Thursday, 11 September 2008

Enter Bangkok

Knowing you're leaving for somewhere else, somewhere a lot further than normal, led me to having a half-lazy day of making sure I was ready to leave. That meant spending the remaining bit of Dong I had left, as it's nigh-on impossible to get rid of the Vietnamese currency outside of Vietnam, let alone for a decent rate. Thankfully, I never had too much on me at one time, simply because you don't need that much - plus, it made me feel strange seeing millions come up on the screen, 2,000,000 Dong is about £62 - I just hoped they didn't take out pounds instead. So waking up in the morning led me to start talking to Tracey, a well-travelled Canadian girl with the right attitude about absolutely everything. We wandered on from our dorm (where all the beds were mattresses on the floor) and found a restaurant/cafe with wi-fi for our laptopping needs and some of the best air-con around. From what I remember it was chocolately things and spaghetti bolognese, the food of a pasta-starved English boy. After that it was another cafe before I departed, I had something to be getting to...

My flight was booked, 14th April 2008, 17:55, $101.50 from Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkong, Thailand. Total flight duration is an hour and a half - so to give myself time before boarding, I tried looking for ways to book a taxi early on. Due to my natural urge to bargain and get the best price possible, I didn't accept it was going to cost me £5 by taxi, so asked around and found that bike (of course!) was the cheapest option. That meant approaching pretty much anyone stationary on their motorbikes/scooters/whatever and asking them how much to the airport. Half the price of a car! Thanks very much, I said, then pondered.. how am I going to get my bag there? "You put bag here!", says the ever-helpful guy in charge of the bike. So he turns my back upside-down (no idea why), pops it in-between his legs, we negotiate to 80,000 Dong and I jump on the back - shorts, t-shirt, helmet and sunglasses, I'm ready to go.

Winding between cars at what feels like high speed, swerving and rarely stopping, the traffic flowing with a wind-like quality, twisting in on itself and all with the cacophony of sirens and horns to accompany the madness. The airport is roughly twenty minutes away on bike, I get there quicker than any car would even hope to, and find that I'm now off into the most expensive-looking building in the whole of Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh Airport. A funny goodbye, in a way - I enter into what equates to nothing more than an over-blown shanty town, and leave through what could be a brand new airport in the UK for all anyone knows. Check-in wasn't as smooth as I could have hoped for, my bag was over 20kgs, the limit on hold-luggage being 20kg.. thus I had to remove items from it to get the weight down and take a large bag of bits and pieces that I've managed to accrue along the way as my hang luggage.

I make my way through the short route to the waiting lounge; everyone is either of Thai or Viet blood it seems, all bar two white guys in the corner. We get talking and end up on the plane together, the majority of seats spare, just in case you wanted to sleep perhaps! The ever-friendly air-hostesses come up and down for food, I announce that yes, I would love some food. And no, I don't have any Thai Baht. No Baht? No food. I only have about 50,000 Dong left, £1.5 or thereabouts - no amount of my suave and persuasive demeanour can convince any of these fine ladies to part with even a bottle of water. Darn.

After sharing stories and whatnot, me and my two new compatriots Sam and Lawrence, figure that since I only know the name of one road, and that we're all new to this country, hey, we may as well stick together. So we do! We find a taxi rank just outside of the airport after a brief trip through customs to get another stamp in our passports (this time a free visa for thirty days) and strike up conversation with a family who've been living in Thailand for quite a while now, they give us some sound advice on how to determine prices with taxi drivers and what to look out for. For that we're thankful and we bundle into a car. The taxi driver has an evident love of British rock, many tapes litter his humble vehicle and he trots out some melodies in his finest humming voice - all whilst we gaze at the new surroundings we have upon us. It's gone 8pm and it's night-time, we're going down a real motorway, with real tarmac and big billboards advertising laptop computers and other life-style bits and bobs.. this is not Vietnam, that much is clear. Where are all the bikes? Where's the dirt-track road? It's different, that's for sure.

If you've read or watched The Beach, it tells you of the first back-packer destination that everyone heads to, possibly because that's where everyone else is, that's where all the cheap hostels and dorms are, it's where the journey begins - Khao San Road is that very place. While it is simply the name of a road, everything surrounding it on the connecting and adjacent roads is what makes it, bars, 7-11 stores, hostels, guesthouses, crowded streets, counterfeit t-shirts.. it's a big mish-mash of hilarity and intruige; it's certainly recommended, even to just see what it's like. We near the centre of Bangkok - it's well-lit, tall buildings are everywhere, and.. large portraits of the King and his family are running down the middle of this street, they're housed in huge decorative golden frames and look in pristine condition. We go past a few large elaborate temples and similarly decorative bridges, much in the style of the frames of the pictures of the King.

Then we realise that we're in Bangkok and we're near where we need to be. I realise this because, as someone told me, it's coming up to the Thai New Year (Songkran) - except, I forgot this, until I saw all the crowds, and remembered what that person told me: people line the streets, throw water (any which way) at each other, get this white clay paste and smother it on each other and generally have a great time. A great wet time. That means a great wet time for us with our large non-waterproof backpacks, because we have to go straight into that crowd across the road, straight in there on a search for a guesthouse for the night, without getting wet. Bearing in mind most of the weight of my backpack is my computer and books.. either getting wet would be quite the disaster.

We usher the driver to keep driving a bit: "Keep going..keep going!", "But this is Khao San Road!", "I know! So keep going!"

Unperplexed by the crowds, he doesn't understand why we just asked him to take us to Khao San Road and then tell him to keep going, past Khao San Road. We decide, sod it, we have to get there, we've got to get into somewhere to sleep for the night regardless, the crowd isn't going to disappear anytime soon. The people are one both sides of this road and we're about to get out in the middle.. buggery.

Suffice to say, we jumped out quickly on deciding what to do, get our bags out of the boot, cross over the road, skirt around the crowd a bit until we find a road that looks like one that we should be going down, and see thousands upon thousands of people crammed down it.

We push through lightly, weaving in between people and see a road to our immediate right - guest house.. 300 Baht! From walking across the road, into the crowd slightly and looking to our right, we find a guest house immediately - the name of said guest house? First Guest House. Perfect. Even more so when we find out they have spare room for the night, in the middle of the New Year. 300 Baht by the way, is about £5. That's £5 per room, for a double bed - Sam and Lawrence bunk up together to save on cash, £5 for me is more than okay. The owner speaks not one word of English, this doesn't matter. We understand she needs a small key deposit, that the showers she's pointing at are in fact showers, and that our room is up the hall. Fantastic. We dump our bags in there, I make a quick check for cockroaches, and unlike as seen/read in The Beach, mine contains none. Shortly after, we meet outside of our respective rooms and determine that yes, taking cameras is a ridiculous idea when everyone right outside the guest house is armed with either a bottle of water, a water pistol, a water balloon or a hose pipe. We arm ourselves with a couple of hundred Baht and head out into the wet, humid Bangkok air and get soaked, drunk, into various gangland-esque water fights with Thai teenagers, guys from Israel fresh out of conscription and a couple of Australians. One of the best nights ever.

The view from the end of the hall from the guest house: this is when it was winding down..

Friday, 29 August 2008

Cu Chi Tunnels

I'd never read up on Vietnam before I arrived, I simply wanted to get out of China and into somewhere different, somewhere with any semblance of character. Thankfully I found that - both in the people and in the surroundings. Some of this has been shaped by war, some by the requirement of tourism to keep the smaller towns going. The one thing that everyone seemed to be doing or recommended to do was to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a couple of hours outside the centre of Ho Chi Minh. A tour was booked, US$5 including the bus ride there - the only 'downer' was that we weren't told we also had to pay to get in (two different tickets, bizarrely), which a few of us were slightly annoyed by, but really, it's pennies and worthless moaning with such nice weather and hospitable people showing us about. Plus, I didn't fancy my chances on finding my way back from the remote place we found ourselves in!

