The route from China to India was a long one, departing my home on Saturday lunchtime and arriving in the wee hours of Monday morning. However, an extended layover in Kuala Lumpur gave me time to get reacquainted with one of my favourite cities. I took a stroll in Chinatown and then explored the botanic gardens. About six or seven years ago I saw a water monitor eating a large cat there, but this time the scene was somewhat different, with a large number of families holidaying.
When I arrived in Chennai, I made my way to Zostel, my hostel in the middle of the city. In the morning, I took a walk towards the beach. Having walked some twenty-five kilometers in Malaysia the previous day, I soon became tired and eventually relented at the prompting of one of many rickshaw drivers. “I’ll take you around the city and show you everything for just one hundred rupees,” he promised.
Needless to say, he showed me almost nothing and when I got back to my hostel later in the day, I was thoroughly pissed off. Chennai is not really much of a tourist city. It is ugly and crowded and dirty. But I hadn’t expected much, and would have been fine exploring on foot. I had walked by myself through some slums and met friendly and interesting people. Instead, I was fleeced by a dishonest rickshaw driver.
Fortunately, in the evening I made some good friends among the other tourists staying at my hostel, and we stayed up late sitting on the roof of the hostel, listening to music and being devoured by mosquitoes. They all said they were heading in roughly the same direction as me, but different times, and perhaps we will meet again down the road.
In the morning I was ripped off by another rickshaw driver en route to finding a bus south. (In fact, from now on, just assume that any reference to rickshaws involved getting ripped-off.) I arrived at a random roadside and fortunately a bus soon came by and I was on board, flying south along the East Coast Road (ECR). Amazingly, the bus was totally empty except for me – not what I had expected of travel in India. When I got off, the driver asked for 200 rupees, which was more than double what I had been told. Oh well… This was (and continues to be) a recurring theme.
My destination was Mamallapuram (which is just one of the spellings for this hard-to-pronounce place), a tourist hot-spot fifty kilometers south of Chennai. It is famous for an old temple and some Hindu carvings. I was taken by my rickshaw driver to a run-down guesthouse near the beach, and then set out to look around. The beach was not exactly pleasant but the Shore Temple, which is Mamallapuram’s most famous attraction, was really quite nice. It dates back to about 700 AD and was once a part of a chain of similar pagoda-shaped structures that may have acted as navigation aids. Now the Shore Temple is all that remains. It is surrounded by statues of cows (which are famously revered by Hindus) and entrance for foreign tourists is 500 rupees, which is rather steep given that there’s not a great deal to actually see or do there.
In the late afternoon, after a bit of rest back at my guesthouse, I went on another walk, this time to the park that lies west of the main town. Here, the main attraction is known as Krishna’s Butterball – a giant rock that appears to be precariously balanced on a slope, ready to fall at a moment’s notice. The area around it was so crowded with people that it was actually not very interesting, but the park itself was filled with old Hindu carvings. The sandstone had been carved into cave-temples and other structures, including a large relief known as Arjuna’s Penance. It is one of the biggest bas-reliefs anywhere in the world, and stands right next to a busy intersection.
While in the park, I was approached by a shy young man who asked in broken English for a selfie with me. I agreed and suddenly a queue formed of some seventy or eighty Indians all asking for selfies. It was bizarre. In China, people always point at me and take photos, and very occasionally someone will ask for a selfie. However, there are very few foreigners in China, and here there were many white people. Granted, I was the only white person in the park… but still, it was a surprise. Most of the people were in family groups and appeared quite poor. Some of them, particularly those with children, wanted me to take their photo with my camera, even though they didn’t have e-mail addresses or social media accounts for me to send the picture on. Later, a boy asked if I was working with a Scottish newspaper, and it occurred to me that perhaps word had gone around the park that I was some sort of journalist and these people wanted their picture in a foreign newspaper.
The late afternoon and early evening I spent in the park more than made up for all the scams and rip-offs I’d experienced everywhere else. It reaffirmed what I had previously hoped to be true – that the people in the tourist industry were unscrupulous vultures, but the average Indian was friendly and decent.
The next morning I set off for Auroville, outside Pondicherry, a few hours to the south. I’ll post more in a few days.
It’s winter here in Huainan and my semester draws to a close. Pretty soon it will be time for the exams, and shortly after that I will take off for India and Sri Lanka. I resurrected this blog a few years ago to post my notes and photos mostly from my travels, and this year I have made almost forty posts.
It’s been a pretty good year for me in terms of travel. It began with a trip to Jiuhuashan at New Year, and after that I took off for a fortnight in Sri Lanka, where I saw whales and leopards. Next, I headed to Japan with my girlfriend to see Tokyo and Mount Fuji.
After another semester of teaching here in China, I headed home to Scotland for some time with my family, and then toured Europe. Mostly, I spent time in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bratislava, and Budapest, but in doing so I took a long bus ride through a number of European countries: Holland, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary!
After all that, I got back to China in time to pick up my girlfriend and take her to Thailand for a few weeks on Koh Tao. I’ve been to Thailand many times and even spent a few weeks on Koh Tao back in 2015, but it’s such a pleasant part of the world that I was happy to go again.
In October, during China’s National Week, we headed to the southwest of the country. Last year, we saw Dali, which was mobbed by idiot tourists, and so this year we headed further off the beaten path through Lijiang, Shangri-La, and Yubeng.
What a year! Thirteen countries visited – even if only by bus for a few hours. 😉 I hope my readers have had an equally rewarding 2017 and that 2018 is even better for all of us. I’ll be in India for 4-5 weeks, and then Sri Lanka once again for another week, before I return for one final semester of teaching in Huainan.
