A Travellerspoint blog

October 15th - 26th, Tibet

October 15th/16th/17th
A lazy morning. Then in the afternoon we went down to the train station to board the Chengdu - Lhasa train. This train was to be our home for the next 44 hours. After successfully scrummaging onto the train ahead of most other people we found we were able to stow our bags under the beds. The sleeper train consisted of 6 bed compartments.

In order to board we had to show passports, tickets, the tour group itinery once in Tibet and our permits. These were scrutinised by police and then for some reason photographed - but we made it, along with the other 6 people in our hastily put together tour group. It is impossible to enter Tibet without being part of a tour group. The tour companies, not surprisingly, have cottoned on to this and now charge extravagent prices for simple tours. How much of this money goes towards the tour guides, drivers, companies, Tibetan people and the Chinese Government is anyone's guess but I think the latter probably picks up a fair chunk.

The train was comfortable enough. Sadly, one of the Chinese ladies sharing my compartment gave me a set of earplugs as we set off, explaining that her brother (standing sheepishly behind her) was a massive snorer. She wasn't wrong. I was also on the top bunk which involved some fairly precarious climbing manouvres in order to make it up. More than once I either stepped on someone or landed in amongst a large Chinese family gathering at the bottom.

The 2 days went by reasonably quickly. We hung out in the restaurant carriage - ordering a constant flow of small water bottles to enable us to keep our space. This infuriated the waitress for some reason who on the 2nd night flew into a rage and yelled at us. We had actually eaten some of the food as well but obviously not enough to avoid a mammouth ear bashing from her.

The train went north from Chengdu, through Xining and then west. Shortly before entering Tibet the train stewardesses came round with oxygen tubes. A little later the atnosphere inside the train became somewhat artificial as oxygen was pumped in and the heating turned up a notch. This was beacuse the train line rose to over 5000 metres high (far higher than any mountain in Europe). In our group of 8 we had several headaches, some nausea, a couple of nose bleeds and 1 fainting. Happily, I was fine!! As was Marsha once she'd cleared up the nose bleeds.... Altitude sickness is apparently a real problem and a slow graduated climb is reccommended. Unfortunately, the train has to pass over 5000 metres before coming down to 3650 metres in Lhasa. But, this is still the preferred route in rather than flying.

The train line is a remarkable feat of engineering. We travelled over mountains and along the Tibetan plateau. The view was stunning nearly all the time. The sunsets and sunrises were absolutely beautiful. At times we were well above the snow line in amongst the jagged peaks. Outside life went on somehow: Tibetan houses, Yak, hawks, antelope and gazelles all happily going about their business in the snow. At other times sand dunes dominated the landscape. As we neared Lhasa the train travelled along the plateau - flat baron land either side of the track with snowy mountain peaks jostling for room on the horizon.

The train pulled into Lasa/Lhasa/Lahasa about 4pm. The city seems to use each of these spellings for some reason. We were met by Yutun (our tour guide) and 2 landcruisers and 2 drivers. Marsha and I checked into the Wyichu Hotel in the centre of Lhasa. After making arrangements for meeting up the next day we then walked down to the Bakhor region of town. This region is essentially a circuit around the Jokhang Temple. It ignites all the senses. A sea of people walk clockwise around the 1km long circuit. Tourists, monks, elderly ladies clutching and spinning prayer wheels and Tibetan people selling their wares. Incense burns creating a spicy aroma. The place is noisy - some good natured haggling over Tibetan clothes and artefacts and the low chanting and murmouring as the religous Tibetan buddhists complete their circuits. We were swept up into the circuit and went round a couple of times.

Some of the people weren't just walking around - several men and women clad in yak wool aprons and with padded gloves were throwing themselves to the ground every few steps fully laying out on their stomachs with arms outstretched. They performed these spiritual protestations several times a minute.

Back out in the main streets the Chinese army was very visible. Groups of armed soldiers, some with riot gear, marched the roads. These boys (for that's all they were) guarded various streets and positions in town. It was a little scary. We avoided eye contact with them and found ourselves in a little Tibetan restaurant called Tashi 1.

18th October
A fairly restless night - apparently the altitude can play havoc with your sleep. Although, we were managing to blame the altitude on all sorts of minor goings on - from spilling a drink to tripping on the pavement. The 8 of us met Yutun and we visited Drepung Monastery in the morning and Jokhang Temple in the afternoon. The monastery used to house 7000 monks - now only 500. It also used to be the seat of government in Tibet. The Temple was the King's palace before Potala Palace was built. Each was filled with endless pilgrims and monks performing various spiritual tasks - protestations, emptying yak butter into vats, chanting, spinning prayer wheels and throwing money into all the different chambers. Both places had many stupas and Buddha figures. Our guide tried to explain the very complicated history and meanings of Buddhism. I had no idea it was so complicated - and at times, not a little far fetched to say the least.

Yutun explained a little of the Tibetan history but refused to be drawn into any opinions regarding the Chinese occupation. 'There are people with ears', she told us, 'everywhere!'. The temples and monasteries and streets and people in general are alive with colour. It is a great place to simply sit and people watch. Towards the end of the day's tour we came to the top of the temple overlooking the square in town. We just sat and watched for a while. And then, a group of about 6 monks turned up. I don't know quite who was the more excited but, we all took turns standing with each other posing for photos. Marsha was even made to take a video of one of the monks as he performed some sort of prayer ritual with his lucky prayer scarf.

In fact, we had all been made to wear these white prayer scarves. They are supposed to bring luck. However, after Marsha had first tripped up on hers and then nearly garotted herself on it whilst trying to disentagle her camera from it we decided we would try and cope without...
Here's some snaps:
Tibetan art

Tibetan art


Monk and Marsha, Tibet

Monk and Marsha, Tibet


Tibetan taxi

Tibetan taxi


Lunch in Lhasa

Lunch in Lhasa


Us in Lhasa

Us in Lhasa


Lhasa

Lhasa


Tibetan monk

Tibetan monk


Some of the tour group in Tibet

Some of the tour group in Tibet


Tibetan people at the Potala Palace

Tibetan people at the Potala Palace


Patrick and monks in front of the Potala Palace

Patrick and monks in front of the Potala Palace

Marsha and I joined 3 of the other tour group members for a dinner at New Mandala restaurant which was cheap and very tasty.

19th October
The Dalai Lama lives in exile in India. His home when in Tibet, along with many of his predecessors was the Potala Palace. Once again, efforts to engage in a discussion with our tour guide about his exile and the possibility of his return was met with silence. Instead, as we climbed the many stairs to the top of the palace, she pointed out the huge monument we could see across the road a square from the palace. 'That is the monument to comemorate the Liberation of Tibet by the Chinese', she told us.
(People have ears...)
The palace contained the mummified corpses and stupa tombs of several Dalai Lama. We also visited the study rooms and chambers of the present Dalai Lama - albeit, sadly, unused at present.

We had a whirlwind tour - the officials in their wisdom only allow you an hour inside. We could easily have spent several hours. Stupas, buddhas, caves, ancient scriptures, statues and paintings cover each room from floor to ceiling - and there are 1000 rooms. Truly an extraordinary place.

After lunch at the Durnya Cafe we trooped along to Sera Monastery. Here about 50 monks sat around in a garden and debated Buddhist issues. This involved groups sitting together and 1 monk standing up and rather aggressively firing questions at the seated monks by throwing his whole body into a clap and pointing vigourously at one of them. The seated ones looked bored out of their minds whereas the questioners appeared to be rather enjoying their roles.
Chinese 'Liberation' monument to Tibet

Chinese 'Liberation' monument to Tibet

Potala Palace, Tibet

Potala Palace, Tibet

Protestations to the Potala Palace, Tibet

Protestations to the Potala Palace, Tibet

Tibetan lady

Tibetan lady

Monks at Sera Monastery (4)

Monks at Sera Monastery (4)

Monks at Sera Monastery (3)

Monks at Sera Monastery (3)

Monks at Sera Monastery (2)

Monks at Sera Monastery (2)

Monks at Sera Monastery (1)

Monks at Sera Monastery (1)

20th October
The previous evening we tried to book flights from Kathmandu online using my credit card. It failed. So, we rang the bank on Skype. 'Ah, yes', the lady on the other end said,'I notice you have tried to use your card. We've blocked it', she added happily. I asked why and receied some baffling reason to do with Christmas as an answer. Anyhow, once she had affirmed my date of birth and various other information she informed me that the card was now unblocked. 'Try now, it will work', she said half heartedly - clearly she was applying lipstick or filing her nails or something else important. So I tried and it failed again. I called back and got through to the same woman. 'Hello again, my card still doesn't work', I said after giving my credit card number. 'Oh'. A pause. Clearly playing for time she then insisted in asking me exactly the same personal detail questions as before. A few minutes later she suddenly announced that she had fixed the problem. I tried again and it didn't work. By this time the owner of the wifi cafe we were sitting in decided to close and ushered us out. Great!

