A Travellerspoint blog

Chapter ninety seven - Chengdu to Xi'an

Another train journey. Slight decrease in duration. Slight increase in price. Huge increase in comfort.

overcast 27 °C

Day 353: Chengdu, Sichuan - Xi'an, Shanxi 16/09/2012

A nice relaxed start to the day, with a lie in and a spot of reading before showering and donning the backpacks for the three hundred and fifteen thousand eight hundred and twenty eighth time of the trip. After hailing a cab (easier said than done on a Sunday morning) we are through the ridiculously busy roads of Chengdu and to the station. Forty minutes after leaving we arrive at the station with a bit of a rush on our hands. G runs to grab a lunch of a Chinese colonel's recipe of eight secret herbs and spices and we are running to the train with seconds to spare despite our sensibly early start to the day. Sweating quite disgustingly, we settle into our six bed berth and meet our neighbours for the next fourteen hours - two middle aged men and an elderly couple, who all already seem quite matey.

The sleeper carriage is infinitely quieter and more comfortable than the hard seat carriage we endured enjoyed on our last trip on the Chinese railways. After being befriended by our bedfellows, we are bullied quite forcibly into sharing their food and drink, with the pork ribs and the 52% rice whisky being particularly memorable consumable gifts. As the evening and the journey wear on, we make more and more friends in the carriage, befriending a trainee pilot and a number of younger English speaking passengers. Soon on the top bunk and drift off thinking the ribs were maybe a step too far...

Posted by tevs 13:47 Archived in China Tagged train china xian railway chengdu Comments (0)

Chapter ninety six - Chengdu

Spicy ricey

rain 17 °C

Day 348: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 11/09/2012

The journey continues. And continues. And continues. After minimal sleep and plenty of pages of the book read, everyone is ready to get off. The poor small boy is up and on his sixth meal of the day by seven. The offering of the fleece over his sleeping mother was the turning point in our relationship with the family. There are lots of people gawping at the baggy eyed, greasy haired western couple and there is even time for a few poses for photos and pot noodles (not like the ones at home - actually good ones) kindly donated to us. We are befriended by a couple of English speaking students and hindsight reveals that despite being four hours behind schedule, this has turned into a reasonably comfortable but hugely entertaining journey. The first hour and the one chance at a first impression did little to endear this train to us as every man and his dog brought their worldly possessions - in some cases including the kitchen sink - onto the carriage. However, it is amazing what can be done with a few smiles and a bit of banter.

We eventually arrive in Chengdu, another huge city, this one of around fourteen million people in the entire metropolitan area. A twenty minute cab ride from the station to the hostel costs an extortionate £3 and we are in our room after a mammoth thirty two hour journey door to door. The layer of grease removed from ourselves in the shower needed to be seen to be believed. Just time for tea and my, my, my it is spicy. Liken the sensation in my mouth of the chilli-local pepper combo to putting a whole packet of popping candy in your mouth when it is already numb.

Day 349: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 12/09/2012

Sleep like a baby for a full twelve hours, with me being awoken by the cleaner telling me to move rooms. Ours has a leak. I do so, shower and find Gemma downstairs on the computers. We head out after some advice on the best way to book train tickets and soon find ourselves at the booking window buying tickets for our next epic journey. After managing to get a sleeper ticket this time, we get a typically spicy Sichuan lunch and go for a walk around the city.

Gemma finds herself a pavement based foot specialist, who works wonders, removing dead skin, cracked heels and even starts a verruca removal. He then asks for fifty quid. He gets five. Moving hastily on, we find ourselves in the People's Park, where we discover the most ridiculous thing in ages - a public square full of people of all descriptions dancing furiously in the rain to huge sound systems pumping out some sort of Chinese folk techno music. Some hilarious moves on show here. Hugely entertaining. In addition to this, there are any number of other ways to be entertained here, including traditional opera, theatre and singing as well as some stunning tea gardens. No swings though.

We head to the Wanchau Temple area for the evening and whilst we don't visit the temple itself there is plenty to keep one occupied in the quaint streets surrounding it, which although made purely for tourists, is a good place to visit. Some amazing handicrafts and food available here. A few hands of cards on the rooftop terrace sees the day off perfectly

Day 350: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 13/09/2012

Despite the noise of staying in a room opening onto a communal area of the hostel, we manage another good night's sleep. A cheap, delicious and filling brunch is taken from a nearby cafe shortly after arising, and with the mammoth hard seat journey still fresh in the memory and the pins and needles in the butt, we decide we will book another ticket nice and early, this time for our last big journey of the trip - Pingyao to Beijing.

