Sunday, 6 October 2013

Good Morning Vietnam!

Believe it or not I watched the movie 'Good Morning Vietnam' for only the first time whilst I was in Zambia earlier this year.  It was one of the many films Mum had recorded off the TV and sent to me to while away the evenings in Lusaka when the electricity cut out.  I don't think Robin William's catch phrase will ever leave me after watching the film and I'm sure this country has left a similar print on my consciousness after having travelled it's length over the past 2 weeks.

HANOI

The noise and frenetic energy of Vietnam hit me the minute I landed in Hanoi.  I was met at the airport quite late at night.  The sky was ink black yet there were lights everywhere as Vietnam's famous motorbikes and cyclos whizzed around, carrying whole families, pigs, numerous bags of rice, window frames and many more things.  Given the darkness I was a little nervous riding solo in car with a man I had never met and more importantly couldn't communicate with.  However, as he whisked me through the winding streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter, streets from my photocopied Rough Guide map started to appear and I was quickly checked into my hotel, the Little Hanoi Diamond, in the heart Hanoi's old town.  The owner, Mr Zoom (you gotta love that name) could not have been more hospitable and friendly and he quickly had me checked into the biggest room of my trip so far.  It was a veritable 5th floor palace and even came with a large throne like chair, complete with red velvet cushion, and 2 gigantic double beds.  I made the decision to venture out and try and get my bearings but to be honest I didn't succeed and was quickly lost amongst the winding backstreet alleys.  There were so many things to look at and smell on the streets I was mesmerised.  Thankfully a local lady showed me the way back and it turned out I was only 2 streets away from the hotel, having walked in a vague circle!

I was woken early the next morning with rain thundering down on the hotel roof with the monsoon seasons very much in full swing.  This did not deter a keen backpacker like myself though and I ventured out to explore Hanoi, starting with the Ho Chi Minh (HCM) complex on the city's western side, just outside the Citadel wall.  The mausoleum was closed as HCM's body was in Russia being 'refreshed' however a number of other places in the complex were open.  The HCM museum was particularly interesting.  I'd done very little pre-reading before arriving in Vietnam and had, I guess, naively thought the main commentary would be related to the USA's actions in Vietnam.  However, it quickly became clear that the Vietnamese had a far greater issue with the French than the Americans.  The museum was very anti-French and went to great lengths to highlight the French oppression in the country's history.  The other focus of the museum was Vietnam's strong links and 'friendship' with the Russians, indeed the whole first floor of the museum was dedicated to this.  The HCM mausoleum itself has a very soviet design and there is even a park, Lenin Park, in the south of Hanoi dedicated to Russia's famous leader and supporter of communist Vietnam.  Indeed, my guide claimed that Ho Chi Minh had asked for his body to be cremated after his death but such was Russia's influence that this was ignored with the Russians funding the building of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.

In an attempt to dry out a little and taste some of the local food I then headed to KOTO which is cafe run by an Australian charity, opposite the Temple of Literature.  KOTO is a not-for-profit restaurant and vocational training program where the staff consist primarily of former street children who have received training in catering through KOTO itself or other similar charities.The organisation was started in 1996 by an Australian of Korean-Vietnamese origin Jimmy Pham. He asked street children what they needed to make a start in life and their answer was "we need skills so we can find stable jobs". The name of the organisation comes from the phrase "Know One, Teach One", part of a quote by its founder:

"The greatest accomplishment for the person who has helped you, is to see you stand on your own two feet and then in turn help someone else that reminds you of yourself, because if you Know One, then you should Teach One."

I tried KOTO's Bún chả. Bún chả is a Vietnamese dish of grilled pork & noodle, which is thought to have originated from Hanoi. Bun cha is served with grilled fatty pork (chả) over a plate of white rice noodle (bún) and herbs with a side dish of dipping sauce. The dish was described in 1959 by Vietnamese food writer Vu Bang (1913–1984) who described Hanoi as a town "transfixed by bún chả." Hanoi’s first bún chả restaurant was on Gia Ngư, Hoàn Kiếm District, in Hanoi's Old Quarter.  You see cafes selling it literally everywhere but I would highly recommend the dish and indeed KOTO as a great place to have a lazy lunch.

After lunch I set about exploring the Old Quarter environ in which my hotel was located.  The Old Quarters is said to have 36 main streets with each selling a different ware.  Historically, the streets were part of mini compounds where merchant families focusing on a single trade would live and trade.  Alot of these 'compounds' also have their own temples.  The focus of trade has definitely changed over the years as I found entire streets focused on selling sellotape and zips but the setup really does make it easy to shop.  The street that stood out however, was one selling toys/masks/games.  The country was soon to celebrate Children's Day and so this street was alive with al sort of small gifts and toys to make children smile.  There were masks, hats and most importantly funky plastic spectacles.  I bought a pair designed around a bicycle with the eye holes as wheels - very cool.

There were many other things I saw in Hanoi however, the thing I remember most is my Spa days.  I checked myself into a lovely looking place on Ma May street 2 days on the trot and let the ladies do their work.  On the first day I had a spa pedicure and manicure where my feet were placed in a wooden bowl of cinnamon & rose petals to soften them up.  This was followed by a rough coffee scrub and 30min leg massage.  It was divine but also sometimes mildly painful as she squeezed and moved my tired muscles.  Finally, she filed my fingernails and toenails and painted them a wonderful rich red colour.  I now felt I fitted in in glamorous Hanoi.  The second day I had a hot stone massage lasting 90 minutes.   At times this involved the petite Vietnamese masseuse literally climbing onto my spine and moving her knees along its length.  It was actually very good.  She heated up the hot stones in a wooden bucket next to me and you could hear the stones fizzing in the hot water as they absorbed the heat.  She then massaged and pummeled me with the boiling stones for an hour, leaving the hot stones on areas of my boy, under towels, once that area had been massaged to keep the muscles loose, it was simple divine.  I swear I was half asleep when she finished and I found myself very reluctant to get up at the end :)

HALONG BAY

After being in Hanoi for 3 days I took a journey out to Halong Bay.  Halong Bay is a UNESCO world heritage site with thousands of limestone karst islands rising from the Gulf of Tonkin.  I arrived in the late morning but you could see the attraction of the islands here which are dotted with beaches and grottoes generated by wind and waves.  I took an overnight boat cruise amongst the islands and passed some wonderful hours sunbathing on the deckchairs on deck and kayaking in and out of the islands.  We also got off the boat to explore some giant cave structures that had formed within the karst islands over time.  The roof height within the caves was very low but nothing like as low as the Cu Chi tunnels I visited later in the trip!!

The boat crew cooked up and amazing seafood dinner for us including whole crabs, gigantic prawns, fresh mussels and fish. The fish was served under an orange net carved from carrot.  It wasn't 'glued' together but a single piece of carved vegetable of approximate dimensions 5mm x 25cm x 10cm.  I asked the chef to show me how it was made as it was so delicate and intricate.  You will have to wait until I'm home and I host an Asian dinner party to find out if the chef's tips worked and I am able to recreate that splendor.

HUE

After an overnight journey on the Reunification Express train, which was very similar to a Chinese Soft Sleeper experience, I arrived in Hue. Huế is the capital city of Thừa Thiên–Huế Province. Between 1802 and 1945, it was the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty.  Huế originally rose to prominence as the capital of the Nguyễn Lords, a feudal dynasty which dominated much of southern Vietnam from the 17th to the 19th century. In 1775 when Trịnh Sâm captured it, it was known as Phú Xuân. In 1802, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh (later Emperor Gia Long) succeeded in establishing his control over the whole of Vietnam, thereby making Huế the national capital.

