Posted in travel

National Week in Lijiang

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:

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Posted in travel

Four Days Exploring Budapest

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.

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Buda

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.

Pest

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.

Gellért Hill

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!

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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.

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I also tried my hand at making a gif of the nightscape:

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Leaving Budapest

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.

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Walking Around Bratislava

Bratislava is perhaps the most beautiful city I have ever had the pleasure to visit, yet in terms of things to see, there’s actually not that much. It’s a small place – at least the historic centre is – and a day is pretty much enough time to get around everything a tourist would want to see. There are probably a number of guided tours you can do (certainly there are some free walking tours) but everything is in such a condensed area that it’s actually incredibly easy to find it all yourself. The only thing you miss is hearing the stories behind the sights.

A Day Exploring Bratislava’s Old Town

I set out on my first full morning from my hostel by walking over one of the bridges that crosses the Danube River so that I could shoot some photos of the castle and city skyline. On the other side, I found a pleasant little park full of odd statues, and a number of good locations on the bank of the river to take photos. Really, Bratislava Castle stands so clearly above everything else in town that it’s quite easy to see, so this was hardly a challenge. I returned the next day when the skies were clear blue, but actually the dark clouds ended up looking better over the castle.

Next, I crossed the New Bridge under a large UFO observation deck and restaurant, and then explored the Old Town. This historic area is comprised of beautiful old buildings with intricate facades, scenic squares filled with fountains and statues, and quaint little alleys. In the streets, dozens of cafes have been set up selling beer, ice cream, and coffee.

I moved on to the castle, which sits on a hill to the west of the Old Town. The climb up was fairly easy, and from the top one is presented with impressive views of the surrounding area, including some of Austria, which is just across the Danube. I wasn’t sure whether or not to go into the castle, as I was more interested in photos of and from it, but as entrance was only €8 I decided to take a look. I spent a few hours looking at the historical artifacts and paintings, which were somewhat interesting. Altogether, the castle is more impressive from the outside.

After walking around the gardens, I headed back down into town for a late lunch of sheep’s cheese, radish, and some sort of a Slovak “biscuit.” It was delicious and came with a big mug of cold beer. Thankfully, in Slovakia beer is both pleasant and cheap. Whereas in Amsterdam I could expect to pay about €5 for a decent beer, in Slovakia the average is just €2.

The next day, when waiting for my early afternoon bus to Budapest, I took another walk across the river and around the Old Town, as well as exploring a small park in the east of the city. My time in Bratislava had been short, but even after just one full day I was already covering the same ground. Although stunning, it is a town that only really requires a day to see in full, and could probably be done as a day trip from nearby Vienna.

Patio Hostel

While visiting Bratislava, I stayed at Patio Hostel, which is just to the east of the Old Town. The location is pretty convenient. It’s a few minutes from the bars and cafes in the Old Town, and about twenty minutes’ walk from the Most SNP bus stop, where you can catch the Flixbus. The hostel is really big and has a bar and other facilities, but it’s unfortunately a bit of a party hostel and gets really noisy at night. Unusually for a hostel, they have completely free laundry facilities, which was fantastic for me because, after more than a week of endless walking, my clothes were starting to stink. However, the staff were mostly not helpful and the wifi was poor. The bar was cheap but lacking in any atmosphere.

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Two Days in Antwerp

After a short, pleasant ride on the Flixbus from Amsterdam to Antwerp, I hopped off in the main square by the train station, and made my way towards Kabas – my new hostel. As I walked through the city, it felt as though I’d travelled more than two hours. Here, things were completely different. For a start, everyone was Jewish! All the men wore long black cloaks and wide-brimmed hats, and even the little boys had huge curls of hair at the sides of their faces.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Antwerp. It was a city I knew little about, except for a small amount of time spent on Wikitravel. My first instinct was to walk about and simply take in the new city, but hopefully to look at some museums or art galleries. I’d also heard that it had the highest concentration of bars and pubs anywhere on the planet… But first, to check in at my new hostel.

