Indonesia: the verdict

Medan, North-Sumatra. 25 December

It is Christmas day and we are checked in at an airport hotel before flying on to Malaysia. RedDoorz has pulled out all the stops: one smallish Christmas tree, one banner reading Merry X-mas, and one very disinterested member of staff who makes us wait until check-in time even though the room is already available.

The room actually looks not bad and even has a freestanding bath tub. As we have come to expect of airport hotels however, there’s a slight catch. In this case the tap doesn’t work. At least the hotel hasn’t burned down like the last one.

Utilizing our last rupiahs we put together a Japanese-style Christmas feast: a bucket of KFC. Meri Kurisumasu!

Now that we’ve come to the end of our time in Indonesia, as is our custom, let’s put some digits on the board, starting with the price of a pint.

Indonesia’s beer is Bintang. In Bali we’ve also drank Bali Hai, but Bintang is the clear winner in our opinion, and it is readily available all over the country. The odd thing about beer in Indonesia is that it’s actually cheaper to buy it at restaurants or hotels than to buy it in a shop. We’ve paid as much as 50,000 rupiah for a large bottle (700ml) in shops, and as little as 20,000 rupiah (£1) for the same at our hotel in Tanjung Benoa.

Travel stats (Indonesia) By land: 530 km. By air: 2,309 km. Duration: 14 days.

Travel stats (total) By land: 10,930 km. By water: 415 km. By air: 27,952. Duration: 149 days.

Now finally, what you have all been waiting for, the final scores as given by our honorable house judge Lauren!

The people score 8/10. Friendly, helpful and sweet at times, Indonesians more than pass the mark. With the exception of RedDoorz, the hospitality at hotels and restaurants has been exemplary.

The food scores 8/10. Though Western food may be expensive and underwhelming in Indonesia, even the most touristic spot has Warungs offering tasty and cheap Indonesian dishes. The Nasi Camphur is my all-time favourite, as are the freshly made iced teas and banana fritters desserts. High marks for this one!

The transport scores 5/10. Passable, as would say, Indonesia is the first place where we were close to being attacked by local Bemo mafia. The public bus service is practically non-existent and taxi’s aren’t always cheap. On a positive note, Bali has Kura-Kura. Cheaper than taxis, and equipped with airco and wifi, these little Japanese turtle buses save the day!

And with that said, I’m happy to announce that Indonesia has earned Lauren’s Certificate of Excellence. Well played!


Whale Shark watching in Oslob, a fair warning.

Oslob, Cebu, 22-24 November

Our next stop is Oslob on Cebu Island, but, as of last month, the ferry service between Tagbilaran and Argao has been suspended. This means we’re first taking the ferry back to Cebu city, which quickly turns a three hour journey into a gruelling 8,5 hours. After a long day we reach Oslob just before dark, ready to dive straight into the pool!

First established in 1690, Oslob became an independent parish in 1848 when the present-day church of Immaculate Conception was completed. The church is made out of coral stone and was burned down during WW2, but has since been restored to its former glory.

Oslob is most famous for its whale shark watching, but first we’re taking it easy after a long day of travelling. The start to our morning is not ideal however. We’re a bit bummed out because we realize some of the souvenirs we’ve been collecting on our travels have been nicked from my bag, during our stay in Hong Kong Kowloon I’m convinced. None of it was particularly expensive, but impossible to replace. If you read this manager at Wai Fan Guest House, I’m pretty sure stealing figurines of gods is bad karma..

We decide not to let it ruin a good time (it’s a good excuse to do more travelling in the future after all) and all is soon forgotten when we enjoy the crystal clear waters the hotel looks out over.

The next morning we wake up bright and early to go whale shark watching and we’re excited. This endangered animal is a filter-feeding carpet shark, which feeds on plankton and small fishes, and it’s the largest fish still in existence, growing up to a possible 18 meters in length!

After witnessing in Zanzibar how crazy (Western) tourists get when it comes to seeing rare wildlife, we’re not sure how today will pan out to be. A few organisations in fact have warned against the whale watching practices in Oslob in the past, but we’re told some big improvements have since been made. In 1998, the Philippines banned all fishing, selling, importing and exporting of whale sharks, and by law, all snorkelers must now maintain a distance of four feet from the sharks or risk a fine or even a prison sentence. A marine biologist is on site at all times and only ten people at a time are allowed in the water. All of this however turns out to be far removed from the reality we witness here today.

After buying a (non-refundable) ticket, we attend a mandatory briefing reiterating Philippine law and are brought to the boats. There are at least 15 boats out on the water at the same time, for a grand total of about 150 snorkelers rather than 10! The boats are formed in an orderly line and another boat (with the marine biologist on board, apparently) throws shrimp near the boats to attract the whale sharks. We’re quickly ushered into a boat with 8 other (Chinese) tourists, who, after we have joined the others, immediately swim away and start touching and even kicking the whale sharks! Lauren completely loses it at this point, and rightly so, but the boatman does absolutely nothing to intervene. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing to see these wonderful giants up close, and punching the worst offending Chinese tourist in the arm did relieve some stress, but we both wish we never went here in the first place. Sadly the management is clearly not at all interested in this gentle animal’s wellbeing!

Visiting the muddy Tumalog Falls nearby doesn’t do much to improve our mood today. Cebu Island is a beautiful place, but after having a near perfect time on Bohol Island, we can’t help but feel Oslob has been a bit of a let down, it happens.

After travelling tomorrow from the east coast to Samboan on the west coast, in search of a more positive experience!

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!

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.

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.