Rajasthan, India: Udaipur

Rajasthan was the part of the trip which I was most eagerly anticipating but also the area I was most ignorant about before visiting. It turned out to be one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been.

Before we arrived in Udaipur I told Nicki that I wasn’t expecting much from the city. For some reason I had convinced myself that it wasn’t going to be any good. As a result, I was a little bit worried that we had wasted a day by committing 2 nights there. Not for the first time, I was completely wrong. 

As soon as we arrived I fell in love with Udaipur.  There was a magical feel about the place, and an aura of romance around the whole city.

We checked into our hotel, which we later found out to be one of the most famous hotels in the city. We had been sticking to a budget and booked into this hotel thinking it was cheap, only to find out that Rajisthan’s cheap is really cheap. This meant that we had a beautiful hotel in a wonderful location beside the city’s most famous lake. The hotel was reminiscent of the one in Hotel Marrigold and we were convinced it was filmed there, only to find out it was actually filmed 30km away.

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Our room had narrow ceilings and typical Indian archways with a separate small section with a dressing table. We were able to walk up the open plan stairs and view the lake from the rooftop.

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We could probably have spent all day enjoying the hotel but decided to explore for the afternoon. We came across one of the city temples close by and took off our shoes to encircle it. We went inside the temple where a man called JP decided to disturb the peace by starting a conversation with us.

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The artwork, embroidery and carpentry here are very unique and attractive. We were taken in by it all immediately and explored the market area for a large part of the afternoon. We found ourselves buying lots of items out of fear that we would never see such beautiful things at such cheap prices again. Of course there was also an authenticity about buying items from the hands of the person who made them.

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Sunsets have become an unmissable sight since we arrived in India. I am sure they are spectacular for anyone but China has not given us a sunset in any ordinary capacity for nearly 6 months. So we have taken every opportunity to view it whilst we have been here. The most spectacular so far appeared on our first night in Udaipur, from a rooftop of a restaurant as we enjoyed our curry. The pictures express it better than words:

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We then returned to our hotel to enjoy a hot shower and a beer on the roof.

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The next day we walked to the palace, which was also situated conveniently close to the lake. On the way we witnessed a precession of women walking towards the temple, many apparently possessed by something.  When we asked a local what was happening he responded ‘this is normal’.

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The colourful saris were also present inside the grounds of the palace, where it seemed that a girls school were on a trip.

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We then explored the majesty of the palace in more detail and learnt more about the history of Udaipur and the power struggles over its rule.

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We then had the elaborate idea of buying handmade Rajisthani furniture and shipping it home. So we visited an area of Udaipur where furniture was sold. We later remembered who we were and that shipping furniture home isn’t quite in our budget.

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Once again we enjoyed a curry in the evening. Opting for a cheaper option beside the river. We have both fallen in love with spinach dishes here and seem to have abandoned any desire to eat meat at all. India has all the flavours you need. The food here is the best we will ever eat.

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We reluctantly rose to our last day in Udaipur. We headed out for a masala chai with our breakfast before making an impulsive decision go join a cookery class (as is our current love for Indian cuisine).

A man made us both sit on the back of his motorbike as he navigated his way through the busy narrow streets to an quieter area of town, finally met by a middle aged Indian women inviting us into her home. Already waiting for us and enjoying another masala chai were a Japanese and an American couple.

We started a 5 hour cooking marathon by frying some onion and potato bahjis and making mango and coriander chutney. The lady was a brilliant cook who, as a typical chef, was quite firm in her instructions. 

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We then went on to make 5 different curries. We were very lucky that our group were laid back and fun to talk with. It became a very good afternoon in the kitchen and the cooking was incredibly enjoyable.  It is amazing how bland English food is in comparison.

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The session ended with naan and chipati making before we all sat down together and ate our creation. Naturally, it was much more satisfying to eat the food we had cooked ourselves.

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With our bellies full and our spirits high we were ready to embark on our overnight bus journey to the desert in the far West of India, close to the contentious border with Pakistan. It was a cold and claustrophobic night on the bus, but the days that lay ahead made the journey more than worth it.

Udaipur far exceeded my expectations to the point where I would suggest it to any traveler in India.  It was a welcome break from the drama of Mumbai and a romantic introduction to the beauty and culture of Rajisthan. A lovely place.

Bruges, Amsterdam, and Antwerp: Bank Holiday Magic.

On the Tuesday we were thinking about a weekend in Ghana, but by Friday we were reflecting on a memorable 3 days in Bruges, Amsterdam, and Antwerp. A standard Bank Holiday Weekend.

Setting off early oDSCF3707n the Saturday morning meant we were at Dover bright and early for our ferry crossing. Just as myself and Ross had done at the end of last year we intended to arrive in Bruges for lunch. With no hic-ups on the way we reached our first target in no time. Unlike our last visit to Bruges we did not have any Belgian waffles or climb the Belfry, but instead dabbled in chocolate and tucked into a lovely meal in the market square. Naturally we added some beautiful Belgian beer to the mix.

Following our short stop we werDSCF3703e back on the road and bound for Amsterdam. I was a little apprehensive about the Hostel, as I had booked it. I had not previously travelled with Kate, Helen, or Ross so I didn’t want to introduce them to something that would make them feel uncomfortable. However, the hostel offered us a room with 2 bunk-beds and a private toilet. Thankfully everyone was happy about that.

By the time we had arrived and freshened up it was approaching dinner time, and there were some tummy’s rumbling. On the back of my last visit I suggested one of the copious amounts of Argentina Steak Houses in the Red Light District. I was incredibly excited to see Ross’ reaction to the ‘ladies’ in the windows.

After a meat filled dinner I had that opportunity. We had a few glances in the window and Ross’ reaction was reminiscent of Dean’s back in January….disgust. That, like Dean’s, was short-lived.

We decided to make a night of it by heading to a few bars in the Red Light District before joining the people of Rembrandplein for a few more drinks. The night ended earlier than expected because we over-indulged in our excitement.

The following morning we wDSCF3759oke up with rather dry throats, and I woke up on a whole pizza. Am I getting too old for this?

We decided to hire bikes for the day and explore more of the city. I had done so on my first visit to Amsterdam but still felt unfamiliar witDSCF3764h it. Those who read this regularly will know that I want (need) to have my bearings in a place quite quickly. On my third trip to Amsterdam I still felt like a novice. But I felt like i picked it up quite quickly this time.

Once we found our hire-bikes we set off towards the Heineken museum. Helen had suggested we visit there and since none of us had before we did not offer any other suggestions. It turned out to be a good few hours. Not only did we get to see how the beer was made and learn about the history from a man that the girls found dashing, but we also got ‘free’ tasters. Myself and Ross decided to use one of these tasters to become ‘Certified Pourers’ of Heineken. I’d do anything for a certificate. Fortunately the man who awarded us didn’t take one of our tasters away, so we still had 2 pints to devour in the free bar. Meanwhile the girls were flirting with an English man they found, rather successfully. Kate was aDSCF3799n excellentDSCF3785 wing man in this situation.

The Heineken experience was a success and we all left slightly tipsy on our cycle back towards the centre. This time we stopped for lunch in a traditional Dutch bar to have a snack whilst Helen caught up with an old friend.
We then decided to go for a free cycle around the city. In doing so we spotted some gems whilst we let the beer wear off a little. I made it my mission to find my way back to the cycle hire store and was quietly smug (a trait I need to stop) about finDSCF3860iding my way back with ease.

Once again we were reluctant to stop for two long so walked back to our hostel and got changed before heading back out again. This time we ate in the restaurant beside the Centraal Hostel despite it being empty. Is eating in an empty restaurant ever a good idea? We survived to tell the tale.

With our bearings sorted and the mild temperature of the night we decided to walk back towards the Rembrandplein for a few drinks. On route we were able to cross the beautifully lit Amstel River and take in some of the romance in a city that is wrongly associated with sleaze.

When we arrived we were lucky enDSCF3819ough to spend the night partying with the Ajax fans who were celebrating winning the league earlier in the day. They were particularly keen on earing sunglasses in bars. Maybe their eyes would tell us something they don’t want others to know?

Luckily for Helen the English man from the Heineken museum was not far away. Luckily for the rest of us, the music was good and people were in high spirits. This healthy concoction meant that the night lasted longer than the previous one.DSCF3733

Myself and Ross went home separately to Helen and Kate. We decided to walk, I’m pretty sure the girls didn’t. Nonetheless, we were all home safe.

A double-header meant our heads weren’t quite in the state required for a long trip home. However, the thought of stopping off in Antwerp got me excited. I have always been excited by Antwerp. I don’t know why, perhaps its the name, perhaps iDSCF3826ts the enigma of it.

We arrived in a very quiet area of Antwerp with European teenagers playing cards in the sun. We were a little concerned with the old woman who couldn’t take her eyes off of Kate. We concluded that she put a spell in her.

We had a lovely lunch including a currywurst before getting back on the road bound for Calais. RosDSCF3856s had therefore succeeded in his own mission to drive to Amsterdam and back. Credit where credit is due.

A short entry for a short weekend. But also a memorable one          .

Guest Post: A Beginners Guide to China (by Juliette Cule)

Given Todd’s Blog provided me with the majority of my China information before heading there myself, I thought it would be fitting to close my first China experience with a guest post. And so I harassed him, and he conceded, and here we are! As he has so eloquently described our activities over this amazing month I thought I would go back to basics. China taught me a lot of lessons, so here are my top five Things I Learnt in China…

Be unprepared!

It may sound counter-intuitive, but I think the fact I was so naïve and had no idea what to expect was very helpful. I’m not convinced you can ever be prepared for China, but going with only the knowledge that ‘the language is hard, the food is good’ actually worked remarkably well. Friends recommended reading all sorts of books, practising the language, learning the culture, but I’m sort of glad that I didn’t. Everything and every day in China offered so many surprises and new things. As soon as we landed in Shanghai we were marvelling at the women tottering around in 5 inch heels – at the airport! Very different to us in our tracksuit bottoms recovering from a 10 hour flight. In fact, the Chinese fashion was something that fascinated the girls for the whole trip – what Cat described as ‘both very futuristic and very 80s’. It was hard to say exactly why their dress sense was so different, but it was somehow uniquely Chinese. Having travelled only in Europe, America and Australia, the concept of a country that only opened its doors relatively recently was bizarre, and impossible to stop comparing and contrasting ‘us and them’. The many similarities made me happy to be human and the diverse range of people we met, each with their own stories and quirks, made me excited to meet as many other humans as humanely possible. Go with no expectations, because China will exceed them.

Be always hungry…

This was the first half of my motto in China, and it meant that even when I was stuffed full there was nothing I wouldn’t try. It seems funny now that on the first night me and Cat looked on in horror/awe as Todd nibbled a duck’s head, when by the end we were loving a chicken heart stew and snacking merrily on chicken’s feet. Perhaps one thing to practise before you go is chopsticks – our first meal in China, a bowl of beef noodles (amazing) resulted in Bethan being openly stared and giggled at whilst she contended with her chopsticks – with her left hand at that! Very amusing for all involved (expect perhaps a hungry Beth, poor gal).

China definitely altered my view of food. In China it goes so much beyond fulfilling your basic needs – arguably too far, given the amount of food provided for us. Our entire summer camp was a whirlwind of the most elaborate and social meals I’ve ever had! The food itself spanned a range of unfamiliar flavours, and the Chinese also have an appreciation of texture that I haven’t encountered before. One of my proudest moments was simply eating a prawn without taking the shell off – something you probably wouldn’t consider doing in the UK, but for my Chinese friends the contrast of crunchy shell and soft meat was an important part of the experience. Not sure I’ll be sticking with that one though. Learning to spit out bones and crunch on feet felt kind of brutal, but also more like real food – I can see why the older Chinese find the concept of a slab of meat as disgusting as we find offal. The food in China looked like food and most of what we ate seemed far less processed than the junk I survived off at uni. I say most – the kids offered us various things that barely resembled food, and the girls ate some bizarre sweetcorn flavoured sweets. Whatever you say about Chinese food, they certainly are adventurous and inventive, which makes eating ridiculously fun and turns every meal into an experience.

As important as the food itself is the social side of Chinese eating – the famous hot and noisy atmosphere. Sitting at a round table with new friends to share new food is surely one of the best things in the world – whether it’s at a five star hotel, or in what looks like someone’s front room. Rather than enviously eyeing up someone else’s dish, you can spend the whole meal chatting about what to try and what to avoid (the root!!) and keeping an eye out for your or someone else’s favourite. I got very into the concept of putting food in people’s bowls, and Cat embraced the idea of topping up other people’s drinks, especially when she got hold of her own Mou Tai bottle – thanks for that! The constant toasting needs to spread to England. One of the first words we learnt was ‘gambei!’ (down it!) and I think it was the most used – it was the foundation of a lot of obscure anglo-Chinese relationships. I think even if you went to China nervous of the food and the chopsticks, you would quickly fall in love with it. I know I did.

…and never tired.

The second half of my motto was disputed by Todd, especially with its counterpart – sleep when you’re dead! I realise it’s somewhat unviable, but being never tired introduced Cat and I to our proudest invention – dumpling nights (we just really like dumplings). They began with the Olympics opening night – famously the best night of our lives. I’ll try and shed a little light on what Todd missed out on. This being our first time outside of the hotel on our own, we didn’t stray too far. The feeling of being alone in a completely alien environment, with this overwhelming language barrier is amazing. We headed to a small tent 10 metres away selling street food and beer. After enjoying our celebrity style welcome – lots of giggles and shy smiles and roaring laughter when we spoke some broken Chinese, we sat down with our beers. Sitting in this tent, chatting to a Chinese man in some sort of nonsensical combination of Chinese, English, body language and lots of ‘cheers’ was just the start of an increasingly surreal series of adventures. The feeling of no one in the world knowing where we were (OK, Todd could have made an educated guess but he was asleep!) in this random city in China (only a million inhabitants) is something that everyone should experience at least once. It resulted in a lot of excited conversations about how big the world was and how much of it we were going to see, the Chinese man nodding along exuberantly all the while. As for our safety – whilst I’m certainly not dispensing any advice, there was not one point where our ‘always say yes’ policy let us down. Maybe my favourite night involved meeting the dancers of a show we saw earlier that day and teaching them card games with very little shared language – luckily our knowledge of Chinese extended to jack, queen and king. After a lot of laughter and excitement from all parts, the dancers motioned that they were going to sleep and called over a friend who, it turned out, spoke reasonable English – could have been helpful during the cards, but never mind. He told us he owns a bar and he wanted to invite us for a whisky. After a small amount of muttering we decided we could always run away (smart girls, us) and we had to see it. Which was definitely the right decision – we entered a small, candlelit bar on the river with about 5 other young Chinese people. They all smiled at us and motioned for us to sit with them, whilst their friend started playing his acoustic guitar and singing beautiful Chinese songs. Luckily, instead of whiskey we were given a bottle of red wine – red wine! Heaven. I had to pinch myself at how lucky we were – no one knew where we were, but where we were was incredible. Cat and I had some amazing experiences this way on top of everything organised in the month, and after Bethan joined us for our final dumpling night I think she would also recommend the approach of never being tired and always, always saying yes!

Learn the language!

I certainly didn’t imagine that I’d learn any Chinese words beyond please and thank you, let alone want to continue learning it at home. We were very fortunate to be surrounded by English speakers (of various abilities!) and so day to day tasks were never too difficult, but the language was still one of the most fascinating parts of the trips. I’m used to being able to get by in a few languages, as lots of us Europeans are. To be starting completely from scratch was an amazing and exciting experience. From the first time we recognised a Chinese word or symbol to learning to haggle (very badly and with a lot of encouragement), the language is simultaneously one of the most engaging and mysterious elements of Chinese culture. It has to be said, Todd was invaluable in his patience and his enthusiasm, especially as he had to endure us regularly insisting he was fluent to most Chinese people we met.

Our time in China and particularly the teaching taught me a lot about communication. I learnt that people can communicate on a whole variety of levels of which language is but one. On the first day of the camp the prospect of teaching twelve cute but very blank faces random topics such as ‘English hobbies’ and ‘the internet’ was so daunting that I just sort of spoke English at them and looked hopeful , then troubled, then despairing. With the encouragement of my translator Yolanda – ‘you are boring, the kids are bored, and they do not understand’ – I was forced to consider other ways to get my message across. Cue a whole lot of dancing, drawing, miming, and some very unconvincing acting from Yolanda and I. The combination of British reserve and Chinese shyness started off as a massive barrier to our communicating, but as the kids and I learnt to put the fear aside in favour of being able to converse some genuinely magical (ok, not genuinely magical) and often hilarious conversations happened. As for Yolanda, once I got used to the incredibly straightforward way of speaking in China I fell in love with her directness and mostly her amazing giggle. I don’t know if I’m overly sentimental (although I’m not the one who cried saying goodbye to the kids) but I was amazed at the friendships we formed and the conversations we had with everyone we met, despite initially being worlds apart. I hope that when I return I can do as the Chinese do with any amount of English and proudly show off my Mandarin at every chance.

Have the means to return.

Two weeks after touching down on British soil, Cat, Todd and I reunited for a drink and a catch-up. Panicking about how much I missed China, I asked Todd how he coped when he got home the first time. His response was both reassuring and deeply distressing – ‘I booked a flight back the next week’. China is definitely addictive…just look at this blog! It was a truly amazing experience with truly amazing people. I feel very lucky to have seen a snapshot of China, and ridiculously excited to get started exploring more of this incredible country. I think the most important thing I’ve learnt from visiting China (aside from the lyrics to ‘Yesterday Once More’) is that if you ever have the opportunity to go, then always say yes.

Week 2: Guangdong, Guangxi and Guizhou

The end of a wonderful time in the Philippines was only the start of what had brought me back to Asia in the first place. It was now time to return to China, for a third and rather short stint in the country I can’t keep away from.

Prior to arrival back in China we had the small task of actually getting there. The journey from Hong Kong to China is something that I have done many times over the past two years, and due to their obsession with overloading my passport with stamps I have sufficient evidence to prove it. However, every time it appears to create a new story. Much like everything in China; if you do the same thing twice it is never the same thing.


