Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Shanghai Saga

Hi everyone,

Back on a night train again and currently heading to Xi'an after a whirlwind few days in Shanghai. We absolutely loved Shanghai and it was an amazing cosmopolitan city (so different from the streets of Beijing).

After arriving off the night train after a very restless nights sleep which ended at 7am when the train started to pipe music through the whole cabin, we headed to our hotel for a much-needed shower! After a quick refresh and some dumplings for lunch, we went to the Shanghai museum which is world-famous but to be honest was pretty boring, although you'd never guess it from this picture......

After all of ten minutes in the 'Hall of Currency', we headed to the coffee shop. After this, we went to the hotel for ANOTHER shower (the Shanghai heat is insane) and some food (more dumplings) a quick change, and back out to see something which I had been super-excited for- a Chinese acrobat show! We took the subway to Shanghai Circus World (the name says it all) and arrived at a huge globe
shaped building. 

Inside, the theatre was really nicely done and when the show started it was genuinely one of the best things I have ever seen!!! From the 8 girls on 1 bicycle, to the 7 motorbikes going around one giant cage, it was incredibly well put together, the acrobats were insanely talented and we were all sat on the edge of our seats!! Some photos are below but I had to take them sneakily so they aren't great quality!

After the show, a few of us headed to Big Max Sports Bar (totally authentic Chinese of course) but we were exhausted from the previous night and the drinks were ultra-expensive (Shanghai is more expensive than Beijing) so we called it an early night and basically fell into comas when our heads hit the pillow!!!

The next morning, we went for a walking tour around Shanghai to see some of the more famous districts. The first stop was the Bund which is the area where you can see Shanghai's iconic skyline.......

After a walk around, we walked to the Yu Garden area. Yu garden is a picturesque botanic gardens with some lovely views. Around the gardens is a really cool bazaar which sells everything and has a good atmosphere if you can handle the touts!! 

After the gardens and a mooch around the stalls, we headed to the newer area of Shanghai- the French concession. This part of the city had obvious European influences and the buildings were cool. We had a wander around the area and went to a communist memorial which was pretty strange.....

Again, the heat was ridiculous so we headed back to get changed for our first proper night out in China. The evening started in a quite sophisticated way with a boat ride along the river to see the Bund at night and we had some great views! 

After disembarking, we went onto a Chinese club which was utterly bizarre. For a start, it was 100yuan (about £10) for an open bar (never a good idea). Throughout the night there was a variety of performers including a singer miming to Jay Sean, various dancers and others.....as the night went on this seemed to get increasingly surreal! Finally, the group of us actually seemed to be the main attraction as we all got on stage and danced and the entire club seemed fixated on taking photos of us......very bizarre.

We've already been on this train about 6 hours as we got on much earlier than the last time, so today we only had chance to grab a quick lunch before heading out. Not feeling our freshest we headed to a Canadian diner, and I believe this picture speaks for itself......

Anyway, going to try and grab a few hours sleep now in preparation for seeing the Terracotta Warriors tomorrow. Night all 

Friday, 23 August 2013

Beijing: The Finale

Hi all,

Writing to you from our first Chinese night train which is currently whisking us towards Shanghai. So far don't think it's as bad as first expected (apart from the ridiculous music which plays throughout the entire train) but we're only 90 minutes in with 12 and a half hours to go so this could all change. Best train snack though are Chinese pot noodles which are gigantic and delicious!!

Lot to update as we've both had a ridiculously busy few days in Beijing. We met our tour group on Monday night which we were both a bit apprehensive about. Obviously travelling with a group of strangers for 17 days is a bit of a daunting prospect. Thankfully, so far they've proved to be really nice! We're travelling on a GAdventures tour which is less structured than the typical tour group and designed for younger backpackers. We all met in the hotel bar and the only negative was our tour leader Sabrina's incessant use of words like 'YOLO' (you only live once) and 'spreading happiness' in a non-ironic capacity. 

