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China

China – China Travel Tips

Some things we noticed

Whilst travelling in South America was challenging at times, it was a walk in the park compared to China. So we thought it might be useful for any future travellers if we jotted down things that we came across. Even as experienced travellers now, it hit us pretty hard

• Obviously the language barrier is the first obstacle. Its not just the verbal language, but the fact that you have no idea of the Chinese characters. Even things that we took for granted such as at least being able to identify a sign for a town or something so you know where you are going. You wont see ‘Pingyao’ written anywhere, its always the Chinese characters for the city – that makes it very hard to find your way around. Also it is very hard to get the pronunciation right so you will be asking where something is and you just get blank looks back

• English is virtually nonexistent, even in the major cities. Don´t expect menus, shops, transport and signs to have English translations or the staff to be working in these places to be able to speak English

• A lot of people use guides to help them travel around China. This is fine and certainly makes it a hell of a lot easier. However travelling without a guide is certainly manageable, you just rely massively on the help of the people at the hostels for booking trains and directing you around. The Hostel staff are most helpful if you can get them to write things down for you in Chinese script. From ‘I am allergic to peanuts’ for Tanya to getting them to write down train destinations/times/requirements. Every time we booked a train ticket, we walked up to the window with everything written down and we were fine, but you couldn’t expect to walk up to the same window and just ask for the ticket without being very good with speaking Chinese

• Make sure you book early for trains. A couple of days in advance is pretty much necessary. China does have a pretty extensive train network, but with 1.3 billion people in the country, there aren’t enough train spaces for the number of people wanting to travel. There aren’t any spots kept back for tourists or late demand, so you need to have a bit of an idea where you are going, or have a couple of days time flexibility. We generally booked our onward train as soon as we arrived in a new place.

• People who can speak a little bit of English will generally be really helpful and really enjoy practicing their English. Even if you are not looking for help, just walking the streets, someone will stop you with ‘Hello, where you from’ then try a few sentences before saying bye.

• The most common time to have someone start speaking to you will be at the tourist destinations as people from the bigger cities like Shanghai will enjoy a bit of English practice

• As we said in the blog posts, people love to get photos taken with you as a westerner. Especially getting their young children to have a photo with you. We did always wonder what happens with these photos, do they print them out and put them on top of their mantle piece and show other people when they come round their place?

• Don’t forget how huge the distances are in China. It’s easy to take this for granted, but travelling between most places will take you at least say 15 plus hours. This makes night trains and busses better for travelling and also saves a nights accommodation!

• Smoking is still common for Chinese. Occasionally, there will be non smoking places in train stations, however these seem to have more smokers in them than not. Trains and busses don’t necessarily have smoking prohibited and spending a full 20 hour night train ride in a confined cabin as a non smoker can be hard going.

• Chinese men and women spit all the time. You notice this pretty quickly walking around the streets hearing people bring up some big ones. At first it is slightly offensive until you realise that it’s just what they do on the street, in busses, on trains, in stations... I never put my bag on the floor again!

• It’s strange but we found that the more dodgy a restaurant looked, the better the food was. Ferdi and Lisa put it best when they said, that if the place has a glass front, don’t eat there. And the best places we found were always Chinese Muslim restaurants!

• Learning a few Chinese words is helpful as the people will really like it when you say something in Chinese to them. The only downside is that then they assume you are fluent in the language and will talk to you for the remainder of the time assuming you are understanding everything they are saying.

• I never ever saw another man wearing shorts, and copped stares from everyone when I was wearing them. We assume its a cultural thing that men never show off their legs, but it was pretty hot at times and everyone would still be walking around in jeans or suit trousers. Oh and open shoes such as thongs/flip flops... they have feet phobia, so this freaks people out, expect plenty of staring if you are wearing them.

• Its easy to see why China is becoming a world power, there is so much building going on, unlike in the western countries in economic troubles. No matter where we went, cranes, scaffolding, bridges, road works were ever present.

• Chinese people are not familiar with maps, even taxi drivers who you would assume are familiar with the layout of their cities... nope! On multiple occasions we showed someone a map to get directions or taken somewhere and had them completely bamboozled as to what they were looking at. The magnifying glasses came out and maps rotated like a spinning wheel.

But all the above made the travelling what it was, challenging but so rewarding! It’s not wrong, it’s just different.

Oh and one last thing, we had a good chuckle at some of the English signs that we managed to find around the place. Here is an assortment to show what we mean.

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Its not so much the sign on this one, more the state of the said toilets in the background of the photo

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That juice was so lame!!

Posted by dbgomes 08:24 Archived in China Tagged china round_the_world Comments (0)

China – Beijing

Confucius Say – In age of tourist, forbidden is no longer.

semi-overcast 25 °C

The modern day capital of China has access to many Chinese icons, the Forbidden City, Great Wall and modern stadiums (thanks to the 2008 Olympics).

We started off having to show the taxi driver a map of where our hostel was when we arrived on the early morning train. The problem is that we don’t think Chinese have ever seen maps of their own cities before. On many occasions we have had dumbstruck taxi drivers with their magnifying glasses looking at maps upside down for 10 minutes before trying to drive in the wrong direction. We eventually got someone to write down the closest metro station so the taxi driver could just take us there.

The first site we visited after checking in, was the Temple of Heaven. More a parkland than just a temple, it had some nice quiet areas around the heaving temples.

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So this is what heaven feels like

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We saw some interesting street food on the way back to the hostel, im going to have to psych myself up for some of these

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Our plan for visiting the Great Wall was to avoid the tourist heavy area at Badaling, and instead go a bit further afield to Mutianyu as our initial plan of walking between two points was scuppered by the closure of the wall at Simatai. We looked at the ways of getting out to Mutianyu, but the busses didn’t seem completely straight forward. We didn’t want to end up with another episode like the Jingdi tomb in Xi’an, so we went with booking the hostel’s tour out there. We only booked it because they said that we would have 3 hours on the wall and there were no ‘shopping trips’ on this tour and with breakfast and lunch included, it practically paid for itself.

