Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Fly Me to Tibet

We've now had a couple of days in Chengdu and have enjoyed relaxing at a very cool hostel we found called Mix & Backpackers. We had actually met Mix (the proprietor of this fine establishment) in Beijing as he was travelling around China seeking cooperation and referrals from other hostels.

Mix has setup a great hostel and we're disappointed to not be able to spend longer here. Tomorrow we're flying to Lhasa. Despite a 5am start we're excited and can't wait to experience Tibet.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Cruising the Yangze

We last left you in Datong and the aforementioned Great Firewall of China is still playing havoc with our attempts to update the website or upload photos. Frustrating as memory cards are starting to move as slow as me on a fully loaded bike going uphill.

From Datong we stopped off in the town of Pingyao. When we got off the train we were slightly concerned to see the usual tower blocks that mark Chinese towns abounding around the station. After ditching the persistent trishaw drivers, we wandered for a bit and finally found the walls that enclose the old city. We entered through a gap and found the charming old town that we had been expecting. The instructions for our chosen hotel were vague so we followed our mother's advice and asked a policeman (who was playing pool at the time). He attempted no english niceties and bundled us (Banz, myself and another traveller, Nick) into his van. Two minutes later we were deposited at the front of our hotel and before we knew it he had left.

We had a pleasant day in Pingyao, just rambling about, checking out the old town. Allegedly ghosts from the Ming Dynasty still wander the streets after dark as the streets are still the same as they were in the ghosts' heyday. We didn't see any, but were content to be the usual point of interest for passing schoolchildren and pensioners.

We chatted with Nick over dinner but were put off exchanging emails by his turning his nose up at our books while recommending the Robbie Williams biography.

Next stop was Luoyang. We had booked a hard sleeper (basically a dorm on wheels) to take us there and were a bit distressed to find we arrived at 2:10 in the morning. Nevertheless we sleepily piled into a taxi and made some new friends by waking receptionists in the budget hotels we had selected. All were full or not as budget as we expected. The driver moved on regardless and despite continually pointing at "luxury hotel" in our phrasebook we managed to steer him in the right direction and were comfortably ensconced in our room by 3 am. Only problem was we were too tired to sleep and so didn't nod off until after 4. Imagine our joy when the same taxi driver knocked on our door at ten o'clock to take us on an overpriced tour of the local sights. Our response really wouldn't be allowed out by the Chinese authorities.

The principal sites of Luoyang were the Longman Caves and the park where Peonies grow. The Longman Caves were fantastic despite the persistent use of megaphones by Chinese tour guides. It didn't seem to matter how small the groups were, the megaphone was always necessary. So much for the serenity.

The Peony Park (for the life of me I can't remember the correct name) is the reason half of China flocks to Luoyang in the Springtime. A handful of reasonably pretty flowers was hardly compensation for finding our hotel was full and we couldn't extend our stay for one night. As a result, Banz had to spend a good couple of hours making contacts with doormen from Five Star Hotels as they organised a night for us in a reasonably priced Three Star. Our thanks to the good people at the Triumphal Arches are eternal.

The extra day was required as we had a one hour bus journey to Shaolin Si - the birthplace of Kung Fu. We were pretty disappointed with the temple grounds as it was more elderly Chinese tourists than kickass Chinese monks. Saying that, the Garden of the Thousand Pagodas was pretty interesting and the return journey was enlivened by the showing of Jet Li's first movie called Shaolin Temple (shot in and around Shaolin Si). Of course, the bus conductor turned it off with 20 minutes of the film and forty minutes of the journey to go so he could talk in Chinese about another temple we were passing.

From Luoyang it was a short six hour train ride to Xi'an. Xi'an seems to want to be the Chinese Las Vegas with its flashing neon lights. We were just happy to see Pizza Hut and welcomed some comfort food from "home". The other reason to visit Xi'an was to see the Terracotta Warriors which were as impressive as expected.

