My readers know that I spent part of this summer travelling around Europe, and people who’ve read this blog for a long time probably know that I like to stretch out my journeys by travelling on the cheap.
I teach in China and between my employers and the government, it’s hard to know when I’ll have my visa ready to leave the country, making it difficult for me to plan my travels in advance. This year, I didn’t know when I’d leave China or where I’d go until a day before I actually left! All that makes it pretty damn difficult to travel cheaply or even get excited about the journey ahead.
As much as I’d have liked to stick around, I also felt the insatiable urge to get out and travel some more, but where to go…? I really wanted to get back to Africa but it just wasn’t feasible on my budget or timeframe, so I put that trip on hold for a while.
After a lot of searching for ideas, I settled on a trip around Europe. Ever since I graduated from university a decade ago, I’ve been travelling Asia and the United States, and so I don’t really know Europe as well as I should. I booked a flight from Edinburgh to Amsterdam and another from Budapest to Hefei (which is near where I live in China). It took me a while to pad out the details between those flights but it ended up looking like this:
After a short flight into Amsterdam, I spent a few days taking in the art galleries before heading to Belgium and the city of Antwerp. Next, I embarked upon an unpleasant journey across Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Austria, and into Slovakia, where I explored the capital of Bratislava. Finally, I took another bus ride to Budapest, where I spent some four days wandering around one of the world’s most interesting cities.
Thanks to hostels and Flixbus, the journey wasn’t as expensive as it could have been. After I left Budapest, I returned to China for a two-day stay and then hit the road (or rather, the air) again for a fortnight in Thailand. Stories and photos from that journey will be posted very soon.
A few weeks ago I taught my last class of the semester and began the arduous task of marking nearly 200 exam papers, writing reports, and filing all the details in both English and Chinese-language computer systems. I usually do it all quickly and get the hell out of China as quickly as possible, but this year my school failed to procure my new visa in a timely fashion and I was stuck with my tedious paperwork in the sweltering heat of Eastern China.
On Monday afternoon, I got my passport back from the government and immediately booked the next available – and affordable – flight back to Scotland. So the next morning I took a train for Shanghai and then a flight to Beijing. Irritatingly, a thunderstorm over the capital caused my flight to be cancelled, but I was able to get another one and only just made my next flight, which was to Manchester. Eleven hours later I was back in Britain and waiting for a third flight – this one to Edinburgh.
For the past day, I’ve been enjoying some family time and also very much appreciating being back in an environment with fresh air. Yesterday the weather was surprisingly warm for a Scottish summer, and today it was overcast but still pleasantly warm. I took a stroll on Tentsmuir Beach with the family, where we saw some seals and sea birds.
I will be in Scotland another week or so before travelling down through England and then on to Nepal. I had intended to travel Africa this summer but as it transpires I don’t have as much time as I’d like to spend there. So instead I intend to explore Nepal until early August, and then somewhere in Southeast Asia – possibly Thailand – with my girlfriend until the end of the summer.
Do any of my readers have tips for Nepal? I’m currently thinking of seeing Chitwan National Park and a little of the Himalayas.
Today is Dragon Boat Festival here in China. It’s an old holiday in celebration of a poet called Quyuan, who allegedly killed himself after seeing his country fall apart. In fact, many people today believe that he was either gay or sleeping with the emperor’s daughter, so perhaps it’s not the patriotic tale that the government tries to present. Or maybe people just like gossip. In any case, it’s revered by most Chinese not as a day to celebrate the past or eat zongzi, but as a few days’ holiday from work.
Unfortunately, in China, the government enjoys the old bait-and-switch of giving you a holiday but then requiring you to work it off later. That means a Monday off work requires you to do a Saturday at work and so on. It’s a cruel ruse. Nevertheless, I finagled Saturday afternoon off work and headed from Huainan down to Hefei for the long weekend. It started, alas, at the dentist, but by Saturday night I was taking in live music and drinking nice whiskey.
