Wednesday, December 31, 2008
China Trip Day 9: The Li River and Yangshou
In spite of a really long and boring boat ride, this was one of the best days I've had in China thus far. We got up early to wait for our shuttle bus. Janet got really worried as it was supposed to pick us up around 8 but hadn't have by 8:05. So, she calls the number our travel booker gave us the day before to make sure everything was okay and that they knew where our hotel was, because it is hard to spot. But they said the bus was on the way, just got caught in a bit of traffic. The bus arrived around 8:30 and we were off. The tour guide gave a talk in quick Chinese. Some things we learned were that Guilin used to be underwater, which is how the strange mountains that the area is famous for were formed. We also learned that along the river is where the picture on the 20 RMB bill was taken.

Also on the bus they tried to sell a tour upgrade for 100 RMB. Apparently they are 2 levels on the boat. The boat ticket is only for the first level, while the upper deck ticket cost more. We passed on the upgrade. Once we got to the dock, we had a bit of a wait in the gift shop area. They were selling really expensive jade carvings and some different types of jewelry. At around 9:30 we got our boat tickets from the tour guide. The guide would not accompany us to the boat. We figured that we would be fine if we just followed the rest of our group, be we were wrong. Most of our group got the 2nd level upgrade and were on a different boat than us. Luckily a local shop keeper came to our rescue, looked over our ticket, and set us off in the right direction. From what I can tell, all the tours drop everyone off in the same place and then the various groups get split up onto different boats depending on the ticket level purchased. So if you're looking for a tour, just go with the cheapest one cause they are all pretty much the same.

The boat itself was not too pretty. Just a boat with some tables and chairs. Me and Janet were assigned seats 1 and 2 on our boat and we were furthest from both the windows and the steps to get to the top deck. Still, not a big deal. Each table had some tea, tea cups, and a brochure showing the path of the river cruise which had some English in it. As the tour started, once again they tried to sell more stuff. This time it was a picture book for 150 RMB. For the price, a photographer would take pictures of you by several of the popular rock structures along the cruise and you would get a picture book of it at the end of the tour. With my camera, I knew I could get better pictures myself, so I passed. I was surprised at how many of the Chinese tourists signed up for it though.

After all the speeches and what not, me and Janet headed to the top deck to take some pictures. I was a bit worried when I heard about the 2nd level ticket as I was worried we would not be allowed on the top deck, but that was not the case. The 2nd level ticket was just for having a table on the top deck. And its not like they had a better view, what with all the people standing around on the deck getting in the way of their view. It was really hazy, but still very pretty. Occasionally there would be announcements when the famous rocks came up, but they all looked really similar to me. Also, we got to see some wildlife including ducks, water buffalo, and fishing birds. There were also several people on these really long, thin, wooden boats. I think they were originally used for fishing but the ones along this river kept attaching themselves to our boat to try and sell stuff. The first time it happened I got a bit nervous cause I thought we were going to crash into them! Me and Janet were glad we were on the top deck as they wouldn't bother us. After a while all the mountains start to look the same.

The river is very beautiful, but 5 hours on a boat is a bit much. Eventually we went back to the table for a rest. Not a few minutes after we did this, lunch was served. I wasn't quite sure what it was we were eating, but Janet told me later it was some type of noodle and pickled melon, along with an egg (I knew that one though). Also, one of the couples we were sitting with were kind enough to share their shrimp with us. At the beginning of the tour, there were menus and you could order extra things for your meal, they sort of over ordered and didn't so much give, as demand that everyone at the table share in their left overs. The shrimp was quite tasty, so I didn't mind 'sharing' at all!

After lunch we went back to the top deck for a little while and something funny happened. There was a group of travelers that wanted to take a picture with me! I felt like such a celebrity. They came back a second time for individual pictures and I had Janet take a picture of them taking pictures with me. It was really funny! Later, they came up to me when we were resting at our table and gave me a gift for taking pictures with them. It was a figurine of a guy fishing on one of those boats we had seen selling stuff earlier. Janet suggested I should start my own business. 5 RMB for your picture with the foreigner! After a while, the scenery outside got a bit less interesting and almost everyone was sitting at their tables, resting. At some point, a video about a water show that happens in a lake in Yangshou was shown. Then, as usual, they tried to sell tickets to the show as well as a DVD of it. We actually wanted to see the show, but it started at 8 and the last bus back to Guilin was at 8:30, so it was impossible. If I was to go back to this area of Japan, I would definitely spend an evening in Yangshou to see the show.