We had a panic as we coordinated our train and boat journeys. With a lot of phoning, emailing and a dash to the station we were set to travel to Yichang and catch the President No. 4 boat to Chongqing. There are several options for journeying up the Yangze, but we had decided to treat ourselves and go for the 4 star option. It was a decision that paid off as we had air-conditioned en-suite accommodation with fantastic meals whilst on-board. At our first dinner we were alarmed to discover that all the other guests were in tour groups and we were to sit at a table by ourselves. Another cause for concern was the table next to our's which had an average age of 75. The third concern was when all the tour groups were in turn introduced and then finally, we were told there was a group of Australians on board. When nobody else had put there hand up we realised they meant us and reluctantly rose our hands.

Not being used to the Tour Group way of things, we were raised from our beds the next morning at 6:40 by piped Chinese muzak and made our way as instructed to the dining room. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that we would be dining with 2 Chinese couples as well as a couple from Singapore for the rest of the trip. It was also over breakfast that people started to sidle up to us and say, "So you're the Australians". I think this was partly due to the friendliness of the people involved (hello Peter, Richard, Hilary and Julian!) but also due to our novelty factor as independant travellers. "You mean you're travelling alone!?", was the often heard remark when we said we weren't with a group.

The next few days passed in a whirl of amazing scenery (especially the Three Gorges), great food (battered coconut), the opportunity to learn mahjong as well as flying a kite off the back of the boat (and almost through some powerlines).

After four days of luxury we have now journeyed onto Chengdu where we hope to organise our onward travel to Tibet.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The Great Firewall of China

Well, we're having issues with keeping the site up-to-date as we would like here in China. The big issue is the aptly named Great Firewall of China. Our website is unable to be seen. They also block the BBC website so at least we're in good company....

We are now currently in Datong. Its a smallish town by Chinese standards of only six million people. It has to be said that we're one of the prime attractions in town though. We had heard and read stories of the Chinese propensity for staring at caucasians. We thought thought that the stories were overblown. We also thought that this would be the case in small provincial towns that don't have two of the main attractions of China nearby that attract a string of international visitors. We were wrong.

Sitting in a restaurant by the window on Saturday night we were constantly the subject of double and then triple takes and then staring - not just from people walking by, but from people on bikes and scooters (we were actually quite alarmed for their safety). One little boy (about 6) walked past with his table tennis bat in one hand and his Dad in the other, pointed and stared and then came in to say hello and test his english. Incredibly sweet as he then became very shy and would look down on the floor when we talked to him. Banz was most disappointed that he forgot to drop into the conversation one of our easily remembered Mandarin words - ping pong.

Previously on Saturday we had been to visit the Yungang Caves and the Hanging Temple. The Yungang Caves were amazing. Buddhas of various sizes (the biggest about three stories) were housed in about 50 caves. As well as the Buddhas the caves themselves were intricately painted and carved. According to our guidebooks, the earliest caves were created by sculptors and painters from as far away as present day Afghanistan and India.

From here we braved our Chinese driver (mobile phone constantly in one hand whilst overtaking on bends in the road on a mountain) and headed the Hanging Temple. I was a bit disappointed with these as a lot of the work was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and looks a bit Disney-fied and quaint. Banz went for a closer investigation whilst I practised my Mandarin much to the amusement of the stallholders trying to get me to buy verdigree turtles.

In a couple of hours we'll jump on our train and head to Taiyuan. We're mainly using this as a staging post en route to Pingyao which is a well preserved town which dates mainly from the Ming Dynasty where we'll arrive tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Mutton overdose

We managed to tear ourselves away from English language TV for an overnight trip to Terelj national park, an hour's drive from Ulaan Baatar. We had decided on a short trip so that the three of us could spend a night in a ger with a Mongolian family before Hig's departure to Beijing. Our decision proved to be a good one. We were welcomed warmly into the ger (the traditional Mongolian dwelling which is a semi-solid tent with felt lined walls and a log burning stove for warmth and cooking) and must have observed entiquette sufficiently as we were served tradition milk tea and nibbles. The milk tea was a bit of a shock to the system given the added ingredients of salt, flour and mutton fat but we put as brave a face on it as possible.

