Sparky Travels

December 11, 2009

Shanghai MkII

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — admin @ 8:41 am

8th of December.
Arriving back in Shanghai only 48 hours after I’d left I checked back into the hostel and headed straight to the bar. After Skyping Mum I started chatting to some fellow drinkers. A trio of student teachers from Scotland and England and a couple of Australians hanging about in Beijing before a business conference later in the week. We spent the evening playing pool and killer pool before doing some music swapping.

On my last full day not only in China but Asia as a whole my main task was shopping. I walked around the city first going along the Bund. Normally it would be the main sight in Shanghai but due to the upcoming 2010 Expo the whole street was covered in building work. The building were impressive but I had to walk right up alongside them while drills and diggers hammered away so the experience was diminshed somewhat. I shopped for a few hours in Yuyuan Bazaar to get my last taste of haggling. Being a real tourist trap the initial prices here were astronomical so some hardcore haggling (i.e. starting at less than 10% of the initial price) was required to get an acceptable price. With this exhausting experience over I went back to the hostel where I chatted to Kim on Skype and packed my bag for Australia.

I got a taxi to airport in the early afternoon of the 10th and had a trouble free flight to Guanzhou. We arrived 30mins late so I had less time than I’d have liked before my connection to Sydney. It was weird walking past the baggage reclaim and hoping my bag would follow me to Australia. After officially leaving Chinese territory and rushing through duty free I boarded my second China Southern aircraft of the day for the 9 hour flight.

After 155 days in Asia its time to hit Oceania.

December 8, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — admin @ 12:36 pm

After a comfortable 90 minute train journey from Shanghai I arrived at Hangzhou East Station. Neither Lonely Planet or my own research gave a definitive answer on how to get into town so I jumped on the first bus that looked like it was going in the right direction. With an eye on my map and our route I jumped off before the bus headed back out of town. I figured I was only a few km from my destination so started walking, stopping off at a handy tourist information place on the way. After walking too far I doubled back and found the hostel handily perched on the side of West Lake, the main attraction of Hangzhou. I had some dinner at the restaurant next door and then headed into town. I’d realised that Hamilton v hearts was on today and thought that the obligitory Irish bar (The Shamrock) would have it. An hour later and after confusing many locals I got back to the hostel. Apparently The Shamrock had moved to a new location on the other side of town without telling me. Instead I sat in the hostel bar reading the text updates on the game. I wish I hadn’t bothered (2-1 Hamilton and 5 red cards, including one for the masseuse!). The bar was described at Wikitravel as lame and that is precisely what it was. The only other people there were 6 or so chinese staff watching soaps on DVD. I soon headed to bed.

I woke on the 7th of December ready to tackle the West Lake which dominates the city. The weather was very pleasant and I spent the day strolling along the picturesque banks, tree-lined  causeways and cobbled promenades. The trees still had their autumnal jackets on which made it all the prettier.

As I got round the south of the lake ( which is around 15km in circumference) I decided to visit Leifeng pagoda which dominates the hillside.  Dating back to 975AD, the current incarnation of the pagoda was only built in 2002 but it has good views over the lake so was worth a look and has some nice treasures which were discovered during the latest excavation.

Escalator(!) to Pagoda

Escalator(!) to Pagoda

My evening was a repeat of night before except I didn’t head to The Shamrock cos I learnt that lesson. I did see a couple of westerners but they were checking out. Apart from them it was just me and the Chinese tourists/staff. The hostel itself (Mingtown International Youth Hostel) is well situated and clean with decent facilities. If it was busy it’d be a good place to relax and meet people. Not in December it seems. I did finally get around to watching The Last King of Scotland though. It is nowhere near as good as the book but a decent enough watch. James McAvoy and Forest Whittaker were both excellent but the ending was a little abrupt and unbelievable.  I somehow managed to sleep even though 3 out of 5 of my Chinese roommates were snoring.

After a dumpling breakfast on the 8th of Dec I left the hostel and walked to Hangzhou Main Station (which is one of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever seen) to catch a train to Shanghai. Again it was a luxury train which got me into Shanghai East Station around 3pm.

Btw, using a simple google maps application I figure I’ve covered well over 18,000 miles so far (including 5 flights). If I’d used roads and rail  rather than ‘as the crow flies’ I’m sure it’d be closer to 20,000.  I don’t know if thats good or bad but with Australia next its going to increase by a fair bit.

