Final stop Guilin then goodbye China

30 04 2010

We left Chengdu and the fantastic Sim’s Cozy hostel and took the sleeper train to Guilin. The train was due to depart at 4.26 but got delayed three times until it finally left at 5.10pm. The train seemed almost empty- there weren’t many people in hard sleeper and one carriage was almost empty. The hot water come from a boiler heated by a fire on board the train. It was old and scary. The scenery started to change into rice fields and water buffalo and farmers in c0nical hats and the weather started getting warm and humid on the train.

The train was almost 3 hours late in arriving, getting into Guilin around 7.30pm, then by the time we got a taxi to the hostel it was past 8pm. We asked about the closest vegetarian restaurant and got given the name and directions to one off the main shopping strip. We found the restaurant after asking a policeman for help, followed the sign into an elevator in a dis-used and abandoned building–we had arrived in the service entrance. We walked around past the kitchens and confused staff to the front of the restaurant where they showed us their vegetarian menu. It seemed to be okay, but the taro tasted strangely of egg, despite their repeated reassurances that there was no egg in the dish.

The next day we went on a Li River cruise. It was a litle overcast with some rain in the afternoon so the view wasn’t as impressive as it might have been. We got picked up by a van from the hostel, paid 1 yuan to use a toilet before getting on a bamboo boat powered by what looked and sounded like a whipper snipper. After about 90 minutes of cruising along the river, looking at the limestone mountains and admiring the piles of rubbish strewn in every tree along the bank we stopped for lunch at a terrible place. There was nothing for us to eat so we waited. One of the Chinese boat drivers threw a chip packet into the river, so we’re glad to see they are looking after this important tourist attraction and maintaining the pristine beauty of the famous Li River. The bamboo boat stopped at a random place and we all got out and piled into a bumpy pink golf cart to go the remaining distance to Xining. From there we transferred into a bus and drove to Yangshuo. Initially we had thought that we would have lunch in Yangshuo, but by this time is was 2.30pm and we just turned around and caught an express bus for Y15 back to Guilin. The toilets at the bus station were a long trench along the length of the room with small 1m high walls every metre or so for “privacy”. Just squat where ever and don’t expect any water to come and wash anything down either…

We bought bus tickets for Nanning at the Guilin bus staion, walked past Shan Lake and Elephant Trunk Hill then had dinner at a temple restaurant called Vegetable Dish. It wasn’t marked or sign posted but we were able to eat lots and make up for the loss of lunch.

We decided to leave China a day early as the 1st of May is a public holiday which means the hostel couldn’t book any train/bus tickets for us, and we had been warned that the roads/rails would be busy. So we left on the 30th, hoping that it would be less crowded.

Early in the morning we caught bus number 2 to the Long Distance train station. Then we found our express bus headed for Nanning. It was comfortable, with big seats, air-con and free water and snacks. About 4 and a half hours later we arrived in Nanning. We had to find the train station, which turned out to be on the other side of town. A policeman, who spoke no English, with the help of charades, directed us to local bus number 6 which went from the bus station to the train station. 45 minutes later and only because Benno could read the chinese characters “fire vehicle station” on the bus map we arrived at the train station. We went into the ticket hall, which was packed. There was no room to move, it was hot and there was no air-con. We lined up at counter 16 for maybe an hour or more while people pushed in line, until it was our turn. The electronic board was displaying 0, 0, 0, 0 next to our train number for the next 2 days and I was praying that that didn’t mean no seats on any trains for the next 2 days. However, there was no problem and we handed over our passports and got tickets for the train that evening departing in 2 hours time. Soft sleeper, Y228 each, leaving around 6.30pm.