Once again, let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations for what to see and do in Southern India.
Despite being among the world’s most visited cities, London also seems to be one of the more misunderstood tourist destinations on Earth. People have ideas about London, gathered through everything from history books to postcards, and while those ideas are grounded in reality, they often present the wrong picture. The best way to clarify that picture is to go to London and spend some time there – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. But to give you a head start, I wanted to write a few words about five things in particular you should now about London by now.
1. Londoners Are Perfectly Friendly
The idea that “everyone’s so unfriendly” was included in a list of misconceptions about London, and I have to say I agree it’s the wrong idea. You can go to just about any big city, particularly in a foreign country, and think that the population is by and large unfriendly. It happens when there are millions of people in a single place, and it’s also something you can feel more vulnerable about as a visitor or tourist; you’re more self-conscious about how the locals are looking at you or treating you.
Of course there are unfriendly Londoners. The first time I was ever in the city there happened to be a Champions League football match going on between two English clubs, and I had things thrown at me on the street because I was wearing a shirt supporting one of these clubs. But you know what? I kind of love the passion. Londoners are proud and passionate, and they can certainly eye visitors with suspicion, but they’re perfectly friendly by big city standards.
2. About Half The Sights Are In One Place
Okay, this one is a little bit presumptuous of me, because I’m professing to know what “the sights” are that the average tourist would want to see. Still, think about the iconic landmarks of London – the backdrops in movies, the images on postcards, the backgrounds in selfies your friends posted on Facebook…. I bet the list looks something like this: Big Ben, Parliament, the Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, and Trafalgar Square. Close, right?
Well, many who haven’t actually been to London don’t realize that you can cross about half of the popular sights off your list in an hour or two. Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the Palace of Westminster are all located in what amounts to a single large city block. Not to mention, the beautiful Parliament Square Garden is there as well, and 10 Downing Street – the residence of the Prime Minster – is about two blocks up the road. Really, it’s all quite convenient and gives you more time to truly get to know the rest of the city.
3. The Food Is Sensational
The idea that British food is bad has kept many a traveler somewhat unenthusiastic about London and the rest of the country. It certainly used to be the case, at least in the wider reaches of the country. But in London it’s far from the truth. This city has become something of gold standard for international cuisine, with fine restaurants boasting influence from France, India, Mexico, Indonesia, Japan, Italy, and many other nations known for interesting and delicious cuisine.
It’s also home to some establishments that belong to world-famous chefs. For instance, Raymond Blanc has a brasserie in town and Judy Joo has a Korean fusion restaurant. London is also the de facto hometown of Gordon Ramsay, who’s probably a better chef than you realize. He’s now known for television and for attraction-like restaurants. Indeed just recently he was written up for putting a restaurant in the heart of the Las Vegas strip (and focusing on burgers, fries and milkshakes). But Ramsay has a trophy case full of Michelin stars and eating at one of his London venues is an unforgettable experience.
4. You Don’t Have To Shop At Oxford Street
I’m not a huge shopper, so this isn’t one that I’m writing about with a whole lot of personal experience, I’ll be honest. But I was doing some research for this piece to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything out and found a few different people talking about the different shopping options aside from the famous Oxford Street. One piece even wrote that shopping on Oxford Street is hell, thanks (as you’d likely guess) to massive crowds. Basically, all the other tourists have also heard of Oxford Street, so they’re on their way just as you are.
As it happens, London is home to a lot of other streets and neighborhoods known for awesome shopping opportunities. Regent Street might be the most famous aside from Oxford Street, but the Westfield Shopping Centre comes up quite a bit, as do Covent Garden and Tottenham Court Road.
5. You Do Have To Go To The British Museum
Okay, I just steered you away from one iconic tourist destination in London. And if you’re reading an article like this, you’re probably ready for me to tell you that the museum is an unnecessary, touristy detour that’s no different from other museums you’ve been to a dozen times. Well, I just can’t do it. The British Museum is legitimately special, as one of the largest collections of art and artifacts in the world. Only a few other museums – perhaps the Louvre, the Met, and the Hermitage – are on par with this one.
You really ought to make the time to visit if you have a few days in London. Naturally, as with any major museum, there are exhibitions that pass through and give people a particular reason to go. But exhibitions aside, this museum will stun you with the breadth and quality of its artistic displays. You can legitimately spend an hour in the museum and leave with a new (and better) perspective on human history and creativity.
I’ve been living in China on-and-off for more than seven years. It’s a place I both love and hate in equal measure, but ultimately one that baffles and fascinates me. People ask me why I stay here and my answer is usually the same: “Because life is never boring.” There’s always something truly weird happening nearby, and if you ever ask why, you’ll get the same answer a Chinese person will always give to such a stupid utterance: “没有为什么” – there’s no reason why.
I thought long and hard about what to call this post. I toyed for a long time with “Things I Don’t Understand About China” but instead went for the more internet-friendly “X Weird Things” title format. Sorry. Besides, some of it I really do understand… it’s just still sort of weird.
You might read some of this and say to yourself, “Hey, I visited Shanghai and it wasn’t like that.” Well, no. Shanghai isn’t real China. Take a bus or train out to the provinces and you’ll get an eyeful of weirdness that will blow your fucking head off.
They poop in public
Visitors to China are usually assaulted quite quickly with a sight that is rather distasteful to Western eyes – that of someone crapping in the street. The further from Shanghai you go, the more you see it. Sometimes they go slightly off the street, but it’s always just there. It’s usually people holding babies out with their legs splayed to the world, but oftentimes it’s adults. The result is that any public walkway is absolutely covered in shit. If you are foolish enough to go hiking, for the love of all that’s holy, please DON’T follow any little paths that lead off the main trail. If you’re lucky you’ll see giant piles of poop and tissue paper. If you’re not, you’ll step right in it.
