Wednesday, 23 April 2008


Last night in China. Finally found the Olympic stadium after much mouth gaping and scratching of heads. There are no signs until you get within 100 yards and then they have a small blue sign with a stadium symbol and "Good Luck". Need to improve things for August methinks. It looks nice but it is surrounded by unfinished roads, mud, cement and little old men with wheel barrows. When you get close half the red army are there to stop close up photos and there are lots of blacked out cars whizzing around and running over your feet. Had to go through 2 lines of heavily guarded police to get a coffee at TGI Fridays next to the stadium. Not many customers...

Good things
Fantastic views from the Great Wall of China. Incredible that they built it nearly 2000 years ago. Amazing that the Monguls broke though it in the 14th Century and still surprising that the Americans or going to have another go on the Mexican border. They don't work but at least this one looks nice complete with chasing locals that try to sell stuff running up the hills.
Huge palace grounds of the Forbidden City built in 1420. Lots of repainting for the tourists

Bad things
Rice wine that smells like blue cheese and should be used to clean windows
Looking at maps and still having no idea where you are
Dust in the air for choking sunsets
Taxi drivers that can't find the hotel
Tian'amen square - just a big car park surrounded by 4 lanes of traffic for flag raising and hastling tourists
Travelling in the tube at armpit sniffing rush hour
Buns that looked like cinamon swirls but were really made from beans
Walking boots have finally cracked and I don't have Al to glue them back together. Left boot proving very effective at pumping water into my socks for soggy shopping trips

Xi'an - Terracotta Warriors

Good things
Terracotta Army randonly found by a farmer in the 1970s. Emperors were mad weren't they. Not sure that the clay models would have helped him in the afterlife or the concubines who were buried while still alive..
Colourful Muslim market area for cheap dinners and mosque garden walking
Found Pizza Hut for much needed cheese injection. They don't eat cheese in China and it has to be imported from Hong KongCycling on the city walls although you had to cough your way along two of the sides because of all the building dust in the air.

Bad things
Train trip was a challenge. Had to sleep on the top bunk with 1 foot of head space and feet sticking into the corridor. Also right next to the smoking area where the locals puffed furiously through the night. Learnt not to wear sandals to go to the toilets which were holes in the floor for squating. They get a bit full and there is a huge risk of sliding into the danger area when you go around a bend...
Was tempted to tickle everyone's feet in the carriage when walking through
Kept losing vegetables off my skewer on fondue night
Flute player played the chorus to Titanic continuously outside our hotel window. Occasionally played Happy Birthday.
Noodling guitar player in rubbish electo band at a dodgy nightclub
Sellers starting bidding at 3 times the going rate for stuff. Need to walk away a few times with them chasing after you.


We finished our Three Gorges Cruise in Yichang, an industrial city. Normally the tour doesn't stay in Yichang, but our cruise was moved up one day (and upgraded to a Chinese 5 star cruise - not to be confused with western 5 star luxary, but nice nonetheless). Yichang is pretty ugly, possibly more typical of a large, Chinese city than the places we have been stopping on our tour. It did have a few redeeming features, such as a large, children's park complete with Mickey Mouse statues, mazes, boats, a zoo and nice playground equipment. Here is Stephen's take on the lovely city of Yichang...

Yichang City

Good things
Had huge bubble bath in the hotel
Managed to post some postcards by standing in the middle of the post office and flapping them in the general area of the staff

Bad things
Found nightclub where they sing karaoke as loud as they possibly can paying little attention to the beat or backing tune. Old couples were walzing and the audience was furiously shaking clappers. Chinese entertainment on a wet Monday night...
1950s Hackney. A place of rubble and sogginess... and the internet shop smells of wee and smoke so I won't be here very long and quite fancy nipping off for a bath and a game of cards.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Yangtse River - Three Gorges Cruise

Yangtze River and the 3 Gorges
It's the third longest river in the world and has the biggest dam in the world. 110 m high, 280 m long and can produce enough power to boil the kettle of 10% of the families in China - equivalent to 3 nuclear power stations.

Cruised for three days on a 5 star ship with a cabin that had air conditioning and a balcony overlooking the side of the boat - which was useful because it was absolutely freezing outside - managed to enjoy the scenery from under the duvet. Visited temples, looked at gorges and then got back quickly under the duvet......