During the Vietnam War, Huế’s central location very near the border between the North and South put it in a vulnerable position. In the Tết Offensive of 1968, during the Battle of Huế, the city suffered considerable damage not only to its physical features, but its reputation as well, most of it from American firepower and bombings on the historical buildings as well as the massacre at Huế committed by the communist forces. After the war’s conclusion, many of the historic features of Huế were neglected because they were seen by the victorious regime and some other Vietnamese as "relics from the feudal regime" however many historical areas of the city are now being restored.

I arrived in Hue to heavy rains as a typhoon was on its way.  Some carriages on the overnight train had flooded as there'd been so much rain overnight but mine, thankfully, remained dry.  As further rainfall was expected, with consequent increases in the depth of the Perfume river, I had to go straight from the train to my boat trip.  It was a very close call at some points as the boat had, I'd guess, only about 50cm of clearance under the bridges due to rising water levels. 

The boat trip took me to Thien Mu Pagoda which is known as an icon of modern Vietnam and as potent a symbol of Hue as the Citadel.  During the summer of 1963, Thien Mu Pagoda, like many in South Vietnam, became a hotbed of anti-government protest. South Vietnam's Buddhist majority had long been discontented with the rule of President Ngo Dinh Diem since his rise to power in 1955. Diem had shown strong favouritism towards Catholics and discrimination against Buddhists in the army, public service and distribution of government aid.  However, the pagoda gained particular notoriety in 1963 when Thich Quang Duc, a monk from the pagoda, drove an Austin motor vehicle to Saigon and conducted self-immolation in protest to against the Diem regime. Thien Mu Pagoda still houses the powder blue Auston car in memory of this action. This was the first of a series of self-immolations by members of the Buddhist clergy, which brought the plight of Buddhists to the attention of the international community. 

Hue, due to its role as the old capital of Vietnam, is home to many emperor's tombs and Vietnam's main Citadel.  I visited the Tomb of Tu Duc.  He designed it for himself for use before & after his death.  It was very expensive to build & he used forced labour to construct it.  The use of such labour spawned a coup plot that was discovered & suppressed in 1866.  In general, Tu Duc lived life of luxury & carnal excesses with 104 wives but no offspring; such was his paranoia about being assassinated that he had his harem checked for weapons before entering his bedroom.  The water around the tomb is called Luu Khiem Lake and Tu Duc had an island built in the lake for game hunting. The Xung Khiem pavillion on site used to be used for poetry recitals by his concubines for the emperors pleasure and the honour courtyard was where he was worshipped - you had to pass a guard of elephants and horses to get to it.

The day I visited this tomb coincided with the arrival of a typhoon in Hue so it was a very very wet and windy day.  To say I got soaked is an understatement.  It was a pretty scary day all in all as the streets outside / around the hotel were seriously flooded.  The locals carried on as normal but you could see many concerned western faces about town.

The storm passed without too much damage and the following day was alot brighter.  This was very good fortune as it was the start of Mid-Autumn festivities in the Chinese calendar.  The streets were alive all days with drumming and young people conducting Dragon dances in the street, causing multiple road blocks :)  If  you were willing to pay a small fee the dancers would come into your property and bless it for the coming year.  My hotel participated in this as the lobby area was jam packed with festival goers and gyrating dragons - quite a sight.  It was nice to feel we were blessed...maybe this would stop any future storms?!

That same day I paid to go on a 'Countryside' tour.  The guide referred to himself as Mr Happy and he certainly lived up to his name.  We visited an old amphitheatre where the King and his subjects used to watch fights between Tigers and Elephants.  Mr Happy did a wonderful impression of an Elephant picking up a Tiger with his trunk, resting it on its back and then reversing into the wall to kill it.  It was like watching a slapstick Hunchback of Notre Dam and had us all completely captivated.  

We also visited a local village and saw more Mid Autumn festivities in the form of Dragon Boat racing in the local river.  The participants, in teams of 6, had to row up the river to a marked bamboo stick and back again, trying to beat each other.  When they crossed the finishing line, first of last, two old ladies in a dugout canoe would splash them with water and chuckle to themselves, it was very entertaining.  Despite Vietnam's belief that a woman's role is in the home (many a local guide emphasised this and highlighted the pinka dn blue jobs!) I was pleased to see female teams in the race - progress indeed!  The day finished with a dinner at a local home.  The highlights were: Pumpkin Soup, Chicken & Lemongrass in Claypot and Stir Fried Green Jackfruit although everything was delicious.  The Pumpkin Soup was buy far the best dish I have tasted on my travels so far and was a wonderful, creamy blend of peanuts, pumpkin and coconut.  I am on the hunt for the recipe, if anyone can help.

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HOI AN / DANANG

Next stop on Vietnamese adventure was Hoi An.  I travelled there via the Hải Vân Pass which is approximately 21km long.  The road traverses a spur of the Annamite mountain range which juts into the South China Sea, on the border of Đà Nẵng and Thừa Thiên–Huế Province. Its local name, Ocean Cloud Pass, refers to the mists that rises from the sea, reducing visibility. Historically, the pass was a physical division between the kingdoms of Champa and Dai Viet. The road twists and turns through the mountain and looked like quite a challenge to drive.  The midway stopping point near the crest of the mountain gave beautiful vistas of both the South China sea and Danang city. 

After traversing the mountain we stopped in Danang to visit the Cham Museum, dedicated to artifacts of the Champa kingdom.  This was fascinating as it was like stepping into another country.  The Champa kingdom was a Hindu kingdom that controlled what is today central Vietnam from approximately the 7th century through to 1832, before being conquered and annexed by the Vietnamese people. The museum held thousands of archeological finds from temples in the area and so had lots of Dvarapala (or temple guardian) and Shiva stone carvings.  You really got the sense of the difference between the North & Central Vietnam regions by visiting this museum.  Later I saw such artefacts on a larger scale at the My Son temple complex, just outside Hoi An.  Unfortunately it was heavily destroyed during the Vietnam war but you could appreciate the old power of the kingdom when you saw this complex of c.150 Cham temples.

After Danang, I headed to Hoi An, my base for the next 3 nights.  Hoi An was one of Southeast Asia's major international ports and it is a charming little town with lots of narrow trading streets, many these days selling tailoring services, a renowned skill in the region.  The town is also famous for its covered bridge in the centre of town which was built by the Japanese when they occupied the area.  

I opted out of having tailored clothes made and instead took a dawn boat trip out to a local fishing village.  The boat left at 5am from a pier near my hotel; it was quite tricky finding the pier and the right boat in the dark as the streets were very much like those in Zambia as they had no street lights.  Anyway, I found the boat and we kicked off from shore, the captain steering our little fishing boat out in the dark waters.  It was a fabulous sight seeing the sunrise, the sky first went shades of grey-y black and then gradually went into deep reds and oranges, it was perfect for testing my amateur photography skills.  We passed many local couples (husband and wife teams) sailing in their boats, dropping new fishing nets or hauling in their catches from the previous night.  As dawn arrived we reached our fishing village and jumped ashore.