Myself and a girl I'd found a room with the night previous decided to get onto this tour thing, and it proved itself to be a worthwhile spend of a day. The tunnels themselves were carved out by anyone and everyone living in Vietnam during the war that has scarred large parts of their land; essentially tunnels in the mud that were lived in for a few years for some. To say they were cramped is an understatement, my legs were buckling after a small amount of crouching and hobbling about, perhaps being 6'3" isn't a fair comparison, but a lot of people (myself included) felt claustraphobic even before we'd gone into the holes in the ground. It's a marvel to wonder how utterly terrifying it would have been to have to live down there, have no decent way to defend yourself against the oncoming American forces; even moreso when you see the huge craters left by bombs throughout and after the war (as some lay dormant until happened upon by anyone unlucky enough to stumble into any).

Other than the tunnels themselves, the other main draw for people to come here is the freely available guns to shoot.. yes, war-torn by guns and bombs, and they have a shooting range with a variety of different weapons for you to try out - from pistols to AK47s and other ridiculously loud instruments of pain. I hesitated for a few minutes while this Polish guy I met (who has his own dentistry practice which I may have to visit myself sometime this year) had his go at firing an AK47. As we were about to go, I said 'Sod it', manned up and bought five rather long, scary-looking bullets to put in this scary-looking gun. They cost less than £1 each and could be bought just next to the range, prices written on an A4 bit of paper on the desk.

Nervously I put on my ear protectors, which weren't in fact ear protectors but old headphones with the cord cut off. Fantastic. The guy looking after the guns put the bullets in, and of course the gun was secured down so people couldn't just walk off with them or fire willy nilly. I looked down the sight, pulled the trigger slowly and, well, it was really, really, really loud. So loud I was surprised the guy who put the bullets in was just standing next to me with nothing protecting his ears, I was glad for the old headphones! All five shots went pretty quickly but I savoured how utterly horrendous the recoil was on my shoulder (despite it being secured down), how powerful it is and sickeningly scary to think these exist.

I come away from the experience dazed, making my way up to the rest of the group with a confused conscience.

I get back to my room much later on, crack the laptop out and think 'What next?'; then I book myself a one way ticket to Bangkok the next day for around £50.

One of the many tunnels burrowed into the ground

One of the horrific traps they created to combat the invading forces - I'm not sure which one I'd rather not encounter, an army with guns and bayonets, or a nail-encrusted trap you have to pry yourself from, if at all possible. With this one, your weight is paramount to how hard this trap will clasp onto you, some are barbed

Guns and bullets, get your guns and bullets..

So I got my bullets..

And took my sweet time

The Polish chap I spent the day with, getting into one of the tunnels. I almost backed out, but in the end myself and three girls (one from Northampton, strangely enough!) waited until everyone else that had gone in had exited at the other end, and got through the 100m (or so) tunnel as quickly as possible. No regrets!

The view from one of the well-touristed government buildings in Saigon

Saigon And Beyond

Getting into a habit of doing things I don't enjoy was never intended, but again, I find myself on a night-bus in Vietnam. Truth be told, they're not all that bad, but are most certainly not my preferred method of travel and sleep-catching. They're fine for getting somewhere and can be excellent for meeting willing travel buddies, plus, they're dirt cheap, just don't expect to get anywhere quickly!

I'd spent a few nights in Nha Trang (two or three, my memory is already fading), sun-soaked, yet I didn't manage to get any part of my body any more tanned, even with a day relaxing on the beach with a book. The next logical place on the Vietnam trail was Saigon/Ho Chi Minh, whichever you prefer - a £6/$12/200,000Dong night-bus took me there in the evening. A friendly but short-spoken guy came to my hotel and told me the bus was "around the corner". I had to lug my bag about ten minutes through Nha Trang to some other bustling streets, felt more like an hour though - especially when it's 35 degrees at 8pm!

The bus was a seater, so no lying down, barely any sleep, but I did manage to nod off at some point as I was woken in the morning by the driver, I glanced left and right, picked up my glasses, my bag, and promptly got off the bus and wandered up the road at 5am with pensioners running past and doing star jumps and dancing in the tennis courts and fields to my left. Two minutes later: "Bollocks". I forgot my book, I put it behind my back so I wouldn't forget it in the morning.. and it turns out I did forget it, and I only had fifty pages (out of six hundred) to go before I finished it. I ask my friend I shared the journey with to look after my bag for a minute and run full pelt back to the bus.. which is no longer there. No! It had my book.. which, whilst annoying, is replaceable - but also had my bookmark, my bookmark being a Polaroid of myself and my friend Laura who I met in Amsterdam (who worked at the Flying Pig Hostel there). Arse.

I lament this for a while and trudge back to my bag, hoist it onto my back and start the regular search for a hostel in the morning mist and sweat of Saigon.

If Hanoi was held at its edges, stretched twice its size and then had some money dropped onto it, that'd be Saigon. It actually has a store that sells electronics, something I'd not seen anything of in any other place in Vietnam. The streets are a lot wider, there are a heck of a lot more cars, but still their numbers pale in comparison to that of the scooters and motorbikes. The slight layer of dirt still clouds the pavements, the sky is never truly blue, but the people smile, the kids play football with tennis balls and the government buildings piss on everything else around them. All the money spent on visas to enter their country could be doing a lot more than making their large white buildings even whiter.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Annnd it's back!

And my box arrived on its two week journey across land/water/whatever from Hong Kong, including some clothes I'd posted, bits of paper, business cards from various places and people, annnd my hard drive, with all the photos on it I'd take along the way!

That means an update soon - I'll be getting to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and then back through China; it'll just take a while. :)

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Lack Of Updates

Apologies to all if you're waiting for updates, but I posted a lot of my stuff back from Hong Kong in a 6 - 8 week box, and mistakenly put my hard drive in there which contains all my photos! So, I'll get an update composed soon, albeit not with all the photos I'd hope.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Nha Trang

Yet another bus through Vietnam, this time to the coastal town of Nha Trang. I met a couple of Irish girls on the bus, and upon arriving the next day at silly-o'clock, we found a hotel, aptly named Good Hotel, that was in fact very good! Here, we got a huge room on the top floor (four flights of stairs..), with a TV, three double beds, air-conditioner, fans, en-suite, fridge and a balcony, for £5. That's £5 for the whole room, so £1.33 each! Oh, and that included a nice view of the beach with bright blue skies and sun beaming down all day. Can't go far wrong there!

We found food, including a strange outdoor restaurant that just existed on a large patio next to the road; we couldn't see any building that it was near to, yet food appeared regardless. The food was good (veggie burger and chips for about a pound), the weather better, and straight after we trundled into the sea for some much-needed splashing around. From Nha Trang, there's an island opposite with 'Vinpearl' in big white letters emblazoned on the side of it, as well as a cable cable connecting the two in the distance. So of course, we wanted to take the cable car and did so! It cost us 50p each to get a few miles up the road on the back of three motorbike taxis (since there were three of us), from there we took the cable car and found out that for our £8, we also get access to a amusement and water park! Fantastic. We spent a good three hours there, in this deserted place with no more than ten other people there, and had a great time. It's not too big to get lost in, but big enough not to have tried everything. Some of the water slides were too high for my tastes, I did manage to take on three of them, but then it got a little silly, as if people could fall off the sides due to how fast they were coming down! Of course, the two girls went up and did the tallest one, much to my dismay. But it made for a good video on my camera, one which I'll get online as soon as I can.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

A Message For Home

My blog is usually reserved for my travels, but what must be my oldest reader turned 86 yesterday (10th May). So cheers to Granddad Eddie! Being away from home means sending cards isn't simple, as in Singapore and Malaysia I couldn't find any birthday ones to send home, so I hope this makes up for it in someway. Congratulations, and here's to another.

Love Adam.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

A Short Trip To Hoi An And Beyond

Having had a day in Hue, I got on the 8am bus to Hoi An and relaxed for the journey ahead. Thankfully, it wasn't a long one, it involved one stop (on a beach, finally!) to dip my feet in the water and take in the sun a bit. The weather was sweltering, in a good way, and had me grinning ear-to-ear with how much of an improvement it was on Hanoi. When I arrived in Hoi An, it was very much the same, heat shooting down from the sky, blue oceans above, and a long walk to find accommodation for the night, when we really should have taken the hotel we were dropped off at by the bus. Such is my reluctance and stubbornness that I refuse to go to the first place I find or one that I feel the driver or bus organiser may earn commission from.

