China

April-May 2016

 

Visiting China had long been an ambition but the difficulties posed to do it solo seemed too great, so we opted for our first ever guided tour in order that we might still be able to see and experience a range of attractions while, at the same time,  minimising the daily hassles of negotiating travel transfers in a country with few English speakers and pretty basic tourism infrastructure.  However, we were also keen to ensure that our chosen tour group would incorporate designated free time to explore and satisfy our own interests.

We chose G Adventures (www.gadventures.com) - a Canadian tour company based in Toronto but with offices in Melbourne to trial organised touring and it proved a mixed success.  Their 'Wild China' 21 day package cost less than $8 500 for the two of us including return airfares on Cathay Pacific (who unfortunately proved to be not a patch on Singapore Airlines). 

G Adventures offer no frills 'Flash packer' travelling to ‘off the beaten path’ destinations in a variety of countries – using locals as their Chief Experience Officers (CEOs) as well as local services wherever possible.  Their formula includes all travel, accommodation and entry fees but no meals – they prefer instead to get you to share meals at restaurants chosen by the CEO with the tour group and split the costs (alcohol being your own responsibility).

Our tour guide or CEO (Ricky) came from Xi’an and was in his mid 30s and had quite good English.  Our group numbered 15 (2 Australians, 4 Canadians, 5 English, 2 Austrians, 1 Argentinean and 1 Dutch)…a mix of ages from mid 20s to late 60s (we were the eldest).

Beijing

Because we had originally planned to arrive in Beijing at night I had ordered and paid $90 for a private car and driver to take us to our hotel.  Arriving at midday was much less troubling, except that our car and driver failed to materialize.  To rub salt into this pickle, we subsequently leant that the official taxi rate for the journey was about half this amount.  Later we secured a refund and written apology from G Adventures.

Arriving at our hotel (Chong Wen Men Hotel) under our own steam we found a rather rundown Chinese business hotel but one which was right next door to a metro station and only one stop from the Forbidden City and the Central Railway Station.  Very handy and helped offset its smallish rooms, leaking plumbing and  very limited English speaking front desk staff who were unable to offer us much practical assistance or advice.

 

   

The Chong Wen Men Hotel (apologies for the trolley bus cabling) and a surviving section of Beijing's city wall.

On our first afternoon, we tried, without success, to buy a sim card for our phones – simply not allowed I was told.  In future we will buy pre-paid travel sim cards in Australia for use solely overseas.

We then went on foot to track down some good restaurants I wished to visit but found the heat, traffic and Chinese language street maps too much and so retired to a restaurant advertising “We speak English and sell Peking Duck”…nothing to rave about but they did sell very cold Tsingtao beer.

          

Our Duck - before and after

Now we soon realised that all beer sold in the PRC is restricted to between 2.5 - 3.6% alcohol which makes its consumption on the hot days to follow much less of a problem.  This same brand of beer is 5% in Hong Kong.

Next day rose early to source breakfast from a  street vender selling items just outside our hotel

        

    This cart was selling very nourishing Beijing-styled spicy chicken wraps which helped us do battle later on the crowded Metro

On our first afternoon, we tried without success to buy a Sim card for our phones – simply not allowed I was told.  We then went on foot to track down some good restaurants I wished to visit but found the heat, traffic and Chinese language street maps too much and so retired to a restaurant advertising “We speak English and sell Peking Duck”…nothing to rave about but the cold beer helped my swollen feet.and to solve the foot sores by buying a metro travel card for each of us….a must for any traveller to this city of 23million souls – the metro system is mammoth with 15 different lines and two tracks per line.  The cards cost less than $10 plus any amount of credit you choose ($20).  We used them extensively to undertake our own walking tour of the old Hutong districts. The notorious smog of Beijing stayed away on our first day but descended on the following day giving everyone in the group a dry cough and some stinging eyes.

   

               

In the same district were the ancient Bell and Drum Towers.  Both of these towers have very long and steep stairways inside of them which could well have given a lesser fellow vertigo!

                   

The Beijing Bell Tower

   

The Beijing Drum Tower

            

Our tour group met for the first time that evening and we all introduced ourselves and questioned our tour CEO (Ricky) about various aspects of the tour ahead.  I used this occasion to seek an exemption for Maria from the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek and was assured she would be able to avail herself of a small bus to get her to the top of the trek track.  As we intended to explore the culinary offerings of each place we visited we deferred joining the group for their first joint meal and instead  tried to track down some restaurants recommended by sister Stephanie   – unfortunately the addresses supplied by the internet are very difficult to correlate to either available street maps or the generally non-English speaking locals and confusing street signage – very hit and miss.

Beijing - The Great Wall.

Bus to Great Wall took about 2 hours and then a decision had to be made as to whether to do the 1000+ steps  or take the cable car for $20…I chose the former while Maria took the latter.  My earlier bike riding regime certainly paid off and my knees and legs stood up OK.  It took a painful 30 minutes.  Only 6 of our group attempted the climb and we all found the best approach was eyes down and take each 150mm stone step by step.  If you glanced up you felt you could fall backwards.

Reaching the top I was not only breathless but also exhilarated.….the views are magnificent and given the Wall’s height it’s no wonder it thwarted the Mongol hordes for so long.  Our pictures will have to carry our extended excitement of having at last reached this  great wonder of the world.  However, one thing the guide books do not prepare you for is the strenuous climb that lies await for you once on top of the wall.  It is a mixture of stone paving and steps and very physically demanding.

           

        

       

We learnt that the cable car services were only constructed at the end of the 1980s and therefore Gough and Margaret Whitlam must have had to scramble up the same slope in 1971 that so tested me – of course he would have been 12 years younger at the time which made me feel better.  I cannot remember when my own parents came to China.

Today also illustrated that summer is well on the way in this part of the country with daily max temps of mid to high 20s.  So much for our newly purchased thermal clothing and coats which the tour recommended we bring.

Beijing - Tian' anmen Square

Tomorrow we check out of our hotel at 0800 and then join the anticipated throngs at Tian' anmen Square followed by the Forbidden City – the latter will, we have been warned, be subject to very vigorous security checks at the entrance.  Later that evening we will board an overnight train to Xi’an (14 hours in a Hard/2nd Sleeper class – 6 bunk berths to a cabin).  Should be interesting!

Tian amen Square - the largest in Asia, was teeming with tourists including many school groups and international tour groups such as own being led about by various iconic umbrellas, sticks with unique mascots atop for ready identification. Our own leader had chosen a Panda doll!

The Square lies in front of the Southern Gate of the Forbidden City.  Opposite lies the embalmed body of Mao Tse Tung in a massive mausoleum.  To visit the latter you must queue for at least 4-6 hours and thousands were doing just that as we arrived about 0900 hrs.  Visitors to Mao are not permitted to take anything in with them and so someone from each family or village group must  guard all their possessions bags, coats, cameras in a pile in the Square.