There was no time for lunch or dinner so we went to the supermarket and got snacks for our journey. There were lots of people lined up for the train, but most of them were in seats and got off in the Chinese border town Ping Xiang so there were actually few people on sleepers crossing the border into Vietnam. At 6.45pm we departed, there were trilingual announcements on the train (chinese, vietnamese and english) and staff came around with a dinner menu. We made two stops in China, the second one being Ping Xiang at 10.30pm. We had 90 minutes where we had to fill out our disembarkation forms, hand in our passports to the train official to be stamped, carry our luggage out of the train and through the x-ray machine in the office then back on the train.  Back on the train we went to sleep, only to be woken up at 12.30 when we had arrived at Dong dang, the Vietnamese bordr town. Again, we got our luggage out of the train and into the station office (not that they were checked) then filled out the embarkation form, had our passports stamped and back on the train. We arriving in Gam Lai station, Hanoi around 5.45 (4.45 am Hanoi time). Despite the early morning there were taxis waiting. We had issues over price negoitiation – thought we had fixed a price but then when we got out the driver wasn’t happy. Ended up paying $US5 which we think was fair.


27 04 2010

Back in Chengdu after our visit the the Roof of the World, Lhasa Tibet.

We went out to Le Shan and saw the Giant Buddha. It is carved into the rock face facing the river and it is over 70m tall. It took about 2 and a half hours by private car to get there, we had a quick lunch then entered Le Shan.

Past the Dragon Pond and White Tiger to the Giant Buddha, the line up was about a hour long to get to the Buddha- full of Chinese tourists in tour groups all trying to push past. Once on the stair case down the cliff it was just as packed- I’m glad there was a guard rail or people could have been pushed off the side quite easily.

We went down the the base of the buddha, where people could have a picnic on his big toe, it’s that big. The stairs up were not as busy, and we walked up and down all the stairs out to the fishing village, a cool bridge and over to a temple and some cave tombs.

Returning back to Chengdu it took almost 3 hours because of the traffic. We ate in the guesthouse – last night in Chengdu before heading to Guilin by sleeper train tomorrow.

Land of the Dalai Lama

23 04 2010

The guide met us in the morning and took us to Norbulingka, the Summer Palace of the Dalai Lama. We saw the bedroom, study and temple of the Dalai Lama. On the walls were paintings explaining the life of all the Dalai Lamas and the history of the Tibetan people- they believe that Tibetans came from monks that lived in the caves that over time learnt to use tools and developed agriculture. There was a nice pond and gardens – the greenest in all of Lhasa. We took the public bus for 1 yuan back to the hostel and rested.

For lunch we went back to Holy Land Vegetarian Restaurant and saw 2 monks and a really tall Tibetan- maybe 2 m tall. The v. mutton kebabs and stirfried green beans were much tastier than yesterday’s lunch. We realised that the restaurant was actually quite close to the hostel so we bargained a price with a tricycle rider instead of taking a taxi.

Our guide met us again at 2 and we went by public bus to Sera Monastery. The buildings were very old looking- built in the 1400s. There used to be thousands of monks but now there are only a couple hundred. At 3pm we watched the monks debate and practice the scriptures in the courtyard.

For dinner we returned to Lucky Vegetarian restaurant and ate potato pancake, lightly fried dumplings and braised tofu for less than $10. Benno was feeling a bit under the weather so we returned to the hostel for an early night before our departure tomorrow.

Potala Palace and bargaining

22 04 2010

In the morning I went up to the roof of the hostel and had a great view of the Potala Palace. A different guide met us as the first guide was sick. We walked to Potala Palace – red and white buildings where the Dalai Lamas lived, studied and are entombed in giant golden stupas. The guide was able to talk about the first 13 Dalai Lamas, but couldn’t comment on the current one, the 14th. We went up about 1000 stairs to get to the Palace, which is the highest point in Lhasa at about 3800m.

We took a tricycle to Holy Land Vegetarian Restaurant for lunch – there was a large English menu but the food was a little bland with chili being the only flavour. From there we walked through Bakhor and the shopping streets to Jokhang Temple. We didn’t go inside, but watched the people praying prostrate outside the temple.

After a little rest – the Sun was hot and dry- the guide took us to the Tibetan Museum. She wasn’t allowed inside, as it contains the history of Tibet from the Chinese perspective e.g. Tibet gave China presents, so this means Tibet is part of China. Tibetan has an interesting sanscript-style writing that they took from India, along with Buddhism.

For dinner we went to The Nomad Cafe – it was listed on HappyCow as International, Vegetarian and Western-run. We got there and it was none of those things – we think it must have changed hands but the signs were still on the door etc. Anyway, we managed to get some mixed veg and braised eggplant with rice even though it was obvious that they thought a vegan diet was impossible.

