January 26, 2007

And Now....On with Yangshuo....

So as you have no doubt noticed we are making good on our pledge to get the blog up to date. Today we have posted five new entries bringing us up to the New Year. We will post the next installments in the coming few days (we don't want to overdo the posting...).
Once we are up to date, we plan on moving to a more current, short/sharp posting approach which will be able to provide snapshots of our current location.
As always the Journey Map is the best place to see where we are currently; don't forget to check out our photos and don't be shy about clicking on our ads or adding comments. We also have some new pages coming soon with lots of travel info, so stay tuned for that.
We hope all is well with you and yours.
marcus & dee

After dosing up on BBC TV (just a tad more independent than Chinese news ) and our share of Indian curries, the batteries were recharged and we were ready for our re-entry into China in time for Christmas. Taking a train to Lo Wu we crossed the border into Shenzhen and bought bus tickets Yangshuo, our Christmas destination.

Shenzhen falls within a special economic zone (SEZ) in China, most products real and fake that are made for export pass through or near this area, as a result it is well known as the place to pick up fake goods at the best prices. Inside a multistory shopping centre beside the train station you can find hundreds of small retail outlets selling leather goods, electronics and jewellery. You can browse through watch catalogs of all the top brands, Tag, Omega, Rolex etc. and the one you want will be promptly pulled out of speaker system or other hiding place. It's a buyers market, the sellers are practically dragging people into the shops and the bargaining is fierce. It's definitely a place to head to with an empty suitcase, particularly if you enjoy haggling.

According to the lady behind the counter in the bus station the bus to Yangshuo departed at 10am and would take 13 hours to get there. It turned out to be a sleeper bus - that's a bus with three rows of bunk beds down the centre of it. It also happened to be an antique with well worn disgusting pillows and dusty blankets. We clambered aboard, engine running, got into bed and waited for the bus to depart. An hour later we had moved about 50 meters to a different spot in the bus station. Finally when we did pull out we did a big loop around the city picking up more passengers (as is the case with most Chinese bus trips). 3 hours later we passed Shenzhen airport ...meaning we were still within city limits. The bus finally reached Yangshuo 22 hours after it departed, road works and traffic jams, that brought us to a complete standstill for hours were to blame. Cabin (read tin coffin with duty blankets) fever was running high!

:: The River Li ::

Yangshuo is a well known backpacker hangout in China. It's a small but growing town nestled in a remarkable limestone karst landscape. We decided that it would be a good location to spend Christmas and New Year thinking that it would have suitable Christmas cheer. It turned out to be a wise choice as we got to enjoy all the festivities. Christmas Eve saw us in "Buffalo Bar" run by a long time local Aussie, Alf for Christmas dinner complete with stuffing and funny looking shots. Outside, locals dressed in Santa hats sang western Christmas carols they had learnt in English class. A week later we were back to Alf's to ring in the New Year (and maybe once or twice in between).

So a three week stop over Christmas/New Year... what did we do with all the time? After extensive searching the first morning we found the perfect room with a huge sunny balcony on top of "7th Heaven Cafe and Hotel". then we rapidly started to read through the hostel's book swap shelves. The intention during this time was to work on getting the blog up to date, the connectivity problems caused by the Taiwan earthquake put that idea to bed. Meanwhile a satellite arrived for installation in "Buffalo Bar" and the hope of catching Boxing Day Test Cricket from the MCG saw Marcus putting in a few hours of effort to try and get things working.

:: Our balcony & view ::

Aside from that we took it easy enjoying Happy Hours, woodfired pizzas and great Chinese food. We rented bikes for a few days and took off into the surrounding countryside to explore dusty roads running alongside rice fields - the beautiful scenery of the karst backdrop made this a memorable experience. We took a river boat trip up the River Li from Xingping to Yangdi - again amazing scenery. Finally we took the time out to do a cookery course in a local school. No excuses for not eating Chinese in the future now.

:: Great scenery for cycling ::

:: Remind us to cook the beer fish for you ::

Eventually we decided that it was time to cut the cord and leave. An ideal opportunity presented itself when we won the "Buffalo Bar" weekly table quiz - it was as good a time as any and we might as well go out on top!

