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Summary of my trip
Part 1 (this page)
16th March: fly to Hong Kong
18th March: Join Intrepid Travel tour going to Shanghai
20th-22nd March: Yangshuo
23rd March: Yichang and the Three Gorges dam
Part 2 (next page)
24th-25th March: Yangtze river - the Three Gorges
26th March: Wuhan
27th-29th March: Huangshan (the Yellow Mountains)
30th-31st March: Yangtze river delta - Hangzhou
1st-2nd April: Shanghai
3rd April: Return to Japan
After a pleasant flight from Kansai International with Cathay Pacific (my first experience of individual seat-back TV screens), I was met at the airport in Hong Kong by Craig, a friend from university (Salford) who is now living and working there. My first priority was to sort out my visa for China, so Craig pointed me in the right direction before going off to a meeting. The "right direction" was the 5th floor of the China Resources building in Wanchai; the entrance is just to the right of the big Chinese craft & souvenir shop. It's only open Monday to Friday, and I think the hours were 9-12 and 2-5. I applied for my single-entry tourist visa that afternoon and picked it up the next morning, and the fee was HK$100 (about £8.50 in British money). You can also get an express (same day) visa; the fee is higher but I think it's still only about HK$150. For comparison, it would have cost me several times as much to get it in Japan, and I believe it costs £30 in the UK. You need a photo for your application, but you can get one fairly cheaply there if you haven't brought one with you (HK$30 for 4, I think).
Incidentally, at the time of my visit there were approximately 12.5 Hong Kong dollars and 13 Chinese yuan (renminbi) to the British pound. That's somewhere around 8 to the US dollar.
I spent the next couple of hours exploring Wanchai (former Suzie Wong country) and Hong Kong park, before meeting up with Craig again in Central and going for a drink and a meal.
View over Hong Kong park.
After the meal we went up to Mongkok and had a look round there (my main aim being to find a replacement for the Swiss army knife I lost a few weeks ago) then got a bus back to Tuen Mun, where Craig lives. He described it as being "out in the sticks", and it was more than half an hour's ride away - via the highway - but still composed entirely of huge tower blocks.
17th March: Hong Kong
Took the fast ferry from Tuen Mun to Central. Went to the Convention Centre (unfortunately the upper levels were closed so I didn't get to see all of the possible views) then picked up my China visa. I'd left the exchange voucher at Craig's but fortunately they accepted my Japanese foreigner identity card in its place.
From there I walked to the peak tram station and took the funicular tram up the hill to Victoria Peak. The Victoria Peak building is actually built on a col below the peak itself, and is heavily commercialised, with tacky attractions such as a Ripley's Believe It Or Not. This being Hong Kong, there's also a full-blown shopping centre next door. The views are good though - but the weather was a bit smoggy and hazy when I was there. Spent a bit of time getting away from the crowds with Philip and Leonard, a couple of Chinese-French Scots whom I met up there, by going a bit further up the hill.
View from Victoria Peak. This side of the harbour is Hong Kong island, the other side is Kowloon.
Me at Victoria Peak.
From the "peak", I walked down to Aberdeen, on the south side of Hong Kong island. Aberdeen is known for its crowded harbour, occupied by many sampans (small fishing boats), which serve as part-time homes for their owners. Another girl (an independent traveller called Deborah) and I were chased around by a very persistent woman whose English I could barely understand, who was trying to get us to go for a ride in her sampan for HK$60 each. We eventually escaped by heading for the bus station and getting a bus back to Central.
Sampans in Aberdeen harbour.
We took the Star Ferry across the harbour (dirt cheap - only $1.70 (about 15p) for lower deck, $2.20 for upper deck), and parted company when we reached Tsim Shah Tsui - the area known for cheap goods and rip-offs. I've read advice that before you buy anything in TST you should check out the prices in Mongkok, and possibly even buy there instead. Anyway, I had a look round TST then got the ferry back to Central and met up with Craig and his friends, who were on a pub crawl. This was OK for an hour or two, but pub crawls aren't my idea of fun nowadays, especially after two nights of not much sleep, so I was ready to go to bed while everyone else was still intent on getting plastered.
