A Travellerspoint blog

August 2013

Viva Macau!

While a typhoon battered Hong Kong, we arrived on the comparatively calm island of Macau, where lavish casinos loom over aging churches and humble stalls selling fish balls and pork buns. Dubbed the 'Las Vegas of the East', Macau, a former Portuguese colony, is actually a mix of Vegas, Portugal and China, represented respectively in the casinos, the main squares and the back streets. From the China-Macau border gate we took a free casino bus to the Grand Lisboa, where we were first confronted with the city's Vegas side, from where we made our way down the very European tiled streets to the main square, where the fountain and Leal Senado made us feel like we were in Portugal. But as soon as we turned down a side street towards our hotel, the hawker stalls and smells of rice and spicy meat took us right back to China. A disconcerting contrast to be sure, but a curiously endearing one.

On our first day, like most of Macau's tourists, we made a beeline for the casinos. We started at the Grand Lisboa, whose huge lit-up sign is visible from almost every corner of the city. John lost 500MOP at the Blackjack tables, and we swiftly moved on to the Wynn next door, which, while not as lavish as the Las Vegas Casino of the same name, is still an impressive building with a flawlessly shiny facade and a water fountain show every half hour. The MGM next door was my personal favourite however, with an under-the-sea theme that included fake seaweed hanging from the ceiling and even a cylindrical fish tank in the middle of the entrance hall.

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That evening we wandered off the main strip into one of the older districts of the city, where old Portugese buildings are to be found around every corner. We started at the beautiful Sir Robert Ho Tung Library, where I would doubtless spend all of my time i I lived in Macau, then continued on to the Church of St Dominic, the Dom Pedro V Theatre and the Church of St Lawrence. We finished our night eating dinner in the Largo do Senado, feeling a lot closer to home.

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A visit to Macau isn't complete without a trip to the Cotai Strip on Taipa Island, connected to Macau by a series of long bridges. The island used to be home to just a small village and its inhabitants, and retains the name 'Taipa Village', but in recent years it has become more of a mega-complex of extravagant hotels and casinos, all conveniently connected by air-conditioned tunnels. The Venetian is the most spectacular of these, dominating the prime spot on the strip with its Campanile tower and synthetic canal. Inside it only gets more ridiculous-the domed roof of the lobby is reminiscent of St Mark's Basilica , and gondoliers row bemused tourists up and down the second-floor canal.

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We finished off our Macau visit with a trip into Macau's history, at the ruins of St Paul's Cathedral. Originally one of Asia's largest Catholic churches, St Paul's was destroyed by fire in 1835 and now all that remains, quite bizarrely, is the southern wall. From afar you can almost pretend the building is still complete, until you walk through the doorway and find the wall is propped up from behind by metal buttresses.

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The next day we took the ferry across the small stretch of water to Hong Kong, for the last part of our round-the-world journey. I can feel the tears welling up already...

Posted by kate1401 20:42 Archived in Macau Tagged casino macau lisboa venetian mgm taipa wynn ruins_of_st_paul's Comments (0)

Hard Seats and Hardcore Hiking: The Things We Do For Travel

After our near-death-by-fire experience in Dali, we arrived in Kunming, Yunnan's provincial capital, to discover that all sleeper tickets to Guilin, our next destination, were sold out until the following week. Lacking the time or the desire to stay in the bleak and crowded city of Kunming for that long, we took the only option available to us: the hard seat. If you have ever travelled in China, these are two words that will send a shiver down your spine; a hard seat journey entails sitting in an non-reclining seat with your knees jammed against the knees of the passenger facing you, while standing passengers linger waiting to vulture your seat and the smell of the squat toilet oozes down the carriage. It is an unrelishable prospect even for a short journey, but we had signed ourselves up for a 22-hour ride from hell. Suffice to say, we got no sleep and arrived at our hostel in Guilin looking like unkempt zombies.

After a long, revitalising sleep we set out to explore Guilin, which, though surpassed in beauty by neighbouring Yangshuo, offers several scenes of beauty, The Li River snakes through the middle of the city carrying small fishing boats and bamboo rafts, and feeds into Banyan Lake where the Sun and Moon Pagodas stand. Guilin also has several karst peaks, one of the most famous being Elephant Trunk Hill, for its apparent resemblance to an elephant.

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The next day we took a bus to Longsheng to see the famous Dragon's Backbone rice terraces. We were staying in Dazhai Village in the heart of the terraces, and in the absence of any roads the only transport option is to walk to the village, luggage and all, along uneven paths and up hundreds of steps in 35-degree heat. There is one other option where your luggage is concerned; you can pay one of the ancient village women to carry your bag for you in a large basket tied to their back. John and I, being fifty years their junior, carried our own bags, though admittedly they did climb faster than us. It didn't lessen our sense of achievement once we reached the top.