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January 24, 2007

SARS - Macau and Hong Kong

:: Viva Las Macau... ::

Somewhere on the train between Xiamen and Guangzhou we changed our minds and decided that we'd go to Macau first, arriving there on a weekday and then proceed to Hong Kong. The weekend gaming craze in Macau has resulted in soaring hotel prices along with huge demand for rooms.

After 442 years of rule the Portuguese handed the 24 sq km Macau peninsula back to the People's Republic of China in 1999. Like Hong Kong, Macau has the status of a SAR (Special Administrate Region) in China, for 50 years China has promised non-interference in its social and economic systems. To enter Macau you must officially exit through a Chinese border, Macau even has it's own currency the MOP. (Dee's 3rd favourite currency after the HUF and the EEK)

:: The Facade of St Pauls Church ::

Macau has recently dethroned the Las Vegas strip has the world's biggest casino centre (by Revenue...almost 7 Billion USD in 2006). All the biggest names in the gaming industry i.e. Sands, MGM Grand, Venetian and Crown are all racing to get a piece of the pie and are mid construction of casinos on a 1.8 mile plot of reclaimed land and indeed any piece of land they can get their hands on. Around 10 new casinos are in development, putting huge strain on local resources. Typically Macau is visited by the Shanghai high roller or rich Hong Kong resident who can reach Macau by ferry in an hour. Walking through some of the older Chinese casinos you can see the clientele mostly gamble on blackjack, baccarat and a dice game called Dai Siu rather than the typical Las Vegas slot machines and card games. The new Wynn's hotel and casino is a smaller replica of it's big brother in Vegas. When all the new big Vegas style casinos are completed the city will look very different. All this is great economically for Macau however, the rapid expansion of the gaming and tourist industry has presented Macau with a serious labour shortage problem which threatens further growth.

Macau has a beautiful old centre of hilly cobbled streets, Portuguese style architecture and back alleys. The tourist information guys here are some of the best around. Thanks to great sightseeing maps with suggested walks you can easily cover the city in a day. The best known landmark is the Church of Sao Paulo - destroyed by a fire in 1835, all that remains of it is an impressive facade. As to be expected there are plenty of designer shops and fancy restaurants to spend your winnings in!

After a couple of days of feeling poor in a rich man's land we headed for the ferry to Hong Kong. Unfortunately our ferry ride coincided with the tail end of a typhoon which was reeking havoc in the South China sea. When we moved out of the sheltered waters into the open sea our catamaran was violently thrown about in the rough seas. The journey across was none too pleasant, most people were clutching (and filling) sick bags. After an extended journey due to adverse weather we disembarked in drizzly Hong Kong.

Our accommodations in Hong Kong were in the salubrious Chungking Mansions, Nathan Rd, Kowloon. Located literally steps around the corner from the infamously luxurious Peninsula Hotel (complete with 5 brand new Rolls parked in front when we walked past), the two couldn't have been further apart in every other sense. Chungking Mansions is a large 16 story building with a higgledy-piggledy arrangement of guesthouses, apartments, Indian restaurants, Pakistani "messes" and wholesale watch outlets. Our quarters were a snug room with a small window that opened out into an atrium that never saw any daylight. The scenario of walking up and 11am and totally believing it was the middle of the night occurred numerous times. On entering Chungking Mansions the senses are overpowered by a strong aroma of great Indian food. It left the mouth salivating - hard not to be tempted to eat Indian every night.

:: Pretty much sums it up - guesthouses,watches, and curries ::

One of the highlights was a trip to the Hong Kong History Museum. Millions have been spent on this brand new museum and it offers a fantastic insight into the history of Hong Kong through multiple audio visual theatres and displays. They even have a scale model of an Aberdeen Junk along with period shopping streets and government buildings. The time line covered goes from pre-historic through settlement, Opium Wars and the handover of Hong Kong back to the People's Republic of China. It's well worth spending lots of time exploring. We were kicked out of the museum at closing time. Luckily the Science Museum was still open so were able to go overboard on culture and education. (A great tip is that these Museums are free entry on Wednesdays)

Over the past few weeks we've been far away from any evidence that Christmas is approaching. We were quickly reminded of what time of the year it was by the Christmas trees, Santas, Christmas music in the shops and sales fever that was in full swing in Hong Kong. Across Victoria Harbour the sky scrapers were competitively lit up with festive messages.

