Home Sweet Home

7C and raining as I got off the plane, pretty much what I was expecting…

I nipped to the shop and assembled some comfort foods for my first meal, this lot will most likely accompany a curry tonight. For what this cost (not including the curry) I could eat and drink beer all day on, where I’ve just come from! 🙁

image

Back to reality with a bump!

Posted from Bootle, England, United Kingdom.

And I think it’s all over…

I took the soft sleeper to Guangzhou, which ironically had harder mattresses than the hard sleeper I took the other day (maybe there’s a translation problem?) but was otherwise comfortable, you can close the door on your cabin of 4 beds so it’s pretty quiet.

There’s nothing to say about the city, I am staying in a nice hotel near the station, but it just seems like a typical big city, nothing that grabs my attention to go and look at.

So, after 7 countries, 9 currencies, 19 flights (with 2 to go), 4 night trains, 3 night buses, 41 lodgings and an unusually high number of boat passages, it’s time to pick up my backpack for the last time and come home. I’m taking a fast train to Shenzhen which borders Hong Kong, then from there plan to go into the city and meet an old friend, Jan, who works there these days, before taking a late evening flight home.

The map now looks a little like the spaghetti dish I had last night, which has kept me up all night so there is a possibility I won’t be able to travel! I hope they have some strong, Chinese herbal Immodium going on around here somewhere…

See you on the other side!

Yangshou, Guangxi

The 28 hour train journey from Xi’an to Guilin was epic, it actually was pretty comfortable, aside from the way the Chinese seem to have no problems making as much noise as they want, when they want, irrespective of whether or not everyone else is trying to sleep. This is the timetable, my stop was the last stop on Day 2

image

This was my bed, the top tier of 3 bunks, and actually the cheapest of the 3, slightly. I liked it best though, as you can just climb up there and keep out of everyone’s way. The lowest bunk has everyone sitting on it during the day (or even during the night I think, if they decide it’s time for dinner and a chat – doesn’t seem to matter if someone’s asleep in it). The middle’s OK but is at eye-level for everyone walking by in the corridor, and if you’re tall, your feet will stick out slightly and people’s heads and shoulders will knock them.

image

I spent about 26 of the 28 hours up there I think, the other two being spent in the restaurant car, eating and drinking. This was a nutricious breakfast, an oversized pot noodle

image

The berries behind it are nothing to do with me, naturally…

You may have heard that there was a fairly large earthquake in Sichuan, near Chengdu, which has killed many people. We did pass by fairly close to hear, about 18 hours before it happened. I don’t think it would’ve been strong enough to knock the train of its tracks, where we were, but I’m glad I wasn’t there to find out. An English couple and a Dutch couple that I was hanging out with a bit in Beijing would be in Chengdu at that time, I hope they are OK.

I arrived late evening at Guilin and did nothing apart from crawl into a splendid hostel for the night, and took a bus to Yangshou in the morning. Yangshou is a small town in the karst limestone mountains, it’s very beautiful. I’ve gone a bit upmarket with the hotel, seeing as I’m nearing the end of the trip, this place is wonderful

image

image

As it’s been a while since I posted a bathroom picture, here is my shower

image

Currently I’m in the rooftop garden with a view

image

I was thinking about being active today and going climbing, but in in part because I was feeling lazy, and in part I’ve been absolutely freezing all day, it’s 23C but I feel so cold (!) I didn’t bother and took a cycle out instead. I stopped off at one climbing wall for a ganders, if you look closely you can see some frozen climbers, some human, some not…

image

Later I stopped at a pretty authentic Chinese local restaurant, floating on rafts in the river, a fine spot for a beer and a pot of tea

image

The woman in turquoise has just taken a food order from the people behind, they evidently ordered fish, as she immediately caught them from the netted fish farm within one of the rafts

image

They ordered chicken too, this one was alive and being weighed on a balance here. Within 15 seconds of this photo being taken, the cleaver was out and that chicken was dead, and within a few minutes more was being served at the table. At least you know the food is fresh!

image

Meanwhile, I was watching romantic Chinese couples being punted down a weir on bamboo rafts

image

And that’s me winding down, ready for the long trip home. Tomorrow I’ll have a long lie in, then take a bus after lunch back to Guilin, dine there somewhere, then get a luxury soft sleeper train to Guangzhou, a mere 883 Km and 12 hours away. I’ll spend one night there, I’ve again splurged on a 4 star hotel there, I was going to go all out 5 star but there’s some conference on which has put them out of reach, then take a bullet train to Shenzen and cross back to Hong Kong to fly home. 23C will seem like a sauna, by then….