This time we arrived in Hong Kong at 9:30pm and had to make the decision whether to take the more expensive bus from the airport or risk taking the public bus to a cheaper coach within an hour. Naturally, having spent a vast amount of my budget on the luxuries in the Philippines, we went for the cheaper option. We managed to get together enough Hong Kong dollars to get us to the correct stop. Prince Edward Station. We arrived bang on 11pm, the time when the last bus to Guangzhou had been scheduled. We had just missed it!. Instead now we had to take another option and gather our ideas. This is the kind of situation that I thrive under when I am by myself, however when travelling with someone it appears it becomes a slightly stressful time, especially when I am carrying 4 bags (2 of which, and 25kg, were not mine).

However, we decided to jump on the bus bound for the Shenzhen border and hope there will be an option to get the Guangzhou once we were through customs. As per usual customs was largely a waste of time but time to re-acclimatise to some Chinese customs: the spitting was back.

Once again we were not so lucky when we reached the other side as the last bus for the evening had already left. Instead we had to decide whether it would be worth staying in Shenzhen (the point we had crossed at) or get a private taxi the 2 hour journey to Guangzhou. We decided, given that it would cost more to stay in Shenzhen and Eliana had work in the morning, that we had to get to Guangzhou. It appeared I was tested in my rather poor Mandarin straight away. A man offered us the equivalent of 45 pounds to take us to Guangzhou. However, I managed to negotiate him down to 24 pounds using my broken language and charm :p. I was quite proud of this at the time but in hindsight it would not have cost this in total had we got the simple bus from the airport some 3 hours earlier. Live and learn.

I feel I have no reason to be suspicious of Chinese taxi drivers as all the ‘run-ins’ I’ve had with them have been in other countries (not least in Vietnam). However there was certainly something fishy about this one, especially how he had accepted such a cheap price for such a long distance. Anyway, despite Eliana’s obvious concerns I tried to reassure her that it would be safe, and this was helped somewhat when his wife and daughter joined us in the car. It felt less legitimate but more friendly.

However, after 5 minutes of our journey he pulled up next to another car and told us to get out and get in it as his friend would take us the rest of the way. His friend had a dodgy face. Still, we obliged. After a very private phone call outside the car (with us locked inside) we made a start towards Guangzhou. My duty was to make sure he was heading the right way and to stay awake whereas Eliana’s was to remain calm and try to sleep. The deal seemed kinda fair.

I was praying he would prove me right and deliver us home safe, and he appeared to be until he stopped the car on quiet section of the main road and got out of the car towards the boot (where our bags were). I got out of the car too to make sure he wasn’t doing anything to endanger us. I watched as he changed the number plates on the car and got back in the car. I asked him why he did but he ignored me. It later appeared that he changed the number plate to get through the toll gate to Guangzhou for free. A Guangzhou number plate doesn’t pay but a Shenzhen one does. Therefore he was cheating the system, and not the foreigners in the back. We are both fully aware of the levels of corruption at every level in China, so this wasn’t totally surprising. But it was a little scary at first, especially with a girl in the back.

Despite the panic, we arrived at Elianas in time for a shower and a nap before she had to be up in the morning and I had people to see.
Since Eliana lives in TianHe District I guessed it would be wise to call in on Tony, who lives nearby. Initially I wanted to surprise him by knocking at his door. I somehow remembered his apartment but it appeared he wasn’t in. I knew that his business had been very successful over the past year and that he had begun to rent a second apartment but I didn’t know which one. I called him and it turned out he was living directly above his original place, and using that one as a classroom. It was great to see him, particularly as he had helped me so much during my previous visits. He had to leave quite soon after for work but we will meet again with his new wife when I return to Guangzhou.

Next on my agenda was to get a Chinese sim card so I can actually have contact with people. Up until now it has only been limited internet access that has kept me in contact with the world and the people I want to see in China. One of whom is Danny.

<I had arranged with Danny (the woman who I lived with for 5 months last year) to spend the night at hers. She was more than happy for that so I jumped on the metro and headed for ‘home’. After about an hour and a short, but stuffy, bus journey I arrived at her apartment block. There was a strange feeling about walking around Foshan and it really dawned on me how much I really missed it and how much freedom I had whilst I was there. This meant I stepped back in time and used the same elevator I used last year to the same room, 1905. It was great to be greeted by Danny again and she had specially made some sweet buns which she thinks I love. Her nephew was there too so it was nice to meet him. He is taller than me….and Chinese. One thing that did surprise me was that there was no dog(s). Last year we had a dog called Simba who was a bit of a loveable rascal. I learned via Danny before that she had somehow lost Simba soon after my departure, fair enough. However, I also knew that she had since got a new dog that had given birth to 3 puppies, yet there were no dogs. I asked her where they were and she told me she had also lost this one. I am not sure how you lose 2 dogs in a year but she seemed quite nonchalant about it all so I’ll take her word for it.

Over the next couple of days I went between Guangzhou and Foshan but I was not really able to see everyone that I wanted to see, particularly Benny and Zoey. I hope I will have time when I return to Guangzhou in August. I did, however, manage to eat some of the lovely street food I love and replace my camera. This was a little frustrating as I began last week with a new camera and it had already broken. I tend to take a lot of naff photos, and few good ones, but I felt lost without a camera. I hope I can claim back on it if it’s under warranty when I get home.

On my final morning in Foshan Danny asked me to join her and her nephew at morning tea (one of the Cantonese rituals I really enjoy, unless I have had a drink the previous night). I really enjoy breakfast Cantonese style and a lot of the food we ate was quite sweet. This was Danny’s treat and it was delicious. When we returned to the apartment Danny had 5 patients waiting for her (who seemed to rely on her every word). I packed my bag and when I had finished Danny came back into my room and told me we were going for lunch. I had only just finished chewing the last of my breakfast. Still, I am never in any position to turn down food.

We went to a Yunnan style restaurant where we ate from a hotpot. There was a range of different meet and veg going into the hot pot, perhaps most interesting was the chicken head. I wondered who would eat it but the oldest woman on the table grabbed it quite quickly. I wanted to take a picture of her chewing around the eyes but decided I didn’t know her well enough. It was at this moment, as I sat around a table with 7 Chinese people, only one speaking any form of English, and eating proper Chinese food that I realised how truly lucky I have been. This kind of experience does not come to everyone.

I was quite conscious of the time (as the Chinese never are) but I didn’t want to seem restless. Fortunately we left lunch in time for me to get the metro back to Guangzhou, buy my train ticket and have one final meal with Eliana before my train. There was one small hitch: the train had no beds of seats. This left me with two options; a 16 hour train with a seat or a 12 hour train standing. I went with the standing option. 18 months after the last time I stood up on a train over-night I was at it again, and I hadn’t learnt my lesson? I said my final goodbyes with Eliana, although we are likely to meet again when I return and I jumped on the train thinking I only had minutes to spare. As all Chinese trains seem to be, it was packed….and I really needed the toilet.

Naturally, as the only foreigner on the train and being packed in like sardines in the standing section, i was greeted with a few stares and sniggers. The train eventually did start moving and I had to begin to count down the minutes until 7am….in 12 hours. Still, I like all this, don’t I? As time went on and as my legs became more weary I sat on my bag, being careful not to sit on anything valuable. There was a skatty man opposite me having one of those ‘little emperor’ tantrums about no one moving their bags so he can put his where he wanted to. People were giving me the universally understood look of ‘we are not all like him’. He managed to calm down when he started eating nuts, but he killed a few minutes for me.

The night wasn’t that exciting, but it was certainly unforgettable. I eventually tried to get some sleep but the Chinese trains are hotbeds for selling junk…and people actually buy it. Every 5 minutes a new trolley would come down the aisle which meant anyone with standing tickets that tried to sit had to stand again. It’s fair to say the night was fairly sleepless. But then again, this is China and this is how they do it, so I can do it to. If I embrace it I can’t complain.

Anyway, after 12 long hours I finally arrive in Liuzhou, which is not really a city on everyone’s to-do list. I decided, since I was not staying overnight, to store my luggage at the station and explore the city quite aimlessly.

Initially I ended up in a street market selling all sorts of food and meat. I stopped at a man who looked as though he was selling homemade caramel. I bought some without hesitation before asking what it was, to which he told me ‘tang’ (sugar). I had just bought a bar of sugar for breakfast. Naturally I then picked up a bao zi to fill my stomach whilst I admired the street barbers (much to their delight). After walking more than I should have I bought a map. Upon looking at the map I decided on a destination and sort out the bus to get me there.

The ‘Up all night’ look
<I aimed for a park, such is my appreciation for everything beautiful nowadays. Naturally I fell asleep on the bus but arrived at my destination ok as it was the final stop. When I got off I bought some grapes and admired the lake, as you do. As I did so I felt the sleepless night creep up on me and I dropped off for 2 hours beside the lake in the baking heat beside my grapes. It felt quite romantic despite being alone, if that’s possible.

Following my rather long nap I climbed to the highest point in the park, up a limestone peak. As my feet were beginning to hurt I did so bare footed.

<It was becoming evening but I had until 11pm before my train, quite luckily as I couldn’t find my way out of the massive park. Instead I arrived back at the train station after stopping off for some dinner and washed in the dirty open toilet there. I was quite surprised when a man, obviously festinated with my half naked body, decided to copy my every move, even putting his feet next to mine in the sink. That was weird.

The train that night was much more comfortable, giving me a bed to sleep on. I slept most of the night, so nothing really to report there.

14/07/2012
The next day I arrived in Guiyang and was surprised, even after all this time, that the train station was packed at 7am. I have come to the conclusion that China really does have a population dilemma.
I had previously written directions to my hostel in the city so caught my bus to a nearby stop. I walked a short distance to that hostel and managed to obtain a bed and a shared hot shower after the sweaty sleeplessness of the last two days this felt like heaven.

<During the day I decided to leave the city and explore an ethnic minority village (of which there are many in Guizhou). I got a public bus for 30p for the one hour trip. 2 girls sat next to me on the bus and were keen to talk, yet they could not speak English. Instead they patiently allowed me to practice my Chinese. It was quite refreshing for Chinese people to speak to me very slowly and have the patience to work out exactly what I was trying to say, this meant I wasn’t so embarrassed about making mistakes. I am thankful to them for this and it gave me a new confidence in my limited mandarin Chinese.

<Eventually we arrived at the town, Qingyun, built amidst a wonderful landscape. The girls invited me to join them around the town as they were quite familiar with it. They found out it was my birthday the next day so they bought me some local food which we tried together. Later we ended up in a restaurant where they ordered me 3 pigs knee-caps and spicy tofu as a birthday present. Very cultural but not my ideal meal. Still, I was very thankful for their company and hospitality.

Pigs Knee caps and spicey tofu
<

This was a very nice day even if I didn’t see much of Guiyang. When I got back to the hostel I found out I my room had other occupants. One of which was a Chinese girl from Hunan province. She agreed to go to the shop and have a few beers with me. Together we sat with 2 other Chinese people from the hostel and enjoyed a beer to the Chinese version of X factor (which is awful considering the great singers in China).They were all keen to practice their English with me and celebrate the arrival of my birthday. One boy in particular (and he really looked like aboy) was keen to speak with me despite his very strong dialect accent preventing him from communicating in mandarin with the others.

15/07/2012
The next day was my birthday and much like last year I did not see another foreigner throughout the day. This time I had to wake bright and early to go to the train station I Guiyang. I arrived in what I thought was perfect timing for boarding but the notice informed me that the train had been delayed for 2 and a half hours. Since I had already had my ticket stamped I had to wait. As a result I spent a large portion of my birthday in a train station waiting room. Thankfully I had charged my PSP.

Once we eventually got on the train I was sat amongst a range of Chinese people. It later turned out that they were one big family. The woman beside me was a very angry lady who kept asking me to put my bag somewhere else despite being nowhere near her. Opposite me was a very old lady who liked shouting and another ‘mini emperor’ who wanted to impress me by spitting his guts out by my feet every 5 minutes. I looked at him with disgust but he was quite proud. On the other side of me was a mother and her new born, nappiless, baby. The baby was very cute and very playful which made the 5 hour journey a little easier. I eventually decided to eat the noodles I had brought with me, when the baby, who had a lot of breast milk throughout the trip, then didn’t seem so cute. As I enjoyed my noodles the mother of the baby lifted her son in the air (I knew it was a boy because everything was on show) and parted his buttocks. So the baby was going to poo from a height of 1metre onto the train floor whilst I watched eating noodles…on my birthday. Happy Birthday Todd. I looked around but no one else found this remotely abnormal. I finished the noodles and looked at the clock.

<I was met in LiuPanShui (my home for the time being) by Dina, my guide for my work. She took me to my hotel that I will stay in during my time here. I was astonished. It was just what I needed, a nice bed and a private washroom. Now to remove the bags from under my eyes. Before I went to bed I went out with the new colleagues to a hot pot restaurant to try the local delicacy. The food was nice and I had a beer bought for me to celebrate my birthday. This was what it was all about.

I was later encouraged to sleep, but the mosquito in my room had other plans. That was the end to a very busy and very exciting week. The week ahead promises to be every bit as enjoyable.
<

China II: Week 19 + Vietnam

1/08/2011: Day 22

Night train journeys are always the best because you wake up in a location far from where you were when you put your head down. That kind of thing freaks me out.

Anyway, both me and James woke in good spirits a few minutes before our arrival in Nanning.
were now in a location new to us both, so the real adventure was about to begin.

Thankfully, and in keeping with the luck that has followed me throughout my time in China, our hostel was only a stones throw from the train station. This meant that we only needed to use our limited notes written the day before to find it. When we did it seemed like a nice enough place..it had beds and a shower. However, since we arrived quite early we were required to wait for our beds to be cleaned. We used this opportunity to shower (both of us were dirty and smelly).

During this time we were approached by an American girl named Emily. She asked us where we were from and we were surprised to hear that she knew Torquay. In fact, she had even visited Torquay a few Christmas’ ago…a very small world. It turned out that she actually enjoyed her stay in Torquay despite the exotic and exciting places that she had visited on the rest of her travels.

Given that all of our resources indicated that Nanning is little more than a gate-way city to Vietnam we decided to avoid the limited attractions within the city and explore the outskirts. After observing a map of the province, Guangxi, we decided on a destination; Baise.

Once checked in and showered myself, James and Emily walked to the bus station in the hope of finding a cheap bus. Emily had an additional weapon: Chinese. She put my Chinese to shame but made me even more determined to learn more. Given her experience over 2 years I have now come to the conclusion that Beijing is the place to learn and will consider a long stay there on my next visit.

Anyway once in the bus station we were approached by a nutty looking woman with a brolly. Usually I avoid these people like the plague but on this occasion she told us that we can go to Baise. Thinking that she may be offering a good deal we decided to go with her. In hindsight she was trying to rip us off…shock. The woman made us jump onto a public bus and got of in the middle of nowhere. Here we waited for our hired bus whilst the old lady sat on the curb muttering to herself. Just as we were preparing our excuses to leave the bus turned up and the woman took our money. From the look of everyone else on the bus it definitely seemed as though we paid over the odds..we later found this to be true.

The bus journey was not that exciting but my highlight was offering James pieces of mango. Apparently this is offensive to him. I am beginning to find out that James can be wound up by very trivial things but accept the abnormal things that happen as quite normal. Different people, different needs.

Despite not quite reaching Baise (in fact still about 2 hours away) we decided to get off the bus in the middle of nowhere. It turned out to be a fantastic decision. For a few minutes we considered what we could do in the middle of nowhere. Then we decided to head towards the mountains we could see far in the distance. As there only seemed to be one road we decided to walk across the fields. i.e. off the beaten track…perfect. We walked across dozens of fields featuring everything from corn to bananas to massive anonymous fruits. Naturally, we avoided stepping on any of the crops that lay in our way. This meant we took our time in getting across the fields and often out ourselves in dangerous situations. This was highlighted when Emily fell over when jumping off a mud heap. She wasn’t too embarrassed or hurt though. We saw very few people as we passed over the farm lands. This was possibly because the farmers are wiser than us and avoid going out in the heat of the day. However, the few people who we did see did not seem to welcome us with open arms. The first was a man burning his own crops, who seemed like a bit of a nutter. The second was an old woman who told her cow off for looking at us and the third was a man who turned off his hose so that we couldn’t coll ourselves down with it. They were all quite suspicious of us, and understandably so considering there was no reason for foreigners to be crossing these fields. We were loving it though, it was defiatly the right choice from exploring another city.

After a couple of hours of trekking in the heat we came to what looked like a small village. Our guess was that the farmers from the fields had their family homes there. Initially there didn’t seem to be many people around but as we began to walk through the village more and more people can out to look at the foreigners. We then managed to obtain a group of children who followed us through the village on bicycles, picking up their friends en-route. Everytime we looked behind there seemed to be a new child shouting ‘hello’ at us. We then came across a group of girls who already had their camera phones ready to film us as if word had got around of our presence before we even arrived. This was certainly a nice experience.

We only walked a little further through the village until we came to the railway track. Here a very bored man asked James to take a photo of him and if he could send it by post. The man posed on his stretch of railway like the proudest man in the world and then gave James his address (in Chinese) to ask for th e photo posted. It might be true that this was the first photo the man had taken of him (except for the one on his id card).

Reluctant to walk much further since we found a bus that passed through the village on its way to Nanning we sat at a cafe and drank some local beer. This was not only refreshing but very rewarding. Today had already been successful.

We each had a couple of beers before the next bus arrived. Since there was no toilet in the cafe or on the bus we all had a very awkward journey back praying for our bladders to hold up. Eventually we did arrive back where we were able to have a quick shower before picking up some food at a chinese restaurant. More Chinese food! I still can’t get enough of it!

After dinner we went back to the hostel to relax where we were joined by 6 dutch students who were touring China. We joined them for a game of ring or fire until the early hours of the morning. The consequence of which promises to make tomorrow a very interesting day, especially as we have an early start.