Upon finding a hotel an hour later, exploration was on the cards! It's a vaguely quiet town, with lots of tailors for any clothes you may want (completely custom-made and fitted, of course) and plenty of restaurants should you feel the need to eat at a different place every meal, as I do. I mean, what's the point in visiting the same place again and again when you could be trying food from many different places? Unless that one place is very good or very cheap.

Myself and Emma met up with this girl Katie (from the US) she met in Hue in a bar, played a few games of pool and generally relaxed for the rest of the day until getting food over-looking the main square, where at night, it turns into a Vietnamese music platform for people to show their talents. It was just the right side of warm and couldn't have finished the day off any better.

I found out the next day that there's a beach nearby and should cost no more than 15,000 Dong to get there, in the region of 50p. But, if you're white, you get a different price - this involves you having to barter down closer to the local price - so I did that, coupled with some walking away when the motorbike taxi guys wouldn't budge from 30,000 Dong. After doing this with two of the bikers, one said 'okay okay! 15,000 is fine, let's go!' at last, and off we went. This was my first time on the back of a bike that isn't my father's - which I've only been on twice myself - and had me worrying slightly, due to the sheer quantity of potholes littering the road. Thankfully, I reached the beach unscathed, and can fully endorse the motorbike taxis as a cheap way to get from A to B. I didn't get into the sea, because I only had my normal clothes on me, but the beach itself was nice, although strange when you look at the people around you, as the Vietnamese don't bother with getting swimming trunks, shorts or anything like that, they go into the sea fully clothed. Much of this is to do with their skin colour, as unlike the west, where it's favourable and more attractive to look tanned, many Asian countries have the belief that looking as white as possible is more attractive, so you look more like a white person. This extends to suntan lotion, which you must be careful about due to some brands putting whitening in them, much like toothpaste! So instead of regulating the sun, you'll end up blocking it out and becoming whiter by the second!

The food on the beach-front at the many shack-like restaurants was decent, and I think it was here that I decided to become vegetarian, if only because some of the meat can seem a little dubious, but also to stop my belly getting any bigger than it already is. Their premium for having food on the beach wasn't too high, and certainly was appreciated where the town of Hoi An was about 5km back the other way.

Later on, I headed back, showered off and booked myself a night-bus for Nha Trang, despite my deep contempt for them due to the lack of sleep I have to endure on them.

Monday, 5 May 2008

The Rest Of Vietnam

Having stayed in Hanoi for prehaps longer than I should have done, I woke up and found that everyone I'd be talking to and going around with had left for tours to Sapa and buses down to other places in Vietnam, so wandering around, I booked a bus for the next day to Hue, a nice twelve hour sleeper bus which arrived the day after in the morning. These don't cost too much, you can browse the tour offices and get them for roughly $10 - $15 for a twelve to fifteen hour bus (depending on the driver/bus), with 'beds' on the bus. These 'beds' (as I'm sure I've mentioned in a previous post) aren't particularly comfortable, I can barely sleep on them and usually don't for most of the trip because I sleep on my right hand side, manouvering in the tight space you have isn't easy unless you're happy to sleep on your back.

The rest of my day (and the following one before my bus journey) in Hanoi was taken up with eating and walking the streets with my new found American travel partner, Danny, I'm not sure I could have taken much more of his company because everything in the world was a CIA or MI:5 conspiracy, from JFK to the 7/7 bombings, to the price of oil across the world. Plus he's a psychic and has websites he visits that tell the future. I have a hard time believing in the idea of any form of god so this tested my tongue somewhat, attempting to hold it back under his stories of training his psychic abilities under the watchful gaze of an Indian American in the wilderness. Fair enough to him, I guess, it at least sounds fun.

The next day in the evening, I got on the bus, dashed to the back and took up residence on the bottom bunks where five were lined up, meaning I could make use of more than one bed, whereas the rest of them in the aisles you could only sleep in one bed (because there's a metre-gap between them), these are all bunched together and made for a better resting spot. A German guy joined me and discussed a band we're both fans of (Oceansize), and found we may have gone to the same gig a few years ago, despite the band being tiny, a small world indeed! Arriving in Hue, the heat blistering upon us, it took quite a while to find a place to stay, and looking around as we tried to find one, it was clear there's not too much to do there aside from the Reunification Palace, a huge ground with temples and various museum-type pieces to see – half decimated from American bombing though, adding to the history of the place.

I headed for the palace later on after showering and napping, took a while to walk around and attempted a jog because exercise in Asia just isn't possible, whether it's because of the heat or because the only place to run is on busy roads with pollution filling your lungs. After seeing my fair share of temples in the palace (pictures below), I started to head back an saw something slithering across the floor quickly.. my first wild snake! Too quick, it was – it darted fast into the drain and out of sight.. leaving me a little bewildered and surprised there was no one else around to see it. After that, I bumped into a girl I met on the bus from Essex, which is always handy when you're on your own with not much else planned – we headed back to the area where the accommodation is built-up in, and found a bar recommended to me by the Danish girls in Hanoi. This concludes Hue, we stayed there from early afternoon for many hours until midnight, eating food (including banana pancakes with chocolate, which considering the frequency of that 'dish' in Vietnam, must be something of a national food!) and drinking beer. Certainly not a bad way to spend a sun-soaked day in a vaguely quiet town with friendly company. Thanks to the inspiration of Emma from Essex, we both booked a bus for the next day to the next main town on the route, Hoi An. Thankfully the journey was a five or six hour affair starting at 8am, rather than a bus twice that length that I'd get no sleep on.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Halong Bay

The whole of Hanoi brings up memories of doing not very much, meeting people who soon became familiar as I travelled down through Vietnam by bus, and eating lots of food; so much so that I was going through periods of eating two meals per meal because I could, and partially because it meant I didn't have to think of something else to do for a little longer. Small bits of language will help you along the way, 'sin jao' means 'hello', and 'dee boh' means 'I'll walk', essential for all the motorbiker taxis, who will shout 'Hey! Motorbike?!' all through the day - here you either get earplugs, put up with it or say 'dee boh' and more often than not receive a chuckle in return.

I took a three day tour of Halong Bay with a few other people, it's trying to become one of the wonders of the world; it consists of a few plinth-like rocks naturally formed out of the water with greenery on top, and a lot of boggy water around it, no thanks to locals who sail through and live on the water in polluting little houses floating on the water. The boats have diesel pumping out, sometimes into the water - that means taking a dip ensures you'll be covered in black sludge when you get out! The weather wasn't fantastic but the company more than made up for it, much as it does in many places with little to do. We took a boat to Cat Ba Island off of the east coast, stayed one night there with nothing of interest to entertain us, then went to the so-called National Park. Here we did a short trek (a couple of hours), which thanks to the rain the night before had made the rocks we were clambering up really slippy for my trainers. All of the people in sandals who I thought would have had a tough time found it easier than me, as the grip on my soles was non-existent. That meant slow progress, and a nice slip-up ten minutes in, covering me in sloppy mud! It at least put me at ease that I couldn't get any more muddy for the rest of the hike so didn't worry as much. There were a couple of scary parts, one where the railing (the only one we came across, and with good reason) near the top of the peak had half-rusted away and barely helped as I navigated around a large cutaway in the rock below, which had a good 10 metre drop beneath it. The view from the peak was fantastic though, so very worth the muddy and scary trip up, and the returning trek down.

I was grateful for the journey back, where we took residence on a boat for the night and meant I could clean myself up, albeit with a tap of cold water and a small bucket. Hot showers simply don't feature on boats you sleep on which are aptly named 'junks'. Shortly after we jumped into kayaks and took a gentle paddle around the rocks of Halong Bay.

Halong Bay

The naturally formed tunnels we visited on the way to Cat Ba Island

The hike! Slippy, scary and fun. I'm the third in from the left, struggling up another rock.

The view after getting to the top of the hiking trail

And a picture Rassmus the Dane took when he went up the watchtower that I was too scared to climb

These huge glass bottles with dead things in are common in Vietnam. I didn't buy one.

When on our boat, we had other little boats come up with fruit, food, alcohol and many other bits for sale.