 

       

Queuing at Mao's mausoleum and Party HQ on opposite sides of Square

Waiting to join the throngs in the Forbidden City behind us

Beijing - Forbidden City

The Forbidden City was constructed to be the home of the Emperor, his immediate family, senior bureaucrats and advisers, Emperor’s concubines and a trusted guard of Eunuchs to protect him. It is the largest palace complex in the world

The City is constructed on a base of 7 levels of granite stone to prevent any tunnelling access.

The City has suffered and survived from the occasional sacking by northern hordes, fires, looting during the Boxer Rebellion and finally during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

The crowds inside the City were some of biggest we had  encountered and the popularity of “Stick” cameras often made it difficult at congested doorways of some of the pavilions to get a clear snap of a sedan chair, regal throne, adornment etc.  Nevertheless, I quickly learnt to join in with elbows and chest to squeeze myself to the front, albeit for just a moment when I too would be out elbowed to the back. 

While here we first experienced the constant curiosity we engendered from local visitors; especially as our group included five blonde young women, one of whom was over 2m tall.  They would either come straight up to you to have their picture taken with our group or surreptitiously take 'selfies' which included some or all of us - these people probably came from outlying provinces that did not get many 'round eyed' visitors.  Later on in the tour some of the girls began to feel a little invaded by this constant attention.

                       

           

       

           

Apart from the golden glazed tile roofs, gilded wood-work, there were also many fine bronze statuary and massive bronze vats used to collect rainwater for fire-fighting purposes.  For a public space so large it is amazing how clean it is kept – no sweet wrappers, plastic drink containers or cigarette butts appear to blot its appearance.

It was also about this time that someone in the  Group queried why there were so few birds in China.  The answer lies back in 1958 when Mao launched  his Four Pests campaign after reaching the conclusion that several blights needed to be exterminated — namely mosquitoes, flies, rats, and sparrows.   During this campaign it is estimated that 4 billion sparrows were killed.  However, this subsequently led to an outbreak of locusts which did far more damage to the country's crops than had the sparrows. Sparrows have since been replaced by cockroaches on the list of vermin identified for extermination.  The fact remains there are few birds in China, especially in the urbanised areas.

                                 

After spending about 3 hours there we walked to a nearby restaurant for a rather crowded but enjoyable banquet of various dishes including the ubiquitous Peking Ducks.  Cost $35 for both of us including 3 beers!

It was then back to the hotel on a very crowded public bus to await our scheduled departure for the Beijing West Train Station where we were scheduled to catch our overnight sleeper train to Xi’an.  This involved shouldering our big packs (15 kg) and catching a very crowded metro train ride for about 30 mins but also passing through two sets of security to have all our packs screened…..very hard.  These security checks are very prevalent all over China at airports, railway stations, bus depots and entrances to major attractions - to make it even more difficult, there is little consistency applied as to what constituted a banned item - one of the joys of travelling in China!

We finally arrived and boarded the train at about 1800 hr and settled into our 6 berth cabin.  Maria and I luckily scored the two bottom bunks and shared the cabin with a British couple (Irvine and Dawn) and a couple of retired teachers (Archie and Connie) from near Toronto in Ontario.

   

Lights out occurred at 2000hr and we all slept fitfully until about 0600 the next morning.  The ablutes on board were only squat type but were spotless and remained so for the entire journey.  Food venders ply the cabins with a variety of Chinese noodle packs and sweets which were eagerly bought by the locals.  There was also a  free supply of boiling water on board for the ubiquitous tea containers.

There was a lounge car down near the First Class Sleeper area.  But as the train was nearly a kilometre long it was too far so we survived on muesli bars.  We also decided to lighten my load by sharing the 1lt bottle of duty free Baileys amongst our group served as a good nightcap.

           

Happy arrivals at Xi'an Railway Station and the walk to the shuttle bus

Xi'an

Our hotel in Xi’an looks a little more palatial than the one in Beijing but does not have Wi-Fi in the rooms only in the lobby.   It also lacks a safe.  But it does have incongruously two double beds?..It is situated next to a large park across the way from the large Communist Party HQ which patriotically broadcasts the National Anthem every morning at about 0630 hours.

Once again it is a Chinese Business person’s hotel catering primarily to Chinese visitors and not to the needs of International travellers and so has little English speaking staff on the front desk or maps or informative pamphlets.  No doubt they expect visitors attached to touring groups will have all their needs met by their English speaking tour guide – which can have the effect of making one captive to the wishes and interests of the tour guide.

The old city of Xi'an is surrounded by a largely intact wall and moat and mid-morning we set off to the East Gate of this walled city to undertake a bike ride of the old city walls – a distance of 14kms which you were expected to complete within the specified bike hire period of 100mins.  You pay $20 for the experience which I was really looking forward to until our CEO informed us that there was a new rule banning anyone over the age of 60 years (or under 10 yrs.) from hiring a bike.  We and one other member of our group affected by this rule remonstrated most vigorously over this apparent discrimination and he eventually agreed to lie for us and so away we went.

I chose a tandem bike for Maria and self, believing that she might not be able to manage the solo ride without the assistance of gears.  We had a great time although Maria did complain after of being very sore in the nether regions having not ridden a bike for some years.  The bike ride around gives an excellent view of the old town and the pavement surface of the wall was largely not too bad.  We completed the round trip in about 80 minutes – well ahead of the majority of our much younger group.

               

   

Next we had a walk to the City centre’s ancient Bell Tower and accompanying Drum Tower and enroute we stopped at a local café to taste a local delicacy of savoury pulled pork inside a quite salty roll – not great.  While the others were finishing their lunch snack I dashed out to find a shoe shop in order to buy some leather sandals to replace the pair which had “blown” the day before.  Successful mission and cost only $45.  Maria decided she needed a rest after her bike ride and returned to the hotel.

Our CEO left us to our own devices at the entrance to the Muslim Quarter wherein lies a very large market selling fresh food as well as clothes and a range of tourist souvenirs. Before leaving he gave us quite explicit instructions of how go find our way back to our hotel.

With some others I went and explored the Great Mosque of Xi’an established during the Tang Dynasty around 750AD.  Its various buildings, halls and pavilions are set out around a very serene garden covering over 3 acres.  The Chinese Muslims constitute nearly 3% of the population.

               

On my return I managed to discover another of Stephanie’s restaurants – the De Far Chang right next to the Bell Tower and made enquiries about a booking for the next night – all good.

However, everything went “pear-shaped” thereafter as I became disorientated trying to remember the route I had to take to get back to the hotel only a mile away. I tried three times unsuccessfully returning to the Bell Tower each time to recover my bearings – getting increasingly frustrated but worse – dehydrated in the 30 degree afternoon heat and it was peak hour.  I tried on 3 occasions to approach desk staff in other large hotels for direction and on each occasion they could either not understand my plight or else gave me conflicting advice…..I eventually sorted it out returning 2 hours later badly dehydrated and chafed.  I do believe that the distribution of the odd “mud-map” to group members would help avoid similar incidents.

