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Greg & Karen's Life Adventure Karen and I, in love, in life ; following our bliss

Spring Festival Holiday around China 2012

CHINA | Wednesday, 30 May 2012 | Views [450]

I guess there’s no other way, than to start where I left off - January 2012.

So, after turning in our mid-year grades, collecting our travelling money (The university gives us NZ$400 each as holiday travel – nice of them huh?) we packed our bags, locked the apartment and took a taxi from the front gate to Datong airport. Nowadays we’re getting a little street smart: one cabin-sized, pull-along, trolley bag with the strongest wheels you can find, which can easily be carried when necessary; a smallish backpack and a belt bag for valuables and cameras.

We enjoyed the 7 hour flight to Guangzhou (Canton) airport in the south east; caught a shuttle bus into the city; a taxi to the YHA Riverside Hostel and arrived feeling tired but elated to be on the move again.  Karen’s son Andre was not due to rendezvous with us for two days yet, so we set about exploring this historic city; a place we had briefly touched on our way to Thailand last year. We walked for three blocks to the Metro station, threading our way along these fascinating streets; passed hundreds of small shops of infinite variety, colour, products, people and odours. Heads turned in surprise, gazes met and held as we studied each other and smiled; children and adults called out `hello’ and giggled at our response and everywhere co-ordinated chaos as they went about their appointed tasks at a leisurely pace. We mastered the Metro system during our time in Beijing and it was now second nature to slip down into the underground rail stations, catch a newly built train to everywhere and poke our heads up near our destinations.                                                                                                                     Over the next two days we walked kilometres around the central parks, festooned with brightly coloured lanterns: elaborate wire and silk statues, monuments and animals which are lit from within at night; we visited an extraordinary complex known as the Mausoleum – discovered by accident and built over, it was the fully intact tomb of the Greatest Emperor to have ruled this lush area about 300 AD. We were allowed to go into the actual tomb site underground. In the museum we viewed a spectacular array of his complete household, including the bodies; jewellery; animals; weapons; food; implements and the 15 members of his personal entourage; including his four wives, who no doubt thought it an honour to be buried with him (I wonder?).

We ambled for miles along the Pearl River bank at night and took a night cruise under the many bridges; passed brilliantly lit buildings, to the spectacle of the Canton Tower – 108 floors of phallic architecture encased in a spider web of steel pipework, creatively lit by thousands of constantly changing, coloured lights.

We found a beautiful, octagonal, traditional Chinese building, set in a large garden park, which was the home of Dr Sun Yat Sen, one of the revered revolutionary leaders who overthrew the last Emperor.  We came across another memorial to this man atop one of the fortified hills in the city  (seems many of China’s heroes were revolutionaries) on our way to see one of the city’s famous sculptures; the `Five Rams’. This beautifully crafted monument, depicted on all the tourist brochures was indeed worth the visit. Five goats (two of which were certainly not rams) circle a steep pinnacle; interestingly they’re part of an old legend which speaks of five visitors descending from the sky in some form of vehicle, giving the people great knowledge and gifts of new grain to grow.

The next day, after Andre arrived, we boarded a sleeping bus coach to the picturesque city of Guilin (gweelin). We had expected reclining seats like an aircraft and were amazed to find two levels of narrow beds laid out in three rows down the length of the bus- and yes, as you might have guessed: only 5 foot long, feet tucked under the head of the next one. Andre is taller than me but somehow we both passed the night in relative comfort until being awakened in the early morning, only to be transferred to an old bus for the last hour of the journey. Apparently, this is not unusual: maybe someone is making money here? Again we walked with our trolley bags, for miles through the streets to get to our YHA hostel, since this bus did not terminate at the main bus station as planned. It was now 5.30am, so after rousing the manager, and stowing our bags, we headed across the street for a forgettable, noodle breakfast.