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If we needed any proof that the climb was worth it, we found it right outside our dorm room window. For £3 a night we had a premium view; the rice terraces cascaded down the hills all around us, while wooden houses perched precariously amongst them. Over the next day and a half we climbed to all three main scenic spots - 'Music From Paradise', 'Thousand Layers To Heaven' and 'Golden Buddha Peak'.

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We ended the day with a lovely meal of (disconcertingly named) 'local' chicken, fried green beans and rice as we watched the sun sink below the hills, the fading light glittering in the irrigation channels and casting long shadows across the terraces. I didn't want to leave but leave we did the ext morning, making an early start for Yangshuo.

I had been looking forward to Yangshuo for weeks; guidebooks and google searches alike had repeatedly praised it as one of the most beautiful spots in China. However, on arriving at the bus terminal the reality appeared somewhat different; the roads were congested, horns blared and we were hemmed in at every turn by hoards of people. After dumping our bags at the hostel we headed back out in search of food and a better impression, but the town's main street only left us more frustrated. The town seems to be living off a reputation formed years ago before the tour companies and big corporations moved in; where there used to be quaint Chinese shops and ramshackle wooden houses there are now fast-food chains and concrete hotels.

Over the next few days we had time to wander and found some calmer corners of the town. Whatever the state of Yangshuo itself, the karst peaks surrounding it will always be stunning, rising up out of parks and riverbanks and almost completely surrounding the town.

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The Li river is also a tranquil spot where you can watch the boats float past and admire the peaks in the background. However it is also a prime spot to fall prey to touts; during the half hour we spent at the river bank we were offered a boat ride at least ten times and eventually retreated back into the streets. When it comes to tourism China is it's own worst enemy; as soon as they sense any interest in a place they squeeze everything they can get out of it and worry about the implications later. It doesn't help that Chinese tourists seem to love the places regardless, even after they've become a hollow shell of what they once were.

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That being said, Yangshuo does offer a respite from the difficulties of travelling China; there is more English spoken here and Western food is readily available, which can be a welcome change after 4 weeks of puzzling over Chinese menus and eating mystery dishes that you're not even sure you ordered. We also had the best Chinese food of our trip at a restaurant called Cloud Nine, where we feasted on minted beef and chicken with peanuts and chillis.

However after a few days we were growing tired of the giant groups of day-trippers and stalls of tourist trash, and as southern China was being evacuated north to escape the typhoon battering Hong Kong, we wrapped up against the torrential rain and headed south to the nearby island of Macau. The things we do for travel...

Posted by kate1401 19:25 Archived in China Tagged guilin rice_terraces yangshuo longsheng longji dragon's_backbone karst_peaks Comments (0)

Heading West: Terracotta Warriors, Big Buddhas and Pyromania

Our first day in Xian passed us by in a whirlwind of chaos; despite being fairly well-rested after our night on a soft-sleeper train we managed to get on a bus going in the wrong direction, and only realised four stops later when we disembarked that we were on the opposite side of town to our hostel. By the time we finally arrived at our hostel, having used our rucksacks as battering rams on the overcrowded bus and scurried across a lawless dual carriageway, almost three hours had passed and we had run out of patience for the day.

After an early night, we set out refreshed to visit the famous Terracotta Warriors. However, after a 90-minute bus ride and a hefty 150RMB entry fee, we were dismayed to find that this may be the most overrated tourist attraction in the world. We had expected atmospheric halls filled with row upon row of soldiers, as all the photos and travel information suggests, but the reality was quite different. Pit Three had only a scattering of broken soldiers and horses, and Pit Two, where the excavation work is apparently still in progress, was literally just a big hole in the ground. I will never understand what everyone was taking photos of. Even Pit One, the most impressive site, has only a few hundred warriors at most, and the building that houses them feels like a school sports hall which, combined with the hordes of tourists, renders the site completely devoid of any atmosphere. While it is undeniable that the Terracotta Army is, on paper, an incredible feat, in practice it doesn't make for an amazing experience.

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Our next and last day in Xian was much more positive; we started the day at the beautiful Bell and Drum Towers in the centre of the town, then ventured into the meandering alleyways of the Muslim Quarter, where market sellers offer everything from jewellery and clothing to unrecognisable bowls of food. I sampled some trafitional sweet snacks, shibing (dried persimmon) and fengmi zongzi (pressed rice drizzled in honey dressing and sesame seeds); both were interesting but I must admit I'd prefer a cheesecake any day. The Chinese excel at so many food types, but dessert is not one of them.

