JACK IS OFF AGAIN – THIS TIME HE’S DOING THE AMERICAS
March 1st 2007
Yes, itÂ´s time for the latest – and last – episode in the chronicles of the second Fisher-Luck expedition. As readership figures are dwindling I was tempted to make it short and sweet; but then I thought, to hell with it, letÂ´s make them suffer. It is the last one after all. So, if I recall correctly we left our intrepid heroes on the cusp of Christmas, in the indigenous town of San Cristobal high up in the mountains of Chiapas. Will they make the new year? Will they ever leave Mexico? And will Jack ever beat Christiane at cards? Read on to find out…
Christmas came and went without incident, and was mostly spent eating chocolate and watching crap films on cable tv. Much like home, really. On Boxing Day we went to Palenque, scene of some Mayan ruins popular for their tropical setting. As christmas-new year is peak holiday season in this part of the world it was teeming with tourists, but still impressive. Next was Campeche, a pretty if slightly dull port town, before on NYE we moved on Merida, the major city of the Yucatan peninsula. There we saw in the new year in a drunken haze (measures here are deceptively potent).
As we had some spare time before meeting ChristianeÂ´s mum later on we stayed put in Merida for a few days, doing little but lounging in hammocks. Christiane sneakily took advantage of my mellow state of mind and persuaded me to join in the nightly salsa lessons. Which turned out to be a big mistake. It was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life. I just could not get the hang of it. Personally I blame the instructor’s regimented instructions (I like to think of myself as more of a freestyler when it comes to the dancefloor). After an hour I was worse than when we started and the instructor was reduced to just shaking his head at me. To make matters worse, the gangling oaf next to me who could barely stand up at the beginning was now gliding about like a latin lothario. By the half-time break I was in a massive sulk and refused to go back. All in all a debacle, but at least it may have put paid to any more of christiane’s funny ideas where that subject is concerned.
After Merida we spent a couple more days in Valladolid, a fairly nondescript town but the site of several cenotes. Cenotes are underground caverns you can swim in and were formed when a meteorite (the one that extincted the dinosaurs) landed in the area – cracks were formed in the limestone and all the rivers no run underground instead of over it. Swimming and snorkelling in them was an eerie experience. We also checked out more Mayan ruins (you might be able to imagine C’s attitude to ruins by now) before heading to Playa del Carmen to meet ChristianeÂ´s mum (her dad was supposed to come too but unfortunately broke his foot pre-departure).
Playe del Carmen is a tourist beach town and we used the presence of the mother-in-law to have a proper holiday (well deserved, I’m sure you’ll agree). After a fortnight of living the high life she flew home and we were left with the scary realisation that we were back to long bus journeys and cheap lodgings. This was brought home the next day: after 6 hours on a bus we arrived in the border town of Chetumal and spent the night in a hotel room where the TV was locked in a cage.
The next morning, after 107 days, we finally left Mexico and, with some trepidation, entered Central America. We realised when we went to catch the bus into Belize that things were going to get a bit more difficult. No more modern air-conditioned buses – instead we were faced with what weÂ´d find was the Central American standard: old US school buses, too old and dangerous for american kids so sold off on the cheap to their poorer neighbours (they look fantastic though, repainted in all sorts of psychedelic colours).
We spent 2 days in Belize and I never quite got my head round it. In the middle of all these old Spanish colonies lies a tiny corner of the old British empire where English is the first language, the shops are full of cadburyÂ´s fruit and nut, and the banknotes bear the QueenÂ´s head (and a surprisingly attractive Queen at that). This left me feeling decidedly befuddled, which wasnÂ´t a good state of mind in which to face the border crossing into Guatemala. Without a clue as to what to do or where to go, we were hapless tourists at the mercy of the dodgy moneychangers and lying taxi drivers telling us weÂ´d missed the last bus onward. Standing with our heavy loads in the burning heat, surrounded by the baying hordes, I started to lose it – at one point of confusion I left my passport behind – until Christiane took charge, led us away and managed to locate a bus.
Crammed into the overcrowded minibus, we set off on the gravel road into the jungle and soon realised that Central America was, developmentally, a big step down from Mexico. But with relief we arrived at our first destination, Flores, a pretty town with a nice setting in the middle of a lake. We were only really there though to make a day trip to Tikal, yet another Mayan ruins site – the number one Mayan attraction, in fact, which helped to stifle CÂ´s complaints. It was quite an experience; the ruins are semi-hidden in the jungle and surrounded by howler monkeys, which make the scariest – and most un howl-like – sound.
From Flores we cheated and took a tourist minibus for the 5 hour bus journey south to Coban. Arriving late on a Sunday without cash, we immediately set off to find an ATM. A fruitless hour later, having exhausted all options and been harassed by the local drunk, we began to panic. Being in a strange place (and this was certainly that) without money is not a nice feeling. We persuaded the hotel guy that we would pay the next day and spent our last change on a sumptious repaste of crisps and biscuits. The next day, after waiting in line in the bank, we managed to get some cash using our credit card. (We later found out that the Guatemalan bank annually destroys old notes and prints new ones – only this year, after burning the old ones, they couldnÂ´t get the presses to work. Whoops. This also explained why the notes I did have were like ancient parchment. I was afraid to touch them in case they fell apart.)
In Coban we took a side trip to Semuc Champey, an amazing limestone bridge you can swim on, and also a batcave. Then another 5 hour minibus trip to Antigua, an old colonial city and the most popular town in Central America. There are so many Americans and Europeans opening up bars, restaurants, hotels, etc, that it seems like itÂ´s been colonised all over again. It was a very pretty town but we didnÂ´t find much to do so after a couple of days we moved on to Lago de Atitlan, a beautiful lake surrounded by volcanoes; also popular with foreigners, but relatively unspoilt. We relaxed there for three days then left for the capital, Guatemela City. We intended to spend two nights there but soon decided to cut that short. In common with most of the other CA capitals (as we would later find), Guatemala City is dusty, noisy, chaotic and basically not a pleasant place to be. So the next day we took the bus across the border to San Salvador (the capital of El Salvador). This time I was proud of myself for not accepting defeat at the hands of the evil moneychangers (although I began to question my arithmetical prowess after the third calculator was produced showing 400 divided by 7 to be 30-odd).
Downtown San Salvador was much like Guatemala City but we stayed in mall-land, which was great. Mr Donut for breakfast, China Wok for lunch and Pizzaland for tea. We even managed a hollywood blockbuster at the cinema. We spent 2 nights there wrapped around a 2 night trip to the pleasant – if slightly deserted – town of Suchitoto. El Salvador hasn’t got any major attractions but itÂ´s nice and relaxed, and the people were the friendliest we encountered in Central America.
From San Salvador we had a mammoth 12 hour bus ride to Nicaragua, spending two hours in Honduras en-route (enough for me to tick it off my list – well they did charge us $3 entry fee). When we arrived in the Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, we wondered what weÂ´d let ourselves in for. The neighbourhood we were staying in was downright scary. We wisely ventured out for something to eat while it was still light and then locked ourselves in our room for the night. As we trembled in fear we could hear groups of people walking around with loud whistles – later we discovered these were vigilante groups enforcing the nightly curfew. The next morning we needed cash before moving on so asked a woman for directions to the nearest ATM. She helpfully replied in English before adding, almost as an afterthought, “but be careful, there are murderers down there”. Suddenly our need didnÂ´t seem so pressing, and we ran back to the hotel and got a taxi out of there.
Fortunately our next destination, Granada, was very nice and we spent four pleasant days there, went swimming in a volcano crater, then moved on again to Lago de Nicaragua. The Lago is the biggest lake in CA and in the middle is the Isle de Ometepe, formed as two volcanoes emerged from the lake. One of them is still active and we spent our two days there nervously monitoring the plumes of smoke.
This takes us up to yesterday. WeÂ´ve had some hard travelling days on this trip but in an act of masochism we saved the worst till last. From a 5am alarm call, through a series of hot and uncomfortable bus and ferry journeys and a bewildering border crossing, we finally reached our hostel at 8.30pm, feeling – and looking – awful. WeÂ´re in San Jose, capital of Costa Rica and our last brief stop before flying back to blighty tomorrow. At least we hope thatÂ´s the case: we have to connect in the US and as we forgot to hand in our departure cards when we left, we are officially classed as having overstayed our visas. So weÂ´re at the mercy of US Customs & Borders; if you never hear from us again, please petition the government or something.
Before we go, brief impressions of the places weÂ´ve been: Vancouver, great setting but slightly dull; the US, loved it at first but less enamoured as time went on (and as we went south); Mexico, basically just great and easily the highlight; Belize, downright weird (from a personal point of view); Guatemala, interesting places to see but too jaded from tourism (a bit of a ‘them and us’ feel); El Salvador, quiet but with the friendliest people; Nicaragua, probably our favourite Central American country; and Costa Rica (from our brief stay in San Jose), much better off than the rest of CA – itÂ´s easy to see what a bit of peace and stability can bring.
