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Chapter one hundred and one - Beijing

A hundred and one train stations...it seems

all seasons in one day 22 °C

Day 361: Beijing, China 24/09/2012

Arrive in Beijing at around ten am, tired, greasy and bedraggled, with stinking hog breath and an emergence at a station different to the one advised by the stupid woman at the hostel in Pingyao. Manage to ring the hostel and arrange a pick up from outside the station and after a short minibus ride we are surprised to find ourselves at a Super 8 motel - not quite the small, independent hostel we expected the 'Beijing Dragon' to be. Shower, pull ourselves together and head out into the frighteningly big metropolis that is Beijing, China's capital and second most populated city.

A decent lunch sets us up for the afternoon ahead, though nothing could quite prepare us for the horrendous air quality amid the traffic strewn streets - the smog reduces visibility to less than a hundred metres and the first place we have really noticed it. No wonder Beijing is considered one of the most polluted cities on earth. After a bit of time trying unsuccessfully to get our bearings, we enquire into Great Wall trips before heading back to the room, both knackered after the journey to get here. After watching a DVD, we go out for dinner, discovering that crispy duck pancakes are not a myth and in fact taste better here than they do in any Chinatown....accompanied by a sauteed lotus root dish and some nice rice we leave well and truly stuffed. Worryingly close to the end of the trip.

Day 362: Beijing, China 25/09/2012

Today's goal is to get a few little gifts for those people we feel deserve a little something, so we head to the Pearl Market, which is lauded by the Lonely Planet. Well, we find it [i]eventually[i] after getting lost in a strange little sports shop district (some amazing tracksuits on offer here - think loud, think synthetic fibres, think 80s scouse with a Team China twist) and must say that it is a highly disappointing chavtastic tourist trap of an indoor market. About the only highlight was the food and a huge African man's ruthless haggling technique. Lots of idiot tourists and naming no names, the Russians and the Americans are the repeat offenders. Cue exit stage left to battle for a cab (some drivers trying to pull a real fast one) and a journey to the nearby flea market, which sounds deliciously tacky.

After paying about a pound to get here (some old lady cabbie quoted eight quid) we step out of the Hackney Carriage to have a million litres of water dumped on us as the craziest rain storm begins. Luckily, we have our jackets so we venture into the market, where most of the unfortunate stall holders have no such rain protection, huddling under parasols and draping polythene sheets over their wares to protect them from the elements. With a puddle about three inches deep around each and every item, there are bargains aplenty and a whole lot more interesting looking bits and pieces that in other circumstances may have demanded a closer look. Soaked to the core we take the 'short' walk to the subway station, traipsing and dripping for about twenty minutes in the driving rain to find a successful entrepreneur flogging ponchos to the hundred thousand people huddled under the station entrance. Looking like a pair of drowned rats, we expect the cold air conditioning of the subway system to make life miserable, being pleasantly surprised by the relative warmth of the subterranean den of the Beijing underground. After a soaking like that there is little to do other than dry off and eat.

Day 363: Beijing, China 26/09/2012

Sun is shining, Beijing is our oyster. A welcome change from yesterday's weather, we decide to take advantage of the sun, naturally heading underground. We take the subway to the Olympic Park, passing through some very shiny and impressive shopping centres (another successful Asian shopping mall food court lunch) and some rather striking - and clearly well funded - public open spaces and enjoying the improvements to the public realm clearly brought about by the 2008 Olympic Games.

We take a wander down the HUGE and intimidating Olympic Walk, flanked either side by the Bird's Nest Stadium and the strange, almost extraterrestrial, Aquatics Centre. A trip into the Bird's Nest reveals a seriously impressive stadium and it is incredible to think of the blood, sweat and tears that went into producing some of the memorable moments of recent sporting history that happened here. After taking the self-guided tour and exhausting the stadium, we jump back on the subway to Tiananmen Square - another site of important modern world historical events and another one to tick off the list. Bar the thousands of people, huge Mao portraits and some soldiers doing a little march, we head back to the hotel after it emerges that Mao's mausoleum is closed. We have an evening out at the Great Wal-Mart of China and an uneventful dinner.

Day 364: Beijing, China 27/09/2012

'He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man' - Mao Zedong.

