Permanent Vacasian

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. – G. K. Chesterton

News Update: China

March 10, 2009
by Stuart
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While in China, I tried to go to Xihae, a largely Tibetan region that occasionally steams the government’s rice, if you know what I mean. If you remember, I had a heck of a time trying to get there and eventually gave up and went back to Beijing.

Well, it looks like the government has gotten upset again. A couple weeks ago they marched in a ton of troops and took the place over and are keeping tourists out. My buddy, Richard, with whom I hung out with in Jiayuguan, sent me a NYTimes article about the whole thing.

Sounds like I might have missed my chance to see Xihae for a while…

Yangshuo

January 2, 2009
by Stuart
1 Comment
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Overlooking the Li River.

Overlooking the Li River. No, I am not on drugs.

After getting off the bus in Yangshuo, a man came up offering to take us to his hotel. We explained that we had already booked a room somewhere else, but he insisted on following us out of the bus station anyway. We got out the map and tried to figure out where we were. He looked at the map and said we were at another station – that was off the map – and that his hotel was right down the block. Even after the experience in Guilin, I still doubted him so I walked down the road about 10 meters and saw a street sign – we were on the right street just like the map said. Once I realized this, he receded back into the bus station to prey on someone else.

Yangshuo with the karst scenery all around.

Yangshuo with the karst scenery all around.

The main drag. Our hostel is near the bottom right.

The main drag. Our hostel is near the bottom right.

There wasn’t much to do in the city proper – so we walked around a park on the Li River, then climbed up one of the limestone “hills” in the middle of town for a good aerial view of the city creeping up through the hills. On the top we met some French travelers – one of whom we think might have been on our train to Guilin. We talked about Russia and what a shame it was that the French government had outlawed the common practice of French people driving their old car down to Africa and selling it for a good profit.

*     *     *

That morning, we got up and headed out to the trail (which was really a country road) on our bikes. The first mile or so was through the city which was kinda hairy for Tina, but she made it just fine. Along the way we met a family from New Zealand, and since the road was poorly marked, we teamed up together – hoping that a few bad maps would be better then one – to find the Dragon Bridge, our destination for the ride. They had also befriended a Chinese couple from Beijing. So when we got really lost we’d ride with them and let them lead the way.

The town was built flowing like a river around the hills.

The town was built flowing like a river around the hills.

The trail led to a sort of parking area with some people offering bamboo boat rides. Not sure where to go, I showed a local my map and he motioned that we circle around the parking area and to follow a little dirt road. At this point the road turned into a little dirt road that would eventually connect a few villages that dotted the trail along the way.

The village next to Dragon Bridge.

The village next to Dragon Bridge.

Once we got to the bridge, Tina and I found a shady spot along the river to eat lunch. The kiwi family, and the couple from Beijing joined us. The couple spoke a little English and told us they were TV journalists and were in Yangshuo working on a story. Turns out they were also staying in the same hostel we were.

Dragon Bridge.

Dragon Bridge.

After a lazy lunch we got back on the bikes and decided to ride back on the other side of the river – making a loop for part of the trip – like a lollipop if you will – which ended up giving us a completely different experience. The trail getting to the bridge was a wide dirt trail, whereas the trail going back on the other side of the river narrowed and became the path between rice fields – rocky paths maybe two feet wide at the most. At some points the trail was so narrow that it was hard to keep the bikes on them and Tina and one of the kiwi kids fell off the trail into the rice patty.  On either side of us where farmers tending their crops, taking their buffalo’s for a walk or just patches of wild farmland.

*     *     *

The next morning we got up early to make calls home for Christmas. This turned out to be one of the weirdest days of our trip. After finally finding a place with phones to use, we ended up taking for way longer then planned so when we had to pay, we didn’t have enough money. So I gave Tina some money to exchange – since we have that wad of cash from my visa extension – and she started the long hike to the Bank of China, the only place in town to exchange money.

Bambo boats used to transport things - mainly tourists - down the river.

Bamboo boats used to transport things - mainly tourists - down the river.

After about 25 minute of me sitting awkwardly in the phone place, Tina comes storming in and explains that you need a passport to change money and she had left hers in our hostel room. So we switched places and I took off for the bank. At the bank, I got in line and filled out the necessary paperwork and stood waiting for about 15 minutes. Once I got to the window and handed over the money to change, the cashier got all picky about my Benjamins and got out a counterfeit detector. One passed and one failed. I tried explaining that I’d gotten these from a bank in China, so if it was bad, it’s her fault. She said how does she know I was telling the truth. I was fuming. It was a good thing there was a wall of Plexiglas between us. I gave her another hundred that passed and got my money and ran back to the phone place and paid our bill – getting a more excited reaction from the employees then from Tina.

Looking north down the Yongli River.

Looking south along the Yulong River.