Guilin was one of the places in China, we specifically came to see. Its pinnacle mountain scenery features on many of the tourists brochures and along with its sister city, Yangshuo, are destinations for millions of people, mostly Chinese. The twin pagodas on the lake are very impressive: entry is through the golden Sun Pagoda, with a climb of 15 floors for the view; then has a descent below the water to a passage that leads under the lake to the equally tall, silver Moon Pagoda. We came here again at night and walked around the lake, marvelling at the delightful picture of these two, now brilliantly lit, traditional structures, mirrored in the still water.                 The lakefront itself is landscaped and strategically lit by hidden coloured lights with the surrounding buildings as a backdrop to this ever-changing scene of flowing people, out enjoying their city by night. We celebrated the Chinese New Year there at the Hostel with a meal and the inevitable fireworks – I have never seen a people so fascinated with fireworks – for any occasion – making noise with huge explosives designed to deafen any evil spirit within a 50 mile radius who should be roaming the countryside at 5.30 in the morning (which I might add sardonically, is highly BLOODY unlikely!!).

The next day found us astride hired bicycles, weaving through suicidal city traffic and then meandering out into the more relaxing countryside. We were heading towards an interesting promise of caverns within these pinnacle mountains. Although we were in the south of China, the temperature was still distinctly chilly as we parked and locked our transport, chomped on chocolate bars and supped on hot chocolate drinks, before entering the cave system with our non-English speaking guide – not her fault of course.

We were not in any way prepared for the grandeur that was to come – formations of colourfully lit stalactites and stalagmites adorning the walls; dripping from the ceilings and protruding from the floors; thrusting upwards to meet their lovers on their way down; melding into columns of multi-coloured spires and cathedrals, yet to be seen in the light of day. Cleverly lit fairy-tale castles; faraway cities; monsters and heroes were perfectly reflected in mirror-still pools, creating inverted replicas submerged in those mysterious depths. Karen’s camera clicked furiously and my video panned the recesses, sucking it all in for future memories of this magnificent river cave carved through the limestone and then left inside a mountain, as the same river diverted and sliced away the surrounding rock over the following eons.  

Should you find yourself travelling to Guilin, plan to stay at the Wada YHA – `Such a lovely place; Such a lovely face ‘- We voted this one of the two best hotels in China, so far. We love staying at the Youth hostels: there’s always a reasonable standard; great community rooms; entertaining, international guests; good selection of food; moderately low cost and generally situated right in the most interesting parts of the city. The Wada had a bar and a pool table; couches spread throughout; western style food; a music system; free internet; good bicycles for hire and lovely staff.

We took an early morning bus trip up into the mountains to photograph the renowned, terraced rice paddies of this area, but hit a public holiday, with no public transport into the most interesting areas. It was probably just as well because Karen hadn’t estimated just how cold it would be and was ill- equipped for the chill. The next day we set out for Yangshuo by river boat, along the barely navigable Li River. A flotilla of 9 large cruise boats left the dock in line and for the next three hours, wound their way sinuously between sandbanks and jutting rocks along this fast flowing stream, sliding between improbable, pinnacle-mountains of immense natural beauty. The local mode of travel is by bamboo rafts, lashed together and either poled or motorized with a transom-mounted engine, bolted to a long shaft and propeller. All along this river these small craft flitted like dragonflies, carrying tourists, passengers or produce between the villages nestled in the narrow valleys. The tourist town of Yangshuo flows between several of these high, rocky protrusions and services millions of visitors each year. Our river cruise included a close encounter with water buffalos and a ride on a bamboo raft, just up and down a short stretch of this much publicized and photographed river. They also demonstrated their local art of cormorant fishing which was quite impressive – throw the shags overboard; wait for them to re-surface trying to swallow whole, surprisingly large fish; take said fish and reward with very small fish. Seems too easy really!

The good news was that Karen had booked us into a new hostel which boasted an actual bathtub – the bad news was that there was no hot water that night! Despite our intention of spending our winter holiday in the warm south of China, it was still very cold, so no-one felt like a cold bath. In view of this, and the fact that the heating didn’t work so well either, they politely refunded our money the next day and we moved to a very cool “marginally warmer” YHA, carved into the mountain-side overlooking the river. Youth hostels are great places – I kid you not – we have become members now for 200 Yuan and receive 20 Yuan discount per person per night – how sweet is that?