Out of the hostel at 7:30am we picked up some more people from another couple of sister hostels and then drove the 1.5 hours out to the wall. Emperor Quin, of terracotta fame, was also the one to build the first wall by linking up the established kingdoms defences. Since then it was rebuilt a number of times. The original sections of wall at Mutianyu date back to 1569 but the sections open to the public have been reconstructed over the last 50 years

There is a chairlift that takes you from the carpark to the actual wall, which saves 40 minutes of uphill walking and means spending more time actually walking on the wall. We first headed off to the closest end of the wall where it has the older sections. After some near vertical stairs we got to the over grown sections of the wall with signs for ‘Not for Tourists’. Ignoring the sign like everyone else, we walked along through the trees growing out of the bricks to a destroyed turret house. Definitely a cool feature of this section being able to see the wall in its true state! We were also incredibly lucky that the smog was non-existent today, we could see for miles as the wall snakes its way along the mountains and ridge lines!

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The wilder side of the wall

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Stretching into the distance

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There weren’t too many other people out at this section of the Wall, certainly less than we were expecting. With a couple of hours left to explore, we headed back to the restored wall to walk as far as we could taking in the great clear skies and views of the wall. It really is an imposing sight as it sits so clear on the landscape. It was hot work, and some steep sections to contend with, but all worthwhile.

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A cool little ride back down to the parking lot on the toboggan and then we had some lunch which was included with the tour and turned out to be much better than we were expecting. There were free dumplings (which we also made ourselves) for dinner at the hostel which we shared with our 3 Dutch roommates.

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On the final day in Beijing we started off seeing the massive expanse of space that is Tiananmen Square. One of the biggest squares in the world, it certainly felt like it, considering that we have also stood in Moscow’s famous Red Square. Then we headed over the road into the Forbidden City. This vast array of palaces, temples and halls was the domain of the Emperors from the Ming to Qing dynasties and only they and the necessary workers were allowed in its walls. Whilst it may have been forbidden to enter for the common man back then, now a days it is one of the big drawcards with thousands of people crammed through the gates on a daily basis.

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The Chinese tour group, always with a particular colour hat

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The entrance gates to the city

Whilst we enjoyed walking through the city, and it certainly is impressive when you consider the history to the place, we got a bit of temple overkill after jostling with the crowds to get a look into the various buildings. The gardens towards the back of the city gave us a slight break from the intensity and we were happy enough to exit the north gates and call it a day for the forbidden city.

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A scrum developing to look inside a temple

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We climbed up the hill that is immediately north of the Forbidden City which gives a great view over the grounds, it’s from here that you can really appreciate the scale of the city! We enjoyed a few moments peace and quiet before heading over to the Lama Temple which is one of the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world where lots of people were offering their 3 incense sticks with each prayer.

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The final stop in Beijing was a walk around the Olympic park. Having seen the Birds Nest Stadium and swimming cube so many times during the 2008 Olympics, it was good to see it in person! There was also a rehearsal going on for some sort of TV add with drummers which was good to watch for a little while. The Olympic park was really chilled and I enjoyed walking around there more than the forbidden city to be honest.

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We got back to the hostel and had a great Peking Duck at a local restaurant as well as a peculiar sounding dish of sweet potato with toffee, but it was much better than it sounds as you dip the potato covered in hot toffee into some cold water and that solidifies the toffee into a crunchy coating! Dog meat was also on the menu, but we stayed clear of that dish. I had finally psyched myself up to have a scorpion skewer but was so full from the dinner, that i couldn’t bring myself to get it by then!

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FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – We were so lucky to get such clear conditions out at the Great Wall, I think that completed our China experience pretty nicely! Its been a challenge to travel around China, but that has probably made it even more memorable!

Tanya – There is sooo much to do in Beijing, its impossible to fit much into just a few days. But we managed to make it to the main attractions which were all amazing. Great wall has to be the highlight!

Posted by dbgomes 05:14 Archived in China Tagged china round_the_world Comments (0)

China – Pingyao

Confucius say, that is old will be new.

sunny 24 °C

When you think of China, you probably imagine thin little alleys with red lanterns hanging from the wooden shop fronts, temple like roof eves, old paved streets and people going about a simple daily existence within a small walled town. Unfortunately, this is a far cry from the socialist concrete housing blocks, traffic congested metropolis that most cities and even towns have become. Thankfully, Pingyao has resisted the winds of change and lets your imagined version of china live on for just a little while longer.

We got in early on from the overnight sleeper, which has probably been the best one so far as we got bottom bunks thanks to booking it back in Guilin. Walking from the train station, we walked through the west gate and in the process must have crossed a time vortex. Because of the time of day, the streets were empty, shops boarded up and soft sunlight casting shadows into the thin streets

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We were too early for checking in at the hostel so we left our bags and went for more of a walk round the streets. We walked to the East gate and along the wall past the corner tower and along to the North gate. At the old gateways, the large stone slabs have big grooves worn into them from the countless number of carts that have been pulled over them in the hundreds of years since they were laid. Apart from a stretch of the south walls which collapsed in 2004, the rest of the walls date back to 1370.

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The town was starting to wake up, but one thing we did notice even with it getting busier, was the lack of horn honking and traffic sounds. Thankfully the centre part of the town is blocked off from traffic, although the residents still jump their bikes & scooters over the railing to ride around. There are a lot of electric bikes and scooters around in china though, so at least these are almost silent when driving around the streets (not so good, for crossing the road and thinking that there is no traffic coming) It certainly felt a lot more peaceful and relaxed compared to everywhere else we had been so far.

