A Travellerspoint blog


Beijing - The Forbidden City and Tian'anmen Square


sunny -18 °C
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A short blog for Beijing because even though I spent three full days there, I quite sensibly spent the first two recovering from the flu at the hostel. I was quite fortunate that I had a dorm all to myself for my entire stay because by this stage I had a heavy cough and it would have been pretty annoying for any would-be bunk mates. Not to mention that I didn't want to spread it to other travellers. It was also nice because there were two portable oil heaters in the dorm and I got to drag both of them right next to my bed - quite a bonus considering Beijing city was hitting around -22 C during the night.

I took a trip to a convenience store to buy several lemon based drinks as well as some Chinese throat lozenges. The latter I bought more for the amusing photo on the packet rather than to relieve my sore throat.

Chinese throat lozenges, only in China could a product be marketed with this photo on the packaging

The hostel was home to four cats which roamed freely around the courtyard and common room. Usually I'd be patting cats without hesitation, but I've become quite wary of animals while I'm overseas. It goes without saying I should keep away from strays, but even those with owners, you never know how well they are being taken care of with respect to vaccinations, deworming, fleas or other nasties. I did scratch one of them on the head but only because it sat and stared at me for ages with a tilted head and big cute eyes then meowed as if to say, "Why don't you like me?".

One of the resident hostel cats taking up the whole couch

At first, the people running the hostel weren't very friendly and appeared generally apathetic about their guests. But then all of a sudden they became really friendly and this mood change occurred only after I had a conversation with some other travellers in the common room about how I'd spotted some fake "good reviews" on the hostelworld website for some other hostels that had been obvisouly written by the hostel owners themselves. The staff members from this hostel were in the same room when I had that conversation and I noticed they had something that resembled a team-huddle afterwards. I also remembered that this hostel also had some really good reviews (hence why I picked it) that I though were a little undeserving. Hard to prove my suspicions, perhaps my imagination was running wild or they could have just been reminded that I was going to be writing a review on them.

Met a nice couple, Stefan and Sophie, at the hostel. They are students from Munich, Germany who are travelling around Asia during one of their breaks. They asked me to contact them if I pass through Munich so that we could at least catch up for a drink. Throughout my travels thus far, I have already aquired a long list of potential contacts in several European countries. I don't know if by the time I get there months from now, I'll actually feel comfortable contacting some of them. You never know if you will be greeted with a, "Josh who?", or "Josh! We've been waiting for you to get here!". Though I'm sure Stefan and Sophie will be of the latter category.

Stefan, Sophie and I at the hostel in Beijing

On my third day in Beijing I was feeling much better so I finally decided to get out of the hostel and see the main sights. Thankfully the Olympics had payed a visit to Beijing in 2008 which has resulted in an extremely foreigner-friendly transport system. Not only did railway stations in large cities have an English speaking ticket window (though almost always manned by the grumpiest, most apathetic person on earth) but also the Beijing Metro was really easy to use. It was even easier to use than the ones in Japan, and that's saying something.

The Xisi subway platform on Line 4 of the Beijing Metro

It was in Beijing when I finally had enough of the queue jumpers. I was buying a subway ticket from the manned ticket window because I didn't have coins for the automatic ticket machine, and a woman barged in front of me even though I was the only one in the queue and already up to the window. Up to that point, I was always either amused or caught so much by surprise by the queue jumpers that I had no time to react. Not only that but I am the type, or should I say, I was the type that liked to avoid confontations. This time, as soon as she started talking to the ticket man, I interrupted her by putting my hand between her face and the ticket window and said to her, "No no no. Wait your turn lady!", then I bumped her out of the way and finished buying my ticket. She didn't really react much, she just moved aside with a look on her face like if she'd just been slightly inconvenienced.

Immediately out of the Tian'anmen West subway station, I spotted the grandness that is the ironically named "Gate of Heavenly Peace" also known as just "Tian'anmen". It leads to the Forbidden City and faces directly on to Tian'anmen Square (which is where I see the irony due to that little incident just over 20 years ago). From there I could also see the National Centre for the Performing Arts (a.k.a "The Egg") and large flat open area that could only have been Tian'anmen Square. When I got closer and Tian'anmen revealed itself in all its grandeur, I woke up from my traveller's daze and truly realised I was actually in China. Flanked by four large Chinese flags on either side and still proudly displaying a large portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong in the middle, this gate has got to be the most classic and prominent symbols of Communist China.

First look at Tian'anmen (Gate of Heavenly Peace)

The National Centre for the Performing Arts ("The Egg")

Right outside of this gate, it was full of touts and scammers. Ignoring them completely seemed to work quite well around these parts, though sometimes a sharp, confident "Bu yao" would be required for the more persistant ones.

I have to admit, I was lucky it had snowed in Beijing because the Forbidden City looked quite awesome. I have seen pictures of it without snow and they don't compare to how I saw it.

Time for lots of photos now, which as we all know, each one tells a story of a thousand words. I won't bore you with the specifics of each gate, hall and building because there are so many of them that I would be here forever and you'd fall asleep. If you are really interested in the details, just google the Forbidden City and I'm sure you'll find the layout and names of each and every building, or perhaps you should actually visit Beijing yourself! All I will say, is that the Forbidden City, formally known as the Imperial Palace, was built around 1406 to 1420 and it was the permanent residence of the emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

First look inside the Forbidden City from the entrance

The snowy grounds within the Forbidden City

Walking through the central axis of the Forbidden city, it was a progression of gates and halls, each one with a specific purpose and a profound name (such as "Hall of Preserved Harmony"). Each of the halls in the central axis housed an Imperial throne, each one bigger and more grandious than the last.

Hall of Supreme Harmony, the largest hall within the Forbidden City

The imperial throne inside the Hall of Supreme Harmony

The sun glistening through the statue decorations on the roof of one of the halls

The number of statues along roof ridges represented the status of the building. The maximum allowed was 10 statues and the only building in the Foridden City, and in fact all of China, allowed to have 10 statues was the Hall of Supreme Harmony. This hall was were the Emperors hosted their enthronment and wedding ceremonies.

The roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony with 10 statue decorations, the only one with this number in China.

Aside from the gates and halls, there were also plenty of ornaments and statues surrounding some of the buildings as well as the Imperial Garden at the very end of the main axis. The garden was probably my favourite part.

A Copper and Iron Lion Statue in front of one of the Halls, there was a pair of these on each side of the steps

A Copper and Iron Vat. There were lots of these situated next to the halls and they were apparently filled with water and used to fight fires, which occurred often due to their lack of lightning rods in those days

Huge lamps in Forbidden City

A 400 year old tree in the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City

One of the four amazing looking pavilions in the Imperial Garden of the Forbidden City, there is one for each season, I forgot which season this one represented.

A gate along the side path parallel to the central axis

At this point, my camera started behaving strangely, showing almost no battery life left, to suddenly having plenty and at one point it shut down completely. I figured it was due to the extreme cold and I later read that my camera's optimum operating temperature is only between 0 to 40 C. Also, my fingers only have an optimum operating temperature of between 15 to 30 C so this combination made taking photos quite difficult on a -12 C day.

After leaving the Forbidden City, I headed across the road to Tian'anmen Square, the infamous site of the 1989 massacre. Before entering the square, you must pass through a metal detector and your belongings are searched and x-rayed.

