A Travellerspoint blog


Comunism or Consumism?

During our month in China our friend Patrizia gave us a book to read, "The Chinese Century", written by an Italian author, Federico Rampini. It discusses the importance and power increase of the Chinese economy in the century we're living, comparing it to the American and how the country has awoken during the past 20 years and is slowly adapting to the modern times despite the traces Mao left. It is believed that the average salary of a Chinese worker is around 150 Euro a month, but this is slowly changing...of course where you notice it mostly is in the big cities. Anyway, it seems that it's OK to be rich, and the flow of money is at times, even tangible. When you walk around Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu or Hangzhou you can spot international companies, and it's true that China is fashionable right now. The amount of stores that are placed there make you feel that the country is open to consumism. It's attractive to study, work, outsource and produce there, as compared to the Western world, it's still cheaper, but it's also where the resources are. Back home we know there's a country called China that creates the majority of our clothes, technology devices and utensils, but we don't realise its immensity and importance. China has silently placed itself as an economy-driver and in the meantime we were probably enjoying a football match or a cup of tea.

We never thought we would find so many Western people living in China to learn Mandarin, as it is in fact, the World's most spoken language, and is gaining more importance as there are more negotiations going on between us and China. On the other hand, the younger generations in China learn English, and will probably be the lucky ones to study or work abroad. China needed Western countries to start up an economy, and Western countries depend on China's resources not to fail through...the result from this mutual dependence is a perfect marriage...but will it come to a point where China won't need us anymore? Certain is, China's no longer a sleeping beauty and it will definitely influence on our future...Welcome to the Chinese Century.

Posted by sonianick 05:08 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Hong Kong

East meets West

sunny 33 °C

Crossing the border at Shenzhen to enter Hong Kong's territory wasn't easy. We arrived to Shenzhen with a night bus, and of course, no one at the station spoke a word of English. You would ask people after "Hong Kong" and they would just point to you in a random direction...great. Luckily, a young man informed us that we had to take another bus to reach the border. On our way we met three Israelian guys who had to go there as well so we just went together. Once there, crossing the frontier takes a good hour: fill in the departure card and the health declaration for China, line up, get your passport stamped, put your bags through an X-ray scan, fill in the arrival card and the health declaration for Hong Kong, line up, stamp again your passport and check your bags again whilst your body temperature is measured constantly; no, you don't want to write in that you're suffering any flu symptoms. Doing this twice when there's only a separation of a couple metres between the exit of China and the entrance to Hong Kong sounds stupid, and at the same time makes you feel like you're entering a completely different country. People from Hong Kong never felt British and don't feel Chinese, and the differences between the city and China are clear; Hong Kong has its own currency, an International flair that cities like Beijing or Shanghai still dream of, is definitely cleaner, and people do communicate in English apart from Cantonese. Welcome to the Asian New York.


We immediately felt the difference. Our accommodation, the Park Guest House, was 10 times pricier than our hostels in China. The area we were in is called Kowloon, opposite fascinating Hong Kong Island, and the exact location of the guest house was the 15th floor of a dodgy building named Chungking Mansion. The building's full of currency exchange stalls, technology and food shops, Indians offering you fakes and general people you would rather not go up the elevator with, but it's the cheapest spot for the backpackers. We received an email from Rob, one of our Xi An buddies who we bumped into randomly in Yangshuo, that he was in Hong Kong, and it turned up his room was opposite ours! So right after walking a little around the Temple Street Night Market, we met up with Rob and headed towards the Star Ferry, where we were meeting some friends from Rob and Carrie, one of Nick's friends he knew from San Diego. That was the first time we saw the skyline of Hong Kong Island...and may we say WOW. As soon as we were all gathered Carrie, as a local from Hong Kong, took us to a great Shanghai restaurant, where we had a try at the jellyfish. Drinks at a Mexican place followed the dinner and short afterwards we went to get a rest; we were craving for a decent bed after the "fab" night bus.