02/08/2011: Day 23

Perhaps as a result of the late night the evening before I was uncharacteristically still asleep at the time of our alarm: 7am. Our bus left from the bus station to the waterfall at 7:40 and we still had to get ready, get there, get sufficient water, buy our tickets and board. Once again we made it and it didn’t seem that much of a rush. At he station we met the dutch boys from the night before. They, like us, looked like they had a rough night, indicated by there glazed eyes.

Since we wer promised a 4 hour journey we saw this as adequate time to catch up on our missed sleep. However, as the time slowly progress (time moves slower on a bus) 11:40 was soon gone and we were approaching 1pm. This would not normally be a problem but our return coach to Nanning left the waterfall at 3pm. Everyone was a little concerned that we may have to turn back as son as we arrived. Everyone except the driver. Instead of picking up on his passengers desire to reach the fall he decided to stop for a half hour lunch break. Naturally all of us were a little puzzled by this, but we got the opportunity to fill our empty tummys…every cloud.

Even with the break we were able to reach the fall by 2pm, with 3.15 as our scheduled departure. We then found out hat entry would cost us £7…a huge dent in our budget. Myself, Emily and James seeked an alternative entrance through a deroliced house and a steep hill. Once again Emily hurt herself climbing, but she’s a tough cookie. We had to admit defeat soon after though as there seemed no free way in and we already had limited time.

So once we were in it was just a short walk before we saw the splendid view of the waterfall (Detian Pubu). What was also fascinating was that it appeared to be unspoilt by tourism and there were no queues of people or people pestering us to buy things. We had an hour to spend in paradise with just a f ew dutch lads and a couple of Chinese families….how is this place not on everyone’s radar? At this moment we were so thankful of the waterfalls lack of publicity.

We walked closer and closer to the base of the water fall, which actually acts as a border between China and Vietnam. Despite the numerous signs telling us not to swim in the water the beauty of the fall and the heat of the sun made it far to appealing and any danger was soon forgotten. We stripped to our undies and began swimming in the open water at the bottom of the majestic waterfall, of course not getting close enough to die. As we swam so peacefully through the water we each had dragonflies perched on our heads who were also enjoying the ride. Perhaps the waterfall had already killed us and we were now in heaven? I would have believed it. This is what it’s all about :P. For a while we swam around the different parts of the waterfall and even tried to swim close to one of the smaller falls…the current prevented me from reaching it. Despite only having an hour to swim and observe it we were more than satisfied with traveling such a distance. The waterfall has to be experienced to be believed as no photos can do it justice. And swimming so close to it uninterrupted by anything other than the friendly dragonflies made complete contrast to most other places in China.

We were so happy with our day out now that they journey back seems like a blur (probably because I slept through most of it). However, we were then back by about 9pm as oppose to the 6pm advertised. Perhaps the bus driver knew that no one would complain about the journey after seeing the waterfalls.

As we arrived we remembered that one of the hostel staff wanted to have dinner with us in the evening (although we suspected he only really wanted to eat with Emily). When we got back to the hostel he was still waiting for us but we made sure we showered first. He then told us he and his friends had booked a restaurant for us about 10 minutes away by taxi. We had to tell him that we did not want a late night and we could not afford the restaurant he wanted us to go. As if to confirm our suspicions he then told Emily that he will visit her on her travels soon. He was a little strange but she just nodded accepting.

So our last big meal in China came from the muslim noodles in Nanning Although not the most exciting of chinese foods it does some up most of the qualities of it. tasty, cheap, interesting, fresh and filling. I am going to miss Chinese food so much. I get the impression James will too.

It was then time to pack out bags for the morning and relax before our morning bus to Hanoi, Vietnam. Another goodbye to China was just hours away.

03/08/2011: Day 24

Today we left China and arrived in Vietnam. I left feeling that I have not quite finished with China. Perhaps this is a good indication that I will return one day. But now is the time for a new country, a new culture, with different food and people: Vietnam.

Initially we left Nanning at 8am for a short journey to the Chinese-Vietman border. Once we arrived I expected to have a simply passport check at customs and be in Vietnam in no time. What an idiot I am! Have I not experienced anything of China in a year? Instead we were dropped off some 500m from the ‘departure’ section of customs. Here we had to wait for a golf caddie to take us to the entrance where we queued for permition to exit the country. Once this was complete we had to walk another 2 hundred metres though a car park (neither of us knew which country we were now in) towards the arrival section of Vietnam. As if the two buildings were hundreds of miles apart everything appeared to be different; the uniforms, the people and the language. As we queued for permission to enter Vietnam one of the Vietnamese mobile phones rang: Blue: One Love. James’ response was instantly ‘brilliant, I’ve travelled half way around the world to listen to Britains 2011 Euro Vision song contest entrants’. I sympathised.

Once we were out we then had to get on another caddie to take us to the bus. I got the idea that the two caddies were not that necessary as the buses had the ability to drive and the customs could e done much quicker. If only I was in charge of Chino-Viet customs. I am not, so I got over it. James did not get over Blue.

When we eventually arrived in Hanoi we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere. It was here that we got our first lesson in Vietnamese people. We bargained with a taxi driver to get to our hostel for 115,000 dong (about £3.50). At this point we had no idea what a good deal was but a woman on the coach suggested 150,000 is the most we should pay. The driver agreed and put our bags in his car. He put my bag in the front seat, which, despite being slightly odd, did not make us suspect anything. He even had a cute little horn that echoed.

We had a map in hand and by spotting street names we realised that he was taking a very obscure route around the old city. I offered him a bit of mango to sweeten him up, in return he gave us a card of what looked like a prostitute but he advertised as ‘a very good massage’. Eventually we arrived at our destination and the driver then moved m bag to reveal the meter indicating 560,000 dong (£15). ooohhh that’s why he put my big bag in the front!. Initially we laughed this off and reminded him that he had confirmed 115,000 before we entered the cap. We then started shouting and threatening to drive off (but we didn’t know where he intended to take us). Despite his rage and reluctance to let us out the cab we had one thing on our side; the fact that we only had 130,000 dong anyway. We should him this and he then collapsed onto his steering wheel as if to cry, quite pathetically. He then demanded Chinese yuan that he saw in my wallet. I refused. Eventually, and with no knife in his dashboard he gave up trying to rob us and took the money we agreed. We both decided we had won that battle. It was quite a welcome to Vietnam. However, I think it was a worthwhile experience as we now know that the Vietnamese may not need a second invitation to get one over on us. It was definitely one fo the strangest taxi journeys I have ever had.

We used the rest of the day to explore the old town and meet the people in our hostel. The hostel even-handed out free home-brewed beer between 5 and 6pm to all guests which allowed us to meet several new people. Then myself and James began to explore the city in search of the famous Bia Hoi…13p beers. As we walked around I was so shocked to see so many Western people. I have not seen so many foreigners in one place since I was in England. I still questioned why so many people neglect China when planning their trips. Although from some of the people we have met I am quite glad I didn’t meet them in China.

However, we sat for a couple of hours drinking the local beer. We were served by a crazy lady called Rainbow who both shouted at you and flirted with you at the same time. I was more scared of her than the taxi driver.

Then, as if by chance, we saw Emily walk passed. We were then joined by David, a dutch nazi from our hostel, and two Danish girls. This was our gang for the rest of the night. We enjoyed the local beer and drank in a couple of local bars. It turned into quite a late night. But a nice relaxing welcome to Hanoi (by contrast to the taxi journey). I could already tell Vietnam is going to be a different experience to China. But I can also tell I am going to enjoy it. What have you got to offer us Vietnam?

04/08/2011: Day 25

Our second day in Hanoi, and indeed Vietnam, was used as an acclimatization day in the city. And both of us needed acclimatising to this crazy city. Everywhere we turn in Hanoi there are people trying to sell us things that no one in their right mind would by,. e.g. wooden dragonflies that balance on your finger. If it’s not these people hassling us its the thousands of people on motorbikes who honk their horns more often than they look at the road. For a newcomer Hanoi looks like a city in chaos. In this respect there is no shortage of entertainment.

Once we were up and about we headed towards the centrepiece of the old town; the lake. Despite not being overwhelmingly beautiful it did look slightly out-of-place as a peaceful area in the middle of Bedlam. We walked around the large lake and stopped in shade as an escape from the intense heat. It was here that I started to draw comparisons between the Vietnamese and the Chinese…of which there seems to be very few comparisons despite their close proximity. I enjoy people watching; On the bench opposite were a young Vietnamese couple hugging and kissing which initially got my attention as public displays of affection are rarely seen in China. On top of this we were able to look at the behaviour of the people. Despite the fact that they don’t seem to be too subtle about trying to rip us off I have yet to see anyone spit on the floor or sneeze in someone elses face. Perhaps I have entered civilisation…is that a good thing? However, probably the most striking difference has been the women of Hanoi. Vietnamese women appear to be extremely beautiful…but why? We discussed a few possibilities; 1. the way they dress. Many are dressed with fashionable clothes rarely seen on Chinese women 2. the light touch of makeup. It appears that a little bit of make-up indicates that she may have shaved her armpits. 3. and most influentially, the food portions are minimal. The Vietnamese women are tiny, and never seem to be fat. We have put this down to eating one bowl of sticky rice as a meal, when I could easily put away 5.

Anyway, enough of the people watching. Once we had finished with the lake we made a long journey towards the ‘Temple of Literature’. The lonely planet indicates that this is the 16th best thing to do in Vietnam…how could we miss it? Despite what the map suggested the temple was quite a walk from the lake. But at this point we have all the time in the world and there was no rush (except preventing the sun from evaporating our skin). James had not seen a temple in China so seeing one in Vietnam was a must. When we eventually arrived at the temple, and still unfamiliar with the currency, te cashier woman ripped me off by giving the wrong change….even the people working in temples are dishonest here, We still hope it’s not a sign of things to come. It was only James’ eager eye that pointed out that we had the wrong change. The woman had the correct change waiting on a pile at her desk just in case we realised. Although it could have been an honest mistake :P. Once in the temple we didn’t see anything terribly spectacular (except an awesome statue os Confucius and 4 of his disciples). But the familiar smell of incense and an old woman performing her prayer rituals made the experience worthwhile, even if we were a long way from the old quarter now.

Being fit young men, and slightly scared about getting in another taxi, we headed back to the dorm on foot. The map labelled a market on route and I wanted to see if it was a meat market and if the Vietnamese have the same interesting approach to food that the Chinese have. As it turned out most of the market was clothes. However, as we got nearer the exit we smelt fish. We stumbled across a few stalls selling fresh fish and crabs. Naturally a couple were selling caged cats and terrapins as well. Other than a few fish guts we didn’t really see any bizarre or disgusting sights, not like we have a blood lust or support animal cruelty….just curiousity.

Given that the day was hot and sticky I decided to take a shower before the arrival of the free beer at the hostel. During this shower I had the worst headache I have ever felt. I thought my head was about to explode. For some reason I found some solace bending over and putting my head between my knees. As I was naked and in the shower I am very glad that no stranger walked in to see me as a madman. I put it down to the malaria tablets I have been taking and now look at them as some kind of round pink demon. After I while the swelling of my brain seemed to decrease but the pounding put me in no mood for beer. I tried some anyway. Water went down a lot easier.

Once again we met up with Emily, as planned the night previous, and also met with Catherine (a Danish girl). James got to play badminton with some local kids.We got ripped off for some sugar-water after ordering tea, but didn’t complain. We had a quite night with a few beers before going to bed shortly after the local beer hoi finished. I woke at around 4am to hear James talking with the other people in the dorm (1 more english and 3 dutch) about a hypothetical war that was happening in the dorm Holland vs Britain). One of the dutch nominated himself as William of Orange….I went back to sleep.

05/08/2011: Day 26

Today was the day we began our trip on one of the most exciting places in Vietnam. To Halong Bay. We were picked up around 8am from our hostel. It appeared that we were one of the last pick up points as the hostel was largely full and the only remaining seats were beside a very angry-looking asian man…a bit miffed that he had no place to put his day bag.

Our initial concerns about him were eased as soon as he started talking…because he told us he was Malaysian. Not only do we intend on visiting Malaysia in a couple of weeks, but Jangers (a friend from Torquay) is half Malaysian. The man was definitely a bit of a character and immediately told us not to visit Malaysia because there are not enough Laplanders. He then revealed, as if we had been friends for years, that he visits Thailand at least twice a year for the ‘very cheap women’. Every question we asked him seemed to have an answer that related to Thailand or Thai women. He then reveled that he will be voting for Malaysias opposition party at the next election because they are ‘more open-minded about lapdancing clubs.

The company of him and his friends certainly made the 3 hour journey to Halong bay a lot more interesting. When we did eventually arrive we were made to wait in the heat for around half an hour by the tour guide that everyone could sense was going to be a nightmare. In fact, it became even more apparent when he told our spanish companions that they could not stay on the boat overnight as there were not enough people who wanted to stay on the boat. We had previously been told that we could not stay on the boat as there were already to many people who had paid to sleep on it. As if this excuse for not hiring a boat for his guests (as advertised) was not contradictory enough he later told others that no boat could be hired because they are too dangerous to sleep on and even went as far as telling people that 25 boats had crashed into each other the day before so no boats were available. So far the vietnamese people have not blown me away with their hospitality. Thankfully we were all light-hearted enough to laugh him off.

When we were eventually off and away the views of the bay were amazing. In Halong Bay there are thousands of Limestone peaks that appear from the surrounding waters. Its almost like stepping into a science fiction movie (maybe I permanently am in one. or perhaps science fiction is not fiction at all). The clear blue sky made for picture perfect scenery from the boats deck. Here we could gaawp at the surrounding views whilst lying on a sunbed on the top deck of a Vietnamese boat. Heaven.

After a while we arrived at one of the islands in Halong bay to see a cave. I think I hae written here before that caves don’t really excite me too much. But I don’t know why. Caves have everything one needs from an experience: history, mystery, scariness, science and bats. I have decided to see caves with fresh enthusiasm. However, the Vietnamese, like the Chinese always do, seemed to look at this cave with too much imagination (rich?). The see monkeys, dragons and even humans in the stones that clearly could represent. Whatever makes people happy though. One of the Malaysian lads was not shy in presenting his own opinion.

After the cave and after a about another hour on the boat we approached a village on the sea (or so it was described). Here featured the real drama of the day. We all went from our large boat and entered a tiny local fishing boat armed only with a car battery. There were some big blokes in our party, especially James, and the driver (or sailer or fisherman or local) expressed his concerns about the weight of the boat. As if money rules the universe we proceeded to sail towards one of the peaks anyway. We eventually came to a peak that had a naturally formed cave (the kind of cave that gets me interested) which we were able to pass through given our low height. After about 20 metres we came into what looked like a lake. The limestone peak was hollow in the middle so had created a wonderful circular area of sea that just looked incredible. Despite being very eager to enjoy the splendid view we then came across an issue…. the boat was flooding. it appeared that the incredible weight of the boat had caused water to enter from underneath (I’m clearly not a boat expert). Without panic the sailor took the wooden planks from our feet and revealed the extent of the damage. Which created panic amongst everyone else. At this point I was not sure if this happens to every group and part of me assumed it was an act to give us a bit of a fright. It wasn’t. Soon the man was using half a bottle to scoop out all of the excess water whilst passengers with empty bottles were joining the effort. The local man was shouting to try to attract other boats who were able to get to out boat and evacuate people from it….women, children and french first of course. Eventually, and to the relief of everyone remaining on the boat the boat man decided the boat was empty enough to continue our mission. We left through the cave and once again entered the open water. Here he indicated that we could swim if we wanted. Both myself and James were never going to miss the opportunity to enter the water whilst surrounded by another natural beauty…as if it is becoming habit. We both stripped off and jumped into the water with some spanish and Malaysians. Whilst we were enjoying it I two german girls (this was a very global group of people) asked if anyone had any spare shorts they could borrow, of course i did. But there were two girls and not wanting to disappoint one of them (and slightly over excited about being in the sea) I removed the shorts I was wearing and passed them to the one remaining girl. Free in every sense of the word.

Once that episode was over we dried off on the sun beds on our way to our destination; Cat Ba Island. Here we were escorted by our favourite tour guide to our destination for dinner, and eventually to our hostel. Despite our tiredness, and Hachiko on tv, we went to explore the harbourside in Cat Ba. It was swarming with people apparently because of a celebration of an anniversary of Ho Chi Minh’s visit to the island. After a relaxing evening at the harbourside we reported in for bedtime.

06/08/2011: Day 27

We woke up at around 6:50 when we were due to meet for breakfast at 7am. In a rush I had a quick shower and packed up my stuff. I think James was a little more organised. We only arrived a few minutes late to find that there was actually no rush and we would have to wait around anyway. The breakfast included a fresh baguette and jam….complete novelties to me.

After breakfast we joined the rest of our group, including the brilliant Malaysians, on our short return trip to our boat. When we did arrive at the port a monsoon storm started. Out of nowhere women appeared selling ponchos….and sold oodles of them to our fellow tourists. James, being the more sensible of the two of us, owns a coat. I decided to brave the rain in neither coat nor poncho in the hope I would dry quickly after the storm passes.

The short delay caused by the rain was more exciting than a hinderance and we were soon back on the water. This time with a friendly tour guide. Smiles all around from our comrades. after a short while on the water we came to a small cove where we were given the opportunity to explore Halong bay by kayak. Initially James thought he was too tall for a kayak, but sometimes he needs to be told he is still human and kayaks are built for humans. One of the passengers told the tour guide that his life jacket was broken, the response ‘if you can swim it doesn’t matter’…exactly! We were soon off and away, James obviously being the more adept at kayaking as my coordination seems to be non existant. In fact, when in a large cove I decided I was better off in the water than sitting in what is essentially a plastic tube. I jumped from the kayak and into the sea. James, being a good friend, used this opportunity to row away. It then became apparent that I am not as confident in the sea when I do not have companions to take my mind off what may lurk below. If I am honest, I have never been so releaved to see James’ little smurk when he eventually returned. I got back into the kayak without any shark bites or jelly fish stings.

following this we were then allowed to have some relaxing time on the boat whilst enjoying the natural wonder and bathing in the sun. Both me and the swedish guy on our boat were on the top deck trying to dry out our boxer shorts. Perhaps something you can only get away with when on a boat in he middle of the ocean. It was not long before we were back in Halong city and having a beer with our Malaysian friends. Thankfully, for us very hungry fellows, we were then taken to lunch. I have yet to find a fault with Vietnamese food, except for the quantity. The Malaysians summed this up: ‘In Malaysia our tummy always full, In Vietnam out tummy always empty’. Taste sensation though.