It was pretty late in the day so we headed out to get some lunch. We went to a cafe that was recommended to us by a few people back in Guilin. They led us upstairs where there was only us and this older guy from England that we ended up talking with for a few hours. The food was good and it was cozy – thanks to the two coal burning stoves placed in the middle of the floor.

A water buffilo taking this owner for a walk over the bridge.

A water buffalo taking this owner for a walk over the bridge.

After we ate and were talking for a couple hours, I got really really sleepy and even had to stop my sentences midway to remember what I was talking about. Sometimes I felt like I fell asleep while talking. The same thing started happening to Tina, and even the other guy occasionally started forgetting what he was talking about.

Along the Li River.

Along the Li River.

The conversation naturally wrapped up, so we paid and started walking to the hostel – and the guy we’d been talking to suddenly disappeared in the cafe someplace. Tina mentioned how dizzy she was I said I felt the same. And once we started walking home, it got a lot worse for both of us. We hardly managed to get to our room before Tina went into semi-hysterics about how we’d been drugged and we should tell people in the hostel and call the police and that we shouldn’t fall asleep.

Foggy.

Foggy.

I was incredibly tired but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the cafe was so warm in part because it was well insulated – and this meant that the coal fumes had no where to go except for our lungs, leaving very little room for fresh air. I tired explaining my logic to Tina but she was too busy looking up emergency numbers in the LP – somehow this is much funnier in retrosepct. I gave up, and rolled over and went to sleep. We ended up sleeping from about four that afternoon to late the next morning.

*     *     *

We had also planned to do a boat trip down one of the rivers around Yangshuo. And since we the bike ride took us along the Yulong River, we decided to check out the Li River. We hoped the weather would stay nice, but instead we woke up to a steady drizzle. At first I was kinda bummed, but then on the ride up I noticed that the fog and mist added to the mystery and romance of the karst scenery.

Tina and our boat captian.

Tina and our boat captain.

When we got to the bus station, we only had a few minutes until the bus left. But that didn’t matter because once they started letting people on, it was a mad rush to get seats. I pushed my way through the scrum but only scored one seat-  which I gave to Tina (Boyfriend of the Year Award points: 100) – and took my place standing next to her. There were quite a few people standing and when we got to the station exit, they made everyone – but not me for some reason – get off, walk across the exit, then when the bus exited, they all got back on. At that point they tossed around little pink stools for us standers to use as seats.

More scenery.

More scenery.

After quickly eating our peanut butter sandwiches along the river – while being harassed by people wanting to give us a boat ride – we decided that it was finally time to give in to the offers. Unfortunately, at that point they had stopped coming and most boats had left. So we wandered around a bit until finding a woman who took my low ball offer and we set off down towards the town of XingPing. The scenery was great – well, at least the parts we could see – as most peaks were under heavy fog.

dude.

Area tourist tries to look cool on a fake bamboo boat.

Guilin

December 31, 2008
by Tina
2 Comments
2,233 views

After a 20 hour train ride from Huang Shan we arrived in Guilin at what we thought was the main train station.  After bout 30 minutes of looking around for our hostel, which was supposed to be directly across the street, we realized that we were in fact at the Guilin North station, nowhere near the hostel we booked expressly because it was close to the train station.  So, we had a taxi take us to the main train station and with a little difficulty and the help of some other “Westerners” we came across we managed to find the hostel.

Rice terrises.

Rice terraces.

Getting a taxi directly to the hostel in many towns poses a few problems, so we usually try to walk or take the bus.  First many of the Taxi drivers that wait at train and bus stations get a commission for taking tourists to specific hotels or hostels, and they are often quite pushy about taking you to their ‘cheaper and better’ hotel. Some will even go so far as to take you to the wrong place on purpose and hope you don’t notice.  We typically get around this by telling the drivers that we have already paid for our accommodation and that we won’t pay them unless they take us to the correct hostel.  We have also found that taxi drivers can either not read, or don’t know how to find addresses, so we often just ask to be taken to an intersection that is near our destination.

The hills around the tareses.

The hills around the terraces.

After chilling in the hostel a bit (literally “chilling” as it was colder than we expected in Guilin and Chinese hostels don’t seem to have heat) we headed out to a Sichuan restaurant recommended by LP with Jan, a Belgian that we met at the hostel.  We came across a couple pouring over their LP and asked if they were headed to the same place – turns out they were. We were pleased to find out that they were from Berkeley so we had lots of questions about home. The five of us had a delicious meal; my favorites were the fired eel (yes eel, both Stuart and I liked it) and the green beans.  Some of the best food I have had in China so far.

Attack of the scary flowers.

Attack of the scary flowers.