We went out for our first group dinner (after some ultra-embarrassing icebreaking introductions) which was really good. The group has a really good mix of nationalities- British, American, Australian, Brazilian and German. Ordering for a group is great in China as it all goes in the middle so we got to try loads- sweet and sour, Kung po prawns, broccoli, aubergine, rice and beef and potato all on a lazy Susan! Only down point of the meal was noticing a cat sat on the extractor fan in the kitchen just as we finished....was pretty funny though.

After dinner we went for a couple of drinks but not that many because we had to meet at 7.30am (ouch) for our following days excursion. The early start wasn't too bad because it was for something we had been waiting to do for a while- the Great Wall of China. We got the bus to Mutianyu which is one of the sites and walked up a small market at the base of the hill leading up to the wall. The group split as we got the cable car while some of the others walked (we weren't in a trekking mood so early). The cable car was ridiculous as instead of braking it just crashed into the floor to stop. We did arrive safely though and saw the Great Wall which is huge! It stretches for 8800km and when you're on it it goes as far as the eye can see on both sides. It's pretty impressive and walking along it is cool especially navigating the steep staircases. We took some ridiculous tourist photos and walked a few kilometres along meeting a crazy Chinese lady called Linda who took about 25 photos with us!

After our walk we decided to take the funniest route back down, the toboggan!! Essentially an utter genius has installed a big metal slide which you can ride down on a toboggan with a handbrake- so weird but cool. The ride was awesome although we were slowed down by a few timid people in front. Unfortunately, when we reached the bottom all was not so good as there was a guy lying there who had seemingly suffered a heart attack and paramedics were trying to revive him. Not so nice to see and we both hope he was ok. 

We headed back to the bus and were proclaimed 'heroes' by Sabrina (another annoying term) which was followed by an impromptu Chinese lesson/drill. Neither of us can grasp mandarin whatsoever and it seems to be a very complicated language!!! A quick rest stop at the hotel and a much needed shower later and we headed back out for another dinner. This was different style Chinese food and it was much spicier. Also encountered chickens feet which were absolutely disgusting! Another few quiet drinks in a local bar and another early night as another busy day was looming the following day!! 

The next day we hit some of the most famous Beijing attractions including Tian'anmen Square, The Forbidden City, the Hutongs and the Bell and Drum Towers. Quick synopsis of each below-

1) The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City is a huge palace complex which was founded in the Ming Dynasty. It is vast and it takes a good two hours just to walk through it. For such a huge tourist attraction, I was pretty disappointed. Some of the stories surrounding the emperors harem of concubines (we did initially think the guide was talking about porcupines) were quite interesting but a lot of the palace was very repetitive and each courtyard was the same as the last.

2) Tian'anmen Square

Tian'anmen square was interesting to walk around particularly with the ultra-high levels of security everywhere. We really wanted to go to the Mao Mausoleum but Sabrina forgot to tell us we needed to bring our passports so we weren't allowed entry. 

3) The Hutongs

This was probably our favourite part of the day! We took a trishaw ride around the Hutongs which are the old streets around Beijing where a lot of people still live. We looked at two completely different houses set around courtyards. The first was owned by the government and rooms are rented to families on welfare for less than £2 a month! Several families will live in an incredibly small space though. Next door, the house was privately owned by a retired Beijing Opera singer and this was a huge contrast. It was really spacious and per square metre it was worth £20,000!!! 

4) The Bell and Drum Towers

These are set in the Hutong district across a small park from each other. They were built as a way of waking people up for work (5am) although they obviously aren't still used for that! We walked up the steepest flight of stairs in the drum tower and watched a drum show which was pretty cool!!

During the course of the day we also had instant noodles sitting on the pavement (starting a trend amongst the locals) because it was the only food we could find, listened to several more irritating 'Sabrinaisms' and met this guy.....