When eventually back in Hanoi we had one more night to have fun before our scheduled trip to Ninh Binh tomorrow. We used this opportunity to find a new Bia Hoi stall away from the rather annoying Brits that seemed to cohabit the city with us. Perhaps I am so used to being the only one that having loads of foreigners around annoys me a little. Selfish boy I am. Myself, James and Raaj (a Brighton Uni graduate) found a nice little stall featuring local Vietnamese people. Here we stayed until the owner was sold out of her special brew. After that we bumped into Emily once more (didn’t really bump into her as we knew where she was). He boyfriend had arrived the evening previous and we were eager to meet him given the character reference she had created over the last few days. So the 5 of us headed to a bar named Half Man, Half Noodle. Where we spent a couple of hours. Here we were joined at our table by two interesting people…one of them will live forever in the memory as Buzz Lightyear.

Buzz Lightyear was an american from Chicago. And he was a stereotype. Given our joyful mood the stereotype american became more of an object of humour than an annoyance. This was helped by the fact he looked and sounded identical to Buzz Lightyear. Once we began talking he was quick to quirp that he had been to Laos and performed the tubing bar cruel. In typical American fashion, and not to be outdone by others that have been there, he then explained how his experience was a little different. Normally people swing from bar to bar in an inflatable tube with no problems. Buzz Lightyear apparently decided to do a ‘triple backflip into the water (pronounced warder)’…i.e. falling with style. During this courageous performance Buzz managed to cut his shin. Any one other than Buzz Lightyear would have seeked medical attention. However, this Space Ranger had a mission to complete. He continued by telling us that he then purchased a bottle of vodka and poured it into his wound. As if this wasn’t brave enough he then removed all debris with his handy penknife. We all sat in silence waiting for the punch line…it didn’t come. We later chuckled to ourselves. Thankfully the awkwardness that is often caused by arrogance or lies was broken when Buzz told Emily’s boyfriend that Laos beer is better than Belgian beer. As Emily had previously told us, her boyfriend doesn’t take kindly to people with a different opinion to him.

We later went to another bar, with everyone finding Buzz the main source of entertainment, even if he didn’t know himself. We had noticed that he now could only talk out of the side of his mouth. The man was an idiot, but a fantastic idiot. When in the next bar Buzz sat with his sister and James. James gorped in amazement as Mr Lightyear attempted to impress Vietnamese women. This, in typical Buzz/American manner was by kissing his biceps and lifting unsuspecting victims above his head. Needless to say, he left unsuccessful and even mourned as he walked around the lake alone for an hour. Everyone loves a character.

Aside from Buzz, who will never be forgotten, we had a pretty good night. I, for some unknown reason, woke up on the hotel roof whereas James came in from the abyss at 7am. Hanoi may be crazy, but it’s certainly entertaining. Thats what 13p a beer does…to infinity and beyond!

07/08/2011: Day 28

A slightly sombre day i comparison to the last few. But it was our last day to really experience Hanoi.

Naturally the noises of the dorm room and the light from the sun woke us despite our requirements for sleep. But this wasn’t too much of an issue. The previous day we had decided to risk our dashing good looks on a street barber. we were on a tight budget and saw it as part of the cultural experience.

We walked around for a while trying to find the best deal on a haircut. It appeared that we were not going to get a better deal that £1.50, but we wanted it cheaper. As a result we continued to look before coming across a tattoo Vietnamese man with a large cigarette hanging from his mouth. Vietnamese equilivant of Dad? It turns out he is not quite as professional as my old man though. I was first up and a little afraid of what this scary man was going to do to me. He strapped me to his chair and began to sheer my locks. He might as well have had his eyes closed. In fact, if it wasn’t for the cigarette ash dangling from his mouth I think he probably would have. I was quite lucky to escape with some hair remaining and no burn But in truth the haircut wasn’t bad for a pound.

James was next up and looked as though he was being put to the electric chair. He was terrified. Not even posing for photographs could mask his fear. In reality the barber just cut as much hair off as possible and didn’t care much for styling. He did, however, put random and unwanted lines in James’ designer stubble. Much to my amusement and James’ confusion. The street barber, in full view of the passing public, was certainly an experience but perhaps one that we will not partake in again….unless our hair grows.

We decided to enjoy the Hanoi speciality food, Pho, once more before we were to board our afternoon bus. We have eaten so much Pho in the last few days and it has already made James a close acquaintance with any toilet he passes. However it tastes good. Pho is basically noodle soup with meat. Nice.

We then boarded our bus to Ninh Binh. Initially it seemed as though we were to be packed onto a tiny bus with no air con for 4 hours. But this was just to transport bus to te depot. He we were transferred to a sleeper bus (not needed but a nice luxury). We arrived within 4 hours and were quite fortunately dropped right outside the hotel that we had booked ourselves into earlier in the day.

When we entered the hotel we soon discovered that there were cheaper dorm beds available for $3 a night. We jumped at the chance to sleep in a dorm and were lucky enough to discover that we had the dorm room to ourselves with a TV that showed the Community Shield in English. After a brief look around the quint town it began to get dark so we decided to call it a night with the football and a mattress.

I think James had a sleepless night because of his irrational fear of lizards.

China II: Week 18

25/07/2011: Day 15

Instead of getting up early for sightseeing reasons, this time I needed to get my morning train to Kunming. Only this time my own stupidity gave several me obstacles which almost made me miss my train.

Firstly, I searched for my missing phone, almost certain that I wouldn’t find it. I didn’t. Then, during my search, I put down my locker key somewhere. The locker contained my laptop, wallet and passport. So, frantically I searched for the key and even resorted to using all the spares in the reception to try gain access to my locker. Time went on and it was now only 45 minutes before my departure. Trying not to panic I seeked assistance from one of the hostel workers. He tried all the keys he had before pointing out that someone had handed in my key earlier in the morning. Phew. This meant I was able to get all of my belongings from the locker and make my way to the train station. All that the delay cost me was the price difference between a taxi and a bus.

I was finally on the train and noticed that there were many beds despite the fact I had a seating ticket. Noticing that all the beds seemed to be spare I took the opportunity to lie down whilst I waited for the journey to commence. A short time afterwards one of the ticket inspectors told me to get off the bunk and sit on the bottom bed with everyone else. For some reason people weren’t allowed to sit or lie on the empty beds. This meant that each of the bottom beds was full with 4 people sat bunched together whilst space above us was needlessly wasted (on the bed opposite me there were actually 5 people, if I count the baby who was permanently attached to its mothers exposed breast). A little baffled I worked out that of the 20 rows of 3 bed bunks (60 beds) only 20 were in use. This meant over 80 people were sharing 20 beds on a 7 hour journey. Once again there is only one word suffice to describe this…China.

Thankfully for me all three of my bed companions got off at the first stop, only two hours into the journey. I was even luckier to have no one on to replace them. Therefore my eye-rolling at the lack of logic on the train ended as I was able to lie and sleep to the noise of a baby sucking on a middle-aged womans nipples.

As is inevitable when continuously going from air-conditioned transport to the baking heat of the sun whilst sleep deprived I developed a little bit of a cold. This meant that I arrived in Kunming with a bit of a runny nose. I hate having a runny nose.

Upon my arrival in Kunming I knew exactly what to expect from the city. As a result I didn’t let the people or the traffic bother me…much. I managed to get to the hostel in good time and get myself a nice rice based dinner. I came to the conclusion that my cold was an indication that my body wanted a rest and with my budget in mind I decided to have a chilled out evening with the cheap beer in the hostel and catch up on this blog…writing whilst traveling has become quite difficult.

26/07/2011: Day 16

So this day was my second day of travel back to where I came from. It’s fair to say the return journey doesn’t stimulate the same enthusiasm, fear or excitement that the original leg does. However, its something that had to be done in order to meet james, say goodbye to my loved ones in Foshan and Guangzhou and pick up the remainder of my luggage.

My first role of the day was to get up and unblock my nose. My pillow was covered in dribble because apparently I must sleep with my mouth open when I get the slightest bit of cold. I then used the spare hour and the good internet connection to add some photos to Facebook. Although I didn’t want to add to many (I have taken far too many on this trip). Much like my last experience of travelling, many of the photos go straight into the memory bank that is my external hard drive.

Once up and washed I decided to waste a little more time before, quite characteristically, leaving for the train station at a time that others would deem to be ‘pushing it’. Once day I will get caught out.

When I arrived at the train station I used the 10 minutes I had to spare to queue in a shop for tissues (for this nose problem) and a litre bottle of water. This items became significant later.

I then positioned myself on the top bunk sleeper I requested and mentally prepared myself for the 24 hour journey ahead. 24 hours on a train! In comparison the adventures and excitement of the last 16 days I was itching for some drama or activity…but its hard to find that on a train.

Instead I decided that it would an ideal time to catch up on my sleep so put my head down for a bit. The lad on the bed opposite me seemed like he had a similar idea. Then, just as the train was about to depart a group of chinese students took over the bunks below us. This would normally be great, but they were music students who are apparently in a very tone death choir. Nonetheless, I managed to get some sleep during the early afternoon (although time seemed to be lost on the train).

My packet of tissues contained 25 sheets. I worked out that this would allow me one tissue per hour with a few to spare for my morning toilet because of the hours that I was sleeping. (I was reading Around the World in 80 Days and decided to think like Phileas Fogg for the journey…sometimes I need to rely on my childlike imagination on lonesome long journeys). However, I woke up to find my tissues missing, a possession I valued more than my passport at that moment in time. As I scanned the area I spotted the tissues safely nestled on the table of the bottom bunks. I guessed they had fallen from my bed but were safe now. Then, out of the blue, one of the Chinese students removed one from the packet to wipe her apple. The cheek!. Then, if that wasn’t enough, 3 more students did exactly the same. I had lost 4 tissues in a matter of seconds because the thief’s have an irrational fear of dirty apples. Could they not have used one tissue to wash all the apples?

I guessed that it was an innocent error and tried to think of ways of getting them back without consulting a chinese phrasebook.I did not feel like befriending the crooks so got my spicy instant noodles and sat at the table below. The spice giving me an excuse to ask for a tissue. When I did so I hoped I would be greeted with ‘theyre actually yours’ but instead the response was ‘you can have one’. I asked for my own tissues! At this point I had given u and decided to use the two hours of battery life that my laptop had to offer. I placed my water under my seat as I used my laptop.

After two hours of laptop fun I felt a little thirsty but my water was not where I left it. I once again scanned the area and spotted my water beside one of the students…half full. I asked if it was mine and he said it might be and gave it back…it was mine. Within hours I had lost my tissues and most of my water…the students were not my friends.

Other than that, and I am not crazy, the journey was smooth and comfortable and I was able to catch up on my sleep. I actually really enjoy train travel in China, and some of the sights we passed through are nothing short of incredible. It will be great to share such sights with someone once James arrives. But for this trip I have loved being my own boss and met so many people along the way. I can’t wait to continue.

27/07/2011: Day 17

For a long time I had been dreading the 24 hour train journey back to Guangdong. However, given that I had a full night to sleep, the journey did not seem as epic as the number of hours suggested. In fact, when I woke at around 9am on the second day I felt back to full strength (even the runny nose was clear). The only thing I really needed was a shower.

I also discovered that the train would be stopping at Foshan before it arrived in Guangzhou. Thus, I was able to cut off half an hour of my journey and avoid a long and tiring metro ride home. In essence, just about everything about this trip had turned out for the best, as it normally does. I am beginning to believe that I may have mistaken good decision making with luck. There is no way so many things can go right for one person. Am I due for a big fall? I hope not.

Anyway, once off the train I got on the bus that I was familiar with and I began to feel like I was home. In fact, I surprised myself when that thought entered my head. When I frist arrived in Foshan in March with no job or money I would never have thought I would ever refer to it as home. But for now, and the next couple of days I will have to savour the city, and more importantly the people I have met within it.

So, my first stop was my old workplace; Sunshine Elite. Despite my dislike for the job and the principles of the school there were several people who I wanted to see before I left; especially Kiran and Carol. When I arrived I was met by Frank who offered to take me to a sushi lunch with Katrina. I agreed despite by smelliness, being one never to turn down free food. One the way we were lucky to bump into Kiran and we had a nice catch up over lunch. Despite the fact that I write about most of the things I do I find it very hard to talk about my adventures when people ask. Kiran was genuinely interested in where I had been and what I had done but I didn’t want to talk too much about it as I feel like I am bragging…of course I am nuts.

After a short stint in the bank where I tried to gain access to the deposit that I lost for my trip to Tibet I returned back to the apartment. Thankfully, for her nostrils, she was out. This meant I was able have a great shower and do some proper laundry (up until now I had been washing my clothes in the shower to save money by avoiding washing machines). I was then able to begin sorting out the clothes that have qualified for the next stage of travel. As it was still cold when i arrived in china I have several pairs of jeans and jumpers that have not been used for weeks. As a result I has been put in a bit of a dilemma; take all my winter clothes travelling and have a heavy bag or leave the clothes behind and have no winter clothing when I arrive in England in September. I decided that since I have had the same winter clothing for a few years (they call me Mr Fashion) it is about time I bought some new clothes. New sweaters for me this winter and a lighter bag…perfect.

I then used the remainder of my day to meet with Cameron (inevitably) and a few others for a few drinks. We met with Mike in Little Italy before Danny arrived with his 12 year old private student. The boy practised his English through a series of card tricks to 6 foreigners. He was great at both English and the card tricks. What was more amazing was the pride on his dads face at seeing his boy converse with so many foreigners with no problems. Perhaps what we teach these kids is rememebered…I hope so at least.

We ended the night playing pool with Fat Chris, Alice, Danny and Luping. Although no one appeared to be able to pot a ball. As a result we called it a night (except for a cheeky beer with Cameron at peasants). Little did I know that this was to be the last time I see Cameron in China. We hope to travel together sometime soon though.

28/07/2011: Day 18

Once again I had an unsuccessful meeting with the bank on this morning. It appears that the details I gave to the Tibetten agency for my refund were of my old account, which means the transfer got interrupted. This means it’s a race against time to set up a new transfer and receive the money before I leave China.

I couldn’t hang around banking all day though because I had arranged to meet my friend, Eliana, in Guangzhou. Eliana is a beautiful woman from Bolivia whose first language is spanish (sound familiar?). Naturally, having lived in China for a while, Eliana was an hour late for our scheduled meeting. Naturally I have come to expect this and wasn’t too bothered as Eliana is great company. We walked around for a while and got very wet when we got caught in a storm before we reached our destination…the brazilian restaurant in TianHe, Guangzhou. The south americans love their meat.

WoW! The food at Latinos was incredible and it’s always great to have bone-less meat served directly to the table…and there was a lot of meat. In fact we were in the restaurant so long that we were beginning to push it a bit fine for my return to the metro. It was important that I made the metro in time as I needed to see Cameron before he left for England, not only to say goodbye but to obtain the key to his apartment for me and James. What made this a little more difficult was that I still had no phone and thus not means of contacting him.

As it turned out we arrived at the metro station too late to return. Not the end of the world but it would have been nice to see Cameron before I left. Quite kindly, Eliana allowed me to stay at hers despite her electricity being cut off (she was all packed to leave for Shanghai on business in the morning and so didn’t need to pay for any more electricity).

So, despite not being the most eventful day it was nice to experience one last meal in Guangzhou before James arrived. But being in Guangzhou meant I had a busy morning ahead of me.

29/07/2011: Day 19

Since I was now in Guangzhou I had a very busy morning if I intended to do all that I needed in and still meet James at 1pm back in Guangzhou.

Therefore I left with Eliana to head for the metro to Foshan (she apparently needed to have her nails done before her flight which, in keeping with her laid back nature, she later missed). This was around 6:30 which meant I could reach Foshan at 8am. I think I slept through most of the metro journey as I can’t remember much of it. Perhaps all my Guangzhou-Foshan metro trips have blended into one mish mash of Chinese noise. Thankfully I was able to remember the way to Cameron’s apartment without having to contact him. When I did I managed to get through the security and knock hard in the hope of waking him up. No matter how hard I knocked I got no answer. As it turned out he and his girlfriend had already left and my chinese friend, Alice, had the key. Since she had nowhere to stay it was probably best that she had the apartment over the summer as I only need it for two days.

I then returned to the apartment to have a much-needed shower and to pack my bag for the day (a book and the laptop because I knew James would not turn up at 1pm). Still tired and feeling a little fragile I got on the Guangzhou-Foshan bus. I just did not fancy returning the way I came. I had promised to meet Judy before I left, although I had quite a bit to do…she wouldnt take no for an answer. I met her at 11am, as previously arranged and we ate some noodles. I desperately needed a haircut and had intended to have one before I met James. But apparently Judy was intending to stay with us all day (and had even bought James a birthday present, and forgotten it…Chinese).

So I now had a companion for the bar that I had arranged to meet James in. I arrived at 1pm, as promised and we sat with a beer in hand (this bar has happy hour all day…if James was to be too late it could have been fatal). Judy decided to order some sandwiches despite having just eaten. What annoyed me more was that she didn’t intend to pay for it and I didn’t want any….nor did she. So some sandiwiches sat awkwardly on the table for a while whilst I questioned why they were there. In actual fact though, I was quite pleased to have some company whilst I waited for James as we were there until about 5pm before he arrived.

JAMES ARRIVED! My two worlds meet! It was very surreal to see James of Torquay arrive in Guangzhou, China. The first thing that I noticed, as with all subsequent people today, was his height. James is a tall boy. It was great to see him.

We sat and caught up over a beer, which he appeared to need. I was so glad, and quite relieved, to hear that his first impressions of China and the Chinese people fascinated him. I was worried that the differences would just appear trivial to him. However, his first encounter was a bus driver hitting his own bus with a hammer…good.

