Posted in travel

The Sacred Tibetan Mountain: Meili Xueshan

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?

Me: Yes.

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:

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View from hotel window, shot with GoPro.

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.

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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.

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From Lijiang to Shangri-La

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.

Exploring Shangri-La

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.

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Tibetan food – butter tea and zanba.

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.

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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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2 Weeks in Koh Tao

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.

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The view of Shark Bay

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:

sharkbay

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.

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.

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The view from Tropicana Resort

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

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Two of Koh Nang Yuan’s three beaches

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.

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One of the most hilarious sights in nature – Chinese people at the beach

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.

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Thailand Part 1: Bangkok

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.

Typical.

“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.”

*

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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.

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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.

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Travelling Europe for Cheap

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.

When I finally did leave China, I headed back home to Scotland for a few weeks with my family. I had a great time there getting reacquainted with the area where I grew up, taking walks around the coast and shooting some photos of the local wildlife.

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:

europe map

 

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.

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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:

budapest-nightscape

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.