On the Sunday I rode the new Hefei subway line out to Binhu, near Chaohu. It is amazing how fast this city has grown. I first came to Hefei in 2010 and it seems to have more than tripled in size. It is, in fact, virtually unrecognizable. The whole area of Binhu was fields when I first arrive, and now it is practically a city center to itself. There are vast shopping malls, theme parks, exorbitant hotels, and every self-respecting franchise has a couple of locations here now.
With a group of friends, I drove around the western end of Chaohu (the suffix -hu means “lake” in Chinese, so this is Chao Lake) to a small village where my friend was participating in an art show. The route was scenic enough, but it was here that I ran my first and only marathon back in 2015, and I felt exhausted just sitting in the back of a car.
At the small village, we soon found the old cluster of buildings that would house a small art show. Inside, modern art clashed strangely with the old walls and doors, and sat out unnaturally against the blue skies and green gardens. Yet somehow it was really very pretty. The art was all rather obvious, but nonetheless interesting. It all seemed to revolve around themes of environmentalism, which was pleasant to see. Someone had framed the door to a bathroom with a sign that said, essentially, “All life is art.” It reminded me of being a student and hearing that sort of thing come from my artsy friends. It sounded marginally less stupid back then.
I was approached by a team of reporters from Anhui TV, who asked to interview me, and then followed me around the grounds of the building as I perused the art work. In the end, I never did get their contact detail and I don’t watch TV so I probably won’t get to see myself wandering awkwardly, pretending not to notice all the people following me.
My favourite exhibit was a bizarre one comprised of two Irishmen playing traditional music with a Chinese piper, while another Chinese man tattooed the piper’s back. Everyone crammed into this tiny room and jostled for the best position to film the spectacle. However, if you looked carefully you would see some odd Chinese characters on the back wall which, when read backwards, make fun of the people in the room. It basically says “People are so stupid these days that they will crowd around and stare at anything.”
After the art show, we all spent the night in Binhu. It’s seemed like an entirely different city from the rest of Hefei. It’s all so new and, with the right light, it was actually quite pretty. Travelling in China on holidays is a nightmare, but it’s nice to know that without going too far, you can still get away from it all and see something new.
Way back in 2008, not long after I first arrived in Asia, I took a trip to the Philippines. At that time I was working for a crooked hagwon in Daegu, South Korea, and I was physically and mentally exhausted. I needed a break and so when a group of very new friends I met in a bar suggested all travelling to the Philippines together, I jumped at the opportunity.
Soon we were in Moalboal, a beautiful little village which is popular for scuba diving. I was too exhausted from work to bother with the diving, and so instead I sat on my balcony and watched the fish and sharks in the water below, sometimes tearing myself away from a bottle of rum long enough to join them.
Here are some photos from that trip. (Keep in mind I was a terrible photographer back then and using a terrible little point-and-shoot camera).
This year, I have some time off in the summer and I would like to get back to the Philippines. One of the reasons is that it costs less than $200 for me to fly almost anywhere there from China.
As I’ve not seen much more than Cebu (and even then I mostly sat on my balcony with a bottle of rum for a week), I would like to explore further.
My main concern is time. I will be travelling with my girlfriend and she only has 10 days off work. We can get to almost any of these places pretty quickly, but travelling around would be very limited. Instead, we need to find a place that would be good for a little over a week’s stay, and which would require very minimal travelling from the nearest airport.
Please type your suggestions below. Any advice is very much appreciated.
Last month, after spending most of my winter in Sri Lanka and Japan, I returned to China. When I had left, in early January, I was sick of the place, yet when I arrived back I was curiously happy to return. So it goes. China can be a frustrating place to live with its pollution and censorship and the constant stupidity and filth everywhere… But it’s of course not all bad. I wouldn’t have spent most of the last seven years here if it was.
This was to be the first extended period of time I’d spent in Huainan without working. I had more than two weeks at home. This was no accident. For two years I have been working on a book about Allen Ginsberg. Well, actually I have been intermittently researching it for two years. Now it was time to finally sit down and write. The words, thankfully, flowed. In two weeks I wrote some 20,000 words.