With Craig and his friend Dave, in a pub in Hong Kong.
18th March: Joining the Intrepid group in Hong Kong
I left Craig's, got a bus to Mongkok and checked into the Evergreen Hotel, the meeting point for the Intrepid group tour I was about to embark on. I met a few people who'd just finished a tour coming down from Beijing, which they seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed, but it wasn't until later in the day that I was due to meet the other members of my own group.
In the meantime I went out and had a look round Western on Hong Kong island. Visited Man Mo Temple, the oldest temple in Hong Kong, and wandered round the various small markets.
Man Mo Temple.
Took a short ride on one of the ancient trams back to Central - like the Star Ferry, it's dirt cheap ($2 flat rate) and a must-do for any visitor to Hong Kong - then returned to the hotel for our 6pm introductory meeting. There were only five people in the group, including Gabrielle, the leader. (Intrepid's maximum group size is twelve.) The other three were all male, and since Intrepid tours are organised on a twin-share basis this meant that I had the luxury of a room to myself throughout the trip. Gabrielle is Australian, like the majority of Intrepid's staff, and the other group members were Eric (American), Frank (American) and Ben (Australian). The age range was 26 to 72.
That evening Eric and I went round the corner to the Temple Street night market for some food (we both had something that was translated as "duck set", which turned out to be a huge quantity of duck meat and not a lot else) then went up to Victoria Peak to see the view by night.
View from Victoria Peak by night.
19th March: Journey to Guanxi province
We all went to a local place for dim sum (Cantonese breakfast/lunch speciality) in the morning, then had a bit of time to use up our remaining Hong Kong dollars before departing for Yangshuo, on the Li river in Guanxi province.
We took taxis to the bus terminal, then had a three-hour bus ride to Guangzhou (Canton). We had to get off twice: once to leave Hong Kong and then again a few minutes later to enter China. At the China entry point we had to take all our luggage with us, and when we re-boarded the bus there were twice as many people on board as before. In Guangzhou I saw the first of many examples of irresponsible rubbish disposal: the attendant on a small bus that was sitting alongside us in three lanes of congested traffic simply opened the side door and swept a pile of rubbish out onto the road.
We were dropped off at the China Hotel in Guangzhou, and met by a very deadpan local operator who led us the half-mile or so to the station. After fighting our way through the crowds on the forecourt and through the narrow gate into the station building we boarded our train; we had a 14-hour journey in hard sleeper to Guilin. I found hard sleeper quite comfortable - no harder than the futon I sleep on in Japan - and everyone in the carriage was pretty quiet and seemed to be obeying the no-smoking rule, so it wasn't a bad journey at all. The lights went out (quite suddenly, although I'm sure we must have been warned in Chinese) at 10pm and came on again at 6am. Even the toilets were relatively bearable!
Eric and hard sleeper.
20th March: Arrival in Yangshuo, tractor tour and cormorant fishing
We emerged from the station in Guilin around 8am and got a local public bus to Yangshuo, about 1½ hours' drive away. On arrival in Yangshuo we checked into Lisa's Guest House, freshened up and had brunch, before going out on local tours in the afternoon.
Arrival in Yangshuo.
Lisa, of Lisa's Guest House.
Ben, Frank and I went on a tractor tour with a local guide whose English name - suggested by a previous customer - was Green. (His family name is Huang, which means yellow, so that makes him Green Yellow!) The tractor was a kind of motor-trike with a covered rear section for passengers or cargo. These can be found all over China, and many towns have taxis that are basically the same. We trundled out of town, stopping every so often to take photos or hear a story about a place of interest.
Our mode of transport.
The "camel crossing the river", so-called because as you cross the bridge from right to left, it looks as though the "camel" is crossing the river from left to right.
The famous Moon Hill, near Yangshuo.
We went to the Water Cave, where we fought off the women who accosted us trying to sell us fruit, canned drinks and postcards, then Ben and I did the shorter of the two available tours (1 hour). It was an impressive cave, and fairly hard going in places, so it's probably just as well that Frank had opted out. We were led by another guide, whose name I can't remember. The "water" element was an underground river, about knee-deep,and you could wade to a waterfall that came from overhead so that if you'd wanted to you could have had a shower under it.
