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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Little Trouble In Big China

It turns out that the Red Pandas win hands down in the wrestling match due to the B&W ones being too lazy to show up for the competition! In fact they're so darn lazy that they spend over 23 and a half hours a day eating and sleeping, only managing half an hour for 'play'.

The sad thing is though that they've pretty much evolved into an evolutionary cul-de-sac; needing to consume such massive amounts of low energy food (bamboo) that they can not spare the energy to move let alone mate. Leaving the sanctuary that afternoon you couldn't help but feel that the world will be lucky to still have the B&W beasties roaming about in one or two hundred years.

With our panda check box filled in we moved along to Xi'an and Jim Beam's hostel. Unfortunately complementary bottles of his namesake weren't available on demand - baah! But he did manage to organise a handy trip to see all the sites around the locale including The Warriors.

The Warriors, as it turned out was not the tribute to the late Seventies New York gangland movie I had expected, but rather an amazing collection of Terracotta ones!

The site is divided into three major finds; the smallest of which holds about 40 clay figures and the largest containing several thousand. On entering Site 1, the largest, you are confronted with row upon row of uniquely carved terracotta people, interspersed with horses and chariots.

Unfortunately many of the delicate models were damaged ages ago when the wooden roof that originally encased the structure collapsed. In fact only the first seven or eight rows or warriors are untouched by the passage of time. Although it has to be said that the partially eroded ones are almost funkier as they have a 'Jason and the Argonauts' Ray Harryhousen feel to them!

Our next stop was a wee town called Han Shan which is home to a fantastic mountain top temple which is reached by a twisting, turning trail leading up through a valley to the final run of dangerously steep steps! And I do mean steep! Maybe an incline of 80 degrees or so! Luckily there's a metal chain that runs the length of the summit staircase and there's a steady stream of people coming behind you to break your fall!

On the way to the top we passed many elderly men hauling massive loads of refreshments to the vendors at the peak, maybe eight or nine 24 packs of 500 ml bottles arranged over their shoulders in a barbell fashion with a piece of wood. It made me feel a little wussy complaining about my wee backpack! The route to the top is really incredible as you pass umpteen houses carved into the rockface (how deep, I'm not sure) and ancient steps etched into the cliffside. A job for Chuck Norris if ever there was one!

Another sixteen hour train journey and we arrived in Ping Yao - in complete darkness! This ancient walled city has evidently decided to keep it very old school and has opted against street lights. 12:30 at night and we were finding our way to a hostel for the night by touch alone.

The wee city is great though, the perimeter of the enclosed section is only about six kilometres and we rambled around the base of the wall in a hour or two. Unfortunately the wall is being renovated at the moment and you can't walk around it, but you can still pop up on top and see some of the nasty defensive weapons they used to keep Vikings and other raiders at bay.

It's the first city that really feels 'Chinese' or at least the image of China that you're sold at home. Very narrow streets, with vendors selling all kinds of weird and wonderful things along them. There are also tens of old houses, temples and museums to visit. If you're after the China you see in school books and old television programmes then this is the place for you!

So after the quiet, quintessentially Chinese city of Ping Yao it was on to the sprawling Megapolis of Beijing. The rate of development in the heart of China is truly staggering with tales of entire areas of the city being completely demolished and rebuilt year on year.

The first thing that you notice, as was the case with all of the other 'small' (4 million+) cities we'd visited, is how amazingly 'western' it is. Everything that you would expect to find in any European or American city is there: McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC ... there's even a Starbucks in the Forbidden City!

It's the one thing that has been a little surprising, although maybe it was just silly to think that a massive power like China would somehow resist the lure of free market capitalism - but they certainly have embraced it! The most shocking thing being Mao's mausoleum: once you pass through the chamber containing his body you emerge into one of the tackiest shops I've ever seen. And although I reckoned that Mao would be turning in his grave if he could see this - he clearly wasn't.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

M & G - eocache!

Just a wee entry to let you know that the little map has finally been updated! Woohoo! The roaming Myra and Graham geocache is trackable once again!

Sunday, May 14, 2006


The following blog entry has been deemed too capitalist in its views and opinions and has been heavily edited from its original 12,000 word content to its current form by the People's Republic of China's Extreme Blog Sanctions Unit. The remaining content is presented in both Chinese and English at the same time in the language of the People: Chinglish.

"China is good of best in planet welcomes you much in thank."

Please be remembering that:

"No blog reading while working.
No working while blog reading.
Notice the safety."


Disco Inferno

Where to stay amongst the glitse, the glamour and the marble tiled underground people ways of Hong Kong? Given that the Y.M.C.A. is sixty bucks a night we needed something a little lower market, something like, oh I don't know, the Ballymun Flats perhaps? Enter Chungking and Mirador Mansions (either our first experience of Chinglish or used in the loosest possible sense)! Offering the finest in air conduit views from a blackened window on the twelfth floor we knew we'd found home!

Although at only twenty U.S. dollars a night (by far the most expensive and smallest accommodation so far) we couldn't complain too much and settled in to spend a couple of days relaxing and wandering while organising the Chinese leg of our journey.