Monday, 14 April 2008

A Visual Guide To My Travels

I'm going through all of my travels and uploading them to Facebook, simply because on my tiny computer it's hard to scroll through and upload them in batches of five on Blogger. So, click the links below to view my pictures! You can use the left and right arrow keys to scroll through them or click previous or next at the top right to select the next one. You don't need an account to view them.

Hong Kong

I've made a little side-bar (to the right) with links to the pictures as well, I'll try and keep them updated as much as possible.

Sunday, 13 April 2008


We unloaded our luggage, showered, and all four of us headed for a recommended restaurant in the Lonely Planet (South-East Asia On A Shoestring) called Little Hanoi. I'm not usually a Lonely Planet traveller, but I'll carry some with me just in case - Rassmus is very much dependent on his because his partner (Eva) is pregnant, so street-food is a no-no and clean places with some standard of hygiene are muchly preferred. We order a hefty amount of dishes and all pitch in, just as well because the couple of things that I ordered wouldn't have filled me up. I'd definitely recommend ordering in a group and getting a taste for everything, as I've had a shrimp dish turn up with octopus tentacles protruding from it; great if you like octopus, but not so if you're me. The food here is fantastic, led on by a pretty drab experience of it in China.

The next day, Rassmus and myself stop by the end of the street for a taste of real Vietnamese food, where you sit on tiny plastic chairs on the pavement and in the street, have your food on tiny plastic tables that my legs cannot go under, and see the whole process of chopping, cooking, washing and serving from your seat. I'd learnt not to be put off by the way this food is prepared, since the cooks smoke, don't wear hats or gloves and have everything washed in a big plastic tub on the floor, because the majority of restaurants have their kitchens hidden, and are far less transparent than this - I've seen many 'proper' restaurants with more questionable methods. Suffice to say the variety isn't great but the food is, better than the night before and is under half the price. I came back here twice, each time I ordered around two or three dishes for myself, a couple of (glass) bottles of Coke and some black alcohol called Mineral Tree Wine, bottled in old Hanoi Vodka bottles and still never paid more than £3 for each meal. You really can live here on less than £10 a day with ease, including accommodation. We settled on a place called the Darling Backpacker's Hostel. Some rooms have ants (usually confined to the bathrooms), but that's to be expected in most places I've found, and the hostel's workers seem to have ADD - that aside, it was fun, cheap, and never short of people to talk to, mostly on similar travels to myself.

Do prepare yourself though, for the onslaught of traffic - cars are outnumbered by scooters and motorbikes by an enormous ratio, but certainly make their presence known. All you can hear going down the street are the beep-beep of vehicles narrowly avoiding each other, unless you can block it out. If you're sensitive to noise pollution, definitely invest in some earplugs as by the end of my week or so, I was going a little spare and couldn't wait for the sun-soaked east coast of Vietnam.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

On My Way To Hanoi

It's the end of March and I flutter to Nanning train station. My first train is due to leave around 8am for the smaller Chinese town of Pingxiang. The ride is painless and fairly comfortable, just like any other train I've ridden. Pingxiang looks just like every other Chinese town I've visited, and low and behold, I find some white people. Joy! The first cluster I've seen in the best part of a week. I strike up a conversation with a Danish couple, seeing if they were heading to the border also. Luck has it that they are and we wait for a decent-sized taxi with ample boot-space for our luggage. This takes a while, and we meet a girl from Beijing who also needs a lift. Twenty minutes later, after hassle from other drivers of bicycles, motorbikes and miniature vans (with a motorbike on the front, akin to an old western horse-and-cart combo with the white cover over the back), a 'normal' taxi turns up. Hurrah! We hop in, happy to cram in with no seat-belts, and take the merry ten minute drive to the border. It costs a small amount, around £1 or so. The China<>Vietnam border (named: Friendship Pass) is mostly easy. Except I couldn't find my passport. I searched my whole bag, knew that I had packed it, then open the top of my bag (with the easiest access) and find it in the pouch, oops! You fill in the standard departure/arrival card in the border office, and hand it to the clerk with your passport, so the relevant visa and passport checks can be carried out. When they're finished, they hold your passport up in the air for you to claim it - so don't walk too far while this is happening. There were another two clerks after the passport/visa one, one for a medical check and another for customs. The Danish couple and the Beijing girl handed their passports to the medical check booth and couldn't get them back until they paid RMB2 each (around 15p). So I ignored this as I'm not having my passport held to ransom for a non-existent medical examination. The Danish guy, Rassmus, paid the money for me and the other two just to get out of the place and get their passports back, despite how illegal it was to do such a thing.

Leaving the not-so-friendly Friendship Pass and we have to walk a couple of minutes to get to the departure hall, here we get our confirmation of leaving China and officially entering Vietnam. More taxis awaited us as we went through the gates, we wanted to take our time so used the 'No English! No English!' card as we were flooded with offers, this dispersed them fairly quickly. We found a decent-enough looking taxi and ask for the nearest town (Dong Dang), where we'll get a lengthy train from to reach Hanoi. We load up, take the five minute drive across a mix of dirt tracks and lush scenery, and reach a patch of dirt with some minivans on it. This is apparently the bus station - we wanted the train station so I decided mimicking the 'choo choo' of the train would be the best way to get across where we want to go. Rassmus finds his Vietnam book and points to the word for train in Vietnamese and we're soon on our way. We unload our baggage at the dusty train station, go to pay the 30.0 (x1000) fare, and are told to pay 300,000 Dong by the taxi driver for the five minute drive, that's close to £10! I tell him that 30 x 1000 = 30,000, and attempt to give him a 50,000 Dong note for a few minutes, eventually he realises we're not going to fall for his shifty little scam that many have fell for before undoubtedly; this is the problem with a currency you've only had for a few minutes at most (since you cannot buy Vietnamese Dong outside of Vietnam legally). Retrospectively I shouldn't have paid the guy anything and just left him with no money, in a slight attempt to make up for past scams and to deter him from doing it in future, but there you go.

We arrive at the train station at 13:25 for the 13:30 train (the last one of the day too!), bought our 39,000 Dong tickets (£1.10) for the six hour journey to Hanoi, and got onto the train. We wait for half an hour and wonder why it hasn't left. Close to an hour later we remember that the clocks go back and hour, and we'd actually arrived at 12:25, so had plenty of time!

The train is rickity, metal mesh over the windows and metal blinds in front of them. The chairs are wooden benches affixed to the floor, so get out your towel, a cushion or some soft clothes because six hours sitting on hard wooden slats isn't fun. The train is cheap and easy to load lots of things onto, so it doubles as a shipment method for goods. Dish-cloths, chairs, food, cutlery, plates, chickens.. most things were taken past us into the back of the train to be left until they need to be thrown off at their destination. Food isn't an issue either, as many sellers come up and down the train selling huge poppadom-like cracker things, bread (with honey-butter dip), beer, water.. all the things you need for a six hour journey.

We reach Hanoi with tired arses and eyes, and grab the first taxi we find to get to a hotel that the Danish couple had booked. The hotel had given their reserved room to somebody else because they didn't turn up at 6pm, the time they said they would, despite having paid a reservation fee to hold onto it. We trot around the corner and find a room for the night in bustling Hanoi.

Friday, 28 March 2008

The Real Nanning, 02:56, 29/03/2008

It's Monday, and liking the new hotel, I lounge around for a while, catching up on a few day's internetting. I go off to collect my Vietnamese visa at 2pm, find it doesn't open until 2:30pm and grab myself some snacks nearby. Upon opening time, I suddenly remember I don't have my receipt with me, I'm useless for keeping onto such things but quickly formulate a plan. In the visa section of the embassy, I tell the man behind the counter my plight: I had my wallet in my pocket and someone came up and stole my bag, which had all my clothes, books and receipts in it, so I couldn't bring the receipt to him. Without my passport I can't get into a hotel (true, even if the rest isn't..), nor can I leave the country. I have other ID like my credit cards, UK driving licence and other bits and bobs, including the original picture (I received two) which was taking for the visa application. The response? “Tin-ba-dong”, and he points to the pile of receipts on his table. Shit. Of course, the only guy they have today is the only one that doesn't speak English in the embassy. Fan-flippin'-tastic. I mimic someone taking my bag from me, and shaking my hands and my head when he points to the receipts (after all, I'm a master of this, and by heck I'm not going back to the hotel, then to the embassy and back to the hotel again, I want my passport!), and he simply points to the chairs. I sit down, slightly annoyed, and wait it out. Ten minutes go by and I think that he might have been pointing to the door, not to the chairs which are close next to it. With this, I try again. Nothing. But! Help has arrived, an old lady speaks some decent English and explained my problem to him, but again, even having knowledge of Chinese wouldn't have helped me, he just points to the receipts. Seeing this as a challenge it goes on for a few more minutes, until another member of staff turns up and helps me with his fluent English. I get my passport, win! I emerge from the embassy quickly, happy with my victory over Vietnam, and trot over to the nearest park to treat myself to an ice-cream on yet another boiling hot day.