The Tian'anmen Gate from Tian'anmen Square

Tian'anmen Gate and the National Flag on Tiananmen Square

Monument to the People's Heroes, Tian'anmen Square

Mao Zedong Memorial Hall, Tian'anmen Square

The Great Hall of the People (background) seen from the south side Tian'anmen Square

I can't say that Tian'anmen Square itself is much of a tourist attraction since it's just a huge open area with a building and monuments in the middle. For me, the interesting part was (perhaps a little morbidly) being on the spot where the massacre had occurred over 20 years ago. After leaving the square, I headed down the road a couple of blocks towards the Grand Hotel Beijing, which is quite a famous Beijing landmark.

The Grand Hotel Beijing

Intersection near the Grand Hotel Beijing

According to my calculations, the scene of the famous "Tank Man" incident during the closing stages of the Tian'anmen Square massacre, occurred at the above intersection, roughly where the silver car is located to the right of the bus. I wanted to take a photo from the famous angle at the Beijing Hotel (though from ground level) but I was already starting to attract funny stares from the police men patroling the footpath, so quite sensibly I decided to make a hasty retreat.

It was getting colder and darker, so I decided to head back to the hostel so I could get warm, have dinner and have an early night ready for my departure from China the next day.

Once again the subway saved the day for my trip out to the airport. A couple of really simple transfers and I was at the gates of the departure terminal. The Beijing airport is really quite flash. The departure terminal is a huge building with a dome-like roof supported by huge columns. The place is really clean and easy to navigate due to the English signage and the check-in counters are all set out really well in a long line of parallel counters.

The Beijing departures area, there is a whole other floor for arrivals right below this one

Well, that's that for China, a crazy country in which there was lots to like but plenty to dislike also.

My favourite parts were the amazing landmarks that I got to visit which had previously seemed almost fictional, like the Terracota Warriors, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tian'anmen Square and last but not least the incredible limestone hill formations around Guilin and Yangshuo in the Guangxi Province. I'll also never forget the surreal introduction I had to China as we sailed into Shanghai through the misty Pudong River. The local people that I did get to know were really friendly and welcoming, particularly the hostel staff in Guilin, Yangshuo and Badaling.

What didn't I like? Well that's easy, the queue jumpers, general rudeness, the traffic, blocked websites (youtube, facebook) and most of all, the constant spitting. I also have to confess that before I went to China, I didn't really like Chinese food, and now after a month of eating the real thing, my opinion hasn't really changed. There are certain dishes that I did like, quite a lot actually, but in general it's not my food of choice, especially their meat dishes which almost always come with lots and lots of chewy fat and/or bones still attached - Thanks, but no thanks!

Luckily I don't have to worry about offending the majority of the Chinese population because chances are this blog will be blocked by the sophisticated web filters employed by Chinese ISP's on orders from the Chinese government - I have after all mentioned the words Tian'anmen Square and massacre in the same page. This is not an exaggeration by the way, it is almost guaranteed to happen.

I only just barely scratched the surface of China, it is such a huge country and I was constantly reminded by people of all the amazing places I should have visited, but just didn't have the time to go - so perhaps I will return one day. One thing for sure, if I do return, it will definitely be in spring or summer! Though I really did appreciate the relatively small crowds at all the tourist sites due it being the low season.

Goodbye China! Onwards it is on to my next destination...

Posted by joshuag 01:26 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Badaling - Influenza and the Snowy Great Wall


semi-overcast -15 °C
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During my last day in Xi'an I had started to feel just a little under the weather, but I thought it was combination of smog and fatigue from all the walking I'd been doing as well as the ridiculous bike ride I'd taken along Xi'an's city walls. It wasn't until I boarded my train to Beijing that I knew for sure I had caught some sort of cold. Luckily, the journey was only 11 hours and I had bought the highest class ticket (Soft Sleeper) on a much nicer train so the amount of mysery was kept to a minimum.

So far in China all the destinations I had been to only had "K" trains running along their routes. The "K" trains are some of the oldest trains on the railway network. They are slow, cold and the carridges I travelled on only had squat toilets. I won't go in to too much detail about the quality of these squat toilets, suffice to say I felt like dunking myself in to a vat full of disinfectant every time I used one. At least I always carry a little bottle of hand sanitizer with me, otherwise I would have gone insane - I'm one of those neurotic people that uses their elbows to push elevator buttons and door handles in public places. Because the train route from Xi'an to Beijing is quite major, I could finally opt for one of the nicer "Z" trains which are much faster, cleaner and the better class ticket carridges have very comfortable beds in lockable compatments - not to mention they have relatively nice and clean Western style toilets.

There was only one other person in my four bed compartment and he was a business man from Xi'an who spoke decent English. He was polite and friendly although very serious but at least I was able to have have a conversation with somebody on a train, even though it was just small talk. Not feeling the best, I had an early night and was fast asleep before 10 pm. At around 5:30 am I was awakened by the Chinese version of elevator-style music that they play when the train nears its destination.

That morning I realised I had caught something a little worse than the common man-cold when I started feeling all the classic symptoms of the flu. These included a sore body (I swear even my hair hurt), a slight fever, a cold sweat, a light-headedness feeling whenever I turned my head and just an all round miserable feeling. I started to worry a little, not only because I could have contracted the dreaded H1N1 virus, but also because I was due to fly out of the country in only six days time and most airports are measuring passenger's temperatures before boarding. All of this and I also had to deal with arriving in a brand new city where the temperature was a bone chilling -18 C (officially the coldest place I'd ever been to). To be honest, with all the spitting and uncovered mouth coughing and sneezing that Chinese people do, I wasn't particularly surprised that I had caught the flu - I did almost predict me contracting it in an earlier blog. The only thing that stopped me from going to a doctor, was that my lungs were fine and I was still breathing easy.

Unfortunately my journey for that day was still not over because I was not staying in central Beijing that day. I had already booked two nights at a hostel in Badaling which is just over an hour northwest of the center of Beijing and one of the largest and most popular entry points to the Great Wall of China. To get there I had to catch a train from the Beijing North Railway station and I had just arrived at the Beijing West station. This meant catching a bus then walking a few blocks to the Beijing North Railway station before finally catching a final train to Badaling.

It had snowed quite heavily in Beijing about a week before I got there and although the roads and most of the footpaths had been cleared of much of the snow, it was still piled up on the side of the footpaths and really slushy in places. The worst part was that I didn't know which way to start walking from the bus stop and it took me a while to find someone who spoke English so I could get directions. By the time that happened, I had already walked two long blocks in the completely wrong direction. Even though I spotted the roof of the train station pretty quickly, the area was not very pedestrian friendly and it took me around 45 minutes in total to negotiate my way there with all the detours I had to take around barriers, motorways and snow piles. Walking around with a steadily worsening flu along the freezing cold and slippery streets from the bus stop to the railway station with a pack on my back was without a doubt the lowest point in my trip so far. It was quite a relief once I had bought my train ticket and got to rest for about an hour until my train started boarding.