Xi’an

So, the night train to Xi’an was over 13 hours in a “hard seat”. There are various categories of train travel, hard seat being the lowest, then soft seat, then hard sleeper, then finally the bees-knees known as soft sleeper. The hard seat is actually not literally hard, it does have some thin padding, but that’s about it. They are bolt upright and cannot be reclined, and are configured around a very small table, which is big enough for the people sat by the window to rest their heads on, but only one of them at a time. One side of the train has 4 seats around the table, I had one of these on the aisle, the opposite side has 6 seats. As well as that, the aisle itself, and all of the space between the carriages, is also occupied by people with standing tickets. Nightmare. NIGHTMARE. Suffice to say, zero sleep was had, until about 6am when the train emptied enough that there were a spare 3 seats together to lie across.

So that brought me to Xi’an, not a lot to say about the town itself, it’s got a totally intact set of city walls that I cycled right around this morning, on the top of the walls themselves. Hot news for Scottish folk – the Loch Ness Monster is alive and well, and is living on the Xi’an city walls

image

The highlight of the cycling was avoiding these oversized christmas tree balls, from another disintegrated Nessie perhaps, that were blowing all around the wall in a strong wind this morning. It was somewhat reminiscent of something from “The Prisoner”

image

Later I took a bus ride out to the Terracotta Warriors, one of the main draw-card sights in China really. These things were first discovered in 1974 by some farmers digging a well, and are still very much being excavated today. They’ve been there for over 2000 years, and are somewhat eerie, to say the least

image

image

image

Generally they are all facing east, ready for battle, and they all originally held nickel-clad weapons, long since gone. One particular note of interest is that no two of the warriors are identical – they are life-sized and all look different in facial features and so forth, just like real people.

Tonight I’m upgrading to a hard sleeper train, for a massive 27 hours to Guilin, another limestone karst region. I peered with envy through a window into one of these compartments the other night, they don’t look too bad, I have the top bunk of 3 which seems to be about 15 feet off the floor, but hopefully I can just lurk up there and do my own thing whilst the masses ferret about below me…

Beautiful Beijing

I arrived in mainland China with minimal fuss, Air China even providing a free glass of very welcome (ghastly) glass of wine on the flight. Immigration in Beijing was a breeze, considering the hassle you have to get your visa in the first place, they barely give your passport a second glance in the airport.

I decided to get stuck right in and brave the airport train into the city, which connects you with the underground system, on which I had to change twice to get to my guesthouse. Considering all the horror stories I’ve heard about how hard it is to get around China, even in big cities, without any Mandarin is, so far everything was very simple. The tube trains have English versions of the station names written up, and the automated announcer even says the names in English too. Most of the street signs also have an English version too.

My guesthouse is gorgeous, it’s what’s known as a courtyard hotel, situated in a “hutong” which literally means alleyway, but in reality is a labyrinth of twisty alleyways covering a large area, essentially forming a big walled compound. Traffic cannot fit in, meaning that it’s so quiet you can hear a pin drop in the guesthouse, even though we’re right in the centre of the city here, about 5 minutes walk from the Forbidden City. The guesthouse literally has an all-purpose courtyard, with the rooms coming off all around

image

They serve fabulous food and coffee in here, and most importantly, large bottles of beer for 30p.

Day One was spent wondering around the local sights, firstly the rather odd Tiananmen Square. You have to be security screened before you enter, there’s nowhere to sit, and cameras and police watching your every move. I whipped out my Lonely Planet guide to check the map, without thinking, and got the dirtiest hard stare from a nearby policeman, and a police car drew up and loitered next to me as well until I put it away. Apparently there’s ill-feeling amongst the authorities about how China is portrayed in some of these guides, particularly in regards to Hong Kong’s history I think.

image

Next is the Forbidden City, a huge, moated area that was out of bounds for over 500 years. It’s an impressive array of historic buildings, but you need to be more into your Ming Dynasty than I am to get the most out of it, I expect

image

image

After this I had a wander around Jingshan Park as evening drew in, where locals were congregating in groups like this one, singing in opera-style voices. There must have been 20 or 30 such groups, some very large, all in close proximity to each other, meaning the singing was all crashing over each other.

image

Transportation with hand warmers awaits nearby

image

This is Lake Hou Hai near where I am staying, there are around 300 bars and restaurants on the lake, serving anything and everything

image

There are also other authentic eating options

image

image

image

I didn’t go to any of these (OK, OK, I had a Starbucks….) Remember that song about there being 1 million bicycles in Beijing? I’ve been counting them, it seems about right, you can see some of them outside the KFC.