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We got back to the hostel and our room was ready, so we freshened up and got a few things sorted before heading back out at dusk to take in more of the town as it came alive with the night time busyness that is common around China. Food stalls and street sellers are all at maximum output when the sun goes down. Getting some photos of the nicely lit streets there was a little girl who was wanting to photo bomb our shots. She was really funny, going and pulling faces and then coming up to look at her photos and going to do it all again.

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A true family vehicle in China

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We had another late bus out of town, so we spent the final day in town just walking around and taking in some more of the quaintness before we hit Beijing.

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FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – Great little stop on the way between two of the big cities. Really was a few days of old world China.

Tanya –It was somewhat of a shock to wander outside the walls in search of an atm to realise that there is a bigger world out there! Otherwise, Pingyao was a beautiful place where we could just wind down and recharge the batteries.

Posted by dbgomes 04:01 Archived in China Tagged china round_the_world Comments (0)

China – Xi’an

Confucius say, Stone soldier look strong, but not if he has hollow legs

sunny 28 °C

You may not have heard of this famous Chinese town, but more than likely you will know all about its top tourist attraction... The Terracotta Army. Xi’an also used to be the ancient capital and it has lots of history to explore.

Our transport from Zhangjiajie started with another sleeper train, although Tanya and I were separated for this journey for some reason. It didn’t matter too much as the Chinese people in Tan’s cabin looked after her with lots of Chinese chatter, smiling and photo taking. The sleeper train was fine as we are starting to get used to the beds, routine and smoke inhalation. However after arriving in AnKang we had to endure a further 5 hours on a jam packed sardine train to Xi’an.

Thankfully we had a nice private room for our few days in Xi’an and the hostel was really nice and cosy with a massive traditional style bed and furniture. It rained when we were walking to the hostel, but after a few hours getting sorted and freshened up, the rain had cleared and taken all the smog with it too! That is a good thing about the rain here in China, they need it to clear the air a bit. So we headed out for the afternoon to get some photos with the clear sky and setting sun

We walked along the main roads towards the Bell Tower (the traditional bells ring to signal day break) and then the Drum Tower (the drums are beaten to signal the end of the day) and it was really nice to be walking around in the warm afternoon sun. We immediately noticed how modern and cosmopolitan Xi’an was compared to the other cities we have been to. There were lots of designer shops with Mercedes, BMW’s, Range Rovers and other high end cars in front of them.

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Bell Tower

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The plan for the evening was simply to walk around the Muslim quarter which is famous for its great food. As Xi’an was the end of the line on the Silk Road connecting the East with the West, it had many immigrant populations and has had a Muslim presence ever since. It was nice to walk through the streets, with so much street food being prepared and sold. There was one stall selling some skewered meat, which looked pretty good and smelt great. The best sign though was the amount of Chinese people lining up to get one, so we joined the line and got a few skewers. Amazing, the best bit of meat we have had since Argentina probably!

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Drum tower

The morning saw some more clear skies, so we took to the city walls for a spot of bike riding. Xi’an has a pretty well preserved city wall that encloses the old city centre. Most of the wall dates from the Ming Dynasty in 1370. The bike hire on the wall gives you 100 minutes to complete the 13.7km circumference for the 40 Yuan fee. The views over the town rooftops was great, the ride a little bumpy from the worn stones and the weather a little on the warm side. We got back with a good 5 minutes spare after a little snack stop on the North walls. A good way to spend the morning.

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They are even watching you up here

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A traditional game with a shuttlecock type of thing

We made an evening trip out to the Big Goose Pagoda for the light show that was to start at 8pm. Its a little bit out of the city walls so we caught a bus out there and got to the fountains just for 8pm. It was a little underwhelming as there weren’t any lights or anything with the fountains, oh well... as we were about to walk away, the speakers came to life and said the show would be starting soon, needless to say, the real thing was much more like we were expecting!!

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The south gate at night

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The dud show

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The real thing

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The following day we planned to go out and see the tomb of Emperor Jingdi. This tomb is supposed to have smaller terracotta figures which depict more of every day life rather than an army like at Emperor Qin’s tombs. The only problem is that getting out to this tomb requires a number of different bus connections. We had done our research and knew we had to get to the end of the #600 bus then change to the #4 bus which only goes past at 10:50 or 2pm. We got the 600 fine, and hopped off at the last stop around 10:30. I felt like the bus stop should have been in the opposite direction, but I checked the board over the road and that didn’t show number 4 on it either. Almost at 10:50 precisely, we saw the number 4 drive past on the opposite side of the road, not stop at the bus stop and drive through the lights! Crap! Not really wanting to hang around for 3 hours, we decided to put that trip down as just a China experience and go back to the hostel and wonder around Xi’an some more.

We saved the highlight of the city for the last day as our train wasn’t departing until 11pm. Firstly some background, after taking the throne of his kingdom during the 7 warring states period in 246BC at age 13, Emperor Qin was victorious and reunified China into one country for the first time and immediately set out in building his mausoleum and army of terracotta soldiers to protect him in his afterlife. Taking 10 years to build and using 700,000 workers, he died before it was completely finished and was buried with his army being sealed from the world. The army is well known for the intricate details of each soldier with no 2 being the same, and details right down to the tread on their shoes being completed. The tombs fell out of memory from civilisation and it was only when some farmers were drilling a well in the countryside in 1974 that they pulled up a lot of terracotta pieces. Since that discovery, the first pit has been surveyed and 2 other pits discovered in the vicinity.

We had read that it is good to start off in the smaller pit 3, then to pit 2 and finish with the largest pit 1 to top off the day. Pit 3 is very small and is thought to be the command centre due to the number of high ranking figures in this pit. It only has 68 pottery figures in it but given it was our first look at the warriors, it was really interesting still.

