Yogis, sadhus and sun salutes…in Rishikesh

Bathers in the Ganges - Swargashram, Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, India

Temple along the riverside

26 September – 1 October 2011

Rishikesh – the self-proclaimed yoga capital of the world!

It’s also where the Beatles famously did their zoning out with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the 1960s. Widely regarded as the band’s most productive period, they wrote 48 songs between them during their stay here, many of which appear on their famous ‘White Album.’

For Hindus, Rishikesh is a holy place. Lying at the foot of the Himalayas, it is the point where the Ganges river leaves the mountains to begin its journey through the plains of Northern India. Meditating here is said to bring one closer to moksha – or “release” from the endless cycle of reincarnation. Pilgrims still come, and we saw them. Each day they walk up to into the jungle to collect water from a temple up in the mountains, and carry it down to the statue of Shiva, jutting out from the river itself.

Streetlife

But that’s not why we went there. Well, not exactly. Chris chose India as one of our 5 countries. And when I hear India, I think of a few things…and yoga is definitely one of them. Could it be India’s most famous and enduring export? What a chance to learn this ancient health regime at its source! And anyway, I love stretching…and had been struggling (without success) to get Chris to do more of it.

I did lots of research and settled on Rishikesh Yog Peeth. It wasn’t religious. It’s teaching were accredited by the International Yoga Alliance. And besides two classes a day, you were free to come and go as you please. Much better than actual ashrams, which Chris started referring to as “yoga prisons”, and was adamant that “I don’t want anyone trying to convert me.” It also included two massages each, which was a real bonus.

So, bright and early – our daily routine in Rishikesh began as thus:

5:45                  Wake-up
6:30                 “Cleansing”
7:00 – 8:30      Yoga Asana
9:00                  Breakfast
13:00                Lunch
17:00 -18:30   Yoga Asana
19:00                Dinner

5:45am Wake-up with the dawn

6:30am “Cleansing”
Part I: Drink one glass warm cinnamon tea

Part II: Pour warm saltwater down your nose using something called a neti pot. Tilt your head to one side, open your mouth and water magically flows down one nostril and out the other. Lots of snot follows and you have to really blow strong puffs of air out afterwards to clear it all out + it isn’t at all attractive, but you do feel very clear afterwards. Good for allergy sufferers like me!
 
7:00 – 8:30am Yoga
Up on top of the roof was our long yoga studio. A few ants would usually join you on your mat, to marvel at how badly you were doing the pose. Monkeys sometimes peered in through the windows too, or pounded across the roof as they jumped from one building to the next.

Tree pose

Our teacher was a rather small man, who nevertheless had a sort of macho persona. He always wore a white tank top and red shorts. He’d mastered many impossible poses and was obviously incredibly flexible and strong. Yet bizarrely, he had no muscle definition whatsoever.

When I first learned yoga in San Francisco, I was led to believe it was all about doing the poses correctly and slowly, progressing little by little in your own time. But this guy meant business. His approach was to push you to the breaking point.
“Higher!” “MORE HIGH!!” he would bellow at us daily. It annoyed me a bit, as Chris was an absolute beginner and you can over do it. But Chris being Chris, he tried his best without complaint.

But the teacher wasn’t that bad. He would smile at times when it was obvious you were struggling, and would come by to modify your pose. And if I learned one thing from it, it was the series of poses known as the ‘Sun Salute.’ He’d have us do 20 or 30 of these each session, and we’d all work up a sweat. It was good exercise and something I could see myself doing in future.

9:00am Breakfast
All our meals were prepared on-site. We were the only people there besides one other French woman, so we had a waiter practically to ourselves, and I got to know him pretty well. He’d wear t-shirts with funny phrases on them like: “Don’t Bug Me, Hug Me.” At first he was shy, but little by little he opened up.

"Don't Bug Me, Hug Me !"

All the meals were vegetarian, and all were delicious.

For breakfast, I always ordered a porridge (oatmeal) that the cook made special for me with banana, raisins and cinnamon. Lunch was usually very simple, yet good.

But dinner was what we looked forward to all day…we had the best curries, with the traditional flatbread (chipati) and cumin (jeera) rice. Masala tea or lemon ginger tea were also popular with us. In fact, the food was so good…I don’t think we had any sweets all week and I didn’t even notice!

Free time

Bucket shower, as seen in quite a few countries in fact!

After breakfast, I’d shower. Cold water only. Oh yes!

Now this would have been much more pleasant had our shower time been just after our yoga course. But breakfast was always promptly after class, so our shower was always after we’d already cooled down. I opted for the traditional Indian method of using a bucket of water – where you pour ladles of water over yourself. It meant the water was on your body for less time = you were less frozen.

The rooms were Spartan. Clean, yet simple. We had a fan overhead and windows overlooking the village and the mountains in the distance.

17:00 -18:30 More Yoga

We’d end our days with yoga. And just as the sun was setting, we’d be doing our last deep breathing, followed by three ‘Om’ chants. The chants were my least favourite part of the yoga classes. I always ran out of breathe before everyone else and I didn’t really see the point of them. But it was part of it, and a memorable part at that.

But my most vivid memory was the pain…each day, we became more and more sore. The first few days we could hardly walk or raise our arms. Yet, we’d have to keep to the schedule of 3 hours of yoga per day. Everyone would josh around about it, saying we’d be better by day 4. But then our yogi would just increase the difficultly. However, I have to say that we did feel amazing after that week was over.

Chris practicing his meditation in our room

All in all – Rishikesh was a peaceful place that was the perfect introduction into India. Feeling energy in our bodies, and mountain air in our lungs…we’d spend our free time strolling through the village and surrounds.

Rishikesh was divided into two parts. We were in Swargashram – the less touristy area whose focal point was the large Shiva statue & temple in the Ganges down by the bathing area of the river. There were lots of real ashrams there, where families and pilgrims would stay.

The more peaceful breed of monkeys in Rishikesh

There were also lots of holy men or sadhus, sitting along the road. They wore orange and were bare-chested. A kind of wandering monk, many are also yogis. There are an estimated 4-5 million sadhus in India. They live in forests, temples and caves, having denounced all material and personal attachments. They are respected for their holiness and feared for their curses. Pilgrims gave them food, which they shared with the monkeys.

I myself had a short introduction into the Hindu religion courtesy of one of the guys from the Yoga Peeth. He used to be a Hare Krishna and had the characteristic shaved head with one short sprout of hair left on top the size of a doll’s ponytail. He explained that it was Durga Puja, a celebration of 6 days of praying and fasting in honour of the goddess Devi Purga. I, along with Sophie – the only other guest – was invited and attended one ceremony.

The shrine room was on the roof. Me, Sophie (the French guest) and a few of the staff sat cross-legged on the floor. The priest, dressed completely in peach, chanted in Sanskrit for at least an hour. All the while, the Hare Krishna guy helped prepare the various rituals which all revolved around a small bronze statue of the goddess. The goddess was washed with yoghurt, flower, honey and finally water. She was dressed as a doll. She was offered many kinds of food. We all received red bracelets made of string and a red bindi in the middle of our forehead, with rice on top. At the end, a conch shell was blown. The small offerings of food were mixed into larger quantities of the same and we were all invited to partake. Those strictly observing the 6 days of celebrations only eat this special food, and only after a ceremony. There is one each day, but at different times of day and night. The whole thing was mesmerizing, and incredibly complicated. Chris wasn’t the least bit interested to attend, but I found it a fascinating insight into the devotional aspects of Indian life.

Chris looking native as pilgrims pass by

But most days in Rishikesh, Chris and I would wander through the narrow passageways lined with shops selling spiritual books, Hindi music and traditional dress. There were a couple shops for tourists selling yoga mats and clothing. I picked up a few more harem trousers and some more traditional tunic-type tops, as in India women are supposed to dress more conservatively. Tops should be long and cover both the shoulders and bum. Skirts or trousers should be below the knee. Normally, I don’t give a rat’s a** about such things, but being in someone’s holy place, I really didn’t want to offend. Nor did I want to draw any more attention to myself than I already did. Like China, the locals had already begun asking me to take photos with them.

From yoga pose to camera pose, I was getting used to posing for pictures by now...

Family holiday

One day, we walked to the Ram Jhula bridge, another area of Rishikesh about 20 minutes away by foot. The road was the main avenue used by the daily pilgrimage to the Ganges from the mountain temple, and it was lined with little stalls selling snacks, powder of all colours used for making the bindi dots on the forehead, and other adornments. We had some delicious chickpea and potato cake at one.

In Ram Jhula, there stood a HUGE temple. Pilgrims would walk around each level, ringing bells along the way. Like the bridge at Swargashram, this one was again crowded with people, motorcycles, cows and monkeys. The combined affect was a bit insane, but you sure felt alive and awake in such a place.

Ram Jhula bridge, temple and sacred cow (with a very 'blessed' set of horns!)

Another 45 minutes past the bridge is a path that leads to a waterfall. We trekked our way there, following the Ganges further into the mountainous jungle. At yet another bridge, we asked a local taxi driver and he pointed us to the path. There was a small temple at its entrance, with a Sadhu sat on a wall chanting wildly. His body was painted white and he didn’t stop or alter his state one iota as we passed him.

The path was fairly easy, except for the inevitable mosquito bites. We saw cloth drying on some bushes. Where was it’s owner? Probably belonged to another Sadhu. We crossed a small crystal clean stream and arrived at a powerful waterfall. We splashed around at it’s base, but didn’t have time for a full-on swim. In the peak of the day, it was hot and steamy this time of year. Even wading up to our knees was really refreshing.

Happiness

One of our last days in Rishikesh, we opted to do separate things, as it’s important to also have time to oneself on a long trip like this. I decided to see if I could find the old Beatles ashram. I’d heard it was somewhere nearby. With guidebook in hand, I followed the river south, past small crumbling homes to the edge of the village. A few people I passed glanced at me with curiosity. I’m sure I looked lost. But I saw a couple people in the distance & I knew found it.

There was a ‘guard’ or at least someone who wanted money from you to go inside. However, he wouldn’t take mine. He said I couldn’t go in alone, as it just wasn’t safe. Great! The one day I try to do my own thing, and I’m blocked because I’m a woman! Luckily, a couple of tourists were just coming out. I asked if any of them would accompany me in, and a fellow American came to my rescue.

Atop John Lennon's igloo hut thing

Inside, you could tell this was once was a beautiful place. But over time, these once grand designs had faded to black. Nature had taken over, and it was very overgrown, almost completely impassable in places. My American- turned-guide showed me the main ceremonial hall where meditations took place. And I saw John Lennon’s little stone hut! It resembled a two-storied igloo. The bottom for living, the top for meditating. It was a small window into the past, to a time when people sought out answers and took time to explore the possibilities.

And wasn’t that what we were trying to do with this trip…to explore the rest of the world, see different ways of living, new ways of being…and allowing these experiences to reflect inside our heads and hearts, revealing more about what it means to be alive today.

The view from here

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Chaos and tranquility in India

The Ganges river near Rishikesh, India

24 September 2011

“That’s it, no more Chinese food!”, was the primary collective thought that Jenn and I had when boarding our flight from Beijing to New Delhi. It’s not that you can’t get good food in China but as two inexperienced travelers who have learned everything they know about Chinese cuisine from ordering chicken chow mein from the local take away, we were out of our depth. The other shared thought we had was one of trepidation of being thrown into the chaos of India after the relative order of China. We were bracing ourselves for being mobbed by taxi drivers at the airport, immediately having to cut a deal and get to the hotel we’d booked rather than the hotel the driver wanted us to go to. Other than that we were excited about going to a new country and raring to put the traveling skills we had learned so far to the test.