Aside from the Ginsberg book, I spent my time watching the local stray cats. My university campus is normally home to some 20,000 students, but during the holidays it is all but empty. This was my first time living on campus during the holiday, and I was delighted to see that there were cats everywhere. I spent time photographing them, feeding them, and sometimes even playing with them. In particular, there was one small ginger cat – probably just a few months old – who caught my interest. I was torn about attempting to catch him. It is unfair, though, to take a cat in if you cannot commit to looking after it indefinitely.
It was nice, also, to see the campus minus the hordes of students:
Eventually, the students returned to campus in dribs and drabs, and along with them came the other teachers and an assortment of old people who seem to live there. My peace and quiet dissipated, and the cats went into hiding. Leaving my house meant being stared at by every slack-jawed halfwit around, and there were now many thousands of them. Moreover, from morning to night came the noise of people outside my window. You might not think that’s a terrible thing, but the average Chinese person can make more noise than a doom metal concert just walking to his car.
I came to an important decision: it was time to move house. I’d been living in a tiny apartment on campus for almost three years and it had proven pretty comfortable, albeit basic. But now it was time to move someplace better – to gain more comfort, more space, and more peace.
My girlfriend and I began looking around for places listed online, and after a few days we began to book viewings. It was interesting to me that in China people would never dream of cleaning or fixing up an apartment before trying to rent it out. Every place we saw had potential, but its owners had obviously taken that Chinese philosophy of chabuduo (“close enough”) and not bothered to do anything. The real estate agents, too, made no effort really to sell the properties. It never fails to amaze me how literally everything in this country is done so half-assed.
Another weird quirk was that all the apartments have a windows between the toilet and other rooms, as well as clear glass doors. This is also true in every hotel room in the country. One element of Chinese culture that I will never – to my dying day – understand is their desire to watch each other poop. Public toilets usually have no doors and sometimes no walls, and most people prefer just to go outside anyway. Most apartments we saw had windows from the kitchen looking in on the toilet, which I found deeply unsettling.
We kept looking, hoping for an apartment that wasn’t a pervert’s palace, and eventually found a beautiful big place above a supermarket. However, as we stood talking to the owners, a train careened by the window some thirty floors below, shaking the building and just about deafening us as its horn blared. They do this at night time, too…
We ended up finding a nearly perfect apartment, whose only fault was that it was a little out of the way. It was more than three times my old apartment’s size, quiet at all times of day and night, and had a beautiful big study for me to finish my Ginsberg book – if I ever find the time to do so. It was, of course, filled with crap, but we convinced the owners to move out their stuff. With two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, study, and big rooftop balcony, it somehow only cost $200 per month. Despite everything, sometimes China is fantastic.
We have been living here for two weeks now, and enjoying it very much. It feels like another part of the world entirely. Downstairs there is a market street, which is lined with little old ladies selling the most amazing collection of crap – but only between 16:00-18:30 for some reason. You can buy fresh fruit and vegetables (more than you could ever carry for $1), decidedly less fresh meat (especially heads, feet, and testicles), all kinds of weird eggs (including those chemically cooked in lime, which I’m told are very dangerous to eat), plants, plates, pants, pots, pans, and a plethora of pickled vegetables. You can get a massage, have your ears dewaxed, get your feet scraped, or have cobra venom used to cure your acne.
Last month, I travelled around southern Sri Lanka. This was my route, with places I stayed marked by a blue dot and a number:
It was not a very extensive exploration of Sri Lanka, but then I only had two weeks. I aimed to take in some of the best places in the southern half of the island, knowing that I wouldn’t have time to get up north. After Sri Lanka, I returned to China for a few days and then headed off to Japan for a week. I’ll post stories and photos from Japan in the coming weeks. The blog posts from Sri Lanka are below:
My apologies to those who got an e-mail notification from WordPress about my last post (Hikkaduwa) with a confusing title. WordPress somehow managed to screw up the title formatting and mashed several words together.
China’s bullet trains move across the landscape at an incredible speed, but as the G7221 whisks me from Huainandong to Shanghai, it seems that 300km/hr just isn’t fast enough. Outside, the air is thick with poisons. We are in the middle of yet another “airpocalypse” and visibility has been less than 200 metres for the entire journey… which isn’t such a bad thing considering how astonishingly ugly the east of China can be. Every town and village we pass looks identical, every station the same as the one before it, every city expanding out with the same tower blocks into countryside that looks alike because all the trees are planted in uniform lines. Henry Adams observed that, “Chaos is the law of nature; order is the dream of man.” That was long before China vanquished nature once and for all, imposing not just order but a system of tedious ubiquity that is the communist ideal.