:: View from The Peak

Hong Kong comes alive at night as darkness falls. We took the steep Tram to the top of Victoria Peak to see dusk fall and the city skyline and junks in the harbour light up below us. It's almost like the city comes alive at night. Down below the street markets like Temple Street night market are in full action. A handy thing about Hong Kong markets is that they put on price on things and usually it's very reasonable. It takes some of the heartache out of constantly having to bargain for things.

You cant visit Hong Kong without exploring the range of great cuisines it puts before you. The Indian messes in Chunking Mansion draw people in from all over the city and we found ourselves naan-in-hand more than once there. Around the corner was a great Vietnamese place and of course the infamous Dim Sum abounds.

Taking a day trip we ventured over the far side of Hong Kong island which is surprisingly green and undeveloped. 5.3% of Hong Kong adults are millionaires and most of them live in real estate in this prime location. Dropping down into the seaside town of Stanley we wandered past the seafront restaurants and jealously watched people tuck into big baskets of fish and chips over frosty pints. We lost the jealously when we reasoned that we can have fish and chips any day of the week and not have to get up for work in the morning. (Sorry to all those who may be in work right now reading this! )

:: The Star Ferry still costs 30c AUD ::

Hong Kong is a fantastic city. The sloping backstreets, busy Star Ferry and narrow trams give the city an historical feel. The new high rise buildings and bustling streets visually jammed with neon business signs add a modern vibrancy to the equation. Finally the mix of people, cultures, cuisine and presence of English as a language truly does make this the definative city where East meets West.

Click for more Macau & Hong Kong photos

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Xiamen & Gulang Yu

:: Cue Pianos...hit the lights; Let's get the island...um...walking ?
Travelling south through Fujian province we stopped in the coastal city of Xiamen and took a ferry out to the tiny island of Gulang Yu two kilometers of the coast. In 1902 the island became an international settlement and many consulates were based here in huge colonial mansions. It almost reminded us of a land in Disneyland, big themed houses, flowers everywhere, quaint windy streets lined with seafood and biscuit speciality shops and sandy beaches. It looks so perfect and manicured that it almost looks manufactured. At night huge multicolour laser lights sweep across a big rock formation in the centre of the island light up the sky. The absence of traffic heightened the theme park experience. Cars, motorbikes and bicycles are banned from the island. The only thing that can run you over here is the police golf carts. It was refreshing to be able to walk around without the constant need to dodge motorbikes and cars running lights before making illegal turns.

The island is also known as Piano Island, as early as 1913, students in schools run by foreigners started learning the piano. The enthusiasm spread to more ordinary people on the island resulting in many accomplished musicians. In the evening times piano music filled the air as the locals played. A very strange thing to experience in China - maybe not in a theme park.

If you're getting married in this neck of the woods it's simply a must to have your wedding photos taken out on the island. We were entertained by numerous couples decked out in their finery walking along the beach, staring out wistfully towards the ocean as the camera clicked and waves rushed in completely soaking them. It is customary in China to have your photographs taken two weeks before the wedding day so all the brides wear jeans underneath their white dresses. I'm not sure how good a dress that's been soaked with seawater, dragged along muddy paths and picked up a few grass stains from the "park poses" is going to look a fortnight later.
Xiamen city is famed for its street food and seafood. We did our best to sample some of the best, some egg-McMuffin type things loaded with corriander, chilli and pickles and chicken bites dredged in cumin and chilli. Its always great to see new street food in each city and Province.

Planning our next stop to be Hong Kong we hopped over to the mainland to buy train tickets. We happened by chance on the information that there was a ferry to Hong Kong. Enquiring at the ferry office we found out that the ferry goes once a month and was leaving that day in a couple of hours. For a few minutes we were Phileas Foggs, seriously contemplating making a mad dash back for our bags with a romantic vision of sailing into Victoria Harbour in style on a once monthly vessel. In the end we decided we were a little tight on time that day and lucky enough not to be racing an 80 day hourglass. We stuck to the original plan and bought tickets for Guangzhou.

Click for more phots of Xiamen

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Wandering through Wuyishan...