We just had three days in Hong Kong, and as we had to send some stuff back home, we decided to dedicate our second day to shopping. Fakes are illegal in Hong Kong, which makes it harder to find, but are still available pretty much in all markets. We stayed in Kowloon and went to the Ladies Market, near the Mong Kok station, and spend most of the day around the area. As we walked through the market people would come up with catalogues, mostly Louis Vuitton, offering us to buy fakes, but keeping very vigilant over possible police coming around. We ended up buying some things we needed but behaved as good civilians. In the evening, we wanted to give ourselves a treat and went to the Italo-Japanese restaurant Aqua. If you ever go to Hong Kong, you must visit this place, at least to have a drink, as the venue is beautiful and the views of the whole skyline make the evening perfect. They're very well known for their cocktails, so we tried the Martini Porn Star, very special and unique as you drink it in three stages; first, you taste a bit of passionfruit with vanilla, then you sip champagne and you end it with absolut passionfruit...it was delicious, and so worth it we're displaying a picture below ;-)


The next day we took the Star Ferry to go to Hong Kong Island and walked around the financial district of the city. The area was packed with businessmen and women who would walk in a rush carrying their Starbucks Coffee, and it just reminded us of a London or a New York; important brand shops, big malls, coffee bars everywhere etc. We were surprised by the amount of Western people who seem to be working and living in Hong Kong, but then again, it's such a great city, who wouldn't go there to work? We had lunch at a restaurant in Soho and then visited the Bank of China, as the 43rd floor is a free observation area for tourists. The most fascinating aspects of Hong Kong are the sea, the islands surrounding it and the fact that the Island is hilly, which makes the skyline more impressive than in any other city (forgive us NYC). We were meeting up with Carrie again for some dinner at Victoria Peak, so we took the tram a bit in advance to admire the views of the city...it was windy as hell but it was still enjoyable. As soon as Carrie met us we went to a Japanese restaurant at the Peak and ended our stay with a good drink in Kowloon. It was great to meet Carrie and she was amazing with her tips; Carrie, we expect you in Europe ;-)

It was time to close our backpacks again and head to the airport early in the morning. One month in China and Hong Kong together has resulted in too little time to discover a country that surprised us in many aspects...and we had mixed feelings, sadness to leave such a great place, but excitement to explore a new destination: Singapore. You know what they say...NEVER STOP EXPLORING!


Posted by sonianick 04:24 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Guilin, Yangshuo & Rice Terraces

Our postcard

sunny 35 °C

As with Vietnam it was Halong Bay, we had hoped that our "postcard" would be found somewhere around the rice fields in Guilin. Our flight on September 11th from Hangzhou to Guilin went, despite the date, fine, although we experienced some unfortunate delay and we arrived at our hostel around 3 am, really tired. Our hostel was the Backstreet Youth Hostel, and we had purposedly booked it to meet up with a good friend of ours. Patrizia was in China with Giulia, another friend, and they were flying into Guilin the 12th...we couldn't wait to finally meet her and spend some bohemian days together, cups of tea and cigarettes.

As we had a day to spend in Guilin before the girls arrived, we basically slept until late, wondered a bit through the city, read, wrote...but did nothing special as it was reallly warm and humid and after a 5 minutes walk we felt like collapsing anywhere. We waited until late in the evening to greet the girls, as they also suffered delay on their flight, and were very happy to finally see Patty and meet Giulia. We had a good laugh before they arrived as we were relaxing in the lobby area and suddenly a couple of Spanish guys started a huge argument with the receptionists because they thought they had been ripped off...and were threatening them by calling the police and sue them. At the same time there were two drunk English guys laughing out loud at them and we ended up chatting for a while. Once Patty and Giulia got to the hostel, we stayed up for a while, updating quickly on each other and went to bed.

The next day we left early to go on a cruise along the Li river from Guilin to Yangshuo...it was a fabulous 4 hour boat tour where we fully enjoyed the landscape full of rocky hills that distinguish the area from anywhere else in the world. It was the perfect opportunity to take pictures, enjoy the scenery and relax. Once we got to Yangshuo, we went to our hostel, the Yangshuo Senior Leader International Youth Hostel. We only had a 4 hour sleep the previous night so a power nap sounded like the perfect plan before hitting the town. Yangshuo is a pretty Chinese town, small yet full of shops and restaurants, and is right next to the Li River, making it the most fascinating out of all the cities we had visited in China. It's hard to forget China's huge population, as every new city you visit has no less than 4 million people living there...Xi An, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Guilin, you expect them to be much tinier, so I guess that any Chinese who visits Europe must find it pretty empty. Getting back to the topic, Yangshuo is a jewel that should be visited, for its size, the area around it, its Chinese style houses and the absence of skyscrapers. Once awoken, a coffee was in the list of things-to-do and finding Jochem and Susanne; we knew the guys were around somewhere, so we passed by their inn. It turned out that we met them straight away and they came for dinner with us. We also found out that it was Susanne's b-day so we invited her to dinner and a mango slushy for dessert somewhere else. Patty and Giulia were craving for their first reflexology massage and us, as almost experts, could't deny their request...so we "sacrificed" ourselves and went all together to a spa, the biggest in town. This was not a regular massage place, no masseurs with bleeding noses or chatting out loud, but a full-on spa with professionals and great service. Of course, the rates were higher, but the foot reflexology was perhaps the best we received in our trip so far, a bit painful but very relieving at the same time. The best thing about the foot reflexology is that afterwards you feel re-energised, which is why we couldn't go to bed early and stayed up chatting with a cup of tea until 4 am.