The 'professional' fishermen are all male and the tradition is that they bring their hauls ashore and the ladies of the town take over, weighing and sorting the fish / shellfish and trading them in the local market.  Needless to say the men were busy drinking coffee (or often something alot stronger) whilst playing cards / board games as this was going on! It was quite amazing to see, not only the clear segregation of duties within the community but also the processes taking place.  At first sight it looked mildly chaotic with fish/shellfish flapping about in bamboo baskets all over the floor but if you watched carefully it did have its own kind of order.  

Also in the village, along the harbour front, you found local craftsmen, many building or repairing the boats for fishermen.  They were very carefully woven constructs, from bamboo I think, and I have a wonderful photograph (to be uploaded later I hope) of a very old gentleman, cigarette dangling from his lips mending a old conacle boat.   On the return to Hoi An town we passed many older ladies in these little conacles, weaving in and out of the reeds checking their fish traps.  These weren't professionals but local people just fishing for their own sustinance.  There were many fish net/trap designs along river, many made from bamboo.  Our captain says they tended not to contain bait but instead relied on basic intrigue with fish swimming into the maze of bamboo and getting lost and therefore trapped - very clever, I thought!

Also whilst in Hoi An I took a Vietnamese cookery lesson at The Little Menu restaurant.  In my opinion, it was more of a demonstration than a lesson as it took place in the restaurant's working kitchen and we only did some minor cookery ourselves.  However, I learnt alot of good techniques and recipes and am dying to try them at home.  It's a well known joke that I don't eat salad (possible, one of the few women who doesn't!) but it is testament to the chef's excellent cookery skills that I he got me eating plates and plates of the Green Papaya salad.  It was divine, yes Mum, you read that correctly!  I also learnt how to cook tuna in banana leaf.  The tuna was so fresh and the marinade ingredients so fragrant and pure that we got to try the mixture raw before streaming it in the banana leaf - it was top class and I almost preferred it raw :)  I also learnt how to make Vietnamese spring rolls, and they're very very different from the Chinese ones I made in Beijing - who'd have thought it.  The spring rolls in Vietnam and commonly made with a lattice kind of pancake made from a rice flour / water mixture and felt lighter to taste than their Chinese counterparts. My backpack is regretting it now, as its weight has increased, but I bought a pack of the spring roll wrappers and a nifty little gadget to make the Papaya Salad.

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MEKONG DELTA

My penultimate stop in Vietnam was the Mekong Delta.  Right at the southern tip of Vietnam the Mekong Delta is Vietnam's rice basket and it produces 3 rice harvests a year relative to the 1 or 2 in other areas of the country.  It is a lush watery landscape of green fields and sleepy villages intersected by canals fed from the mighty Mekong River.  In one direction the Mekong River goes to Saigon, the other to Cambodia. The river bank is lined with lush rice paddies, fish farms and brick factories which use a byproduct of rice production, the rice husks, as their fuel. For many, including myself, the delta's attraction is the river life of colourful floating markets and home cooked delicacies.

I took an overnight trip into the delta which started at the floating markets.  Basically, each boat in the market advertises its wares by tying a sample at the top of a large bamboo pole on their boat.  It's a bit like a 'food flag' to show what they are selling hence there were pineapples, turnips, potatoes flying high in the wind as we approached the market.  In general families harvest their crops and then sail to the market area, living on their boat with the produce for 2-3 days or until all theirs wares are sold.  Unfortunately the markets are dwindling now the supermarkets and grocers shops are being built on the islands but there were still a good two dozen boats out selling when I visited. 

My next stop in the delta was a kind of local 'food factory.  They specialised in making the local delicacies of: Coconut Candy, Popped Rice and Snake Wine.  The Popped Rice process was the most impressive to me.  It began with burning rice husks to heat a pot of black sand until it was smoking hot.  Then, rice was added to the sand and paddled by hand until the rice 'popped' and created a huge pot of gigantic rice krispies.  The mixture was then sieved, over the original pot, so as to isolate the popped rice but not waste the valuable black sand.  Next in another pot, also heated by rice husks, a sort of coconut caramel was created from palm sugar and coconut milk.  The cooled rice krispies were then added to the caramel and paddled to coat them in the caramel before being pressed into moulds and cut into bite sized sugary morsels - yum yum.  Needless to say I steered well clear of the Snake Wine having seen enough snakes to last me a lifetime in Africa!!

I spent the night in the delta staying with a local family on one of the delta's many islands.  The rooms were basic with thin mattresses on top of raised tables under a mosquito net but they had fantastic hammocks on the property' deck which you could swing in whilst chilling and watching local boats paddle up the creek.  They even let me help with preparation of the evening meal, cooking over a wood burning stove.  There was a feast of Taro rolls, steamed fish in lemongrass to self wrap in rice papers, freshly caught prawns and claypot chicken :)

My stay in the delta concluded the following morning with a row up the local canals, watching the world go by and generally having a nosy into the local peoples' daily routine / housing arrangements.  Needless to say I was neither strong enough or willing enough to row myself through the narrow creeks so a local lady did the job for me.  Despite her petite stature she had the boat whizzing along.  The boats are rowed forwards with the oars woman at the back of boat standing, moving the arms in a circular motion.  It wasn't at all how I expected as I thought it'd be like punting in Cambridge - he he.

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HO CHI MINH CITY / SAIGON

The final treat in Vietnam was Saigon or Ho Chi Minh (HCM) City as its more formally titled.  Again, this wasn't at all as I expected.  There was alot more of the French influence here than in Hanoi with the main city's distrct, District 1, full of wide boulevards and flashy shops.  My hotel for example, at a cost of only 30 GBP a night, was situated next to Gucci - rock on! 

I spent many happy days in Saigon meandering around the shops and cafes and generally taking some time to relax after my whirlwind North-South Vietnam extravaganza.  Of course I visited the standard Reunification Palace (strong Soviet influence here!) and War Remnants Museum however my favourite 'find' from this time was the HCM Fine Arts Museum.  

The Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts is the major art museum of HCM City and covers three floors which house huge collections of Vietnamese art works in sculpture, oil, silk painting and lacquer painting, as well as traditional styles including woodcut paintings in the Hàng Trống, Đông Hồ, and Kim Hoàng styles.  The building itself is a stunner; its a classical yello/white colonial building with an inner courtyard and open balconies on the upper levels, over looking this space.  The floors in each room, and even the corridor, are beautifully pieces of tiling artwork.  I'd found this more often than I expected and I was surprised 'tiles' weren't more prominently advertised in Vietnamese art.

The oil paintings pertaining to the Vietnam were particularly poignant and striking and they were displayed in a very neutral way, allowing you to interpret and reflect on them yourself, unlike some of works in the War Remnants Museum which were unfortunately presented in a very one-sided manner.  Also, of note were the laquerware paintings.  I had seen laquerware all over Asia and Vietnam but it had always in the form of objects such as boxes / vases etc so I was surprised to see paintings of scale c. 5m x 2m hanging on the walls.  They were so captivating in their detail and skill, I sat gazing at them for longer than I remember.  Finally, I am sure many people oversee them but the courtyard outside the second gallery and indeed the inner courtyard of the museum contained a collection of modern stone sculptures, again an artform I had not expected in this region.  They had some poignant sculptures pertaining to the war but also some slightly comedic pieces relating to local customs and life.  It was unexpected find / treat.   