We go up an hour early to try again. A couple of phone calls - one of which resulted in me being passed on to someone else 3 times eventually fixed the card. No reason was given other than a similarly bizzare reason to do with Christmas again. Anyhow, it was too late to book flights as we were due in the car park of the hotel.

The 8 of us travelled north and east of Lhasa via some ridiculously expensive hot springs to Lake Namtso. The claim by the Chinese is that this lake is the highest in the world - 4700 metres above sea level. The road there was gorgeous. We went over a 5200 metre pass - snow all around and still peaks towering above us. The lake itself was a brilliant blue colour, surrounded by hills and mountains. The snow reached down almost to the shore. We spent nearly 2 hours walking along the shore taking endless photos. It was impossible to take a bad one.

We eventually left the lake and drove round to Reting Monastery. On the way at a police checkpoint our guide was told that we would not be able to stay there and would have to return to Lhasa. The reason? – ‘troubles’ in the region. We went anyway and, not surprisingly, everything was quiet. There were no monks rampaging the countryside causing havoc. And so, arriving late, we were shown to the pretty basic sleeping quarters of the monastery. Some noodles and a couple of drinks before bed.
Tibetan young boy

Tibetan young boy

Marsha en route to the Himalayas

Marsha en route to the Himalayas

Tibetan view from the road

Tibetan view from the road

Tibetan prayer flags

Tibetan prayer flags

High pass in Tibet

High pass in Tibet

PA202237.jpg PA202243.jpgPA202245.jpgPA202249.jpgPA202261.jpgPA202264.jpgPA202268.jpgPA202284.jpg

21st October
I had slept fine – despite what seemed like hundreds of dogs barking at each other throughout the night but some of the group were not feeling too well. The altitude was over 4000 metres. Some rather plain rice for breakfast did nothing to improve things. Very cold, we all joined in the tour around the small monastery nestled at the bottom of hills that stretched up all around. It is the place where the Dalai Lama has made it known that he would quite like to return to – if ever that day happens. It was very picturesque and involved climbing up the hill a short way. The thinness of the air was very obvious. Even a short climb up a wee hill left us all breathless.

Once the tour ended everyone traipsed back down the hill, but, on seeing some stupas to our right, Marsha and I went down a different route. It was beautiful – many stupas sat in amongst the trees with Yak lazily chewing grass around them. Behind, the Tibetan landscape undulating in the sunshine. It was the best part of the day and we arrived back at the car park to find everyone else ready to leave.
Reting monastery countryside

Reting monastery countryside

Reting monastery countryside

Reting monastery countryside

Reting monastery countryside

Reting monastery countryside

Stupas, Patrick, Reting monastery

Stupas, Patrick, Reting monastery

Yak

Yak

Yak at Reting

Yak at Reting

Reting Monastery guesthouse bedroom

Reting Monastery guesthouse bedroom

The road back to Lhasa took us through little villages. The people were very friendly, however, the roads and surrounds were covered in litter. Arriving back in Lhasa we this time checked into the Yak Hotel and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon and evening there before meeting up with the others for dinner at the New Mandala restaurant.

22nd/23rd October
We left Lhasa for the last time and started the journey that would eventually end up in Kathmandu. The 2 days were fantastic driving. The road went higher and higher as we neared the Himalayas. The route climbed over passes in excess of 5000 metres several times. Once over 4000 metres shortly out of Lhasa, we never went lower. Tibetan houses and their colourfully clothed occupants waved as we travelled by. They obliged by posing for photos – a very photogenic race of people. We visited a couple of lakes in the hills. Both were incredibly blue. Again, snowy mountains rose up in view behind. We perched ourselves on rocky outcrops and took pictures.
Marsha in Tibet

Marsha in Tibet

Lake in Tibet

Lake in Tibet

Lake in Tibet

Lake in Tibet

Us by a lake

Us by a lake


PA222371.jpgPA222377.jpgPA222379.jpgPA222384.jpg

We passed a glacier that reached down nearly to the road.
Tibetan glacier

Tibetan glacier


Overnight we stayed in a town that boasted a 1000 year old fort and a walled monastery both of which we visited in the morning.
Fort in China

Fort in China

Tibetan boys

Tibetan boys

Tibetan village

Tibetan village

Marsha and cow

Marsha and cow

Tibetan boy on the roof

Tibetan boy on the roof

Old lady in the monastery

Old lady in the monastery

Us at the fort

Us at the fort

Tibetan children

Tibetan children


The road then continued further south to Shigatze where we checked into the Everest Hotel. Again, as every little village or town seems to have, we found ourselves in a monastery. Perhaps we were beginning to feel that they all looked the same! Not this one though apparently! Oh no. This one houses the world’s biggest Buddha we were told. Erm, ok. Not entirely convinced we visited anyhow and eventually found it. Clearly it was a lot smaller than many others we had seen. Either an extraordinary optical illusion was taking place or the claim, like in other places, was a little optimistic. Apparently not! This is the largest Buddha that is seated and gilded and something else and various other things. The list went on until obviously every other larger Buddha was discounted for some reason or another leaving this one to be the biggest in its particular category. Feeling ever so slightly cheated we left and wandered around the old market. Once we had almost stumbled over a pile of goat heads sitting on the ground we decided it was time to head back to the hotel and then out to dinner at the 3rd Eye Restaurant.

24th/25th/26th October
Just simply the most spectacular landscape I have and probably will ever see. The 3 days took us from Shigatze towards the Himalayas where we stayed at Everest Base Camp. Then onto the Friendship highway that links Tibet and Nepal and through the Himalayan mountain range to the border town. The next day we followed a gorge down all the way into Kathmandu – the Himalayas soaring impossibly high into the sky behind us.

We set off early in the morning on the 24th and the road immediately took us upwards. We passed what was to be the highest point of our journey – 5248 metres. The Himalayan mountains soon appeared on the horizon. Everest appeared and Marsha and I argued as to who’d seen it first. Even at 5000 metres the enormous mountain soared nearly 4000 metres above us. The road continued on towards it.
Marsha and Everest

Marsha and Everest

Patrick and Everest

Patrick and Everest

Everest

Everest

Everest loomed larger and larger as the day went on. At last we rounded a bend having not seen the mountain in a while and there she stood before us. We were to stay the night at the world's highest monastery, only 6km from base camp. Once we'd checked in and left our bags we went up to base camp. The sun was setting on Everest. The whole mountain was there in front of us. The air was thin as we were over 5000 metres high; just how climbers have the energy to make it to the top is beyond me.

The light on the top of the mountain as the sun set was breathtaking. We all just stood and watched. And then, for a reason that still escapes me, 3 of us decided the whole situation would be improved somewhat by an impromptu strip. Me - only topless. And that was definitely cold enough! Still the photos will be good I reckoned at the time. As you will be able to see - they weren't at all...
Mount Everest

Mount Everest

Yak and Everest.

Yak and Everest.

Yak and Everest

Yak and Everest

PA242487.jpgPA242491.jpgPA242494.jpgPA242496.jpgPA242500.jpgPA242505.jpgPA242511.jpgPA242513.jpgPA242516.jpgPA242518.jpgPA242520.jpgPA242521.jpgPA242523.jpg

The night at the monastery was freezing. We stayed in the 'restaurant' as long as possible delaying the inevitable cold bed. One of our group stumbled in the restaurant whilst carrying a bowl of noodles and ended up thowing them all over one of the other diners. Despite this very amusing incident there was little else going on and so we went to bed. Outside, as we walked to the rooms, the moon was bright in the sky in amongst the twinkling stars. The giant mountain was silhouetted above us. It was still just about visible from our beds.

The sunrise was less spectacular than the sunset but, still, staring up at the tallest mountain in the world from half way up whilst the sun edged its way up and over the adjacent hills gradually throwing more and more golden light onto the snowy slopes was unforgettable. Again, we just stood and watched the spectacle unfold. It was, however, very cold and so reluctantly we left mid-morning.
PA252531.jpgPA252536.jpg

The 3 hour journey to Old Thingri was downwards through the foothills of the Himalayas (these 'foothills' still being higher than any mountain in Europe). The views were superb which made up for the bone jarring journey. The town of Old Thingri sat on a plain with the Himalayan range in the distance. It was as though the little town had not changed ever. The old Tibetan houses with some walls made of cow dung looked as though they'd stood colourfully for as long as the mountains behind them. Horses and Yak pulled carts down the street where little children played.
Lady in Old Thingri

Lady in Old Thingri

People in Old Thingri

People in Old Thingri

Tibetan children playing in a skip

Tibetan children playing in a skip


We had lunch and walked for a while before convincing our guide that we would like to visit the nearby hot springs.