We wandered the Bakhor streets and engaged in bargaining with the locals over prayer wheels, a scary door knocker, jewelry and other knicknacks. It was still daylight at 8pm, but we returned to the hostel for an early night as the hot sun, low oxygen and walking made us tired.

Epic train journey

20 04 2010

After an early dinner at the hostel of garlic tofu and shredded potato with rice we were taken to the train station to await our T22 sleeper train to Lhasa. When we got into our soft sleeper cabin in car 6, 2 chinese people were already in there and had their luggage everywhere. Once they realised they were sharing with 2 foreigners that didn’t speak Chinese, they packed up and swapped rooms with another couple who ended up sleeping for almost the entire journey.

The next day the couple above us was still sleeping. We had breakfast and went and sat in the dining car number 7 for a while until we got kicked out at 11 to make room for the lunch crowd. There was a table gambling over a strange game of sticks/cards. Benno played some games on the computer and Lara read a book. We stopped at Xining station around 4 and the train stocked up on snacks and drinks.

Out the window today we saw mountains and brown rivers, local women wearing headscarfs, solar hot water on roofs, coal and nuclear power plants, sheep, cattle, yaks, horses, snow and 2 big lakes. There were many tunnels and we were probably at about 4000m in altitude.

Day 2 on the train to Tibet, woke up to snow covered mountains and grassland plains. Saw the sunrise and icy rivers- condensation on the windows meant it was cold overnight. The Sun was intense and the skies a perfect blue with the clouds so low it felt like we might be able to go above them. Out the window we saw traditional houses, shepherds with their sheep and yaks, Chinese military convoys and training schools and a big lake.

We arrived in Lhasa around 4.30pm to a huge empty train station and were picked up by our guide and taken to Lhasa International Hostel. We bought snacks and lots of water from the supermarket and caught a taxi (no guide) to Lucky Vegetarian Restaurant where the three of us had dinner for less than $10. A taxi anywhere in the city is $2 (10 yuan). A little tired, but otherwise no altitude sickness problems.

Panda papanda kopanda

19 04 2010

This morning we had our last shower for a few days – we won’t get to wash on the train to Lhasa.

We took the hostel tour to the Panda Breeding Centre and visited the Giant Pandas and the Lesser (Red) Pandas. The tour was good value- 80Yuan for guide, private car, entry ticket (itself about 60Yuan) and a free panda keyring.

The pandas were very cute, although a little sleepy and inactive in the morning. Later in the morning we saw them eating bamboo, play fighting and exploring. The Lesson Pandas, I mean, Lesser Pandas were more active and much smaller.

After walking around and seeing all the pandas we went and watched a short movie on the breeding program and then visited the museum. When a baby panda is born it is 1/1000th of the weight of a grown panda, hairless, with undeveloped ears and eyes and is totally dependent for the next 6 months. At age 18 months they leave their mother and may live alone.

Once returning to the hostel we sorted out the last of our Tibet trip and went for a walk back to the Wenshu Monastery area and found another vegan restaurant for lunch, called Lotus Vegan Restaurant. For 60Yuan ($10) we ate rice, spring rolls, spicy mock chicken with peanuts and black beans and fake fish with beans and chilli. It was quite spicy, in keeping with the local famous spicy flavours. All this was topped off with a decadent slice of chocolate cake.

We definitely needed to walk off all that food so wandered back to the hostel via some markets selling slabs of meat in the open air and various fruits and nuts.

Tonight, the epic train journey to Lhasa begins. After dinner at the hostel we head to the train station for our 9pm train into Tibet along the world’s highest railway line. That’s one for the train otaku 🙂

Hard Sleeper to Chengdu

17 04 2010

Rest day. Had lunch at the Xi’an hostel then caught the cheap 1 yuan 603 public bus to the station for our overnight train to Chengdu. It was scheduled to leave at 2.04, got delayed to 2.45, then to 3.10. The crowds were getting upset and I don’t think the Chinese are very patient people when it comes to pushing their way onto trains. When we booked there were no soft sleeper tickets left, so we had top and middle hard sleeper. Definitely not as luxurious as the soft sleeper, although very cheap. The top bunk was higher than my head (about 2m high) and was not as wide or cushioned as soft. The linen also didn’t look as clean, it was noisier was no door or light controls and crying babies and smokers. We saw children peeing on the floor by the basins and people throwing their nut shell rubbish on the floor. Fortunately as soon as the lights went out around 9pm it was quiet, everybody went to sleep and we slept peacefully (with eye mask and ear plugs) until 6am when a train officer came around to check our tickets again.