Also whilst in Saigon, I took a trip out to the Cu Chi tunnels.  The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Saigon and were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War.  They also formed the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The Viet Cong soldiers used to use them as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped to counter the growing American military effort.

The tunnels blew my mind with over 250 km of tunnels in 4 levels under the ground.  I'm not sure of the original tunnel dimensions as they'd been 'widened' for tourists but the one I went down seemed less than a 1m diameter and an extremely tight fit for someone of my build. I managed to go down the first level but I simply couldn't contort my body small enough to pass through the tunnel to the second level down, it was that tight.  I don't get claustrophobic normally but that place was making me feel uncomfortable - Dad I think you'd have freaked out at the first bend!

Another highlight of the Cu Chi museum was the demonstration of the ways in which the Viet Cong used ingenious ways to trick the opposition using simple tools and equipment.  For example, they used to collect the tyres from abandoned US trucks and use the rubber to make sandals for the troops.  However, the trick comes in the sandal design.  They used to design the sole of the sandals back to front with the heel print at the front and the toe print at the front, despite them being worn in the normal way.  This way, when the soldiers walked they left a footprint trail indicating the soldier had walked in the opposite direction - genius hey!   

As you can probably tell, they're oodles more I could write about my time in Vietnam and all the quirky, interesting characters I met and foods I tried.  I haven't even started to tell you about all the wonderful foods I tried (Che desserts are to die for!) but for now that will have to suffice as I have Thailand to explore and enjoy.

Adios amigos :)

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Hong Kong - Bars, Birds & Beaches

Hi All,

Hope you enjoyed the post on China.  After leaving Kunming I headed to Hong Kong.  This roughtly marked the halfway point of my Asia jaunt so I decided to splash out and stay in more luxurious accommodation.  I booked a room in the Salisbury YMCA in Kowloon on the basis that it offered a swimming pool facility and was very impressed. The YMCA is located next door to the famous Peninsula hotel and, whilst it wasn't as grand, I had an enormous room overlooking the promenade and the flashy shops like Gucci and Zegna on Canton Road.  The 25m 6 lane swimming pool was free and open 6:00am to 10:30pm enabling me to fit a swim in every day so I was a very happy lady.  However, it was quite interesting swimming alongside local teenagers having their swimming club training sessions in the nearby lanes as it reminder me of my swimming club days and ploughing up and down doing drills and turns to a timer.

Anyway, my time in Hong Kong was very much a two part journey as the first 2 days I had the company of Aussie Pete from my Mongolia trip whereas the following 2 days I was flying solo.

Having Pete's company enabled me to do things I wouldn't necessarily done on my own which was great.  We met at my hotel on the Friday afternoon and headed straight for the Star Ferry to Hong Kong Island.  It was very cool watching the sunset and the various skyrise buildings on the island light up with red / blue / green neon lights ready for the evening light and music spectacular held every evening at 8pm.

We arrived at the docks in Central and, after some debate, decided to abandon the idea of queueing for The Peak tram and hailed a taxi.  The first taxi driver quoted a ridiculous figure for the journey but we eventually found a driver willing to use the meter and started our journey through the winding Peak Road to the summit.  I hadn't appreciated how steep it was, it reminded me alot of San Francisco's roads but these were much more windy and it took a good 20 minutes to get to the top and The Peak.  Despite this I think the journey worked out at around 6 british pounds!  It's hardly worth walking in Hong Kong.

From the drop off point, you have to walk through the shopping mall to the viewing platforms.  It was quite busy, despite the hazy evening sky hindering the view a bit.  Despite this it was very cool standing at The Peak, looking down at the Central and Admiralty districts of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon twinkling in the evening sky.  We took a few pictures but I don't think either of us are expert nighttime photographers so the photos really don't do justice to what we saw with our eyes.

We decided to eat at the Tsui Wah Restauarant at The Peak.  The highlight of the meal for me was the Logan and Red Plum hot drink that I ordered.  It was a deep crimson colour and had lots of chopped up fruit in it.  The best way of describing the taste is that of warm figs - yummy.  After dinner we tried valiantly (honest!) to find the walking path down the hill but failed miserably so quickly gave in and caught a taxi down to the bar district of Lan Kwai Fong in the Central district of Hong Kong Island.  Pete, being an Aussie, was keen that I tried Bundy Rum so we sought out a bar that served that. Stauntons looked very good but too busy for us to sit and chat.  Bizarrely, we ended up in an Irish bar in Hong Kong drinking Aussie Rum & Coke :)

We concluded that evening with a late night dash on the metro up to Temple Street.  There's a famous night market on Temple Street which sells all manner of fake goods, for example Mulberry handbags, Beats headphones and SWATCH watches.  We didn't buy and tat as neither of us are that way inclined but it was fun wandering through the Chinese district, seeing all the late night pavement cafes and snack stalls.  I introduced Pete to HOng Kong Puffs which, strangle, I'd first tried in Guilin.  They're a kind of non-greasy doughnut mixtures cooked in 1" diameter hollow spheres.  I had them covered in chocolate sauce but we had them plain that evening and shared two dozen of the treats and we walked back through Jordan to our respective hotels.

The following morning we chose to start early as Pete had an 8pm flight and, after sorting out his luggage storage, we headed back over to Hong Kong Island in search of Dim Sum. The first place we tried was Maxim's Palace at the City Hall in Central.  We got a bit lost on leaving the metro station and ended up in Exchange Square.  There were many groups of women sitting on plastic on the pavement.  We wondered what was going on as they just seemed to be hanging out there chatting and giving each other pedicures/manicures.  It was most odd as there were thousands of them.  Later we saw signs for a commomoration day of Phillipino women in Hong Kong so maybe that is what we saw.

We eventually found Maxim's but there was an extremely long queue and the clientele looked decidedly smarter dressed than us so instead we headed for a tea house on Stanley Street in Central recommended by the Lonely Planet.  It was a very unassuming place from the outside but we followed signs up a set of slightly hidden side stairs and into an old fashioned dining room.  The place was very dated and, as the Lonely Planet correctly identified, the waiters looked as if they been both born and likely to die in the restaurant they were that old and doddery.  However, they did a sterling job understanding us and quickly had us seated at a round table with hot, steaming chinese tea.

After being seated we received a sheet where we marked the dim sum we'd like to be served.  We picked a few dishes at random: steamed pork buns, sweet and sour ribs, shrimp dumplings, osmanthus flower jellies and date moon cakes, a speciality of the mid Autumn festival.  We weren't disappointed when the food arrived as there was a huge pile to try and eat.  We made a bit of a mess of the tablecloth trying to pickup some of the delicacies with our chopsticks but apparently a messy tablecloth is a sign of a good meal so we fitted in well.  The least appealing dish was the osmanthus flower jelly as it was a fairly grey looking, stiff jelly.  However, when I tasted it, it was so delicate and fragrant I couldn't resist having two.

After finishing our Dim Sum we took a ride on the mid level escalators, a set of outdoor escalators designed to help people traverse up the steep Peak on Hong Kong Island, and headed for the Hong Kong Park.  Hone Kong Park is at an elevation midway between the Peak and the port.  It's a wonderful expanse of green in the otherwise concrete jungle and has been very nicely laid out with fountains and flowers of all kinds.  There's a wonderful mini-Zoo with marmots, chimps, tortoise etc that you can visit for free within the park.  It's a very relaxaing space and we spent a couple of hours wandering around it.  There's even a watchtower with, in my opinion, better views of the harbour than you get from the Peak. However, the highlight for me was the aviary that's in the park and free to visit.  There's a raised wooden walkway that's set within the aviary and you walk through it with tropical birds flying about your head and a peacful stream running beneath your feet.  The colours of the birds there were very vibrant and we spent quite a while just watching and photographing them, enjoying a lazy afternoon.