Inside the carriage, people chew sunflower seeds, spit on the floor, listen to TV shows at full volume on their portable devices, scream into telephones, and generally act in ways that would be considered unacceptably rude in most parts of the world, but which are in fact the cornerstones of modern Chinese society. I try to lose myself in the music coming from my headphones and to think about the place I’m going: Sri Lanka. I don’t know anything about Sri Lanka because I’ve never been there, and in the past few months I’ve been too busy to research it at all. I don’t know what to expect except the one most important quality it could possess: it is not China. As long as visibility is better than 200 metres, there is some sort of wildlife remaining, the air is not poisonous and the food not filthy, and the people know how to act with the most basic sense of human decency, it will be a wonderful reprieve from life in the Middle Kingdom.
Arriving in Colombo
After a long, difficult journey, I arrived at Bandaranaike International Airport, north of Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo. It was midnight when the plane was meant to arrive, and about one o’clock when it finally did. At this point, I was able to grasp just how unprepared I was for the trip as I got to immigration and found that I needed to apply for a visa-on-arrival. Thankfully, I had exactly the correct amount of money in my pocket for the application fee, and was able to proceed from there to a bureau de change downstairs to get some Sri Lankan Rupees. In China I had neglected to withdraw enough money for the trip, and I hoped that my bank card would work in Sri Lanka. After these inauspicious beginnings, I was soon in the back of a taxi heading towards the city to stay at the imaginatively named “Colombo City Hostel.”
In the morning, I woke with the intention only of getting out of Colombo. I am not, by and large, a city person, and so I imagined it had little that would interest me. Where I would go next was a mystery, but that’s why I picked a hostel to stay at: there are always guide books, posters, maps, and people to talk to. Eating breakfast on the rooftop overlooking the city, I made the decision to head east into the country’s mountainous interior – to the second city of Kandy. A few weeks earlier, I had been reading Gary Snyder’s letters from Ceylon – as Sri Lanka was then known – and he had remarked upon Kandy as particularly worth visiting in the early 1960s.
Knowing very little about the country, I began to formulate a basic plan for my fortnight of travel. I would move on to Kandy for a day or two, then see some of the other sights in the middle of the island – perhaps Adam’s Peak, the rainforests, the tea plantations, the countryside around Ella – and then move towards Yala National Park, and thereafter travel along the coast. Part of me wanted an adventure as I’d had in Africa in early 2016, but part of me simply needed rest after a long, tiring semester. This plan seemed to satisfy both those requirements, with plenty leeway for change along the way.
Onwards to Kandy
After taking a brief walk around the city, I got a bus from the central bus terminal to Kandy. The tiny minivan was packed full of people and reminded me of my trip from the previous year to Southern Africa, where I covered thousands of miles by minibuses. However, as I looked out the window I saw Sri Lanka was more like Southeast Asia in both the city and countryside. In the cities, however, I noticed many churches, which surprised me as I always thought of Sri Lanka as predominantly Buddhist. A local man told me, “Colombo is mostly Christian and Muslim, but the rest of the country is 99% Buddhist.”
After a few hours, the little minibus stopped outside the train station in Kandy. I had an offline GPS mapping app on my phone that I followed across the little town to the Backpackers’ VIBE hostel, which turned out to be a deceptively exhausting walk, not particularly helped by a few wrong turns. By this time, the sun was high in the sky and the air was humid. The hot, crowded streets were filled with people selling everything you could imagine. Beggars and touts and tourists from all over the world crammed onto narrow pavements. Police on horseback attempted to bring order to the traffic.
Eventually, after a long walk up a hill that I had not noticed on my map, I arrived at the hostel and set out in search of a beer. What I was about to discover would shock and horrify me: Beer is not sold between 2pm-5pm in Sri Lanka. What’s worse, getting a license to sell alcohol is difficult and so most places either don’t sell it at all, or do so quietly without advertising the fact. In any case, I was unknowingly about to embark upon a very, very sober week.