Myself, Wu Dan Hua and Lu Yong Ming arranged to meet at 6pm. From the hotel, we took at taxi to the train station, as I wanted to ensure I could get the train from Nanning to Pingxiang the next day. Pingxiang is the last stop before the China<>Vietnam border. Taking the taxi to the station with my two translators, Wu Dan Hua asks the ticket office clerk for the ticket for tomorrow morning, and all is well. Then he turns to me and asks in perfect English if the ticket is for me and has us all laughing. For the four and a bit hour journey by train, it costs RMB17 (£1.50), and leaves at 8am the next day. Perfect. Having a ticket in advance and knowing the times that it leaves is a huge lift off of my shoulders. Then we grab another cab and head to the night food market, the name escapes me as it's a long Chinese one with some weird pronunciation. It's one long street with many stalls selling everything from fruit, to chestnuts, to octopus, to snails, to normal barbeque items and fish. Grabbing some oily bread, chestnuts and other bits, we head up the road slowly. We settle down at a stall that makes gyoza dumplings, little bits of vegetable mashed together, and others with bits of meat. Ten of them costs RMB3 (25p), we get thirty between us and eat them as soon as they're made and brought over to the table. We finish my appetisers, head back to the street, and shortly after I feel something on my left pocket. Instantly I look down and up, seeing a hand retract and my own hands pushing the dickhead who tried his luck. I stare at the cheeky dipshit who attempted to take my camera and music player, he moves back as if drunk and is laughing, I push him again and back off to get away from him and who I presume are his thief friends to my right. I don't fancy myself against three of any people, especially not in a foreign country when I can simply walk away. We do so, and I relocate my wallet, camera and music player to my pockets on my legs that button up. This is the first time I felt even slightly unsafe in any Asian country, the warnings I had received the past few days from Wu Dan Hua were entirely justified. I'd heard pick-pocketing was rife in Shenzhen, but saw nothing to indicate the sort. A bit riled up, we sat in a secluded restaurant so I could relax and sit down for some food. The girls go to the front where all the market stalls are located after I tell them to order whatever they want, I think by now they're feeling a little more accustomed to the difference in economies. Out comes a fish with beansprouts, ginger and lots of other bits, on a huge metal tin with flames beneath it to keep it hot, a load of beef slices on sticks, some octopus tentacles on sticks, a big purple vegetable cut open that looks revolting, and other small dishes to keep us full. Total cost was around RMB70 (£5), a bargain for one meal, but it filled all three of us. Having eaten enough for the next couple of days and spending less than £7, we made our way through the shopping district where everything is extremely cheap. Pairs of shoes for RMB30 (£2), socks for a third of that, t-shirts from RMB20 (£1.60) and many other fantastic prices. Eager to keep my baggage low, I settle on one t-shirt for RMB41 (£3) and happily venture to bed at 11pm, awaiting the next day of festivities (read: long train journeys with wooden seats and tired eyes).

Thursday, 27 March 2008

More Nanning (And The Zoo!), 18:43, 27/03/2008

From my previous post, I wait an hour and make my way to a taxi, try and explain where I want to go (no one understands written English either) and finally convey I want to go to a hotel. I get to one around 6am, the room looks nice, RMB200 (£16) a night seems okay so I go to pay for a couple of nights, they want RMB500 deposit, I laugh and wonder why they need so much compared to any other hotel, I don't even have that on me so leave on a search at this ungodly hour for a cheaper hotel. I find one ten minutes later, RMB90 (£7) a night, RMB130 deposit, plus, it's called the Sanadu Hotel. Fantastic. For the price it's more than acceptable, a proper toilet rather than a squat, a double bed, TV, wardrobe, and it's central to most places around here.

After finding another hotel nearby with a map of Nanning and English-speaking staff, they pointed out where I currently was, where the train station is and where I needed to go to get my Vietnamese visa. This proved invaluable, all I had to do was point at the map to where the Investment Plaza was, and I was whisked to the Vietnamese embassy for around £1. After filling out the short application form and getting someone to take a photo of me for it, I paid the not-so-cheap RMB380 (£30) for the privilege of visiting Vietnam for 30 days, now I have to wait until Monday until it's ready for me, if I wanted it the same day it would have cost RMB200 more, but I'm in no rush. On Tuesday I'll be heading to the border and making my way to Hanoi for a while, then onto the coast – from there I'm thinking of going through Laos then eventually to Thailand.

Friday night, I wander around the city to get a feel for the area – I get that familiar feeling once again, it's just like the rest of China! Dozens upon dozens of identical stalls selling cigarettes, drinks, ice-cream and chewing gum, the same amount of small restaurants with indecipherable lettering on all of the walls and menus, the same amount of stores selling mobile phones and accessories. Mobile phones are a huge part in China's reconstruction as a capitalist country, many people own them, many more have yet to succumb to technology, whether it's because they don't see the need or understand them, or that they simply can't afford one. This became startlingly evident as the evening progressed.

I found a large restaurant, with one of the best ideas yet: two huge walls with pictures of every dish they do. Fantastic! I went a little crazy and pointed at things with one hand and counting the numbers of each on the other, using the thumbs up when I presumed they had my order right, and sat down at a small table to wait for the tea to arrive. Usually it's green tea, but in every restaurant I've visited, they'll serve up hot tea at no extra charge – they can, however, charge for other things such as tissues that look to be of no charge, but really, you needn't worry, they only add around 10 pence to the bill because of them. Some places also have a service charge (10%), but it depends on the restaurant. It's best just to expect it rather than be surprised when it doesn't quite seem to add up. Soon after ordering, a young waitress came up to my table and started speaking some more than adequate and most definitely more than appreciated English to me. She confirmed what I wanted and we talked for a while about what she was studying and how grateful I was that she helped out with the order. My meal came and was more than I could handle – I packed away most of it and got the bill. RMB22 (£1.80) for two large dishes and all the tea I could stuff down my throat. The young waitress came over to wish me well, and having not enquired before, I asked her how much she earns per hour. First she says RMB18 (£1.40 or so), but corrects herself and says she gets RMB18 for her whole shift of nine hours. So for a 19 year old University student working in a restaurant in China, RMB2 (12 pence) an hour is what you an expect. Unsure if it was offensive in the slightest but wanting to show my thanks for helping, I dig out a RMB20 note and hand it to her. A few minutes later and I still can't get her to take it, insisting she did as it's such a small amount of money for me that it doesn't matter at all. Instead, I make the promise that I'll come back tomorrow, simply so I have someone English to speak to.