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Why is everyone losing their heads round here!?

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Seeing the pit without the soldiers pieced together is just as cool as the reconstructed figures

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Pit 2 is still very untouched with only a couple of the rows having been excavated. There were lots of the kneeling archer warriors found in this pit though, and it is good to see what the ground looks like before it is dug up with the ancient wooden beams that once held the roof aloft sagging into each row.

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Jack... I can’t feel my legs!!

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Well i can’t feel anything

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The massive Pit 1 did not fail to impress either, definitely worth finishing off in this one having had the most excavation done here there are hundreds of soldiers stood in formation. Even though there has been a lot dug up, it was still surprising how much is still uncovered even in this pit. Some archaeologists were there doing some more digs and sorting, and this has been going on since the 70´s! They estimate that there will be around 6000 warriors in this pit alone!

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I feel like just another face in the crowd

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I think we found the original exponent of the ‘planking’ phenomenon

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Well and truly impressed with the warriors, we made a quick visit into the museum which has all items that have been discovered in the emperor’s mausoleum and surrounding lands. There were lots of other types of terracotta figures buried around the massive land area of the tomb of the emperor. We left the site of the terracotta warriors and passed away the few hours at the hostel before yet another sleeper train.

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Amazing detail, right down to the soles of their shoes

FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – I have seen the terracotta army on many documentaries over the years, but it didn’t stop the hairs standing on end when i looked out over the pit with all the soldiers standing there looking back at me.

Tanya – Xi’an had plenty to offer from biking around the city walls, visiting the terracotta army to just wandering around the Muslim quarter, it was a fantastic visit.

Posted by dbgomes 10:17 Archived in China Tagged china round_the_world Comments (1)

China – Zhangjiajie

Confucius say, stupid man no match for smart monkey

overcast 26 °C

When James Cameron was planning the scenery for the movie Avatar, he or some of his crew apparently came out to Zhangjiajie and had to look no further for inspiration. That’s what the tourism agency and the government are saying anyway, with the area recently being named the Halleluiah Mountains after the film. We figured we would come and have a look for ourselves.

It was our first experience of a Chinese sleeper train, but only after spending 2 hours on a normal seat taking us to the town of LiuZhou before making the change to the sleeper train. On both occasions, we waited in the waiting area of the stations as the large crowds gathered. When an announcement comes over the speaker, everyone gets up and pushes forward. The Chinese don’t like to queue at the best of times, but taking a train is an invitation for a mosh pit that any rock concert would die for! Much pushing, yelling and barging follow as a crowd of what seems like 400 people try to fit through 2 single person gates in the fence. It seemed a bit pointless to us, given that we had allocated seats anyway but maybe in the lowest class carriages, there are no allocated seats or something and that’s why they all try to get through fast.

Once through the gates and walking to the train, there are the ‘runners’ that you have to watch out for as you try to find your carriage. The sleeper carriages have a lower, middle and upper bunk with a table in the middle of another 3 making a cosy 6 person alcove. As we were booking this trip rather late, we were stuck with the cheapest beds of the 3, the upper bunk. True, headroom is an issue, but actually we liked the top as it gave us access to our big backpacks on the luggage rack above the walkway, and it felt a bit more private without having people looking down on you. We had some pot noodles for dinner, which everyone seems to have as their staple dinner while on a train.

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The train was pretty good in all fairness, a comfy enough bunk and when you first hop on the train a lady comes and collects your ticket and puts it in a folder so that she knows what stop you need to get off at and will come and wake you 30mins before you get there. The worst thing though, is having no restriction on people smoking in the carriages... smoke rises, and I felt like I had smoked a whole pack by the time we got off.

We hopped off at Zhangjiajie station and had directions to walk to the bus stop in front of a big hotel. We found it a bit further away than we were expecting carrying our big bags, then got the number 10 bus around to our hostel. We found the building straight away, but it was a big complex and we walked the whole way around showing a number of people the address in our notebook before eventually finding the hostel. We got lots of looks on the bus, maybe foreigners are less common here, but it felt like being a zoo exhibit

After dumping our bags, we thought that we would head straight out to the park to make the most of the high entrance fee that we knew we would have to pay. As we got to the hostel desk to ask for help a German couple also were hoping to get the same information. The receptionist said that she would tell us together and after getting the lowdown on how to get there, we decided to go out there with Ferdinand and Lisa. We had a good chat on the 40 minute bus ride out to the entrance and got some good tips from them as they had got to Zhangjiajie from Beijing, so had been to all the places that we would visit on our way North.

At the national park, we paid the 246 Yuan ($40) per person park fee, but were happy to hear that it now lasts for 3 days, rather than the 2 days we had read. Stepping though the gates and the first thing we encountered was not the amazing scenery, but the monkeys, loads of them! We had gotten a couple of banana’s from a kiosk on the way in, and were carrying them in a plastic bag. One monkey looked particularly interested in us, and we figured that he was maybe after our food. We put them away in our backpack only to see 5 seconds later a couple of monkeys snatch plastic bags from the Chinese tourists walking behind us. The things is, everyone saw it happen and had a good laugh as the monkeys took all the food, then it happened again, and again. As the title of the blog suggests, these monkeys were definitely smarter than some of the stupid tourists walking around this park!

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The monkey happy with the fruits of his labour...

We climbed up the 3900 steps from the entrance up to the top of the mountains. There is a cable car that makes the journey up to the top, however with all the Chinese tourists taking this easier option, the walk was much more peaceful and quite. We stopped at many look outs on the way up and could tell when we were nearing the top as the noise from the crowds got louder.