December 6, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — admin @ 10:43 am

I arrived an hour late into Shanghai Train Station at 11:30am. I took the underground to the hostel which is situated on the outskirts of the city but right by a tube station. After some food and a recovery sleep I made my way into town to get a feel for the city. The area I found myself in turned out to be the expensive area of the French Concession and struggled to find somewhere to get food for less than £10. I managed to locate a bakery and with a bag full of savoury goodies ( some containing real cheese!) I strolled on. Due to the time all of the sights were closing for the day so I had no choice but to head back to the hostel. A few beers later it was time for bed, anticipating an early start and busy day of sightseeing tomorrow.

I woke up on the 5th and grabbed some free breakfast in the hostel cafe. The hostel is one of the most modern and professional I’ve stayed in. It resembles a Travelodge but with warm and welcoming common areas and stylish shared bathrooms. It is 60Y a night (£6) but that’s not too bad for Shanghai and the free breakfast makes it better value than otherwise.

After breakfast I got the underground into town and began my sightseeing. First up was Shanghai Art Museum. Situated in a pretty old building near People’s Square it contained a surprisingly good collections of paintings. I can add some examples because everyone else was taking photos so I joined in. The highlights were the work of Liu Yi, a lecturer at a university in Shanghai. His work was almost photo-realistic with exquisite lighting and a dreamlike quality to them.

The paintings of Nancy Woo Chu on the other hand were abstract with a beautiful vividness of colour and texture.

Still in an arty mood, I popped next door to the Shanghai Grand Theatre Gallery which had some mediocre work by a Chinese guy living in Denmark. It was more of a showroom/business than a museum but it was free.

The next stop was the Shanghai Museum, a much lauded place right in the centre of People’s Square. I deftly avoided the girls trying to invite me to a teahouse (where I’d have received an outrageous bill and no choice but to pay, every hostel has a warning about these scams) and headed through the airport-like security at the entrance. I’m very used to the over the top security now since it is at every attraction, train station and underground station. The museum was pretty underwhelming since I’d seen its likes before in Xi’an and Beijing: jade,caligraphy, bronze, stone Buddhas etc. The porcelain exhibition was the one bright spot and really showed why we still know porcelain as ‘china’.
I managed to make it to the sight of the first national congress of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and had fun reading the propaganda about their formation. True to form, security started ‘ushering’ everyone out while we were halfway through due to it closing in half an hour and pictures were forbidden in the room where the congress was actually held. Across the road was the postal museum. I’d read that this was an excellent place to visit and housed in a grand building. I was disappointed until I realised that this was the ‘Postal’ museum and not the ‘Post’ museum which is a different place entirely. This one is just a post office with a few exhibits and a brief history of post in China. I did manage to buy some stamps though.
Back at the hostel I rested my now weary legs and watched the Man utd v West Ham game.

I got up late on the 6th and went to Shanghai South Train Station to catch the next available train to Hangzhou. The next train available was the luxury ‘D’ class coach which was pretty swanky and only took an hour and a half. It only stopped at Hangzhou East station rather than the station in the city centre but it beat waiting 3 hours for another train.


Shanghai (Shanghai museum on the right)

December 3, 2009

Beijing pt2

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — admin @ 11:11 pm

I struggled out of bed at 4:30am on the 1st of December and jumped on the first tube of the day to Andingmen station north of the Forbidden City. A 20 minute walk later I was at Beijing Downtown Backpackers Hostel. Over 20 other backpackers congregated and we boarded a couple of minibuses heading towards the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, 100km North-East of Beijing. I got chatting to a fellow Scot (a Dundonian) and a couple of Londoners. Three hours and a couple of toilet stops later we were deposited at the entrance to the wall. The area is arid and mountainous and completely lacks the tourist trappings that are supposedly par-for-the-course at other parts of the wall. We did of course each have our own personal hawker who followed us, befriended us, warned us of treacherous sections, told sob stories and tried to sell us anything they could. My old hawker lady had obviously met scots before as she gave up on me quite swiftly after I rejected her wares. We were given 4 hours to traverse the 10km of wall between Jinshanling and Simitai. This was ample time givijng us chances to take photos, eat our provisions and rest after some of the steep and crumbling sections. There were 30 towers along the route ranging in condition from unsafe ruins through well preserved originals to rebuilt ones. The weather was perfect, not too cold and sunny with good visibility. The area is arid and mountainous with few signs of modern civilization which really gave a feel of authenticity. The tour group gradually spread out along the route so that at points it felt quite deserted. Other than the dozen or so hawkers, we only met one other person on the route. After crossing the a suspension bridge to the 30th tower we had two choices to get to the pickup point. Either a flying fox over a reservoir and dam or a 20 minute walk. Most of us opted for the flying fox which gave an exhilarating, if short, finish to the trek. I’d happily have gone back up for another go if we’d had time. 3 hours later we were back in Beijing and I headed back to the hostel to relax.

