Hong Kong: Fighting for Freedom and Democracy

Hong Kong Kowloon, 7-10 November

On the 7th we leave China by fast train to spend a week in Hong Kong before jetting off to the Philippines.

We had prepared and booked our big Asia trip quite a while in advance, but a lot can happen in 6 months time. When we decided to visit Sri Lanka it had known peace for almost ten years, and then the Easter bombings happened, yet out of our whole itinerary, Hong Kong would likely have been the last place we would’ve expected anything to go down.

Since the protest movement started off in mid-June as a response to China’s extradition bill, many countries including the UK have issued travel warnings for Hong Kong. Until we got to China we’d been following the news every now and again, in the end deciding to go ahead with our visit as planned.

Media has a tendency to sensationalise stories, and as such, news articles about Sri Lanka described the situation as being on the verge of sparking into another civil war, but when we got there, people only seemed to be interested in putting the destruction behind them and get on with their lives. Granted, with a lot riding on tourism, it would be in the country’s best interest to make tourists believe visiting Sri Lanka is safe, but even still we didn’t witness any friction between Sinhalese, Muslims, Christians and Tamils. That is, nothing worse than a bumper sticker in poor taste, or a randommer talking shite at the pub. At any rate, nothing that warrants headlines warning about civil war. Hong Kong on the other hand is a slightly different story.

As a former colony of the UK, when Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty, the so-called Basic Law was agreed, ensuring Hong Kong to retain its economic system, currency and people’s rights and freedoms for 50 years. Though only set to expire in 2047, China has been keen to get an early start on re-assimilating Hong Kong by slowly eating away at its liberties, for instance by introducing the extradition bill. What started as a peaceful protest has now spiralled into a violent fight for freedom and democracy, against the (inevitable) Chinese rule.

On Thursday we have no trouble getting out of China and into Hong Kong, although, Lauren is pissing herself laughing when it takes me a while to get my exit-stamp, because border control is scrutinising the three photos they have of me: a passport photo with a shaved head, a visa application photo with hair, and then the photo taken at the point of entry where I have a totally suspect looking moustache!

Our hotel is right in the busy centre of Kowloon on the fifth floor of an apartment building. With a population of 7,5 million living in a relative small area, Hong Kong is famous for its small living spaces and the room does not disappoint; you can touch both walls at the same time. At least it has a window and a (tiny) private bathroom, plus it’s clean, which is the most important thing.

The stairway has seen better days

We’re around the corner from the infamous Chungking Mansions, a building with 4,000 (mostly foreign) residents, low-budget hotels, restaurants, shops, and ‘other’ services. Out in front, Indian men are offering tailor services, as well as hash and Charlie.. Just 5 minutes away at the harbour every evening you can catch a light show.

Our first night in Hong Kong is pretty rough. The walls are paper thin and we have a couple of speed-freaks staying in the room next to us, making noise throughout the night and even trying to open our door, which thankfully is locked securely. First thing we do in the morning is speak with the manager. It turns out our neighbours are residents rather than guests, but thankfully the manager is very sweet and understanding (witnessing the sleep-deprived desperation on our faces) and she immediately moves us to a quiet floor and into a bigger room.

On Friday the protests start. We hear marches in the early morning, when news breaks that Alex Chow Tsz-lok, a 22 year old student has died of cardiac arrest after sustaining head injuries from a fall at a carpark on Monday, after police fired tear gas at protesters. Although the cause of his fall remains unclear, there is evidence of increased police violence against protesters (and vice versa).

We don’t see much else of it when we are out shopping for a tea egg and visit nearby Kowloon Park, which has a large terrapin population and, surprisingly, a Rhinoceros Hornbill!

In the afternoon we take the famous Peak Tram up to Victoria Peak. The line was first opened in May 1888, and has a maximum steepness of a whopping 48%! The Sky viewing platform at the top offers great views over the city.

Tamar Park on Hong Kong Island is a patch of green space on the river’s edge which is the perfect place to enjoy a picnic on Saturday in the glorious sunshine with views of Kowloon.

While we’re in the park some people are setting up a stage and then a lot of police begin to arrive. It turns out a vigil is being held here in the evening to mourn the death of Alex Chow, which is attended by a huge crowd of up to 100.000 people.

On Sunday we head out to one of the many country parks surrounding the city. For such a major city there’s actually a surprising amount of green space to enjoy, plus a bit of wildlife to see on top of that.