We amused ourselves searching out new places to eat; sampling the incredible array of high quality, local crafts and generally soaking up a heady mix of Chinese and international cultures. There were restaurants and bars from every corner of this planet: German, Indian, Mexican, you name it, they were to be found strewn along the alleys of the Western Quarter of Yangshuo (yungshwore)

 People, cars, motorbikes and bicycles crowded the streets in determined confusion and through it all rode three intrepid Kiwis mounted on our hired motorbikes, skilfully squeezing through fast closing gaps in the traffic. It was breath-taking and just a little dangerous but we sure were living on the edge as we emerged into the countryside of rice paddies, fields and newly re-built villages, which were abruptly punctuated at intervals by towering pinnacles of stone. My ass was feeling like tenderized steak by the time we finally returned the bikes that night but it was an adventurous day, to be sure.

It was time to leave the balmy south (not) and fly to Xian (site of the Terracotta Warriors). We caught the bus back to Guilin; stayed one more night at the Wada; said our fond goodbyes and boarded our flight like clockwork. After landing and a shuttle bus ride into the city, we didn’t actually know exactly where we alighted the bus. We asked some locals in our limited Hanyu (Chinese) if the hostel on our map was close – now we should have known that when a Chinese person says somewhere is close, they mean within 50 km give or take. So we deluded ourselves into walking (with our rolling stock) the 5 or 6 kms to our hostel. We were rendezvousing with some friends who were staying in the same hostel. By rolling stock, I mean the wheeled-luggage which all three of us were dragging behind us, making an unholy racket as our 2 inch wheels protested the slings and arrows of outrageously broken, corrugated and tiled sidewalks. Heads turned at the rumbling sound engulfing them and they stared at these three, crazed tourists as they swept on by with their trolley-bags.

  We finally met up for lunch and stayed the night. All of us: Andre, Karen and I, along with Dabing, his wife and their 4 year old son, crammed into their smallish car for the 4 hour drive to their home town (city) of Yichen in the south of Shanxi Province. (Datong is in the north of this Province – about a 7 hour drive away).

Well to cut this long story short, Karen and Andre stayed with us in Dabing and Kerry’s apartment for two days, before catching a train to Jiexiu, where a student met them with local knowledge - but that’s her story.   I stayed on, helping Dabing at his English training school for the next eight days, living with a modern, prosperous, emerging, middle-class Chinese family. They live on the 6th floor of a large high-rise block, in a beautifully modern apartment with all mod-cons, large flat-screen TV, broadband computer etc. (except an elevator – that was a pain!).  I was introduced to their friends; invited to a modern Chinese wedding; ate with them in local cafes; walked the streets; explored markets and played pool or Ping-Pong with Dabing at his gym. This is a typical life now of millions of the new Chinese middle-class. They drive nice Chinese cars; they shop in beautiful apartment stores; often eat out - sometimes at KFC and MacDonald’s; they frequent western food markets that sell both Chinese and western foods; they socialize with friends at KTV (private karaoke rooms); go to health spas, beauty salons and have regular massages; they dote on their child (or children); entertain family and friends with banquet style dinners and generally seem to enjoy their new lot in life.

Karen and Andre’s side trip was to some great historic and scenic sites. Dabing very kindly dropped Karen (me) and Andre at the railway station at Houma city about 45 mins drive away. We were surprised because it was the first time we were able to see the surrounding countryside with any clarity – there had been thick ‘smog’ surrounding us on other occasions. A three hour journey on a double-decker carriage (on the top deck) saw us arriving in Jiexiu (pronounced Jee-a-ssee-u), the closest main town to the Mian Shan (mountain) area. We were delighted to see Brianne (one of my students) waiting for us at the station. She had offered to be our guide and we were going to need one! Most of our travelling to date had been guided and informed with the help of The Lonely Planet Guidebook and the Internet. However, Jiexiu is not sufficiently large enough to be mentioned in the trusty book, or on Internet sites.