Good things
Going through enormous canel locks
Took a boat trip up some rapids where the men have to get out, jump into the cold water and haul the boat with ropes. They have 6 in each boat. 4 paddlers, the captain who steers and another captain who wears wellies and doesn't have to do much. One of our paddlers was 82. That's how you solve the pension crisis!
Pretty folk singing by our guide
Housemaid made us both green tea after our trip away from the boat.
Warm face cloths each time we got back on the boat. Gave my armpits a quick rub to freshen up as I assumed that this is what they were for.

Bad things
Crew caberet night - cringingly awful
Communist weather forcasts - A bit cloudy and between 16 and 26 degrees. When actually freezing rain and fog.
Red wine tasted like sweet sherry and gave me a headache.
Same food for breakfast, lunch and dinner

Monday, 14 April 2008


After a 3 hour bus ride with a brief stop to use some primitive toilets at a tea farm, we arrived in Longsheng. Longsheng is an area full of rice terraces built right into the mountainside. We actually had to pay admission to drive up to the mountain villages because the government controls the tourism in the area. We switched to a government issued bus to drive up the hill. When we arrived at the lower village we were greeted by some Yao women selling postcards. They are famous for their floor-length hair. I think the Yao women from this Chinese minority group have the longest hair in the world. They had it all piled up into identical knots with most of it crammed inside a turban. They offered to take it down if we wanted to pose for photos with them. We declined. I can't imagine washing and combing out that much hair. It must take half of a day.

The scenery in Longsheng was very different to Yangshuo. The flat fields dotted with karst mountains in Yanghshuo had given way to large mountains lined with evergreen trees. The air was colder and a heavy mist blanketed the mountaintops. The Zhuang people who live in the timber villages here had completely transformed the steep hills into thousands of metre-wide rice terraces. It was truly breathtaking.

When we arrived at the top of the mountain we were greeted by local women with large baskets. They offered to carry out things to our accommodation. We agreed since this was their main livelihood. I was certainly glad I did because it was a long, uphill climb to get to the hotel where we were staying. We just kept climbing and climbing, passing identical timber houses built right over the ledges. It was like we had travelled back in time as we passed rice terraces, busy farmers and handmade buildings. The local people do not use stone in the construction of the houses because the local stone is of very poor quality. Instead they use timber because it is plentiful. They don't even use nails. Instead the timber is carefully fit together like the pieces of a puzzle.

We finally arrived at our timber hotel. It was lovely. The interior walls and doors were ornately carved. Our room was cozy like a mountain cabin. The wood gave off a faint smell of menthol (like Vick's Vapo-rub) which was quite refreshing. I guess we wouldn't suffer from a stuffed-up nose there...

It was a very relaxing place. Stephen strummed his guitar while I caught up on my journal. Later, we followed the hotel proprietor further up the mountain for a spectacular view of the '7 stars and a moon' rice terrace formation. We walked past local vendors selling handmade pillow covers, shawls and blankets. We carried on along the stone trail through the rice terraces just taking in the awe-inspiring beauty of the area. I just kept thinking of the mythical city of Shangri-La as I gazed down upon the timber homes from above. We ended our walking tour with a view of the '5 tigers and 9 dragons' rice terrace arrangement. Each vista was more beautiful than the last. The farmers used a simple irrigation system, harnessing the run-off from the mountain streams and inundating the terraces at appropriate times. The farmers worked hard and we saw them hunched over their terraces until late at night.

We returned and sampled the local rice wine over a homemade meal. It was delicious. The rice wine tasted quite a bit like lemonade. They poured it into plastic water bottles and sold it that way. We went to bed early and slept soundly dreaming of timber villages in the sky.


We are now in China on our Imaginative Traveller 'China Discovery' tour. Our Irish guide, Kirsty, is a lot of fun. She first went to China to teach English and fell in love with the place so now she is back as a guide. Our group is great, too - very international!