Kabas Hostel

I found Kabas by using my maps.me app, which guided me along the two kilometer journey from the train station. Kabas is a relatively new hostel, and it’s located in a quiet residential neighbourhood. In fact, the hostel itself used to be just a normal house, but with a few minor renovations it became a place for backpackers to stop off in Antwerp.

Inside, there are a few different rooms on three floors, with a garden out back that’s full of chickens. A friendly young man checked me in and showed me to the third floor, where I got a bed under a skylight. The house is very simple, but comfortable. The floors are wooden and creeky, with narrow hallways, which all gives it character, and there’s a pretty good free breakfast each morning. There are towels, decent showers, lockers in the room, and wifi. The wifi, unfortunately, is atrocious, but the rest of it is pretty good.

Exploring Antwerp on Foot

I rested up the first night as, after walking some 50km in Amsterdam, my feet were blistered and I thought it best to give them a break. The next morning, however, I set out to explore the whole of the city by foot, armed with my GPS and a tourist map I got at reception. After less than thirty minutes wandering through the old residential area of town to the south of the city center, the skies erupted into an almighty downpour, and I was forced to take cover in a bus shelter for the next hour. The weather forecast had said there was no chance of rain, but the hostel owner warned me, “In Belgium, it can rain at any time with no warning.” Not unlike Scotland, I thought.

When the rain let up a little, I set out in my raincoat to explore further, walking up the bank of the River Scheldt to Het Steen (a small and very old castle), and further to a harbor, at which point I turned back towards town and began meandering aimlessly along the winding, narrow streets. There seemed little point in consulting a map of any kind now; Antwerp’s streets are notoriously disorienting. Unless you can see one of the big church or cathedral spires, you are not able to navigate.

The old town of Antwerp is really quite beautiful, even under dark skies and a fine rain. The old cobbled streets and tall, narrow buildings have a unique charm, and every so often there are really incredible old brick buildings of various sorts. The most imposing, of course, are the churches and cathedrals. The city has just grown around them, so you stumbled upon them and they seem sort of out of place, despite having been there so long. There are also hundreds of bars, restaurants, and cafes with little tables and chairs out on the streets. It all feels very… European. I’m tempted, actually, to say that it feels “French” because that’s what one thinks of when sitting at a café in the sun (yes, it eventually came out), sipping a beer and listening to an old man on an accordion. But this is Flemish Belgium. They very definitely don’t speak French here, nor do they want to speak anything but Dutch. Asking for anything in English gets a derisive snort. Which again seems rather French to me…

One of the highlights of my aimless rambling was stumbling upon yet another red light district. Everyone knows of Amsterdam’s famous streets with girls behind windows with red light pouring out into the evening sky. However, lesser known is that Antwerp also has a small zone where prostitution is tolerated… and evidently it’s open all hours. When I walked through it was ten o’clock in the morning and things were very different from Amsterdam’s red light district on a busy summer’s evening. In Amsterdam, beautiful young women tapped gently to get the attention of men passing by; in Antwerp, gigantic fat old women pounded on the glass and pointed at big red signs saying, “ANAL 50% DISCOUNT.” I suppose there’s no call for subtlety in the cut-throat world of mid-morning discount prostitution.

After yet more walking around and admiring the old buildings and exploring some beautiful parks, I settled at table outside a café on the edge of a bustling little square and nursed a few beers as the world passed by. Belgium is one of the world’s beer capitals and even the cheapest thing on the menu – a De Koninck – made for an excellent afternoon beverage… or two. The menus can be overwhelming, but it’s comforting to realize that you’re unlikely to go too far wrong. These people have been making beer for millennia and they’re pretty much perfected it.

I staggered home in the early evening not from drunkenness but from pain in my feet. I’d racked up about twenty kilometers in my wanderings, and my feet were suffering badly.

Antwerp’s Museums

During my only full day in Antwerp, I mostly walked about and drank in the scenery (and the beers, of course). However, the next day my bus out of Antwerp didn’t leave until nine in the evening, and so I essentially had another full day to explore. The thought of walking much more made my poor feet ache, so I planned a day of museums and beers.