We wandered in to a couple of hotels, only to find that they weren’t licenced to have international guests (this is the case in most hotels in China); but with further enquiry we were directed over to the other side of town to a rather plush-looking hotel. We were only going to be staying one night, so I wasn’t too worried at the cost of the rooms – at least we had found somewhere! The taxi-driver who ferried us, gave us a quote for a taxi fare to the Mian Shan park area, should we need one the following day. It was dark by the time we arrived at the hotel, so we headed up the street to find much-needed sustenance; but alas, no restaurants to be found. However, we did find a cluster of street ‘barbeque’ stalls, much to Andre’s delight; so we filled up on a smorgasbord of barbequed, skewered delights.

Up bright and early the next morning, we wanted to get out to the mountain as early as possible. So off we headed to the bus station; then to the railway station to stow our bags for the day. We went to and fro a number of times, trying to locate where the bus was going from, only to discover that the bus had either gone already, or wasn’t going to go.  Strangely, the taxi-driver who had given us the quote was there at the bus station, trying to haggle along with several other taxi-drivers to take us out to the mountain (about ¾ hour’s drive away). Having no other easy way out to the mountain, we agreed to go with our original taxi-driver. He and Brianne struck up a bargain whilst we were travelling and it was agreed that he would be our tour-guide for the rest of the day for RMB300 (NZ$57). You may be wondering why I was making so much effort to get out to Mian Shan. Well, back in New Zealand, prior to coming to China, a dear friend of mine sent me a wonderful Power-Point presentation of a spectacular temple built onto the side of a mountain in China. I was so awed by the sheer feat and artistic beauty of it, that it was one of the key inspirations for us coming to China. It wasn’t given a name, but it did say that it was in Shanxi Province (the province that we ‘happened to’ end up living in!). After some investigation, I eventually found out about Mian Shan – and was expectantly hopeful that it was the same magic place. The mountain area, however stretched for miles and was quite a complex – far too much to see in one day. It was a crisp, freezing morning, but crystal blue skies – it was going to be a magnificent day on the mountain! We stopped at the entrance of the park, after a long, slow, windy drive up the icy, deserted road. After buying our tickets to get in, we headed into the main ‘attraction areas’. Beautifully carved and brightly painted ‘gates’ welcomed us to the temple arena; but there wasn’t just one temple – there were multiple temples! Oh, I was in heaven!

The taxi-driver wanted to take us deep into the park, but I knew we would have missed the most exciting places if he had done that. Instead he dropped us at one of the major temples, which was nestled in the mouth of a giant cave. He ushered us to go and explore it, not knowing that we wouldn’t be back for another four hours. There was so much to see! Myriads of steep steps winding round buildings; rickety, wooden balconies running along the faces of equally rickety buildings; small, cosy meditation rooms for single monks seeking solitude; beautifully painted, delicate, cave artwork; a giant chain ‘handrail’, covered in padlocks, coming down the almost vertical mountainside; a zigzag path built out on the sheer cliff-face, leading to a mysterious trail and eventually snow; an eleven-storeyed, octagonal pagoda, it’s walls re-telling local legends and stories, again in fine brushwork; the pagoda belly revealing golden Chinese Gods of statuesque distinction; five ‘dragons’ protecting the temple and pagoda, embodied in stone, protruding from the cliff; heady views up the valley as it snaked between the rippling mountains; breathing in the fresh, crystal clear mountain air and witnessing the sun buzzing in the atmosphere. It felt so good we didn’t want to descend back down, but knew the driver would be waiting for us. We investigated several other Buddhist temple spots up the road towards the park entrance.

Transported up the paved road, sheer mountain wall on one side and low, stone-built wall on the other, the taxi dropped us at the next major sight, back in the direction we had come from. We had reached another temple – this time a Taoist temple. Steep steps led up to the temple high above; parts of it nestled along a rock shelf. A block of apartments lower down was camouflaged as a chimney of rock. We also marvelled at a cave grotto filled with Taoist Gods, with an ice floor and icy stalactites and stalagmites. We climbed hundreds of steps up and down and feasted our eyes on exotic Chinese art. Although we only saw a fraction of what was in the park, I was aware we needed to get back to Jiexiu to catch the last bus back to Pingyao. The taxi driver lost no time and we were back in a flash, sitting on the old, cronky, dusty bus heading for the ancient town of Pingyao.

