Leaving South East Asia
The last blog post we promised a post on Inle Lake in Myanmar and on our time Thailand (Joe insisted that he write these posts, I’m not sure how long you will be waiting). Since then we have travelled through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and now we are in China, where frequent updates to our Instagram or Facebook are a little trickier. We miss the ease of Googling and Bing is the worst.
We are half way through our trip and the last five months had somewhat prepared us for travel in China, which to be honest with you, is the hardest place we have travelled to date (excluding India, maybe, though anywhere and anything is easier than India). Travelling around South East Asia, we had come to rely on and take for granted, the number of people who speak English (and countries where there is English signage everywhere or where they use a roman alphabet such as Vietnam). When we arrived at the immigration centre between Hanoi and Nanning, it dawned on us how different travelling in China would be. The staff at the border didn’t even speak English and we waited a very long time in country limbo as multiple people intensely scrutinised our passports and then once we were stamped in, we had a very thorough bag search done. Subsequently, we missed our connecting bus and had a two hour wait for the next one to fill up. While we waited for our bus to take us onwards to Nanning, I used the remaining Vietnamese data on my sim to find the best Chinese translator app and downloaded Baidutrans, which has allowed us to have lengthy conversations and translate menus. The translator apps are really good here, we have been checked into our hotel rooms many times with the assistance of them. Domestic tourism is so big in China that the effort to know English is not necessary for most people in the tourism industry. The way I see it it’s the same attitude that people have in Australia to learning languages, there isn’t any pressing need to speak another language as it isn’t going to directly affect livelihoods (even in Tourism, although with the growing number for Chinese tourists, knowing Mandarin would be mighty beneficial).
The bus that took us to the border of the China was a deluxe, super comfortable minivan, the seats were leather and wide, there was faux suede trim and wood panelling throughout. The bus that took us from the border was old, the seats narrow and smelt of cigarette smoke and inside the bus they played on loop a video depicting horrific, probably fatal bus crashes, with a friendly animated bear (reminiscent of Roof Seal) incentivising you to wear a seat belt. We never need incentive to wear our seat belts, but you better believe we made sure they were properly fastened.
Our first night in Nanning we actually left our hotel room and (thats one up on India, we spent our first night in India in our hotel room and were scared the the vegetarian club sandwich we ordered would kill us) we ate McDonalds for dinner, it wasn’t even that easy to order, but it was late and we didn’t yet know what type of places to order food from, nor did we see any picture menus. Also Joe loves McDonalds. I hate being hungry.
Nanning didn’t really have much to offer in terms of easily accessible tourist sites so we went downtown and walked around their malls. A few people stopped Joe to have pictures – the bearded tall white man – quite the novelty, especially for babies who seem to be transfixed by his funny face. It was the first time since being in India six years ago that this had happened. On the food front, we had dumplings and spring onion pancakes for breakfast, McDonalds again for lunch and then instant noodles for dinner (we had a nap and then woke up and could not find any place open near us).
Our first bullet train experience from Nanning to Kunming was exciting and gave us a real sense of the vastness of China. We passed countless small villages, each with half a dozen high rise buildings, lots of corn and rice being grown all within an incredibly epic landscape of karst mountains and picturesque gorges; there were also a handful of nuclear power plants dotting the landscape. The train was very clean, the temperature just right and we had our passport and tickets checked no more than five times. I also bought a large takeaway container filled with grapes for about $5 AUD, they were good though.
Our arrival at the Kunming South Train Station was followed by an hour long taxi ride (we didn’t realise we were so far away from downtown). Chinese roads are really well maintained and laid out; however the enforcement of, and knowledge of basic road rules seem to be non-existent. We swerved around cars that had decided to stop in the middle of highway, presumably to stretch their legs, go to the toilet and let passengers get out. Lanes were merely suggestions as countless cars tried to get in front of each other, overtaking on the left and right, the horn incessantly honking with every manoeuvre. As our windows were down, I’m unsure if the A/C is a chargeable extra or if drivers don’t feel the need for it, we had the exhaust from fellow road users rushing in. We dug our seatbelts out from deep within the seat and ensured they were fastened.