Army of Terracotta Warriors

Xi'an's Terracotta Warrior complex is about one and half hours bus ride out NW of the city during which our CEO gave us a potted history of this 8th Wonder of the World.  Discovered by a local farmer while digging a well back in 1974, the site is still only partially excavated as the archaeologists lack the required technology to preserve the buried treasures which they know still to lie buried eg a lake of mercury, fabrics and delicate painted wooden artefacts.

It was further explained that the Terracotta army was only one part of the much larger tomb of the first Quin emperor – the much feared Quin Shi Huang who not only unified China’s central provinces, built large road works, commenced the Great Wall, unified currency and measurements but then employed/enslaved almost 700 000 people to build his tomb from about 210BC.

       

       

                           

       

The tomb was raided and burnt by conquering northern tribes in AD385 and many of the clay statues were vandalised and smashed.  Once the protective wooden roof had been burnt the tomb was slowly buried under the earth.

The site was first opened to visitors in 1979 and is one of China’s top 3 tourist attractions.  The excavated Warriors are being excavated in 3 pits, in addition there is a spectacular chariot museum and theatrette which provides a 20 min film showing how the tomb was built and later sacked.

It was a marvellous experience also shared, I noticed, by a group of elderly Australian tourists on a Wendy Wu tour.  We were so inspired that we dug deep and bought a rather expensive replica of a warrior which will be shipped back to Australia in the fullness of time.

We did not get back into our hotel until late afternoon giving us just time to shower and dress for our own night out at Stephanie’s recommended Xi’an restaurant the De Fa Chang.  However, prior to dinner we took time out to stroll through the enchanting Muslim Market which was alive with exotic smells of barbecued meat, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and a favourite of mine  ginger and sesame spiced nougat confectionary which is prepared by pounding and pulling the mixture. 

      

                  

 De Fa Chang is a 100 year old place renowned for its artistically decorated dumplings to reflect each's unique filling.  We chose a set price $25 banquet of 7 courses and found the dumplings superb.  Over and above the food, the restaurant offers uninterrupted views of the nearby ancient Bell Tower which at night is illuminated like an oriental Xmas tree.

           

We caught our first local Tuk Tuk home but only after a lengthy haggle with the driver over the price and then having the driver fight off competitors for our custom. All good fun.

Our group also visited the Big Goose Pagoda. Built during the Tang Dynasty in AD652 it has 7 stories and is the largest square designed pagoda in the world.  It was built to house Buddhist sutras or principles of the faith brought back from India by a monk who had walked there and back taking 3 years each way.  On his return the monk took the last 19 years of his life translating the Sanskrit texts into Chinese.

 

The pagoda is still an active monastery as well as a school of calligraphy.  During our time there we were shown their private gallery of Chinese art all painted by recognised masters who have donated works for sale to raise funds for the monastery.  We succumbed again to these beautiful ink and wash works and bought two pieces after some ferocious bargaining which got the saleswoman into some trouble with the Gallery’s manager; presumably for selling the works too cheaply.

                                   

Paintings by well-respected Chinese painter Cui Yun Gang who has exhibited widely.

 

Our CEO arranged for us to catch a local Uber-like taxi (very dodgy in China)  back to the Muslim market area to enable us to try out the local food offerings.  We tried out the Deep Fried Soft Shell Crab and the cumin rubbed lamb skewers.  OK

   

Chilli Grinder - Lamb Kebab carcasses - Deep fried Soft Shell crab

We then had to catch a very crowded double decker bus to the train station to catch our overnight train to Emei Shan.  At the station we incurred the roth of the security police by concealing a small fruit-cutting knife.  The train turned out to be an hour late in leaving and so we did not board until nearly 2000 hours for our 18 hr journey.

Later that evening we caaght another sleeper train to Emei Shan in Sichuan Province – it will take nearly 17 hours! However, it did provide time to me to source some very cold 500ml Tsingtao beers for $1.60 – a bargain so I bought a few to share around the drinking members (6) of our group.

The train had one western style toilet two carriages away which proved very popular with our tour group.  I also sussed out the dining car which was a lovely quiet area for writing until lunchtime when it quickly filled up with a group of very loud middle-aged local women.  Irvine supplied some welcome relief from the journey with some Chinese wine.

       

'Looxory hidden in Carriage 9'

The afternoon dragged on as we continued to follow a minor tributary of the Yangtze River all the way to Emei Shan.  It was surprising to realise that all the towns along the train’s route were in fact cities of 1 million or more persons. The skylines of each of them dotted with cranes servicing the construction of more taller apartment blocks or massive new infrastructure for rail and road - it is very hard to appreciate new infrastructure construction of such a scale let alone a scale so consistent across thousands of kilometres.  In between these cities we passed through non-interrupted fields of market gardening, paddy or cereal crops ie no virgin bush.

Emei Sha'n

We eventually pulled into Emei Sha'n (pop 500 000) at 1815 hrs very tied but relieved to be able to say good-bye to any further lengthy overnight train travel. 

Mt. Emei stands at 3099 meters (10,167 feet), and is associated with Puxian Bodhisattva (Samantabhadra) - a representation of 'Great Practice' and 'Great Virtue'. Ever since Buddhism arrived in China, it has been an important centre of refuge, and the mountain contains more than one hundred temples and monasteries. The mountain is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We were then driven to our Baoguo Monastery accommodation some 20 mins out of town.  The monastery offers rooms presumably once reserved for pilgrims. Here we scored a room with 5 beds but with an ablution block some 200m distance away but the hot showers were only available between 1730 - 1900 hrs .  The large room and beds were really quite comfortable after the overnight sleeper train ordeal.

       

 

The next day we had to queue to get a bus to the half way point to the summit and then hiked around the closest temples dotted along the track  to view them and some of the notoriously aggressive monkeys. While the rainforest and mountain views were spectacular, the crowds at the bus station and later on the track through the national park were over-whelming and tended to diminish the experience.  It was 1st May after all and one of China’s most celebrated national holiday weekends.  While we did not witness any religious observances while on our trek around this holy mountain, there many hundreds of families using the holiday for a stroll around.

          

              

I do believe that to avoid the crowds we should have been bussed further up the mountain to Leidong Ping (2 hours) and then hiked to the summit 2-3 hours or offered the summit cable car. The cost difference between the two bus fares would have been $10.   This had been a bit of a let down to the serious trekkers in our group - more like a stroll thru a Buddhist theme park.

We had a bit of a chat with our CEO about the timing of future excursions – seeking earlier departure times and more unencumbered free time after each scheduled event.  He said he would try to accommodate our wishes.  The real issue is that we supposedly paid for all transport and transfers in our tour fee but are in fact being required to pay for ad hoc public bus transport and tips to  the  drivers of privately arranged busses.. It would have been better to have had a dedicated coaster bus at our disposal at each town we stopped in thereby providing a secure storage facility for our luggage and avoiding the need to spend lengthy times sitting in railway stations or in hotel lobbies.