'He who has not frozen his bollocks off and got a soaking on the Great Wall with the missus is not a true man' - Thomas Evans

So, off to the Great Wall this morning, doing it ourselves after looking at a number of tours before realising we have done every other sight off our own backs, catching the bus and listening intently to the Chinese tour guide (who is clearly quite amusing - or so the other passengers think). Arrive at the Great Wall to be advised that due to the incumbent weather conditions, ascending in the cable cars is the best course of action. Dry and warmish at present...

A tackier mess of things you cannot hope to see as the entrance to the Great Wall of China, with a horrible succession of black bear enclosures and crap souvenir stalls. A reject rollercoaster from a shitty theme park acts as the cable cars and immediately proceeds to give us a wet arse. We get up to the Great Wall and the wind and rain really give it a go, with the rain coming in sideways. Our hands are pretty soon a very pink, very cold and very numb. The wimpy Chinese tourists are all hidden in the built up bits of the wall, leaving the wall almost exclusively to us, allowing us to walk and conquer the wall in some seriously extreme weather conditions. Cue some great snaps and a decent hike back, before getting back on the cable cars and seeing the sun come back out. Typical!

Our last night of the whole trip (how are we here?) and whilst getting ready to go out for some dinner, I somehow manage to delete all of today's photos, which is disappointing. Crispy duck pancakes and a few drinks to celebrate the best year of our lives and try to block out the fact that we are off home tomorrow...

Posted by tevs 13:06 Archived in China Tagged food city china beijing great_wall_of_china Comments (0)

Chapter ninety nine - Pingyao

Pinged back in time

overcast 19 °C

Day 357: Pingyao, Shanxi, China 20/09/2012

A nice sociable start today, catching a cab around eightish for the bus station and enjoying the fact that the upcoming journey is short haul and not some behemoth overnight monstrous jaunt. After stopping briefly for a pot noodle and after a welcome afternoon nap, the journey comes to a bizarre end as we are unceremoniously kicked out at the side of the road to helpful shouts of 'Pingyao! Pingyao!' So, abandoned at the side of the road with not a taxi in sight, we are approached by an old man who starts to negotiate a price. Hmmm, strange we think. Stranger still as we speak to the man in a 'Police' uniform, who is professionally sat in the back of a car with a young woman. Points at old man when asked about a taxi and promptly winds up the window.

Five minutes later we hop out of the old man's car in the middle of an ancient Chinese city. With such a remarkable journey back in time, we pay Doc Brown and find our way to the hostel. Check into the old style building centred around a courtyard, which is nice but perhaps not quite worthy of the seriously overinflated reviews it gets in the Lonely Planet and Hostelbookers. We go for a quick walk and a nice little drink, with Gemma receiving a nice straight shot of Pimms. Find an amazing little cafe for tea and have an early night.

Day 358: Pingyao, Shanxi, China 21/09/2012

The hostel's beanbag pillows allow for a surprisingly good night's sleep and we enjoy a slow morning before heading out for the day. Despite the vast swathes of tourists, Pingyao is a quaint and interesting town, rendering images of a China that existed three thousand years ago. Narrow alleyways, traditional industries and hanging red lamps juxtapose the bars and restaurants advertising their free wi-fi services for patrons and the thousands of people with huge digital cameras.

Pingyao proves to be quite a small town all in all, so we take it steady for the afternoon, watching noodles being pulled and flung into pans, sweets being made and shawls being woven on looms. Gem feels a little unwell so we head back to the hostel, where we enjoy a few games of cards and are befriended by Ken, an ageing hippy who has been, seen and done just about anything you could ever mention. Back for dinner at the excellent place we discovered yesterday evening. Friday night so a few beers makes trips to the worst toilet of the trip more than a little funny.

Day 359: Pingyao, Shanxi, China 22/09/2012

Another quiet morning and a brief lie in before a distinctly average lunch at the overrated hostel then out and about again with the thousands of extra tourists that have found themselves at a loose end this weekend. So, we try to see some more of the picturesque little town and stumble upon the 'real life' parts of the town, with hundreds of homes and factories situated within the ancient walls of the city. The huge number of people we have seen around town with huge cameras and massive lenses are suddenly explained by the pretty serious looking photography festival we find ourselves at. Our small camera is sneered at by the throngs of proper camera users. We particularly enjoy the exhibition of British rock over the past fifty years.