The snowy views outside the train from Beijing to Badaling

After finally arriving in Badaling, all the other passengers (day trippers to the Great Wall) headed north towards the Wall's entrance. I was left alone on the steps of the tiny station inspecting the directions to my hostel that I had printed out. The directions told me it was only a short 5 minute walk and that I should head south for about 30 meters and then cross the railway tracks to the nearby Badaling Village, but after walking for about 50 meters along the empty road, there was still no sign of a crossing and I thought perhaps the map had been incorrect, or even worse, that I had gotten off at the wrong station. Even though it was sunny, there was a gusty cold wind blowing and I didn't want to risk walking around for hours looking for it in the cold so I headed back to the station where I showed the hostel's address (written in Chinese) to the non-English speaking guard standing inside the doorway. After looking at the address for a while looking rather pensive and mumbling to himself in Chinese, he pointed north, and said "Twenty minute". Not surprisingly, I was not particularly confident with his directions but I started walking northwards anyway whilst looking for someone that could give me a second opinion. Unfortunately the street was now almost completely desterted except for a lonely brown mini van parked underneath a bridge with a man sitting behind the wheel and a woman standing next to the open side door. They were both looking at me quite eagerly and it wasn't long before I realised it was an illegal taxi. As I approached, the woman pointed to the open door and said, "Hello? Taxi?" I knew the hostel wasn't far but I would have taken the taxi just so I could get to the right place and somewhere warm as quickly as possible. I showed her the address to which she reacted in a similar manner to the railway station guard. After a while, she also pointed north and said, "Yes. Taxi" and gestured for me to get inside the van - I asked, "How far? How long?". She pointed north and said "Thirty minute". Now I knew something was wrong because the hostel was supposed to be only a 5 minutes walk, how could it have been 30 minutes by taxi? I said "No thank you, I walk" and continued northwards. This didn't deter her because she started following me on foot, repeatedly shouting "Hello? Taxi? Hello?". No matter how much I dismissed or ignored her, she went on and on until I finally had enough so I turned around and shouted "No taxi! Bu yao! Bu yao!". Finally it was silent, though rather comically about 10 seconds later I heard a distant and solitary, "Hello? ...Taxi?"

Eventually I reached a small complex of buildings where I spotted a small cafe with a woman standing inside near the door. I walked inside and she greeted me with a big smile so I showed her the address. She proceeded to have a long discussion in Chinese with another staff member who also came over and joined her in studying the address while I stood there once again not feeling too confident. Finally she turned to me and gestured for me to follow her as she walked out the door. She took me to a bigger, flashier cafe across the road and about a block away. After the two women had a short discussion in Chinese, the woman from this other cafe greeted me with near perfect English and told me her brother owned the cafe as well as the hostel I was looking for and she was going to call them so they could come and pick me up. With a mixture of relief and skeptisim, I thanked them and sat down to wait on one of their comfortable couches. About two minutes later, a very friendly woman walked in and said, "Joshua? You booked through hostelworld?". With a big sigh of relief, I replied, "Yes!" and just managed to restrain myself from hugging her (I had justifiably suspected this was going to be a scam to get me to go to a different hotel). I thanked everybody again and two minutes later I was at the entrance to the hostel. It turned out that I had initially walked in the right direction from the station, but their "30 meters" estimate was off by about 150 meters (the directions I've been given by hostels in China are almost always incredibly vague and/or inaccurate).

From the outside, the hostel looked quite cold and isolated, surrounded by only a few other buildings and large flat areas covered in a thick blanket of snow. In the background you could see an endless row of snow laden hills and the only sound you could hear was the howling wind.

The area around the Great Wall Courtyard Hostel (right), in Badaling

My fears about the hostel disappeared as soon as I walked in and caught sight of their courtyard. It was sealed from the outside by a roof surrounded by large windows that let in lots of sunshine. All of the guest rooms had doors and windows that faced directly on to the courtyard and a small pond with a fountain and gold fish lay at the center. Around the edges of the courtyard there were several tables and comfortable looking couches. The whole place was tastefully decorated with lanterns and wooden furniture which gave it an authentic Chinese look and feel.

A Buddha statue facing the entrance of the hostel

The pond, furniture and rooms surrounding the courtyard

The courtyard of The Great Wall Courtyard Hostel in Badaling

Even better, I had actually booked a bed in their six bed dorm, but the dorm was under renovation so I was given a private double room for the same price. This was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time given that I was feeling absolutely miserable with the flu. My room was not only equipped with AC but it also had one of the old style water radiator heaters so it was warm, dry and cosy.

My room seen from the courtyard at the hostel

It wasn't long before I was tucked up in bed in the fetal position and sleeping like a baby (yes I know, I'm pathetic). When I woke up at around 7 pm, I ventured out of my room and was immediately invited by the hostel staff to join them and the other guests for a free home cooked meal. The only other guests was a couple from Australia who were making their way home through Asia after having lived and worked in London for the last three years. The food was delicious, or at least I think it was delicious because I couldn't really taste anything by that stage. There couldn't have been a better time for me to get a hearty home cooked meal as well as several cups of steaming hot green tea. The hostel is owned and operated by a husband and wife team and some of their extended family. Apart from the wife who spoke almost perfect English, the rest could only speak a little, but they were genuinely friendly, hospitable and obviously very keen to make their guests feel comfortable.

After dinner, I excused myself and headed back to bed so I could get as much sleep as possible. Unfortunately that night my body begun attempts to detoxify so I woke up in the middle of the night suffering from a dripping cold sweat which is not the best thing when you're away from home and unable to change the sheets. Luckily I was in a double room with two beds so I just changed beds instead!

The next day was a little overcast but with only the slightest of breezes. I don't know what temperature it was, but it was definitely in the double figures below zero. Having no wind was the important part because that day I planned to visit the Great Wall of China and I didn't want to get hypothermia at the same time as having the flu which would probably have meant the end of me. Now, usually common sense would have told me that going out on a long walk in the freezing cold whilst suffering from the flu would have been a rather stupid idea, but I thought I travelled all this way and this was probably the only chance I would ever get to see the Great Wall, so in the end it was an easy decision. Actually, originally I was planning on taking a tour to one of the more remote parts of the wall, but this involved a bit of a hike and most of the tours had been cancelled due to the deep snow and now because of my flu I had no choice but to take the easier option.

I had a huge breakfast at the hostel, then geared up with several layers of clothing, including thermal underwear, two pairs of socks, two pairs of trousers, a t-shirt, two long sleeve tops, a jacket, insulated gloves, a scarf, a hat and a thermus (hot water bottle) full of boiling water. By the time I had walked to the entrance about 2 kms from the hostel, I was actually sweating so I had to remove one of my long sleeve tops and tie it around my waist.

The Badaling entrance to the Great Wall of China seen from the section before the first tower

The first part of the wall was quite crowded, though I was told it was very quiet compared to what it's like in the high season. The views were quite spectacular, especially with the snow around the hills and you could see the wall zig zagging up, down and side to side far into the distant hills. Walking along it became a cycle of punishment (long steep climbs) followed by rewards (excellent views and easy downhills).

Along the side of the Great Wall near the entrance

Yes, I was really at the Great Wall of China

The poor girl that took the above photo was almost a bit reluctant and I knew exactly why, she had to take her glove off to press the button and even a few seconds without gloves became quite uncomfortable.

After a couple of hours, I reached the highest point on my walk which was a tower on the tallest hill in the vicinity. There I rested for a while gazing at the views - actually, I rested at every tower that I reached. I would lean against the wall of the tower, sheltering from the chilly breeze whilst sipping hot water poured from my thermus.