:: Tip-toe through the tea plants.... ::

Dropping down into the remote west of Fujian province we stopped in the mountain resort area of Wuyishan. We got here after two horrendous bus rides, it was getting dark and we were dreading doing the accommodation search especially on a Friday night in a popular Chinese tourist spot. Anyhow, we caught a taxi to the hotel area and the taxi driver pulled up at the local 4* hotel. Taxi drivers and touts usually get a kick back from hotels for bringing customers in so naturally the taxi driver was heading for the biggest kickback opportunity. After going in and fleecing them for a hotel brochure with a handy map of the area on the back, we explained that their hotel was lovely but we were bargain basement clientele and looking to spend less than 100y on a room. They were appalled!

We started walking around the town - with the taxi driver hanging precariously out the window of the car trying to lure us back into his cab so he could take us to another hotel. He was very persistent and highly annoying .. he even tried to drive in front of us to cut off our path. We ignored him and kept walking .. next thing we are accosted by a woman on her bike who tells us she'll show us to a hotel that's just "around the corner". (This is all done in charades). Anyhow, eventually we give up carrying our load and drop the bags and I totter off with her to inspect. We go up a lane full of construction, round a dusty corner... bamboo scaffolding everywhere and then into a small hotel entrance. I go up to see the room (feeling like I should have turned back 10 minutes previously). It was unbelievable ... full on huge hotel 5* quality room, brand new carpet, classy curtains, kettle, green tea in container, towels, two huge beds, wide screen TV .... and all for 60 Y. I couldn't believe it. Trying my best to contain my delight I shrugged and said that I'd pay her 50 Y (5 euros, 8 aud) ....they said no... I pretended to walk and they said OK. Marcus reckoned it was a bit mean to squeeze the extra 10Y out of them but I got caught up in the moment. When we all came back to the lobby the annoying taxi driver was still hovering trying to convince us that the place was terrible.

:: Just to prove our standards haven't dropped... ::

Wuiyshan is an area 60 square kilometers in size, the small resort area lies alongside the River of Nine Bends. Chinese tourists come in their droves to bamboo raft around the nine bends and clamber up thousands of steps to the top of a pinnacle called "Clouds Nest". Our small map from the 4*hotel illustrated some interesting trails around the national park so we decided to avoid the tourists and signposted walkways and trek through the park using that.

:: The famous plants in the flesh ::

Wuyi Mountain is home to Dohongpao black tea. In 2002 a mere twenty grams of this tea was sold at auction for the record price of 21,700 US dollars. "True" rare Dohongpao tea comes from four tea plants over 1000 years old that grow in a cliff in Wuyi mountain. Each year the trees yield only 1kg of tea. Cheaper Donongpao tea made from tea plants cloned from the original plants in the cliff is available to the Great Unwashed. If you want the real deal you'll pay dearly for it! You can get pretty close to where the cave is and I think we saw the tea plants. There didn't seem to be much security around so maybe it was a decoy picture opportunity spot.

:: 9 Bend river from above ::

Pretty much following our noses we hiked through beautiful hidden valleys with hundreds of tea plantations and little houses. The tea plants were flowering so the vista was made all the more spectacular. The map proved inadequate so we had to look for some local advice on the path out. After hiking for a few hours we began to get worried about how we were going to get home and hoped to hit the road or the river that we could follow back into town. We eventually emerged back onto the tourist trail before dark - for once we were glad to see the Chinese tour groups. Walking 200 meters we turned a corner and fortuitously found ourselves at the very top of "Cloud's Nest" looking out on an amazing view. We stood for a while admiring the view and watching tourists struggle up the thousands of steps that we'd saved ourselves the trouble of. On the way home we became the main attraction for all the bamboo boats . Without fail each boat shrieked "Lao Wai" (foreigner) with delight as they spotted us and frantically waved and shouted "hello". Obviously it was a novelty/highlight to see two foreigners in the wild.

:: "More of the eggplant & greens & less of the bugs please " ::

Each province we've been to has had very different kinds of restaurants and street food. In Wuyishan all the food is laid out on a stall in front of a restaurant for people to inspect. This makes ordering dinner easier because you can see what looks good or spot something new that inspires you to give it a go. The dead meat like wild boar, pork, beef, chicken is put on one side, vegetables, wild mushrooms and big cocoons of grubs (didn't inspire us) are on the other and alongside there are cages of pheasants, geese, ducks, chickens and cute fat bunnies. Each night when we went back to our favourite restaurant we were secretly pleased to see that no one had fancied rabbit that day.

