Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Twelve Days of Hăinán

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‘Come to the Hawaii of the East!’ is the slogan that reads on numerous billboards that advertise Hăinán as China’s premier holiday destination. I certainly wasn’t expecting any Polynesian men in skirts, playing tiny guitars or a tropical paradise for that matter, but it’s hot and has a coast. So after months of travelling in sub-zero temperatures and wearing wet kegs (through lack of drying facilities of course) Hăinán seems the perfect way to spend Christmas.

Hăinán’s capital, Hăikou (literally meaning mouth of the sea) is a booming city with few sights. Walking through a dirty food market in the afternoon I was faced with some shock horror, live cats, in cages waiting to be butchered. I was informed that eating cats is not a common practice in China, but it does happen. Coming across something like this at some point was bound to happen, but actually seeing it in person was strange indeed. They say cats have nine lives, obviously only one in China…

On our way to the coastal town of Bó’ào, we decided to get out of a taxi in the middle of nowhere after realising we were getting charged extortionate ‘skin tax’ for the ride. Stuck in a small shop completely clueless how to get to Bó’ào, it was time to pull out our secret weapon, Sherman. A local guide we met in Hăikou, Sherman said we could call him in times of need or whenever lost in translation. Within minutes of making the call we were on our way, so from now on, if all else fails use the Sherman call. ‘Sherman, Sherman, Sherman, Sherman , Sherman!’ (in the style of Mrs.Klump).

Bó’ào’s mostly deserted beach was a nice place to spend the afternoon, and also a nice place to get sunburn. The top end of the beach seems to be getting washed away just as quickly as the main town is being developed…

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All of a sudden what used to be so difficult, is now so easy. How can I explain to the non English hotel receptionist I want to climb Hăinán’s highest peak but leave by bags in the hotel? Sherman it. Wuzhishān (five finger mountain) is naturally surrounded by the local folklore of one of Hăinán’s main ethnic groups, the Li. The five peaks are said to represent the Li people’s five most powerful gods…

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The seven hour trek through jungle like terrain was a gruelling task. Up huge ladders, along the side of a cliff, through mosquito ridden vegetation, I felt like Desmond from Lost traipsing across the island whilst dodging the smoke monster and giant polar bears…

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After all the hard work I could not wait to reach the summit to admire the breath taking panorama. The end was in sight, I was ready for it, here we go… I nearly collapsed in awe at the amazing view of…MIST, nothing but mist! The only view we got was seeing a group of chain smoking Chinese adolescents posing by a pile of rubbish. Five finger mountain #two finger mountain. See you in another life brother…

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I done a quick puppet show at the summit with the new mascots ‘Donatello and the Cactus’

Christmas was spent in Sanya, Hăinán’s prime beach resort. High rise apartments and Cyrillic signs for the Russian holiday makers give the place a more exclusive feel. There’s no history, culture or local food to mention at all, but little note on budgeting. Expensive resorts will charge you to use their pools. Sit by the pool until they send someone over, more often than not the attended will only speak Chinese and Russian. By the time an English speaker arrives to explain the situation. It’s time to leave anyway. Things are always much more fun when they’re free, Merry Christmas Suckers!

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Sanya’s one worth while site, the amazing upside down fish!

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Categories: Budgeting, China | 1 Comment

Communication Breakdowns in Guăngxī

After a delayed train from Chángshā, I was curious what time the train would arrive in Guìlín. By tapping my wrist in a ‘what’s the time gesture’ whilst saying ‘Chángshā’ to the train attended, you would think he would get the gist of what I was trying to say. But no, the attendant grabed my wrist and attempted to pull my sleeve up in a desperate panic. Charades doesn’t work in China…

Pictures of Guìlín were used as backdrops for the planet Kashyyyk in Star Wars episode three. Some of the karst limestone formations that surround the Li river are some of the weirdest and most unique looking things I have ever seen, so it wasn’t hard to imagine a bunch of hairy Wookies having the run of this place. A short stay in the town was just enough time for a relaxing stroll along the river, before we headed to the more spectacular, neighbouring Yángshuò county.