A little bathe in hot springs looking up at the mountains seemed like the perfect way to spend the afternoon. But, on arrival, some fella was washing his underwear in the green mossy water and alongside him his friend was cleaning out his lunch plate. They invited us to climb on in but, unsurprisingly, we declined and headed on to the border. The road followed a gorge down several thousand metres to the border. Again, stunning. We passed through the Himalayan mountain range. Towering white peaks lay in front, then surrounded us and finally were at our backs.
The Friendship Highway

The Friendship Highway

The road to Nepal

The road to Nepal

Us and the Himalayas

Us and the Himalayas

Us in Tibet, taken by us

Us in Tibet, taken by us

The Himalayas from the Friendship Highway

The Himalayas from the Friendship Highway

The Himalayas from the Friendship Highway

The Himalayas from the Friendship Highway

Tibetan Himalayas

Tibetan Himalayas

The Himalalyas

The Himalalyas

We were held up at a construction site for a short while a few miles from the border town and Marsha and I can now claim to have helped build the Friendship Highway!
Marsha fixing the Friendship Highway

Marsha fixing the Friendship Highway


In town, after checking in and having dinner, a few of us wandered into the nearby karaoke bar. We were invited into a private room where about 10 Chinese men lay scattered about as drunk as could be. We sang Auld Lang Syne and Eidleveiss before some official looking people came along and for some reason broke up the party. The previously very drunk men immediately sobered up and filed out dutifully - and so we left as well.

In the morning we left Tibet - and China, although it had felt in many ways as though we'd left China 11 days previously. Through the border to Nepal. Everything seemed to get instantly more colourful - even if the road became considerably worse. The van we hired to Kathmandu was cramped as it bumped over the terrible tracks/roads. Kathmandu sits at only 1337 metres and as we neared we glimpsed the Himalayas behind us. From a considerably lower elevation the mountains 6 or 7 thousand metres above looked impossibly high. We saw hills, sky above, then cloud and finally jagged peaks poking through the top! Incredible.
The Himalayas from the Friendship Highway

The Himalayas from the Friendship Highway

We arrived into a bustling Kathmandu and stayed at the Marco Polo Hostel in Thamel. Having been to Kathmandu several years before we were in no hurry to do anything other than enyoy the Nepalese cuisine and the hectic streets. The 8 in the tour group all met up again at the Rum Doodle which had changed somewhat to our last visit. We decided against returning to it again.

The Tibet trip had been a fantastic one and well worth the wait. It had got better almost as time went by culminating with the breathtaking trip through the mountains via Everest.

Posted by Patrick H. 04:31 Archived in China Comments (0)

Ocober 7th - 15th, China

October 7th
Of late we have done some amazing things: Standing upon the Great Wall, wandering the Forbidden City and Summer Palace, peering into North Korea, sipping expensive wine in the highest bar in the world in Shanghai, standing alongside the Terracotta Warriors, visiting pandas, Reaching the summit of Mount Emei and the sunrise that followed and visiting Tibetan villages. I have not listed anything we did today.

We got on a van early and travelled 5 hours north and west towards Yushu. At a police check point I got out of the van and handed over the passports. The police refused to let us go further - no foreigners allowed. I tried sweet talking, arguing and finally shouting - all of which resulted in us being threatened with arrest unless we turned around and went back to Ghanzi. Now, Chinese prisons are very pleasant, I'm sure, however, after the police had helped to remove our bags from the bus we decided against persuing it any further. We hung around for 2 hours waiting for the 1st available lift - eventually a very nice truck driver passed by who drove us back to Ghanzi - where we started the day! He stopped on the way and allowed us (well - Marsha) to take photos of various monks, Yak, mountains etc... and then refused any money for his efforts at the other end.

In due course (once I've left China) I'll elaborate my thoughts on the matter further. Apparently there are 'problems' in the province next to the one in which we were travelling. A little Tibetan unrest.

The only positive from the day was the beautiful landscape on the journey - we got to see it twice so we should know! The road rose to nearly 4000 metres above sea level before we were stopped. Our 2 hour wait at the checkpoint was only bearable due to the mountain scenery, the herds of Yak, horses paddling in the river and a pack of vultures that appeared overhead.
PA061980.jpg
PA072001.jpg
PA071993.jpg

Dinner: same street, same BBQ - probably the same food.

October 8th
One frustrating day followed by another. It didn't start too badly - arriving early at the bus station we managed to get about the last bus tickets to Kangding. We were having to keep backtracking south and eastwards. We were reliably informed that it would be a 9 hour journey.

The road was long and very bumpy and we were sat at the back. Every bump threw us into the air. The roof above me was close enough that I whacked my head each time unless I leaned to the right. Sadly, to my right sat a fat monk. On particulary hefty bumps having been thrown into the air he would then land on me. The monk actually didn't endear himself to us...

Shortly after we set out the driver put a film on the tv at the front. James Bond. Great! 30 mins in and James Bond finally got it on with a girl. The fat monk next to me suddenly started shouting and gesticulating eventually resulting in the film being turned off. Great, thanks! A little later the bus driver tried again, this time a Chinese music video. It lasted less time. A backing singer in a moderately short skirt appeared prompting a barrage of yelling from the monk. Again, it was switched off. So, because he took offence, the whole bus had to abide by his questionable morals and sit in silence. Of course, the spiritual man with the high morals thought nothing of belching, farting, open mouthed coughing and sneezing and even spitting on the floor towards the end of the journey.

The 9 hour journey lasted nearly 14 hours. The road was almost impassable in places - muddy, wet and rutted. Arriving late at night we painfully squeezed off the bus (past the monk who was arguing with the driver about the bus fare) and on about the 3rd attempt found a taxi driver willing to take us where we wanted! It was full but a man came and took pity on us and showed us a cheap room in some unnamed place opposite. A long day was made slightly better by the discovery of the 'Village Window' - a lovely little bar.

October 9th/10th/11th/12th/13th
After a couple of frustrating days and a general feeling between us that we hadn't really stopped for a couple of months we decided to slow everything down for a few days and have a wee 'holiday' within the travels. We checked into a lovely place in Kangding called the Zilham up in the hills above the town. The only job of the day was to extend our visas at the PSB office. This was surprisingly easy given that in Beijing they asked us for a $6000 deposit and in Chengdu they just said no. All done and dusted in a day. As the passport people spent the day sticking the appropriate visa stickers in our passports we walked up to the top of a hill opposite the town and rode down on the chairlift (not quite sure why we didn't do it the other way around). The views, whilst good of the surrounding hills and mountains, weren't great as the clouds were low.

That night, gleefully clutching our passports, we joined several others at the 'Zilham' for a Sabbath day feast. A couple of Jewish people present lead the proceedings. Always good to do something new...

Hardly moved in the morning. In the afternoon I went off on a 5 hour walk in the surrounding hills whilst Marsha snuggled up inside with the computer and endless cups of hot chocolate. We are nearly 2500 metres up and it is cold.
Some pictures of Kangding:
PA092010.jpg
PA092011.jpg
PA092017.jpg

After 2 relaxing days in Kangding we moved back to Chengdu and again stayed at Sim's Cozy Guesthouse - the best place we've stayed so far. The next 3 days were spent doing 2 things really (apart from eating and sleeping): putting together various letters and application forms for work related stuff for next year. And, trying to organise permits, a group of people, itineries and train tickets to Tibet. It was sorted on the night of the 11th when we went to bed only to wake up the next morning to find that it had fallen through. As I write this, we have a tour to Tibet leaving in 48 hours for 8 people booked. Train tickets have been booked and paid for. Things are looking good but I'll believe it only when the train pulls up in Lhasa.

Every moment of our time in Tibet has to be with a guide. And it is expensive.

It has been nice staying still for a few days and actually not rushing off to see stuff. It has been busy as well with the applications and the Tibet trip - but made better by being in a nice place etc... We are shortly off to enjoy a good meal in a nearby restaurant with a bottle of wine or 2.

October 14th
The meal was good - the Sultan again, followed by a bottle of wine at the bookworm. This time, instead of a loud singer we had a somewhat unpleasant looking woman conducting a quiz. Still, we hid ourselves in the corner and tried to blank her out.