We finished the day with a visit to the Avenue of Stars on Kowloon harbour.  It's a bit of a Hollywood copy with metal stars embedded into the floor with names and handprints of famous Chinese movie stars.  It's a 440m promenade along the water a nice place to wander for an hour.  Pete and I both took pictures of the Bruce Lee statue with the excuse of taking them for our nephews :)  There was a lovely bar on the waterfront there so we watched the sun setting with beer in hand - perfect! - before Pete had to head to the airport.

The next day, back flying solo, I decided to try and find Hong Kong Island's beaches.  Under the hotel's instruction I caught the ferry to Central and then hopped on the number 73 bus heading south.  It was a doubledecker so I decided to sit at the front on the top deck to get good views of the scenery as it unfolded.  It was quite a ride, firstly through the manic traffic of Central and Sheung Wan and then on the high, windy coastal path.  My intial intention was to head straight for Stanley but I spotted an empty, white gold sandy beach en route and hopped off early.

The beach I found turned out to be Repulse Bay.  I arrived at c.10am and the beach was empty bar a couple of local men so I took off my shoes and went for a paddle in the azure blue water.  It was bliss as the beach thermometer read 35C and it was scorchio!  Tin Hau temple sits at the far end of the beach and there were a few Chinese tourists there but otherwise the place was deserted.  The temple is dedictaed to the protection of fishermen.  There are two huge statues of Tin Hau and Kwun Yum as well as a Chinese style garden leading down to the beach, via the red Longevity Bridge.  It says your life is elongated by 3 months for every crossing of the bridge so I ran across it a few times for good measure.  Repulse Bay is one of the most expensive districts to live on Hong Kong island and I can see why, it was amazing and very un-touristy, although they're building a mall there at the moment so all that could change.  After an hour siting on the beach chilling and updating my diary I decided to head to Stanley and caught a tiny local minibus for about 50p.  It's very much an honesty based system on the buses there as the driver didn't check I'd put the correct coins in the ticket machine before whizzing off.

Stanley is further along the East coast of Hong Kong island and is famous for its market, selling jade, clothes and souvenirs.  It was alot more touristy than Repulse Bay but still very pleasant.  There's even Blake Pier at Stanley which you can walk along to get better views of the coast and the many windsurfers riding the waves.  I spent some time writing postcards on the seafront before finding somewhere for lunch.  I decided to head for the Stanley Plaza where there's a range of cafes and bars lining the seafront, alongside small clothes boutiques (there's even a supermarket there selling Waitrose products!!).  I opted for lunch at French bistro called Chez Patrick and wasn't disappointed.  They served me a wonderful French bread filled with Bayonne Ham and Comte, French Fries, a crisp green salad and a large pot of Earl Grey tea made with tea leaves.  I thought I'd died and gone to heaven and stayed there for quite a while people watching and generally relaxing.   I left Stanley in the late afternoon and headed back to Central on the bus.  I took a different bus back, bus number 6, and this gave much better panoramic views of the sea so I'd recommend that if you plan to go there.

Arriving back in Central I decided to try the HOng Kong trams, otherwise referred to as 'Ding Dings' by the locals because of the distinctive bells they use to call out the stops.  The trams have operated since 1904 and cover a large proportion of the north of Hong Kong island, particularly the area between Shau Kei Wan, Central, Admiralty and Victoria Park.  I followed the guidebook's advice and went on the upper deck.  The trams are quite narrow and tall but still there wasn't alot of headroom on the seats for someone like me.  However, they gave an excellent view of the city, particularly in the approach to Happy Valley as you get a birds eye view of all the little alleys and streets selling their various wares.  I hopped off at a street selling haberdashery items and got some very cool bits of ribbon, funky buttons and sew on motifs that I've never seen at home.  They were perfect 'post home' souvenirs!  After several hours shopping I called it a day and headed back to Kowloon via a different ferry route - there are alot to choose from and they all give different vistas of the city skyline!

The following day I decided to try some retail therapy - you didn't think I'd subject Pete to this did you?! I began at the department stores in Causeway Bay where I puzzled to find brands like Eikowada which described themselves as English despite not selling their stock in England!  Apparently the company is registered in England and so they can claim they're English in HOng Kong and thereby quote higher prices.  Their outdoor kit was quite good and long enough for my legs so I was tempted but in the end saved my money.  I was glad I did as about half an hour later whilst browsing in a very good cake shop (SIFT - http://www.siftdesserts.com/) I spotted a sign for a shoe warehouse sale.  The signs pointed me into the basement apartment block so, intrigued, I stepped inside.  Since it was early in the morning on a weekday I was the only person there.  I automatically thought they wouldn't have anything to fit my Size 8 feet but the shop assistant proved me wrong and found me at least 6 pairs of shoes that fitted in a fabulous range of colours - purple, teal, gold, silver, red, pink....  I eventually succumbed to a pair of teal patent leather flats and have lived and died in them since that day as they're so comfortable and were a steal at only 25 british pounds!

After a gorgeous mediterranean lunch at Maya Cafe on Moon Street in Wan Chai (Moon St & Star St had some amazing bistros and cafes for lunch so there's plenty of choice)I decided to head north to the shopping mecca of Nathan Road.  This is a very funny place as designer shops sit cheek by jowl with bargain basement dives like ChungKing Mansions and warehouse outlets.  It's heaving 24x7 and there's always someone handing out flyers for this or that shop so it can be a bit intense to be honest.  I lasted about 45mins before escaping into nearby Kowloon Park.

Kowloon Park is an oasis in Tsim Sha Tsui (TST as the locals call the area) and it has a great scuplture walk and chinese garden.  I just wandered about aimlessly through the park, watching the locals doing their Tai Chi and playing cards, a sport they can get quite aggressive about at times as they fling down the cards onto the stone walls on which they're perched.  My wandering resulted in a few good finds, most notably the recreation centre and water park near the Jordan metro exit. It had a selection of about 6 pools all open until 10pm for public swimming and the pools were floodlit as the night encroached. The sounds of children splashing about under the night sky, cooling off from the heat was really nice.

I exited the park near Jordan metro and continued my retail therapy in Temple Street markets and the nearby Jade Market in Mongkok.  Haggling is essential in these markets so my training time in Zambia was put to good use negotiating for some pieces of small pieces of jewellry and souvenirs.  I finished the evening with a trip to the nearby Broadway Cinemateque, a small arthouse cinema showing arty and foreign films.  I was too late to buy tickets for that evenings showings so bought tickets for the following lunchtime, to pass the time before my flight.  However, my visit wasn't wasted as I decided to give my feet some recouperation time and ordered tea and a snack at the cinema's Kubrick Cafe.  The cafe was fantastic and seemed to attract some quirky characters so there was lots of opportunity for people watching as I sipped my refreshing Ginger Tea.

As you can tell my time in Hong Kong was pretty jam packed so I was glad of some rain inflicted downtime in Hanoi, Vietnam the following day but I'll tell you about that in my next entry :)

Stay well,
Kate

Sunday, 15 September 2013

China - My third trip there but still loads to see....