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As I have mentioned before, Chinese is a tonal language, therefore when a non Chinese speaker tries to say something, what might come out could be completely different to what is intended. Standing by a lake in Yángshuò I attempted to ask a local loiterer if I could take his picture. The response I got was a glare of bewilderment, he then proceeded to point at my shoes and mutter in response. In my mind I think I said something like ‘mate, fancy swapping these shoes for your wife?’ I took the photo anyway. Phrase books don’t work in China…

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Yángshuò, like Guìlín is surrounded by many karst limestone peaks. The picturesque landscape is so stunning, it was chosen as the image for the back of the 20 Yuan note. A tandem bike was chosen to explore the surrounding area, this was my first time on a tandem bike and I learned two things from the experience:
1) if the person at the back just pretends to pedal, they will have a nice relaxing afternoon taking in the scenery, at the expense of my poor legs.
2) woman really can’t drive…

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We called in the Big Banyan tree scenic area, the huge 1500 year old tree is still going strong. The Banyan tree is the prominent figure of many myths and religions in Asian and Pacific culture but one thing I’ve always noticed about them, is their extremely trippy presentation, this would be an excellent location for a rave. There was a large congregation of hawkers around here selling water and trying to get you to have your photo taken with a small primate, dressed as napoleon…

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A short ride down the road was Moon hill, or ‘Moom hill’ as the entrance sign incorrectly read. According to this same sign, Moon hill has been visited by many famous ‘celebrities’ over the years such as, wait for it, Richard Nixon. Named after the semicircular hole that penetrates the peak at the top, the sweaty thirty minute climb to the summit offered some nice views of Yángshuò. The final leg of the ride took us through numerous local villages…

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The Chinese don’t do photos

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One small cafe had an odd thing on the menu, acid and pork, I hoped this was named after carbonic acid, which is the cause of the karst peaks in Yángshuò county. Another eatery had no English at all on the menu, so we were forced to list the ingredients we wanted from the phrase book. Just don’t ask for it with peppers, you will end up with slices of a hybrid cucumber/seaweed in a vinegary hotdog sauce, make your own meals don’t work in China…

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Mao Town

Húnán province is famous for being the birth place of Mao Zedong. Sháoshān, a small town some 130km from Chángshā, is the exact place of Mao’s birth. A day trip was in order to visit some of the historical sights associated with the man himself.

The first indication of the town’s connection with Mao, was at the train station where a giant picture of Mao hangs above the main entrance

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First stop, was the Museum of Comrade Mao. The museum, with no English captions, has some self explanatory pictures of Mao growing up, photos of Mao’s family and friends, some artefacts such as the abacus Mao learned to count on and one of Mao’s old P.E socks. Then some pictures of known Chinese Olympians, they say that Mao’s love of sports set the foundations for China’s success in the Olympics decades later. Through some souvenir shops flogging Mao plates, Mao posters, Mao badges, Mao books and Mao pens, then past the part-time photographers making a kuai or two snapping pictures of the punters with a Mao dummy, which was far too big and actually looked more like one of the Thunderbirds gone horribly wrong. Then, the hoi poloi are ushered into a room where the men removed their hats, patriotic music is played and the people’s heads are bowed in respect for the Great Helmsman. This is when I realised how ridiculous this whole thing was…

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Once a popular Chinese historian stated that a trip to Sháoshān, was the same as visiting Yasakuni Shrine in Japan where WWII criminals are honoured. The man was publicly censured for his ‘ludacrous’ comments. I was beginning to think the historian was right, personally amazed at how revered Mao still is in China.

So, the fact that Mao’s policies led to the deaths of millions seemed to have been totally forgotten about, some three million tourists a year still make the pilgrimage to Sháoshān. A quick bite to eat from a stall cooking up Mao-style braised pork and onto Mao’s old school, where you can learn about Mao’s early education, and look into Mao’s old class room at his desk. Then, more souvenir shops selling Mao smoking sets, Mao chocolate, Mao snow globes, Mao busts and Mao statues…

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Statues handed out at China’s annual film awards, The Maoees

Inside the Mao Zedong memorial park, is a giant golden statue of Mao. A stones throw away is Mao’s childhood house. A walk through the humble home takes you past the room where Mao was born, Mao’s bedroom, Mao’s brothers bedroom, a living area where Mao held an infamous secret communist party meeting and numerous kitchens and farm facilities. Then through more souvenir shops selling Mao key chains, Mao necklaces, Mao 3D crystal cubes, Mao stickers and Mao communist party caps…

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Still causing the deaths of millions

Let’s face it, this whole thing was absurd, I’d had enough. Deciding to skip the dropping water cave, where Mao lived for 11 days during 1966 and Sháo Peak, a small mountain where some of Mao’s poems are engraved at the top. We took a short cut out of the complex past his parent’s tombs and a final gauntlet of souvenir shops with Mao stamps, Mao coins, Mao mugs, Mao ashtrays and Mao playing cards. Then finally, a few small booths showing videos of Mao’s greatest moments and a place where you could even have yourself superimposed shaking Mao’s hand…

