the toa Blog
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The toa blog - April 24, 2006
Yes, I finally had my holiday. Well, sort of. Despite my desire to escape anything that remotely resembled work, guesthouse matters (and problems) still followed me around China. So...
toa goes to China (April 3 - 20)
It was my fifth trip to China and the first one in four years. The original plan was to fly into Xiamen (free Air Asia tickets), train to Beijing, train to Shanghai, onward to Huangshan, then finally a few days in Yangshuo before hopping a plane from Guilin back to Xiamen and then back to Bangkok. We did all of the above except Huangshan, which as it would be, was the one place I hadn't been to before, but with the ordeal of traveling with a ten-month old infant (who in fact travels very well) and a mother-in-law not used to traveling anywhere, we decided we had enough of packing and unpacking, trains and planes, and decided instead to spend six nights in Yangshuo.
Here's a quick synopsis of the trip. Much more detailed travelogues will, in time, find their way to the China pages.
-Air Asia to China. What a dumb idea. Air Asia is a super discount carrier and part of the deal is they don't assign seats. Most of the time this works. But not when the plane is flying to or from China. Pushing, shoving, yelling, scratching, biting, you name it, they did it. So much that a fist-fight nearly broke out boarding the plane to Xiamen. I will NEVER fly Air Asia to China again, with ot without an infant, and just to make a point, if I can find an alternative discount carrier (such as Nok Air, a much more class act) for a particular route elsewhere, I will use it. Air Asia is firmly at the bottom of my list of Asian discount carriers. Although the flight crew made some effort to accommodate families with children and babies (there were four on the flight to Xiamen) and get them boarded ahead of the scrum, the intensity and resolve of a number of Chinese who just have to be FIRST on the plane is difficult to overcome. When it reaches a point when you are trying to hold a baby and getting shoved with bags and elbows from behind it's time to find another carrier, though for it's worth on one occasion, I turned around to one particularly pushy person and shouted at him that if my baby so much as makes the slightest fuss you're getting punched in the nose. He probably didn't understand a word I said, but he seemed to get the point. Call me the ugly American I don't care. The pushiness of some people deserves no politeness or respect. It's plain ill-mannered and ignorant and should be treated in kind.
-Xiamen, Fujian province. Not much to say, we were here only a day, much of it spent dealing with SIM cards, shopping for the long train ride, and getting my China bearings back. It was my first experience with a Chinese Wal-Mart and say what you will about it, the grocery store was AWESOME. But then again, in what little time we had, I've come to the conclusion that Xiamen has some outstanding food - even the food courts were excellent (though I found a first-rate one in Beijing, too). Matthew, as would happen throughout China, received plenty of positive attention, though he got a little overwhelmed by a group of young sales clerks in a fashion store.
-Beijing. Absolutely frigid on arrival. Four degrees celsius (about 39 Yankee degrees) and sleeting. My wife had experienced cold in China before, but not this cold. As for my mother-in-law, four degrees celsius, was well beyond comprehension and it took a bit of prodding to convince of the need to dress appropriately. To her, cold was 15 celsius, not four. Stayed at the Haoyuan Guesthouse, which is a traditional courtyard style building on a hutong about a ten-minute walk from the Wanfujing Shopping Area. The guesthouse does have character and was certainly kept clean. However, the standard rooms, for the prices charged are really small and over-crowded with unnecessary furniture. The small suites, which we stayed in one for one night are a much better deal, but it took thirty minutes to get the water to warm up enough to take a shower and still then it was only lukewarm. Perfectly predictable in an 80Y ($10 US) room, but not in a 720Y ($90) room. And pillows had no substance whatsoever. Again, not acceptable when paying $90 a night. Laundry was priced very high and not cleaned very well. Guesthouse can arrange transport and tours anywhere but again, prices were a little unreasonable. While the staff was friendly and the place clean, I don't think I'd stay here again. And the hutong isn't much of a hutong. Across the street is a large empty lot no doubt destined to become a 30-story office tower and shopping complex.
In the eight years since I was last in Beijing, I'd say the most noticeable difference is that the traffic is much worse and there are a lot more 30-story highrises. I think there must be a building height limit as central Beijing has some of the most massive 20 to 30-story structures I've ever seen but nothing much taller than that.
Did the usual tourist things - Tiananmen, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall. Weather wasn't very conducive to strolling around Tiananmen. Forbidden City and the Summr Palace were ridiculously over-crowded, and in the case of the latter, there was little to see as much of it was under restoration (again). Same at the Temple of Heaven.
Saw the Great Wall at Mutainyu. I'd like to have gone back to Simitai, but with child and mother-in-law, such an adventure was out of the question. Mutainyu has a large restored section, easy to walk around on. Thought about the Ming Tombs, but hunger and a late hour took precedence. Next time, maybe.