After another taste of Peking Duck (not as good as the first time) we decided to all head out to the Wang Fu night market. Rob, Olly and Sam (2 of the other guys we're travelling with), got lost on the streets of Beijing. Cue Rob's adventure story:

"We were initially with the rest of the group, albeit at the very back, walking down a huge street towards the market. After quite a bit of chatting we noticed that those ahead were becoming less visible, a few minutes later we looked up again and they were totally gone! We figured they must just be further up the street so we ploughed on some more, until it became very clear that they had turned off somewhere, nowhere to be seen. All we knew was that we needed to get to the night market, but couldn't remember it's Chinese name. Reaching a huge crossroads there was a policeman on the left who was chatting up some girl and I thought I'd brave asking for directions. When miming eating a skewer I accidentally made another gesture which signals something a bit rude. The policeman looked incredibly startled and tried to keep a straight face while Ollie was chuckling in the background.  After ringing Rebecca and asking another passerby I asked again adding the words Wang Fu and scorpion to the mix, this time Sam and Ollie noticed the faux pas and couldn't stop laughing. Needless to say, we never made it to the night market. Stopped off for a 40p beer on the way back to the bar"

But I found the market and it was crazy. Dog, cat, starfish, insects, crickets......every animal was sold deep fried. The absolutely vile smell put me off trying anything but I did hold a live scorpion and Emily (another travel companion) ate a gross-looking cricket. Very strange experience particularly with the various street vendors making animal noises.

After the night market and finally finding the 3 guys we had a bit of a messy night involving a lot of beer, some 3am dumplings which a Chinese family cooked us and eventually getting to bed at 4.30am (the only time I've ever seen Beijing relatively quiet!!) 

Today was our last day in Beijing, and after a much needed lie-in and some greasy burgers, we headed to the Silk Market which was huge and sold everything....electronics, clothes, shoes, fake bags, fake trainers, fake everything in fact. The vendors were all a bit mental and came out with some classics such as 'nice face lady'. After a few impulse purchases, and having to walk around with Ollie and Sam looking like this......

.... at which point two hysterical chinese girls cornered us, we headed to the train station and that pretty much brings us up to date. The train is jolting loads and I'm on the top bed in a 6 berth cabin (so essentially very high) which is slightly concerning. The toilets are vile (essentially a hole above the tracks) but apart from that I'm pretty comfy. Hitting the hay now and will hopefully wake up in 8 hours nearly in Shanghai! Good night!!

P.s. now posting this on the hotel wifi and needless to say my 8hour plan wasn't very successful :(

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Beijing continued......

Today is our last solitary day in Beijing before we join our tour which takes us from here to Hong Kong via Xi'an, Shanghai, Yangshuo, the Three Gorges and down the Yangtze. We're waiting to check in at our new hotel in Beijing where we'll stay for a couple of nights before heading onto Shanghai so thought it would be a good time to do a quick recap on the events of the last few days. 

So last time we left you on a bit of a cliffhanger as we were about to head out for our second attempt at Chinese food. I'm sure you've been waiting with bated breath so I'm glad to inform you that the duck did not disappoint....it was delicious! We went to the busiest restaurant where there was a queue coming out of the door and you could see the chefs carving whole ducks in front of the crowd. As an aside, the hostesses uniforms were amazing- proper Chinese silk dresses. We ordered and out came the biggest mound of duck with all the trimmings...

Excellent grub. We also ordered rice (bad idea-- far too much food) and two beers and the grand total for the bill (no pun intended) was a shocking £17.00 (expensive by Beijing standards!!)

Heading back to the hostel with our stomachs fit to burst, thankfully only next door, we retired for an early night (this proved highly unsuccessful due to the constant traffic coming in and out of our dorm and a couple of late arrivals). Next morning, we rose (later than planned) and headed to the Temple of Heaven which is one of the most iconic Beijing landmarks.

Sundays seem ultra quiet in Beijing. The manic atmosphere of the streets and subways had quietened down and it all seemed surprisingly orderly. We even saw people queueing!! Once on the subway, there was a sight which we are not used to in England which we've now seen a few times. Beggars go up and down the subway cars occasionally playing music, and nearly everyone seems to give them money. Begging on the street seems relatively uncommon for a large capital city, but we've seen this practice on nearly every subway we have ridden so far.