I got up on the 2nd with a the desire to see a dead communist leader. Fortunately Chaiman Mao Memorial Hall was a ten minute walk from the hostel. As with everything at this time of year, it was quiet but that doesn’t really have any effect for this attraction. Busy or quiet, you get funnelled past the suspiciously well preserved body of Mao Zedong in 20 seconds with no chance to stop and strictly no photos. I’m happy though, Mao & Uncle Ho done, only Lenin remains unseen.

Next, I headed along to Beijing train station to buy my ticket to Shanghai for the next evening which was easily done though it did cost 327Y (£32). I opted for a hard sleeper to ensure I had some sort of rest before arriving in Shanghai.

Hunger was setting in so I made my way half and hour up the road to Wanfujing snack street, a lane with stalls full of various exotic delights. I started with some fresh doughnuts followed by some fried dumplings. My immediate hunger sated I moved on to the scorpions. These were wooden sticks with 4 live scorpions welded onto them. They were thrown into a vat of oil for 60 seconds and then handed over for me to eat. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to eat the pointy end of the stingers so I snapped them off and munched away. They weren’t unpleasant which I wish I could say about the next skewer. This held three whole chicks or tiny birds of some sort, plucked and with the front half of their heads lopped off. They were crunchy and tasted like a bunch of innards. I threw some noodles in pancake down my gullet after them to take the taste away.

By now my cold was really taking hold so I retired to the hostel and spent the evening chatting to my roomate, Nicolas. Nicolas, from Normandy, is cylcing round Asia for the next few years but was taking a wee break in Beijing waiting for his mate to join him. He was good chat but then I have to say that cos he’s probably reading this. ;-)

On the 3rd, the day of my train to Shanghai I had a relatively quiet one to try ( successfully it turns out) to and beat my stinking cold. I did manage to buy some trainers since my old ones are quite literally falling apart. After that exertion I relaxed and finished The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the warmth of the hostel bar. For dinner I ventured out to Donghuamen Night Market where I bumped into Nicolas. For the last few hours before my train we  swapped movies and music from our laptops.

At 22:15 I said goodbye to Beijing and boarded my train to Shanghai. Bottom bunk in a hard sleeper carriage for 12 hours. How very familiar that has become.

December 1, 2009

Beijing pt1

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — admin @ 10:55 am

I arrived in Beijing’s humongous West Train Station at 10:30am on the 28th and caught the bus into the centre of town, just south of Tienanmen Square. I followed the scribbled directions from the Irish guys who recommended the hostel and checked in. Breakfast was an American cooked breakfast from the hostel, quickly followed by a nap. I awoke 3 hours later feeling like I could do with another 3 hours sleep but got up and went for a stroll round. Tienanmen Square was closed for the national flag raising the following day so I walk round the outside and took some photos of Mao’s picture hanging across the Gate Of Heavenly Peace.

Heavenly Gate

Heavenly Gate

Dinner consisted of some baozi and spicey rabbit kebabs (sold at a stall close to the hostel and really tasty). I aimed to do some of my blog but ended up watching Zodiac with an Aussie called Angus and his Dutch friend (Magdalene IIRC). Its a decent film, expertly directed by David Fincher but extremely long and - obviously - has an unsatisfactory ending.