Surprisingly, despite departing late we arrived half an hour early in Chengdu. We didn’t want to wait for our pick up so we took a taxi to the hostel, Sims Cozy Hostel. We took a well-earned shower and finished our breakfast.

We walked down to the historic WenShu Monastery, one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Chengdu. There is a popular vegetarian restaurant inside so we ate until we were full for about $10. I drank Chinese gooseberry (a.k.a. kiwi fruit) juice that was freshly squeezed. After lunch we walked around the gardens and saw turtles piled 3 high on top of each other, sunning in a pool, and toads sitting in the pool with turtles on their back. We also saw water snakes, possible in the pond because one of the guardians at the temple gate had snakes in his hands.

We booked and paid for the rest of our Tibet tour, leaving tomorrow, and organised to go see the Pandas tomorrow morning. The hostel has a large garden area, DVD player in the room, library, pool and table tennis tables and restaurant, but most importantly, excellent English speaking staff and some Japanese too. A little home away from home.

Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors

16 04 2010

We arrived on time at 8.25am and even had an English speaking staff member come around with 10 minutes to go to tell us to get our luggage ready. We came out of the station and there was a large crowd of waiting people. We found our hostel waiting point and got a lift to the Han Tang hostel. The rooms were updated with big beds and clean bathrooms (although, like all of China so far, the shower is over the toilet and TP goes in a bin, not flushed). The staff were friendly and the common areas nice to relax in, although I wish I could have patted the cute rabbits out in the pool table room.

We were fortunate enough to take the last 2 seats on the Terracotta warrior tour that morning, leaving about half and hour later. First stop at reproduction factory that creates statues using the same Li mountain clay as the real warriors. It included the obligatory tour shopping – do I look like I can afford a 2m high terracotta warrior for my garden, and no I don’t care if the price includes shipping and insurance!?

From there to the Terracotta Warrior museum. Pit 2 was almost original- many rows still covered with dirt, and the rows that had been uncovered were filled with destroyed pieces of clay. An army sacked the tomb and stole all the real weapons and destroyed the terracotta warriors. So, later when farmers discovered the pits everything was in ruin. All warriors that people see today have been painstakingly pieced together by archeologists.

Pit 3 was a smaller pit, the control centre and Pit 1 was the one you see photos of- rows and rows of standing warriors, although only about 1000 of the 8000 original warriors have been put back together. Apparently life size, I think they are actually larger than life, especially Chinese life.The tallest is 1.98m (shortest 1.78) and range from 100-300 kg. That’s much bigger than me! The warriors used to be coloured, but have since lost their colour. Although there are thousands, there are actually only 5 types, a soldier, archer, general, officer and horse rider.

Dumpling party at the hostel at night, but we already know how to make gyoza so we just asked the hostel kitchen for rice and vegetables. So many of the vegan restaurants serve predominantly mockmeats that it’s nice to eat some fresh veg now and then.

Temple of Heaven

15 04 2010

Our last day in Bejing. After our afternoon yesterday we were a little tired of the place- the spitting, the dirt, the crowds and the hassling people. Mao’s Mausoleum had a line of tour groups doubled around it so we didn’t worry about visiting it. We walked from our hostel to the Temple of Heaven. It seems like the whole place- all the buildings and gardens- were all built just for animal sacrifice rituals to heaven. The ‘whispering wall’ might have been fun if there weren’t so many other people yelling at the wall…

We took the subway out to a northern district, with the plan on visiting the Summer Palace and having lunch at place in the area. As it was, the restaurant was about a 1km walk from the nearest subway exit (the blocks were really big) and they had minimal English. We finally figured out that it was buffet for 39 yuan each. We took small plates each and helped ourselves to some dishes, but then the staff took it upon themselves to bring over more plates to our table. Obviously, if we can’t speak Chinese, we can’t help ourselves to a buffet! So they put little burners with a stock and tomatoes on our table, then 3 big plates of greens, fungus and tofu to put in the boiling water until it cooks (cook yourself then eat). Then they brought over a plate of 5 cakes for our dessert, followed by a big plate of fruit. We were so stuffed by the end of it!