These are early morning scenes in the playground near my guesthouse

image

image

I’m not exactly sure what the board game is, but it’s played everywhere, at all times of day

image

Next tourist stop was the Drum Tower, which does what it says on the tin, once an hour. These guys were noisy to say the least

image

Next day a rude awakening at 6.20am sees me boarding a bus to the Great Wall at Jinshanling a long and more authentic section of wall than the more photographed Badd section, which has been recently restored. The wall is truly remarkable, unfortunately the crappy camera on my phone does little justice to it…

image

image

image

image

On the way down I sampled my first true Chinese toilet. Urinal on the right, stalls in front.

image

There is no running water. I also have a photo looking inside one of the stalls, as I’m a bit sick like that. I’ll refrain from posting it here in case it’s meal time wherever you’re reading this..

Today I’ve been up at the Summer Palace, again my camera took pointless photos not worth posting, and to be honest I wasn’t much in the mood for it today anyway, I am somewhat tired out for some reason. Tonight’s epic is going to be a night train to Xi’an, unfortunately only in a seat as that was all that was available. I’m back at the guesthouse getting beered up, ready to soften the pain…

Posted from Beijing, Beijing, China.

Sagada – Sumaging Cave

Here’s a few pics from within the caves in Sagada in Northern Philippines, previously written about. These are courtesy of Shima, my hapless companion that day…

image

image

image

image

image

image

Hong Kong

HK is certainly one of those places that makes you go “Wow!” when you arrive. The airport is new, clean and efficient and a train whisks you at high speed into the city. My run of bad luck continues a bit as I troll around trying to find a room, everywhere is full as there’s some sort of electronics exhibition going on, but eventually I find a room for about 40 quid somewhere deep inside this building

image

This is “mansion” in Kowloon, just opposite Hong Kong Island, a huge building in terms of both height and footprint, which are typical of the area, it seems. The ground floor consists of shops and so on that look onto the streets, but also inside there’s an arcade of shops within, then a whole load of lifts leading up, generally each lift servicing only a different subset of the floors, and often the ones that serve different floors are in different areas of the building. The upper floors are a whole load of guesthouses, private housing, visa offices and God knows what else, they are a total labyrinth inside.

It’s hard enough to find the building, then when you do, you can’t find the entrance, then you can’t find the lift you need, then you can’t find your guesthouse, and finally you can’t find your room! If there were a fire in one of these, I just don’t know… I haven’t the first idea where the way out of this place is.

Today I had to wear my long trousers and my closed shoes, as it was a chilly 18C when I came out this morning, and took a ferry over to Hong Kong Island

image

When you peek inside the wheelhouse, you realise they’re not the most modern craft in the world

image

The trams on the island are old, too. Apparently these are the only double-decker wooden trams in the world

image

Aside from wandering around and taking a sharp intake of breath at every menu looked at (Hong Kong is bloody expensive, it’s like a UK city, practically) I stopped by the Man Mo Temple, annoyingly behind the bus and dwarfed by the high rises around it

image

Inside it’s a total incense-fest, there’s thousands of sticks of it burning all around, even those hanging things are burning incense

image

Outside, this guy was just throwing what appeared to be a huge wad of 100$ HK dollar bills into this fire. I’ve heard of giving offerings to Buddha, but this does seem a little excessive. Buddha will be spoiled…

image

In the evening, I rode up the Peak Tramway, one of the main touristy things to do.

image

It goes steeply up a big hill, almost at 45 degrees I reckon, at the top you’re treated to quite a view of the city

image

And that was Hong Kong, for now, until I return to fly home. About to board a plane to Beijing

Sagada, Cordillera

Sagada gets the big thumbs-up! A cool, mountain retreat full of log cabins and leafy mountain outlooks, cool restaurants and bars, nice clean streets and not  man with a gun in sight! This is the entrance to my hotel, I was dying for a pee but I was denied, I had to wait until I got into the room instead. Maybe this is why the streets are cleaner?

image

The journey here from Banaue was an adventure in itself, I rode on the top of this jeepney, next to the guy that’s on it now

image

Most times you have to change jeepneys, two-thirds into the journey at Bontoc, a small commercial town. This one went directly there though, and whilst you’re free to attempt to hang on to the roof on the dangerous mountain roads, just before Bontoc they stop and make you come inside, as if you were caught buy the police riding on the top as you slowly crawl around the streets in town, the driver might get a ticket. As soon as you leave Bontoc and the road is sufficiently dangerous again, they stop and let you climb back up…. I lost count of how many partially cleared landslides across the road we passed over.