The next day I headed out to start my sightseeing. The closest and easiest destination was the Forbidden City which dominates the area north of Tienanmen Square.  Some say that you need 2 days to fully explore the collection of Emperor’s palaces and residences but I managed to cover most of it in 4 hours. It would only take 2 days if you forward-rolled your way around while copying down the descriptions. I could have filled a day by looking at every exhibit and paying to go into the Treasure Museum within the grounds but by the time it was close to closing time I’d seen enough. I think temple (or palace in this case) fatigue has set in again which is quite timely given that there wont be much of such things in Australia. Its an impressive place nonetheless and the clock museum was worth the extra admission fee. Its another place that seems slightly too well renovated.  On the other hand, the bright decor makes it photogenic and it is certainly good value for the 40 Yuan entrance fee (£4).
I spent the evening partly doing my blog but mainly chatting to an Indian/Canadian guy who works in China.

30th Nov

After a late start Angus, Magdalene and I headed along to the 798 art district in North East Beijing for a bit of culture. The district is an old industrial block of warehouses and vfactories that has been taken over by the Beijing art scene. There are over 100 galleries and workshops alongside trendy bars and restaurants. We strolled from gallery to gallery appreciating and ridiculing the various works on display. Most of it was very good and equal to western art. It was also surprisingly subversive with interesting takes on Mao, government control and corruption. It was well worth the hour each way on crowded public transport and if we hadn’t been penniless backpackers I’m sure the bars and restaurants would have been good places to hang out.

I love art

I love art

I swapped underground lines on the way back and headed to a hostel that I’d heard ran good Great Wall tours. Beijing Downtown Backpackers is situated in a charming hutong north of the Forbidden City, resembling Carnaby strret in London. I was tempted to move there but the 50% difference in price and 30 minute walk to the nearest tube put me off. They did have daily trips to the Great Wall so I booked for the next day. As I headed back to the tube station I passed a fish and chip shop and realising it was St Andrew’s Day I couldn’t help but go in. Soon I was walking along the road munching a fish supper. It was really tasty with the right amount of grease, chips that were just soggy enough and tasty cod covered in perfect batter. I’ve had worse chippies back home. It was £3.50 mind you and lacked an orange carbonated soft drink but beggars can’t be choosers.

I didn’t manage to get to bed until midnight after buying food for the next day, sorting out my bag and chatting to my dormmate. Not ideal when you have to leave the hostel at 5am.

November 28, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — admin @ 4:35 am

My train to Pingyao was scheduled to leave at 11:30am on the 25th of November but it was delayed by an hour and a half during which I was standing in a queue which was like a can of sardines, if the sardines were alive and jostling for position with bags, sacks and rucksacks. The journey was uneventful with the usual attempts at communication with my bunk-mates which usually end with lots of pointing and nodding. Two of the people in my cabin were also getting off at Pingyao so I managed to alight at the correct station. I’d asked for a pickup from my hostel but had received no reply and this time there was no-one waiting. The hostel was only a couple of kilometres away from the station so I trooped off to find it.

Once I entered the old city walls I was sure I’d find my way easily but given the lack of light, signs and multitude of confusing lanes and alleyways I took a slightly circuitous route. Not ideal in -10C with icy roads. I found the hostel and checked in to my dorm (actually a twin room all to myself) and grabbed some local Pingyao beef & rice at the restaurant.

City gate

City gate

The next day I got up with plans to look round the city. Over breakfast another guest (Ukrainian-Swiss) asked if I wanted to join him on a tour of the city with the owner of the hostel (Mr Deng). Mr Deng’s tours are mentioned in Lonely Planet and after talking to him the previous evening I gathered he was a good guide so I agreed. We split the cost 50/50 so it was 75RM each. It took about 4.5 hours and turned out to be well worth it. Unlike most Chinese guides Mr Deng was more interested in telling us cultural, social and religious history of the sights rather than just reeling off dates and dimensions.

So, why am in Ping-whateveritis you may ask? Well, I’d been recommended it by a couple I met in Chengdu. They seemed like like-minded people so I added to a list of possibilities. Its also halfway-ish between Xi’an and Beijing and forms a nice quiet interlude between those big tourist cities. Like Xi’an, Pingyao is surrounded by an impressive city wall and although Pingyao’s 6km long wall is smaller it is still original and well preserved, or as original as a city wall can get in China. The smaller size also makes the old city a much more pleasant size and it has been none of the modern buildings that spoil Xi’an’s ambience somewhat. It reminds me a bit of Hoi An in Vietnam with its lanterned old streets, UNESCO status and clever system of 1 ticket to view all the sights.