Despite being very tired from having slept only a few hours, and having walked across the town in the midday heat, I refused to rest. I didn’t feel that Kandy was the place for me, and so I decided I’d only stay for one night, and so I should see everything first before leaving. With that in mind, I looked around the British Cemetery, where lots of young men were put to rest after dying very young and very far from home, and the Temple of the Tooth, which sits next to the impressive Bogambara Lake.
I walked through the town to Udawattakele Royal Forest Park, which I explored as the sun was going down. There were no other people around as it was getting late in the day, and so it was very peaceful. There were lots of curious macaques, several small barking deer, a few wild boar, and lots of amazing birds. However, it was getting too dark to take any worthwhile photos. I hiked all the way to the top, but there was no view of the city to be had there, so I quickly tried to rush back down and get out of the park before dark, which I very nearly managed, getting lost in the dim light for a while.
Back at the hostel I planned my next move. As I’d already seen all I needed to in Kandy, which was altogether a bit too touristy for me, I decided to head south to Ella for a few days in the countryside. From what I read, it was smaller, quieter, and surrounded by easily accessible countryside where I could spend a few days hiking, climbing, shooting the stars, and relaxing.
That’s all for this first installment. I will post more (including much better photos) from Ella, Yala, Matara, and Hikkaduwa in the coming days and weeks as time dictates. In a few days I will head back on the road once again for Japan. I’m spending a week in Tokyo, Mount Fuji, and Kanazawa. Any recommendations for things to see, do, eat, drink, etc would be greatly appreciated.
Although Chinese New Year is the most important celebration in the lunar calendar, the Gregorian New Year is also important and so January 1st – 2nd is a public holiday in China. As such, I decided to take my girlfriend to Jiuhuashan (Mount Jiuhua, 九华山) for a few days.
Jiuhuashan is one of the best-known mountains in Anhui Province, and is considered one of China’s four sacred mountains because of the number of Buddhist temples dotting the landscape. As China’s transport network has developed and its middle class has grown, Jiuhuashan has gone from being a point of traditional Buddhist pilgrimage to a major holiday destination, although it remains far less visited than its neighboring Huangshan (Yellow Mountain, 黄山).
We left Huainan on Sunday evening and took the bullet train directly from Huainandong to Chizhou – a small city on the banks of the Changjiang River (probably better known in the West as the Yangtze River). Chizhou is the nearest town to Jiuhuashan, and after a night spent in a bizarre hotel, we took a taxi for 80rmb to Jiuhuashan.
When you arrive at Jiuhuashan by taxi or bus, you really arrive at the entrance to the Jiuhuashan National Park, and from there you need to take another long bus up the winding mountain roads to Jiuhuashan Town. Entrance to the park costs 160rmb and the bus is 50rmb return.
Unfortunately, it had become apparent from the taxi that our visit might be spoiled by smog. Most of Eastern China is currently engulfed in yet another “airpocalypse” as a massive bank of thick air pollution blankets large swathes of the country. In Chizhou – which my students had informed me the air is “always fresh” – the air was almost unbreatheably bad and visibility was only about 100 meters. However, as we climbed the mountain roads on the little tourist bus, it failed to improve. It is tempting to thick of these smog banks as low lying, but evidently they stretch up for hundreds of meters as well as going on for hundreds of miles.
Smog over Jiuhuashan
Smog over Jiuhuashan
When we arrived at Jiuhuashan Town, we set out to look for a hotel before doing some hiking. Yet we were immediately hit by another disappointment. The tiny town was crammed with Chinese tourists. Anyone with experience around Chinese tourists knows that they are absolutely the worst, and sadly they behave even worse at home in China than they do abroad. The roads were crammed with honking cars and people shouting and spitting and doing all kinds of unfathomably stupid things.
Our first turn of good luck came when we saw a hotel and inquired about rooms. The sign said all rooms were upwards of 1000rmb, but the manager told us that was just for the holiday, which had ended that morning. Rooms were now just 250rmb.