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Over the course of 3 days in the park, we must have been asked for our photo’s taken nearly 100 times. Ferdinand was asked the most thanks to his blue eyes and fair hair! It was pretty funny, as you would see the Chinese girls particularly whisper to each other then get the courage to ask for a picture, and then when we said yes, they would all scream and run around to get in the picture. But it wasn’t restricted to girls either, on the way back to the bus on the first day two blokes started chatting to Ferdi and me. When we got to the parking lot, they asked for a photo with us both. One of them said, ‘You are very handsome’ when we were getting the picture taken, and then the other said ‘you are very tall’ when it was his turn... After 3 days, you kind of get a bit tired of it and just want to get on with your own sightseeing, but we always had a chuckle between the 4 of us!

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At the top of the walk, we quickly left the cable car crowds and went for a walk around the circuit path. Around every corner we got to a new lookout and another wow moment, as the sheer cliffs and towering limestone karsts looked down into the forest below! The pictures simply don’t do this place justice!

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Ok then...

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We ended up having to rush down the path again to make the last 6pm bus for what was a great first day and we were only able to see one little bit of the whole park! Looks like we will need to make the most of the 3 day pass! We had an average dinner at one of the places in town that night and made plans for what to see the following day.

We picked up some great street food in the morning for our breakfast and to take out to the park for lunch and started off on the Golden Whip stream walk.

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Rubbing feet makes you fit, apparently.

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I don’t think this lady is rubbing her feet...

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It was a nice walk by the stream, once we got away from the tour groups and the stupid ones who go and stand in front of the monkeys for a photo and are surprised to have their bags ripped from their hands (even despite us telling them that the monkeys were after their food). We ended up at fork in the road and decided to head uphill via the steps, as this usually means you get away from the crowds. It was a lot more humid today and after a sweaty climb, we reached the top for more great views.

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I’m not sure Lisa is so keen on being carried up the mountain

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We circled around at the top of the walk to take in the views and the natural bridge (named No 1 Natural Bridge in the World on the maps). Although this area is also accessible to the tour groups thanks to the newly built elevator (which might mean that the park loses its UNESCO classification) so the paths around the top were heaving with other people, somewhat making us rush around to avoid the loud annoying groups.

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The Avatar branding was evident around the place, although I doubt that any rights were obtained from the studios!

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The Number 1 bridge!

We ended up getting stuck at the top as we thought that there would be a path down to the bottom of the elevator, where we could get a bus from. It turns out that the elevator is the only way down, and out of principle we didn’t want to take a ride in the elevator, so we had 1 hour to get back to the entrance retracing our path that took us all day to come up... We walked at a pretty quick pace and got to the buses at 6:10, but luckily there were still a couple of buses waiting around. We had a great dinner that night in town, at a shop that looked pretty dodgy from the outside, but these often tend to be much better when it comes to their food!

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We made better plans for a final ½ a day in the park as we both had trains to catch that night and didn’t want to be like the last couple of days where we almost got stuck. We went to a different part of the park in the north, and had a great day with the 4 of us seemingly having the path to ourselves.

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Spot the newest recruit to the local fire team

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We loved messing around in front of this waterfall getting a few martial arts shots for Ferdi

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We had a quick last meal back in town at the same place that we found last night, they made great handmade noodles fresh for each dish. Having made some great walking buddies over the last couple of days, we wished Ferdy and Lisa all the best and got a taxi out to the station for our train (although the taxi driver didn’t seem to know where the train station was, even when we were showing him on the map!!)

FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – Another great stop off, the landscape around here was out of this world. Wether or not Zhangjiajie was used to inspire Avatar, its pretty hard to ignore the similarities when you see the pictures of this place when the low clouds make the peaks look like they are floating. Had some great laughs with Ferdi and Lisa which made the 3 days even better. This is one of the most highly visited places by the Chinese, so it’s inevitable to share it with lots of people, but taking the harder options always got us some reprieve.

Tanya – Zhianjiajie was a very worthwhile addition to the itinerary. It really was indescribably beautiful and when we managed to avoid the heaving crowds and locate our position on the very not to scale map, it was very enjoyable.

Posted by dbgomes 06:30 Archived in China Tagged china round_the_world Comments (0)

China – Dragons Backbone Rice Terraces

Confucius say – for man to make rice, he must make land look nice

overcast 25 °C

Feeling pretty confident in getting around in China now, we decided to attempt an overnight hike out at the ‘Dragons Backbone’ rice terraces. These are said to be most accessible from Guilin where we arrived after an hour long bumpy and thrilling bus trip.

The guidebooks all say Guilin is not that great a place, and that was just the impression we got on arrival. Its just another big city with not too much on offer. On the upside, we had some planning to do before heading out to the rice terraces for some hiking so we had the afternoon to sort out logistics and pick up supplies. We also managed to book an advance train ticket for 2 days time (necessary as they sell out pretty quickly) then still had time to wander around the night markets.

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We started out catching a bus downtown to an alternative bus station where we joined a massive queue for tickets and by the time we got our ticket, earlier departures had been sold so we had over an hour wait for the next bus. Once our bus was ready it filled up and then set off, but once around the corner it stopped outside the gates to let on another dozen people at what looked like the same price as us. The 26 seater bus was now at 38 with people on stools in the aisle and all over the engine bay. Then we set off for the usual thrilling bus ride, Dan almost had the craziest overtaking manoeuvre on film.

It was a long ride which took about 3 hours before we were dropped at the side of a dusty road at HePing village. We were not too concerned as we were promptly approached by people offering to take us to Dazhai. Dazhai is the smaller of the 2 main rice terrace villages, from what we had read we wouldn’t have to run the gauntlet of souvenir shops on the way through like at the bigger village of PingAn.