We catch a bus through the heavily congested streets of Chengdu to Chengdu North station to be greeted by the most enormous train terminal we have ever seen (think Manchester Airport big) and a crowd of people unlike any I have seen in the past twenty years (think Wembley Way on cup final day). There must be a hundred thousand people here and about half that amount of cars, all of them parked in the behemoth of a car park. We manage to find the right ticket window without too many problems, only to be told to come back tomorrow as train tickets are only sold ten days in advance.

Leave the station empty handed to stumble upon a market/wholesale district, which amazingly is even busier than the station was! Imagine any product that you possibly can and you can get it at a bargain price. Imagine a ten foot Spongebob teddy. It's there. Imagine a million hairclips. They're there. Imagine a turtle in a keyring fishbowl. There. All made in China.

Gemma gets some bargain clothes and we end up getting horribly lost in a maze of children's clothing stalls. China at its most enterprising and entrepreneurial best. An early tea and an early night.

Day 351: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 14/09/2012

Up nice and early today for our date with that most famous of Chinese creatures, the Giant Panda. A 7.15 pick up soon sees us stuttering our way through the gridlocked streets of central Chengdu, arriving at the Panda Research Base at around eightish and before long we are watching six adolescent pandas acting like any group of teenagers, reclining on a sort of sofa made of bamboo poles and munching on bamboo shoots, in a pose familiar to anyone that has spent time at university. A tour of the park then takes us on to see a series of mature pandas, some with young offspring giving their siblings a bit of rough and tumble. These magnificent, languid and beautiful animals have the whole crowd of tourists cooing and purring with delight, their insatiable appetites for bamboo shoots being a complete mismatch to the sheer size and apparent weight of these animals. As the morning wears on, the pandas' lethargy and need for sleep becomes more than apparent and the majority of the Giant Pandas we encounter from about half nine onwards are sleeping off a busy morning.

With the adult pandas snoozing, we are taken to the baby panda unit and the sight of two tiny, black, white and fragile cubs has the ladies gushing and definitely pulling on the heartstrings of even the most hardened of the older Chinese men in the group. The use of a baby incubator gave a definite human element to their survival and highlighted the importance of and difficulty in ensuring these elegant creatures' survival. A brief foray into the lair of the Red Pandas - they have free reign over parts of the park due to the presence of purpose built holes in their enclosures. The signs instructing us to not get too close to the Red Pandas - on account of their temper - seems a bit redundant due to the fact that they can run up to visitors, have a chat and walk alongside them on the walkways through the park. Still, a bit more mobile and athletic than their giant cousins, the Red Pandas are another great creature to add to the list we have met this year and before long it is time to jump back on the minibus and head back to the hostel.

A quick lunch is followed by a return visit to the train station, and despite being prepared for the hustle and bustle of the place, we are still amazed by the sheer number of the people here. Return to the hostel the proud owners of two tickets for a hard sleeper between Pingyao and Beijing, before embarking on a rather disappointing Friday night out near the temple.

Day 352: Chengdu, Sichuan, China 15/09/2012

An eventful morning starts at four for me, with numerous trips to and from the shared toilet from our room confirming that I have a poorly stomach. This eventually eases off until about midday, at which point we venture out for a bite to eat. VERY busy around the temple opposite the hotel, with thousands of Chinese day trippers taking advantage of the weekend to come and swoon over a bit of traditional China. The crowds and some of the manners, coupled with my slightly fragile state of bowel and mind, make me a grumpy fellow so my apologies to my patient and faithful companion for this! A cup of scented tea in a traditional tea house and a steaming bowl of noodle soup help aid the recovery so again thanks go to Gemma.

An otherwise uneventful day sees us pack the bags and prepare for tomorrow's onward journey to Xi'an. Chengdu has had its moments, and though we probably stayed a day too long, the spicy food and yesterday's panda experience, not to mention the sheer scale and intimidation of the train station, will live long in the memory.

Posted by tevs 13:40 Archived in China Tagged park train city china panda chengdu people's_park Comments (0)

Chapter ninety five - Yangshuo - Chengdu

The longest journey of the year. And the hardest.

overcast 26 °C

Day 347: Yangshuo - Guilin - Chengdu, China 10/09/2012

An eight am bus to Guilin is the first order of the day and a two hour journey flies by due mainly to the manic driver. We soon find ourselves in Guilin and en route to the train station, stopping to have two breakfasts (one bad, one good). Killing some time at a cafe outside the station playing cards, we are elevated to minor celebrity status, again bringing back memories of India. We then head into the train station and an informative overhead screen helpfully informs me I can get HIV from having my hair cut.