 

       

Our bored Group at a bus station - Dawn (UK), Irvine (UK), Harriet/Harry (UK) and mother Celia (UK), Archie & Connie (Can), Elizabeth (Holland), Natalie (UK), Sabina (Austrian), Karen (Austrian), Jessica (Argentinean), Ricky (CPR), Maria (Aus), Christian (Can) at bus station) - Missing: Debora (Can).

That night we joined a couple of others dining at a downtown restaurant offering a sort of self-selected barbecued meals rather than the vegetarian meal on offer at our own monastery.  You could have selected any sort of skewered meat (beef, lamb, pork & chicken) as well as arrange of skewered vegetables (zucchini, capsicum, eggplant, sweet potato, and water lily root) plus a range of green salad dishes.  Oh and we experienced an interesting engineering derivation in the local loos which consisted of a very basic common ceramic -tiled sluice through all the ablution stalls which one had to stand astride and let fly, with the resultant mess being sluiced away seemingly automatically......unfortunately no photo taken.

The next day we had to wait until 1100 hours to be bussed some 30 kms to the town of Le Sha'n home to the tallest standing Buddha in the world.  The catch here being that we do not board a train to our next destination (Chengdu) until 1800 hours.  The bus takes less than an hour and the boat trip to view the Buddha takes only 90 minutes and therefore we will have a lot of dead time again.  How to secure our luggage for the whole day after having been evicted from our monastery rooms?

On the way home, I was passed by a Wedding procession consisting of eight Rolls Royce’s and two Lamborghinis they went to a flash hotel down the road from our Monastery.......someone has got plenty of dosh!

Le Sha'n

Le Shan’s famous Buddha (Dafo) is over 1200 years old and is carved from the cliff face overlooking the confluence of three rivers – the project was originally conceived to protect boats traversing the three rivers.  He is 71m tall, 28m wide and has ears 7m long.

We bussed it over to Le  Sha'n at about midday and were once again impressed by the massive road, rail and apartment block construction activity.

Due to the holiday crowds Maria decided to take the short boat trip to see the monster Buddha while I and several others opted for the walk up to the Buddha’s head and then to walk down the narrow and slippery path beside the statue.  Unfortunately, by the time we reached the top, we could see a queue of hundreds already formed to take the descent path and so rather than join it, we opted to explore some of the many temples scattered about the top of the hill.

NB: The milling crowd to the left of the Buddha's brow

Very crowded viewing, especially down the narrow stairway on the left-hand side of the Buddha

We were then bussed to the railway station to catch a train at 1800 hours to Sichuan’s capital Chengdu (population 14+ million).  Our slightly fast train clocked 195kph on our short journey through largely rural landscape of market gardens and rice paddy.  Once in Chengdu we had to endure riding the crowded metro for 20 minutes and then a 10 minute walk to our hotel right in the centre of the city. Those of us wearing packs were really feeling it by the time we arrived at 1830 hours.   Early night.

Che'ndu'

Off to see the Pandas.

The Panda research and breeding reserve was only 15km out of town via expressway.  Lovely to see them up close.  No babies –as they are all born in summer in August/September.  A lot of cheesy souvenir booths in the reserve.  An excellent short movie presentation is given detailing the park’s breeding program.

               

Natalie - pretending to be a Panda

   

The not so well known Brown Panda

We have free afternoon before an evening one and a half hour flight to Lijiang some 800kms away.  We ventured out by taxi on our own for lunch at a recommended flash restaurant called the Chen’ Mapo Doufu which was packed with locals sitting at round tables with huge bowls of steaming dishes of spicy Sichuan food.  We ordered duck with lotus root for about $12 good but could have been hotter.  I would have ordered more but their kitchen closed at 1430 hours and we had arrived just 30 minutes before.

On our walk back to our hotel we came across a very popular street market in the Chunxi Lu shopping district – here the place was crowded with mostly younger locals shopping for cheap trendy clothes, CDs, and fast food.

In the late afternoon we re-joined our group at a restaurant for a traditional Chengdu spicy Hotpot.  Prior to the meal we had witnessed all staff paraded on the footpath for a corporate bonding session of song and dance – it was amazing to witness the kitchen staff in their Chefs hats (even the old ones) out there toe tapping and waving their arms about to the music - we saw similar performances outside a variety of businesses in other cities of China.

Cannot imagine the staff at old Stephanie's agreeing to participate in similar bonding session prior to evening service

The resultant meal was a bit of an organisational mess with tables of 7 all trying to cook various meats and vegetables in the central double steamer of very spicy and not so spicy broth.  Everything was piled in together by those members not experienced with the correct procedure – there were simply too many on each table and the food offering a bit bland -but it only cost about $10/head….probably be our last attendance at one of these group purchased meals.

We were then bussed to another brand new airport with over 75 gates to board our Kunming Airways flight to Lijiang.  The aircraft was a little old but otherwise everything went to schedule and we landed at about 2300 hours and after a very fast ride on a shuttle bus arrived at our lovely hotel just on midnight…..just a tad tired!

Lijiang

Lijiang (population –a mere 50 000) the old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and because of its low latitude (26.5 degrees North) and high altitude of 2400m experiences a mild sub-tropical climate. It has been the centre of the minority Naxi peoples since  600 AD.  One needs a visitor's pass (Protection Fee of $20) to enter the old town and its regularly checked.

       

Old town and our rather quaint hotel

  

Today we have an orientation walk about the old town of Lijiang during which time I intend purchasing a couple of telescoped walking sticks for tomorrow’s assault on Tiger Leaping Gorge.

The orientation tour proved very helpful in getting our bearings and also directions for the best photo opportunities of the old town and the revered snow-capped Yulong Snow Mountain which towers over the town.  We visited the market to marvel at the huge range of vegetables, spices, confectionary and drinks for sale. The town is cobblestoned and therefore very hard on the feet.  There are numerous stone stairways off the main road leading to more restaurants, bars and shops.

           

Black Dragon Pool Park with  Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in background

The town is a very popular destination for locals to visit and purchase souvenirs – much of it quite tatty.  But the stone and wooden buildings with the clay tiled roofs do have a beautiful harmony against the towering mountains behind.  I suppose, if anything, the old town looks a little bit too picture post card like.  We climbed to the top of the town to a nice little hotel with a bar overlooking the old town and had a couple of cold drinks.

Went shopping for the hiking poles and found a pair for$45 (cf $120 each in Brisbane Kathmandu store) and which turned out to be made in Canada.  So we are ready for tomorrow’s assault on the Tiger Leaping Gorge (TLG). 

