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 ..... ?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Lhasa post # 2 - Yangshou

Yangshou was a small village on the Li River, which has become a backpackers enclave over the years since the early 90s when the first western style cafes popped up. Now there are dozens of chill-out cafes, western style bars, mexican restaurants and pizzerias in this "village" of 300,000 people. The main pedestrian street is called foreigner street and ironically enough this has been taken over by bars for chinese tourists who want to experience western nightlife. The resulting scene is one of lots of neon and flashing lights with very loud chinese bands and often karaoke. A lot of foreigners come here for the rock-climbing which is said to be the best in China. I met an Irish fella who was into it and he siad the price per day of about 40 euro was the price per hour that you would pay back home! All of this may sound horrifying for people who want to see the real China, but a lot of travellers like ourselves were glad of the relaxing break with western breakfasts and happy hours in the bars and some of the cheapest accommodation yet - 55 yuan for a double with bathroom and DVD player, in Monkey Janes guesthouse, with a great rooftop bar!

I fell sick here and had flu-like aching of bones and muscles, so that curbed our plans to go biking, hiking and rock-climbing. On the third day I was beginning to suspect something more serious than a virus and I headed to the local hospital to see a doctor. No-one really spoke english and there was a lot of amusement and tittering from the young nurses as the tried to shuffle me around to get a diagnosis. I explained my symptoms over the phone to an english speaker and then a small man in a surgical mask came into the very basic hospital ward (with mosquito nets) to examine me. He had me do a lot of aahhhing and he had to go on his tippy toes to look down my throat with a big silver flashlight (even though I was sitting on the bed). Then it was his turn to aaahhh for a bit, after which he promptly returned with an english-chinese medical dictionary nearly bigger than himself and with obvious frustration tryed to pronounce his diagnosis. He ended up pointing to "Sir, I wish to inform you that you have tonsillitis ..." and he went on to indicate that he wanted me to stay in the hospital on a penicillin drip for 7 days or else .... operation. I didn't fancy any of that and besides my chinese 30 day visa was almost up, so after I made it clear that I had to get to Hong Kong in 2 days he prescribed me some anti-biotics and I was right as rain the next day! Later, when I talked to an ex-pat in the town, he wasn't surprised by the doctors request to keep me, as I must have been like a walking cheque that could fund that small hospital....

Fully recovered, we tryed to squash lots of activities into our last day in Yangshou. We rented mountainbikes to ride through the rice fields to visit moonhill mountain - at last the open countryside, although that too proved to have an abundance of people wandering around, This was just as well as we got totally lost a few times and had to show the locals a picture of moonhill to point us in the right direction; some of them wanted hard cash for this information, ah the capitalist chinese ...

Then it was a cookery class in a farmhouse outside Yangshou. This was great craic, with about 12 of us chopping, cooking and eating our own wok creations. First of all, Agnes and I accompanied the cook to the local market to buy a few bits and pieces. A very colourful place with everything and anything on sale. Most people probably won't appreciate the photo of mans best friend hung up like a pig and with bits missing off him, but that's what the locals eat. Actually, we tried it ourselves in one of the restaurants and it turned out to be strong tasting, chewy and greasy - not really a favourite. That's it there with the onions. You can also see the poor exhausted egg-seller with the head down for forty winks. We saw this all over China - bone tired workers all over the place catching a nap in stores, restaurants and bars. They get up really early - breakfast is at 6ish - and work until quite late, 10 or 11 p.m., so it's not really surprising. Also, it's not that clear if everyone gets a weekend break, as everything seems to be in full swing on Saturday and Sunday. It seems that office workers might get these days free, but farming peasants work a 7 day week.

We left Yangshou fully relaxed, to return to Guilin and catch a sleeper nightbus to Hong Kong. This was the worst journey that we took in China and if you are over 5 feet 10 then I wouldn't recommend this type of transport at all. My feet were wedged into a shoe box type container at the end of the "bed" which was the guy in fronts pillow. The beds are made for little chinese not big overfed westerners and I didn't sleep a wink on the whole 20 hour bumpy ride - shite really!

Lhasa post # 1 - Guilin & Li River

Guilin is known for it's exotic and varied cuisine, most of which can be seen fresh outside the restaurants in cages (rabbits, ducks and snakes) and in basins pumped with oxygen (fish, eels and crabs). We saw a 4 foot rather nasty looking snake getting his head chopped off with a scissors rather expertly by the two young waitresses and then they drained the blood from the body into a glass to make a good medicine soup (they stopped me taking a phojo of that part).