After a quick lunch, my girlfriend and I set off hiking, and quickly realized that although the it was January and we were way up in the mountains, the temperature was really quite high – sometimes around 12 Celsius. Our winter clothes were not needed, and soon we were just hiking in t-shirts, with sweaters and coats stuffed into our backpacks.
We planned our route to take us as far from the town as possible, and also to avoid the one road that leads through the park. It was a steep climb up into the hills, and thankfully as we climbed the noise from below subsided and we met fewer and fewer people. Alas, the smog didn’t dissipate, and although it was at times possible to catch a glimpse of a mountain top, we were virtually blind to the scenery. All we could see was the path ahead of us. That was bitterly disappointing, having come to such a famously beautiful place, but more worrying was the fact that with every deep breath we took we were breathing in dangerous toxins.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Despite the disappointment of the view, it was still nice to be in the forest and away from the city. We could see the trees around us for at least a few hundred meters, and everywhere we went there were cats of all kinds, and even a few beautiful birds. In fact, the higher we went, the more cats we saw! For a cat lover like myself, it was paradise.
The temples, too, were beautiful. We stopped off at many of them on our long trek, and admired the stonework and big metal incense burners. Generally, the monks were pretty friendly, although quite a few of them rudely begged for money. At a small village in a little valley we saw monks taking care of dozens of cats, and realized that’s why the felines had proliferated to such an extent, whereas throughout most of China they aren’t nearly so common. The village also had giant walls of dried meat hanging outside every house, and the cats we so well-fed that they didn’t even seem tempted by the veritable feast hanging above them.
Near Baisui Palace, which is home to a mummified priest whose body supposedly didn’t decompose over the hundreds of years since his death, we saw monkeys. I think they were short-tailed macaques. These were by far the most interesting wildlife I’d seen in China, and I could hardly believe they lived wild in the same dull, lifeless province that I live! At first they were very shy, but as my girlfriend and I stood quietly and watched them for half an hour, they become bolder and walked very near to us. These monkeys are huge, and seem only to live on the highest parts of the mountain, foraging food from the bins and from the scraps that the monks leave out.
As we climbed down the mountain and sought out some dinner, we reflected upon the day and decided that the monkeys had made everything worthwhile. Having grown up in China, on the edge of a city, this was my girlfriend’s first experience with real wildlife. She was absolutely delighted not only to have seen the animals, but to have had them come so close to us. It was a transformative experience her.
The next morning, we set off hiking again, this time with full backpacks as we’d checked out of the hotel. We headed back to Baisui Palace, hoping to trek down into another valley and climb a higher peak. However, our legs at this point were very sore and the extra weight of the bags made it a slow and difficult climb. We were put to shame by the old men and woman carrying giant bags of cement up the steep mountain path for repairs at the temple.
After a few wrong turns that took us on a rather circuitous route up the mountain, we followed a trail heading towards a place called “Tiger Cave” (yes, many places in China are named for tigers and dragons – it’s not just your local Chinese restaurant that follows this custom). We found that along this trail there were absolutely no people, and as it followed the crest between two peaks we were afforded quite impressive views of the valley and mountains beyond. Fortunately, the smog had dissipated a little, and although the view was far from perfect, it was now possible to see the other side of the valley, whereas on the previous day it had been entirely invisible. As we were both very tired, we kept interrupting our walk to stop and take in the view, and soon gave up on the idea of continuing. It seemed that Tiger Cave was actually way down in the valley, and a return up the mountain was a bit unappealing.
We returned to Baisui Palace and nearby we found a troop of monkeys eating from a pile of discarded fruit. There were no people about and we stood in silence, watching the monkeys. A few cats came by, apparently unafraid of the giant simians, and all was peaceful.
After that, we looked around Baisui Palace (really just a temple) and its five hundred gold Buddhas, before descending the mountain and attempting the journey back to Huainan. Alas, as is so often the case in China, the relatively simple trip back was made quite difficult, and it took eight hours on a combination of buses and trains and taxis, arriving home about 11pm. However, after an inauspicious start to the trip, we both agreed that our time at Jiuhuashan had been overall enjoyable – two days very well spent.