That night we joined our British couple and had a riotous dinner at a Chinese food hall offering, kebabs of anything, noodles and rice every which way plus any assortment of barbecued seafood and vegetable.  The proprietors of each stall each tried to out do the others in screaming at passers-by to try their particular offerings – we shared barbecued belly pork, braised Yak meat, grilled whole fish and fried rice.

       

Tiger Leaping Gorge (TLG)

Our much anticipated trek tomorrow will follow the early stages of the mighty Yangtze River (the world’s 3rd longest river and 2nd by volume) some 1500 kms upstream  from that now infamous 3 Gorges Dam where you can undertake leisurely soft cruises.

 

Rose at 0600 for our trek up TLG.  Weather warm and sunny.  We caught a bus to the village of Qiaotou and started our "warm-up" first stage of our trek to Naxi Guesthouse - a very steep ascent from 1800m to 2200m which was supposed to take 45minutes.Maria quickly pulled up lame and I was called back to agree to option B for her to catch a shuttle taxi to our intended stop for the night at Tea Horse Guesthouse.

By the time I resumed the trek I had lost contact with our group who were already half way to the luncheon stop.  While attempting to catch up I exhausted myself and so after 30 minutes I decided to join Maria down the bottom and await the taxi.

I was bitterly disappointed at having to miss the rigorous highlight of the trip viz the section known as the 28 Bends and which takes trekkers from 2200m to 2670m at Tea Horse Guest House and which was supposed to take 2.5 hours. Unbeknown to me at the time, but 4 others of our group (Irvine, Dawn, Elisabeth and Harriet) pulled out of that second stage after the rigours of the first stage prior to the luncheon stop.

Maria and I only arrived at the Tea House Guesthouse after a very scary ride in the taxi which following a very narrow gravel road made up of constant blind hairpin bends.  After we had our room allocated, I decided to backtrack along the track to the top of the 28 Bends and take some photographs of some of the most scenic views on the entire trek.  These can be viewed below.  They are of the Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge.

   

       

On returning to Maria a couple of hours later I discovered the other group of 4 who had separately taxied around.  So in good tradition we all went to the rooftop viewing balcony for a couple of beers and to take photos of the magnificent snow-capped mountains opposite – almost close enough to touch. 

                   

Socialising at Tea Horse Guest-a-house and staring at the magnificent views of Yulong Snow Mountain which rises almost 4000m from the river below us

       

The rest of the group who had persevered with the whole days trek did not appear for another couple of hours.  However, a majority of these survivors had shared a donkey to transport themselves up the 28 bends for $80.  All were agreed that Stage 1 had been tougher than the 28 Bends (Stage 2) and that the first stage should have been via taxi/bus. 

That night’s meal at the guesthouse was simple Chinese fare of stir fried meat and vegetables and rice.  The guesthouse had to cook by candle light until 2000 hrs when the generator was kick started.

Next day we were to trek (Stages 4 & 5)  for a further 3.5 hours down to Tina’s Guesthouse passing several waterfalls a short steep climb to 2480m and then a very difficult rock strewn descent to Tina’s Guesthouse.

This part of the trek provides views of the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge and then we would be driven to a viewing platform to get a closer look at the Leaping Stone in the middle of the gorge.

 Our Party readying for the descent

Once again this journey was not considered suitable for Maria and she and one other girl together with most people’s day packs were ferried to Tina’s by taxi.

On this occasion our trek was hampered by the appearance of a large contingent of South Korean trekkers all decked out in the smartest and most colourful trekking gear including two trekking poles each.  For my part, I hardly used my poles and lent one to another group member.  I suppose when it comes to jumping over boulder strewn and or slippery tracks they would come into their own.

Stage 4 & 5 of the trek is reputedly very treacherous during the rainy summer months of June to August.  On this occasion the track was bone dry but the powdery surface in parts was still very slippery.

       

           

Harriet (Harry) - fed up with the slow pace of the South Korean's pack-horse ahead of her

Pack horses carrying all the packs belonging to a large group of 'soft' South Korean hikers

Part of the switchbacks on the low road between Tea Horse and Tina's Guesthouses

Later that afternoon we were joined at Tina's Guesthouse by a group of mostly European motorcycle riders who were participating in a an around the world bike ride.

               

By 1330 everyone had been accounted for and we got into our bus for the 2.5 hr drive back to Lijiang.  We stopped en route to get up close to the Tiger Leaping Stone – there were 300 steps down to its viewing platform – my aching thighs told me I did not want to try it.

Dali

The next day we caught an express bus to the town of Dali (population 400 o00) some 190kms away with the journey being taken over a brand new 4 lane highway much of it elevated and passing through tunnels – not a bad road considering we were 1000s of kilometres from Beijing.  The surrounding countryside was heavily cultivated with market gardens and paddy fields and I spotted the first buffalo being used to plough a field alongside a paddy field full of bent figures busily planting rice.. Also spotted were several large wind farms

The old town of Dali proved to be a charming and relaxed place sited alongside Erhai Hu Lake.  The weather remained warm for us despite the altitude of 1900m.  In fact some say that Dali lives in perpetual Spring with temperatures ranging from 15 to 34degrees Celsius all year round.

Dali is home to the Bai ethnic minority who settled the area more than 3000 years ago – they have distinctive dress and cuisine.

       

Market Street - City  Gate - Honey Sculpture

           

The old cobbled streets are lined with craft shops selling silverware, silk, batik, woven fabrics, confectionary, restaurants and bars.  According to the Lonely Planet Dali was the original backpacker hang out in Yunnan.  Today there are remnants of this freewheeling lifestyle with a bar named Bad Monkey run by a group of expat Brits.  We whiled away a few hours there one evening. We were also fortunate in being able to dine that evening in a small family run restaurant selling freshly made noodles and a variety of wontons. 

During our meal a local girl came in and was quickly dragooned by the patron to act as interpreter for her and her other patrons to ask us questions about Australia and our travels – beautiful…this meal only cost us $8.50!  During the meal several locals even tried to improve my woeful left handed chop stick action.

Earlier we had had lunch in the The Good Panda - a well-known Bai restaurant where we were served stir-fried spicy beef (yes – no longer called Yak) and morning glory with loads of small whole garlic cloves swimming in a delightful sauce.

We had a free day in Dali and so organised our own day tour of Dali’s surrounding areas with a private car and English speaking guide for about $100.

We used a guide called Michael with  no web address but simply this mobile telephone number (13988554733) – he proved to be very good not only with his English speaking but also his local and national knowledge – he was the very first local English speaker who was prepared to speak candidly about the damage caused to his area by the Cultural Revolution in the mid 1960/70s……”Mao had become too ill to curb the excesses of the Red Guards and decided he had to hand over to the previously purged Deng Xiaoping”.

During the Cultural Revolution many of the grand houses of the city had been smashed and looted and the people left starving…not a good time.  The city was not opened up to visitors’ until 1987.