Other than the first day, weather was at least dry if not cold. Still, all four of us caught colds, of which nearly three weeks later, I'm still not recovered from mine.
Definitely recommend express Z trains, particularly soft sleeper class. A fast overnight to Shanghai, well-rested, saved one night on a hotel room (a major expense when visiting eastern cities). Still can't fathom the Chinese propensity to push and shove there way on to a train that doesn't leave for another half and hour and the seating/berths are reserved. Go figure.
Shanghai - in the four days we had there, we really only had a day and a half of decent weather and even that was pushing it. Day one - warm enough but rain. Day two - warm and hazy. Day three - heavy rain, gusting winds, and temps almost as cold as Beijing - the day was a complete wash-out and we spent most of it either in our hotel room or a shopping mall. Absolutely miserable day. Day four - clear but very cold and windy - even the locals said it was unusually cold for April - no more than about 8 celsius (46 F).
They say Shanghai changes a lot. I think a better way to describe it is that it just keeps growing with more of the same - more tall buildings, more malls, more highways, more subways, more, more, more. Between the weather and the usual slow-downs a baby causes, we really didn't get to see too much of Shanghai other than to do more of what I did a lot of in 1998 - wander around. No surprise I suppose, wife and mother-in-law found Nanjing Road and it's shopping options to be to their tastes. Me, in one day walking Nanjing Road from Renmin Park to the Bund and back I was accosted (I counted) eighteen times with offers to buy watches, bags, DVDs, all (except for the DVDs) I saw selling openly on the sidewalks in 1998. By the tenth person or so I began shouting back at them "You're number 11!", "You're number 12!" etc. A couple of them, in hearing a number, thought I was offering a price. At night, the offers for bags, watches, and DVDs were replaced with lady and massage.
Yangshuo - I've ended all five trips to China with anywhere from three to nine days here. If for any reason, because it was easy, peaceful, and outrageously scenic. Well... it's still scenic. With four years since I was last there, I can't with any degree of honesty suggest that I'm surprised at the amount of changes here. If there was ever any doubt as to what direction Yangshuo has turned those doubts can be dispelled. What was once a peaceful hangout for mostly young western independents (err... backpackers?) has well and thoroughly been taken over by young Chinese independents (and groups). Though remnants of Yangshuo's past still remain - most of the cafes are still there, even if they've all turned into Chinese nightclubs, and with a little looking you can still find Chinese lessons, calligraphy lessons, English teaching opportunities, etc, but no longer are they thrust in your face every time you stroll West Street. After all, we're not the target market anymore.
Out in the countryside, surprisingly I think, some areas have been entirely missed by the influx of Chinese tourists. The long loop - head south towards Moon Hill, turn left and take the not very good road all the way to the end (10 ks or so) and turn left on the better road that brings you back to the main traffic circle south of town - was nearly deserted when we did it. The only thing that looked like a tourist were two western women on bicycles and they weren't very far from Yangshuo. The rest was as if it were still 1998. On the other hand, head over to the Yulong River - once bucolic and isolated, even from Dragon Bridge southward - and marvel at the hundreds of young Chinese doing the bamboo raft thing.
I can only surmise that Yangshuo is promoted to young Chinese as a place to come for the weekend - spend a day riding bikes to Moon Hill and rafting the Yulong, and spend the evenings in any of the countless nightclubs (formerly backpacker cafes) on West Street, shake off your hangover and make your way back to Guangzhou or Shenzhen or wherever you came from.
I did finally make it up to the rice terraces of Longsheng, but don't ask me if they were impressive or not. It was foggy and raining and we could hardly see a thing. Much like our first day in Shanghai. Other than this one day, we had pretty good weather in Yangshuo this time - in stark contrast to the deluge we suffered through there in 2002.
Hard to say if China trip #6 (whenever it may be) will finish in Yangshuo. It's been a tradition, but maybe with the enormous changes there now, perhaps it's time to change tradition and find another place to cool our heels for a few days before heading back to Thailand. And no, Dali or Lijiang won't do it.
Anyway, that's the quick report. In time - well, seeing as I never finished writing up 2002 or even 2000, maybe it'll take awhile, no, I promise I'll be faster, I'll get the detailed reports up.
For a pictorial essay seen through the eyes of my eleven-month-old son, have a look at Matthew Goes to China. However, it's not finished yet, the Yangshuo bit won't be up until tomorrow or Thursday.
Obligatory Cambodia content
Here's an interesting website:
Have a look at the travel info, which must be at least fifteen years out of date. How things have changed.
Other Cambodia news, not
Every month I write a monthly columm for Untamed Travel magazine (formerly Farang) which is usually nothing more than a few cut and pastes from this blog (as per agreement). However, my last deadline caught me in China so there was nothing to send. So I came up with this:
April 30: Bronwyn Sloan's Phnom Penh Perspective returns with a take on the Khmer Rouge Trials.
back to Cambodia
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