Inside the water cave. My strange pose in the middle picture is because I'd just scrambled across the cave after setting the self-timer, and in the third picture I'm almost knee-deep in the underground river.
After we came out of the cave, and had fought off the fruit women again, Green cooked a late lunch for us in one of the village farmhouses. It's amazing how the people here manage to produce such good food with such basic facilities. The village houses have electricity, and a TV seems to be a very important possession to most Chinese, but the kitchen basically consisted of just a work surface, a few shelves, a large wok and a single gas burner. The water supply came from somewhere in the yard, possibly from a handpump like the one where I washed my hands after coming out the cave. Glass in the windows seems to be a luxury too, but then the climate in Guanxi is pretty mild; I suppose glass becomes more of a necessity as you go further north.
Village near Yangshuo - location of water cave and where Green cooked for us.
Green preparing the meal.
On the way back we stopped at an unashamed tourist attraction based around a 1500-year-old banyan tree and a local legend about a pair of lovers and an embroidered ball. Again we had to fend off the fruit women at the entrance. Unfortunately it was too late in the day for us to see the costumed performances; the girls had changed out of their costumes and the only giveaway was their bright pink lipstick. The banyan tree wasn't going anywhere though! There were also various photo opportunities, each costing a couple of yuan a time: bamboo rafts on the river, a camel, a pony, and a monkey in a silly costume. Frank succumbed to the monkey, which admittedly was very cute, but if I'm going to get my picture taken with a monkey I don't want it to be one that's been dressed up in a daft outfit and probably punished to make it behave in an unnatural way.
Under the ancient banyan tree: Ben, Frank and Green.
On our return to Yangshuo we had a bit of time to explore the town, which is relatively westernised and has been described as "the Bali of China". West Street is lined with souvenir shops and restaurants serving Western, as well as Chinese, food. Someone stands near the entrance to almost every shop you pass, trying to entice you in - especially when there aren't many foreign tourists around, as was the case when we were there. Bargaining is, of course, mandatory, unless you really want to be ripped off. I got some pointers on prices from Green, which were very helpful: up to 20 yuan for a cheap T-shirt, or 30 for a good-quality one; about 40 for a 4' x 4' piece of blue batik (or whatever they call the local dyed stuff); 60ish for a Chinese tunic/blouse or dress. Bought a nice short-sleeved turquoise dress, just like I've wanted for ages (paid 75 yuan - it was quite a long one and the initial asking price was 140!) and a T-shirt with very bad English on it, which you'll see on my Chinglish page. During the time we were there, the whole of West Street was being given a facelift to prettify it for the tourists. A lot of shop fronts were covered in bamboo scaffolding and tarpaulins (didn't see any metal scaffolding anywhere in China), and work went on all day.
West Street, Yangshuo, as it looked when we were there.
Once you get away from West Street the town is far more "genuinely" Chinese, with a big market selling local produce and all kinds of other things. Along an alley down one side of the market hall I even saw them cooking whole dogs (at least, I'm pretty sure they were dogs, though they looked different without any fur) with blowtorches! Live fish are sold in one part of the market, and live poultry in another. I was squeamish enough to avert my eyes when I saw a newly-purchased chicken being taken to have its neck broken. Of course, these things - certainly the chickens - can be seen all over China, but Yangshuo was my first experience of it.
Parts of the market in Yangshuo (dried goods, fish, and fruit & vegetables).
That evening Ben and I went on the optional Li river trip to watch the cormorant fishing. It was OK I suppose, but not terribly exciting. It was hard to see much in the dark, and it seemed to involve a lot of effort for very few fish. They do it in parts of Japan too, including Arashiyama in Kyoto, but I'd never actually seen it before.
Cormorant fishing on the Li river.