The main sights we saw were:

Rishengchang Exchange House - The first bank in China, started as a pigment shop before an enterprising manager realised that saving people the risk of transporting their silver through bandit lands could make them money.

Temple of the City God - Its recreation of Hell, with people being cut in two, boiled and all manner of other punishments is a vivid deterrent. Pingyao is set up in traditional ways with its Eastern side representing the sky and the West representing the ground. The Temple of the City God is thus situated in the East of the city. There are also temples for the Gods Of Wealth (important given Pingyao’s banking history) and the Kitchen God!

County Government Office - In the same position in the West of the city is the County Government Office which represents justice from the people rather than from the Gods. Some of the torture instruments on show here were pretty barbaric and it was interesting to find out that the lowest banking staff could easily make double of the magistrates wage. Bribery abounded here apparently.

City Walls - We walked round the City Walls which gave a unique view into the courtyards of the city and were a respite from the busy streets below.

After the tour and some green tea to warm up I headed to the train station to buy my onward ticket to Beijing. Unfortunately my departure day being a Friday there were no sleeper tickets left or seats so I had to make do with a standing ticket in the hope that I could find a spare seat or upgrade on the train.

My Ukrainian-Swiss tour-partner had the same plan as me for the 27th so we were able to split the cost of this as well. This was a trip to the Wang (snigger) Family Courtyard and Zhangbi Underground Castle. Neither of these are accessible by public transport so we had to hire a car and driver and a guide for the underground castle. Mr Deng arranged it all and roped some ‘friends’ in to reduce the price.

Wang Family Courtyard is more like a castle or fortified village than a family home. It has apparently got 123 courtyards and it certainly felt like we’d seen around that number. The place has a weird ghostly feeling and is like a rabbit warren at times. I’m sure its been used as a set on many films and it certainly felt like it was waiting for a use.

Zhangbi underground castle is an underground complex in the hills near Pingyao. It only recently opened to tourists. It is believed to be 1400 years old and little else is known about its history. It was believed to have been built as an underground frotress to defend against an invasion that never took place The currently excavated complex is 1.5km is size over three levels but the whole thing is thought to be over 4 times that size. It was quite an interesting walk but it already has a lot of ‘restoration’ work going on and theres not that much to see. The entrance was below a temple and the whole complex is built underneath a village, Zhangbi Cun. The village is laid out like the yingyang symbol of Taoism and it was intriguing to be shown about by the guide who was brought up there. We saw the usual collection of temples and got to see rural village people going about their day to day lives.

After a day of sights we headed back to Pingyao and went for a massage before heading out for dinner in a local restaurant. The Ukrainian-Swiss guy paid for dinner which was very kind of him since I benefitted from his fluent Chinese more than he did from my wise cracks and dumb questions as we touristed.

While I waited for train o’clock I sat with the hostel staff and watched Chinese tv while eating some potato dumpling stodge that they were having for dinner. Though the shower at the hostel was a trickle and my room was a bit cold, the staff made the stay one of the best I’ve had in China. The manageress even wrote a request for an upgrade in Chinese that I could show to the conductor to ease my journey.

I boarded the train at 9:50pm and my carriage was absolutely rammed. I found the conductor who passed me off to a girl who spoke english. She took me down the train to a carriage that was less full and found me a seat that was free. My upgrade cost me nothing. Even so, it was a long 12 hours with The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy to keep me company. I managed to doze for at most an hour but felt surprisingly fresh, if a little stiff when we arrived at 10:30am on the 28th at Beijing West Train Station. I could have done with a massage now.

November 24, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — admin @ 4:49 pm

So, I’m standing outside the station in Xi’an at 11:30am on the 21st of November trying to work out whether to get a bus to my chosen hostel or just hail a taxi. A woman asks me if I want to stay at her hostel and when I say no, I’m booked up at Shu Yuan Hostel ( a lie) she directs me to a girl over by the exit. She is from Shu Yuan hostel and is waiting for another passenger to arrive. Thus I get a free taxi to the hostel which was much appreciated given my lack of sleep and general grimy-feeling. Unfortunately the hot water at the hostel had packed in so a shower would have to wait but breakfast was my first action followed by a recovery nap . I went out to explore Chengdu and arrived in the Muslim quarter via the old Bell Tower and Drum Tower (two useful landmarks for navigation). I tried a bit of street food and generally strolled about before ending up in the hostel cafe for a quick nightcap.

