Monday, 30 March 2015

Chengdu, China

The 25 hour train journey definately sounds worse than it was. There were mini cabins through the train, each with 6 beds - two bunks of three. The beds definately had enough room to sleep soundly on, but the bed mattress must have been made of concrete, it was so hard! I woke up with a back that was even sorer than the hot cupping. The time went pretty quickly and soon we had arrived in Chengdu.

Our afternoon was spent getting a feel for Chengdu - it has a much more cosmopolitan feel than Yangshuo, with many high rise buildings and western shops. Less people here speak English than in Yangshuo though and as a result finding vegetarian food alone is a nightmare! So much so that we played it safe and ate Pizza Hut. In the evening we had our first mandarin class - Jim taught us so many new words, and specifically taught me how to find vegetarian food in China!

First full day in Chengdu is Panda day! Chengdu is the natural home of the Panda in China and now houses the largest Panda Research Centre in the world. Here they have over 120 of the worlds 1000 Pandas and they artificially breed and rear Panda cubs. The Panda's are amazingly cute, in particular the panda cubs. However, the level of effort to keep this ancient breed alive is staggering. The pandas need to eat for 18 hours a day to keep their digestive system working and can only breed for two months a year. Unfortunately for the conservation centre, the pandas aren't interested in breeding during this time and most of the pregnancies are artificially induced. This means the Panda population is being forced to recreate, rather than doing so naturally with help from mankind. Whilst there, we also saw the red panda which looks a lot smaller than the giant panda, but still as stocky!

In the afternoon we headed towards the worlds biggest Buddha. I wouldn't like to drive in Chengdu - there is often four lanes, but the way cars drive would suggest that lanes aren't compulsory. How we didn't have several accidents is beyond me! However, the drive was worth it. The surrounding area of the Buddha was beautiful with many temples and koi ponds. Unfortunately, we were unable to make it to the bottom to get a picture of the whole Buddha due to the huge queues surrounding him! Our tour guide, Jim, gave us an excellent story of why and how the statue was built and the commitment the monk showed to get it completed.

In the evening, we played Jims card game of farmers, werewolves, witches and prophecies. The game was surprisingly fun, even though I was killed every time! Following this, we went to a western bar in central Chengdu - Jellyfish. The whole group came and it was nice to spend some downtime with everyone!

The following day we all had hangovers, so our touristy tour of the city didn't begin until 12pm. We started the tour at a beautiful Monestry with loads if little alley ways and secret corridors which allowed you to get lost in the complex. I also found the world's biggest frog which was about 25-30cm in length! Our next stop was the statue if Mao, China's most recognized leader. Surrounding the statue was a large open recreational space that was guarded by at least 25 police officers! We were not able to not on the grass or even lie down on benches.

Following this, we went to the People's Park. This was, without doubt, my favourite part of Chengdu. When you travel to places, you often have a predefined view of what it will be like before you arrive. This park destroyed every single one of them and was such a contrast to the area surrounding the Mao statue. After we walked past the initial entrance we could hear music. There was at least 50 Chinese couples dancing to it! It was beautiful to behold, with many old couples waltzing and many dancing to choreographed routines. People here were genuinely free and having fun. However, the park got crazier the closer you got to the centre! Several events were happening at once - each competing to have the loudest music. Several karaoke machines were set up with Chinese people screaming the lyrics to be heard.
Next to this was a fashion show with a makeshift red carpet. The old ladies in the show were strutting and posing and taking their choreographed routine very seriously. Around the corner was a dance show, with people dressed up as native Indians. People were clapping and cheering when the routine was completed. In an open space we found lots of people playing badminton and writing on the floor with a viscous fluid. When we headed to the outer sections of the park, we found the tea gardens! People sit down with a cup of loose tea and a huge container of hot water, then they play card games, board games or just talk. The atmosphere of the park is still found in the garden, but in a more relaxed and social setting.

The next train journey is only 15 hours, hopefully the being 10 hours less, the trip will go much quicker.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Yangshuo, China

The journey from Hong Kong to Yangshuo was surprisingly simple, made easier by the fact we didn't have to carry our luggage. It was an eight hour journey which consisted of a bus, metro, train ride and a border crossing. The journey ran very smoothly and the border crossing was far more civilized than Cambodia.

On arriving at the hostel, we headed out for a group meal. The group we are travelling with have been really nice and very sympathetic about our lack of luggage. The group meal was one of the parts of the holiday I was most apprehensive of, being a fussy vegetarian and reading some of the TripAdvisor reviews beforehand. However, the meal was amazing, with a wide range of foods that I even I enjoyed, and only costs £4! That is cheaper than breakfast in Hong Kong.

On our first full day in Yangshuo we spent the morning shopping for extra clothes and exploring the town. There are so many roads heading out from Yangshuo and each of them becomes more rural the further you get from the center. The atmosphere in these areas are far more relaxed than the 'strip' where we are staying! In the afternoon we had to travel to 'Moon Hill'. In Yangshuo there are many hills that randomly poke up, just how children would draw them. These hills are a striking comparison to the flat countryside and unlike any I have ever seen. Climbing the stairs to reach the moon shaped crescent in the hill was a challenge, but definately worth it! Following this it was time for a bit of relaxation - mud baths and hot springs. The mud baths were crazy! The mud was really thick and clung to you as you tried to move, but its meant to be good for your skin right? Once again, we were a tourist attraction for the local Chinese people, who were very amused by our pale skin! 