After such an exhilarating ride we arrived at the location of our accommodation, a serviced apartment we booked through booking.com. To summarise the ordeal that followed I have inserted our currently pending review for Kunming IC Holiday SOHO Junyuan Serviced Apartments on Booking.com. We gave it 2.9 out of 10.
“We arrived at the place to find that the apartment that we booked weeks ago was no longer available for us (thanks for the advance notice!) so we walked around for a while with the reception guy and eventually ended up at the same building in a random room that was nothing like what we had booked (though we still payed the same amount stupidly) the room didn’t have a kitchenette/fridge and smelled like sewage crossed with cigarette smoke, not very pleasant. The room overall was very shabby with random exposed wires etc and a very run down feeling. The kettle didn’t work, the key card didn’t open the door downstairs so you had to wait for someone to be walking out. At 3 in the morning on the first night someone tried to get into the room and damaged the door handle so we weren’t able to open it again to get back in, when we explained this to the receptionist guy he was trying to say that we would have to pay for its repair which we flat out refused to do. Overall this was the most unpleasant accommodation experience that we have had in the last 5+ months of travel and we don’t say that lightly. If you are travelling to Kunming do yourself a favour and stay in a place a bit closer to green lake or around in somewhere that is an actual hotel or Hostel.”
So there was that. But apart from our terrible (and stinky) accommodation we had a great time in Kunming thanks to our friend from Adelaide (and unofficial tour guide) Tim! Tim has been living in Kunming for a while now teaching English and was absolutely fantastic, he spoke great Mandarin, showed us how the buses work, took us out to eat delicious vegetarian Yunan food and we even spent one night playing laser tag and bowling with his friends.
Tim also accompanied us to The Shilin Stone Forest, where spent the day walking 18km around the “AAAAA” (China’s numerous “scenic spots” are rated in As for some reason) Chinese Tourist attraction. We walked to the entrance rather than buy the 20 CNY bus ticket (which included buses within the park and a ticket back – if you do buy it), it took perhaps 20-30 minutes. Once in the park we had our picnic of non-“breadtop” treats and walked and walked and walked. We were so tired at the end of the day the we paid for the bus back to the park entrance to take the bus back to Kunming.
We had a day of “retail therapy” on our last day in Kunming where we replenished our wardrobes with cooler climate appropriate staples such as jeans, Joe replaced his favourite lost shirt (not lost, just left in Tonsai) and we went to STARBUCKS (dirty, so dirty, so desperate) only to find four floors up a wonderfully stylish café called Mellower (we drank coffee there too, and bought some beans, good beans).
We caught an overnight sleeper train (hard sleeper = 3 tier bunks, 6 to a “room”) to Lijiang. We were able to use the “silk” sleeping bag liners we bought which turned out to be a great purchase as black gunk rained down from the A/C vent onto our beds when the train started. I had the top bunk (and have for each train we have taken), which provides not enough room to sit up and I can just bend my legs. I also have to use considerable upper body strength and coordination to manoeuvre up there as the two steps on the ladder, doesn’t provide quite enough boost. Joe enjoyed the comparatively spacious confines of the bottom bunk. I slept fairly well on this train.
After the debacle with our accommodation in Kunming, I had the forethought to message our accommodation in Lijiang to confirm we still had a place to stay. Good thing I did as it turned out that the owners were on their own epic travel adventure, having driven to Russia and onwards to the rest of Europe. Julie gave the phone number of her English speaking friend Erica to help us out when we arrived and had arranged for her neighbours to look after us during our stay. The accommodation was pretty far away from the Old Town but it was a calm and quite place to be, albeit lonely as we were the only people staying in a rather large traditional Chinese home. Mr Wu, one of the neighbours next door was so helpful and drove us into the Old Town after we had a few hours of sleep and invited us over for dinner that night.
We spent our day in Lijiang wandering around the thousands of alleys and streets, ate at the famed Prague Café and drank copious amounts of coffee at Yunnan Arabica Roasters which became our go to or “local”. My body is not all that use to drinking copious amounts of coffee so on returning home I had some horrific bowel movements and wasn’t able to fully enjoy the wonderful BBQ that the neighbours had put on. It was probably a good thing because someone had to look after Joe after he downed 15 or so shots of baijiu (wine/spirit distilled from sorghum, or devil’s juice as Joe likes to call it) that the gracious hosts kept on insisting he toast with over the course of the night. He had a big spew before bed and it was the worse spew I had ever smelled, EVER! But apart from drinking all that baijiu we also had great conversation with our hosts, even though they spoke no English and we spoke no Chinese, BaiduTrans is a must for anyone travelling through China, and we drank Pu’uah tea and I even got to dress up in Ms Liu’s traditional Yi garb. That night was one of the highlights of the trip for us and made up for the somewhat inconvenient location.