Before too long we are piling onto a train with what seems like half of China. The train itself is clean and efficient, which is more than can be said for the extended family that seems to be surrounding us from every conceivable direction. Over the next 32 hours a love/hate relationship develops with these people, highlights including the poor boy made to sleep on the floor under his mum's seat, the same poor boy who tries to eat Gemma's pot noodle off her fork and the same poor boy who discovers he cannot burp despite his best efforts - a small meow comes from his mouth every time he tries.

The night is hard, noisy and busy but bearable. Both manage to get a little sleep and have a surprisingly good dinner in the dining car.

Posted by tevs 13:19 Archived in China Tagged train china guilin chengdu yangshuo hard_seat Comments (0)

Chapter ninety four - Yangshuo

Worth yanging about for

sunny 26 °C

Day 343: Yangshuo, Guanxi, China 06/09/2012

A sociably timed start today for our bus ride onto the next stop of our Chinese adventure. Wanton soup sets us up for the day and we are soon on the underground for rush hour, which seems about as busy as non-rush hour. We take our seats - or beds to be more accurate - for the eight hour journey to Yangshuo. Pretty comfortable, with a couple of English films thrown onto the big screen and all the invitation needed to throw a few zzz's up. A young baby sat next to me starts to play up and cry, but soon catches sight of the big, stupid Englishman, which stops her in her tracks and induces a big belly laugh!

Some stunning scenery and landscapes to add to the visual memory bank as we snake through the countryside of Southern China - with grey-brown fields and urban sprawl giving way to rolling hills and impressive, domineering limestone karsts jutting out of paddy fields. We are soon off the bus, in the middle of a town straight out of the textbook of Chinese towns - looming mountains and old school buildings mingling with the omnipresent smell of delicious food. We get a little lost on the way to our charming, family run hotel but a quick phone call sees us met by the hotel owner just down the road. A great dinner sat on the verge of six (ish) lanes of traffic. The dumplings are to die for though.

Day 344: Yangshuo, Guanxi, China 07/09/2012

A nice day starts with us making use of the quality Chinese DVD player and Cambodian bought pirate DVDs, followed by a pretty ordinary breakfast - a thick, uncooked pancake and a thimble of muesli. Lunch follows shortly afterwards, perhaps the shortest ever interval between these two meals. The roadside dumplings are every bit as good as they were yesterday.

The day is spent mooching through the town, a real melting pot of juxtapositions, with old fashioned stores located next door to gleaming new supermarkets, old ladies cycling through traffic heavier than the combined weight of the two backpacks, a Ronald McDonald stood at the edge of a picturesque pond flanked by huge limestone karsts and incredible scenery. A stroll through the town's central park reveals a social hub for the very young and the very old; children stare longingly at the rusting soviet looking bumper cars and the elderly playing chess and practicing tai chi (later in the trip we learn that this 'old' park has actually only been there about ten years).

A fairly early retreat to the room follows, which turns out to be a good move as the mother of all thunderstorms rages and there is some deadly looking precipitation. A nice dinner from a hawker stall follows and after a bit of confusion over my order - I realise halfway through the first course that I am munching a surprisingly gristly chicken's intestine - we have a pretty good evening.

Day 345: Yangshuo, Guanxi, China 08/09/2012

This morning sees us give breakfast a wide berth after yesterday's disastrous attempt from the otherwise excellent hotel and opt instead to hire some bicycles for a day's exploration. A near miss occurs whilst cycling through a car park as the barrier comes close to closing on my head. We then make a visit to the train booking office and the purchase of two of their lowest class tickets for a twenty eight hour journey to Chengdu. We find ourselves in a very touristy but pleasant part of town, with a labyrinth of small alleys and smaller market stalls, all set up for the swathes of tourists - both Chinese and foreign - that visit Yangshuo each year.

A reasonable lunch is followed by a foray out into the sticks on the bikes. We encounter some of the most epic landscapes of the whole year at this point, stopping on the winding road out of town to look over the beautiful Li River and the huge yet elegant limestone mountains. Further out into the country (though still only a stone's throw from the town) the marked difference between the lives of the wealthy urban dwellers and the poverty of China's rural communities becomes apparent. A huge gulf between the standards of living of these two groups. We roll back into town and get back to the hotel, where I am seriously befriended by the resident four year old girl. We then head out for dinner at last night's hawker stall, where a sensual beer fish dish is joined by a mountain of other dishes and a shedload of beers.

Day 346: Yangshuo, Guanxi, China 09/09/2012

A little fragile to begin the day, but after a lie in and a spot of DVD watching, we head back for the old part of town again. I open my eyes to find we are in McDonald's. Not quite sure how that happened but still a welcome meal. A man comes into order trying to leave his hyperactive cocker spaniel puppy outside the front door. He is surprised when it bounds around the counter going for people's Big Macs. He is even more surprised when the dog pulls his motorbike over after he ties the puppy to it. Quite amusing.