Our first full day in Yangshuo was dedicated to cycling. We rented a tandem and two regular bicycles and left the city to visit its surroundings and the Banyan Tree park. On our way back to town a storm surprised us and by the time we arrived at the hostel we were completely soaked. A quick shower and it was time to leave again; we had booked tickets for the famous light show "Impressions Liu Sanjie". Its creator, Zhang Yimou, was responsible for the opening show of the 2008 Olympics so we assumed it would be a great show, and it's definitely a must when you visit Yangshuo . The most impressive thing about the show was the scenario; a lake surrounded by the typical karst peaks you find in that area. No other performance we had seen before is similar to this, and the creativity Chinese people have is way superior to anyone else's. On the way to the show we met two Spanish guys, who afterwards took us to a restaurant they knew that was good and cheap. Patty and Giulia coulnd't resist the temptation of another foot massage, whilst we headed back to the hostel for a good rest.

The morning after we rented four mountain bikes and headed towards the Water Caves. It took us a while to get to the main parking in Moon Hill and from there we had to take a mini bus as the roads were too rough. We went inside with a boat and toured the caves until we finally had the chance to float in a mud pool and relax in some hot pools. In the evening, the girls wanted to invite us to a massage, and we couldn't resist...so this time we went for the full body...after Thailand and China we feel we have become addicted to massages :-)

North from Guilin there's another area worth visiting, which is famous for its rice terraces, so we took two buses and a taxi to reach the small village of Ping'an. When we arrived it was dark and there were no lights, so the owner of the guest house where we were staying guided us through the dark with some torches. We were tired, but still, that night there was room for laughs and great stories sharing between the four of us...another bohemian evening with Patty, and that's where we actually got to know better sweet Giulia. When we woke up in the morning we saw some breathtaking views from our window; we were surrounded by rice terraces and just a few wooden houses. It felt like being in another planet, away from the cities and its populations, the neon lights and the sound of traffic. We had a power breakfast and started our trekking session; our objective for the day was to walk to another little village, Dazhai, which we had been told by the guest house owner was three hours away...well, it turned out that the walk was not that short, and we only made it half-way through. The trail was beautiful, the scenery is actually quite similar to Sapa in Vietnam, but bigger, with deeper valleys and outstanding views. The area is home to some Chinese minorities, like the Zhuang or Yao, and we kept bumping into some of them, especially the long-hair women, who never cut their hair so it reaches their toes, and will show it to you in exchange for money. There was also an Australian traveller who kept popping out like Wally from random corners even if he was much quicker than us in the hiking, so every time we saw him we just cracked up stupidly as it seemed absurd that he could show up no matter where we were or what we did...this actually drove Patty a little crazy. In the evening, after six hours walk and a shower, we were ready to try a foot massage and have some dinner...it was definitely the best way to give our feet some relief!


The next day we headed back to Yangshuo as we wanted to explore more of its surroundings, whereas Patty and Giulia decided to enjoy a day in Ping'an before going to Shanghai by train. It was sad to say good bye, they were an amazing company and it felt good to share a few days with them, but we had to keep rolling, and so we did. So we did the whole travelling back to Yangshuo and went directly to our hostel, but no rooms were left, and they placed us in a hotel right next to them. It was September 18th, which meant we had three days left to enjoy before getting the night bus to Hong Kong, so we took it quite easily, except for our first day. We were so powered up by the trekking and the cycling, that we decided to rent two mountain bikes and go to the rougher parts around Yangshuo...there's a place near the village of Baisha by the Yulong river called the Dragon's Bridge, so we drove until there, where we had a little rest as it was painful hot. We just sat with an old lady who offered us her fan and some drinks and we did nothing but staring at the people around for a while; groups of men playing cards, women playing with their grandsons and random tourists looking for shelter from the sun. We actually crossed the Dragon's Bridge and followed the trail by the river until we found that there was basically no trail, but only rice fields. At that point we had two options, going back or continuing to see what we could find. We decided to walk with our bicycles between the rice fields, being careful not to fall, and we needed some time, but with patience and indications from farmers who didn't speak a word of English, we finally made our way to other villages. The area is the best around Yangshuo as there's no traffic and you end up in the middle of nowhere...which is just what we were looking for.