On our final night in Kowloon we take the ferry across to Hong Kong Island where Lauren has found a rooftop terrace accessible through a shopping mall. A rare bit of public space, where you can enjoy your cheap carry-out right next to an expensive bar. We’re now exactly in the middle of our trip, so it’s the perfect time to talk about all the fun times we’ve had so far.

With this our time in Kowloon has come to an end. Hong Kong has probably been our favourite city so far. Though pretty expensive, it has a good vibe to it, and it’s very easy to get around. Hopefully we’ll be back here at some point.

Contrary to the UK’s travel advice, it has been safe to travel here, but when we’re planning our next journey to nearby Lantau Island we find we may run into some trouble yet. The Indian shopkeeper next to our hotel tells us another big strike will be happening on Monday and checking the LIHKG forum and Reddit confirms this information.

Thankfully when we leave the next morning our metro station is still in operation, but it turns out that half the lines in the city have been shut down. While on the metro we hear that another protester has been shot by police at point blank range using live rounds and the video footage is pretty gruesome. The metro doesn’t make it to the final stop, but after a big delay we manage to arrive to Lantau by bus instead.

In the meantime things are kicking off all over the city, producing some pretty surreal images of police firing tear gas and live rounds and protesters throwing petrol bombs in the centre where we just came from. Railway services have now been suspended and roads are blocked, so it looks like we made it out in time; We’re completely safe here in the sleepy little Tong Fuk Village on the coast. While we do worry a bit about making it to our scheduled flight out to Philippines in a few days time, we feel for the people of Hong Kong in their fight for freedom. We’ll keep you posted.

China: The Verdict

Guilin, 6 November

Duration: 40 days. Distance (land): 6,000 km. Stops: 14.

Total duration so far: 99 days. Distance (air): 20,437 km. Distance (land): 9,075 km. Distance (water): 115 km. Total distance: 29,627 km.

Since we’re checked in to our final hotel in Guilin, munching on cheese baguettes and drinking lychee and bamboo tea (yup, we are tea snobs now), it means our time in China is almost over. Over the last 40 days we’ve visited 9 out of 26 provinces, while experiencing all sorts of different food, landscapes and culture. Now it is time to tally up the scores!

First for all you thirsty (and thrifty) holidaymakers out there, let me give you the low-down on the pint situation. Unlike Sri Lanka and India where you’ll drink what you’re given, China has a lot of different beers to choose from, readily available in supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants up and down the country: Tsingtao, Harbin, Yanjing, they’re all terrible. Though its supermarket pricetag of ¥2.50 (30p) per can may appeal, stay esspecially clear of Snow Beer; Unnaturally yellow, flat and with an all round unpleasant taste this would have to be the China’s worst brew.

Your typical Chinese lager has an alcohol percentage ranging anywhere between 0.5 and 3.5 or 4 if you’re very lucky. Rather than the big brands, to enjoy a good beer in China you best try the micro breweries. In the major cities you will find pubs with excellent local ales, lagers, ipa’s and stouts on draught, but make sure to bring a healthy wallet; a good pint will set you back about ¥40 (£4.50), pretty much the same as back home in Edinburgh.

Alternatively, among other European beers, Hoegaarden is commonly imported and we even managed to buy three different types of Delirium from a local supermarket in Fenghuang, at a very reasonable ¥21 a bottle. Full marks go to China!

Now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you have all been waiting for, it is time to present to you China’s final scores, as awarded by our most irreproachable, evenhanded judge Lauren! Enjoy!

The people score 8/10. The Chinese have been extremely kind and helpful, in spite of the language barrier. They are hospitable, generous and made us feel welcome pretty much everywhere we went. Chinese people have a big soft spot for small children and babies, and while some of our helplessness at times may have evoked similar motherly feelings, I would like to believe they are simply warm, welcoming people.

Having said that, the loud clearing of the throat followed by spitting has been slightly more underwhelming, as has the sneezing without covering up or not using headphones on a crowded train.

Finally, since it goes so much against everything that is good and holy in Britain, I’m talking of course about proper queuing conduct, at first it was pretty annoying to have people constantly try and push their way out in front of you. Now 40 days later we’re cutting queues like a pro and cheer on anyone who cheats their way up front. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! Gonna be awkward when we’re back home..