We arrived at 9pm and made for the prepaid taxi booth. This was a better alternative than being surrounded by prospective taxi drivers especially when you have no idea what the going rate should be. At the prepaid booth you tell the nice man where you want to go and pay him the fixed fair to go there. He then gives you a ticket which you give to your allocated driver when you get to your destination. He can then take this ticket back to the booth to get paid. Very civilised.

And it worked. Within minutes we were in an old Ambassador taxi cab speeding through the outskirts of Delhi with our luggage slung on the roof tied down by a flimsy piece of string. Cars and auto-rickshaws were weaving side to side between undefined lanes of traffic to the sound of almost continuous honking. We arrived at the hotel and were happy to hear that they were still serving dinner. It was a meal I will remember for a long time. The subtle flavours and spices were just so pleasant to taste after being somewhat deprived of a range of flavours in China.

We woke early and headed into the craziness of Delhi. We got an autorickshaw (aka auto or tuk-tuk) to the nearest metro station and traveled in the morning rush hour towards New Delhi Railway station. We planned to use the famous Indian railways to travel around North India but they are so popular that you will struggle to get a seat unless you book a few weeks in advance. We had already booked our first train from Delhi to Haridwar  but the website we used was now not working so we needed to book the other trains in person. Our plan for north India was to travel to Haridwar and Rishikesh around 200km north of Delhi. Then we would get a train back to Delhi and on to Agra. From there we would travel to Jaipur, then on to explore part of Rajistan then down to the hill station of Mt Abu finally finishing in Mumbai.

The train system in India is a little hard to get your head around. It has 8 different classes of travel although not all are available on each train. The higher classes give you more room and air-conditioning, the lower classes are a bit of a free for all but you have the opportunity of meeting a more interesting collection of ordinary Indians. As we were knew to this and a bit apprehensive we were aiming for the 1st, 2nd or 3rd classes. If there are no tickets left for your train of choice then you can buy one of an allocation of waiting list (RAC) tickets which allow you to board the train but you’re not guarenteed a seat unless someone cancels or doesn’t show up. If there are no waiting list tickets left then you can go on the waiting list for the waiting list but you can’t get on the train unless people cancel and you get promoted to the first waiting list. This is a great website that explains it all.

Luckily for us there is a special tourist train ticket bureau at New Delhi station to guide us through this minefield. The trick was to actually find it. We were hassled by touts at the station pretending to be ticket inspectors. They would tell us that the bureau had closed or burned down and we should follow them to a private travel agent. We always said no and got shouted at a few times. Eventually we found the official bureau on the upper floor. We managed to book tickets for all our trains but only because helpfully there is a special tourist quota. Even then, on some days the only train with seats available left at around 6am. So with 5 tickets booked including three leaving at 6am we went to catch our train to Haridwar. Our train, however, was leaving from a station on the other side of the city so we had to get a taxi there.

There is absolutely no problem finding a cab in India. We were mobbed by auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers all shouting to come with them and announcing how much they would charge us. Usually you agree a price before but we didn’t know how much it should be so we went with a taxi driver offering to use his meter. As we drove the meter raced up much faster than it should. After 5 minutes in heavy traffic the meter said we had gone 10km. But we got where we wanted and it was still very cheap compared to London taxis.

A dosa

We had time for an excellent lunch of dosas at a restaurant by the station. A dosa is a large slightly crispy pancake with a thick spicy vegetable mix inside served with a selection of sauces. We were quite shocked by how cheap it was at less than a pound. Full, we went off to catch our train.

The train left bang on time. There was a piece of paper on each carriage with a list of the names of all the passangers in that carriage. It was welcoming to see our names written on there. As we boarded the train we met a couple of American guys also on their way to Rishikesh which is a 20 minute taxi ride from Haridwar. The seats were comfortable and could fold up into bunks for sleeping even though this wasn’t an overnight train.

Relaxing on the train

Every few minutes someone comes through the carriage selling tea or tomato soup, crisps or biscuits, shouting out what they are selling with enthusiasm. The tea is very sweet and sold in small cups for 5 rupees.

I walked through the carriage past the other passengers, many whole families, some chatting, some stretching out in their bunks. It was exciting to be amongst people from a country so new to us. I went to the end of the carriage where the doors to the train were. They were wide open with people standing or sitting looking out onto the ever changing landscape that switches between countryside and town. From farm workers in fields of corn, rice and sugar cane to street traders, men pushing carts bundled up high with goods or others just sitting amongst the debris of old buildings lining the tracks.

One man who was standing by the door looking out asked me where I was from. “England”, I said, and I was surprised to learn that he had lived for many years in London but had now returned to his native country. “Hold on tight”, he said as he moved inside and let me stand right by the doorway. It was a feeling of freedom to be standing there with the warm wind in my face as we passed through the Indian countryside. They wouldn’t let you do this on a British train, I thought.

The landscape got greener as we traveled north towards the very beginnings of the foothills of the Himalayas. After five hours we arrived at the medium sized town of Haridwar. A Hindu holy town on the Ganges river. We now had to travel the 25km to Rishikesh our first main destination in India. We asked the two Americans we had met earlier if they wanted to share a cab and a few minutes later the four of us were standing outside the station getting mobbed by auto-rickshaw drivers. We agreed a rate and jumped in.

The Indian auto-rickshaw is small three wheeled vehicle with the driver at the front steering using handlebars like a motorbike rather than steering wheel. The back can seat either two passengers or four on the larger autos. There is a roof but the sides are open and this is the beauty of traveling in them, ‘natural air conditioning’, as one driver put it. You’re not insulated from the world like in a car but right there, able to see, hear and smell the surroundings.

And in this manner, as the sun slowly began to go down, we were carried on an exhilarating ride through rural India. As the wind rushed through the open windows we could smell an intoxicating mix of wood smoke, incense, eucalyptus trees and the delightful aroma of food being cooked. The narrow streets had autos, motorbikes, cars, horse drawn carts, ox carts and donkeys carrying huge loads, all maneuvering this way and that to get through. The beeping of horns was a constant noise along with the revving of bikes and autos. We passed through several towns along the way where the streets were lined with energetic stallholders selling fruit or popcorn amongst a throng of people passing by, men and women working or carrying heavy loads, or just chatting, a mass of humanity all out on the streets. The Americans whooped with delight at the stunning temples we passed as we bumped along at high speed. We just couldn’t help smiling as we were hit by India full in the face.

We saw many cows standing peacefully by the side of the road or sometimes right in the middle of the road, islands of tranquility in a sea of chaos. Monkeys played along the curbs of the road trying to steel fruit from the stallholders. After an hour and exhausted by our trip we entered Rishikesh and then went on to a smaller settlement to the north of the town by the Ganges river, a very mystical town and a place of pilgrimage for Hindus from all over India. We were pointed in the direction of a suspension bridge and continued on foot over the mighty Ganges which was black in the darkness. On the other side is the area known as Swargashram where we were staying. We phoned up our hosts and they sent someone out to show us to our accommodation. We said goodbye to our companions and walked along narrow lanes and small passageways between houses and dodging cows in the darkness until we arrived.

Why had we come all this way? Well, we had signed up for a six day yoga course. It was Jenn’s idea which I was happy to go along with but a bit worried as it would be my first time doing yoga. To me, spending a week at one of the world centres of yoga seemed like a rather advanced starting point for someone who can’t even touch their toes but I was prepared to give it a go. We had a dinner of great tasting vegetarian curry and went to bed early as we were scheduled to start at 6.30am.

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Tradition, modernity, the future in…北京, 瓷

Beijing: centre of culture, palaces...and power

20 September 2011 – Beijing, China:  By this point, we were pretty tired!

After all the crazy trekking and butt bumping bus rides, we made the two-day journey back to Lijiang with a view to then take the overnight train to Kunming in order to catch our flight to Beijing. But the ticketing agent just looked incredulously at us. How could we possibly think we’d secure seats a mere 24hrs in advance?! So, plan B — we’d have to fly to Kunming to catch our Beijing flight.

Enroute we spent 9hrs in the Kunming airport in Yunnan waiting for our connection flight. Sure we could have gone into the town – but I had yet another stomach bug and was feeling pretty weak and weepy.  All in all, we’d been traveling for about 2.5 months by now.

Beijing seemed like a beacon of hope to me, and I was really looking forward to taking it easy and enjoying all the amenities that a big city brings: sleeping-in late in a comfy bug-free bed, shopping, and legit medical facilities.

Fly By Knight Hostel

Arriving at Fly By Knight Courtyard Hostel around midnight, we were welcomed with more hospitality that we’d thought possible. The young owner waited up for us, offering tea and custard pastries while we checked-in. The hostel was more like a bed & breakfast, and was brand-new…well sort of. It was situated in a quiet cul-de-sac in the Hutongs – narrow alleyways that are the last bastion of Old Beijing, having outlived development of any kind. Most were crumbling, but this one had been restored in keeping with the old style: a central courtyard with the living areas surrounding it.  Quite charming, and lovely.

Next morning we were up early for my appointment at the International SOS clinic. It was a lovely modern place, with internet access in the waiting room. I was given three kinds of pills to kill every type of bacteria in my gut + another pill to take once those were over to replace the ‘good bacteria’. The doc seemed suspicious that I had an intestinal parasite, but as we had no time to do a proper test – we just covered all the bases. It worked tho, I’m happy to report. I felt saved at long last from my month of bad bowels !!

Hutong holiday

Snoozing in style

Back at the hostel, we walked through the Hutongs on our way to the Forbidden City. Daniel (the owner of Fly By Knight) had explained to us that most houses like his have been divided-up into tiny rooms and each room is rented by a family (for example, our hotel room would normally be home to 4-5 people!). The people who live there are usually migrant workers who come from the countryside looking for work and a better life. The landlords don’t do any maintenance; they just keep rents low but with enough people paying to make a nice profit. Most don’t have bathrooms, so the residents have to use the public toilets dotted around the neighbourhood. It’s a tough existence. But as a visitor – the nice side result is that Hutong life is lived largely out of doors. Walking around you can see people eating from small stands, playing cards or chatting to one another. There is a real community feel, helped in part by the fact that most families have and will continue to live here for generations.

Hutong alleyways

We made our way to Tiananmen Square. But I have to say, I was underwhelmed. It’s pretty much a huge slab of cement. In the burning sun, I wasn’t even inclined to cross the street to visit it. Instead, we pressed on towards our ultimate destination – the Forbidden City. Huge posters of Chairman Mao hung along the entrance, looking down on all the visitors.

Lost in the Forbidden City

Inside, we mulled around among flocks of Chinese tourists. It’s an impressive place, and its scale and grandeur hit you immediately. You pass through gate after gate – ornately decorated, and each allotted a kind of hierarchy for use by different groups of people such as government, military or royal family members. There were huge stone turtles, from which incense would be lit when the emperor passed – creating a sense of other-worldliness surrounding his person. Enormous stone walkways (transported from afar along iced roads) carved a line from one end of the complex to the other. And these special walkways were only ever used by the emperor himself.

Atop Jingshan Park's pagoda

It was worthwhile forsure. But I have to say, they could take a small tip from American tourist attractions and provide tired travelers a spot to rest and recharge. Firstly, it’s a huge place, even over the 4 hours we spent there – we only saw half of it, and even then we felt rushed. Yet, with the exception of the garden at the far end – there are no trees for shade, no benches to sit and reflect, and only one very small and very bad café serving 3 items. And as activists all over America protest our extreme capitalist system of inequality – I can’t say the Communists have it right either. If they did, this place would be better meeting the needs of it’s visitors, and turning an extra buck or two as a result.

Anyway, we closed the palace down and had to be corralled out. But we wanted to take another look, so headed across the street to Jingshan Park – it’s hill is the central feature. The hill was made from the dug-out earth from the moat surrounding the Forbidden City. Emperors for 500 years slowly covered the hill with all manner of beautiful trees and plant life. Two pagodas grace the top, and the view of the Forbidden City at dusk – with it’s golden rooftops at the centre of Beijing – is an incredibly humbling and beautiful sight.