So, we meet again. I am sorry for not writing for a while but it appears the Chinese firewall does not approve of neat freaks. Anyway, we have alot to catch up on so if I ­were you I ­would go and grab a drink as this could be a long post. For some of you that may be a beer and for others a tea or coffee.  Right now I am sitting in hot and sticky Hanoi and have opted for a beer as it is 50p a bottle and very refreshing.  However, whilst travelling through China I became rather partial to Ginger Tea, particularly in Yunnan ­when the temperature dropped to 10C.  The Ginger Teas came in many different forms, black tea, translucent or mixed ­with lemongrass but all ­were pungent and refreshing and often came ­with a small jug of runny honey ­­­wi­­th ­which to sweeten to taste. If I had to pick my favourite it ­would have to be the black tea version from the Prague Cafe in Lijiang.  But I digress, I'm talking about food again, my favourite topic, but probably not w­hat you tuned in to find out about.


Outside Prague Cafe, Lijiang


 Inside Prague Cafe, Lijiang

When we last met I ­was in Ulan Bator ready to head for China.  well, shortly after finishing my last blog post I discovered my hostel had messed up my airport transfer so I was a little hot under the collar as I was running late for my flight. In the end I was forced to stand on the roadside in Ulan Bator and try and flag down a taxi.  Unfortunately, since I was wearing walking trousers there was no chance of hailing a cab like the Sex in the City chics in Abu Dhabi, by flashing a bit of leg, so I was forced to try my winning smile and desperation instead.



It eventually paid off and I acquired what can only be described as the Mongolian version of Smokey from Smokey and the Bandit.



He was fantastic fun to travel with and we sped at the speed of light through the traffic of Ulan Bator, weaving in and out of the trucks and cars and up the pavement.  He got me to the airport in a record breaking 28 minutes and only charged me $15 for the privilege - bonus!!  I'm not sure why I rushed though as check in at Chengis Khan airport took 70minutes (no kidding!) and there were only 10 people in the line.  I discovered later, when chatting to a rather nice chap from Highbury on the plane, that most of the Mongol Rally drivers were on my Air China flight as they'd finished the previous day.  That'd explain the weird and wonderful vehicles outside the hostel that morning - duh!

I arrived in Beijing safe and sound at around 10pm and set about finding my hostel.  There really is only one place in Beijing I like to stay and that's the Fly By Knight Courtyard Hostel.  It's amazing!  Last time I stayed in a private room but this time I was in a dorm and I wasn't disappointed.  I arrived and was presented with a clean, fluffy white towel and a lovely dorm bed with crisp white bed linen and soft mattress.  I had died and gone to heaven after 3 weeks camping in Mongolia :)


The hostel is down a quite Hutong in Dong Cheng and whilst its a bit unnerving going there the first time, down all the winding alleys, it soon grows on you and I now prefer wandering the Hutongs to almost anywhere else in Beijing.  They have this unique character where you find the noise and smells of outdoor street cafes alongside people doing their laundry, old men playing Mahjong, kids playing and then....literally turn a corner and there's noone there....deadly silence and stillness.  Yes, it is very possible in Beijing, that city of millions, to find spaces on your own to sit and relax and chill.  I think that's why I love it so much.  It suits my weird personality which one minute craves silence the next, the hustle and bustle of cities.

I've been to Beijing quite a few times now so I have seen alot of the tourist sights, although not the Summer Palace, which is where I headed on my first day in Beijing.  In December 1998, UNESCO included the Summer Palace on its World Heritage List and you can see why.  It's stunning and I had no idea how big it was.  I thought I'd go there for a few hours and then find something else to do but, despite arriving at 9am, I only left at 4pm as it took me that long to wander around the lake.  It is HUGE!  It's surrounded by palaces and temples and little shopping streets, covered walkways and gardens that, despite my 7hours there I still only saw about half of it.  I went on a Saturday which may have been an error as alot of Beijingers go there to relax at the weekends so there were alot of families and couples picknicking around the edge of the lake.  Many had little tents for their children to play in out of the heat (it was over 35C that day!) - Jen I have pictures so we can see if we can get N one.






Having seen my last main 'tourist' sight of Beijing I decided to try something a bit different.  My hostel is owned by a Kung Fu master and he was offering afternoon lessons for free. 

Daniel showing us how it is done
 
I thought it would be really popular with lots of the hostel residents attending but no, it was just me and the hostel staff with all the other westerners sitting around the courtyard watching - charming!  It was great fun if a little sweaty in the hot weather and Daniel soon had me leg kicking with the best of them.  The instructions were in Mandarin so that's my excuse for not being quite the Kung Fu ninja I hoped I could be but I gave it my best shot.  I was now confident I could take on anyone choosing to attack me down a Hutong alley....that was until the muscle pains caught up with me the next day and I could barely walk - ha ha ha - it seems I wasn't as agile as I thought I was.





My final day in Beijing was spent in cookery classes, partly because I just love food and secondly because my exertion the previous day had left me too exhausted to think about sightseeing.  It was time very well spent though as I now have lots of yummy recipes to test out on people when I'm home.  My lessons were taken at The Hutong (www.thehutong.com) centre which focuses on cultural exchange through film, cookery, lectures etc.  It's quite a cool place and I was lucky enough to start with a 1:1 lesson focusing on Beijing classic dishes - Hot & Sour Soup, Muxu Pork and Stir Fried Shredded Mixed Vegetables.  The last recipe may sound easy but part of the skill was learning to cut up all the vegetables properly so they cook in the right order and add the correct aesthetics.  This was quite tricky when you're only allowed to use a cleaver.....I promise I still have all my digits :)  


Sophia, my tutor was amazing and spent alot of time explaining the ingredients and their purpose and what could be used as suitable substitutes in the UK.  I even got to prepare Fresh Bamboo.  It is nothing like the rubbish bamboo shoots we get in tins!! It's a pale white colour and comes in a squidgy (very technical term) concial shape with hollow cavities inside that you have to clean out before you slice. 


Fresh Bamboo


Fresh Mushrooms & Lily Flowers


My expert chopping 
(if I do say so myself!)

At the end I got to eat all my creations which, if I so say so myself, were pretty good.  I even got to try purple rice with the dishes - deliciousa. 


Muxu Pork


Stir Fried Shredded Mixed Vegetables



 Hot & Sour Soup


My second class, a few hours later, was dumpling making.  This was rather fiddly but I got the hang of it in the end. Basically, you can be as creative as you like with the filling so long as they're DRY before they're put in the dough as the real art with dumpling making is in making the dough and making the shapes....both of which we spent alot of time practicing.  I made my dough green by mixing spinach juice into the mixture but you can make them all sorts of fun colours for children by adding beetroot juice, carrot juice etc to colour the dough.  WE finished that class with 16 dumplings each so, as you can imagine, I rolled home that evening!