The public bathrooms are nightmarish places to go, which probably explains why so many people would rather take a dump in public. However, when you do go to the bathroom, many don’t have stalls or any sort of divider. The ones that do tend not to have doors, and the ones that have both doors and dividers… well, people just don’t like closing the doors. They prefer to have strangers watch them go. It is somehow comforting for them.
No one washes their hands
I mentioned above that Chinese bathrooms are awful places. You simply avoid them at all costs while you live here, but sometimes that’s impossible and you just have to go. What you are presented with are holes in the ground and no toilet paper. They don’t believe in bleach or any other cleaning chemicals, so they never actually get cleaned and so they stink to high hell. There’s no soap, either. Why? Mostly because anything that isn’t nailed to the ground will be stolen. Who am I kidding? They’d steal the goddamn nail.
People here are somehow happy just splashing a little cold water on their hands after visiting the bathroom – and that’s only the fancy people. Most wouldn’t go that far. This disturbingly applies to people who work in the food service industry. A few years ago I sat at my favourite restaurant looking out on the burning piles of trash when the chef took her kid out to shit in the street – right in front of the restaurant! – and when he was done she wiped his ass with a tissue and immediately went back to cooking. Needless to say, I was damn near sick.
…even after handling raw meat!
The Chinese just don’t seem to believe in germs. Not only are they happy not washing their hands after literally touching human excrement but they will go to the market and pick up raw meat with their hands and just keep on shopping! It is something that completely sickens me because not only are they spreading germs from the meat to themselves, but also the other way round. I’ve stood and watched old woman pick up all sorts of meat, cough and splutter all over it, and then toss it back on the heap for someone else to eat later. Gee, I wonder why I get sick every few weeks…
Babies on bikes
If you’re reading this and wondering, “How the hell did they get to 1.5 billion people with no awareness of basic health!?” then this will just astonish you: People always drive around with babies on their motorbikes and ebikes. This is, of course, not just limited to China and it’s something that I do understand. For most people, owning a car is out of the question and taxis – though incredibly cheap here – are too expensive to take every day for short journeys. Yet everyone just sticks their baby on the front of their bike and takes off into the most reckless traffic on earth. (Okay, maybe that award goes to Vietnam.)
Remember this scene from Bruno:
Yeah, that’s comedy because it’s something so amazingly hard to believe. Yet in China it’s perfectly normal. Which is especially disturbing considering…
They drive on the wrong side of the street
And by that I don’t mean that they drove on the right instead of the left, which they do. Nope, I’m talking about honest-to-god driving into traffic at high speed! People here drive the way they walk, and that’s with a level of flabbergasting arrogance. If you see a turn, you don’t wait for the oncoming traffic to pass, you just go and hope for the best! It’s truly amazing to witness… and yet terrifying. Countless times I’ve seen people lying dead in the street, or others just slightly hurt, and everyone clusters stupidly around, taking photos but not helping… and it’s always caused by someone driving into traffic on purpose. Yet no one ever thinks of this as wrong. A few years ago I was in a small accident myself. A woman driving down the wrong side of the street while playing on her phone crashed straight into me. She shouted, “You foreigners don’t know how to drive!” and everyone crowded around, tsskking at me and muttering about silly foreigners. No one even thought twice about a person going the wrong way down a street. It’s the most normal thing in the world here.
Walking in the street
As if it weren’t bad enough that people careen the wrong way down almost every street in the Middle Kingdom, people casually and very slowly walk in the middle of the road, too. The rest is pure chaos and more than a few fatal accidents. Yes, the pavements are poor condition almost everywhere. But does that really make it worth your while to walk in the middle of the street? To be fair, the roads are relatively new and people have been walking these pathways for decades without getting hit by cars, but now that everyone and their mother thinks they need a car, sauntering down the middle of a street is no longer really a safe thing to do. Because of this, drivers feel the need to beep their horn almost continuously. Which brings me to my next point.
They love loud repetitive noises
Everyone knows that the Chinese love fireworks. It’s been a part of their culture since way back in history. But for some reason this has lead them to a love of (or at least a tolerance for) all loud repetitive noises. In the paragraph above I mentioned car horns. You simply cannot overstate how common these are. In most cities, there are signs that say “No Car Horns!” but as with all signs, the Chinese will choose to ignore it. Buses are among the worst offenders, followed by construction site workers on motorbikes. They will drive at top speed through residential areas not even looking at the road. In China, the rule is this: if you beep your horn and later hit someone, it’s not your fault. So rather than slow or swerve or check a mirror, they beep loudly and repeatedly and just go.
It’s not just the car horns or fireworks. It’s everything. Every shop attempts to woo customers by blaring monotonous lists of items. At my local market, a man in a blue truck full of small mangoes has been sitting in his cab playing Angry Birds while a recorded message drones: “big mangoes… big mangoes… big mangoes…” It has gone on for more than a year. People don’t care. They actually seem to like this sort of thing, and flock to whoever has the loudest and most monotonous recording. Another common tactic is to play that 小苹果 song over and over. I’ll never understand how people can hear the same part of the same song several thousand times and still think, “Hey, that’s original – I’ll go give that guy my money.”
Staring at foreigners’ feet
I could write a whole book about the weird ways Chinese deal with foreigners. (Hey, that’s actually a good idea…) However, by far and away the most odd and yet predictable of these is that whenever a Chinese person meets a laowai, they will look at our feet. It is astonishing, really. I have no idea why they do it and I didn’t even notice until a few years ago when a friend pointed it out to me. I had noticed that most men look me up and down carefully before asking me an absurd question, but I didn’t realize how long they lingered on the feet. My feet aren’t particularly big, so that’s not it. I don’t wear unusual footwear, either. They just always look at a foreigner’s feet.
