A good old rainy time in Surat Thani

Surat Thani, 19-22 February 2020

With Surat Thani we reach our final destination in Thailand and indeed our final destination of our big Asia roundtrip – and the heavens are weeping for us.

Surat Thani, the City of Good People, on the Gulf of Thailand is mainly known as the jumping-off point to Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao. Tourists don’t usually stay here for more than a day, which is a shame because the city is perfectly placed to visit quiet beaches, waterfalls and ancient ruins, not to mention it has some fantastic southern thai food for low, low prices. With limited time left before flying back home we decide to save Ko Tao for future travels and get a taste of this authentic southern thai city instead. Or so we thought..

When we arrive in the city after a long day of travelling from Tonsai beach it’s still warm and sunny, like it has been for the entire time we’ve been in Thailand. Our hotel is located in the city center, near the pier and the food stalls of the night market, and surrounded by dozens of temples. From our window we can see the only local landmark mentioned by Lonely Planet: the statue of Guan Yin, which is the bodhisattva associated with compassion.

The river Tapi runs through the heart of the city into the Gulf of Thailand, and several canals have been dug out of old, connecting the various parts of the city.

Characteristic old stilt houses can be found all along the river. Ko Lamphu, an island in the middle of the river, has been turned into a pleasant public park.

While checking out a few temples, by chance we stumble upon a 100-year old wooden pavillion which was used during WW2 for opening negotiations between the Thai government and the Japanese army. A laminated piece of paper on the table reads that this is the original furniture that was used in 1941. And they say Surat Thani has no real sightseeing..

Our self guided walking tour ends at the City Pillar Shrine, a religious landmark we learn is made of wood from the Golden Shower tree. Indeed, at this point we realize our sightseeing options in the city have likely been exhausted, but luckily we are able make up some big plans for visiting the area around Surat Thani.

Khanom beach is located roughly 65km east of the city and may be considered to be one of Thailand’s best beaches, not in the least because it has little to no tourism.

To the west, the small fisherman’s village of Chaiya houses remains of an ancient kingdom. Srivijaya was a seafaring empire from Sumatra, which influenced much of Southeast Asia from the 8th until the 12th century AD. Landmark temples such as Wat Kaew and Wat Phra Borommathat are beautiful examples of Srivijaya architecture.

And finally there’s the Monkey Training College just outside the city limits where you can ride a bicycle with a friendly monkey on your back.

It all sounds pretty great, but then the rain starts and never stops for the entire time we have left in Surat Thani. I suppose it’s a pretty good sign the universe is telling us it’s time to head home for a little while.

Even though the weather was against us, we’ve enjoyed great hospitality in the City of Good People. Tomorrow we’ll be flying to Bangkok, where it’s time to deliver the verdict on our time in Thailand from the hotel pool!


Cambodia: the verdict

Koh Kong, 25 January 2020

The bus from Sihanoukville leaves as arranged and five hours later we’re in the town of Koh Kong, 10km from the border crossing into Thailand. In Koh Kong we exchange all of our prize winning beer ring pulls and eat one of the best pizzas so far in Asia. The next morning we head to the border at Had Lek for our exit stamp and Thailand visa, a chaotic affair we’re glad is over and done with after two full hours.

Travel stats Cambodia. By land: 1,450 km. By water: 65 km. Stops: 7. Duration: 22 days.

Travel stats total. By land: 12,660 km. By water: 600 km. By air: 30,192 km. Duration: 179 days.

So with the paperwork completed we’ve officially left Cambodia and it’s time to crunch the numbers, starting with the price of a pint.

In Cambodia we tried Angkor, Cambodia and Ganzberg, which go for about 2,000-4,000 Riel (or £0.37-0.75) per small can. Most restaurants and pubs have Angkor on draft, a pint of which is as cheap as a can. The cans are better though, because they allow you to win cash prizes, a car, a scooter, or, more commonly, a free beer!

After 3 weeks we can now say the return rate on Cambodia beer has been dreadful, Angkor scores okay, but with Ganzberg we have found our golden goose, returning a winner in over 60% of the time! Most of smaller convenience stores exchange your winning ring pull for a full can at a nominal fee of 500 Riel. Evidently we drank a lot of Ganzberg, which wasn’t actually that bad. As they say, a free beer always tastes best!

Even for connoisseurs there is good news: a thriving craft beer scene exists in Cambodia and prices are a reasonable £1.50-£4 for a wide choice of micro brews.

Ring pulls returned, let’s look at how Cambodia has fared against the judgement of our equital referee Lauren!