 Dumpling Dough

Dumpling Shaping

Dumpling Colours

 Preparing my Dumplings

The second part of my China adventure focused on the Guangxi province which is famous for Guilin/Yangshuo and the limestone karst scenery found along the Li River....exactly the reason I travelled there.  I travelled to Guilin  first and spent a lovely day at This Old Place hostel on the edge the city's lake.  It was a very peaceful and scenic place in the morning although later in the day the Chinese tourists increased the noise levels somewhat ;)  Since the weather there was excruciatingly hot & sticky I decided to get up early (5am) and do the hikes to the top of Elephant Trunk Hill, Fubo Hill and Diecai Hill before it got too hot.  I was rewarded with some amazing sunrise lit scenery of the karst hills that surround Guilin and many locals allowed me to take pictures of them practicing Tai Chi along the river which was quite a treat.  Many were also taking an early morning swim in the river to cool off with some ingenious attempts at buoyancy aids - juice bottles tied with string around their waists!

 Guilin at Sunrise


Elephant Trunk Hill

 Li River Swimmers

Guilin at Night


The following day I took a boat, complete with my backpack, along the Li River to Yangshuo and that's when the real fun began.  We passed mile upon mile of karst mountains, interspersed with lakes and waterfalls. 

 Karst Scenery


 Karst Scenery

The guide said they'd had a typhoon the previous week so there was plenty of water running in the waterfalls.  Every now and again locals would pull along side the cruise boat in their bamboo rafts to deliver food (often live snails and frogs which are a speciality of the area) to the boat's chef or to sell snacks through windows to the passengers. 

 Selling to Cruise Customers

It was quite a sight, their sense of balance was fantastic as I'm sure I would have fallen flat on my face if I'd tried to stand on one of those rafts.  Some tourists were on bamboo rafts equipped with armchairs and were being punted down short stretches of the river. 

Li River Bamboo Rafting in Style


In a word, the whole scene was spectacular.  The guide duly pointed out the spot on the river which is depicted on the back of the 20 Yuan bank note and there was a flurry of activity as the Chinese tried to take their picture in front of it.  After about 4hours on the river we arrived in Yangshuo.  Around the pier there were the usual sales touts selling cheap tacky gifts but I had purposefully chosen to stay outside town in the small village of Shi Ban Qiao.  It was an interesting walk their through the forest but I chose well as the hotel was set on a hill overlooking greenery and there were only about 10 people to be seen.  It was worlds away from the noise of touristy Yangshuo town. 

View from my room in Shi Ban Qiao


I managed to locate the Bike Asia offices in town later that day and arranged a bike tour for the following day.  The bike tour was great as it was a small group of 4 which made passing through the centre of town together much easier.  We were on mountain bikes and it took me a while to get a hang of it.  The last time I rode a bike I was alot younger and it only had 3 gears so it was quite a steep learning curve as I navigated the busy roads of Yangshuo.  Anyway, we quickly entered the countryside and took the hills route through local villages to Bai Sha, the main market town of the area.  As we wove in and out of the back streets you could really see how people lived. 




Chinese village life is very social and there are always community areas where people exercise, play games, chat or do their chores.  Often the houses may seem very plain on the outside but a peek through the front gate and you'll see beautiful courtyards with stunning wooden furniture and plants - life is not always what it seems in China, you have to look beneath the surface to find the gems! After collecting some street snacks from the Bai Sha market we headed to Fu Li bridge for a swim in the Yulong River to chill out. 


 Fu Li Bridge

Route Back to Yangshuo

There was literally noone there and we had a blissful time splashing about in the ice cold water.  I was very reluctant to get back on my bike for the return journey to Yangshuo but the dark clouds were rolling in so it was good we did as I literally arrived back at my hotel and the heavens opened.....monsoon level rains....yipppeee!

It was a short-ish trip to Guangxi but my journey marched on and I transferred, via Guilin and Chongqing, to Lijiang in Yunnan province. This is a province that I had been hoping to visit for some time.  It's on the border with Burma and Laos but has alot of Tibetan characteristics which is why it appealed after my journey to Lhasa last year. 

Yunnan is a mountainous region and Lijiang sits at a relatively high elevation which you could immediately tell on arrival as it was COLD, well at least compared to hot and sticky Yangshuo.  Put it this way I was wearing a t-shirt, base layer and coat and was still feeling a chill.  I was even forced to wear socks in bed!  I was staying in Lijiang old town which is a maze of cobbled streets, interspersed with small waterways and bridges.  It's very quaint and I had very few plans for my time there other than to wander aimlessly, exploring the towns nooks and crannies and doing some people watching. 









The cafes and street food stalls there gave you plenty of opportunity to do that and it was a very relaxed atmosphere.  I fell in love with the Prague Cafe there and one day hope that if I open a cafe it will be like that.  There was beautiful jazz/blues music playing discreetly whilst you ate cakes, sandwiches, snacks and sipped their brilliant Ginger Tea.  The cafe was situated on top of a bridge at a main juncture in town so it gave lots of opportunity for people watching.  The local elder ladies loved to sit on the bridge and pass the time of day, the young Chinese girls would stand there giggling, holding up their fingers in the ubiquitous V sign and the local old men would sit there eating their Baba snacks. 

Baba is a food made of flour, corn powder, sticky rice, lard and sesame.  It's not healthy but it tastes delicious on a cold, wet day straight from the fryer.  It has a very crisp exterior but can be sweet (filled with soft, juicy raisins) or savoury (filled with minced meat). The initiators of Modern Baba were two pretty sisters who made sweet and tasteful Baba that attracts people even today.  It's sold on every street corner in Yunnan and is very popular.



As you may have gathered I love my food so there was a real treat at the hostel in Lijiang which offered the option of eating with the staff.  I took it up on 2 nights and the chef whizzed up some real treats for us.  I can never order lots of variety when I travel alone as I can only try 1 or 2 dishes a night but on both occasions I ate with the hostel I had 10+ dishes a time - brilliant.  I tried bean curd, blueberry meat (literally jet black), local wild mushrooms, ribs, Yunnan ham, taro wrapped in bacon and many other delicacies.  The hostel staff were quite young and loved chatting and exchanging travel stories.  We got into some difficult discussions about Tibet with them wanting to know about my visit and how I found it.  I always find it difficult talking about these things in mainland China as you never really know whether someone is checking up on you and if they really area the innocent hostel worker they appear to be so I eventually managed to divert the conversation to their travel journeys.  Some of them were from Yunnan but many were from other provinces so I acquired a long list of other places in China I should visit from my chats with them. 

I tried one of them whilst I was there by hiring a bicycle and cycling out the village of Baisha (not to be confused with Bai Sha in Guangxi!) on the outskirts of Lijiang.  This bike ride was a little more challenging as it was self-guided, or not as the case may be, since I did get lost quite a few times.  I tried my limited Mandarin to find the route but of course they speak a different dialect in Yunnan so I resorted to pointing and gesticulating at my map and the surroundings instead.  It's amazing really but I did manage and find my way there and back, seeing alot more of the open mountainous countryside on the way.  At many times I was literally the only person the track, cycling off into lush green countryside with other the animals for company - bliss. 



I had hoped to visit Tiger Leaping Gorge whilst I was in Yunnan but unfortunately there had been an earthquake in Shangri-La the previous week so all the paths and roads were closed in case of landslides.  There were some frustrated hikers/mountaineers in Lijiang as a result but it didn't bother me unduly, being the vertigo suffer that I am :) 

My trip to China ended with an overnight train to Kunming.  I opted for Hard Sleeper which isn't as bad as it sounds I promise.  It basically means the beds are stacked three high, instead of two high on the soft sleeper, and there are no doors so its basically an open corridor of stacked beds.