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Spectacular Wuyuan County, Jiangxi

Wuyuan County is home to some of the best-preserved ancient village architecture in China. It's covered in woods and along with its inland location, remoteness and inconvenient transportation has left it cut off from the rest of China for many years. As a result numerous ancient villages along with their way of life dating back to 740AD have been preserved and life ticks by at a pace from bygone eras.

There is not a large amount of information in any guidebooks on this area so we had to rely on a small list of villages and our phase book to get local information on how to get around where to go when we arrived. The mode of transport in this neck of the woods is on the back of a motorbike.

Arriving in Wuyuan we were immediately surrounded by motorbike guys, eventually one produced a map and a friend and they took us to the small village of Sixi. A couple of hours later we'd found a hotel, negotiated a deal with the motorbike guys for their services for a few days (without one word of English) and worked out our route to all the villages. As backtracking was not an option we'd have to ride on the back of motorbikes with all our gear - easier said than done when your labouring up a hill on a 125cc bike.

We stayed in Sixi village our first night. A tiny idyllic village with a small river, covered wooden bridge, narrow paved streets and courtyard houses. After spending the last few months around big cities it was amazing to sit in this environment and watch life (simple uncomplicated life) go by.

:: Likeng Village ::

We were the only tourists around and so got the best room in the (only) local guesthouse. The life in the villages may be primitive but the hotel had a lot of interesting features you wouldn't get elsewhere in the world. We figured we had got the honeymoon suite when we realised the bedside lights and main light had built in flashing blue and red LED's ; when you turned them all on you couldn't help but feel like you were at a road traffic accident. Not exactly what you'd call "mood lighting".

Seeing as there were no restaurants in the village we had no option but to eat at the guesthouse. Next ensued some great fun as we tried to communicate what we felt like for tea. We ended up heading into the kitchen and picking up a collection of veg to put together for dinner. As for protein we were lead out the back of the kitchen and were shown a coop of chickens for us to pick from...resisting the urge to end one of these guys free-ranging today, we were then shown down to the stream where there was a fish lazing in a netted bag in the water. I always thought that a goldfish dies when you overfeed them (DL isnt that right ?), but this guy was a huge healthy looking goldfish.

So we chose the family pet for our dinner and he was surprisingly good done with ginger and chilli.

:: Typical village building with open courtyard ::

Staying in the village we were exposed to the daily routine and methods of the inhabitants. Life here was changed when they got electricity about 25 years ago, but apart from the TV that brings, life has developed slowly over the centuries. Women washing clothes in the stream were carefully placed downstream of the spot where women washed the vegetables fresh from the fields. One thing you notice in the countryside is how green and healthy the vegies look. Well we got plenty of first hand insight into how the Chinese farmers achieve this. Big wooden barrels of poo sit outside every house. Left to ...mature a while and then diluted with water, this natural fertilizer is liberally splashed onto the fields daily (hence the thorough wash in the stream).

:: Fresh fish for dinner ::

Heading off early the next morning on our bikes we were rugged up and waterproofed as the clouds above looked ominous. Having not been on the back of bikes much before we both soon realised that regular stops are the key to relieving the excruciating pain involved with sitting bouncing along dodgy roads with your knees up around your ears. It was great fun.

Our drivers and guides braved the rain and cold air with their trusty caps on. I don't know how their faces didn't freeze and fall off.

:: 800 Year Old Rainbow bridge in Qinghua ::

Our journey took us winding through spectacular valleys, through little villages and over some good and some atrocious roads. While it was nice to have the place to ourselves, we saw photos of the area when the rapeseed fields are in full golden bloom and it looks spectacular.

Please read the Wuyuan link above as it will give you some more information and background that I wont here. Each village had its highlight and each had beautiful structures, mostly houses, made exclusively from wood (no nails) with careful joinery and intricate carvings for decoration. Our guides were so patient and generous with us. With no more English than (seriously) Let's go, OK and yes, every stop was a game of charades ....stooped walk and a cough (Old sick people came here to die (or as we found climbing stairs in one house - were laid into coffins), acting out the production of rape seed oil from the plants etc...again, these were great guys who looked after us and showed us a spectacular part of China.