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Zhong Zhigang, Mao’s old class mate. The students of this school were destined for great things, Zhong became a farmer and never left Sháoshān

Feeling like I was about to lose my Maobles… I mean marbles, we jumped on the first bus back to Chángshā. But not before a hawker could push a t shirt in my face reading ‘My girlfriend went to Mao’s home town and all I got was this lousy t-shirt’…

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Life Of Hángzhōu

Like London, Hángzhōu has a bicycle scheme for its citizens to get from A to B. Unlike London, the city’s mayor, Shao Zhanwei, hasn’t rode around on one making a fool of himself, like Mr Johnson. Bicycle is the only way to travel in China’s huge cities, over our four days in Hángzhōu we averaged 20km a day on these rickety old things, also we were eye witness’ to half a dozen crashes, which is the norm in the Chinese bike lanes…

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Marco Polo had visited Hángzhōu in the 13th century and noted that while its circumference was only 100km, its waters were vaulted by 12000 bridges. That is because it is sat beside the enormous and dreamy West Lake. Inspiring artists and poets for centuries whilst housing thousands of species of flora, numerous pagodas, gardens, islands, causeways and temples, West Lake really is wonderful. A couple of days were spent cycling aimlessly around the lake, and chillaxing in the first bit of warmth we’d experienced in months…

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Heaven Above, and Hángzhōu below

Lin Bu, an influential poet from the Northern Song dynasty, lived the final years of his life by West Lake as a recluse, and still rests here today

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Lin Bu’s Grave

The south of the lake is the location of Hángzhōu’s botanical gardens and the China tea museum. We we looked at everything tea, from ancient tea pots and cups to learning about the tea making process. The PG tips monkey was sadly, nowhere to be seen…

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Tea Plantation beside the museum

Thanks to our friend Zhao Wei, we got to taste some delicious new fruit in Hángzhōu, such as an unnamed ‘purple thing’ and ‘a big orange’. In the supermarket we saw some rather unusual food for sale, such as live soft shelled turtles. The turtles are considered a delicacy in China and are normally only eaten at special occasions, turtlely discussing if you ask me…

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Zhou Wei buying the purple things

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Packaged soft shelled turtle

Staying with the Ang Lee theme, we decided to end our visit in Hángzhōu by watching his latest flick, Life Of Pi. Having read the book years ago, I forgot how amazing and imaginative the story actually is, which ending do you believe? Only that wasn’t the end of our time in Hángzhōu. Thanks to not realising there is more than one train station, we turned up at the wrong one and missed our train to Changsha. But, like Life Of Pi, I believe everything happens for a reason. If we hadn’t missed our train, then we would not have witnessed our first Chinese punch up. Outside a street stall which looked like some kind of post office, we saw two skinny, middle-aged, Chinese men, slap each other about and scrap on the pavement like school boys fighting over pogs, truly life changing.

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Gongchen Bridge over the Grand Canal

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Buying Train Tickets in China

Buying transport tickets in a strange country with an alien language can be a daunting prospect, some people ask ‘how do you do it?’ I could never find much useful information on the internet or guide books on the cheapest and most pain free way of buying tickets in China, so I have managed to do enough research via word of mouth and other sources to put together this simple guide for buying train tickets in China , without being pushed to the brink of insanity.

First, some information on the types of trains and tickets available.

Types of Train

All Chinese train numbers are usually prefixed with a letter, this tells you the category of train

C-type Ultra-speed express
D-type High-speed express
G-type High-speed

These three types of train are new and luxurious trains which rapidly shuttle between major cities, the best way to travel but also the most expensive

K-type Fast train
T-type Express
Z-type Direct express (overnight)
Number Normal train

Over night Z trains are not as fast as the bullet trains but still rather comfortable. K and T are older and more basic. Trains without a letter prefix are old and the worst (but cheapest) available.

Types of ticket

On the C,D and G type trains there are two types of ticket available:-

•First class – has all the luxury features such as TVs, laptop dock, very comfortable seats etc

•Second class – is still good and probably comparable to a normal train in Europe

Z,T,K and number trains have five classes:-

•Soft Sleeper – four beds in a private cabin, decent bedding

•Hard sleeper – six beds per berth, no door, less bedding, half the price of soft sleeper

•Soft Seat – Similar to second class on the high speed trains, over crowding is not permitted

•Hard Seat – Not actually hard, but as I have mentioned before, hard on your sanity, very crowded at times with people standing and sleeping in the gangways

•Standing room – Last resort ticket where you will stand in the hard seat area or in between carriages with the smokers

How to buy a ticket

By using the internet to check availability of tickets first, you can save yourself the hassle of trying to get a ticket which is sold out, when the clerks don’t speak English this can be a difficult one to work out. Never try to book online, or you will be charged more than the ticket is actially worth. I use these three sites for checking ticket prices and availability China travel guide, China highlights and China tour. The reason for using three is that some smaller stations may be listed on one site but not on the other two, but I find China travel guide the most convenient. Type in your departure station, arrival station and up will come a list of trains available, listed the shortest journey time first.