Golden boy + golden rooves + golden glow

Flamin' fish !

After sunset, we jumped in a cab to meet-up with Chris’ friend Angie, who he knew from his TV work. She took us to a restaurant serving food from Northeast China, where she was from. It was great and our flaming fish dish made a spectacular table centerpiece! Speaking to Angie was really enjoyable. To me, she represents the best of new China – it’s potential and ambitious spirit – combined with a grounded sense of itself. She was articulate, bright, and savvy about the state of the world. Her parents immigrants from Korea themselves, she now lives with them in the Hutongs, working by day in media. Sharing her feelings about China with us in such a candid way, we learned even more about this interesting, contradictory and transitioning land.

Next day, Chris and I decided to do separate things. Chris ventured out on foot towards the south-east, to another Hutong neighbourhood and a park Angie recommended. A silent observer, he soaked-up the streetlife and parklife. People carrying goods to sell to neighbours or tucking into a rice dish at a local hole in the wall gave way to green grass with circles of people playing hacky-sack or dancing together.

Chinese colour coordinated laundry

Parklife

Work it on out!

World's cutest rickshaw?

I headed out to the nearest mall to replace my ripped yoga pants (a results of me sliding on my booty during the trek from Yubeng). I equally enjoyed myself in an American-style shopping experience, browsing H&M and an international supermarket where I stocked-up on granola bars and bought a gift of Heinz baked beans for Chris!

In the evening, we went on a wild goose chase looking for a new Mexican place I’d read about in TimeOut Beijing. After a lengthy search mission in another American-feeling shopping mall – we found the place graced with a sign that said it was temporarily closed! So we ended-up at the 1001 Arabian Nights restaurant that included a belly dancer performing to bad techno music with silent Tom & Jerry cartoons projected either side of the stage. It was a BIZARRE combo for sure, but I really loved seeing the cartoons of my youth (you don’t really need the sound anyway) and the food was really quite good.

Fancy a cube-shaped caramel cake?

The next day we spent the morning researching about India (our next stop), and Daniel at the hostel invited us for lunch with his team which was a special treat for us, feeling so welcomed by our host. We then ventured back to the mall to exchange one item I’d purchased. On our way out we browsed through an amazing bread shop, looking for a snack. They sold all kinds of crazy combinations in crazy shapes – some good, some bad. Chris was taken by their use of pork and chicken ‘floss’ on certain items.

Dance dance the revolution !

Look out for flying noodle!

Then that night we wandered to another part of town, stumbling across hundreds of people of all ages dancing en-masse in front of a Catholic Church. China is nothing if not surprising! But we were really headed to met-up with Angie again at a ‘hot pot’ restaurant called Hai Di Lao, known for it’s amazing service and good food. How it works is like this: each table has two metal pots where the staff poor in a kind of tomato soup (one hot, one not). Then you order whatever you want to cook in it. Veggies, meat, etc. It’s fun! It’s especially fun when they create noodles in front of you by spinning around with the dough like a circus performer!

Next day we left for New Delhi, India and had to say goodbye to China.

Ah, China. What can one say to sum-up such a place? One of our planet’s most ancient cultures, inventors of the amazing and the much-loved: from fireworks and the printing press – to doughnuts and noodles. From emperors and communists – to something in-between. Millions living life on the land as rural farms – while millions of others work in one of the ‘factories to the world.’ Thousands of protests each year against corrupt leaders – but you never hear about any of them. And as millions of  ‘little emperors’ grow-up as an only-child, thinking they are the most important little person in the world – we are already witnessing an increase in suicide at the workplace, once faced with the reality of the opportunities actually available.

So what’s next for China? In spite of the political suppression facing the people there, they all still strive to live good lives. Family and friends are important to them, just like they are important to us. They are curious about the world, and their place in it. I hope that the changes to come in China benefit the majority, and that there is a way to preserve what is beautiful and precious about this country. If progress is comprised of a poisonous cloud of toxic fumes, inhumane working conditions, and broken promises – no amount of hollow rhetoric will be enough to hold-back a billion people’s hopes and dreams for their future.

 

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Finding Shangri-la

Quick note: We have now fallen far behind when it comes to updating our blog. Apologies to those who have been sitting next to their computers waiting for the next installment. The following actually happened back in September but better late than never. This post is rather long but it was one of the best adventures of our trip so far!
 

The name Shangri-la conjures up images of an impossibly beautiful paradise, a place we all dream of finding but never do. Well Shangri-la exits, in northern Yunnan Province… it says so on the map. So we went.

100km north of Lijiang is the town of Shangri-la. It used to be called Zhongdian but in 1997 the local authorities declared that it was the location of British author James Hilton’s fictional Shangri-la from his book The Lost Horizon and promptly changed the name of the town. Since then the town has expanded at an explosive pace fueled by a tourist boom. They have been frantically building houses, shops, hospitals, an airport and even a brand new Old Town area.

View from the bus of the Yangtze river

The bus from Lijiang followed the muddy Yangtze river north tacking back and forth as we rose up through the mountainous terrain. The turns made us a bit queasy but otherwise it was a very comfortable bus with large seats, plenty of leg-room and Kung Fu films playing on screens that drop from the ceiling.

Crops being hung out to dry

Eventually we got to a large flat plateau and passed Tibetan style farm houses spread out across the open fields and crops drying in the sun on large wooden frames. After four hours on the bus we arrived in Shangri-la. Of course it’s initially a bit disappointing, after being hyped up as a place from your most wondrous imaginings, when you enter via a traffic filled road through huge construction sites pushing up ever-increasing rather drab concrete. However we concluded that the Shangri-la of our dreams must be located in the hills and valleys around the town. However, it seems typically Chinese to find a place of incredible beauty only to pour concrete all over it to build the visitor centre, theme park, hotels and shopping malls.

Kevin's Trekker Inn

We arrived at Kevin’s Trekker Inn, a guesthouse of about 10 rooms, all opening out onto a garden, and were greeted by Kevin himself and shown to our room. The layout of the place seems to encourage the guests to meet and chat as they hang out on the veranda or in the garden. We met two friendly Australian women who were long time travelers and very forthcoming with travel advice, travel stories and gossip. We also met a couple in their 20s, Natasha from France and Big from Thailand. They were hatching a plan to travel even further north to the little visited town of Deqin and then hike on to some remote villages inaccessible by road.

Shangri-la old town

In the evening we had a pleasant stroll through the old town area which although most of it was built in the last decade, feels very authentic with its cobbled streets, market square and quaint old (looking) buildings, like a mini Lijiang with a less crowded more relaxed feel. There is a big Tibetan population here and later we headed to a small local Tibetan restaurant to sample the food. We had mixed fried vegetables that we chose from the fridge, bread and an unusual honey and cheese dish.

Enjoying Tibetan food in a small restaurant (yellow dish is cheese and honey)

As we were finishing the owners extended family began arriving, for tonight was the Chinese Moon Festival, an annual celebration which is marked by eating moon cakes and staring at the moon. Families will try to get together on this day, but for those that can’t they stare at the moon in the evening as do the other members of the family separated by distance but all looking at the same moon at the same time in a shared experience. We bought a large round Naxi moon cake and later in the evening we got together with Kevin and some of the other guests around a table in the common room and ate moon cake, drank beer and chatted about China, what we’d seen and what we wanted to see. There was a great atmosphere at the hostel and camaraderie between the guests as we were all in this out-of-the-way place on the edge of China together. We completely forgot to look at the moon however… someone said it was cloudy anyway.

Overnight the idea of venturing out to Deqin and the remote villages rolled around my mind and by the morning I really wanted to do it. I liked the idea of going on a little adventure and doing it in a small group. So I persuaded Jenn that the 8 hour bus journey over bad roads followed by a 7 hour trek over a mountain was nothing to be worried about and then asked Big and Natasha if it would be OK if we could tag along. They agreed and we decided to head out the next day. This left us with a day to explore Shangri-la before we went.

Ganden Sumtseling Gompa

We visited the Ganden Sumtseling Gompa which is a huge monastery a little outside the town. Hidden from view in a valley but up on top of a small hill are three temple buildings with roofs of gold. A long stone stairway leads up passed a collection of smaller buildings, temples and shacks where those working for the monastery live. Some of the buildings really looked like they had not changed in centuries. The many monks, however, had changed with the times and were never without their mobile phones, honestly! We walked slowly up the steps as at 3000m above sea level we got short of breath very quickly (well that was our excuse). At the top we walked through the incense smoke and towards the temples with their bright colours and intricate geometric carvings.

View from the top of the temples

We went inside to explore the interior where there is a huge golden Buddha sitting on the ground floor with the upper levels encircling him, his head up on the third floor . The walls are covered in painted murals and many smaller buddhas and other statues line the walls. Monks were chanting near the big buddha and the atmosphere was warm and inviting unlike the sometimes cold stoney atmosphere of European churches. One of the temples was under construction but it was interesting to see the craftsmen carefully painting the carved wood. The third temple was similar to the first but with a female Buddha. It was impressive to see but I think I preferred the more peaceful hidden away smaller monastery we had seen before.

When we got back to the hostel we chatted with some of the other guests and firmed up our travel ideas for the next few days. The plan was to take the bus for 8 hours north to Deqin along a windy mountainous road that we were told was still under construction. Then the following day we would walk all day over the top of a 4000m high mountain and down the other side to the Yubeng villages and stay for two nights then trek a different route back to Dequin and then return to Shangri-la the next day. With alarm clocks set for 6am we went to bed.

At 7 in the morning we were at Shangri-la bus station trying to compare the Chinese characters on our bus tickets with the destination signs on the front of the many buses outside. At 8.15 we set off into the mountains towards Deqin. We were the only tourists on the bus and we got some quizzical looks from the locals. It felt like a real journey into the unknown. The bus was quite small but with a lot of seats. I think the average length of the legs of a Chinese man is smaller than mine because even if I sat right back in my seat my knees were rubbing on the seat in front, but you just have to put up with these things (and only for 8 hours).

On the way to Deqin. Road construction had caused landslides

The road was undergoing some major construction work to upgrade it from a small winding road into a bigger, faster and slightly less winding road. They don’t close the road while this is happening as it is the only route through the mountains. The bus just goes right through the many construction sites along the way. Sometimes we had to wait for the big diggers to get out the way then somehow find our way over mounds of earth and temporary dirt tracks up around the building work. In total about a third of the road was a very bumpy dirt track which the bus bounced along.

A bull inspects the road works

We were amazed to see that much of the building work was being done by hand. dozens of men and women were sweeping the road with straw brooms before the tar was poured on. Others were breaking up boulders with hammers.

We wound up into the rugged mountains climbing from 3000m to over 4000m in elevation passing huge gorges and rivers. Then we would descend gradually then climb up the next mountain.

Our bus

We stopped once at a ‘toilet block’ then again at a small town for lunch but for the last four hours we did not stop and Jenn was in need of the bathroom for a long time. Eventually we saw our destination of Deqin come into sight on the valley floor below and around an hour later we arrived into the dusty town. We got off the bus and stretched our legs with Jenn running for the toilet. Deqin is an outpost town with a depressed feel far away from the boom of China’s economy. Run down shops line the streets and as we walked, some taxi drivers were shouting to us, wanting to take us wherever we wanted. After a tea in what turned out to be a Chinese brothel we very easily got a ride to the nearby village of Feilai Si where we intended to stay the night.

Prayer flags around a temple in Feilai Si

We attempted to explain to our driver to come back in the morning to take us to the start of the mountain trail then we went off to find a place to stay. The town is a strip of cheap hotels next to a famous viewing point where you can look out over a gorge to see snow-capped mountains all around. Two years ago you would see in the foreground 7 Buddhist monuments set in a row onto the bare rocks of the mountainside but recently the Chinese authorities had moved them onto a large wooden viewing platform near the road along with a coach park and row of souvenir shops. However we were almost the only visitors along with a handful of Chinese tourists. The view was spectacular though and we couldn’t wait to head out into the more remote villages untouched by the heavy hand of the ministry of tourism.