Smoking in hospitals… or anywhere else
Across all of Asia, men smoke. Smoking is the coolest fucking thing a person can do, apparently. The smoke from a young age until they mysteriously die around fifty of old age, with their teeth rotten stumps and their fingers completely yellowed. Sure, there are signs up everywhere that tell you not to smoke. But Chinese people know better than to follow namby-pamby signs. Smoking in an elevator is perfectly acceptable, for example, even if there’s a “No Smoking” (or sometimes “No Somking”) sign right there. But in Chinese culture, doing the wrong thing is fine… but calling someone out for doing the wrong thing is bad.
What really amazes me is that if you go to any hospital, you’ll see old men staggering about the halls with cigarettes hanging from their mouths. They’ll even do this around newborn children. Doctors will smoke a cigarette while telling you that you’re sick because of the wind or moon or because you had ice in a drink one time. It is staggering how little people understand cause and effect in this odd corner of the world.
They wear pajamas… outdoors
I was reluctant to put this in here because every other “weird China” list includes it – especially ones written by Chinese. However, it is mid-November now and every time I go outside I see people shuffling around in giant fluffy pajamas. I get that it’s cold and you want to wrap up. That makes sense. But does it really make that much sense to wear your pajamas outside? Don’t they get dirty? Don’t they get all wet and gross? I asked one of my friends and he proudly told me that he has indoor and outdoor pajamas. Why the hell wouldn’t you just wear clothes then?!
After spending a little time in Lijiang and Shangri-La, my girlfriend and I took off for a more remote part of China. We were keen to see something different and to get away from the crowds. To use an old cliché, we wanted to get off the beaten path.
From Shangri-La, we took a four hour bus ride up into the mountains. Shangri-La is already at a high altitude. Walking up a flight of stairs there is enough to leave you severely winded unless you’re used to breathing such thin air. But the road north-west leads quickly up into the mountains. It’s slow going on the narrow mountain roads that wind up through the jagged hills. But it’s scenic and the time slips by easily enough. For much of the journey you are following the Jinsha River, which is an early incarnation of the Chiangjiang River (better known in the West as the Yangtze). However, soon this is replaced by the Mekong. I’ve seen the Mekong many, many times in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia, so seeing it here in the high Tibetan Plateau is just bizarre.
Our destination is uncertain at this point. My girlfriend has found a mountain online that seems to hold a peculiar allure, and so we’re going close to it and hoping that there’s something to do in the area. We certainly can’t climb the mountain. Aside from being about 7,000 meters high, it’s actually never been climbed before. Well, not successfully. In 1991, a team of 11 Japanese climbers attempted to summit Meili Xueshan but were all killed by an avalanche. Some Chinese climbers attempted to climb it five years later but failed, too, although they at least escaped with their lives. The mountain has been closed to climbing ever since as it is considered sacred to the local Tibetan Buddhists. This makes it the first and only mountain in China that’s entirely closed to the public for cultural or religious preservation.
Our bus took us to the tiny city of Deqin, embedded in the side of a mountain. It is a remote city and one that looks precariously balanced – in threat of falling thousands of meters down to the river below. The people there look as tough as mountain goats and the buildings suggest that they may indeed have been replaced every few years after falling into the valley. When our bus arrives, we expect to take a car to the nearby town of Feilaisi, but the bus driver tells us he’s going that way and we can just give him 5rmb to stay on.
Soon we arrive in Feilaisi, a tiny tourist town comprised almost entirely of hotels. It’s also built into the side of a mountain, and exists almost entirely because it offers a perfect view of Meili Xueshan. Or rather, it would were it not for the massive cloud bank that engulfs everything around us. Instead, we are stuck in a tiny town with nothing to do, in a grossly overpriced hotel, looking at the inside of clouds.
We take a walk around the nearby hills but the stunning views are entirely hidden. A lonely path takes us on a long walk through a forest. As we get to the farthest points, the winds pick up and the temperature drops suddenly. Then the rain begins to fall hard around us. It is a tough environment here in the mountains. You can’t breathe, can’t see anything, and it’s freezing cold. Yet, as we found out later, despite the cold it’s incredibly easy to get sunburned.
We debated what to do next. Meili Xueshan seemed to have been a waste of time. The stunning mountain views were nowhere to be found. Even the locals told us that it’s very rare to see the mountain. A man in Shangri-La told us he’d taken five spiritual pilgrimages here and never once seen its peak. I decided what we needed was to get closer. Feilaisi was famous as the best place from which to view Meili Xueshan, but if even one of the mountains was enveloped in clouds, there was no view to be had. It made sense that we ought to be closer, even if we ended up viewing the damn things from the bottom.
The next morning we stood with a small gathering of tourists (most of whom had large cameras mounted optimistically on tripods) at 5am, looking out at where the mountain should be. Meili Xueshan’s sunrise is supposedly one of the most beautiful sights in all of China. Alas, we could see almost nothing. We stood around in the freezing morning air until it was apparent that there would be no sunrise of any kind, and then headed for our bus.
The next destination was Yubeng, a tiny village near to Meili Xueshan. I didn’t know where exactly it was, and there wasn’t an abundance of information available, but we had found a man driving a minibus that way for just 20rmb, so we hopped on. They say that Yubeng was closed off to the outside world until a man one day appeared and no one could figure out where he came from. They followed him back through the mountains and found his home under a rock. That story pretty much tells you how easy it is to get to Yubeng.