One part of the village wanders we found funny was the way we marched into peoples houses to have a look around. Any time of day, straight in the front door, some "Ni Haos", then go poking around the carvings or rooms of the house. The occupants were obviously very proud of their houses, often offered us tea and always asked the obligatory question of where we were from.

:: All of the houses had an open roof section - so were pretty fresh ::

On the second day we altered our pre-planned route to take in what we were told were some caves. Well, we were glad we did as these were the best caves we have ever seen. We waited huddled against an electric heater as the cave guide turned up to turn on the lights and show us through. We then walked into a huge complex of recently built paths and stairways with computer controlled audio and lighting that was nothing short of spectacular. The huge spaces, the beautiful formations all lit with colour knocked us off our feet as we completed the tour over the next hour or so, emerging from the caves in a little electric speedboat. The caves are a must for anyone venturing to Wuyuan.

:: Spectacular Lingyan caves ::

Safely back in Wuyuan city after our 3 days touring the county we planned our next leg which would take us on a connecting bus to Wuyishan, having thoroughly enjoyed our time in Wuyuan.

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January 10, 2007

Qingdao and on ...

Have you ever wondered how to pronounce Tsingtao beer correctly? We can confirm that the correct pronunciation is 'Ching-Dow' which is the how you say of the city of its birth - Qingdao ... and in the spirit of research we visited this seaside city...and boy do they take their beer very seriously here.

Around the turn of the century, German troops occupied the city and although they were there for less than a decade, they left behind a legacy of European style architecture. Walking around the seaside city past the twin spire church and ornate train station it's hard to believe it's still China.

More famously the Germans were here just long enough to develop a thirst and establish Tsingtao brewery. Leaving little to chance they imported ALL the brewing machinery and raw ingredients from Germany. One hundred year later Tsingtao is the beer of hundreds of millions of Chinese and China's top export beer worldwide. The success and fame has made Qingdao city beer mad, small corner shops sell fresh beer by the jin (half kilo) into plastic shopping bags straight from the keg. Not the most durable of containers but it scored high on the novelty value for us.
What visit would be complete without a trip around the Tsingtao brewery and museum....its a brand new facility highlighted by the obligatory sampling....

Qingdao is a swish modern city with long beaches, sailing and windsurfing clubs, fancy office complexes and three lane highways. In 2008 the city plays host to the sailing events of the Beijing Olympics.
Qingdao completes out coast to coast journey from Tallin in Estonia across Russia, Mongolia and China to the Pacific Ocean.
Making our way south we took an overnight train to Shanghai. After a bit of wandering around we located one of the few Chinese hotels who were prepared to take foreigners. Up until a few years ago foreigners could only stay in certain designated hotels. The government has abolished this rule in Beijing - unfortunately the rest of the country has not followed suit so it can take a while to find someone who's willing to participate in sign language and take the chance that you're not going to make off with their lighting fixtures and tv. Our Chinese hotel located near a busy local Hutong and only a short walk away from People's Square ,the Bund and was within easy walking distance of most of Shanghai's sights. One of the highlights of Shanghai is a walk along the spectacular Bund at night when the old building are dramatically lit up. It's here that thousands of tourists take the famous Shanghai skyline photographs. Not wanting to miss out on the retail options we ventured up the shopping street Nanjing Lu. If you enjoy being accosted and dragged down small alleyways on the promise of fake watches, handbags and shoes then this can be enjoyable. For us, it got annoying very quickly to the stage where we were asking the touts if they wanted to buy a watch from us before they had a chance to get their pitch in. We took a day trip north to the city of Suzhou to see the famous gardens. We underestimated the size of the city so unfortunately only got to visit one of the gardens the tranquil "Master of the Fishing Nets" garden. Afterwards, taking the non touristy path back to the train station, we dropped into a local restaurant for dinner. They were so delighted to see us in their restaurant that they gave us free beers and a complementary pottery toothpick holder to remind us of the evening. The owner spent a lot of time running out to cars that pulled up and exchanging 100 RMB notes with the occupants so we probably ate in the local drug baron's restaurant.
Luckily we got a couple of great balmy days in Shanghai before torrential rains hit the city driving us indoors. We spent an evening at The Grand Theatre watching acrobats bend themselves into impossible positions and swing over us precariously on ribbons. Our best indoor find out of the rain was an all you can eat restaurant buffet (french wine and draft beer included) for 126 RMB/ 12 euros/ 20 AUD each. Expecting some tired old buffet we were shocked to find a brand new swanky buffet with all the high quality food that forces you to question how anyone is making any money! e.g sushi, prawns, shanghai hairy crabs, lamb chops, roast beef, Haagen Daz icecream etc. Needless to say we had a lovely evening there eating a targeted selection of amazing food.