Th next day after much debate as to whether we should do a tour or on our own (we decided to go it alone), we set out to visit the rice terraces in a town called Ping An.  Going on our own turned out to be a more complicated and we ended up having to wait an hour and a half in order to transfer to the bus that would take us up to Ping An, which meant we had only about 2 1/2 hours there before we could catch the last bus back. So, we were a little rushed but we manged to see what we came for.  Although brown for the season, the rice terraces were like nothing I had ever seen before and quite majestic.  I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

We arrived back at the hostel around 9.30pm, tired and hungry and went to dinner at a Hong Kong restaurant that was recommended by the woman at our hostel.  Sometimes when we walk around we smell someone cooking something that so incredibly disgusting that we have hold our breath and hurry by.  This is what the food tasted like at this restaurant.  At least it only cost us 8 bucks.

Guilin with the surrounding linestone "hills".

Guilin with the surrounding limestone "rocks" or "hills".

On our last day in Guilin we visited Seven Star Park, which was rather ‘touristic’, but pretty all the same.  The park, and the town, is situated amongst the remarkable and beautiful ‘rocks’ (as Stuart calls them) or ‘hills’ (as I call them) that are unlike anything I have seem elsewhere, and look like the China I had imagined before coming here.  The park had another draw that I wasn’t even aware of before we entered – a panda!  I had very much wanted to visit Chengdu and the panda reserve on this trip, but it was one of the many things we decided to cut out because of our limited time here.  I was pretty bummed that we wouldn’t see a panda while in China (Stuart could care less), so I was very excited (Stuart still didn’t care) at the prospect of unexpectedly seeing one at the park.  Expecting the worse, and getting it, we approached a dark gray cell with a cloudy window and saw our first glimpse of the panda.  Even caged in that sad dark cell, the panda was unbelievably cute. He even did a little yawn and stretch, which I think was quite a treat as it seemed it didn’t do much all day but sleep.

Panda depressed.

Panda depressed.

The other highlight of the park was a massive cave.  In true Chinese fashion we had to go through it on a tour (in Chinese) and the formations, stalagmites and stalactites were lit up with colorful lights giving it a Disney effect.  I didn’t mind though, because all the light meant I could actually see the cool rock formations, with names like “The Great Wall” and ” Elephant Drinking Water” that I otherwise would have missed in dim light.

Decorative Eaves

December 31, 2008
by Stuart
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Moon Pond.

Moon Pond.

Since we couldn’t get a train our of Huangshan for another day, we took the bus out to an “historic village” called Hongcun. It’s in an area called Yixian country and part of a collection of little villages that are all within 30 minutes of each other. They are famed for their unique architecture style called “huizhou”. As you’ll see from the photos it’s just a fancy word for white walls, dark roofs and “decorative eaves”. Sorry, I happen to find that phrase so pleasing to say. We had hoped to see a few of them, but after looking at some postcards, it was apparent that one was enough. And while the LP said it was conceived to look like an ox, we sure can attest that it smelled like one.

I find hanging laundry in public places facinating.

I find hanging laundry in public places fascinating.

Notice the decorative eaves?

Notice the decorative eaves?

The town has a crescent-shaped pond in the middle, Moon Pond, which makes for pretty reflections of the surrounding buildings. And along some of the little alleys, there are channels of water running in to the pond. However, this water was used for various unhygienic things. In a 20 foot section long an alley, I saw someone upstream blow their nose into the water. This snot-infested water then ran downstream to someone washing their clothes, then continued to someone washing vegetables for the nearby restaurant.  Needless to say, when it came time for lunch we found a market and got a pack of crackers and a Coke.

"A vast, ancient Chinese Walnut tree."

"A vast, ancient Chinese Walnut tree."

Typical alleyway.

Typical alleyway.

Veggies drying by Moon Pond.

Veggies drying by Moon Pond.

Alleyway. How typical.

Alleyway. How typical.

Everybody Huang Shan Tonight

December 23, 2008
by Stuart
4 Comments
2,562 views

One of the things I’d hoped to do in China was climb one of the sacred peaks. Unfortunately, the ones near anyplace we would be were in the north. And since it was already snowing and in the 20’s in Beijing, we knew it would be freezing in the mountains – maybe even closed. But fortunately, there was Huang Shan, China’s most famous – and popular – mountain just southwest of Shanghai and on the same train line we were planning on taking to Guilin.

Tina on the way up.

Tina on the way up.

So we overnighted it to Tunxi, the small town near the mountain where the train stopped. The hostel was on the Old Street, a small cobblestone and car-free street. We checked in and spent about 30 minutes trying to figure out how the heater in the room worked. For some reason the hostel had all the doors and windows open so it was freezing. The heater was kinda pointless. It was mounted on the wall about four inches from the ceiling – so in our room we were warm down to our knees.

Us at Beginning To Believe peak.

Us at Beginning To Believe peak.