Finally, a mention of the Mighty Latics. Much as it pained me to desert them mid-season, I consoled myself with the thought that I wouldn’t be missing much. Particulary as when we left they were languishing in the relegation zone. Of course, the day after we arrived on foreign soil they embarked on an unprecedentedly successful run and three weeks ago, as they stood proudly on top of the league, I could stand it no longer and started planning my triumphant return. It seems that they somehow got wind of my plans, as before IÂ´ve even got there they have suffered a dramatic collaspe. Now, if the chairman was to offer some sort of financial inducement for me to go away again, IÂ´m sure I could think of a few nice places…
December 21st 2006
ItÂ´s been a while since I last wrote and weÂ´ve been to several places so IÂ´ll try to keep it short and not bore you with all the details. From Puerto Vallarta we left the coast and came inland to Guadalajara, MexicoÂ´s second city and reputedly the most “Mexican”. We liked it a lot. The centre consisted of a series of large squares interpersed with old colonial buildings and they were all teeming with activity. We spent a week there exploring the different areas, including a side trip to the town of Tequila. Tequila, as you may have guessed, is where the drink originated from and we took a tour of the Jose Cuervo distillery. It was very interesting although they werenÂ´t shy with the tastings, and as Christiane is not a fan I was on double portions, so by the latter stages I was staggering around half-cut in a harinet finding it decidedly difficult to follow what the guide was saying. On our last evening in Guadalajara I persuaded Christiane to accompany me to see Los Chivas (the goats), GuadalajaraÂ´s biggest footbal team and one of MexicoÂ´s big two. In honour of the occasion I tucked into a steaming bowl of goat stew beforehand. Fortunately the goats didn’t get stewed on the pitch (blame C for the dubious pun) as they triumphed 1-0 over Chiapas. To be honest the game was a bit dull but the atmosphere was good, especially outside the ground, and it was nice to be served beer at our seats (my credibility with the hardcore fans around us was somewhat reduced, however, by ChristianeÂ´s insistence on taking with us a packed lunch).
After Guadalajara we had a bit of time to kill before we met my mum, so we took a detour to Patzcuaro and Morelia. Patzcuaro is a nice-looking town up in the hills, in an area with a lot of indigenous people. Nice, but very cold. ItÂ´s amazing what a bit of altitude can do. In Puerto Vallarta on the coast the temperature in our room never dropped below 30, even at night. Go up 2000m, even at the same latitude (longitude? I always mix those up), and it was approaching zero at night. After a couple of days shivering we moved on to Morelia, a colonial city which would have been very nice but for the awful traffic. It seemed to be in perpetual gridlock and the fumes just hung around the streets. We managed to stick out four days of headaches and blocked noses before taking a bus to Queretaro, where weÂ´d arranged to meet my mum who was was flying over for a fortnight (brave, eh? Us, I mean, not me ma).
We arrived in Queretaro in the middle of a holiday weekend with no hotel reservation. With hindsight, not such a good idea. We staggered under the weight of our backpacks from hotel to hotel, only to told the same thing: all hotels were full until tuesday, except for one which looked more like a halfway house than a hotel. We were on the point of giving up when the last one we tried said he had a room because some guests hadnÂ´t turned up. TheyÂ´d said they were arriving at 4pm and it was 4.45. Harsh, but there you go. I almost felt sorry for them as I sank into the crisp white sheets and thought of the flea-ridden flophouse. Almost. We spent 2 days relaxing before meeting my mum at 9pm at the bus station. Undeterred by jetlag and a 24 hour day, she demanded we go for a tequila to celebrate her safe arrival. The tequila probably came in handy as the concert venue next door to the hotel had chosen that night to stage a rock extravaganza, and temperatures had dipped to unprecedented lows, which together meant for a sleepless first night.
After 2 more days in Queretaro we took the short journey to San Miguel de Allende. San Miguel has become a bit of an enclave for expats from the US, which meant sometimes it felt like we were surrounded by American 50 and 60-somethings. We put up with it though as it is such a beautiful town. And all the americans have spent their dollars building lovely apartments which they sometimes only use for part of the year, meaning their are loads of places to rent at low prices. So for 50 quid a night we spent 4 days living in luxury in a top notch pad. After there we moved on to Guanajuato, an old silver mining city and another beautiful place. It was built into hillsides which means great views and also bulging leg muscles after a few days. We spent 5 days there in another rented place (from an american going by the moniker of “The Trout”) before moving on to Mexico City, where we said goodbye to my mum, and I said hello to my first bout of stomach trouble. After 3 days of following motherly advice to eat unexciting foods such as boiled rice and chicken soup, it still hadn’t stopped so I gave up and helped myself to a burger and chips. Problem instantly solved
Mexico City was a fascinating place. There is so much stuff to see, museums and suchlike, and so many different areas to visit, that you could spend months there and still not see it all, but we settled for 10 days. Then we had a dilemma. We had decided where we wanted to be for Christmas but didn’t want to get there too early so had about a week to spare somewhere on route. The obvious place would have been Oaxaca, supposedly one of Mexico’s nicest cities, but unfortunately the place has been under siege for the last few months and become a no-go area. I was tempted to go anyway and see what all the fuss was about but Christiane was having none of it. So we plumped instead for a week on the gulf coast. In hindsight, perhaps a bit of a mistake. We landed first in Veracruz, a port city which the stupid guidebook had raved about, but we found to be frankly not very nice. After spending so long at altitude we were looking forward to warm nights agan but after 2 sweaty nights in a crummy hotel we’d had enough and took a convoluted bus journey to Tlacotalpan, a small town further down the coast.
Tlacotalpan was nice enough to look at but eerily quiet – almost the definition of a one-horse town – so after another 2 days there we took an even more convoluted bus journey to Catemaco. Catemaco is a lakeside town which was alright but by then we’d had enough of the heat and these small towns and decided to head towards our christmas destination. Easier said than done, it turned out. We just about grabbed the last 2 seats on a bus heading out of Catemaco, to bigger place a couple of hours away which had better bus connections. However, all buses from there to where we wanted to go were fully booked, so we had to change plans and head instead to Villahermosa, which was out of the way but at least we could book seats from there to our destination. The 4 hour journey extended to 5 or 6, and after queueing for a taxi for over an hour we finally reached a hotel at 9 and collapsed in bed.
Our bus was early the next day so we woke to the alarm at 6, only to find there was a power failure. Showering, dressing and packing by torchlight, to a deadline, was a tricky business but we managed it and arrived by taxi to the bus station. Except that there were about 6 bus stations, and of course we were at the wrong one. Cue another taxi and a mad dash to the right bus station. Still in time for the bus – but of course there are two different terminals and the staff in one terminal kept telling us to go to the other, and vice versa. After the fourth trip back and forth I lost my patience with one guy, shrieking at him in an unbecoming high-pitched voice. Unfortunately I’d picked the soldier with a huge machine gun strapped round his shoulder to have my hissy fit to, but Mexicans are a patient lot and he sorted everything out. The bus finally turned up an hour and a half later and by the end of that day we had finally arrived here in San Cristobal de las Casas. It’s a bit odd being away for Christmas for the first time but I don’t think we could have picked a better place. It’s a small town up in the highlands where a lot of indigenous people live, and is very colourful and festive. We’re in a hostel at the moment but have decided to splash out on a little apartment for Christmas and for Christiane’s birthday on the 23rd. We’ve even bought stockings to hang over the fireplace…
Anyway, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all,
November the 3rd 2006
WeÂ´re in Mexico now. At least I assume we are, 3 weeks and goodness knows how many miles in and we still havenÂ´t had to show anyone our passports or visas. If anyone has commited a crime and wants to absond, this is definitely the way to come. The border crossing was a bit surreal – San Diego and Tijuana are so close that a 30 minute tram ride took us to the border, we got off and just walked down a road and into Mexico with nary an official in sight. We had to hunt down an immigration person and ask him to give us a visa.
Anyway, it wasnÂ´t long in Tijuana before we were thinking of taking the reverse journey. A truly awful place, it must give the many daytrippers a terrible impression of Mexico. ThereÂ´s basically one street lined with souvenir stalls and tacky bars which people virtually drag you off the street into, and the rest of the city is depressingly lifeless. I think most people just come for a couple of hours, have their photo taken sitting on a donkey painted like a Zebra while holding a sign saying “Sitting on my Ass!”, then go back. We, on the other hand, spent two soul-destroying days there trying in vain to work out how to travel on southwards. We were trying to avoid a long overnight bus journey and find somewhere decent to stopover down the Baja peninsula, but getting any information, including bus schedules, was impossible. We finally tracked down the tourist information office on the fourth floor of an office building only to swiftly realise we were the first people in there in years, and departed none the wiser. In the end we just gave up, got on a local bus to the next city, Ensenada, and got on the next long-distance bus from there. 18 hours later (during which I was terrified that the shifty-looking bloke next to us was going to rob us blind in the middle of the night) we pitched up in Loreto, on the Sea of Cortez.
To our relief Loreto was a nice little town, not much going on, but at least we could relax a little after the tribulations of Tijuana. We were beginning to realise though that the language was going to be a difficulty, we were spoiled in the US and hadnÂ´t really thought about what lied ahead. Cue some hasty cramming of basic Spanish. 2 days later we took another bus to La Paz, near the southern end of the Baja peninsula. Most of Baja is cactus-laden desert which made for interesting views from the bus. I must say too that Mexican buses are fantastic, much better than British ones, with loads of legroom, aircon and dvd screens (sometimes in English!)
La Paz was another nice place and continued our thaw in relations with Mexico. We spent four days there, a large part of it trying to obtain ferry tickets across the sea to mainland Mexico. WeÂ´d already realised by this time that things in Mexico are rarely as they seem, as this was no exception. The ferry was supposed to go on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays so we turned up at the ticket office in town on a Saturday morning hoping to get tickets for that afternoon – only to find it closed, despite the opening hours in the window saying it should be open. As it was a similar story in the tourist information office, we decided to stay 3 extra nights and take the Tuesday ferry. As they were supposed to sell tickets 2 days in advance, the next morning we were going to go again to the ticket office only for a chance conversation with the hotel guy, who told us that the office had been closed for 2 years and we had to go instead to the ferry terminal, 20 km north. So we got on a bus to the terminal, asked for a ticket for Tuesday only to be told that we couldÂ´t buy a ticket until the day itself. So a wasted journey. Except that I went back to check on the departure time, and after some hasty conversation in the office they said that for this week only the ferry was going to depart on Monday, and we should turn up there 3 hours before. So we had to go back, cancel the hotel, and prepare to leave on the Monday.