Once we got off the boat there were a bunch of fishermen with birds offering to let you hold them and take a picture, but for a fee. There was also a long line of stalls selling various handicrafts. Once we finally made our way into town, an English speaking lady attached herself to us. She was offering her services as a local guide and said she would take us on a bike tour. We said we weren't interested, but she was persistent. She had a brochure of the places she would take us and a book full of customer comments and so we asked her how much. She said it would be 50 RMB apiece, including bike rental, which we found really reasonable and decided to take her up on the offer. It was a decision we did not regret.

She helped us get bikes, get bus tickets for later, and lead us along the bike path. While it would be possible to take the tour on your own, she helped explain things along the way, knew short cuts to take, and it was nice not having to worry about getting lost. The bike thing was also helpful as we heard that you either had to pay a big deposit or leave your passport with the bike people, neither of which we wanted or had to do. She took us to see a big tree and explained that the local water show was based around a legend about the tree. She also took us to this moon rock formation that Janet really wanted to see and gave us cute picture suggestions. The bike ride was amazing and one of my favorite things we did. It was also nice to have the guide because she knew how long the ride would take and was able to get us back into town before it got dark. When we paid, we took a picture together, and she brought out her son to meet us. He was really cute and made me miss my ES students back in Japan. We also ran across a random camel too!

After the bike tour, we walked down this street of restaurants looking for a place to eat before catching our bus. We were looking for a dumpling place mentioned in the lonely planet but couldn't find it so we went to a random cafe. The dinner was delicious and they were playing Mama Mia on the TV. We had fried spicy pork, onion dumplings, and rice. The dumplings at this place were better than any of the 'famous' dumpling we tried while in Xian and Shanghai. We also had time to split a banana and Kahlua sundae for desert.

After dinner we went to the bus stop, but then realized we left the Guilin map at the restaurant and rushed back to get it. Not a problem though as we made it to the bus station with 20 minutes to spare. When the bus showed up it was surrounded by a group of people on motorcycles. Apparently the motorcycles act like taxis for one.

The bus was pretty much empty except for us and 2 other passengers. The ride was quite scary. The road was under construction, but it was pretty much unmarked, so we would change lanes into on coming traffic when we came across a hole in the road. And there were a lot of holes. A few times the diver didn't spot them and the whole bus would shake. It made me very glad that I put on my seat belt. Janet, didn't notice anything as she managed to sleep through the ordeal. Once we arrived, we were greeted by cab drivers wanting to give us a ride, but our hostel was really close to the station, so we decided to walk. We stared walking the wrong direction though, but one of the taxi drivers was nice enough to point us in the right direction. Once at the hostel, we showered, watched some dramas, and then a News Years Eve show, and feel asleep a bit after midnight. We did ask the staff if there were any fireworks or New Years celebrations, but there were none. So, we simply had to enjoy the fake lamp-post like fire work lights that were in front of our hostel. Still, a great last day of the year.

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posted by am at 10:27 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
China Trip Day 8: The road to Guilin
I didn't have the greatest night's sleep as I kept being too cold/hot throughout the night due to having to use a heated blanket, but eventually 6 rolled around and it was time to catch our shuttle to the airport. When we got downstairs there was another guest who asked to be part of our shuttle to the airport. We were more than happy to let her ride with us as more people = cheaper ride. Going outside to put our luggage in the van, we found it was raining. Thank goodness it wasn't the day we arrived cause all the rocks are really slippery when wet.

Once we got to the airport we checked in and made our way through security. This time we ran into a snag. They threw away my hairspray and moose that I'd taken with me on all my flights since Japan! The also made me take out my almond milk that had made in onto 2 planes. Extra strict security in Lijang I guess. The flight was fast and I slept through most of it, only waking up to grab a bottle of water. When we got to Kunming, we had quite a wait ahead of us. Our first stop was to check in and we went into a bit of a panic because on the flight board it said the flight was leaving at 12:25 while our flight itinerary said 13:55. Not a huge deal as it was 8 and we were already at the airport, but the travel company we had book the tickets should have contacted us about the schedule change. While we got our boarding pass though, it stated the original flight time on the ticket. Apparently the board was wrong. Afterward we looked around for some food. All we spotted were a KFC (no good in this case as we weren't eating any chicken in China due to SARs scares) and what looked to be a fancy and expensive Chinese food place.

