On our way to Beijing

We walked around the city walls in Xi’An today (actually only a quarter of them – it is a 13km rectangle – largest intact city walls in the world!).

Now we are done with Xi’An (not a great town outside of the historical sites) we are on our way to Beijing. We managed to get deluxe soft sleeper tickets – a private 2-berth compartment with private toilet! It was only $30 more expensive than flying – $130 each! And we save a night in a hotel and the transport to/from the airport) so really it works out cheaper. It’s interesting that this class of travel, when it was launched, was done so almost in secret with no information or booking available to the public. Party members and military officers would get to use them. Now anyone who can pay the relatively high cost can travel like this! (and for us it’s about the same price as a standard class seat peak time return from swindon to london).

Oh, and we’ve got dinner, beer and some “great wall” wine.. It’s a tough life being a backpacker ;-)

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Terracotta warriors in Xi’An

Yesterday we visited the terracotta warriors. We thought it was really cool – the history is amazing and the scale of the monument achieved so long ago is awesome. We saw that there’s still excavation work ongoing and they are taking their time – who knows what else they’ll find there and in the nearby sites which still hide legendary burial chambers!

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Shaolin Temple

Yesterday we visited Shaolin Temple, the place where Kung Fu originated. The temple dates back to AD 477, and although it all seems very touristy and modern now, it still has a very special and good feel about the place. The natural setting in the valley, surrounded by mountains, is very special. We saw various ancient temple buildings, and ancient trees with indentation marks from where the monks would practice “finger punching” over many hundreds of years. We also climbed one of the mountains to visit “Dharma Cave” – where apparently Bodhidharma – a famous Indian Monk, traveled here in AD527 and lived for 9 years in the cave- most of that time spent staring at the wall meditating – and thus founded Zen Buddhism.

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Kung Fu at Shaolin is now a big industry, both the domestic training industry (there are a number of schools, some of which have 20,000+ students) – parents send their children here hoping that they will become a movie star like Jet Li or Jackie Chan – and for the tourists. There are various shows – we just saw the “free” one at the temple itself – it was quite fun and good skills were shown by the boys – but you could tell there wasn’t much spiritual left about the Kung Fu they were practising.

Here’s a short video clip to give you the idea (High Def – probably best to download this rather than play in browser): Kung Fu Show at Shaolin

30 Yuan noodle dinner for two

After our 22hr train journey on basic rations, we needed to find some food. We walked around the town in Luoyang and found this fast-food style noodle restaurant, where our food set us back 12 yuan each ($2) and the local beer was only 3 yuan ($0.50) each for a big bottle – and it’s really a good beer (relatively for china) – as good as Tsingtao which usually goes for 10-20 yuan a bottle in bars/restaurants. Winner!

Stef has been studying the chinese way of stuffing noodles down super-fast and is try to blend in:

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Panda research base in Chengdu

We think the panda base is the best thing in Chengdu – and maybe the best value “tourist attraction” we’ve visited so far (most are very expensive, relatively for China). The pandas are such crazy and interesting animals! And cute of course. We saw a number of adult and young adult giant pandas and some smaller red pandas. They all had large comfortable looking enclosures and they seemed healthy and happy – good to see!

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Fun and games with chinese trains

Having failed to get a tibet permit approved, we must move on from Chengdu. There are no tickets available on Friday night to Xi An, so we decide to go to Zhengzhou first to visit the Shaolin Monastery, and from there we’d be on the high speed train system – a bullet train to Xi An in about 4 hrs a couple of days later. There are many more train options from Chengdu to Zhengzhou, so we were able to get soft sleepers on our 4th choice of train. It’s a 25hr trip so we definitely need the most comfortable option!

Looking at the schedule, I see that our train goes through Xian on the way to Zhengzhou.. So why no tickets on it to Xian?! Just one of the many oddities of the chinese train system.. (Stef says – annoyances!)

Tomorrow morning we go to see the panda’s then late afternoon we board our longest train trip ever!

Mount Emei – Golden Summit at 10,000ft

This morning we made an early start to try to reach the summit of Mount Emei before the worst of the group tours and weather. Unfortunately the place is an absolute tourist trap (99% chinese tourists) and when we got off the bus we were trapped by the hordes of tour groups. As we had cheated by taking the bus most of the way, we chose to hike the last 500m of climb up to the summit and back – and at least then it was quieter as most of the other people take the cable car.