Me standing at the highest point that I reached on the Great Wall of China

Almost everybody that reached this high point, took a few snaps, then promptly turned around and doubled back the way they had come. Luckily I had insider knowledge after talking to the Australian couple from the hostel the night before. They had already visited the Great Wall and they told me that you could continue along the wall until you reached a large red flag with Chinese characters on it, and this flag marked a small underpassage that led to a different entry point to the wall. After that you could walk along the main road for a couple of kilometers before linking up with the main Badaling entrance where you had started. So I set off on my own down the empty section of the wall, and this definitely became the highlight of my walk. I was virtually on my own and I was confident I would make it back before it got dark because I spotted something red on the side of the wall in the far distance. It was extremely quiet and peaceful and even though there were still a few steep climbs, the majority of this section was now down hill.

An isolated part of the Great Wall, I was the only one around in this section for several kilometers in either direction

Parts of the wall were really steep and had no steps, I would have been sliding down the icy path if it weren't for the hand rails

Even though I was at the most popular and touristy parts of the Great Wall, it actually felt like I was in one of the remote parts. It was really peaceful and the only sound you could hear was a slight breeze whistling through the wall's turrets and my shoes crunching the small amounts of snow still left around the edges of the wall. I reached my last tower where I took a long break just gazing at the wall which went on and on into the distance.

The view down the empty wall from within one of the towers

Strangely enough, throughout most of my walk, I didn't feel that bad and I almost forgot that I was sick. Perhaps I was distracted by the incredible views or the concentration I was putting in while negotiating the tricky steep steps.

I got back to the hostel just as it was starting to get dark outside and I headed straight to bed after taking a long hot shower. My mission had been accomplished and I could then get on with relaxing and just trying to recover. I slept for a couple of hours before I heard a gentle knock on my door. I opened it to find the young niece of the owners inviting me for another one of their free home cooked meals, this time a traditional Chinese "Hot Pot". How could I say no? Once again it was nice to have a hot, home cooked meal, as well as a couple of beers!

Our Chinese Hot Pot dinner - The couple who owns the hostel are on the left, their niece is in the middle and the Australian couple on the right (unfortunately I forgot everyone's names except for the woman owner who's name is Nie)

This hostel was probably the best place I could have stayed at considering how I was feeling. It was hands down the best hostel I stayed at in China. It had plenty of character, the rooms were very comfortable, the staff were genuinely friendly and to top it off, we got free home cooked meals every night I was there. They quite justifiably got a brilliant review and top marks from me on the hostelworld website (I forgave them for the bad directions).

So that was it for my Great Wall adventure, though my sickness continued for a few more days, but don't worry, I'll try to keep the complaining and feeling sorry for myself down to a minimum on my next blog.

And mum, don't worry, I'm fine now.

Hui tou jian!

Posted by joshuag 06:58 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Xi'an - City Walls and the Terracotta Army


semi-overcast 4 °C
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Forgive me Father for it's been 17 days since my last blog.

So I left Yangshuo at around noon on the 2nd of January for another one and a half hour bus journey back to Guilin where I was catching a train to Xi'an. Once again I sat right at the back of the bus so I could have a corner to keep my pack and pockets away from idle hands (it's amazing how aware I've become of every pocket and bag that I carry). I seemed to give the other foreigners on the bus the same idea because when they saw me, they headed straight for the back of the bus and sat right next to me. Everyone on board was Chinese except for me, a couple from India and a couple from Australia.

By the time we reached my stop in Guilin, everyone except the Australian couple had gotten off and I noticed two lone unclaimed backpacks sitting on the footpath beside the bus. I realised immediately that they belonged to the Australian couple and that the driver had taken them off the bus without checking who they belonged to. I quickly jumped back inside as the driver was about to close the doors and I yelled out to them to warn them of what had happened. Looking rather shocked, the Aussie guy quickly jumped out and shoved the packs back into the luggage compartment. Needless to say, he was extremely thankful towards me, and not too happy with the driver. It felt nice to have done a good deed for some fellow travellers, because out here it sometimes feels a like it's us against them - a harsh generalization perhaps, but that's what it feels like.

Later that evening I embarked on yet another long haul train journey, this time for 27 hours to Xi'an in the Shaanxi Province. Once again I didn't encounter any other English speakers on my carridge and I resorted to sleeping and listening to my iPod for the entire journey but it didn't really bother me because I wasn't in a particularly talkative mood. The windows on this train were just as dirty as the last and I couldn't really get any good views let alone photos, but I did get one that encapsulated the general mood of the views outside my window.

A typical sight outside my train window along the route from Guilin to Xi'an, I actually liked that the window was dirty for this photo

I arrived in Xi'an late in the evening to a chaotic scene outside the train station. It's one thing to turn up in a strange city during the day, but when you're alone, it's dark and there are hoardes of people everywhere, it can be quite intimidating. Luckily I knew which bus to catch to my hostel and after a quick search I found the bus stop which was through one of the city wall gates and over the road from the railway station, so it all went pretty smoothly considering.

My first day in Xi'an involved a meandering walk around the city center. The center of Xi'an is surrounded by a huge city wall about 12 meters high, 12-14 meters wide and with a circumference of 13.74 kilometers. It is the longest, most intact and best preserved ancient city wall in China and it does look impressive, especially at night when it's all lit up.

One of the towers along the southern end of Xi'an's city wall

The South Gate of the Xi'an city wall, it is the main gate and my hostel was only about 50 meters away

There are a few lone towers dotted around the center of the city within the city walls, the most important of these would be the Bell Tower, which lies at the very center of the city. The next one is the Drum Tower which is larger and about 2 kms to the west of the Bell tower. I wasn't much in the mood for paying expensive entry fees so I skipped actually going inside them.

The Bell Tower at the center of Xi'an

The Drum Tower in Xi'an

The next day I went shopping for a scarf at the markets in the Muslim quarter located near the drum tower. Just before entering the Muslim quarter, I stopped by a cafe for a much needed dose of caffeine. As I exited, an old woman pan handler hoveled over to me and pushed her empty tin cup in my face. I figured this was the perfect time to get rid of my Jiao notes which I had separated and put in my back pocket for an occasion such as this. A Jiao is a fraction of a Yuan, that is, 1 Jiao is one tenth of a Yuan (so currently 1 Jiao is around NZ$0.02). To me they are a pain to carry around in my wallet so I thought at least I could give them away instead of throwing them out. As soon as I dumped a few of the notes in her cup, the woman gave me a big smile which quickly turned in to a frown as she looked in to her cup. Then she extended her arm towards me once again while saying something in Chinese. Who could blame her for not being particularly satisfied with what I had given her, but for her to insist on more money and then proceed to grab my arm quite forcefully was a bit too much so I just walked away. Obviously the phrase "Beggars can't be choosers" doesn't apply in China.