After an early night I was up bright and early-ish on the 22nd for the main attraction in Xi’an: The Terracotta warriors. I was offered a chance to go on the hostel organised tour but as a general sceptic of tours I headed off on my own. I could have taken a bus to the departure point for the 1 hour coach journey to the Terracotta Warriors museum but - in an effort to see some of the city - I walked the 5 km to beside the train station. When I got there I saw bus 603 and throwing my 7Y at the driver I boarded and sat down. 5 minutes later I realised my mistake. Bus 603 is the bus between my hostel at the South gate of the city walls and the train station at the North gate. I’d boarded a bus taking me right back where I’d started. I jumped off and walked 2km back to the station and boarded the 306. Oops.

The Terracotta Warriors exhibition was slightly underwhelming, possibly due to it being built up so much in my mind. It was still a mighty impressive sight/site and a magnificent achievement though and I’m glad I got to see it. They do seem to be making slow work of excavating the remaining statues and you can’t get very close to them.

warriors, assemble

warriors, assemble

warriors, disassemble

warriors, disassemble

After some tasty dumplings and the obligatory purchase of a replica statue I got the 306 back to Xi’an. I spent a while at the train station trying to convey to the staff my desire to buy a hard sleeper train ticket to Pingyao for the 25th and then correctly took the 603 back to the hostel. After an hour or so of Skyping Mum and Bun I got chatting to South African and Canadian. My french room-mates (who I’d met breifly earlier in the day) joined us along with a liverpudlian. We headed down to the bar situated underneath the hostel to take advantage of the free beer - a bonus about Shu Yuan hostel is that you get a free beer token for the lively bar that is connected to the hostel, every night! While I was there I saw a face I’d already seen that day. While strolling through pit 1 of the Terracotta Warriors I saw a guy who I vaguely recognized. All I could recollect was that he was Scottish so I assumed he was a vague acquaintance from back home. It was only on the bus home that I’d realised that he was the fellow Jambo I’d met in the Irish bar in Chengdu. Given a second chance I joined him and his friend (both ex-Gillespies pupils, she had studied fashion in Galashiels and now lived in Shanghai) once my drinking buddies had headed to bed. Thus I got to bed at 3am, slightly sozzled.

You can guess what happens next…

Bang! I woke up on the 23rd with a stinking hangover caused by 8 hours of local beer. The day was effectively a write-off though I felt much better by the evening even managing to collect and enjoy my free beer over a few games of pool with two english guys a German and one Chinaman.

Today was another attempt to squeeze some culture into my stay. This time with a trip to Little Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi’an Museum and Big Wild Goose Pagoda. After a bus journey and an hour of heading towards the wrong point on my map I found the site of the Little Wild Goose Pagoda and adjoining Xi’an Museum. It was a relatively steep 50Y (£5) entrance fee and a steep climb to the top of the pagoda (built 709AD).

Pagoda from pagoda gardens

Pagoda from pagoda gardens

Pagoda gardens from pagoda

Pagoda gardens from pagoda

The surrounding sculpted gardens were beautiful in the hazy sunshine and the museum turned out to be pretty good. Its a new building containing a history of Xi’an. Xi’an has existed in one state or another for 6000 years and often has the capital city so it had plenty to show off. There were bite-sized exhibitions on seals (wax not blubber), caligraphy, jade artifacts, ornaments and painting. Its impressive to see how advanced the culture was at times when people in Scotland were still grunting and throwing sticks at the sun.

I headed to the Big Wild Goose pagoda next. Its the symbol of Xi’an but I was in no rush to climb another pagoda so I strolled round outside and then headed back to the hostel via KFC. Note:  KFC in China is better than back home and ten times better than Malaysia. The rest of the night was filled with emailing and typing this blog.

November 21, 2009

Chengdu to Xi’An

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — admin @ 3:02 pm

On the 19th of November I booked my train ticket to Xi’An for the next day and spent my day hanging about with some Englishmen who’d just arrived, a guy from Chicago and Jacob (guy from Quebec).