Having finalised most of the details to our applications etc... and then on picking up our train tickets to Tibet and the 4 page permit to travel there over the course of the day- we decided to celebrate and enjoyed a night sat at the bar. An Australian couple we were talking to reliably informed us that 'Snow' Beer (a Chinese brew) is the most consumed beer in the world! We were actually drinking another local beer - but they all taste the same to me anyway.

Posted by Patrick H. 06:22 Archived in China Comments (0)

September 16th - October 7th, China

September 16th
  On arrival at Shanghai airport we discovered the quickest way of getting to the city was by riding the 'Bullet' train. The notice posted on the outside of the ticket office boasted that the train would reach speeds in excess of 400km / h. As it was it topped at 300km / h. However, fast enough for the train to have to tilt as it rounded corners.

  In Shanghai we followed the metro and the directions to the Mingtown Etour Guesthouse which is very well located just off Peoples Square. Time enough to wander through the nearby food street and up the main shopping area towards the Bund.

  Shanghai is huge - in every way. The city was buzzing with people, neon lights, famous shopping brands, bars, cafes and huge towering buildings with massive overpasses.

  September 17th
  It poured with rain all day. We walked to the Bund - scrambling in and out of puddles, struggling to stay upright on the slippery walkways, wet hands gripping umbrellas forced into the wind and the driving rain - we finally made it only to discover that the entire length of this famous stretch was under construction. Shaghai is hosting Expo 2010 and is undergoing major works. Disappointed and more than a little wet we found solace in a Starbucks nearby.

  I set off to the Shanghai Museum and Marsha to the silk markets afterwards. Later on we did some much needed shopping and internet stuff (trying to sort out visas for Central Asia) with a street food BBQ thrown in as well.

  September 18th
  No rain! Breakfast was initially some egg tarts from a van around the corner of where we were staying. We then went via the metro to Taikang Art District. Little lanes with art shops and cafes etc ... We finished off breakfast at Kommune cafe and then busied ourselves in amongst the galleries. Later on we discovered that there was a special wine promotion taking place and for the price of a wine glass we could wander about and do tastings. There were many spots where people were grouped together all knocking back glasses of Chilean wine - then moving onto the next spot. So we joined in. It turned out to be quite late in the day by the time eventually left. A very pleasant afternoon.

We joined up with Emma and Ash at their house in the evening - friends from Doha. After nearly being knocked sideways by their energetic dogs we had a night out at a nearby ex-pat bar and then some food and another bar and then maybe another bar I think ...

September 19th
It had been good to catch up with Emma the previous night and have an evening chatting with lots of different people and doing normal stuff. We suffered a little in the morning though and didn't emerge from the house until well into the afternoon. Just a short trip into the city to book ourselves a train trip for a few days later and then back for a curry with Emma and Ash.

Shanghai - huge glittering city. Other things I've noticed:
1. It is perfectly acceptable to drive your car through a red light - preferably aiming at one of the pedestrians crossing the street with a green walking light on.
2. Spitting is encouraged.
3. As in most touristic parts of the world I've ever been to - the more you pay for a meal, the lower the quality.
4. Shanghai waiters can ask for over 5 pounds for a small glass of coke and not bat an eyelid.
5. It is not possble to walk for more than 100 yards in any direction from any given point without encountering some roadworks or building construction.

I've also noticed:
6. Everyone seems to be smiling and having fun (apart from the pedestrians running for their lives at times)
7. The tower blocks are massive - and modern and architecturely very interesting.
8. The underground trains arrive on the platform the moment you do.
9. For a city with multi-million/billion dollar people, shops, ideas, cars etc ... toilets are well down the priority lists ...
10. And, a tower block rises before your eyes - it is impossible to write or to follow a guide book as buildings, streets and shops change at an alarming pace, if you have been to Shanghai - great!, But, you need to go again now because it has dramatically changed since last you were there (whenever that was).

September 20th
Up early - and a day looking around Shanghai. We visited the French Concession and had breakfast. We walked to the Propoganda museum - eventually finding it - and spent a very interesting hour learning more and more about the regime of Chairman Mao. Next, the Old Quarter. Overrun with people, the old temple like houses in the foreground, the massive skyscrapers behind made great thought provoking photo opportunities and - we had a rather dismal dumpling lunch.
P9201508.jpg

We found a park - Fuxing Park. As well as the singers, dancers and musicians that noisily inhabited all parts of the park - we had to add another couple of new findings. Wrestlers and debaters. The wrestlers grappled for the amusement of those watching -- which is more than can be said for most of the singers. The debaters - well, 3 or 4 men stood in a small circle comprising anout 25 men and women and loudly argued and discussed important topics of the day. Everyone else just watched and occasionally roared their approval when a decent point was made.

As the afternoon drew to a close we found ourselves above the Bund in a bar - New Heights. Great views of the city. And should be for the price they were asking for a drink. As the sun set and we filled our camera cards we contentedly sat back and admired the great view before us. Lastly, a visit to Cloud 9 Bar - apparently the highest bar in the world (87storeys high). We ordered a bottle of wine - only to discover that actually that was the price for 1 glass - and so felt compelled to order another. The views over Shanghai were amazing though - especially when the fireworks started below us on the river.
P9201516.jpg
P9201529.jpg

September 21st
A lazy morning doing very little at the flat - and enjoying every moment. Caught a train to Xi'an late afternoon - a sleeper train. Top bunks for the Hillmans - actually far more comfortable than I had imagined they would be. A couple of drinks sort of helped put us to sort of sleep. The train went through the night cruising into Xi'an early in the morning - China really is huge!

September 22nd
Met at the train station we were taken to the Hang Tan Guesthouse - and the news that we were dreading. Plans had been made over the previous 6 weeks to get to Tibet at the end of September. In fact, Emma and Ash and others were going to join us for a 2 week tour. One of the highlights of the whole year - and we could hardly wait. But, the previous day an e-mail had arrived with the rumour that all travel in Tibet for foreigners was to be cancelled until further notice due to possible tensions owing to the October celebrations coming up. At the guesthouse this was confirmed. Gutted. At least no money was spent on permits and tours and so we're not out of pocket - but all plans have been thrown up into the air - and one of the best things we were going to do on the trip has been taken away. Spent most of the rest of the day in bad moods trying to firstly conjure up ways of getting in and finally having to think about alternative plans via the internet for how to leave China and where to next etc....

Not a good day.

September 23rd
The Terracotta Warriors.
The primary reason to visit Xi'an is the nearby army of the Terracotta Warriors. There are 3 pits each of which varies in size and all in different stages of excavation. Pits 2 and 3 which we visited first had several of the figures in place but were not far down the road in terms of excavation and presentation to the public. The 1st pit - which we purposely visited last - was huge. It houses an estimated 6000 warriors along with horses, weapons, carriages etc... Much has yet to be unearthed, however, it was a truly impressive site. Hundreds and hundreds of silent warriors lined up awaiting battle - a battle they have been waiting many many years for! Each warrier has a different expression. Some kneel, some are archers, some are generals - as in any army. The mad emperor apparently felt that he would also be ruling in death as he did in life. He also buried alive a number of scholars and workers in the process.

We wandered around marvelling at the motionless army. We were witness at times to the painstaking task that it must be to uncover these warriors from the earth and piece them back together. It was an amazing sight - and yet, it will get better and better as more and more of these terracotta people are raised from the ground and lined up alongside the rest.

In the museum the most treasured find was stored. 2 bronze chariots complete with 4 horses and driver. They also housed the huge Terracotta Warrior that had moved about in the arena in the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

A very interesting day - and, although there were many tourists, the site was big enough to feel that you had your own space whilst watching it all.
The first photo is the area of pit 1. The rest are of the warriors...
P9231536.jpg
P9231611.jpg
P9231608.jpg
P9231606.jpg
P9231605.jpg
P9231596.jpg
P9231586.jpg
P9231581.jpg
P9231575.jpg
P9231565.jpg
P9231560.jpg
P9231546.jpg
P9231544.jpg
And the bronze horses and carriage in the museum:
P9231616.jpg

We had to rush off at the end - a train to catch. Unfortunately this put us at the mercy of the taxi drivers in Xi'an. We needed a taxi to the guesthouse and then one back to the train station. After many refusals we eventually were helped out by a policeman who stopped a taxi for us. All the way back to the guesthouse the driver pointed at something he'd written in Chinese and moaned about who knows what... We had similar problems once we had gathered our bags - many taxis breezing past or stopping only to refuse to take us. Eventually we got into one with not much time to spare. Heaping praise on the driver throughout the journey, he then proceeded to stop the cab about 3/4 of the way there. In halting English and using sign language of sorts he explained that he didn't really want to go any further....! Great, thanks. And he awarded himself a reasonably big tip for his troubles as well.