Janet wasn't too keen on going there, so we decided to try our luck once past security. That turned out to be a bad idea as our gate was in the new part of the airport, which, while really nice and new, had like nothing in it. Even most of the shops were under construction or just plain empty. We eventually found a very sparsely stocked convenience store and grabbed some cup noodles and beef flavored crackers. The airports in China all seemed to have hot water taps so that you could conveniently fill up your cup noodles. After eating we still had plenty of wait time left so we decided to wander around. We took the escalators to the top floor. The escalators were really cool. They would go up really slow, but once you stepped on them, they sped up!

On the top floor there was pretty much nothing but a flower shop, fruits shop, tea shop, and a book store. When we first arrived at the airport, we passed a fruits shop and spotted some crazy fruit that we had not idea what it was. So, as we had nothing better to do, we decided to try it out. The sales people also said the skin of the plant is good for colds. The fruit was called something that sounded like 'the many hands god' in Chinese. We also picked up a pomegranate to snack on as well. The fruit was really interesting, it smelt like something in between a lemon and an orange, but tasted like a hard pear. It was kind of hard to eat without a knife though so we ended up throwing most of it out. We also ate the pomegranate, which was my first time ever eating one. It was really good. Apparently the Chinese ones are less bitter and more pink than the American ones, which was fine with me as I don't like bitter tasting things very much. After that, I busted out my DS and played final fantasy until it was flight time.

At some point during our wait for the flight, the flight that was supposed to leave before outs was delayed and the airlines passed out a buffet lunch to all the people who had to wait. I was sad they were checking tickets cause I would have gotten in line. The food looked really good. Once again, I slept for most of the flight. When we arrived we took a 70 RMB shuttle to the middle of the city and tried to call the hostel for a pick up. They said to catch a cab, but that always proves to be more difficult that it sounds. And by this point I was sick of hostels that offer a pick up service giving us the run around and saying just get a cab....why offer the service if you don't let anyone use it? The fare should have been around 8 RMB but the first taxi said he would only take us for 15. The next one said he would use the meter, but once we got into the cab and had our luggage in the trunk, he tried saying that our hostel was full and we should go elsewhere. To bad for him, I had already read about this scam online and knew that our hostel was not full as I had just gotten off the phone with them and that he would try to take us to an expensive hotel that gave him a commission for dropping us off. Then we had to argue with him over the fare. Eventually he started driving to where we wanted to go and we he dropped us off we were both a bit worried as we didn't see the hostel anywhere. But it turns out that the hostel was in a little alley a few steps away.

The hostel is apparently a renovated business hotel, so it looked more like a hotel than a hostel and it was difficult to spot. The room was okay. Just a simple set up. Unlike some of the other hostels we've stayed at thus far, this one was not pretty at all, just functional. We asked the girls at the front desk about river tours and such. I also checked my email and the Shanghai hostel had sent an email saying they had transferred many into my bank account. Hopefully I'll see it show up in my account soon. Then we headed into town to search for some food. We ended up at a noodle shop, which is one of the dishes Guilin is famous for, for only 5 RMB. Then we ran into a bread shop and I went a bit crazy with buying bread. When we went to check out, because we spent over 15 RMB, we got a free bread! We had to go back to the hostel at that point because I had too much bread to carry around.

On our way back, we ran into a, what can only be described as a tourist box in the middle of the sidewalk. We asked about river tours and they lady was very helpful and had maps and everything, which our hostel didn't have. The lady was an official tourist booker and Janet and myself felt safe booking a tour with her. She explained the difference between the Chinese tour and the English one. Because the English one is so expensive (400 RMB) compared to the Chinese one, which is only 225 RMB, we went with the Chinese one. It's just a scenery cruise so hearing and understanding stuff isn't necessary. The only difference between the tours is that the Chinese boat is smaller and the menu for lunch is a set menu while the English one is buffet style. The lady said that the Chinese cruise food tends to be better than the English boat cruise anyway. The shuttle was scheduled to pick us up a 8 the next morning, so I guess we'll find out about the food soon enough. She also had an awesome English map of Guilin for 6 RMB as well. It is the map mentioned in the lonely planet, and was totally worth it. Another thing that makes the Chiense tour cheaper is that there is no bus from where the river tour ends in Yangshou, back to Guilin. This was not a problem, as we wanted to spend time in Yangshou anyway, and there is a cheap bus that goes from one to the other several times a day. The prices she quoted were also cheaper than the ones given to us by the hostel, so we booked then and there. We went back to the hostel, watched some Chinese TV, and hit the sack.