On the 20th Jacob and I went out for lunch and then to Wenshu Temple in an attempt to crowbar some more sightseeing into my drinking adventure in Chengdu. Its a typical Chinese Buddhist temple dating back to the Tang Dynasty (10th Century). My temple fatigue has slightly abated so it was enjoyable to walk around it, especially the well maintained gardens. Its situated in a mock old town tourist area that must be at least 10 years old which gives it a relaxed feel compared to the relentless building and modernisation of the rest of the city.

Temple lion statue

Temple lion statue

I hopped onto the bus to the station and after going through security and handing my ticket to about 10 different inspectors (either it keeps unemployment down or the Chinese are particularly wily fare-dodgers) I boarded the train. I’d ill-advisedly chosen the bottom bunk on the hard sleeper so I expected my bed to be used as a seat by my bunk-mates until I kicked them off but this turned out not to be the case. Our 6 bed ‘cabin’ was populated only by me and a monk. We managed to communicate a bit using pidgin-english and pidgin-chinese and he gave me tips on places to visit and things to see as well as sharing his apples with me. My sleep was pretty crap for no reason at all and the train arrived late but overall it was a hassle-free 18 hour trip to Xi’an.

November 19, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — admin @ 10:59 am

At 7:00am on the 16th of November I left Sim’s Cosy Guesthouse and hailed a taxi to the bus station. I had a good supply of food for the 11 hour journey and I managed to read the whole of Enigma by Robert Harris in between eating and sleeping. The journey was fine except for a one hour delay on a mountain road due to a trailer that was on fire. Parts of the road were a bit hairy due to the rock falls in the area. There was lots of evidence of this piled up on the road but I’ve certainly been on less safe roads in the last few months so no worries there.
The bus dropped us of in some random wasteground in Jiuzhaigou and the temperature was below freezing so I was grateful when a chinese guy I’d been chatting to on the bus offered to share his taxi. He directed the driver to my hostel first and refused to take any money for my part of the fare. Nice guy.
I checked into the hostel (apparently I was the first person to book through I failed to persuade them that this deserved a discount), dumped my bag and attempted to warm up. It was late so dinner was some god-awful spaghetti bolognese at the hostel, containing what I hope was tuna. Then it was off to bed in preparation for a busy day of national-parking tomorrow.

Map of Jiuzhaigou

I woke at 7am and headed to the entrance to Jiuzhaigou Park to buy my tickets. I got a pleasant surprise because the ticket prices had been reduced to offseason rates (80 yuan rather than 200 yuan) a day earlier. I then made my way to the random-wasteground-bus-station to buy a ticket back to Chengdu. I’d originally planned to head in the direction of Xi’An to save returning to Chengdu but transport links that way are really poor if you don’t want to fly and Chengdu is not a bad place to wait if tickets are sold out.
I returned to the Park entrance and joined the amassing tour groups for the bus ride up to the sights. There are regular hopon-hopoff buses so its easy to get around the place as you want.

I took the bus up most of the way up the eastern route and then walked back down. This took me from Arrow Bamboo Lake (used in the movie Hero, apparently) to Mirror Lake along the well maintained and signposted walkways on the opposite side from the road. It was below freezing but I was just about warm enough with my new hat and fleece on.  Along the way there were a number of pretty multilevel waterfalls and I managed to find myself alone for decent periods of time. At the attractions and viewpoints there were always a good number of Asian tourists doing their round-robin photo routines but it was quieter than I expected given the 1.5 million visitors the place receives every year. The lakes are mostly variations on a theme - shallow, extremely clear, multiple shades of blue - but all are stunningly beautiful.

Once I reached the tourist centre I grabbed a huge pot noodle for lunch and then got a bus up the western route to Long Lake which is reminiscent of Loch Ness and then made my way to the self explanatory Five-Colour Pond.

The last leg was back down towards the entrance past the 320m wide Nuorilang Waterfall and the shimmering Rhinoceros and Tiger lakes.

Bonsai Lake aka PottedLandscape Lake was dotted with a variety of small trees jutting out of the water. Though not as desolate as Rannoch Moor, it has a similar otherworldly vibe.

Near the bottom I stopped off at the colourful Heyezai village to see a bit of Tibetan life. It was a typical tourist attraction village that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Epcot Centre. As I reached the Exit/Entrance to the park my camera battery died. I took this as a sign to go back to the hostel and have a shower to warm up.