After spending a week soaking up the atmosphere of Shanghai we left for the lakeside resort area of Hangzhou - 2 hours from Shanghai. The lake is a huge man made lake with landscaped pedestrian paths around it's circumference. The city streets are lined with stores like Dior, Gucci, Fendi, Ferrari and Mercedes (selling the real deal) you can quickly work out the calibre of tourist that frequents here. On our two day stop we wandered around the lake, looked in the windows of Ferrari, sampled the local speciality West Lake fish in Vinegar and enjoyed some great venison skewers from the vibrant night market.

Full of energy and armed with a supply of "Snickers" bars we made our way by train to the small town of Tangkou at the foot of Huangshan mountain. Tangkou is a quirky little town, a big river runs straight down it's main street - when you wake up every morning you're not sure whether you can hear torrential rain or the river. We'd read that there's a man in town Mr Hu who dispenses advice to tourists and you normally don't have to look for him he'll find you. Arriving late that night and stepping down onto a dark road in plummeting temperatures we weren't putting any money on anyone finding us, that is until a small friendly man presented himself and said "Hello welcome... I'm Mr Hu".

Mr Hu is an energetic local man with a spring in his step who makes it his business to help the tourists in town. In return he hopes that they'll come and sample the food Mrs Hu cooks in their little restaurant. What's unique about the man is that he's as honest as they come, instead of trying to extort money out of tourists he provides accurate information. It's low season now so making a buck in this town is a competitive game. All the restaurants are deserted and everyone is vying for business. After a day in town we realised that Mr Hu is one of the few trustworthy English speaking people in town who would happily see you onto the local bus rather than bundle you off for a day in his brother's taxi.

Thousands of people climb Huangshan each year to see the view of a "sea of clouds" from the top. There are millions of steps up and guesthouses on the top so tourists usually stay up there and rise early to see the dawn. From the moment we arrived in Tangkou it rained and we could barely see the end of the street let alone the mountain so we decided to hang around for a couple of days hoping there'd be a break in the weather. Three days later we'd hiked to the local waterfall, walked up and down the main street multiple times and the weather reports were still not encouraging so we decided Huangshan was not to be this time around.

Moving on we jumped on a bus to the city Tunxi. We wandered through the streets of the city finding a long beautifully preserved street of old wooden houses. The houses have all been coverted into funky art and craft shops.

Tunxi was our gateway to Wuyuan County in Jiangxi Province where we planned to take a step off the well beaten tourist path......stay tuned for more soon.

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January 4, 2007

Remember us ?

First of all... we would like to wish you a very happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

2007 is a big year for us as we continue our journey and we hope that the year brings excitement, success and adventure for you and yours as well.

Now...to bring you up to date....we spent a very relaxing and enjoyable Christmas and NY in Yangshuo, China...from where we were intending to get the blog and photo albums up to date before we setoff on our next jaunt...but that was before an earthquake broke most of the fibre optic cables running between Hong Kong and the US, thereby chopping us off from most of the internet world for the past week or so. We will endevour to get as much updated as we can in the next few days so please bear with us.

So, lets continue from where we left off, heading from Luoyang across to Kaifeng....