We made the train anyway. Another sleeper, this time to Chengdu. A much quieter affair - the young lad opposite us explained as best he could about the delights of Chengdu. I tried to intice him into a game of chess but he was having none of it.

September 24th
Arriving in Chengdu late morning after not too bad a night's sleep, we caught a taxi to Sim's Cosy Backpackers in town. The taxi driver this time was willing enough for us to get in his car - sadly though, he was clearly on his first day in the job and I ended up directing him somehow around town and then finally to the correct place.

A quiet day after arriving - a little wander around town (town?? - this place has over 4 million people...) and then we took a bus across the river to find a Turkish Restaurant (The Sultan) we had read about. It took ages, but we evntually found it and sat down to far too much Turkish bread, Hummus, kebab etc... We remembered how we got so large in Doha!

Because of the lengthy hunt for the restaurant we emerged later to find that the buses had stopped running and so jumped into a taxi with a lady driver - ok, last taxi story I promise!

On showing her our destination on a Chinese map, she nodded vigorously and then set off at breakneck speed in the opposite direction. Assuming she knew better than us we stayed quiet. After 10 minutes she screeched to a halt and snatched the map off me. There was then a lot of tutting and head shaking coupled with some of my own finger pointing. Finally she went, 'aahhhh', grinned at me, flung the car back into the traffic, swerved into an unexpected left turn and thundered off into the city again. 5 minutes later she pulled off some sort of heroic handbrake u-turn travelling well over the speed limit and lurched the poor car once again to a halt. Smiling, she pointed to a place on the map miles and miles away from where we wanted to go - and then nodded in the direction of some obscure building across the street.

Hmmm... We did eventually get back in one piece - all an adventure really!

September 25th
There are 1500 Giant Pandas still in existence - give or take. Only about 1100 live in the wild - and all of them are in this area of China. Near to Chengdu is a Giant Panda programme where the animals are encouraged to breed and supposedly then re-entered back into the jungle. There are about 60 pandas on site along with a number of red pandas. Marsha and I spent the morning there. Although these were not Giant Pandas in the wild, there was something very special about seeing them in their home country and through seeing such numbers of them.

They are big animals and spend most of their time eating and sleeping. However, the first one we came across was in a particularly energetic mood and was running around all over the place making rather effeminate clucking noises. Photos abound of course - but none were allowed of the very small and cute looking baby pandas.

The park was busy with people but we managed on several occasions to come face to face with these magnificent looking creatures all on our own. One particular panda paid us scant attention as it laid on its back munching on bamboo only a few feet away.
P9251730.jpg
P9251722.jpg
P9251714.jpg
P9251696.jpg
P9251693.jpg
P9251683.jpg
P9251680.jpg
P9251648.jpg
P9251642.jpg
P9251640.jpg
P9251636.jpg
And a red panda:
P9251667.jpg

Back at the backpackers for lunch. After which we relaxed - I did this and wrote postcards whilst Marsha busied herself with the internet and books etc... I posted the postcards - unbeknown to me, the Chinese Post Office provides a brush in glue to help stick the stamps on. So, I just licked the back of them. The lady selling the stamps looked disgusted as though the taste of the stamp must be revolting. I found this odd considering she probably had rat on toast for breakfast and was looking forward to a dinner of baked dog with a fresh snake salad. Anyhow, enough of the stereotypes...

Dinner at the Bookworm Cafe - near the Sultan.

September 26th
With our big bags packed and stowed in Chengdu, we set off on the bus to Leshan with small bags containing enough for about 3 or 4 days. Leshan was just under 2 hours away. The small riverside town houses the world's tallest Buddha. 71 metres head to toe. His ear lobes were bigger than I was and his little toe would have been equal to several of me. He was carved from a rock face and looked out over the river. We walked up alongside his head and then joined the crowds downwards.
P9261737.jpg
P9261741.jpg
All along the river front were more temples and holy Buddhist places of some description. We wandered along and visited some of them - finding one that had nearly 1000 lifesize people sitting inside. A very enjoyable and peaceful day.
P9261744.jpg

As the afternoon wore on we eventually caught another bus to Bagaou Village and checked into the Teddy Bear Guesthouse. On the short drive over to this village the rain had started to fall. The village sits at the bottom of Mount Emei Shan and apparently along with the mountain receives about 200 days of rain a year. Our aim was to climb the mountain over the next 2 days. The forecast from the guesthouse owner and on the internet for the following day was not good - rain, followed by more rain, possible clearing in the late afternoon. We put up our umbrellas and saw the sights of the village - and 5 mins later tucked into some Barbequeued street food. A little unsure of our plans for the morning with the very real threat of pouring rain we rather dejectedly went to bed.

September 27th/28th/29th
Marsha awaoke, got up and opened the curtains. The sun streamed in from the blue skies above. She immediately proclaimed it a birthday miracle - yes, indeed, it was her birthday and yes, it was sunny despite the forecasts - as to whether this constitutes a birthday miracle..... And so, the climb was on. Downstairs at breakfast we also had a packed lunch made up. Then, we quickly got ready, packed, ate our lunch and caught the bus to Wannian Bus Station. The elevation here is about 600-700 metres. From here the road continues up the right side of the mountain. There is also a chair lift up some of the way from here. Just before 10am we started walking.

The path was man made. Along the way we passed numerous buddhist temples and places of worship. Many monks were making the pilgramage to the top and many were just hanging around the temples, chanting, praying, lighting incense and generally looking spiritual. Shortly after we set off Marsha captured a couple of monks on camera as they crossed a bridge. On realising they were being snapped they immediately presented poses for her. We talked with them a little and in fact then kept company with them nearly all the way up.

After reaching Quinjing Pavilion at 1100 metres the path then annoyingly went down to 700 metres - all our good work undone. From there it was straight up. We passed holy scenes carved into the natural rock alongside a gushing river. Later on a green snake silently slithered in front of us and into the bushes. A giant toad fearlessly sat on the path and stared us down for a couple of minutes. And, there were the monkeys. We had been warned to be careful but they seemed to be fairly laid back and placid.

Up and up - passed the Venerable Terraces. The views at times through the trees were fantastic - although the mountain above was still out of sight - shrouded in cloud. At 5pm we wearily traipsed into Magic Peak Monastery and were gratefully given some accomodation. Hardly a rock and roll birthday evening for Marsha but it's not everybody that spends their birthday night in a monastery. The 2 monks also stayed there.

In the morning we were up and off again before 8am. The path again, frustratingly, went downwards to about 1600 metres before going up. It was tough walking and the elevation coupled with the exhausting trek the day before and the gradient of the path was making it hard going. Again we passed some quite large monkeys. Our 2 monk friends had sticks and this prevented them from getting too close. We met a French lady going in the other direction. 5 minutes later a terrified scream echoed through the air from below us. As we ran down she shrieked again and again pleading for help. The 2 monks and I arrived to find her surrounded by monkeys - which scurried off as we appeared. She was hysterical and only 10 minutes later with water in hand and sitting down was she able to tell us what had happenned. She reckoned 20 monkeys had attacked her (and this was probably not an exageration). She was scratched and bitten and her bag which she had somehow managed to cling to had deep gashes over it. She was frightened to go on down alone - however, having climbed well over 1000 metres by this point even the monks were a little reluctant to descend with her. Fortunately a Chinese man also going down passed and together they hopefully made it down safely.

We sat down to lunch at a snack shop at Elephant Bathing Pools. It was rubbish. To make up for it we bought a packet of oreos. Stupidly we didn't check the best before date which turned out to be a little after the beginning of time. After binning them we again set off upwards. At 2400 metres the path meets the top of the road. We were then joined by hundreds of day trippers. It was 100 metres up to the beginning of another chair lift. This section was strewn with litter. Able bodied Chinese men were carried up in chairs by 2 small men half their size. Monkeys and squirrels were fed and crowded around. It wasn't very pleasant. At 2500 metres, at JieYin Hall all of them jumped onto the chair lift to the summit. We gratefully resumed our lonely trek upwards.

We walked up and through the clouds. In the middle of the afternoon we arrived - exhausted - to the summit (3077 metres). Although packed with people it was a large plateau and contained a huge golden buddha and temples and paths and slightly lower down even hotels - but we were able to find our own space quite happily. The temples sit on a vertical rock face the far side. We ventured as close as we dared and looked down. The cloud was drifting downwards and was like a sea lapping against the cliff faces 1000 metres below. It was a view similar to that which you'd find in an airplane - looking out over a carpet of cloud. It was absolutely stunning.