The food scores 6/10. Being a bit unconventional here with the scoring, as Chinese food is actually my favourite, but I can’t get around the fact that we’ve seen critically endangered Chinese giant salamanders up on offer at several restaurants around the country, not to mention that eating dog and cat (fragrant meat as its called), turtle and bamboo rat are a thing here too. Fair enough, it’s not for us to decide which animals are too cute to be consumed, but lay off the endangered species, will you China? Apart from that, Chinese food is entirely great and I’d go back to Sichuan just for that!

The transport scores 9/10. Hands down, China’s winning this one! The fast trains have been superb; not a minute late, clean, smooth-riding and easy to use. The metro system in the cities is well thought-out and appears futuristic compared to some in Europe and the US. The bus system has been slightly more difficult at times to figure out, but have been good as well.

So without further ado, I am proud to announce that China is the latest lucky recipient of Lauren’s coveted certificate of excellence! Hear hear!!

A perfect way to end China

Yangshuo, Guangxi region, 4-5 November

For our final stop in China we decided to reward ourselves with a couple days of pampering and relaxation by the pleasant Yulong River in Yangshuo, which is regarded one of the most beautiful counties in China. Its local scenery of the crystal clear Li and Yulong rivers snaking through limestone hills embodies the essence of Guilin.

Since the 80’s, Yangshuo county became popular with foreign backpackers such as ourselves. Today it is a resort destination for both domestic and foreign travellers. In the last thirty years village life has transformed from farmsteads and farming to resorts offering river-rafting. Though there are clear signs that given another five years it may well be a different story, when we arrive during the tail end of the high season it is still the quiet and peaceful place we were hoping to find, perhaps partly in blame of (or thanks to) the local transport mafia.

According to Wikipedia, Yangshuo is easily accessible by bus, but really they may as well have described it as ‘a major ball-ache’. Though only 100 km south of Guilin, it takes four buses, a golf buggy and a minivan, plus four frustrating hours of escaping taxi scams and feeling pretty lost, to finally get to the resort. Thankfully it lives up to the glowing reviews of the glorious views it offers of the Yulong River, as enjoyed here with a cold beer!

In case anyone reading this is planning to head in the same direction, let me save you from some of the hassle you’ll encounter from the Guilin maffia: take city bus K99 to the South Bus Station, ignore the ‘welcoming committee’ offering to take you to the ‘bus’, instead ask any of the bus drivers for the bus to Yangshuo (25 RMB p.p.), and once in Yangshuo find the Tourist Transportation Centre where a shuttle will take you to the resort area. Mind that this plan is by no means fool-proof, as even the bus personnel may try and usher you into a private car, or at the very least overcharge you for the bus ticket. In the end we get off easy paying a mere extra 10 RMB.

In the morning we set of on bicycles the resort offers free of charge. Being a Dutchman, there’s really no need to say more. Bikes you say? For free you say?? Let’s go already! In true Dutch fashion we have now rode bikes in every country we’ve visited. Strangely, in spite of providing her with regular exposure, I can’t help but feel that Lauren does not each time grow fonder of riding bikes. Which is probably not helped by the fact that I caused her to fall and scrape her knee (her version of events).

We’re off to see Moon Hill, which has its name because of the crescent shaped hole inside the rock. The pleasant cycle path from the resort leads us along and over the river, through nearby villages, to the hill’s entrance where a guy in uniform shakes us down for 4 RMB, explained as a bicycle parking fee. To begin the climb, we first have to enter through a photo-op with a group of Chinese dressed up in traditional outfits.

When crossing the platform they spring into action as if stung by a bee and begin posing next to us. It might be the already considerable morning heat, or the fact that I’m making myself believe they do not want to have to do this either, but suddenly I find myself almost agreeing to a picture. Until I remember I’d rather step barefoot on a piece of Lego than pose with some strangers pretending to be ethnic minorities. That was a close one..

A big sign that says Nixon Trail, tells the story of how in February 1976, the former US President visited Yangshuo and spotted Moon Hill from the nearby road. Amazed, he asked (quote): “Is the moon on the mountain you pierced with a missile?” (unquote). Having gone up the mountain, Nixon instead becomes convinced the hole is made by the sky itself. Here’s to judge for yourself.

The surrounding area is great to explore and we find plenty of scenic spots riding our bikes back to the hotel.

A Yangshuo favourite is taking a bamboo raft down river, but after seeing the endless stream of boats pass by the hotel we decide to give this one a miss. Something about being stuck behind twenty other boats doesn’t seem like the best way to enjoy this beautiful scenery..