Back to the hostel, for a few more of games of cards and to be cornered by Ken the Hippy once more. After hearing an account of just how many lives he's saved and how he deals with the constant queue for his photo by the Chinese masses. We manage to wriggle free and get out for another fantastic dinner at the place we have found, being greeted like old friends by the staff before we realise that we have been sat outside in the relative cold when there was a nice warm indoor part to the restaurant.

Posted by tevs 10:09 Archived in China Tagged history city china ancient photography pingyao Comments (0)

Chapter ninety eight - Xi'an

Enter the warriors!

sunny 28 °C

Day 354: Xi'an, Shanxi, China 17/09/2012

Our overnight train pulls into Xi'an at around five forty am, and we are soon fighting the sizeable crowd that have alighted our train for a cab, aided by Jason, our pilot friend from the train. Driven by our woman cab driver - whose photo licence looks remarkably like who I guess to be her husband - we soon find ourselves lost in Xi'an and unable to find the hostel we have booked. A quick phone call to the hostel helps us locate the rogue venue and we are checked in and settled down before half past six. This then begs the question 'shall we sleep, shall we not?' After agreeing that we won't, nay, can't sleep, we wake up about three hours later...

A nice hot shower in the brand new hostel (and the first shared dorm room of the whole trip - we had to try it!), with its pristine new pool room complete with leather sofas, sees us ready to go out and have a bit of a wander round. Taxi to station. Bus ticket booked to Pingyao. Getting the hang of this ticket booking thing now we have booked our last journey...

Stroll through the town for the rest of the day, through the some beautiful and busy parts of the city, past the bell tower and the drum tower, through the sense bombarding Muslim quarter and into a traditional Chinese Wal-Mart. A night spent unsuccessfully trying to find good food, ending up with some strange sweet rice porridge in the Muslim district and trying to get to know our new Ukrainian room mate Andrew (though I suspect he means Andrei).

Day 355: Xi'an, Shanxi, China 18/09/2012

Up a little later than anticipated (9am) to accompany our Ukrainian/Russian roomie to the Terracotta Warriors. A cab to the train station then a bus on to the warriors themselves sees us arrive at the right place at around eleven. After a bit of confusion on where to go, we buy our (quite pricey) tickets into the Warriors and face a ten minute walk from ticket booth to site entrance, passing the obligatory noodle stalls and stand upon stand of crap souvenir stands, though many are selling the much needed Alsation skins to the passing tourists. Odd.

Eventually find our way in to the pits full of the thousands of terracotta warriors. A seriously impressive piece of history here, with row upon row of individually made clay soldiers being preserved for a seriously long time (thought to date from the third century) with a huge number of them being found in almost mint condition. The most amazing thing about them is the fact they are all unique, from their facial features to their hairstyles to the tread on their shoes. No mass production plants in China back then! Lots of tourists here but only to be expected from such a world renowned site and definitely worth the trip out to see. Not sure how our Eastern European friend has found spending the day with us but a spectacle nonetheless for all involved.

We head back to Xi'an on the bus and make our way back to the hostel. We spend a bit of time chilling out before moving back into the Muslim Quarter and being disappointed once again by the dinner we manage to procure here. A large number of old people dancing together in the park makes for an entertaining trip back to the room and a couple of games of pool sees off a good day.

Day 356: Xi'an, Shanxi, China 19/09/2012

A quiet day in Xi'an today and with the sun blazing outside we take a stroll to the small park nearby, where I catch up with the diary and we get a bit of vitamin D. In search of a 'traditional market' a bit later on we find the map we have is referring instead to a fruit and veg market and though not as expected the usual suspects make an appearance as in any Chinese public space - the intimidating woman, the gobbing/retching old man, the small young kid with an ice cream and the small dog.

Continue our jaunt and end up in a trendy bar district of the city. The price is right so we sit down for a couple of beers. While away the afternoon with a few more and order some average food before hailing a cab home and packing the bags in a slightly inebriated state...