I return the next day after a long day of doing nothing, and her friend is also working, we all make plans to go out the next day (Sunday). This works well for all of us, I eagerly want to visit the zoo, but have no clue as to how to get there, they can't afford to go there (it's RMB30 per person, £2.50) and I would appreciate the company and a couple of friendly tour-guides if nothing else. Waking up, it's 28 degrees outside and we set off around 11am, but not before checking into a new hotel (the Hanting Express, RMB119/£9.50 per night, brand new hotel, free internet, TV, clean room, more than I could have asked for). We first take the bus (RMB1.2/10p) to their University, it takes about thirty minutes and we walk around the whole complex. It's a huge mixture of new and slightly older buildings, as well as a small forest an a few parks throughout it all. It's very impressive to walk around, I didn't expect something so well formed, especially when their rent is RMB1000 (£85) for a whole year. The food is also dirt cheap, RMB3 (25p) per meal, I gobble the Guangxi province noodles and soup down, being my first meal of the day and all. After a long walk around, we head back to the main street to catch a bus to the zoo, a ten minute ride down the road. Two thirds of the way there we stop at another of the scheduled stops, and five guys burst onto it and drag two other guys off of the bus, pinning them to the ground. This is Chinese for 'We're cops, these are pick-pockets, everyone on the bus check your pockets to make sure you're not missing anything'. My pockets still contained everything I expected and we soon made our way onwards. The two girls, Wu Dan Hua and Lu Yong Ming, are extremely grateful for me paying for their £2 zoo entry, as they have never been to one because of the price. It has all the usual animals, lots of monkeys, a dolphin show, and one I couldn't stomach for long, the bear show. This involved dressing them up in skirts, making them dance, walk tight-ropes, but worst of all putting boxing gloves on their paws and making them fight each other. Not once did they walk on all fours, all the time they were stood as humans – I couldn't feel anything but sympathy for them. The rest of the zoo was more appealing, and was enjoyable to walk around, but there must have been hundreds of monkeys there – just as well I'm a monkey fan! We then took another (cheap) taxi to one of the big parks in Nanning, paid RMB2 (15p) to get in and soaked up the sun for the most part. Near the end of it all was a small amusement park of sorts, including a tall metal ferris wheel, only when nearing the top was I regretting getting into something so flimsy, thinking of how futile holding the sides would be in something made purely of heavy metal if it were to fall. Obviously, I lived to tell the tale and was glad to get out of it – the pictures I got were impressive though. Going to the University, the zoo and the park is more than a day's strength, so happily I retired for the day, until tomorrow of course.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Nanning, 21:02, 25/03/2008

Having made more than my fair share of acquaintances for the five days I was stopping in Hong Kong for, I left them to seek Chinese land again. This time, I was determined to get from Kowloon (Hong Kong) to Nanning in the mainland. This involves again taking the train from East Tsim Sha Tsui Station to Lo Wu, crossing into Shenzhen (mainland China) by foot, then finding a train from Shenzhen to Guangzhou, then an overnight sleeper train to Nanning. Most of it went well until the last part, the next sleeper train wasn't until the following day (it was roughly 4pm at the time), this was contrary to the 16;57 and 17:10 train departures I'd read about online. Unabashed, I set out to find an English-speaking representative at the train station who spent a good fifteen minutes working out what I wanted to do and writing down in no uncertain terms what I had to do and in both English and Chinese, success! So, I took the Metro from GuangzhouDong (Guangzhou East Railway Station), and thirty minutes and one change later I arrived in Guangzhou Railway Station. The difference? Quite a few miles and a better long-distance network. Here I found a bus station of sorts, well, more like a place selling tickets, of which I bought one for Nanning an hour later at 18:00 for RMB190 (£16) and settled for the only hot food around, McDonalds. Coming up with about twenty minutes until departure, I tried finding the bus stop, which I presumed would be where all the other buses were, underneath the first floor ticket booths. Of course, my presumption wasn't correct. As I found out due to broken English and more tin-ba-dongs, it was ten minutes up the road in the back of a mall. I thankfully made the bus due to one of the people in the first bus station telling me to follow someone, which I did and all was well.

I had about five minutes to spare, but the bus was twenty minutes late anyway so I wouldn't have missed it if I'd been late either. I was dreading the journey ahead slightly, one chair, ten hours (at least) and bumpy motorways.. then the bus pulled up. Everyone loaded on the luggage into the hold beneath (along with a box of chicks, squeaking away), got onto the bus, put their shoes into red plastic bags, hobbled along the painful spiky red floor and.. got into their bunks. For £16, I got myself ten hours on a bus to Nanning and my own little bed, complete with small shelf, raised back, small quilt and pillow. Granted, I must have slept an hour through the whole thing because of my inability to sleep on any form of moving transport, but it was an experience I certainly won't be losing from memory soon. Right now I'm sat upstairs in the bus station in Nanning, no idea where I am due to it being 04:47 and pitch black outside. The cries of 'taxi, taxi!' meant nothing, where would I go? Silly taxi drivers and their thirst for a fare at this hour. Now, I'll sit here until it gets light and hope things get a little clearer.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

HK Again, 20:35, 18/03/2008

I've settled down in Hong Kong again, packed up about five boxes of stuff to send home and bought lots to put inside those packages and boxes.. and I'm pooped. I think I'm ready to leave again and make my way through China and get to Hanoi (Vietnam) over land, visiting various places on the way. From there I intend to visit the coast of Vietnam then go on to Laos and eventually Thailand, as my craving for clear blue skies, 30+ degrees heat and beaches is getting increasingly strong.

Dave, meanwhile, has found that due to the Tibetan rioting and bloodshed, that he can't make his way to Lhasa and has had a big portion of his trip diverted because of it. He's also put up some detailed reports of our travels together and some pictures of yours truly:

I'll get some more photos uploaded soon of the remaining ones of China and some from Hong Kong.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Tin-Ba-Dong!, 14/03/2008

Having travelled in each other's company for almost two weeks, myself and Dave found ourselves in Shenzhen, the first stop inside China from Hong Kong. We left Hung Hom station in Hong Kong and paid HK$33 (just over £2) to get to Shenzhen, roughly an hour's journey away. Because Shenzhen is in mainland China, you will need a Chinese visa – you can get these in advance, or I'm told you can get one on the border. If you opt for the latter choice, bear in mind you can only get a five day Shenzhen visa and you will have to pay for it.

Nothing really attracted me to Shenzhen aside from the fact it's in the People's Republic Of China (to give it its full name) and very close by. The trains are the same as the subway trains, they're quick and clean, and not very crowded either. To get to Shenzhen, take the Hung Hom station from Hong Kong and go to Lo Wu, that's the last stop inside Hong Kong officially, then you have to walk across the border (indoors, you just get your passport stamped) and you're in China. It's reminiscent of Hong Kong in many ways, it's full of tall buildings, lots of shops and even more people. For the first time, I hadn't booked a hotel or hostel in advance, so we had to try our luck in finding a place to stay. The usual girls in red sashes will try and get you to go into their hotel that they work for; we went into one, took a look around the room and promptly left – many places (including hotels and restaurants) have, shall we say, different toilets. By that, I mean imagine a normal toilet, but make the rim of it so it's level with the ground. These horrid squat-toilets are an abomination, I refuse to ever consider using one, if only for fear of falling in. So onwards we went, more similar hotels located on the umpteenth floor of some apartment-style buildings went by, and we settled on a place downtown on the corner of a large street. It cost RMB208 (£16) per night, for two double beds (I've yet to go to a place that isn't a dorm which hasn't had double beds in every room) and all the usual amenities, and it was a real hotel! So £8 each per night cannot be sniffed at, which draws me to a point I feel I have to make – if you can travel with other people, whether it be people you know from home or people you meet on your travels, do it. Being around other people encourages you to do more, you both have a collective idea of what there is to do in any certain place, but most of all it's cheaper. Double beds are plentiful, so if you have someone who can share one with you, fantastic, because I've been in rooms for around £9 a night and having someone share cuts that cost in half. That's the amount you'll spend on food and travel in a day – and when you (read: I) have no set travel dates, every little counts towards lengthening your stay. The room we were in had two double beds, so room enough for four people comfortably, I just end up feeling as if I could be saving money if only there were more of us.

Impressions of China from this rectangular city, is that it's polluted like Hong Kong, it's still busy, it still feels pretty safe, and they like their scooters. The scooter thing is because (as I later found out) motorbikes are banned, so the powers-that-be are trying to push scooters instead, possibly due to safety as many don't wear helmets, and if they do they don't fasten them to their heads, rendering them pointless.

Dave's mother plays mahjong with another woman back home in America, this other woman has a son who's living in Shenzhen, so suggested Dave go meet up with him and his wife, inevitably, I tagged along and ended up visiting a large park on the top of Shenzhen looking down upon it with Dave and his mother's friend's son's wife. It's a place we probably wouldn't have found on our own due to the various bus rides to get there – buses seem impenetrable when no one seems to speak English in mainland China, restaurants are bad enough! It's a large park full of greenery, little commercialisation – in that I actually wanted to see a small shop somewhere so I could buy an ice-cream, thankfully we found one as we were coming down from the top – and sports a large statue of a prior leader of China (the one before Chairman Mao). The view from on top of the hill shows how in progress Shenzhen is, all of the surrounding buildings that have any height above the usual street-level ones have sprung up in the past couple of years. As with most of China, it's a developing place and will only serves to get bigger. Building sites are visible from the view, as well as many fresh-looking constructions and a steady haze covering those in the distance.