Last night we went to see an interactive light show/musical performance by the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It was phenomenal!!! I have never seen anything like it. We went to a huge outdoor theater. The show was set on the river itself surrounded by the unusual limestone peaks characteristic of the area. The cast included thousands of people of all ages. They have been performing the show nightly since 2004 and it is always sold out. It told the story of two peasants in love, living across the river from each other. It involved typical activities of the locals like cormorant fishing (they actually use the birds to catch the fish for them - they put collars on them so that they cannot swallow the fish), farming (complete with live water buffalo helping to plow the fields), etc...and the scenes represented various times of day. My favorite was the night scene when hundreds of people with little twinkling lights came out on bamboo boats followed by an enormous glowing moon with a dancer dancing across it as it rocked back and forth over the water. It was amazing! They also had one scene with over a thousand children dancing out onto wooden platforms with reflective costumes. It looked like the costumes had lights sewn into them and they could be turned on and off in time with the choreography. The effect was really incredible - especially considering the sheer number of women and children involved in it. I am going to attempt to download some of the video I took, but I may have to wait for a better internet connection. It is pretty slow right now. The director of the show is also choreographing the Opening Games for the Olympics. Judging by the performance last night it should be pretty amazing. I will certainly be tuning in to that...

We are in Yangshuo at the moment, a really cute little town. It is the first stop for travelers coming from Hong Kong so it is a little bit touristy, but it has been a nice introduction to China. We took an overnight train to get here from the border of Hong Kong. We slept in hard, narrow bunks, six people per cabin and everyone ate Pot Noodles (Top Ramen) for dinner. It was exciting though and both Stephen and I managed to sleep pretty well because we wore our earplugs. Toilets over here typically involve squatting over a hole in the ground which is especially difficult when you are on a moving train - it is probably good for my quadricep muscles though.

We have taken a Chinese lesson so I can now say 'Hello, how are you?', 'I want coffee' and 'I don't want that'. The last phrase is especially useful when you are being chased down the street by over-enthusiastic street vendors. Stephen and I have also had an hour long massage and reflexology on our feet for about the same price we would have paid for a Starbuck's coffee in London. We feel like kings and queens over here...

Yesterday we took a journey down the Li River in a bamboo raft. Today we rented bicycles and cycled through the countryside with views of the rice paddies and unusual limestone formations typical of the Yangshuo area. We finished our bike tour at the 'Half Moon' peak and left our bikes under the watchful eye of our tour leader while we climbed to the arch at the top of the peak followed by at least 10 women attempting to fan us while we walked for money...I took pity on the one who had been fanning me the entire way up and paid her entirely too much for a bottle of water. Oh well - the fanning was nice as it was really hot and humid. It was funny, though because some of them couldn't keep up with us and kept asking us to slow down so we wouldn't be too tired :-)

Finally, we ended the day with a Chinese cooking lesson. I learned to make three dishes. They are pretty labor intensive, but it was really nice to have all the ingredients set up in front of us. We made a spicy chicken dish, a mushroom beef dish and pork dumplings. The food was excellent. First, out cooking teacher took us through the main local market to buy all of the ingredients. It was interesting to see all of the farmers there with their fresh produce. The horrible part was the meat section where they had live animals that were then slaughtered right there. I waited in the vegetable section while most of the group went to check it out. They also had dogs and dog meat. Our cooking teacher said the only thing they don't eat with four legs are tables and chairs. So - yes they eat dog and it is quite expensive! There is a certain breed they use just for food.

Anyway, on a lighter note, our food was delicious. The best part of the cooking was eating the meals we had prepared.

Photos include the stunning karst mountain scenery and Stephen crammed into the middle bunk on the train attempting to play his guitar.

Hong Kong - the 'Big Buddha', 'the Peak' and the 'Jumbo Floating Restaurant'

Well - we had to leave the Intercontinental today. We are now staying in the Hong Kong Hostel with rock hard beds and a view over some Eastern European Communist-looking flats. At least it is very central. We are right in the middle of the shopping district on Hong Kong Island.

Today we traveled in the world's longest cable car up to Ngong Ping plateau to see the 'Big Buddha' and the Po Lin monastery. When we disembarked we entered what I can only describe as the Disney version of a Chinese Village complete with gift shops at the exits of the two main attractions. It was very cute, but full of chain stores like 7-11 and Starbucks. We paid to go to both attractions, 'A Monkey's Tale' and 'Walking with Buddha' because they were part of a special package deal. Much to Stephen's chagrin, 'A Monkey's Tale' turned out to be an animated cartoon with a lesson about greed and a few extra features like tissue pappr leaves fluttering down from the ceiling and some robotic monkeys popping their heads down from above in search of a glowing apple...It was kind of like 'The Bear Country Jamboree' except the monkeys coming down from the ceiling weren't quite up to the Disney standard. I enjoyed it, but it was better suited for children. Stephen's only response was to roll his eyes at me...