On the Monday morning we realised why the ferry had changed, as the front page of the local paper showed that there was a hurricane coming, and it was heading straight for us. The hotel guy kept saying he hoped we werenÂ´t seasick as we were in for a rough ride. So with some trepidation we went to catch the ferry. Our fears werenÂ´t eased when we boarded – a relic from the past, it was like theyÂ´d raised the Titanic specially for the occasion. It was all the more eerie as the boat had a capacity for over a thousand yet there was less than a hundred on board, no doubt owing to the late change of schedule. So we didnÂ´t make use of the ballroom and lounges, just settled in our rickety seats for the 19 hour journey, eyed the thunder and lightning outside nervously and hoped for some sleep. Of course this was next to impossible, in part because the Mexicans insisted on watching 2 Fast 2 Furious at maximum volume, not once but twice in a row.
Still we made it in once piece to Mazatlan on the mainland. The sea wasnÂ´t too bad either, as the hurricane had fizzled out into a tropical storm. The tailend of this storm soon reached us and we spent the first 2 days in Mazatlan sheltering from the torrential rain or wading through the streets. Mazatlan had a nice old town and some pleasant beaches. ItÂ´s also an old resort town and there are still lots of americans who go there on package holidays. On the last day we took a bus into the designated tourist zone, which was like a mini american enclave with huge hotels lining the beach. While shaking our heads at the artificiality of it all I think we secretly wished we could be staying there for a few days.
From Mazatlan we spent an elongated travelling day to get to San Blas, a small fishing village further down the coast. While changing buses in Tepic we encountered the by now familiar Mexican phenomenon of “un momento”, accompanied by the holding up of the finger and thumb, to indicate a short wait. On an almost daily basis someone has given us the “un momento” sign – waiting seems to be the national occupation. The momento can be any length of time – when changing bus we were on our way to buy a ticket when an official asked us if we were going to San Blas, and told us to stand and wait in the boiling sunshine as the bus would be there in “un momento”. After 10 minutes, when his back was turned, we escaped to the shade of the ticket office and on buying a ticket found out that the bus wasnÂ´t coming for another 35 minutes. Un momento indeed.
We arrived late in San Blas and checked into the nearest cheap hotel, which unfortunately didnÂ´t have aircon. Ever since weÂ´d gone south from Tijuana it had got hot. Very hot, in fact. After a hot-tempered sleepless night Christiane demanded that we find a nicer place to stay. I aquiesced and we splashed out (if 15 pounds a night can be called that) on a very nice place with a swimming pool, and did very little for the next 3 days but lounge around. Except that I was determined to go on a jungle boat ride which the guidebook had highly recommended. This being Mexico, it took numerous enquiries to find out how to arrange this, but after a couple of wild goose chases in the midday sun we finally got on a boat and set off into the “jungle”. Now IÂ´m not really clear on what constitutes a jungle, but I was pretty much expecting something from the old Tarzan movies, you know, natives swinging from vines, monkeys howling in the trees, that kind of thing. So I was pretty disappointed that this so-called jungle seemed to consist of a few trees growing out of the river and the odd strange-looking bird or two. Still, you live and learn.
From San Blas it was another bus ride to Puerto Vallarta, where we are now. Puerto Vallarta is a well-to-do tropical holiday destination with a lot of middle-aged american tourists and expats. Which might not sound good, but itÂ´s very beautiful and a nice last stop on the coast, for we head inland tomorrow to Guadalajara. Inland in Mexico means uphill and IÂ´m very much looking forward to escaping the heat. And hopefully also leaving behind another problem. After my once-prided constutition took a battering in China, since entering Mexico IÂ´ve been dreading the onset of the old MontezumaÂ´s revenge. Ironic perhaps, then, that a couple of days ago I should find myself suffering the opposite problem. After fruitlessly trying the old remedies of coffee, alcohol, etc, we sought out a pharmacist and managed to procure the necessary medication. (Fortunately she spoke some English which removed the need for some embarrassing miming). With hindsight, given that IÂ´ve never taken anything like that before, perhaps I shouldnÂ´t have taken the maximum dose all at once. Although my problem was almostly instantly solved, in the last 24 hours IÂ´ve had to become fluent in asking for the toilet in Spanish. Ah, the joys of travelling…
October the 15th 2006
It seems like an age now, but 5 weeks ago we arrived in Vancouver. I’d heard nothing but good things about the place, which always makes me curious as to what the fuss is about but also slightly suspicious. The city itself I thought was nothing particularly special, rather it’s the spectacular surroundings that make it. We spent a week there, mostly in the mountains, the forests, or relaxing on the beaches. It also has certainly the best city park I’ve ever been to, and definitely the friendliest and most helpful bus drivers.
The same could not be said of Vancouver Island, where the first bus driver met my obviously inaudible English accent by shouting at me “I’m not a m***** f****** mindreader”. Maybe he just had a bad day. Anyway we spent 2 nights on the island in Victoria, the main city. It was worth the trip for the ferry ride alone, winding through a group of islets with seals and porpoises swimming around. I had grand plans to tour the whole island only to discover it is bigger than Ireland. Maps can be so misleading sometimes. Victoria itself was a little touristy and strangely seemed to market itself as Old England, with lots of Ye Olde Tea Shoppe and suchlike.
From Victoria we splashed out on an expensive catamaran ride directly into Seattle, which was a nice way of approaching the place. Seattle was very enjoyable, with very friendly people and a nice relaxed atmosphere. We had 3 nights there before taking our first of many Amtrak rides, to Portland. I’m a big fan of Amtrak, it’s fighting to stay alive against underfunding and the fact that the track owners make more money from freight than passengers. They treat it as more of a special trip than just a way of getting from A to B, the driver describing the things to look at, and all-glass carriages to take in the views.
We both really liked Portland, which was even more laidback than Seattle, and for strolling around was definitely the nicest place we’ve been to. After 4 days there we had a 19 hour train ride to San Francisco which was testing my liking for Amtrak. The sleeping cars were prohibitively expensive so we had to sleep the night in our seats. Unfortunately there was a mother with three young children in front and they were unprepared for the overzealous airconditioning. Every hour I’d be woken up by the youngest child crying that she was too cold. At one stage I was all for spending 10 dollars to buy her a blanket, not from any benevolent motive but just so I could get some sleep.
So we arrived in San Francisco feeling like the undead. After a fruitless afternoon trying to catch up on sleep we decided to head out and see the city. I was just beginning to relax in a nice city square when I felt something on my head. Nervously I asked Christiane to inspect and I quickly ascertained by her outburst of laughter that for the first time in my life, as far as I can recall, I’d been divebombed by a pigeon. After vainly trying to clean it off I was in an even worse mood and demanded to go for a drink. As the barmaid brought our drinks she stumbled, maybe distracted by the strange state of my hair, and whole gin and tonic was poured into my lap. At this stage we decided the only thing to do was to get drunk, and spent a strange night mixed up with some aged beat poet’s birthday party.
We spent 6 days exploring SF, including the obligatory visit to Alcatraz (actually very impressive), and enjoyed it, although perhaps not as much as I thought I would. There was a noticeable difference from Portland and Seattle – the people were less friendly, and seemed in more of a rush. The hostel we stayed in was full of 21 year olds called each other dude or man and had, like, the most awesome fun ever. Needless to say I felt about 50 and resolved not to talk to any of them throughout our stay.
Next we escaped the cities for a week. First a couple of days in Yosemite, a very impressive place, then back to the coast to Santa Cruz, and then on to Santa Barbara. From Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara we took our only greyhound ride. You certainly get all walks of american life on a greyhound bus, from the huge black guy in his underpants to the crazy longhair high on energy drinks. Give me good old Amtrak any time.
After Santa Barbara we arrived in LA. I wasn’t sure to expect from LA but it turns out all the cliches are right, at least from our experience. Neither of us were big fans (in fact Christiane downright disliked it). We barely found any area that was nice to walk around, nor any road less than 4 lanes across. It’s just not a city on any kind of humane scale. It was interesting to do the touristy things like walk down Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Strip etc. And Venice Beach on a Sunday afternoon was good – if the US has more than it’s fair share of crazy people, and LA is its crazy capital, then Venice Beach on a Sunday afternoon must be the insanity epicentre of the universe.
Just to make LA even more surreal we spent the last couple of days in LA with my Australian cousin Andrew, who runs a business with his girlfriend organising children’s parties. So we’re driving around the freeways while he’s negotiating deals over the phone with magicians, strolling clowns (there are different types of clowns apparently) and facepainters. And they have a big house on the outskirts of Pasadena with an enclosure of horses, goats, llamas, rabbits dogs, cats, tortoises, etc, which they rent out as a petting zoo. He even let us ride the tractor – we felt very honoured.
From LA we took our final Amtrak ride to San Diego, where I’m writing this from and where we’re resting before crossing into Mexico. It feels a bit like the holiday’s over and the serious stuff is about to start. We’ve enjoyed the US but I think are happy to leave. It can be quite a tiring country, and there are a lot of crazy people around. We’ve been struck by the huge homeless population – every corner in every city seems to have someone begging on it. And a lot seem to have mental issues too (I read somewhere that in the 80’s they closed down a lot of mental institutions and turfed them out onto the streets).
However, we’ve also been struck by how friendly everyone is, every journey seems to have involved a conversation with someone (some more welcome than others). It’s almost like as soon as they hear our accents they want to know where we’re from, what we’re doing here, etc. That’s when they can understand me, I’ve had a lot of unexpected problems getting myself understood. Must be my accent – the worst to comprehend me was the automated Amtrak telephone booking system (Julie), who forced me to shout ‘san francisico’ five times down the phone in my best wild west accent. Got me some funny looks from the passers-by, that’s for sure.
(This is supposed to say ‘Jack goes East’ courtesy of Babelfish).