We visited the local farmer's market after this, a large repetetive outdoor market of sellers selling pretty much the same things, positioned in the same places too (watermelons top left, tomatoes at the bottom, carrots to the right..). It shows how cheap fresh fish, meat, fruit, vegetables and all manner of dried goods can be in China, as if the stores we've already visited weren't cheap enough. The fish section is mostly what you'll see elsewhere, although more turtles, octopus and other small bits that wouldn't go in my mouth either – it also smells, a lot. Not surprising I suppose, but enough to put me off seafood for a while! The meat section is also recognisable, except for the sellers who all tend to smoke right next to the open raw meat (hands no more than a few inches away), and meat with no real cooling, left to stew in the warm Chinese air. Suffice to say I prefer not to see what my animal was before it became my food on my plate (hence an aversion to octopus, because I can see what the tentacles are, and the word tentacle itself puts the shivers up me), nor where its come from, especially so in the case of China where food hygiene isn't something universally recognised yet. The dried section (so called because I can't think of a better name) includes many teas, lots of mushrooms which don't look like mushrooms, nuts, fruits and all the things to use the aforementioned with. Walking around and smelling is good enough for me, as much as a full-sized royal tea set was, it's simply too big to carry and too delicate to think about posting home. Despite not buying anything, it was nice to walk around it all, but seeing battery poultry and fish (they clearly hadn't enough water for even half of them) wasn't all that pleasant.

After our market tour we headed to, of all places, Wal-Mart. See, I've never been to one (Asda doesn't count), and at the least was intruiged to see what a Chinese version of a large supermarket would be like. In reality it was big but not huge, it had a decent bakery section with cheap food, but also sold live turtles which the staff will kill for you when you decide upon the one you want, it had crabs in the same regard, except they're all tied up so they can't move – they just sit there waiting to be chosen (or not) – and frogs sold by the packet, three on their back in a plastic tray covered with cling-film. It's the consideration I've had for such animals that makes me feel distressed at seeing them turtles and frogs were never to be eaten but to be looked at and seen as being friendly – obviously it's different when you grow up in a country where they're treated with a different regard, but it's not something I wanted to see or hear about in all honesty. I'm sure there are certain things we eat (veal, perhaps?) that invoke a similar feeling when they visit the UK, so it may well be a case of double-standards but my pity for frogs and turtles remains.

Having picked up fresh boxers, socks, some £4 sandals, razors and other bits to keep me tided, we met up with Dave's mother's friend's son, and had what can only be called a feast. Collectively we ordered lots of different dishes and picked off of each one, a great idea when there's four of you there to get a bit of everything rather than sticking to one meal that you might have regretted ordering after realising what it is when they deliver it.. yes, I ordered shrimp with noodles, what I got was shrimp with noodles, and lots and lots of tentacles from an octopus reaching from within it, as if trying to escape the noodling tangle it had gotten itself into. I recoiled in horror at the dish they had presented me, but thankfully David (Dave's mother's friend's son) reminded me we were sharing. Phew! We plouged through various dumplings (meat inside a thin, almost slippery casing, not the typical dumpling you might be thinking of), vegetables, pork slices and many more foods I can't remember; it was good. And very cheap of course, something ridiculous like £5 each including a few large bottles of beer each. From here we said goodbye to Dave's mother's friend's son's wife as she left for home, and myself and Dave and David went to a local pool and snooker hall, where you pay another very small amount to play on any of the tables in there, whilst having a girl wait on you, both for drinks and to replace any balls on the table (if playing snooker) and hand you any rests you might need. Handy! And for roughly an hour, we paid around £2, including beer.

We departed and said goodbye to David, and retired to our hotel room. Dave needed to set off in the morning for his midday flight to Chengdu to meet an old school-friend, so we got some early sleep thanks to the long day we'd endured and subsequently slept in and missed him to say my farewells to him, it had, after all, been two weeks since we'd met and started hanging out – of course we've got e-mail addresses exchanged and can each other in tune with the other's travels thanks to the wonder of blogs. One quick word on blogs if you were wondering about an update.. China doesn't allow them. You can't visit someone's blog or post on your own within China, many other websites are blocked too, such as Wikipedia and the BBC News website. So, getting back to Hong Kong is going to be a relief, not least because most people speak English!

Cihan, who I'd met in Macau (a Turkish guy living in China), live in Guangzhou, and is only about an hour or so away from Shenzhen, so I thought why not and hopped on a train. RMB75 (£6) straight from Shenzhen and its confusing train station, I arrived and found a hotel close by for RMB220 a night (£18) for two nights, just so I could get my bearings, and recover from lugging my heavy bag around again - it takes me about two nights to get ready for moving it again. The hotel (Lilac International Suites) is more than adequate, it's nothing special but it has a laundry room with machines at RMB10 (80p) a go, including drying, very handy as I was looking for a laundrette at the time. The hotel also has wired internet (and a wire to plug into your laptop), an added bonus that perhaps is reflected in the price. Other than that, the bathroom was very nice and the well lit thanks to the large windows, but the view wasn't the best – it was just one big construction site and a half-finished building. This led to being woken up slightly earlier than I'd wanted because of the noise, but wasn't too big of an issue. One major issue I have with China that annoys me daily is spitting, hocking and spitting everywhere – most of the people seem to do it, and it doesn't matter where either, in the street, in internet cafes, Cihan said he's seen someone do it in a restaurant too, just hocking and spitting on the floor. Hearing that hock when walking down the street or just sitting in my room writing on this blog irritates and disgusts me every time I hear it – the government here is trying to stamp it out as much as possible because of the imminent olympics in Shenzhen, Shanghai, Guangdong and Beijing and the image it's going to portray. I'd say their worries are most valid and hope their campaigns work because it's extremely off-putting as a visitor.