Anyway, once in the Muslim quarter markets, shopping for the scarf turned out to be fun and a headache at the same time. I quite liked haggling prices with the stall merchants, but as soon as you show a hint of interest in one of their products, they don't shut up and they insist on showing you every item they have for sale instead of leaving you in peace to choose colours/sizes/etc. In a couple of the stalls, the person running it would call out to a colleague from another stall to come and stand in the narrow exit so that you'd be trapped inside. After a while, I got sick of being trapped in their stalls so I returned to the very first stall where the young guy running it simply said, "Take a look, if you see one you like we can discuss prices". He won for being the least pushy, not to mention that he had the nicest scarf. I felt satisfied haggling the price down by only 20 Yuan which was still a bargain.

It's quite strange haggling for prices in a cheap country. You know the prices are cheap compared to the West, but they begin with what would be hugely overinflated prices for the locals. So you are torn between not wanting to rip them off because most of them are obviously just barely scraping by, and also not wanting to look like a silly tourist mug for paying what they would consider to be ridiculously high prices.

The next day, I finally decided to visit Xi'an's main tourist attraction, the Terracotta Army. The Terracotta Army, dating from 210 BC, was created to guard the tomb of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang and they were discovered by local farmers in 1974 while they were digging for a water well. For this excursion, I teamed up with two Aussie girls, Jill and Michaela, that I met at the hostel a couple of nights before. Jill works in Beijing and Michaela was visiting a mutual friend there and they themselves had only known eachother for about a week. They were very nice and down to earth and I think going with them made the trip much more enjoyable. The archeological site is about 50 kilometers from Xi'an and we all decided to skip the expensive tours offered by the hostel and do it on our own by taking the regular buses without a guide (none of us are fans of tour guides).

Once we reached the site, we had to walk through a mini concrete and bricks village full of souvenir shops, restaurants and people offering to be our guides before we finally got to the actual entrance to the archeological site. Although it was really cold that morning (around -5 C), this meant that there were very few other tourists there and for once in China at a tourist location, it didn't feel crowded. Since we were doing it without a guide, we ended up walking through the buildings in a not so intended route but by the end our opinion was that we had done things in the perfect order.

We started by turning to the right and entering the museum which only contained scaled down models of some of the statues, and although they were impressive, with the real thing only a few buildings away we skipped through it rather quickly.

A model displayed in the museum of one of the war chariots. The actual chariots were made out of wood and only a few small fragments have survived

The next building we entered was Pit 2 which is the second largest pit. The statues in this building were mostly in pieces and scattered all over the ancient tiled floors.

Some smashed Terracotta statues in Pit 2

All of the statues in each of the pits were arranged in proper battle formations along corridors separated by thick compressed earth walls. Each corridor is lined with brick tile floors and covered by wooden ceilings. Many of Pit 2's corridors remain unexcavated and were still covered by these sagging wooden ceilings.

The unexcavated corridors of Pit 2 with the sagging wooden ceilings.

The next building we entered was Pit 3 which is thought to be the command post containing high ranking officers, horses and a war chariot. This pit was quite small but the figures here were more intact and quite impressive (obviously after some restoration efforts).

Me with some high ranking officers and horse statues in Pit 3

The final building we entered was Pit 1 which is the biggest measuring 230 meters long by 62 meters wide. Most of this pit also remains unexcavated with only around 2,000 out of the estimated 6,000 statues having been uncovered. We entered through a side door right at the back of the building which was actually an exit, but it was actually good this way because most of the statues are right at the front and we got to see them in gradually increasing numbers. For me it was one big "Wow" after another. What can I say, it's one of those sights that photos cannot justify. It is truly an amazing sight especially if you consider that it was all created over 2,200 years ago.

Michaela and Jill and the view of Pit 1 as seen from around mid way through the side of the pit

Jill, me and Michaela with the huge Pit 1 in the background

The front lines of the Terracotta Army in Pit 1

Me at the very front of Pit 1

After exiting Pit 1, we had a late lunch at the village before hopping on the bus back to Xi'an. I don't know how, but just before we left, Michaela somehow persuaded me to buy a small box of Terracotta Soldier figurines from one of the souvenier shops, at the time it all made sense because the price was so incredibly low. So much for my "No Souveniers Rule". She became a bit of a souvenier addict in China and was already carrying large bags full of stuff back to Australia. I'm obviously not carrying it around with me for the rest of my journey and a small package should be on its way to New Zealand at this very moment.

Michaela and I doing the "Kneeling Archer" and "Standing Soldier" poses near the exit to the village, a small crowd of amused Chinese tourists gathered to watch our antics.

We had a couple of beers back at the hostel in Xi'an before Jill and Michaela caught a flight back to Beijing. They almost missed their plane because they wanted to stay in Xi'an another night to have a few more drinks and also walk along the city walls with me the next day, but they were unable to reschedule their flight without it costing as much as they had already paid.

Alas, the next day I ventured on a tour along the top of the city walls on my own. The entrance was near the South Gate wich was thankfully only about 50 meters away from the hostel. It was a fine day but it was very hazy and freezing so I put on several layers and set off on my journey. Once on the wall I realised even a stroll to the east or west sides of the walls was going to take forever, so I hired a bicycle and decided I could then do the entire 13.74 kilometer circumference in perhaps just a couple of hours. Actually the sign at the bike hire place said one could do it comfortably in 100 minutes and in fact would they start charging extra for every minute over this time limit. Now, normally it probably would be easy to ride 13.74 kms in 1 hr and 40 minutes but this is an ancient wall. The floor bricks are uneven with large chips taken off them not to mention that my bike had no gears and about 1 km into the trip, when it really got bumpy, I discovered the tyres were a little flat.

The view along the south side of the ancient Xi'an city wall, I think even without the haze you could not have seen the end

My hostel as seen from the south side of the city wall

One of the Towers along the wall taken from another tower

One of the corner towers on the city wall

Once I reached a quarter of the way, I looked at the time and realised I was already 5 minutes over what I should have been. Now I had to not only do the next 3 quarters in the remaining time but also make up for what I had already lost. I thought those cheeky people at the bike rentals must make quite a bit of money in extra charges because I was cycling at a reasonable pace, only stopping very briefly to take photos and I was still running late. Even though the extra charges weren't that much, I somehow became determined to get back within the 100 minutes.

This was the view I had while cycling along the wall. I was quite proud of my special effects.

The Xi'an Railway Station as seen from the north side of the city wall

The main intersection within the city walls just opposite the Railway station, that was about as quiet as I'd seen it.

A large smoke stack as seen from the east side of the city wall, it's this kind of thing (as well as the heavy traffic) that makes China so hazy and polluted

Overall, the sights from the wall weren't that impressive, mostly because the walls are quite far away from most of the attractions in Xi'an and also because there was a heavy haze in the air that day.

By my watch, I reached the bicycle hire stand only 3 minutes over the allowed time but this was only after a mammoth effort over the last quarter of the journey which left my legs a little sore. They didn't charge me anything extra which was good because I would have been quite mad at them for their extremely deliberate journey-time underestimates. At least I got some excercise, though for once in my life I don't really need it with all the walking I've been doing during my trip.

Some guards posted at the entrance of the wall, they are of course just for show.

I was quite glad to have finished my bone shattering bike ride so I decided to head back to the hostel and reward myself with a cold beer before heading to the Railway station and on to my next destination in China.