We went for two "ordinary" dishes - the chicken with chillis (chicken was scrace and my lips were numb for an hour after) and to counteract it the most delicious sweet and sour fish I've ever tasted.

Even though it was pretty much destroyed by japanese bombing in the 30s the local authorities have made the town very pretty and lit up at night, as well as being pedestrian and bike friendly. We hired a couple of bicis and explored the town following the Li river - that's the nearest that we came to chinese countryside since the Great Wall! The town is full of expert hustlers, especially around the pedestrian streets where everyone wants to practice english and recommend a good restaurant. They left me alone sometimes because they thought Agnes was my guide/wife, but one guy whose cousin has a restauran in Dublin and who normally works in an orphanage, did manage to hustle me into a tea shop where I paid 12 euro for a 100g of very special, secret recipe, subtle taste blend - sucker!

After a few days in Guilin we hopped on one of the hundreds of boat tours leaving daily heading downstream to the tourist village of Yangshou. Again we opted for the chinese tour, being half as cheap as the foreigner tour, but still a pricey 200 yuan each. It came with it's own price as the first took is to a jade factory for an hour, then the included lunch was only cold rice, an egg and some meat that the dog didn't want - the idea was to pay another 100 yuan for a proper lunch, which amazingly all the chinese passangers did - and worst of all, as we cruised the very scenic river a constant commentary was given in grating chinese over the tannoy on literally every rock formation! Apart from that, sure twas a great trip .... the scenery being lush and green, with the odd rock formations vaguely familiar. This is probably because it appears on a lot of chinese art and is even on the back of the 20 yuan bill.

Even if the onbard lunch was pricey, there was no denying it's freshness, as nearly a hundred cruise boats took off simultaneously downstream then numerous small launches with the locals appeared from the banks and sold the cooks on the back of each vessel freshly caught fish, live hens and vegetables - all this without stopping! Later, locals on bamboo rafts poled out to meet our boat, which was chugging nicely along, to time their approach so that they could hook on to our gunwhale and attempt to sell is jade souvenirs and other such rubbish.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Shangri-la post # 2 - Yangzi river cruise

We booked into the cheap Yangzi river cruise while in the hostel in Chengdu. This meant getting a bus to Chongqing (China's largest city) and heading downstream on the river for 3 nights stopping at various towns along the way until just before the giant 3 gorges dam. The foreigners cruise cost minimum $400, but we went for a chinese cruise boat costing a third of that. The disadvantage was having to share a 4 berth cabin with 2 chinese chaps as it turned out. Except for the snoring they were decent enough companions and communication was sparse but cordial.

Strange chinese juice concoctions, as well as, every conceivable edible pig part were much in evidence en route.
Getting in among the bamboo and not quite the yow-tow expected!

Our first stop after a nights cruising was at the early hour of 6 a.m. to visit the chinese ghost city of Fengdu, where all the souls of China go when they die. A few very nasty depictions of hell were on show. Despite the early hour and steep climb up to the city, we got a good laugh when someone addressed me as " Hello pee-pee boy!". It turned out to be a seller of little statuettes which let forth a jet from their groin area when you poured water over their heads - the seller demonstrated on a whole row of little lads with a big smile on his face. It made a nice change to being called hello pose-caa.

More temples and fierce looking statues ...

The highlight of the cruise was switching to a smaller ship and heading down the three little gorges and then jumping onto a small wooden boat to experience the 3 mini-gorges. All commented on in a very loud grating voice by the chinese guides over the tannoy system. The mini-gorges were maybe only 4 to 5 metres wide in places and had bizarre musicians and singers along the way who would only start performing when a boat approached - the first one we encountered on a type of horn is reputed to get 10 yuan (1 euro) a day for his efforts, that's entertainment!

On the main ship, one of the hidden extras was the charge to go out on deck and enjoy the views - 55 yuan. All the foreigners coughed up and we eventually established our own little corner where we drank beer and chatted. I met my first Irishman with his chinese fiancee on a fact-finding mission to Beijing to see if they would get married there and possibly lived there. At the time, this Mayo man seemed to think negatively in each case.

Contact with the chinese tourists was minimal on board, but while waiting to disembark at one point the group we shared our section of the sleepers did send forward a representative to ask Agnes "Way you fom?". With the help of my phrasebook we managed to communicate that she was Korean-American. Then the same man came up and with had cupped to my ear whispered "She bery booty-ful" while filled with daring now another guy whispered to me "Is hse you life?" Surprised at such a profound question I answered, yes I suppose she is my life .... afterwards I realised that the guy meant to say wife!

We skipped the visit to the 3 gorges monster dam at the end of the cruise and headed straight for Wuhan via Yichang - the main transport hub in the region.