We joined another 3 Chinese tourists for the minivan ride and soon arrived at the Dazhai checkpoint. There weren’t as many touts here as expected and we got started on our hike pretty quickly, following some signs taking us the long way around the village out to one of the look out points. Maps for the terraces are not very good. The best one we had was on our Iphone - a picture of a map we had seen at the hostel.

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Happy with the signs at the beginning of the trek, we felt pretty confident. Then we soon reached a small village with about 4 paths to choose from. Luckily while looking around we saw someone who confirmed that 3 (look out point 3) was up a set of stairs so we continued on. Some of the Chinese tourists were keen to practice their English with us so we spoke with a few people on our way up to the lookout point. Others were simply content with yelling out a ‘helloooo’.

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After seeing the lookout number 3 we asked a tour guide to point out how to get to lookout point 1, he showed us on a stone map and pointed to go behind a big building. We took his advice but weren’t sure where to go next so we asked a lady hanging out her washing. She said to continue around a hill and keep going (this is what we got from the hand signals). The stone path immediately ran out but we could follow a small track which took us onwards.

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We looked back at the lady and she signalled to continue so off we went. We were a little unsure when the road forked into 3 but used logic and opted for the high road. We had some great views, but when the cobwebs started getting thicker and we started hacking at the path we decided that we may end up staying the night in a rice paddy if we didn’t turn back. We tried another track that had a stone path although this involved straddling a giant rock over a stream, but this soon ran out too.

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Where the hell are we

We backtracked to the fork in the road and tried to figure out which other option we should take. Dan went for a look down the lower track. While we were discussing what to do we heard some voices – woohoo! We went towards some other people and discovered that another 4 tourists from Shanghai were lost too. They said that we would have to keep going towards the sun for 1.5 to 2 hours to get to look out point number 1. We decided to just go back to the last spot as we didn’t want to get stuck before nightfall with nowhere to shelter. The others were happy to have a guide! The long and short of it is that we ended up following another few people back to Tian Tou village on a well marked track which had been our planned destination for the night.

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We were glad to make it there before dark and were lucky enough to find some accommodation (although other people had been worried about us as their hotel was full). It was much cheaper than we had read about, but then we did go to the smaller village and the facilities were basic (shared facilities of cold shower directly over squat toilet).

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View from the room

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The traditional women roam around on the paths making a living carrying tourists luggage. Although we carried our own, they didn’t seem to be short of work. These ladies are also famous for their long hair which they never cut, they will even show you for the right price.

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There were some Chinese celebrations going on and we kept hearing firecrackers going off. We also saw a rather odd procession go through the village, also setting off firecrackers. From what we understood, the holiday had something to do with remembering ancestors. Further along we saw loads of ribbons attached to what we assume were tombs.

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This kids ‘Frullet’ is bang on trend in China

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We saw a bit of a sunset and got up the next day in time for sunrise but it was a bit misty.

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The hiking all around the JinKeng terraces was fantastic. We made our way to lookout point 2 first thing in the morning and spent quite a while looking for the path across to the Ping'An terraces. The people around here were very helpful and we often came across Chinese tourists who wanted to speak with us, which was helpful for asking for directions. We were told that it was too far to hike across and we should go by car. We were also told that a guide could show us a shortcut for $100US!! No thanks! We just kept looking and comparing maps that didn’t even match each other. One thing we have learned is that you can’t rely on maps around here! But soon enough we came across a sign that said PingAn, this was a relief as we knew we had 3-5 hours hiking ahead of us and needed to allow time for getting lost!

Once we got onto this path we had a few intersections to take an educated guess at but seemed to be headed in the right direction. It was at least an hour before we passed a local man who confirmed that we were headed to PingAn (which we had learned to pronounce correctly by now). So we were happy we were at least on the right path this time.

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This section really did have some of the best views and it was great to experience them on our own.

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We continued walking and passed through some smaller villages. We had to ask for directions as best we could a few times to go the right way out of the villages. We were also offered shelter from the rain but had our ponchos on and decided to continue as the rain never seemed to last for too long. A bit later in the morning we started to see a few tourists walking in the opposite direction so were reassured that we were on the right track.

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Soon enough we made it to PingAn. The views here were beautiful too but photos included roads and houses. The area was not so much for hiking as it was paths between souvenir shops. The village was quite large and we had a bit of a wander around.

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Hard day at the office for the transporters – not many unfit people to be carrying around

We found a youth hostel which had bus times pinned up on the wall inside. We opted to travel out to Longsheng and then transfer to Guilin. This seemed easier than the roadside option as we were worried that the busses would be full and not pick us up (even for an aisle seat). It was a long detour though as we had another long wait at Longsheng for the next available bus. We had a proper bus this time though and they even gave out water – a luxury perk it seems. I was lucky enough to be sat next to bird-flu kid who though it was hilarious to wake me up every time I started to nod off. I wished the kid would just fall asleep. My wish came true after he had a bout of travel sickness almost all over my feet!! But the bus only took 2 hours and we arrived back at our hostel in Guilin sooner than we expected. It was a great hostel and they wrote down some helpful Chinese for us to help us book our onwards train journeys.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Tanya –It was a good challenge finding our way out to the terraces to start with and then the decision to hike between the 2 fields and stay at a village in between was great. Never a dull moment!

Daniel – Never one to like turning back on a trek, maybe this time it wasn’t such a bad thing. When we were in the village I could see where we were headed on the little track, and it wasn’t in this direction. The rice fields are an amazing feat of engineering over the successive generations of farmers.

Posted by dbgomes 07:09 Archived in China Tagged china round_the_world Comments (0)

China – Yangshuo

Confucius say, Many big mountains bring many small man

semi-overcast 28 °C

So, China here we come! After negotiating one of the tougher border crossings going around we were looking to head up to Yangshuo in the Guangxi province. We didn’t have much information to go on for getting up there, just a few sketchy details from some internet searches. Yangshuo has been one of the first things on our list for China, along with the wall and terracotta army. You will see from the photo’s to follow why this was the case...