So our 40-day tour through China has inevitably come to an end and we’ve both had the best time. As has become our custom, before taking the train to Hong Kong, we’re checking in to a transit hotel tomorrow where it’s time to sit back and reflect on our visit, presenting you with the scores for China!

More chillin’ in Guilin

Guilin, Guanxi, 1-3 November

It’s the start of November and we’re travelling further south by bus to the city of Guilin. Guilin is part of the Guanxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, a wild, mountainous area with a subtropical climate and bordering on Vietnam. When we arrive to Guilin in the late afternoon it’s warm and it’s sunny. Looks like we’re back in summer, let’s get the shorts out!

Situated on the Li River surrounded by limestone hills and renowned for its karst caves, Guilin is a popular tourist destination. With a population of 5 million, it is by no means a small city, but it feels a lot smaller than the big cities we’ve visited up north.

Our hotel is a bit away from town along a tributary of the Li River called Peach Blossom River. We’re welcomed by very friendly owner Robert and his border collie Bailou. As of today we’ve officially used up the data on our Chinese SIM card, rendering our translation apps useless, so instead, to get here, we’ve had to rely on offline maps, bits of sign language and a healthy dose of goodwill. Thankfully Robert speaks English and the restaurant next door has a picture menu. The sunset view from our hotel room is pretty amazing.

In the morning we set out to visit the Reed Flute Cave, a natural limestone cave nearby our hotel. Once used as a bomb shelter, this 240 meter long water-eroded cave features stalactites and stone pillars created by carbonate deposition. Despite evidence of its popularity during ancient times, the Reed Flute Cave was almost entirely forgotten for a thousand years before being rediscovered in the 40’s by a group of refugees fleeing Japanese troops. Since its opening to the public in 1962, it has become a top destination to impress foreign dignitaries (such as Mugabe for instance) and domestic big-shots alike, as extensively displayed on the wall of fame outside the cave.

It would be impossible to get lost inside the cave, yet the only way in is with a guided tour group. Once inside the group is easily ditched so we get to quietly enjoy the spectacular rock formations, highlighted throughout by different coloured lights, the effect of which is pretty trippy.

We decide to skip the Longji Rice Terraces outside of Guilin, since it’s not the right time of year: The rice has just been harvested and the farmers have begun to burn the fields. With a lot of time on our hands we decide to take it easy instead. Our first three months on the road have been pretty fast-paced and Guilin is an ideal city for a good old relaxing time. There’s parks everywhere and quiet hangout spots by the lakes and rivers to have a picnic, you can climb a few hills for views over the city, plus the city has plenty good restaurants and bars, including an Irish Pub where we watch the final of the Rugby World Cup in the good company of French and English travellers. Well done the bokke!

After Guilin we’re fully recharged and ready for the next couple months ahead. Our final stop in China, Yangshuo, a town just 60km south on the same Li River is coming up next!

A relaxing time in Phoenix Water Town

Fenghuang, Hunan Province, 29-30 October

Our journey south towards sunny weather brings us to the ancient town of Fenghuang. Also known as Phoenix, this old town on the Tuojiang River was built in 1704 during the Qing Dynasty and has preserved its appearance ever since.

Fenghuang, or Chinese phoenix, is a bird found in East Asian mythology that reigns over all other birds. Like the Phoenix rising from its ashes, Fenghuang has been reborn as a touristic hotspot.

Originally a Miao settlement, Fenghuang is a gathering place for Miao and Tujia ethnic minority. Not far from town, the southern part of the Great Wall of China was originally built there to prevent the Han Chinese from invading the Miao, while nowadays Han are the ruling ethnic majority. A few older women we see selling flower garlands still wear the Miao traditional clothing, although this may be more of a gimmick for tourists than cultural preservation.

Walking through the ancient town, most of the old houses have been converted to shops, restaurants and hotels and during the mornings and at night, when the town is brightly lit up and all the bars are open, Fenghuang is overrun with tour groups. From our balcony we’re having fun watching all the Chinese tourists dressed up in traditional attire pose for photos.

Perhaps the best way to experience some of the ancient way of life is to walk by the river around midday, when the tours have all gone. The streets become deserted but for a handful of cats and dogs napping in the shade and local men fishing by the side of the river, with the occasional gondola passing by.

The unique wooden houses (Diajiaolou) built along the riverbank have been designed to protect from flooding and appear to be hanging over the river.