[Video removed for now – too slow to upload]

Sorry for the shaky camera work, it’s pretty hard to hold on with one hand and hold the phone with the other. This shot was also taken from the roof, a vista over yet more rice terraces

image

I got a beautiful log room in a hotel up on the hill above the village, they even named one of the rooms after me

image

But that one was crap, so I’m staying in Simon Peter across the hall 🙂 This was the rather fine view from bed this morning

image

Yesterday I hooked up with a Japanese girl also in my hotel and shared a guide to take us through the “cave connection”, a fairly hardcore potholing expedition, by all accounts. On the way you stop by Echo Valley where there are a load of coffins, hanging high in the rocks, a custom still carried out occasionally, the most recent been placed there in 2010 I think he said. The valley also echoes from the view point, seemingly off the trees the other side, strangely. Our guide said he couldn’t demonstrate it himself as his voice had just finished breaking, i.e. dropping in tone from his childhood squeak to a more manly tone. We asked him how old he was, he replied 24. Seemingly they develop quite late here…

Off we got to the caves, and our guide stops to light up the kerosine lantern that’s going to get us through, and changes the pair of sandals he had on to a pair of flip-flops, which are apparently “far more suitable for caving”. As soon as you’re in to Lumiang Cave, the mouth is full of dozens more hanging coffins, again all as high up as possible within the large cave mouth. They’re made of pine tree logs, hewn out and then a lid placed on, and they’re wedged in position very precariously with stones and stuff. I asked if they ever if they ever fall down, he said in 1990 there was an earthquake which knocked almost all of them down, an%d they all burst open of course. Apparently the villagers put them back up again, but they’re not 100% sure they got all the right bones back into the right coffins……

As soon as you’re in, the tight turns and squeezes begin, I’ve no photos of any of this as my camera is wrecked and I couldn’t risk taking the phone down. At several points you’re going up or down slippery vertical faces with the help of a thin rope, or on not quite vertical faces with no rope and just a few loose footholds which you’re making on slippery rock in flip-flops. The guide, meanwhile, is dancing up and down these faces with one hand, the other hand steadying the superhot gas lamp balanced on his head. In wet season you have to swim through some sections, but we weren’t treated to that.

Eventually you end up at Sumaging cave, a large system full of various formations, including a particularly impressive curtain. There’s a swimming hole at the bottom of this which I just had to try – the water was bloody freezing! I did my heroic deed for the day on the way back up to the exit from this cave. Shima decided to go for a full on uncontrolled slide down a 45 degree rock face. As she came flying past me I reached out and grabbed her and managed to stop her, without sliding down myself somehow. God knows how.

Overnighting in Banguio now, a fairly large city, but arrived late and so saw nothing apart from crowds of people, and running around attempting to find where I need to be tomorrow to get a bus to get me to Clerk airport. Goodbye Philippines, destination China tomorrow!

Banaue

I spent a fairly miserable day in Manila, it has to be said. Having stayed at my favourite hotel there which was fine, I had to checkout at noon and find a way to spend my time until 10pm when the bus would leave. After the usual farting around with breakfast at about 1pm followed by some coffees, I hit the mall as you do apparently, when in Manila. This place was HUGE. The entrances are guarded with gun bearing guards and you have to pass through airport style security to get in, which keeps the beggars and viagra sellers out, but there’s not much respite within. The “respectable” stall holders and shopworkers are in your face every few seconds as you walk around, and within the mall there is a huge department store, Robertsons, which would be something along the lines of John Lewis for any UK based people that know it, even in there as I browsed for a belt, the assistants are pre-reading your every move and trying to sell you a fridge freezer as you pass a tablecloth display that you may have looked at in a glancing fashion, before showing you every possible operating function of the buckle of the belt that you may have been foolish enough to touch. That, and a virtual fist-fight with the entire staff of a bar as I had the audacity to try and buy a 34 peso beer with a 500 peso note, it’s enough to try anyone’s patience…..