Before we get onto the amazing Yangshuo, lets go back to the drama of actually getting there. Catching the MTR (train) out from Hong Kong to the border with the Chinese city of Shenzhen, the crossing was surprisingly uneventful but we knew that the next part would be a lot more difficult. We were hoping to take a sleeper bus up to Yangshuo and from what we had read, we needed to take a set of stairs over to the bus station by taking an immediate left turn out of the immigration building. We spotted the said stair case and walked along the footbridge where we had people saying ‘Hello Guilin, Yangshuo!!!’. We vaguely remembered reading that there are people who will help you find your bus at the end of this bridge so we said Yangshuo to one of the blokes and he nodded and started to wave to follow him. Not quite trusting yet we asked what time and received blank looks from him. Pointing to our watches helped and he wrote 13:00 on a piece of paper (currently 11:30). We were pretty sure we read that the only busses leave at around 20:00 so we asked for that and he nodded and waved us to follow him again.

At this point it was starting to feel a little dodgy, we couldn’t communicate at all and travelling in South America was starting to look like a walk in the park. We considered the 13:00 option if indeed there was a bus at that time, and it would mean that we should get into Yangshuo around 10pm rather than 5am with the 8pm bus. We tried to tell him that we wanted the 13:00 bus but he would only understand if we wrote it down, he wasn’t hanging around to be writing anything down though. We followed him to a little shop counter where he spoke to the man behind it and then we were presented with a ticket for 2 people for the 20:00 bus to Yangshuo for 320 Yuan (AU$50) each. One thing we hadn’t managed to find is exactly how much we should be paying to get to Yangshuo although we were assuming this was the official bus that we had read about so thought the price would be fixed. We were shown 19:30 on some paper and pointed to the ground meaning to meet back here before getting the bus.

We walked away in a daze, ticket in hand, for a bus time we didn’t want, not 100% sure where we were headed and wondering if we had been ripped off in the process. We tried to take a seat on a wall but saw a man walking towards us with a monkey on a leash and decided to hide somewhere before we got shown all the monkeys tricks. A lot of people asked us if we were going to Guilin or Yangshuo as we found some refuge in a tucked away corner of the plaza. We then spotted something on the other side that looked more promising for spending the coming 7 hours in... the magical golden arches that belong to McDonalds!! We ended up sitting in there for the majority of the day as it was quiet, clean and hassle free until we got some dinner at a noodle place before meeting back at the booking office. Thankfully there were a few other gringos waiting around too which improved our outlook. While we were sat there, three girls walked up to the counter and offered 200 Yuan each for their ticket which the man accepted as they went to walk away. Guess our 320 Yuan was a bit over the top, but at least it looks like we are getting there.

At 8pm we walked away from the booking counter as a group, under the station and through a traffic tunnel with streams of cars driving past us. On exiting of the tunnel we waited by the road for 10 minutes before a small little mini bus arrived and we were told to get in... Seriously, this is our sleeper bus?? One of the other gringos understood from the man that we were just being taken to the proper bus. At the main bus station we hopped into what finally seemed to be the right bus which we can only describe as unlike any other bus we have seen.

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Bunk beds in three rows (window, window and down the middle of the bus). I was on one of the upper bunks next to a window, and lets just say that the beds are not made for the Yao Ming´s (7 foot 6 inch basketball player) of China. Tanya was on the bottom bunk at the rear of the bus where the two aisles are also made into beds so that there are a cosy 5 people along the back.

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When the bus finally pulled off, it was actually not such a bad ride. I was in the foetal position for the most part, but had a good sleep none the less. At various point throughout the night though, when the bus was about to pull into another stop they cranked out this Chinese rap song at full volume to wake everyone up. Although the whole song was in Chinese, it started off with the English lyrics ‘Girl you got a sexy body, show me that sexy body’. It was pretty funny, every time those words started to come over the speakers you just heard all the westerners groan and put their pillows over their heads for the onslaught of noise that followed.

We got our ‘wakeup call’ around 5am when the bus pulled into Yangshuo. The hostel had said in their confirmation email to beware that there will be other people waiting at the bus stop to offer a taxi ride then will take you to their hostel instead of where you want to go. Armed with this advice, we politely refused the help offered by the few people there and instead trusted in our Iphone GPS to walk to the accommodation. The first problem was that we didn’t get dropped off at the bus station, just by the side of the road. Second problem was that the GPS was out by about 100meters, so when we started walking along the street that it said we were on, we were actually heading the wrong way. By the time the GPS said we were in the middle of the river, we figured something was wrong. It was still pitch dark and we had no reference points, so we found another hotel and got a map from in there. We now had it all figured out, when as we were walking back, one of the original hawkers from the bus stopped us again. When we said where we were going, he said that it was a very long way away and he can get a taxi for us. We said no, but the taxi rocked up and we figured that we might just take it to get there and get some more sleep. 60 Yuan was the price, but we settled on 40 even though that seemed like it was still over the odds. When we were in the back of the taxi, the original bloke started to try to get us to go on a sunrise boat trip down the river. 10 more minutes of not taking up his offer and we finally got dropped off at our hostel, shown up to our room and waking up again at 10am (to register our Visa within 24hrs of entry that is part of the requirements).

Phheww, quite an experience but we are here now and can relax a bit. Before we even went outside, we drew the curtains open to be confronted by a massive wall of rock behind the hostel. When we stepped out of the hostel we were welcomed with a town (little by Chinese standards) nestled between a number of large karst peaks in the landscape.