So that was Xi'an, my favourite large city in China thus far. Somehow, even though it is still crowded it seems much more ordered and less chaotic. Crossing major roads in Xi'an isn't as much of a life and death situation because of the frequent pedestrian underpasses. Also, the streets are much much cleaner and people tended to not toot their car horns as much there. You can also tell there's plenty of money floating around the city. Lots of flash cars along the neat avenues as well as countless shopping complexes selling all the top brands and labels.

Anyway, that's it for now. My next destination is coming up very shortly because I got so far behind...

So until next time, that's me signing out.

Posted by joshuag 06:41 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Yangshuo - China's Tourist Oasis

Xmas and New Years in China

all seasons in one day 10 °C
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I'm going to try and make this blog entry more about photos, mostly because the scenery has finally come alive for me in China, but also because I'm feeling lazy.

An hour and a half after leaving rainy Guilin by bus on xmas eve, I arrived in sunny Yangshuo to some amazing views, it is also in the Guangxi province. I thought Guilin's limestone hills were dazzling, but in Yangshuo they are even more spectacular. Yangshuo is a much smaller city and the entire sky line is dominated by towering limestone hills. It is supposed to have a population of 300,000 but they must all be hiding in caves or under rocks because it has the appearance of a small town of less of than 50,000. Sure it's touristy, the main walking street, called West St, is a testament to this with all the bars, restaurants and souvenier shops, but I didn't care, it was relatively clean and a great escape from the noisy, dusty and congested Guilin. It didn't take long for me to find my hostel, hidden away in a small alley behind the main street only about 50 meters from the Li River and almost directly beneath one of the limestone hills called Green Lotus Peak. The hostel claims to have the best view in town from their roof top bar, and they weren't kidding. Soon after checking in, I ventured upstairs to gaze at the view.

The view from the bar at my hostel in Yangshuo, pity my panoramic photos don't appear correctly on this blog because a single frame does not capture the reality.

The view of Yangshuo from the roof top bar at my hostel, the neon lights show you where West St is

The entrance of my hostel down the small alley by night

Since I was staying in Yangshuo for about nine days to chill out over xmas and new years, I stayed in my own room instead of a dorm room. They didn't have a single room so I had to book a double and it was huge. It had two double beds and if I wanted to there was still plenty of room left for me to do some jazzercise. Pity the inviting beds were a disappointment just like all the other beds I've had in China. They tend to use the base of a bed and forget all about the top mattress, sometimes I wonder if they ever test the beds out themselves, or whether perhaps they find it comfortable to sleep on concrete.

The hostel provided some nice sporty brand name flip-flops from ...er NKIE?

It was great relaxing around Yangshuo over the next few days. Most nights the staff would put on a Chinese barbaque with lots of meat and vegetables. My favourite were the really tasty skewered mushrooms. Xmas day came and went, and I hardly even noticed it, neither did anyone else at the hostel really. Even though there weren't many people staying there (once again, it's the low season) I still met lots of really interesting people from all over the world, Germany, England, the US, Singapore, Argentina and Spain to name a few. Unfortunately, I didn't really get photos of most people because our activities over my first few days consisted mostly of hanging out at the hostel bar or going out to eat at various restaurants and I usually forgot my camera.

The barwoman JC at the hostel was also very friendly and she lets the hostel guests select whatever music they want to listen to, she also didn't complain when we stayed at the bar talking and drinking until 3 or 4 in the morning. She would call everything she liked "cute", even things like food or the warmth of the coal fire.

My "Beer Pong" opponents, Harald and Ulf (both from Germany) ...they won.

Because Yangshuo is a backpacker tourist mecca, the town has adapted to make it as comfortable for tourists as possible, and hence make as much money as possible. There are restaurants and cafes everywhere, most of them offering Western food as well as Chinese. West St is lined end to end with various bars and stores offering touristy souveniers like t-shirts, fabrics, jewelery, children's toys, chop sticks and anything else you can think of.

West St by night, it runs from one end of town to the other.

On one of the days, I decided to rent an electric scooter and take a ride about 15 kms out of town to see the surrounding countryside. I rode along the main road taking little detours now and then when I saw an interesting sight down a side road. The scooter's battery supposedly only had about 30 kms worth of juice so I didn't venture too far but it was quite a fun ride and the roads were really quiet so I didn't have to fear for my life.

My trusty electric scooter - top speed about 40 km/h though with the bumpy roads my average speed was probably about 25 km/h.

The sights were quite amazing along the road too, there were plenty of tourist spots like caves, strange shaped hills and of course rivers which you could take tours on bamboo rafts.

Bridge over Li River, this area appeared to be one of the main bamboo raft launching points

Moon Hill, apparently you can climb up to the top but I was feeling too lazy to do by the time I had reached it

A small farmer's shed and the beautiful scenery

A local farmer carrying vegetables

By the time I was on the main road again on the way back to the city, I had become like one of the locals, freely tooting my horn to let people know I was coming. I had learnt whilst being a pedestrian that people just pull out whenever they want and the only way they stop is if you sound your horn to let them know you're coming. Strangely, when I got back to the hostel several hours later, the battery indicator was still showing full so I'm glad I didn't rely on it to tell me when I should turn back.

The view along the "main" road just nearing the edge of Yangshuo

The same night after my scooter ride I met a couple from Singapore, Tim and Angeline (Tim being originally from Germany) as well as a guy from Argentina, Miguel who works in China for a US company. Over the course of a few friendly beers at the roof top bar we agreed to rent some mountain bikes the next day and take a tour together along a well known trail beside the Li River.

Luckily the weather was pretty good the next day, which happend to be new years eve, and before heading off we decided to have breakfast in noodle restaurant that was quite popular with the locals. Although delicious, my noodles were quite spicy which I think contributed to my first funny-tummy of this trip. Usually I love spicy food and don't have a problem with it so it may have been something else but who knows. Luckily it never got so bad that I had to deal with constant trips to the bathroom which is definitely a good thing when you're on a bicycle the whole day.

The scenery along our bike ride was quite amazing and even though we were cycling through a well established bike route, we were passing alongside farms and through small villages with houses built from mud bricks. The roadway varied from flat concrete to bumpy dirt paths often covered with puddles and thick mud. We were somewhere in between the real rural China and a well trodden tourist trail. We only saw three or four other groups on bikes the whole time, but I can imagine in summer this place would be like the peleton in the Tour of France.

The very start of the cycle trail, it was a good example of what was to come. It was so quiet you could hear your heart beating.

Some of the amazing views along our bicycle tour

We stopped by for lunch in a remote cafe/hostel called the Giggling Tree which is run by a Dutch couple, apparently it's mentioned in the Lonely Planet and has good reviews in hostelworld.com. This was despite one of the locals trying to mislead us in to going to a completely different restaurant on the other side of the river which would have required us to cross with our bikes on small bamboo rafts, for a small fee of course. We were using a pretty vague and badly scaled map of the area, but we were quite sure we didn't have to cross the river. This guy was being very persistent and way too helpful and it wasn't long before we all became suspicious. Once we decided to ignore the guy and head back to the last fork on the road that we had passed, he gave himself away completely by swearing at Angeline in Mandarin and taking off on his motorcycle. After asking another local where the cafe was, she pointed down a different road and we discovered that someone had twisted the sign for the cafe to point in the wrong direction leading people towards the river, it was easy to guess who the culprit was.