By the time we'd checked into 1 of the hotels and come back out the chair lift had stopped running and only a few people remained. We were sandwiched between cloud. High cloud above and the sea of cloud below. Across from where we stood was another peak upon which stood a pagoda. We simply sat and watched as the sun went down. It is strange how one appreciates something like this all the more having spent 2 days of hard walking to get there.

In the morning we joined many other Chinese tourists for the sunrise. As we all stood expectantly there was a symphany of belching, snorting and spitting all around.

The stars faded and the horizon grew orange. At last the sun appeared - and even the spitting stopped briefly. Probably the best sunrise I've ever seen. The cloud carpeted the hills below and the sun turned the cliffs golden. Behind us a 7500 metre mountain that is on the border of Tibet arose out of the mist in the distance. We talked to some of the people around us and gathered that usually it rained. And, when not raining the top was often shrouded in cloud. The sight of the mountain in Tibet was very rare. In short - we were very lucky.

In the late morning and early afternoon as the cloud swirls near the top a strange phenomenon occurs. A golden light appears in the cloud and your shadow can be seen in the centre. In days gone by the buddhists used to perceive this as a call from yonder and leap off the cliff in ecstacy. Fortunately, and not unsurprisingly, science has presented a reason for this 'mysterious' light show and prompted and end of the needless jumping from the so called 'Cliff of Self Sacrifice'.

We didn't stay for the light show. After wandering around the top and taking in the breathtaking views for the last time we started downwards. At the bus terminal 600 metres lower we decided to take the bus the rest of the way. Arriving into Chengdu mid afternoon we agin checked into Sim's Cozy Hostel and were reunited with our big packs and clean clothes. We didn't move for the rest of the day. Here are some photos of the walk:
P9271747.jpg
P9271751.jpg
P9271754.jpg
P9281767.jpg
P9291834.jpg
P9291822.jpg
P9291818.jpg
P9291866.jpg

September 30th
We didn't emerge from where we were staying until late in the afternoon. A late breakfast, some reading and internet time - it was lovely. Late afternoon we then popped out down to a 'tourist' street nearby that had been given a huge facelift etc... A wander around and then we bought up some warm stuff - hats, gloves etc... for the upcoming winter. We had dinner in a noodle and dumpling place - great food. A beer each too - and it came to the ridiculous price of just over a pound each.

October 1st
The first day of a week long Chinese holiday. The traffic was mayhem - as was the queue at the bus station, even at 6:30am. At first we were refused onto the bus. We were travelling to a town called Danba which is 9 hours west of Chengdu and therefore deemed too close to Tibet. After some arguing we ploughed on through, shoved our bags around the back of the bus and hopped on anyway - only to find out we were on the wrong bus! Some time later - and after not a small amount of frustration we found ourselves correctly placed and heading west to Danba.

We arrived late and checked into the only place suggested in the Lonely Planet - crazy long name that I can't remember - and gratefully sat down to some food in the restaurant below.

October 2nd/3rd/4th
Some fantastic days in the villages around Danba. The town itself sits in a deep gorge where 3 rivers meet. Snowy mountains rise above the gorge. The villages of Jiaju and Suopo and Zhonglu are almost completely Tibetan. They lie on hills above the river facing the steep gorge cliffs and mountains behind. The houses are so colourful and corn cobs and red peppers hang off all the walls. Cows and pigs and chickens and yak run seemingly freely around the small pathways intersecting and connecting the houses and gardens. In Suopo we went up 1 of the many lookout towers that are dotted around the valley. It was connected to a 600 year old home decorated with beautiful paintings on the walls and ceiling - the owner was very proud.

We stayed the night in Zhonglu in one of the houses. Very basic - the toilet was an outside shed connected to the outside of the house half way up. I only realised how visible my whole toilet procedure was when some of the workers outside started laughing up at where I was...

Wandering around the villages was great - everyone was delighted to see us and we only wish we could have spoken a little more Chinese than hello, thanks, goodbye etc... as many people clearly wanted to stop for a chat. It was impossible to take a bad photo - everywhere you looked you had mountains, foothills, gorgoeus Tibetan houses, fantastically dressed people, yak and their farmers ploughing the fields, acres and acres of corn and these ancient watchtowers.

Each night we ate some very good food. Chinese people tend to eat out in large groups. Restaurants set their tables in groups of at least 6. We joined a group of local people the first night who were celebrating the first day of their holiday by drinking massive amounts of incredibly cheap but very strong liquor. Via a phrasebook we managed to converse a little - until one of them toppled off his chair and it signalled their time to leave. We also had food a couple of nights with an Israeli couple that were also travelling. The food itself was ordered by entering the kitchen and pointing at various vegetables and meats we recognised and making a kind of throwing and stirring motion with our hands. It arrived in huge dishes - enough for the 6 places at our table - but we still managed most of it!
Some photos of the area:
PA021882.jpg
PA021888.jpg
PA031898.jpg
PA031899.jpg
This is our homestay:
PA041920.jpg

October 5th
Marsha and I caught an early bus to Ghanzi. The bus arrived at nearly 6pm. We both had books with us but it was hard to focus on the pages - not least because of the ever meandering road and its sudden corners. But, more because of the amazing scenery outside. The road took us to an elevation of just under 3400 metres on arrival in Ghanzi. On the way the road wound alongside turbulent mountain rivers, the landscape at times was completely baron - just endless green hills stretching into the distance. Then we'd drive over the summit of a hill and before us would be a multicoloured autumnal forest with snowcapped mountains rising majestically behind. All the way Tibetan houses and tents littered the hills along with herds of Yak and thousands of different coloured prayer flags.

We stopped for lunch in a little town. Cows idly wandered the dusty streets unmindful of the bikes and carts passing up and down. We ate dumplings - they were good and so we ordered more. Whilst we tucked in a Chinese man eyed us from the corner of the tiny shop whilst he knocked back a bottle of some coloured liquor.

As we neared Ghanzi the Chola mountain range came into view. Several of the snowy peaks were well over 6000 metres. The road became a track in a dry field before eventually returning to Tarmac in town. Surprisingly it was reasonably warm as we walked to the Himalaya Hotel to stay. A quick wander around town - avoiding the various pieces of Yak for sale on the side of the streets - and then we ate at the appropriately named Tibetan food restaurant.

October 6th
We had breakfast at the same place as the night before - despite ordering a whole range of dishes, we were eventually presented with an assortment of different breads (no butter, jam etc...) and some terrible tasting tea which we presumed contained yak milk. Mildly annoyed and still hungry we walked up to the Lamasery at the top of the town. It was a very busy place - the monks were actually working and toing and froing with various wheelbarrows and planks of wood etc... The temples up there were interesting - one containing hundreds of small buddhas rather than the normal 1 huge one.

The main reason for going though was the fantastic views of the Chola mountain range afforded from the site. When the sun shone the white mountains soared into the blue sky. We also walked along the river and down to the site of a huge stupa. By this time the mountains behind were being veiled in thick dark clouds - and it was time to head back.
PA061925.jpg
PA061962.jpg
PA061976.jpg

The town itself is very Tibetan and unused to many foreigners. Children especially were keen on greeting us - sometimes over and over again. It wasn't as attractive as Danba - litter is a problem - but the backdrop of the mountain range made up for it.

A streetfood BBQ for dinner.

Posted by Patrick H. 21:10 Archived in China Comments (0)

September 10th - 16th, South Korea

September 10th
A double entry visa to China requires the holder to leave the country after 30 days before then returning for up to another 30 days. So, we flew to Seoul, South Korea. The flight was in the afternoon and so we had a little time to ourselves seeing the last of Beijing (we are returning to China by Shanghai). We eventually got into Seoul one it was dark. The underground system was excellent - and incredibly cheap. The stop at Hyehwa took us only a 2 minute walk from the Golden Pond Guesthouse - where we're staying.

The district we found ourselves in was full of bars and cafes and dance clubs etc... We popped out for a couple of drinks returning well after midnight but still there were loads of people in the streets.

September 11th/12th
We explored Seoul. The tube made getting around easy. There were loads of markets, parades and various shows going on in many of the places we visited. Theatres littered the city and we were given free tickets to the opening ceremony of the Korea Sparkling dance/music/entertainment festival the next day. We also bought tickets for a dance show that evening.