My friend Jack has given up his job packed his bags and gone to China with his girlfriend Christiane. Below are the communications he sent to his family… (Start at the bottom)
Day 154: The End is Nigh
This is the last email as the trip nears to an end (sniff). Christiane managed to raise her swollen ankle out of bed and we managed a couple of days limping slowly around the sights of St Petersburg before our Russian visas expired and we had to take the bus to Tallinn in Estonia. The first thing that struck me about Estonia was how well-off it seemed. After Russia it felt like entering some kind of futuristic civilisation. It knocked any pre-conceived notions I had about Eastern Europe straight out of my head.
We only stayed in Tallinn for 2 nights. The Old Town was nice, and we’d planned on staying longer but the place was heaving with tourists. By this time we’d come to feel much superior to your average citybreaker and didn’t fancy lowering ourselves for too long. Actually the main reason was that it was frighteningly expensive. Eating out in the Old Town was like being in London. With our budget, the only option was to eat every meal in the shopping centre.
So, we packed our bags again and headed off to Parnu, reputedly Estonia’s summer playground. Christiane loves swimming and the sea but due to a combination of bad luck and other factors she hadn’t swum a stroke since Hong Kong. After much complaining, I promised her we’d fit in a short beach holiday at the Baltic, her favourite sea. Naturally, no sooner had we arrived than a depression the size of, well, the Baltic Sea, decided to join us. If anyone saw the World Athletics Championships in Helsinki they’d know what kind of weather we had for our beach holiday. Nevertheless, we had a lovely place to stay and holed ourselves up for 4 nights enjoying the delights of western cable TV. After four months where we were lucky to catch a glimpse of CNN or the interminable boredom that is BBC World, it was heaven to be able to watch American and British TV. Undubbed too, which seems to be a rarity in Europe. We even discovered an indoor water park where Christiane could splash around to her heart’s content.
From Parnu the next stop was Latvia , and Riga. I liked Riga a bit more than Tallinn. It was much bigger and had more of a proper city feel unlike Tallinn which felt a little like Toytown. But Latvia in general didn’t seem so confident and relaxed as Estonia . There is a lot of tension between Latvians and the large Russian population left over from Soviet times and everyone seemed a lot more stressed and downcast.
After two nights in Riga we went to nearby Jurmala, a series of small settlements on a long beach . There the weather finally turned and we managed some time on the beach. After three nights there we came back to Riga and stayed one more night before our bus to Vilnius in Lithuania. That night Latvia were playing Russia in a World Cup qualifier. It was supposed to be Latvia’s biggest ever game, but it was nice to see both sets of fans watching the game peacefully in bars.
The bus from Riga to Vilnius was a little stressful. The signs were there at the beginning that the driver wasn’t all there, cursing and muttering to himself. We set off, made a couple of stops on the outskirts and then were seemingly on our way. I wasn’t really paying attention, but after a while I looked up and we seemed to be nearing the centre of another city. I was just consulting the map to ascertain where we were when Christiane pointed out the bus station we had left an hour and a half ago. Soon the whole bus realised and the air was thick with mutinous feelings. One American guy marched to the front to ask what was going on, only to be met with a guffaw and the answer “Free Excursion in Riga!”. I could only assume we had got lost, as we didn’t stop but just headed back out of town.
Perhaps aware of the passengers’ annoyance at the delay, the driver then proceeded to drive like a maniac to make up time. Things came to a head when he got to close to an oncoming vehicle while overtaking and his wing mirror flew into the side window, shattering it and showering the people at the front in glass. He carried on like nothing had happened but people were getting angry and he stopped at the next service station. I think seeing the blood on his cheek made him clam down a bit as the rest of the journey wasn’t too bad.
Nevertheless we arrived in Vilnius two hours late at around 9 pm. We went straight to the hotel only to be told that they hadn’t received our confirmation email and all the rooms had been taken. Fortunately, after some ringing around they found us a room in another hotel which turned out to be very pleasant. We then spent 5 nights in Vilnius and I quickly decided it was one of my favourite places. It had the same beauty as Tallinn and Riga but with a quirky nature, (for some unexplained reason it has the only Frank Zappa statue in the world), and there weren’t so many stag parties around. I would highly recommend it to anyone.
From Vilnius we took the train to Warsaw, and it felt like the trip was coming to an end as Warsaw would be the last new place we’d visit. The train ride was a tortuous 9 hours and we had got out of the habit of long journeys. Fortunately for me I’d just started a trashy thriller novel which got me hooked and I couldn’t put it down. I got through 500 pages in the journey (if anyone has a long journey ahead I can recommend David Baldacci’s The Winner). Christiane, on the other had, was terribly bored and kept pestering me to entertain her, to no avail.
We had one day in Warsaw for some brief exploration. It was nicer than I had expected. For some reason I thought it would be grim and industrial. Our exploration didn’t get very far, however, as I demanded the afternoon be spent in a bar drowning my sorrows at having to spend the next fortnight with ChristianeÂ´s family.
The next day we caught the early fast train to Berlin and on to Waren where Herr & Frau Luck picked us up. The weekend was spent at a Center Parcs near Hamburg for the annual family gathering. Everything passed smoothly enough and I did my usual smiling, miming and pretending to understand German. As usual I vowed to myself to learn more German back home â€“ maybe this time I’ll actually carry it out. We lost in the annual football challenge (Christiane’s dad’s side of the family versus his brother’s side) â€“ again. The teams were clearly unfair. I was virtually playing by myself. Honestly.
Since then we’ve been at her parents’ house relaxing, sunbathing and generally doing nothing (although I’ve given myself the depressing task of writing my CV and emailing it out). Tomorrow we go to Berlin where Ma Fisher will join us before on the 16th we jet back to home and real life. Hurrah.
Anyway enough of all this blah blah blah nonsense. Time for the result of this summer’s most eagerly awaited sporting event (although I hear there’s some cricket matches attracting a lot of attention back in Blighty): the Big Rummy Challenge.
And so, after innumerable hours and miles on the train, the final score is: Christiane 27728 Jack 29085
Which means Christiane is the winner. In fact, except for a thirty minute spell on a train approximately 3500 km from Moscow, I have been trailing since the 19th of April. In my defence, since St Petersburg Christiane had refused to play, claiming the game was boring. Very bloody convenientâ€¦â€¦â€¦.
Day 102: Russian Around
Thought I’d send an update of where we’ve been since leaving Mongolia. From Ulaan Baatar we caught the train to Irkutsk, our first stop in Russia. We were nice and relaxed as we arrived at the train station a
good 50 minutes before the 1930 departure – or so we thought. We’d bought the ticket before going on our jeep trip, and it turned out that in the intervening 2 weeks the powers that be had decided to change the timetable. None of the train officials seemed very surprised by this. Fortunately the guy who ran the hostel had given us a lift and he ascertained what was going on and managed to hold the train for us. So it turned out alright in the end.
Irkutsk was a quiet laidback kind of city, with lots of wooden houses which we’d get used to seeing in Siberia. The first thing I noticed from walking around was that everyone was drinking. Just walking down the street, any time of day, male, female, old or young, most people had a can or bottle in hand. The street alcohol vendors were doing a roaring trade. We also got an early lesson in how to do business Russian-style. I was stood waiting at the post office in desperation for someone to serve me while they milled around behind the counter chatting and looking disdainfully at me, when another guy came in. Immediately one girl called the postmistress who rushed over while the guy pulled two huge bars of chocolate from under his jacket and handed them over. It was service with a smile from then on.
We spent one day and night in Irkutsk then took an 8 hour bus journey to Olkhon Island on Lake Baikal. Baikal is the largest lake in the world – apparently it contains 20% of the world’s fresh water. Interesting fact. The island has no electricity or running water (although I believe in a matter of days this will no longer be the case – ‘switch-on’ day was being hotly anticipated by the islanders).
We spent 7 nights there in a strange collection of wooden huts and cabins that an ex-Russian table tennis champion called Nikita had built. We spent the whole time doing virtually nothing. Playing table tennis and swimming in the freezing lake was about as energetic as it got. When it came to mealtimes we walked 20 paces to the cafe/restaurant where all meals were provided. Even at lunchtime we were given a packed lunch, which reminded me of a PGL holiday. I must say that we did stay a bit too long. Even the staff were wondering what we were doing with ourselves – all the other guests were rushing around on excursions and we just hung around. After a week we felt fully refreshed and headed back to Irkutsk where we treated ourselves to an expensive Italian meal, where it was a bit disconcerting to be frisked with a metal detector on entry. I presumed it was the restaurant of choice for the local mafiosi.
After another 2 nights in Irkutsk we caught our next train, to Krasnoyarsk (we’d decided to break up the mammoth train journey by stopping somewhere roughly every 24 hours). Krasnoyarsk was a pleasant
enough city. There were marginally less people drinking, which I put down to their installation of speakers on every street playing mood music all day. It was quite soothing strolling around to instrumental versions of George Michael hits. After one night there our next stop was Yekaterinburg. Another nice place, except Christiane was feeling a bit under the weather at this point. One night there, and on the train again to Vladimir, a nice old Golden Ring town not far from Moscow. We treated ourselves to 2 nights there, then took a short train ride to Moscow where we arrived last Tuesday.
The first thing we felt on arriving in Moscow was that it was nice to be in a big city again. We spent 5 nights there taking in the sights. St Basils Cathedral was our favourite. The inside of the metro stations are also very impressive, like tourist attractions in themselves. They are also built twice as deep as most metros, and to compensate for this the escalators run twice as fast. This was terrifying for Christiane whose aversion to heights also covers escalators. Many’s the time I’ve stood behind her imploring her to get on with it while she stands with her foot hovering over the first step, while queues are forming behind us. This time she adopted the eyes-shut technique which seemed to work okay.
In Moscow I decided that we could loosen the purse strings a little as I needed to treat myself to soothe the pain of my impending departure from my twenties. Joining the Russians in their non-stop drinking seemed to be the best way. Anyway the day came and Christiane treated me like a king (or Tsar?) for the day, which was nice. I had champagne and birthday cake for breakfast, went on a nice river cruise, then a night out in the evening. One hungover day later and we were catching the night train to St Petersburg, where we are now.