Angeline, Me and Tim on our cycle tour not far from the Giggling Tree cafe & hostel, Miguel was the photgrapher

One of our aims was to get to a really old beautiful bridge on the Li River that was supposed to offer some really amazing views, but unfortunately none of the roads or tracks had any sign posts and even though Angeline spoke Mandarin, it was difficult to get good directions from the locals. Our problems were compounded with the fact the roads in and around the villages all became one huge maze. It wasn't long before we completely lost our bearings and the only thing that kept us going in the right general direction was the river. Due to all the confusion and the impending darkness, we never did make it to the old bridge, but we did find another bridge, which although itself was not particularly spectacular, it did offer some of the best views of the day.

View of Li River from one of the many small bridges

Me on bridge of Li River

After arriving back in Yangshuo, we all had a couple of hours rest before heading up to the roof top bar of the hostel for some beers, a barbaque and a few games of pool. We didn't really pay much attention to the time until Tim looked at his watch and pointed out it was fifteen minutes to midnight. Although I had been told that there was going to be a fireworks display put on by the local authorities, the rumour had now changed to no fireworks, pity because the roof top bar would have been a fireworks spectator's paradise.

So a small group of about six of us from the hostel rushed down stairs and on to the main street so we could get a countdown in one of the local bars. Most bars were playing terrible music (as they did every night) and we had to search for a while before we found a place that was actually going to have a countdown (this was China after all). By the time we were inside, it was about one minute to midnight and we were herded off to a small table in the "foreigners" section, then before we could all even order a drink, the DJ started a countdown, it was midnight, we all cheered, looked down at the expensive drinks menu, looked at each other, shook our heads and basically walked out. I can still see the shocked look on our barmaid's face as we walked out without even ordering a single drink. We all headed back to the hostel for a few more cheap beers, better music and some games of beer pong.

Despite it being quite a subdued new years, I was not at all disappointed and it just ended up being another fun night at the hostel bar.

Seconds before new years countdown in seedly little club in Yangshuo, I think we were there less than five minutes

The next morning (I say morning but it was actually around noon) I got up and headed out for breakfast with Tim, Angeline and Miguel before they all left for Guilin. I had already planned to stay another night in Yangshuo just so I could recover from a predictable hangover. We had breakfast at another noodle place, though I didn't actually eat anything myself, mostly because I didn't want to push my luck again with spicy noodles and also because I don't usually have a huge appetite in the morning after a night of drinking. We followed breakfast by a coffee from McDonalds which I have to admit, is a pretty reliable, cheap and consistent source of caffeine in China.

Two cute little girls having a noodle breakfast on new years day, this photo made my morning.

After saying our goodbyes, I spent the rest of the day napping and watching DVDs at the hostel, a perfect start to the new year.

One of the things I liked best about Yangshuo, apart from the amazing scenery of course, was that it is so small you can easily walk from one side to the other, this means there are no noisy, poluting cars or buses, at least not in the main part of town. Another thing that I enjoyed, was that even when you are eating Chinese food, you can almost guarantee that the restaurant will have menus in English and staff there will speak at least a little bit of English. Of course that's not an expectation I have of China, that would be pretty arrogant, it's just that finding places to eat where I know what I'm ordering and trying to communicate with restaurant staff are definitely the hardest things about travelling here, not that it's a huge problem because where there's a hunger there's a way.

So that was it for the south of China (and 2009), heading north from now on and temperatures are going to plummet.

Happy new year!

Posted by joshuag 02:16 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (3)

Guilin - Limestone Hills and Cave Light Shows


all seasons in one day 12 °C
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Initially, when I was planning my journey through China, I thought perhaps a Yangtze river cruise via the Three Gorges Dam would have been really interesting, but I was struggling to find a tour that was operating during December, let alone one that didn't cost a small fortune. So, I left the decision on what I should do for "later". By the time I had arrived in China, I still didn't have a plan on where to go after Shanghai or any time during the xmas and new year's period so I spent a whole evening doing research using the super slow internet connection at the hostel. After lots of searching and reading news of a bitterly cold winter blast headed from the north, I decided to head south to Guilin in the Guangxi province. Guilin city and the surrounding towns are known in China and supposedly around the world for the beautiful scenery and the area has become a popular tourist destination, and all I had to do was take a mere 22 hour train ride to get there, so really, the decision was simple.

Having purchased my ticket a few days in advance, all I had to do was turn up at the Shanghai South train station and wait.

One of the waiting areas in the Shanghai South train station - The building is the first circular shaped train station in the world, it's one huge building.

At this point, an unfortunate coincidence resulted in a great deal of confusion. To cut a long story short, all the writing on the train ticket was in Chinese except for the origin, destination and some numbers. The coincidence was that the time of departure together with my allocated departure lounge matched exactly the number of my train carridge together with my seat number. So the items on the ticket which I thought were the departure time and waiting lounge, actually told me which carridge and seat I was allocated. I wanted to double check, but surprise surprise, the one and only tourist information desk at the train station was completely deserted.

I think I was the only westerner in the entire station and although I was used to being stared at while walking through the streets of Shanghai, it's different when you are in a large and croweded waiting lounge. I could see every pair of eyes in my vicinity following me around as I searched for a seat. It was as if they hadn't seen a foreigner before because they didn't just glance at me, they just continued staring as if they were a bunch of kittens following a piece of string around the room.

Finally the train started boarding and I ended up having to show my ticket to half of the grumpy train door attendants until one of them finally pointed to their carridge door. Then I did the same thing inside the carridge but with the passengers until someone pointed to the berth next to them. I felt like an idiot once I figured out that the ticket was quite clear and specific on where I had to go.

Again, nobody on the train appeared to speak English. The man in the bed adjacent to me was wearing reasonably nice clothes and looked like a business man, however, even though I said "Nin hao" to him as I sat down, he didn't reply and we ended up not speaking a single word to eachother for the entire 22 hour journey. Not only this but my nickname for him ended up being the "Farty-burpy-snorry Man", he performed each of the aforementioned actions regularly and without a hint of restraint, not so great when you are only about two feet away from eachother. Some younger Chinese passeners were on the bunk beds above me, but they were travelling in a large group so they hung out with their friends a couple of berths down, so it ended up being one of those silent journeys, this was the point when I truly appreciated my ipod.

Unfortunately, most of the windows on the train were dirty and because it was dark for most of the journey, I didn't really get to see much. What I did see was quite a bleak winter landscape with old worn down houses and factories nestled amongst misty brown hills. There was little greenery to speak of, most of the hills were covered with depressed leafless trees. One of the carridge attendants was a nice woman who didn't speak English, but she did her best to be friendly by smiling at me a lot. As I left the train, she smiled, put her hand on my shoulder and said "Bye bye, bye bye".

So I finally arrived in Guilin, and although it doesn't have the appearance of a big city, it has a population 1.34 million (big by NZ standards). The buildings themselves aren't very pretty and the traffic is crazy just like in Shanghai but a little more chaotic. People cut eachother off everywhere, indicators and road rules appear to be optional. Everyone is on their horns all the time and there are buses, trucks, scooters and motorcycles everywhere. I've noticed most of the scooters in China are electric, this means they are almost silent which is not the best thing when you are trying to cross the road and there are swarms of them everywhere. There are plenty of pedestrian crossings with zebra lines painted on the road, but without crossing lights which means everyone has to resort to j-walking. Most of the time I waited on the side of the road for a reasonable gap so I didn't feel like I was going to get run over, meanwhile dozens of people had already made their way across by stopping at strategic points on the road in between the imaginary lanes. It's like a giant version of the old Atari arcade game "frogger" (now I'm really showing my age). However, what makes up for all of this chaos, is the amazing surroundings and the peace and tranquilty you find in the parks. The city of Guilin is located on the banks of the Li River, it's also nestled within countless karst formations which are tall, steep limestone hills.