The street food was wonderful and we ate our way through the afternoon idly ambling from cafe to cafe, stall to stall inbetween visiting markets, crafts shops and watching seemingly impromptu street shows. Very relaxing.
The dancers on one show took it upon themselves to arrange themselves before us suddenly so that we may take their photo. Here they are - and look for the gentleman on the far right side who, as he was passing by, decided to leap into the photo as well.
P9121415.jpg

The 5 act dance show in the evening didn't bode well at the beginning. As the lights dimmed, the crowd started hollering, cheering and screaming their approval. As it quitened, offstage, what must have been a small boy began plucking random notes from an old wooden banjo far too close to a microphone. On stage a light lit up a woman who appeared to be wearing a 2 man tent and clutching a fan. Looking confused she then wandered aimlessly up and down the stage caressing the fan. After too long the curtain fell and to my amazement the audience greeted the 'performance' with rapturous applause - some giving her a standing ovation. The 2nd act was no better - a fella in a raincoat holding a handbag strode onto stage. He danced with the bag awhile before stripping down to his underwear. He was then joined by 3 similarly unclad men and together, seemingly unrehearsed, they practised various high kicks and one leg balances all over the stage. Again they were greeted with huge applause once they'd completed their repetoire of kicks etc...

It did improve after that - and the last act was very good and entertaining. Afterwards we had some noodles in a nearby eatery. The following day was much like the previous - great just walking around and enjoying the city and the festivities that appeared to be going off everywhere. The opening ceremony in a park in the evening was a couple of hours of good entertainment. Each of the shows performing around the city in the Sparkling Festival gave 10 minute skits of what their shows contained. This included dance, singing, drumming, a bubble show, drawing! and a light show. Apparently some really quite famous Korean singers and bands performed as well.
Here's the best photo I could get...
P9121433.jpg

September 13th
Up early, and we joined a tour group for only about the 2nd time on a trip so far. The tour was to the De-militarised Zone (DMZ) - the border between North and South Korea. A very weird and scary place. 2 sets of high barbed fences faced each other 4km apart. We peered into North Korea. Rules and regulations were aplenty. No photos here or there - only behind this yellow line! We had our passports checked as well. Land mines were scattered all over the surrounding woods and hills. We also ventured into the 3rd out of 4 of the tunnels found on the south side - dug by the North hoping to plan surprise attacks. The walls were covered in soot in an apparent attempt once the tunnel was found to make it look like a coal mine by the North Koreans. This despite the rock all around being granite. Talking to some Koreans about their hopes and fears for the future was very interesting.
Some photos:
P9131447.jpg
Tourism North Korea style:
P9131456.jpg
P9131451.jpg
At the last train station northwards:
P9131443.jpg

In the afternoon Marsha spent some time in some of the local craft markets and I visited an old Japanese prison during the colonial era. Later on we met up and went to an old fashioned Korean village and then returned back to the Guesthouse for a huge sushi and noodle banquet nearby at 'Mad as a ....' doesn't sound great but it was.

September 14th
Seoul is surrounded by hills and rocky outcrops. The tube can be taken to a spot from which a trek up to the highest of the immediate surrounding hills is possible. So, on this Monday morning, we joined the commuters on the train and, as they headed to one of the thousands of office buildings around, we took off up towards the 800 metre high summit of Jounbang. We climbed (literally climbed - ropes and railings were in place to help and we relied on them that much that I ended up with a blister on my hand), anyhow, we climbed to the top. Our celebratory cheers on reaching the top were somewhat muted once we were joined there by a handful of old Korean ladies.

We looked out over the huge tower block infested city of Seoul and - not for the first time this trip - considered ourselves lucky and happy not to be behind a desk or in front of a class working. The trek down first took us along the ridge to several other outcrops of rock before leading down via a buddhist temple complete with chanting monk to the next subway station along the line.

Although we had been walking for about 6 hours and our legs could definitely feel that they had done some work, we also commented to each other about how much easier it had been than the walks we had done in China at much higher altitudes.
Some photos of the walk:
P9141474.jpg
P9141483.jpg
P9141484.jpg
This man made it to the top of a nearby peak somehow:
P9141478.jpg
The monks had a fine place to live and chant etc...
P9141489.jpg
P9141488.jpg

Before we had a couple of drinks round the corner at 'The Cream Beer, Plzen' bar which had become the routine in Seoul, we ate at a local BBQ restaurant. You sit at a table and in the centre is a hole into which sre placed hot coals. Then meat and a whole load of condiments are brought out. The meat is barbequed over the hot coals and then wrapped up in mint leaves along with the onions, mushrooms, spices and veges - and eaten. All very good.

September 15th
Suwon is a million plus city about an hour from Seoul - reachable by the metro. This old city has a wall that runs for 6km around what used to be the old town. It has been renovated and it makes for a good walk around. It climbs high onto a hill at one point and gave good views of the towerblock infested city below.
P9151493.jpg
It also passed alongside an archery range which I was tempted by until a local Korean man stepped up looking every bit the part - archer's glove, eye-sighter, serious expression etc.... He then plonked a couple of arrows into a board about 150 yards away. We walked on....

After completng the circuit noticing the huge amounts of churches in the town, we caught a bus further out to a Korean Folk Village. Displaying all the local cutures of the area it was very pleasant walking around. There were some activities and performances taking place - an acrobat on a tightrope, equestrian acrobats and a traditional wedding. There was an art and sculpture park and an amusement park there as well which we wandered around.
P9151498.jpg
P9151504.jpg

The bus and train back took ages and we were grateful to reach Seoul again and sit down to another Korean BBQ.

September 16th
Last morning in Korea. Internet stuff, packing and a bakery breakfast before heading to the airport for our flight to Shanghai.

Posted by Patrick H. 05:42 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

August 30th - September 10th, China

August 30th
Shangri La is 2 hours north of Tiger Leaping Gorge and is at 3300 metres above sea level. The town is surrounded by hills and mountains some of which reach higher than 6000 metres. At night it is cold. The name of the town used to start with the letter 'Z' and carry on for ages with a bunch of Xs and Ks etc ... until somebody proposed that the town of Shangri-La in the Novel - 'The Lost Horizon' by James Hilton was actually this town and so the name was changed - and the tourists (including us) started to arrive. Clever.

We walked the 5km out to an old monastery that sits on a slight rise above the town. The many Buddhist temples sit amongst an old town much of which is in ruins. It is a working monastery and many of the monks were doing various monklike things - chanting, praying, sitting about and tending to flowers. It was very picturesque and very peaceful and we happily spent several hours wandering the temples and the town before catching the bus back. We sat on the bus with lots of monks who were off into town to do something very worthwhile I'm sure. It was the first time I've ever sat in a public place with a whole bunch of people and been the one with the longest hair!

The old town of Shangri-La is much like Lijang - cobble stone roads, loads of cafes and travel shops, Chinese lanterns hanging off every building. Groups of men and women sat around playing Mah Jong. We sidled up to a group. Having played a little before, I launched into a lengthy monologue about the rules and tactics etc ... Marsha was unusually interested and so I continued for some time. It was only later that I discovered that she'd actually been using me as cover whilst she surrupticiously took photos of the group playing their game. They were good photos though ...

In the evening in the large square in the centre of town the local people form massive concentric circles and dance in time to the Tibetan music blaring out of a nearby shop. People of all ages danced - teenage boys to grandmothers - all dressed in whatever they happenned to be wearing. Marsha joined in. She was pretty good as well. It seemed like a very happy community.

It grew colder as the night wore on and after wandering the town and browsing the shops we had ourselves another BBQ from the street. Again, mostly vegetables along with a meat we were assured was chicken.

August 31st
Breakfast in town and then the 4 hour bus ride back to Lijang. It was good to be back in the old town of Lijang again. We revisited the Prague cafe after having ventured up to the hilltop in the middle of town where a temple amidst trees sat. Again, we stayed at Mama Naxi's.

September 1st
A travel day. The morning was pleasant. Stretched our legs in the old town and then caught a 9 hour bus to Kunming at midday. It involved my first introduction to a Chinese public toilet. Not pleasant. No doors to the cubicles and squat toilets of course.

We found the Hump Hostel without too much bother and had a little look outside at the centre of Kunming. I have never heard of Kunming - but it's huge. Anyhow, the hour was late and we were hungry - and, sadly, we paid our first visit to MacDonalds on our trip. In our defence there was nothing else really open and Marsha did win herself some sort of Kung Fu panda toy thing.

September 2nd
We flew to Beijing. Arriving late, we managed the directions no problem to near where our hotel lay. Then we went wrong. A taxi obligingly took us back to the train station where we had begun to walk. And this time we went right and found the Emporor which is where we checked into for a few nights.

A couple of beers round the corner and we soon found that it was midnight. On impulse we decided we should see something of Beijing before bed and set off for Tiananmen Square. Somehow we missed it initially despite the many guards boredly watching over it coupled with the fact that there was this massive blank space to our left. Anyhow, once found, we looked at it from across the road. We would visit the next day - or the day after (whatever) and so, happy with our sightseeing effort we headed back home and crashed out.