We initially viewed from afar the Three Pagodas (he advised against viewing inside as it was too expensive ($14/head) even for locals like him.  Next we visited the lakeside town of Xizhou to view the local market where we saw an amazing array of locally grown fruit and vegetables as well as meat and were amazed to see the thickness of fat on all of the pork joints.  Then Michael took us to renovated grand house where we were obliged to pay and sit through a Chinese singing and dancing performance which we not only could not understand but could also have done without.

      

Three Pagodas - Market Gardens ready to plant - Children dressed in traditional Bai costumes

       

Maria haggling over some batik prints - lavender and canola crops

We had asked especially to view the old hutong areas and were able for a small price to sneak a peek into a few of them. Also on our wish list was to visit some traditional tie die and batik workshops where the natural vegetable dies are still being employed.  Here we fell in love with a couple of original pieces and bought em after haggling for some considerable time.

It was during this latter visit that Michael gave us a little bit of information of the Bai cultural significance of some dress colours; viz:

Red                     Action

Yellow               Happiness

White                 Peacefulness

Black                  Earthly

Indigo/Blue     Utility

It was indeed fortunate that I happened to be wearing my Yellow Tai Chi Pandas T shirt on the day!

Michael later took us to visit the multi Buddhist deity temple where, despite declaring himself to be a non-believer, he quickly bobbed in go make some obligatory prayer and offering while I snapped off some photos  inside.

We later agreed to let Michael choose a lunchtime venue so that we all could sit down for a bite of some ethnic Bai food. He chose a selection of deep fried air dried beef, tofu in garlic and chilli, broad bean and garlic vegetable dish plus one nasty concoction which he and our driver obviously loved and was sliced portions of very gelatinous portions of beef head in a soup.  With boiled rice it made for a delightful lunch albeit without a beer (it was run by Muslims).

We returned to our hotel mid-afternoon for R&R before heading back to the old city for some window shopping for the odd knick knack.

Maria bought this traditional head-dress made from dried flowers

Tomorrow it’s off to a 5 hr bus ride to the capital of Yunnan Province – Kunming.  In preparation we have bought some wholemeal rolls, butter, prosciutto and cheddar cheese from a French Bakery I discovered in the main town……luxury!

Bus trip proved a little painful on my sciatic nerve but we arrived in tact.  Our 6 lane highway was another toll road and it swept around mountain sides as well as utilising many tunnels.  The countryside was uniform market gardens, paddy fields and hot houses.  But also crowded with advertising hoardings for both government and private businesses.

This highway was also being used by a lot of very large long-haul lorries probably headed down to the borders of Myanmar, Laos or Vietnam.

Kunming

Our first glimpse of Kunming (population a mere 4 million) was a bit frightening and reminded me a little of the unruly hustle and bustle of Manila – it is simply huge….too huge!  Our taxi driver from the bus terminus managed to drop us off fully laden by packs at the wrong hotel – despite being given the hotel’s address card in Chinese.

Once again we have been booked into a Chinese business hotel where the rooms are stuffed with extra toiletries, soft towels and even condoms all individually priced; in addition to the usual mini bar rip offs.  Still at least it provided  good rest after the day’s bus ride.

The WiFi quality in the rooms was appalling but perfect in the desk less and chair less lobby – and this is a very busy business hotel!

Turned down the Group’s invitation to join in yet another banquet style dinner and instead joined our British friends Irvine and Dawn at a restaurant called the 1910 Le Gare du Sud, apparently a favourite of the expat community and well-shod locals. The food proved to be good and was served in a very peasant courtyard but obtaining a cold drink was a bit of a problem – we got a jar of ice to assist.

   

 

Next morning we were taken downtown to Kunming’s Mall to look at the flower and pet market – quite under-whelming.  Basically filling in time in this large city which is a transfer town for many travellers including ourselves.  We are scheduled to take a 1.5 hr flight to the southern city of Guilin in Guangxi Province.

Guilin and Yangshuo (Li River Cruise)

Guilin (population 5million) has long been a favourite tourist destination for locals on account of its beautiful scenery – centred on craggy karst peaks that surround the city as well as on the beautiful Li River on which we will cruise. 

We actually stayed in the smaller town of Yangshuo (population 350 000) which according to the LP has become 'over run with tour groups and bothersome touts'.....quite true!

Our long-awaited Li River cruise has turned out to be no more than a 90 minute run around on a public cruise boat that anyone could have booked. The LP talks about a 4.5 hr cruise in small bamboo rafts between Yangshuo and Guilin with lunch thrown in.  But we got this:

- rather than this:

 It also proved to be a very hazy morning once we got on the water. 

Our Li River Cruise turned out to be a little underwhelming given the hype I had read about rafting along the river.  Instead, we joined an anonymous tour boat along with about another 100 Chinese tourists for a cruise about 1.5 hrs duration.  The Karst Mountains were very impressive but the lack of connection with the river a bit of a letdown.  The mountain formations very similar to those found around Krabi in Southern Thailand.......comparing the area to Halong Bay  in Vietnam  was stretching it abit.

Up until a week ago the river and surrounds had been flooded and there was still a lot of flood debris stuck on the riverside bamboo clumps.  The one free lunch included in the G Adventure’s itinerary was quite ordinary and over half of the dishes presented by the local farmer were left uneaten – it was not good.

Returning to our jetty we arranged to be dropped off in the main part of Yangshuo for a bit of a shopping expedition and cold drink.  I bought a couple of T shirts and Maria a dress.  At least we got our washing done by the local hotel.

       

              

Very cheesy snap of our CEO with Harriet and Dawn at the Farmer's lunch

G Adventures left us in Kunming with little to do all day and then got us out to the airport at 1400 for a plane that left at 1630.  We really should have just caught a plane last night after arriving in Kunming at 1340 – just wasted a day.

When I raised the subject of using our free day on Thursday to drive up to the famous Longji Rice Terraces, I was told it was simply too far and too expensive – I persisted and our CEO reluctantly arranged a car and driver for us and the Brits (Irvine and Dawn) to share a car up there with an ETD of 0600 hours.  No one else in the group interested because of the cost.

Tonight we go to the famous Sound and Light show which we purchased as an optional extra when we first booked.  Originally only us and one other Canadian couple had pre-booked for the show which is choreographed by the director of Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremony and has a cast of over 2000 actors -many of them local.  But now we have 11 starters for this spectacular show.

While waiting to be taken to the show I spent some time in a restaurant across the road from our hotel and got chatting to a university lecturer of English from Hunan Province who had brought his class to this town to practise their English language skills with the many foreign tourists who gathered here.

      

       

 It was a great spectacle even if the storyline was lost on us..............I did take a movie clip of the show but it is simply too large for this site

Yangshuo township once again impresses one on account of its tidiness and friendly populace.  A lot more of the locals here speak English no doubt due to the vast numbers of tourists who flock here every year to view their unique landscape.

While we head off to the rice terraces the rest of our group will divide their time between Tai Chi, calligraphy or cookery lessons and some bike riding tours around the town.