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We walked down to the river which gave us more great views before heading back through the town

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We walked through the park in the centre of town which was really cool to see all people going about their own business relaxing on their afternoon. People were doing some fishing, playing badminton, doing Taichi and plenty playing cards or dominoes. It was some pretty serious stuff with people slapping the table really hard when they laid their card or domino. It was really funny to watch! We walked up to the top of one of the karsts in the park and got some views over the town.

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We went back into town to get some food at a place which did some good dumplings. While we were eating our food, they had the TV on and it was extremely interesting to watch the Military News... Presented by a male and female host in full military uniform, every news story was a propaganda feature on something with the military. Although not able to understand what was being said, the stories were self explanatory – a new fleet of jet fighters, training exercises that have gone well and the most recent military games where soldiers were changing tank tracks and guns in relay teams. So funny. After dinner we walked back to the hostel and all the karsts around town get lit up at night time making for some more great photo opportunities

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The next morning we headed out of the city on bikes to get away from the beeping horns and busy streets. Definitely a great decision as we rode along some village roads by the Yu Long river. The scenery was amazing even with the ‘fog’ (more than likely pollution) making the mountains a little obscured.

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Although the hostel said that the road is marked with signs in English, we only saw one at the very start and was basically guessing from our very simple and not to scale map that the hostel gave us. Our destination to the north was the Dragon Bridge. We got lucky with our decisions until we got up to a main road. There were two other westerners on bikes looking lost as well so we compared maps even though they were only somewhat alike and both not to scale, and headed left onto the main road. We had picked correctly and after going through the bigger town and risking our lives sharing the road with the maniac Chinese drivers we eventually got to the Dragon Bridge.

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Cormorant fisherman, the only one who looked like he was actually fishing for fish not tourists

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Taking a break for some snacks at the bridge we started chatting with the other lost couple. Cory and Amy are both Americans who teach in Hong Kong and were on a short break up in the region. We both wanted to ride back to Yangshuo on the other side of the river, so we decided that 4 heads are better than 2 when trying to find your way around these villages and agreed to stick together.

The ride back down the river was even better than the morning, this other side of the river is less populated and it had some really small villages that looked a lot more traditional still farming and going about their daily activities without even looking at us when we cycled by. We started out following a track from the bridge that took us onto a thin single walkway by some farmer’s fields and the river. It was so great to walk along these tracks with the bikes, not 100% sure where we were, but feeling like we were away from the hoards of Chinese tourists that were in town.

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We found our way back to Amy and Cory’s hostel which was in the countryside so we decided that after about 4 hours of bike riding it was a good time to stop for lunch which was a really good meal. We hit the road soon afterwards to try and make it out to the Moon Hill which looked pretty good on the maps. Another hour or so of country tracks, more unbelievable scenery and lots of map checking got us onto the main road for the tourist spots.

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After initially cycling straight past the entrance to Moon Hill, we found it again but were approached by an old lady. She asked if we were going to the hill and when we said yes, she said that the official entrance price of 20 yuan ($2.50) was too expensive, and she could get us there for 5 Yuan each. We just had to go with her to another entrance. We said no a few times, and she even produced a little note book of testimonials (in english and even spanish) from people saying that they trust her and she was very kind. We eventually decided to go with her down the road and another old lady was there who took us up a little mud track that eventually hopped over some barbed wire and onto the official steps. We paid our 5 Yuan each to her and went off half expecting to find the pay station around the corner. Everything was fine though and after a sweaty climb up the steps arrived at the hole in the mountain that is Moon Hill. The views from the top were sensational with the mist clearing for the afternoon and being able to see so much of the landscape around us.

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We got back into town hoping to catch some sunset views from one of the hills.

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Our activity for the evening was extremely touristy, but the Sanjie Liu Impression show looked alright from the posters around town, we figured we would give it a chance. Not expecting much when we rocked up to join the unorganised chaos of thousands of Chinese tour groups entering the gates, the show turned out to be pretty impressive. Supposedly this is choreographed by the same person that did the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony, either way, the combination of lit up mountains, a perfectly reflecting lake, hundreds of bamboo boat men, ribbons, flames, lights, music and floating sets all perfectly timed together exceeded anything we were expecting.

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On our final day in town we wanted to get a boat on the Li River as this is supposed to be the best scenery in the area. It would have to be pretty amazing to be topping what we saw the prior day. We tried bartering with the sellers down on the river for a trip, but we were in town over a Chinese long weekend, so there weren’t any boats going up river today, so instead we opted for the hotels option which took us on a bus up the best area for a boat ride, all for less than what we could find out on the street anyway. The bamboo boat ride lived up to all the hype, with the stretch of river having big peaks right next to the water. It was also the scene of our first experience with Chinese tourists that have become common place at all the sites we visit. At one particular point I was taking a photo of the landscape when a little girl with her mother said hello and then asked if they could get a picture with me. Multiple angles and photos later we hopped back on the boat and thought it was pretty funny, how little we knew that this would become a common thing over the next few weeks.

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We got a short bus ride up to the bigger city of Guilin the following morning ready to go out to see the Dragons Backbone Rice terraces and put a few kilometres into our walking shoes again.

FINAL THOUGHTS
Daniel – As far as tourist destinations go in China, Yangshuo is one of the most visited by the locals and fending off the hordes of tour groups is something that goes with it. But even so, the area is so stunning, that if you go just a little way from the town, you get both the amazing scenery as well as some peace and quiet to just take it all in.

Tanya – Well we sure threw ourselves in at the deep end trying to travel around in China first, simply by figuring it out when we walked across the border to the mainland! But we made it to Yangshuo and were well rewarded with the stunning scenery in such a beautiful place. We had a great fun here and its been a great intro to China.

Posted by dbgomes 02:24 Archived in China Tagged china round_the_world Comments (0)

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