View from our hotel (had we paid the 8 pounds extra for a room with a view)

We found a basic but clean hotel for 8 pounds a night having rejected the first hotel we looked at because they were redecorating and although they were renting out rooms they had no bathrooms at all in the hotel! We went into a restaurant for dinner which was deserted apart from two German brothers, Tomas and Öva (sorry, not sure of spelling), on a three-week holiday who had just arrived in town. We told them of our plan to visit the Yubeng villages and asked if they wanted to join us. They agreed and now we were a group of six tourists on this little adventure. We were very tired from our bus trip and had headaches from the altitude so were happy to be in bed by 9pm.

"now could each of you stand on a different step for the photo please"

Early the next morning we were in a minibus riding on a small dirt track around rugged mountains. We passed through a couple of small villages, one with a stream running down most of the road which we splashed along.

The six of us head out on the hike

After an hour or so we got to the start of the walking trail where we were greeted by some locals who offered us some horses to take us over the mountain. Jenn and Natasha were keen but the price was quite high so we decided just to walk it.We were at 2700m above sea level and the trek would take us up to almost 4000m before descending to around 3000 at Yubeng. The path climbed up steeply through a mixture of forest and open hillside higher and higher. It was a pleasant but strenuous walk and we passed several Chinese hikers finding it equally as tough. There was a good friendly spirit between hikers all encouraging each other on. “How far to the top?” we would ask those coming the opposite way. “Only 2 hours!” they would say. Then we would realise that was two hours walking downhill not uphill.

"I want a horse!"

After a few hours Jenn and Natasha wished they had taken horses so when we passed some being taken down the hill they asked if they could hire them to go up (cost was now not an obstacle). But the horses were needed elsewhere so the girls had to carry on on foot. The path is used to carry everything over the mountain to the Yubeng villages as there is no road to connect it to the outside world. We saw horses carrying supplies including boxes of live chickens. “That will be our dinner tonight”, we thought.

Many things have to be carried by hand. We saw two guys struggling with a big metal water pipe, one on each end. Some others were carrying what looked like kitchen furniture on their backs including cupboards, tables and a kitchen sink. One guy had a massive water tank on his back. It made us stop complaining about our small day packs we were carrying.

We reached the top of the mountain!

Finally we reached the top of the mountain! The wooden summit was adorned with strings of Tibetan prayer flags all around and a shack where you could buy food and drinks.  We managed to book a guesthouse in Yubeng with the help of a Chinese couple who were good enough to call on their phone for us. The couple spoke no English and we communicated with gestures and hand signals “Six people, three rooms, two nights, arriving today”. Most of the people living in this area are Tibetan and look quite different from the Han Chinese who form the majority in China. As we passed them on the trail they would shout out “Tashi Deley!” which means Hello! Good luck and may good things come to you today. We would reply “Tashi Deley!” and they would smile and laugh.

On our way down the mountain

From the top of the mountain the path wound down through forest providing some welcome shade from the sun. We passed other hikers struggling up the hill or locals striding up leading their horses. Eventually we saw a green valley come into site nestled between giant snow mountains and in it the small settlement of Yubeng, our destination.

Upper Yubeng village comes into sight

There are two Yubeng villages, Upper Yubeng on the hillside and Lower Yubeng on the valley floor. We were staying in Lower Yubeng. We entered Upper Yubeng first via a farm where pigs and chickens roamed about our path and villagers looked at us bemused as the six of us from around the world walked across the mud of their farmyard. We felt a little out of place but in an exciting way.

Trying to find our way in the Yubeng villages

To get to the lower village we were directed to walk literally along a stream jumping from rock to rock and we happily descended into a small wooded gorge. Once we had crossed a bridge and climbed a small hill we entered Lower Yubeng walking passed a cluster of farms then onto the large flat valley where we found the “Mystic Waterfall Inn”.

Our guesthouse

It’s a guesthouse of about 15 basic rooms around a central grassy area where a few other intrepid guests were sitting around relaxing. The rooms were simple with two small beds and that’s about it. A single electric bulb dimly lit the room as the electricity here was of such low power it would barely cause the filament to glow. Even though the rooms were basic this seemed like perfection.

On the little balcony outside our room with stream running nearby

The view from the window was a picture postcard of a small stream with ducks on it, beyond which was a beautiful monastery in a valley with yaks roaming around all framed by huge mountains on all sides and in the distance a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. We had made it!

We sat around the grassy area on makeshift tables and chairs drinking tea, happy to relax. As it got darker and colder we moved inside to a dimly lit room set out with low wooden tables and benches. A whole stuffed dear stood in the middle of the room with eyes that followed you around. Behind a counter was a primitive kitchen where a wood fire was heating a large pot of water. There was a staff of about five preparing food.

Nimbu

One of those working was a rather manic looking guy with messy sticking up hair and carefree attitude. One moment he was serious the next he was laughing. He had shown us to our rooms earlier and spoke a bit of English. He gave us a menu and we ordered a few dishes to share. I had yak meat for the first time which tastes a bit like beef. The guesthouse had a bit of a rough-and-ready feel. The outside toilets were little more than a hole in the ground but the shower was good and hot. There was a similar easy-going, make do but slightly crazy feel to the people who worked there but maybe that comes with being in such an isolated place. A small group of Israeli hikers sat at the table next to us and two Russians at another. The food orders got a bit mixed up between the tables but we didn’t care. It all added to a crazy, overtired in the middle of nowhere in the middle of China feeling where we were communicating with hand gestures to equally crazy locals, but we were enjoying it. We were out of place not knowing quite what would happen next and it brought us and the other guests together. The crazy hair guy was called Nimbu or something like that as it seemed to change every time someone asked. We were a bit confused as we began to try to put together how the guesthouse functioned from fragments of english and overheard conversations. Nimbu was in charge but a guy called Aqinpu ran the place but he was away but we heard that his brother spoke English and was a guide we could talk to about trekking but we never saw him so we began to think he didn’t exist. “He’ll be back tonight” they said, but when, and what did he look like? In the evening Nimbu brought out the skull of a bear, the skin of which was hanging on one of the walls next to a stuffed raccoon. Later he brought out a plastic bag and we gathered around to see inside the rare caterpillar fungus; half caterpillar, half fungus which occurs when the fungus grows on a living caterpillar slowly eating it until it sprouts a stem from the caterpillar body. They are a Chinese delicacy. “Very rare and expensive” he said, laughing at our confused faces. Nimbu became a bit of a cult figure to us tourists, “He’s a hunter! He’s a cook! He’s a magician! He’s a dancer!”, someone shouted. Afraid to get further caught up in this madness we went to bed and slept well.

Setting off for our walk to the waterfall which is inbetween the two mountains

The next day we decided to hike up to a nearby waterfall. We ordered a breakfast of bread and hard-boiled eggs plus a scrambled egg and tomato mix. We packed away most of the eggs and bread for a picnic and set off along the valley floor passing the monastery and several monks. We passed the family of pigs that lived nearby and walked towards the tall snow mountains. We entered a forested area leading to a small river. When we got to the water’s edge we saw on the stony shore next to the river hundreds of small rocks that had been carefully stacked up.

It was an amazing and mysterious sight. The mountain we were heading for and the waterfall are sacred places for the Tibetan Buddhists who make a journey to it regularly, and the stacks of stones are built to encourage good luck and safety for the journey.

Taking a short break at a pathside cafe

We walked under more prayer flags crisscrossing the path leading us on. We passed many Tibetans making the trip to the waterfall to pray. “Tashi Delay!” was the cheerful cry echoing around the valley. The path became steeper as we climbed higher until the waterfall came into sight.

Looking towards the waterfall

Near to the waterfall a small glacier of ice and snow was gradually melting in the heat with the melt-water forming small streams running down over rocks and boulders. Big from Thailand was excited as he had never seen or touched snow before and seeing it so near he raced forward for a closer look.

Big touches snow for the first time

He went up to it and touched it rather cautiously, smiling with a huge grin. Up close the ice seemed huge and monolithic filling a large area of the valley and up into the hills. It’s edge was ever-changing as it melted from below with mist pouring off like a freezer when the door has been opened. We climbed up on the ice and walked about on the crunchy snow like it was midwinter back home.

Tired but exhilarated we sat and ate our bread and eggs. As we walked back we met a group of Chinese tourists looking up at a tree. There was a local girl up the tree who was collecting berries and happily throwing some down to the group below. One of them explained that the girl said she would sing when we left and sure enough as we walked away we heard her beautiful, haunting voice float towards us in the breeze as she sang traditional songs. We passed back by the stone stacks, our minds full of the mysticism of nature.

It was mid afternoon when we arrived back at the guesthouse and one of the Israelis, who was an acupuncturist was performing a medical procedure on his friend which involved rubbing his shoulder with a stiff brush until it was red raw. But nothing surprised us now in this place.

In the evening we discussed ideas for our departure the next day. There were two options. The safe option was to walk back over the mountain the way we had come which we knew would involve a steep climb on our stiff and weary legs. But we had heard about an alternative route leading out of the village the opposite way following the river through a large gorge. A path that is known to the locals but little used by tourists. On the plus side it would be a mostly level or downwards trek taking just 5 hours to a bridge near a road from where we could be picked up and taken back to civilisation by minibus. This path passes through a spectacular gorge and beautiful hillside meadows. The down side is that it is said to be quite dangerous. The path is very narrow in places and winds its way very high up on the side of the gorge with a long scary drop down one side to the river and rocks below. Also it is prone to landslides and was sometimes impassable. We would need a local guide to take us and some steady nerves. After dinner the owners brother made an appearance and we asked him if we should attempt this route. He said we would be OK if we were careful and if it was at all raining we shouldn’t do it. We debated between us for quite some time before making our decision. We would do it!

We awoke early the next day. Would this be the last day of our trip and possibly our lives? After our breakfast of bread and eggs we waited a little nervously for our guide who the owners brother said he would organise. Our guide turned out to be Nimbu. Even more nervous, we set off. It started fairly easily with narrow but solid paths through the forest. We followed the course of a rapidly flowing youthful river which crashed against rocks in places and was gentle and calm in others as it descended into an ever growing gorge. The path began to get narrower, rocky and a bit slippery in places as it carved its way down on one side of the wooded valley.

The moment just before Jenn slipped

Jenn slipped and fell a little bit at one point but was helped by our guide who turned out to be very good at looking after us and knew the path well having made the trek for years. Jenn later realised that she had ripped a small hole in her leggings, revealing her red undies – a fact that our guide found hilarious and he rolled about on the floor laughing.

The path lead us through beautiful meadows of wildflowers and amazing smelling herbs. We joyfully walked on, breathing the sweet smell and feeling very small amongst the huge hills on either side of us that started to form a giant gorge with the river gushing through.

The path became more difficult and at times was just a track of boulders and the drop on one side became higher and more severe. At our halfway point we stopped to eat our food. We met a group of local women coming the other way. Nimbu explained that one of the women was his wife who had come to take us the rest of the way while he would return to Yubeng. With our new guide leading the way we headed out to the most dangerous part. We crossed the river onto the left side of the gorge and started walking along a ledge cut into the side of the gorge about two-thirds the way up. Some of the water had been diverted from the river and along a small channel on the ledge that we were walking on.

To our right is a scary drop down to the river

So we were walking on a narrow path with the channel of water on our left and to our right was an almost shear drop down to the river below. To me it actually felt quite safe and manageable even though I don’t normally like heights. I just stayed near to the channel of water knowing that I would rather slip and get a wet foot than fall down the gorge. Jenn found the going a bit tough but with a lot of concentration bravely kept going. The gorge was huge and spectacular and it was exhilarating just to be there. The forest disappeared giving way to rugged and increasingly barren rock.

