approached us and offered to drive us to Seans guesthouse in the Tiger Leaping Gorge for a reasonable fee. We accepted after he agreed to store our big rucksacks in his gaff until we returned in several days. Seans GH was obviously one of the first in the TLG, from the amount of weathered paraphanelia, around and was undergoing a big renovation. We secured a cheap room with a great view and adjourned for a beer and dinner. The menu had Happy Bread and the pictured statement at the back. We saw why when we desecended the gorge the next day and had our olfatory senses overwhelmed by a plant that was taller than me (188cm - that's me!). Sorry about the skewed photos, but blogger updated it's SW at this point and they wouldn't load on the other way. Anyway, various locals had set up barriers on the decent down the gorge with various excuses for levying a local charge, despite having paid a National Park entry fee on the taxi ride in .... this was always annoying in China, the extras added on for foreigners. The amount was small, but the principle really irked us! Gggrrr! We took out our frustration on ascending the gorge, but we soon calmed down as it was very vertical and very tough and it nearly killed. Also knowing that we had another 4-5 hour hike to the halfway house ahead of us didn't help. It really was a spectacular walk, but we were relieved and exhausted when we reached the teahouse and it was getting dark. Beer and delicious apple tart were greedily consumed as we chatted with the fellow guests.

The next day was long 6 hour trek back to Qiatou, which we did at a ferocious pace (or so we thought!) so as not to miss the last 4 p.m. bus to Zhondiang, a 3 hour ride up to 3500m near the Tibetan border. Thankfully we were going down the 23 bends rather up and once we passed the last teahouse of the Naxi family then we knew we were on the home straight. Our friend with the bags didn't let us down and then we hopped on a scenic bus ride to one of the most remote cities in China. They even like to call it Shangri-La ....
Twas cold there and we secured a room for one night, went to the Potala cafe where hygiene levels dropped to a new low and everything seemed to taste of Yak - little did we know that it was apt prelude to our next destination - Tibet. We came across a giant circle dancing in the square of the old town, but Agnes refused to accompany me despite the brave manouvres of other strangers. The next day saw a move to the Dragoncloud Hostel (an apt name when you see me pictured under the giant bush in the courtyard, although I now think that it was male). A stroll through the old town led to the discovery of the very cool Karma cafe and oneof it's young Tibetan owners got chatting with us and offered to help us shop for camping gear that afternoon. No scam, just a guy who wanted to express his thanks to westerners for helping the Dalai Lama in India. That night we returned to eat in Karma and listen to an amazing performance of Tibetan music from his brother and other guests. The good karma couldn't last, as Agnes spent the night in the hostel with diarrhoea and vomiting and the pricks had turned the water off at 11 p.m. - yuck! The poor girl really was in a state when we headed the next morning to fly to Lhasa over the Himalayas.

Goa post 2# - Macau for fish!

Macau is strange, but charming place, all the more so since it's lost it's sleazy, gangster reputation and has now a bit of cash floating around, not just in the casinos. It was so bad at one stage that when the Portugeuse told the Chinese that they were leaving and that it was all theirs, the Reds said - no thanks!
Looking across the rooftops from the Fortaleza de Monte, you can see the squalid state of a lot of the old buildings, but also the new constructions around the centre and on the horizon. We arrived by ferry from Hong Kong and it only took an hour. Then the Best Western courtesy bus whisked us across one of the many impressive bridges to Taipa Island. Macau is another place noted for it's expensive accommodation, but is much more sedate, laid back and even colonial than it's neighbour. It's weird to see the portuguese/cantonese mix reflected in the street signs, food - natas and sheets of roast pressed meat are offered to tourists - and especially so in the faces of the people. With a much smaller population than HK, the portuguese integration is very noticeable.

At night, everything goes from colonial whites and pastels to the brash neon street lighting and the spectacular lights of the casinos and the bridges. We managed to track down the Henri restaurant recommended in the RG, which was full of locals enjoying seafood and white wine from La Costa Verde - we followed suit and tryed not to think of the ferry the next morning which would drop us to Shenzhen airport for our flight to Kunming in western China.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Goa post #1 - Down and out in Hong Kong

Hong Kong! We both loved it - like going back to western civilization after our spell in China, Mongolia and Russia. First thing after securing shoebox size and expensive accommodation in Mirador Mansions was to secure an acceptable pint in Delaneys. Easily done by dodging all the Indian tailors stationed every 10 metres all of whom insisted that my most pressing need was not a good dose of the black nectar, but rather a tailored suit - this in spite of (or maybe because of) my t-shirt, shorts and sandals appearance.

I should mention that entering the HK territory was a long process from China equivalent to leaving the mainland and cancelling your chinese visa. Don't believe any hostel or travel agency that tells you they offer a bus service going directly to the HK territories because every gets off and walks through. So even though it's controlled by it's big neighbour, the chinese government essentially haven't changed anything because HK was a cash cow for them even before it was handed back by the Brits. And it remains british in so many ways - signs everywhere to warn you to "Mind your head" and "Slippery Floor". These may have been present in China, in chinese, but it didn't help me much as I whacked the side of my head for the umptheenth time off the TV set on the bus when alighting. Much to the amusement of my fellow passangers, I might add. The names of the streets and hotels in HK are also so british, but don't look it with all their chinese characters - it made me think of Dublin, a bit. The public transport system was so clean, efficient and well organised, that it was nearly a pity the British hadn't stayed in Ireland until the 30s so as to tunnel out the Dublin underground. Ah well, we probably would have ripped it all up anyway, like we did with the railways and trams. I digress .....