Our little minibus wound its way down almost 2,000 meters in an hour and a half, along some sickeningly steep mountain roads. At more than a dozen places, the mountain had collapsed and consumed the road, and some of these seemed to have occurred in the last few hours. We came to a bridge that had also been hastily constructed to replace the other, just fifty meters away, that had collapsed into the Mekong. When we finally reached a place called Xidang, and were told it was our final destination, we were glad to be off that death trap bus.
Unfortunately, given the lack of information available, we had failed to realize that Xidang was the final stop on the road to Yubeng, and that the rest of the route was done on foot. This was a 12km hike over a mountain – another few thousand meters up and down. The trek would take some six hours and I did it with two people’s luggage on my back. It would have been a beautiful walk, but in fact it was excruciating.
At about 3,800 meters up we summited our own mountain and began the walk down into the valley where Yubeng was located. At this point, the agonizing journey became entirely worthwhile. The clouds that had covered Meili Xueshan broke and we were in a perfect place to soak up the view. What appeared in front of us was a perfect snow-capped mountain and a lush green valley. It was straight out of a picture book.
We stumbled down the hillside to Upper Yubeng (the village is divided in town, on either side of a river) and tried to check in at our hotel, Lobsang Trekkers. It went something like this:
Me: Hi, I have a reservation…
Owner: Oh, is that from Booking.com?
Owner: Oh, well we don’t accept those bookings.
Me: Yes, you actually did accept it. See, it says here you confirmed the booking.
Owner: We meant to stop using Booking.com a few months ago but we never actually got around to doing it.
Me: I made this reservation yesterday. You confirmed it. You agreed to it. You have to let us stay here. We just walked six fucking hours over a mountain to get here!
Owner: I’m sorry, we’re full.
It went on like that for a while but there was no reasoning with these bastards. They had sold out all their rooms and refused to let us stay. We ended up at a shitty guesthouse a mile down into the valley. Granted, this new place had a stunning view, but it lacked just about every other feature you’d expect from a hotel.
We wandered about the village but by now it was late afternoon and the sun was already going down over the mountains. There wasn’t much to see, but it certainly was quaint. Little mud or wood shacks were tiled with wooden slats for roofs, and people lived together with their horses and pigs. Everything was on a slope going down to a raging river, and walking what would have been 200 meters as the crow flies could take half an hour or more of climbing. We sat and watched the sun go down over the mountain from Lower Yubeng and then called our bus driving friend about how to get out of Yubeng after another day.
There was some bad news: We simply wouldn’t be able to get back to Lijiang in time for our return flight several days later. We had to leave first thing the next morning.
Now this was extremely difficult news to take. We had spent days travelling to get here, not to mention a six hour hike over a mountain with heavy luggage. My legs were dead weight and the thought of climbing back over to Xidang was too much to bear. We weren’t even going to get to explore the valley. There were waterfalls and glaciers to see… but all of that required at least 4-5 hours solid hiking. Yet we had to get out at first light and make a break for the morning buses in Xidang.
The next morning we woke in bad moods anticipating a difficult journey back to Xidang. However, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise:
After that, we started up the side of the mountain. We got only a short distance before I said, “Fuck it, let’s hire horses.”
That wasn’t as easy as you’d think in a village filled with horses. For some reason it took a good two or more hours to get horses, and they weren’t much faster at going over the mountain than we were. I suppose, in fairness, they were actually more like donkeys than horses. Worse, my horse/donkey was incredibly aggressive and kept making sharp runs towards the edge of the path, threatening to throw me over a thousand meter drop. It took four hours to get back, and it was far more exhausting than walking. And besides, we’d missed our damn bus.
The horses cost me 900rmb and our only option for getting back was a mini-van full of idiots that cost me another 300rmb. Thankfully, though, it drove us all the way back to Shangri-La. After a quiet night there, we got another bus to Lijiang and the following morning headed to the airport for the flight back to Hefei.
The trip was quite exhausting but absolutely worthwhile. It killed me that we didn’t actually get to spend any time exploring the Yubeng valley, especially considering it took us so many hours flying, driving, and walking just to get there… but the views were stunning and most people simply never get to see that when they visit. I’ve done a lot of travelling during my time in China and the lesson I normally come away with is that it’s just not worthwhile… it can be too stressful and crowded and you just come to some disgusting, expensive, polluted shithole in the end. But this time it was different. Meili Xueshan was a real challenge to see, but it was by far the most beautiful place in China I’ve visited.
High on the Tibetan plateau, surrounded by soaring mountains, is the dusty little frontier town known as Shangri-La (or xiang-ge-li-la, as the Chinese call it). You may think that the name rings a bell, but you’re probably thinking of James Hilton’s Shangri-La, from the novel, Lost Horizon. In his famous novel, Shangri-La was the name of a utopian society somewhere in Asia. Since then, it has become a stand in for perfection. “My own Shangri-La,” you might say of a place that is impossibly beautiful.
The Chinese, always short on innovation and never ones to pass up an opportunity for intellectual property theft, came upon the staggeringly cynical idea of renaming a town called Zhongdian back in 2001. They called it “Shangri-La” and expected the tourist masses to come knocking on the door. Amazingly, they did. Or rather, as many as you could expect to trek way out into the middle of nowhere – because that’s precisely where you’ll find Shangri-La.