Anyway, I got the bus which left at 9pm rather than 10pm as my ticket said (good job I got to the terminal early!) and have made it to Banaue. It’s a pleasantly cool mountain retreat, here is the view from my room as I type, with the sound of river rapids raging below me. You can see a few of the famous rice terraces the region is famous for.

image

I am amused by the space saving location of sinks. Open the window when you want to do the washing up, and make sure you don’t drop a plate as it’s about a 100 foot drop…

image

image

Some chickens await their fete as a motor unit from a ceiling fan spins a rag around over their former friends above them, to keep the flies off

image

Today I’ve been struggling to try and fit a square peg into a round hole in terms of timetabling my last few days in the Philippines, it really is very difficult to make last minute plans here in terms of transportation in particular. From here, one would normally do some form of trekking around the big rice terraces at Batad or thereabouts, but in my case I’m keen to check out Sagada, a backpacker mountain retreat, only about 60Km from here or something, but involves 2 jeepneys and about 4 hours to get to. From there, the hope is that I can get a day bus to Baguio a little further south, and from there another day bus which should dump you on the motorway near the other airport outside Manila that I need to get me to China. Phew! Hoping for the best.

Now I’m off to meet a few locals I met earlier who are watching some Filippino boxing legend mash all of the opposition.

Bacuit Archipelago

I flew to Puerta Princessa in Palawan, followed by 6 hours crammed into the back of a minibus up to El Nido. I went up to the office of Tao Philippines who were running my bamboo boat the next day, to pay up and say Hi to the crew and the other poor suckers who would be travelling with me.

There were actually two boats running around together, with 12 people on each. Mine had Team Norway on board, 6 of them to be precise, a Canadian honeymoon couple, a Filippino girl long since migrated to LA and a German couple. The other one had a 6-strong Team Oz, an English couple now settled in Coogee in Sydney, a random Frenchman and a Canadian, and a couple of Swedes. Jemboy was the insane leader of my boat and Johann had the other.

As usually seems to be the way with this kind of trip, they were all a great bunch, without exception, and much sunbathing, swimming, snorkelling, eating and getting totally pissed ensued. Each night was spent in a camp on a different beach, fairly basic affairs but comfy enough really.

I decided one morning to take a swim on the way back to the boat with my daypack on, by falling out of the kayak that was shuttling us over. My phone and camera’s waterproof qualities have been put to the test, the phone passed with flying colours after being dried out in a bag of rice for 24 hours, but the camera seems to have failed the challenge. So I’m a bit short of pictures for now. I’m assuming the SD card inside the camera will be OK, but as I’ve also lost the card reader for that somewhere I can’t find out….

Anyway I hopefully can steal a few pics off other people, one of these days.

I had made no onward plan from Coron, where we have ended up, so this morning had to bite the bullet and buy a pretty expensive flight to Manila which leaves today. Then I hope to go north on Luzon up to the mountains and rice terraces and stuff, for my last few days before heading to China.

And time has passed and I am now back in Manila after a heavily delayed flight. It seems normal that they’re at least an hour late due to air traffic in Manila. It all seems a bit nuts if you ask me. In the airport I caught up with Canadian Josh who was on a later flight than me, who was having kittens as he needed to be on that flight, which can’t go after dark as there’s no lights on the runway, in time to get back to Manila, hopefully extend his visa before flying back home the next day. I wish him luck with that one! Half of Team Norway were there too, also on their way back home.

As for me, I have got a night bus booked tonight for Banaue up north where I hope to spend my final days. I’m the proud owner of charger #3 on this trip so far, will head out now and see about another SD card reader to find out whether all of my trip photos have been lost to the sea…. 🙁

More time has passed, an SD card reader has been purchased and the card from my camera still works – yay!! Here’s a few that I got on the boat trip before it drowned:

“Their” boat, from ours. Ours was smaller but cooler…. 🙂 The bow sprit on ours was a great place to sit with a beer in high seas, with your legs wrapped around the white bit to hold on

image

Meal time at camp 1. If you’re thinking vultures, you’re not far off it

image

We catch a few fish, tuna and other things, as we sail. This was our biggest, held by Capn’ Jemboy, some of these we ate within a few minutes sushi style

image

Some meals, usually lunch, we had on the boat, here being enjoyed by Team Norway

image

Camp 3, quite cosy this one was….

image

Our boat from Camp 3. It was on the way back to the boat in the morning after this that my gear went swimming, hence no more photos

image