We were both looking forward to St Petersburg but unfortunately haven’t seen that much of it since arriving here on Monday. After freshening up, the first time we ventured out of the apartment Christiane, in her enthusiasm for seeing everything, managed to throw herself down the stairs and ended up with a balloon-like ankle. So she has been confined to quarters since with an icepack for company while I play nursemaid. We’re hoping she’ll be able to get out more tomorrow.
We’re almost done with train journeys now. It was certainly an interesting experience. The first thing I noticed was that it was surprising how quickly the time went. I remember from trains from Manchester to London or Reading that the 3-4 hours can sometimes feel like forever, but when you know you’ll be on here for over a day the same length of time can go by in a flash. I think it helps that you can stretch out on your own bed, and take a walk to the restaurant car. The main problem I had was sleeping well – for a variety of reasons I only slept well on a few journeys.
The other thing we realised was that it mattered a lot what kind of cabin-mates we had. On the Chinese internal trains the compartments were open plan so it wasn’t so important, but on the Trans-Mongolian
trains it was four to each closed compartment. On the first train, from Beijing to Ulaan Baatar, we just had one Chinese guy, although he had a mate who would come in and play cards with him in his underpants. They were nice and insisted on giving us all their food. It was a bit embarassing as we couldn’t really offer anything back. Except when one of them wanted to cut his nails, and asked if we had any nailclippers. Christiane tried to hide her look of horror as she then had to watch her clippers being handed round the train for all to use. They’ve been boiled pretty well since.
From Ulaan Baatar to Irkutsk we also just had one guy, a Russian who looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was so serious-looking he scared me. He was also the loudest snorer I’ve ever
heard (whatever he was worried about it certainly didn’t stop him sleeping well) and gave me the most sleepless night of all. But he did help to guide us through the interminable Russian border procedures.
From Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk we had a mother and small child, who kept us entertained. So far so good, until the Krasnoyarsk-Yekaterinburg leg. We boarded in the morning, midway through the train’s journey and our two cabin-mates, two young soldiers on military leave, were already there. They were quiet as mice during the day and we were nice and relaxed until they befriended another young soldier called Max who
then made our compartment his home. Things were fine enough until the evening when the drinking session got into full swing. Christiane was on the top bunk so she could escape a little but I had to sit there
until the small hours when all I wanted to do was go to sleep. Russian hospitality dictates that it’s very difficult to refuse which is all well and good but after having a beer thrust at me for the tenth time and ordered to drink I was longing for some British reserve. Finally relief came at about 1 am when the carriage attendant looked in to tell them to keep the noise down, must have noticed my pleading eyes and asked me if I wanted to sleep. The attendants are not to be trifled with (they can withdraw toilet priveleges) and with some reluctance Max withdrew and the party came to an end. Even then, after I was all tucked in, he came back in, grabbed me by the shoulders, as was his wont, shouted “John, John” (for some reason he always called me John), “Beer! Cool!”, his catchphrase for the evening. What made the whole thing worse was that he’d persuaded me to swap Christiane’s favourite Abbey Road pen (when you turn it upside down the Beatles walk across the zebra crossing) for his crummy ladbrokes style biro. She wasn’t pleased when she found that out the next day.
After that we were a bit concerned about the next leg, from Yekaterinburg to Vladimir, and when we got on to find two more soldiers in the cabin I though a repeat was going to happen. However I needn’t have worried. One guy just slept all the time while the other, a minesweeper (if that’s the right term), was one of the nicest people we met. He couldn’t speak English but with the aid of the phrasebook, and mime, we had several conversations and at the end he presented us with a gift he’d bought from one of the station vendors. We were a bit embarassed as we had nothing to give in return (that bloody Abbey Road pen might have sufficed) but Christiane had the bright idea of getting his address so we can send something from home.
On Saturday our visas are up and we leave Russia for Tallinn, then we’ll be hopping down the Baltic States on our way to Germany. Feels a bit like we’re on our way home now, in fact ever since we crossed our first time zone in Siberia it’s felt a bit that way. Maybe I can persuade Christiane there’s nothing left to see and I can make it home for the start of the football season. There’s always hope…….
Hope all are well,
Day 77: Mongolia
I’m writing this from Ulaan Baatar, apparently the coldest capital in the world, although it’s sweltering in this internet cafe. Last time I wrote we had just arrived in Beijing where we spent our last ten days in China. Beijing was quite hard work as a city, and we were pretty exhausted and ready to leave China by the time we got on the train to Mongolia. The sheer scale of the city took us by surprise, and the heat and humidity didn’t help. But I was impressed with its sense of awe – standing in Tian’men Square under Mao’s portrait with the sun beating down was intimidating in a good kind of way.
We did most of the prerequisite tourist sights: the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Great Wall etc. We both found the Forbidden City a bit average, although my experience was enriched by
forking out an extra 40 yuan to have Roger Moore guide me round. It was with some reluctance that I parted with the audio handset at the end – I was quite keen to have Sir Roger’s dulcet tones continue to
guide me through life in general. A lot of the buildings were closed to renovation, I guess with the Olympics in mind. That wasn’t the last time this would happen.
One of the unexpected highlights was a trip to an acrobatics show we decided to do at the last minute. I wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea, but the acrobats were amazing. The contortionists in particular
made my eyes water. By the end I declared to Christiane that I was going to become an acrobat myself, but she told me that I wasn’t allowed and I should stop being so silly. Also good was the night market, where countless food stalls set up to ply their wares. It was amusing to watch the local youths have macho contests to see how many skewers of scorpions they could eat. But the best thing we did in Beijing for me was the trip to the Great Wall. We ummed and aahed about how we should do it for a while because of Christiane’s aversion to heights, but in the end plumped for a trip to Simatai, an unrestored section in the hills. It being China, the 120 km journey there took 4 hours, but it was worth it. The wall was way more
impressive than I expected. There was virtually no-one there and it felt like we had this particular section to ourselves.
All the time in China I had wanted to have a Chinese massage, but had never plucked up the courage. As Beijing was our last stop I made myself do it. I was a bit concerned that if I went alone they might
misinterpret what type of massage I was after, so I dragged Christiane along and made her wait for me. I’d never had a massage before in my life, and was kind of expecting to lie there and relax while the masseur (who was blind â€“ apparently all the best masseurs are) gently rubbed away my worries. It was therefore quite a nasty surprise the first time he sunk his elbow into by shoulder blades. Several times during one of the longest thirty minutes of my life I had to bite my fingers to stop myself screaming in pain. I’m not sure if it did me any good or not â€“ someone told me afterwards that a good massage should hurt, in which case I think I had the best massage in the world.
After ten days we said goodbye to China and boarded the train to Ulaan Baatar. I think we were both ready to leave â€“ China is quite a tiring place to be after a while. I remember reading in the Lonely Planet early on in our trip how travellers could sometimes get frustrated and angry with some of the more unpleasant aspects of Chinese life like staring and spitting, and remarking to Christiane how I couldn’t imagine that happening to us and how it was all part of the experience. Well after 11 weeks we could empathise with them a bit. I have fond memories of each individual destination, but no great warm feeling for China as a whole.
The train journey to Mongolia was the first part of our Trans-Mongolian railway journey. It was supposedly more luxurious than Chinese internal trains as we were in four-berth compartments which
were individually lockable, as opposed to six-berth open compartments. However, we had the misfortune to get the only non-air-conditioned carriage. Instead each compartment was equipped with a fan â€“ but ours
was the only one in the carriage that worked. This meant that we were treated to the disturbing sight of several Chinese men stripped down to their underpants in an attempt to keep cool. They weren’t shy
either â€“ when we made a lengthy station stop they would happily of strolling up and down the platform and popping into the shops in nothing but a pair of boxers. I could forgive them though as the two
guys sharing our compartment insisted on keeping us well fed throughout the trip. They openly laughed at our meagre rations of pot noodles and crackers, and plied us with homemade goodies instead.
The only downside to the journey was the presence of a middle-aged American guy in the neighbouring compartment. At first we found him friendly enough and had lunch together in the restaurant car, but just
an hour in his company was exhausting. After a while I knew his entire life story, each chapter more exciting and far-fetched that the rest. Any conversation soon turned to a one-way monologue. It was with some relief that we parted when the train arrived in Ulaan Baatar (or so we thoughtâ€¦â€¦)
We were quite excited to arrive in a new country after so long in China, but our initial experience wasn’t a pleasant one. I foolishly decided against taking a taxi from the station and we spent far too long walking around in the midday heat looking for the bank so I could get some money. By the time we’d managed it and headed to the hostels we found they were all full, as our fellow train passengers hadn’t been so stingy and had beaten us to the rooms. Finally we found a bed in the apartment of Bolod, a local tour-fixer. It was nice talking to him and his wife about their lives in Mongolia. We knew we had around 2 weeks in Mongolia and I had expected to travel around independently like in China, but we soon realised that this wasn’t practical and the done thing was instead to hire a jeep. After one day trying to work out what we could do, I was a bit overwhelmed by the options and upon waking the next morning pleaded with christiane to sort it all out for me. Fortunately she accepted the challenge with aplomb. At lunchtime
we finally found a trip we wanted to go on from a guesthouse, and for a reasonable price. However the price would come down a lot if we could find fellow passengers, and also we thought it would be more fun
with others. Then followed a stressful afternoon and evening. First we went round guesthouses and cafes and Christiane left notes and took down details of people interested in doing similar trips, then she emailed a few people, and at 4 we went back to the guesthouse to see if anyone was interested. No-one turned up, so we had accepted that we were going alone and were going over the details with the organiser, when an Israeli-French couple who we had emailed turned up. After a few minutes chatting they seemed really nice, and said that they might be interested but that they had to think about it and would email us before 7 with a decision. We were really hoping that they would say yes, and it was with some nervousness that we checked our email later on. The answer was yes, and we happily headed back over to the guesthouse feeling pleased with ourselves for having sorted everything out so well.