Then we hit a bit of an obstacle. At one point the stream of water at our side was overflowing across the path and down the side of the gorge in a small waterfall.

Amazingly the guide gingerly walked over the wet rocks on the path treading on the ones that were just poking up above the water that was flowing across. We looked but realised that one slip on a wet rock and you could easily fall down the gorge. We decided to take our shoes and socks off and walk in the channel of water passed the overflowing part. This way it was much safer. Big actually walked on the path like the guide but the rest of us didn’t take the chance.

Jenn taking the danger in her stride

The terrain became dryer and more desert-like, just dirt and rocks. At one point a landslide had gone across the path but we just walked right over it. As the gorge turns a corner the river flows into the Mekong river to begin its long journey through southern China, Vietnam and into Cambodia. Maybe we shall see it again later in our trip.

Climbing over a landslide on the path

Eventually we saw a small settlement come into sight. We climbed and slid down a crumbling path to a rickety looking suspension bridge across the river. From there we walked into what seemed like a road construction site to try to meet the minibus which had been called for us by the guide. As we came to the bus it was about to leave with some other people, the driver having obviously given up on us. Luckily we got there just in time and the driver kicked the other guys out. We bought some drinks from some men there who were selling them from a shipping container which they were sitting inside. They had a fridge in there full of drinks and a table and chairs you could sit on. They invited us to sit down for a drink and a chat but we said we had to go. It felt very off the beaten track here, free, lawless and a little crazy.

We made it!

We got in the minibus and headed out on what turned out to be the most terrifying part of the journey. We had to drive up what seemed like a steep mountain made of stone and rubble that had been excavated while building the road. The rough track zig-zagged up the hill with a frightening drop down the side. There was no vegetation or trees that might prevent us falling if we got too near the edge. It was nerve-wracking and wasn’t helped by the fact that our driver was simultaneously talking on the phone with one hand and trying to drink tea from a flask in the other, while also trying to maneuver around the tricky switchbacks with his elbows. After we arrived safely at Deqin one of the German brothers who had been sitting in the front seat next to the driver explained that the driver had also been falling asleep and at one point he had to grab the wheel to prevent us from falling into the gorge. Had we noticed this at the time I think we would have got out and walked.

Relaxing in the restaurant in the evening together we drank a few bottles of Dali beer and reflected on our adventure. It was a real highlight on our trip and was great to do it with such nice travel companions who made it so enjoyable, and it was a bonus to have survived to tell the tale.

Relaxing on the bus back to Lijiang

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Lingering too long in Lijiang (I’ll love you forever)

3 September 2011: Now, the Yunnan Province of China was our top pick. With 22 different ethnic groups and landscapes ranging from glacier topped mountains in the north – to volcanic lakes in the west and topical jungles in the south while also borders 3 countries – it was China’s most diverse.

We decided to fly there to save time, landing in the capital of Kunming and hopping a short flight to Lijiang. Ah Lijiang, how I’ll love you forever. Looking back, this small town was my absolute favourite place in China. There we relaxed, overcame tummy troubles and let it’s cool waterways lull us into staying much longer than we’d originally anticipated.

Advice from local government proved bewildering

We arrived late at night and were dropped off at the edge of the pedestrianised Old Town. Without many street names, a friendly Dutch guy who ran a bar nearby led us to the Moon Inn, which was booked for us by an eco-tour company (more on the eco-tour later). It was charming from the outside, with a central stone courtyard that the rooms surrounded. There were wooden screens with intricate carvings lining the walkways. Yet inside the room was not good, smelled (what’s up with drains in China) and had little bug carcasses stuck onto the wall, slaughtered by previous guests. I vowed to find new digs later on.

Waking up without an alarm clock for the first time in what seemed like ages, was a real luxury for us. We made our way to Petite Bookshop Cafe for breakfast and to plan out the next few days. On the way, we spotted a large mama making traditional flatbread (baba) with a fried egg on top. We bought one, eating while walking, it was delish!

Picture perfect

We wandered around the town, and what a joy that was! Comprised of cobbled lanes, with small wooden shops lining the pathways – the place is also riddled with crystal clear water canals. Originally planned to give every house access to water, the result is a picture perfect place built for humans (as opposed to cars and traffic). The main ethic group are the Naxi – over 200,000 of which live in and around Lijiang. The women wear dark skirts and simple blue tops, with a sort of padded back cushion that wraps across the chest in a criss-cross pattern. This is used to protect the back while carrying large baskets of veggies from the field or shopping and the like.

Naxi woman delivering the day's harvest, early morning

Stir it up!

Crossing stone bridges and walking under weeping willow trees – it was the easiest place to be, even getting lost was fun! It wan’t long before we discovered one of the things I came to like most about Lijiang – it’s diverse food options! We came to one lane full of street vendors making food: spring rolls, fried beans, noodles and various meats on skewers (including chicken’s feet!). We sampled a couple things, and though very spicy, we enjoyed them.

Cafe Chris

Later we sat in a cafe sipping lemon & dandelion tea, watching people go by. More tourist took photos with us and we ended the night at Lama’s House of Tibet – everything we ordered was great, and the Tibetan milk tea was so good, that drinking it would become my daily ritual. After dinner we sat going over on our time in China so far and compared it to our  own countries – the governments, the people, the values. It seemed like we’d never had much time to reflect before this, and I really cherished this moment.

Enjoying the atmosphere (and food! and tea!) at House of Tibet

Our home in Lijiang

We woke up to Bobo's smug face, having completed the challenging Rubik's cube during the night

We changed guesthouses to the lovely, designy and homely A Liang Inn – run by Becky, Ray and their little dog Bobo (which means ‘baby’). Beyond that, the next three days were spent in much the same way, with slight variations of restaurants and sights.

We went to Black Dragon Pool Park – a scenic lake and the source of the town’s water supply. Several pagodas surrounded it, in one the local Naxi Traditional Orchestra played ancient string and wind instruments. There was a singer too. It sounded a bit screechy, but we enjoyed it immensely. In the park were lots of elderly Naxi people in traditional dress – playing chess or dominoes on stone tables, or collecting water from the sacred mountain springs around the lake. They looked at us curiously, in the same way we looked at them.

Majong mavens

Naxi ladies relaxing lakeside

Further along the lake, I poked my head past the gate of the Five Phoenix Pagoda – and a finger & palm painter beckoned us over. We were engrossed as he demonstrated how he creates beautiful landscapes using just his finger and side of the palm. Beautiful & quite a skill!! We bought one scene of Guilin – which marked the first time we’d purchased  a memento for ourselves. We were also happy to support a talented local artist and craftsperson.

Black Dragon Pool

The drinking well (tho not by me!)

Other days we visited The Three Wells –  where locals go to get drinking water from one, wash veggies in the other and clothes in the last. There were locals there using them in just this way – it was great! We visited a large supermarket to stock-up on supplies for our upcoming eco-tour/hike, which was really interesting to me. All the strange food and crazy packaging with pictures of gothic lolitas or anime. In the evening we tried new restuarants – some local, some Western style. At a place called The Well, some Chinese girls were watching a Simon Pegg film (a British comedy actor, for the Americans reading). I tried to recommend his flick Sean of the Dead, though walking around the restaurant imitating a zombie in order to explain the film seemed to put them off.

Buy some tunes, or just make your own noise!

It’s worth mentioning that Lijiang has it’s own soundtrack actually. Not just the water gurgulling through the trees, but of a local singer whose CD is playing non-stop all day long at over a dozen tiny CD shops all over town. La-dee-da-dee-da-dee-da….her voice would greet us every morning. I decided to buy a copy for myself (it was a bootleg, as it was released online – I think her name is Kan Kan), but wanted to buy from a woman-run shop. We found one, and listened to the CD while also being given bongo drum lessons by her friend who spoke perfect English. Serenading the streets – we sounded terrible – but it wasn’t a bad way to spend an evening.

The Wenhai Trail

Just beginning our ascent

On the fourth day in Lijiang, we woke up early to met by our guide Carrie for our pre-arranged 3-day eco-tour around the area. Our first day was trekking to the small village of Wenhai. We were driven by car to the ancient town of Baisha, and visited a government-funded social project that trains women in the traditional craft of embroidery. Sounds simple, but the work is more like art, framed and to be cherished. It was explained that in normal silk thread, there are actually 250 individual strands. They use one of these almost microscopic strands when stitching. It takes years of training just to create the first real pictures, with two-sided pictures (where both sides of the canvas look great) being possible only by masters with 25+ years of experience. In their gallery she explained the symbolic meanings of the subjects and also the craft behind creating certain scenes and images. Some pieces took years to create, some months. We were in awe, and chose one for purchase to be shipped to us in the UK.

Hard at work, with needle and thread

Almost there...

We then walked through Baisha village, once the capital of the Naxi Kingdom – and into the mountains. At over 1000m, we couldn’t tell if it was the steepness or the altitude that was making us so winded. It was tough! But it was very green with wild azaleas, butterflies and a cool breeze making it manageable. Until 20 years ago, this narrow pass was the only way to reach Wenhai Village. This seemed unimaginable to us, but the well-worn and deep groves confirmed the story. After a hard four hour slog – we reached the gray lunar landscape on top and descended happily towards Wenhai’s seasonal lake and our Eco-Lodge.

Wenhai Eco-Lodge

We were greeted by a rotund Naxi woman who was to be our cook. Her little rust coloured mini Chow dog followed her happily around the place. It was another typical Naxi construction of carved window screens, wooden walls and a courtyard lined with stone walk ways. But this one used solar panels and rainwater harvesting.The food was simple, all locally grown courgette, potato and my favourite tomato and egg dish.

Around town

After our late lunch, we took short naps and then Carrie walked us around the village. She seemed to know everyone, and being half Naxi – she could speak their language too. She explained the houses to us – ‘three rooms, one wall’: one room for cooking, one for storing and drying, and one for living. In China’s countryside, you are allowed two children (in the cities, only one), but they must be 6 years apart. We passed by lots of small fields growing mostly potatoes, barley and turnips (as the soil is quite poor in the mountains).  A few people were carrying big round cakes for the upcoming Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. It sounded like Thanksgiving to me – everyone is supposed to come home from wherever the are living and you eat a lot. You also light incense ‘for sacrifice’ and look at the moon. I made a mental note of the date and vowed to celebrate it, it sounded fantastic!

After dinner, it began to rain heavily, with lightening going off all around. It was just like after our hike in Austria – with a huge storm following our arduous journey through the mountains. We spotted some flashlights & yelling up in the mountain, and hoped whoever was up there would make it down ok.

Very tired, I went to wash-up and was brushing my teeth while Chris was in the loo. I thought I saw something big fly out of the ladies room and into the men’s. I hollered to warn Chris. Within seconds, Chris shot out with a bat in tow! The thing was deranged, flying right into his face! Chris was ducking and dodging it in quick sharp moves, like bad break dancing! It finally dispersed, and apparently the dang thing flew straight into his face in the loo as well – poor guy! I thought bads could ‘see’ so well with their sonar – what the heck was that crazy ass bat trying to do? We had to laugh tho, and were reminded of our previous bat sightings in Bulgaria.

Animal torture: a dream feast just out of reach

After a cozy sleep and a breakfast of traditional steamed buns and green tea – we decided to change our plans. We were meant to walk over a longer but easier road to our homestay with a Naxi family, but instead decided to take a car. Being so wet – the area would be crawing with leeches falling off the wet leaves.Carrie advised it was best to avoid them! I requested we detour through Shuhe – a similar town to Lijiang, but on a smaller scale. It was nice, and I bought some cool trousers in the local style. We stopped for lunch at what looked like a real dodgy dive. They had a chiller display case in the restaurant showing the veggies and meats on offer. Carrie pointed to what she wanted and they cooked her ingredients. I wasn’t hoping for much, but oh man, it was soooooooooo good. The best Chinese food we had in China. Just goes to show you the difference between a tourist area and a non-tourist area. Four dishes including tea & rice for four people – came to just 50 yuan (about 5 quid / 8 bucks).