After a beer or two Judy decided to join some other friends in Guangzhou. I think she left quite an impression on James. Both me and James stayed for about an hour after her departure.

Then, with the time in mind, we both got on the metro to Foshan. James, as expected, was greeted with ‘woooow’ or ‘so tall’ from the Chinese. He, like Iain, is more of a freak than me and it means the attention on me is reduced 😦

This journey was a little more entertaining that the normal metro trips. This is probably because I was trying to see China through James’ eyes. Its amazing.

We managed to reach the apartment at around 8:30 and James was introduced to Danny and Simba introduced himself to James, much to James’ displeasure.

After a quick shower and refresh I took James out for a Chinese dinner not too far from the apartment. I wanted James to experience some of the great food the Cantonese offer but was unsure about how his tastbuds would react. Luckily he seemed to love the flavours and he, like me, fell in love with the fried dumplings. I was a little afraid that James’ first chinese meal would turn out to be my last. We have a few days to ease my fears.

We were now full and satisfied. But James could not leave Foshan without visiting peasants, the bar offering 30p beers. We sat there for a while before joining some others in Lazy Mamas. There, as if James hadn’t had a long enough day in a crazy new country, we went to Grammys, the club not far from the apartment. Here, with Alice, Ali and some others we stayed for a while but decided to call it a night quite early given the length of both our days. This did not stop James handing out a few business cards to drooling Chinese girls. One in particular seemed quite keen on the tall man.

I think it would be fair to say that James’s first day in China was very eye-opening for him. He was certainly enjoying the attention on him.

30/07/2011: Day 20

Starting today I have 2 full days to show James Guangzhou and Foshan. And I hadn’t really prepared anything to show him.

Despite my inability to play host we made our way to Guangzhou by bus (this being the day that we had chosen to visit Guangzhou). We didn’t arrive until around lunch time so my first duty was to recommend somewhere to eat. Starting as we mean to go on I suggested the muslim noodles…where else. I particularly wanted to take James to one of these as I find the way they make the noodles from scratch with their bare hands in front of you fascinating. Thankfully, also, the noodles never disappoint.

James seemed to enjoy the food despite getting most of the sauce down his white top, but his chopstick are far better than mine were a couple of days in. After lunch we walked around a settlement on the outskirts of a busy shopping area. I lead us both to a dead end.

Following that we walked along the artificial canal towards Changshou Lu (I wanted to show him how busy that street can get). I also intended to show him the food market containing dogs etc, but I couldn’t recall it from the map in my memory.

After what had been quite a bit of walking we got the metro to TianHe, the centre and most expensive area in Guangzhou. Here I intended to visit Tony for the last time before our departure. I was quite disappointed to find that he wasn’t inside his apartment. Of course if I hadn’t lost my mobile I would have known. Instead I left 3 postcards and a book on his doorstep. I thought Tony might enjoy the book and the postcards might be of interest to his classes. James, however, felt that it was a bit creepy to leave random items on a doorstep with no forewarning. Tony later confirmed his confusion.

Given that we were in TianHe and James was sporting a Chinese shirt (albeit covered in sauce) we decided to go to the stadium. As we got to the correct station we noticed that several shops had been shut down and all the interior removed. It seemed as though the chinese public feel this is an invitation to sign the walls and write love notes. James, quite predictably, wrote ‘Birmingham’ as high up the wall as he could.

We then arrived at the stadium but were denied entry. As a consolation there were a group of martial artists performing whatever martial art they specialise in. As we walked around the stadium James noticed a few basketball courts and expressed hs desire to give it a go. We both went in and watched a bunch of chinese lads play basketball for a while. After a few minutes we plucked up the courage to ask them if we could play for a bit. They jumped at the chance and were a bit giggly, as can be expected, about playing with foreigners. I am rubbish at basketball, James is not…it showed. We only played for a few minutes but James described playing basketball in China (the place of Yao Ming’s birth) as ‘a box ticked’. It was a first for me too.

From there we needed to get to line 5 of the metro before we could head home. With a desire to avoid using the metro as much as possible I suggested we embark upon a half hour walk to the nearest line 5 metro stop. This happened to be Zhujiang New Town, the stop I first chose as an experiment on my first week. We walked for a while and got some steamed dumplings (not as nice as fried) and made our way towards the TV tower. However, we wer initially walking at a leisurely pace but the sky began to make noises.It seems as though storms give quite a bit of warning before they arrive here. Nonetheless, we were still quite a distance from the metro.

Thankfully we made it back in time and were even able to take a couple of pictures. I avoided having any more pictures with the tower as I defiantly have been too many times. As soon as we hit the metro station the rain arrived. It was almost as if the storm had waited for us to become sheltered….thank you storm.

We then made our return journey to Foshan, knackered. This was to be my last visit to Guangzhou and there was a small part of me that felt I hadn’t given it a proper goodbye. The rest of me realised that Guangzhou is a city not a person.

Despite our late arrival I insisted that I took Danny out for one last meal before we leave. She has been my saviour since I arrived in Foshan and the least I could do for her was to buy a pizza. I decided to take her to the Little Italy in the hope that I could also get the chance to say bye to some friends, many of whom regularly eat there. was still quite surprised that she accepted.

When we walked into the restaurant I was amazed that loads of people I had hoped to see were there, including Kiran, Kat, Miguel and Danny (other Danny). Despite their myself and James stayed with Danny (my Foshan mum Danny). We both shared a pizza whilst James ate a tiny bit of pasta. I think he regretted that order. I think Danny appreciated the meal and for the first time since I knew her she started to tell me what she felt about my late nights or nights I didn’t return. It appeared that she quite encouraged it, whereas I had spent the last 4 months pretending I had come home earlier than I did and tiptoeing around.

Danny retired home after dinner but Myself and James continued to meet up with Kiran and the others at Lazy Mamas. It is not my favourite place in the world but since there were people there I felt it necessary to visit once more. We then went with a couple of others to Grammys, again not my favourite venue. James, however, was having a great time and I believe he was falling in love with everything Chinese (including the women). This was especially evident when he was trying to put a cardboard box on their heads.

31/07/2011: Day 21

My original intention for this day was to show James the city of Foshan. However there were two things in the way; 1. there is not much in the way of ‘things to seen’ in Foshan 2. the things that can be seen I have already seen at least once.

As a result we took up on a drunken offer from the girls the night before…to go for a massage. Never a dull moment at a chinese massage, especially if the client is 6ft 7in. As both Kiran and Sarah were having pedicures in the morning, myself and James decided it would be best to give that a miss and pack. Once that was done I returned to Sunshine Elite to show James the school and hope that I could bump into Carol one last time.Unfortunatly Carol was not working and I had to make a final conversation with Frank. Hes a nice guy despite not being a nice boss.

It was then time…massage time. We met with Kiran and Sarah as planned and made our way to the parlour. Both myself and James didn’t really know what to expect. Once inside we were separated from the girls and placed in our own room beside each other….let the awkwardness begin.

First, a small woman walked into the room and approached James’ bed. She told him to remove his shoes, thus revealing his veruka. Then, by a stroke of luck, a slightly more attractive woman came to do the same to me. Both woman then started to punch our feet like it is the most normal thing one human can do to another. From this we should have realised that it was to be no ordinary massage.

Once again I had allowed my feet to get quite dirty…which meant I had the embarrassment of having them cleaned before the masseuse went any further.

Myself and James lay on adjacent beds watching a friendly match between Man Utd and Barcelona…as if coordinating both our masculine and feminine sides. However, things became a little awkward as our little chinese ladies began caressing our calves, and then our thieghs in the full view of the other. Of course, once the theighs were nicely caressed and relaxed both women would then beat each leg individually.

During this time I found the only way to hide/mask my embarrassment was to laugh or make conversation with my lady. As she spoke no english I tried out my chinese and tried to find out her age (how rude of me). I guessed that she was about 23 given her fresh face and cute manner. She then revealed that she was 40 and had a young daughter. Both me and James refused to believe this throughout our ordeal.

In fact, as if the beating of our feet and legs wasn’t bad enough, both women tried their best to make us scream with pain as they worked their way up our bodies. Of course we got dozens of punches in our arms and our fingers crushed and pulled…but who wants to relax during a massage?

The beatings got more and more brutal (excepted when she rubbed her hair in my palm…that was weird) but the worst was yet to come. We were turned onto our backs and beaten again, this time with our heads in a pillow. Both women then decided their hands were not adequate enough to complete their jobs so stood up on the bed and walked up and down our spines. Of course they made sure they hit the spots that made us cry out in pain. What made this more terrifying was that the football had already finished and we had no idea how much time we had remaining being beaten by women….plenty was the answer.

Next we had to sit on the end of the bed crossed legged. This is a position I associate with meditation, and therefore peace. However the pretty women who were seeking to destroy us then, quit out of the blue, performed some sort of wrestling move on us to get us into a position that made us beg for mercy. to create a picture; James’ masseur was probably about 5ft 3in and perhaps wieghed 40kg. She was on her back and lifting a 6ft 7in man twice her weight in the air using only her legs. It was incredible to see and had us all in fits of laughter…including the women. I think the fact that we were laughing and joking indicated that we were enjoying the brutality so they continued to try all their moves on us. My favourite probably being the ‘back-breaker’…one can imagine.

It turned out that we had actually paid for 118 minutes of ‘massage’ but the women finished a few minutes early. Mine decided to use this time to play with and tickle the hairs on my stomach…a bit weird. Eventually it was over. Despite the beating I definitely felt better for it and in truth found it quite an enjoyable and memorable experience. I think James did too.

On return to the apartment we were greeted with what has become one of my favourite smells in the world…Danny’s Homemade Dumplings! And she knows it! She wanted to cook some for my last meal with her. Shes an amazing woman! Who else would allow a smelly, disorganised and excitable young Englishman for such a long time? I owe her so much. This time I think I enjoyed the dumplings more than I ever did before. Danny had even cooked too many so that we would have some for the train. Sticking by what is expected of me, I left them behind.

So , after dinner and a quick shower it was time to leave Danny’s apartment for the last time. I know that I will miss her and Momo and I know that she now considers me one of her family, Therefore saying good bye to her was actually quite hard. I owe her so much and hope I can stay in contact. It felt so weird to think I may never return to the place I have called home. Even writing about it now I realise how much has been done in the last 5 months and how it would not have been done without Danny. Big thanks to her!

We then arrived at the train station where we waited for our boarding. Naturally we were made a fuss of for being foreign. I think people would kick off in England if the Chinese got preferential treatment. .

Anyway, boarding the train meant my Guangdog experience was once again over…but I said that last time. Will I be back? who knows. All I know is that I wouldn’t change a moment of this experience either.

We then had a sleeper train to Nanning accompanied by a Nanning under 12 girls football team…giggling away at the foreigners and contriving english sentences between them. Still, we were able to have a good rest after being bullied by small chinese masseuse. Good bye Guangdong….Hello next leg of the journey.

China II: Week 17


18/07/2011: Day Eight

Once again I woke up in a soft mattress bed and found it hard to remove myself from it. But, with the incentive of another, supposedly more fascinating, minority village I made it out of bed before I could be labelled as ‘lazy’.

up, showered and shaved (yes, I shave) I made my way on foot to the bus station, of course preferring to walk than pay for anything. Once I did arrive it seemed as though the buses to the village were less frequent than I first thought and I was required to wait over an hour for the next bus. Luckily I was told about this when I arrived so took the opportunity to wander around the nearby streets. In this time I stumbled across a market. It was dirty and fly ridden but it was clear the majority of the stall owners were minority people and the meat and vegetables that they were selling were the produce of their individual villages. I was a little put off from the meat by the flies but the Chinese didn’t seem too bothered…they can’t all be disease ridden then. In the middle of the market it seemed as though a house was being built or re-built. I have seen how quickly China is developing and from the effort these men and women were putting into their work I can see how this is happening.

Anyway, I eventually got on the bus after strolling through the car park looking for a bus that matched the chinese characters on my ticket, that of ZiJiang. Once aboard, some 15 minutes early, the driver proceeded to drive away. Despite the fact that we were early every seat on the bus was taken so there was no need to wait for the alloted time. For once I agreed with a Chinese policy.

On the bus I spotted Blonde hair. I had not seen a white person since I left Zhangjiajie on Day 4 (apart from a strange Frenchman in Fenghuang), so the blonde hair made me double-take. The long pony-tailed hair belonged to a 50 year old glaswegian man called Bob who lives in Goa. Automatically I was interested in the fellow. After exchanging the normal ‘where are you from?’, ‘where are you going?’ conversation we agreed to explore the village together. I was glad of the company.

When we arrived a notice on the wall of the village stated ‘the entrance fee is $100 but each person receives a 60% discount’…China. Anyway, it turns out that this notice is ignored and the entry fee to a VILLAGE is $100 (£10). One can only hope all of that money goes to the villagers, but somehow I doubt it. Luckily for me I had a student card so only paid a childs price, Bob was not so lucky.

The first thing we found when we arrived was a youth hostel, for him not me, and he dropped his luggage in the room before we began to explore the village. Unlike the village from yesterday, this one has many more tourist. Zijiang is renowned for having 1000 Miao houses and thus 5000 Miao inhabitants. It’s far to say the site of so many buildings was spectacular, even from afar. Once we got closer to the buildings it became even more interesting. We walked along the tourist street packed full of Chinese tourists and we could have been in any other place in China. As a result we decided to divert away from the people and enter the ‘real’ village. We strolled up steps and observed the frail looking structures that these people call home. The further we got away from the people the more interesting it became, to the point where we came across some women practising their embroidery and a man repairing his dampened home (these house don’t appear to be built to last). Walking a long time and admitting that we did not know where we were heading, nor did we want to return down the same route we carried on going. It was soon after that we came across ‘the lovers area’; a small mound enveloped by overlooking trees which appeared to be a place where the Miao teenagers date, if such a thing is allowed to happen. I was aware that I was in the company of a ponnytailed scotsman at this point, but wasn’t that scared. From this point we were able to work our way back down through a different, more green route.

Bob decided he wanted rice and only rice so we went in search of this. I made a point of buying some local street food (as I try to in each place) but could not finish what was essentially a ball of unbaked dough. we managed to find some rice and were joined by a local Miao lady who loudly ate her rice beside me with her legs wide open…locals eh.

I had been told that the last bus to Kaili left Zijiang at around 3pm. I was a little disappointed by this as I didn’t think I had seen all of the village. Although I was also not envious of Bob as I felt a whole day and night in the village would have been too much. When I got to the entrance I was told to wait 10 minutes by the lady who robbed us earlier. Instead of waiting I decided to get some photos of locals in their gear…and succeeded.

As I was waiting for the bus a local man approached and asked me something in chinese. I told him I did not understand and he took that as a direct criticism of his mandarin and got embarrassed (as its not his first language). Of course it was my lack of chinese that caused the misunderstanding. As a result he got some chalk and wrote what he wanted to say in chinese charectors….again that didn’t help. In the end I got on the bus and we went our separate ways.

Thankfully a bus did arrive at 3pm and I was able to hop on board and sleep all the way back (once again missing out on all the scenery). Thankfully, also, I was back well in time for my train and was able to return to my hostel to pick up my backpack and access their computer for information about a Kunming hostel.

As I was about to leave Rax, the hostel manager, approached me and offered a gift. It was a bracelet/necklace/ankle bracelet. It appears that the chinese like giving me jewelery now. I got the impression that Rax was more than happy to have a foreigner stay at his hostel and wanted to be a great host. He succeeded. I graciously took it and strapped it to my ankle.

In good time I was able to get the bus to the bus station and board by train without a problem. Once on the train and in my bed I was able to sleep most of the night in anticipation for my very early arrival in Kunming.

19/07/2011: Day Nine

I arrived bright and early in Kunming, but I wasn’t feeling so bright. The sleeper trains are good and exciting but I never seem to wake up without a stiff neck or limb. Can’t complain though, China train travel is 10 times better than that of England.

The one thing that is wrong with Chinese train travel though is that so many people use it. From what I have learned before I thought it best to get my onward train tickets prior to leaving the train station. After joining and completing a long queue (for this time in the morning) I was disappointed told that there would be no trains to Dali available for the next couple of days. I knew there were other options and this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

I had written directions to the hostel and was able to walk quite easily to the bus stop, travel 10 minutes before spotting the sign for my hostel. All was looking promising. Once inside it was confirmed to me that they had received my hostel booking and that I could stay the night. However, when I enquired with them about bus tickets to Dali it appeared that there was a sleeper bus that left that night that I could board. Without hesitation I asked if they could book this bus for me and cancel my dorm booking, saving me money on a hostel bed in Kunming. This, once again appeared to be a blessing in disguise. I was also able to pre-order my train ticket Guangzhou for the 26th July.

With the onward transport all sorted I showered and was once again smelling lovely and wide awake. I wrote down a recommended places to visit in Kunming and went about trying to find them.

There is one thing that all westerners experience when they stay in China for long periods of time…bad China moments. Luckily for me they are few and far between, and for some they last days or even weeks. On this very morning I had one (although it lasted only a couple of hours). Kunming was very sunny so everyone held their umbrellas at my eye level, every person decided to walk slower than is humanly possible, no one showed the sense to move down the bus to let others on, people spat on the floor before begging me for money, and most of all there were too many people in cars they could not drive…it was as frustrating trying to walk down a slow-moving umbrella street as it was stood on a sweaty bus watching Chinese drivers try to cut each other up in order to delay themselves. anyway, any other time these things are a source of entertainment, but on this very day I found it incredibly annoying.

Luckily for me my bus stopped at a massive and beautiful lake. Here I was able to lie down and forget about my ‘bad China moment’ for a while. All was well when I walked across dozens of families having BBQ’s beside the lake. This area was civilised in a city of dolts.

Once I had seen all I could of the lake and the surrounding area I decided to take an additional bus to the West Hill, another place of natural beauty in Kunming. I arrived at a cable car terminal where I reluctantly paid the £3 fee for admission and got ready to jump in the next car. Since I was entering at the halfway point the car already had a family in it. They were over the moon to be joined by a foreigner, especially a man named Erik (an english speaking pilot from Gansu province). He was joined by his very young girlfriend, and his parents. He revealed that he was visiting Kunming through work but with his parents to meet his girlfriends parents, a big step.