When we got there we met Moti and Karen again and then the organiser guy surprised us by saying he had found a fifth person to come. Okay, I thought, the more the merrier, and we went into the kitchen to meet
him. Who should be sitting there but the American from the train. My memory of the next few seconds is a little hazy. He said something like, “Wow, this is great” and joked about whether we could stand another 12 days with him. I just started laughing nervously and said ‘of course’, but fortunately Christiane couldn’t hide her feelings so well and just let out a small “nooooooooooo” and kept repeating “12 days, not 12 daysâ€¦.”. At this point I decided it would be best if we stepped outside for a minute. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen then but the other two came out too and said that they were with us, and that they had heard him before from outside and weren’t keen. That was a relief, and then the organiser came out and we explained about the train and he said not to worry, and that he had another trip he could put him on.
In a daze, we then sorted out the details and headed off for a much-needed drink before packing our bags and attempting to get some sleep. The next morning we set off for the trip, the four of us in the back of an old Russian van with our driver, Altai. For both of us the next 12 days were easily the highlight of our trip so far, although for me it didn’t start so well. After the first day we pitched out tents near some sand dunes and settled in as the hot day turned to freezing night. At about 1.30 I woke up wanting to be sick. In my
stupor, I climbed out of the tent, grabbed the torch and headed outside. I already knew the tents were surrounded by wild dogs, and was suddenly aware of several strange other animal noises. I switched
the torch on and was swiftly covered in mosquitoes, at which point I beat a hasty retreat to the tent. I holed myself up there for the rest of the night being sick and generally feeling very sorry for myself. I never get ill at home and it’s four times now over here. To think I used to pride myself on my ox-like constitution.
At the worst point I was assuming that we would have to travel back to the capital and cancel the trip, but as the next day wore on I stopped being sick and quickly recovered, and we continued on. Mongolia is an
amazing country, the least densely populated country in the world with no land ownership, so you can drive and camp wherever you want. Beforehand I had imagined that the nomadic lifestyle was just practised by a few people, but outside of the capital almost everyone lives in gers (white felt tents) and herds animals. Some nights we camped, but most of the time we stayed in gers. We got on really well with Moti and Karen and it was with some sadness that towards the end we went our separate ways in the town of Moron, as they had more time in Mongolia to continue their trip westwards. I can’t really do it justice by writing about it so I won’t describe the places we went.
We arrived back in Ulaan Baatar late on Tuesday, exhausted after 2 days of continuous driving. After surviving on mutton in the countryside we treated ourselves last night to bangers & mash and apple crumble in Dave’s Place, where there were a few expats celebrating London’s olympic win. Since then have been trying to prepare and organise for Russia. Our train leaves this evening for Irkutsk. We’ll both miss Mongolia, even here in Ulaan Baatar which is hardly a pretty place, but has a kind of soul that seemed missing in a lot of China.
Hope all are well,
ps/ My publisher Simon’s wife has rather selfishly decided to give
birth, so I guess he might not be able to add this to his website
quite as promptly as before. But anyway please check
http://heidisimon.com/wordpress/?page_id=33 for the whole trip to
date. And congratulations to them both, I suppose.
Day 55: Shanghai’d
I think I last emailed from Xi’an, which was nicer than I expected. I
thought the only reason to go there would be the Terracotta Warriors,
but the atmosphere was quite nice and the food was the best we’d had
in China. I’m not sure what I thought about the warriors – I guess I
was neither disappointed nor wowed. I had a sense of being there
because we kind of had to. For once I had to agree with Christiane’s
‘seen one warrior, seen them all’ theory (she substitutes warrior for
temple/museum/city etc as required). We have no pictures either
because the new batteries I persuaded Christiane to buy for 1 yuan
from a discount shop ran out after taking one photo. Serves me right
for yuan-pinching I suppose. Mind you there were signs everywhere
saying ‘no photos’ (not that this ever makes any difference to the
chinese – apparently there is also a ‘no spitting’ law), and maybe the
warriors are still fulfilling their tomb-protecting duties.
From Xi’an we caught another sleeper train to Shanghai. Shanghai was
totally different to anything we’d seen before in China. It’s hard to
describe – kind of a cross between Hong Kong and London (or, more
probably, Paris). We stayed in the foreign students dormitory at the
Conservatory of Music. The upside to this was the lovely setting in
the middle of the old French Concession area – the downside was that
we were subjected to the neighbouring students practising their
‘instruments’. I don’t think much of it as a seat of learning if the
noises we heard were anything to go by. Anyway, we spent a pleasant
few days wandering the leafy avenues and admiring the view from the
Bund and its old colonial buildings. We also took advantage of the
high level of westernisation by plucking up the courage to have our
hair cut. I was slightly intimidated by the up-market salon, but felt
strangely more relaxed after the assistant who washed my hair offered
to clean out my ears with some cotton buds. Something I think English
hairdressers could take note of.
Unfortunately, Shanghai seems to suffer from an attitude problem. I
almost had to admire them for their high levels of rudeness. We should
have known from the start when we entered the accomodation. After
standing there for a few minutes, the lady behind the desk finally
looked up from some very important staring at the wall business and,
with a sigh, greeted us.
“Do you have a double room for tonight?”
“With bathroom or shared bathroom?”
“What’s the difference in price?”
“Er, how much are the different rooms?”
“With bathroom or shared bathroom?”
“Okay, er, with bathroom?”
“No rooms with bathroom. Only shared bathroom.”
And so on. It was kind of a comfort to find over the next few days
that it wasn’t us being singled out, as this was definitely the norm.
The behaviour on the metro system was also quite something. The
concept that it might be easier to wait till people had got off the
train before charging on like lunatics had obviously been lost
somewhere along the line. It was quite entertaining to watch people
barging and elbowing their way on in the hope of securing a seat, then
sitting their with triumphant grins on their faces. At least it was
entertaining until I was the one being elbowed, whereupon I welled up
with indignation and lectured Christiane on how it wouldn’t have been
like this in colonial times. It was my ambition to actually get a seat
myself before we left, but sadly this went unrealised.
After Shanghai we took short train, bus, and bicycle taxi rides to the
nearby town of Xitang. This wasn’t in any guide book so we weren’t
sure what to expect, but it turned out to be a lovely water town with
ancient streets criss-crossed with canals. By the time we got there
the day-trippers had left, so we spent the evening wandering around
with just the friendly locals for company. The next day we took
another short journey to Hangzhou. When we arrived we had a hard time
locating first a bank, then some accommodation, and in the heat and
humidity tempers were rising. We were looking for the Academy of Art
foreign students dormitory – finally we found it courtesy of a very
helpful local who insisted on walking around with me until we located
it (I’ve lost count of the number of times local people have suddenly
appeared to help us when all looked lost). When we finally got into
our room we were astounded to find it was like a five star hotel. I
guess foreign art students have more expensive tastes than foreign
Hanzghou is exceedingly popular with Chinese tourists, maonly because
of the West Lake, which is indeed very picturesque. We spent 2
pleasant days hanging around the lake, generally providing
entertainment for the legions of chinese tourists who seem to find us
strangely amusing. At one point we were minding our own business sat
on a bench when one enterprising guy asked if he could take a photo of
his wife sat next to us. Fair enough, we thought, but unfortunately a
huge group happened to be passing by. You could almost see the light
bulbs lighting up above their heads simultaneously as they all had the
same idea. One by one they queued up for the seat on the coveted bench
while we had to smile for the camera. At least it gave me an
opportunity to try out a few new poses I had been working on.
After Hangzhou we took our last Chinese sleeper train to Beijing,
where we arrived on Friday. We managed to secure our onward tickets to
Ulan Bator for the 20th, so we have ten days to see what Beijing has
to offer and then we say goodbye to China and start the mammoth
Trans-Mongolian railway trip. Better make sure we’re stocked up in
books, I think……..
Hope all are well,
Day 42: When Pandas Attack!
Thought I’d do an update on where we are. From Lijiang we were
intending to take the bus and train to Chengdu, but while we were
trying to buy train tickets we found out we could fly for 600 yuan
(about 40 quid). This was twice what the bus/train would have cost,
but the thought of an hour-long flight as opposed to 10 hours on a
bumpy bus and a night on a train was enough to swing the deal.
Christiane was worried about the safety aspect (but then she always
is) but she needn’t have – it was the most modern plane either of us
had been on. So, we booked the ticket at 4.00, flew at 10.30 and
arrived in Chengdu before midnight.
Although 10 million people live there, Chengdu is a fairly laidback
city. We spent a lot of the time strolling around the parks and
sitting in the various teahouses. It (or at least the surrounding
forests of Sichuan) is also the home of the panda bear, so we made the
obligatory visit to the panda breeding & research centre. Christiane
was most excited about this – I think she wanted to pay her respects
to the only animal as dedicated to eating and sleeping as her. I have
to admit they were quite appealing creatures, although they sure don’t
move around much. The highlight of the trip came when the annoying
american in our group decided to have his photo taken while cuddling
the panda. All through the minibus ride from the hostel he was droning
on about how he was going to pay whatever it cost to get to pet a
panda. Sure enough, the chance came and he paid his 400 yuan, put on a
special white coat and sat on a bench while they brought the lucky
panda out to him. All seemed to be going swimmingly until the panda
had a sudden change of mood. Maybe the american had digged it in the
ribs one too many times, or maybe it mistook his leg for a juicy piece
of bamboo – for whatever reason, with an unprecedented burst of energy
the panda lurched over and sunk it’s teeth into the guy’s thigh. The
resulting scream was something to behold (for supposed herbivores,
pandas have surprisingly sharp teeth), and chaos ensued as the keepers
tried to regain control. In the aftermath I think one of them also got
bitten. Anyway the guy emerged from the enclosure, regained his
composure and was soon boasting about what a story he would have to
tell and how it was worth twice what he paid. We got to watch the
whole thing for free – I know who I think got the better deal.