Lashi Lake

Walnut welcome

Mother and son

We arrived in the afternoon at Lashi Lake and to the house where we would stay that night. It was another Naxi house, but two stories and much more farm-like. There was a vegetable garden off the kitchen, chickens running around and a pig and yak farm as well as a large storehouse. We were offered fruit, tea and walnuts from their tree. Three generations lived in the home: grandparents, their oldest son and his wife and their little boy (who sadly had a broken arm but was in good spirits when I handed him the box of chocolates we’d brought as a gift).

Tea's up!

We relaxed and played cards with Carrie, a Chinese game she’d taught us called “Rich people, Poor people” – it was really fun though I don’t think I could remember how to play it without her! Dinner was had in the kitchen with the family, around a tiny wooden table with small benches just off the floor. Everything was from their garden, they also worked some land they owned in the vicinity. It was so nice to have such fresh food, after all these months of eating in restaurants! The kitchen itself was the most interesting room to me – just one hot plate and an open fire, fueled by used corn cobs, with a kettle boiling on top. I was amazed that in this simple set-up the daughter-in-law had managed to make 5 dishes: squash, corn, battered and fried aubergine, egg and greens, a pork dish + rice!

Mudbrick house that Chris 'quite liked'

We walked around the village of 300 families. Carry explained that every week there is a gathering of the old folks in the village. The hosting house rotates each time, and everyone pitches in to help make food for everyone. We spotted many walking home from the gathering that day. We passed by the lake at dusk, and then made our way to the basketball court behind the school where the daughter-in-law was learning to drive their new mini-van (they hoped to be one of the drivers for the tour company). She tried to drive us home, but after stalling twice, the husband took over due to saftey concerns for the tourists, haha! We watched some funny Chinese TV with them, before heading to our very simple room which was sort of open to the elements. Apparently it gets pretty cold in winter (minus degrees). I wondered how they coped?

Back in the saddle for the first time since Hungary !

Naxi murals and pictograms

Next day, we were given bicycles and cycled around the lake through a series of 23 small communities. Many buildings were painted with murals of the Naxi mythology, which is similar to Tibetan. However, their written language is not! Like Egypt, they use pictographs – which looked very pretty written on the sides of buildings.

Horse-drawn tourism

We were the only ones on bikes, tho there were other tourists – all Chinese – all riding on ponies. We smelled them as we passed by. There were lots of fields of corn, with squash growing along the edge, just like we used to in our garden back in London.

We splattered through the muddy paths, but before it got too bad our driver came to drive us the rest of the way to the Zhiyun (Under the Clouds) Tibetan Monastery. It really was under the clouds and a very blue sky. It should was nice and peaceful, except upon my trip to the loo I realised I didn’t know the male/female symbols! I picked one at random, and may have used the monk’s toilet. I’m pretty certain this is a big NO-NO, considering you aren’t even supposed to look a monk in the face if they pass you. Both sides were empty and luckily no one else entered, but I still can’t confirm to this day if I was in the men’s or the ladies. But we didn’t get kicked out, and spent some time looking at the Wheel of Life, Carrie showing us the various stages of life (including a very graphic and bloody hell), while a young monk laughed at her description and attempted to educate us, prompting that if you want to know the Buddhist faith – you must first understand this wheel.

Right after this photo was taken, I ate it!

A very colourful place

We carried on with our bikes, I managed to crash right outside the monastery while attempting to photograph Chris whilst riding. My first crash in years – I have never even crashed once while riding on London roads…what a jinx! But the rest of the ride was beautiful and scenic – a portrait of farm and village life. Families worked every inch of their small plots of land. Planting ranges of fruit trees, with root and lefty vegetables underneath. I really connected with this approach, having grown vegetables in London for a few seasons with Chris. I wondered how hard it would be to do things on a slightly larger scale like this?

We were driven back to town, and rested a bit before walking around Lijiang – which at this point had become so familiar, we didn’t even need a map to navigate it’s twisting and winding lanes.

Homemade Tour

Visiting Chairman Mao

Next day, we decided the bike ride was too short. My back was doing okay and Ray, the guesthouse owner, told us to ‘Go see Mao at Red Square’ to find some rentals. We found him and two good bikes with baskets and complimentary water bottles + a map. But Chris had his fancy GPS and plotted us a route. We wanted to get out of town through smaller roads, and then journey to another monastery and then onto another lake. Accidentally passing through a large locals-only market where we had to walk the bikes, we made it out of the town and into a more rural area. But it wasn’t very pretty, and soon I felt like we hit a dumpsite! There were piles of organised rubble of stones, wood, gravel and plastic bottles. Further on we realised: the government was buidling a new highway and these piles were all that was left of the houses that once stood in it’s way. Lord knows where all the people who lived here were ‘relocated to’. The workers looked at us with suspicion, so we didn’t linger.

Construction was everywhere in China !

Flags guiding us to the monastery

Finally we made it to the small town of the Fugo, home to the monastery of the same name. But without a detailed map, we were lost. We asked some people where to go, and they said look for the characters with the name. I also followed my nose as I’d spotted a tourist van a ways back – we headed up and around a couple turns came to a dead-end with a woman standing alone. She seemed to be guarding some other bikes and pointed up – to a small muddy path. We locked our bikes and away we went. With prayer flags gracefully leading the way, we knew we’d found it finally and took some time to eat some nuts & raisins.

At the top was a quiet monastery, bigger than the one we’d seen before and somehow more hushed – even though we were much closer to town. Chris seemed cautious about going in, but I managed to persuade him it was okay. Inside incense were burning and ancient trees grew inside the courtyard. The temple was quiet and empty – I ventured in to leave a donation –  hunching over to not make myself higher than the Budda, and bowed before I left. I felt something for the place, so secluded and close to nature. Others had left donations of rice, fruit and milk. I liked this idea very much – it shouldn’t always be about money, but about what you have to share.

Definitely not on the tourist trail !

Back on the bike, we traveled further south through more villages – some dusty and old, some prettier and more moneyed. We got the feeling, we were well off the tourist path – as the stares sort of gave it away. One guy shoveling gravel stopped in mid-air, mouth agape, body frozen – in a sort of dazed stare. It kind of wiggled me out – but Chris was sympathetic – saying maybe it was the first time these people had seen non-Chinese people. It rained a bit. Unfussed, we donned our raincoats – it was nothing compared to cycling in London rain.    We passed many farms – a few so pretty they looked more like gardens..lined with red rose bushes instead of fences.

The lake further down turned out to be a reservoir which we couldn’t get very close to – and also Chris was chased by a very mean dog in the vicinity – so we headed back to town…with the rain reaching London levels. We sheltered under a tarp with a sort of flatbed attached to a motorcycle type vehicle – and another guy who was trying to save his three huge moon cakes. We made it back – wet and hungry. We decided to eat at the joint of the nice guy who rescued when we were lost on our first night in Lijiang – Jack’s New Amsterdam Pub. The veggie burger and homemade fries really hit the spot…and we toasted Lijiang goodbye.

Life in Lijiang, it sure is nice

I felt I could live in Lijiang quite happily, and was sad to leave. But it was time to move on…next stop Shangri-La !

Lijiang, I'll love you forever

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Charmed by China’s countryside

The money shot (Li River - Guilin to Yangshuo)

Waking up on the train (not that we really slept all that deeply anyway) – it was another early morning, pulling into another new place. Difference was, this time it was China! Somewhere much talked about, but a place I never thought I’d see myself entering…something about non-democratic regimes just gives me the willies. And let’s face it – for an American mother, this isn’t exactly the best choice. But Chris was keenly interested, and after doing lots of reading on the place I must say I was coming around to the idea too. And anyway, here we were!

Guilin is a city in the province of Guangxi along China’s southern border with Vietnam.  It is a prime destination for Chinese tourists – known for its lush landscape and surrounds. Leaving the train, at the end of the platform we were approached by a nice enough looking woman who asked us if we were interested in tours of the area. Luckily, Chris had read that there was a reputable tour company in the station itself, and so we followed her to their office and a nice guy named David explained the two main tours – one to the famed rice terraces and one up river to Yangshuo. We’d already decided to go to Yangshou next – so booked them both for the very reasonable price of less than $20 each.

Let's play human Frogger!

Our next challenge was crossing the road to the taxi queue. Yes, there was a crosswalk – multiple in fact. And no, no one was paying any attention to it. It was like a real-life, and quite terrifying game of Frogger. We followed the locals and hauled buns as fast as we could with our heavy bags. I felt our taxi overcharged us, but he took us straight to our hostel – Backstreet – where we were greeted by three lovely Chinese girls, who all spoke English and offered us a nice breakfast. So far, China wasn’t so bad, I thought.

We took our usual nap, atop the world’s hardest mattress. It is like they took a regular soft mattress and placed a wooden board on top of it. Throughout our stay in China, we would come across this same type of sleeping torture device time and time again – it was a real Chinese specialty, this one. Once awake, we headed out to explore.

At least you know how it's been cooked, eh?

Our first friends in China

We were right next to the main pedestrianized shopping area and easily found a good, safe place to eat. A stand selling veggies on skewers – frying off any bad germs before serving it with a nice sauce. We carried on, making our way towards the Solitary Beauty Peak. I wanted to buy a bubble tea (milky tea with tapioca balls inside), and at the nearby shop we were enthusiastically greeted by a group of stylish teenage girls who seemed incredibly happy to see us.  They wanted their picture taken with me and offered to be our guides! I obliged on the photo, and also had Chris take one for me. They then helped Chris order a nice freshly pressed apple juice and sent us on our way – hydrated and with many smiles, giggles and waves goodbye.

Prince's mansion & Solitary Beauty Peak in the distance

Following the steps of royalty - and Mao !

Walking through small backstreets, we arrived at the Solitary Beauty Peak. Situated within a 14th century prince’s mansion from the Ming Dynasty – it was a sort of mini Forbidden City. We toured the palace, admiring the portraits of many stern, fierce-faced princes in incredibly intricate dress. The Peak stood behind the palace, protecting it from evil winds and attacks. We climbed the stairs 153m to the top for our first views of Guilin’s unique typography. Around the hill were two caves, one used for meditation and worship – the other used for composing poems and verse. Not a bad life, eh? It was all pretty magical, as we sat and sipped the juice from inside a coconut. But the scene was interrupted by a sea of Chinese students practicing some kind of pledge of allegiance and marching routines on the grounds, as many of the buildings were now part of the adeptly named ‘Guangxi Normal University.’

Atop Solitary Beauty Peak

He's a coconut, this guy!

Walking back to the hostel, we were surprised by the lack of Westerners. We seemed quite a novelty, as many people would shout “Hello” as we passed. We ventured out for dinner, and were hassled by a tout trying to get us to go to a restaurant of his choice. We smelled a scam in the making and managed to lose him. Playing it safe – as neither of our stomachs was at their best – we settled on a pizza-bar type place. We were the only ones eating in the joint. Though there was one large table of smoking men watching a big screen TV showing the World Athletics Championships being held in China. They were disappointed when their Chinese hurdler came in second place, but I was privately proud as an American came in first. Take that China! (Honorable mention, a Brit placed third – whoo-hoo!)