Pingyao has an ancient wall around the old part of the city, and huddled inside are houses that have changed very little over the centuries. It permeates an air of history, which is probably why it is such a big tourist attraction in this area (mid-Shanxi Province). Brianne’s grandfather lives in Pingyao, so she’s been there a few times, and why she was so keen to show us around. I had found a hostel on the Internet (Yamen Hostel) that we wanted to stay in, we just had to locate it. Before we had even got off the bus a taxi-driver was shouting through the window, wanting our custom. We couldn’t shake him off, so we eventually struck a price with him for the journey. Then he led us to his ‘taxi’ – a 3-wheeler motor-bike, like a tuk-tuk, with 2 bench seats in a ‘covered’ area in the back. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting! Once aboard, the driver stepped on it, roaring down streets and alleyways. I laughed so much I nearly fell overboard. It became apparent why we had this ‘taxi’: because the ancient part of the city has traffic restrictions – cars are mostly not allowed within the old city walls, but these tuk-tuk contraptions are.

I really liked the hostel we chose – our room had a traditional ‘Kang Bed’ – half the room was raised up on a brick wall, about hip-height (of a small Chinese person), then this area was covered in a large mattress, which was the bed. It was plenty large enough to sleep 3 or 4 people comfortably. However, Brianne stayed with her grandfather and uncle. We escorted Brianne outside the wall, so she could catch a ‘proper’ taxi and came upon a wonderful Spring Festival Lantern display. These are displays that are held in parks – sculptures of brightly-coloured silk most often, which are lit from within at night. Because we have just entered the Year of the Dragon there were naturally dragons everywhere! Some of these sculptures stand well over 3 metres tall and many of them have moving parts. I knew that Greg was probably witnessing similar Lantern shows in Yichen (every town and city has them here in China).                     

Brianne, Andre and I had a pleasant following day, just mooching around within the old city walls; looking at old (and not so old) antiques; listening to traditional music; visiting an old pawn-shop museum, which housed some exquisitely carved Chinese furniture and had an underground tunnel where the safe used to be (and is now a Buddhist shrine); followed the old wall around part of the city and soaked up the ambience. We said our goodbyes to Brianne because the next day we were taking an early morning train back home to Datong. Although travelling in the Spring Festival is supposed to be virtually impossible, we bought our tickets quickly and easily, and we were also able to book a ‘soft-sleeper’ carriage. As Greg mentioned before, the word ‘soft’ is very deceptive! However, we shared the carriage with a couple and their small son and I slept a large part of the 8-hour journey. It was strangely good to be ‘back home’ again – and lovely that Andre could finally see where we have made base camp.

Well, I (Greg) made my way back to Datong for the start of the 2nd semester and both Karen and I have been `head down’ since then. We did manage a little R and R at Jiu Long (Nine Dragon) Hot Springs Resort about an hour out of the city at Yang Guo. Along with two other foreign teachers and a local woman friend, we thoroughly enjoyed the tepid swimming pool, several hot pools and the saunas. The girls also opted for beauty scrubs: something akin to being rubbed down with a washing-up scratchy pad (oh that’s gotta hurt!), while Steve and I lounged on vinyl-covered `lazy boy’ armchairs. The entry price was a very reasonable $8.00 per person – they gave us jandals (flip-flops), a face-cloth for a towel and an electronic locker key, but take and store your shoes – right! You don’t get your shoes back until you settle up at the end – very smart.

Now that you’re up to speed, we are anticipating the long Summer break to come – we’ve bought tickets to fly to Amsterdam and thence, make our way to Caen on the coast of Normandy, France, via Belgium and Paris; catching a ferry across to Blighty and coach to Portishead on the west coast, to see Karen’s Mum; hopefully, slip into Wales to visit Karen’s brother, Ian who has settled there recently– it’s a hard life as long as you don’t weaken, but someone’s got to do it!! 

Love and fond regards; those wandering minstrels, Greg and Karen.



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