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 ( 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'.

1 comment:

  1. Much better with the pictures and the paragraphs.
    I particularly liked the cooking and Kung Fu
    You have a lovely was of writing I was journeying along the river with you!
    Can't wait for the next instalment T