The limestone hills around Guilin

From the right locations, the distant views are amazing. The limestone hills appear to go on forever and only gradually disappear behind distant misty curtains. Because winter is also the dry season, the hills aren't lush and green like in the photos I've seen and the cold temperatures mean a heavy mist sits over them throughout the day, but they are still quite impressive. The best thing is, you could be walking down a main road, and right in front of you, a huge hill is extending up into the sky from behind some buildings.

Limestone hills right in the middle of the city

On my first full day, I only ventured to the botanical gardens a short walk from my hostel. The park is nice to walk through, it is obviously well cared for and a nice escape from the hectic streets. Right next to the park, there's a huge shopping mall with four levels containing a supermarket, various stores and an entire level dedicated to small restaurants. Once again, I was stared at constantly while walking around the area, which is surprising because this is supposed to be a semi-popular tourist destination. I still have my hair cut short so perhaps they think I look like Bruce Willis like the chef did at the Udon restaurant I went to in Fukuoka, Japan. That was quite funny actually, when I walked in and sat down in the udon restaurant, the chef looked at me then whispered something to the waitress in Japanese before they both giggled, then she turned to me and said, "He think you look like Bluce Willis".

The next day I went to Elephant Hill Park. This park is right next to the Li River and its main attraction is a limestone hill at the edge of the river with a cave through it which is supposed to look like an elephant drinking water from the river. Unfotunately it's the dry season and the river levels are so low that when I was there, it was more like an elephant sniffing rocks.

Elephant Hill in park, Guilin

I climbed all the way to the top of the hill and got some nice views, although again the mist seemed to limit visibility somewhat.

The stairway leading to the top of Elephant Hill passed through some gates and alongside some caves

Me at the top of Elephant Hill

A murual near the entry gate of Elephant Hill Park - I took the photo more because of the flags, it reminded me I was in China

After Elephant Hill Park, I walked to the center of town and came across a tall and long stone wall that turned out to be the rim of the Prince City Scenic area. Inside there were several Ming and Qing Dynasty buildings as well as a single solitary limestone hill, aptly named Solitary Beauty Peak. The area inside the walls also included several residential streets as well as a women's university. I walked to the top of the hill and also entered one of the caves underneath it. To be honest, this park was a bit disappointing and it happend to be the most expensive that I went to in Guilin. Perhaps it would have been prettier if it wasn't the middle of winter.

Funny sign in Prince City - I've told you a thousand times before, no trombones! (Actually I was told later this meant "No car horn honking")

A better park that I visited a couple of days later, was the Seven Star Scenic Area. It is named so because it is surrounded by seven distinct limestone hills. Within it there are several attractions like caves, small lakes and waterfalls, a zoo and at least one temple.

The Qixia Temple in Seven Star Park

The Buddha statue in Qixia Temple, Seven Star Park

I took a tour of the Seven Star Cave which ran under one of the hills behind the Qixia temple. A path has been built inside it which meanders around several interesting rock formations. They've added a coloured light show to try and make it more interesting.

Statues near entrance to Seven Star Cave, Guilin

Although a few rock formations did look amazing when they used one or two colours, the vast majority were completely over done with lights from every colour of the rainbow.

Amazing looking rock formations in Seven Star Cave, Guilin

Over the top and totally cheesy light show on rock formations in Seven Star Cave, Guilin

You had to walk through with a tour guide so they could turn the lights on as you walked along. The guide also pointed at certain rock formations with her torch and explained how they bore some resemblance to some animal, groups of animals, a building or even a person. Let's just say, I wasn't too upset that she was only speaking in Chinese because it seemed a little bit cheesy. Most of the other people taking the tour would all go "Ooooh, Aaaah" when she would reveal what the rocks were supposed to look like. The only reason I knew what was going on was because these formations were also sign posted in English and I had been through a similar cave tour when I travelled through Mexico.

The descriptions on some of the formations were really starting to reach. I could just picture a couple of guys shining torches around in the cave, and one of them would say something like, "I think this one could be 'Lion Looking back at the Camel', what do you think Li?"

A rock formation sign inside Seven Star Cave - The sign says "A Lion Looking Back at the Camel"

After the cave, I ventured over to the zoo and I actually got to see a panda in China, not that I'm that interested in pandas, it's just that people go on and on about them because they are so rare. There's a reason they are so rare and that's because they are absolutely terrible at reproducing and they only eat bamboo. I'm actually quite surprised they've managed to cheat evolution for so long. Unfortunately it was inside snacking on bamboo leaves at the time, but I did get to see it through one of the windows.

Panda in zoo at Seven Star Park

As I was making my way out of the zoo, I walked past a group of young girls sitting on the grass. They all yelled out "Hello!" and one of them asked me if she could have her photo taken with me. Of course I thought it was a little strange but figured it was merely the novelty of me being a foreigner so I agreed and as soon as that photo was taken, one by one, the rest of them ran up and stood by me to have theirs taken individually. I felt like a Santa in a shopping mall (minus the sitting on the knee). They were quite sweet though and very friendly, after all that I though it was only fitting that I got to take their photo.

Highschool girls in Seven Star Park, Guilin

The funniest part came later on when I was looking at the views from the top of one of the hills. Four girls from the same group turned up and started chatting with me again in English. They were absolutely amazed at how I could be travelling around the world by myself. After a while, we walked down the steps together and just before they went their own way, one of them slipped me her telephone number, how cute is that! (I just hope she wasn't too heartbroken when I didn't call).

The view from the top of one of the hills in Seven Star Park, Guilin

A large restaurnat nestled beneath one of the peaks in Seven Star Park

By the time I left the park it was getting dark and I decided to walk half way back to my hostel. I decided the city itself is much pretier after dark.

Bridge over Li River, Guilin

This excursion ended up being my last in Guilin because the rain really set in over the following two days and it would have been absolutely terrible to go out sight seeing. So I relaxed back at the hostel and let my sore feet recover from all the walking I had done during the previous few days. Unfortunately, because the bar and outdoor areas of my hostel were being renovated, together with the fact there were only one or two other travellers staying at the same time, meant that I didn't really get to meet other people there except for the staff which were really friendly and helpful. When I checked out (on xmas eve) they even gave me a small present and I was refunded half of what I had paid for the room because the bar had been closed the whole time I was there! I hadn't even complained about it so I was really impressed. And to top it off, because it was pouring rain outside when I checked out, one of them walked with me to the bus stop with an umbrella and she showed me which bus I needed to catch to go to Yangshuo.

A hand made present from the staff at Wada Hostel in Guilin - I was told the Chinese character basically means "Safe Travels".

So, that was Guilin. The city itself wasn't that pretty, but the surrounding parks were and the people were definitely much friendlier than in Shanghai.

Next stop, Yangshuo!

Posted by joshuag 03:24 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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