Next day, we awoke early and again enjoyed our breakfast of oats, peeled fruit and egg. We were picked-up by our tour van bound for the Longji Rice Terraces. There were 5 other English-speakers in the group: A Brit/Irish couple, a Canadian couple and a gal from Amsterdam. Our guide’s name was Harry, and I liked his very 1950s sense of humour. The 2hrs journey was our first real taste of the crazy Chinese driving – if you can call it that. It’s more like a game of chicken. Everyone drives very fast, and tries to pass everyone else like it’s a race. There are carts, animals, many variations of converted/repurposed motorcycles, semi-trucks and tourist vans like us. All this on a winding two-laned road. I was very, very nervous.

Fab hairstylings of the Red Yao people

We made it to the village of the Red Yao – known for their women who never cut their hair. Long hair means long life, you see. To get there we crossed a wobbly wooden suspension bridge that read ‘maximum 15 people’ which had at least double that on it, but hey! In the village I opted to watch their theatrical show which told the story and traditions of the village in song, narration and dance. It was good fun, especially when they re-enacted their one of a kind wedding ceremony with an old white guy from the audience. He had to carry the bride on his back, kneed a huge vat of dough with a long stick, sing an impromptu song acapella (he chose “My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean” – which left the largely Chinese audience dumbfounded) and dance whilst getting his butt pinched by the other girls. It was a riot! At the end the women all unveiled their hair from their intricate buns (different styles denoting married, unmarried or married with children). Chris took the opportunity to take photos around the village while everyone was at the show.

Letting down of the hair

Sundried !

We then had a pretty bad lunch at a local eatery. Actually, Chris and I ordered simple pumpkin and green beans which wasn’t too bad. But others had ordered more fancy items that were inedible. My advice: when in doubt, go vegetarian. At least you can recognise what you are eating, and it’s less likely to go horribly wrong.

Next the rice terraces, the main attraction – are a series of shelves carved into the side of mountains, 1900m above sea level. This technique allows for these rural areas to be farmed. Generations over 900 years have spent time creating these particular Longji Terraces, and the mountains have been named based on their shape – like: Two Dragons or Seven Stars. To reach them, we walked through the village – past old ladies selling shoes of made of twine and jade jewelry. We carried on up lots and lots of stairs in the blazing sun and heat to the top to get the best view of the terraces. A cool tea made from ginger and a local fruit awaited us at the top. I chatted to Harry, our young guide. Turns out, he does this same steep climb everyday, 6 days a week, year round. Lord knows what they pay him, but he said he likes meeting people from different parts of the world. And he did seem quite happy in his job.

One of these is 'snail hill'

You and me and a terrace makes three

Corn & underwear combo line

Sun and moon pagodas by night

We all slept I the van on the way back to town. I was feeling very hot, ill and headachy. I think I had slight heat exhaustion. Back at our very nice room, I took a cold shower, and ibuprofen and slept while Chris ventured out to buy our next set of train tickets. What a guy, that Chris! Chris’s tummy wasn’t so feeling so hot, and we just couldn’t bear the hunt for food, or the risk of eating anything else suspect. So we had chicken burgers at KFC. That’s right, good ole Colonel Sander’s to the rescue. We also took a walk to check out the nearby landscaped park.

That night, I thought about what we’d seen. I liked the homes of the Yao very much: huge three-floor wooden houses, surrounded by trees and rivers. I couldn’t help envying them a little. And there we were, paying just to get a peek of their lifestyle – living where they live where they do, close to things money can’t buy: nature, beauty and community. I got me thinking: who is really richer?

Guilin to Yangshuo

Next morning, we were collected in a bus along with 40 other tourists – mostly Chinese, with a few Westerners too. Nico, the guide was bi-lingual, but somehow the English commentary was 1/4 the length of the Chinese version. Funny that.

We arrived at the Li River and boarded bamboo rafts with small benches on them with a little awing overhead. On our boat was a family of father, daughter and two sons – the eldest of which seemed pretty pleased with himself – taking his shirt off to stand on the front of the boat like some sort of juvenile captain, and positioning his body in various ways to take photos with his fancy camera. The younger son was nice tho, offering us some sweets he’d brought along that tasted like Rice Krispies Squares.

A good transport option

But it wasn’t about the boat  – but the landscape that was otherworldly. Alongside each side of the wide river were huge green, stone pillar-like mountains that seemed to spring out of the earth, forming dramatic peaks that pierced into the sky. If you ever get ahold of China’s 20 yuan bill, the picture on the back is of this exact stretch of riverside scenery. Some mountains were also supposed to resemble animals like horses and more dragons, but I only spotted the one that looked like Hello Kitty. We also passed groups of water buffalo in keeping cool in the water.

Cruisin'

It was a nice few hours on the river, and we stopped along the way for water and snacks, and two more groups of Chinese tourists asked to take photos with me, while another just did it sneakily from afar. Weird, huh? I mean, I wasn’t the only Westerner in the group – so why me? Chris thought it was because of the red curly hair. I thought maybe my hat made me look more quintessentially tourist-like, which I wasn’t that happy about. But when it comes down to it, guess I’d rather look slightly doofus-like than get sunburned.

Towards the end of the ride, I think people were getting bored and started using huge syringe-like tubes to spray water at passing boats. We witnessed several great soakings, but managed to avoid the water wars ourselves. I think it was down to our careful driver who saw the quality of the cameras being used onboard and steered well clear.

Yangshuo

Another life-threatening crosswalk

We docked in a small town, took a motorcycle taxi for 4 (but squeezed in 6) to another bus that drove to Yangshuo. In need of cash – we made our way through Yangshuo’s backstreets to a main tourist drag and the local Bank of China branch – the only bank in the country where foreigners can withdraw cash. We had a late lunch next door at KFC, tho it wasn’t as exciting as the previous day’s meal – but we were too hungry to hunt around. Then we hopped a taxi to our guesthouse, The Giggling Tree – 20 minutes into the countryside.

The place was so lovely – set amid all the hills and mountains we’d seen from the boat. It was an old mud brick farm house, carefully converted into a guesthouse. It was painted an earthy peach colour, with sky blue accents. It felt a bit Mexican Hacienda-like to me, with a large central courtyard surrounded by the rooms on one side and a restaurant, reception and common-room on the other. The main thing that felt Chinese were the large red lanterns that lined the walls.

Giggling Tree Guesthouse from afar

We settled into our large room, and got ready (including dousing ourselves with copious amounts of mosquito repellent) for the show we’d booked that night – Impressions. 600 performers take to the water – with mountains as a stage. It was choreographed by the same team behind the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics and so we were ready for greatness. The show definitely delivered! Depicting the ways of life of the local people, craftsmen and traditions – it was beautiful and all done on a grand scale – with music, dancing, singing, lights and movement. The bamboo boats were there, fishermen, the long-haired Yao ladies, water buffalo…it was a feast for the senses.

Hundreds of dancers ascending onto the water

The last few days really made me feel that nature and simple life is valued by the Chinese – but alongside they’re appalling environmental record and industrial boom – there is a paradox and disconnect that exist. What people seek on an individual level vs. a national level seem quite different. Why can’t both ethics and values be maintained within China’s future?

Our first full-day in Yangshou, Chris rose early to go for a walk. He walked around the area towards the Yulong River. He saw about 40 ducks cross the road, and there were dogs and chickens all around. The farmers in the surrounding village were already up and harvesting what we believe was rice. Then it started raining, and he came back to wake me up.

Chris' company on his morning walk

The food at our guesthouse was great – catering for Western tastes, with Chinese items available too. Everything deliciously fresh and hygienically prepared. With my back still kaput, Chris had to make do with exploring the area on foot – not by bike as we’d hoped. The field just across from our guesthouse was still busy cutting the rice, shearing-off the grains and then forming the stalks into little pyramid-shaped bundles – all by hand.  The road we were traveling on was dotted with lots of little villages – mostly farming communities. Some settlements were quite ancient too. Lots of people shouted, “hello” at us as we passed, some just stared.

Around Yangshuo

Fields of lotus flowers (they eat the root), corn and rice – divided into small plots. Mostly women were working in the fields and they actually wore the characteristic pointy round hats! But the men seemed to be sat in small restaurants playing card games on even smaller tables and chairs. The houses were all modest of mud brick or concrete and a bit worse for wear, but patched-up over time. Many didn’t have windows at all, and were open to the elements. We passed people along the road pulling carts or carrying huge bundles on their backs filled with grass for animals or freshly cut corn. Set against the backdrop of the pointed mountains everywhere we turned – it was like a picture postcard. The exact image you have in your mind when you close your eyes and think of old-world China, this was it.

I am a rock

Amid the calm, we came to a busy area filled with the bamboo boatmen eating noodles for lunch. Chris wanted to try it – but the idea made my stomach turn so we made do with our snacks that we’d brought along instead. We did get some green tea from a very old lady at a sort of shop. She was sipping a bowl wild rice soup that actually looked good to me, but sadly she didn’t seem to be selling it.

Getting lost in ancient towns

Inventive modes of transport

Our map was a bit crap, as it wasn’t to scale – but we are pretty sure we passed through the ancient village of Huang Tu. It did look old, with buildings even more rustic than before –  with funny vehicles with what looked like exposed lawnmower engines attached to horse carriages. We also saw some ‘taxis’ of a sort – packed with people, all carting their wares home from the nearby weekly market. One woman was holding a live chicken by its leg – just hanging out of the truck. It squawked as they passed us and we had to laugh. At least you know it’s fresh, I suppose.

We took a taxi of our own back to the guesthouse, a motorcycle/rickshaw hybrid thing. We had more great food, and I skyped with my sister and mom – which was really nice to do so far away from home.

My Chinese teacher and her little school (she specialises in calligraphy, as you can see!)

Next morning, Chris took to the bike on his own to check out ‘The Big Banyan Tree’ and ‘Moon Hill’. I had arranged for a 2-hour Chinese lesson, which was difficult due to the tonal nature of the language, but by the end I think I was getting the hang of it, and it did help me a lot later on as we traveled.

The 'Big Banyan Tree' as the locals call it

'Moon Hill' (another fittingly named local landmark)

Yangshou to Guilin to Nanning

That evening, we took a bus back to Guilin to catch our 5hr+ train to Nanning. At the bus station, I was treated to the second worse bathroom so far (after the one in the Bulgarian train station). It was basically a long trough that you hover over. I had to cover my nose with my tissue to stop from being sick from the smell. It was BAD!

Just what the locals eat on trains (Top Ramen/Pot Noodle), yum!

For this train, we were told it didn’t have a 1st class, and so were sat in an incredibly busy carriage filled with Chinese locals – all talking and eating and playing cards – LOUDLY. The lady next to us moved, maybe she was scared of us, I don’t know. But she was replaced by two guys who just stood, hanging over us, watching Chris write in his journal. I was creeped out – they were so close to us & silent. I decided to break the ice, and offered them a cookie, which thankfully they accepted and that made me feel slightly better like they were just curious and harmless. The main guy indicated he couldn’t read what we were writing and Chris thought maybe he’d simply never seen anyone write in Roman characters before.

Arriving in Nanning, it was late and very confusing outside the station. I thought our hotel was very close, and had the address written in pin yin, but not Chinese characters (pin yin are Roman characters that spell the sound of the Chinese word). Not one taxi driver could read it. In the end, a woman called the hotel on her mobile – and then charged us a huge amount to be driven there. We tried to get her down on price, but she just laughed at us, as it was obvious we were in no position to negotiate. The City Comfort Hotel reminded me of living in IKEA – which I was quite thankful for after the train journey and taxi kerfuffle.

Next day, the stomach cramps and pains had manifested themselves in liquid form. It was all wrong in the bathroom department – big time! It was incredibly hot and steamy as well, but we carried on to the Medicinal Botanical Gardens, the largest of their kind in China and the reason we braved coming to Nanning at all. The taxi ride was long, but interesting as we drove through dusty backstreets with busy markets and crowded neighbourhoods of this city of 2 million people.