We visited Shuhue Old Town and Baisha Ancient Town while in the area. They varied slightly from each other, however all had the same type of shops and looked rather similar but the surrounding hills and mountains were very picturesque. Lijiang Old Town was like visiting a Ye Olde Towne at a Disneyesque theme park but without the rides or mascots. The crowds are the same however. It rained every day we were there but under the protection of our raincoats and umbrellas we were able to still enjoy the slippery stone roads that the towns had to offer. Our plans to visit and hike Tiger Leaping Gorge however were thwarted by the bad weather and due to the number of deaths each year during the hiking season (we were going off season, also I did not know that people regularly die on this trail!) I was glad of our decision to not do the trail. I don’t think I ever want to do it. I’m a really risk averse person.
On the night that we were heading back to Kunming we arrived at the Lijiang train station 1 hour early as we always do and spent 40 minutes in a crush of people outside the entry. When I managed to get close enough to see the departure board inside the building and it said BOARDING, we did as the Chinese do, and pushed our way to the front of the line and were assisted by two young English speaking Chinese girls who were just as confused as we were as to the strange operational procedures of the train station. But we made it in and onto our train and did not sleep in the jolting and frequently stopping train.
Our wonderful and most gracious friend Tim, gave us HIS bed to sleep in for our last night in Yunnan province and we went with his friends and ate at a vegan restaurant that wouldn’t be amiss in Melbourne. We went to the Yunnan Fine Arts museum (free) which had a very limited, yet pleasant collection. Across from that was deluxe luxury mall with a new Apple store. An official Apple store not one of those fake apple stores you see everywhere. Joe spent a long time drawing on the iPad Pro and wowing the staff with his mad drawing skills. They joked about his drawings becoming the intellectual property of Apple (were they joking though?) and recommend he join the Apple creative team on returning home. Joe also wants an iPad Pro now. We also finally got meet Coin, Tim’s girlfriend and went out for our final meal of delicious Yunnan cuisine.
After a worrying start to the next morning where no taxis seemed to want to pick us up, we finally made it to the train station where Joe’s pocket knife was confiscated, it’s good to know that some of the x-ray machines work, or rather that the attendants pay attention(it wasn’t picked up the first bullet train we took, tut tut). For 30 CNY they would post it to us and as Joe had gone to Peter’s of Kensington on his eight birthday to pick it out with his Dad, we gladly parted with the money (we just got it today when we arrived Shanghai).
Zhangjiajie National Park
Following the eventful morning we had an uneventful five hours on the bullet train. We scoffed down a delicious meal of McDonalds at the train station and then with help of an English speaking woman at the tourist information desk made our way to the inter-province bus station, which was conveniently part of the Changsha South Train Station. We purchased two tickets to Zhangzhajie, as our lonely planet and numerous websites said we should, without checking if there was a bus direct to Wulingyuan. I am unsure if there is, however, I assume that there would be considering we got a direct bus return. So we get on the bus, drive for 30 minutes, get off the bus onto another bus and drive for SEVEN MORE HOURS. We had read that the bus would take 3-4 hours if they took the express way or 5-6 if they didn’t. We obviously did not get the express bus (if it actually even exists). We had front row seat on the second bus as the front two seats were the only ones left; once we stowed our bags below and got onto the bus. These hot seats gave us a prime view of the upstanding and safe driving practices that our professional bus driver displayed. We marvelled at his ability to hock a luugey out of his side window while simultaneously trying to open a pesky packet of snacks which require both hands and possibly his mouth to open. But don’t worry, he knows when he has veered too close to the guard rail (it is not ever a problem if he absent mindedly veers into another lane, might of way is right of way) and is able to correct his course. We were also privy to a jocular phone conversation which had him rollicking with laughter and were witness to him leaning over to his fellow crew mate to share a funny meme he found while browsing his WeChat feed (like a facebook feed), also while driving. Once in Zhangzhjie we were expecting to take the brown minivan (only 20CNY each) to Wulingyuan but they had apparently stopped running by the time we arrived (around 9pm). We found a taxi (170 CNY – metered fare, he took the long way, I followed the route on Maps) and by 10pm we were at our run down YHA China Hostel; where the windows were possibly made of glass as thin as paper and we drifted to sleep (after 18 hours of travel) to the sound of tour bus horns tooting into the night.