Overall, a bit disappointing, we didn’t even see the aggressive attack monkeys we had been warned about.

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On board the new Chongqing-Chengdu High Speed D Train

We discovered that sleeper train tickets can be hard to come by in China even outside of peak travel periods on certain routes, as when we tried to book our ticket from Guilin to Chengdu even 4 days in advance, there were no tickets for at least 4 or 5 days after that.

The problem is particularly difficult for tourists for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a logistical pain to get the tickets, as there are few agents who can book them (we finally found one in Yangshuo) – otherwise you have to travel to the station of departure in order to buy the ticket from the ticket office, which can be a pain when you’re traveling in the province around the main city where you want to depart from. There is an online booking system available to chinese people, but not yet to tourists (who need that capability even more). Secondly, there is a big touting problem – they buy up the tickets for some of the main routes (the train to Lhasa is also a difficult one), then sell them on the black market for a significant markup. The government has tried to solve this problem by linking all tickets to your passport/ID number which you must provide to buy the ticket – but we haven’t yet seen this checked/enforced at the ticket gates or onboard the trains. I find this particularly frustrating as it’s a false economy which is not helpful to anyone except the tout’s bank balance. I’d love to take the train to Lhasa – the highest train route in the world – but we would have to fly now because of this (and I refuse to buy the tickets off the black market and support this dishonest way of making a living). Of course thirdly there is also simply sheer volume of passengers, but so far in mid-May, we don’t see evidence that’s the main factor (although start of May and other holidays such as chinese new year then for sure it is).

So we were forced to look at flying, which is something I had been hoping to avoid for our travel around China for cost reasons, flexibility and the inconvenience of dealing with airports. The flights directly to Chengdu were relatively expensive ($180 vs our expected $80 for a soft sleeper on the train), but we came up with the solution of flying to Chongqing for only $80 and taking advantage of a brand new high speed rail connection to Chengdu which only started operating 4 months ago. In first class/soft seat it costs only $19 to complete the 333km journey in around 2 to 2.5hrs – a bargain compared with similar distance train journeys in the UK! (think London-Manchester is around the same distance – a first class ticket bought on the day is around 200GBP). So even adding in our $9 taxi ride from the airport and $30 hotel room for the night (the cheap flight yesterday was a late one) we are still $120 better off than flying direct to Chengdu, and we’ll arrive around the same time as our 25hr sleeper train would have got us there – but now having had a shower and a really good night’s sleep. It’s just annoying that we had to go to that length of solution planning and inconvenience just because of the touts taking advantage of the system (I suspect).

So going forwards, we’ll now have to be extra careful to book our sleeper train tickets as far in advance as possible. Unfortunately this removes some of the flexibility to change of travel plans at short notice which I thought train travel would provide.

Our stay in Chongqing was purely functional, but it was interesting that from the moment we left Guilin everything has been brand new. The rate of development and construction here is astounding – brand new airport terminal building, taxi along a brand new 3 lane expressway to the city, brand new hotels and apartments around the brand new North Station building, followed by a brand new train on brand new tracks to another rand new station in Chengdu. We missed out on the brand new monorail connection to the city in Chongqing because we arrived so late, and we’ll miss out on the brand new subway from Chengdu east station because it’ll only open later this year. It must be difficult to keep up with the pace of development here – road plans and transport connections change every few months.

The scale of construction of high-speed rail in China is mind-boggling. By the end of 2012, there will be more km of 200kph+ rail here than in the rest of the world combined – by mid 2011 they already had over 10,000km of routes in service – 13,000km by the start of 2012 – 25,000km by 2015. Bullet-train technology has already been commercially deployed and even goes a little faster than the Japanese Shinkansen – on the Beijing-Tianjin line, it reaches 330kph (205mph). Long distance bullet train lines are coming into service too – the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train now completes the 1318km journey in under 5 hours. Before it would have always been a long overnight sleeper train journey or a more expensive and less flexible flight. And then there’s the possibility of going even faster – the Shanghai airport rail link is based on maglev technology which allows it to reach a top speed of 431kph (268mph) – enabling it to cover the 30km journey into the city in just 7 minutes and 20 seconds. Makes the Heathrow Express sound like the slow train to Sapa! Plus, all the new stations are pleasant places to be and have English signage and ticket machines (although useless to tourists right now as a chinese ID card needs to be swiped to complete a purchase). In total these investments will cost $300bn by 2020, but it will totally revolutionise how interconnected the country is.