The mansions are not actually on Hong Kong island itself, but lie on the tip of the peninsula touching it, in a place called Kowloon. Despite hearing tales of the marvels and splendours of the island, I think that Kowloon is actually a little more fancy smancy. The only way to describe it is as one massive harbour-wide Brown Thomas store, complete with subterranean interconnecting passage-ways.

If you find yourself in Hong Kong with nothing to do around 7:59 any night of the week mosey on over the harbour front on the Kowloon side to see the spectacular light show. Before arriving there we had pictured a sort of mini-fireworks display from the tops of the island buildings; we were wrong. Instead the buildings themselves are lined with L.E.D.s, lights, lasers and all manner of flashing and strobing gizmos!

At times it's hard to appreciate the scale of the choreographed light presentation - it's not a Sony! The only thing I could see missing was an option to play a game of Tetris on a building guarded by a massive King (or Donkey) Kong!

We also managed to nab three geocaches hidden amongst the hills and parks (my Chiang Mai Fakenstock sandals only just up to the job!). A big thanks to Mairead for introducing us to this funky game! As a bonus we discovered two special items (one with a giant iguana attached) which are tracked on www.geocaching.com so we could find out how they arrived in China! Hopefully we'll be able to drop them off somewhere interesting.

A glass of milk and before I knew it we were passing through emigration at a Ferry Terminal to continue on to the airport to catch a flight to Chengdu to watch some B&W versus Red Panda wrestling action ...

The Cave

Stumbling through the labyrinth of narrow, narrow streets, each one more similar than the last, in the wee hours of the morning, we randomly chose the Fortuan Hotel as home for the next few days. Seemingly staffed by people from the Basil Fawlty school of hoteliery we spent most of our time there trying to fend off one iteration of Manuel after the next!

Hanoi itself is essentially in a permanent state of rapid gridlock with motorbikes, cars, bicycles and people weaving in and out of each other. Closing your eyes and using the Force is really the only way to navigate from one footpath to the next. And even then you've got to move back onto the road as the footpaths are actually used as convenient motorbike parking spaces!

The big thing that we wanted to see around Hanoi was Ha Long Bay, which is where they might have shot 'The Man With The Golden Gun' - but didn't (it was filmed somewhere in Southern Thailand I think!). Unfortunately this involved boats and I've got a bit of a Mr. T-esque thing with boats instead of planes (he's becoming a little bit of a mascot for this trip!) so the fear was starting to grow little by little as the harbour loomed into view.

One delicious glass of milk later found us adrift amongst the vast expanse of wee islands in the bay. Seemingly there are over two thousand islands, nine hundred of them named, strewn across the seascape. Our guide for the trip pointed out some of the more funky ones; one shaped like a duck, one like warring giants and another like a rock. A relaxing way to while away a few hours and luckily for me, remarkably calm!

The highlight of our two days spent as pirates aboard the junk (not named for any resemblance to the classic Chinese boats ;) was when we pulled ashore on a large island with two HUGE caves! These caves were so good that I'm going to break my traditional blog style of no pictures, other than Beakerludes, and show y'all the amazing lighting that they had set up!

Tomorrow we set sail for Hong Kong (by train!) - Yeargh me hearties!

Good Morning, Viet Nam!

Too afraid to mention anything about fools or pitying them and nervously eyeing around for any signs or apparitions of the Big T himself Myra and I waited for the 6:40 Sawngthaew to the border to roar into life. Before long we were rumbling along the dusty, twisting roads to Na Meo with a motley bunch of other foreigners making a break for it.

Three short hours on and I was trying to play it cool with the border guards hoping that they didn't notice the bead of sweat trickling down my forehead and that the saches of Laos coffee buried deep down in my bag were actually coffee!

After a wee bit of wandering we hoped on the bus to Hanoi - ten minutes later we were sitting on the side of a hill watching the bus driver trying to work some magic on the smoking engine. After two hours of chilling and watching the locals join in with the engine by chopping bamboo into makeshift pipes we were underway.

Eight hours, a dead dog, pig and hen saw us in Thanh Hoa - the midway point. Chucked out into the rain and with no sign of the connecting bus they had tried to swindle us for we took it in turns to try flag down buses.

A few moments after agreeing a price for the journey and boarding the bus that continued to Hanoi the conductor and his cronies (the rest of the bus) began hassling us for more money. We all managed to resist coughing up any dough for over hour, arguing the whole time to the amusement of the locals. Eventually with the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere and the other passengers making moves to throw our bags from the bus we bargained an 'agreeable' figure.

Just after midnight the bus pulled into Hanoi bus station. Even more haggling and stand-offs ensued with the local taxi mafia until we managed to cut a half decent price. We'd been warned that the Vietnamese typically charge foreigners 400% or more than the state issued (local) fares. With the police turning a blind eye to it all there's not a whole lot that you can do but try stand your ground and haggle like your life depended on it: thank goodness for Myra - the Hagglenator!