After we’d seen all the pandas we were ushered into a cinema. With no
warning, we were treated to an extremely explicit no-holds-barred
documentary on pandas’ breeding and reproductive habits. This soon
shattered the cuddly image Christiane had of them. In fact, only a few
hours after the trip I succumbed to illness again, and I held the
video to blame. Anyway, I was under the weather for a couple of days
but after a period of convalesence spent sipping tea (I fear I have
become addicted to chinese tea) was well enough to hit the road again.
Christiane had decided she wanted to get off the beaten track for a
while, so we decided to head south from Chengdu for a few days. The
area was only mentioned in one guide book so we figured it might fit
the bill. First stop was Zigong. The book had described it as south
west China’s best-kept secret. I can only assume this meant that it
was best for people who hadn’t been there that it was kept a secret.
That’s being a bit uncharitable, but it was certainly a gritty kind of
place. We had a cockroach in the room, which was a first. It also
claimed the record for the most number of “hello”s. We must have
clocked up at least a hundred in the first hour. We soon realised that
Christiane had got her wish. No-one could speak English, nothing was
written in English, and as our chinese consists of hello, thankyou and
sorry this was a little problematic. Fortunately we had our
phrasebook, but that doesn’t help the understand what they say back.
(Something I’ve noticed is that the Chinese have no imagination when
it comes to communication – if I don’t understand they just look at me
and repeat the words over and over again. No attempts at miming,
nothing. They obviously don’t play charades at christmas).
We spent 2 nights in Zigong but the attraction there is the dinosaur
museum. By some geological coincidence hundreds of dinosaur carcasses
got washed up in the area and were discovered about 30 years ago. So
there is a museum where they’ve assembled the bones to recreate the
movements, and also you can see some of the current excavation area. I
was surprised at how impressive it was to see these things. Maybe I am
a secret dinosaur buff.
After Zigong we took some buses to get us to the Bamboo Sea. This is a
huge forest of bamboo which covers valleys and mountains for miles and
miles. It’s been developed as a tourist attraction so we paid our
entrance fee on the bus and got turfed out at the tiny village at one
end of the ‘sea’. The book had said that tourism had slowed here
outside of high season. They were not exaggerating – the place was
deserted. We bagged ourselves a room in an empty 4-star hotel for
halfprice and settled in for the night. The next morning we awoke to
rain. Fortunately it cleared by the time we set out but the mist was
hanging everywhere. We set off walking through the forest and soon
came to a cable car station. Suddenly about 4 attendants were
disturbed from their slumber and leapt to attention. There surprise
seemed evident at seeing some customers. After about 10 minutes of
cranking about in the machinery they managed to get the cable cars
started, and despite our apprehension we leapt aboard and were carried
up. The ride went on forever, and the views of the bamboo sea and the
mist were amazing, until we neared the top and disappeared into the
cloud. That was rather eerie in itself. We spent the rest of the day
walking round the various parts of the forest and caught the cable car
back to the hotel.
The next day we spent five buses and 9 hours getting back to Chengdu.
After one night there we took the sleeper train to Xi’an. The train
was half-empty and fairly uneventful, save for a monk who seemed to
take a particular interest in me. I guess he must have recognised me
as a fellow spiritual soul. We arrived in Xi’an two days ago. When we
got to the hostel and the guy found out that I was english, he started
going on about how we’d just had a football festival and how great it
was that England had beaten Italy. I didn’t have a clue what he was
going on about until he showed me the paper with Liverpool on the
front. I’ve been surprised my how nice Xi’an is, for some reason I
wasn’t expecting it. It helps that we have a lovely room right in the
centre. We’re off to see the terracotta warriors tomorrow, then
hopefully will get a train to Shanghai on Monday.
Hope all are well,
Day 33: The Gorge
Sorry it’s been a while since the last update. Once we had recovered
from our respective ailments, we took the bus from Kunming to Dali.
Dali was apparently once a sleepy backwater frequented by backpackers
– not any more, as we found. From the moment we arrived we were
harassed by touts trying to ply their wares. One guy in particular
would pounce on me wherever I was in the town to point at some loose
stitching on my trainers. I assume he was a shoemender and not just an
interested dogooder, but either way I was getting very paranoid.
However, once we learned to ignore them we had a pleasant stay. The
town has mountains on one side and a huge lake on the other, and the
scenery was beatiful. We spent a couple of days taking cable cars into
the mountains, another on a boat tour of the lake, another venturing
out into neighbouring villages, just relaxing in general. We arrived
on a Thursday and on the Sunday came Labour day which, as we had been
forewarned by the Shanghai couple on the train, was the start of
China’s Golden Week when the whole nation embarks on holiday. They had
been quite forthright in telling us to avoid Dali and, in particular,
Lijiang during the Golden week. Sure enough, the place was invaded by
Chinese tourists and their cameras. However, it wasn’t as busy as we
had thought and we set off to Lijiang on the following Wednesday
optimistic of finding a cheap room there.
After arrival in Lijiang our optimism had evaporated. Firstly we
realised why it was supposed to be the busiest place. It has a
beautiful old town full of cobbled streets and little canals, a bit
meditteranean in feel. The first places we checked were on the
outskirts of the old town and we were quoted 200 yuan for a room. Not
much in UK terms (about 12 pounds) but after paying around 60-80 it
seemed a lot. Anyway, Christiane was convinced we could find a rooms
cheaper elsewhere and, for some reason blessed with an alarming amount
of energy, she made us tour the entire town looking for a cheaper
room. After 2 hours of increasing prices, and increasing volume of my
moaning, and we returned back to the start and found a room in tiny
family-run place where we caused great excitement as seemingly the
first foreigners to stay.
After three days fighting through the crowds in Lijiang we decided to
set off for the Tiger Leaping Gorge. We were both a little
apprehensive about this, partly because of Christiane’s vertigo and
partly because after some days of eating, drinking and lazing around
we felt a little out of shape. Anyway, we took an interesting 3 hour
bus ride to Qaiotou, where the gorge trek starts. We were the only
passengers on the bus so at the last minute the driver decided to
invite his famliy along for the ride. The drive through the mountains
was punctuated regularly by stops so they could buy fruit, take
packages on board for friends etc. The views were lovely though so we
didn’t mind. We spent the night in Qaiotou, a one-horse town
(literally, probably), so we could get an early start in the morning.
We both had a broken night’s sleep that night, Christiane because she
was nervous about the heights on the trek, and me because I had no way
of finding out Oldham’s fate in their crucial relegation-decider.
Anyway we set off on the Sunday morning armed with a bag of provisions
and a map kindly given to us by Margo the mad Australian who had also
made us breakfast in the local cafe. The first morning of the hike was
fantastic, walking through fields and terraces, with snow-capped
mountains up above, climbing steadily but without any scary drops. The
map had estimated times on it, and we soon realised that we had to
double their estimations to allow for our slow pace. Anyway we arrived
in a village at lunchtime and joined an Israeli woman and French man
for a spot of lunch. Of course, they had set off 30 minutes behind us
and had arrived for lunch 30 minutes ahead. This we would get used to.
Suitably fed and watered we set off for the next section, described as
the 28 bends, which the guide said was the most strenuous part. After
an hour or so of walking, we said to ourselves that it wasn’t too bad,
and we seemed to have gone through about 20 of these bends. After
turning one corner, however, we realised that what we had thought were
bends were mere deviations compared to the near vertical set of
hairpin bends we saw above us. Anyway, summoning up all our energy, we
managed to get to the top with only a few moments of panic from
Christiane. On the following descent, however, I soon realised that
going down was worse for vertigo than going up. That we were both
exhausted from the climb at this point probably didn’t help earlier.
Inch by inch we managed to get down, with Christiane alternating
between calling me every name under the sun (it helps, apparently) and
repeating the mantra ‘one foot in front of the other’ to herself.
Finally, at around 6.30, we came to a tiny village on the mountainside
where we knew was a guesthouse that we could stay at. We got ourselves
a bed for the night and retired to the terrace for a beer where we
enjoyed the crazy views of the mountain tops directly opposite. After
about half an hour three more backpackers arrived, an English girl,
and two Canadian and French guys. We were a little embarrassed when
they said they’d set off at 2.30 that afternoon, a mere 5 1/2 hours
after us. Anyway, after an convivial evening of chat we retired for
I woke the next morning with a hangover, which was hardly good
preparation for another day of hiking, but nevertheless the sun was
shining and we knew we were roughly halfway, so we set off in good
heart. After about an hour of following the mountainside we came
across a local woman lying by the side of the path. I thought she was
dead at first, but she managed to lift her head and look at us with
wild eyes. We were a little shocked, but Christiane poured her bottle
of our water and left her my packet of biscuits and we resolved to
walk on and get help. Soon after we passed two more woman lying on a
rock. We tried to communicate to them about the other woman, but soon
realised from their blank eyes and strange behaviour that we weren’t
getting anywhere. At this point we both concluded that all three woman
had perhaps been enjoying some of the local herbs which were dotted on
the hillside, and hurried on. (Later we spoke to some people who had
passed them later and they said the first woman was up and about –
which made me most annoyed had having given away all my biscuits). We
then arrived at another settlement, where we had lunch at another
guesthouse. They were more trekkers there, all of whom had overtaken
us at some point. Two americans had passed us the previous day when
Christiane had been having her worst panic moment, clinging to the
ground for dear life, and so her fear of heights soon became common
knowledge. I think all the attention helped a little.
After lunch we set off and came across a track which took us down from
the high trail, which we had been following, to the low trail which
had been made into a road. As the track was wide enough for cars, and
we had heard that the descent waiting for us on the high trail was a
little hairy, we decided to follow it down and continue on the low
road. At about 6.00 we finally came to our destination, Walnut Grove,
where we found a room at Sean’s guesthouse. Sean was a very laid-back
tibetan guy who was married to Margo the mad australian. Sean’s was a
sociable place with a huge terrace facing the mountains where we spent
an enjoyable evening chatting to the guests of various nationalities.