I think that in the next 5-10 years travelling as a tourist around China by train will change from being “a bit of a challenge” to being a real pleasure – assuming that some the key issues can be solved – such as ticket booking procedures, touting, financial viability concerns and a few construction/safety problems that have been identified. It’s still far safer than getting on a bus or crossing the road (a different story!) so even now it’s my prefered method of transport.

On board the Chongqing-Chengdu D Train

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Longsheng “Dragon’s Backbone” rice terraces at Ping ‘An

We finally found a peaceful place in China! OK, there are still street sellers here and one bar playing loud music in the evening, but it’s close enough!

Ping An is a beautiful village amongst historic rice terraces. You have to run the gauntlet of package day tours and a big ticket office to get here, but once you do and stay the night (the tour groups are all gone by early afternoon), it’s quiet and calm, the views are amazing, and it begins to feel like the rural China I expected.

We’re only spending two nights as we need to move on to Chengdu, and unfortunately it rained most of the morning so we missed our chance to do a long hike to the next two villages (not sure Stef was too upset about that – she was commenting about “flashbacks of Nepal” on the hike up with our backpacks yesterday). But we had a really nice walk to some viewpoints up the hills behind the villafe this afternoon – and we tried the bamboo chicken rice which is stuffed inside the bamboo and barbecued.

Our hotel has the most amazing views (more pictures to follow) – we got the best room in the place – on the corner with windows on two sides overlooking the rice terraces. It cost twice what we paid in Yangshuo but it’s nice for a break before we go back to hostel accommodation.

Ping An village surronded by rice terraces:

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Yangshuo

We arrived in Yangshuo on Saturday, 5 May after a nice overnight train journey. We lucked out at got 2 shy and quiet Chinese berth mates. Our first impression was that the town was bigger and more touristy than expected – there is even a KFC and McDonalds. The landscape is beautiful with towering karst mountains in every direction. The main street is crowded with the usual street vendors and kiosks selling textiles, calligraphy, jewelry etc. There are so many restaurants and cafes and it’s hard to see how they all survive. We made our way to the ShowBiz hostel and settled in.

Our primary objective on arrival was to sort out language classes for ourselves. We intended to study with Janie but she was busy with a camp and recommended her friend Lucy. We emailed and arranged to meet the following morning. We spent 3 hours with Lucy on Sunday customizing our next 3 days (we decided we couldn’t spend a whole week as we have too much to pack into a month). That afternoon we took a bamboo boat ride on the river, then enjoyed a 5 yuan beer on the roof.

The next 3 days were really long but really good. We met up with Lucy at her classroom (about a 10 minutes walk from the hostel) at 9:30am everyday and finished around 10pm. It was a great combination of classroom learning, cultural activities (calligraphy, cormorant fishing show), applied practice and of course, a few breaks. On the second evening, we went out to eat with her Chinese students and we all practiced speaking over noodles and beer. And on the last night, Lucy hosted a good-bye tea at the classroom where our new Chinese friends joined us for a tea ceremony and more practice!

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John and Lucy showing the work of the morning- learning traditional Chinese characters

Whilst we are still beginners, we are now able to order things, introduce ourselves and engage in basic conversation which has already come in useful- and we met some really fun people. This will definitely help us continue to avoid the ‘western touristy’ places and get to the local spots:) We anticipate that there will be many places where no English is spoken so we should get a chance to practice- a lot!

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Overall, our stay in Yangshuo was excellent. The Showbiz hostel was nice – we had a double private room which was clean and comfortable. They had laundry facilities and drinking water (free!) and it was in a great location. There were plenty of options for food and drink- the best food was the $1 lamb noodle soup at a local shop that Lucy showed us which was a real gem among the $20 popular restaurant options lining the main street. Even McDonalds was too expensive for us (we always keep it as a back up and they have AC). But the best thing was the language class and getting to meet some new friends- thank you Lucy!!

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Lucy and her students- a great learning experience & new friends!