21st March: Yangshuo - Li river trip & bike ride
Our guide for the next day was Tang Gui Lin, or Mr. Tang. We hired bikes which at first glance looked like pretty decent mountain bikes, but in actual fact the gears didn't do anything and the pedals worked less smoothly than on my shopping bike in Japan. As for the brakes, the back one on mine had virtually no effect and the front one almost pitched me over the handlebars on several occasions. Still, they got us there eventually. The bikes were stowed on the roof of our boat and we set off down the river at 10.30am.
Ben, Mr. Tang and Eric on the boat.
On the way downriver we stopped off at the 500-year-old Liugon village and were shown round.
Liugon village. The red characters on the buildings are quotes from Chairman Mao, left over from the Cultural Revolution.
The older men of the village playing cards. (Photo taken by Frank.)
Outdoor hairdresser's salon.
Buffalo calf in Liugon village. Each village communally owns a few buffalo, used for work in the fields. I think the tractors are communally owned in the same way.
Child in Liugon village.
Leaving Liugon village - Gabrielle crossing the bamboo raft back to the boat.
We reached our destination, Puyi town, around lunchtime. After a quick look round (and a sample of the local rice "wine", which ranged from 40 to 60% alcohol, was stored in huge earthenware jars and cost about 6 yuan for a 1.25 litre bottle) Gabrielle and Frank went back to Yangshuo on the boat, and Ben, Eric and I cycled back with Mr. Tang. We passed through lots of great scenery which my photos really don't do justice to, and had a delicious meal at Mr. Tang's newly-built house, prepared by him and his wife. We also crossed a river on a bamboo-raft ferry. A lot of the tracks we followed were very rough, and by the time we got back to Yangshuo we were feeling decidedly saddle-sore!
Scenes from our bike ride.
Fish on a bicycle - suspended from the handlebars and still gasping!
At Mr. Tang's house.
Crossing the river on a bamboo raft (the ferryman, Eric, Ben and me).
For anyone who's contemplating a visit to Yangshuo, I highly recommend the services of both Green and Mr. Tang - they can be contacted via Lisa's Cafe at 71 West Street.
22nd March: Travel to Yichang
We spent most of the morning in Yangshuo, then took a bus (privately hired) to Liuzhou, which took about 3½ hours. From there we had a 20-hour train ride to the city of Yichang on the Yangtze. It was a fairly grotty train, and apparently one where theft is rife, so we were glad to have the privacy and comfort of soft sleeper. Unfortunately the toilets were no better than in hard sleeper or hard seats.
Soft sleeper and hard seat - the most expensive and cheapest ways of making the same journey.
23rd March: Yichang
We arrived in the city of Yichang, by the Yangtze, at lunchtime. We were met at the station by Jerry, our local CITS guide (who spoke incredibly good English for someone who'd never been out of China), and taken by minibus to our hotel: the Gezhouba, a 3-star establishment named after an island in the Yangtze.
After we'd had an hour or so for showers etc., Jerry took us for a tour of the nearby Three Gorges dam site. First we went to an exhibition centre where he talked us through a scale model of the dam, then we went up the hill to a viewpoint to see the work in progress. Unfortunately the weather was a bit hazy - I'm told it always is in that area - so my pictures didn't come out very clearly (it also didn't help that the shop I took my films to in Tangkou, Huangshan, made a complete mess of the development and printing).
Scale model of the Three Gorges dam. The channel on the right shows the ship locks; the main dam is to the left. The left third of so of the main dam is currently a (navigable) diversion channel. The rest of it is under construction. At the right-hand end of the dam, between the two islands, is a boat lift, a quicker alternative to the locks (for smaller boats only).
Three Gorges dam - ship locks under construction.
On our return to Yichang, Ben, Eric and I went out to explore our surroundings, and found a good market not far from the hotel. Afterwards we all (except Frank, who seemed a bit wary of night markets) went there to eat. Yichang is close to Sichuan, a region renowned for its spicy food, and the food we got was definitely spicy! After eating, we went for a walk around the huge public square, where there were big groups of people doing traditional dance, ballroom dancing and t'ai chi. Ben and I joined in with one of the waltzes, which met with considerable laughter from the bystanders.