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Here is an example of our route from Pingyao to Hefei, with a transit in Tiyuan. The site will work out automatically if there are no direct trains and you need transit. Click the select class drop down menu for prices and number of tickets available. Here you can find out how many seats there are on the date and class you want to travel. Simply write down the travel dates, train numbers, departure and arrival stations and the class tickets you would like. Also write in the station names and class type in Chinese characters which can be found in your guide/phrase book. Alternatively have someone write it down for you.

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Simply hand the paper over to the clerk who will type in the details and show you the price on the screen, which you should already know. Then use a few hand signals to let them know how many tickets, if you would like a top, middle or bottom bed in sleeper classes, produce your passport, the clerk with show you the final details on the screen and there you have it, a stress free Chinese train ticket. The easy part is done, now you just have to push your way through a very busy station to your platform and cope with actually doing the journey.

A few things to know:-

•Tickets can not be purchased more than ten days in advance

•Soft Sleeper and even more so, Hard Sleeper, sell out first. If you try to buy these tickets on the day of travel assume they will all be gone, so plan ahead, especially for popular routes

•It is possible to upgrade your ticket once on the train, if they are available

•There is a slight difference in price with the top, middle and bottom bunks, the website will display the most expensive. Some people have a preferred bunk

Finally my advice for travelling on a budget, always buy a hard seat ticket to keep the cost down if travelling through the day, and buy a sleeper for travelling through the night. You can try hard seat through the night if you really want to save a few quid and don’t mind being pushed to breaking point.

Hope you all find this helpful and enjoy your China rail journey!

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Ānhuī’s Bamboo Forest, Yellow Mountain

Our base whilst exploring the area around southern Ānhuī province is the old trading town of Túnxī. AKA Huángshān Shí, the town is not one for sights, but boasts some great street food which has been difficult to come across so far in China, grilled squid tentacles a surprising favourite. A popular pass time in Túnxī is street badminton…

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Squid Skewers

Southern Ānhuī is home to a handful of picturesque communities known as the Huīzhōu villages. We took a day trip to Mūkēng village to visit its bamboo forest. A walk through the eerie landscape was the perfect antidote to get away from typical Chinese hustle and bustle. Ang Lee chose to film the fight scenes for his movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in this very forest, obviously inspired by the mystique present in the mass of bamboo. After the hike through the panda’s favourite food, we took the fast route back down on the 50 metre long flying fox zip line. The ride lasted a total of 30 seconds and provided a quick but 360 view of the entire forest…

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The next day we called by the more popular village on the way home, Hóngcún, but was put off going inside by the extortionate entrance fee and masses of mega phone wielding tour groups. I’m going to be brutally honest about this, these picture perfect villages that exist in China, don’t get me wrong are beautiful, yet they have somewhat been turned into a kind of glorified zoo. Masses of tour buses turn up, pay to get in, then walk around and gawk at the villagers, for me Hóngcūn had lost its authenticity so we decided to give it a miss. Imagine if one day hoards of sightseers flocked to the Colliery to take pictures of the locals in their natural habitat…

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Caught a glimpse of local life from outside while looking for the back door

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Hóngcún, from outside the turnstiles of course!

Huángshān (yellow mountain) is named so after legend states that this is the location the yellow emperor ascended up to heaven. I would say it’s named after the colour my faced turned when I saw the entrance fee. The mountain range was formed some 100 million years ago when it lifted from an ancient sea during the Mesozoic period.

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We walked around the main summit for a while, which actually makes up a number of different peaks, one named the North Sea as the view is an astonishing sea of clouds. Then we began the long descent down 1000’s of steps, along a lovely stream and past the token biscuit eating monkeys. Although the walk was hard on the old calves, it was a great way to take in the scenery which looked to me like something from Jurassic Park. Some of the viewpoints almost looked computer generated, as did some of the people who marched past in line and in unison, listening to upbeat Chinese pop music with a uncanny resemblance to the 90’s video game Lemmings…

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