Guangxi Medicinal Botanical Gardens (fan for ill people sold separately)

The garden itself was divine and nicely planned – housing areas devoted to various medicinal plants, many used in Chinese medicine but also herbal medicine in a wider sense. The plants were divided into sections such as trees & bark, herbs, and also specific recipes – like plants for digestion or colds, etc. It was a beautiful place, but as it was incredibly hot & steamy and I just had no energy with having to run to the bathroom every few minutes – so I’m afraid we didn’t get to enjoy it that much.

I corralled Chris into walking across to do an Indiana Jones pose...whaddya think?

We ventured out to the main road, had a simple lunch of corn, greens and rice nearby (chosen by pointing to some dishes our neighbor was eating) and then hailed a taxi so we could catch our plane bound for the place we were most looking forward to in the whole of China: the Yunnan Province!

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Hong Kong – Urban and Rural

As the plane touched down in Hong Kong we prepared ourselves as we knew it would be different from anything we’d experienced so far. However, we had made it a bit easier on ourselves by choosing to go first to a bit of China that still has a British connection and where English is widely spoken. Hong Kong was a British colony for 100 years until 1997 when it was handed back to the Chinese. The agreement was that China could have it but it would maintain its separate economic system, currency and more western freedoms for at least another 50 years.

Kowloon at night

We arrived at 10pm into a humid night and caught a bus into the city. It was exciting to speed through the modern city across bridges between islands crammed with skyscrapers. We got off in central Kowloon which is on the mainland just across the water from Hong Kong island. Although it was after 11pm the street was a wide neon lit strip of bright shops. We eventually located our hostel which we got to by walking into a dark run-down shopping mall and taking the elevator to the 12th floor where the elevator doors revealed a dirty passageway open on one side and ringing a central space where you could look right down to the rubbish bins on the 1st floor. A few other grim-faced backpackers were scurrying into various doorways. The receptionist, dispensing with any small talk, straight away told us how much it would be and demanded the money. We paid up and headed to the room. It was the smallest double room that it would be possible to construct.

Our hostel in Kong Hong

A tiny entranceway lead to a bedroom that was almost completely filled by a small double bed. There was a gap about 5 inches wide along one side of the bed to stand. The only place to put our luggage was in the entranceway which meant having to climb over it to get in or out of the room. A look under the bed revealed that potentially useful space full of old TVs and other junk. The bathroom was a marvel of miniaturisation. The room was about 3 feet by 3 feet in area and contained toilet, wash basin and was itself the shower room. The door to the bathroom opened inwards so actually getting into the room was a physical test of stepping one side of the toilet, closing the door partially, getting the other leg in, twisting around then closing the door. The bedroom was decorated with white tiles from floor to ceiling so it felt like you were sleeping in a bathroom. We went to bed and struggled to sleep in the heat. There was an aging air-conditioning unit but it struggled and failed to cool even this small room. We had booked for 4 nights but were already thinking about finding somewhere else.

The next morning we woke and got ready to go out which was a game of “You move over there while I climb over the bags and try to get to the bathroom”. Despite the room we were excited to be in a new country and new continent. Stepping out into the daylight we were hit by the sights, sounds and smells of China. It was busy with shoppers so we went down a side street to find some food. In the humidity the smells of food, exhaust and dirt combined in one intoxicating ever-changing soup of thick air that we pushed through, passing many shops selling unusual products, dried fish and meat, or strange vegetables we’d never seen before. We saw a restaurant that looked busy and walked in just to have a look at a menu as we were a bit nervous about the Chinese food but before we new it we were shown to a table and sat down – “Guess we’re eating here then”. I had beef and rice and Jenn had a mushroom and celery dish. We had heard stories about how bad the food can be in China but our first sample was not too bad although my beef was rather chewy and tough and surprisingly spicy.

Women builders in Hong Kong

Dried lizards for sale

We took the train to Hong Kong island then transferred to a very old-fashioned wooden tram that took us to the old part of town. Shops selling Chinese medicine or dried seafood integrated strangely with the skyscrapers above. We went into a café for afternoon tea and cakes which is a little different in China. The tea was served in a jug and was free and unlimited. We saw three different deserts on the menu for less than a pound so ordered them all. Two came in bowls and were like sweet soup, one hot and one cold. The third was a kind of jelly with petals in it.

The outdoor escalator to Soho

In the evening we went to Soho, an area of bars and restaurants where the expats and foreign tourists hang out. It consists of many small roads built into a steep hillside complete with an outdoor escalator to take people there from the metro station several blocks downhill. It suddenly felt like the Soho in London with British pubs and many people standing outside with pints of beer in their hand talking loudly just like back home. Jenn homed in on a Mexican restaurant and couldn’t resist the call of the burrito. The food was good, Jenn had a burrito and I had a very spicy chile con carne and we thought that this might be our last mexican food for a while.

Jenn is always happy when there's a burrito on her plate

After another hot and sticky night in our little room we decided to move to another hotel for the last two nights. We phoned around and located one on the nearby island of Lamma. Unfortunately they had only one room left and they wouldn’t hold the room unless we did a bank transfer into the hotel bank account. We explained that this is difficult to do from a UK bank and takes two days to go through and that we would be there in a couple of hours to check in and could bring cash. Credit cards are not really done in China. They said to get the ferry to the island and call them from the ferry port and if the room was still available they would be generous enough to hold it for 30 mins until we got there. So we caught the ferry the 25 minutes to Lamma island which is only accessable by sea.

Hong Kong island from the ferry

There was a great view of the Hong Kong skyline from the ferry with dozens and dozens of skyscrapers lined up by the water’s edge and then piled up behind up the hill until it gets too steep to build on and the concrete gives way to hills and forest. It’s a kind of old modern city, great towering buildings that have had time to fade and show signs of grime and flaking paint. We arrived at the island and phoned the hotel. The room we wanted had been taken by someone else in the time it took us to get to the island and they were now full. So here we were on the island but with nowhere to stay.

The view from our roof terrace on Lamma

We walked into the village of Yung Shue Wan and saw a small hotel. They had one room left which we took. It was a little add-on built up on the roof of the three storey hotel and slightly bigger than the one in Kowloon but much nicer with its own huge roof terrace overlooking the harbour and sea. The island is rural, quite and peaceful without any cars as the streets are just narrow paths.

The village was a low-rise collection of old ramshackle but charming houses, most looking like they were built by the owners out of whatever they could find; corrugated iron, wood panels and occasionally bricks. Walking through the village, it has a very laid back relaxed feel with locals and tourists wandering around the maze of pathways.

There are many shops and cafes selling traditional chinese food but also some catering to a western palate, so you have boiled seafood on one side of the street and chicken and avocado baguettes on the other. Today we chose the western side and ate at the very pleasant Green Cottage Cafe. We walked out of the village along one of the many walking trails that wind up through the hills and forests. We arrived at a very inviting beach with many locals going for a dip. We joined them in the water, a welcome relief from the heat. If you stand on the beach and look to the left the white sand beach gives way to the blue sea in a shallow bay with wooded hills rising from the water. However, look in the other direction to the right and the view is dominated by a huge coal power station on the water’s edge but the locals didn’t seem to mind. Also the swimming area was protected by lifeguards and a shark net which I wasn’t sure made me feel more safe or less safe.

Later on I began to feel a bit sick, probably from one of the meals or from accidentally drinking the water or maybe from something lurking in our Kowloon hotel room. The next morning we headed to Hong Kong island where Jenn had arranged for us to have an aromatheorapy massage each. It was my first ever massage and I came out feeling more loose if a little sore in places.

Vegetable market on Kong Kong Island

After the massage we went to a local indoor market which had a whole floor of fruit and veg stalls selling some things we recognised and some we didn’t. On the floor above was a big canteen style restaurant, a real locals place with the kitchen in the same room as the tables. Around us the other customers were spooning and slurping mouthfuls of noodles, rice and meat into their mouths. I ordered singapore fried rice as it is something I’d heard of and Jenn order a chicken dish. Mine was OK but again far more spicy than I was used to from my local Chinese takeaway and I don’t think it was helping my sore stomach. Jenn’s chicken was cooked by hacking up a whole chicken and cooking it bones and all. In fact the Chinese prefer it with bones as it proves the meat is real and gives more flavour. Sometimes they put every part of the chicken in the pot including head and feet. Jenn found it hard to eat as she often got a mouthful containing shards of broken bones. Leaving much on our plates, we headed off to find an internet cafe. Not for the first time this became a wild goose chase of going to cafes that existed in the guide-book but not in real life. We spent some time in a local park where they had free internet and used our phones to search for an internet cafe as we needed an actual computer to update our blog. It started to pour with rain so we sheltered with the locals and watched the heavy raindrops explode on the dusty ground.

Sheltering from the rain

After a few hours in an internet cafe we caught a night ferry to our Lamma retreat. We ate at a friendly Chinese restaurant where it seemed the owners and whole extended family were relaxing in there watching TV. We ordered two dishes which again turned out to be some of the spiciest food we’d ever eaten. After trying to cool down my mouth with beer we went back to the hotel to sleep.

Hooray! We found an internet cafe tucked away in this shopping mall

Serving breakfast

I got up extra early in the morning as I wanted to explore the trails further inland before we had to leave the island. It was 6.30am and the village was already awake with the local cafe doing a roaring trade in steamed seafood breakfasts. Leaving Jenn in bed, I walked through the backstreets of the village and out into the hills as the day warmed up along a path that wound through a landscape of trees and shrubs.

I pushed on towards the village of Sok Kwu Wan located in a bay. As I approached I passed very rural dwellings little more than shacks. An old man was sweeping in front of his house and an old woman was sitting in a small field planting crops. The village itself is down by the waters edge and I saw a collection of small shacks on stilts out in the water where the locals fished and stored their boats. The village has a row of fish restaurants along its main road. Outside each is a tank of live fish – it’s one way to keep the ingredients fresh. I bought a bottle of water to see me back and set off. It was very different to walk on my own, just me and the surroundings and  the three-hour walk and was a real experience as I saw a rural side of Hong Kong that I never knew existed.

The village extends in to water with houses built on stilts

After breakfast we set off to Hong Kong island where we took a train towards the border with China proper. From there we planned to take an overnight train 600 km north to Guilin. Our local train from Hong kong island went north into Kowloon, which is on the Chinese mainland but still part of Hong Kong, and then further north passed tower block after tower block until we reached Shenzen 40 km away and the border between Hong Kong and China. We got off the train and went through the Hong Kong passport control and then finally through to the Chinese immigration control. We were a little nervous as they are fairly careful who they let in but with our visas in place we went through with no problem. It felt psychologically very different to be in the Peoples Republic, gone were the signs in English, and serious looking officials lurked here and there. We muddled our way into the Chinese part of the train station where we found the specific waiting room for the train to Guilin. It’s disconcerting to see a departure board completely full of chinese characters but thankfully they do use normal numbers which helps a bit and occasionally the destinations are in both Chinese and English. Suddenly everyone in the waiting room got up and we followed them down to the platform and got on the train. We had booked our ticket in advance in Hong Kong and written on it is the number of the carriage and sleeping birth.

Travelling in stye on the overnight train to Guilin

We had booked a soft sleeper which is one up from a hard sleeper and the compartment had four beds and was quite luxurious compared to the European sleepers with a fancy tablecloth on the table, quilted covers on the beds and even a flask of hot water to share. There were two others in our compartment and both of them spent most of their time playing games on their mobile phones. A lot of people were eating giant Pot Noodles that were being sold on the train. We bought one and one of the guys in the compartment helpfully explained using hand gestures that we can use the hot water from the flask. Later we went to the dining car which has a full restaurant and kitchen. I ordered beef with green peppers which I thought would be bell peppers but turned out to be chile peppers. I couldn’t seem to escape spicy food and my stomach was still not too good.

As night fell we got into our bunks and were rocked to sleep dreaming of what was to come in China.

Large spider we saw on Lamma island (about 5 inches long)

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