Posted by tevs 14:03 Archived in China Tagged food traditional city china xian 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 two - Hong Kong

Genuine copy Rolex, sir?

overcast 32 °C

Day 337: Hong Kong, Hong Kong 31/08/2012

Up early, a slap dash beard trim and a quick drink and we are out the door past the newly acquired antiques sourced last night and en route to the airport before our eyes even have time to focus properly. In need of a decent couple of hours sleep and a substantial breakfast after the beer took precedent over a decent dinner last night. Cue a trip to Duty Free and McDonald's for a camera and a couple of McMuffins. Just your standard Friday morning purchases really.

We are soon on the second last flight of the trip (sob) and the apprehension and excitement of the prospect of a new country - such a familiar feeling this year and one we shall miss - manifests itself in the pit of our stomach. Not only are we heading to another new territory, we are also heading into the unknown, with China being very much a place we have afforded little thought, due partly to its position at the very end of the itinerary and our denial that the final chapter would ever come...despite this the excitement and buzz of moving on to a new place is one of the great things we will remember from this year.

Some good treatment on our A380 flight and a welcome catnap sees us through the flight to Hong Kong and after a brief foray into the Business Class section of the cabin for some photos for the old man and his unhealthy Airbus obsession we are catching a bus into Kowloon in search of somewhere to stay. Forty minutes after boarding the bus to Kowloon, we pull up outside Chungking Mansions, a tried and tested centre of affordable backpacker accommodation, but a truly barmy set up to boot. Take one part 1960s high rise council block, one part Indian bazaar and a pinch of labyrinthine qualities and a multi-cultural melting pot and you get one overpriced, undersized bedroom, the sizer of a double bed and with a tiny en suite bathroom, ours with a genial and kindly old Chinese owner. Run out for some noodles and get our heads down for an earlyish night.

Day 338: Hong Kong, Hong Kong 01/09/2012

Awake refreshed in our attractive cell and despite the best efforts of the clunking, sputtering air conditioning unit and the paper thin pillow, we wake up feeling slightly less tired than we did yesterday. Our room in Chungking Mansions is situated on Nathan Road, the main thoroughfare through Kowloon and a beacon of absolute chaos, swathes of neon lights and a never ending snake of traffic. We take a stroll down to the waterside and after taking in the scale of the skyline, catch one of the ubiquitous Star Ferries across to Hong Kong Island (we are on the romantically named [i]Twinkling Star[i]) and at 30 pence an absolute bargain for one of Hong Kong's must do's.

Arrive at a damp Hong Kong Island and after getting our bearings we purchase ourselves a huge plate of noodles and gorge ourselves silly. The rest of the day is spent walking around Hong Kong Central, which seems a little disappointing given the buzz surrounding everything in Kowloon. We visit the very boring Western Market and see a graduate art exhibition at the HK Arts Centre before catching the ferry back and making our way back up the very busy Nathan Road to the Temple Street night market for a bit of retail therapy. A couple of bargains is followed by a very strange and overpriced dinner before we call it a night and make our way back to the Shoebox Inn, where the old man greets us with his customary 'welcome' and his wife makes an appearance to join in. Bed.

Day 339: Hong Kong, Hong Kong 02/09/2012

Another night's sleep that rates no more than 'satisfactory' in the Tommy Evs scale of sleep satisfaction sees us up and about in the shoebox reasonably early, trying to pack the bags in the ridiculous amount of available room. Leaving Chungking Mansions on a mission to buy some bus tickets to Guangzhou, I am offered 'has, marijuana, coke' twice in the space of approximately three seconds. Emerging triumphantly from the bus station and walking down Nathan Road with two bus tickets under my arm, I develop quite the sweat before we head out for another day in the big city. Our tour of Kowloon incorporates a very good lunch and a stroll through Kowloon Park. Here we sample the delights of the pensioners' trim trail (manage to hit the 'advanced' level of six chin-ups) and take in the laid back Sunday atmosphere. Amid hordes of domestic workers enjoying their day off gambling, gabbing and gobbling picnics we catch the rays and find ourselves sat watching a reasonably decent six-a-side tournament. Miss playing and make a note to self (get fit).

A trip back to the market to pick up a few bits and pieces is followed by a great noodle soup. We have the obligatory Sunday Night Skype and are well and truly stung for printing a few confirmation emails out...

Posted by tevs 13:19 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged food markets city busy hong_kong Comments (0)

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