We made one major mistake our first day that we went to Zhangjajie National Park; we didn’t have a plan. A plan or itinerary would have meant that our bodies would have been able to function through all three days we had decided to walk/hike through the park. We went too hard on day one and our calf muscles were causing us agonising pain on day 2 (still able to amble through the park) and day 3 (confined to a stationary position in our shitty hostel). That said we packed a lot into our first day.
So, after getting our entry tickets (248 CNY each) and fingerprints scanned in, we got on a random bus (usage included in ticket price). The buses in the park are green buses which are actually purple in colour. There is no way for us laowai to know where the buses go anyway as they are not numbered and destinations are written in Chinese characters. Our destiny that day was to take the cable car (72 CNY each) up to Tianzin Mountain. We got lucky and shared our cable car with a nice couple from Beijing who were on holiday, had a short chat and enjoyed one of the most spectacular views on earth. Once the ride was over there was a few viewing platforms, we took a few snaps and then took another bus to somewhere. Somewhere turned out be the famed McDonalds on the mountain. We (shamefully) ate McDonalds (again). Then we took a path down and ended at another scenic lookout where we asked a British mother and daughter to take a snap of us together and then we ended spending the rest of the afternoon together hiking down to the bottom together, I think it was called the 10 mile gallery trail, taking the Bailong elevator, not once, but twice, due to an err in judgement around how long it would take to get to the “Avatar” mountain and also because we (stupid us) assumed that there would be a bus to take us down the mountain after paying for a one way ticket (78 CNY each). There is no round trip ticket for the elevator so one would assume that there would be a cheat’s way down in a park full of buses, but you only have a two-hour hike back down or another ride in the elevator which we had to do as the park was closing in 30 minutes.
We were so tired at the end of that day, but we walked the half hour back to our hostel, stopping along the way for some tasty handmade noodles in a spicy broth from a place with a giant anthropomorphic happy lobster out the front. We showered and slept and woke at 6am to the previously mention honking horns. We made ourselves sleep through the mornings “wake up call” and waddled back to the park after spending most of the morning following dud directions from both the parks info desk (take the #1 bus up the road – wrong) and the hostel owner (get two different buses in the park – the park did not agree with this) on the best way to get the Luoguta Entrance. (Turns out if you go to Wulingyuan bus station you can buy a ticket for a minibus to take you there for 10 CNY but no one knew this information, but they really should have.) We gave up and got a bus to the Golden Whip Stream trail and it was a really agreeable walk for our fatigued bodies. Once we finished our hike we ended up at the entrance we wanted and met two ladies (a Welsh and a Serbian) and they were going the same direction we were and we waited for bus to take us back home, until 3 buses filled up which we couldn’t get on(too slow we thought), until we saw one come and rushed to get in front of the line, which I did, before being dragged by my shirt by the apparent conductor who finally decided to inform us that we needed to buy tickets from her (the ladies who caught the bus there paid the driver directly so weren’t aware of this pre-purchase business). It was such a frustrating moment; this woman had told us where to stand when we got there but did not offer us any tickets to purchase at that time. But we bought tickets, got the next bus and that was that. A young guy who saw this happened even apologised for his fellow countryman’s rudeness which was very sweet and unnecessary and I was shaken from being man handled and wanted to cry (but I didn’t). China is hard. We had dinner at a local Muslim restaurant and made faces at their bubbly baby while we ate dinner.