On the banks food is prepared by the numerous restaurants in much the same way as it has for centuries. A local favourite is fish Miao-style: fish pickled for 3 weeks until the bones are soft, inside a container of special soup, rice powder and sweet corn powder. Alternatively you can pick just about any animal, living or dead, from the aquariums and cages stacked up in front of the restaurants.

A pig’s face and some honeycombs.
A couple bamboo rats.

While we’re checking them out, one very smart bamboo rat pretends to be dead so we won’t buy it and eat it, but then one of the waiters comes running out and pokes it with a stick until it starts moving again. Wake up you, there’s customers! Way too cute to eat though, they’re like giant hamsters.

It’s nice to get lost for the afternoon walking around the narrow, winding streets of the old town, with plenty more to discover. We bear witness to some locals’ karaoke session in the public park and eat some of the best rice noodles we’ve had on our travels.

All in all we had a good time in Fenghuang. Slowly our journey through China is beginning to draw to a close. Next up we’re travelling further south still to the city of Guilin.

Stone Pillars in the Sky

Wulingyuan, Hunan Province, 26-28 October

We finally make it to Zhangjiajie, where we will be visiting the famous National Forest Park, a geopark also known as the Avatar Mountains for its resemblance to the floating mountains seen in the movie Avatar.

Zhangjiajie was the first recognized national forest park in China, with an area of 4,810 ha, and it’s part of the wider UNESCO listed Wulingyuan Scenic Area. We’re staying right in the middle of Wulingyuan, a short walk away from the park entrance.

With a little help from the hotel we get on the last bus from the train station and arrive at Wulingyuan in total darkness. After the debacle in Yichang it feels pretty good to be able to check in to a clean and comfortable hotel room and the girl at reception even speaks perfect English which is a nice bonus!

The next morning we jump right into the action. A local bus drops us off at the entrance to Zhangjiajie’s Grand Canyon (persistently written as Grant Canyon on signs), home of the tallest and longest glass bridge in the world.

At 430 meters long, the glass bridge is suspended 300 meters above the bottom of the Grand Canyon, so not for the faint of heart. Although it’s still early morning the tour groups have beaten us to the punch. The amount of people on the bridge combined with feelings of vertigo do not make for an enjoyable walk across, but I’m glad to report I did not scream like a baby nor did I refuse to let go of the barrier. I walked it like a man. A careful and safe man.

It’s a rainy, foggy morning, but the views from the bridge on the mountains and the gorge are still pretty spectacular.

Now the problem with tour groups in China is not that they break glass bridges while you’re on them, but they are extremely noisy. Some of it is produced by childish excitement and easily forgiven, but by far the worst offenders are the guides, who, armed with a mic and an amp, have a constant battle to be the loudest. Once we’re across the bridge and the big groups march for the elevator descending into the gorge, we jump at the opportunity to instead take the so-called Sky Ladder along the steep cliffs and ridges down to the bottom for a rather more relaxing time and a few nice views to boot!

Upon reaching the gorge the crowds have dispersed, which allows for a pretty pleasant, quiet walk by the river. Slowly but surely it’s becoming a nice day with little bits of sunshine to break up the clouds and brighten the beautiful surroundings. The water of the lake is just about the bluest I have ever seen in my life!

After a great day at Zhangjiajie’s ‘Grant’ Canyon we’re excited to see what other things we’ll discover at the Forest Park.

Our next morning starts at the crack of dawn with a trip to the bus station to reserve tickets for our next journey. Then it’s off to queue at the park entrance for opening time at 7.30AM. Yesterday evening the hostess from the hotel was very kind in helping us prepare today’s itinerary, because the park is enormous and a lot of information is only in Chinese, we couldn’t have done it without her.

When the entrance gates open it’s an actual mass sprint of tourists all wanting to be the first inside. We see a couple of them run off to the side to buy tickets, which is pretty funny since the ticket office actually has been open for about an hour while they were queuing up to get into the park..

Thankfully we’re all prepared. Our hostess booked our tickets for us in advance and even wrote a list of instructions in Chinese we can show the park officials throughout the day to keep us on track! We stroll past the people inside the entrance hall looking around panicky for the way in, bypass the queues forming for the buses and go straight up to a steward and show him our piece of paper. The steward shouts at his colleague who walks us right up to our bus and we’re on our way. Thanks to our wee legend Yun today we’re beating the Chinese at their own game of skipping all the queues!

Our early start and preparations pay off big time as for the first two hours it feels as though we have the park to ourself, which is pretty crazy since it is notorious for overcrowding. While we follow the river deeper into the park we catch a first glimpse of the Karst-like rock formations Zhangjiajie is so famous for.