As I sat in the hostel I got chatting to a Malaysian guy who invited me out with his friends for dinner. They were from Hong Kong, Singapore and China and soon there were 20 of us sitting round a couple of tables in a traditional restaurant. Everyone was really friendly and the food was hearty fare.  Once they found out I was from the home of whisky I was challenged to drink some of the local brew, a 58% spirit (in the form of double and triple shots)  and a corn-based ‘cider’. It helped to get rid of my near constant shivers but my new friends still insisted on haggling a local price for a new fleece for me at a shop next door. After dinner we tottered to the hotel that some of the group were staying at and then back to our hostel where we drank beer till 1am.

I woke up at 6am the next day with a kick-me-in-the-face hangover and boarded my bus to Chengdu. Despite feeling rough I managed to read a whole book on this journey aswell. This time it was Dead Famous by Ben Elton. Arriving back at Sim’s Cosy Guesthouse at 7:30pm I planned to have dinner, a shower and an early night. When I got to the bar a French-Canadian who I’d chatted to a few times was sitting on his own so we proceeded to drink beer till midnight.

November 15, 2009


Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — admin @ 5:00 pm

Although the hostel hadn’t confirmed it, I had requested a pickup from Chengdu airport to save riding a number of buses to get to the hostel. As soon as I stepped out of arrivals there was a guy with a sign for Sim’s Cosy Garden Hostel. Within the hour I was dumping my bag in my dorm and heading down to the bar. Beer in China is 7 times cheaper than in Malaysia so I got stuck right in. The hostel is centred around an oriental garden and is both large and well equipped. The bar/restaurant is always busy and there is a snooker table, table tennis, darts, dvd-room, roof terrace and various other facilities. Most of the night was spent drinking and chatting to the various nationalities hanging around the bar. Chengdu is the gateway to Tibet and also a stopping point for those coming from Mongolia and Nepal into China. I was able to pick up lots of tips and recommendations while sitting with my new friends including a Pole and a hyper guy from Quebec. A number of people in the hostel are working in China or planning to work there and it also seems to attract people with no plans who are in no hurry to move on. I played cards late into the night on the balcony with a multinational cast of Italian-Germans, English and Scots before finally heading to bed.

I woke up on the morning of the 11th with a weird feeling that I seem to remember being called a hangover. I headed out into the cold with two tops on, jeans and my flipflops along with a couple I had met the night before. We grabbed lunch in a local restaurant where after much pointing we managed to get some typically spicy beef & noodles. Then we had a stroll through the city past the large Mao statue in the main square.

Chengdu with Mao

Chengdu with Mao

We headed into a bar to escape the cold and then headed by bus back to the hostel.
An early start was in order today (12th) as I went on a trip to see the famous Panda centre just outside Chengdu. The hostel have a cheap deal to go and see them so there were about 20 of us all waiting for our minibuses at 7:45am. I had flipflops on again since I’d decided against my trainers due to the mould they had managed to grow in the months since I’d last worn them, but I soon regretted this decision. The Panda centre is pretty much a zoo with only one species and there are various enclosures for the different sizes of panda: adult, sub-adult, juvenile etc. It wasn’t too busy and we got to see feeding time for most of the pandas. We also got to see newborns in the incubators and very young bears being bottle fed but no pictures were allowed of these. You could get your picture taken holding a baby panda but at £100 it was out of my price range. I could have done with having a zoom on my camera here but no such luck so my pics don’t really do them justice.

We were back at the hostel for midday and after a nap I went out to explore the city on my own. The traffic in China appears to be a return to the South East Asian traffic madness where stop lights are suggestions and pedestrians are targets. I’d given up on the flipflops and started wearing my slightly cleaned but still mouldy shoes.
The next few days have taken on a similar theme of waking up late, going in to the city on errands (mainly buying warmer clothes) and drinking in the evening. The night of the 13th was filled with drinking games and the night of the 14th was a trip to an Irish bar to watch sports (England v Argentina at rugby, Russia v Slovenia at football) where I encountered more irish and scots including a fellow Hearts fan hiding out in China to escape our dismal season so far.
I’d managed to book a bus to Jiuzhaigou national park in between drinking so thats the destination tomorrow. Its an 11hour bus ride from Chengdu so that’ll be all I do that day, then a day of walking round the national park and a day of travelling after that. Hopefully I can find a way to Xi’An from there that doesn’t involve going back to Chengdu.

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