I had bought a top bunk bed  so had to be careful not to hit my head when getting up in the night but got quite a good night's sleep considering.  I'd been on Chinese trains before and people were very noisy but this was a very quite train, maybe because the people from Yunnan are in general alot more relaxed and calm than people from other provinces, which makes them naturally quieter.  Anyway, I arrived safe in Kunming and took a local bus to my hostel, the infamous Hump, in Jinmabiji square.


 It's famous as it is said to have been raided by over 300 police some years back (well according to Lonely Planet) but it the best located hostel in town and was a good price so I opted for it.  I was pleasantly surprised and passed 2 nights there very happily and peacefully.  It had a great chill out area and cafe and the staff were amazingly helpful and friendly.  To be honest I didn't do much in Kunming other than see a couple of temples, as I needed some downtime. I hadn't appreciated when I set off on my journey that it just isn't possible to sight see every day as one, your feed start to ache if you walk as much as me, and second you stop seeing things after a while.  One day out just chilling every now and again works wonders. 

I was glad I chilled out in Kunming as my next stop was Hong Kong and that turned out to be quite a 'full on' experience.  That'll have to wait for my next post though as my fingers now ache from so much typing.  Maybe you're all asleep now after my long post, I certainly am.  As I was taught to say in Mongolia....'until the next time'.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Awesome Mongolia

Hi all

I have arrived safe back in Ulan Bator after a simple awesome 3 weeks travelling around the country. Mongolia has blown all of my expectations and preconceptions out of the window.  The scenery is spectacular and the people some of the most friendly I have met anywhere in the world.

As you may remember I have been travelling around Mongolia with Dragoman, a company I previously went to West Africa with.  They basically convert Mercedes trucks into overland vehicles and we were lucky enough to travel in 'Archie' this time with Jim as driver and Gino as leader.






There were a record 17 passengers travelling on the truck so there was no shortage of people to chat to and share experiences with.  The age group ranged from 23 to 76 I think with a wide range of countries represented.  Alot of people weren't experienced campers which made the bush camping challenging for some.  Having been overlanding before I knew what to expect but I set a record on this trip having no washed for 5 days at one point. Lucky my sister had donated me a few packs of baby wipes to keep 'clean' ;)

The journey wasn't an easy one and we had plenty of 'stucks' as James, one of passengers, liked to call them.  The roads in Mongolia are basic and often the main 'highway' is just a dirt track through the mud or grass.  Jim, the driver, did an amazing job but there were times when we got stuck in the mud and all had to pitch in to get going again.  This often involved collecting pebbles / rocks with which to fill in the swamp like earth we were trying to drive over, or get stuck in with hands and shovels to dig out the truck. 





At one point we even had to send off our local guides, Mungu and Dashka, to the local village to get a Russian 6WD vehicle to tow us out.  Only once though did we abandon the vehicle, near the Hot Springs, and opt for local transport, Russian minivans.   


The Russian minivans were quite a sight with the roof inside the vans padded in grey plastic and the walls covered in thick carpets.  The roof was very low and on one of the journeys I bumped my head when going over a bump in the road - not ideal.  They were quite good vehicles though and I was very glad of their 4WD when we were crossing the rivers to the Hot Springs, some sections of which were over a metre and a half deep!  When you're looking out of the window seeing water near the windows you really have to trust your drivers.

We saw loads of things in Mongolia, the Hot Springs, Flaming Cliffs, Erdene Zuu Monastery, Chingiis Khaan monument and the Khongoryn Els sand dunes to name but a few. 


Chingiis Khan Monument


Chingiis Khan Monument



Khongoryn Els Sand Dunes


Flaming Cliffs


Flaming Cliffs

The dunes were harder than I ever imagined to climb but when we got to the top, you could see for miles and watching the sun fade in the late afternoon sun up there is something I won't forget in a hurry.  The Flaming Cliffs were also a challenge to climb, not least for someone like me who suffers from vertigo, but I was lucky enough to have Aussie Pete to help me out around the sheer drop sections so I saw more than I ever though possible.  The cliffs are very odd as you drive up to them on a flat road and then basically see a cavern open up on the left side of the road, inside are the cliffs.  As such, they're very well hidden and I guess, if you didn't know where they were you could easily miss them.

Whilst the sights in Mongolia were good its the landscape and people that will stay with me most. 










The landscape is ever changing with reds, greens, purples, yellows and browns in forms from cliffs, sand dunes or hills.  There's fresh air, wild flowers and lots of animals.  I saw camel, eagles, wild gazelle, marmots, gerbils, birds......the list goes on. 




Our leader Gino was an expert and made sure things were pointed out en route.  He also did a couple of star gazing evenings on the clearer nights as you could see thousands of constellations shining in the sky when you were in the desert with no external lights around.  Although we did alot of bush camping we also made several trips to visit local families and their hospitality seemed to know no bounds.  They'd invite you into their Ger, offer you curd snacks and mares milk drinks and answer questions about their family and lifestyle.  I'd never met such friendly an open people.

The passengers on my trip also made it pretty special.  Time is short as I'm currently in an internet cafe but here are a few (there are loads more in my little red books!!) of my special memories:

* Penny, my tent mate, who was such a delight to talk to.  She has so many stories and was so open, I know I've made a friend for life with her.  We'd have a glass of red wine in the evening and chat away ten to the dozen about travels, experiences, men (shock horror!), fashion......the list goes on.  Even when we were in our tents for bed I'm sure the others could hear us talking for hours.
* Aussie Pete - my fellow late night chat / drink buddy and lifesaver at the Flaming Cliffs.  Anyone who can put up with me freezing to the spot on the side of a cliff and refusing to move as they're scared gets bonus points from me.  How he got me back to the truck is beyond me.
* James - all round top bloke from Derby (yes, what's the chance of that!) who was always up for a laugh.  He had his fingernails painted hot pink (quite classy when they're covered in mud on a 'stuck' day), undertook an underwear survey of the group (the lowest being only 2 pairs of pants for 3 weeks from one passenger and another claiming disposable pants to be ideal!), a striptease on the top of the bus 
* Rob & Sandra - on one of the wet days we opted out of a trip to a Monastery and instead stayed behind having some 'spa' treatments.  Sandra got away with making Rob a homemade face mask from the Mongolia mud before painting his toenails purple - quite a sight.
* Jim - various late night confessions about pierced nipples and shaving his balls
* Gino - masses of enthusiasm and energy and his endless cries of 'beautiful' for everything from a Sheep's Head meal to marmots at the side of the road.  Oh, and his stellar Sangria mix in the dessert - very potent but perctly hit the spot after cooking for the group in the rain
* Dashka - for his army attire and constantly polished black boots to his ability to down a half bottle of vodka without flinching
* Mungu - for his amazing 10GB music collection which I wish I could match.  He played us everything from Passenger to BoneyM and Take That - astounding - whilst travelling our 21000km across Mongolia!
* Julia - my fellow dessert queen.  We managed to cook Fruit Crumbles, Choc Krispy cakes, Pancakes, Cinnamon Egg Bread, Caramel Peaches.......all in the rain and with Mongolia ingredients.  She rocks!! If she ever reads this I hope that she'll agree that we simply must try our Steamed Choc Sponge Pudding idea on our next overlanding adventures.

As you can probably tell I have a million and one things I'd like to write about this Mongolia adventure but there's a queue forming for the PC so that'll have to do for now. If I can I will try and upload pics when I'm in China but for now the flight calls.......