An Interrupted Bus Ride to Shangri-La
Getting to Shangri-La essentially requires travel from Lijiang, which itself is quite a remote place. It’s more than a day’s journey from Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, and Shangri-La is another four hours by bus from there. Along the way, expect to be accosted by police at road blocks. They come onto the bus, take your ID and process it. China is no Land of the Free, that’s for sure. On our little bus, one poor man’s ID was flagged and the police made him go for a urine test – which they announced to the whole bus. As I cursed the police state that caused these unnecessary delays and impinged upon human rights, the people of the bus began denouncing the poor guy. It didn’t matter that his test came back clean – to the people he was now labelled a drug addict and promptly shunned.
Just behind us, a little boy asked his dad what the hold up was. “The police are protecting us from bad people, son,” his dad explained. I seethed with anger. China has become the perfect police state as no one even cares that their freedoms are eroded. No one here knows about Tianamen Square… and if they did they’d probably tell you those stupid students got what was coming to them for questioning the wonderful government.
In any case, that was strike two against the bastards the seat behind… they’d already let their son piss on the floor and the puddle had very nearly doused my bag. Needless to say, I was keen to get as far from the tourists as possible.
When we arrived in Shangri-La it was a relief to get off the bus and find myself in what felt like a different country. The area is also known as the Diqin Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. It is geographically, culturally, ethnically, and even politically Tibetan, yet it is not part of the Chinese province (as it sadly is now known) of Tibet. Everything was different here and the awful Han Chinese acted very much as they were in a foreign land. There were fewer of them and more dark-skinned people in colourful clothes. There were probably almost as many visitors from Europe as eastern China. Animals far outnumbered people, too, with yaks, goats, and boars roaming wild all over the land.
We hopped in a taxi to the Old Town (a well-preserved area of ancient and not-so-ancient buildings) and found our hostel for the night. We then proceeded to explore the Old Town on foot, taking in the Buddhist temple and the fascinating wooden architecture. Across the part of China, the various minority groups developed different but similar means of constructing buildings that are totally different from what you find elsewhere. In particular, we really liked the simple roofs with chunks of wood pinned down by large stones. They don’t look remotely watertight, but they certainly are different from anything I’ve ever seen.
We also took the chance to sample some local food, which was delicious. I wonder why I’ve never heard anything about Tibetan food before. It’s as good as anything else I’ve encountered in this part of the world.
In the evening, we sat at a bar window looking out on a square as a little old man in a cowboy hat began to dance. Soon he was joined by a few more people… then a few more… then more and more… At some point even I was in the middle of the square, dancing to Tibetan music with these oddly synchronized dance moves that all came from the cowboy. Everyone was looking to him. Old ladies in pink and blue Tibetan dresses appeared and joined in, yet even they looked to this ancient cowboy for inspiration. He whirled around with a cigarette in his mouth for two hours before the people began to disperse.
Hiking ShiKa Mountain
The next morning we set out towards ShiKaShan – the nearby mountain. We took a taxi there but when we arrived the guards told us that hiking wasn’t allowed and that we must take a cable car to the top. We angrily walked away, intending to sneak onto the mountain, but soon wandered through some nearby valleys and onto the NapaHai – a sea of grass and red flowers home to vast numbers of yaks. As we walked we experienced something that almost never happens in China – peace and quiet. There were no people anywhere. We had come to the edge of China, more or less. In the town there were tourists, but not many, and out here there was simply no one. Wild horses and great hairy yaks wandered about. At first they were frightening but then we realized that they are terrified of us. Big black wild pigs and goats also scuttled around. Streams poured down off the mountain snow and everything was peaceful.
On the walk home – across many miles of grassland – we saw something even rarer than peace in China. We saw a huge unbroken double rainbow stretched over the whole of Shangri-La. Truly, it was the rarest and most unimaginable thing we could have seen. In a light rain, we stood staring at it from the grass. An old man in a tractor chugged by with a massive smile on his face, pointing excitedly at the spectacle.
It was a perfect end to a perfect day, and indeed the end of our time in Shangri-La. The next morning we jumped on a smaller bus on a bumpier, steeper road heading for the very limits of this vast country – into and above the clouds and towards the borders with Tibet and Myanmar.
Lijiang, in China’s Yunnan province, is one the best-known holiday destinations in the country. It’s a relatively new phenomenon for Chinese to travel here, though, because in the past it was mostly foreign tourists on the their way to Southeast Asia. Tucked away in the mountains at a very high altitude, it was once a peaceful little town. Nowadays it’s still a very pleasant place to visit, although during the holidays it can become rather crowded as the narrow streets are filled with visitors. Still, compared with towns in the more populated east of China it is still a pleasant getaway.
For my tastes it was too touristy but there’s no denying Lijiang is an attractive place, especially if you can see it outside of a major national holiday. Thankfully, my girlfriend and I arrived one day prior to the swarm of tourists that decided for National Week (a week-long celebration marking the anniversary of the country’s founding) and so we were able to enjoy the quiet streets for a short time. By the afternoon of the following day, the difference was obvious – peace and quiet were replaced by a frenzy of commercialism.
Thankfully, we spent only one day in Lijiang before making a well-timed trip north into the mountains. Our aim was to beat the crowds by going further into the wilds of Yunnan than most tourists are willing to do. More stories coming soon, but for now, here are some photos of Lijiang:
I spent two weeks in Koh Tao in 2015 all by myself. I enjoyed it enough that this year, while looking for someplace to visit with my girlfriend, I decided to return. I didn’t initially intend to spend two weeks on the little island as it really is a small place, but we enjoyed it enough that we stayed the whole time. We’d planned on island hopping over to Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan but never got around to it. In the end, Koh Tao was more than enough.