Christiane’s vertigo had by this time become a talking point and all
the attention was definitely going to her head at this point.
The next morning we took a nightmare bus ride along the low road back
to Margo’s where we had left our backpacks and, together with the
Israeli and Frenchman, took a bus from there up to Zhongdian, which
was a Tibetan town not far from the border with Tibet proper. The
altitude was about 3300 m, and we were very breathless and unable to
walk anywhere. At least that was the excuse we had for not doing much.
We spent 3 days there in the nicest hostel yet, really nozy and run by
friendly people. Bizarrely, virtually all the people we had met at
Sean’s guesthouse previously arrived there at various points, and we
hung around playing cards etc. I relearnt how to play mahjong
(disappointingly, instead of being the mystical eastern game of my
memory it turns out to be rummy with tiles) – and won, which was
fortunate as the table wasn’t big enough to tie my shoelaces under.
Most people were heading into Tibet at this point but we’d had enough
of the altitude and scary bus rides so yesterday we took a bus back to
Lijiang. It had been interesting to see the Tibetan people in
Zhongdian (scary men with cowboy hats and knives, and colourfully
dressed women and children), but most of the people seemed a little
insane, with wild eyes and crazy grins. We’re spending one more night
here to relax before undertaking a mammoth journey tomorrow to
Chengdu, in Sichuan – 8 hours by bus, followed by a night and day on a
We’ll be sorry to leave Yunnan province after 3 1/2 weeks, it’s
populated mainly by minority groups (Lijiang here is a Naxi town, and
Naxi people live in a matriarchal society, which Christiane likes very
much – hence we’re leaving tomorrow before she gets any funny ideas)
and it’s been fascinating to see the differences between the people,
who are all very relaxed and friendly. Anyway I’ll write again soon
ps/ sorry if this is a bit longwinded, but I’ve just finished reading
my first Thomas Hardy novel and it’s put me in a very sombre mood.
Day 20: Illness strikes
Well, I guess it had to happen sometime. After almost three weeks of
no stomach complaints I obviously got a bit complacent. Having had
enough of the tame southern cuisine I ordered a sichuanese style dish
in pepper oil. It was quite possible the hottest thing I’ve ever
tasted, but my pride made me endure it until the plate was empty. The
result: a rude awaking early Monday morning by my stomach, and a day
confined to my bed and the bathroom. Christiane had also been getting
steadily ill over the weekend and we both spent the day in a feverish
comatose state. We were supposed to get the bus that day to Dali, but
we’ve postponed it twice and we now leave tomorrow, health permitting.
So, we’ve now been in Kunming for almost a week and spent most of it
within 100 yards of the hostel. At least it gave us time to get a
healthy start in what we intend to be the longest game of rummy (or
romme, as Christiane insists I call it) since records began. (At the
moment I trail by 30 points, but I’m confident I can claw that back in
the next 19 weeks). Anyway from what we’ve seen, Kunming is a very
nice city. Not particularly chinese, more international, but lots of
open space and a nice atmosphere.
We left Yangshuo a week ago, after four wet days. Of course, on the
day we left it was beautiful blue skies, but we’d already booked our
train tickets so off we went. We took the bus to nearby Guilin
(another nice-looking city – I was worried all Chinese cities would be
as nasty as Shenzhen so seeing Guilin and Kunming has been a nice
relief) and from there took our first long-distance train ride – 19
hours in total. It was a bit intimidating at first – we were the only
westerners in the station waiting room and the only ones in our train
compartment. Fortunately our bunks were opposite a friendly couple
from Shanghai who could speak good English and helped us out a lot
with the train etiquette.
Some random observations from our time here so far:
1. Traffic. Is basically chaos. The country roads usually have a line
down the middle but this must be arbitrary or something because it
seems like as long as you beep your horn continuously you can drive
where you like. And in the cities, the law apparently states that
drivers have to beep their horn when cyclists are near. And as the
roads are usually five deep in cyclists, this also entails continuous
horn-honking. It’s quite funny watching the bus drivers try and change
gear in record time so they don’t have to take their hand away from
the horn. Usually they don’t bother and try to climb the steepest hill
2. Spitting. Seems to be the national occupation. Everywhere you are
there’s always someone clearing his or her throat or nose. And it’s
quite a sight, and sound, to behold. I think they think it’s getting
rid of the germs. Maybe they’re right, I don’t know, but it’s
certainly not pleasant to witness. I sneezed whilst sat in the
breakfast room at the hostel here once and a waiter, who was stood
about ten yards away, immediately walked off into the kitchen where I
could hear him spit. Seems like he thought I’d infected him – either
that or he was spitting into my breakfast as revenge.
3. Staring. People seem continuously surprised to see us. Not so much
in Yangshuo where there were a lot of backpackers, but everywhere
else. And they’re not afraid to show this curiosity by staring
incessantly. I’ve tried out-staring them back but they don’t mind
that, it just seems to be encouragement. One guy nearly fell off his
bike he was staring so much. I felt a bit guilty for laughing but I
couldn’t help it. The kids find it funny to shout ‘hello’, ‘how are
you’, etc (or, in one unexpected case, ‘luverly jubberly’), then burst
out laughing. I quite like it actually, maybe it’s an attention thing.
On the whole, the people have been really nice. People are not shy of
coming up to talk to us, probably to practise their English. One guy
in the train station intently watched us playing cards, then when I
picked up the ace of spades he snatched it from my hand and ran off
with it to show his wife. I was quite concerned for a while (I needed
it for my rummy hand) but he did bring it back. Perhaps their packs of
cards don’t have aces. They are supposed to be communists after all.
Hope all are well. Off to pack my bag now for tomorrow’s bus journey,
Day 9: Things get a little bit trickier………..
After 9 days of relaxing and sightseeing in Hong Kong while we waited
for our Chinese and Russian visas, on Friday we packed up and ventured
into China proper. We took Hong Kong’s ridiculously cheap and
efficient public transport system up to the border town of Lo Wu in
the New Territories. From there you can walk across the border into
Shenzhen on the Chinese side. We managed to negotiate immigration and
headed for the bus station to see if we could find a bus to Yangshuo.
At this point we realised we’d been spoilt in HK by everything being
in English. Surrounded by various incomprehensible signs and
directions I headed for the ticket office and boldly shouted
‘Yangshuo’ at the lady. At least that’s what I thought I was shouting
– maybe I should have looked up how to pronounce it in Chinese rather
than just saying it phonetically. After an impromptu Chinese lesson
from the ticket lady, she said ‘no bus’ and gave me more
imcomprehensible directions. We were then left wandering around the
bus station futilely looking into the guidebook, when a passing local
youth took pity on us and acted as interpreter with the information
desk. After several animated conversations and mobile phone calls, he
wrote down the name of another bus station, 20 minutes drive away, in
chinese on a piece of paper and told us to show it to a taxi driver.
I was a little dubious about this, and remembered some hazy
information I’d read on the internet about a sleeper bus going from a
hotel in the town. So we disregarded his advice and headed off into
Shenzhen. Shenzhen is some kind of special economic zone with open
markets and the guidebook had warned that one consequence of this was
increased beggars and suchlike. It wasn’t wrong – and being the only
western faces around meant we were prime targets. We soon learned not
to stay still for long. At one point we had to negotiate some kind of
shoeshine obstacle course. First you had to pass through men either
side of the pavement armed with various tubes of liquid. They
frantically tried to fire their tubes at my trainers, shouting ‘one
dollar’ all the time. I almost made it, but the last guy got a huge
dollop right on top of my foot. Their work being done, we passed
immediately through into the women armed with brushes. I was
determined not to be caught and we broke into a run, and even when one
woman grabbed me round the ankle I still managed to get away. Needless
to say we avoided that particular street for the rest of the day.
Anyway we made it to the hotel, and to our relief, the internet rumour
was right and we bought our tickets for the 8.00 bus. We killed the
time in between by treating ourselves to a meal in a luxurious
restaurant (8 quid in total). The business executives didn’t look to
pleased to have two less than clean people with backpacks entering the
place, but we didn’t care.
We knew the bus journey was about 12 hours, and were a little worried
about the state of the bus. We needn’t have – it actually had proper
horizontal beds. I felt like taking a photo I was so gleefully
surprised. We settled in and I was happily getting off to sleep while
watching Pirates of the Carribbean in chinese when we turned off the
nice smooth motorway onto the local roads. Any ambitions of getting
any sleep soon disappeared as I was tossed around in bone-jarring
fashion. It didn’t help that the driver had an annoying habit of
stopping through the night at seemingly random locations and reading
his book for an hour with all the lights on.
Finally we made it to Yangshuo, our current location. Yangshuo is what
the book calls a ‘backpacker haven’ and now I know why – it’s packed
with cafes selling western food at rock-bottom prices. It’s also
surrounded by beautiful scenery – limestone karst formations sprouted
out of the ground all around. Unfortunately it’s rained since we got
here, and I get the feeling it’s been raining for some time and will
continue to do so. I think we’ll give it a chance to improve over the
next couple of days, otherwise we’ll head off. I can imagine this
would be a nice place to relax if you’d been travelling around for
some time, but I don’t have a great yearning for shepherd’s pie or
pizza just yet. And it’s frustrating because all the things to do and
see are outside. Christiane came up with some good alternative things
to do from the guidebook until I pointed out that she’d spent the last
hour reading about Yangzhou rather than Yangshuo.
Still, we have a lovely huge double room for 60 yuan a night (less
than 4 quid) in the Fawlty Towers hotel. And yes, the porter is called
Manuel. At least that’s what he tells us. I haven’t met Basil yet but
I’m looking forward to it – especially if he finds out Christiane is