K952 Train to Guilin

Just boarded our sleeper train and it’s looking kind of nice – much better than Vietnam!

Picked up some Tsingtao beer and noodles/rice for dinner.. Luxury!

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China – Shenzhen

We got our chinese visas in Hong Kong quickly and without any problems – so this afternoon we took the MTR to Lo Wu and crossed the border on foot into Shenzhen.

Our stay in Hong Kong was very functional – a day spent working on our visa applications (itinerary and hotel bookings prepared, but seemingly not needed in the end) and another spent submitting the application, getting laundry done, diving gear into a storage locker in a selfstore facility, and other boring tasks. So no chance for sightseeing really. Hong Kong is a nice city which reminds us a bit of Singapore in terms of size, density of people and good infrastructure – but it’s a bit rougher around the edges, and unsurprisingly it’s much more chinese. We probably won’t stay a night on the way back because it’s expensive (we were paying about 80 USD a night for a tiny 3* hotel room, and the few hostel/guest house options are nearly as much) – and this made it worth it for us to pay a premium to get our visa’s processes in 24 hours (2060 HKD = 266 USD for both of us) and head straight over the border to Shenzhen.

Our stay in Shenzhen is again purely a functional one – as it’s difficult to buy the china train tickets from abroad, and we didn’t know what time we’d get here today – so it was necessary to plan a night here to buy tickets for tomorrow night’s train to Guilin. As our previous sleeper train experience in Vietnam wasn’t a good one and we’re hoping to use these trains alot here, we chose to buy the most expensive (444RMB = 70 USD) ticket for our first attempt with the chinese trains. This is for a berth in a 4-berth soft-sleeper compartment, which i’m hoping will exceed the standard on vietnam railways. It’s about 13.5hrs of travel leaving around 6pm tomorrow so I hope it’s comfortable! The city here in Shenzhen around the train station is unremarkable and rather boring, with little for us to do except for some final shopping for essentials before we get deeper into China.

Crossing the border was really noticeable from a language perspective – suddenly noone speaks english except one receptionist in the hotel – and there is very little or no signage in English. If it’s like this in a major hub, i think we’ll very quickly start having to manage with sign language and some basic words in mandarin. I’ve also got a great dictionary app calles Pleco, which has audio pronunciation and an excellent OCR function where you can hold the iphone camera up to some chinese text, then click on each character to see the meaning – already found useful to interpret what ticket counter line we were in at the train station. I used the same app to cut-and-paste the words for “guilin”, “soft sleeper”, “tomorrow” etc into a message to hold up to the ticket counter window – which was instantly understood and we walked away within 60 seconds with our tickets. I like it when the technology saves so much trouble – it makes up for all the trouble it usually causes!

Communications-wise, we achieved getting a sim card ( China Unicom 3G) much more easily than I thought, which came with a 500MB data allowance, so we should be able to continue to blog as we go and get on email. Facebook doesn’t work here, so don’t expect many/any updates there!

Stunning El Nido

We only stayed in El Nido for 3 nights but it was a highlight for us. The scenery is stunning, we found great value accommodation at the silverise pension (700php per night in a new modern room with a proper bathroom), and everyone was friendly. We spent the two days island-hopping on an organised tour, visiting destinations such as “secret beach” and “hidden lagoon” which were stunning and beautiful. The snorkeling on these trips was OK, but not amazing – although a great highlight was seeing a huge 50cm long cuttlefish (we have only seen the small 10-15cm variety before). There was, unfortunately, coral bleaching and lots of dead coral in some of the places – contrasting with Coron which had much healthier waters. But in El Nido the above-water scenery is even more impressive – and we definitely would have liked to have spent longer there to explore more of the islands and coastline.

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But we only had a couple of days before our 21 day visa stamp expired, so we had to get the bus to Puerto Princesa to fly back to Manila for our connection to Hong Kong. The “express” bus was a long 6 hour ride, about a third of it unsurfaced, so it wasn’t particularly comfortable – and the “express” part meant it was something like doing a dirt track rally race in a minivan – until something mechanical broke and we crawled the rest of the way at 20mph with regular clunking noises from underneath the vehicle. So we were happy just to get to the airport in time for our flight.

We spent one night in Manila just out of necessity then flew to Hong Kong to get our chinese visas sorted out.