After about an hour we begin our long climb up to reach the top of the mountain range. At every turn the path gets steeper and steeper and it seems like it’s never ending but in the end we conquer the steps and reach the first viewpoints. The reward: some excellent views.

This part of the park is now filling up rapidly with visitors, so we’re making a quick move by bus to another place which is not yet currently developed for tourism. With the sun well and truly up in the sky the colours are becoming super vibrant.

At the top of one of the mountains you get a idea just how big this park actually is. Besides eagle eye views, there’s also a McDonalds here (shock..), and both a puppy *and* a kitten?? Awesome times!

Our boots are filled to the rim with floating mountains, so it’s time to begin our three hour long climb back to the bus, with plenty more to see on the way down.

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park has been a huge hit with us, we’re glad we stopped off here, but our poor feet need a bit of rest! The next stop is Fenghuang, one of China’s watertowns.

Speeding past Yangtze River

Chongqing/Yichang, 23-25 October

On the 23rd we are starting our journey to get from Emeishan to the Avatar Mountains of Zhangjiajie. The first step is getting the train to Chongqing, another one of China’s mega-cities and starting point of the Yangtze river cruise. We’re spending the night here at a nice-looking hostel called Lonely Village, located on the corner of where the city’s two rivers meet.

The hostel is a little bit hard to find. After getting off at the metro stop, we turn into a small alleyway where steep steps lead us through an area which can only be described as ‘little China’, so completely hidden away from daylight by the towering skyscrapers around it that it seems to be indoors. We carefully climb down the slippery stairs past shopkeepers performing their trade out on the steps, small groups of people sat down gambling or gossiping over lunch and kids running about, while evading the men and women carrying heavy loads up and down, which is a pretty amazing sight. Some of the old boys (or packmules) are seriously ripped! The stairs spill onto another street where we’re quite literally boxed in to stacks and stacks of giant boxes.

After finding a way out, and around the skyscrapers, the city suddenly opens opens up and there she is, Yangtze River!

We’re at our destination: a humongous apartment building consisting of three towering skyscrapers by the side of the river. It just doesn’t seem to have an entrance..

After some serious searching we manage to creep into the building through an inconspicuous looking carpark, past shops and restaurants, to find a secure door to the lobby of tower number 3. Naturally we don’t have the code. Some tailgating later, one of the many elevators in the lobby takes us up to the 50th floor, to the hostel, which is where today’s orienteering exercise is brought to a successful end.

Our effort gets rewarded, as we’re given an instant upgrade to our room for no apparent reason and it’s pretty great: floor-to-ceiling glass window the length of the room with the most amazing view of the river!

Better yet, the hostel has a shared kitchen we can use, plus a French supermarket around the corner, selling everything required to make a mac and cheese dinner, much to a certain someone’s delight. Happy wife, happy life, as they say in India!

The next morning our journey continuous eastwards to Yichang in the Hubei Province. Essentially we’re following the same route as the big cruise ships on the Yangtze, but on a budget, by train, which, as it turns out is a journey spent mostly inside tunnels..

The city of Yichang is located near one of the more scenic spots on the Yangtze, the so-called Three Gorges, created by the dam of the same name. The dam has flooded all the orginal villages in the area, but China wouldn’t be China if it wouldn’t build fake replacements, along with actors in traditional attire playing the flute for the tourist boats and even performing a wedding ceremony by the water for your ‘authentic’ Yangtze village experience, the ‘Tribe of the Three Gorges’.

In contrast, the area where we’re staying in Yichang offers a more realistic, though be it not necessarily better, experience of China. There’s a pungent smell in the air, which is a mixture of freshly butchered chickens from the guy that helps us find the hotel, and shops around the hotel that sell everything from live frogs to dog skulls to pigs trotters. Not related to the smell (or the dog skulls I hope!), there’s a guy at the nearby underpass selling cute little poodles out of a cardboard box, don’t see that every day either..

Our hotel is a definitely *not* a breath of fresh air: Facilities include a variety of mold, bloodstained pillows, termites, and a flooded toilet. At night, it’s *the* place for locals to meet and argue.

It never rains but it pours literally applies to our Yichang visit when the weather gods decide to add moisture to misery. We decide to give the Three Gorges a miss because of the unrelenting rain and are happy to continue our journey south to reach Zhangjiajie.