Longji Rice Terraces

Our driver turned out to be  a young woman (Lilly) who did a marvellous job of speeding around a very narrow and twisting road, ducking in and out of the lorry traffic.  We got to the terraces in about 3.5 hours and immediately caught the cable car to the top viewing point some 20 minutes later. 

                   

Despite the recent storms in the region, most of the terraces had yet to be flooded and were still being ploughed in readiness.  However, the ones that were flooded glistened beautifully in the mid morning sunlight.  There was a fair bit of haze about but  this did not diminish the beauty of the majestic terraces which were comparable to those we saw back in Banaue in the Philippines in 2010.

               

Now the above is what we had hoped to see if the rains had come when they should have

But this is what we actually saw

                   

Still pretty impressive

We had lovely Chinese meal while on the summit, Maria sh0pped at a number of the local craft and souvenir stalls, while the rest of us took far too many photos.   We foolishly allowed our driver to purchase return tickets on the cable car which really proved unnecessary as 3 of us chose to walk down which took us along a charming paved track through a number of interesting little villages where we bumped into a number of locals working in their paddy fields.

                                           

               

The trip, despite costing a bit ($170 for the car and driver for the day and $25 each for the cable car ride) was a great experience and really should have been included in our tour or at least offered as an option. 

Next morning was supposed to be an early bus ride to the local railway station about a bus ride away.  However, as with all best laid plans, this one came unstuck when our CEO discovered that he had left his suitcase in the hotel and we had to turn back which cost us 30 minutes.  As a consequence, we were delivered to another railway station with resultant confusion about our pre-booked seats. ie some were still occupied by passengers not alighting until we reached our correct point of joining the train.

We all managed to find temporary seats for the first 20 minutes of our journey and then got to our booked seats thereafter for the next 90 minutes on one of China’s very fast trains which reached speeds of 305 kph.

          

      

Many of the group slept while others; just soldiered on

Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Kowloon/Hong Kong

Our journey today took our group to Guangzhou, then another short train ride to the border town of Shenzhen.  After the formal immigration and customs inspection  we caught the Hong Kong metro to our hotel in Kowloon. 

This chap was there in the station to welcome us all to Hong Kong

It took from 0815 hrs till 1515 hours to finally book into our hotel which is just off Nathan Road near the Kowloon Jade Market

This part of Nathan Road very sedate no doubt due to the presence of the Salvation Army hostel next door to our Catholic run hotel.

Our first free morning began with me purchasing a couple of HK Transport (Caterpillar) cards for MTR, Bus & Ferry usage – cost about $20 and of course we were eligible for Seniors Cards being over 65 – so we get every fare capped at $2 and the balance refunded when we leave.

Macau

Next a taxi to the Macau ferry terminal where we had to purchase tickets on the more expensive hydrofoil service – at just over $60 one way each….but it was Saturday and it did include a light meal.

Macau appeared out of the heat haze as a mass of sky scrapers most of which were, of course, casinos – there are more than 40 of them.

Queued for a taxi to our pre-booked Ole London Hotel in the old quarter and found that our room was just big enough to fit two single beds, kids study table and tiny ensuite – this cost about $110/night - not a good choice.

After showering we grabbed our assorted maps and set out to explore Macau’s Portuguese colonial past.  However, being a Saturday and a public holiday for Buddha’s birthday the crowds in the very narrow lane ways and squares proved a bit of a handful.  Nevertheless we climbed the hundreds of steps to the top of Fortress Mount (circa 1620s) and then toured the Macau Museum and gazed briefly over the remains of the iconic Church of St Paul (1602) – destroyed by fire in 1835.  The status accorded to these ruins is but a small taste of the amount of Catholic influence on this small island hanging off China.

     

Colonial architecture around Macau's central Senardo Square

     

 I then persuaded Maria to climb the rather steep hill to the old fort at the centre of old Macau.

       

The Macau Museum was fascinating and all items clearly described in Chinese, Portuguese and English.  They included ancient ceramics, weapons, clothing, tools and a lot of replica models of foundry and printing works.

On leaving the museum at about 1700 hours we found the surrounding streets and alleyways especially around the iconic ruins of St Pauls cathedral more crowded than ever.

        

People were also queuing to purchase pieces of what turned out to be quite sweetly cured and roasted beaten pork as well as another Macau favourite – egg custard tarts.

                           

We went in search of one of the few bars recommended by Lonely Planet called The Macau Soul (www.macausoul.com) – a wine bar run by a retired British couple who shared a love of Portuguese wines and modern jazz – that evening we were entertained by old LPs of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk while drinking a bottle of 2010 Douro Tiara – a rather fruity Riesling style of wine.  David and Jacky Higgins were marvellous hosts at this most welcome retreat from the madding Macau masses!....but it proved to be a rather expensive and late night. Macau also has a 10% GST on everything.  In the casinos they also add a Service Charge on top of the tax.

This wine bar is a must for any traveller coming to this place.

Day 2 in Macau spent going for a long walk around CBD and a call of nature had us inside the very garishly golden Casino Lisboa.  We then caught a bus across the sea to the Macau island of Taipa/Coloane where resides a number of new and very flash casinos including James Packer’s Crown/Island of Dreams.  We actually visited the Venetian Casino which is like a self-contained city….huge – acres of gaming tables and pokies.  Had lunch there and Maria tried her luck on the pokies – no good.  Very few westerners sighted but plenty of Indians and Arabs.

 

           

Grand Lisboa and Galaxy Casinos

       

City of Dreams and the Venetian Casinos

       

One of the ceilings of the Venetian and an Aussie tourist dressed-up for the punt

On way home we stumbled upon a small restaurant called Naughty Nuris Bar & Grill at 7 Rue da Felicidade – it sold a wide selection of imported craft beers at $11 a pop – we were very thirsty afterall.  They were booked out and so we could not have try their western styled menu of steak, burgers and pasta but we could admire some of their decor.

 

Dined at a local Portuguese restaurant which was a pleasant change from the local Cantonese offerings all over town.  Early night in preparation for our departure back to Hong Kong Island tomorrow morning. 

Macau’s colonial past and architecture have been the stand out interest for our short weekend stay here.  The casinos were really of little interest apart from their gob-smacking gross opulence.  I read in some local paper here of the fear shared by some locals that the casino developments are putting at risk the Island’s Sino-Portuguese culture not only the gradual re-development of its old precincts but also the fear that the current heavy dependence on gaming revenue to fund local services might one day dry up.

Hong Kong Island

We took the 0830 ferry from Macau to Hong Kong Island-a distance of some 60kms.This time it only cost $25 each instead of the weekend premium ticket on the initial journey across which cost close to $60 each.