First of all, the people score 8/10. A high score here is absolutely deserved. Dislikes include that, similar to most of Asia, Cambodians like to stay up late and make noise, which really doesn’t sit well when you have to catch a bus at 6am, but more importantly, Cambodians have been genuinely interested in talking with us and they smile a lot. I’ve got a lot of time for them.

Secondly, the food scores 7/10. There isn’t much variety in Khmer cooking, however the curry dishes are (slightly) better than those in the Philippines, and overall the food situation is a bit more manageable than in Sri Lanka with plenty of international restaurants. I’ve tried a beef and ant salad which wasn’t bad, but the best dish has got to be lok lak.

Lastly, the transport scores 7/10. Perhaps a little on the high side, given that it has caused us plenty hassle, but the redeeming quality of transport in Cambodia is that you always get to your destination, either by public transport or by local delivery van, plus the Khmer tuk-tuk is an extremely comfortable, stylish and cheap mode of transport.

So there you have it! It is my pleasure to hereby award our brothers and sisters in Cambodia Lauren’s Official Certificate of Excellence!

Penang: Malaysia’s melting pot

Penang, 31 December 2019 – 4 January 2020

On the final day of the year we take the ferry from Langkawi to Penang. The island of Penang is located just off the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia, by the Malacca Strait. Both are connected by the longest oversea bridge in Southeast Asia.

While much of Malaysia draws its culture from its largely Muslim Malay inhabitants, Penang is a giant melting pot of different cultures: Indian, Chinese, Malay, and some remnants of British colonialism (1867-1957).

Just around the corner: Leith Street!

To celebrate the new year we spend our first night bang in the middle of George Town, the capital of Penang. George Town is Malaysia’s second largest city, as well as a UNESCO world heritage site.

The street of our hotel, Campbell street, used to be the red light district filled with Cantonese brothels, but now it is the centre of the Chinese jewellery trade. Just around the corner from us is the area dubbed Little India, which springs to life at dinnertime when the food stalls open for business.

We find a grimey, little bottle shop surrounded by low-budget hostels, which has a pop-up terrace compounding of plastic folding tables and chairs. It turns out to be quite a happening place, popular with locals, expats and tourists; the cheapest boozer in town. We plan to go here for just one drink but end up staying for most of the night chatting away to a group of Indian migrants.

We make it back to our hotel room’s balcony just in time to see the fireworks set off from nearby The Top tower. We’re pretty drunk at this point. Our travels in 2019 have been superb, so kick on 2020!

The next day, with sore heads, we relocate to another hotel a bit further away from George Town near Penang Hill. Once we have a scooter we revisit George Town for the daytime experience.

Famed for its art, architecture and diversity, George Town is a city that feels new and western, while preserving the eastern cultures that originally turned Penang into a world trading centre. It’s pretty hipster, a bit quirky, and quite photogenic. The street art walking tour is to be recommended.

The architecture is a mishmash of old style Chinese mansions, British colonial houses and lots of new development.

Some of the old building are beautifully restored, while others have been reduced to just an empty shell, and skyscrapers and condos pop up everywhere, yet George Town seems to retain plenty charm. By the docks you can visit the old Chinese clan jetties, stilt houses that have been passed on between generations.

Perhaps even more so than its art and architecture, Penang is world-famous for its food culture. Everything we eat here is pure gold. The Chinese and Indian tastes authentic, while Muslim food stalls offering Nasi Kandar are available everywhere. We return to our favourite place two nights in a row, a big tented drinking hall/foodie heaven consisting of over 10 food stalls, where we try more laksa, Singaporean classic koay teow soup, and all the food we miss from China. At night there’s lady boys performaning on a big stage for all the diners’ entertainment.

With much to see (and eat) in George Town, one would almost forget there is a completely different side to Penang. The northern shoreline has about ten public beaches, and the entire westside of the island is almost undeveloped, and designated forest reserved, complete with a national park, turtle breeding centre, butterfly sanctuary, tropical fruit and spice gardens and botanical gardens.

Even though we spent a good few days in Penang it feels like we haven’t yet seen all of it, which has to be a good sign! With that, our time in Malaysia has already come to an end again, now it’s off to Cambodia we go!

Hong Kong II: Far from the madding crowd

Hong Kong Lantau, 11-13 November

To arrive in Tong Fuk Village from Kowloon is like stepping into a different world. Away from the masses and the madness, this one street little village on the South China Sea consists of little more than a bus stop and a couple of houses, plus a hotel, a restaurant and a tiny beach store. And of course its main attraction: a perfectly empty stretch of sand!

Our hotel, Tong Fuk Octopus, is more a shared bungalow than a hotel. We’re greeted by lovely youngster Andy from Sheffield, who stays in the other room. Our afternoon is spent lazing on the beach.