September 3rd
We knew today would be frustrating. Various visas and train tickets and flights and so on had to be organised at first in Beijing. First stop - the police dept - to try and extend our visa by another 30 days thereby allowing us to stay rather than leave the country for a visa run. 'No problem', we were told, 'just pop $ 3000 onto the counter each and we'll .....' Yeeeesss ..., I kind of switched off after the $ 3000 comment. So, we had to leave the country. We discussed various options and then headed to the nearest internet place which is where I am still now to try and sort it out - except I'm writing this.

We didn't get as far as we'd hoped with the booking of flights etc ... and so consoled ourselves with a great dinner at the bookworm cafe along with a decent bottle of Chardonnay.

September 4th
The air quality in Beijing has to be seen to be believed. Colossal amounts of smog smother the city preventing you from being able to see further than about 1km. We walked to Tianenmen Square and found it difficult to see from one end to the other -- admittedly it is absolutely huge! The biggest public square in the world. In the middle is the Memorial Hall where Chairman Mao is entombed in a glass coffin. Once we had negotiated our way through a rather elaborate security checking system, we were allowed to ' view 'him as he lay peacefully in his glass box. There were many, many Chinese people paying their respects to the man. Having read a little about his time as leader, I am somewhat surprised as to the way in which he is still revered . That's all to say about that at this stage ...

After walking the length and breadth of the huge square, we made our way to the Forbidden City. This 'city' within a city was, for 500 years, off limits to anyone but the emporor, his family, his concubines and various other entertainers . Anyone found entering was executed. How people got in though (and why - given the punishment), is a mystery as the city is walled by an 18m wall completely around - and it also has a moat going round. Today there were many guards on duty and I'm sure there were more in its hey day.

The Forbidden City is huge. Apparently over 8000 separate rooms. It is very well maintained - the buildings are beautifully decorated and we happily spent several hours wandering around in and out of temples, meeting halls, memorial halls, palaces etc .... It is well deserving of its fame.
[img = http://photos.travellerspoint.com/227666/P9041246.jpg]
[img = http://photos.travellerspoint.com/227666/P9041248.jpg]
[img = http://photos.travellerspoint.com/227666/P9041257.jpg]
[img = http://photos.travellerspoint.com/227666/P9041273.jpg]

We eventually left about 3.30pm and, after a very frustrating visit to an embassy to sort out visa issues, we trained it to a little food street market and had some good eats.

September 5th
Cris-crossing the city is the Beijing underground. It is very easy and cheap to use and it enabled us to arrive late morning, after a breakfast fry up, to the massive 'Dirt Market'. All sorts of things for sale - very entertaining walking around this huge outdoor market. Afterwards we tried walking to, and eventually caught the taxi to the Temple of Heaven Park. The Emperors used to make sacrifices in this huge park before important events. The builings themselves were good to look at and similar to those in the Forbidden City. However, what kept us entertained for several hours were the spontaneous Chinese activities taking place.

As we entered, to our left some music was playing. 50 or 60 people were dancing. On their own, in couples, in groups, serious ballroom and salsa dancers, transvestites in garish pink suits, old ladies, young men ... One fella with a huge beard and a massive feather pranced around the place as though he were auditioning for a part in Swan Lake. It was exraordinary. We watched for a while before being distracted by the singers!

In a set of cloisters groups of men and women arranged themselves around a self appointed conductor and occasionally some accordianists and belted out Cinese anthems at the tops of their voices. Further along a female opera singer was entertaining a huge crowd of people. Meanwhile groups of men sat quietly in other parts of the park playing cards and draughts. We wandered around and occasionally happened upon small groups of people or even individuals in corners of the park practising their singing or instruments or dancing moves. A crazy, yet wonderful place.
[img = http://photos.travellerspoint.com/227666/P9051286.jpg]

The Birds nest was next. The Olympic Stadium sits next to the Aquatic center. Both very extravagent structures and amazing feats of engineering. No tours sadly - perhaps we were too late, but as it got darker the lights lit up the stadiums in the night sky.
[img = http://photos.travellerspoint.com/227666/P9051308.jpg]
[img = http://photos.travellerspoint.com/227666/P9051311.jpg]

Dinner was a street market stall. On offer on kebab sticks were, amongst other things, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, scorpions, snakes, sea-horses, starfish, various animals genitals and hearts and livers. Again, we opted cowardly for the chicken and beef and vegetable type kebabs on offer.

September 6th
Marsha shopped in the morning around the various local Huntongs and markets. I got my hair cut etc ... We met at Lama Temple - the largest Buddhist temple in Beijing. There is a 26m high Buddha made from one piece of sandalwood. Outside on the wall is a plaque from the Guiness Book of Records confirming this. It was a working temple as several local people were burning incense and praying alongside chanting monks - all very atmospheric.

We then caught the bus to 798 Art District. A disused factory of some sort had been converted into loads of art shops and exhibits and cafes etc ... After a good feed in the Art Cafe we browsed the various art places. Most of it was very good - one notable exception being 'Back to Soil' advertised by a muddy sculpture of something vaguely resembling a mishapen teddy bear.

September 7th
There were a few jobs that needed doing today - visiting banks, visiting travel agents to rectify mistakes thay had made and to pick up our passports from an embassy. Inbetween times, I wandered again on Tianenmen Square and around that area (my favourite place I think in Beijing) and Marsha did a little more shopping.
Some shots of Tianenmen Square:
P9071327.jpg
P9071324.jpg

And later - Peking Duck in Beijing - it had to be done. In a duck restaurant operating ever since 1860, we bought up the duck and pancake feast. All good - and not a bone in sight.

September 8th
Today we stood upon The Great Wall of China. The wall, encapsulated and defined by its beauty, sheer size, engineering brilliance and sense of history. Seeing and then standing on this wall that I had heard so much about was extraordinary. The wall lay unravelled before us like a ribbon, looping over the rolling hills far off into the distance.

The wall is very old and much of it has been renovated for the sake of the thousands of tourists that flock to see it every day. 8 of us in a van passed one such section of the wall en-route to our rendezvous with it. People were all over it like ants. We had opted to visit a part of the wall that still lay in its original state, and, as such, had the place entirely to ourselves. It was fantastic to stand on the wall that had remained untouched for many many centuries and look all around us and see no-one. It was crumbling in parts and overgrown as well. The view of it and from it was breathtaking.

On arrival, as the 8 of us were dropped at the wall, we were introduced to a little old lady who apperently was to be our 'guide'. She didn't speak a word of English and so presumably was there just to show us the way! As you might imagine, once we were pointed in the right direction it would have taken a serious lapse in concentration to have taken a wrong turning.

We walked along it taking loads of photos for about 2 or 3 hours before being met for lunch nearby. Driving away and back to Beijing I was sorry to leave and hope to be back again.
P9081335.jpg
P9081337.jpg
P9081345.jpg
P9081348.jpg
P9081349.jpg
P9081362.jpg
P9081370.jpg
P9081371.jpg
P9081373.jpg
P9081375.jpg

We again made our way out to the Bookworm Cafe for a very good dinner to round off a very good day.

September 9th
The emporers of China in days gone by used to spend there time within the walls of the Forbidden City with their various entertainments - mostly being the poor concubines by the sound of it. However, in summer when the heat became too much he carted everyone over to his Summer Palace. Also in Beijing, but the palace sits on and around a lake and slightly higher up and so is a few degrees cooler. This is where we visited today once we finally got ourselves moving in the morning.

Very good views thay all would have had, of both the surrounding hills and lake and also of the decorative buildings that comprised the palace. Much of it was burnt and destroyed by Anglo-French forces 150 years ago and so some of it looks a little more modern where restorative work has taken place.

We took a little electric powered boat out on the lake for an hour and admired the views and considered ourselves lucky to have found a relatively clear and unpolluted day in Beijing for the visit.
A few pictures:
P9091387.jpg
P9091396.jpg
P9091402.jpg
P9091394.jpg

We met up with Chris (brother-in-law twice removed - or something like that) in the evening and he hosted us very well and took us out to a rooftop Chinese restaurant for some very good local food (always good to have someone who can speak the language) and then later to a rooftop bar in a more upmarket part of the city

September 10th
We have checked out of the Emporer Guesthouse. After yet anoter great breakfast at 365Inn, Marsha caught up with some last minute shopping whilst I did this, whilst waiting for this afternoon's flight out of Beijing. We've very much liked being in the city - the smog has lifted considerably from when we first landed a week ago - although it was very pleasant to get out to the great wall for some fresh air.

Posted by Patrick H. 00:33 Archived in China Comments (0)

(Entries 46 - 50 of 55) « Page .. 5 6 7 8 9 [10] 11 »