During the rest of our stay in Yangshuo we chilled...no bicycles or long intense walks...just sleeping in, reading, walking around town and hiding from the rain. It felt great and we spent most of our time at the Senior Leader Intl Hostel, because we loved the staff working there and the general atmosphere, full of travellers updating their families on skype or exchanging information with other fellas. On Sept 21st we took our night bus to Shenzhen to then cross the border and reach our final destination before flying to Singapore; it was time to stop by Hong Kong.


Posted by sonianick 03:55 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Hangzhou & Huangshan

Real Nature

sunny 27 °C

As previously mentioned, the whole Shanghai was in a "working in progress" status, therefore we decided to flee from the noisy city in seek of a tranquil place. We eventually thought about Hangzhou since many Chinese people spoke great things about this city so we jumped on an afternoon train to get there within 2 hours. Our home was the West Lake hostel, a small and neat place. Tired by all this come and go from one place to another, we felt like having a huge pizza, relax and watch a movie in the big sofa. After a good night sleep, the following morning we rented 2 bicycles and went off exploring the famous lake in Hangzhou. It's beautiful, located right in the city centre and just the ideal spot to escape the crowds...we spent a good couple hours riding around it and over its bridges, until we were tired enough to stop for some food, in our beloved Ajisen Ramen (Japanese restaurant chain). Again, we got frustrated because 90% of Chinese people don't understand English AT ALL. We had got used to the mimics and these, combined with four Mandarin words we had learnt, helped us to communicate...either way, we asked the waitress for some water. As she didn't understand "water", nor our gestures, we pulled out an empty bottle we had in our bag, and she looked puzzled..."mmmm what could these two customers be asking for?" Finally she assumed that we wanted our bottle refilled with hot water, and that's what she did. In some way, our request was granted :-). With our bellies full, we went on for some extra cycling and ended up in the Old Street, a pedestrian Chinese-style street full of stalls and shops. Once we were back in the hostel, we didn't move, we were tired from the day and too isolated from any restaurants or bars...plus, we loved the cosy atmosphere of the place, it felt like a real home.


The second morning was already time to leave again, but this time to visit the famous Yellow Mountain, which Peter had recommended us. Chinese people say that "Once you visit the Yellow Mountain, no other in the World needs to be seen" to emphasise its beauty, so we couldn't wait to check it out. To reach Huangshan, we took a bus to Tun Xi, the nearest city where we could have a rest before conquering the mountain. It was a quick 3 hour drive to the city, and we stayed in a low-key International Youth Hostel. The staff in the hostel gave us some good advice for Huangshan and booked us the transport and accommodation for 1 night, so we were ready to walk and enjoy.

We woke up at 5.00 am to have some quick breakfast and be picked up at 6.00 am. Two other guys from our hostel came along but they were definitely not up for any socialising...plus one of them spoke Chinese and he wouldn't even give us hints on where to go once we were up there...nice! Anyhow, once we were at the entrance of Huangshan, we paid our fees and went inside. We saw there was a cable car, but it wasn't working, so we immediately started our hiking upwards. After a few minutes we realised that the hiking was intense, very intense...nothing for amateurs like us. But we were already there...so we took the challenge and continued no matter what. It was hard, really hard to make it to the first refreshing point...3 hours later. The curious thing was that when we arrived, we were sweaty, thirsty and basically dying, and then we met a group of oldies that looked as fresh as a rose...so we were wondering "how come are we suffering this much?" and our question got answered straight away. It turns out, there was another cable car working that we didn't see, so the majority of people took it to reach the first spot to start trekking. Oh well, at least we were proud of our effort and our muscles didn't fail on us! We needed a good half hour rest and a quick snack before restarting the walk. The weather was pretty cloudy and at that altitude you didn't have any views at all, but still it was nice to walk through the misty landscape. We were also told that Yellow Mountain has several spots where couples leave locks and throw the key to symbolise eternal love, and it was truly packed in some areas. Other than Chinese tourists that were visiting the mountain, we saw many men carrying large bulks of anything you could imagine on their backs i.e. water, laundry, fruit, drinks etc, walking the same km we were but carrying around 60-80 kg...we were amazed by these guys and now understand why on earth you pay 20 yuan instead of 3 for a bottle of water...these guys are our new heroes, true ironmen.