First off, I hefted my giant rucksack to the train station and stored it in a locker under the main stairs for €4.5, which seemed an exorbitant fee, yet one I was more than happy to pay give the choice between that and dragging a 15kg bag around for the next nine hours. Then I set out for the Rubenshuis – a house that once belonged to the great artist, Peter Paul Rubens. I’d anticipated paying an entrance fee of some kind, but apparently on the final Wednesday of each month, entrance is free!

The Rubenshuis was designed by Rubens himself, and today is set up as a museum of sorts. There aren’t actually that many of Rubens’ own paintings there, but rather a collection of paintings he owned by other artists. There was an abundance of information in English and the house itself was fantastically preserved, making for a wonderful excursion. Afterwards, I sat out in the garden for a while as people came and went, and admired the beautiful old building that hardly seemed it was in the middle of a big city.

Next, I found what was billed in certain travel guides as a “Brueghel Museum,” but which was actually another old house filled with art – this time the collection once owned by Mayer van den Bergh. There were several Brueghels there, which I suppose is why it was listed as a Brueghel museum, even though it clearly wasn’t. Still, it was another interesting old building with different styles of paintings hanging on its walls. Yet again it was free, although this time I was glad I didn’t have to pay as I left pretty quickly. There wasn’t much information in English and the paintings weren’t particularly interesting.

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Flixbus to Bratislava

After my museum visits, my feet were once again in agony and I sought out a pub near the Cathedral of Our Lady, where I sampled the local beers and listened to an old man play on an accordion. After all the walking and museums, this was the highlight of my Antwerp trip. Sitting there and watching people stop by to sing with the accordionist, under the imposing figure of that giant spire, was exactly what I wanted from my Belgian trip, even if I hadn’t known it until then.

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(Here’s a video, shot on my iPhone:)

Eventually, it was time to go. I hobbled across the city to the train station to retrieve my bag, and then waited for the Flixbus.

Then I waited some more.

And some more.

And longer.

The Flixbus showed up 35 minutes late, which wouldn’t be a big deal at all if there were any way to let its customers know. However, at a random bus stop, you have no idea whether the bus will show or not, or – what’s worse – that perhaps you are in the wrong place and the bus already arrived somewhere else.

Eventually, I got on board and tried to make myself comfortable. It was, however, to be a difficult journey. I travelled through Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria, and into Slovakia, where my final destination was Bratislava. It was cheap, yes, but not the pleasant trip I’d hoped for. The wifi didn’t work, the seat was uncomfortable, and the bus only stopped for passengers to rest three times. I would highly recommend Flixbus for short trips of up to five hours, but for a twenty-two hour journey it’s a really, really bad choice.

Oh well… travel is nothing if not an adventure, and I did get to watch the green fields and even the stunning slopes of the Alps go by as we made our slow way towards the next destination, Bratislava.

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South Huainan

You might have heard of China’s “ghost cities” – huge areas of urban development completely devoid of people. South of my little city, Huainan (淮南), in Anhui Province, the government has built a new city – called South Huainan (山南)- which is more or less devoid of people, aside from one small park. It is a bizarre place of new apartment blocks standing empty and already crumbling, homes for tens of thousands of people falling apart before anyone has even moved in, brand new infrastructure unused and yet somehow already deteriorating, and little old villages not yet bulldozed as construction stalls.

Two mayors have gone to prison for the corruption involved in getting this bizarre city built. Despite having no sports teams, nor any tourism industry, they saw fit to build a giant stadium (Huainan Olympic Stadium, 淮南奥林匹克体育场;), which looks like it will be finished soon, and an “Olympic Park” nearby. There is a famous house made to look like a piano, as architects were given free reign prior to Xi Jinping’s crackdown on innovative building design. They also attempted to build a $4 billion RMB theme park called Happy World, featuring the tallest ferris wheel in Asia, but shortly before completion the man in charge of the theme park fled the country, taking all the remaining cash with him and dooming the project to failure. The theme park now lies empty, rusting away, although you can see the ferris wheel for miles around.