Arriving and Finding a Hotel
After two days in Bangkok, we took a bus to Chumphon and then a Lomprayah catamaran over to Mae Haad Pier on Koh Tao. From there we got a taxi down to Chalok Baan Kao Bay in the south of the island, where we spent most of our fortnight. During the first night we stayed at Big Bubble, but we didn’t enjoy walking up hundreds of stairs to our room – although the room was admittedly nice. So the next morning we moved to OKII Bungalows, where I’d spent much of my time in 2015.
OKII is located pretty much at the very bottom of Koh Tao, on a little peninsula jutting out to towards Koh Pha Ngan. It’s right on Shark Bay and has the most beautiful views imaginable. I made this gif with my GoPro of what I could see from my balcony:
Exploring Koh Tao
From the very beginning, we were stunned by the wildlife. On the way up to OKII we were stopped by a huge lizard (most likely a water monitor) crossing the road immediately in front of our bike, and when we arrived we saw a large green snake on the rocks below the balcony. As the name suggests, Shark Bay is also home to a number of sharks. You have to know how to find them, though. I figured out in 2015 that your best chance is before 7am. I saw a few during my morning swims, including one occasion when several sharks gathered for a moment before going their separate ways. Sadly, though I got close to the sharks, I never managed to get a decent photo. The bay is also home to a number of turtles who feed on the coral – or rather, the remains of the coral, as most of it is now dead.
Blacktip reef shark
While staying at OKII we had to rent a motorbike to get around the island, as the hotel is quite isolated. The peace and quite is nice, but you’re limited in many ways. With a set of wheels, we managed to explore much of the island, getting to Sai Daeng Beach, Tanote Bay, and up to Mae Haad, Sairee, and Dusit Resort. We wanted to visit Hin Wong and Mango Bay, but the road was too badly damaged to get over the hills in the middle of the island on our little bike.
After a few days at OKII, we moved back to Chalok Baan Kao Bay and into the lovely Tropicana Resort, where we lacked a view but had a more comfortable room. We were also in walking distance of a few good restaurants, including one we can to eat at regularly, called Fishy’s.
Although Vera couldn’t swim at the beginning of the holiday (and had indeed never been in the sea), by the end of our time she was swimming fearlessly with the sharks. We returned to a number of beaches, but Tanote Bay was definitely our favourite. This was unfortunate as it is rather a scary road that leads there. Certainly I have never seen a paved road more frightening to drive. Travel tip: check your bike is powerful enough to get up the hill, and the brakes are good enough to get you down safely!
Stranded on Koh Nang Yuan
On our final day, we took a taxi boat to Koh Nang Yuan, a small island to the northwest of Koh Tao. The tiny little boat left Sairee Bay and bounced over big waves, soaking us completely as we made our way towards the smaller island. At times it felt like the boat would capsize, but finally we made it to land.
Koh Nang Yuan is famous for its “triple beach” – a stretch of white sand between three rocky islands that give this tiny place three connected beaches. One of these has a lovely coral reef that is known as the Japanese Garden and is where many people go to learn scuba diving. On Koh Nang Yuan we found ourselves laughing at a group of Chinese tourists waddling about in giant life jackets right by the water’s edge, shouting unnecessarily as the always do, and some even carrying umbrellas into the sea.
When it came time to leave, we went to the little floating pier and waited for our taxi boat. One by one, all the other tourists left the island, but our boat never came back. We were stranded on Koh Nang Yuan. After a few hours, though, the taxi boat operator sent another boat to pick us up – a large vessel owned by a diving company. When we finally got back to Koh Tao, she was waiting on the pier and explained that the sea was simply too rough to risk picking us up. We weren’t angry – it had been an interesting adventure.
Leaving Koh Tao
The next day we were on a ferry back to the mainland, then a bus to the capital, and finally a plane back to China. It was a long journey with little in the way of sleep, and lots of rude Chinese to deal with, but finally we made it back home in time for the new academic semester.
A few months ago I was pondering where in Asia to take my girlfriend, Vera. She’s Chinese, and that makes travel difficult because their passports prove rather problematic when visiting new countries. Whereas a British citizen like myself can travel freely through many of the world’s countries, a Chinese citizen doesn’t have that luxury.
When we flew directly from Hefei to Bangkok, Vera began to understand why it might be so difficult for Chinese people to travel. Yes, their government isn’t exactly popular around the world… but the real issue is the people. Our flight was like the movie Con Air, starring Nicholas Cage and Steve Buscemi. When you see the Chinese in their natural habitat, you become accepting of their wild and irrational behaviour. However, stick them on an airplane instead of a city bus and you realize how awful they actually are.
Thankfully, we soon landed in Bangkok and made it our aim to get the hell away from other Chinese tourists as quickly as possible. However, to do that meant getting through immigration at Suvarnabhumi Airport, which was jammed with yet more Chinese. They acted like they were back home in China – pushing and shouting. When one especially rude Chinese woman attempted to push past us to the front of the queue, Vera said calmly, “Don’t cut the line.” The woman turned around and unleashed a vicious tirade of abuse in Mandarin.
“Forget these people,” I said. “Let’s go enjoy our holiday and let the Chinese act like shits towards each other. They’ll just spend all day on tour buses and in stupid shops anyway.”
We spent the first evening at the Rambuttri Village Plaza, a pretty decent hotel in the Khao San Road area of Bangkok. The hotel has a rooftop swimming pool, a good free breakfast, and the rooms are very clean.
We then went out to explore. Truth be told, I hate Khao San Road and I’m not that fond of Bangkok as a whole, but we had to pass through on our way to the islands and Vera had never seen the city before. We wandered through the mad nighttime streets of drunk tourists and hawkers selling poorly made t-shirts and bracelets. It seems every second business is a tattoo parlour or an Indian-run tailor.