As soon as we got to the top via cable car I expected to part from Erik and his family but they instantly invited me to join them for lunch. I, pretty hungry and eager for something like that to happen sat with them in a restaurant. His mother was a christian and quite interested in my views on god despite having no english to talk with me about it, his father seemed to be the real ‘man’ of the family in that he said nothing, smoked and paid for the meal. His girlfriend wore a top with an english sentence that made no sense, which is the purest indication that she cannot speak or read english. Anyway, we had a pleasant meal filled with veg, beef, fish, chicken and complete with rice. A proper chinese meal.

After lunch we walked to the top of the hill but didn’t really notice the sights as myself and Erik were quite engaged in conversation. His english was ok but he was very interested to know about english culture and portrayed a dislike of ‘Arrogant Americans’.

we got to the top and were asked to pay another $50 to go any further. Thankfully the family refused and we headed back to the cable car. Once back I was asked to pay another £3 to get on…was it not a return ticket??? And I had banked on today being a good day for my budget.

Nonetheless, I managed to say my goodbyes to Erik and his family and head back to the hostel for a rest before my overnight train. Despite my annoyances at the beginning of the day my day with Erik and his family had made my Kunming experience a lot better. Although Kunming is not likely to be on my ‘favourite cities’ list (should I ever make one).

I will end today with a taxi journey to the bus station for my midnight excursion to Dali.

20/07/2011: Day 10

Once again I appeared to be the last passenger on the bus despite being over 20 minutes early, but once again this meant the bus was able to depart earlier than scheduled.

Despite all travelling I have done in China this was my first sleeper bus, and I was pleasantly surprised at the efficiency of the layout. There were three rows of three-tiered bunk-beds stretching the length of the coach. My guess is that there were nearing 100 people sleeping on the bus. Despite not being the tallest person in the world I was a little too big for my bed. It was clear that by compensating a couple of inches on each bed more beds could be laid in. However, I was quite tired and happily slept the whole of the 4 hour journey.

Once we did arrive I feared that i would have nothing to do until the public buses started running. However, after a big fat man had got on the bus and done some shouting we were left to sleep in our beds in the car park until 6.30am. It was an act of generosity I was quite in favour of.

As 6.30am came we were booted off the bus and I was once again left to my own devices. I decided to buy my ticket to Lijiang and booked a bus for 7.30pm the next evening (expecting another overnight bus…I was wrong). I then got the public bus to the Dali old town and kept an eager eye out for the street which was supposed to hold my hostel. When I couldn’t find the road I decided to ask a local and spotted a woman over the road. I crossed the road with the intent of asking for directions but as soon as I said ‘Ni Hao’ her eyes swelled with fear and she sprinted in the opposite direction. I couldn’t hep but laugh with embarrassment and decided that I shall remove my glasses before asking anyone else for directions. As I turned a man took a photo of me.

It turned out that the hostel was only 5 minutes walk away anyway. I was required to wait until 8am to book-in and had to wait in anticipation as I had not booked a room. Thankfully there was a dorm bed available for me. It was then that I was told that the bus to Lijang will only take 3.5 hours. Arriving in a strange town at 11pm was not what I desired. So I made it a priority to have my ticket changed before the day was out.

Once checked in I washed myself and hand washed my clothes (saving me £1). it was only then that I was ready to explore Dali, a place I had heard such great things about. As I was aware that changing my bus ticket would limit me to just a day and a half in Dali I decided to hire a bike in order to see things more quickly. I actually quite enjoyed riding the bike, much like I had in Hangzhou in January. There were a couple of differences though; it was summer now and I was 2000m above sea level. This meant that on top of the baking heat I was also breathless quite often…making me feel quite unfit. After riding for a while and often getting myself lost I headed south towards one of the surrounding mountains. I found it quite a shame that I had such a limited time in Dali as there seemed a lot more to see than capable in 2 days. Upon my return from the mountain and up a steep hill I hit a dirt path that seemed void of any people, yet a pagoda was visible at the top. I walked the bike to the top (woman?) and came across a fence that told me the area was under construction and people were not permitted to enter. I, having climbed the path and sweated bucketloads in doing so was not going to let a fence stop me seeing the pagoda. Assuming it was safe to leave the bike unattended for a couple of minutes I climbed the fence and entered the area surrounding the Pagoda. I have seen many Pagodas in my time in China but a little act of rebellion made this one a little more exciting.

I then returned to explore more of the old city and was really happy to come across some really nice streets and it seemed to me that people had been justified in telling me to spend more time in Dali than in Kunming.

Whilst on my bike I had noticed several restaurants offering Yak steak…I made it my mission to find oe of these places again in the evening. I found one not far from the hostel and was surprised to see swedish families on my left and right. In fact, Dalis climate and traditional appeal make it quite an attraction to westerners. I still don’t know why there were so many Scandinavians there though. Anyway, this meant that for the first time in a couple of weeks people were not staring at me and it was quite funny to see men try to slyly take pictures of the swedish girls beside me, I think they quite enjoyed it though. This meant I could pick my nose without being watched.

I ordered my steak and the cynic in me decided it was just cow beef labelled as Yak to be sold. Of course I decided the restaurateur was honest. It was only around 8pm when I had finished dinner and returned to the hostel. I felt it was a little too early for bed and didn’t want to spend too much money outside. Then something hit me…my feet. For a long time now my feet have been mistreated. I have walked everywhere whilst in Foshan and continued this habit whilst travelling. This means that not only are they showing signs of wear-and-tear (flaky dead skin and numerous cuts) but they are also very dirty.

I then headed out to find the cheapest foot massage I could find, as a reward to my feet. I refuse to let anyone touch my feet as I am incredibly ticklish, so I needed a couple of beers before going for a message. Luckily I found a place that steamed my feet. It was really hot and didn’t feel like it was doing anything beneficial, but I took their word for it. After half an hour with my feet under steam the masseur returned with a towel to dry my feet. This is where it got embarrassing: as she dried my feet her white towel turned almost completely black…my feet were incredible dirty (I do shower at least once a say…I promise). I then left the parlour with the feeling that I had rewarded my feet for their hard work despite not feeling any obvious benefit from the experience.

I then hit the bed with clean feet and a sun burnt face, thankfully I had purchased a cheeky sun hat for the coming days.

21/07/2011: Day 11

In the knowledge that I would now be leaving Dali at 3pm I motivated myself for a very early start to see the remainder of the old town. This also meant that I had to concede that was not going to see the majority of the attractions in Dali. But the Tiger Leaping Gorge near Lijiang awaits.

My first stop was the famous 3 pagoda palace on the outskirts of the old town. I managed to find it quite easily on foot, whereas I struggled on my bike. Once I arrived I noticed that the entrance price was $120 for adults and $60 for students. The cashier accepted my student card but I still refused to pay the entry fee with my tightening budget in mind. Instead I decided to take a picture from the outside, which looked as good as those in the brochures. I felt rather schrewed about my decision not to pay.

As I continued walking I popped into a shop to buy some much-needed water. Near the fridge were some MP3 players. I promised myself one for my birthday to upload my chinese cds onto to listen whilst on the road. And these were the cheapest I had found…at about £7. I decided to buy one, justifying it by my refusal to pay for the three pagodas.

satisfied with my purchase I continued around the old town and stopped in a street with fewer people for a cheeky beer. I then went to a restaurant for some fried noodles where I was joined for lunch by once of the waiters. It was clear that he is interested in the people who enter his restaurant.

When I felt I had seen enough of the old town and my face had seen enough of the sun I retreated to the dorm to finish packing up and upload the chinese cds to my new MP3. I was surprised to see that it appeared to have had a previous owner. o well, still worked…for now.

The journey to Lijiang was supposed to take 3.5hours but I was lucky enough to get the worlds slowest coach with a driver that couldn’t locate his accelerator. This meant the journey took closer to 6 hours and I arrived in Ljiaing an hour after I told the hostel to hold my room until. Despite having information on public buses I decided I should probably catch a taxi to save time. £ consecutive taxis told me they didn’t know the place I wanted to go, but I assume that it was my pronunciation that they could not understand as when a local came to my aid a driver understood him immediately.

Thankfully I arrived at the hostel at around 10pm and they had held onto the bed for me. The hostess was incredibely hosptiable. It turned out she was a volunteer at the hostel and I guess she was desgnated there to practise her english.

Despite the late hour I was quite hungry and headed out to pick up some food. After walking a while it seemed the only food availiable was street food. I came accross a buffet style stand where I had to pick which uncooked scewers of meat I wanted to be cooked. As it was quite late I questions how long the meat had been left out….but ate it anyway. They tried to offer me the uncooked pig brain…I didn’t feel like I could stomach that.

When I returned to the hostel I made the decision that I would go to the tiger leaping gorge early in the morning (my desired destination) and thus leave a day at the end to experience Lijiang. My reasoning for this decision was that the weather had been good for the days I had been in Yunnan and I had been told that heavy rain would mean people were blocked from the gorge out of fear of a landslide. As a result I thought I should go as soon as possible as heavy rain tomorrow may prevent me from doing the trek at all.

22/07/2011: Day 12

Once again, as can now be expected, I had an early start. This time I needed to get to the bus station as soon as possible in order to reach the Tiger Leaping Gorge in good time. The Lonely Planet states that this is the best trek in China, and I was about to find out for myself. It turned out that my departure was before the reception at the hostel opened so I left my bedding, big bag and a note on the front desk. The note stated that I will return to the hostel after my trek ad asked them to look after my bag (including my laptop) and my deposit during this time.

Despite making the bus station in good time I was told that there were no tickets for the early buses. This meant that I had to wait for the 9am bus. Since the journey from Lijiang is 3 hours I feared that I would be losing valuable daylight trekking time. I needn’t have worried since I am now so far west that the daylight lasts a lot longer (we are still on Beijing time despite being in a different time-zone).

Without further issues I boarded the bus bound for the Tiger Leaping Gorge and was positioned beside a 17 year old local girl who immediately fed me several dried fruits that she had bought for her journey but evidently wanted to share. She could not speak English which gave me the opportunity to practise my basic Chinese. She later tried to read my english book and managed quite well. She had very dirty fingernails.

The journey was quite bumpy but did not seem to take the 3 hours I was promised, thankfully. Once I disembarked from the coach I realised that a group of Chinese friends had gathered beside it. I asked where they got their gorge map and they responded by asking me what trek I was doing. For the tiger gorge there are 2 treks. The low (easier) trek which is not quite as scenic, physically challenging, dangerous or rewarding as the high trek. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that they wer intending to do the high trek. I had been told that most chinese people tend to avoid this. I immediately agreed to join them on the trek as I was fully prepared to perform the walk alone, but I really wanted to share the experience was some people.

We started the trek, followed by locals on horses. I asked why they were following us and was told that we would need the horses when we couldn’t walk any further. At this point I was not sure if I was mentally or physically prepared for this kind of trek.

Shortly after we began the walk the sights became incredible. First glimpse of the gorge was incredible, but every step we took higher created and even better looking view. At several points the walk was close to the cliff face, which was slightly scary but added to the immense view of both the gorge and its surrounding mountains. After a couple of hours we came to the ’28 bends’. This had been described as the hardest part of the whole trek and it was easy to see why. The winding paths up a steep rocky hill made for regular rest stops in the burning heat. I could not believe that a couple of my companions refused to remove their long sleeve shirts out of fear of the ‘poisonous’ sun….but they didn’t get burnt. I was enjoying the company of the chinese a lot and found out that they were all from Guangdong and had met each other on the train from Guangzhou to Kunming. One was from Zhuhai, another from Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Foshan. It was a strike of luck that we had all found each other.

Despite the tough climb I did begin to feel we were stopping a little too often. I am a lot fitter than I was a few months ago, but not quite as fit as I think I should be. But on several occasions I had to fake breathlessness as not to appear arrogant. Still, we kept at it and were eventually greeted by a Naxi family who had turned there home into a rest stop for hungry walkers. I was more than happy to consume as much rice as they would give me.

After lunch we came across one of the top viewing spots of the whole gorge only to find a local keeping a watchful eye that we took no pictures and asking for $8 if anyone took one. This was slightly frustrating but we decided not to anger him and forgot about the pictures.

As we were walking along the bends a democratic decision was made to use the horses that were following us. A fee was agreed with the owners and we agreed to take it in turns to use the 3 horses between 6 of us. However, I agreed to pay the fee but told them I did not want to use the horse. The tiger leaping gorge had been my target since I set off and I wanted to test myself by completing the trek on foot. The others acknowledged my desires but couldn’t help but feel that they thought I was a bit weird (or scared of horses).

Eventually we made it to the end of the 28 bends and the trek eased off a bit, becoming a little easier. A few more hours of trekking as the sun began to set made for interesting conversation, sing-songs and generally a fantastic time with nature (I’m 22). At around 8pm, 8 hours after we began, we reached our intended location for the night. This had taken a little longer than we were told, probably because of our several rests, but I was so glad it did. The fact that we stopped so often meant I was able to properly take in all of the sights and appreciate the area I was in. I believe that if I had done the trek alone I may have done it with my head down and with time on my mind. I loved the relaxed and patience of my new friends.

Once in the hostel myself and the 3 boys booked into a room with 3 beds. Instead of deciding who would share with who we pushed all three beds together and decided that it created sufficient room for 4 people. we then ordered some dinner and sat watching the static mountains with a nice cold beer. Bliss. The food was incredible, the company fantastic and the views breathtaking. Perhaps it couldn’t get better? It did. At around 10:30 when everyone had finished eating and had drunk a couple of beers the hotel turned off al its lights. Initially we didn’t know why but then one person looked at the sky. We all followed and saw something truly wonderful. The whole sky was lit up with stars…I have never seen so many lights in the sky. It felt like I was in a dome with glow-in-the-dark stickers on the roof. People claimed to see shooting stars but I just stood with my head in the sky watching the stars sparkle. For perhaps an hour we sat looking at the stars and saying very little that resembled words; ‘waaaa’ being the most popular. How could Guangdong have one star on a good day and the Tiger Leaping Gorge have hundreds? I’m not a star expert.

Anyway this was a perfect way to end a perfect day. The tiger leaping gorge was making me feel like I had chosen the correct final destination for my trip away.

23/07/2011: Day 13

We had agreed to begin the 2nd day of trekking at 8am. Naturally I woke up early and managed to shower in front of the mountains. The two girls in our company managed to do the same, but the boys were not so eager…one in particular. This lad, Richard, had drunk quite a lot of river water the day before and was beginning to feel its effects in the morning.

Despite this he managed to get himself up and by 8:30am we were back on the move. Today the walk became a little more dangerous; with several waterfalls and walks very close to the cliff face, just a slip away from a very high fall. On two occasions we were passed by a herd of goats. I felt that it would only take one to go a little crazy and kncok my off the cliff. Thankfully they were kind goats. Richard, however, decided enough was enough and we didn’t want to hold us up. After about an hour of trekking he told us he would return to the hostel to try to sleep off his illness. It was probably the best thing for him.

Soon the cliff faces disappeared and we entered a forest area. Here we came across 3 westerners that Had also stayed in our hostel. In fact, everyone we saw on the trek, of which there were few, were not Chinese. I seemed to be in the only Chinese majority group on the trek. At this point they were deciding upon a route to take. One was pathed, the other was not but had an arrow suspiciously painted on a rock. They decided to continue along the path but myself and my adventurous new friends decided to explore the other ‘route’. Initially I felt that we had probably made the wrong choice but I soon realised that it was leading to the same destination but through the undergrowth rather than on the path. We were officially ‘off the beaten track’ and I loved it. We didn’t see anyone for perhaps 3 hours and this made all of us quite exited about our walk. As we descended down the mountain in our mission towards the water of the gorge we had to watch our step intently. At one pint we stopped for a rest only for Jimmy to realise that he had left his hat some 30 minutes up the mountain. No one really wanted to be hatless in this heat and at this altitude. Stupidly (I am not Superman) I volunteered to return to our last rest stop to retrieve his hat. The girls were more than happy to rest and Dan, the only non english speaker didn’t mind a bit of shade. I began my ascent by running but the heat took its toll on me within minutes. Instead I took up a swift pace back up the mountain and had to take my shirt off to allow it to dry from the sweat. I don’t know if I have ever experience heat and a need for water like it. Perhaps 15 minutes after I left the rest stop I reached his hat sitting happily on a rock. It actually felt so rewarding to re-reach the location and find the hat. My own little mission. The trek back down with no bag or shirt was much easier than the previous and I managed to reach the others quite quickly for some water….oh I needed water.

We then managed to stop for some lunch which took longer than we wanted to cook. But thankfully the lunch stop was near the entrance to the final leg of the trek to the tiger leaping stone. I was interested to see that there were many chinese tourists around this area and didn’t know where they came from. it was revealed that there were coach trips to this part of the trek so that the people could get to the tiger leaping stone. This annoyed me a little as, as with all Chinese tourist destinations, there were too many people. We went from seeing next to nobody all morning to being held up by women in flip-flops on our final leg. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them though as they were obviously unaware that the most spectacular sight on in this area is not the stone that a tiger once may (but probably didn’t) jump off to cross the river.

Despite this minor annoyance we eventually reached the stone. For some reason we were charged $5 to get onto the stone but it had been my mission so I paid it anyway. We had made it!

It was now time to make our final trek to the point were a bus could pick us up and take us back to Lijiang. First we had to cross a bride that a local was charging to be crossed. Jimmy, quite courageously, decided to leg it over the bridge without paying (it is ridiculous that we have to pay considering it is illegal for them to charge and that we had paid a maintenance entry fee when we arrived). However, the local chased him and found him, much to the entertainment of all of us.

We managed to reach the actual tiger stone despite the notice that read ‘Don’t come, Dangerous’. Naughty. and then we began our walk back up the mountain. At one point the cliff face was at a 90 degree angle and thus not possible to walk up. As a result a ladder had been dropped from the next ridge…25 metres higher. As someone whose not great with heights I found this slightly daunting…but didn’t want to show this to my companions. The ladder experience was fantastic, although I made a point of not looking down.