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Our next stop was Chengdu, where on our first night we had our first experience of Sichuan hotpot, a truly unique dining experience. Upon entering the restaurant, a waitress brought over two bowls filled with a thin but strongly seasoned soup and a giant metal pot of spicy oil, which she placed on the lit hob in the middle of our table. We were then directed to choose our meal from a huge selection of skewered meats and vegetables, and when the pot of oil began to bubble we put our skewers in the pot and cooked them ourselves at the table. When ready, we removed the skewer from the pot, emptied the meat and vegetables off the skewers into the bowl of soup, and dug in. We immediately realised that hotpot is not named so for its temperature; as we ate tears pricked our eyes and our noses began to run, but it is one of the most delicious (and fun!) meals I've had while in China.

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The next day we paid a visit to Leshan to see the Giant Buddha, and this time we were not disappointed. The statue is located in a beautiful parkland area beside the river, and before reaching the Buddha we spent an hour climbing the hill and passing several beautiful temples and an old pagoda.

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After climbing the hill the Giant Buddha appears unexpectedly; we wandered around a corner from a temple expecting a further walk, and instead found the top of the Buddha's head peeping over a balcony just metres away. The size of the statue cannot really be comprehended until you are standing beside it; its head alone is fifty feet high, eight times my height.

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We descended the steep, winding staircase down the side of the cliff to stand in the shadow of the Buddha and...just gawp. The statue is not only huge but strangely beautiful; over the 1200 years since it was built the colours in the stone have altered and moss has spread across the rock, but this only serves to make it more a part of the mountain. The Buddha was originally decorated with jewels, and one can only imagine how stunning it was in its youth. Standing at the foot of the statue is also where you get the best sense of its size; you only have to stand next to its huge toes to feel like an ant in comparison.

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Next we journeyed to Dali, and what a journey it was! Our adventure began on an 11-hour hard sleeper train to Panzhihua; the difference between hard and soft sleepers being that hard sleepers are cheaper, have six beds per unit instead of four, and no cabin door. Because the middle and top bunks are so close together it's impossible to sit up on them, the bottom bunks are treated as public domain until everyone decides to go to sleep. So it was that we boarded the train to find my bunk already dominated by a young Chinese couple, their baby, and all their possessions. However the husband did help me haul my rucksack up onto the luggage racks, and after some shifting around we all had a seat. They didn't speak a word of English, and I not a word of Chinese, but the man seemed to delight in chatting away to me, then laughing at the look of blank incomprehension on my face. Even his baby had a chuckle. However later in the evening they gave me a plum and a nectarine from their fruit stash, which I think means I was accepted.

When I woke up at 5am they were gone, and John and I dragged our tired bodies off the train and onto a bus to Panzhihua Coach Station to buy our tickets to Dali. After a two-hour wait the ticket office opened, and a few hours later we were on the most rickety bus in the world, bouncing along half-built roads out of Panzhihua. A 9-hour journey and a rickshaw ride to Dali Old Town later we finally arrived at our hostel, 26 hours after we had left Chengdu. I know the saying, but sometimes it really is the destination...

Dali's old town is famous as the ultimate backpacker hangout in China, the kind of place where people get sucked in to the laid-back atmosphere and never leave, and we could see why. The walled town is packed with tourists, but it is also filled with temples, quaint little cafes and shops selling brightly-coloured jewellery and good coffee.

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We spent the day wandering around the streets, but the main spectacle was the annual Torch Festival that happened to coincide with our visit. As the sun went down, people began to hang wooden/straw torches from their houses and in the streets, and by the time we left the restaurant where we had dinner half the town seemed to be ablaze, and a few people even pretended to set us on fire (I choose to believe they were pretending, but the flames did get a little too close for comfort). It is a very Asian mentality that allows a town full of people (including children) to run amok around a city lighting things on fire - while drinking - with very little concern for safety, but as we wandered around we realised that everyone was having fun, nobody was ablaze, and even the firemen parked in the truck on one corner didn't seem remotely concerned. British 'health and safety' nuts should take note.

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It wasn't easy, but after two days we shook off the 'Dali effect' and boarded a coach to our next destination. The days move on, and so do we...

Posted by kate1401 22:16 Archived in China Tagged xian dali terracotta_warriors chengdu leshan south_island hotpot muslim_quarter giant_buddha torch_festival Comments (1)

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