We passed our days exploring the streets and markets and nipping in out of the very polluted, humid and hot air now and again to be AC frozen while we sipped our expensive lattes in one of the typical cafe chains that dot the more commercial and western parts of the city. Trying to eat cheap by buying sandwiches and canned coffee in the 7-11s that occupy a space on every corner. I have never knowingly financed an american business so much, but it was one of the few budget options in such an expensive city.

Here's the 800m of escalators that bring all the workers on HK island down in the morning and up in the evening. A great idea because it passes right through the Soho bar hopping area.
Ah, a great auld day on the beach at Shek O, reached on HK island from the end of the tram line in Shau Kei and then boarding the No. 9 doubledecker. About 5 people on this immaculate spread of sand, not counting the 10 lifeguards and 5 beach cleaners.

Because of my medical mishap, we actually ended up being still in Hong Kong for the massive full moon festival. This turned out to a fortunate turn of events because back in mainland China it was the Golden week holiday and 200 million people were on the move .... imagine CIE dealing with dat and only one ticket booth open in Busaras at the weekends!

Another great day had by all, well the 2 of us anyway. About 17 euro each to visit the HK Ocean Park on a weekday. Beautiful weather and not a soul about, so no queuing or gettin' in line as some folks say. Highly recommended and half the price of Disneyland on Lantau Island.

Bamboo is still preferred to other scaffolding, even for building the skyscrapers.
Caught a doubledecker up to the Peak from HK island with our premeditated picnic purchased in M&S and Pret-a-Manger. Fantastic view of the harbour and even more so at night.

A wee trip out to the fishing village of Aberdeen on the other side of HK island meant an expensive 10 minute boat ride to see how the natives still lived on the water. Not much happening really, I reckon that they've all buggered off to the giant, surrounding skyscrapers....

We used the metro a bit to help us cool down, but after the real cheap ferries that cross the harbour then our next favourite mode of transport were the doubledecker trams on HK island. Slow, noisy, crowded and no AC, great for no hurry and streetviewing travel - for just 2 HKD (20 cent) using the Octupus card!

We were lucky enough to catch this lion (or dragon?) acrobatics show for free, on Sunday, in the Kung Fu corner of the public park in Kowloon.

HK harbour is at it's most impressive at night. We ended going back again and again to the Avenue of the stars, with it's famous names from Hong Kong cinema, and of course it's statue of Bruce Lee, Agnes distant cousin. In Kowloon they have a light show every evening from 8 to 8:20 p.m., synchronized with funky elevator music if you are early enough to get a place beside one of the speakers.
The Bin Man Hotel was recommended in the RG as a budget option in Causeway, on HK island. Right away we percieved it to a friendly place with it's all female staff (baby included) and a few fellow backpackers around. We were offered the best room in the house which was suitably dingy and noisy for 280 HKD (28 euro) a night. As time went on we noticed strange things like rooms being empty during the day with doors open, no fellow travellers visible and a healthy amount of hardcore porn fed into a certain TV

channel at various times of the day. Only when we were told on the full moon weekend that our room was reserved at 10:30 in the morning, but we could return the same day after 7:30 in the evening, did the penny drop - it was a love hotel! Clients being anyone from young couples still living seperately with their parents, to people having affairs and the odd mis-guided backpacker! Nevertheless, it proved convenient in the next episode of the HK experience, as it is 15 minute walk from St. Pauls hospital....

Started feeling bad on the Thursday before the long weekend and the few beers in Soho did not help. We thought it might have been the old tonsilitis from Yangshou acting up, so went up to St. Pauls hospital to see a doctor. He took a blood test and the next day I knew that at least I didn'y have malaria. A left them some urine this time and we were told to come back on Tuesday after the holiday. I didn't last that long because of my fever and shakes and on Monday morning I was told by my third doctor that I had an infection of the bladder/kidney and would be admitted immediately for antibiotic drip and tests to determine the cause - delighted to know my ailment and that I had finally reached the appropriate physician (Dr. Wong had been my first consultation - seriously!). Hospital was grand and clean, Agnes kept me supplied with food, drink and papers, had nice ward mate, called Eddie, who was quite dismayed when I suggested that he would have no prob finding work as a building services engineer "overseas" in Beijing. All tests came back negative and after only 4 nights I was out with a weeks course of antibiotics and a hefty bill for 2400 euro - thank God for travel insurance!

I thought that our dodgy accommodation might have had something to do with my health complications, so I suggested (or insisted, depending on your memory of events) a move up above the traffic and smog to the Mount Davis Hostel. Not a good choice, as it was filthy, musty, full of teenagers and inconvenient to get to. Anyway, we went to the other extreme and booked a suite in the 4 star Ramada hotel, in kennedy Town for 400 HKD a night .... pure luxury .....

As soon as I finished my Anti-biotics and was feeling right as feckin' rain, we headed straight for the typical ex-pat and tourist bar area known as Lang Kwai Fong, ordered a pitcher of margarita and followed that up with the happy hour carlsberg pints (20 HKD) that they serve in the Kavern until 10 p.m. The kidneys did what was asked of them and more, so twas time to hit the road again. Before the basic amenities of China though, we were gonna spoil ourselves for one more night in the old portuguese colony of Macau ......