We went to a restaurant across the street recommended by the hostel staff. It was buffet with no English so we had to get some help from a hostess. The food was great but we ordered more food then we could both eat – which didn’t matter because the total bill was less then $4.

"Stone Monkey Gazing Over the Sea of Clouds"

Stone Monkey Gazing over the Sea of Clouds.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the neighborhood making an exciting trip to the grocery store for food to take up the mountain (since food up there is really, really expensive). In the States, when a store is under construction, they usually close it. This store just put more things on sale and dumped it all in grocery carts. Half the shelving was strewn across the store, there where piles of food everywhere and everything was covered in dust. And there must have been 50 people working. Total chaos.

Misty valley below the mountain.

Misty valley below the mountain.

That night we just got food from the hostel bar, but since it was so cold in the bar we asked them to deliver it to our room where the top 3/5ths was kinda warm. Then we packed our daypacks to take with us to the mountain, planning on leaving our luggage in storage at the hostel.

*     *     *

The next morning we caught the bus at 6:30am to the mountain and started hiking. There is a eastern hiking route (7.5k) and an western hiking route (15k)  – or cable cars if desired. The western is not only twice a long, but also twice as hard. The LP book, as well as other people we talked with who had gone up the mountain, suggested doing the eastern up and the western down. This turned out to be a good thing because we hiked about another 8k once we got to the top that afternoon.

People put locks on the fences for good luck with love.

People put locks on the fences for good luck with love.

You don’t really hike as much as walk up steps. All the trails on the mountain are cement or stone steps. And the main routes are used by porters taking sundries (sorry, that word is all over the place in the LP) up and down the mountains with short bamboo sticks with the stuff hanging of the two ends.

This looks like some kind of those motivational posters.

This looks like one of those motivational posters: “Hang in There” or “Branch Out”.

Everything at the top has been carried up by these porters: ceramic tiles, air conditioners, chairs, tables, windows, everything. On the way down we saw porters carrying up paneling, 20-foot sections of pipe, an old school big tv, and all kinds of veggies. People we talked to saw them carrying up a bed and some desks! So when you walk into a lavish hotel at the top, and realize some poor guy lugged this up the mountain, you feel kinda gross. But when you are lying there watching tv with the heat on, you’re like, thanks porter guy. You’re alright in my book.

Surrounding peaks at sunset.

Surrounding peaks at sunset.

But once the guilt creeps back in, you begin to understand how China has grown so quickly: human labor is ridiculously cheap.  It’s cheaper to have people lug a hotel up to the top bit by bit then use a helicopter – or even the cable cars! – to transport things. Plus this keeps people employed (and living off $.50 noodles a day) so I guess it’s a win-win situation. Except for the guy carrying stuff.

*     *     *
The mountain has a valley at the top and peaks all around. It’s kinda like Yosemite: the valley has hotels, banks, crowds and even a basketball court. But the peaks were quiet and solitary with amazing views.

Flying Rock.

Flying Rock.

The first place we went was Beginning To Believe Peak where we stopped and ate lunch. At this point, the only thing I was beginning to believe was that we should have taken the cable car. After lunch, we hiked up all the peaks we could – some were closed for maintenance which we attributed to it being the off season – and some were closed because of high winds.

Good morning sunshine!

Good morning sunshine and sleepy head!

Once it got near sunset, we started heading to our hotel. Now, I must point out here that the map our hostel gave us was the worst map ever. And trying to save weight I left the LP book back in my luggage (altho, checking the LP when I got back showed its map wasn’t much better). Turns out we had to go over two more peaks to get to the hotel which ended up taking more then an hour, getting us to the hotel a little after dusk.

On the way down.

On the way down.

When we checked in, the receptionist showed us to our dorm rooms. But she first took Tina to a women-only dorm that was packed with Chinese girls that Tina couldn’t talk with.  We explained that we had paid for beds in a dorm, but we wanted to be in the same dorm. So after some huffing about, they gave us our own room with no one in it yet that was jammed with bunk beds. There where three bunk beds with a foot-wide walkway between two of them – the third was pushed up right next to the second.

something

The path we took up ended at that white building in the distance. Trust me, it’s there.

Also there was no heat and when I asked about that, I was told that dorm rooms don’t come with heat. I explained that it was the middle of the winter, we were on top of the mountain, sleeping in the bottom of the hotel. The only response to my plea was a firm “No”. But that’s ok – there was a tv in the room that got a channel with movies in English.

*     *     *

We woke up the next morning and hiked back up Brightness Top to watch the sunrise. There weren’t that many people up there so it was nice and quite. Then the moment the sun showed its top, the crowed went wild. And once the entire globe was showing, everyone quickly turned and walked away.

rocks

Those are porters carrying things to the top.

Up close they look like this.

Up close they look like this.

Quick shot of a porter carring a tv.

And from behind, they look like this.