We felt too full and tired to continue walking all around the Summer Palace so decided to go straight back to the hostel. We collected luggage and washing then headed off again for dinner at Loving Hut. There was meant to another branch close by so we tried to find it but couldn’t and ending up eating at the same place as 2 days ago. They seemed to be happy to have us back and even gave us a take away bag of extra food for our journey, telling us to come back if we are in Beijing again.

Another crowded subway ride and a walk to the West Beijing station to where the overnight train to Xi’an departed. We found our waiting room and boarded our soft sleeper carriage. Fortunately the other passengers above us when straight to sleep and weren’t noisy at all.

So far our idea of China has been dirty, noisy, crowded and pushy with lots of spitting and smoking. On the upside, its cheap and the food is tasty.

Beijing tea scam (welcome to China)

15 04 2010

Yesterday we unfortunately got duped into the Beijing tea scam (you can check a search engine for more info, or simply read on).

We had spent the afternoon walking around the forbidden city and Jingshan park on the hill behind. Upon our return to Tiananmen square, we were greeted in English by a young Chinese couple. In China, when people greet you in English, it’s usually followed by a flurry of Chinese, or an invitation to buy or look at something – we ignore all such people. These guys seemed like they just wanted to chat, and we talked about the culture and language of Australia, Japan, Korea and China. Soon enough they suggested we go and get some tea. Since it was only about 5pm, and the restaurant we had decided to go to for dinner was only a few minutes walk away, we thought, “why not?”

First we had to go to the bank to get some cash, so they waited patiently and then off we headed to an area we had already seen a day or two ago. There the man pointed out a tea shop, which of course Benno could read the character for tea, and up we went to a quaint little tea house. In the centre of the room was a large carved wooden table reminiscent of the one downstairs at Thea, with an image of Buddha carved into it. We chose two types of tea, and then were offered to try a smattering, which we did. The tea was offered in a quasi-ceremonial style, with the benefits of each type of tea explained. Also provided were some cherry tomatoes and crackers. At the end of the process, the bill came out, which included a per-person charge (not what we’d assumed was a per-pot charge) for each of the 8 types of tea we’d tried. It was slightly painful to fork up our share, but didn’t seem completely out of the question.
The couple then followed us most of the way to our dinner destination, before bidding us farewell and good luck. When we were alone again, we couldn’t help but wonder if the couple had been in cahoots with the tea house. We discussed the likelihood of being scammed, and when we got back to our hostel, our fears were confirmed by a quick internet search.

Things that should have set off alarm bells (perhaps if we weren’t both so tired at the time):
1. Being approached in English – we should have known that everyone is trying to sell something
2. Being guided to a tea shop by a couple who said that they themselves were tourists in Beijing
3. Walking through the shop beneath the tea house and not being harrassed by anyone trying to sell to us
4. Being somehow convinced to try 8 teas instead of only two
5. Seeing a fat wad of yuan in the hands of the con artists

Still, the cost of the tea, if it was per pot and not per person, was not implausible. We’d seen more expensive teas in legitimate restaurants earlier, and know that some Taiwanese tea can fetch something like $1,000/kg.

At the end of the day, we didn’t really lose that much money – especially compared to some others we read about online who were duped $300 up to $1000. Given that the scam took about 2 hours to pull off and involved at least 3 people, they would be able to make more money doing legitimate jobs in a western country. So we’re not really that concerned about the money, moreso just the fact that we were duped.

If you’re reading this and headed to China soon, Caveat emptor!
If you fell victim to a similar scam, our commiserations are with you.

PS we had to post this via a text-only browser on a remote server, since our blog (along with other blogs, facebook, youtube, some parts of wikipedia and other things) is blocked by the great firewall of China.