China so far...

Trip Start Mar 10, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of China  , Shaanxi,
Monday, July 11, 2011

Sorry I haven't blogged for a while. Its been pretty manic here in China, and I haven't really found the time. Another problem... I've lost my camera, the second camera to go this trip! (My first one broke in Peru) so I'll be using my friends photos until I manage to get a new one. 

My first impression of China? Its mental. So many people, everywhere you go. Apparently China has over 200 cites with a population of over 1 million! Every city is so built up, with sky scrapers and multiple blocks of flats. People constantly stare at us, mostly out of curiosity, I think, and often giggle with their friends whist pointing at us. I guess we must look like aliens to them. Most Chinese people are very reserved, but they are friendly and helpful once the ice has broken. Not many speak English but the ones that do speak it very well. One of the biggest problems we've had is the Chinese language. Very little is signposted in English. This proves very difficult when booking a train or reading a menu in a restaurant (the ones with English translations generally charge a fortune and only exist in touristy areas) but over time I've added things to my list (with a bit of help from the locals) and now can say a few simple things like egg fried rice, fried noodles etc. 
We've lost a member in our group, Ed, as he's gone off travelling with his girlfriend. But we've gained a new member, Ryan, a friend from back home, who will be joining us whilst we travel round China and the Philippines. For those who don't know Ryan, he's as ginger as they come, and gets the most attention from the locals (some good, some bad) as a lot of them have never seen a ginger person before! Ryan's already been in China for a month, and has picked up basic Chinese quite quickly, which has proved very helpful indeed!  We've been to a few towns and cities since we've been here so I'll give you a (not so) little summary...

Our trip started in Hong Kong, a city once owned by the U.K. until just over a decade ago, and you could tell as you walked down the streets. The traffic lights, the road signs and markings we're just like those back at home, the cars even drive on the left hand side. A nice, unexpected surprise, was that they had a Marks and Spencers, with all the same food as the ones in England, although the sandwiches weren't quite as good (I can't seem to find that English quality bread anywhere in the world)
Hong Kong has a reputation for being a very expensive city. We booked in at the cheapest hostel we could find, at 7 a night, the biggest dive that we have stayed in so far, the famous Chong King Mansions. You ask any backpacker that has been to Hong Kong and they'll be able to tell you about Chong King Mansions. It's basically 5 massive tower blocks, each with 17 floors, all connected together at the the bottom with a big electronics market that never sleeps. Each floor on each block will have between 1 - 4 so called guest houses, with very cramped rooms. We nicked named our hostel "The prison", as our rooms we're like tiny cells, with bars across the windows and with old paint flaking off the walls. They smelt of damp; in fact the whole building smelt a bit funny. You had to walk through the downstairs market to get to the lifts, where there was always a 10 minute queue, not because the lifts we're crap, but because there were so many people living in each block. The market was so busy, selling all kinds of junk, from fake i Phones to watches (you can almost get any copy of anything ever made, here in China). Most shops were owned by ethnic minorities, mostly Indian/Pakistani which was nice as we got to eat some very nice curry, food that I miss a lot from back at home...
Although Hong Kong is generally expensive, we managed to do it the cheap way. The city offers lots of free activities, like teaching Kung Fu in the park, or tea tasting sessions. On Wednesday all museums are free, and best of all they have a huge outdoor swimming pool in Koloon Park, which cost next to nothing. The only expensive night we had was when we visited our old friend Will. Will's been living in Hong Kong for the past 6 months, with a very good job. He showed us around town, and took us to some swanky bars on Hong Kong island (The rich side of Hong Kong). 4 pints of beer cost us around $300HK, which is about 26, expensive compared to the 1 beers we were getting in S. America. But Will was very generous and bought us quite a few rounds. Cheers Will!

The whole reason we were in Hong Kong was because we had to apply for our mainland China visas, and this took a few days. As soon as we got them, we we're out in a flash, and got our train to Guangzhou, mainland China, 2 hours away from Hong Kong. Not many backpackers got to Guangzhou but this is where we planned to meet Ryan. He got delayed, so we we're stuck there for 4 days. Not much to say about Guangzhou except its a massive big city, just like Hong Kong with lots of sky scrapers. The hostel we stayed in was really cool, a penthouse on the 27th floor of a tower block, with spectacular views of the city. One thing worth telling you about, though, was Guangzhou the fish market. I've never seen so many odd creatures up for sale. They sold giant turtles, massive eels, frogs, giant crabs... We we're even offered a baby crocodile for 3.30! Who eats this stuff? I haven't seen it on offer in any of the restaurants. Its a shame I lost my camera, I had some pretty weird snaps I wanted to up on the old blog.

Once Ryan arrived we got an overnight train to Yangshou. There were no sleeper tickets left so we ended up having a very uncomfortable night on rock hard seats, not as uncomfortable as the many unfortunate people around us that had to stand the whole 14 hour journey! 
Yangshou is the most picturesque place I've been to so far. A nice small town surrounded by the most unusual looking mountains (see pics). The mountains are this shape due to intensive erosion of the soft rock, over millions of years. We rented bikes and cycled down the river which meanders though them, getting very lost and ended up riding back in the dark without a torch, which was fun...
The next day we visited a cave. The cave took us deep into the mountain where we enjoyed natural mud baths and thermal springs. One of the tourists in the cave cracked his head open by diving head first into shallow water. Blood everywhere. 
That night we caught an overnight sleeper bus to Yichang, the first bus that I have been on of its kind. From the outside it looked just like a regular coach but inside, instead of seats, you had 3 rows of bunk beds which are "Chinese" size meaning that none of us fitted in them without having to bend our knees. I much prefer regular chairs.

There's not much to do in Yichang, the reason we went there was to catch a river cruise up the Yanktze River to Chongquing via the famous three gorges. The trip didn't work out as we expected. We were stuck on a boat for 2 and a half days with nothing to do apart from enjoy the surrounding scenery, which was beautiful but once you've seen an hour of the same stuff, you soon get bored. We even missed 2 out of the 3 gorges because we slept in! On the bright side we made some Chinese friends. Ryan wrestled with a massive Chinese guy and nearly ended up off the side of the boat (just play fighting) and I learned that I never want to stay the night on a boat again.

We decided to stay in Chongquing for the night to try the famous "Hot Pot", a meal served exclusively in this region of China. It consist of a massive pot of boiling water swamped with chillies and other spices. The pot sits in the middle of the table and is constantly heated. Then you dump in raw meat and veg and wait for it to cook. The food comes out extremely spicy, and I have to say it was the best meal I have had so far in China. I might even open my own hot pot restaurant when I get back to London and charge people 10 times the price to eat it!

We're now in Xi'an, one of China's most popular tourist destinations as its home to the famous "Terracotta Army". We arrived to Xi'an at 2 in the morning, to find that all the hostels in the area we're fully booked. One of the hostels kindly let us sleep on their sofas for 1 each. We ended up sleeping on those sofas for 2 nights in a row until a room became available! 
In Xi'an we saw the Terracotta Army which was quite impressive. Whilst there, Ryan managed to scare a whole group of kids on a school trip, just by walking past them, which had us in stitches! We also walked around the historical part of town visiting various pagodas and the biggest mosque in China. 

We're now waiting to catch our bus to Beijing on Friday, the capital of China. In the meantime Ryan's left for the Philippines, as he's got a job interview, but we're going to meet up again in Palawan for scuba diving. 

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