When we arrived at the Temple of Heaven, again it was really calm. We were both surprised at how huge the grounds were and it took us ages to walk around although it was really pretty so we didn't mind! The first thing we came to were a group of performers singing traditional Chinese music which was interesting.....

This type of music is played everywhere and it really makes you feel like you are in China which is lovely. Next we headed to the Imperial Vault of Heaven and the Echo wall which is a small structure surrounded by a huge wall which is built so that if you shout at one side of the courtyard, it reverberates in a way that you can hear whatever is said at the other side (pretty cool).

While here, we asked a Chinese couple to take our photo but the girl was more interested in getting a photo taken with Rob (he looked a bit perplexed at this but posed accordingly)

After this, we headed to the circular mound alter which is where sacrifices used to be made in order to pray for good harvests. It's built in a way that if you stand at the top your voice becomes particularly resonate and sonorous so your prayers would be more likely to be heard.

After a quick break from the sun, we headed to the most famous part of the Temple complex- The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Whenever you see pictures of the Temple of Heaven, this is always what is shown and to be honest, I thought this was all that existed at the sight. It was a stunningly beautiful building in real life and it was completely quintessentially Chinese.

Following our day at the temple, we made our way back on the subway, and as we were both knackered from the sun and the poor sleep the previous night, we headed to the same restaurant as the previous night in order to sample some of the other Chinese fare. We ended up going with a couple called Rich and Ellie who we'd met a few nights previously. They're 8 weeks in to an 18 month Asia tour (making our 5 months look somewhat paltry) so we picked their brains about China and I was able to share some India tips as that is their next destination! 

Another amazing meal- sweet and sour pork, beef in black pepper and Chinese mustard, fried rice and some lush onion bread....

Following our meal, we met a guy from our dorm for drinks. Kelvin is from Singapore, lives in Seattle and seems to have travelled to pretty much every country so he had some interesting stories to tell and he had some great trips for the SE Asia portion of our trip. (Not just milking travellers for tips although that is what it sounds like!!) 

That pretty much brings us to now. Better run because have to go and check in. Will update soon!!

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Next stop China! Hello Beijing!!

Hello from super-super-hot China!! We arrived on Wednesday night from Osaka and with it now being Saturday I've got a fair bit to cover so apologies in advance if this turns into something of a novel!!

First things first- the border crossing. Now with it being China, we weren't expecting it to be easy. Before we arrived we had to fill out the most insane visa application form and pay best part of £110 just for the privilege of being allowed to enter China, so we were expecting the worst. For some bizarre reason before boarding we were going through immigration at Osaka airport we passed a Chinese lady who was quite distressed. She attempted to run through immigration without showing her passport and from then on until the plane she just was a bit mental (killed time at the airport observing her behaviour so thought she deserved a mention). Another strange thing to happen was that the plane from Osaka decided to touch down in Qingdao (about an hour from Beijing) and every single person had to get off the plane and go through immigration, circle through Qingdao airport, go through two lots of security and then get back on the SAME PLANE to fly up to Beijing for 50minutes?? Thankfully we found two Canadians who seemed to know more than us what they were doing so we all managed it together, thanks Harold and Lynne.

On the next leg, we watched a really bizarre video in Chinese (with English subtitles) about all the reasons not to go to the USA to have your baby (guessing this happens a lot). Propaganda at its finest!! When we finally arrived in Beijing thankfully we didn't have to go through immigration again BUT we landed in domestic arrivals and our luggage landed in international arrivals. Obviously we couldn't just walk through and seeing as none of the security staff spoke any English we found ourselves in a bit of a conundrum. Again, good luck was on our side as we found an American (Ian) who actually happened to speak fluent Chinese. He was incredibly helpful and managed to find our luggage within minutes, sorted us a taxi and directed along the way. Thank god or we'd probably still be trying to reach our hostel.

So, we finally reached our hostel which is pretty cool. On a mega busy street with a night market, stalls and restaurants right outside the door. Very typically Chinese and something to see everywhere you look!! Walked in the door and there was a massive rave going on in the on site bar (being created by a man who greeted us with 'oooooh English'). More to come on our experiences with this particular bar.