In the evening we head out to the only restaurant in town, The Gallery, which turns out to be a great place to eat. It’s run by Englishman Dave, who grills big slabs of meat out on the terrace, and the pizzas aren’t bad either. We hit a low once in China when we got served frozen pizza with five spice, cucumber and carrot, but this is the real deal: freshly made, woodfired and delicious!

It’s a full moon tonight, and in testament to that, the evening takes a bit of a weird turn. One of the diners, a guy who’s clearly suffering from poor mental health, decides to wander into a neighbour’s house after finishing his risotto. The resident swiftly chases him out, but then a mob of 20 angry guys shows up, the local mafia family we’re told, and starts harassing the poor, distressed guy. Thankfully someone phones the police who manage to get him in the back of their car before things take a turn for the worse.

The bar is full of expats and it has a good atmosphere so we stick around for a couple after dinner drinks. Earlier tonight, Lauren read the TripAdvisor reviews for The Gallery, which are all excellent, except for one, which was submitted just last month:

Have been here once before. Came back tonight for a platter and a drink.
After sitting for 10 minutes the foul smell of the sewage/urine made it too uncomfortable to stay and eat so asked for our platter to take away, to which the western guy propping up the bar (presumably the owner) shouted ”how am I gonna do that? It’s a platter because we serve it on a platter- how can we do it for take away?”
I nearly explained to him he could simply put it in a box, the same as you would a take away pizza but chose to go somewhere with better service instead. We ended up having a great meal nearby…

Naturally we have some fun winding up owner Dave about this bad review, and to be honest, you can easily imagine him shout “How am I gonna do that?” at a customer in his Cockney accent. On the other hand his place doesn’t seem to smell of either sewage or urine. The real question however remains, how did the guy end up “having a great meal nearby”, as the nearest restaurant is literally on the other side of the island..

While Dave is dealing with all of this, he’s also busy trying to keep a drunk girl from Minnesota from climbing over the bar, and then a woman in her pajamas enters and starts looking intently at everything inside the place, and I mean everything: the wall decorations, the potted plants, the beer fridge, the tables and chairs, as though she’s at an art exhibition, hands folded behind her back.

In hindsight it *is* called The Gallery, so I guess this was always going to happen! We look at Dave and his expression is priceless (like a great piece of art), here’s a man losing all the will to live, wondering to himself if he will pack it all in and go home.

I hope he won’t though, because A: We had a great laugh, and B: This *is* the only restaurant in town. If you happen to make it to Tong Fuk make sure to pop in (pajamas or no pajamas) and say hi to Dave.

Back at the hotel we have a cup of tea with Andy for the perfect, pleasant end to an eventful evening.

Our hotel’s neighbours

The Hong Kong area keeps on surprising us when we leave the beach and head out of town for a bit of sightseeing. Tai O is a small and quiet fishing village with traditional stilt houses on the west coast of the island. After The Venice of Kerala (Alleppey), The Venice of Rajasthan (Udaipur) and The Venice of China (Fenghuang), here’s to present you The Venice of Hong Kong!

Unlike the traditional villages we’ve seen in China, Tai O isn’t overly commercialised, in fact, the villagers don’t seem to be bothered either way by the presence of a few tourists, which makes for a nice change. The town seems a little empty at times, and some of the houses are run down, yet Tai O retains plenty of charm. Judging by the quaint, colourful decorations you find everywhere across town, some initiatives to reduce plastic waste and even the presence of little cat homes someone has built for strays, it is clear that the people of Tai O take real pride in their village.

Not far from Tai O, next to the village of Ngong Ping, sits the giant bronze Tian Tan Buddha statue, the most iconic attraction on Lantau, looking over nearby Po Lin monastery and the South China Sea.

Po Lin Monastery was originally known as The Big Hut, when it was founded in 1906 and consisted only of a stone chamber and thatched hut. In 1924 it was renamed Precious Lotus Zen Temple, a name much better suited to its current grandeur. We’ve seen a ton of famous temples in mainland China, and this one ranks up there with the best of them.

The Grand Hall of Ten Thousand Buddhas is a new addition completed only in 2014. We’ve sure seen a few Buddhas on our travels so far, now we’ve seen ten thousand (and one big one) more.

Tian Tan Buddha, the large bronze statue of Buddha Shakyamuni (aka Siddharta Gautama) was made in 1993. The Buddha is depicted teaching in the lotus position, seated on top op a giant lotus flower. The base has been modelled after the Altar of Heaven from the Temple of Heaven we’ve seen in Beijing.