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posted by am at 10:27 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, December 29, 2008
China Trip Day 7: Lijang
We got up super early and had to knock on a side door and wake someone up so we could check out. I also feel bad for the people we were dorming with. One of them even turned on a light as we were packing up to go. But we did try to be as quiet as possible. After checking out and returning our locker keys we stepped out of the hostel with a mission to find a cab. We were a bit worried as there were absolutely no cars outside. Its quite a different site from the busy roads the evening before. No people, no cars, no lights, no nothing! We walked a bit to a main road and saw a few cars pass but we were definitaly wondering how we were supposed to catch a cab.

Turns out we were worried over nothing as within 5 minutes we were able to flag down a cab driver. There was no hassle with the cab and using the meter and the ride back to the airport ended up being cheaper than the ride to the hostel due to there being no traffic. And the driver didn't even make us pay the whole fair, but only .4RMB worth. Inside the airport it was actually quite busy, though you wouldn't be able to tell from the lack of activity outside. We stood in line for a bit, checked in and then waited for our flight. Once it was time to board, it was quite a trek to the plane. We had to take a shuttle bus to the plane and then wait a bit more in front of the stairs up to the plane. This sucked as Chinese people are kinda pushy so it got really squishy near the stairs. Once on the plane, I was out like a light. I woke up briefly to get a bottle of water from the flight attendants and one more time to get a picture of the beautiful sunrise.

Once in Lijang we took a bus to the city for 15 RMB and then tried to catch a cab. According to the directions our hostel gave us, we should have been able to get a cab from where the bus dropped us off for about 8 RMB but the lady driver just drove us a short way to some big street and made us get out! She didn't charge us, but it sucked being dumped in the middle of a strange with no clue as to where you are. With the help of the lonely planet and Janet's Chinese skills, we managed to locate the old village where the hostel is located and a helpful woman showed us which street we were on on this big map by the entrance of the village. It was quite a walk, especially lugging around luggage. It also sucked that the old village is pretty much all cobble stone. But eventually we made it to the hostel. The hostel was nice and had a good ambiance. My only complaint was that it is sort of 'open' to the outside and thus was a little bit cold.

After checking in and brushing my teeth, we headed out to explore the city. Our first stop was a famous lake, but we ran into trouble when we got there. They wanted 80 RMB to let us in the park that the lake was in. Our book said it was only 30 RMB. Apparently the city recently decided to charge a preservation fee of 80 RMB to get into any of the famous city sites. This really sucked as Janet was poor and couldn't afford the fee. I remember reading in some travel guide that there was a way to walk around the entrance and get in for free, but the road was under construction and we couldn't pass. So we walked around town and started climbing up the side of one of the mountains.

There are some really nice views from up there. Including a nice view of the famous 'snowy' mountain. A few places charged us to go inside to take some pictures but the fees were like 2 to 5 RMB, so it wasn't too bad. We also ran across a Buddhist temple that was free to enter and a girl dressed in traditional clothes gave us a tour in English! Near the top of the mountain we hit another, you have to pay 80 RMB to pass place, so we just turned around. We also found a famous house that belonged to a some famous family by the name Mu, but to get in, once again, was an 80 RMB fee. So we just took pictures of the famous gate in front of the house for free.

During the day we had some breakfast at a really cute cafe. Both of us got a local set breakfast with local cheese, ham, and potato pancakes. Janet also tried some of the local coffee, which I had a sip of, but I still don't like coffee and opted for some tea. We also ran into a man carrying around a hawk, some old people dressed in traditional clothing doing some dance, and a group of people in traditional dress going around on horses. The shops all seemed to sell the same things. I was hoping to find either a spoon or stamps but saw none. I did pick up some tasty ginger sugar snacks. There were 2 flavors, spicy and not spicy. And for once, I chose the not spicy version.

We headed back to the hostel pretty early, but we were tired and had pretty much seen all the city had to offer. At the hostel, they offered a staff dinner for 15 RMB which is super cheap, especially compared to the prices at the restaurants in the old town. So we opted for that. The dinner was really tasty, but they cooked it in a wood burner inside the hostel and it got really smokey. So smokey that my eyes got really watery and had to leave for a bit while the room aired out.

After diner, I had to take the coldest shower of my life in a bathroom with no divider between the toilet and the shower. Later in the evening as we were getting ready for bed, there was a bunch of loud bangs. I went outside to see what was going on and it turns out there was a fire works show happening. So we sat our on the porch and watched the fireworks. After a bit, out neighbors in the adjoining room came our to watch them as well. It was like a mini New Years celebration, just a few days early.

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posted by am at 10:26 PM | Permalink | 0 comments