While lunch was prepared we went for a walk in the woods and marvelled at the beauty of the surrounding tree-lined mountains and rocky slopes. We mucked around in the snow, saw a woodpecker and returned for a lunch of mutton while the horses were prepared. Hig had never ridden a horse before and I'm strictly a novice but Victoria is a bit more competent. Our linguistic skills meant that we couldn't explain this to our hosts so Vic and Hig were led on the tranquil horses while I was left to roam free. Actually, I was left to stroll 50 metres behind the others despite my attempts to coax a trot from my nag with a series of friendly words and the liberal application of heels to ribs (mine to his although we both knew these roles could be reversed at any time). Hig was thrilled to be aboard but Victoria wasn't getting much from being walked through the snow.

After my horse had stalled in a nibble filled area I was handed a twig of encouragement which got the nag to speed up a little and got me ut in front to explore. Our explorations led us, as if by magic, to a very unexpected venue, namely a model dinosaur park. Our first inkling something was in store was the sight of a T-Rex staring us out from behind a fence. We had the chance to pay the gun-toting guard 500 togrog (25p) to view the models. Up close they were a bit scabby but it was enjoyable posing with the huge reptiles for comedy photos. Vic used the opportunity to show off her horse skills because afterwards she was allowd off the leash. Hig confirmed his amateur status in the remount. Earlier he had under applied the leaping power so decided not to make the same mistake twice. He managed this by catapulting himself righ tover the other side. He stayed on the leash.

We returned to the ger after 2 fun hours to find our evening mutton all but ready to go. After eating we had a happy evening throwing logs on the fire and playing cards. Vic turned in early and Hig and I stayed up talking. We'd been advised not to open the door to any Mongolian speakers but at 11:30 we heard tyres creaking through the snow, boots crunching on the ice, knuckles rapping on the door and Mongolian unintelligibles issued from without. We looked at each other and noiselessly made a variety of 'keep quiet' signs. Despite the fact our talking must have been overheard from miles away and the light was on and the fire was lit, they went away. The steps receded, the voices died down and then suddenly they were back, and in increased numbers. This time we thought we recognised our hostess and, although she was speaking Mongolian, we let her in. There was a simple explanation for this late-night visit: they had come for the guns and ammunition. There was, however, no explanation for what they needed them for but we were sure it was something innocent. The look on Victoria's face as I woke her to explain that Mongolians were here and they needed the gun hidden in her bed was a picture...

The following day Hig and I explored the hills, tried to invent a new extreme sport called "ice belly sledging" and succeeded in inventing a new crap sport called "snow belly flopping".

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Our 10 day trip into the Gobi interior taught us a couple of things: Mongolia is an incredibly beautiful and varied country, you don't need roads to get from A to B and you can have too much mutton.

Our trip from UB started when Sumuya, our driver, and Ayunga, our interpretor/cook/guide, turned up at the hostel in the the khaki jeep and marvelled at the amount of water we were taking. Once again we were taking our fluid responsibilities seriously when faced with a desert, unaware that we'd be visiting a shop every couple of days.

Our driving started inauspiciously with a snow bogging but after this Sumuya didn't put a foot, or wheel, wrong be it on snow, ice, sand, dust or mud. Often these five elements were combined in a sort of thick soup which passes for roads outside the capital.

Our first day's drive was more like a safari than anything with us excitedly spotting camels, sheep, goats, cattle, gazelle, vultures and eagles. The Gobi is incredibly flat so it's possible to spot a camel on the horizon or a horse 5 kilometres away.

The highlights of our trip were...

1) The Flaming Cliffs, a series of towering red rockfaces which are straight out of Indiana Jones. We found strange objects embedded in the stony walls which could have been dinosaur eggs. Or round rocks.

2) Bumping over rocks for 4 hours to see a waterfall. Which was frozen.

3) Climbing an extinct volcano and exploring the Great White Lake.

4) Horse riding (Vic) and horse clinging to (me) with a Mongolian family. My unruly mount had to be lassoed, snorting and pawing the ground, before I could climb up. I tentatively tried to control him but things didn't pan out.

And now we are in Beijing, trying to find a decent web cafe where we can view the Big Trip website, but enjoying everything else.

More to follow...!
More galleries!

Galleries for...

Russia - Lake Baikal (1 & 2)
Russia - Ulan Ude
Mongolia - Terelj National Park
Mongolia - 10 day Gobi and Central Mongolia Trip (1,2 & 3)