If we thought we had the sorest calf muscles in the world on day two, day three surprised and surpassed the previous days aches in leaps and bounds (which we could not do, we could barley shuffle). We slept in, applied voltaren (we used Physiocream the night before, it was time for the “big guns”) and took turns massaging each other’s legs while the other screamed into a pillow. Our hostels hosts had a good chuckle as we slowly made our way downstairs for the day, each step a grimace appearing on our faces. We were pretty adamant that we would go into the park. So we walked to Mr Lobster-delicious-noodle shop, ate our first meal for the day and then walked to the big roundabout (this is maybe 10 minutes to the entrance gate) and decided that we were going to hurt ourselves if we went any further. Back home, into bed, we decided to start rewatching Avatar: The Last Airbender that afternoon.
Now, yesterday (21/8/17) was possibly one of the most stressful days I have faced since we started travelling. I like things to be on time, I like accurate time frames, I like to be early to the train station or airport, 5 minutes early somewhere and I still feel like I was late. I had inquired the day previously with our hostel on the bus time table to Changsha where we would catch our train to Shanghai. 8.30am, 12pm or 3pm were the times we were given. We decide the midday option would allow us to get dinner before the train and give some leeway in case there was heavy traffic, it should only take 3 hours we were told. Not wanting to miss a seat on the midday bus, we were checked out and in a taxi shortly after 11am. I went to the ticket counter and asked for two tickets for the noon bus, I was pointed to a sign which had three times; 8.30am,1.20pm and 3pm, a minor difference, I asked if this was an express bus and was told that it would take 3 hours, “great!” I thought, I booked the 1.20pm bus and as we had some time to kill we put our bags in left luggage (20 CNY – unsure if the was an official or unofficial fee) and we got an early lunch. Once on the bus and in our assigned seats and after 3 hours passed and Maps informed us we still had 2-3 hours travel time ahead, mild panic started to creep in. We had a train to catch at 8pm and if we missed it we would be out of pocket for both the train tickets and our hotel in Shanghai. So I started watching the clock (not good) and checking Maps (also not good). After our first toilet stop the driver took a quiet tree lined road which must have bypassed most of the built up traffic which was delaying us and we arrived at the Changsha West Bus station by 6.45pm (just under 3 hours late). I decided that we should use the subway to get to the train station as it would be best to avoid as much traffic as possible. We got to the train station by 7.10pm. We grab some take away to eat on the train and breeze through security and ticket checks (a first for us), we line up with the masses for the gates to the platform to open and finally get onto the train, we eat our dinner and swap pleasantries with our cabin mates (no mutual languages shared), I finish my book and get a relatively good nights sleep.
Over the last two days I read the novel: Lost on Planet China by J. Maarten Troost, it’s a travel tale set in China right before the Beijing Olympics in 2008. I picked it up at the last hostel we stayed at and devoured it in two sittings. I found the rapid pace at which China has changed in the last nine years fascinating, and its easy to draw comparisons to his journey and ours as we went to many of the same places and had felt many of the same things (bamboozled?!?) and drew rather similar conclusions about China. I also realised that most of the blog posts that we have read about China were mainly written around the time of the Olympics or shortly after and I think China was really trying then to be its best self for foreign tourists, they have 21.65 million of them a year. When in Myanmar we met a Swedish man named Tomas who travelled through China in the 1980s when tourism was being mandated as the new area for growth by the government. His tale was vastly different from anything I have read anywhere and China was vastly harder to travel in then.
But China is always trying to better itself, its small cities are far more modern and have better infrastructure than most major cities in Australia and it appears that they are always improving and upgrading. I suppose the Communist-Capitalists government has an easier time pushing through changes and improvements that they want than a democratic government has. The one unifying and often negative sentiment that I have read everywhere, however is that China is crowded. NO SHIT! Shanghai alone has a population of 24 Million, Australia – the whole country – has a population of 23.8 Million, a mind boggling statistic. Tonight as we walked from the shopping district to the Bund, we were in awe by the sheer volume of people on the streets, it’s a Tuesday night, there were so many traffic police directing and ushering the crowds of people, it reminded us of NYE in Sydney and getting to a train station after the fireworks, but this was just an ordinary night, a Tuesday night in Shanghai. Just some observational ramblings.
So that’s China up to date. I’ll do a megacities edition once we are done with Shanghai and Beijing. I may even find time to edit what I wrote while in Laos and Cambodia and get it on the blog! I have also decided that I want to write about smoking in China so maybe that will come out at some point too.