Another set of ominous black clouds brew on the horizon and before too long another big thunderstorm empties a huge amount of water over the town. Quite glad to be back indoors by the this point, though I brave the weather to pick up some dumplings. A great fried rice sees us good for dinner and we return to the room to prepare ourselves for tomorrow's (and the next day's) train ride. Yangshuo has been a great place to visit and a town to recommend.

Posted by tevs 14:11 Archived in China Tagged landscapes china countryside yangshuo guangxi limestone_karsts Comments (0)

Chapter ninety three - Guangzhou

China proper!

storm 27 °C

Day 340: Guangzhou, Guangdong, China 03/09/2012

A nice early start for our trip into mainland China. Feel a little apprehensive at this delve into the relative unknown and the chance to see behind the mystery that shrouds one of the world's superpowers, the most populous place on earth and the second largest nation on the planet in terms of land mass. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for this anxiety and slight uneasiness about reaching China - it is probably part due to some of the horror stories of the western press and the fact it is the last country on our trip. Oh well, onwards and upwards and after a quick jog to the park to throw some excess clothes in the charity bin we are away and on the road to....zzzzzz.......wake up somewhere near the border before going through the formalities with immigration. Soon through to the other side and it is 'Ni Hao' China!

We leave the bus quite luckily in the centre of the town (found only through some very fortuitous map reading) and after discovering we have left our canvas purchased in Cambodia in the parcel shelf of the coach, we rumble into the HSBC with all our stuff to change some Hong Kong dollars to Yuan. A very slow service makes me praise the lord for the development of internet banking and the fact we rarely have to go into the bank! A quick trip on the city's underground reveals both the enormity of the country we now find ourselves in and the sheer number of people in the People's Republic of China. Whilst the tube is extremely busy it is a very different energy and hustle to what we found in some of India's huge metropolises. Far more organised for starters...

After realising I am one of the few people on the continent without a smart phone we soon check into the (very nice) hostel on the banks of the Pearl River. An excellent and ridiculously cheap dinner of rice claypot meals and Pearl River beer follows and leads us to give into temptation and have a brief (long) afternoon nap. Bad idea. We then head out for some more good food and purchase some Chinese made electronics in one of the heaviest rainstorms we have seen in a while.

Day 341: Guangzhou, Guangdong, China 04/09/2012

A bit of a lie in this morning and we awake to realise we are a little unsure as to what we want to do with our day. We have a nice early lunch at the same place as yesterday and I entertain the chef/waitress/proprietor with my attempts at mastering Cantonese. A trip on the metro then follows as we decide to tackle the challenge of booking a ticket to Yangshuo nice and early, with the gleaming, efficient transport system again serving as a reminder to the size of this country's population. A triumphant victory at the bus station sees us emerge ready for our onward journey the day after tomorrow and a walk around the surrounding area sees us being gawped at, stared at and photographed 'covertly' by the locals. Echoes of the beginning of the trip and the realisation of being complete aliens in this society - both in looks and in language/cultural identity - dawns on us and China becomes a big and interesting place to explore...

Back on the tube and we see the modern face of the emerging superpower, with KFC and McD's making plenty of appearances in the city amongst the huge, ultra modern skyscrapers that are symbols of the power of this prosperous city. Communism? Really? A walk through a pleasant residential area reveals the cliches of China, with old men huddled around chess boards and an eighty year old woman with a vicious backhand on the ping pong table. Another huge thunderstorm forces us back to the hostel and a couple of games of pool and a beer with a young Chinese guy precede dinner.

Day 342: Guangzhou, Guangdong, China 05/09/2012

A couple of episodes of Only Fools on the new DVD player before we get up and grab a spot of lunch next to the road. The excellent noodles are made even better by watching the chef wrestling the huge mounds of dough he has prepared on the pavement and the whole process of dough to plate to belly takes about ten minutes. A quiet stroll down by the river ensues and we appear to be staying in the middle of the creative quarter, with advertising agencies and photography studios aplenty in the trendy business park adjacent to the hostel.

We return to the hostel for a low key afternoon at the pool table and an hour spent trying to log onto the HSBC website, which seems about as accessible as Facebook here in Guangzhou. We repack the bags trying a new configuration and a dinner chosen completely at random off a Chinese menu sees a spicy seafood ensemble delivered to the table, which leaves poor G a bit on the hungry side. A rescue package arrives for her in the form of a hastily picked up takeaway a bit later. Whilst we have not done as much in Guangzhou as we have in some other big cities, it has served as a great introduction into the ways of China and the challenges that lie in the month ahead.

Posted by tevs 13:23 Archived in China Tagged china guangzhou pearl_river guangdong Comments (0)

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