After Googling our new hotel’s address, I gathered the Ibis Hong Kong Central & Sheung Wan Hotel was only a 7 minute walk away from the Macau Ferry Terminal, alas it turned out to be wee bit longer and with laden packs we eventually marched into reception some 15mins later.  This area of HK Island is the market centre for dried fish, fungi, shark fin, ginseng and birds nest soup sellers and they do not take kindly to round eyes taking photographs of their wares inside their smelly shops.

We have a beautiful room on the 27th Floor with wonderful HK Harbour views looking straight across to Kowloon’s waterfront with the mountains of mainland China forming the backdrop.  We can view a constant stream of ferries crossing the harbour as well as the odd arrival and departure of cruise ships to this vibrant city.

View across HK Harbour to Kowloon from our room with Macau Ferry terminal in foreground

After a brief orientation stroll towards the busy business end of HK Island, we decided to take a ride on the Victoria Peak Tram – a trip we did with the children over 30 years ago.  Today there were long queues but being proud owners of Metro Cards we got priority.  The tram’s climb up to Victoria Peak is still exhilarating. We foolishly tried a drink up at the summit restaurant & bar which cost a small fortune – do not follow suit.

       

Our tram arrives - half way up -     at Victoria Peak

       

Drink at the Peak and down again

Next I left Maria to further explore the flash retail outlets around the Central District while I dashed back to our hotel to try and contact our British friends (Irvine and Dawn) to arrange a rendezvous later in the evening – I had to use email and Hotel phone for this but it worked out and they joined us via Star Ferry at about 1800 hours from their hotel in Kowloon (The Eaton) we all then set about exploring the array of bistros and bars up the hill from the Central MTR in the So Ho district – very hip scene for locals and expats alike.

 

               

Some of Hong Kong's more striking Skyscrapers

We chose a very pleasant Spanish Tapas Bar in Staunton Street and had a wonderful last evening together – they were going to fly home the next day.

We both like Hong Kong which, despite the chaotic traffic (taxis, buses, trams) and jostling streets and alleyways always seems thoroughly organised and businesslike.  Friendly and good natured even if 98% of the population never puts their mobile phones down.

Decided on a day of sightseeing the Hong Kong Park including a walk-through bird aviary) then the Man Mo Taoist temple which was full of the smoke from very large conical shaped incense coils.

Afterwards we tackled the HK trams with our Octopus MTR cards

       

We explored the shopping malls along lower Nathan Road trying to avoid the aggressive in your face  touts for watch and suit tailors.

We had lunch at a ‘simple’ dim sum restaurant which was serving at least 150 odd tables with piled bamboo steamers containing all manner of Chinese food.  We explored more shops and then metroed further north up to one of Stephanie's recommendations viz the Dim Dim Sum in Mong Kok district which proved a bit uneven in the quality of the various offerings.

We also wanted to visit the night market in Temple Street which is a vastly diminished affair from what it had been years ago – today it only sells cheap T shirts, souvenirs and fake jade jewellery.  We did buy an extra wheeled suitcase there to hold the extra luggage we have accumulated.

The next day we gave away the western breakfast offered in our hotel for $25 and instead found a local noodle shop around the corner offering a mammoth bowl of noodles with wontons for $6.  Maria then went in search for a massage and shopping solo while I went exploring for a restaurant I had failed to locate the day before and explore a bit of HK Island from the top of one of their beaut two story trams – went down as far as the Causeway Bay.

I later found another one of Stephanie's recommended restaurants Mac’s Noodles at Wellington Street in SoHo and had a delightful lunch of Shrimp wontons, pork dumplings and fine egg noodles in a very spicy broth.  Excellent service and freshly made food makes all the difference – a bit crowded at 1pm but worth every bit of the $8 charged.

           

During the morning, I found myself constantly bumping into locals with their heads buried in their mobile phones – they cannot put them down.  I reckon 98% of pedestrians and commuters are looking into them and to my shame this includes tourists and expats alike.  We have managed to stumble around China without one and yet still stay in touch with family and friends and find the places we want with a good old fashioned paper map…now what matters are so important that they have to be negotiated in the streets, in queues, on public transport or in restaurants usually right in  the face of someone else?

One other thing that has begun to irk us is the number of American voices you hear on the streets, restaurants, bars and on public transport.  Whereas in China you hardly ever heard an American here they appear to be the dominant expat community and foreign tourist.

We tried another nostalgic trip to Aberdeen to have dinner at the Floating Jumbo Restaurant which proved to be a bit of fun but the food was not as good as we remembered nor the service.  The restaurant is now surrounded by a very up market marina and so no longer stands alone in this bay It has become a little slack, warm food, badly trained staff and overpriced everything.  The bus ride takes about 40 minutes.

           

On our last day we went back to Kowloon via tram and Star Ferry and browsed a few sights as best one can while being constantly pestered by touts all along the southern end of Nathan road trying to flog you suits and/or watches…..they are not seen over in HK Island – another reason to stay that side.

While walking back from Jade Market we happened to find ourselves in Shanghai Street which runs parallel to Nathan Road in the Yau Ma Tei district it is lined with shops selling catering and kitchenware – fascinating place- every gadget imaginable for Asian food cooking people….we were at last able to buy some square skewers.

On our last night we dined at another Stephanie specials the quaintly named ‘Ho Lee Fook’ restaurant in the SoHo district.

   

Marvellous dinner, could not fault the food, staff or the ambiance; including the Bob Dylan music.  WE had some fine Italian Pinot Grigio to help digest our fine dumplings and spicy pork belly dish and vegetables.  The quirky menu included roasted whole suckling pig for $240! – with 48hr notice.

Hong Kong has this marvellous express rail shuttle service which enables one to check your luggage at the Hong Kong station, get your boarding pass and then catch an express train right to the new airport (Kai Tak closed in 1997) some 40 mins ride away…seamless.

Brisbane &  Home

Observations about touring with a mixed group?

  • The majority of our tour group had participated in organised tours before albeit simpler ones and were used to and accepted the given itinerary

  • Only a few had done any extensive research into the country they were visiting and only 3 had reference books with them

  • In order to accommodate as many sights in the cheapest manner possible, the tour is frequently required to undertake arduous transport transfers at night or else locked in to inconvenient public transport schedules.

  • The realities of having to offer choices that meet the diverse interests of the group meant that mediocrity is frequently offered.  This is reinforced by the tight budgets of most members of the group.

  • The accommodation chosen by G Adventures all seemed about 3 Star with the usual attributes of such hotels such as chipped paint, leaky plumbing, faulty light fittings, A/Cs, lack of personal Safes all of which we readily accept.  What we do not accept is that all of them are set up expressly for local Chinese travellers and as a consequence the front desk staff have little if any English and therefore cannot assist any foreign tourist with requests for information, guides, tour bookings etc. 

  • This leaves group tour members ‘prisoners’ of their tour guide ie totally dependent upon their guide for all advice and assistance.

  • Touring with a group would be more rewarding if the group members shared a common special interest eg the history, art or cuisine of the particular country being visited

 

 

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