After finally reaching our room (about 11.30pm) we got ourselves sorted and hit the hay. Beds are super comfy and again not a futon!! Next morning, we headed out for our first day in Beijing. Starting off we had our first Chinese food at our hostel restaurant which was AMAZING and super cheap compared to Japan. Two portions of sweet and sour chicken, a vegetable fried rice, two sodas and two waters all for the grand price of £9.00!!

 With us starting a tour in a few days, we're saving the most famous Beijing monuments until then so we decided to head to the Zoo! Mostly, we both wanted to see Pandas and haven't got time to go to Chengdu. The zoo was good- was a bit apprehensive that the animals wouldn't be in great conditions but was very pleasantly surprised with the spacious enclosures which most animals were in. There were some exceptions with the smaller animals which should have had more room but on the whole not bad by Chinese standards.

Aside from the pandas, there was a host of other animals, one of which took us by surprise; the snub-nosed monkey. It genuinely looked like something Jim Henson would have created....

Aside from the animals, walking around the zoo was very interesting. Chinese culture is completely different from Japanese, and it's generally much more brash, loud and in-your-face. Not sure what we were both expecting, but China is definitely proving to be something of a culture shock and we found this was particularly true in our first experiences on the subway. The seats seem to be very popular and there's something of a fight which is very dog-eat-dog over them. The queue for ticket machines doesn't really exist and again it seems more of a brawl. Every time you get on you have to put your items through a baggage scanner (constantly beeping so not sure how much these are scrutinised) and there's a mad scramble to grab your possessions at the other side. 

After getting back on the subway, we headed to our hostel and this was when the fun really started. The other couple in our room, Carly and Steve invited us for a few drinks and then we all decided to brave the crazy street and go for food. Very few restaurants have English menus, and those that do tend to have VERY poor translations. We've seen some comical signs including.....

And donkey sauce?? Anyway, we ended up ordering dim sum, beef in soy sauce, marinated duck, rice and pork tenderloin. When it arrived the beef was cold slices like you'd get from a packet in tesco, the duck was a bone and the rice was a bowl of peanuts?? Best of all though, the pork tenderloin was actually pork tendons. Yes, tendons.....

Can't say we enjoyed any of it apart from the dim sum so embarrassingly we came back to the hostel with our tails between our legs and ordered another meal which was more dim sum and actual rice. Thank god the food is cheap!! 

After our second meal of the evening, we stayed in the hostel bar and met some other travellers from England. This hostel is much more social than anywhere we stayed in Japan, probably because alcohol is soooo cheap here! A few sambucas, lagers, gin and tonics and White Russians later and the night starts to get a tad blurry. One tip, don't facetime your parents at this point or they won't let you forget it!!!!

The next day was a bit of a write-off. I ended up spending most of it in bed (shocking I know) and only surfaced for food at about 6pm when we went for a walk and ended up with BBQ chicken pizzas (excellent hangover cure). Didn't make a great first impression on our new roommates who coincidentally happen to be on the same China tour as us! 

Today has thankfully been much more productive. We rose earlyish and after a good breakfast headed out to the Olympic Green to see some of the stadia there. Outside the green was a cool street market and you could get a sculpture made of your own face for a tenner. Super tempting but the prospect of carrying a clay model around in our backpacks for 4 months without it cracking seemed an impossible challenge! Arriving at the green, it was super awkward to find either ticket booths or entrances. You'd think these would be signposted better. Unfortunately we eventually found out from some fellow tourists that the Birds Nest was shut for the day as a concert was on that evening, but we saw it from the outside which was cool. Went on to the water cube and had a quick look around. Unfortunately outside of the stadia there was no shade anywhere which made walking around challenging in the 35degree blazing sun.

There are armed police everywhere in China (again not that surprising) as you can see in the second photo. After the Olympic green, we headed to the nearest shopping centre, quick lunch and a mooch around the shops (seeing a weird cartoon parade with music and a conga line....)

....and that pretty much brings us to now. Just about to go out for some famous Beijing duck so hopefully our next experience of Chinese food will be a bit better....