Perhaps another hour of walking in the baking mid afternoon heat meant we reached to top of the mountain in time for a bus back to Lijiang…tired.

It had been by far the best two days of this current travel and I am so glad that I decided to complete the ‘best trek in China’, and it did not disappoint. My reward: a nice shower and an early night.

24/07/2011: Day 14

I decided not to set my alarm as a lie in was what I really needed. However, my conditioned mind and body woke me up at 7am. In protest I made myself stay in bed until 10 and got a couple more hours sleep as a result.

Slightly achy I managed to get up and ready in order to head to the train station and buy my onward tickets. unfortunately there were no tickets to Kunming at my desired time and the only available tickets were at 9am the next day, meaning I would be travelling through the day tomorrow. I decided that as it was the beginning of my return to Guangdong that having the day in a train meant I could not spend more money. However, it meant a day less in Lijiang.

After getting the bus from the train station to a cash point and a bus from the cash point back to the train station I was able to buy my tickets. This meant I was now sorted for all my tickets until James and I will leave for Nanning. Exciting!

I then began to explore Lijiang with my map and was pleasantly surprised by the place. I decided to buy some Yaks yoghurt and drink it as I people watched. ONce I finished I was approached by a man who collects bottles (for a living, quite literally) who looked as though I had made his week by giving him a class bottle. perhaps they are worth more than the plastic ones but I have never seen someone so happy to take litter from me before.

I had been told by someone in my hostel of a more traditional market in the south of the old city. I like these places and decided to check it out. I was quite happy that there were fewer tourists there (Lijiang is a major tourist destination). Here I sat and had a dumpling lunch….I love dumplings. It was around this time that I realised I had lost my phone, the phone that had been a loyal servant since my first arrival in China 10 months previous. It had some great messages saved on it, photos, music and most importantly the contact details of all my chinese friends. I didn’t panic too much though as I will be leaving China in about a week and all my chinese friends have QQ.

As the evening approached I met with my friends from the gorge. Thankfully we had decided on a time and a place before I lost my phone and this meant we didnt have a problem finding each other. unfortunately we had failed to notice that we were a day early for the minority festival that we thought would be occurring in the city. We were expecting to be dancing around a bonfire by midnight. Instead we walked around the busy streets throughout the night and then made our way to the highest point of the city where we could see the roof tops of all the old buildings, the snow mountain and see the lights of the city. A great sight. We climbed a fence and watched the city whilst listening to some traditional chinese music. It was actually quite emotional to think I would be returning back to Guangdong only to begin my departure from China. I made my decision there and then that I must return to China….I have not done anywhere near all I want to. China has so much more to offer.

I then rturned to a dumplig restaurant near my hostel. I had been there previously and the owner was more than happy to see me again. In fact, I think he had bought a crate of beers in the hope that I would return. I finished the night with the old man watching a cookery programme whilst eating my dumplings.

At the end of the night we said our good byes and I returned to the hostel for my last nights sleep in Lijiang.

China II: Week 16

The work is over and the fun should now begin. I have just under 3 weeks until James arrives in China. I intend to use this time to travel West to the province of Yunnan and hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge near the ancient town of Lijiang. I hope that there will be adventures, mistakes and triumphs along the way, but my main aim is to see a different side to China than my last travel session. My original plan was to visit Tibet, but this must be put on hold for a year or two as the Chinese government has closed it to foreigners.

Here goes;

11/07/2011: Day One

It is here! Travel time! If my calculations are correct I will have 58 days on the road, and I intend to make the most of it as I have worked bloody hard over the 15 weeks.

On my first day there was one small hitch; I was yet to be paid for the month of June (i.e. my spending money). So, without further ado I made my way to the Sunshine Elite school for my pay. It was ice to be greeted so welcomely when I returned and everyone seemed interested in my plans ahead….which remain incredibly vague even n my head. I had feared that the school (and particularly Frank) would try to screw me over with the pay, but I was pleasantly surprised. I received the exact amount that I had calculated I was owed, and therefore left happily after saying my final goodbyes to Kiran and Carol.

originally I had intended to head straight to Guangzhou for the train but during my trip to the school I noticed that my new, and very cheap, bag was incredibly uncomfortable on my back and appeared to be ripping at the shoulders already…don’t buy knock-offs kids! As a result I headed briefly back to te apartment to change to the bag that has been everywhere with me, a bag as loyal and reliable as a good friend.

It was now time to begin my journey, but I couldn’t decide f I was more hungry or excited. In the end my excitement took over and I bypassed food in favour of the metro to Guangzhou. Once I arrived at Guangzhou railway station I had to buy tickets. Buying tickets in China is usually risky business because you never know if there are going to be seats. However, I intended to go to Changsha in Hunan province via high speed rail, on which there are more than enough seats.

Automatically I began to queue for the self-service tickets but as it approached my turn I noticed I required a Chinese I.D card to buy a ticket from the machine, of course I don’t have one of these (I am not Chinese). So, after wasting a little time queueing at a machine I had to queue the traditional way, for a person. In fact this way was a little quicker (I think the novelty of using a machine to buy tickets lured in some of the Chinese). So there I was, carrying my backpack on my back and a ticket out of Guangdong in my hand….my trip was about to begin.

When applying for a train ticket to Changsha I had two options, a cheap 9 hour trip or a little more expensive train that will take less than 3. I am on a VERY tight budget for this trip but the opportunity to ride the worlds fastest daily passenger train could not be missed…so I went for the quickie. I took my seat on the train and observed the speedometer until it reached 320km an hour…flabagasted. Naturally I was in the focus of many of the passengers and many began to talk to me. I quite enjoy being approached by people…but at the moment I am fresh and eager, lets hope I still enjoy it after a couple of weeks on the road.

The high-speed journey went without a hitch and I arrived in Changsha. The only information I had for the hostel I intended to stay in was ‘Xing Hua’ so I asked a taxi driver where it was and he said he would take me there for $10 (£1). After about 10 minutes we arrived at ‘Xin Hua’. It appears my Chinese pronunciation has got no better as time has gone on…Thankfully the hostel was only a short ride away so I made my own way there.

After checking in to the hostel there was only one thing I wanted to do; explore. A little too eager I left the hostel with a spring in my step and a love for China. Then I was brought crushing to Earth (almost literally). As I walked along the now dimmed path I hit a rusty pole with my leading foot. Of course a Chinese worker had left it there so he could eat his noodles…right in the way of the path. A restrained myself from cursing him, China or the World. undeterred, bloody and hungry I walked to a dumpling restaurant where I ordered 20 fried dumplings (a bit excessive but I was hungry). I managed to clean my bloodied foot and wipe the blood from my sandles with some tissue but was quite aware that I should clean the open, and quite deep, wound as the culprit was rusty. So after my meal I headed back to wash out my quite impressive cut.

I then returned to exploration whilst keeping an extra eye out for stray metal poles. I passed a street doctor who gave me a free plaster (probably because I am foreign) before coming across an interesting looking place.

outside were numerous men and women with jugs of green tea and cigarettes so decided to go inside, first to have a look. Once I was inside I was greeted like everyone had never spoken to, or even seen, a foreigner before. I was immediately given some tea and approached by several middle aged men having a break from their game of Chinese dominoes. I stood trying to work out how to play, and never got the hang of it. I was then joined by two of the younger people in the venue, a brother and sister. The brother gave me some traditional Hunan food, which I thought was some kind of drug once I put it in my mouth. He told me, almost too late, that I was not to swallow it but just chew. He later bought me an ice cream, I don’t know why.

o I spent my first evening in a Chinese working mens club drinking tea and eating traditional snacks…perfect. Before they could poor me my 6th cup of tea I decided it would be time to leave or never leave. I got back to the hostel and was met by a girl called Pollyanna. This girl is as cute as she is scatty. And by scatty I mean she ran everywhere at walking pace. She was keen to talk with me as she is to attend the Uiversity of Surrey in September. We spent the remainer of the night talking about this and she also intends to go to Lijiang when her British visa is sorted, I may meet her there…but I doubt it.

And so day one is over….i’m ready…what’s next China?

12/07/2011: Day Two

Day two and my first early start. I had originally planned to wake up early but I had the added incentive of someone relying on me to do so. Martina, a woman from Taiwan, had got word of my desire to head to the West bus station early and had requested to join me and to split the journey costs. So, after a quick shower and goodbye to my hostel companions I met with Martina for our journey to the bus station.

Once we arrived we bought our tickets to separate destinations and it appeared that my bus would be leaving 5 minutes afterwards, whereas she had a two hour wait. I got a bit lucky there. Anyway, I was now about to begin a 4 hour bus journey to the small city of Zhangjiajie. Thankfully the road was quite new and the journey was quite smooth. In all the journey probably took about 5 hours but I was in no rush and happily took in the fantastic scenery that Hunan has to offer.

Immediately after the bus stopped in Zhangjiajie I spotted a woman accusing a man of stealing her purse and received a lot of stares. I must admit that I was a little intimidated at first, but this was just the bus station. As soon as I left the bus station it appeared that everyone was very pleasant and welcoming. It also soon became clear that Zhangjiajie is very lucky to label itself a city…its tiny. I was able to find my hostel very easily.

Upon arrival at my hostel it was a little different from what I imagined from the internet image I had seen. The chalet picture made the impression that the hostel was in a rural outskirts it was actually a chalet on the roof of a four storey building. Still, it suited me and was nice inside.

After check-in it was about lunch time and I decided to get some proper Hunan food (accompanied by a bottle of water as I knew what to expect from the Hunan spice). It was easy to find a spicy noodle bar. If I learnt anything from my last trip it is that the dirtiest and cheapest places sell the nicest food…and this gave added support to this view. Although the noodles were very spicy, they filled the gap and only set me back 40p.

Given that it was the afternoon and I did not want to just do half a day in the forest (my next stop), I decided to explore the city a little more. My first stop was to look around a traditional chinese building that had been converted into several tea shops. As attractive as it was it wasn’t quite thrilling. I managed to stumble across another hostel who greeted me as if they had never seen a foreigner before (a greeting I am quickly getting used to). Via broken english, and recruiting one of their guests, they were able to tell me that the city itself has very little to offer and that I should just explore by walking. That I did.

I managed to walk around most of the city in 3 hours and could draw some comparisons with Torquay; it appeared that there is very little for the locals to do and so there are many bars. Those who get bored, get drunk.

I was not disheartened by this though as I was not in Zhangjiajie for the city. I was here to trek in the nearby forest…but that can begin tomorrow.

Zhangjiajie City

I then returned to the hostel to cool down, rehydrate and have a cheeky wash before heading for dinner. Here I met one of my dormitory companions, Charles. He is from Hong Kong and Zhangjiajie is his final leg in mainland China. I was a little jealous that he had just returned from Tibet…he was allowed in. Myself and Charles went to dinner together and he stated that he did not want to eat spicy food, which was fine with me. My compromise was that I didn’t want to eat Western food….so a rice hot-pot it was then. Charles’ english was good despite his apologies and we agreed to go to the forest together tomorrow.

13/07/2011: Day Three

Naturally, with a lot to do, myself and Charles got up early with the view to catch an early bus to the forest about 40km from Zhangjiajie city. Another chinese man in the dorm had stated his intention to join us, but did not confirm or deny this with us. We reluctantly left without him.

We caught the public bus to the bus station and bought our bus tickets for the forest. Once we boarded we found Joe, the other chinese man, already on the bus. Not only was this magic but was also very embarrassing as it seemed as if we had left him on purpose, we hadn’t :). Anyway, we were together again, for now.

Our bus arrived at the forest around 8am and we were very excited about the prospect of seeing what it had in store. The chinese claim the forest of Zhangjiajie provided the inspiration for the setting in the film Avatar. And it is possible to see how the Chinese drew this conclusion. In fact, being in the forest almost made me feel like I was in the film, Na’vi I think?. It was actually spectacular. Having lost Joe again we were eventually reunited inside and began our trek.

I have been looking forward to trekking in China for a long time now and I was at last living it, in unimaginable surroundings (unless you are an animator for Avatar). We walked about 10km around the lake and up steep hills, stopping regularly to take photographs. However, the visibility was not great, which we put down to it being morning. In some ways my companions were perfect for me as Joe was from Shanghai and could speak good English, whereas Charles’ putonghua was as good as his English…making English the chosen language for conversation…although Joe wanted me to speak Chinese as much as possible…which didn’t last long.

After some further walking we took the ‘Worlds largest outdoor scenic elevator designed for people’…a mouthful. This took us to the very top of one of the sandstone spikes that stick out of the ground (of which there are 3000…I need to remember this image!).

Once on top we continued our trek but were hindered by the weather and visibility. unfortunately by about 4pm the visibility was almost zero and we could only see white nothingness over the sides of the cliffs. Eventually, and soaked by the rain, we decided to call it a day find some accommodation in the forest. fortunately, and to my childlike excitement, we were offered a room for £2.50 each in the house of a man from a village in the forest. The catch was that we had to have dinner at his house and pay for it…we took the deal. As the sun began to set we waited for the man to cook the traditional Hunan dinner whilst myself and Charles learned a traditional Hunan card game that Joe had learned.

So after dinner and having exploited an old mans hospitality, myself, Charles and Joe sat in a warm room playing cards whilst the rain battered the window looking out onto the forest….a dream day. We were all so tired from the walking and fell into a deep sleep pretty early.


14/07/2011: Day Four

Having realised that the forest has more to offer than can possibly be explored in two days myself and Charles decided to make our best efforts to see as much as we could before we left today. As a result we made the decision to begin our day 2 trek at 5am.

At first I thought it was just a suggestion and that Charles wouldn’t go through with it…but we both jumped out of bed at the sound of our alarms (although we probably didn’t need it because the cockerels were already cackooing outside). Leaving Joe, who had requested to be left, to sleep we began our trek immediately. It was soon clear that we had made a great decision; the visibility had vastly improved, the air was fresh and there were no other people in sight. We must have walked quite a few miles by 8am and seen some pretty impressive sights. At this point a bus pulled up beside us and invited us on board. fortunately it took us to the destination that we were heading on our map and probably saved us another 2 hours of walking.

One thing I found incredibly impressive was a massive lake on top of the mountain…beautiful :P.

Anyway, the map that myself and charles had given now contour lines, and thus no indication of incline or decline. We soon discovered that our desired location lay half way down the mountain. We made the decision that we had enough time to for it and began our descent down the side of the mountain, but agreed on a time to return if we do not reach the location by that time (the reason why we had to return is because we had purposely left unnecessary luggage in the room at the top of the mountain, had we known that we would be climbing down we would not have done so). fortunately the trek down was swift and easy and we were able to reach a fantastic viewpoint uninterrupted by the clouds or the morning mist…we gave each other a cheeky, and rather geeky, high five.

Then it was time to return. We underestimated the steepness of the mountain when we came down and it is far to say the trek back up was a struggle. I suggested an alternative route up the mountain to see different sites, but as we walked up it became apparent that we had gone slightly off track. slightly embarrassingly for me were required to return back down once again only to climb up another route again. I was quite happy that Charles never complained though. In fact there was a sign near the top of the mountain that read ‘to not reach the top is to come in vain’…if ever we both needed motivation this was it.

Once again we reached the top of the mountain, and once again we gave each other a geeky high five whilst we caught our breath. We then got the bus back in the direction of the Wulong village where we relaxed over a bowl of rice. It was now around 12pm and we made the decision to make our way to the exit of the forest (which meant another trip in the escalator). Once we were out we took the public bus to Zhangjiajie city and relaxed with a drink for a while. It was only 2pm but it had already been a very long day.

My next step was to get the bus to another part of Hunan province, the town of Fenghuang (meaning Pheonix town). It is here that I intend my birthday. So, I only had a little while to rest before I had to find a hostel on the internet and bet to the bus station in time for the 3.30pm bus. Charles left for Hong Kong soon after me.

The bus journey have me the opportunity to sleep for a couple of hours, although the road wasn’t quite as smooth as I would have requested. We stopped after about 2 hours which meant I could buy corn on the cob and a boiled egg….filled the gap.

The bus took about 4 hours, and arrived in the town of Fenghuang at around 8pm. It was beginning to get dark and I had only a vague description of where my hostel was. I got a taxi to the area of the hostel (which I later found out was about 5 minutes walk from the bus drop off). Here i was greeted with the most spectacular view of lights, water and old buildings from a bridge…wow! From the bridge I called the hostel and they told me I should turn left down the side of the bridge and walk for ten minutes. After walking (with all my luggage) for 15 minutes I decided to ask someone else. They told me the hostel is in the other direction. Of course, the person on the phone had said left when they actually meant right. However, this gave me the opportunity to see the old town at night, and I was impressed. There was actually a sing-a-long with some buskers with about 50 people, the song of the moment in China and certainly one that I will always associate with this trip now.

Once I found the hostel I checked in and had a quick but cold shower before hitting the streets and a bar for midnight (my birthday). As it turned out I was bought a beer by a government worker and I sat with him and his wife (out of his league) who was also a party member. At around 00:30 I called it a night and looked forward to seeing such a spectacular looking town in the daylight.

15/07/2011: Day Five

It’s my Birthday!

My second birthday outside of England and I think it doesn’t need saying that exploring a small town in Fenghuang is a complete contrast to the last time (my 18th in Faliraki). It was certainly a more peaceful and heathy one.

Not wanting to waste a moment I woke up bright and early ad got in contact with Patty via skype. I had sent her a present for her birthday, on 20th July, but we had made the agreement that she would open it on mine. We spoke for a good hour and it was great to have a catch up as we hadn’t spoken for a few days.

However, it was important that I didn’t end up spending all day on the laptop so soon after I finished chatting I had a shower and headed out into the blistering heat (although it wasn’t quite that hot). I quickly decided that I prefered the view of the town in the day than in the night, it was picture perfect.