Next, we visited 'Walking with Buddha'. This was much better. Again it was animated and told the story of Buddha's life, but it was more serious and more professionally done. In the middle when Buddha left his kingdom we had to walk through a scary forest and were actually rained on with special misters....We entered another theater to see what Buddha went through until he achieved enlightenment. After that, we each received a rice paper leaf with one of his teachings. Stephen did agree that the teachings were good and we both had learned a bit more about Buddhism.

After visiting the attractions and escaping the souvenir shops we began the journey up the steps to see the 'Tian Tan Buddha' up close. It was enormous and the entire project took many years to complete. The monks first had to secure the land and then begin the slow process of construction. We wandered around the statue appreciating the nice mountain scenery and views of the South China Sea. Finally, after a picnic lunch, we headed over to look at the Po Lin monastery. It was beautifully painted hosted several golden Buddha statues. People were burning incense and bowing respectfully before the statues. Some people had actually walked the entire way along a winding stone trail instead of taking the world's longest cable car ride. It must have taken half the day to walk up!

We went back to Hong Kong and fought our way through the crowds of shoppers blinded by the neon lights of the stores. We went over to the Convention Center to watch the nightly light show, 'A Symphony of Lights'. It involves over 40 skyscrapers from both sides of Victoria Harbour. The light display is choreographed to music. It is the largest of its kind in the world. It is like the entire city participating in the Disney electrical light parade....Wow! I will add video when I return to Hong Kong. The computers here is China are too slow.

Here is Stephen's Hong Kong contribution with more on 'The Peak' and the 'Jumbo Floating Restaurant' in Aberdeen Harbour:

Hong Kong
Well it got better, lots of warm sunshine and spectacular light shows in the evening along the water. Also discovered that you could buy dim sum cheaply from the supermarket and eat it in the park for breakfast and watch the joggers run in their special running lanes. All very orderly. Often a bit gloomy during the day but very lively in the evenings under all the fluorescent lights.

More good things
Dim sum for breakfast - much improved over McDonalds
Music and laser display by the skyscrapers over the water every evening at 8pm
Chinese orchestra with lots of interesting instruments
Special cocktail in posh hotel overlooking the water - mainly because I got lost and couldn't find a pub, but it was a treat for the missus.

More bad things
Trying to dry socks with a hairdryer - ahving carried my little bottle of handwash around the world I have realised that this saving a few quid strategy is floored
Got lost again walking down the mountain to get to Aberdeen Harbour (Just as hopeless with Al and Johno in 2004)
Famous jumbo restaurant in Aberdeen Harbour was a rip off. Best bit was the ride home in the bus around the island.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Living the high life in Hong Kong

Stephen used his hotel points from Ford to book us into the Intercontinental Hotel on our first night in Hong Kong. It was so luxurious after the hostels and tents of Australia.

When we arrived they asked if we would be willing to wait 15 minutes and they would upgrade our room. We happily agreed. They even gave us drink vouchers to use in the bar in the meantime. I have a picture of Stephen drinking a late night whiskey in the posh bar. We had fun people watching while we waited for them to set up our room.

When we finally walked into our room, the view took our breath away. We were on the 18th floor overlooking Victoria Harbour and Hong Kong Island in a blaze of neon lights... The bed was the size of a typical hostel room and it even had this electronic consul on each side of it to control all of the gadgets in the room. Stephen accidentally set the alarm for 6am when he was messing around with the consul so we had an unintended early wake-up call...Oh well- the Chinese breakfast buffet was beautifully presented and our friendly server told us which sauces to try with our dim sum. I could get used to this!

Sunset and Bat Caves - Undara

We took a sunset tour this evening.

Our enthusiastic guide took us off-roading in a search for wildlife. We managed to see some kangaroos, wallabies and wallaroos. The best part, however, was the champagne and fruit and cheese platter waiting for us at the top of the hill when we finished our jeep tour. Sunset over the savanna was certainly not disappointing.