In the evening we took a boat ride alongside a cormorant fisher. This fishing involves training birds to catch fish, rather than the fisherman catching them firsthand. Elastic bands are placed round the birds beaks which stops them swallowing the fish. Although it is a very smart way to fish, I still felt it was too mean and the fisherman was too rough with the birds.

The following morning, the torrential and continuous rain had finally subsided. As a result, we were able to go bamboo rafting down the river Li. The scenery was amazing and it was so relaxing to just sit on a bamboo raft and float down the river. The farmer who was driving our raft clearly obtained commission for any photos we brought from the touristy booths, as that was all he wanted us to do! In the evening, we indulged in a Chinese traditional therapy - hot cupping. The aim of hot cupping is to remove toxins that can cause a colds or fluids that create achy/sore backs. A flame is put inside a wooden cup, heating up the air inside. The cup is then placed on your back. As the air cools, your skin is sucked into the cup, effectively creating a love bite. This part of the procedure felt strange, but didn't hurt. It was only afterwards, when the dark red circles appeared that the skin became sore and sensitive - as well as ensuring you look like an octopus. Sleeping on these circles was not pleasant. The therapy must hold some truths though, as parts of my back that are normally sorer became a much darker colour.

On our last full day in Yangshuo, we Kayaked down a different section of the river Li. This was the best fun! Not only did you get the awesome scenery of the bamboo rafting, but you also got to control what happened on the river. I personally love exercise that works set muscle groups and so kayaking was perfect for me. Although I'm normally game for some dangerous fun, I wasn't game for swapping boats after we made a kayak raft - falling in a cold river definitely isn't appealing! In the afternoon we went to one of our group leaders, Sally, village. This was supposed to be a small rural village, but it was still a big town by English standards - it was bigger than my hometown of Clevedon. This modernised rural town was definitely a surprise, I expected small huts and fields and wild animals - instead I found a smaller version of Yangshuo! Eating dinner with Sally's family was lovely. We sat on low tables with tiny wooden stalls - this made the food seem more authentic in a strange way.

The next stop is in Chengdu which is only a 25 hour train journey away...

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is a fast, vibrant and busy city. We (my friend from university - Matthew - and myself) landed in Hong Kong, the first stop during our trip to Asia, without our luggage (was left in Abu Dhabi during my transfer) and without any sleep in the last 20 hours. Google had predicted temperatures of 10-12 degrees, but on landing we discovered Hong Kong was enjoying a heat wave and temperatures had soared to 26 degrees Celsius.

Without our luggage we were able to start the day immediately - travelling up Ngong Ping mountain, using a cable car. This area was designed as a tourist attraction and opened in 2006! The mountain features a Giant Buddha and a Monestry, both of which are beautiful to look at. The Monestry was opened in 1923 with beautiful gold leaf linings and hundreds of Buddha statues inside. The Giant Buddha is situated on the tallest hill on the mountain and required the climbing of several stairs to reach.
On our second day we adventured out to the Ten Thousand Buddha Monestry. After using conveniently placed escalators we were able to reach the top with little effort. However, after a short period of time, it became apparently this was not a Monestry, but a burial ground. Families of the deceased visited the grounds with flowers, meals and gifts. After exploring all the different levels to see if we could reach the Monestry from here, we were informed we followed the wrong path at the bottom and climbed the wrong hill! The actual Monestry was beautiful, with gold painted Buddha statues adorning the walk to the top of the mountain, each with a different expression and face.

The Nan Lian Gardens and Nunnery were also beautiful. Unfortunately we arrived too late and couldn't enter the Nunnery, but could explore it's grounds. Huge ponds with Koi Carp were surrounded by Chinese Pine 
trees. The buildings were carefully designed with ornate wood features. One again, the Gardens only opened in 2006 and is currently applying to become a World Heritage Site.

In the evening we explored the waterfront and the Avenue of Stars to watch the Hong Kong Light Show. This consisted of buildings on both sides of the river flashing lights to music. I can't say it was impressive but it still manages to draw a large crowd each night. We watched this light show from the clock tower, which has many displays surrounding it to celebrate the Chinese New Year of the Ram (my zodiac!).

During our final day in Hong Kong, we traveled to Hong Kong Island! This is an island, just south of Hong Kong City where much of the financial district is located. We caught the water ferry across the river, however the views were poor due to the dense misty cloud surrounding the tall buildings. From here we traveled to the Hong Kong Flower Show. 

Hong Kong is most certainly the land of the Orchid! From the beautiful floral arrangements to the shops selling flowers, Orchids were consistently a center piece. I personally found the flower arrangements the resembled animals or Japanese gardens the most impressive.

During the afternoon (when the mist had cleared up) we began the assent of Victoria Peak. Victoria Peak resembles Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence - a high vantage point where the city can be viewed. There are two options to reach the top of this mountain - the first, using the tram to get to the top, the second, a 45 minute hike on very steep paths. Unfortunately, we chose the second. The hike is very tiring especially in the heat, but the view at the top is most definitely worth it, just remember to wear your hiking shoes!

Overall, I liked Hong Kong, I enjoyed the disparity of busyness within the different areas and the extensive range of high end designer shops.