Guangzhou as a city I've not really seen in a city sense, I've visited little in the way of sites and more tried to enjoy the food and just walk around more than anything. There doesn't seem to be a great amount to do here, but it is big – the shopping can be good, but sadly I can't engage in it much because of my bag. Because of this and the strain it's putting on me, I've tried to find a shop that sells decent hiking-type bags, and failed in Guangzhou. Annoyingly I found one in Shenzhen and didn't replace my bag, I really should have done. As I was leaving Shenzhen, the long strap on my bag snapped, hence the need for a bag sooner than I'd anticipated. Dave said I'll end up getting a big hiking back-pack, or at least that I need to, I denied that I needed one, and thankfully I outlasted my bag, so I have a subtle victory in some sense. Anyway, Guangzhou is rubbish for large back-packs, I've found. Great if you want a hangbag, fantastic for one of the ones that you drag along on wheels, but otherwise, no. I found one for RMB448 (£36), it seemed okay, but only one in a whole store of bags that suited my needs. I found one more for RMB302 (£24), similar quality but unsure if it'd last, and only one in a whole store of bags. Moving on I found a place selling a whole load of bags and had one similar to those I'd just found for RMB100 (£8)! I bought it fairly promptly and left. I took it back to my expensive RMB220 per night hotel and was happy. That morning, I got myself ready to move onto my cheaper RMB120 (£10) hotel and started to open the bag.. the zip on the top pouch goes. Balls. I try the bottom one on the back, it falls off. The one on the right seems fine, the one on the left sticks.. The string ties to seal everything in the bag seem a bit thin, but I get most of my stuff in it, my books and clothes mostly. I hoist it onto my back and depart, despite the zips, it's fine. I get to the subway, get the train to Shiqiao (where my new hotel is), get out of the subway and start to head towards it. Half way there - SNAP SNAP. Both arms break at the bottom and the bag falls off my back and onto the floor. Double balls. I then proceed, through the 27 degrees celcius heat, and drag the bag to the hotel in its more than damaged state. I needed a new bag. Another search proved fruitless, so armed with Cihan as my translator again, I took the piece of shit bag back to the store and attempted to mimic what had happened. Cihan taught me some quick Chinese so I could make my demand of them, ni-yao-worder-chen, I want my money. I repeated it a few times so they go the message, then started on at me in Chinese, my simple retort of saying tin-ba-dong (literally translates to 'I don't understand') and pointing for them to speak to Cihan annoyed them more. I looked at the same bags that I had bought, and started on zips. One fell off each of them, the women there weren't pleased. This is after about ten or fifteen minutes of Cihan trying to explain that another bag is just going to break. I look around the store briefly whilst he talks to them. I don't want a bag that I have to drag on wheels, hardly the epitome of back-packing, but was feeling a little annoyed at this point at how they were refusing to refund and saying to try another of the same bag and bring that one back if it breaks. I don't have the time, nor the patience, to go back to the hotel and pack everything I'd just unpacked, and walk around with it until it breaks. So, we danced a little more, Cihan explained it again, I repeated ni-yao-worder-chen and nothing happened. I found a large bag with wheels that also has another of the same type (just slightly smaller) within it, picked it up and walked out of the store, Cihan realised and came out with me, the two women, one a very nasaly old coot with one of the worst bob-haircuts I've ever seen, starts going off on one to me. Of course, my repetition of tin-ba-dong just annoys her more as she demands for the bag back as they repeat that there is another bag inside. I repeat, this time a lot louder to compete with passers-by and the traffic behind me: ni-yao-worder-chen, I want my money back, or you're not getting your bags back, love. She starts waving her hands around like a woman ready to blow a fuse, Cihan explains that means she's inviting me into her crap-hole of a store. I say again tin-ba-dong, and get Cihan to tell her I want my RMB100 back or I'm leaving with the bags, she says give her the bags back and she'll give me my money back. Obviously she thinks Adam isn't as smart as her, she thinks wrong. I tell Cihan to tell her to put the money on top of the dodgy DVDs at the front of the store (it's an open-fronted one), which all of the stores seem to sell, no matter what they primarily stock (in this case, bags, lots of bags) and I'll put the bags down next to it. She says something, I say tin-ba-dong, ni-yao-worder-chen! I start to walk away and Cihan laughs, then she goes crazy again, I repeat ni-yao-worder-chen, ni-yao-worder-chen, passers-by are now standing around and chuckling, watching as this woman becomes increasingly irate, so then she says something which Cihan interprets to be 'just take it', and we leave.

That was fun, I now am the owner of two matching suitcase-type bags with wheels, one smaller than the other. The smaller I offered to Cihan, he informed me he has no need for one, he lives here after all, so I took it downstairs to reception and gave it to a very pleased guy. I'll have to make do with this suitcase thing until I can find a decent store to get a backpack from, possibly in Hong Kong. All that over a broken bag and £8.

So a recommendation, get a decent bag, and get it in the UK, where consumer rights exist and are generally known and accepted. I haven't found an equivalent of Blacks (a walking/hiking specific store in the UK) in Asia, but being more of a hub, Hong Kong should possess such a store, since it has so many people passing through it. Well, I'm hoping so.

That's my experience of China so far, it's grubby, it's murky, it's very warm, the sun doesn't shine through much due to pollution and the general atmosphere in the weather and it has some great plates to eat, as well as some not so great ones. I'm looking forward to returning to Hong Kong. From there, I'll be heading on to Bangkok, for a tour of the coast and the islands, I want a tan!

Monday, 3 March 2008

Hong Kong Pictures & Macau/Macao So Far, 17:23, 03/03/2008

A view of Hong Kong Island from Kowloon
Victoria Peak is located on the top of the right hill/mountain/thing
Myself (middle) and two Canadian guys who I was
sharing a dorm room with, 2 pounds for a 700ml beer

New specs!

One of the market stalls in Sham Shui Po,
selling lights - on all day and hurt to look at

The roads from a bridge on Hong Kong Island

Green water..

Lots of tall buildings




A lovely sunset from Victoria Peak

The smallest toilet I've ever attempted to use

On top of Victoria Peak (Hong Kong Island) which overlooks
the island as well as Kowloon (which is across the water)

My time in Hong Kong came to an abrupt end, as my debit and credit cards dutifully and annoyingly failed me the minute I set foot on Asian shores. I had entered my PIN wrongly due to the number pads being upside-down here, which triggered an anti-fraud measure with my bank. So, people, don't get your PIN wrong, and also don't try and take out more than your daily limit, that can be excruciating if you have no other money on you, thankfully, I had the slight foresight to take some US dollars with me which came in handy when needing to buy food (money exchange booths are littered throughout Hong Kong). My last few days in Hong Kong were to collect my visa for China (three months, HK$1200 - £80) and get myself ready for the trip to Macao.

Macao (or Macau, no one seems settled on the correct spelling) is reknowned as the gambling capital of Asia, with much higher profits than Las Vegas, so of course I wanted to go. From Hong Kong, you need to make your way to the third peer after Ocean Terminal (a shopping centre that juts onto the water), where many different boats set sail. From there you can go to lots of places in China, and just up the water to Macao for H$128 (£8 or so) one way. The ferry itself is of a decent size, has plenty of room to move around in, and has the most comfortable seats (cushy leather) of any transport system I've ever been in. It takes roughy an hour to get there from Hong Kong, and upon arrival, it's akin to a very small arrivals section at an airport. With a British passport you can stay here 180 days, just as in Hong Kong, but to do so you'd need to really limit yourself financially and be capable of entertaining yourself, or have bags of money in your bank account to live well.

Macao is known for its Portugese influence, it's sunny, it has paved streets across the few small islands it inhabits, and is home to many beautiful churches. Oh, and just like Hong Kong, there's a 7-Eleven (small stores that sell the basics, drink, food, magazines and whatnot), McDonalds and Starbucks around what seems to be every corner you go past, so that 'homely' feeling of HK is never quite lost. We arrived yesterday and didn't book anything in advance, there really isn't any need – Macao is so close to Hong Kong that they use both Hong Kong Dollars and Macao Patacas interchangeably, especially so because they are worth exactly the same so it isn't worth the hassle of getting Patacas when the currency you have works fine everywhere here. It was easy enough to get a taxi from the ferry terminal, 30 Patacas or HK$ will get you to Rua Da Feliciadade, or at least close enough to it to walk across the street, here we found three or four hotels located almost next to each other. Each has their advantages, either a cheaper price with slightly grotty rooms, or a higher price with very nice rooms, it all depends on budget. We hesistated between two which are located next to each other, one had two double beds, a huge room, nice bathroom and friendly staff, and worked out to be 1000 for three nights, so 500 between two or 333 between three, about £22 each for three nights stay. Next door to them was a place which wasn't as nice, but 600 for three nights and has three separate beds, so 200 each (£13 or so) for three nights. Quite the bargain! This was possible thanks to a Turkish guy called Cihan (chee-han) myself and Dave found whilst all looking for the same hotel (which was full anyway), from there we walked up to this hotel and he negotiated in Chinese (he's been learning and living in Shanghai for a year and a half now) for the price on the room, extremely helpful to have around when a lot of people struggle with English. It's pretty strange that all the streets have Portugese names too, because the taxi drivers don't ever seem to speak English, nor do they understand the Portugese names, so if you come to Macao, make sure you have a Lonely Planet guide with you (or nearest equivalent) – the China version covers Macao – or just pick up a free map at the ferry terminal (you can get them outside at the taxi enquiries booth). Then, you can point the street name out to the taxi driver (as they're spelt in Cantonese next to the Portugese names) rather than act like the typical ignorant foreigner, hoping that speaking loudly and slowly is going to help them understand a language they've no understanding of.

Having been here for around three days now (time doesn't matter when you've no obligations), the place is certainly warming. The food is generally good, the people are friendly despite the language barrier (there are English speakers, they can be a little hard to find though), and just relaxing outside with a book is easy for myself and my room-mates, who now consist of Dave (as previously mentioned) and Cihan. Having only been in Asia for less than ten days, it's strange how easy it is to get along with people you've just met, just as easy in Amsterdam really, perhaps it's the traveller's mindset, I'm not sure. Either way, it's been great so far, being around people with extremely different stories to tell and paths they want to take. Oh, except all the women in the internet cafes that try to sing all the time, I wouldn't mind if they were in tune.