Fenghuang is an amazing place. It is basically an old and traditional town built along a clean and beautiful fast flowing river in the midst of the mountainous western Hunan. Despite many Chinese tourists gathering here there are still people washing their clothes in the river and children swimming naked downstream. There is a contagious peacefulness in the air which makes the whole place seem like some kind of ancient Chinese paradise. Poetic no?

I sat for a while by the banks of the river waving to the passing gondolas as they all pointed out the foreigner to each other. The river seemed so clean.

I spent a few hours exploring the old town and ended up lost on quite a few occasions. At one point I found myself on an alley full of caged ducks, and they were bloody big ducks. As I walked around I noticed a man pick one of the ducks to buy. The shop keeper swiftly grabbed it by the legs and used her less-than-accurate measuring device to weigh the animal. After it was weighed she made no hesitation in slitting its throat and waiting for the blood to stop squirting out before placing it in a tub full of water. Not nice to watch but compelling all the same. This did not put me off my food though and I decided to have some more Hunan food, which again knocked-my-socks-off (if indeed that is an expression for an incredibly spicy experience).

A lot of the day was spent in the gaze of other peoples cameras. It seemed that a lot of people were not very familiar with foreigners and were either staring at me, pointing or taking photos. It seems that it only takes one bold person with the courage to ask for a photograph to allow others to follow like sheep and form a very unchineselike queue for photos….mobbed. At one point, half way across the bridge, I had to point out that the actual attraction in the town was the town itself and not the skinny little foreigner.

After a while the heat got to me and I decided to return to the hostel for a quick wash and change before heading out again. Thankfully I managed to get hold of my very worried mother and reassure her that I was ok and enjoying my birthday.

I then went for something to eat and decided to seek out my food of choice…beef and rice. Thankfully the first restaurant that caught my eye sold this. As I sat down I noticed 4 giggling girls on the table next to me, clearly intent on taking a picture of the foreigner. I decided to smile back to reassure them that I didn’t mind them taking pictures of me. I really don’t mind, and actually quite like it. As they seemed quite friendly I asked if there was anything interesting that happens in the evening…and they suggested I join them. Who am I to refuse company on my birthday?

After leaving the girls for an hour or so (to eat more food because the birthday boy was not full) I met them in an acoustic bar. They had a beer waiting for me and we played a few drinking games before a couple of them decided they were too hot indoors. It was then that I revealed for the first time to anyone that it was my birthday and they insisted they got something for me. However, what they got was more for their entertainment than mine…they hired a traditional Miao minority male outfit for me to wear. Somewhat ‘reluctantly’ I put the close on and stood for pictures alongside my new friends. Now, if I was an attraction in my normal clothes being in a minority outfit (looking more like Aladdin) made me more of a target. Of course I loved it though.

I changed back and thanked them for my ‘present’ before we returned to walking the streets in search of some traditional Fenghuang food. As we did so one of the girls sang another rendition of the song the buskers sang the day before. I wish I had recorded it. The girls made a great effort to make a good evening of my birthday; and they succeeded in the most perfect of settings.

After eating some traditional sweet food and looking at some flattened pigs faces we all returned to our respective dormitories and finished a successful day and a birthday to remember.

16/07/2011: Day Six

Once again, and sticking to the constant routine of my time in China, I had an early start. This, the Boxing Day of my birthday (does that work?).

my intention today was to reach the small city of Kaili (pronounced Kylie) in Guizhou province. But this is not as easy as it seems. Fenghuang is a small town with poor transport links and the closest city in the direction of Guizhou is Huaihua; some 5 hours by road. It is only there that I could get a train to Kaili. It seems that on this trip much of my progress is being made by road…which is more than fine with me…provinding i get leg room.

Once I was up I decided it best to have a quick rush and get on the bus as soon as possible. Once I got to the station and bought my ticket. and once again there were 4 giggling girls waiting for the same bus. Only this time I was a grumpy morning person and not really in the mood for attention….can’t pick and choose right? Anyway, it turned out only one was confident enough in her english to talk to me and it also turned out they were on the same bus…great. As soon as I got on the bus I made it my intention to catch up on my sleep, but there were two things obstructing me from that; 1. the whole route was untarmaced and more like a rally ride, 2. the woman in front of me reclined her chair all the way so she was practically lying on my lap and my legs were forced into the alley…inconsiderate grrrr. I did, however, manage to get a couple of hours kip during the 5 hour excursion and I was eventually thankful of the English speaking girl who was able to direct me to the train station.

unfortunately there were no seats remaining on the train from Huaihua to Kaili so I had to buy a standing ticket. I didn’t mind the prospect of standing for 6 hours…it didn’t seem that long when I thought about it.

After a quick spicy lunch I returned to the station with some very red lips (my lips go red after spice) and through the uninterrupted sun. After a short while I boarded the train and found a comfortable pole to lean on with a watchful eye on my bag. Before the train departed I was approached by a large and scary looking chinese man who just turned out to be an eccentric. His name was Pepsi-man and he had the Pepsi logo shaved into the top of his head with the word POP shaved into the back of his head. He wanted to practise his english with me as loud as he could on a packed train, whilst everyone, EVERYONE, watched. After about 5 minutes he disappeared and returned shortly afterwards with an entourage that I assumed were his friends. Instead it had appeared that he had approached every young person in the nearest 4 or 5 carriages and asked if anyone wanted to talk english with a foreigner. These were the volunteers. I chatted with all of them for about half an hour and was actually really enjoying the conversation. On trains in China you get people from so many different places and of different cultures, they were all great and really friendly. One boy in particular introduced him self with; ‘Hi, I am Elvis but I cannot sing’. He was more normal than I first thought. As it turned out, Elvis was from an International School in Shanghai and was required to speak english whilst at school, and so could hold a very decent conversation. Pepsi-man thanked me fr our friendship by buying me a buddhist bracelet from a saleswoman on the train…I was overwhelmed by the friendliness of everyone around. There must have been about 8 of us in total and everyone was great, no matter how much english they could speak.

About an hour into the journey Elvis told me that he had a seated ticket and was only standing to talk to me. He then revealed that he had a spare seat beside him and offered it to me. What a nice man. I jumped at the chance and joined him and his friend on the tabled seat. As I sat down the man opposite began to talk in English to me and the girl next to him was keen to get involved (but knew as much english as I do chinese). Once again there was a group of 5 of us which made the journey a lot better than I had anticipated. This man, who I had the privilege of naming Paul, was a really interesting character who spoke good english despite leaving school at 15. I loved every minute of that journey and made sure I got everyone’s contact details before I left the train. Naturally they stayed to a major city, whereas I was one of only a few people to leave a Kaili…not a traditional tourist destination.

I hopped on the number 2 bus from the train station and got off when I felt as though I was in the city centre. After walking for about an hour and finding very little in the way of affordable accommodation I came to the conclusion I would have to take a hostel room at £9 a night…a huge dent in my increasingly tight budget. However, as I continued to complain about the price the receptionist discovered that the hostel could not take foreigners. The fact that it took her so long to realise made me think that not many foreigners come through this city (something I later found to be true).

Instead a man from a nearby hotel picked me up. He said his room rate was equivalent to £9.80…what!!??. However when we arrived I discovered that he had a dorm room at £4.50 a night…phew. The hotel was incredibly new and by the way I was treated I began to belive that no-one had ever stayed there before. I was given a guide book to the surrounding areas (what I am interested in), tea bags, a kettle, a flat screen tv and an en-suite bathroom. Whats more, I was not sharing my 4 bed dorm with any other travellers. This gave me the perfect excuse to have a proper wash and lounge in my underwear. It was the best nights sleep I have had in months (mainly because the mattress was not wooden). The perfect hostel made me look forward to my stay in Kaili

17/07/2011: Day Seven

I woke up in heaven? no just a warm, clean and comfortable bed. Once again it was quite early, but not early by the standards of the previous 6 days. After a warm shower and a cup of tea I was ready to tackle Kaili.

However, it was not Kaili the city that I was interested in. In fact the city seemed pretty bland. The reason why I chose this location is because of the minority villages in the surrounding areas of the city. About 95% of people in China are Han chinese. But the other 5% make up the minority ethnic groups. The Miao and Dong ethnic groups have kept their traditional housing and ways of life around Kaili and I wanted to see how these chinese people live, look and behave. Kaili was the place to be.

Determined to get to one of the less visited places I took a public bus to a place where I coud get a bus bound for Paile…a town about 20km away. I had been told that the Nanhua Miao village can be found along this bus route. As got onto the second bus it was soon clear that Miao villages were on this route as several minority women were dressed in their tribes attire, many carrying chickens. It appears that road links have made it possible for these people to trade in the city instead of remaining self sufficient. That was my assumtion anyway.

A forty minute bus ride through the most outstanding countryside saw me arrive at the village, that the bus driver was friendly enough to point out to me. I was surprised that no-one else got off the bus as well and I was left to my own device. I approached the village and didn’t see anyone for about 10 minutes. The village smelt like a farm (probably the manure) and looked amazing. It seemed as though it had een the same for centuries. Now and again people would come out of the homes, either to do some work (embroidery, feed the pigs, weeding or do renovation) or just to say hello to the foreign visitor. I felt most welcome.

The village was quite small and could be walked around in about 40 minutes. What made it even more of a specitcal was its positioning in the mountains and the river that ran just beside it (it appears I have started to appreciate scenery this week, how old am I?). I made my way to the river and watched some of the locals swim, wash and play before I went into one of the buildings where I smelt food. I immediately saw some chickens so decided to order rice with chicken eggs, as I assumed to eggs would be fresh. Here, as I sat alone, I was joined by one of the Miao men who i assumed owned the restaurant and he tried to talk to me in Putonghua which I tried to respond with varying success. It was nice to have some Miao company at lunch though.

I decided to not risk overstaying my welcome so left soon after lunch for my bus back. unfortunately I did not appreciate the scenery on my return as I slept the whole way back, to the delight of some of the villagers I am sure.

Once I returned it was too early to retire for the day so I decided to explore something in my guide….the forest. I climbed a massive hill to get to the forest that supposedly has 3000 different types of tree. I must admit that I have never been a tree man so this didnt really fascinate me. What I was more fascinated by was the men sleeping in hammocks next to caged wild birds in the middle of the forest. Casual personified.

Before it got dark I decided to then head to the train station to get my tickets for the following evening. I wanted an over night train to Kunming so queued for about 20 minutes only to be told there were no tickets. A little disheartened I stepped out of the station and had a revised look at my map. I wrote several alternative locations and returned to the queue. When I got to the front I asked if I could get to Guiyang city and transfer to Kunming train from there. After about 5 minutes of searching and with a large and unhappy queue building up behind me she magically produced an overnight sleeper ticket to Kunming from Kaili. The cynic in my suspects that she knew there were sleeper tickets all along and all I had to do was pressurise her…hmmmm.

Anyway, with another eye-opening day complete I returned to my comfy bed for the last time, and who knows when the next time I will hae such a luxury…..and that ends a fabulous first week.

China II: Week 15

I plan to keep this weeks update a little more brief than the last one…because I definitely waffled on last week. Also, I feel a little more excited about the coming weeks as this was my last week in Foshan. But I havent set myself a word limit so the waffling may continue.

Much of the week consisted of saying my goodbyes. However, as I am returning for a day or two I have been telling people who I will see them then, although this is incredible unlikely given the amount of people I have met and befriended over the last 4 months.

Initially my work began with an unscheduled kindergarten morning where my lessons were observed by an external teacher. I didn’t know who she was until after my lessons but she was there to see if my lessons were suitable for parents eyes. This week was the second kindergartens parents week. Luckily she thought my lessons would suffice so I left quite happy.

Before my goodbyes could begin I had the small matter of a Great Britain vs China badminton match to contest. Myself and Cameron were to team up against Carol and her boyfriend. As it turned out more people turned up to play (including a German). This meant we didn’t quite have the intense match was expecting, but you would not have been able to tell from the sweat I produced. Within minutes of arriving on the 4th floor court with no air conditioning a tin roof and close to 40 degree heat I began to drip all over. This was not helped by Carols amazing ability to make me run all over the court. Then, after an hour of play I was able to wring out my shirt…and then my shorts began to fall down because of the volume of liquid held within them. I must have looked like an abstaining crack addict.

My Tuesday began with potentially my last Guangdong morning tea. This meant I had to eat pigs trotter and chicken feet for breakfast, an experience to be remembered but will never be craved. Later, my Chinese lesson was cancelled. I have been enjoying the chinese lessons and they seem to be having some benefit already, if only with my confidence. I am still incredible reluctant to use chinese when other westerners are around out of fear of making a mistake. However, when I am by myself I don’t mind looking stupid and making mistakes (like asking for a cuddle when I actually want a takeaway).

Anyway, myself and Cameron instead decided to have a meal outside at the chinese restaurant. This time we were joined by Kat and Sarah. As the night got a bit late Cameron and Kat decided to retire home but Kat tempted me to a pool party at a bar not far from the restaurant. As it turned out the pool was a paddling pool full of e-coli ridden liquid (that did not resemble water) and contained none of the bikini-clad women I had imagined. Instead, and perhaps ironically, we decided to play pool until we were joined by Danny.

The next day came the first of my any goodbyes to Emily. I still felt bad about missing her birthday the previous weekend so instead decided to take her for lunch/dinner. The previous day she told me that she was ill and had to go to the hospital. Naturally I assumed that something serious had happened. When I met her she seemed bright and happy (as I watched her have her hair washed) and it turned out she had a runny nose. I always forget that the Chinese refer to their GPs as Hospitals.

Once her hair was clean we were able to go for a late lunch. We ate in a chinese coffee shop (like Starbucks with chopsticks). The food was nice but nowhere near as nice as the Muslim noodles i regularly eat for a 5th of the price…not that I’m stingy. As we were walking home we stumbled across a mountaineering shop and noticed some hiking boots reduced from £60 to £16. I intend on doing some hiking during my trip in China so required some boots. However, I don’t think I would have bought them if Emily wasn’t there to tell me I should. If Emily has a legacy it will be in my suitable footwear.

Thursday saw another morning of parents lessons and my penultimate day as an English teacher in China. Luckily for me the children were really up for it and I would count my first lesson among the best I have ever done in China…this made the parents happy but once again I could wring my shirt out with sweat (bloody absent air-con). Perhaps I have a problem? But nowhere in the world is supposed to be this humid…surely?

In te evening I went to Wonderland for the very last time and visited the kindergarten for the last time. My original intention was to see all of the children but I bumped into the head mistress who invited me to her office for a drink (this did not happen the whole time I worked there). At first I thought she was just being nice and hospitable but then she started asking me questions about my future. I could see where the conversation was going and she cut to the chase. She asked me to do 3 days work at the end of the month, do some part-time work for her ‘friend’ in September and return to the kindergarten. I like her as a person but as a business woman she’s not very subtle. I told her i would think about the work at the end of the month (as I am unable to say the word ‘no’) but I will actually still be away then. Eventually I was able to see some of the children and was surprised how some of them have changed in just a few months…there were certainly fewer teeth on the gums of the older children.

Later that night I met with Claire, Judy, Angel, Zoey and Iain for a traditional Wonderland cabbage and spicy food feast. It was great to see them all one last time. I will miss them all.

By 10:30am on Friday I had competed all of my teaching for the term and the only thing holding me to Guangdong was payday (Monday). I was so happy to have good lessons to end the week as it meant I left the school, and work in China, with a smile on my face. Its always nice when that happens.

For a change I decided to get the coach home. I booked into the coach that left at 10:50 only to notice it got to 10:55 and I still had not boarded. I asked an attendant and she told me that there was not enough people for that bus so I will have to get on the next one (what if I was in a rush?). I huffed and sat down, restraining myself from cursing come aspects of Chinese culture that I will never love.

Once I was home I had a little rest (after noodles of course) and met up with Cameron for a meal in the evening. unfortunately we were joined by English Chris. English Chris in incapable of talking about anything but himself, which always sends eye rolling around the table. It almost makes him humourous. However, just before we called for the bill Chris told us that he had to leave so got on his bike and left without paying any part of the bill (apparently he is famous for this). We tracked him down in a bar later and Cameron asked for his share ( I of course said nothing out of fear of confrontation…of which there was none). We all enjoyed the rest of the night together and it turned out Chris was not as bad in a noisy bar.

On the Saturday it was time to say a formal goodbye to Carol and Kiran over a traditional chinese meal that Carol had booked. It was actually really nice and I will miss both of them as they have become good friends. We then met with Kat at Lazy Mamas before I decided to call it an early night (which meant falling asleep at Cameron’s whilst watching Toy Story…perhaps time away from Cameron will do us both good :p).

I saw Sunday as my day of preparation for the weeks ahead. I did not want to start my trip unprepared or over tired (although I have been ‘tired’ for 15 weeks now). It was important that I headed to Tony’s at some point to pick up my pay. We arranged to meet at his at 2pm to give me enough time to get there and him enough time to have an early afternoon nap. When I arrived it turned out that he wasn’t in and was instead an hour away. I didn’t mind but began to question if Tony has been in China too long :p. This extra time gave me the opportunity to go the Tian He to looks for some Guangzhou football memorabilia. I couldn’t find any but did stumble across the ticket office selling Guangdong vs Liverpool tickets for the coming Wednesday. It was slightly tempting but I was not really willing to give up 3 days travelling for the sake of the match. Instead I bought 3 tickets for Danny and two for Tony upon their request. I’m pretty sure Liverpool will be favourites there.

I managed to get back in time for Tony’s arrival and picked up some of my pay, exchanged good byes and headed for the pub to say my goodbyes to Iain and Judy. I wa snot able to stay long as I had football that evening, much to Judy’s displeasure.

Just in time I managed to get home and changed for football. It was to be my last session and we had even more recruits to face the chinese opposition. New nationalities included Italian, Irish and Spanish. Naturally the Italian and Spaniards were very good players, and the Italian was wearing the shortest shorts in the world.

The night, the week and my time in Foshan ended playing blackjack for peanuts (literally peanuts) with Cameron and Roger…a fitting end.

And now. I’m off! I have waited for this for a very long time. Mission: Lijiang, Yunnan province. We shall see if that changes in the coming days. Tomorrow is the day 58 days on the road begins….