Our hard seat train journeys churn up some interesting characters. We're normally only left to our own devices (under very watchful eyes) for a few minutes before curiosity gets the better of someone around and they start asking us questions. During question time there are at least 20 onlookers. Unfortunately our Mandarin leaves us a bit in the dark so we've to rely on our trusty phase book. The phrase book rapidly disappears into someones clutches where it is read cover to cover passed along and then returned. So far there has been someone around has spoken English and translates all the questions and answers. It certainly whiles away a few hours in hard seat. On our train journey to Kaifeng we befriended by a student called Wang Fu who not only chatted away to us but was determined to "send us to a hotel". At Kaifeng station he shielded us from all the touts and rickshaw drivers and paid for our bus fare into town. An hour or so later he was still energetically searching out accommodation with us. He left us wishing us well and asking that we don't forget him. This is just one such example of the friendliness we've encountered in every corner of the country which we enjoy and appreciate.

Kaifeng has a famous nightmarket that commences at 6pm every evening. Please note that's precisely 6.00pm not a second before nor a second after. A part of Kaifeng main street is slightly wider than the rest of the street and at 5.59pm hundreds of carts, with oven fires blazing and hot frying pans on the go jostle for pole position to race out and set up their stalls for the night. Within minutes the rush hour traffic status seriously deteriorates and the street transforms into a huge street restaurant. The food all complements each other, you get skewers from one vendor, veg from the next and flat bread fished out of a tandoori oven from another. Our four day stop there gave us ample opportunity to try all the local specialities like chicken on a stick (KFC could learn a lot from this idea) gluttonous rice on a stick, fresh rice paper rolls etc. Our picture point-it book filled with pics of animals and foods came in handy to find out whether the eyeballs on a skewers were from a goat or a sheep.

:: Before shot ::

:: cue.. night market ::

Kaifeng itself is an ancient capital with a 2,700 year long history. It has many spectacular buildings and pagodas within it's old city walls. We visited during the annual city festival where the city's flower, the chrysanthemum, is blooming everywhere. The highlight of our sightseeing was the impressive old Guild Hall with it's intricate woodwork. We managed to meet up with a local rickshaw driver named Jason, who turns out to speak excellent english. He scooted us around in his pedal rickshaw (with the other drivers smiling smugly seeing that he had the short straw pedaling Marcus) and gave us a great tour of the guild hall.

Getting out of Kaifeng proved to be a stressful experience. We had great plans to take a train the whole way across to the Eastal coastal city of Qingdao. After researching our train options we sauntered down to the train station to purchase tickets for that night. When you go to buy tickets at the local station first you have to join a huge queue and hope it's the right one. When you finally get to the top, after the queue has been blantantly skipped multiple times, you have at least twenty people pushing behind you and you're agressively flanked each side. Quality time at the top sorting out problems is very limited and stressful. If you so much as take a breath to gather your thoughts the flankers see it as an indication that you've finished your business and will start furiously shouting and purchasing under/over your shoulder. Questions asked are briskly answered over a loudspeaker letting the taxi rank outside aware of your predicatment. Usually the answer is a simple "Mei Yo" meaning "Don't Have".

From the immediate "no-no" nodding we got at each ticket window in Kaifeng it emerged that something wasn't as straightforward as we thought. Eventually we got the help of a local person who translated the problem saying that if we came back early in the morning we'd be able to get tickets (no problem) for the following night. With limited enthusiasm at 7am the next morning we arrived to buy our tickets and were subjected to another round of no-no's from the 5 or 6 ticket windows we tried. Frustratingly the problem seemed too complex to be explained through charades and it was beginning to feel like we would be trapped indefinitely in Kaifeng throwing ourselves at the mercy of the train window each morning. Some of the agents recommended a train to Cang Kao .... we asked where it was and someone pointed to a place on the map hundreds of miles away from where we wanted to go. Cang Kao did not appear on our huge detailed map of China let alone in the index of the guidebook so we hadn't a clue why we were being sent there. Finally giving up we bought a ticket and left our destination in the lap of the gods. Literally not knowing where or when we would be dropped in this place called Cang Kao and face getting an onward ticket to Qingdao. As it turned out .. after all the exhausting effort Cang Kao was about 15 minutes away from where we wanted to go. We were dropped at the station, plonked on the next train through and for not a penny more stepped out into the old Qingdao main square, complete with ocean breeze, a few minutes later....a great result (and we didnt spend too much time thinking about how it could have worked out :-)...)

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