After 8 hours trekking, we were wreckage, so it was time to find our accommodation, the Tianhai Hotel. Apparently there are no hostels in the area, but this hotel has dorms meaning you don't have to pay 4star prices, on the other hand it still costs much more than average. We knew we would be sharing the room with other 5 people, and that we would be separated (female&male). But there were other things we discovered once we were there. First, they wouldn't give us a key to our room, which was unbelievable as even in the crappiest places you get your own key to keep the door locked, and when we asked for it they would just say "this is China". Secondly, they wouldn't give us a towel even if we were paying 120 yuan for a night. Well, Nick didn't care if Huangshan was China or Congo, he wanted a key to the room and a towel, so the show began. Nick played the bad cop, speaking loudly, cursing all the time and he even made up he was a hotel reviewer, whilst Sonia played the serene and calm good cop, trying to ease off the tension. The receptionist (who was probably a trainee and was living his first scandal with a client) brought us to the Front Office Manager who in the end gave us a key and a towel to shut us up. And it worked! Still, the hotel was pretty bad, the beds were thinner than the mattresses you find in the trains, everything was expensive and the staff looked bored...not a place we would go to again.


We were lucky that on our second day in Huangshan the weather was incredible and we could appreciate the whole scenery. Our mission was to visit a couple peaks and then walk the whole way down, which wasn't easy either...after a good 5 hours we made it, we were again at the entrance and got back to Tun Xi with a bus. That same evening we visited the main commercial road where we had some dinner and went back to the hostel to get some sleep...we were destroyed after our trekking experience, and Tun Xi is just another big city in China...same roads, same lights, same everything.

Our next destination was Guilin, but getting there by train was impossible (no tickets available). Instead, we opted for a flight from Hangzhou, which meant we had to get back to the Lake city. It was a long journey, but completely worth it for all the beauty we had discovered. After so many cities, especially as big as you find them in China, we were seeking for some natural sights...it was time to hit the Southern part of China.


Posted by sonianick 06:18 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)


Future China


Our arrival to Shanghai started with a trip in the Maglev, the world's fastest train. We took it to go from the airport to reach the city centre, and it was going at 300 km/h, although its highest speed is 430 km/h. We had a reservation at the Ming Town Hiker Youth Hostel in People's Square but we got confused by names and ended showing up at the one located near East Nanjing Road. Fortunately the hostel offered us to stay in and cancel the booking with the other, so we didn't have to move and we were even more centrally located. It was late in the evening so we grabbed some food at the hostel's bar and went to bed.

The next morning we got outside to explore Shanghai and realised that everything's under construction for the Expo 2010. The Bund, which is the area around the river Huangpu, was all blocked and you could bearly see the whole skyline of Pudong. Many buildings around the city centre were being refurbished, and we then thought we wouldn't enjoy Shanghai as much as we expected in the first place. Still, we gave it a try, and explored what we could from the city. We visited the whole shopping area around E Nanjing Road, went to People's Square, saw a bit of the French Concession, The Bund, and went looking for a famous market to buy fakes that we had spotted in a guide. Unfortunately the market had been closed and the area was under construction.

DSC08712.jpg DSC08721.jpg

In the evening we had dinner in a Japanese restaurant at The Bund, the only one that was offering late dinners as all kitchens closed by 10pm. The views of Pudong from the restaurant were amazing and the atmosphere in the restaurant was intimate, just perfect. Afterwards we checked out the roof top bar but we felt the ambience was too chic and we weren't well dressed for the occasion, so instead we walked home to catch some sleep.


We initially thought of staying in Shanghai 3 days, however, seeing everything in such a state, we didn't feel we were getting to know the true Shanghai, so we decided to leave 1 day earlier and promised ourselves to visit again after the Expo. We bought train tickets to a city called Hangzhou, just 90 minutes away, and still had the day to stroll through the city so we went on a boat tour around the river to enjoy the skyline and to a market we got recommended by the hostel...still, when we went, it wasn't like the Pearl Market in Beijing. We were surprised that we didn't find any good opportunities to shop in Shanghai, since we had been told by Chinese people that Shanghai's the shopping mecca...anyway, with or without new items in our bags, there's one certainty: Shanghai seems to represent the future China; business-oriented, modern skyscrapers, traffic jams, fashion and technology invasion, Westerns living and studying in the city, multinational companies everywhere...when you're in Shanghai, you feel you're in the centre of the world, just like another New York or London. So then again, where's the comunism?


Posted by sonianick 08:51 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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