Surrounding the statue are six smaller statues, known as The Offering of the Six Devas. The Devas gifts of flowers, incense, lamp oil, ointment, fruit and music symbolise The Six Perfections necessary for enlightenment: Generosity, morality, patience, zeal, meditation and wisdom.

The nearby Path of Wisdom, unfortunately all written in Chinese.

We finish our time on Lantau exactly how we started it: by lying on the beach and doing absolutely nothing. Ah, ’tis a hard life! To just rub it in a tiny little bit more, it’s 25 degrees Celcius here, while at home it says it’s 0. Happy autumn to one and all!

This morning we got up at 5AM to get ahead of any possible riots and succesfully caught the first bus to the airport. Twelve hours later we’re checked in safe and sound at our hotel in Philippines.

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!

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.

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.


On the Giant Panda trail

Chengdu, Sichuan Province, 18-20 October.

Today on the high speed train we cover a distance of over 1,000 km to get from Luoyang to the Sichuan capital of Chengdu, home of spectacular spicy foods and adorable panda bears!

With an urban population of over 11 million, Chengdu is one of three most populated cities in Western China, and the largest in Sichuan. Due to the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project constructed in the year 256 BC, the Min and Tuo River, two branches of the famous Yangtze river, supply an irrigation area of more than 700 square kilometres. This furtile land is why Sichuan Province is called Tian Fu Zhi Guo, the Heavenly State.

In this province Hotpot was invented, a cooking method where a simmering pot of soup stock is placed on the dinner table and hotpot dishes such as thinly sliced beef, mushrooms, wontons, egg dumplings or seafood are cooked tableside, similar to fondue, but hot enough to numb your tongue and lips for the rest of the day!

In Sichuan cooking Sichuan peppercorns (Ma) and dried chillies (La) play a central role. The dried chillies produce some serious heat on the Scoville scale, while the peppercorn causes the tingly lip-numbing sensation, lovely! Though deadly when prepared by the inexperienced chef, in reality not every dish in Sichuan cuisine is extremly spicy, but it’s always fragrant and usually delicious. It’s been my absolute favourite food on our travels so far!

The hostel we stay in is pretty comfortable. Just off a busy road next to a metro station, the inner courtyard is a pet lovers paradise; we count 5 cats, 2 dogs, some gold fish and even spot a turtle. We’re staying on the fourth floor. A gaping hole with no door at the end of our corridor leads to a rickety emergency exit stairway attached to the side of the building – pretty glad we’re not staying here in winter.. From the top of the stairs we look right into the garage of our neighbour, who runs a pretty professional looking illegal casino from there, the Chinese sure love a gamble!

We decide to give the temples here a miss and catch up on some much needed rest while in Chengdu. This city has a lot of expats and the quarter finals of the rugby world cup are on, so we spend a lot of time at the Shamrock Pub which is showing all the games. Most of the rugby fans we meet are in Chengdu for teaching, the go to gig for the native English speaker.

It’s nice to be able to speak with other people since our Chinese is not quite the level required for a good old existential debate (or even small talk for that matter..) Besides hello and thank you, and a few words for different foods, we know good morning (zao) and good afternoon (chi guo ma, lit. have you eaten?), plus one our Irish friend from the pub taught us: sha bi, which you can use on the public bus when another passenger snorts their nose and spits the contents out in the little bucket.

No trip to Chengdu would be complete without a visit to the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. A short drive out of town, this is likely where the two faulty pandas who refuse to mate in Edinburgh Zoo are from. The centre consist of a huge park imitating the natural habitat of the giant panda, as well as nursing houses for the baby pandas, a training centre, playgrounds and research laboratories. It is home to about 83 giant pandas and red pandas, including their young.

When we arrive in the early morning the park is already crowded. Most people are queuing up for the shuttle buses which operate inside the park, but we decide to follow a quick-paced group of walkers who seem to know their way around the park. It’s best to arrive early not to miss feeding time and because the giant bears are most active in the morning. Come 10 AM they usually hunker down and sleep away the rest of the day.

Bamboo has little nutritional value, so the pandas are usually too tired to play, fight, mate, or simply stay awake. While they may lack an active lifestyle they certainly do have the cuteness factor!

Seeing the red pandas on the other hand is a lot more interactive. These little fellas are quite playful and curious. At the Research Base you can step right into their enclosure for a close encounter!

Chengdu has been pretty good. It’s easy to get around, a good place to meet a few expats and eat good food, plus the Panda Base is well worth a visit. After spending a lot of time in China’s big cities it’s time to discover the countryside. Our next stop is Baoguo village, just south of Chengdu.