We found a good place to eat and watched the tourists go by. Even a few years ago there were no Chinese there, but now small groups of confused mainlanders wandered about with selfie-sticks wearing giant floppy hats to avoid getting sunburn from the moon.
The next day we set out to explore, having decided to give Bangkok a bit more of our time before taking a bus and ferry to Koh Tao. We didn’t venture far from the Khao San Road area, but instead walked slowly through the surrounding districts, seeing the great brown Chao Phraya River and its Rama VIII bridge, then exploring the small sidestreets along the canals. We saw Wat Ratcha Natdaram Worawihan and the Golden Mount, and then headed back via the Democracy Monument.
After that, it was time for an early night as the following morning we had to be up at 5 o’clock for the bus south to Chumphon and then the connecting ferry over to Koh Tao.
After a brief visit to Bratislava, I once again hopped on a Flixbus and headed southeast to Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Budapest is a large city in Central/Eastern Europe divided by the Danube River. Actually, it was once two cities – Buda on the western side of the river, and Pest on the eastern side. They retain a somewhat different character but are now merged into one large and tourist-friendly metropolitan area that is repeatedly voted one of the most worthwhile destinations in Europe and even the world by various travel publications.
Walking Tour of Budapest
Whenever I visit a new city, I like to walk around. It’s not that I’m entirely opposed to taking any form of transportation, but rather that in cities with a walkable centre, you really get to know the place better. During my first day in Budapest, however, rather than walking around the city itself, I joined a walking tour on the advice of a Facebook friend who had visited a few years earlier.
The tour group met up in Vörösmarty Square, where we were divided into groups. We then visited a few locations around Pest before crossing into Buda. In Pest we saw the waterfront and St. Stephen’s Basilica, and in Buda we walked around the Castle District. The guide was mildly informative and amusing, but I was not overwhelmed by the tour. To be honest, the other tour groups appeared to have better guides, judging by their reactions and the excitement displayed by the guides.
At the end of the tour, which finished near at the Royal Palace, I set off to explore Buda by myself, and had a much better time slowly wandering about and taking in the sights. On the tour there had been no time to take photos and mostly we just listened to not-so-interesting stories about the city’s history.
For me, Buda was the most scenic and interesting part of the city. After the tour ended, I walked around on my own and snapped some shots of the stunning old buildings and statues. Although I didn’t bother going inside, Buda Castle was exceptionally beautiful from the outside, and from the areas around it one can take in stunning views of Budapest and the surrounding regions. The cobblestone streets lead along Castle Theatre and the Old Town Hall to Matthias Church, which is 700 years old, and Fisherman’s Bastion, which was built in 1905. Again, the views are staggering, particularly of the bridges and parliament building.
I spent most of the rest of my trip in Pest, where I stayed at Avenue Hostel on the Octagon. The hostel’s location is perfect for seeing the city, but the rooms are swelteringly hot even at night, and it’s far too loud to sleep. Unfortunately, I had booked four nights in advance and had no choice but to stay there until I left Budapest.
In the daytime I escaped the hostel and wandered Pest’s intriguing little streets, periodically dodging the heat of the day by getting beers at the many cafes and bars that litter the city, and visiting a few of its more than 200 museums. In Budapest, the beers are pleasantly hoppy and cheap compared with those in Antwerp and Amsterdam, which I very much enjoyed.
I explored City Park, where there’s a hidden statue of Ronald Reagan, and where interesting birds live among the trees. Then I walked around the central touristy area to Liberty Square, where there’s yet another statue of Reagan. I wondered what the hell reason this country had to be so fond of an awful American president, but later I visited the Museum of Terror and found out about Hungary’s brutal suffering under the control of communist forces. (The museum, sadly, was very underwhelming and overcrowded.) I guessed that they probably had developed an enthusiasm for Reagan due to his leadership against the Soviets in the 1980s. Later, a friend explained that it might have been due to pressure from the nearby American Embassy in a spat with the Russian Embassy.
Finally, near the statue of Reagan walking (the more famous of the two statues) is the Hungarian parliament building. This building is based upon the Houses of Parliament in London, but it slightly larger. In fact, it’s the third largest parliament building in the world, and used to be the largest. Walking around it, one is awestruck by the ornate neo-Gothic designs.
On my last day in Budapest, I crossed back into Buda and climbed up Gellért Hill just before sunset. From the top (and many locations along the way), one is afforded stunning views of the city below. I snapped a couple of shots and then grabbed a few beers as I waited for the sunset. Golden Hour turned the whole city a range of magical colours before the sun finally dropped below the horizon. Despite bringing along several cameras and my tripod, the best photo I took all night (and possibly the whole of my European trip) was shot using the panorama feature on my iPhone!
As it got dark, I continued trying to capture the city as it lit up and shadows turned into darkness. However, I’m no good with night photography.
I also tried my hand at making a gif of the nightscape:
The next day I checked out from my hostel and wandered around one last time, before heading to the airport. Foolishly, I left far too early. It seems Budapest had recently upgraded its airport transportation and the long journey turned into a very easy (and cheap) hop on an airport express bus. I ended up getting to the airport a full five hours before my flight. Annoyingly, there is nothing to do at the airport and very little space. There were only a dozen chairs and so people stood around or sat on the floor.
This all would have been a minor annoyance had my flight at Istanbul not been delayed for many, many hours… and then the subsequent flight at Guangzhou. I ended up getting back home nearly a day late, having not slept for two full days. Back in China, I had only enough time to wash my clothes and take my girlfriend to the airport as we set out for a trip together to Thailand… Although I was obviously excited for the journey, I was less than enthusiastic about getting on yet another airplane.