When we finished stuffing our faces with cheese and fruit, we turned on our flashlights and headed down to the 'bat caves'. The caves are the home of tiny insect-eating microbats. They also host the incredibly venomous brown snakes that eat the bats. Sometimes, visitors see the brown snakes striking the bats in the cave. Unfortunately for us (well - maybe I should say fortunately) it was the wet season so there weren't as many bats and we didn't see any brown snakes. We had to walk down in the dark so we wouldn't scare the bats away. Our guide gave us a count to three and we all took photos of the darkness, hoping to capture the bats with our flashes. The second time he did it, I managed to capture a great shot of a bat at the side of the camera frame. Everyone was really envious of our camera because you can actually make the bat out even though he is not very centered. It was exciting, but I must admit, I was relieved that we didn't encounter any brown snakes. We attended the ranger talk on all of the venomous animals in the savanna the night before so I wasn't too keen on having one of the deadliest snakes in the world bite me. The ranger did tell us that the survival rate for snake bites in Australia is the best in the world, but I didn't want to try it out.

Lava Tubes - Undara National Park

Undara National Park

This is a volcanic national park in the outback, 300km inland from the coast. The scenery changes dramatically from the palm tree banana plantations to a much drier climate with long golden grass, giant pink grantite and small prickly trees. An African savanah with kangaroos.

Good things
Lots of hopping kangaroos, walaroos and wallabies. All look very similar after a few sherries.
Camped in the park with all the birds, spiders, snakes and hoppy things. Great stars at the 3am bathroom run.
Giant volcanic lava tubes - 100 foot high and over 100km long. You can walk through them as they're all hollow and because they protect the plants from wind and dehydration you get a weird rain forest all around even though it's a really dry area.
Watching the sunset on a cliff overlooking miles of savanah with cheese and champagne
Bush breakfasts, toasting bread in the campfire and eating eggs and beans with early morning kangaroos
Poetry session around the campfire at night
Stopped at the Timotei Girl Waterfall in the Atherton Tablelands - looked nice but the water was a bit chilly for a dip

Bad things
Rented worst car ever. A heap of junk without a radio, air conditioning that worked for two minutes and then smelt of burnt rubber; dashboard held together with gaffa tape; window wipers that missed the screen and tried to jump off the edge of the car; and a dodgy fuel gauage. We had to stop when it rained hard or got too hot. Well it was cheap..
The main road has single lanes for a large part of the way. These were made more fun by having to dive off the road every time you met a road train - 4 giant truck loads loosely connected together and coming at you at a dust hurling 100kph
Found a track off the side of the road to see a view of a huge river bending around the mountain but it started raining on the way back and had to slip and slide on the muddy track back to the car before our second camera blew up in the tropical rain. Had forgotten to take any waterproofs and just wandered along in sandals like virgin tourists. Mistake!
Drive back through the mist and gloom reminded me of hilly slopes of South November.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Undara kangaroos

When we arrived in Undara our campsite was surrounded by kangeroos. I was so excited!!! They were the first ones I had seen in the wild. There were two juvenile roos engaged in a boxing match. It was hilarious. They would jump up into each other, fists flying (actually - I should say 'claws'). Ever so often one would take off with a flying leap and kick the other one. It was highly entertaining to watch. I kept trying to film them, but every time I approached they would stop and look at me. I did manage to capture some of it on film, but they are pretty far away. If you watch the video below you will see them boxing in the distance.

Our guide attempted to explain the differences between kangeroos, wallaroos and wallabies. We saw all three of them in Undara. The kangeroos were Eastern Greys and they hung out in groups. They were longer and leaner than the wallaroos. The wallaroos are very independent so you usually only spot one of them or a mother and her young. They are reddish in color and have more of a dog-like expression on their faces. They had dark snouts and more rounded ears. They were also of a thicker, stockier build. The wallabies are the smallest of all. They also seemed to have dark noses. All of them were cute! If you look closely at the pictures above, there is a mother with a joey in her pouch. The joey's legs are dangling out of the pouch. I kept hoping she would shift around in there so I could see her face, but I guess she must have been feeding or comfortable face down...
Here is Stephen's kangeroo poem....
Beneath the trees in golden grass,
Kangaroos were hopping past.
Hoping for a chance to catch
The latest friendly boxing match.

Two contestants push and kick,
Twitch their noses, hop a bit.
Back and forth with heads held high,
Nose to nose, eye to eye.

But soon they're losing interest
Bottoms down, they take a rest
And think of something else to do
Leaves to nibble, grass to chew.

Then legs outstretched in sun they snooze
Side by side these kangaroos
Warming tummies, warming feet
Like two old men draped on a beach.

Joey watches from his pouch
No room for legs, they dangle out
Until it's time to take another
Bouncy trip with bouncy mother.